Richie & Sablik Discuss The Evolution of BOOM!

If Ross Richie and Filip Sablik have their way, BOOM! Studios will have a very big 2013.

The Los Angeles-based comic book publisher has been in the game for over seven years, but over that time its success have been largely seen as stand-alone feats. From original properties like Mark Waid's "Irredeemable" to a robust line of licensed and all-ages comics like the best-seller "Adventure Time." So BOOM!'s Publisher and VP of Publishing and Marketing are taking a message far and wide in the community that they're more than a one-trick pony.

Already on tap for this year are new original projects from the likes of Mike Carey and Brian Stelfreeze, more all-ages offerings and BOOM!'s first film - a Universal Pictures adaptation of their 2007 series "2 Guns." And with back-to-back appearances at the ComicsPRO summit in Georgia and Seattle's Emerald City Comic Con, the company has also been beating the drum for a new logo and "We Are BOOM!" branding to help readers and retailers identify what makes publisher tick.

But why the need to rebrand? Has the company changed from its original small press vision as it's grown in size? And what mission statement will they take forward to creators, fans and retailers alike? Richie and Sablik spoke to CBR News about all that, placing the companies recent moves in context of their history, explaining why they feel BOOM! should be seen for its cumulative efforts as well as its solo hits, how a 50/50 split on original creations is good for them and their creators, what they're doing to expand the comics market moving forward and much, much more.

CBR News: Gentlemen, you mentioned this a bit at the panel, and it's something I've heard people talk about before, but I get the feeling that the path BOOM! has taken towards its new marketing efforts were something of a trial by fire to start. If I recall, the week that Filip started was one where you had to jump into Comic-Con San Diego while moving the offices of the company and Ross' wife was having a baby?

Ross Richie: That's true, but what Filip didn't say [on the panel] was that it's even more complex than that. The text he sent me about how San Diego was going happened while my wife was expecting and I was on the set [of "2 Guns."] It was a wheel within a wheel. We knew the crunch was coming. [Editor-in-Chief] Matt Gagnon and I knew six months out that the lease was up and that San Diego was coming. We prepared and prepared for the fact that it was going to be a complete war zone.

Filip Sablik: And when we were first talking about my coming on, I said, "Can we put this off for another month or two? There's some other stuff I'd like to wrap up at Top Cow." And Ross was like, "No. I'm not trying to be a jerk, but I need someone that's a leader who's going to be there because I know this movie is happening, and my daughter coming is going to take me out of commission for at least four weeks." So that's why it all worked out that way.

And when you talk about the culmination of all this stuff happening, I'd talk to creators who would say, "You're going to BOOM! Why?" Now it feels like the answer is that I came over to help make all these new project happen. They assumed that was the start. But a project like Mike Carey's "Suicide Risk" was three years in development. And the Clive Barker original was something you'd been talking about with him for... what, a year?

Richie: The funny thing about Clive's "New Genesis" is that it was actually what we got together with him for. "Hellraiser" came out of the "New Genesis" discussions. We were talking and talking, and he felt very comfortable. So he said, "Let's hold on this idea. Why don't we do Hellraiser instead?" And he's so proprietary on "Hellraiser" that it felt so good. The first time I went over to his house, you think about "What's this meeting going to be about?" and in your wildest dreams there's no way you think you're going to get "Hellraiser." Not right out of the box. So we were talking about doing original projects first, but it's funny how the timing works out.

The vision for the company has always been progressive. My playbook has never changed, but the projects have changed. Our commitment to original content started with the first two books I put out: "Hero Squared" and "Zombie Tales." Those were filled with original content, and they were filled with marquee creators. The first cover on "Zombie Tales" was Dave Johnson - an Eisner Award-winning artist whose done everything. Keith Giffen was doing stuff. There was John Rogers who fans know now from "Blue Beetle." Mark Waid was in there. Ron Lim drew a story, and Andy Kuhn from "Firebreather" did a story. It's all there, but at different times perception swings different ways.

It took time for us to get into doing licensed comics, and once we did them, we felt like "What's the point if you're doing the same thing as always?" Our first licensed comic was "Warhammer," and that's a very, very specific world that is unforgiving if you get it wrong. Those fans are so rewarding because if you get it right, they're so happy. But it's the stereotypical death metal guys that love their ultra-violence. I'll never forget at San Diego one year...just before the show opens is when you don't want to talk to anybody. You're trying to fix things before you get flooded with fans. So people walking up to the booth in that zone before opening see you in a stressful world. And so a fan walked up one year, and I saw him out of the corner of my eye and thought, "Now I've got to put on my happy face." When I turned around to say, "Can I help you?" he wouldn't make eye contact with me. He just stared up at our Warhammer banner and said, "All I want to do is just say 'Thanks.'" I turned around to tell him I appreciated it because he didn't come by to buy anything or say we should be doing some other characters or should stop doing whatever. He just said thank you, and by the time I said "Thanks" back, I was talking to the back of his head. He came to deliver his message, and that was it. That's an experience I'll never forget.

Going from that to doing "Farscape" where we had Rockne O'Bannon, the show's creator, doing it with us...we knew we didn't want to do this stuff unless we could do it to the nines. As a fan who's bought licensed comics before, I don't want to buy another just copy of "Fill in the blank."

Sablik: A lot of what Ross and I talked about when I came over is that BOOM! has done all these great comics with great licenses, but when I looked at it, it seemed like the company excelled at selling individual projects. They did a great job launching "Irredeemable" with Mark Waid or "Farscape" where they could target that fanbase or getting Clive Barker to come back and work on "Hellraiser." But the thing that I was seeing overall is that because the line is so diverse, someone who's a "Hellraiser" fan will see that one promotion but they won't pay attention to the other side of the company. If you're a Mark Waid fan or a superhero fan, you get excited for "Irredeemable" but you ignore the "Planet of the Apes" announcement.

The company has evolved so much and grown so much. In seven years, this company has grown to be half the size of Dark Horse. I think that's something people don't realize. Right now, there are plenty of people who think of BOOM! as "The Adventure Time company." And before that it was "The Disney company" and on and on. So this whole marketing initiative for 2013 was about how we can get across our ideas about the whole company and shine a spotlight on BOOM! as a brand that is a home for all these places. We need to show why it works as a home for original material, licensed book, kids stuff and all this different material.

You said that when you first started talking to Ross, you had one conception of what BOOM! was, and then when you came over that change. Can you put your finger on a specific thing that you had assumed that was wrong or a specific new facet of the company you discovered?

Sablik: Honestly, it was the first week I was there before San Diego when it hit. I'd been in the industry for 12 years, worked with some fantastic people, and I still love everybody at Top Cow and my friends at Diamond from my time there. People like Jim Kuhoric and Bill Schanes and John Wurzer at Diamond, those guys were my mentors, and I've got nothing but great affection for them. And at Top Cow, Matt [Hawkins] and Marc [Silvestri] took a chance on me and gave me an awesome opportunity. But the thing I think is unique about BOOM! that I saw in my first week there was that I've never seen a place where everyone comes into work every day and is passionate - like cranked up to eleven - about kicking down the door and scaling the next mountain and working together. Ross and Matt Gagnon told me before I came over "We really rally for the team." And I thought, "That's easy to say." It's the kind of thing you hear everywhere. Everybody says "We let the creators do their best book." Everybody says, "We're putting out the best material." You have to. And if you don't believe that, why are you doing this?

But after that first week at BOOM!, I really felt like there was no place I'd ever been where everybody was so committed and working so hard. I was used to being the guy who was there first at the start of the day and leaving last and pouring my blood, sweat and equity into everything. It was so gratifying to work with that team. That was the thing. And Ross told me that, but you can't know that in advance.

Brian Stelfreeze is doing a project for us soon, and before we signed, I told him, "Brian, we want you to come out and meet the team." We had him fly out for a few days, and he told me on the last day when we were sitting in Ross' office, "You know, when you asked me to come out I almost e-mailed and said 'We don't have to do this. We've known each other for years. I trust you.' But now that I've been here, I get it. I understand why you believe you're building something. I had to see it to believe."

Well, it's too bad you can't bring every fan to the offices and let them hang out for the day. [Laughter] I know when Mark Waid was on staff, there was a concerted push to start building up the Editorial staff and other people working for you guys. It seems BOOM! is now in a good shape as far as having that core team goes. How have you been dividing up what the company does and discovering what the best way is to run the line?

Richie: We are extremely thoughtful about how editors are assigned to projects. That's a process that's very organic. It evolves. Shannon Watters who does "Adventure Time," her focus has become kaboom! That's really an organic thing. She started off as Matt's assistant, and so one of the books she was really focused on back in the day was "Incorruptible." I always feel like you don't want to force things or have a preconception in your mind about how they work. What you want to do is give things a try, be flexible and find out what will give you the best results. Rarely does the chalk talk or the battle plan understand the conditions of the field.

What I wanted to do was create an environment that was not dogmatic. It's very easy when you publish comics to sit in your office cut off from the world focusing on what you do, and then when you execute you pat yourself on the back and lull yourself into a false sense of "Look at how awesome we are." That kind of complacency makes you irrelevant because you feel like you know all the answers. To me, if you don't have any strong dogma in the office about how you do things, you start to realize how the market adjusts every week. If you start to look at what our rivals are doing and appreciate that they're some of the best companies in the world - they might make different choices than us, but they're successful - then that friendly sense of competition makes us go, "How do we build a better mousetrap? How do we come at this differently."

One thing we didn't really unpack at the panel was the notion that when we do original content with creators at the company, we partner. That came from Keith Giffen. When he was talking me into starting this company, he wanted a home for his original projects. He was one of my heroes, and he said, "Ross, I'm going to have 50% ownership, and you're going to have 50% ownership. You've got to care about whether this succeeds or doesn't. You have to be invested with me. If there's a day when one of these things gets turned into a movie, we get to walk down the red carpet together."

Now for me with Steven Grant and "2 Guns," when the option was bought by the studio financiers and greenlit, I went to the agency and sat in the lobby and waited for Steven's check. I had my assistant call up Steven where he lives in Vegas, and I had her tell a little white lie. I said, "Tell him I'm in Vegas at one of the casinos for a few days if he wants to have dinner." He agreed, and I got the plane ticket that day, flew to Vegas and had that dinner. That's when I gave him the check. When you're partners you can do that instead of it being "A company got over on the creator." I'm a huge Jack Kirby fan. I own Jack Kirby original art. I have Jack Kirby's autograph on many things that I have. And the way that fandom feels about him not seeing the fruits of his labor, I don't want to be that guy screwing creators from participating in the success of their original creations. It's the partnership that does that.

Sablik: The phrase we use at the office a lot is "Setting people up for success." It seems like one of those trite sayings, but that's how we determine what editor is on what book or who does what at the company. It's all about trying to find the right fit. The way Ross, Matt and I view our roles is that if one of our people is not succeeding, it's our fault. We haven't given them the proper conditions to succeed. This all goes to the proposition that when you hire somebody, you're hiring them for their work ethic, their personality and what you believe their ability is. It's the same with creators. If a creator we're working with is frustrated and having a difficult time, that's on us. It's our job to create for them the best work environment possible.

Richie: What I want to build in the office is an environment different from what I came up in. When I worked at Malibu Comics 20 years ago, I was the 23 year old guy in the office who had ideas, and I felt like a lot of my ideas weren't listened to. It was, "You're at the entry-level position, and you need to earn your stripes. You need to earn your place at the table." And I understand that kind of thinking, but as someone who was young and excited about working in this business, it was frustrating. So when we have assistant editors or people coming to me, I want them to be able to ask me questions like, "Why don't we do it like this? Here's my idea. We should go after this creator. We should chase this license."

I am comically Pollyanna-ish. I'm sure people will sit there and say, "This guy's annoying with his damn optimism." But for me, it's more of a goal. Why can't we have a fair relationship with our creators? Why can't we build a work environment that people will want to come and work in? Why can't instead of shoving down my employees throats their weaknesses - because we all have them, including me...I'm pretty disorganized, for example - why can't we compliment each other? It's the classic thing of "Why do you expect a point guard to dunk?" Just because a point guard can't dunk doesn't mean he's worthless to the team. A point guard is actually essential. Not everybody's going to be a center or a point guard or whatever. They just need to be accountable for their roles.

For anybody working in comics, it's a passion. They want to contribute. Why wouldn't you let them? We all want to benefit from that.

"2 Guns" getting produced feels like the accomplishment of a big goal for the company. It is called BOOM! Studios, after all. How has that deal coming together and the film coming out turned the page in terms of what's next for you guys?

Richie: For me, the biggest thing is that this is the authentication of a 50/50 relationship between a company and their creative partners. It shows that you can navigate that successfully and both parties can be happy with each other and proud of the product. When a movie gets made, there are things you have control over and some you have no control over. It is what it is. But to me, this shows creators that BOOM! is an environment you can be happy with. Steven Grant is a guy who's worked at all the companies. He's done corporate characters, and in the '80s he had a big run on "Whisper" which was his own creation. He's seen everything, and he doesn't suffer fools kindly. He used to write a column for CBR where he called out a lot of the industry's practices. So for me, this was a litmus test of "Can we deliver on what we say we're going to do?" And a guy like Steven impacts other professionals when they see he's happy. That's a positive thing.

At the end of the day, it's a mix where a project might come to us, but it's the wrong time. Or a certain creator may show up, and we want their next project but not this one. It's a process of juggling chainsaws when we're setting our schedule in where we go next, but that's a lot different than setting your tent up on the side of the road and saying, "Back up the creator truck." What you want to do us build something that moves organically and builds success. We've talked to retailers who are excited about "Suicide Risk" because of our success with "Irredeemable." That's something that has a progressive quality to it. But if those projects had come out at the same time, they may have cannibalized each other because they've got similarities. It's a complex process. But coming back to "2 Guns," it's Exhibit A for our case that this is working.

Are you going to be pushing the "2 Guns" trade to tie with the movie?

Richie: We have a book distribution deal with Simon & Schuster in the U.S. and HarperCollins in Canada and Titan in the U.K. So a pillar from the genesis of the company for me was to have good bookstore distribution and strong business relationships there. That is something I'm extremely proud of. We've been ver aggressive in digital. We launched our BOOM! App before huge companies like DC launched theirs. So for me, this was always about the idea that periodical comic books is a tough business to create that much content that quickly. But on top of that, there's the challenge of having a great book business and a great digital business. We needed to do all things well, and at the early start of the company you needed all those channels to work to make the whole project work. We didn't have the luxury of a "Preacher" or "Y: The Last Man" or "Sin City" or these perennials in our backlist from the start, so we had to have really good partners to set ourselves up for success.

Lastly, you do have a lot of new project announced at this show that are continuing on the ideas you've been discussing for a while - bringing in "Hero Bear And The Kid" to kaboom!, more creator original projects and all that. Was there a goal for projects in 2013 similar to the goal the rebranding is doing for the company's public perception?

Sablik: I think on a very fundamental level, our core values and strategy hasn't changed. But the company continues to evolve and really level up. Mike Carey doing "Suicide Risk" is an evolution from where the company was before. And what I can say is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There's going to be more creators and more licenses - not bigger ones, per se, but ones of equal caliber that will get the market excited. At the end of the day, everything we do is about expanding and growing the marketplace. That's something Matt, Ross and myself all really believe in. We want to bring customers into comic shops that have not been there before. We want Mike Carey fans who are fans of his novels to come in and check "Suicide Risk." The reason we picked "Adventure Time" and produced it with web cartoonists is because that's a very specific way to bring new people in.

Really, the "We Are BOOM!" campaign is about shining a spotlight and telling people, "These aren't accidents." This is very curated and very planned. If you just look at one piece at a time, it seems scattershot, but even the way we role projects out is planned.

Richie: One of the things Sablik has said all weekend that I say all the time is "The name of the company isn't Whimper." We will never get to a place where we say, "We're satisfied with what we're doing." We're proud as hell of the projects we're doing now, but we're always asking how we can up our game. How do we do something new? How can we turn things on their heads? How can we challenge ourselves to get better at what we do? We'll never get to a place where we sit back and go, "This is cruising altitude." What Filip has done is shine a light on what already exists.

It's not like we decided with December-shipping books that we were going to double the line. Month by month, our audience has grown. The size of the company has grown. And the number of titles has grown. What we're going to do is continue to find places to expand the market just like we did with all-ages content. We'll see new opportunities and build a better mouse trap. We'll find more opportunities to have more fun. And we'll do that in a way that makes the business boom.

The great thing about comic books is that there's a very clear commercial impact. If the market does not like you, they cut you. So to be able to grow our audience like this is a direct response to a desire people have to read what we do.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more on BOOM!'s upcoming titles.

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