SDCC: Comics Entrepreneurs Talk Risk and Reward

The do-it-yourself spirit was alive and well in the "Comic Book Entrepreneurs: The Business of Comics" panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego, which featured four very different comics entrepreneurs: David Steinberger, co-founder and CEO of comiXology; "Nimona" creator (and "Lumberjanes" co-creator) Noelle Stevenson; Dark Horse President Mike Richardson; and Valiant Entertainment CEO Dinesh Shamdasani.

Moderator JK Parkin began by asking the panelists what they were doing before they launched their own businesses. Steinberger came to New York to study as a classical singer and was working on PowerPoint presentations for investment banks (including Marvel's pitch for funding for its studios), then got an MBA from New York University. He was a new media manager at UBS when comiXology got its start: "We entered a business plan competition with a small idea about a comics catalog app, and we won the competition with more about retail tools for digital comics, which is what we went on to do," he said.

Stevenson was still a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art when she got a two-book deal with HarperCollins. "I was going to be a storybook illustrator or an editorial illustrator," she said. "I ended up in a comics class by mistake, because all the others were full so I was like, 'I'll stay for one class and then I'll go take something else, because I don't care about comics.' I got pulled in really fast; I discovered I had a voice in comics that I didn't know I had." She started "Nimona" as a homework assignment and then continued it as a webcomic so she could finish the story. In 2012, when she was an intern at BOOM! Studios, a literary agent who had seen her Avengers fanart on the web asked if he could represent her. "He helped me strike the deal with HarperCollins," she said. "It was November of my senior year when that happened, so it was a super weird thing, but really cool."

Richardson described himself as a "serial entrepreneur," starting with running Kool-Aid stands and selling flowers and his own self-published newspaper (complete with comics) door to door as a child. "I knew where the kids parked their cars and threw the beer bottles out, so I would go collect them on Sunday mornings," he said. He worked as a commercial artist for a while, but eventually he decided to open a comic shop. "I wanted the kind of comic shop I wanted to go to," he said. "When I was in college if you were over 12 years old, here's how you buy your comics -- at least how I buy them: You went to local 7-11 at midnight, and you parked across the street, because you could see in the windows, and you could see when when no one was in there. Then you would run in, grab the books you wanted, you could run them to the counter in a brown paper bag and paid for really fast and get out of there before anybody saw you. I thought there might be a better way to do that, because I figured there were probably people like me that would like to walk into a store where the medium was respected." So Richardson took his savings, which totaled $2,000, rented a 400-square-foot space, and opened for business. "To my surprise, a lot of people did come in," he said, "and it wasn't just the college students I expected to get, because we advertised heavily there, and it wasn't just the kids. Doctors and lawyers would come in, and they would drop a lot of money, hundreds of dollars, and they would actually stand around and talk about comics." The success of that store led Richardson to open more stores. When artists and writers came to visit, they would often complain about not owning their work, and that prompted him to start Dark Horse. Later he branched out and started Dark Horse Deluxe, a toy company, and Dark Horse Entertainment.

Shamdasani, a graduate of USC Film School, was working in development at Universal Studios, which he described as "a thankless, long job with very few prospects to advance, but they tell you before you take it that it is a great job, where everyone loves you, and you work short hours and there's very fast advancement." He had been a fan of the original Valiant comics in the 1990s, and when the X-Men film was a surprise hit, he said, "I came in to work at the studios and everyone was shocked -- how did this happen? It made total sense to anyone who is a comic book fan: It's the first time you get to hear Wolverine's claws pop. For a second, I knew that I knew something the industry didn't." When the Valiant assets went up for auction, he pulled together some rich friends and bid on them. Shamdasani's team came in second in the auction but the lead bidder pulled out, and after years of legal wrangles they emerged with the rights to the Valiant properties.

Parkin asked the group if the stability of a regular job ever looked tempting to them.

"It was definitely a very appealing prospect to be in a company," said Stevenson, "especially as an art student we had it hammered into us that the odds of us finding a job, especially fresh out of school, was very slim, and we could expect to work as a bartender for the next three years after we graduate. So the idea of having a steady paycheck and benefits was one of the most appealing things to me at that time... But then at the end of the day, I felt very passionate about not committing to anything right away. I did have something that is very rare for someone my age to have, which is the ability to choose. I could choose to be free and at the end of the day that was more important to me than something that seemed very safe and would supply stability and a safety net, the ability to make my own path, and that looked more exciting to me in the long run."

"I never ever even thought about working on anybody else's characters or for anybody else," said Richardson. "My idea was to start my own company. I love all those Marvel and DC characters, but it never occurred to me." Instead, Dark Horse published creator-owned works such as Jim Smith and Steve Matsson's "Boris the Bear," which parodied the other comics of the black-and-white boom--in one issue, Boris decides there are too many other comics on the market and slaughters the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, turning them into turtle soup. (Parkin asked if Boris would be revived for his upcoming 30th anniversary, but Richardson said he has been unable to track down Jim Smith, the original artist.) Even with the licensed comics Dark Horse does, Richardson said, "We did those books because we wanted to write 'em."

For Shamdasani, the Valiant characters were the whole point. "I loved the Valiant characters so much," he said, "and through what I perceived to be bad luck and unfair circumstances, they went away and were never going to come back." He compared them to EC Comics, which disappeared after political pressure was put on the comics industry in the 1950s (although, Richardson reminded him, Dark Horse is now publishing their archives). "I realized that no one was going to bring [the Valiant comics] back, and I thought, if no one is going to do that, and I want to read these comics, I have to make a go of it," Shamdesani said. "Even if I fail, it's a shot, it's better than nothing. The other impetus was that I hated what I was doing in Hollywood, and I wanted to read these comics again."

Parkin asked Steinberger if he had ever considered going to Marvel or DC as "their digital guy." No, Steinberger replied, because at the time, Marvel and DC were chiefly concerned with digital piracy on torrent sites. At the same time, the independently owned comic shops known as the "direct market," which Richardson credited for saving comics in the 1990s, was hurting them by the 2000s because distribution was so constrained. With a new generation that is not bashful about being comics fans and is just gaining spending power, Steinberger said, "We ended up feeling like there was a huge opportunity... We felt like the market could expand if distribution improved and more people were exposed to comics, rather than having to learn about a comics store and find it." Still, he said, "There were times when we were not working for any money and we were bootstrapping. There were times we thought we could sell to Marvel or DC because we thought we had something really special. But then we figured out Guided View, and publishers started signing with us."

"What do you think is the riskiest thing you have done that has benefited you or your company?" Parkin asked the panel.

"I can't think of anything we have done that hasn't been risky," said Shamdasani. "Valiant was so successful in the '90s, a time period when there was a big disdain for comics publishing, that I think a lot of people inaccurately look at those characters as not having any value. Everything we have done has been risky, and luckily it has all paid off."

"Speaking personally, I have never worried about risk," said Richardson, adding, "The riskiest thing I have done lately is start Dark Horse Digital and not sign up with comiXology."

"Risk is part of it," he continued. "If you put down a good plan and you understand the business you are going into and you have a lot of passion and are willing to work hard, that is part of being an entrepreneur, you take risks. Some people go through three or four failures before they hit the right thing, and that's just the way it is."

"It felt like a huge risk when I first started putting my comic online," said Stevenson "It was very scary to put myself out there that way and to open up something that I cared about very dearly--and to be the only creator involved with it. I was very passionate about the story I was telling, but when you have a team to share with, you get to share some of that risk with other people, and I felt like I didn't have that. But that was also part of the appealing part of it: The reason I wanted to do a webcomic was that I could be my own boss and I could call the shots myself."

The panel closed Steinberger sharing the trick Richardson told him for getting to sleep after a stressful day: Listen to old radio shows from the Internet Archive. Steinberger is partial to "Dragnet." "What Mike told me it does, and it works, is it takes your attention," Steinberger said. "Everything else goes to the side. Sometimes you make it through the whole episode and sometimes you don't, you fall asleep, but it clears your head."

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