The State of Archaia 2012

2011 saw a number of achievements for Archaia Entertainment, including Eisner award wins for "Return of the Dapper Men" and "Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard" -- and the publisher has no intention of losing momentum. This year, Archaia has already released the critically acclaimed "A Tale of Sand," revealed a number of exciting new books and are poised to take Free Comic Book Day by storm with a free hardcover offering.

In order to better understand what 2012 holds for Archaia, CBR News spoke with Editor-in-Chief Stephen Christy and CEO P.J. Bickett about the state of the company, its extension into other forms of media, new titles coming up and a number of future releases.

CBR News: Stephen, P.J., 2011 was a big year for Archaia. Looking back, what was the plan for the company and how do you feel it's affected what's in store for 2012?

P.J. Bickett: 2011 continued what we've been building since 2008, which was reestablishing the brand and building a library of significance, and 2011 was really focused on having the breakout year on the publishing side of establishing some very strong titles on an ongoing basis. "Dark Crystal" and "Rust" as far as new breakouts and adding some one-time books such as "Tale of Sand." In terms of our goals, it was about reestablishing the brand and cementing it in quality products. We saw that actually when we were at ComicsPRO. For the last three years we went and we had to reintroduce Archaia. This is the first year that we did not have to say, "Hi, we're Archaia, an independent publisher." They definitely knew who we were and they definitely knew the product, which was great.

Stephen Christy: In 2011, we had the honor of winning the Eisner Award for "Return of the Dapper Men" and for "Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard" as well. We were really happy on an editorial side with the reception that "Dapper Men" got last year but we knew we wanted to take what we did with that and use it as a model for not only continuing to launch properties but continuing to evaluate the quality of our line as a whole. I think "Dapper Men" is a book that took everyone by surprise because it was so different from everything else on the shelves. I think the lessons we learned from that was to continue trying to make these properties as unique as they can be and have their own original voice. That's really the thing we wanted to bring to the forefront for 2011. Personally, one big thing that I wanted the company to show was that we could take a licensed product like these books we're doing with the Jim Henson Company and do something that was really going to stand the test of time, not be a licensed book that would be put out and then leaves six months later, but something that could be put on bookshelves for twenty years or more. That was something that was really personally gratifying to see how well people responded to it. I don't think any other company before Archaia had taken licensed products -- that I can remember at least -- and put the amount of care that we did into the Henson line. It really connected [with] the fans, so I think it was a success.

2011 also saw a movie option for "Rust" by Royden Lepp -- and you've already begun to expand further into movies this year with "Bolivar" and "Lucid." How does film fit into Archaia's overall plan for 2012?

Christy: We really established in the last year fantastic relationships in Hollywood. We're working with a lot of talented producers who are passionate about out material and because we're based in L.A., we have great access to these people. It's really gratifying when you've worked on a book and spent a lot of time on a book to see the people in Hollywood reacting to it, having the emotional reaction to it you hoped they would have.

Speaking to the Hollywood side in general, that's just something that between the few things that you only find at Archaia, there are very few other companies I can think of that have an on the ground presence in L.A. the way we do. We're constantly dealing with the Hollywood side and the way we approach it differently than other companies is the same philosophy as our publishing. It's our job to make the absolute best and most engaging content out there. We don't just want to get a movie made to get a movie made or get a movie made to sell books. It's all about story, it's all about character and it's all about giving you something you haven't seen before. We've been lucky to find producers like Simon Kinberg, who's doing "Rust;" Akiva Goldsman, who we're working with on two projects that haven't been announced yet. It's great to find people like that at the studio level that respond to what we're doing.

Bickett: At the end of the day, it's what Stephen says about creating great content. Archaia has chosen to patch that, we will take that content and we'll distribute it as a graphic novel format, but it doesn't limit it just to graphic novels. Great content is great content. You can convert it into a video game just as Top Cow did with "The Darkness." You can convert into film as many comic book movies have done. You can convert it into toys as continues to percolate through multiple companies such as Hasbro. It's endless possibilities and opportunities if you're creating great content. At the end of the day, that's what we're focused on.

Stephen, could you speak more specifically to what make "Bolivar" and "Lucid" so perfect for film adaptations and how Akiva Goldsman got involved?

Christy: Akiva was one of the producers who was involved in the bidding war on "Rust" last summer. "Rust" ended up going to 20th Century Fox for Simon Kinberg to produce, but out of that experience we formed a relationship with Akiva and his company. Akiva is an amazing producer because he's a writer first and foremost, and always approaches a movie with a great respect for the story, the characters and (most importantly) the experience that he wants the audience to have in the theater. We actually sold "Lucid" with Before the Door to Akiva last winter thanks to Akiva's relationship with Zachary Quinto, and then just in the past month sold "Bolivar," which ended up getting announced first. Internally at Archaia we'd flagged "Bolivar" as one of our next tentpole properties on the Hollywood side, and during a conversation I casually brought up "Bolivar" with Nicki Cortese, one of the executives at Weed Road, and it just ballooned from there. Akiva heard the pitch and loved it, our incredibly talented director Kealan O'Rourke was brought in, and then Warners heard the pitch. They bought it preemptively, so we didn't even end up pitching it to any other studios.

"Bolivar" is the debut graphic novel written and illustrated by Sean Rubin, who besides being the incredibly talented illustrator behind a number of "Redwall" novels as well as a beautiful story in "Mouse Guard: Legends of the Guard" is also obnoxiously young at age 25 for his level of artistry. It was through "Legends" and David Petersen that Sean pitched us "Bolivar," and it became clear as soon as we heard the pitch that Sean had something very special on his hands. "Bolivar" is still a long way off from publication -- Sean is about a quarter of the way through the book and it's not even scheduled to come out until May of 2013. All I can say about it is that if you're a fan of "Mouse Guard," "Rust," or classic children's books like "Eloise" or "Make Way for Ducklings," I can tell you that "Bolivar" is going to hit a lot of the same emotional territory while being a hybrid between a graphic novel and a traditional storybook. It's my favorite book (so far) that we're going to be publish in 2013.

"Lucid" is just an incredible world -- the idea that magic is something that has been kept hidden for thousands of years from most of the population is a great starting point for a story about how that secret is revealed to the world. I've been fascinated by conspiracies, the Illuminati, Graham Hancock, Daniel Pinchbeck, and all of those other counter-history memes that have popped up in the last decade, and taking those influences and putting them into a fun little pop culture adventure is really exciting. Obviously it was exciting to Warner Bros. too.

Moving into 2012, how did you plan to build on what you'd established in 2011 and continue to accelerate your momentum?

Bickett: 2011, as I mentioned before, was an effort to solidify the brand, not reintroduce. I believe that we've done that and that's awesome. The titles we selected, the people we chose to work with, the relationships we chose to pursue. In 2012, it's really an extension of 2011 but at this point we want to pick even better content, grow new markets such as foreign and to again transcend beyond just graphic novel and create great content. Whether that means having more in the pipeline on the film and television side, whether it means video games, toys etc. is really about now establishing Archaia as providing great content.

Christy: From an editorial standpoint, the big ticket book for us this year is "Mouse Guard: The Black Axe," which is great because after coming out with single issues, "Black Axe" is finally going to be collected into a hardcover graphic novel. It's so exciting after expanding the company and building the brand for us to be able to bring attention to the book that started it all for us, which is "Mouse Guard." In doing that this year with the release of "The Black Axe," obviously we've been working on "Legends of the Guard 2" for a long time. That's going to be forthcoming after "Black Axe." All of this is anchored around what I think is our biggest outreach effort for this year which is Free Comic Book Day. I give P.J. a huge amount of credit because he made the decision to do something I don't think anyone else would have done. There was a lot of internal discussion and flip-flopping back and forth among other people on our team. The fact that P.J. put forward that we want to do a hardcover graphic novel this year for Free Comic Book Day. It's not about just introducing people to content, it's about introducing people to the way we make them and the way we package our books and the way we put care and attention into it. Thanks to Diamond, we're a gold sponsor yet again and we have such a huge number of books going out. That's really going to be the biggest outreach that Archaia does this year in terms of evangelizing our content and original non-superhero, lovingly presented work.

P.J., could you speak a little more to the decision behind offering a hardcover for Free Comic Book Day?

Bickett: It's not so much about doing a gimmick to introduce these people to our stories, it's really about introducing readers to the way we produce books. What value does a prospective fan have in picking up a flip book from us in a single issue format to get them to understand why they want to pick up the graphic novel? There's no translation there, there's no clean break outside the stories themselves. At the end of the day, we're stories, we're art and we're production value. You're missing one of the three key elements while you're doing a single issue from it.

If we give enough people -- 100,000 plus people -- our Free Comic Book Day novella, they're going to understand what it means to pick up a graphic novel. They're going to experience for the first time the way storytelling can be different in terms of tying it in to the overall production value. Not only that, it'll get people to go from buying four dollar floppies to fifteen to twenty dollar hardcovers, which will help the retailers at the end of the day. We need the retailers probably more than they need us so we need to make sure they're healthy and they're able to increase year over year in terms of their sales. We're bearing a significant portion of the costs to work with them on making sure that happens. That's really it. We want to get people into the experience of what a graphic novel feels like.

What are the books you're most looking forward to on the 2021 publishing schedule?

Christy: "Mouse Guard: The Black Axe" first and foremost. It's wonderful as a company we now have such a good reach and such a good fanbase. "The Black Axe" is David Petersen's absolute best story yet. No question. He's taking his illustration and his storytelling to a completely new level. It's wonderful that people are going to be able to experience that in a hardcover and after that to be able to see a whole new series of "Legends of the Guard" with some of the best talent in the industry working on them. It's really exciting to bring a highlight to the book that helped put us on the map.

We're focusing on big titles per quarter this year whereas in the past we've focused more on two or three big tentpoles for the year. In the next few months we have "Cow Boy" coming out, which is by Nate Cosby and Chris Eliopolous. It's a wonderful all-ages book in every sense of the word. I love reading it because it's so funny and it's so well done and it's a great book for people who haven't read comics that much. If you've ever read comic strips in the paper or strips online or anything like that, it's such an easy transition from reading those more mainstream styles of comics to coming in and reading a comic book.

We haven't made an official announcement on it yet, but we're developing a graphic novel in 3D. We're doing a graphic novel that's illustrated and then converted into 3D, but it's actually being produced in old-school red and blue 3D. It's being written by R.J. Ryan, who wrote "Syndrome" for us. It's been illustrated by David Marquez who working with R.J on "Syndrome." It's great to be able to have these people come back. They're doing something that's going to be groundbreaking, it's going to be something different than people have seen before. They're both really fascinated by the artistic and the aesthetic reasons behind 3D. It's just going to be a great comic and Jon Adams, who is one of the best graphic designers working -- he works for McSweeney's -- Jon is putting the whole package together. From a production standpoint, that's going to be one of the books we do this year with the most bells and whistles. We haven't even announced it yet, I'm so excited!

Bickett: Some of the other high profile books we have are the second volume of "Rust" and "Cursed Pirate Girl" by Jeremy Bastian, a lifelong friend of David Petersen. "I'm Not A Plastic Bag" with Rachel Hope Allison who is an amazing talent. It's just all pictures telling a story, it's amazing and coming out on Earth Day. We have "The Grand Duke" which is a Father's Day tale coming out around the same time. We have a lot of great stories and books that people this year will hopefully get into even more than they did in years past. At the end of the year, we have -- at high anticipation from many fans -- "Labyrinth" and the second volume of "The Dark Crystal."

Wrapping up, what do you think are the challenges facing Archaia in the marketplace for 2012?

Christy: I think the challenge is always trying to find those books that can break through to the mainstream in a big way. The comics industry is so self-contained and it's very difficult for a company, if you don't have a previously established title or character or a big license or something like that, it's difficult to break through to the mainstream. We're very lucky that we had "Dapper Men" at the tail end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 to be that book with a lot of mainstream attention. This year, it was "Tale of Sand." The trick I think is finding content that speaks to a lot of your audience either because of the story or the format or the subject matter and figuring out the best way to get it out there. It's not an official slogan of ours, but I always like to say when talking with our editors and talking with our creators that we want to strive to make books for people who don't read comics. Every book can be someone's gateway into the world of comics. Treat every book like it's the first comic anybody is picking up. On some titles, we're more successful with that than others but keeping that in mind, that is the way the industry is going.

We're one of the people along with Image Comics and other companies who are leading the charge to original, good non-superhero content. At the end of the day, as much as we love Marvel and DC, it's a shrinking audience and they know that as well. Often times, it's very easy to get caught up in playing to your audience. You're not doing everything you can to reach out. We may not have the resources or the infrastructure of these larger companies, but that's what makes us special. That's what makes us able to break through the masses and be able to do stuff like Free Comic Book Day and "Dapper Men" or "Mouse Guard" or "Tale of Sand." We can take chances and we can try to push the boundaries. At the end of the day, we can try to make comics for people that will hopefully invite them in and help them experience all the wonderful titles that are out in this medium we all grew up loving. That's what it's all about.

Stay tuned to CBR News for more coverage on Archaia's 2012 titles.

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