The State of BOOM! With Filip Sablik and Matt Gagnon - Part 1

Last year, BOOM! Studios joined forces with another comic company, launched a number of new series, debuted a new imprint and had a hit film at the box office with "2 Guns." And the publisher already has big plans for the rest of 2014.

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BOOM! has already announced or launched collaborations with celebrities like Alyssa Milano's "Hacktivist" and "Translucid" by Coheed and Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez and his wife Chondra Echert. Meanwhile, "Lumberjanes" continues to generate buzz online, and the publisher just released a teaser indicating the release of comics based on John Carpenter's "Big Trouble in Little China," which will be more fully explained at ComicsPRO this week. And according to Editor-in-Chief Matt Gagnon and Vice President of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik, who spoke with CBR News about the latest developments at BOOM! for the first of a two-part interview.

CBR News: 2013 was a pretty huge year for BOOM! There was the merger with Archaia, "2 Guns" hitting theaters and the launch of the BOOM! Box imprint. How do you plan on continuing that momentum throughout 2014? 

Matt Gagnon: It all starts with the content. Telling meaningful stories has always been my True North, and it's what we believe as a team that continues to push us forward and give us the opportunities that we have. "2 Guns," the Archaia acquisition, the 20th Century Fox first-look deal, the BOOM! Box imprint -- their origins all revolve around original storytelling in one way or another. It's one of the things that we're driven by, at our foundation.  

In 2008, I edited a series called "Hexed." It was little four-issue series by Michael Alan Nelson and a then-unknown Emma Rios. It was my first crack at developing an original series, soup-to-nuts, and shaping what I hoped would be a unique brand for the BOOM! originals. The early series' that [BOOM! Studios Founder and CEO] Ross [Richie] had published like "Talent" and "Savage Brothers" were inspirational to me in that they were non-superhero genre stories that were accessible; that's part of the reason I came to BOOM! in the first place. I found that Ross and I shared a similar vision, and we set out to take the original projects we love to the next level. I remember when Ross came to me with "Hexed" in his hand after we got our advances; we were really proud of that book. I think from that moment, back in '08, we sort of knew that we were on the same path and the game was on.  

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We've always had a dogged commitment to publishing original stories. The thing is, it takes time to build a brand. You need to do something well, and continue to do it well, and consistently do it well for a long damn time to make a mark. I'm in my fourth year as Editor-in-Chief, my sixth year as a leader in editorial and 2013 felt like the first year where the industry sort of caught up with us. It all clicked in a way. We started to hear a lot of variations of, "Hey, BOOM! is at the top of the game on original comics."

We had a great run of originals in 2013, and we've got a run of originals in 2014 that raises the bar. I'm always hungry to improve upon what we did the previous year. As far as "continuing that momentum," there's a few things we're chipping away at that have the potential to be those "big stories." Wish I could say more, but you'll know them when you see them.

Filip Sablik: You know, I think it's actually fair to say that 2013 was not just a pretty huge year for the company, but our most impactful year to date. Not just in terms of what was easily visible from the outside looking in, but in the evolution of BOOM! as we've continued to scale it up. 2013 was the year that we doubled the number of employees that work at BOOM!, the year we were up 40% year-to-year in the direct market and more than that in the book market, and the year we added several new distribution channels and partners to strengthen the diversification of our business. We were nominated and won Eisners, Harveys, Shel Dorfs and Diamond Gem awards. I believe a big part of why many of these things were possible was because we began to evangelize for our brand and our projects in the same way we talk about them internally, which is rooted in authentic, sincere passion and encapsulated in the "We Are BOOM!" campaign. We spent a year talking about who we are as a company and what we believe in, which is reflected in our content, our marketing, our packaging, and our team.

Last autumn, as we were finalizing our 2014 plans and discussing what what we need to do to keep this great momentum going, I remarked, "We just can't screw up." And while that may seem like a trite response, it gets to the heart of what we're doing, which is continuing to build trust and equity with retailers and fans so they feel more and more confident in supporting anything with a BOOM! logo on it. Projects we've already announced like "Bee and Puppycat," "Evil Empire," "Lumberjanes," "Hacktivist," "Clockwork Angels," "Last Broadcast," "Dead Letters" and "The Woods" are a good indication of how we're keeping the momentum going. We absolutely have a number of big initiatives and announcements that will roll out over the next few months, some of them this week at ComicsPRO, that will have significant impact on the future of the company.

What do you see as BOOM!'s place in the market and the industry? What do you offer readers that they can't get elsewhere?

Sablik: Forgive the marketing guy for leaning on our campaign for the last year, but if the shoe fits -- we're innovators. There's a lot of talk about pushing the industry forward, but for the most part that's all it is -- talk. Pushing into and building new spaces in the marketplace like a home for all-ages material at KaBOOM!, breaking new talent like Max Bemis who brings a new type of reader into stores or drawing in non-traditional creators and fans into the direct market with BOOM! Box is how we work everyday to innovate and change the industry for the better. It's all rooted in a clear understanding of why each of us at BOOM! get up and pour all of our heart and soul into this job everyday. There's a mission, a voice, and a spirit here that I don't see anywhere else in the industry. I truly believe what BOOM! offers many non-traditional readers something they aren't getting anywhere else, a home within the comic shop and a reason to keep coming back week after week.

Gagnon: I see us as leaders. Part of the solution. I love this medium, I love this industry and I've been part of it ever since I could read. But I doubt it's news to anybody that we're behind in many ways as an industry. Whether it's from a socioeconomic standpoint, a corporate culture standpoint with our industry leaders, gender equality, diversity -- take your pick.    

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Moving the industry forward in a healthy way is a bigger concern than just types of stories we're telling and how we sell them. As publishing leaders we need to shoulder a heavier part of that responsibility. That means leading by example on what acceptable social behavior is, corporate integrity, employment equality and basic human rights.  

I want to build the future now. This is something I always beat the drum on: I want to build a comic book company today that looks like what a comic book company will look like 20 years from now -- and I think we're doing that.

Sablik: That's a great point. In terms of our place in the industry, I would put money down that there's not another publisher that works with as diverse of a group of staff and creators or has as diverse of a group of fans and supporters. It's one of our greatest strengths. I don't think either Matt or I could envision the right creators for an imprint like BOOM! Box, but our corporate culture is one that supports and nurtures the opportunity for BOOM! Box to grow organically and thrive.   

On a similar note, what does BOOM! offer creators that they might not get elsewhere? And can you reveal any upcoming creators you're excited to bring into the BOOM! fold?
Gagnon: The level of support we offer our creators is something I'm proud of. Our creators are our partners. They have an equal voice in the creation process. We're a full-service publisher in the sense that we have a fully staffed editorial department, marketing department and publishing/operations department. And our team is relentless. We hustle. We leave it all on the field for the company and our creators every day, whether that's from a creative, promotional or operations perspective.

Sablik: Definitely. We're an ideal place for creators who don't want to effectively do it on their own. We're a partner with expertise to help them with the thousand logistical things that need to be done to publish a comic so they can focus on creating. At our core, as a company, is a belief in partnership with our creators, that we can share equally in success.

Gagnon: As far as new creators, I'm thrilled to be working with James Tynion IV and Michael Dialynis this year on "The Woods." Chris Sebela and Chris Visions are two new creators we're working with on "Dead Letters." The crew from "Curse" -- [Michael] Moreci, [Tim] Daniel, [Riley] Rossmo, [Colin] Lorimer -- are a joy to work with. This fella named George Perez is pretty darn good. And we have some names I don't think people will be expecting that we'll be announcing in the coming months. 
Sablik: I'll add a bit more of a tease and say that you can expect a few more new creators to announce projects with us in the coming months, including ones best known for their work at virtually every major publisher in the industry. Plus more web comickers and continuing to work with amazing folks like Paul Jenkins, Mike Kunkel, Brian Stelfreeze and Mike Carey.

You work with a number of celebrities, actors and musicians. Why do you think those relationships have been working so well for everyone involved?

Gagnon: Because it has to be authentic. For every celebrity we publish -- and there's a few -- there's ten more celebrities we've passed on. Again, it comes back to the individual's core motivation. It's who they are, where they're coming from, what they have to say and why they want to say it. If it's not sincere and complimentary to our medium then we're not interested in publishing it. 
Sablik: Matt's right. In many cases, the celebrity component can be as big of a drawback as a positive. We really are very careful about who we partner with, because at the end of the day that's what it all comes down to, good partnerships. Whether with an industry legend, a first time creator, or a celebrity, if we don't feel like we're going to be able to stand behind the project authentically, we walk away.

Gagnon: I think we have a good track record for sussing out stories worth telling. Max Bemis is a great example. He's a successful and respected musician, but his passion for comics is also undeniable. I talked to the guy for 20 minutes in our first meeting and his love for comics was as infectious and genuine as can be; he has a home library of comics that looks like the sequential Vatican.

As a songwriter and lyricist he was already a proficient storyteller. And he clearly had a commitment to studying the craft of comics. So Ross and I looked at his list of ideas, and "Polarity" stood out as a story that was personal, a story where he could draw from his own experiences dealing with bipolar disorder. And it was wrapped in this grounded superhero narrative that was reverential to our forebears without being derivative. We thought, "Now that sounds like something we want to read." So let's start there.

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Sablik: Claudio Sanchez, another musician who we've worked with for many years on projects like "Amory Wars," "Kill Audio" and "Key of Z," is another example of someone who is at their core passionate about our medium. And you only need to listen to a Rush album to know that Neil Peart shares a love of the same genre material we do.

Gagnon: I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we don't like to shotgun material into the market. Everything we do is carefully curated. It's something that sets us apart.    

When I spoke with Ross after NYCC last year, he mentioned that you guys look for "comics you can give your girlfriend," meaning you can hand them to a non-fan and they'll enjoy. Is that a kind of unofficial mission statement for BOOM?

Gagnon: I think that's accurate, yeah. We want to publishing stories that are accessible, stories that will help broaden the comic book readership. 
Sablik: We believe in creating the next generation of comic fans. That's most evident in our dedication to all-ages material, but it's also present in these other projects we do that we believe will bring new readers and create new fans for our industry. And we don't have a "if you build it, they will come" attitude either. We actively pursue those non-traditional fans through licensing partners, social media and where we target our stories in the press. We're hustling every day not only to create content you can give a non-fan, but reaching out to that non-fan and inviting them to join our amazing industry.

BOOM! seems to focus nearly as much energy on all-ages material as you do the more adult oriented stuff. How important is that to you as a company?

Gagnon: It's really a cornerstone of what we do. Something that we believe in, unreservedly. We lead the charge back in 2009 with BOOM! Kids when it was neither fashionable nor profitable to publish all-ages comics. It's no secret that we took some lumps for our troubles. We have the scars to prove it!

One of my proudest moments in the history of BOOM! is the end of BOOM! Kids. After the thresher that we had been through, most publishers would have given up on all-ages comics. You have to remember, there was no bright, shining hope at that juncture. "Adventure Time" wasn't a phenomenon at that point. But instead of giving up, we doubled down. And in many ways we were rewarded for sticking with it.  

One of our most important missions is to help foster the next generation of readers. We've made huge inroads over the years with KaBOOM! and its earlier incarnation, BOOM! Kids. One thing we hear often from retailers is that they can't believe how many new readers our books are driving into their stores.
Sablik: My favorite moments in the last year at conventions have been seeing families come up and share their joy of comics together. A series like "Herobear and the Kid" is truly all-ages, it's equally accessible for a kid as it is appealing to an adult reader. Twenty-two year-olds will buy copies of "Adventure Time" alongside eight year-olds without reservation. It all reinforces that doing something right, with authenticity, sincerity and without talking down to the audience you are trying to bring in works.  

Are there any new all-ages books you can talk about in the works either original or licensed? 
Gagnon: Natasha Allegri's "Bee and Puppycat" is coming out through KaBOOM! in May. It's so much fun. Nat is brilliant. We also have a couple new projects in the works with Cartoon Network. You can get a sneak peek at some of them in our KaBOOM! Free Comic Book Day offering.  

Sablik: There are a couple of really amazing original all-ages books we have planned for the back half of the year that I can't wait to unveil. One of them is unlike anything we've done before and is the kind of challenge that the BOOM! team lives for.
Speaking of licensed comics, BOOM! is also known for doing quality licensed comics aimed at older audiences. Are there any new licensed books you can talk about? Are there more "RoboCop" or "Planet of the Apes" comics in the future at BOOM!?

Gagnon: Oh, yeah. We have a couple big announcements coming up for projects that I've been wanting to do since I first came to BOOM!. In fact, one is being announced this week. I can't wait. 

Sablik: We have definite plans for both "RoboCop" and "Planet of the Apes" in 2014. "Sons of Anarchy" has been a breakaway hit for us and is now an ongoing series. We just announced "Clive Barker's Nightbreed" with Marc Andreyko and Piotr Kowalski. We have a Fox property we're announcing at ComicsPRO that's really going to cause a stir. It's the first time anyone has been able to tell new stories with this one and you can't beat the team we've assembled. There're a few other licensed projects we can't quite talk about yet, but I'm really excited with the mix of both classic properties and new, exciting ones that we're getting to put our stamp on.
Can you talk about any new movie or TV projects coming about from the first look deal with Fox?

Sablik: It's still incredibly early in the relationship, but I know that our Development team led by Ross and Stephen Christy, our VP of Development, have been really hard at work for months laying the groundwork for what promises to be an exciting 2014. 
With the introduction and proliferation of digital comic content in the past few years, the industry has really started to change. How do you see that continuing to evolve and how is BOOM! planning to further utilize new technology?

Gagnon: First off, I'm glad that we have a convenient method of distribution for that lapsed reader or casual reader that wouldn't be venturing out to comic book shops in the first place. I have some buddies who only buy comics about as often as they make it to a movie theater. It's kind of treat for them. But they virtually never make it to a comic shop. Now, it's a whole different situation. I love seeing them take out their iPad and show me the new titles they're buying once or twice a month. That accessibility is obviously a massive game-changer for us.   
Sablik: The great thing to watch, which we suspected for years, is that the digital market is additive to the print market. Our digital sales are up at the same time as our print sales are up. We've recommitted to working with our digital partners this year and already it's paying off for us. We made our collections available in digital format for the first time and it's been exciting to see the growth there. We'll be generating our first "digital first" content this year as well. And we're investing a lot of resources this year into growing our eBook program through outlets like the iBookstore, Nook, Kindle and Kobo along with digital library opportunities.

For more from Filip Sablik and Matt Gagnon, including commentary on their upcoming announcements at ComicsPRO, come back for next week's The State of BOOM! Part 2.

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