WC12: Niles, Epitaph Records Put New Distribution Deal on the Table

Though the distributor has held a virtual monopoly on the direct market since the 1990s, writer and creator-owned comics advocate Steve Niles may have an alternative to distributing comics through Diamond. Announced at his spotlight panel at WonderCon, Niles and Matt Pizzolo have begun the process of distributing creator-owned comics through Epitaph Records, the studio responsible for bands like Bad Religion and Rancid. The as-yet unnamed comics label would seek to help increase awareness of the diversity and potential of comics as a storytelling format to new readers.

Comic Book Resources spoke with Niles about the new distribution deal, what it means for his creator-owned properties, the potential it opens up for other creator-owned books and more details about his movement to help provide financial aid to "Ghost Rider" creator Gary Friedrich.

CBR News: Steve, tell us about this new distribution deal you have set up.

Steve Niles: What I've been working on, aside from a focus on DIY, doing everything yourself again and not relying on these companies, but fully-supporting creator owned, aside from the other problems we have, the obvious one is we only have one distributor -- one distributor that at any moment for any reason could go under. If they're strong now, great. If they're weak now -- it doesn't matter. We have one distributor holding up our entire industry. I found it really scary. What I've been working on with a friend of mine, Matt Pizzolo who did "Godkiller," we teamed up as like-minded people who both came from music backgrounds. So we went and met with Epitaph Records and their subsidiary King's Road Merchandise. We are talking to them now about comics we will produce, a special line of comics yet to be named by the studio, that will be distributed through Epitaph.

We're talking about a company that sells records, magazines, books, toys -- anything related to pop culture and music. This is where Bad Religion and Rancid [came from]. They do all ends of the punk rock spectrum. Really, if you think about the crowd that we're trying to hit with comics -- when the DC 52 was saying, "We're trying to get those kids" and they got a bunch of 35 year old males. We're going to be able to get into the Hot Topics and we'll be able to get into all these stores throughout the country. That's essentially it. That's the big announcement. We've talked a record distributor into distributing comic books.

So you'll be using the distribution channels that are traditionally used for music to get comics into the hands of people who like this music.

Exactly. I have found in my experience when people see books like "30 Days of Night" and they see Ben Templesmith's artwork, they say, "I didn't know comics looked like this!" They think they all look like Superman and Slurpee cups and they don't realize there's this whole spectrum of just words and pictures. I think it's really what we're talking about with sales where they're at. It's not lack of interest, it's lack of knowledge. People don't know comics exist. I run against that wall all the time. At the same time, I've also seen something like "30 Days of Night" which I think is one of the better examples of a movie-to-comic. Just as of the movie coming out, we passed 100,000 sales on the graphic novel and that was in 2006, so I don't even know where it's at now. We're hoping we can take that kind of energy and put it out there. It's simply a matter of seeing what these people think. That's what we've failed to do is get new audiences. We've relied on these movies and guess what? They're not going. They go see "Iron Man," they go to a comics store and say, "I love Iron Man, what should I read?" Well, here's 10,000 issues! It's very hard but with creator-owned, I feel it's a lot easier to do that sort of thing.

You're a big supporter of creator-owned and creator's rights. What sort of opportunities do you feel like this new distribution will open up for creators?

Well, for one thing -- and I don't have the specifics of the deal -- these will be creator-owned deals. We are not in the business of IP collecting. We want to make comics and distribute them to people. So, anybody that we work with and right now, the book that I'm doing is with an artist, Chet Zar. He did some design work on "Hellboy," he's a gallery painter, he's big in the tattoo scene. So he and I are teaming up and I'm going to bring his paintings to life. We're going to do this series called "Black Magic." That's going to be our first comic through Epitaph and it's going to be great with all these worlds colliding. I'm just hoping it can work because I really feel like one of the big things that got us to the place we are with comics is the disappearance of the spinner rack. I've said this before and some people disagree with me, but I really feel like that's the kind of thing we need to get. We've asked for twenty or thirty years, "Will people go to a specialty store?" and less and less people are going. I think it's time we have to go to them. Really, we have to. They're not going to come to us. I feel like this kind of distribution is at least going to get it in front of them and we can find out once and for all, are they interested? I think we're going to get a good result.

What does this new distribution deal mean for your current creator-owned properties like "30 Days of Night?"

Right now, it won't affect them. I'm leaving that open because we don't know. We have no other partners yet, we haven't talked to many artists. We're going into this with just the concept. Matt is doing a book and he hasn't picked an artist yet. I wanted to work with Chet for a while, but what know we at least want to put together two more books and what we'd love to do is to find creators where we can just say, "Go." Everybody will own their stuff and it's going to be two creators coming up with a deal, so we're going to be very aware of that. Like I said, we're not taking IP from people. If we do, it'll be a small percentage. I believe 100% people need to own their work, so we're going to make that deal.

The last thing I wanted to ask you about is your involvement in helping to gather and send financial aid to Gary Friedrich. How has that been going?

Really well. It was very strange. The way it happened was I just woke up, went on Facebook and just saw everybody posting an article on it. Everyone was posting, "Somebody should do something about it," and someone else posted, "We should find Nic Cage and he'll do something." I thought, "You know what? No." I asked Monica how to make a donate button, I contacted Gary, I introduced myself to him. He wrote me back, told me his story. I decided very quickly I didn't care about the case, that what I saw was a creator in trouble. I put it out there and the outpouring was incredible. Gary asked that we not release the specific amount, but he's okay for a while. He's okay, he doesn't have to work because he can't work until this case is turned over or something. His wife is a nurse and she has to do all the work. So at least we got a lot of money in his bank account so he can just breathe easy for a while. That was really it. The guy is almost deaf, he's been ill with liver disease and the stress was making all that worse. I have never been prouder of comics. Everyone says, "You did this great thing." All I did was put out the piggy bank and all the fans and creators came out and they filled it.

I go through periods where I'm feeling pretty negative about comics and that case really did make me mad. That's about as much as I'll say about the case, but I also wasn't surprised. I was expecting this thing from the second Disney came on the scene. They're very protective of their IP and I'm sorry, Spider-Man and Ghost Rider are Mickey Mouse now. They're going to protect it, that's just a fact -- but at the end of the day, a creator who I grew up reading was going to lose his home. I did what I hope other people will do more of. We've got to have each other's backs. If we don't have each other's backs, who's going to do it? That's why there are a lot of things -- I'm turning my backs on the boys' clubs, on all the cliques and all the people who don't want to work with other people. That's fine. Go and do your thing, be in your little club, do your little clique, have a blast. I'm going to find people who love comic books and the combination of words and pictures and we're going to put out stuff.

Which seems like the mentality this new distribution deal is centered around.

Exactly -- and by the way, we still have to work out our financing issues, we have to work out those kinds of things, but anything that I'm working on is inclusive. I'm never sitting there going, "This is for me!" No. If this will work, hopefully it will be for everybody because I love comics and I really do want them to survive. I love them so much, I know the reason we don't have the sales we should is just awareness. People just don't know they're there.

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