WWC, Day 3 - Aspen Studios Panel

Several members of the very gregarious staff of Aspen Studios took the stage at a Wizard World panel in Rosemont to update their faithful fans (many of whom were from their message boards, and many of whom were very attractive females) about developments for the Fathom-heavy think tank. The panel featured brand new editorial director Vince Hernandez (who's held the job one week, and still functions as marketing director), new artist Micah Gunnell, executive vice president Frank Mastromauro, fan favorite and studio head Mike Turner, new artist Koi Turnbull and the very funny vice president of publishing Peter Steigerwald moderating.

The first section of the panel involved a slide show of new product, including "Soulfire: Dying of The Light" (a five issue mini series, with various covers exclusive to conventions and retailers in particular), new issues of Fathom, the cover to the new DC series "Supergirl" and a "Fathom: Cannon" prelude (another five issue mini) coming in October. There will be a "Soulfire" hardcover in November, as well as three busts. There will also be Fathom jewelry by the holidays, previously held up due to a problem with the latches that's recently been solved. For previews of "Fathom" and "Soulfire," click here.

"We've seen a lot of announcements of exclusives," Steigerwald said, "and we didn't wanna be left out, so we have one big exclusive to announce ..." With that he cued up a slide of Turner as a "lifetime exclusive contract," which drew applause from the friendly audience.

Turner seemed ecstatic to be back in the high life again. "It gives you a perspective, every second you're not in pain, be happy," he said with a smile. "All my scans have been clean, and I'm happy and dancing and drawing again. I wanna make sure 'Soulfire' five and six and seven all come out in a row. I apologize for the delays, and I appreciate the support, people staying with us through this last three years. I'm ready to draw again."

"We're gonna be doing some work with Marvel during the middle of next year," Turner confirmed. "It's not a complete exclusive. We're doing some covers for DC, still doing 'Supergirl,' doing some coloring. With Marvel, I'm gonna be doing six full issues, interiors and covers. We're looking to do some other things with them. As far as what we're working on, and who we're working with, it's a secret. The books themselves I'm not doing until I finish 'Soulfire' completely. 2007 first quarter is probably when the book will be released." For more on Turner's plans with Marvel, click here.

He also had news on the feature film front. "The 'Fathom' movie is really close," he said happily. "We're getting the script in next week and the studio is looking for directors. Will Staples and Sean O'Keefe are really good, and they're on board. When the movie went to Lightstorm, I had to relinquish control to James Cameron, which was an easy choice. They really are being very respectful, I know we're going to be involved, but whether we have full control, no. With 'Entourage,' it's funny that this has been our life for the last year. If the script is so good that Cameron likes it, he'll do it. But he's been underwater for three years ..."

There was a mix-up with a competing project that gave Turner faith in the project's celluloid ambitions. "NBC came out with a television show called 'Fathom,'" Turner said, "and we'd heard about it back in January, we sent cease and desist letters, and after a few responses, everything got cleared up, and now it's called 'Surface.' It was good to se Fox jump in behind us, and it makes me think they really wanna make the movie."

The studio promised more statues coming through DC Direct, and despite real demand for the sold out Soulfire statues, no more were planned. However, a platinum edition goes on sale today (Monday), which is limited to 200 pieces, with an included limited edition print. Aspen is in discussions with Marvel to create more statues, posters and of course more covers. Turner was reluctant to commit to action figures, though.

"Toys are a bigger challenge," he said. "They're usually sold through having a cartoon. Statues you can do through a collector's market. We've also signed up with CAA, and we're trying to push a lot of projects through other media. They're working on a 'Fathom' video game."

What about Ekos? "it's behind my Marvel work," Turner said bashfully. "I apologize to Geoff Johns again for pushing it back."

"Done by 2053, January, guarantee it," Steigerwald quipped.

Speaking of Steigerwald, when Turner said that Steigerwald would be doing painted work for Marvel, the man rolled his eyes and said, "I haven't signed anything with Marvel. Next year's my free agency, I'm gonna hold out for more money. Go play for the Raiders!"

They talked briefly about Hernandez' new role as Editorial Director, but said he'd be continuing his sales and marketing work. "We just kept adding slashes to his title," Steigerwald "explained." "Receptionist, bathroom cleaner, marketing director, editorial director ..."

"But bathroom cleaning is my top priority," Hernandez nodded.

The banter was a sign of the close-knit feeling the group conveyed, even more so in a story about the entire staff going to Hawaii, ostensibly for reference work but also to enjoy time together in an enjoyable setting. Turnbull said, "I've done the superhero thing, at first I loved it, but then I got bored of it. [Fathom] gives me a chance to draw regular people walking around. A lot of the issues I've had drawing in the past, now I can work them out. I've always been happy with my layouts, but not my drawing. Before going to Hawaii, I had a certain understanding about how to draw water, but when I went to Hawaii, and got to dive off of 40 foot cliffs, hike up mountains, it gave me a different perspective. All the elements in 'Fathom' are in Hawaii."

Steigerwald, who grew up in Hawaii, was less enthusiastic. "I gotta play tour guide for these guys, and deal with my family. It's a vacation for them, not for me."

The studio's expansion was clear in the stories of Turnbull and Gunnell, who talked about how they left their old lives behind to move to Los Angeles and be a part of Aspen. "I came in by luck," Turnbull said. "I had a friend working at Marvel, his editor asked if he knew of artists who could draw dinosaurs. It just happened that I had a whole portfolio of dinosaurs. I came in, got the job. But I got out of comics, trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I came to Chicago three years ago, introduced myself to Peter, they looked through the work, and Frank asked me to call." The native New Yorker said, "The rest is history ... or the future!"

Gunnell had even more of a Cinderella story, with this being his first professional work to make it to market. He caught Aspen's attention via an online contest, sent in two submission packages, and was hired for an internship. Now you'll see his work on shelves at your retailer.

The future is bright for Aspen, with a devoted fan base and plans for creative expansion now that their creative engine has returned at full strength. In a panel reminiscent of DC's rollicking panel at Wizard World Long Beach or most "Serenity" panels, the Aspen team really conveyed a sense of people who have fun working together.

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