Since 2005, Zenescope has built a name for itself based on "Grimm Fairy Tales," an ongoing comic book series bringing public domain fairy tales to the modern day and adding a tinge of horror, along with copious amounts of barely-clothed versions of famous characters like Red Riding Hood.
The series has become a bonafide franchise for the publisher, leading to spinoffs like "Grimm Fairy Tales Wonderland," "Grimm Fairy Tales Myths & Legends" and the recent "Grimm Fairy Tales Presents Oz," the latter of which saw its #1 issue, released this past July, become the second-highest debut in the company's history. (Zenescope told CBR News that a prior press release proclaiming it the publisher's top debut was in error; "Grimm Fairy Tales Presents Alice In Wonderland" #1 holds that record.)
But what's put Zenescope on the map is also what's made them one of the most frequently criticized publishers in the current comic book industry, with detractors writing them off due to their reliance on loose adaptations of already famous stories, and the prevalent amount of sexualized female characters that dominate the company's public image.
CBR News spoke with Zenescope president and co-founder Joe Brusha about the publisher's recent successes with titles like "Oz" -- a book he also wrote -- the perception of the company within the industry, support from non-traditional comic book readers and the Kickstarter-funded "Grimm Fairy Tales" animated series.
CBR News: Joe, the recently released "Grimm Fairy Tales Presents Oz" #1 was, you've informed us, was the second-highest selling first issue in Zenescope history. What do you think prompted its better-than-average success? At this point, Zenescope has a pretty clear brand, so for a spike like that, is it something unique to the book, or the Oz property and the way it was adapted by Zenescope? Or more of an indication of the company as a whole steadily growing?
"Oz" #6 cover by Ken Lashley
Joe Brusha: I definitely think it's a combination. "Grimm Fairy Tales" has been around now for eight years, it's got its core base of readers. In comics, I think it's really hard once you have an established title to bring in new readership, but I think that fans are willing to take a chance on new stuff, and something that is a reinterpretation of products that are out there in the market. The Oz movie ["Oz the Great and Powerful"] happened to come out this year, so I think that helped it.
I think every time we put a new title that's connected to "Grimm Fairy Tales," the sales seem to do really well. We did really well with our "Robin Hood" title. It didn't hit the numbers that "Oz" did, but I think "Oz" in the public consciousness is a little bit bigger of a known quantity.
Which prompts the question -- since there has been so many different well-known fairy tales that have gotten the "Grimm Fairy Tales" treatment, is there any worry of running out of recognizable stories to translate?
I don't think so, because we've kind of created our own universe with these characters. We told "Wonderland" as it connected to the original story, and then from that we spun off into whole different directions and created our own "Wonderland" universe, and the connection to "Grimm." It's our second ongoing title, and it's a very steady seller. Once you create that universe, and you can create different characters that don't even exist in the original, I don't think there's any shortage of stories you can tell there. We've been lucky that we were able to connect all these characters in this universe together. I think there are plenty of stories we can tell. I don't worry about that aspect.
Specifically doing new interpretations, I think at some point we'd want to branch away from that anyway. I think "Oz" is probably the last real big reinvention that we're going to do. But then again, who knows? It's not a big concern.
Zenescope has bumped its share of the marketup a little bit in the past few years. Are you seeing the kind of growth you're hoping for?
I think we could always have more, but I'm definitely happy with the track the company is on. We have seen market share growth, we've slowly but surely put out more titles per year. Trying to do it in a way that we're not oversaturating our fans and the market. I think we're on a good path. I'm very happy with our track and the direction we're going in. We seem to get a little bigger each year, and that's what we're hoping for.
On the subject of more titles, is it a priority to broaden the lineup beyond "Grimm Fairy Tales," or do you take on different projects on more on a case by case basis? What's the attitude on how diverse you want the lineup to be?
I think we'll probably always be 90 percent in the Grimm universe, and 10 percent not. We definitely want to experiment and put out different genres and different titles that don't necessarily connect to the Grimm books, but the reality is that the Grimm books sell tremendously well. Whenever we come out with a new property that's not connected to that, usually, they don't do quite as well, and there's a quicker drop-off in sales. No matter how good we think the book is, that seems to be the pattern.
We definitely will continue to try and build that line of non-Grimm books up, but our core is "Grimm Fairy Tales." I think we've done something that's kind of hard in this industry. We've created a universe where a lot of different characters and a lot of different titles connect to each other. I hate to try and compare us to Marvel or DC, because they're just so big and in a different stratosphere than we are, but I think our fans know that these characters all exist in the same universe, and they like the fact that Robin Hood can interact with the Red Riding Hood character, and they all interconnect to each other.
"Oz" #6 variant cover by Richard Ortiz
Outside of superhero publishers like Marvel, DC and Valiant, there are not that many shared universes at companies the size of Zenescope. Do you see that as a unique niche that you're filling? And has that happened organically or by design?
It definitely happened organically. When we first started, we didn't plan it. People seem to have a real appetite for reinvention of these classic characters. Obviously, we do it a little darker, a little sexier than it's been done in the past for the most part, and fans seem to respond to that. And fans seem to respond to the strong female characters, both female readers and male readers.
From an outsider's perspective, when folks see Zenescope books and the amount of scantily clad women, typically, they'd seem to think, "Oh, that must only be for dudes." But, anecdotally at least, it does seem that Zenescope has something of a female following. Have you noticed that, and how important is that to you?
It's very important, and it is something that, if you're not a Zenescope fan or you don't see us at conventions, I don't think you realize how many female readers we have. We take a beating on the covers a lot of times. For the most part, our audience, and the people who are buying comics, are 18 to 34 year old males, or even older. The collector market really wants that stuff, and it gets people picking up the books. We're happy with that.
If you look at our graphic novels, most of the covers are very different. "Grimm Fairy Tales" is in like its ninth printing, the first volume, so we know that it's not just the cheesecake and the sexier covers that sells the book. One of the other things we really wanted to do in starting this company is bring more people who aren't current readers of comics -- people outside that 18 to 34-year-old male demographic -- into comic reading, because it's a great medium. It's so versatile, and obviously we love it, so we want to make it as big as possible.
Often we'll have people come to our booth and say, "I've never read a comic, I went into the comic store with my boyfriend, and saw your book and picked it up and now I'm hooked." That's one of the greatest things about being in this business and running this company, to see people who otherwise wouldn't pick up a comic are now doing that.
To what would you attribute that female fanbase? The amount of female characters in starring roles?
Definitely. That, and the fairy tale aspect of it. Most girls grow up on Disney. They love these characters from when they're 4, 5, 6 years old. They love "Alice in Wonderland," they love "Snow White." When they're 18, 19, 20 and they start to turn into adults, those things hold a special place in their heart, but they also want to see different reinventions of those characters.
Our characters are very strong, they're badass, they don't need a man to come save them. I think female readers really identify with those characters. Having that built-in fairy tale base to it really helps. They're usually identifiable, and women just seem to really gravitate towards them.
You mentioned conventions -- it seems that Zenescope has a strong presence there. How important is that to you?
"Oz" #6 variant cover by Carlos Gomez
It's huge. Our convention business is up significantly this year -- we expect it to be next year, too. It really put us on the map when we first started, going out and getting fans interested in our books just by interacting with them at the conventions.
To this day, we still track how many new fans we get at each convention. It's usually pretty significant, as well as existing fans buying new stuff, and then selling exclusives. It's a very, very important part of our business plan right now, and what we're going to do going forward. More and more people seem to be coming out to these conventions, and it's a great opportunity to get people who might not be huge comic book readers, to get them in and expose them to our books.
We've hovered somewhat around this point, but fair or not, it's undeniable that there's certainly a section of comic book fans and observers of the industry who don't take Zenescope seriously, and a lot of it is because they see the covers, and they see scantily clad versions of fairy tale characters, and they think it's just T&A; they think that it can't be any good. Does that bother you at all? Is that something you want to change in the image of the company? Or is it sort of, "It is what it is"?
Well, I think if I said it didn't bother me, I'd definitely be lying. It bothers me on some level. But at the same time, we know that we can't please everyone.
It's funny, for such a unique fanbase and how until recently comics were really looked down on by mainstream America -- which is another reason we wanted to start this company, and bring it more mainstream -- there's a lot of comic snobs out there, it seems to me. People who just go, "I won't read that because there's a scantily clad Red Riding Hood on the cover." Yet if you look at a Marvel comic or a DC comic, and it has a female character in it, they're portrayed very much the same way, in my opinion.
So it does bother me a little bit. But then, at the same time, you can't please everybody. I think the biggest success that we have is through word of mouth -- people telling other people, "Hey, this is a good book, pick it up." Those fans will bring more fans to our brand, and if that wasn't happening, we wouldn't be in business. It is a little bothersome, but at the same time, I understand it, too.
In terms of the covers, and the trade paperback covers being less revealing than the monthly books, do you see them as something of a means to an end? Or is that not really the right way to look at it?
I definitely do, because they get the job done, in a lot of ways. When we're doing conventions exclusives, we have a specific fanbase that really wants it. We've actually pulled in the reins sometimes on covers. They want them even more sexy, more explicit. So we're satisfying that fanbase.
In the stores, you're going through several tiers of buyers. But whenever we do a sexy cover, it outsells the less sexy cover through the retailer. They know what their fans want, and what gets people to pick it up. It's interesting, because we do try to pull the reins back sometimes, but those books won't sell as well. We're kind of -- I don't want to say pigeon-holed -- but I think we've found a niche, it definitely serves a purpose to put those out like that, and it works.
"Oz" #6 variant cover by Ale Garza
Going back to the trades, they're sold in the bookstores and on Amazon, and also in the comic book stores. They do well for what they are. It's really serving a couple different kinds of fans.
Do you think that there might be a section of readers out there who would enjoy some of the Zenescope product, but will never be reached, because of these covers and the image of the company in general?
I hope not. I'm sure there's definitely a segment of people who won't give us a chance. But I think that's with every entertainment medium that's out there. I'm sure there's people who won't go watch a Clint Eastwood-directed movie, because they saw one they didn't like.
When we do our trade paperbacks, we really try and brand them a certain way, take the sexy out of it, a little bit at least, and make them more representative of what the stories are. "Grimm Fairy Tales," we've been through multiple printings of all the books. I think more people give it a chance in trade paperback and hardcover than they do on the regular comic, and I'm fine with that. But there definitely is a small segment out there that will never pick up our book, because they know we had one sexy cover, and we can live with that.
Do you have an update on the "Grimm Fairy Tales" animated series?
Yes. In terms of the Kickstarter being fulfilled, the DVDs are being pressed, and we expect to fulfill those rewards in the next three weeks. That's the only reward we're waiting for.
Other than that, we've only exposed it to a couple of different networks, who have passed on it. It is definitely a little bit over the top, it's definitely adult, it's definitely R-rated. The director, Jon Schnepp, who directs "Metalocalypse" for Adult Swim, he really wanted to go back to the "Heavy Metal" style and make it R-rated, do different styles of animation, and we let him run with it. Overall, the fan reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.
I think at this point we're really looking at some kind of self-distribution model for the pilot, and seeing how it sells in a digital format, and then re-grouping and maybe doing another episode through Kickstarter or through those proceeds. I know it won't be on network television, not in the format it's in, but it's a good fit for cable, and it's a good fit for something like Netflix. It'll be a slow process, but we're excited about it, and the fact that it was funded through crowd-funding on Kickstarter is kind of a testament that there's an appetite for it out there.
Is there anything else on Zenescope's horizon that you're excited about?
I think the biggest thing that we're already focusing on is next year, for San Diego in July, the 100th issue of "Grimm Fairy Tales." The same month, we'll have the 25th issue of the "Wonderland" series. Two big milestones in the same month.
I don't think we ever thought we would get to 100 issues. I don't think almost anybody thought we would get to 100 issues. So we're very, very excited. We've got big plans. We're probably going to do a 100th issue signing tour. I think that's going to lead us into our next stage of development as a company. We've got some pretty exciting things planned for that, and for the second half of next year.