Ross Richie is founder of BOOM! Studios and brings an interesting insight to the comics business. I caught up with him at this year’s Emerald City Comicon and had a fascinating conversation about BOOM!, the comics industry and the future of the artform.
Ross Richie: We publish a lot of diverse material. We always have. I think that we believe that comic book fans believe that comic books are for everybody. Through the years there have been lots of friends that I have that are interested in reading comics. I would hand them a superhero comic and don’t necessarily like the genre. So they would find comic books hard to get into. As we know it, its medium, not a genre.
CB: Right, just like film.
Richie: Yeah. It’s the famous Warren Ellis quote. If you went into a bookstore and all it was Norse novels, it would be a little hard to get into. What I think is exciting for this era, is we’re seeing things like Ms. Marvel with a Muslim American girl and Lumberjanes. We’re seeing content generated that isn’t necessarily full of Caucasian leads. They aren’t necessarily male leads. I think it’s really exciting time period.
I will tell you as a publisher, you come to these shows and you see how incredibly diverse the audience is and how much things have changed in the past five to ten years, and I think we’re seeing that in the comic book stores. When we put out Lumberjanes, the response was thunderous. It’s one of our best selling. I would not be surprised if it ends up our best seller of all time.
CB: The first graphic novel comes out next week, right?
CB: Yeah, you are going to sell out very quickly.
Richie: We already sold out.
CB: A week before it’s out?
Richie: Oh, I think it was three weeks before it was out.
CB: Wow. Did you expect that at all?
Richie: Not even a little bit. When we went to go set the press run for it, we were expecting to have months’ worth of material.
CB: I’ve got to say; I interviewed the whole crew last year here. The thing that jumped out at me more than anything was just how excited everyone was about it.
CB: We were standing and they were bouncing, they were so excited about it.
CB: You can just feel these are people who have a story to tell and want to tell it.
Richie: Isn’t that neat?
Richie: It’s incredible.
CB: And they love comics, too.
CB: That must be exciting to be able to put that kind of thing out.
Richie: Yeah. Part of my philosophy with Boom! as a publisher is that I kind of see myself as the first fan. And sort of the pleasure of Boom! is being the person who gets to read it before it goes to press. So I kind of gravitate towards people I think are talented and exciting and fun. Being in a position to be able to help them take their material to market is a really good concept.
CB: So how’re you going to embrace this idea of moving comics forward? How’re you going to make Boom! be the company you want it be five years from now?
Richie: Well, a big part of Comics Forward that I really want to point out so that people don’t get confused is we’re a very small part of the conversation. And there have been decades of progress that happened before us. Like you and I are classic comic book fans. One of the first African American artists was Matt Baker. Women have been drawing comics for decades: Ramona Fradon, Marie Severin, lots of talented creators. And then the undergrounds have done a lot of things in alternative comics.
Publishers like Fantagraphics have been around for so long, much less web comics. So our desire is to create a conversation relative to what is going on, to point out and begin a call and a response about it. It’s not to take ownership that we’re the people doing this, because we’re not. We’re responding to the creators that are bringing us great content. We’re responding to what the audiences are saying that they want and following with their dollars and their excitement.
CB: It has to evolve organically.
CB: You can’t say, ‘I want a book like Batgirl or Ms. Marvel or Captain Marvel on my line.’ It has to come from the creator.
Richie: Absolutely. And you can go do those things, but if the audience doesn’t want it, you will go out of business and you don’t get to publish it anymore. We’re very respectful relative to all of these things predated us. And when we talk about where the business is going five years from now, I think of comics like Lumberjanes. When you have sales success like that, I think that it shows there is a lot of pent up audience excitement for something. I think that is a precursor; we’ll see a lot more content like that. The Woods was a huge book for us. It has a very diverse cast in it.
Richie: I think you’ll see more kinds of content like that from the studios. We can talk about Steven Universe at KaBOOM!, which is a really unorthodox and interesting new series. Adventure Time is an incredibly mind-bending sort of series that isn’t your average cartoon on Cartoon Network. To me, the next five years is about being sensitive to this extremely exciting creativity that is the space. I know our desire is to every day get better at what we do, work closer with the creators, have a more evolved, focused publishing strategy. Simon and Schuster is our book distributer; they are one of the best publishers in the world. We’re being able to do digital better.
Focus on all of these things to bring these incredible stories for the creators to a bigger audience. Our concept with Boom! is that we’re partners with the creatives that we work with. There are a lot of creators that can self-publish and they do very well with it. A writer knows how to work with an artist and they know to do the marketing and they know how to keep their book on schedule. They don’t want any editorial input. But for the creators that don’t have those kind of resources or don’t have that philosophy or approach, who basically just want to write their comic or they just want to draw their comic, we’re team that can come in and partner with them and do those things that a full-service publisher can do that can bring that stuff to market.
CB: Including editorial guidance, which is a huge bonus that often people don’t think about.
Richie: Right, yeah. It’s very subtle.
CB: That service from a company like Boom! is actually different from Image.
Richie: Yeah, absolutely. Look, I think Image Comics has already established itself as one of the greatest publishers in North American comics ever. I think they will only continue to do that. I think they have a huge long line. I think what they have done is so groundbreaking. But, at the same time, for a lot of creators, it’s not for them because they can’t manage their own stuff and don’t want to. They are more creative than the habit. Some people have the creative and the business. And some people just have the creative.
CB: It’s rare finding that combination.
Richie: Yeah, yeah.
CB: I mean, most people just aren’t businessmen for whatever reason. As I was talking about with someone earlier, the monsters book that is similar to Pokémon. She was talking about that when she started her Kickstarter, she just didn’t have any concept of sending out for the books, how production work would be, how you manage returns from China. Like “No, I am at a company now that can manage all this for me. They are professionals,” right?
Richie: Right, right. Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard.
CB: My wife and I talk about this all the time. I don’t want to be the guy who is fixing my car or my refrigerator, right? I just want to hire a professional to come and do the job right the first time.
CB: I want to manage my life. I want to cook with the food from my refrigerator; I don’t want to fix my refrigerator.
Richie: Right, right.
CB: I think that’s a little bit of what you offer, right?
CB: You are the experts at what you do. And you are facilitating people.
Richie: Yeah, absolutely. Great analogy.
CB: So when you look back to where Boom! was five years ago, how do you think you’ve evolved to the point that you are now? What do you think are the right decisions that you made then?
Richie: Oh, it’s so exciting. It’s so much fun. One of the decisions that I am proud of is I think we have always been open and have a real desire to get better at what we do and being open to different kinds of expression. We launched KaBOOM! originally as Boom! Kids. When you see that publishing a segment of the market that was traditionally written off… And I worked at Malibu Comics twenty years ago and knew a lot of guys at Marvel and DC and Darkhorse and Image that were my colleagues and my friends. The conventional wisdom was comics aren’t for kids; kids don’t read comics.
The idea was back when there were comics on the newsstand in the 50s, 60s, 70s, they were easily accessible and kids did read comics. But since comics in the 80s and the 90s went into the comic book shops, kids don’t read comics. So being able to go into that space, which was under-published, and do material…
It’s funny because we take a lot of risks, but to me, they are not risks. When I thought about Pixar content or the Muppets, I thought these are some of the greatest stories in the world. It’s sort of tangential that they happen to be something that kids could look at. Adults love them and they don’t look at them as Barney. So why wouldn’t you be able to do great comics with that? Then it’s just a lack of imagination. It’s basically focus and trying to get the writers and artists that can fulfill along though brands.
CB: Sure. I liked reading Peanuts at the same time I was reading super-hero comics, right?
Richie: The perfect example. I think that was the first step in the direction of exploring some content. Like when we bought Archaia, that’s another example of focusing on doing artistic books with a capital A. Very aspirational on the artistic end, whereas Boom! Studios is much more commercial. Sort of Sons of Anarchy versus doing something like Rust.
CB: Right, right.
Richie: I think that versatility was something that we were really leaning into five years ago that has really paid off.
CB: I think the most interesting thing now for me in writing a book about the 1990s is how you learned the lesson of the 90s.
CB: A lot of companies were built to survive only a short time doing that. But you and your peers are continuing to thrive and get better. What do you think is the key lesson that you took away from your time at Malibu?
Richie: Well, as an insider from that time period, one of the things that naturally corrupted was the insane commercial success that everything had.
Richie: I think the reason that you saw it so widespread from Marvel, DC and all the way to the independents and even to the small press was if you can sell a stupid amount of copies of anything, it doesn’t reinforce any discipline. If you are going on a huge run and you just keep crushing it, it doesn’t tell you to be open.
CB: Right. Why would you?
CB: Why would you? If you are making…
Richie: Just sells more, just sells more, and it sells more and it sells more. And pretty much no matter what you do, you are selling more and more and more copies. So that era has so much cast associated with it where it was so corrupting. The people who went through that, rebuilding the industry after everything collapsed, there was a real… Why you were in comics was because you loved it. And there was such a trauma that was associated with when things collapsed how brutally they collapsed. So there is a frugal quality.
When I built Boom! I was very cautious about what we were doing on a fiscal and financial basis, how we were extending ourselves, doing things in a very focused and measured way so that we never got out ahead of ourselves. I think that is real take-away. But you are talking to a publisher, so you get the fiscal side of things.
CB: Sure. But that also means five years from now, you will be able to publish the books that you want to publish.
Richie: Yeah! Last year we did twenty monthlies and this year we did forty. So the neat thing is we’re doing so many books, we’re pretty much doing everything we want to do.
Richie: So the fun part of it now is we’re getting to work with creators like Grant Morrison and Frank Cho. These guys are legends in the business and we haven’t had an opportunity to work with guys like that. We have a book coming up with J.G. Jones this summer with Mark Waid. And so that is super exciting. What is funny is to see some of the legendary creators become attracted to the company and what we’re doing.