The Evolution Of Boom! Studios: An Interview With Ross Richie And Filip Sablik

by Hannah Means Shannon

 

I had the opportunity interview BOOM! Studios Founder & Chief Executive Officer, Ross Richie, and their President of Publishing & Marketing, Filip Sablik, at San Diego Comic-Con 2018, and it seemed like a particularly relevant time to talk about the growth and development of BOOM! Studios as well as their imprints due to the expansion of their publishing strategies with Discover Now Editions as well as their addition and promotion of key staff members in recent months.

I was particularly interested in hearing their thoughts on the idea of “evolution” within a company, and what part experimentation might play in that process, as well as their take on recent, positive changes in the children’s book market regarding graphic novels. What follows is an expansive discussion of these topics, but also a particularly accurate survey of the relationship between comics, the Direct Market, and the book store market at this time, which speaks to our current moment in comics publishing.

Hannah Means-Shannon: I’ve been seeing you use words like “evolution” regarding the development of Boom! Studios for quite a while, going back at least as far as 2013 or 2014, and I wondered if you would like to talk about the different stages that you’ve seen occurring in this development.

Filip Sablik: I think the abbreviated, ancient history version is that Ross founded the company in 2005, and the first inflection point would have been Farscape and Warhammer. That would have been about 2007. In 2007, BOOM! went from publishing only original content to publishing licensed content. In 2009, KaBOOM! happened.

Ross Richie: Yes. In 2009 was the big Disney deal with Pixar and Muppets. Mickey and Donald, the mice and ducks. That was a big era. We were doing twelve monthlies around that content. Launched the imprint KaBOOM!. Then, after that comes Adventure Time.

Filip Sablik: Adventure Time was in 2012, a watershed. The market had seen Disney comics previously that had been published right before Boom! took them on, so the idea of Disney comics in the comics market wasn’t new, but the idea that you could launch a kids’ comic and have it be a gigantic, barn-burning success was pretty revolutionary, I think. It put the company on the map. In 2014, Lumberjanes arrived. I think all these things come back to trying to look a little bit down the road and see where the audience is going. What is the shape of the audience? How is fandom changing? Because, as a publisher, you can’t create new groups of fandom out of whole-cloth, just because you want them to be there. You have to respond to what’s happening in the culture. We had launched Boom! Box ahead of Lumberjanes, but Lumberjanes was really the thing that crystalized that imprint.

RR: Then we bought Archaia and released (our first film) 2 Guns, so that was a great era. It was very exciting. Then we had these imprints, forward facing, with Archaia, sitting next to Boom! Box. Then you have the Boom! Studios that you know now really crystalizing in that 2012 to 2014 window. 2016 was significant for Power Rangers. March of 2016, Power Rangers #1 outsold everything that Marvel published that month. The only thing that it didn’t outsell at DC Comics was Batman #50.

HMS: I remember seeing the stampede to get the blind-bagged Power Rangers ashcans at some point…

FS: That previous San Diego Comic-Con, when we announced the series, we surprised everyone with one-page comics, collectible in blind-bags. Then January, we did a zero issue, and the first issue launched in March.

I think the latest thing to note is that this year, Diamond moved us from the non-Premier, in the back of the catalog, up to Premier, and that’s only the second time that’s happened in the history of the Direct Market. That was a great reflection of how far the company has come.

I think in terms of evolution and how the company has continued to form into the shape that it’s in now is based on one of Ross’s greatest strengths as a founder and as a leader. He’s got this incredible openness to exploring new ideas and new territory. I think if you look at the early history of BOOM!, it’s really a love of experimentation, and thinking, “Hey, nobody is doing this. Why don’t we try it?” As a result, in the early days, things like KaBOOM! started off as BOOM! Kids, and started off with the Disney line. And it didn’t really find its identity until we had the Cartoon Network titles.

RR: You launch it, and then you refine it. It like when someone launches software, and finds some bugs in it, and then refines it. I’ll never forget a time when I was at Toronto Fan Expo, and we were launching Muppets, and the imprint was called Boom! Kids. There was an adult fan, maybe 27 years old, saw the Muppets and got super excited, then saw the logo, and saw “BOOM! Kids”, and he walked away. And I thought, “That imprint is named wrong.” That’s when I changed the imprint name to KaBOOM!

The companies that work innovate. In order to innovate, you have to experiment. You have to take risks, and on some level be a friend to failure. Not everything’s going to work. In fact, most of it won’t. I certainly don’t go into it thinking, “Yay, let’s fail!” I think about every angle, and drive Filip crazy with 11th hour changes, asking, “How can we make this better?” But you go through that process and then you find the thing.

When I launched KaBOOM!, I was told by people who were hugely successful in comics, titans, that kids comics don’t sell.

HMS: Oh, for sure! Everyone said that back then, and some continue to say that. In fact, one of the first times I ever saw a Boom! booth at a convention, and I was asking people in comics about the company, they said that Boom! was taking a risk in trying to publish kids comics. I was still in Education at that time, having taught all ages of children, and I thought, “The kids aren’t going to be the ones saying ‘no’ to comics. Maybe the adults might say that.”

RR: That’s totally what I was thinking. At the age of 6 was the first time I got a comic book. It totally blew me away, and I was totally captivated by the experience. Kids love comics. What kids don’t like is bad comics. This is an obligation—you need to earnestly care about the comics you’re making for the next generation—and you need to put your best foot forward.

When I was a little kid, I saw the comics where it was clear that they thought, “kids won’t know any different”. I could smell that on the material. It’s like, “Put a robot dog in it, and kids will love it!” Really?

FS: I actually think that’s reflected in all of the editorial at Boom! If you look at the approach that Boom! takes for licensed comics, or whether it’s publishing comics for kids, publishing comics for women, or for other under-represented groups, the whole thing is this: This is an opportunity to create a fan for life. Every single one of those. If that first experience is bad, that shapes the opinion that person has of comic books, as a medium. If you create them authentically, meaning the people you hire to edit and create the books are the audience, or are connected with the audience in some way, you’re going to get stuff that is true.

RR: When we started doing licensed comics, the conventional comics wisdom was that licensed comics suck. That’s what everybody said. I asked, “Why?” I like comics, and I like TV shows. I would buy the hell out of a comic that’s based on my favorite movie or TV show. And so the only difference between doing a licensed comic that people like or people don’t is caring. It’s like, “Why aren’t you engaged? Why don’t you care about your content?” At the end of the day, we just put our heart into it.

There was a big moment for me in 2007 when I was going to work, driving into the office, and I realized that I didn’t want to go to work that day. I thought, “I started this company, and I don’t want to go work there?” After that, I decided: I am going to pour my heart into everything I do. I’m going to care. I’m not going to apologize for it. I’m going to earnestly go pursue things. People can make fun of me. Pundits can say I’m going to fail. The competition can ask, “What is he doing?” And if it doesn’t work, at least I know I cared about it.

For me, a big early indicator was Warhammer. The thing about those brands is that those fans really care. In 2008, I was setting up the booth for San Diego, and this dude who looked like Lobo, with tattoos, gigantic, came up. He wouldn’t even establish eye contact with me. He just looked at the signs that we had. He was struggling to express his feelings, and he said, “I just want to say, Thanks”. I was re-arranging the booth, so I looked up, shocked. I said, “Wow, man.”, but he was already leaving. That was huge because I knew that was not the kind of guy who did that. When you connect with fans, that’s powerful.

HMS: You affected his life in some significant way.

RR: Yes, he cared. But I’m that guy. We all are. That’s why we’re in this. To me, it’s like a tuning fork you want to make resonate. You want to engage fans who care. You want to make it work. That’s what we’re trying for.

HMS: What’s your strategy or guiding principle when you become aware that something hasn’t worked or hasn’t met your own expectations? How do you decide how to correct course on that? Presumably, owning it is better than the alternative.

FS: I think it all stems from how Ross operated in the beginning. The founder’s attitude informs the culture of company, and I think internally, because we are prolific, we pour everything you have into the product, but are very realistic about it. If something isn’t working, that sucks, but let’s move on. It doesn’t mean that the next thing won’t work. For instance, if you’re starting an imprint, it doesn’t mean that the underlying idea of kids’ comics won’t work is true. It just means that this particular thing didn’t work.

RR: Because you believe in the premise. For me, it’s that you try something, and if it doesn’t work, there’s no shame in it. You’ve got to be in a place that you’re prepared for failure to greet you. And if you can’t deal with that, you won’t be successful. You can’t control things. So, what I try to control is: Did we do our best? Did we care? Did we engage? Did we give it everything we had?

Quite often, there’s a whole list of things: the creators cared, they did their best; we cared, we did our best, but it just didn’t work. That’s just natural in publishing. At that point, I can walk away proud because we did it. It was just the wrong place, the wrong time, or maybe it was just a bad idea.

HMS: The circumstances of the market have so much to do with it. And that is so hard to predict. People can come up with the most amazing project, and, for example, then there’s a national tragedy that relates in some way to the premise of the book and the whole thing has to be shelved. 

RR: It’s true. But to flip the coin and bring in something that’s current: our series Bone Parish. That’s a book by Cullen Bunn, who we love, and Jonas Scharf, who we’ve worked with before, but has now really ascended to the next level, and when you read the first issue, you ask yourself, “How do you put rocket fuel on that?” Because the potential is there. We were super excited to do four issues, but how do you put rocket fuel on that? You go to 12 issues, a full series order. And then you go to the market and tell them that this is a big deal. When we did it, for instance with Fence, Lumberjanes, and Giant Days, we were signaling to the market. Those have been our big hits.

HMS: You’re sending out that that message about where you believe the series is headed.

RR: We are saying, “We believe in this. We are doubling down on this.” Mech Cadet Yu just did that for us. Mech Cadet Yu started a new thing for us, the Discover Now line.

HMS: I was about to ask you about that, since it’s clearly one of the ways that you’re spotlighting books that have moved from miniseries to ongoing. Getting that edition out quickly for people who might have missed those first four issues. And the timing must be incredibly difficult, actually, to make sure those books are on the shelf when the next issue hits. Kudos for not only trying to do that, but managing to do it. That can’t be easy.

RR: Yes, it’s difficult.

FS: Well, you can’t do it for everything. It is an effort. And what you want to do is think about these opportunities to be disruptive in the market, and grab [retailers] attention. To say, “Hey, this is different, because we’re going to give you the tools to be successful with this.” With Discover Now Editions, we want to make sure that when customers walk into a shop for issue #5, there’s a collection they can jump on and continue on with the single issue series.

It’s not any great secret that last year, the Direct Market had some challenges, and we sit at the home office and wonder, “What are things that we can do as publishers, to be supportive and give guys and gals in comic shops an opportunity to thrive with what we do?”

HMS: That’s a unique thing you did, making Discover Now Editions retailer-exclusive, and having the actual trade come out later with extra content. You could have gone straight to bookstores, I suppose, with a rushed edition, but instead you decided not to.

FS: The two markets function differently, too, and we’re trying to balance that. Giving comic shops some exclusivity and also making sure that when we do put out the regular edition, it has extra material in it to help balance that out. Because the independent bookstores, libraries, and even the chain bookstores, are really good partners for us. You don’t want to help one partner by hurting another one.

HMS: Absolutely.

RR: But they have different roles. I gave the ComicsPRO keynote speech two years ago, and what I was talking about was that comic book stores are laboratories of creativity, and what happens in that space transforms the cultural landscape, globally. In that world, we want to feed that creativity and foster that excitement, so we need to bring that material to market faster. Meanwhile, the book trade often looks to comic shops for the social cues of what people are super psyched about.

HMS: Sure.

RR: The more that you can get comic shops ahead of the book trade, and show that enthusiasm in demonstration, by the time you get to the book channel, they’re like, “Wow! We’ve read all the articles. We’ve seen all the reviews.”

FS: And when you look at the two Discover Now Editions that we’ve done, Mech Cadet Yu, and Fence, the Direct Market orders were impacted. Both were twice the numbers of what we might expect from a volume one on an original series, and on top of that, the book market came in, and supported both series in a big way. Like Ross said, they are looking to the comic shop market, and thinking, “These guys are doing well with the die-hard customers, so the casual consumer that’s coming in to a Barnes and Noble, library, or independent bookstore, are going to have a greater awareness of it.”

HMS: Bookstores are in a unique position because they get a free test market, of a kind, on these books. I know that the buyers for chain bookstores, as well as independent bookstores, are super important to the future of comics.

RR: It’s interesting, because they are a vital part of our business, but they are actually only a part of our business. Libraries, for instance, are huge for us.

FS: When I started at the company, which was six years ago now, if you were to look at the pie that was BOOM! Studios publishing, probably 70% would have been comic shops, 20% through the book market, and 10% a combination of foreign sub-licensing and digital sales. And I remember looking at it and talking about it and commenting that this was not a very stable stool to sit on. Having all your eggs in one basket is not a good idea as a publisher. It took time, but at this point, our comic shops business has grown, and meanwhile our bookstore business has grown to the point that, while it’s not equal, it’s pretty close. And then our digital sales have gone up. It’s all gotten big, and ultimately the percentages have evened out.

Inside the bookstores, which is really interesting, the chain stores probably only make up about 12 or 13 percent of our book sales. If you look at libraries and smaller independent bookstores make up about 20 to 23 percent.

HMS: That’s great.

FS: Then, the large independent bookstores, like The Strand in New York, or Powell’s in Portland, and put those accounts together, they make up another 20%. So, if you look at our book market business, libraries and indies are really the foundation.

What the chain stores are fantastic for is creating a footprint for these bigger properties. Things like Lumberjanes have been successful, Power Rangers, Adventure Time, Mouse Guard. Because it really is the most casual consumer walking through the door and browsing.

HMS: Did you want to comment on this new development, that Barnes and Noble is adding a children’s graphic novel section?

RR: It’s a great opportunity. In the Direct Market, we’re one of the few publishers who publish graphic novels for kids, so this is super exciting.

HMS: That may help bring a broader spectrum of your books to casual consumers.

FS: I think if, as a casual consumer, if you wandered into a Barnes and Noble kids’ section a couple of years ago, you’d find it all in one place. You’re looking at Adventure Time comics shelved with Middle Grade novel series, shelved with things that are hybrids. That spotlight is, in some ways, a validation. It’s a major chain saying, “Hey, parents, graphic novels are an important enough thing that we have a section for it. Come and check it out.” And for kids, who are discovering this stuff through their schools and libraries, it has the potential to be really powerful.

So far, what we’re hearing, is that the first wave of it, is going well.

HMS: Yes, and I doubt there’s any possible negative outcome to this. Because if people are coming to look for Raina Telgemeier, they are going to find all these other options they didn’t know about. It’s discoverability.

Would you like to talk about some of the developments in the company lately, where you’ve been promoting people and introducing new job titles? It seems like you’re getting ready to sustain more, perhaps looking to introduce greater output.

FS: Well, let’s talk about it in a couple of different ways. One of the things we’re constantly looking at is: What is the market appetite, not only for specific projects, but just for stuff? Back in 2015, we noticed that the market is over-saturated, and frankly, it’s still over-saturated. So part of what we’ve tried to do is ask: How do we achieve our goals, but still be responsible, and react to what the market conditions are? I think it’s less about doing more stuff, but asking, if we are going to take on something like Power Rangers, which has the potential to be a big program, how do we set ourselves up to maximize the opportunity there?

If we are going to press into these different markets, whether it’s the library market or the independent bookstore market, you have to have the right people in the right places in sales and marketing to do that outreach. We have had a couple of great hires lately. Spencer Simpson, our Sales Manager, is the former buyer at Books-a-Million for graphic novels, so he came with a great perspective on the book trade, and chains, specifically. That was one of our signals that we were going to engage deeply with the book market.

One of the things I’ve been telling folks is that we spent a lot of time making sure that, on a production timeline, and on an editorial timeline, we can behave the way that book publishers behave. It’s the height of arrogance to join those markets, but not take the time to understand how that market works, and not take the time to understand their cycles, and what their needs are. So we did all that work, behind the scenes. Though it’s invisible to the outside, looking in, there were a lot of changes taking place to get that done. So, Spencer’s one of the first outward signs that the back of the house is in order, and now the front of the house is going to push.

And then, on the editorial side, we had the opportunity to bring on Jeanine Schaefer, and she came with a really tremendous pedigree over at Marvel and DC, and a ton of experience. We were trying to figure out what the right role was, and our Editor-in-Chief, Matt Gagnon, looked at our editorial department and realized that it was a great opportunity to refresh the department. And promote some folks who have been a big part of our success so far. A guy like Bryce Carlson, who was our Managing Editor, got promoted to Vice President of Editorial & Creative Strategy, has been here almost from the beginning. He’s a tremendous success story. He started in this business as Ross’s assistant.

RR: He started as an intern, who came in to fulfill Warhammer mail order. It was so long ago that I just classified webstore sales as mail order.

FS: Yes. And folks like Shannon Watters, who started the Boom! Box imprint, and Dafna Pleban, who’s a longtime editor, and really responsible for spear-heading the Power Rangers publishing program, along with Eric Harburn, another longtime editor who’s been behind critical hits like Grass Kings and The Woods. And Sierra Hahn, who came over from Dark Horse, has been reshaping what the Archaia imprint in the last few years.

The company does seem to go through these phases. It feels to us like we’re getting through the awkward teenage years and becoming adults.

RR: He says that, but I want to be in a place where we look back on all of this past stuff as our infant years. You talk about “evolution”. Evolution doesn’t stop. The world doesn’t stop for you. You have to update, and update, and update. You have to evolve. If you don’t, it will leave you behind.

That was always the thing that was exciting for me about publishing, and in particular, independent comic book publishing: You constantly have to change and evolve, because the market is constantly changing and evolving. We’re seeing tremendous millennial onboarding into the market, we’re seeing women surging…

FS: We’re seeing eight to twelve-year-old kids coming in and devouring graphic novels.

RR: That’s us. That’s what we do. Boom! is majority female on an employee basis. To me, I wanted to build a company that is relevant and modern. It isn’t that we sat down in a board room and decided we’d go majority female. We just decided we were going to go after the best creative and do the most modern stuff. And we ended up with this very modern, creatively fresh company. That’s majority female.

HMS: Other companies are creeping in that direction, they are getting there, though it can be slow. Talking with female creators and colleagues at San Diego Comic-Con this year, they are not even exaggerating or joking when they say, “Women are taking over comics.” Every year to come, we’re going to notice that even more.

FS: What we’re really saying is that the company is built around the idea that comics are a medium…

RR: …Not a genre…

FS:…For anyone. So, you have to make them for everyone. Because the reason that some of these groups didn’t read comics before is because there wasn’t good content available for them. And it takes someone like Raina Telgemeier to show the market that there’s opportunity, it takes someone like Shannon Watters to show you the opportunity.

Many thanks to both Ross Richie and Filip Sablik for making the time to talk with us here at Comicon.com and sharing their thoughts on the growth and development of Boom! Studios.

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