Revolutionizing Comics At TKO Studios’ First Panel At ECCC
by Noah Sharma
On the second day of Emerald City Comic Con, writer Deniz Camp moderated TKO Studios’ first panel. The roster was small, consisting of just co-founder and publisher Tze Chun and Editor-in-Chief Sebastian Girner, but they had a lot to say about how they’re trying to reinvent the comics publisher.
“It’s a lot of work to make a really bad comic, so it’s that much harder to make a really good one,” Camp began, “what convinced you to start a company? Why did you do this to yourself?” Chun always loved comics, but focused on independent film for much of his life. Through it all he always wanted to do something with comics, but the opportunity never presented itself. A few years back Chun came back into contact with Sal Simeone, beginning a chain of fortunate occurrences that inspired him to found TKO.
Sebastian Girner was convinced to come aboard as Editor-In-Chief after hearing how serious the company was about not only making comics but doing it in a new way. This seemed like a once in a lifetime chance, something that would not come around again.
TKO started with three guiding principles.
1. What is good for creators?
2. What is good for fans?
3. What is good for comics.
In every decision, TKO is guided by these questions and that guidance has led them to do things somewhat differently.
The most obvious deviation is their release schedule. TKO binge releases their comics, meaning that they release the entire series all at once. This approach was adopted out of a desire to deliver stories to fans who might be used to binge watching series on streaming platforms.
The second TKO innovation is simultaneous release in multiple formats. Chun said that the company is very aware of the different ways that people like to read comics and, as such, when a series is binge released, readers can get it in single issues, collected, or digitally on release day. Because series are binge released, single issues are available in box sets at the same time as trades. The issues are bigger than traditional comics, a decision that allows a better view of the art but was made in order to allow the issues (and their box) a place on honor on a bookshelf.
But releasing single issues in box sets changes the way that consumers typically buy comics. Individually wrapped, these boxes don’t allow issues to be purchased individually unless a retailer makes that decision. Combined with binge releases, that takes the ‘try it and see’ approach to single issue purchases off the table. That’s why TKO decided to implement their third innovation. The first issue of every series is available to read for free on TKO’s website and Comixology.
Finally, it’s not just what TKO is releasing that’s different, but how. Unlike the vast majority of publishers, TKO is not shipping through Diamond Distribution. The company will instead be communicating directly with retailers and has established a system that they feel is easier and more efficient for comic shops. This point was well received, with the panel’s first round of applause and a matter-of-fact cry of “Diamond sucks!” “Lot of fans of distribution models in here,” remarked a surprised Camp.
Chun said that as TKO was setting up, they realized that they were able to handle distribution themselves and that opened the possibility of sidestepping Diamond. This would allow them to “put store owners back in control”. Seeing that the crowd was interested in alternatives to Diamond, Chun explained their business model. The company has a web portal where. retailers can easily purchase books “like it’s 2019”. TKO offers a 50% discount off of the cover price to wholesalers with free shipping within the United States as well as internationally above a certain amount. That rate is obviously intended to entice retailers, but the more seismic shift is how it changes what stores order. The discounts are level regardless of the amount ordered and Chun said that books arrive within two to five days anywhere in the United States (it’s unclear if this is limited to the continental U.S.). That means that retailers are not pressured to over order and, if they order conservatively, they can replenish their stock quickly, taking a significant amount of direct market’s risk out of the equation. Chun did not explicitly say whether books were returnable, however, he said proudly that it really hasn’t come up, because stores can buy what they need.
Economically this is possible because Diamond isn’t involved as a middle man, however the panel presented it as an ethical choice as much as a practical one. Philosophically Chun doesn’t believe that any art form should have only one way of reaching its audience. In his view, Diamond’s model doesn’t incentivize them to be better and it doesn’t allow for healthy competition.
With that the panel turned to discussing the books themselves.
Sara is the first of the inaugural slate of TKO books. It is written by Garth Ennis, drawn by Steve Epting, colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser, and lettered by Rob Stein (information that is, notably, present on the cover of each issue). Girner also mentioned that the books are all designed by Jared Fletcher, who came to their attention through his cover work on Paper Girls, and edited by himself. Sara is war story that follows the titular soldier, a member of an all-female sniper brigade in the Red Army on the eastern front of WWII. Ennis pitched the book by sending a picture of the real-life Russian sniper unit that inspired the series and Girner and TKO knew immediately that they had to publish it.
The next book was Goodnight Paradise, a crime noir murder mystery set in Venice Beach, California. The book is written by Joshua Dysart, drawn by Alberto Ponticelli, colored by Guilia Brusco, and lettered by Steve Wands. A Venice Beach resident, Dysart had been talking about doing Goodnight Paradise, a crime noir murder mystery set in Venice Beach, for almost ten years. Dysart has been passionate about the gentrification of the area for a long time and, during the production of the comic, was actually pushed out of the neighborhood by Snapchat.
Homeless, Eddie spends his days drinking on the beach until he finds the body of a young runaway he had seen just hours before. Being the only one who cares enough to try to unravel the mystery, he takes it upon himself get justice for her amid the the increasingly commercial and stratified community. The comic was extremely personal to Dysart and Girner called it one of the hardest things he’d ever worked on and one that he expects he will be proudest of for the longest. There’s a moment in the first issue that reduced Chun to tears at his office.
Chun calls The Fearsome Doctor Fang a tongue-in-cheek action-adventure re-imagining of Golden Age yellow peril stories. It sees an Asian-American hero take on the guise of a Fu Manchu-esque villain in order to infiltrate the criminal underworld.
Chun called it a globetrotting adventure that begins in San Francisco and ends in wastelands of Mongolia. Chun co-wrote the book with Mike Weiss and it was drawn by Dan McDaid, colored by Daniela Miwa, and lettered by Steve Wands.
The 7 Deadly Sins was what brought Chun into comics. He knew he wanted to produce it as a comic and considered crowdfunding the project, but two years later it’s lead to the formation of a comic publisher. The story is a western that follows seven death row inmates who are sent on a suicide mission into Comancheria. Chun wrote this series alone and is joined by artist Artyom Trakhanov, colorist Guilia Brusco, and letterer Jared Fletcher.
Chun is an experienced writer for film and television, but new to comics. Asked about the differences between the mediums he said that the limitations of time gave him trouble at first, but Girner was very helpful in making sure he adapted to the form in all regards. He also opined upon the intimacy of the comic script, a document really only meant to be read by one person. “It’s like a love letter,” said Camp, an assessment Chun agreed with. Then the reward is watching the art come in page by page.
Girner was asked what the role of an editor was at TKO. The first job is that of talent scout, bringing writers and artists in and selling them on the benefits of TKO. Girner calls the editor the arbiter of taste, ensuring that the books are both something that he would want to read and that the public wants to see. Then Girner also works on scripts and art direction and ensures that everything gets done on time. People often talk to him about editing as if its a non-creative job, but he sees it as not doing any one creative thing but doing a little of every creative thing.
Chun specifically credited Girner with ensuring that TKO had a varied slate in every genre. He went on to say that TKO looks to see new takes on established genres, but prefers not to publish superhero stories, calling them very well represented elsewhere.
The panel then turned to the upcoming second wave of books, eagerly reminding the audience to follow their social media for looks at the upcoming titles. TKO is proud to be publishing the first collaboration between Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Walta in Sentient. When all the adults. On. A colony ship die suddenly, it’s up to the ship’s AI to raise and protect the children. Walta is hand coloring the book and it looks gorgeous. Steve Wands is the letterer.
Chun was also excited about The Banks, a heist story about three generations of master thieves in Chicago trying to get justice. The book features an all-female creative team, including Roxanne Gay as writer, Ming Doyle as artist, Jordie Bellaire as colorist, and Ariana Maher as letterer.
The third book is Pound For Pound, an MMA rampage across the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s written by Natalie Chaidez from Queen of the South, drawn by Andy Belanger, colored by Jordan Boyd, and lettered by Serge LaPointe.
Finally the second wave rounds out with Eve of Extinction, a survival-horor story about a group of women banding together after the outbreak of a virus that only affects men. The series is written by Salvatore Simeone and Steven Simeone with art by Nicole “Nik” Virella, colors by Ruth Redmond, and lettering by Ariana Maher.
All four series will be released at the same time in July or August of this year.
Chun’s two books both operate in genres that have long histories of racism. This was not necessarily the purpose of the work, but it energized Tze to tell those stories, especially Dr. Fang. Chun has also always loved Westerns and found the research about the immediate post-Civil War to be especially fascinating.
The first questioner noted that the copy of Sara he had been given was less gratuitous than some of Ennis’ work. He asked how TKO handles delicate issues such as sex and violence. Chun said that it works on a case by case basis but that it needs to be handled respectfully. The two panels of the dead girl in Goodnight Paradise reportedly took hours of discussion between the entire creative team. Girner also said that the TKO method also helps avoid indelicate portrayals of serious issues by allowing the team time to consider and discuss them.
Asked about the marketing of the books and how it compares to the ongoing marketing that most publishers use, Chun told the audience that its TKO’s intention to promote and continue to promote its books long after their release.
A retailer asked why TKO bothers with single issues when they function effectively as graphic novels. The questioner even referred to the oversized single issues as “the comic book version of a laserdisc”, a comparison that the crowd found damning but that Girner seemed kind of into. Chun said that the intention ofthe oversized format was to encourage display, increase the size of the art, and help make single issue comics more accessible to readers who have traditionally not supported the format. He also focused on the effect that serialization has on story, as it changes the way that the story reads to be broken up into chapters, regardless of whether readers would encounter those stories as a single trade paperback or individual issues. There was also an aesthetic preference, with single issues being how Chun first encountered comics, and he wanted to provide that visual and tactile experience with TKO.
So far, Chun said, the sales data seems to bare out the decision. According to all the data TKO collects, there has been an almost 50-50 split between trade and single sets on every series, with reorders suggesting that this extends beyond the distributor level.
Another questioner asked if TKO would consider stories that extend beyond their initial binge release. Chun replied that all of the current books could extend out into further stories but are self-contained as of yet. The panel also specified that the worlds of the books are what they’re invested in and they might return to those more than the specific events or characters. Girner also mentioned that the priority for the company is to expand the line before going back to do sequels.
Chun comes from film but he isn’t thinking too much about the potential film rights of TKO books. He felt that thinking that way would lead to cut corners and inferior books. This was a financial opinion as well as a creative one. If the company couldn’t be profitable without plans for media adaptations, it wasn’t fulfilling its mission.
The panel also specified that, though they strive to be creator focused, their comics are not creator owned. TKO uses work for hire agreements but builds in protections similar to what you would find in a creator owned contract. The goal was to offer what Chun and Girner would want to see if they were on the other side of the negotiating table. TKO promises that it matches Marvel and DC’s page rates and additionally offers strong backend payment. Chun specifically said that transparency was an important factor in this regard, saying that many contracts are ambiguous about how creators will be paid after release and that TKO strove to make that as clear as possible.
Girner wrapped up by telling the audience to expect 8 to 12 books by next year.