Small press thinks big

Indies use diversity to attract fans, Hollywood

Relegated to drawing caricatures at bar and bat mitzvahs to pay his rent, indie comicbook creator Brian Michael Bendis never thought he’d have a Hollywood career. “I considered it as likely as getting the Go-Go’s back together just so they could sleep with me,” he says.

The Go-Go’s have yet to reunite but Hollywood is crazy about comics and Bendis has most of his indie comics properties from “Jinx” and “Torso” to “Powers” in active studio development.

Although Marvel and DC Comics and their well-known superheroes control about 33% and 30% of the marketplace respectively, comics from independent publishers ranging from minimajor Dark Horse Comics to cartoonists who publish their own work are getting plenty of interest from studio execs hungry for new properties. Indie comics have already had an impact in Hollywood, where those who don’t read comics may not realize that “Ghost World,” “Men in Black,” “Road to Perdition” and “American Splendor” all came from black-and-white indie comics.

Gareb Shamus, chairman of Wizard Entertainment, expects indie comics to continue to proliferate because “comic readers want more, and they want different.” As the average age of comicbook readers has advanced from mid-teens to early 20s, comics that deal with subjects other than superheroes have multiplied.

And Hollywood’s fascination with comicbooks has changed the way many indie publishers operate. Matt Hawkins, president of indie superhero publisher Top Cow Productions, says the company does not “do comics for the sake of comics.” All prospective properties are evaluated for their potential as multiplatform media franchises before receiving the green light for publication. This model has landed Top Cow projects with the likes of producer Marc Platt and director James Cameron, who have picked up “Wanted” and “Fathom,” respectively.

“The merits of using a comicbook as a sales tool are salient; the comic serves as a physical representation of the idea that executives can look at and visualize a completed film,” Hawkins says.

Using comicbooks as a cost-effective litmus test for consumer interest makes a lot of sense, Shamus says. “Compared to the creation and development of toys, videogames and/or film and television properties, wherein the relative time horizon is measured in years, a comic can be produced in a matter of months with a price tag measured in the tens of thousands instead of the millions.”

Mike Richardson, president of Dark Horse Comics, takes a different approach: “Dark Horse Comics is a comic company, first and foremost.”

Dark Horse achieved its early success by publishing titles based on properties from other media such as “Aliens,” “Predator” and, most recently, “Conan.” “We release books that we would like to read, not comics written for the lowest common denominator,” he says.

That has helped Dark Horse lure top comics creators such as Mike Mignola (“Hellboy”), Paul Chadwick (“Concrete”) and Frank Miller (“Sin City”), who have complete creative freedom and retain ownership of their creations. Nevertheless, the company’s publishing successes are eclipsed by its track record of turning comics such as “The Mask” and “Hellboy” into Hollywood hits.

IDW Publishing has carved itself an impressive niche since its start in 2000 and has become the leading supplier of horror comics, a market that has been virtually untapped since the demise of EC Comics in the 1950s, says president and publisher Ted Adams.

“Our No. 1 priority is to create great comic stories like ’30 Days of Night’ and ‘Wake the Dead’ that can be sold in the trade paperback format and be successful in their own right,” Adams says. He considers it an added bonus that these titles have proven appealing to Hollywood heavyweights like Sam Raimi and Mike Fleiss, respectively.

IDW diversifies its product line by adapting TV properties such as “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation,” “The Shield” and “24” into comics. Adams believes that the popularity of these comics can be attributed to “the television series themselves, which serve as weekly, national advertisements for IDW’s licensed comics titles.”

Television also plays a critical role in AiT/PlanetLar president Larry Young’s publishing strategy. He looks to TV for inspiration and views his company as “the HBO of comics,” following the motto, “making comics better.” Young broke into the comics business by self-publishing his series “Astronauts in Trouble,” a move he called “the world’s most expensive resume.”

AiT/PlanetLar has since published a line of crime and science fiction titles with a sense of humor and Young leveraged his marketing and advertising background to garner Hollywood’s attention. He’s sold several properties, including “Astronauts in Trouble,” “Electric Girl” and “Last of the Independents” to production companies. As testament to Young’s belief that anybody with an idea can self-publish a comic book, he wrote a manual on the subject called “True Facts.”

The most recent creators to enter the self-publishing fray speak volumes about the evolution of independent comic books and their importance in Hollywood. Larry and Andy Wachowski, best known as the creators of the comicbook-inspired “The Matrix,” have created a publishing house called Burlyman Entertainment.

Unencumbered by studio roundtable talks and budgetary restraints, comic books allow film and TV writers an inexpensive and exciting way to tell the personal stories that they want to tell. And if the comic book should happen to serve as the future blueprint for the next blockbuster franchise, all the better.