The BOOM! Studios Celebrates 10 Years and Pushes Comics Forward panel at Comic-Con International: San Diego was an unconvenional one, as far as publisher panels go. Whereas normally the publisher goes through a slide presentation and publicity-oriented rotation of its recent and upcoming series, the publisher, led by moderator and President of Publishing and Marketing Filip Sablik, took the time to break into a discussion about the state of the industry as it relates to their ambitions.
“Typically, a publisher’s panel will run through a bunch of press releases, but we’re going to be a little different. We want to have a dialogue about the comics industry, what’s happening in it, where it’s going, and what we’d like to see of it in the future," said Sablik. "I’m going to talk for a bit after the introductions before asking for the opinion of the panelists.”
The panelists were Asaf Hanuka, writer and artist; Mairghread Scott, best known for her Transformers work and Lantern City from BOOM!; James Tynion IV, writer of The Woods and Memetic; Matt Gagnon, Editor-in-Chief; and Ross Richie, co-founder and CEO.
“All of this is his fault,” said Sablik, after introducing Richie.
“Something amazing is happening right now,” said Sablik. “The amazing part is what has crossed over into the mainstream. The comic audience is expanding and many of you aren’t interested in one particular genre or character. Topics we couldn’t have predicted five years ago are thriving, and that’s because of all of you.”
“Let’s take a look at the three biggest publishers in mainstream comics,” said Sablik. “Marvel’s had success with the likes of Captain Marvel and Kamala Khan. DC’s launched a massive revamp of their entire line to make it more diverse and inclusive. Image Comics has been leading the charge for year with series like Saga and Sex Criminals. Just last week, they announced a whole host of new titles. If you’ve been to conventions in the last few years, you can tell. Conventions tell us where the fandom is headed. Whether you realize it or not, just by coming to a convention like this, you’re an early adopter. When you look on the floor after the panel, you’ll see the change all around you. The face of comic con is completely unrecognizable from where it was fourteen years ago. We’ve come a long way as an industry and there’s still more to go.”
“In the mainstream comics market, this is something that’s already been happening in the webcomic and indie comics scenes,” noted Sablik. “But why is it important to talk about? When I was in middle school, I discovered comics. I was a short, skinny, nerdy Polish immigrant growing up in Virginia. I saw myself reflected in comics. Now that I have two young daughters, I want to give them that same experience. I want them to become inspired by what’s been my life’s work. As a community, we want to see each and every one of you reflected in the comics you buy.”
“We need comics to be accessible,” said Sablik. “It’s important for us to have an easy entry point into comics and it’s important to stretch the boundaries with design and aesthetic. That way, the comics don’t just go to you, but to people who never thought they’d be fans. Comic books have the power to do so much more than just entertain. I think all of us are here because we believe that comics should be for everyone. That doesn’t happen by accident; it takes work. We’ve been proud to play a part in this larger movement for years.”
“Push Comics Forward is hopefully a movement that will define what comics should look like in the next ten years,” said Sablik. “It’s not about BOOM!, but we felt a big publisher should take a stand. We need everyone, especially you the fans, to keep this conversation going. We need content that will appeal not only to existing fans, but also to new fans. With that, I’d like to turn it over to some of our creators.”
Sablik then asked the panelists, “Where do you see the industry going in the next ten years?”
Scott opened. “From what I’ve seen in the past few years is the democratization of comics and move away from a genre and more of a medium. Amazon’s acquisition of Comixology and more adaptations of non-superhero books, I think comics have become much more accessible. I think in the next ten years, comics will cover the same amount of experiences that books and movies will.”
“You’ll never meet someone that’ll say ‘I’ve never watched a movie before’ or ‘I’ve never read a book before,’” said Sablik. “We want to make it so you’ll never meet someone who’ll say ‘I’ve never read a comic before.’”
“I think comics are getting to be diverse enough that there’s something for everyone,” said Scott.
“Everyone who comes up to our booth,” said Gagnon, “should be able to find something they’re interested in. That’s one of our main goals.”
“I remember taking a trip to Tokyo,” said Tynion, “I saw this old grandfather reading manga on the train. This wasn’t something remarkable. That was really profound to me, because the Japanese market has always been so diverse. They have these big bombastic superhero-equivalent projects, but they have books for everyone. I think comics in the States are finally shifting.”
“If you remember the YA book section before Harry Potter, it just didn’t exist,” he continued. “It took that franchise to get a whole generation reading. All we need is one book that will multiply the size of the comic book readership overnight. It’s so possible and we’re so close.”
“I grew up on American comic books,” said Hanuka. “In Israel, it was very grey. Superhero comics were very colorful, so I was really addicted to it. Growing up, I realized I will never be a superhero. I’d always be Clark Kent and stuck in my position. I wanted to read something that would reflect that. I agree with what’s been said about shifting genres. There’s an industrial side of producing a product that’s specifically a superhero. The artist must know how to do muscles, perspective, and buildings. For comics to free itself from that limit, artists have to do what they love and not just something that the industry needs.”
“I’ve noticed the death of the house style,” said Scott. “The comics that use that house style model are less successful now. Moving away from that generic and uniformed look opens up storytelling and readership possibilities immensely.”
“Is what we’re seeing sustainable?” asked Sablik.
“I think it’ll continue,” said Gagnon. “Back in my mid- to late-teens, I was working in a comic book shop. The customer base were great people, but not very diverse. I remember wishing we had a broader and more diverse readership. I look out now at the audience and this was always my dream. Right now, as an industry and as a community, readers, fans, professionals, distributors, retailers… we have to support the change we want to see. We have to support the people who are doing different things in the industry.”
“I hear that a lot,” said Scott. “’Is that a fad?’ I feel like women and minorities are rising and so when people ask that, I feel like the subtext is ‘Are women a fad?’ I don’t like to think of 52% of the population as a fad! I don’t see how gaining more readership and more market share is a bad thing. Before the Comics Code, you had romance comics, horror comics, western comics… you had very adult and gory comics and also cartoon comics. Now we’re just finally returning to what comics were.”
“The one thing we need on top of everything is more people reading comic books,” said Tynion. “The only way we’re going to break through is if we’re all evangelists for these kinds of books. If there’s a book that speaks to you, you need to go out and get 10 of your friends to read it.”
“I think this is the first time three of the major Eisner awards were all won by non-superhero, non-‘traditional’ comic market creators,” said Sablik. “To me, it’s such an amazing indication that the industry is starting to recognize. What do you guys think about this? Are these indicators and what is the next step?”
“To bring someone on the outside into comics—because it’s a language—it can be difficult,” said Hanuka. “But books like these have made it easy for people. Something about the flow and layout makes it easier for people. I think manga is a great example: it invites you in. This is something that can really help readership. I always think about making my art accessible, period. When I was trying to become an illustrator, I just wanted to do lots of details and lines. I understand in the process that if something is heavy, it doesn’t really help. I eventually accepted that less is more: the narrative will flow better. I just draw what needs to be.”
“I don’t specifically think about the accessibility when I’m writing,” said Tynion. “I’m just trying to let out a specific feeling. All of my series with BOOM! speak to something from inside me more than anything else. All the characters from The Woods for example, are all different aspects of myself. I was conscious that I wanted a very diverse and representational cast and that’s continuing in the second year of it and beyond. It just happened that way, it was a very natural flow. In a story like Memetic and Cognetic, they have queer relationships up front and center. That was very deliberate. I made the decision that the leads would be queer because anyone could fit those protagonist roles.”
“In terms of diversity,” said Scott, “I feel it’s really important on the page. One of the best things I’ve been able to do is a research to challenge my assumptions. My new book is an adaptation of Macbeth. The three witches at the start of the story are actually the three fates of Scotland who go to war over who should be kind. Our book is set in eleventh century Scotland, so when I started looking into it, I found there were people of color in Scotland at that time. The Roman legion were from Spain that did trade with Africa. That was important for us: to get people of color on the page. Last year, they started digging up Viking graves and found a lot of them were women! I think that’s the core of what I want to happen with comics. It’s not about inserting diversity because it’s artificial; it’s about asserting diversity because diversity is real.”
“Comics are a serial medium,” said Tynion. “There are great singular tones and there are lots of different comics of all shapes and sizes. But in terms of the lifeblood of what’s produced month in and month out is the floppiest. We haven’t convinced the larger readership to go into the shops and buy books every month.”
“Ten years ago, when you started BOOM!, was this part of the vision?” Sablik asked Richie. “Was this something that organically happened?”
“I was always that person interested in a lot of different kinds of stories and genres and creators,” said Richie. “I would buy the ‘girl’ comics if they looked really cool or awesome. We’ve talked about a lot about diversity and we have Kaboom! which is designed for all ages. Before BOOM! did it, this wasn’t an area of the marketplace that was viable. I always thought if you could tell really good stories that were accessible for children, it would be a great thing. I thought there were plenty of superhero comics already, but the focus was going to be other genres and focus on other things. I wanted to chase the things I’m interested in and curious about.”
Waid came into the panel late, and Sablik asked, “Are the books you’re working on a conscious thing? Like Princess Leia?”
“I never wanted to stick to one specific genre of comics,” said Waid. “I also like writing dark stuff and adventure stuff. What’s so cool about this point in the market place—and BOOM! has been a huge leader in this—is making material available that’s not just spandex and capes. Now, the shine is sort of leaving superhero comics a bit, which I’m okay with. As more readers come in with more interests, comics are starting to reflect their own lives.”
“I think we can agree we’re in a better place from five or ten years ago,” said Sablik. “What do you feel like comics as an industry has to focus on being better at if we’re moving forward?”
“Younger creators,” said Waid immediately. “My dream would be to grab a bunch of sixteen year olds who want to write comics and let them loose.”
“Also diverse writers,” added Scott. “As a writer, I don’t subscribe to the belief that you can’t write it if you haven’t lived it. There are things that don’t occur to some people, though, that don’t occur to others. People don’t live the same lives.”
“I think James brought this up earlier, but outreach,” said Gagnon. “I think casual comic book readers are so important.”
The panel then turned to question and answer.
Question: You’ve talked about how digital distribution how comics have made comics more accessible, but is there any danger of the digital distribution model for the creators?
Richie: Let me jump in really quick. You refer to digital and you’re specifically talking about Comixology in relation to Amazon, but that’s not just what they do. There’s also a ton of free webcomics. I just want to make that differentiation. I think Amazon’s trade practices are well known and it’s certainly a concern. It’s always good to have more than one major power in whatever space. You always want alternatives in the market place. When creators participate and align with a company, we’re fighting to get them the best deal possible.
Sablik: Through usual distribution channels, you have access to a limited audience. But with digital you can theoretically reach anyone.
Richie: I think digital is great and it’s been additive to the industry.
Since we’re talking about moving comics forward and finding more diverse points of view, do you all have a comic you thought was so forward thinking it blew you away?
Tynion: Fun Home completely blew me away when I read it. It was an incredibly important comic for me. It’s very different from the work I produce, but it’s something I’ve gone back to almost once a year.
Scott: It’s gotta be Lore for me. It was actually half novel, half painted comics. I didn’t even think you could do that and it really underscored for me that you can do a lot with this medium.
Waid: It was Acme Novelty for me. He reinvented the grammar of comics for me.
Why do you think that people care now about the diverse fans, because I think there’s always been girl and minority fans? Why do you think that now people know that there are queer and diverse people in the fandom?
Waid: Because we’ve lived in an era where we’ve had giant swaths of people who have had no voice. And now they do and that’s spectacular. The realization of us pastey white guys who think we’re paying attention to, maybe we aren’t doing as well as we should and we should shut up, listen, and pay attention more.