It’s a story that has echoes of Mark Twain’s famous quote about the rumors of his demise.
Archaia, home to titles including Artesia, Mouse Guard, The Killer and many more is back, and in June the publisher will return to its publishing schedule. The company had been rumor-fodder for the better part of the last year as internal changes at the company necessitated a large-scale change in how the company was run and financed. In short, Kunoichi, Inc. acquired Archaia, and is now the comic publisher’s parent company.
Newsarama spoke with Archaia Publisher Mark Smylie, Kunoichi President P.J. Bickett, and Director of Development Stephen Christy for more.
Newsarama: Mark, let’s start with you – there’ve been many stories and lots of speculation surrounding Archaia for the past nine or so months now. In your words, what happened?
Mark Smylie: We announced late last spring that my business partner at the time, Aki Liao had decided to leave the company, and we started looking for…well, we weren’t sure what we were really looking for at the time, whether it would be someone to step in and take his place as an individual investor, another company to simply buy us outright, or something else. At the time, we weren’t really sure, in essence what the comics landscape looked like – there weren’t too many examples historically of one company either acquiring or becoming involved with another company, so we weren’t really sure what the landscape looked like, or what kind of deals were out there for us. Over the course of the summer, we started talking to a few people at Kunoichi, and P.J. kind of emerged as the frontrunner of those who were offering a deal that we thought would work for us and our creators in a way that could allow us to keep the company, as much as possible, intact, as much as our original vision had been, which was a creator-owned company where the creators still have as much control over their properties as possible, with a strong emphasis on quality publishing.
So, unfortunately, I think the deal took longer for us to get all the nitty gritty in place than I think people were hoping for, so as the process kind of wormed its way along, there were occasional comments from creators who thought the process wasn’t going at the pace that they wanted it to, and the longer we were on hiatus, the more people began to speculate that things were going wrong. It simply took a lot longer than any of us were expecting, and trying to get it all right and set the 2009 publishing schedule in a way that we all felt it would work for the new company has been a painstaking process, and in some ways we’re still working on a lot of the details in both how the new company works, and getting new personnel into place. So we’re still in the process of putting the company together in the way that it should be operating. So, unfortunately, the longer and longer it took, the internet magnified things and distorted time in a sense because it’s so immediate and moves at such a fast pace – in many ways, the transition from the old company to the new was probably about the fastest that it could have gone, in retrospect. We all hoped that it would move very, very quickly, but the truth is, that kind of a transition is going to be a very slow one no matter what, particularly if we’re trying to get all the pieces right.
NRAMA: Not to overly dwell on the past and how things ended up where they were, what happened that got you to the point that you needed another company to come in?
MS: Part of it was simply personal on the part of my business partner Aki – he had a day job and a wife with two kids and a third on the way, so at that point, he felt that with the amount of time that he could devote to the company, it was simply no longer possible for him to actually do all the things he was doing. He had also reached a point where he wasn’t necessarily having as much fun in a sense running a publishing company – and for that matter, neither was I, given the size that we had grown to.
NRAMA: That’s true – you seemed to explode in terms of the numbers of titles that you were offering each month…
MS: Right – we grew very, very quickly, and were suddenly faced with a fairly large publishing schedule, with the two of us pressed for time as it was, and stretched for resources. At that point, in a sense, we were looking forward and asking ourselves if this was going to get better or going ot get worse, and when he started looking at the time commitments and the financial commitments that were required, to keep us growing at the size that we were, he felt that was something that he was not going to be able to commit to at that time. Personally, I totally understand where he was coming from. We had started off fairly small, and had the idea of trying to keep to a managed growth model and put out a few new titles every year, and have a small, stepping stone approach. Oddly enough, it was the success of Mouse Guard that catapulted us into the position where we could try to move much faster, but that also turned out to be a good thing and a bad thing. It opened a lot of doors for us, and created a lot of opportunities, but we had to leave that original slow, managed growth model for something that was a lot more ambitious. That surprised both of us in the amount of time and effort it took to maintain. I hadn’t worked on my own book, Artesia for almost a year and a half at that point when Aki started to signal that he was looking to leave.
NRAMA: Yeah – that always seemed to be odd, that here Archaia was exploding, and yet, the book and creator that started it all was nowhere to be seen with his own title.
MS: From my perspective, I was supposed to be able to continue work on Artesia and the company would be this thing that we could manage with minimal time and effort. But the faster we grew and the bigger we grew, running the company became a full time job for me in effect, and then for Aki, an increasingly larger portion of his spare time. He made a decision at the time that I regretted on one level, but understood from the point of my own frustration at not being able to do my own work anymore.
NRAMA: P.J. – from your side, what led to this deal? What was attractive about Archaia and seeing the investment as an acceptable risk to take?
P.J. Bickett: The opportunity that we saw, as we looked at it, is that content is king no matter what format it is in. We understand the fact that there’s going to be a huge push from a pamphlet standpoint to a digital output in the coming months an d years, and looking at the type of content Archaia had, it was just above and beyond anybody else in the marketplace. Mark has done a great job in working with the creators in making sure that they are always providing the best stories, the best concepts, and the best artwork, and what Archaia has been able to as a publisher do is put out matching quality in its hardcovers and comics in terms of its paper, it’s covers, and its design. They were completely unmatched in the marketplace. So it was a natural progression for us, to look at it from where Kunoichi was standing and look at Archaia as an extension of what Kunoichi already offers and bring them into the fold.
Archaia is its own standalone company, and it’s operating as its own standalone company. The difference here is that it has a network to rely on with its parent company of Kunoichi. So you’re looking at a much different business model than anyone else in the publishing space. To be honest, the only similar example I can cite would be IDW when it originally started. It began as a creative services firm that turned into a publisher. We’re not looking to turn Kunoichi into a publisher, nor are we looking to turn Archaia into a creative service firm, but just the natural extension of having the bodies that we have on both sides allows us to be more flexible in what we’re doing, and definitely cuts down on our overall operational costs.
NRAMA: Mark, from your standpoint, what does the deal with Kunoichi mean?
MS: From my perspective, when Archaia started, it was very much that “two guys and a garage” kind of startup feeling, and I think that now that Kunoichi has bought us, it feels that we have graduated into being an actual business, if that makes sense. So, at least from my perspective, there’s an infrastructure in place that allows us to pursue functioning as a business in a much better way than we were doing before. My interest as a publisher is primarily on the comics side – both the pamphlet form and the graphic novels, so the marriage between Kunoichi and Archaia allows us to start looking at things like digital strategies and Hollywood in a much more detailed way than we were ever able to do before. Akai and I had thoughts about how we would approach Hollywood and the digital side of publishing, but it was a lot more difficult to implement, given just how much time we were spending on the publishing side of things. So now, with Kunoichi on board, we have a chance to put together that complete package of a company that’s looking at every property from top to bottom, from every angle.
NRAMA: Also with the change, you’ve modified your name from Archaia Studios Press to just Archaia, or Archaia Comics. What brought that about?
MS: The idea was just to make it simpler. The Archaia Studios Press name was a mouthful, and we’ve always referred to it as “Archaia” anyway, rather than Archaia Studios Press or “ASP,” so there was a decision to try and simplify things for retailers and readers, and boil it down to as short and simple a phrase as possible, rather than a big mouthful.
NRAMA: Looking forward into the summer and rest of the year, what do you have coming up, and where are you looking at picking things up again as you’re moving back to publishing?
MS: The first thing we’re doing is to begin both trying to collect and complete series that we had already started and gotten fairly far with down the line last year – so books like Awakening, The Engineer, Primordia - all of which came out completely or nearly completely, we’re moving ahead with hardcover collections in June. And we’ll be doing at least two new hardcovers each month for the rest of the year.
The other thing that we’re doing it moving forward immediately with series that were ongoing, or had recently started, in which case we can essentially relaunch them. So some ongoing series like The Killer, Okko, and Secret History will pick up again with individual issues and later, collections. Other series like Robotika, Killing Pickman, and Titanium Rain, which had essentially just started last year during this period of change, we’re going to be relaunching in double-sized formats. So those will be between 48 and 64 pages of art for about a $4.99 cover price.
So, as we move forward in the year, part of it is a sense of wanting to restart or complete all the projects that we had in publication pipeline, and as the year goes on, we’ll be adding on new titles that we’ve been signing in the meantime.
PJB: If I can just piggyback on what Mark was saying – every single month we have at least one award-wining book, if not two award-winning hardcovers coming out. So you have The Awakening and Some New Kind of Slaughter coming out in June, in July, you have Mouse Guard, August will see The Killer and Gunnerkrigg Court and so on and so on. The rest of this year is packed pretty tightly, and that’s what we’ve been working towards – making sure our publishing schedule, every single month is solid. Even if it means only putting out two hardcover books or two single issues, we’re making sure that everything we put out, moving forward is solid.
Additionally, which is very important for fans to understand with the new Archaia, when we commit to a date, we’re going to hit it. There’s a huge process that we put in place to meet our dates so if we feel that a creator is falling behind, we will make sure not to solicit. Readers can be assured of two things: our books are going to be out on time, and they will be of the same quality they’ve come to expect and deserve from Archaia will be matched and delivered every single step of the way.
NRAMA: Earlier, it was mentioned that part of the process you’re still undergoing involved staffing up. You’ve added Mel Caylo for marketing, and also Stephen Christy as director of Development. Stephen – what does that mean, and what are you going to be doing?
Stephen Christy: Basically, it’s a combination of handling the Hollywood side of the development for our properties, and also working with Mark and P.J. to make sure that we are picking the right creator-owned properties moving forward. To me, the appealing thing about Archaia when I came on was that it is one of those few companies that it wholly focused on creator-owned comics, but at the same time, offers a lot of marketing and Hollywood support that other companies don’t.
NRAMA: So what kind of books is Archaia looking for?
SC: Our goal is to keep them in line with the same high quality and high concept books that Archaia had previously, but it’s a two-fold approach of bringing in new titles and new creators that maybe haven’t been published before anywhere else, and bringing in creators who are also working in the mainstream, some of whom get quite a bit of work at Marvel and DC, but who want to do a creator-owned book that they might not be able to do at any other company.
So, the goal for us is to be a home both to nurture new creators and to also be a home for established creators to come and play in their own sandbox, basically. The thing that, in my mind, Archaia really has going for it is that we are such a family when it comes to everyone working at the company, from employees to creators. That’s something that can be seen at conventions – we don’t generally have staff at the booth – the creators basically run the Archaia booth at shows, which is pretty cool, because no matter when you come by, you’re always going to see a creator of some book.
So basically, getting back to your question, my job is to work with Mark and P.J. on the publishing end, to help pick the properties that we’re doing moving forward, especially because we do want to remain a small publisher in the sense of the number of books that we release a month – we’re not looking to go up to 10-15 books a month. We want to keep it small and aren’t looking to overstretch what we have to work with. And I want to stress that when we’re looking at properties, our thought first and foremost is “Will this make an amazing comic book?” I don’t want to be making a decision to do a comic book in order to land a movie option. My job isn’t to do that – my job is to put those projects together and find the projects that will make kick ass comics first and foremost, but will also have a life on the other side in terms of film, video game, television and internet. As we all know, unfortunately, even though Archaia has had a lot of success on the publishing side, in this day and age, you really need to be exploiting the properties on all fronts. Not just for the company’s sake, but also for the creator’s sake, so hopefully down the line, the creators can actually be doing comics full time if that’s what they want to be doing.
NRAMA: Wrapping things up with Mark – you mentioned your own series, Artesia earlier – we can’t let this interview end without asking, when’s it coming back?
MS: We actually have issue #3 which has been solicited at least twice before, so I can understand if people are skeptical, but it’s actually finished, and has been rescheduled for July. And hopefully it will be bimonthly after that – so, July, September, November, and wrapping up with the final issue of that series in January, with the fourth collected edition coming in spring. SO yeah, thankfully for me, one of the happy elements of this story has been that I’ve been able to get back to the drawing board and get back to working on Artesia again.