Ambidextrous: Five Years of Arcana - And Five to Come

Ambidextrous: Five Years of Arcana

Sean O’Reilly’s Arcana Comics is on the cusp of its five-year anniversary, a milestone that many independent publishers unfortunately never reach…

The harsh realities of the direct market are being felt throughout the industry, and it’s becoming more and more difficult to carve out a niche on today’s overcrowded shelves. The price of doing business continues to increase and there is little margin for error, even as Hollywood continues to find that comic books make for great R & D. It’s a wonder that anyone is able to gain a decent foothold in the game, and not only has Sean O’Reilly done that, but he continues to expand the scope of his studio’s offerings by starting with comics and building a functional trans-media initiative around them.

As he sets his sights on the next five years, Sean was kind enough to answer a few questions about the past, present, and future of his company, and just what has helped it succeed in this rapidly changing marketplace. With any luck, you will find any and everything you need to know about Arcana, and why you should give their books a shot. If there’s anything else you’d like to know about their extensive catalog (and independent publishing in general) please feel free to post it on the boards. Pretty sure I can get Sean and/or Mark Poulton to visit and answer as many of your questions as possible. Thanks, and enjoy.

Ambidextrous: How did Arcana Comics get started and what inspired you to get into the world of independent comics publishing?

Sean O’Reilly: Arcana began in 2004 as a studio with the first book, Kade #1. My inspirations were, and still are, the brave and the bold that go down the route of being an entrepreneur and shaping their own destiny. I think most people know I’m a big fan of “indie publishers” (although I hate those words) and I tip my hat to all of them because the industry is an ever-changing marketplace. Primarily we focus on publishing, but we’re truly a trans-media company that develops content through websites, comics and graphic novels, video games, short-form animation, live action shorts, and we’re just tackling some features now.

Ambi: What would you actually prefer people to call “indie publishers” and have you always imagined Arcana as a trans-media company, or was that just a natural outgrowth given the realities of the direct market?

O’Reilly: There are so many definitions of “indie publishers,” and it’s such a massive range. Some people use Marvel and DC as the goalposts, and consider everything else indie, others consider anything outside of the big four, and it’s such an elusive term that sometimes carries a rough connotation.

I started out in technology and web design and am still pursuing my Ph.D. in integrating technology. I formed Arcana as a creative outlet for myself and others who wanted to work with the studio. It is about making kick-ass comics, but the studio is also about making kick-ass animated shows for Spike TV, working hard on a very cool project at Sony Animation, developing the Turok video game for Disney, designing and developing the mascot for the L.A. Kings, and a bunch of other cool gigs. We’ve done work on everything from comics to clothing logos to NHL mascots to video games to animated series and now in live action features. I believe that the skill-sets for effective and creative storytelling can be applied across many mediums.

Ambi: Who are the folks behind-the-scenes that truly make the company work?

O’Reilly: Mark Poulton. He’s our VP of Operations, and he’s the man who does our scheduling, conventions, asset management, and all those other essential logistical components that allows a company to function.

Nick Schley. VP of Special Projects, which includes clients like Disney, Capcom, HBO, the L.A. Kings (go BAILEY!) and right now Nick is currently slaving away (no, literally ask him) at Sony on a very cool project.

Jimmy DaSilva. Jimmy started in our message boards and when I realized how connected he was to the industry, making him the VP of Marketing was a no-brainer.

Michelle Meyers. Day-to-day operations, scheduling meetings, getting packages out, and overall office duties. Honestly the glue that binds…

Ambi: What happens during a typical “day in the life” of an indie comics publisher? What kind of concerns and responsibilities do you have when getting up every morning?

O’Reilly: E-mails, phone calls and meetings.

I literally started the company by drawing and writing my first comic, so I’m pretty hands-on when I need to be, but we try to plan far enough in advance to have Tomas Mauer and Rough Sketch Studio do our prepress half a year or more in advance. Honestly, most of my time is spent e-mailing, and I literally receive and send hundreds of e-mails daily. When I get up, I look at the day’s meetings (last week I averaged about 7 per day), and then I try to respond to the emails…yeah, not too glorious.

Lunches, meetings, and events are very exciting. I went to Repo: The Genetic Opera with a group of friends including Alexa Vega last Friday (this movie rules, check it out!) and many times we’re talking about work related subjects like comics, movies, The Shield, or the latest online rumor.

Ambi: Completely getting off-topic for a second (as I’m also a huge Shield fan), how do you feel the final arc is shaping up and what elements or lessons do you take from other mediums and apply to Arcana’s content or approach?

(Note: This question was written right before the superb Shield finale aired, and if you saw it, you know exactly why even that word isn’t a strong enough descriptive.)

O’Reilly: The Shield was simply amazing. I honestly am still affected by the finale. From the characters, I learned that you have to be honest to yourself and to take the lead, and not be led. From the creative staff, I recently read an interview with Shawn Ryan, and he said that after the first season he knew success would be in making the story “smaller” not “bigger”. By focusing on the characters, their interactions, and the subtleties of them, the audience would be more engaged, giving them a longer run.

This is a very insightful and well-articulated statement that I’ve tried to apply, and through his words will continue to keep with me. I think too many times with productions the natural tendency is to make the stakes higher, with more challenges and evils, escalating the events with every step. There becomes a point where the world has become so much bigger than the protagonist, and that’s just disappointing.

Ambi: I agree wholeheartedly, but getting back on message---with so many publishers currently out there, what do you think distinguishes Arcana from the rest? Do you think the company has a specific signature/profile…is there a particular book or genre you think Arcana excels at?

O’Reilly: I’m hoping after nearly five years it’s consistent quality and reliable professionalism. Arcana has a breadth of content and has never focused on only publishing a particular type of genre. We’ve done anime, horror, sci-fi, superhero, licensed properties, fantasy, all-ages, and more. I think we’ve particularly excelled at doing grounded stories that contain a supernatural twist…but it’s tricky because you don’t want to “nuke the fridge” (or “jump the shark” as it used to be called). Personally, I like different---different worlds, characters, and stories that are memorable and stand out. It can be bizarre or offbeat, but at the least very well defined. Not just a storybook, but a story world.

Ambi: What are the biggest challenges and rewards of publishing comics?

O’Reilly: The challenges are trying to manage the events that are out of my control, like the crazy economy, or an artist’s timeliness and deadlines. The rewards are fantastic---it takes so long and so much energy to make a graphic novel, that when you can hold it and read it, that’s pretty special. I am the luckiest person in the world to work with such talented people and it’s great to watch true synergy occur.

Ambi: Closing in on the five-year mark is a big milestone for any company in any industry. What do you wish you knew then that you know now? Are there aspects of the business that actually proved easier than you initially expected?

O’Reilly: I wish I would have had a better sense of how hard or how long this road would have been. When I first formed the company, I told Todd Demong (100 Girls) that it was a ten-year business of getting established…and I think I’m on track to where I wanted to go, but I didn’t really think there would be so many highs and lows, and literally endless work. There’s always something that can be done because there’s obviously always room for improvement and growth. Honestly, the only thing after five years that is easier than I expected is the motivation. I love doing what I’m doing. I feel blessed to have a job I truly love…that’s the part that makes everything else easy (and workable).

Ambi: What are your thoughts on the increased Hollywood presence/interest in comic properties, and has this altered your approach and general business model for the future?

O’Reilly: Somewhat, yes. I think what we are seeing is the old adage “content is king” being applied evenly across mediums as the connotation of a “comic book” disappears.

I believe we are seeing graphic novels being looked at as an equaled source of innovative ideas and stories. I work with talented and creative people, and whether they come from online, movies, television, or comic books really doesn’t matter. In this 21st century world, the medium of delivery is becoming so much less important than the content it contains.

What’s really changed in my business model is that I’ve had access to a broader range of talented people as it’s shifted from working with a “talented comic book writer” to a “talented storyteller.” Arcana is doing so much more than just publishing, as we’re developing stories, characters, and worlds. I have two projects that we’re actually starting in animation because that was our entry point into the world (similar to the show we created for Spike TV). I’m also working on a live action series, as well as about to start working on a game for the iPhone.

Ambi: Oh cool, I had no idea---what show did you guys do for them, and how do you see things like the iPhone and webcomics inevitably altering the way people read comics and graphic novels? It’s something that a lot of people are wondering about naturally, but as a publisher, how important is it that Arcana remain on the forefront of whatever new distribution model and system that’s coming down the pike?

O’Reilly: Red Lotus: Mark of the Warrior, check it out on Chris Folino is developing a very cool application for the iPhone for the Greatest American Hero and he’s just one of the pioneers blazing trails. I think a content provider that doesn’t have some sort of digital distribution in their future is a dead company. I believe books and comics will be around decades…at least…but having said that, I believe that online distribution is going to continue to grow for decades, and that any content provider should be continually changing their distribution and model for monetization.

Ambi: Along those lines, a lot of people have been talking about price points in the comics industry recently, and I’d like your take on this---how important do you think price point and format is to the viability of the industry at large, and independent publishers in particular?

O’Reilly: For the most part, and within reason, I think the readers that like the content will pay for it. I go to a lot of conventions and many hotels provide free coffee, and I still watch people pay $5 for Starbucks…well actually, they wait in a line for the privilege of paying $5 for a cup of coffee. I think the price point whether it’s $2 or $3 or $4 has been relatively insignificant (I’m sure there are those who will disagree with me on this) and we’ve done 25-cent issues, 99-cent issues, $24 hardcovers, and everything in between.

I think it’s all about the publisher’s comfort level, and the level of support they’ll get from their readers.

Ambi: Conventions are thought to be a critical time for companies to really find and cultivate an audience---how does Arcana approach their convention appearances, and what kind of goals do you head off to a big show like San Diego with?

O’Reilly: Kissing babies and shaking hands. I love San Diego Comic-Con…I basically go there for networking, seeing friends, taking meetings, and the entire experience. We made, thanks to Mark, one of our biggest impacts this past year with Don Bluth and Gary Goldman signing Dragon’s Lair, and Robert Culp and William Katt signing The Greatest American Hero. We also had a big list of our creators promoting their books…WACOM was also at our booth and it was a great synergy. We literally started planning for SDCC ’09 about a month ago, and I’m already feeling some pressures as it closes in.

Ambi: Which projects are you really excited about in 2009?

O’Reilly: This is a set-up question where someone will yell at me because I didn’t mention their project. But we have Space Ace coming out, the Gauze trade, more Banzai Girl goodness, Howard and the Frozen Kingdom, The Gwaii hardcover, Kade: Rising Sun, a big book of Koni Waves, The Horsemen and more. Again, there’s a lot more great titles (including some in our Free Comic Book Day lineup), so be sure to check that out.

Ambi: What makes for the perfect FCBD teaser and how do you select what you want featured in the book?

O’Reilly: We did the anthology approach back in 2004, and it seems like that’s become part of the norm for publishers. I look to try and showcase a variety of projects, and Creepsville, Billy Boom Boom, Kade, and one more TBA, will be showcased next year for us.

Ambi: Name three projects that really define who you are as a publisher, and that you’d recommend to any fan that wanted to sample your books.

O’Reilly: 100 Girls.

This title shows Arcana’s consistent quality and commitment (through Adam and Todd’s amazing work).

The Clockwork Girl.

Our first all-ages property, and this showed our willingness for change and taking a risk.

Arcana Studio Presents.

Our free comic book day title, which showcases some of our upcoming series demonstrating our diversity.

Ambi: Thanks for taking the time to answer all of my questions and congrats on making it this far. Where do you think (and hope) Arcana Comics will be in another five years?

O’Reilly: We’ll be continuing to publish our trades and comics, while being empowered to develop our brands across multiple platforms and media.

Ambi: Anybody interested in learning more about Arcana and its extensive backlist of titles can venture over to the Arcana Comics site for additional information, preview art, and ordering codes. Thanks for dropping by and next week is all about Batman: Dark Victory. Until then…

The Fiction House

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