IDW has come a long way since its founding in 2000. At first merely a boutique publisher of high-end creator-owned books, the San Diego-based company has expanded by leaps and bounds in its 13 years of operations to become the fourth largest comics publisher in America. And it’s thanks in no small part to the characters and stories of the toy company Hasbro.
IDW currently has the licenses for five distinct and well-known Hasbro brands: G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons (the latter two from Hasbro subsidiary Wizards of the Coast). Together, IDW’s Hasbro titles account for 20% of IDW’s releases in December 2013, with roughly a dozen ongoing series on shelves (or about to be), in addition to special issues, limited series, art books, and collections of current and past stories. This beneficial partnership first started in 2005 when IDW successfully acquired the comic book rights to Transformers after the bankruptcy of the previous publisher, Dreamwave Productions. G.I. Joe was picked up in 2008, and My Little Pony joined IDW’s stables in 2011. These three primary brands each support their own family of titles at IDW, with the RPG-based Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons also supporting titles as well.
IDW Senior Editor John Barber describes the partnership as “a nice relationship of trust and mutual respect” built over the past eight years and the successes’ IDW has had with the properties. Barber, who worked previously at Marvel guiding titles like Wolverine, Stephen King’s Dark Tower and the Ultimate line, says that there’s a misconception about the differences between licensed comics and comics owned in-house.
“I always feel—and maybe this isn’t the case—but I feel like people want to create a situation where the licensed comics are in a different category than “normal” comics,” Barber points out. “In my experience, the practical reality of working on Transformers or G.I. Joe is essentially the same as working on a comic at Marvel. I mean—they’re not some unusual beast that’s outside the range of normal comics.”
Barber says his main point of contact at Hasbro is their Director of Global Publishing, Michael Kelly. The two talk on a daily basis between phone and email, with Barber valuing Kelly’s knowledge of the characters and awareness of good storytelling.
“Michael and I will talk about the stories we want to do—I’ll act as liaison between writers and artists and him, but he knows most of the creators, and we’ll all sometimes talk at conventions and the like,” describes the IDW editor. “Again, not dissimilar to my experiences at Marvel: the writer and artist will typically have a working relationship with the editor, who will run stuff up the creative flagpole. Michael oversees the material getting to the people it needs to at Hasbro.”
Kelly, who has served as Hasbro’s liaison with IDW since 2008, describes his relationship with Barber, and by extension Hasbro’s relationship with IDW, as “extremely collaborative and dynamic.”
“We communicate frequently, sharing ideas, bouncing around stories, and generally figuring out what to do next. It’s a pretty intense process, and the timelines are really tight, so there’s always a sense of urgency,” Kelly admits. “But we share a common goal: delivering compelling stories that draw readers in and, if we’re successful, make them need to know what happens next.”
Some might see Kelly’s role as merely the person signing off on the ideas of IDW and its comic creators, but he describes it as more than that.
“I play a few different roles, and the one most people would expect to hear is that of managing the negotiations and the business side of the licensing agreement. But that’s really just the start,” Kelly points out. “Once the agreements are in place, my role shifts more to creative consultant, providing feedback on manuscripts and art, ensuring we are sticking to the brand tenants, but also encouraging the creative team at IDW to test the boundaries, to push the storytelling in new directions and explore new ideas. That’s how brands grow and evolve, and that’s one reason Hasbro’s brands have endured through multiple generations.”
When asked for a specific example of a particular strong moment of toy/comics synergy between IDW and Hasbro, Barber pointed to the current “Dark Cybertron” event happening in Transformers.
“Working with the Transformers team and getting these comics out in the toy packages, all while building to an epic story that’s satisfying to existing fans. I think that’s a big moment for us—and there’s this amazing thing happening near the end of “Dark Cybertron” that I couldn’t believe it was going to make the jump to the toys,” teased Barber. “But I can’t talk about it yet, which is a lame answer but it’s really a fun twist on a well-known premise. It was something that originated—I think, if I remember right—with Mark Weber on Transformers brand team, and More Than Meets The Eye writer James Roberts and I couldn’t believe it was an idea on the table, let alone that it would be reflected in the toys. Sorry to have to be really vague about it.”
Another example of a success story that happened through the combined work of IDW and Hasbro was the creation of a new Transformers character, Drift. Drift was the first Transformers character created by IDW, and after his initial debut in 2008’s Transformers: All Hail Megatron he wasn’t quite the success story among fans. Although Barber didn’t join IDW until after Drift’s debut, he says the initial reaction is a story told around IDW offices frequently.
“From what I hear, the initial fan reaction—the initial vocal fan reaction, I should say—was really negative. I don’t know that it was really indicative of everybody’s opinions, but there were definitely fans saying: Here’s a new character who’s trying way too hard to be cool and who’s being forced on the fandom. It was that type of reaction,” Barber explains. “But for the past few years, Drift has been one of the most consistently popular characters at Botcon and Comic-Con International: San Diego and among fans in general. It’s kinda fun to see the shift.”
IDW Publisher Chris Ryall has called Drift the Transformers’ brand version of Wolverine, in regard to his anti-hero status with a mysterious past that draws fans in. Like Drift, Wolverine was a late addition to a well-known franchise and had some significant backlash before being welcomed by fandom with open arms.
“That happens a lot with long-running [groups of] characters,” Barber says. “it’s a similar thing to how there’s a faction of G.I. Joe fans that still resent Duke coming into the series—yet there’s a bunch of other fans who can’t imagine G.I. Joe without Duke.”
But it’s that ardent fandom that Barber says makes comics, and particularly IDW’s Hasbro titles, so successful.
“I love that there are people who care about these characters. They care when we’re doing things wrong, they care when we’re doing things right, and I love that lots and lots of people will disagree about which things are wrong and which are right,” Barber says. “I mean, that’s the fun of being a fan—and particularly of working on a brand like Transformers, where this character can, in a short amount of time, appear across multiple mediums.”
The IDW-created Drift will join Wolverine as a denizen of the big screen in 2014 when he makes his live-action debut in Transformers: Age of Extinction. That follows a long tradition of comic series informing the stories of the franchise and on through to other mediums; former Marvel editor Larry Hama that infused the then nameless G.I. Joe characters with a backstory, personality, and numerous characters that havemade it so popular. Likewise, it was comics editors and writers at Marvel that created the world of Transformers based on several imported Japanese toy lines. Barber says in a good licensing arrangement between a publisher and a licensor, there’s a synergy of ideas going back and forth to build the identity of the brand.
“With Transformers now at IDW, there have been many designs and ideas that we’ve come up with on the comics side that have inspired toys—sometimes it’s a specific look for a character by Alex Milne or Nick Roche or Andrew Griffith or Guido Guidi or Don Figueroa or Casey W. Coller or anybody whose name I’m embarrassingly forgetting, that inspires a toy design,” explains the editor. “There’s definitely a lot of flow the other way, too, where—owing to our enjoyment of the toys—we’ll pick up on a toy design to use in the comics.”
Barber says that in the past year they’ve begun working “pretty closely” with Hasbro’s design team for the Transformers toy line, “bouncing ideas back and forth” that creates more continuity between unfolding events in the comics and the toys. In addition, the entirety of IDW’s “Dark Cybertron” comics event is included with Hasbro’s Transformers products on toy shelves worldwide.
Given their previous track record and the overlapping fanbases however, it’s no surprise IDW could achieve success with G.I. Joe and Transformers comic series. But when IDW announced it was doing a My Little Pony comic series, it was a different story entirely. But fast forward to the present day and IDW’s My Little Pony has shown amazing sales numbers, leading the publisher to do an expansive line of My Little Pony ongoing series and collections. Newsarama asked Barber for his perspective about the surprise success, and he said it’s largely because it engages a different audience than comics normally attracts – an audience starved for material.
“My Little Pony is a phenomenal success. It’s great because it’s introducing a lot of new readers—and a wide demographic of readers—to comics,” Barber explains. “A bunch of IDW editors go to the comic book store on Wednesday at about the same time every week. Whenever there’s a new My Little Pony comic, there’s a girl of about seven or eight years old who’s dragged her dad in so she can buy the comic. He’s not buying anything; it’s all about her getting a comic she likes. That’s fantastic.”
Kelly says that even within the walls of Hasbro there was skepticism about the idea of a My Little Pony when he initially proposed it, but that the then-recent creation of the animated series My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magiche thought the “style, humor and overall message of the show” would resonate in the comic book medium. Also some of his colleagues at Hasbro were initially reticent about the idea, Kelly says IDW was an early-adopter.
Because of the success of My Little Pony, IDW has branched out to create a unique new product offering called My Little Pony Micro-Fun Packs. These packages will measure approximately 5 inches tall says Barber, and will include a full-length My Little Pony comic along with reusable stickers, temporary tattoos, posters, and even a “How To Draw” section. In addition to being available to comic book stores, My Little Pony Micro-Fun Packs will be carried at major outlets like Target, Wal-Mart and Toys “R” Us.
“It’s a substantial little pack, and they’ll be in places where My Little Pony fans go, but where you don’t usually encounter comics,” Barber states. “I think these have a potential to reach a very wide audience that isn’t already a comic shop patron.”
In the short term, these types of promotions are aimed at helping the sales of My Little Pony, but Barber says the potential long-term effects for this is even more note-worthy.
“The readers coming for their interest in My Little Pony or Transformers are the casual audience that some people claim have disappeared from comics. These readers might be hard-core fans of My Little Pony, but they’re casual comic fans, buying the comics that interest them. Which is healthy for comics, I think,” Barber says. “I got into comics with G.I. Joe and then Transformers—they were the first comics I really gravitated towards, and I branched out from there… so I know comics like My Little Pony or G.I. Joe or Transformers—all of these can draw in new readers.”
One of the most surprising aspects of My Little Pony’s success was in part to it having no track record in comics, unlike G.I. Joe and Transformers. With that in mind, there are numerous other properties in the Hasbro library that could be next in line for similar success. Among Hasbro’s impressive holdings are toy lines like G.I. Joe and Transformers that came of age in the 1980s, but unlike those have settled into a dormant state. Barber says Hasbro has “pretty deep pockets when it comes to cool brands,” admitting a personal “love” for Jem and the Holograms as an example. Although he wasn’t ready to make any announcements, he did leave us with this.
“As for comics…. Well, who knows what the future will hold.”