With its "Female Force" and "Political Power" bio-comic line-ups, Bluewater Productions has been getting a lot of publicity -- and controversy -- in 2008 and 2009. Now that the company has announced its new line of "Fame" and "Faith" comics, featuring biographies of figures ranging from 50 Cent to Jesus, as well as working on a comic adaptation of the sci-fi classic Logan's Run, it's looking like Bluewater will certainly be getting readers' attentions. Newsarama caught up with Bluewater President Darren G. Davis to discuss his company's upcoming series, as well as to talk about criticism for bio-comics and the ethics of sequential art.
Newsarama: Darren, Bluewater really seems to have been surging ahead the past few months -- in recent weeks, there's been a lot of announcements coming from you guys, ranging from Sonia Sotomayor to Lady Gaga to even Jesus Christ. How's that feel for you guys?
Darren G. Davis: We are gratified that we've broken into the mainstream media. As a small independent, we work very hard to rise above the din. It's true we have made a bunch of announcements (some official, some not), but I suppose that's the end result of our growth. But I am more pleased over the improved quality of each book. As the bio books become more and more popular, it raises the bar to equal or surpass the previous title.
Nrama: There's a lot of genres out there in comics -- superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy, and the like. Yet despite some of its more mainstream offerings, Bluewater has become more and more known for the bio-comics you've been printing. So we should ask -- why go this route? What made this traditionally ignored genre something Bluewater has been pursuing?
Davis: For years we had been putting out quality books in the traditional genres with limited success. I would put 10th Muse, Isis, Wrath of the Titans and several others against what Marvel and DC put out. The artwork, the story telling are on par with the big boys. What we don't have is name recognition and a multi-million marketing budget. Moreover,the problem is compounded as retailers do not offer prime retail space to lesser-recognized brands and many good and great independent books go unread. It's a convergence of several market factors: a depressed economy, a rapidly shrinking comic-buying population, a brand-dominated mindset, the evolving taste preferences of the reader and the overwhelming choice of options. Now understand, Bluewater will continue to produce new and unique titles in all genres, but the question is about the biography titles and their genesis. After the 2008 presidential elections we noted a sales uptick with a series of one-off issues about the candidates. The popularity of the Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton issues took us by surprise. From their we decided to create a monthly book focusing on female difference makers (Female Force). When that sprouted wings we expanded the scope with Political Power.
The one constant we noticed is that many of these issues were being bought by a population who do not regularly buy comics. Whether they saw them as collectors items, or they were fans of the featured subject or simply thought them as a curiosity, we discovered a new market. Moreover, some of these issues were getting recognized by the mainstream media. So in a marketplace where you need to be heard over the white noise, we made a statement with these bio books.
Nrama: You guys have had a bit of a shift lately in terms of subject matter -- for a while there, all of Bluewater's bio-comics have been about politicians and the like. But in addition to Rush Limbaugh and Sonia Sotomayor, now you've got Robert Pattinson, 50 Cent... even Jesus. What brought this shift on for you guys? Jesus in particular, we'd love to what brought on that book.
Davis: I wouldn't call it a shift. It's more of an expansion. We are continuing the path set down with Female Force and Political Power. We have the first half of the year already planned for these titles. What we are doing is expanding the brand with a new title that gives us the ability to tell more interesting stories about a wider variety of notable personalities. Conversely, it allows us to focus the scope of the other biography titles to more socially and politically important figures. Yes, it is a marketing decision. Just as much of a marketing decision for DC to kill off Batman and Superman and bring them back. It's about providing a product that a market will buy; creating interest and excitement within that market. It just might not be the market traditionally thought of as your comic book efficianados. But before this is looked at too cynically, the product is written and drawn with our highest professional standards. As for the Jesus book. Again what we are looking at is an alternative market. There is a significant religious media market that supports the decision for that title. Based on our initial market study, I fully expect that title to sell out. These books are also drive new readers into comic books stores that would not necessarily go into them. We have done signings where people came in and told us they never knew there was such thing as a comic book store. They ended up not just picking up our title, but a bunch of other stuff. Readership is down in comics and as a fan of the medium (I am in the comics store buying comics each week), I want to do my part to gain new eyes to the industry as a whole.
Nrama: Just getting a sense of you guys and your business model -- what have been the sorts of reactions you've gotten readers with these bio-comics? Are there any particular books that are your favorite or that you've put up as the gold standard, that you'd like the rest of your books to strive towards? Or are there any books from other companies that you've looked to as inspiration?
Davis: I have signed copies from both Sarah Palin and Barbara Walters on the issues featuring them. They have seen and appreciated the books. I have received hundreds of emails from a wide variety of people who enjoyed the books. But to be completely fair, we have also received a considerable amount of criticism. Some people did not like the artwork, some people thought the subject featured was not worthy of publication, some don't appreciate the biography comic as a marketable and relevant art form. However, on the whole, the reception to these books has been positive. I am thrilled that the Library Journal chose to feature and recommend the Female Force series and the Center for American Women in Politics supported and promoted the first graphic novel collection. The national reviews on these titles have been really good.
As for my favorite, I would have to give the Sarah Palin issue the nod. It was the one that got the whole enterprise off the ground. However, if we are approach the question from a standpoint of artistic value, I think the Joe Biden, Barack Obama and the upcoming Charlaine Harris (the creator of "True Blood") books really are a cut above in terms of their artwork. As for scripts I am quite proud of Barbara Walters, Al Gore and Michelle Obama Year One.
Female Force, Political Power and Fame are just part of a long line of bio-comics. Revolutionary Comics published biography comics in the 90's and got pretty much the same reaction to this genre that we have. We have gotten to know the publisher well, which is why we decided to reprint their issues from their books. "Rock 'N' Roll Comics" bio artists from the early 90s included creators now popular and in demand, like Stuart Immonen, Aaron Sowd, Terry Dodson, Len Kirk, Tom Luth, April Lee, Rich Buckler, Teri Wood, SS Crompton, Dennis Worden, Rick Geary, Daerick Gross, Pat Broderick, Spain Rodriguez, and even famed lowbrow cover painter Robert Williams, many of whom did their first professional work for RnR Comics.
People say that we copied the idea to do biography comics from IDW, but nonfiction comics have been around since the 1940's.
Nrama: Something else that I'd imagine a lot of other companies don't have to deal with -- accurately bringing a real person onto the page. Let's use the recent Stephanie Meyer book you guys did as an example. What's the logistics on something like that? What do you look for to make sure there's no bias over the subject's story? In the case of Meyer, did you guys get any cooperation or reactions from her?
Davis: We're not just dealing with real people, but in most cases, we're dealing with real living people. When I hire a writer for one of these assignments, I make sure they are not going to write a bloated love letter or a raging diatribe about the subject. Where it is impossible to eliminate all bias, I do insist that the subject is fully researched, that the information is accurate and interesting. Consider Sarah Palin. It would be easy to be dismissive and condescending given her public missteps, but it is important to also highlight her savvy rise to power and popularity. And the reverse is true. Al Gore could be highlighted as an environmental golden child, but whereas the book does credit him for enhancing the climate debate it also addresses inconsistencies in his character. My goal is after reading the book, you get a fully informed overview of the subject and you're not exactly sure where the author stands politically.
As for Stephenie Meyer, her story was pretty straightforward. I will admit I read the first few books of her Twilight series and enjoyed them. That got me to thinking about how she has really made an impact in the brief time she's been around and would make a perfect subject for Female Force. There were some that dismissed her, or more pointedly our choice to feature her, but you can't argue that her success has been impactful. There are hundreds of websites, fanzines, clubs dedicated to her creation. It was the biggest pop culture explosion for a book since Harry Potter...and yes we did a female Force on JK Rowling too! In fact Meyer, Rowling, Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris issues will eventually be packaged as a graphic novel called Female Force Best Sellers.
In most cases we reach out to the subject to participate. Some do, some don't. However, as with most unauthorized biographies, most of these books are done without the subjects participation. We have worked, although unofficially, with the JK Rowling's camp prior to the publishing of that book and we are working directly with Charlaine Harris. Suffice to say most of our subjects are aware they have been transformed into comics. I received a call from Bill Clinton's office requesting copies of the Hillary Clinton bio and Ellen DeGeneres loves the idea and asked us to donate proceeds to the Humane Society. We also will run free ads for non-profits the subject supports in the books every month. However, I think my favorite story so far is that Barbara Walters gave out the issue featuring her as Christmas presents.
Nrama: Darren, Bluewater has had its share of critics, some of whom have called these bio-comics exploitative or cash-grabs, or insinuating that your company's spamming the customer base with a flood of celebrities. What's your take on these sorts of criticisms?
Davis: I take these criticisms very seriously and, to a fault, take them to heart. First I will address the perceived exploitation. I have been portrayed by some in the blogosphere as a bottom-feeder. People can think what they want and they are entitled to their own opinion as to the quality of my work. It, like all art, is subjective to opinion. But I feel I must draw the line when my character is attacked. I do not purposefully seek out controversy. Nor do I sit in my basement waiting for the famous to fall on their faces. Most of this vitriol stems from the June announcement of our Michael Jackson tribute comic. In hindsight maybe I could have shown a bit more restraint in announcing the book so soon after his passing, but Bluewater did nothing that People Magazine, NBC and a hundred other media outlets did. So if I am to be criticized for that, then I am in good company. As an aside, the Jackson book (which came out in October) did well enough to warrant four printings. We also worked with his official fanclub to do this as a tribute to his fans.
Still some attack my character without knowing anything about me personally, In some cases it is the comic fan who feels they have some sense of entitlement to the industry and if my product falls outside their preference, they are vulgarly vocal with their derision. Barack Obama is not Batman. The book featuring him is not intended to compete with Batman. Just like tv; there are some who swear by Battlestar Galactica, but would never watch Desperate Housewives.
And as much as comic industry-interested people find fault in these celebrity-fueled titles, there are thousands and thousands of people who are interested. This is not to say one is better than the other, it is simply a different demographic. To be blunt, I don't remember the last time I saw X-Men being sold at JoAnn's Fabrics. Female Force sold well through that outlet. I am convinced, and the numbers back me up, that my product is reaching audiences who probably have never been in a comic book shop before. I saw a posting who countered with the argument, well, maybe so, but they come once but never come back. Unfortunately that's a "you" problem. If you don't have anything to bring them back, that is no fault of mine.
But facts are facts, I produced dozens of great traditional genre books last year that nobody talks about. We partnered ("partnered" not licensed) with some well known names in the genre industry to produce original stories based on known commodities. Books like TekWar, Wrath of the Titans, Sinbad, Black Scorpion and the Vincent Price Presents anthology get really good reviews from within the industry, but where are the sales? However, Michelle Obama required two printings. Sarah Palin three printings, Michael Jackson four.
As for spamming, we send out regular press releases (3-4 per month) like any other business. We send to a list of media and entertainment-oriented web outlets. These outlets, news sources and bloggers choose to run (or not) any story we provide. We try to tailor our releases to outlets most likely interested in the subject matter. In recent months we have combined announcements in single releases to lessen any perception of overload (even though they are three different and distinct title entities). But the bottom line is to create buzz about my product. There are so many titles and choices and media out there, that I would be doing my company a disservice if I didn't make announcements. I have a background in marketing and the cardinal rule for releases that if it isn't newsworthy, don't send it. As much as some people find fault with the celebrity lines, it has proven time and time again to be newsworthy. My job is to attract and keep readers. Not to be flippant, but we had the #1 graphic novel for November 2009. I learned when I worked for E!, Lionsgate, Wildstorm, DC and others that marketing your product is a huge part of the business. Our business, especially the independents, is not suited for the "if you build it they will come" model. Too many good titles get overlooked.
And I want to be clear, not all our publicity is sending out press releases. We do tons of work with the library systems. We do signings every month. I have been networking for years, which is why we have creators like Randy Green, Dan Brenton and others still do work with us. I represented the top comic book artists in the industry such as Andy Park, Joe Mad, Chris Bachalo and others. We have a variety of creators willing to go to comic book shops and meet fans...heck we even got on the Tonight Show with William Shatner and TekWar. What other comic book company can claim that?
Nrama: Just moving forward with what we'll call "the ethics of sequential art" -- is there a situation that you could envision that you would not move forward with a bio-comic? A few months back, we recalled a little bit of reader blow-back following the announcement of the Ted Kennedy comics -- what's Bluewater's standard operating procedure in terms of picking and choosing its subjects?
Davis: I use a simple rule of thumb. Is the person interesting? Do they have a compelling life story? Are there enough potential readers to care? Sure we can do biographies on more obscure yet influential people like Brazil's President Lula, former HP CEO Carly Fiorina or Nobel laureate Dr Robert McKinnon, but would there be an audience? Are there any subjects off limits? Sure. Recently I was offered an opportunity to do biographies on various serial killers. I passed. There might be an audience for that, but I wasn't comfortable pursuing it. Are there instances where I would halt production on a book. I'm sure there might be. Every book is subject to unique circumstances. You mention Ted Kennedy. We indeed received considerable grief for announcing his bio shortly before his death. Some people were outraged; that we were akin to grave robbers. People assumed the worst. What they had very little clue is that the book had been solicited through Diamond several months earlier and written several months before that. When the Senator passed, we simply added a one page epilogue to the book so it would remain timely.
Nrama: One thing that might have gotten lost in the shuffle is the fact that Bluewater is also doing an adaptation of Logan's Run, with co-author William F. Nolan. What led you guys to getting the license for this book? Given the seeming trend towards nostalgia, pulp and sci-fi going on with publishers like DC, Dynamite, and Marvel, how do you think the inclusion of Logan's Run will impact your company?
Davis: The key word is "with." We are doing this project with Bill Nolan. It is not a traditional license. Nolan was unhappy with the Logan's Run movie back in the 70s; he didn't think it met the tone or vision of his original book. For a long time he has been looking for the appropriate person and the appropriate vehicle to bring his vision for the story back into focus.
Long story short, Bill and I both live in Vancouver, Washington. I was introduced to him through a mutual friend. He reviewed the work we did with Ray Harryhausen, William Shatner, Vincent Price's estate, SE Hinton and Roger Corman and a partnership was formed. Since then Bill and I have become good friends.
As for any impact, I will let the market decide, but I have a good feeling about it. I feel its a great book, done by an excellent writer and artist and overseen by its original creator; it should appeal to fans of the book. I really enjoy this type of business model where we directly interact with the originators. Working with Bill Shatner has been a pleasure, he's very involved and very passionate about the various projects including the upcoming original concept story Chimera; Roger Corman is very helpful too. I am really enjoying revisiting some of his classic sci fi titles. I appreciate all the time, effort and support we get from our partner collaborators...its' the only way to work theses projects and keep the creators intent alive.
Nrama: Sci-fi's greatest strength, one could argue, is the metaphor. Without giving too much away, what's the message of Logan's Run that really appealed to you guys? Is there a different message you're spinning with this new adaptation?
Davis: Logan's Run deals with the idea of a Utopia gone horribly wrong where a system designed to maintain humanity has become over-automated to the point where it has enslaved us all. This is an interesting concept to us at Bluewater and very timely considering our ever increasing reliance on technology (esp. Computers, cellphones, etc). This is not to say that technology is bad, but it can lead to this loss of humanity and real connection with one another. The writer Paul J. Salamoff used this concept as a springboard to look a little deeper into what defines us as human and thematically speaking, explored the ideas of redemption and hope tied specifically with Logan's character arc of him "killing to maintain the system" to "killing to stop it".
Nrama: Additionally, Logan's Run has been published as a comic in the past, by companies ranging from Marvel to Malibu. So the question here is: how do you differentiate yourself? How do you mine territory that's been attempted so many times? Do you feel that evolving methods of storytelling -- this more cinematic movement that writers like Mark Millar and Geoff Johns and the rest are plumbing -- have opened different storytelling avenues for you?
Davis: The Marvel version was an adaption of the film and then attempted to further expand the universe but unfortunately didn't get to far. The Malibu version, though faithful to the books was a bit of a let down to fans. What we feel we have done is contemporized the story but stayed faithful to the original source material. Salamoff along with Jason V. Brock and William F. Nolan were able to cull from the entire Logan's Run Trilogy of books to reboot the story and wound up using elements from all three to tell a very compelling 6 issue story arc. Given that Salamoff is a 20 yr veteran of the film & TV industry and an accomplished screenwriter, he has brought that cinematic aesthetic to the storyline and even though people are familiar with the storyline, they will see a new vision that is fresh and exciting in many ways, but also still Logan's Run at it's core.
Nrama: Looking at the announcements for Logan's Run, 24 issues seems like an odd number in terms of a series -- indeed, a lot of series don't even make it to that point. What made you guys decide that that was the appropriate length for this series? What does that open up for you in terms of opportunities?
Davis: There are many more stories to tell in the Logan Universe and we feel that we wanted to give us some room to explore and expand. Not only are there parts from the Trilogy that aren't touched on in the first 6-issue arc, but Nolan and Brock are working on a fourth Logan Book right now that will give us even more to explore. So as long as people are still interested in this world, we will continue the run (pun intended).
Nrama: Any hints you can give us as to what might be next for Bluewater? Any new people who might be getting bio-comics? Or are there any other books that might be coming out?
Davis: We have the next several months already planned in terms of the bio comics. That includes the Rock n Roll Comics graphic novels we are publishing with the old owners of Revolutionary Comics. As for who's coming up, I'll guess you'll have to read the press releases...just kidding!! I think the most compelling titles coming up are "Jailbait" with MST3 star Mary Jo Pehl, it will be the 10th anniversary for the "10th Muse" this year, so we have a bunch planned with crossovers with Image's Bomb Queen, DemonSlayer and others, we also have some great original series like "Nanny & Hank" , "Judo Girl". Also wait till you see the art in "Claw & Fang" out in April. As for the biography series, we are pushing forward with the FAME series includes, Taylor Swift, 50 Cent and Kristen Stewart. In the "Female Force" series we have people lined up like Martha Stewart and Anne Rice. Just like the rest of the indusrty we are about to sign a couple of big licensed deals that fans will be excited about. We have over 50 titles in production right now, which we are really proud of. We are moving up on the charts at Diamond every month. We are in it for the long run and to our critics....we are not going anywhere.