It's been a tough three years for Aspen Comics, but recent sell-out hits like Lady Mechanika and Charismagic have proven the company is still going strong and looking toward a new future.
Founded by artist Michael Turner in 2003, Aspen was well-known for its beautiful female protagonists in comics like Fathom and Soulfire. But the publisher suffered a huge blow when Turner passed away in June 2008. At the time, some fans questioned whether the company would still exist."We were at the point [last year], when Lady Mechanika started, where we needed a great breakout hit to kind of put us on the map, because for awhile, after Mike passed away, we had to go out and prove to everybody that look, we’re not just a company with only Michael Turner," Editor-in-Chief Vince Hernandez told Newsarama. "Obviously, his inspiration is the company, but people just thought we were finished after he had passed away. And there was a time where we kind of had to earn people’s faith back in a way."
Lady Mechanika, the "steampunk" comic by Joe Benitez, is just one of several books that have diversified Aspen's offerings over the last three years, as Aspen enlisted the talents of writers like J.T. Krul (Green Arrow, Teen Titans) and former Marvel editor David Wohl. And as 2011 starts, Aspen will launch several new titles to further diversify the company's product line, including orchestrating the company's first big summer event — taking place in Wohl's Executive Iris universe.
"Obviously people know us for having the strong female protagonist," Hernandez said. "That’s been how we’ve kind of made our mark on the industry, and I think we do it well. And we'll still continue to have that at the forefront of what we do, but with titles like [last year's] Scourge and Mindfield, and our new upcoming series like Charismagic and Broken Pieces, we'll keep adding titles that people probably wouldn’t expect from us."
Of course, it helps that some of those titles are finally selling well. The diversification has been hard on the company's bottom line as Aspen tried out new genres on an audience that had different expectations. "I won’t lie. Mindfield and Scourge and these books have kind of delved off the beaten path. They weren't huge sellers for us," Hernandez said," but we knew going in that it wasn’t going to be an easy road to get our fans to realize that look, we’re not only doing the strong, sexy female characters. We’re also doing these awesome tales and these awesome psychological thrillers and supernatural stories, and we have a horror tragedy coming up.
"It wasn’t easy, but we’re going to keep pushing, and show our fans that we have this huge catalog of diverse books and series that I’m 100 percent proud of," Hernandez said. "There’s something for everybody now with the Aspen line."
Lady MechanikaProbably the biggest recent hit for Aspen, besides its two flagship titles, is Lady Mechanika, which is a six-issue story with potential for more — especially now that it's selling so well. The Benitez series' special #0 issue sold out and went to three printings, and the comic maintained momentum with its #1 issue as its second issue is set to ship soon.
"I think with Lady Mechanika it was just pretty much a benchmark for us because it kind of showed everybody that look, hey, we’re still here, and we’re putting out awesome books," Hernandez said.
Hernandez said the bi-monthly comic is also capitalizing on the lack of steampunk in the market. "We didn’t even know. I don’t think Joe or anybody knew how many fans were out there just hungering for this stuff," Hernandez said. "Once we started releasing images and obviously once the books came out they sold out all of them.
Because the book is coming out bi-monthly and is selling out, Aspen is releasing an issue that combines the #0 and #1 issue. "So anybody who missed out and can’t get a copy of #0 or #1 can go ahead and get that, which includes both issues and has a new cover that’s pretty awesome," Hernandez said.
CharismagicHernandez himself is writing the newest title from Aspen, Charismagic, which tells an Alice in Wonderland type story centered on magic. The book's #0 issue already sold out when it was released last week.
"This is really the first book that I’ve had that it’s just me [without a co-writer], so I’m excited for it, and [Charismagic illustrator] Khary [Randolph] and [colorist] Emilio [Lopez] have just been breaking their backs on this book to make sure that it looks awesome. I couldn’t be happier with it, so, yeah, we’re excited that it's already doing so well."
The six-issue story centers on a magician named Hank who is immersed in the Las Vegas show world. But he meets a mysterious woman who shows him another side to magic.
"Hank goes on this quest to not only save the world, but along the way finds out things about himself that he never really thought to question," Hernandez said. "He was kind of pushing it to the back of his psyche, so it’s kind of a journey of two tales of not only him saving the world but him also saving himself."
Summer Event: "Hitlist Agenda"This summer, Aspen is expanding the world of Executive Assistant Iris, the espionage-centered series co-created by David Wohl and Michael Turner. The company will be launching an Executive Assistant Iris event called 'The Hitlist Agenda,' which will include several different mini-series that link together to form one story.
"We're really going all out for this," Hernandez said. "In addition to releasing the second volume of Iris, we’re bringing in three new writers, three new pencilers, three new creative teams, so it’s going to be this huge series-spanning event that we’re basically already full swing into, and I think our fans are gonna dig it because Iris got a greater response when we did the first volume, and I know fans are wondering what’s going on with the story."
Executive Assistant Iris imagines the lives of real-life executive assistants in China who serve as both secretaries and bodyguards to corporate businessmen. The series focuses on one such "executive assistant" named Iris, who is a trained assassin who has come up against other, similar executive assistants.
Writers, artists and titles have not been announced. But the first volume of Executive Assistant Iris ended on a cliffhanger, so the main title will pick up that thread while adding to the series' mythology in other mini-series.
At last year's Comic-Con International in San Diego, Aspen announced a new series coming out in summer 2011 called Broken Pieces, written by Mark Roslan, Apsen's director of design and production.
"Mark's style is imprinted and left on every book, so this is his foray into telling his own story," Hernandez said.
The story is "kind of a Frankenstein meets a District Nine type tale, but at the core it’s really a big love story," Hernandez explained.
"We were blown away when we first heard it, and Mark’s a funny guy because he always has these wows and whacky ideas. It’s kind of what he’s known for," he said. "A lot of them are like, wow, these are just so crazy that I don’t even think we can ever do it, but then that’s when he really hit the nail on the head with it on Broken Pieces.
The series, which will begin with a #0 issue in July, will feature a new artist that hasn't been announced. "He does the full illustration, so this book will be entirely illustrated by one complete artist," Hernandez said.Soulfire, Fathom
The two flagship titles, which had been delayed during Turner's battle with cancer, will get a boost this year as they are released at the same time, so fans can be sure of their schedule.
"We’re going to be releasing each book, Fathom and Soulfire, on the exact same day in terms of release day, which we’ve never done before," Hernandez said. "So fans will be able to hit the comic book store on Wednesday and get both Fathom and Soulfire fixes taken care of."
Soulfire, the comic now written by J.T. Krul, is starting its third volume this year, with newcomer Jason Fabok on art. The series will pick up where Vol. 2 left off, now that the "magic" of the Soulfire universe has returned but war is threatened.
"Jason Fabok has basically been working under David Finch – he was his mentor, in a way, so he’s captured the awesomeness of David Finch, but he’s got this raw talent," Hernandez said. "He’s got this hunger. He’s turning pages at a rapid rate, which we’re excited about, obviously."
Scott Lobdell will write the fourth volume of Fathom, which launches in May with Alex Konat on pencils. "Obviously JT did a wonderful job with Fathom, but he’s moving on to different books, and so this is an opportunity for us to take the series and shift the focus back to Aspen, because that's where it started in Volume 1. It was basically it was her story."Because the series is touching upon Aspen's introduction in Vol. 1, Aspen is releasing a trade paperback of the Fathom Blue Descent trade, a one-shot Fathom Primer before the next volume begins. "Scott is taking the original volume of Fathom and also the second and third volume, and he condensed the whole narrative into a one-shot primer book that anybody can pick up," Hernandez said. "We’re talking over 10 years and three volumes and a mini-series that have spun out of this story."
The new Fathom volume not only concentrates on Aspen, but will tell the tale of a "huge, wide, epic battle with all these new characters."
There have been a lot of rumors attached to a film version of the Fathom story, including a visit to the Aspen Studios by Megan Fox, who's attached to the film.
"Megan Fox has always been involved on that side with the movie just because of her interest in it," Hernandez said. "She really cares about the character, and in her heart, she just wants to see the movie made well.
"I can’t get into too many of the details of what the status is of the movie," he said. "It’s still basically in development, and there’s been a lot of shifting with the companies with Fox lately. So beyond that I think that’s pretty much the news I have."
Free Comic Book Day
Aspen will be promoting its titles in a "super-size take" on what they've done in the past. "Usually we do a sampler issue with new releases, but this year we’re double-sizing it," Hernandez said, "and not only are you going to get the first looks at Fathom Vol. 4 and Soulfire Vol. 3, but you’re going to see some new stuff with Lady Mechanika and Charismagic. You’re also going to see some previews of Broken Pieces and we'll tease a couple of new properties."
Aspen will release the trade paperbacks of series that just finished up, including Mindfield, the supernatural-thriller by J.T. Krul, and Scourge, the series inspired by movie producer Gale Anne Hurd and written by Scott Lobdell.
Aspen is also announcing a few new properties in the next few months, Hernandez said. "Those won’t be out until probably next fall, but we’re bringing on some writers that I think people are going to be blown away with," Hernandez said. "Obviously, we’re known for the visual side of our art, and everybody is always very high on what we do with it in terms of the page, but for us we’re excited because these new guys, these writers are, I think, really top-flight talent, so it should be a perfect match."
Hernandez said Aspen executives are hoping to have more new titles, but they're trying to take things one step at a time. "We just want to be able to put out a few properties, a few projects that we’re just 100 percent behind because we know that it’s quality and it meets our level of quality," he said. "That’s the most important for us. At the end of the day we’re all big comic book fans, and we just want to make sure that we put out the best possible comic books."