Humanoids Comics took a very calculated approach to 2018. They’ve announced a new imprint, called H1, that looks to establish a shared superhero universe complete with on-going and limited series. They’ve expanded upon stories that already have an established presence in comics, internationally, with new entries or reprints from Jodorowsky’s Incal universe and Carthago, about legendary monsters rooted in reality. Humanoids is reminding readers they not only have a backlog of European comics in the process of making the jump to America, but that they can create fictional universes of their to compete in a crowded shared-universe market.
World-building is key, it seems, as the project’s three main voices, Yannick Paquette, Carla Speed McNeil, and Kwanza Osajyefo look to develop a culture of diversity and open-mindedness about story with H1’s approach to superheroes.
That culture of diversity and experimentation, even, bleeds over to its marketing strategies. And one of those experiments caught my attention in ways that could truly change the way comics are presented to different audiences. Recently, Humanoids hosted a book talk on Sébastien Samson’s graphic novel My New York Marathon at the New York Road Runners Running Center in Manhattan.
The event featured a live drawing session, a discussion on translating running into comics, and a look at how comics could and should go to the places they visit in their stories. And it all happened in a space packed with running shoes, running clothes, and runners actually in the process of training to run the New York Marathon. It was a refreshing and groundbreaking event that also indirectly acted as a friendly challenge to other publishers to take their books outside of their comfort zone.
The talk was moderated by Jud Meyers, director of sales and marketing at Humanoids. Meyers took every opportunity to link running with comics and was aware of the environment that surrounded him as he led a discussion that, by the end, resulted in making a running center feel like a second home for comics.
The Beat recently had the opportunity to talk to Jud Meyers about comics, what they are, what they can be, and where they should be presented next.
Ricardo Serrano: What does it mean to be a sales and marketing director in today’s comics industry? Do you see that rapidly changing, marketing today as opposed to a couple of years ago?
Jud Meyers: Things have changed, and this is true of other publishing companies that publishes our kind of content as well, in how the book market has increased, how the international desire for graphic novel content has increased due to more access and exposure. It used to be that you had a certain amount of bandwidth, that what used to be twelve-thousand comic book stores around the world made you focus just on the direct market. You put all your expertise into ‘mom and pop’ stores and try to reach everybody that you can, with Diamond being your sole source of marketing information. The internet changed this a bit, but what really changed was that those twelve-thousand stores became three-thousand, so the industry contracted 70%, which meant the sales and marketing people had to change the way they did things.
Every single store became infinitely more important, and then sales numbers go down. It used to be Todd McFarlane printed a million comics because, well, people were buying them. There were a lot of stores. Now you don’t print a million copies because the industry can’t support that.
With the advent of graphic novel content in the industry, it becomes a book market and less a pamphlet periodical market. What you’re doing is reaching the direct market but also at the same time trying to keep your hand in the book market. And they’re both so separate, they’re different beasts. It moves in a different way. Versatility is key. So at one point there was a marriage of sales and marketing, whereas now you have marketing for all sorts of things and you have sales that work differently in all these different markets. It’s a tricky slope to keep your balance on.
For our company, we’re an international company. We were in the book market way before a lot of the other companies. A lot of our time is spent outside of America. We think about the differences between marketing in America and marketing in France.
Serrano: Yeah, especially with the release model for comics in Europe. They’re still in the graphic album market which is divided into bigger but more focused chapters with a wider publication window. They feel more graphic novel-ish in terms of their endgame.
Meyers: It’s still soap opera, it’s still the continuation of a story. It’s tomes, sometimes two and other times up to six or eight. And we’ve seen them come out a year or two of each other. There are back-issue brands where you feel like your browsing through tightly packed hardcovers. There aren’t any bags and boards. They’re books!
In America it’s how can we publish two pamphlets a month whereas in Europe it’s like ‘how can you move at that pace! It’s crazy!’ In Europe it’s about how to maintain quality storytelling and production regardless of how much it takes for a second tome to come out. That’s the challenge we face at Humanoids, going into the monthly periodical business here in America.
We will not settle for a lesser quality, and I mean the paper, the stapling, the design elements. A comic book is treated here like an oversized graphic novel, a tome. It’s meticulous. The challenge is, with monthly releases, our goal is to make sure our periodicals look as beautiful on the shelves as our other hardcover and French soft-cover stuff does. Even if it costs more.
Every company has its own style and their own approach, and that’s okay. But coming from retail originally, seeing the quality of comic books fall drastically over the years, to the point where the paper curls and it’s something you have to put in a bag and board because it looks like somebody sat on it, it’s been interesting coming into a company where quality is part of the overall product, the physical copy. Not just the story and the art. It’s about how it feels on your hand and how it looks like on the shelves. It’ll be very interesting to see how it’ll play out with our monthly titles and how hard it’ll be to keep to our high standards.
Serrano: Well, Humanoids isn’t necessarily a stranger to big comic book worlds and continuing stories. I’m reminded of Jodorowsky’s Incal-verse, which is still producing new stories. Carthago, for instance, has seen two volumes published, in which different legendary animals are explored as living secrets of the natural world. So, what is Humanoid’s approach to monthly comics and how do you expect them to separate themselves from the stuff Marvel, DC, or even Dark Horse is publishing?
Meyers: The mindset here has been to treat periodicals like books. There’s no reason to try and think like everyone else or reinvent the wheel. Usually a tome, in Europe, is essentially around 48-pages. So we’re basically looking at two comic issues per tome. In our case, we’re looking at it like we’re splitting one tome into two and we’re making it small with a soft-cover.
Everything else, treat it like any other developed book. The story, the art, treat it like we do with our other books. Don’t treat it like ‘hey, let’s try and make it like Spider-Man.’ It’ll look nothing like Spider-Man. It’ll look nothing like those comics.
Think about it in terms of movies. We have action movies and comedy movies. They’re both movies and it works. But then here comes this European director working with European and American actors. Then we have a movie with a different tone that’s a bit more challenging. It’s a different style. That’s it. And hey, there will be people that might not respond to the material that we put out, but I think the industry does need the kind of content we are putting out. It’s that extra level of diversity, or as Kwanza Osajyefo put it, that extra layer of reality that comes from the world outside. Our creators will also reflect that reality and its diversity in shapes, sizes, races, and genders, and all of that will be reflected in our characters.
Serrano: You’re talking more about a kind of flexibility of cultures, correct? Where everything is informing everything.
Meyers: It’s interesting that you say that, ‘culturally flexible.’ That word ‘flexible,’ of flexing, it’s used in business a lot, it’s definitely used in retail, the bending and pushing of things you normally do so you can have them grow and not stay in a box. Again, it allows us to reflect on the world outside.
Serrano: That same flexibility in culture was seen in a very effective way in the panel Humanoid’s developed for Sébastien Samson’s My New York Marathon, where you took the book to the New York Road Runners Center in Manhattan. You did go to comics shops and stores for the more traditional signing sessions, but taking a book about running into a running center and presenting it there was definitely an interesting move. Do you think this is something comics should look more into? Taking stories to the places they are set in or to places discussed and reflected in the story?
Meyers: That’s where the marketing comes in. Yes, is the answer. Less with the periodicals. Periodicals are still the bread on which the direct market is buttered. It’s still a driving force. And even though graphic novels are blossoming, you still have floppies on the shelves. And that’s always going to be the direct market. We don’t have newsstands anymore or any Borders stores trying to get periodicals on their shelves.
It’s either the comic is a pamphlet which is a loss leader for the paperback or the pamphlets are in the comic book stores, the direct market stores, and when the trades come out and those periodicals are collected with a spine, whether softcover or hardcover, that’s when you broaden your horizons.
Having a comic about a black female surgeon that spends time in Africa helping people, how on Earth could we not take that book to the actual settings, where it could reach people who wouldn’t normally go to a comic book shop, much less look for graphic novels in a book store.
Our job is no longer waiting for people to come for us. It’s now our job to bring comics to them. I mean, now we have comics in a running center. Now people that haven’t read a graphic novel can pick it up, and when later on they see another one they’re not unfamiliar to them. They’ll pick them up.
Serrano: Yeah, you know you have people in the comic book shops that are already inclined to give your material a chance. You’re talking about reaching people that aren’t so inclined due to limited exposure. Having said that, do you think comic stores need to change, in any way, to get more people from that second group to come in and buy comics? Should the comics shop become more of a cultural center that diversifies the comic book experience, maybe even extend it?
Meyers: It’s hard to say comic book shops have to change. I mean, we have a couple of thousand of stores holding up the periodical industry. They’re holding up a mountain, like Hulk holding up a mountain. It’s hard work. So, holding up the mountain, these stores are a little angry, they feel they’re not treated properly, they don’t have the share of the market that they should have, they don’t have enough money in their pockets, they’ve had trouble paying their mortgages. So when you tell them ‘you know, you have to change.’ They’ll go ‘oh, do I?’
I don’t think comic stores have to change. But, I think, a comic book store owner is successful if she adapts, if there’s a flexing and a learning process that allows them to grow and respond to the culture. If you change your business mindset as a person, everything changes with you. The question is how to grow your product and your space. You can grow your market and bring in new people. And of all the things you do, getting new people is the biggest source of success, because you have more people not reading comics than reading them.
The comic book movies haven’t brought in new readers as much, for instance. So a fan of the movies might come out of the latest movie wanting to dress as Thor rather than read a comic. And that’s okay. That’s fine. But by finding ways to bring these people into the comics shop and teaching them what to look for in comics, how to collect, and letting them in on what’s being discussed currently, I mean, comics retailers become almost like teachers. They can guide readers and by getting to know them they can help them with what to read, what not to read, and how to read it. The days of putting comics on the stands and hoping it sells are over.
Serrano: Which brings us back to taking comics to different places. Which does not mean we should turn our backs to the comic shop.
Meyers: That’s why we should have more comics in schools and universities. You have students that are overworked, overwhelmed with class assignments, accumulating debt and knowing they’ll have to go ten years in college without making money themselves, and all of a sudden there’s a cool event on campus that has to do with a graphic novel about surgeon that’s also a superhero. I’d go to that! I’ll make time for that. And then you start bringing in more people to comics.
You’re treating the people there in a special way. You’re bringing in this special thing that’s comics and it becomes something bigger. Look at conventions, which are becoming bigger and bigger. People don’t fit anymore in these big conventions. So you have to branch out into other spaces, bring it to them. I was at Leeds for the Thought Bubble convention. Coolest thing about that? It’s the whole city. It just banded together and opened up the convention space into other areas. Every comic store, for instance, came together to expand the convention space and make sure everyone got into the comics experience, where everyone participated.
We have a long way to go yet, in terms of creating that type of environment for comics here in America. But we’re getting there. It’s our goal, wherever we are.
Serrano: Thanks for the conversation, Jud!
Meyers: My pleasure, man.
Ricardo Serrano has a Master’s Degree in Comic Books from the University of Dundee in Scotland. He’s also the co-creator of Se Habla Comics, a Puerto Rican podcast geared towards Spanish-speaking comic book readers, and a Social Studies teacher.