BOOM! Studios will be celebrating its 15th Anniversary this year, and certainly they have had an interesting path, often publishing books that seemed against the grain of conventional wisdom, other times teaming up with the biggest names imaginable (Stan Lee! Grant Morrison!). But perhaps their biggest break was getting in on Adventure Time — and that whole era of Cartoon Network-inspired cartoons and comics — just at the right time. That led to Lumberjanes, perhaps their biggest hit to date. Right place, right time.
Last month, I was invited to chat with founder and CEO Ross Richie and editor-in-chief Matt Gagnon about recent successes and future plans. One of the inspirations for the talk was BOOM! charting as the #4 publisher in November, 2019, and this is a little bit of a victory lap for the team. In light of BOOM!’s announcements at ComicsPro 2020, it’s a good time to hear what Richie and Gagnon have planned.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing: Fox acquired a stake in BOOM! back in 2017, but a slate of films in-development was scrapped when Disney acquired Fox, including Mouse Guard, an animated film based on the David Petersen comic that was already far along in development.
But you don’t get this far without adapting to changes, as this interview reveals. BOOM! has been at the forefront of trimming their line (in accordance with retailer wishes) and offers an attractive returnability program that seems to be helping sales.
To clarify a bit of the conversation, BOOM! has several publishing imprints: BOOM! Studios proper, which publishes monthly books such as recent hits Once and Future and licensed titles; Boom! Box, an “experimental” brand for original titles, including the recent favorite Giant Days and Lumberjanes (successful experiments); KaBOOM!, a line for material for younger readers; and Archaia, an imprint for stand alone graphic novels.
This interview was conducted in mid-December 2019, and edited for length and clarity.
MACDONALD: In 2020, you guys will be celebrating your 15th anniversary. Ross, I’ve talked to you about Boom’s history in the past but let’s talk about the ‘Teens or whatever they are calling them. What strikes you the most about how Boom has changed since 2010?
RICHIE: Well, I think that we have really found our voice as a company. It was around 2013, 2014 that we published Lumberjanes, and it was a phenomenon. We’ve sold over 1.5 million copies of Lumberjanes. And 2019 was a gigantic year for us. Retailers are complaining about there’s too much product in the market, there’s too many comics. And we cut our output by 12.5%. Yet our original series launched 66% higher last year. So it’s been a banner year for us. We had the highest launching Boom Original individual issue, Once and Future #1, and then four weeks later we broke that with Something is Killing the Children #1.
MACDONALD: I see that Folklore, by Matt Kindt, also sold out.
RICHIE: Yup. And then we also did the best-selling Boom original graphic novel ever, which was the R.L. Stein book Just Beyond: The Scare School.
MACDONALD: Why do you think that tightening or decreasing the line helped you so much? Was it you becoming more focused or retailers becoming more focused?
RICHIE: I think it’s yes to both because, you know, we work really hard to listen to retailers and they are our partners and they’re telling the publishers what the publishers need to hear. And what they’re saying is there’s too many comics. Embedded in that is that many of the series [being published] are not breakthroughs or outstanding in some characteristic. And so it turns into a lot of noise. Retailers are asking for fewer series but ones that are more engaging and more exciting and more commercial.
So we basically focused on that. But we’ve been focusing on that as a strategy for a couple of years. This is the year that it really broke through and it really delivered. I think we’re going to be up 8% [in 2019] and [in 2018] the only two companies that grew in the direct market were Boom and Marvel.
MACDONALD: So, Matt, do you think the talent pool or the development of the kind of creators that we have over the last decade has helped with being able to launch this kind of product?
GAGNON: Absolutely, yeah. We take a lot of pride in having a slate of books that’s very curated and very targeted. I think it’s something that we’ve developed over a long period of time. So a whole lot of the creators that you see in our roster, like Grant Morrison for instance, we’ve been working with for years. James Tynion, who we had a lot of success with this year with Something is Killing the Children, we’ve been publishing him since 2013. We’ve been able to add new creators like Kieron Gillen this year on Once and Future. And Brian Azzarello and Maria Llovet on Faithless. I think that creative team in particular did an incredible series for us. It’s about building on the roster, continuing to keep it exciting and fresh and working with the people whose work we’re passionate about.
MACDONALD: You also still publish licensed comics. From both a creative standpoint and a business standpoint how has the balance between licensed and originals changed at Boom?
RICHIE: I don’t think it’s changed. We’ve always been really focused on doing originals that have a very high level of quality and we’ve always focused on not doing a ton of licenses but doing licenses that we care about and executing well on them. We did Necessary Evil with the Power Rangers this year and it doubled the previous series sales. That fan base really responded well to it. The Whedon-verse sales have been incredibly robust and very successful.
GAGNON: It’s always been very important to me to treat the licensed comics that we’re making with the same care and the same attention and the same thoughtfulness as we do the original comics.
MACDONALD: So one of my favorite topics that Ross and I have talked about many, many times over the years is “the endangered periodical.” Or is it? How do you see the place of the periodical and the graphic novel? I mean, are we going to have floppies in 10 year’s time?
RICHIE: Well, let’s see, we sold 3 million units this year, so we have a great relationship with the floppy. Our sales are up. So I don’t know. I certainly wouldn’t say that it is an endangered species. I think I would reframe your observation and say that graphic novels are growing steadily and consistently across all different types of content and genres, and the readership and the book market is growing. And so in proportion it looks like floppies, or singles, are shrinking. I would not predict that singles will go away in 10 years. I would generally agree with Brian Hibbs’ observation that the stores, comic shops, the direct market have a highly specialized knowledge and they, in particular, cater to superhero fans. The book market is a more generalized reader that is not as interested in superheroes. The channels are differentiating and there’s a broader readership for comics in general.
MACDONALD: Oh, definitely. My local comic shop, JHU, has Raina Telgemeier and Dave Pilkey by the checkout. Stores are adapting to this as well.
GAGNON: Yeah. And I think that’s a good thing. Ultimately I’m seeing a lot of energy and a lot of excitement in the single issue market right now, especially for original comics. I think there’s more being produced than ever before. I think the challenge is how to highlight that material and how to sell it at the retail level. That’s definitely a challenge we’re facing as an industry. And obviously, part of my background is from the retail community, so I can put myself in their shoes. I can only imagine how difficult it is to be able to feature and highlight certain books with so much noise in this space. I actually think there’s a lot excitement and a lot of ingenuity and inventiveness right now with the material that’s being done.
MACDONALD: I definitely agree. So your returnability program is very progressive, and you’ve been talking about that quite a bit with retailers — and it seems to have been a success. Can you talk a little bit about how that’s affected books? I know Once and Future had a huge returnability program and so on.
RICHIE: Once and Future is a great example. Originals saw this massive sales increase of 66%, the returnability gave retailers the comfort to be able to find how many copies they could sell in their store. And so we had this massive growth at 66% and yet they still sold out. We went into seven printings on Once and Future #1. I mean, it’s ridiculous. We did a final printing of the sixth printing and we told everybody, this is it. But then the orders were incredibly strong and it was still going to back order at Diamond, enough to be able to go to a seventh printing.
MACDONALD: I mean, honestly no lie, I was looking at the latest sales charts, to prep for this interview and I was looking at Boom’s numbers on ICv2, and I was impressed. You launched Folklords at a number that many major publishers would have been thrilled with over the decades.
RICHIE: Oh, it’s twice as high as any original Matt Kindt series ever launched. And all of the sales put us as the #4 publisher in November. We were right behind Image.
MACDONALD: Why do you think that retailers are responding suddenly to this kind of original material? Because as we all know, it hasn’t always been that easy to get them to try something new.
RICHIE: Well, if you make it returnable, they can take a chance.
MACDONALD: The biggest story in the decade was absolutely the rise of graphic novels for kids. Here in NYC every publisher has got a kid’s line starting up and there are bidding wars, books are going to auction. It’s crazy.
RICHIE: It’s almost like the company that started a kids focused line a decade ago had some vision.
MACDONALD: It’s almost like that! When I did my piece about Raina being the number one overall book of the week, I think I gave you guys specifically a shout out for being so far ahead of the curve on that. So, having been a leader in the marketplace place for a decade with Lumberjanes and more, Matt, what are Boom’s plans in the kids market?
GAGNON: That’s an area where, we’ve had a tremendous amount of focus for a long time. You know, one of my proudest moments at Boom is in the very early days when we had a nascent imprint for kids called Boom Kids, and we were doing Disney and Pixar comics. But they were not performing at the level that we would have liked. And we heard from many retailers who warned us against producing comics for kids. [General laughter]
MACDONALD: Wait, I want you to repeat that. They warned you against making comics for kids.
GAGNON: That’s 100% right. Everybody told us not to do that. The people told us that at the distribution level as well. But what I was really proud of is at the end of the Disney experience, instead of kind of closing up shop on Boom Kids, saying, ‘we’re not gonna publish material for kids anymore,’ we actually doubled down on it because it was part of our belief system that we need to be doing all that we could to create the next generation of readers. And it’s something that we’ve always held onto.
So we doubled down. At that moment, we created Kaboom!. We went out and fostered relationships with Jim Davis and Garfield. We went out and built a partnership with the Peanuts team. That was when Adventure Time broke through. Our second shot with Kaboom! really took off. So for the future, we’re only continuing to get stronger and more proficient at creating graphic novels for the kids in the middle grade space. It’s something we’ve already been doing for a long time and I think this year you’ll see we have some books in the pipeline that will take it to the next level. [In 2019] the culmination of Just Beyond, with R.L. Stein, was massive for us and I think gives us a good jumping off point for what we have planned for .
RICHIE: So some quick book trade stats for you. We grew 20% in 2018 in the book trade and we grew 15% this year.
MACDONALD: But how is that possible! Print is dying! How have we survived this disruption?
RICHIE: Well, what’s true for the market and what’s true for Boom, are kind of two different answers. And I can’t speak to the market, but I think we’re very unique and I think that we have an earnest interest in doing great material for the direct market audience. And when we do that we also get great material for the book market audience. What I’m hearing is that print in general is flat to maybe a couple of percentage points up. It has sort of found its level. But what’s happening is as millennials age and as Gen X ages, the more mainstream graphic novels become.
Our publishing slate has been very diverse and has been very targeted at that more general book readership. And so when you look at our solicits, you can see a pattern in it. The Studios imprint does a lot of material that is carried in comic shops and then KaBOOM! and Archaia and Boom Box do a lot of material that sells really well in the book trade. Yet one of our best original graphic novels of the year came out from Studios. It was called Bury the Lede (by Gaby Dunn and Claire Roe). There’s a lot of crossover — a lot of comic shops are ordering KaBOOM and Boom Box books — I mean Giant Days was huge. But if you looked at our statistics, the numbers for Boom Box, KaBOOM and Archaia are in the mainstream bookstores and the majority of the sales for Studios is in comic book stores.
GAGNON: One of our strengths as a company is we have an editorial team that is able to successfully create books for the direct market and the book market. And I think that’s a very rare thing for a publishing house, to be able to do. I think typically most publishing houses are much more niche, in terms of what they’re publishing. And I think we have a lot of range. That’s something we’re very proud of.
MACDONALD: Again, as I was prepping for this interview, I noticed you have kind of a murderer’s row of editors. You have Sierra Hahn, you have Jeanine Schaefer, and strong people on the sales side.
GAGNON: Honestly, that’s really special. It’s something that I’m really grateful for and I don’t take for granted for a second. I started at Boom! in 2008 and have been building this team for a very long time and there’s some incredible chemistry. A lot of it sometimes just feels like incredible luck, the right people at the right time. Shannon Watters, Dafna Pleban, Eric Harburn, Bryce Carlson and myself have all been working together for over 10 years. Sierra Hahn came on and her expertise in the graphic novel space was something that was really timely and additive to the team. Most recently to bring on Jeanine Schaefer who’s an incredible editor, and has a lot of experience working over at the Big Two. We had a lot that we could learn from Jeanine. We have this really exciting team that rallies for one another, supports one another. I think we have an incredible culture and spend a lot of time thinking about how to maintain that culture. It takes time and effort to make sure that we are fostering the right kind of environment in the office on a day-to-day basis. Because, you know, at the end of the day, I believe people produce their best work when they feel like they’re in an environment that’s supporting them.
MACDONALD: So now to turn to what has been the biggest question mark over Boom. What is happening with your media adaptations? Obviously there were some setbacks, with Disney buying Fox, and Mouse Guard being cancelled. What can you tell us about all that?
RICHIE: Well, we have 22 projects in development, 11 feature films and 11 TV series. And the partners that we’re developing them with are Netflix, Legendary, Media Rights Capitol or MRC, CBS All Access, Amazon Studios, HBO Max, Lionsgate. And then the last ones are going to surprise you: Disney. And Fox.
MACDONALD: Well, well.
RICHIE: To drill down for a second, Fox is really active on Goldie Vance, which was a Boom Box series and they are very serious about making a feature based on that. And Just Beyond, is, well I’m not sure that we’ve announced that yet.
MACDONALD: “Dot dot dot.”
RICHIE: So let’s just say, they’re very good partners and they are very interested in our content and they are in development on it. When they looked at the Mouse Guard movie, what they saw was a motion capture, high budget film. It was $175 million, which I don’t know what non-Marvel, non-DC movie has ever been made [at that cost.]. That was expensive. They looked at that and said, that’s like Jungle Book. That’s like Lion King. That’s what Disney does. We want you to focus on what Fox can do, that’s very unique and original, like, say, Ford v. Ferrari. That’s something that would not have been a Disney movie.
MACDONALD: So Ross, we’re obviously in the midst of the Streaming Wars and IP is as valuable as it’s ever been. How do you see that affecting Boom in the next few years? It sounds like you have several streaming partners.
RICHIE: Everybody is excited about what we have to offer and we get a lot of incoming phone calls. I mean, we’ll send out a press release to the comic book press and get phone calls from studio partners at the streamers about wanting to turn it into a TV show. And we haven’t even made the comics yet.
MACDONALD: Would you say this time the interest is fiercer than compared to other times?
RICHIE: Oh, yeah. The interest is at an all-time high, for sure.
MACDONALD: So as we wrap this up, what are the biggest challenges facing Boom?
GAGNON: Something that we face, you know, on a day to day basis is, that we are a growing company. We’re not a company that has been around for 30 years that has all the infrastructure that was already built. And so for us — it’s a challenge but it’s also exciting — we’re still building, we’re still growing. Every year we still keep getting better. We keep increasing our expertise. Ross and I have been working together now for a very long time, and there’s a recursive thing year over year where, you know, we keep setting the bar higher and in some ways we kind of make our own challenges. We want to go out and be aggressive and strong in the market. But there’s a lot that we continue to learn. We started out many years ago identifying that the book market was going to be vital and was where the industry was heading. And I think that’s really why we were ahead of the curve when that switch really started to happen. There’s always challenges, always things that we need to be tinkering with and figuring out. But at the end of the day, that’s something that’s exciting to me.
MACDONALD: And the greatest opportunity?
RICHIE: We had a banner year in the direct market and we know that we have a slate that is going to do equal or better in this upcoming year. And so that’s extremely exciting. And beyond that, after 20% growth in 2018 and 15% growth in 2019, we really think we’re hitting our stride in the book market and the upcoming release slate has some huge titles. Matt, do you want to talk about Big Black?
GAGNON: Yeah, so we have a few graphic novels that are coming out [in 2020] that are based on real people or real events. We have Big Black: Stand at Attica coming out in February, which focuses on [the prison riot] at Attica and Frank “Big Black” Smith. We also have a book called We Served the People [set in China’s “Great Leap Forward”] coming out next year and also Happiness Will Follow, which is a memoir from Mike Hawthorne, about his experience growing up as a Puerto Rican in New York City.
RICHIE: We hope the slate that we have coming up is really going to perform in the book market. This next year is going to be a 15 to 20% growth year. We’re excited because I think that we’ve found things that are working and exciting creative projects that we’re feeding to the right channels and those markets are responding.
MACDONALD: I asked my staff if they had any questions for you and I did get one. Do you still have the Bill and Ted license?
RICHIE: Well, the term on licenses is not something I’m going to talk about. But I guess the question is, is there Bill and Ted stuff on the horizon?
GAGNON: I’ll say this, we’ve been having some conversations about at least one project with Bill and Ted in it.
RICHIE: The person asking that question will get a big kick out of this.
MACDONALD: What other books are you most excited about for next year?
RICHIE: Alienated. Si Spurrier has been with us for how long?
GAGNON: He started with us in 2009, so 10 years.
RICHIE: He’s doing this book with Chris Wildgoose, who did a graphic novel called Porcelain that I remember reading when it came out, and wanted to get him on a project. Alienated is like the teenagers from Chronicle find an alien like ET, but what they are going to find out is little ET is a fierce predator, not a cute and cuddly buddy.
GAGNON: We’re doing a book with Maxwell Prince, who did the Ice Cream Man series, which we loved. This book is called King of Nowhere with art by Tyler Jenkins. In my mind, he’s such a sophisticated author and creating material that’s very, very different and unique. It’s a story about a stranger coming to a sleepy desert town and a lot of weirdness ensues. I’ll leave it at that for now.
MACDONALD: You know, we have had so many conversations over the years, and it’s kind of like some of the things that we just dreamed about are happening all the time now.
RICHIE: That’s absolutely it. It is incredible. It’s so much fun.
GAGNON: There’s a lot of optimism. I think we’re really excited about the potential of where this medium is going. What we’re doing right now, the fact that we have multiple markets that we can publish in. And there are so many incredible creators that are on the rise. We have a lot of energy over at the company right now and we just feel like it’s a great time for this industry and a great time for the medium.