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The future is still clouded at Oni Press

Another executive has departed Oni Lion Forge, and staffers are talking about "disarray"

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To an outsider, Oni Press  – or Oni Lion Forge Publishing Group (OLFPG) – now resembles a spooky house that might attract an investigation by the kids from Stranger Things: People are disappearing and no one knows who or what is responsible.

You drive by and remember all the fun things that the family that used to live there once did, but now they’re mysteriously gone and the house stands silent except for an occasional tortured moan.

OK maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but reading the two latest reports on Oni at Popverse (great reporting, gang!), and the mystery just deepens. On Monday it was reported that associate publisher Michelle Nguyen had voluntarily quit the company. Nguyen was the top remaining executive at Oni and her departure seems to leave the company even more rudderless.

Ted Naifeh’s gothy Courtney Crumrin was an early success for Oni

This state of affairs was confirmed yesterday in a report entitled ‘Another Oni Press staffer reveals what’s going on inside company, and how the public statement “reaped the whirlwind of their failure”‘. (See, I’m not the only one being dramatic.) According to one of the remaining staffers, the company is in a state of “disarray” and things have been troubled for a while, with executives at St. Louis based Polarity taking over running the company:

“The only positive thing I can say about the Polarity merger is that it kept Oni open through the pandemic/lockdown,” they said, adding that everything beyond that has been the kind of disastrous decision making that has resulted in the loss of 13 staff members in the last few months and failure in some basic business practices. Specifically mentioned was the tracking and payment of royalties, something that Oni-Lion Forge has been criticized for in recent weeks.

While that was happening, the staffer said, Polarity was consistently demanding greater profitability from Oni-Lion Forge, prompting a series of layoffs that resulted in what was described as “an ongoing battle that was eventually resolved by firing the person trying to keep layoffs from happening.”

The general silence of Polarity executives – perhaps wise given their one disastrous attempt at a social media message – is what has led to a lot of this speculation; however, they did talk on background with ICv2 resulting in an undramatic story called A SMALLER ONI LION FORGE CARRIES ON:

The most recent reductions were mandated by Polarity Ltd. Vice President – Portfolio Operations and Execution Rick Johnson during a visit to the publisher’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon last week (see “Four More Gone from Oni Press“). 

[…] St. Louis-based Polarity Ltd., which gained majority ownership of the publisher after Lion Forge and Oni Press merged in 2019 (see “Lion Forge, Oni Press to Merge“), was dissatisfied with its financial performance and is taking these steps to reduce costs, we were told.  At this point, no wholesale changes in how the company is going about publishing are planned; although the scale is likely to be smaller, no plan for how for reducing output has been set. In a statement released in conjunction with last week’s layoffs, the company said as much.

That an executive with the word “Execution” in his title is the one tasked with carrying out layoffs is just one of the amazing by-products of this era of corporate America, I suppose.

The Sixth Gun kicked off Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s careers

At any rate, Johnson was present for at least a few days at the recent San Diego Comic-Con, as was Mike Kennedy, the head of much acclaimed European comics imprint Magnetic Press, which is also owned by Polarity, but which has escaped scrutiny – and seemingly ruin – in all these goings on.

I’m told that at SDCC Johnson met with some key industry partners, and the message was much the same as the one presented in the ICv2 piece: work will continue, books will come out.

I should also point out that there has been at least one risibly batshit and inaccurate story about OLFPG posted, repeating rumors that have no basis in fact regarding the legal challenges to Gender Queer – published first by Lion Forge and now Oni. Although a comic book news site is taking credit for breaking the story, it had been reported widely in the book publishing world, It’s true, regular comics folks hadn’t been paying much attention to it, but Polarity corporate was well aware of the petition to declare the book obscene, and had been providing resources for the defense. Also, if you want to get technical, EIC James Lucas Jones and VP Charlie Chu were let go days before the story broke in the comics press. So there’s your timeline.

While Oni Lion Forge may not have had any public presence at SDCC – very sad given it was to be a 25th Anniversary bash – you can rest assured that it was topic A at every industry type gathering.

And the message was the same over and over: How sad.

Jen van Meter’s Hopeless Savages, another Oni hit

I’m not quite ready to write a full version of the Oni obit – I suspect they will be around for  a while more –  but while we listen to the eerie silence from within the house, you need to know that Oni is absolutely a pioneering company in comics publishing history. When Bob Schreck and Joe Nozemack founded it in the late 90s, there was nothing else like it – “indie” comics were mostly bad girls and horror, literary comics were working through an autobiographical period and superheroes were going through their post-Wertham low point. There was no outlet for the kind of work that Oni started to publish.

Oni put out a more “emo” girl friendly type of comic to the stands. It not only presaged the vast ocean of manga-influenced works that we see now, but added a light touch that no one else at the time was pursuing.

And dear lord, the creators Oni discovered or nurtured. Just off the top of my head: Greg Rucka, Jen van Meter, Cullen Bunn, Steve Rolston, Chynna Clugston, Ted Naifeh, Joëlle Jones, Sean Gordon Murphy, Matthew Southworth, Katie O’Neill, Erika Moen, and of course Bryan Lee O’Malley. It goes on and on. ***

Oni has has such a proud and distinctive history. (Lion Forge has its own library of bangers.) The biggest question is….how much of it does Polarity own? Reportedly some of Oni’s biggest backlist hits would be hard to extricate from their OLFPG contracts, so if someone was going to buy the company there would be some assets beyond back issues. The reason everyone keeps speculating on a sale? Polarity has moved much more into animation of late, and publishing comic books is a complicated affair that you really have to love to be successful at. And given all the talk of cost cutting, it doesn’t appear they were hitting those KPIs to begin with.

Maybe the saddest thing about all of this is that whenever I asked someone at SDCC “Who do you think could buy Oni?” no one had a real answer. It’s not like any comics publisher has an eight figure M&A fund lying around. So that leaves maybe some kind of larger IP company like Embracer, which bought Dark Horse, or even NPX which just purchased Korean webcomics portal Toomics for $160 million. The problem is twofold – M&A is off in today’s economy; and Dark Horse and Toomics had robust profiles, and healthy portfolios. All the layoffs, cost cutting, grumbling from creators over non payment of royalties, and lack of an announced new publishing plan at OLFPG have left it looking pretty tattered.

I hate to go back to the house metaphor again, but from the outside, it looks like the roof needs patching and a few shutters are hanging on by a thread.

I dunno, maybe a year from now this will all be in the rearview mirror and we’ll be sitting at the “Oni 26th Anniversary Panel” at San Diego. I sure hope so. Stranger things have happened.


***This is a brief off the cuff tribute to Oni Press, and not a history lecture, so I welcome corrections in the comments but please, be nice.

Disclosure: The Beat was owned by Polarity, parent company of Oni Lion Forge Publishing Group from 2017 to 2020.

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