Comics & Games Retailer
Coming back to ComicsBy Oliver Chin
Over the past few months I have covered how many traditional book publishers are currently creating graphic novels to capitalize on the heightened public profile of comics characters.
Here I focus on how one company is trying to make a new name for itself and successfully market its wares. Based in New York, publisher Byron Preiss is returning to his roots as it were, but still trying to straddle two worlds.
The Comic Thread.
Thirty years ago, Byron Preiss started at DC Comics. Back in the l970s he collaborated with Joe Kubert, contributed to National Lampoon, and published graphic stories with contributors such as Steranko. As a bit of industry lore, his father Edmund Preiss represented Joe Siegel and Jerry Schuster in their lawsuit against Warner Brothers over who created Superman.
After managing the book imprint BP Books, he tried his hand in the brand new world of electronic publishing. In 1999 he founded ibooks, inc. to create titles in both paper and digital formats. But "ebooks," have not gained mainstream acceptance, and companies' efforts have yet to pay off. After being ahead of the curve, Preiss says that the company recently refocused on trade publishing, "In April 2003 we began our graphic novel program distributed by Simon and Schuster" and is continuing to produce science fiction, mystery, and history books.
In this endeavor of making ibook's presence felt in the world of comicdom, Preiss was joined by editor Steve Roman, who had novelized series for Spiderman and the X-Men, and together they are taking a slightly different spin on the graphic novel. Having published classic creators such as Howard Chaykin and Moebius, and writers such as Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison, and Ray Bradbury in his past, Preiss intends to focus on genres off from the superhero center. Original series include "Yossel by Joe Kubert; international bestsellers like Jacques Tardi's THE BLOODY STREETS OF PARIS and new collections like Guy Davis' Honour Among Punks and Jimmy Gownley's Amelia Rules."
The Merchandising Mix
Recognizing the tried and true nature of presenting familiar faces and titles, ibooks is also balancing their strategy with reprinting and licensing. On the reissue front, they are mining classic MAD magazine stories (edited by William Gaines) and presenting the eight $9.99 paperback in the "50th Anniversary Edition" series.
According to Preiss, ibook's "first 'big' title was Vic and Blood by Harlan Ellison illustrated by Richard Corben." Now Honour Among Punks ($34.95, 336 pages) has sold 5,000 copies and Yossel ("a deeply affecting graphic novel about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of l943", hardcover, $24.95) slightly less.
As Editor-in-Chief, Roman is producing a wide range of name brand novelizations. Preiss is quick to reel off his many irons in the fire, "We are about to release THE RED STAR, a novel based on the comics series with a 16-page comics insert. We do gaming books under the Steve Jackson FIGHTING FANTASY brand. We do THE SCIENCE OF THE X-MEN with Marvel and the SCIENCE OF SUPERMAN with DC. Doug Moench is writing THE FORENSICS OF BATMAN for '04 for our V.P. Howard Zimmerman. We have done novels based on Witchblade, Rising Stars, and Fathom. We are doing Transformers novels with Habro and Micronauts novels with Ken Abrams."
As one would expect, the Transformer series has done well with the reinvigoration of the franchise across fields of TV, toys, and comics (selling about 20,000 units), with Witchblade coming in second. Ibooks is even dipping its toe into "American manga" by publishing the original title SUNN (written by Roman with art by Kevin Lau and Alex Nino) and ICARO by the team of France's Moebius and Japan's Jiro Taniguchi (presented in the reading right-to-left format).
The Graphic Future
However, you can guess that is more in store as 2004 approaches. By now most people on the planet know that Arnold Schwarzenegger has been elected the new governor of California. This definitely is a propitious turn of events for ibooks (if not for citizens of the Golden State).
As luck would have it, ibooks is planning to exume TERMINATOR: THE BURNING EARTH, written by Ron Fortier and illustrated by Alex Ross (paperback, $17.95). Originally printed by long forgotten Now Comics, this version will feature digitally refurbished paintings and an introduction by Ross' friend Jim Krueger. Also ibooks is republishing the compact retelling of TERMINATOR 2 (penciled by Klaus Janson, this was originally put out a decade earlier). True to the ethic of this series where robots keep going back to the future, ibooks has lucked out by strangely publishing very old stories that oddly benefit from good timing.
For those looking for something a bit less political, there are the reliable THE BEST OF RAY BRADBURY (featuring Dave Gibbons, Mike Mignola, P. Graig Russell) and CHANDLER (Raymond Chandler stories depicted by artists such as David Lloyd and Rian Hughes). Next are a few multi-volume series, such as the French THE QUEST FOR ABERZEN, which Preiss compares to a blend of Tolkien, Star Wars, and Jeff Smith's BONE, and last but not least is the European entry BLACKSAD, a tale of crime fiction where humanoid animals are the main characters in the Big Apple ($12.95).
Positioning its profile somewhere among Fantagraphics, NBM and Drawn and Quarterly, ibooks is entering a crowded market at a competitive time, where the depth within certain categories, such as manga, means they have their work cut out for them. Nevertheless, having been around the block a few times, they have returned with a large and diverse enough set of products to make both retailers and readers take notice.