Monday, May 10, 2004

For the past five years, AiT/Planet Lar has staked its claim to a corner of the comics universe, producing books that are “intelligent but not high-brow,” “boisterous but not obnoxious” and “unconventional but not obtuse.” Guided by Larry Young and Mimi Rosenheim, the company has created a recognizable brand, no matter whether it’s publishing science-fiction epics or historical fiction.

AiT/Planet Lar’s latest success, the 12-issue Demo, is a bit of a departure for a publisher better known for graphic novels. Larry and Mimi agreed to answer a few questions about that series, their company and the industry:

Q: Brian Wood said Demo was "almost impossible for me to properly describe ahead of time." What was it about the concept that made you want to publish the series?

Larry: Well, there were several factors operating, here. First, I've known Bri for a while and we've not only been able to put out some good comics together, but we're pals, too. So we've been working together for so long that we have kind of a shorthand. I don't even remember how he pitched to me, but it was probably something that just organically came out of his work with Becky Cloonan on Channel Zero: Jennie One. You know, something like, "I was thinking about working with Becky on a monthly, and address some of the subjects I like in comics. Make it look really sharp, stretch our muscles." So I think, "Monthly, 'super' powers, written by Bri, with art by Becky? Self-contained, mini-OGNs, high quality production values? I can sell the hell out of that one." So he didn't have to pitch it to me, really. I totally respect Bri and Becky as artists on top of their games, so the last hurdle was me translating all the positives to Mimi, so she could see whether or not it would make financial sense for us. I'm the crazy man, and she's pretty conservative, so whenever we agree on a project right away, it bodes well for its success. And Mimi didn't need any convincing ...

Q: How important is Demo's format -- 12 standalone issues, essentially short graphic novels -- to its creative and commercial success? In your mind, could the stories have been told successfully in another format?

Mimi: I suppose so, but this is the format it was written for. Self-contained, individual issues, that can even be read "out of order." Didn't you and Bri even discuss not putting numbers on them, originally? Just sticking with the titles?

Larry: Yeah. Numbering them ended up being our one concession to "regular" comics marketing; it's enough of a change-up from our usual as it is to not make retailers figure out a new racking system for it, too.

Mimi: One of the things I like best about it is that you can read them "out of order" because every issue can be bought and read and enjoyed on its own merits. We saw people at WonderCon buying an Issue 1 or an Issue 3 or what-have-you because they were intrigued by the cover or the pitch or whatever coming back for the rest of the issues the next day. That was great. Shows the format is more inclusive than the regular comics, the standard monthly model.

Q: Why do you think the book's format was so difficult, at least initially, for so many readers to understand or appreciate?

Larry: I don't think it was as challenging for people as all that. It's a comic book, you know?

Mimi: New things take time to understand. Demo is a hybrid, a way of us bringing the original graphic novel format we're known for to readers who may be used to getting their comics in a monthly dose.

Q: Demo's sales seem to be doing something unusual: after the typical drop-off between the first and second issues, it's actually seeing a steady climb. Issue 5 actually outsold Issue 2. Is that something you expected? To what do you attribute that anomaly -- positive reviews and tremendous word-of-mouth, or the "new-reader-friendliness" of the format, or some combination?

Larry: It's not as anomalous as all that. It's just the nature of how comics are ordered in the direct market by retailers. Retailers hedge their bets and usually order half of #2s as they do of #1s because when the orders for #2 are due, they haven't even seen how #1 performs in their shops. I was able to stem that a little by sending copies of the first three issues out to comic retailers and links to PDFs of the completed issues, and the orders for #2 only dropped a third. That's when I knew that Brian and Becky and Ryan [Yount] and Mimi and I were going to be working a year on something that would be one for the ages. You know, that it wasn't just me who thought it was a brilliant idea, and well-executed. If you can get comics retailers to respond favorably, it's a home run. The big trick for independent publishers is to get the books into the shops in the first place, and if Demo is on the shelf, it's going to stand out with its confident design and superior production values. Readers pick it up like frat boys buy Cheetos. So retailers are going to stock them, and people will keep buying them. Of course, we have them always in print and available, so they can get as many as they need.

Mimi: There are plenty of factors which add up to sales, and good reviews and buzz and approachability of the material all factor into it. But like William Goldman famously wrote: "Nobody really knows anything," and so all we can do is our best work. And we're doing our best work.

Q: Fans and critics have hounded you since issue 1 about whether Demo will be collected as a trade paperback. So, I feel I have to ask: are you any closer to a decision on that front? How much of a factor does the sheer number of pages (somewhere around 300) play, and what kind of price point would make the trade affordable to readers and profitable to you?

Larry: This is like asking a marathon runner on Mile Eleven when he's going to run another marathon. Mimi and Bri and Becky and I aren't even going to look at any of those variables until Ryan drops the completed book into a FedEx box to go to the printer. And even then, it'll probably be a day or so after that, because then we're going over to the Isotope with three cases of beer to celebrate a year's worth of hard work.

Mimi: Oh, you know Ryan will just say "What's next?" like Martin Sheen on The West Wing.

Larry: Yeah, but my version's better.

Q: From a publishing standpoint, you seem to zig when everyone expects you to zag. Just when most people start associating AiT/Planet Lar with graphic novels, you put out something like Demo. Then you wade into the superhero "genre" with Planet of the Capes. Are these calculated moves to do the unexpected?

Larry: Here's the thing: I pay attention to mainstream entertainment in other media, so the things that I respond to and are interested in and influence me aren't in comics. And for Mimi, that's even more true. We just like other things as well as comics, and try to bring a sensibility of what works in other media to that of comics. That whole "HBO of comics" thing you hear about our company, most recently on the Variety comics blog, was ironically in a review about a couple of our upcoming superhero books. So there's a place for superheroes, sure, but when we do them they aren't going to be boy's adventure stories. Planet of the Capes is an allegory for the industry, and Hench is a cautionary tale. The costumes are just the detailing on a fast car, not the car itself.

Q: How difficult is it balancing writing and running a comic company? Do you find your duties as publisher eating into your creative efforts?

Larry: Obviously, the creative/administrative schism is a left brain/right brain thing, and sometimes it's hard to switch gears. When we first started, I thought I was going to be able to do an Astronauts in Trouble adventure with Charlie every three months. And then I thought it might be nice to have a book a year out. Then whole years went by where I did a bunch of free-lance writing but not for comics. So, yes, the more administrative and creative development and other-media deals we do are rewarding, but not in the same way as reading a comic that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for the hard work of you and your talented friends. So that's why I do "Proof of Concept." I steal a day for myself and write up a twelve-page script for artists to draw. Going to collect 'em all into a graphic novel, and have a nice little collection of short stories. So the media empire still gets run, and the part of me that just wants to write stories gets Thursday to himself.

Q: Outside of AiT/Planet Lar titles, what comics, or creators, do you read regularly?

Mimi: I love Top Shelf's books. Brett and Chris have an amazing line.

Larry: Kurt Busiek is doing a great Conan now. IDW has some good-looking books. I have lunch with Kieron Dwyer every Wednesday and we go to the shop after. I just go browse the comic racks and buy something that catches my eye. I love comics, and I'll read anything.

Q: Why aren't people reading more American comics, and what should be done to change that?

Mimi: I don't think it's all that much of a problem. I guess you specified "American" comics to set aside manga, but comics are comics. More people reading manga means more people reading comics, and that's nothing but good. Because for every person exposed to good comics with Chobits or Ranma or ... I don't know, pick your favorite manga, there's someone who's going to respond to Electric Girl or Jax Epoch or Colonia or Jax Epoch and the Quicken Forbidden.

Q: What's the most important thing you've learned in the five years of AiT/Planet Lar?

Larry: That there's room for everyone, and that there will always be someone somewhere making good comics. Slow and steady wins the race.

In case you missed them, you still can read the interviews with Demo creators Brian Wood and Becky Cloonan.