IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic-Con

July 22, 2014 | 4:16 p.m.
ted adams photo IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

Ted Adams is co-founder and publisher at IDW. As the company expands into other media, he says what still gives him the most excitement is getting advance copies of the company's comics, to "see all these things that, if IDW didn’t exist, probably would not have happened." (Kendall Whitehouse)

ryall IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

Chris Ryall, IDW's editor in chief and chief creative officer, joined the company in 2004. He has also written for IDW in both licensed Clive Barker adaptations and originals such as "Zombies vs. Robots." (Victor Ha)

30daysofnight 340e0 IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

Steve Niles' and Ben Templesmith's "30 Days of Night," first published in 2002, signaled IDW's transition from creative services company to a comic book publisher, and a home to original horror. (IDW Publishing)

302 cvr IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

"30 Days of Night" did well as a graphic novel. It was adapted into a film in 2007. (IDW Publishing)

csi IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

"CSI" started a thriving initiative in licensed titles for IDW. The comic series started in 2003 and included the debut of artist Gabriel Rodriguez. (IDW Publishing)

drift IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

Drift, a character that first appeared in IDW's "Transformers" comics, is featured in this summer's big-screen "Transformers: Age of Extinction." "It’s a nice way to feel like we’ve made a permanent mark on the Transformers legacy," Ryall says. (IDW Publishing)

littlenemo 01 cov IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

"Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland," inspired by Winsor McCay's landmark early 20th century newspaper strips, arrives in August from Eisner Award winner Eric Shanower and IDW mainstay artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Rodriguez is "somebody I really recognized early on as an amazing talent," Ryall says. (IDW Publishing)

lockekey1cover IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

Joe Hill's and Gabriel Rodriguez's Eisner Award-winning "Locke & Key," which began in 2008 and ended earlier this year, led to a TV pilot that wasn't picked up. That helped influence the launch of IDW Entertainment, which is working to develop TV projects in-house. (IDW Publishing)

micro IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

The "My Little Pony" set, released last year, was the first of IDW's Micro Comic Fun Pack line, sold both in big-box stores and comic book stores. More sets have followed. (IDW Publishing)

ragnarok 01 cov con IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

"Ragnarok" is a new original series by Walter Simonson, known for his acclaimed long run on Marvel's "Thor" in the 1980s. (IDW Publishing)

vwars05 cvra IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

"V-Wars" is a new original series written by Jonathan Maberry. It is also being developed for television. (IDW Publishing)

winterworld01 cvrcon IDW at 15: Ted Adams, Chris Ryall talk growth, risks, Comic Con

"Winterworld" is an original series written by Chuck Dixon ("Detective Comics." (IDW Publishing)

Fifteen years ago in San Diego, IDW wasn’t publishing comics and Comic-Con drew about 45,000 people.

How times have changed.

The company that Ted Adams co-founded in 1999 with three fellow comic industry veterans has evolved into one of the top four comic book publishers, competing with 22-year-old indie innovator Image Comics for No. 3, albeit well behind superhero stalwarts Marvel and DC, both at least five times its age. Last year, IDW sold more than 1 million graphic novels. And the pop-culture phenom of a convention it shares a city with? A long-ago sold-out crowd of 130,000 is expected this week.

Steve Niles' and Ben Templesmith's "30 Days of Night," first published in 2002, signaled IDW's transition from creative services company to a comic book publisher, and a home to original horror. (IDW Publishing)

Steve Niles’ and Ben Templesmith’s “30 Days of Night,” first published in 2002. (IDW Publishing)

IDW – publisher of original horror hits “30 Days of Night” and “Locke & Key,” and comics home to brands as realities-apart as “The X-Files” and “My Little Pony” – is celebrating 15 years of slow-and-steady but risk-taking growth, evidenced by its expansion on the convention floor to two booths to showcase its varied ventures old and new.

“My approach with our publishing business has always been to be as diverse as possible,” said Adams, who as chief executive and publisher oversees IDW’s monthly comics, art books, Eisner Award-winning archival lines and the new tabletop games and television divisions.

Industry observers have noticed.

“To me, IDW is most interesting because they are relentlessly focused on expanding the comics market in ways that most publishers aren’t,” said Rob Salkowitz, author of “Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture” and a teacher of digital strategy at the University of Washington’s Communications Leadership graduate program.

“Every weekend, my local comic store is crowded with little girls picking up their ‘My Little Pony’ issues while their parents browse the graphic novel shelf,” Salkowitz added. “That’s astonishing – and brilliant. Young girls are not an audience that’s been served by an American comics publisher in decades. In terms of playing catch-up – at least on this front – I’m not sure most other companies would know where to start.”

Heading into Comic-Con, a notoriously tough ticket, IDW has accomplished much – and will announce more to come across several panel presentations. But there are some things it can’t do.

“We had a break-in, and we had a cop who came in,” Adams said, “and within 10 minutes was asking us for tickets to Comic-Con.” (Sorry, Officer.)

The "My Little Pony" set, released last year, was the first of IDW's Micro Comic Fun Pack line, sold both in big-box stores and comic book stores. More sets have followed. (IDW Publishing)

The “My Little Pony” set, released last year, was the first of IDW’s Micro Comic Fun Pack line, sold both in big-box stores and comic book stores. More sets have followed. (IDW Publishing)

Its publishing success is nothing that Idea & Design Works could have anticipated at the start.

Set up initially to do graphic design and other work on other companies’ products, IDW didn’t publish its first book, an art volume by Ashley Wood, until 2001. The team got a space at that year’s Comic-Con to sell “Uno Fanta,” and the experience – “to have brought something into the world that didn’t exist before,” Adams said – helped push the company into comics.

IDW’s arrival on the scene was heralded by an eye-opening original vampire story and a licensed forensic phenomenon.

Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith’s 2002 bloodsuckers-in-Alaska shocker “30 Days of Night” (later a hit film) and a 2003 “CSI” series – featuring two artists, one for present scenes and one for flashbacks to evoke the show’s look – had quality that “propelled [IDW] from ‘another interesting publisher’ to one of the leading independent comics companies,” Salkowitz said.

The metamorphosis into a major independent player was complete when IDW won comics command of an army of robots in disguise.

Drift, a character that first appeared in IDW's "Transformers" comics, is featured in this summer's big-screen "Transformers: Age of Extinction." "It’s a nice way to feel like we’ve made a permanent mark on the Transformers legacy," Ryall says. (IDW Publishing)

Drift, a character that first appeared in IDW’s “Transformers” comics, is featured in this summer’s big-screen “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” “It’s a nice way to feel like we’ve made a permanent mark on the Transformers legacy,” Chris Ryall says. (IDW Publishing)

“It sounds very trite to say it this way, but the one that really feels transformative to the company is when we started doing the Transformers,” said Chris Ryall, IDW Publishing’s chief creative officer and editor in chief, who joined in 2004 and helped land the license the next year.

“People were going, ‘Wait a second, who is this little company in San Diego that was suddenly awarded this giant licensed property?’” Ryall said, noting that IDW won franchise creator Hasbro’s bidding process over larger and older publishers. This summer’s blockbuster movie “Transformers: Age of Extinction” included a character, Drift (voiced by Ken Watanabe), created in the company’s comics.

The editor, who has seen IDW’s monthly slate grow from about 10 titles a month to 60-70 titles a month in his decade at the company, and Adams both noted that, whether it’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” or “Godzilla” or “Star Trek,” the company doesn’t pursue licenses unless it has people on staff who are already fans of the franchises.

“I think if we were to do projects solely because they might make a few dollars or fully because it seemed like a good company thing but nobody had any passion for it, then it starts to feel like work,” Ryall said, adding that he thinks “fans can read when it’s a passionate thing instead of just a more commercial idea.”

The licensed books’ success helps fuel an engine that also has consistently produced original, creator-owned comics – including launches this year of Marvel “Thor” visionary Walter Simonson’s Norse epic “Ragnarok,” Jonathan Maberry’s global vampire conflict “V-Wars” and respective new titles from Niles (“October Faction”) and Templesmith (“The Squidder”).

What Ryall calls “the flagship” of IDW’s originals in recent years is Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Eisner Award-winning “Locke & Key,” which started in 2008 and concluded earlier this year. In addition to bolstering the company’s standing, the haunting tale of the three children of a family beset by a mysterious evil – and the mind-opening, miraculous keys they discover – has in part inspired a move into developing television series in-house after a promising pilot based on the comic was produced in 2011 but not picked up – though it screened to positive reaction later that year at Comic-Con.

“We really ended up with what I consider to be a terrific pilot that was faithful to the book but also opened up the world in a different way,” Adams said of the effort produced by hit-makers Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (“Star Trek,” “Amazing Spider-Man” films) and directed by Mark Romanek (“Never Let Me Go”). But Fox decided against ordering “Locke & Key” to series.

“That was obviously completely their right – it was their money,” Adams said. “Obviously, I thought that was a mistake. I suspect they probably see it as a mistake now as well.”

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Eisner Award-winning "Locke & Key," which began in 2008 and ended earlier this year, led to a TV pilot that wasn't picked up. That helped influence the launch of IDW Entertainment, which is working to develop TV projects in-house. (IDW Publishing)

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Eisner Award-winning “Locke & Key,” which began in 2008 and ended earlier this year, led to a TV pilot that wasn’t picked up. That helped influence the launch of IDW Entertainment, which is working to develop TV projects in-house. (IDW Publishing)

And while “Locke & Key” is being repositioned for the big screen now, IDW Entertainment was launched last year to develop other shows – with about 10 projects in various stages, including a “V-Wars” script by Tim Schlattmann (“Dexter”) – and Adams says some of those IDW-commissioned scripts will start moving from the creative phase to the business phase in fall and winter.

“Instead of going to a studio and saying, ‘Will you option our material?,’ we’re going to go to a studio and say, ‘Do you want to buy this show?’” Adams said.

Television may be IDW’s highest-profile new effort, but it is this month opening the box of its first title in an older medium – tabletop games – with “The X-Files,” and one on the creator-owned IDW original title “Kill Shakespeare” to follow. IDW Games’ wares will be alongside the IDW Limited high-end books in the company’s new second Comic-Con booth.

IDW heads into Comic-Con’s Eisner Awards ceremony with nine nominations, including a combined five for its Library of American Comics and Artist’s Editions archival lines.

“I think that we see ourselves as acting as a historian for comic strips and comic books,” Adams said.

But the company is also pushing into the future.

Salkowitz credits IDW with expanding the comics market beyond comic shops, including with its early and continuing digital efforts.

Digital ventures are bringing people who rediscover comics on iPads and smartphones back into comic book stores, Adams said, citing anecdotal evidence and financial statements from IDW and other publishers that show print and digital revenues growing together over the last couple years. The company also is reaching out to kids in such stores as Target and Toys R Us with Micro Comic Fun Packs for its “My Little Pony” and “Transformers” titles that include sticker sheets and the like – an effort Adams said has been a hit, with more titles, including “Skylanders,” lined up.

So, what might IDW look like 15 years from now?

Its CEO says he hopes it remains a diverse publisher, and has had some TV shows on the air – and has new ventures to pursue.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll have continued to take lots of risks,” Adams said.

Blake Hennon | Google+ | @LATHeroComplex

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