Archaia Comics Back in Full Force

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After bumping into organisational problems in late 2007, Archaia Studios Press went off the radar for a while. The publisher then found a willing partner in Kunoichi to provide overhead and get the publishing schedule… well, back on schedule.
At the same time, ASP got a new logo and changed its name to Archaia Comics, putting forward the message that they’re back and will continue what they did best: producing quality comics , while at the same time swiping away the dust from their shoulders, collected during the trying year that was 2008.

Now that the publishing activities have resumed, BF spoke to Archaia Publisher Mark Smylie, President PJ Bickett and Director of Development Stephen Christy about the company’s transition period and its plans for the future.

BROKEN FRONTIER: What was the cause for the company’s troubles?
MARK SMYLIE: We put out a couple of press releases about this last year, but to recap, my business partner, Aki Liao, decided that he wanted to leave the company after three years.  We had started ASP (now Archaia) as a pretty typical two-guys-and-a-garage kind of start-up, building on what I had done as a self-publisher for Artesia, and had expanded a great deal in the preceding year or two, thanks to the success of Mouse Guard – a lot more quickly than either of us had expected. 

That came with a price for both of us of long hours and greater commitments to the company, and Aki felt he couldn’t continue at the rate we were going; he had a day job and a family in addition to Archaia, and I hadn’t had a chance to work on Artesia in over a year at that point.  We immediately began searching for either a replacement for him as an investor in the company, or for someone to acquire the company and its creator contracts. 
BF: How close to the brink was Archaia before Kunoichi stepped in?
I think that might mischaracterize the situation a bit.  The expansion of the company – I think we added over a dozen titles in the preceding year – certainly did put a strain on our resources, but Aki’s decision to leave was a personal one.  We received interest from Kunoichi fairly quickly, but it took a while for the deal to get implemented and things to start cranking up again, and bringing on board a new ownership and partnership took a lot longer than anyone expected.  PJ and Kunoichi brought with them a new business model and a company reorganization that is still ongoing.

BF: PJ and Stephen, can you each describe your role within the company?
I am the President and Owner of Archaia. My role is to continue to support Mark and bring in a strong team around him, that includes people like Stephen and Mel, to have Archaia realize its full potential. I realize that is a pretty “business-y” thing to say, but that is really my role: to apply longstanding business rules, while searching out new ways to improve efficiencies. What this means for the fans and retailers is that they get to see comics and graphic novels from Archaia on a monthly basis, which I think is the ultimate goal for everyone.
STEPHEN CHRISTY: I’m the Director of Development for Archaia as well as the head of our brand-spankin’-new LA office. Basically my job is two-fold. First, I work with Mark to seek out and evaluate all new comic book projects that come our way, whether they come from first-time creators or established talent. One of the biggest draws for me about coming to Archaia is the reputation for quality that Mark built up over the course of the first three years of the company.

That’s something we remain firmly committed to. I like to tell people that we’re the HBO of independent comics… we don’t do a lot of product, but we put a lot of thought, time and hard work into each and every book we do, making sure that everything we put out is something we’re proud of.The second part of my job is being the “Hollywood” guy for the company – working with our studio, network and production company partners to make sure each and every one of our properties get a shot at potential film, television or video game development.

BF: What factors made Archaia appealing to acquire?
BICKETT: First and foremost, Archaia’s quality of product. Not only did you know it was an Archaia product when reading because of the great story and concept, but you also knew just by “feel.” When you picked up an Archaia book, you could literally feel the difference and you knew you had something special. It is the little things that go into producing such a high-quality product and not cutting corners to make a quick buck which makes Archaia stand above its competition.
Next, and as equally important, was Mark’s ability to spot undiscovered and unbelievably talented Creators like Tom Siddell with Gunnerkrigg Court, Nick Tapalansky and Alex Eckman-Lawn with Awakening, A. David Lewis and Marvin Mann with Some New Kind of Slaughter, Alex Sheikman with Robotika, and, yes, David Petersen with Mouse Guard, not to mention Mark’s own great property of Artesia.

I also think it is important to note Archaia’s ancillary products, like the Mouse Guard RPG with Luke Crane, who is an incredible talent in the gaming world. This spoke volumes to the type of gifted Creators contributing to Archaia.

BF: Mark, were there any mistakes made that you’ve learned from and now will prevent from making again? The one I can think of is soliciting a whole lot of new projects over a relatively short time span…
I don’t think we debuted more than two new titles in any given month during our expansion period, but even that relatively measured pace probably wasn’t sustainable, so yeah, you probably won’t see more than one new title from us in a given month for the time being. I think all of the titles we were offering were of a high quality – that’s what we look for across the board in our projects – but this is a crowded marketplace and the expansion was probably at too fast a pace. 

We also wound up with a problem of a lot of late books even before we had to go on hiatus, so we’re making sure that we don’t solicit titles until we know the issues are either already finished or well underway to make sure that we don’t repeat the lateness problem we had last year. 

BICKETT: As Mark mentioned, quality, above all else, will be the sole basis in which we measure ourselves, always striving to be better than we were the month before. I am not just talking about the paper quality. I am referring to the quality that goes into the storytelling, the artwork, editing, graphic design, marketing of the product, identifying the best time to release the product, and many more valued points we painstakingly consider.

Even a simple thing like lettering we scrutinize. I am realistic and knowing we will not get it right every time. But, it is a process, and a long one that just doesn’t magically happen overnight. But, I feel we are continuously adding the right pieces to get us a little closer each day.

BF: Was it easy to develop a solid working relationship with Kunoichi after going at it independently for several years, Mark?
While I was the primary person running ASP, I was very much supported by Aki, my business partner, and what was a growing (if part-time) staff, including Brian Petkash, Joe Illidge and Pauline Benney, so it had been a while since ASP was a one-man operation like in my self-publishing days. 

The transition took a lot longer than we all expected – I suspect these sorts of things always take longer than you think they will – but that had more to do with the scale and complexity of the transition than any difficulties in trying to work with Kunoichi’s more business-oriented company culture.  That’s been one of the better parts of the new arrangement for Archaia, that there’s now a parent company with personnel and resources that can take over a lot of the day-to-day running of the company.
BF: Was it an easy transition period for the creators?
This sort of thing is never easy for anyone; very few people like uncertainty, particularly when you’re talking about passion projects that are near and dear to their hearts, and we were often juggling trying to keep almost 30 creators or creative teams in the loop about what was going on, which is as difficult as it sounds.

However, despite the fact that the transition took a lot longer than we were hoping or expecting, I think most of our creators managed to approach the ownership transition with patience and good humor and we’ve retained something like 90% of the titles that we had prior to Aki leaving.

BF: Did you have to go through a lot of effort to keep as many projects on board as you did, or was there a lot of goodwill among the creators that had signed on?
We had a lot of questions to answer from everyone, but we’re extraordinarily lucky to work with the creators that we do; many of us have been through a lot together (doing conventions in particular is one of those “under fire” bonding experiences, I think) and Aki and I had tried over the years to build the notion of Archaia as a family of creators that know and support each other.  And PJ and Stephen both seem committed to continuing that sense of community with the new Archaia.
BF: How about new projects? Did Archaia being back in business/the overhead provided by Kunoichi help to attract new projects?
Yes, once Kunoichi’s acquisition of Archaia became public it helped open the doors to new projects and submissions; we’re always looking for undiscovered talent, which is where I think we have built our reputation, but Kunoichi as a parent company and Stephen as our new Director of Development have also brought with them new contacts and inroads with more established comics creators and with entertainment companies working in other media.  We should have more announcements about new titles soon.

CHRISTY: More than anything else it’s allowed us to be a little more aggressive than we might be if we were just on our own and not being supported by a parent company. By that I mean that we can go after projects that we feel passionate about and creators we want to work with, even if those projects or creators might not be the most bankable from a financial standpoint. We’re very, very cautious and selective of what properties we want to publish, but it does help to have that buffer to allow us to take a risk here or there.

BF: Archaia recently changed its logo and name. What’s the underlying idea behind both?
Really, it was to give Archaia a fresh start, while continuing on the traditions of quality. While our publishing numbers today may reflect one of a small press publisher, our reality is that we are something much more that only time will allow us to prove true. Also, it is important to note that the new Archaia is part of the new age of publishing. This will include digital, mobile and several other methods we, as are many other publishers, working on right now. What I hope will always separate us apart is that our stories are originals, not based off licensed materials.

CHRISTY: What PJ said! Plus, being a design geek there was no way I could turn down the chance to let Rian Hughes, one of the best designers in comics, reimagine the classic Archaia logo. Rian came in and took the best elements from our original logo, and managed to retain those elements while adding a “pop” feel to the logo that for lack of a better term makes it look much more “logo-y.” And that’s the end of my logo geek-out!

BF: Has anything changed about the company’s scope or philosophy now that you’re back in full force?

Our philosophy remains unchanged, trying to find and nurture original voices, fresh visions, and new talent.  We are still committed largely to the same kind of epic adventure stories as before, with an emphasis on comics literature in the science fiction, fantasy, historical, mystery and horror genres; and I do mean literature, in that we’re still emphasizing timeless, deeply-rooted stories that people can read a decade or a century from now and still find value in, rather than pop material that makes a splash and then disappears without a trace.  It’s one of the reasons we publish in hardcover, that notion that what we do is not disposable.
BF: What’s on the horizon for the rest of the year? And where does Kunoichi come in to realise those plans?
CHRISTY: We have some amazing announcements coming up over the next few months that I wish we could talk about a little bit more. One of the projects that I’m really excited about that we can talk about is Days Missing, a five-issue science fiction miniseries that we’re creating with RODDENBERRY PRODUCTIONS, the people behind Star Trek. The first issue is by Phil Hester and Frazer Irving and it hits in August for $0.99 (the San Diego Comic-Con exclusive cover drawn by Dale Keown is depicted on the right - ed.) ! How can you go wrong with that?

Kunoichi is only there to provide support. Outside of that, there is no other role. At the end of the day, it is Archaia’s battle to win or lose and our retailers and fans will be the deciding factor there. If fans want more meaningful content that perpetually transforms minds, then I am betting they are going to pick up an Archaia product over our competition.

And, if retailers are looking for quality-driven and on-time product, I know they will take a chance on ordering more of our product which will pay off for them at the end of the day.

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