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Archaia to the Max

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With three little mice leading the way, Archaia Studios Press made lots of headlines last year, and the company has no intention of stopping to ride on the hot streak it’s got going.

The first indicator came at the end of February, when Archaia announced the signing of a deal with Random House for the joint production of a Mouse Guard softcover edition, set for an early 2008 release through the publishing giant’s Villard imprint.

Then, at the start of this month, Archaia announced its line-up for the summer and fall of 2007, an assembly of titles from all sorts of genres—horror, fantasy, sci-fi, noir; you name it, they’ve got it—that together echoed the same message: the company is expanding, and you can’t stop it. Whereas the company previously focused on putting out only a handful of titles and doing it right, it is now on the verge of launching an entire wave of titles without relinquishing the high production standards the Archaia brand has become known for.

BF turned to Archaia master Mark Smylie to discuss the how, what and why behind the latest announcements to come out of the publisher.

BROKEN FRONTIER: How did the deal with Villard come about? Was it something you actively pursued to introduce Mouse Guard to a wider audience?

MARK SMYLIE: No, actually, we were contacted almost a year ago by both Scholastic and Random House. Both were very interested in picking up getting the rights to Mouse Guard for a broader book trade. We wanted to do the hardcover edition ourselves, and after going back and forth, Random House seemed to offer a better fit and a deal that was more accommodating to us in terms of us being able to do the HC doing the way we wanted to do it.

[The deal] allows us a larger publisher to fall back on, because as a small press publisher, getting noticed in the book trade market can be very difficult. We were very happy that Random House was able to guarantee us that David’s book will get a lot more exposure.

BF: The hardcover will feature some new material, as is usually the case with collections among many publishers. Will the new content be included in the softcover edition as well, or is it ‘hardcover-exclusive’, so to speak?

MS: We’re going to have 12 pages of bonus material in the hardcover. It will include an epilogue and some backup material, and cutaway versions of both Barkstone and Lockhaven—two of the mouse settlements detailed in the book—that David (Petersen, Mouse Guard creator – ed.) has prepared.

For the softcover, there will be something new in it to distinguish it from the HC’s content—but nothing really new, more something along the lines of pinups or sketchbook material. Otherwise, the content will be the same.

BF: Mouse Guard is really taking off as a franchise, it's even got several kinds of toys currently in production as well…

MS: Indeed, Diamond Select Toys is doing both plushies and PVC toys. The plush toys will probably be ready in time for this year’s San Diego con, so they should be out some time in July. The PVC ones will take a little bit longer—more towards the fall—because the production time involved takes longer to be completed. 

We’ve already seen the models for those at New York Toy Fair and NY Comic Con and people seem to be responding very well. They’re very cute [laughs], but what is more, they very accurately capture the spirit of the mice and the nature of David’s drawing. It’s nice for David, and for us, to see his characters in 3D the way he intended them.

BF: How far can this property still go in terms of popularity and exposure?

MS: I think for David’s book, the sky is the limit. He’s got a phenomenal title that appeals to people of all ages. In fact, I feel it’s one of the few genuine all ages titles in comics—the term is often used for children’s books intended essentially for children, but David’s book is almost the opposite in a sense. It’s geared towards adults, because there’s a level of sophistication in both the writing and the art that adults will like, but it also appeals to children at the same time.

Overall, we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of how popular the book can get and what its future possibilities are. In particular, once the HC edition and Random House SC edition appear, we’ll see a real response by a lot of people outside of comics. It’s done really well in the comics market and I think the book market will respond equally well to it.

And of course, we’re also hopeful that at some point a film or TV series will happen so even more people can enjoy Mouse Guard.

BF: A few weeks ago the first Secret History book was released. How are the European titles doing in general? What has the response of the public been?

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeMS: We’ve been very happy about the way the response has been. To some extent, we’ve gotten the same retailer response on The Killer as we got with Mouse Guard. There were plenty of retailers calling us to say they didn’t have enough copies available to meet demand and that the issues are running out of stores, so they urged us to make sure that the distributor has enough copies in stock. The Secret History did very well at NYCC, which bodes well for how it will fare in the hands of a broader market audience.

I must say that for people that are familiar with the original French editions, there’s often been some disappointment about the scale or the size we’re using, because we’re doing them in the traditional US comics size. Every now and then people come to us and say ‘Oh we wish you’d done them in the original size, because that’s the way the artist intended the art to be seen’, but I don’t think the reduction has taken anything away from the art.

By presenting them in an American format, size and style, you allow people to approach them without any kind of stigma—there are some American readers who don’t like reading European-sized material for whatever reason.

BF: When you first told me about Archaia’s plans to translate some European books, the reduction was my main concern as well, but in hindsight I feel that, especially on The Killer, it doesn’t hurt the flow of the story at all…

MS: Some art does not reduce well, because it depends on the level of detail the artist is using. Jacamon’s style in particular tends to reduce reasonably well. There’s something about his line work that we can reduce and still have it look really great on the slightly reduced scale. His panel constructions and layouts often are very expansive and they translate well into the size we’re producing the books in. We’d be more worried if the panels had been very, very small.

That was one of our concerns with Okko, though, because Hub uses very intricate panel work, of which we weren’t sure it would work, but it does. Plus, obviously, a lot of it all depends on to what extent people are lost in the story. That makes it easier to look at small panels, and as a reader makes you worry less about the size and format of the book you’re looking at.

Also, we’ve got The Killer Vol. 1 HC coming up in a couple of months, and I think that will help solidify the position of the series, and hopefully our European titles as a whole, even more over the long term.

BF: Now, overall, the indie market is suffering from Marvel’s and DC’s stranglehold as much as it ever has in recent memory. Is Archaia feeling the effects of that as well?

MS: I think that in many ways the indie market does seem to be suffering from a bit of a glut. We’ve seen Virgin Comics and Boom! Studios coming on very strong over the past year, and overall there’s an enormous amount of competition on the indie market.

Unfortunately, if DC and Marvel are doing events or crossovers that many people are buying, there’s not a whole lot of retailer money left for the indie portion of the market, so we’re left fighting over a smaller piece of the pie.

I think those are good problems to have: if the industry as a whole is putting out quality stuff, comics in general are doing well and that’s good for everybody. The more good work we put out together, the more people will be drawn back come into comics and the more the industry will go.

NYCC was a great example of that for us, in terms of how the mainstream media and publication world are paying more attention to graphic novels and comics and I think that’s where we can reap some benefits.

BF: You’ve come to mention Virgin and Boom. If you look at the indie spectrum, let’s say there’s those two to on the one end, with publishers like Fantagraphics and Top Shelf on the other. Where do you see Archaia fitting in, especially with regard to the many different new genre titles you’ve got coming up this year, ranging from zombie tales to science fiction, to drama to fantasy?

MS: The books that we’re putting out fall in a bit of an in-between category, in the sense that they don’t quite match the superhero type of books Marvel and DC are doing, but they’re not alternative enough to fit in with the work Top Shelf, Fantagraphics or Oni are producing.

A lot of indie publishers that fall in between are looking at the middle ground, where you can place strong genre elements. There’s a growing amount of stories that are not superheroes or slice-of-life, but are action-oriented in one form or another.

What we’re trying to put together is a package where you find science fiction, fantasy, horror, noir, some historical stuff, etc.—that’s where we’re hoping to become a reliable source for good material.

BF: As a publisher who’s never had more than four or five books in publication at the same time, you’re now launching a whole lot of new material over the second half of 2007. Where does this wave of expansion come from?

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeMS: In some ways it was coincidental. We had been talking to the creators on some of these books for over a year. As we approached the end of 2006, a lot of people were telling us they were going to be finished with their books by this or that date and we found that we had a lot lined up for the second half of 2007. That was good, because it gives us the summer to really gear up for what’s coming out.

For example, we’ve got two horror books coming out on August 1—a zombie story titled Awakening, and a supernatural noir one titled Killing Pickman—so being able to take books that have similar vibe and have them debut in the same month, is a way for us to say to readers, “Hey, if you’re interested in horror, look at this one.” Having a full schedule for the rest of the year will allow all of the titles to complement each other and build a stronger overall image for us as we move into 2008.

BF: When you’re putting together a wave like this, what are the criteria you use to separate the good pitches from the bad?

MS: As an artist, what I’m always looking at first is the art. Something about the art style has to be appealing. Other than that, Aki and I are using simple criteria, really, like, “If we’re walking into a store and saw this on a shelf, would we be interested?”

We really liked a lot of the submissions we got, because they gave us a sense that we’d want to buy these books ourselves if they appeared in comic shops. It becomes very easy to want to publish something when you’d like to read it yourself.

We often get great writing proposals or ideas as well, but either the wrong artist is attached, or it’s not up the standards we want our projects to be at. 

BF: Did you get any submissions from creators who wanted to get their project published by Archaia specifically, due to the positive criticism that has befallen the company over the past couple of years?

MS: We’ve been lucky to have people come to us and say they like how we’ve been doing things. A lot of people that we’ve been dealing with like the quality of what we’re doing, not only in terms of art or writing, but also with regard to the physical quality of our books—ranging from the way we design and produce our hardcover editions to the special format Mouse Guard was done in. We try really hard to package our books as nicely as possible.

Between the critical praise we’ve been getting and the fact that people have been responding to the quality of the stories and the physical designs, creators have been approaching us saying they want to be a part of what we’ve got going, which has been very flattering obviously. [Laughs]

BF: Among the books you’re publishing, there are two that were previously released by other companies, Revere and Starkweather. How did these projects end up at ASP?

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeMS: With Revere, it was a consequence of Alias shutting down their original output. Ed Lavallee and Grant Bond were looking for a new publisher, and we felt very strongly that the tone of the horror fit in really well with the other books we’ve got coming up. I also liked the historical revision aspect of the story—their twisting of the American revolition was a great idea. We brought them onboard for a collection of the first Revere series, and we’re also set for a new series later on in the year.

As for Starkweather, David Rodriguez wanted to take the property in a slightly more mature direction than might have been appropriate for Arcana, because they’ve generally avoided the more mature audiences books that we had occasionally published.

So, David, Sean O’Reilly and I sat down and were able to work things out for Starkweather to come over to Archaia and continue the series.

BF: Rounding out, with everything that’s on Archaia’s plate at the moment, what are your expectations for the rest of the year?

MS: We’re hopeful that the line-up we’ve got coming out later in the year is one that people will respond very strongly to. We’ve also received some great-looking submissions over the past couple of weeks that we’d like to add to the slate for 2008 or really late 2007.

And, of course, as our flagship property with the Diamond Select Toys deal and the Random House book deal, I think Mouse Guard will continue to do well. We’re hoping that with Mouse Guard leading the way, a wide collection of our titles will reach a wide audience across the US. So, we’re hopeful that 2007 will be a banner year for us.

Click here for a complete overview of Archaia’s 2007 line-up.

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