Eye on Comics

Comics criticism and commentary from Don MacPherson

Return of the King

Posted by Don MacPherson on August 24th, 2009

King City Vol. 1 was a major buzz book of 2007 in the comics industry. The graphic novel, published by Tokyopop, wasn’t all that widely seen, but those who read it raved about it. It definitely boosted writer/artist Brandon Graham’s profile in the industry, earning him kudos aplenty and drawing attention to other projects, such as the first issue of his Multiple Warheads, published by Oni Press. Perhaps one of the most widely heard and respected of those voices singing his praises was the late Mike Wieringo, who paid tribute to King City and recommended it on his sketch blog (that’s what got me to take notice of the book).

Unfortunately, King City was one of several original, English-language works that Tokyopop put on the backburner permanently, and creators couldn’t take the properties to other publishers because Tokyopop still held the rights despite the fact it didn’t plan on publishing subsequent volumes or even keeping the existing ones in print. Among other affected books and creators were East Coast Rising and Becky Cloonan, The Abandoned and Ross Campbell, and My Dead Girlfriend and Eric Wight. These are significant creators in the comics industry in the 21st century who all have built-in audiences eager to snap up new works from these artists.

Of course, Tokyopop has changed its tune somewhat, at least when it comes to King City, as a deal was struck to publish Graham’s work through Image Comics. Eye on Comics spoke with Graham, a Tokyopop executive and some of the affected artists to delve into the King City deal and what it might mean for other cancelled Tokyopop books.

The new King City comics from Image will reproduce chapters of King City Vol. 1 before moving onto new material, Graham said, and Tokyopop is actually paying him to produce the new work.

“As far as I understand it, Image is putting this out as they would any of the creator-owned titles they do, treating Tokyopop as they would normally treat a creator,” he told Eye on Comics. “So Image will get the same percentage they would with any other they put out. And Tokyopop is paying me up front to draw it.”

Graham said while Image is publishing the serialized issues, Tokyopop retains the option to publish and print future collected editions of King City. While Tokyopop still holds the rights to King City (including other-media adaptations), he said, he has the advantage of getting his work on comic-shop shelves 12 months of the year. It also affords him the chance to return to the episodic format he originally had in mind for the series and to include extras, such as a letters column and short comic strips. But what’s in it for Image?

“The Image guys just seem to really like comics. They never touch the rights to a book anyway. I love that they don’t care about what movie get made off of their books,” he said. “They just seem like a comic book company that puts comics first. It’s like seeing a unicorn — rare and beautiful.”

Of course, it stands to reason that Image can profit if King City is a sales success as well, and the publisher has had a couple of strong new debuts recently in the form of Chew and Viking that promise to further boost its bottom line. No doubt, it’s hoping King City might be another. However, according to information on Image’s website, it profits no more from its best seller than a lesser-selling title.

“Image was set up so that creators could do what they want with their creations, and reap the benefits financially. When a book is published by Image, creators are not paid up front. It can sometimes be two or three months before one sees money from a book. It sounds rough, and it most definitely can be. But if it’s done right, the payoff can be far more rewarding than producing a book in the conventional manner,” states the Image website’s FAQ.

“When the creator does finally get paid, they get paid on what their book makes after the cost of printing and Image’s modest office fee, which covers solicitations, traffic, production, and some promotion of the book. We make no more money off of our highest selling book than we do our lowest.”

How much the office fee and average printing costs might be aren’t listed. An Image representative couldn’t be reached for comment.

Tokyopop associate publisher Marco Pavia said Graham was the driving force behind the deal with Image.

“He originally contacted us to say that Image may be willing to publish the book as floppies, since he had good dealings with them before,” he wrote in an email to Eye on Comics. “We were certainly open to the idea. Brandon reached out to Image, they got back to us, several calls and contract drafts later, King City was coming out as floppies. And we were all very happy.”

Pavia said this arrangement is also the manga publisher’s way of dipping its proverbial toe to test the waters for a different kind of product.

“We saw it as an opportunity to test the waters of the floppy market, in which we have had interest for a while, but were a bit cautious, especially in this retail environment. It seemed natural to partner with a company that has its finger on the proverbial pulse of the floppy market,” he said. “We also felt, of course, that King City was a perfect fit for the mainstream comic audience, as its art and style was always more on the indie comic end of the spectrum than manga.”

Though pleased that Tokyopop changed its position and opted to partner with Image Comics to release King City, Graham said his relationship with the publisher hasn’t changed all that much.

Rylie design for cancelled Abandoned Vol. 2“It’s pretty much the same as it always was with Tokyopop. I’m definitely more interested in the long term results of the deal. Hopefully any good sales I get from Image pushing the book will go on to my next Multiple Warheads issues at Oni,” he said, noting that if things proceed as he hopes, he’ll really be able to carve out a satisfying and comfortable career in comics. “Maybe in a couple years I could be comic-book middle class. This paying my rent off of comic books is pretty exciting.”

Other creators whose books were canned by Tokyopop while the rights were retained by the manga publisher said they might be interested in an arrangement similar to the one struck by Tokyopop, Image and Graham but said their circumstances are different than the King City creator’s.

“No word on The Abandoned. I haven’t talked to Tokyopop in a long time. I think everybody I once knew there has been fired, heh,” Ross Campbell told Eye on Comics. “I’m definitely sort of interested in something like Brandon’s thing with Image, but the difference is that Brandon had already drawn King City Volume 2; it just wasn’t released.”

He said he didn’t get to the point where he’d already written and illustrated the second volume of The Abandoned, so he doesn’t know if that would impact the thinking of representatives at Image and/or Tokyopop.

My Dead Girlfriend‘s Eric Wight is of a similar opinion.

“I’m not positive about the specifics of Brandon’s deal, but my impression was that they were for books already finished, which Tokyopop is allowing Image to publish,” Wight said, noting he assumes the Tokyopop/Image deal would see Tokyopop getting any royalties paid by Image.

East Coast Rising Vol. 1Whether that will lead to extra money finding its way to the creator remains to be seen, Wight said, but Tokyopop didn’t pay out any royalties when it was publishing these books.

“I know they are retaining all other rights,” he said.

Becky Cloonan was already working on the second volume of East Coast Rising when Tokyopop shelved the project. Whether or not the property returns in some form remains to be seen, she said.

“I still really love the series (ECR), but when TP cancelled the book, I moved on to other things, she said.

Those other things include more Demo with Brian Wood, The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys with Gerard Way and Shaun Simon, and K.G.B., a new webcomic project with Hwan Cho, Cloonan said. As such, her plate’s pretty full right now, she said, so she’d have to address those obligations and opportunities before she could consider any kind of attempt to revive East Coast Rising.

Pavia said there are no plans for similar deals with Image for other cancelled Tokyopop books, but that doesn’t mean the door is closed altogether.

“However, I’ll definitely keep an eye on sales of King City,” he said, noting that in 2007, book retailers came off a soft holiday season, which was a precursor for the economic downturn and was why the publisher shelved various titles. “In most cases, bookstores were taking in very few copies and even skipping the next volume of a series entirely. And they were also returning books in droves.”

Tokyopop is exploring new methods of product delivery, Pavia said, which includes the publisher’s recently announced online manga program. Other methods may end up bringing cancelled titles back to its fans somewhere down the line, he said.

“I’d love to see all of these books in print, and I hope that’s the case soon, as we are exploring a print-on-demand initiative, about which we’ll have news in the near future,” he said.

Pavia declined to discuss the details of Tokyopop’s financial arrangements with Graham or Image.

The first issue of King City under the arrangement between the two publishers is scheduled for release Wednesday.

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3 Responses to “Return of the King”

  1. ghettoManga Says:

    great article. as a big fan of Ross Campbell and Brandon Graham, i’m hoping this works out for all parties involved! King City is a fabulous comic!

  2. Rippke Says:

    Great piece, Don. I enjoy the well-researched pieces you’re doing lately.

  3. Twobyfour Says:

    King City is just remarkable, it’s the bastard half-brother of THB and Casanova, this just rocks so hard