Cowboy DNA: BOOM! Studios' Courageous Leap into Social Media
BOOM! Studios harnesses the power of social media. In launching Hellraiser: The Prelude as downloadable, viral PDF, they've achieved what legendary inventor of the graphic novel format, Will Eisner dreamed of so long ago.
It would be disingenuous reading it anywhere else, but when it's Ross Richie, BOOM! Studios CEO saying it, there's more than just a ring of truth to it.
"I started the company in the spare bedroom of a Culver City apartment building, my girlfriend's Chihuahua sleeping at my feet while I puzzled out photoshop", Ross writes in his Afterword to the phenomenal The Art Of BOOM!, "Today I'm sending a book to press that has an introduction from the one and only Stan Lee where he says all sorts of kind things about BOOM! Studios. Give me a minute, I'm a little dizzy". And although I'm reading this, it feels like I'm genuinely in Ross' presence, like the paragraph break is genuinely a pause where he draws his breath.
"What I've learned through all the changes is that BOOM!'s success has come from doing what's not expected. We ask 'Why not?' and then go our own way. I think this cowboy attitude is in our DNA--it certainly is in mine. Recently I learned that I'm a sixth generation descendant of John William Smith who left family behind in Missouri in the 1800s to fight at the Alamo and become one of Texas founding fathers as the first mayor of San Antonio. Turns out going our own way and charting our own course comes hardwired. After all, the name of the company ain't 'whimper'".
On just a cursory reading, and without a context, this seems like grandstanding, showmanship. Except of course, this is BOOM!, and they've already nailed their colors to a very tall mast of success. Founded in 2005, it was a mere four months before BOOM! won 'Best New Publisher'. But rather than crow about the victory, that achievement would simply become a bartering tool for securing the best talent, and going on to produce numerous award-winning titles.
BOOM! seems to corner the market on tales that are both poignant and deeply visceral. Take Mark Waid's Irredeemable for example. The story of The Paradigm a group of superheroes who band together to end the reign of terror perpetrated by one of their own, their world's most powerful, most inspirational superhero, the Plutonian. It's only after a year of publication that the science hero Qubit reframes the entire moral vector for his team. Why does everyone else want to kill the Plutonian? Why is no-one other than Qubit working to capture and rehabilitate him? The Plutonian was a hero, a teammate and inspiration to everyone he met.
Or take Mark Sable's Unthinkable where Alan Ripley, a slick Hollywood filmmaker, attempts to reassert his own patriotism in the face of his Airborne Ranger brother's death by adding his skill-set to an ultra-sophisticated terror-prevention think tank. But what happens when Ripley's projective scenarios are stolen by terrorists? How far will Ripley go to end the reach of his own creativity, when active combat was what his brother was best at?
And of course there are the partnerships. The Muppets grace the pages of their own ongoing BOOM! book, Disney and Pixar characters from the Wall-E to Finding Nemo to the Incredibles to Cars, to Mickey, Donald, Uncle Scrooge and Darkwing Duck (BOOM!'s taken up the original series number count and Uncle Scrooge has just hit #400) all make their appearance. Conan creator Robert E. Howard's long-lost Hawk's of Outremer has its own series. Artist Tony Parker shepherds Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep through possibly the most-detailed, most-opulent treatment the seminal work has had to date. And of course, as Ross mentions in his Afterword, there's Stan Lee, the one and only, who has just launched a unique line of superheroes including Soldier Zero, Starborn and The Traveler.
But where do you go after this? How does so independently-minded a publisher outdo its own success?
The answer comes like a gentle wind blowing in from the past. BOOM!'s newest partnership propels the publisher to even newer horizons. It is the partnership with pioneering horror writer Clive Barker, to almost literally resurrect what many commentators have deemed a dead property--Hellraiser.
But as amazing as the first issue is, that's not the real story. The real story is how BOOM! kicked off the campaign that launched Hellraiser and Clive Barker's move to the publishing house--through a social media campaign that allows readers to download the 8-page, 12meg Hellraiser: The Prelude for free (just click the link). It's just 8 pages, but it is the core of the character, and its unique inner wrestlings.
"We wanted to do something unique and that could be shared amongst people in the most accessible way possible," says BOOM! Marketing Director Chip Mosher. And when prompted by my jaded journalistic instincts that this might be nothing more than an anti-piracy campaign, "So not specifically an anti-piracy move… there are a ton of fans of Barker’s work out there, whether his novels or movies, that don’t have any exposure to the comics medium and by making the PRELUDE available in a downloadable, emailable form like PDF, we hope that a viral campaign like this will be able to get the comic exposed to as many non-comic reading fans as possible. I can totally see a comic book fan sending a link or even the PDF to a non-comic book fan and that person deciding to check out the actual comic".
What stands out is Chip's own enthusiasm. "It's become so much more accessible now", Chip continues to enthuse, "With comics available through apps for the iPhone and now for the iPad. But what does it take to make it even easier to access?". Chip goes on to speak about falling sales figures, and insularity of comics (a process heightened during the 90s). "But even the widespread availability of comics on digital media these days comes with a artificially high entry barrier", he continues, "You'd need to know to search for a particular app, to search for comic title. That's when we started thinking about how to make it even easier to spread comics".
And of course Chip himself is the real story here. With BOOM! it seems, as Stan Lee observed in his Introduction to The Art Of BOOM!, it's always the people themselves who're at the core of the company. Chip personal history with comics goes all the way back to the birth of the internet when he pioneered online comics using MacroMedia for Adhesive Comics. The sheer level of ingenuity to took to produce online comics in those nascent days, is the kind of drive and determination that Chip brings with him to BOOM!.
What's unique about BOOM!'s new social media campaign to launch Hellraiser, is how easily the publisher is enacting the vision of industry legend and inventor of the graphic novel format, Will Eisner. In Graphic Storytelling, Eisner bemoaned the secession of comics as a medium from the form of the daily newspaper strip. Eisner felt that the ongoing nature of storytelling in those early comic strips clearly demonstrated how the medium itself reflected the ups-and-downs of daily life. Fracture medium used to reflect fractured moments, ultimately both the daily strip and your daily life remained unresolved, Eisner argued.
In harnessing the effective spectrum of human behavior on internet social media sites, Chip and his team at BOOM! have managed to articulate what Japanese Interaction Designer Naoto Fukusawa terms "design-dissolving behavior". In the documentary Objectied, Fukusawa states, "Nowadays Interaction Design mainly refers to the software or the screen. But the way I think about it… designing hardware, things that we can touch… solid objects… is all Interaction Design". He continues, "I thought about how people don't think about the tools they're using while they're using them. We designers have been working to stimulate people's souls and minds...I'm not thinking about the pen when I'm writing with it. Rather it's when you least think about it that the pen can be held most naturally. I've developed the ability to find this world, made of actions that human beings only make subconsciously...".
What BOOM! has done then is the equivalent of finding Fukuawa's world of subconscious actions. They've returned comics to a place where the medium itself is positioned to comment on the lived experience of our daily lives. Newspapers don't exist any longer (at least not in that way), but Twitter does. As does FaceBook. And comics have returned to us.
But the story is far from over.
As Chip warns, widespread availability does not necessarily translate into the radical reassertion of the comics medium as mass medium. "There's still work to be done in allowing people to build a meaningful connection with stories and with the comics medium itself. I guess this is where the work of comics' marketing crosses over with the work of comics' criticism".
And he's right of course. There is work to be done. Will Eisner's plea for comics in the seminal Graphic Storytelling was not one for any particular genre, but for the comics medium itself. For the idea, and the ideal, of a medium whose fractured, immersive structure, mimics the rag-tag, irresolvable fabric of our everyday lives.
Many have argued for the pedagogical merits of the comics medium. That comics can be a tool for the promotion of post-language communication, that comics can intimately mimic the nature of human psychology as it originally evolved. But ultimately, comics is not a tool, it is an opportunity. Because comics is woven out as a sequence of fractionated moments, it demands immersion to be interpreted. Comics are you-fueled, driven by how you read them.
Back-and-forth in rapid succession, or slowly through word then image, comics begin when you arrive at the end of a long process of compilation. Comics is a leap. It's the courage of a creative team to make the leap that you the reader will defractionate and assemble the various moments in just the right way. Comics is a leap of faith, and an act of trust. The act of leaping from the swing and trusting your partner will catch you.
And similarly comics criticism is an act of trust. Will the professionals who are entrusted with the care of the characters and stories that mean so much to us allow the comics medium to flourish? With the web evolving new modes of human behavior at breakneck pace, my trust is in the careful, considered, reasoned, leap made by Chip and his team to place their faith in you.