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CR Holiday Interview #15 -- Matt Gagnon
posted January 10, 2011
 

imageMy first memorable encounter with the upstart comic book publisher BOOM! Studios came at a convention a couple of years ago. In the course of idly looking at the material in their booth, my presence was noted, at which point every single person behind the table walked over and introduced themselves to me: not a common occurrence. I was then gently hustled across the aisle where they had an empty space -- purchased by the publisher or simply adopted, I could not tell you -- where co-founder Ross Richie was just getting done talking to one of my press peers. Richie then turned his full attention towards me like a champion gladiator sizing up his next opponent. In other words, I was doomed.

I don't think I said more than three words in the next ten minutes, and I thought about physically fleeing twice, but I have to admit it was sort of bracing to encounter a company that featured so many actively engaged people up and down the phone tree, young folks and slightly less-young folks falling over themselves to please the person standing in front of them. I've been keeping an eye on them ever since, both for that encounter and as their publishing announcements have merited attention all on their own. BOOM! has thus far defied the odds against new companies finding purchase in the crowded, slightly dysfunctional comic book marketplace. They have worked licenses, genres, creators and styles that other publishers have undervalued and overlooked. They have enjoyed a measure of sales success with alt-comics legend Roger Langridge and the late-period, property-generating dynamo Stan Lee, and I'm not sure many companies out there could say either, let alone both.

Matt Gagnon (that's him above) is one of a number of mostly young people that have drifted into BOOM!'s Los Angeles orbit since the company started to grow (Gagnon actually went on staff slightly before the growth period); we discuss his move from being hired to edit a specific line of books into an Editor-In-Chief position some months later in the conversation below. Gagnon shifted over from retail, previously working with premier U.S. retailer Meltdown Comics. I got a kick out of the energy with which he answered his questions, and I can't imagine too many people out there that wouldn't want to work for a company that at least aspired to this level of enthusiasm and self-confidence. In a period where majorly successful, massive cross-media giants of comics companies were cutting staffed and freelance positions across the board, BOOM! added them. I greatly appreciate Gagnon's time during a season no longer characterized by holiday downtime. -- Tom Spurgeon

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TOM SPURGEON: It seems to me that you become promoted in pairs. In 2008, you were hired to edit the Farscape comics BOOM! was doing and ended up slipping into the Managing Editor position; this year you got a promotion to Editor-In-Chief and now I assume you're taking on new responsibilities with Mark Waid's departure. Let's start there. What are you going to be doing differently with Mark leaving the company; what challenges and opportunities do you see for yourself there?

MATT GAGNON: The last few years have certainly moved fast. When I came to BOOM! there were five people working in the office and we were publishing seven titles a month. Quickly thereafter, we hit a period of seismic growth, and carefully planned where we were headed. To that end, we tried to grow the company gradually without flooding the market with books. We approached each series and program like the company depended on it -- in some cases it did -- and we concentrated on executing everything we said we were going to do.

As the company evolved, the nature of our office operations did as well. Ross and Mark had confidence in me -- which I've always appreciated -- and promoted me as needed. We now have a company that's firmly in the Top Ten comic book publishers in America and a staff of 25 terrific employees, and the challenges and rewards of my position are legion. The comic book industry is as competitive as I've ever seen it right now, and my job is to shepherd our line of comics both in terms of creative and production. That means consistently breaking new talent in an atmosphere where commercial creators are quickly locked up by the Big Two, fighting for space on the shelves every month and launching new series in an environment where there's virtually no room for expansion.

The list of the top 300 comics is like a packed bar... somebody has to be thrown out before they'll let anybody else in. I look around the industry and see a lot amazing things happening -- any number of terrific comics being published, but I also see a lot of room for improvement. I believe there are some very simple things that you can do to set yourself apart. It's really just about being "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," to steal a line from the noted 21st Century philosopher Daft Punk.

imageSPURGEON: What have you learned by working with Mark? More generally, are there people at the company from whom you've taken stuff that you apply in your job?

GAGNON: The easy answer is that I'm always learning from everybody in the office and it's also the honest answer! There's a rock-solid team mentality at BOOM!. We're all in this together. I started from scratch in BOOM! editorial; we built this machine together. I've learned a hell of a lot from Mark and Ross, and I soak up anything I can from whoever has something to offer. The whole team is always riffing off one another and I love that each member of the squad brings something unique to the table. Everybody has their own mutant power. [laughs] Part of being a good leader is recognizing an individual's strengths and encouraging them to use those strengths ultimately toward the betterment of the team.

Nobody on my editorial team has ever been assigned a series arbitrarily. I always think about who is the best fit. There's always a perfect man or woman for the job. You know, as I think about it, one of the best places to look for growth and learning is the past. I'm always open to looking at how we've done things previously and admitting where there's room for improvement. I think that's something we're really good about here. Let's not have ego get in the way of improvement.

SPURGEON: Wait, is it an interest in the character or is it skills that one person may have that another may not have? I'm trying to figure out what you're meaning there.

GAGNON: Every project is its own animal. There're some titles, like an original series, where you're starting from scratch and need a stronger editorial hand in development. You start in a vacuum on the homegrown titles and assemble the whole project from scratch -- including the entire creative team. There're some editors that flourish in that space and have a vision in mind for what the project ought to be. Some editors are masters at creating order out of chaos. They don't get rattled. An editor with that personality is a perfect fit on a project that may have multiple partners or licensors.

One of our editors, Christopher Burns, used to work at Disney and has a wealth of knowledge about their characters. So it was a natural fit for him to work in the BOOM Kids! imprint. Sometimes I'll know the personality of a creator we're launching a series with and assign an editor to the series who I know will compliment the creator and work well with them. Or it could be as simple as launching a new series in the crime genre, approaching the editor who reads crime novels and saying, "This is all you."

All of our editors exhibit multiple talents. So it's not really a black and white type of decision at all times. There's usually a few guys or gals that would be good for the job and what it comes down to is who is up in the rotation for a new book. I make sure the distribution of labor is balanced.

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SPURGEON: Could you roughly break down what it is you do on an average work day, how you spend your time? We use these titles as if there's a government pamphlet out there describing how each is supposed to function, but in actuality an editor-in-chief at one company is very different than that position might be as another.

GAGNON: How much time do we have? [laughs] I spend about 70% of my day supporting the team and 30% of the day handling whatever individual business I have. What that means is the majority of the day I'm working with the editors on development, creative matters, problem-solving, sending issues to print and operations in general. I still edit Irredeemable and Incorruptible (with assistant editor Shannon Watters, who is a joy and a major talent) and find it hard to give them up. I'm extremely proud of both of these titles and have edited them from day one. These days, it's less about editing individual titles and more about developing the whole line.

imageOn a typical day, I'll be connecting with the design department to approve images, connecting with the publishing division to talk about print deadlines, working with the marketing department on solicits and ads -- you name it. At a publisher of our size, you end up wearing a lot of hats. You have your hand in everything. I love it. There's never a dull moment! We also spend a great deal of time on the higher-level, big-picture stuff that mainly consists of the BOOM! executive team standing around the "war table," figuring out which fleet to deploy where (in a manner of speaking). Also, my Managing Editor, Bryce Carlson, is a critical part of our success. He's got a cool head, flawless execution, and always sees the big picture. Having a lights-out lieutenant makes all the difference in a fast-paced working environment.

And speaking of fast-paced, my favorite time of the day is 4 P.M. Anybody who works with me knows that's when I have what is affectionately known around the office as The Afternoon Brew. I've gotta have a cup of coffee in the afternoon. That's the game-changer. It gives me that Popeye/Spinach moment where I'm re-energized and ready to take on the world. [Tip to BOOM! employees: The best time to ask for a vacation is after four o'clock.]

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SPURGEON: I know very little about you other than I was aware you were doing stuff for Meltdown and working on Meathaus and then kind of moved sideways into BOOM! Are you a lifetime comics reader? Is there a point where you realized you wanted to have a relationship to comics that was other than just reading them?

GAGNON: As long as I've been reading I remember reading comics. When I was a young boy I'd go to the library and take home collections of Garfield and Family Circus. These were printed landscape, and collected hundreds of strips. I devoured those things. From there, I picked up a copy of X-Men (by Claremont and Lee) at the grocery store and, as they say, it was all over. Then I started branching out into Batman and other Marvel and DC titles.

I had a cousin who was one of those guys buying a baker's dozen of every Image issue back in the early-nineties boom. Because of him, I ended up reading many of those titles. So, comics have always been a part of my life. I worked part-time at a comic shop when I was 17 and discovered things like Preacher, Sin City, and alternative comics. When I moved to L.A. I was lucky enough to land a gig at Meltdown Comics and that's when I really tapped into the industry -- the business of it all. My time at Meltdown prepared me better than anything else for comic book publishing.

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SPURGEON: Was something like your current position something you always had in mind? In fact, is this a position, a kind of work, that you feel like you can do for a while? Are you settled in, Matt?

GAGNON: I'm completely satisfied, yeah. I'm settled in and have logged enough hours that I'm very confident and relaxed. Well, maybe relaxed isn't the best word. [laughter] There has never been a day where I've woken up in the morning and didn't want to come to work. That's the honest-to-God truth. This position suits me and I'm happier than I've ever been. I like to work hard... it's in my blood -- I love a good challenge. I love nailing the 3-point shot at the buzzer, seeing the first issue of a series hit your desk, feeling the "Kirby crackle" in the air when a series is working. Watching the editorial team huddle around an artist's work they've just discovered. It's the thrill of sending that last issue to print at 6 P.M. on a Friday and heading into the weekend with the wind at your back. All of these things and more make the job an absolute pleasure.

If I'm being honest, it's not something I always had in mind for myself, only because it would've seemed like such a far-fetched idea. If you would have asked me five years ago if I'd someday like to be the Editor-in-Chief of a comic book company I would have said, "Uh, yeah, sure." It wouldn't have seemed like a viable career aspiration at the time. Thing is, getting a job at a comic book publisher isn't easy. There's, what, 15-20 practical options in all of America? At most, I had aspirations of getting in at the ground floor of a publisher and working as an editor. Editor-in-Chief? Sure. When I'm 50. [laughs]

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SPURGEON: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is that I don't think I've talked to anyone at the company, at least not on the record. I think people are curious about BOOM!, especially considering some people thought you might not be around at this point. This may seem like a silly question, but can you describe the culture of BOOM!? Are you all working in the same place? Is it a tight-knit bunch? Is there something about the workplace that strikes you as being of Los Angeles in a way that other companies might not be? Are you a young staff? An older staff? A staff that works and socializes together? A workplace that's constantly open, on weekends and into the evenings? If you and I were on a long flight and talking about where we worked, what would you tell me about BOOM!?

GAGNON: These are great questions. Honestly, Tom, I'm so damn proud the team we have here. It's a young bunch. Only about five or six of us in our 30's (including myself, as of a few months ago. Goodbye, twenties!). If I only had one word to describe us it would be "relentless." We won't be stopped. We put in the sweat and long hours to make sure we're putting out quality comics on time. That's the formula for me.

I come from retail, and I know that if you're delivering quality books on schedule, the fans and retailers will support you. And they have. They've been very good to us. When we started out, we had our skeptics. That's natural, especially given the storied history of start-ups in comics. But we all knew that our work would speak for itself and we'd earn good will. We operate in a culture of positivity within the hallowed halls of BOOM!. Something I say often is that there's no time for drama. We've built a team that's comprised of phenomenal individuals and it's one of the things I'm most proud of. Nobody is jaded. Nobody is just going through the motions waiting for their commemorative 10-year watch. Everybody takes pride in their work and cares about what we're doing.

It's hard not to look at what we've done in the last five years -- hell, the last two years for that matter -- and not feel some inspiration. Our sales have doubled every year except last year when they tripled. The fans have obviously really embraced us and I think everybody on the team can feel that we're in the zone right now.

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SPURGEON: Can you characterize the sales increases at all? For instance, do you mean you've doubled and then tripled through the Direct Market channels or overall? Kids or adults? Do you think you're selling to new customers or established comics customers? Are you selling to fans of the individual titles and properties or is to comics fans generally. And if it's all of the above, can you identify a key customer base for you, something you think you're particularly good at serving?

GAGNON: Well, we've consistently broadened our footprint in the Direct Market every year. That's our base; we know where our bread is buttered. But the sales increase is an overall publishing initiative. Our Mass Market distribution has been incredibly strong since we partnered with Simon & Schuster in America and HarperCollins Canada. That was a massive game-changer for us. Like all great entrepreneurs, Ross has a knack for outside-the-box thinking and big ideas. His innovation and taste consistently moves the company forward -- and attracted me to BOOM! in the first place!

We're seeing new customers trying out BOOM! titles all the time. It's a combination of the type of material we're publishing and the relative youth of the company. New readers are discovering our stuff every month and I expect that to continue.

It's hard to fit our customer in a box, given how diverse the line is, but I believe we attract a reader that's interested in intelligent genre stories that skew toward the mainstream. And I don't necessarily mean the Direct Market mainstream, even though we do publish superhero stories. The global mainstream -- what you'll find consumed by fans worldwide in video games, movies, television and novels -- are a myriad of genres. We're committed to, and interested in stories of science fiction, action, fantasy, crime, supernatural, the macabre, et al. We're not interested in concentrating on one genre or one "type" of comic and our readers aren't interested in that either.

SPURGEON: I know from the old fable about the coins and the chessboard that line-wide growth in terms of multiples isn't sustainable forever. Do you foresee a glass ceiling, a point at which you'll meet your maximum market saturation? Where can we reasonably expect you to settle in for the long-term? And if you aren't being reasonable about it and are in sky's the limit mode, what do you see as the biggest challenge in transforming the company from a top 10 publisher to a top five publisher?

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GAGNON: There's a ceiling, we just can't see it yet. [laughs] But, yeah, being reasonable, we know there's a certain point where sales won't increase by a factor three times the previous calendar year, every year. However, looking to the future, we do foresee a continued increase in sales -- especially knowing what we have planned for 2011 and beyond. We're on a trajectory to reach the top five publishers and I'm confident that we'll do that. There's no slowing down in sight.

I spoke briefly about the top 300 comics earlier and how air-tight it is. We're all fighting for the same Direct Market real estate. It's pretty clear that there's a dollar cap in the direct market. In many cases, a retailer's decision to order more of your titles means that they have less money to spend somewhere else in the catalog. I've dealt with the same dilemma. If discerning buyers are taking a shot on your series you better damn well make sure that you deliver the goods. Again, going back to my old retail roots, that means selling a quality comic book to your customers that is delivered on time.

Would I love more readers for the industry? Of course. But I also think this complex situation breeds better comics. It's pushing everybody to bring their A-game. I'm competitive, but not to a fault. I love the competition and I also respect aspects of what other publishers are doing. That type of back-and-forth keeps you reaching for the stars.

SPURGEON: It's been a big year for digital, and you guys have staked out what seems to me a reasonably progressive, eyes-wide-open digital strategy. With all the noise out there, if you could make people understand one thing about digital comics based on your experience, what might that be?

GAGNON: BOOM!'s Marketing Director, Chip Mosher, has become a vocal presence in the digital conversation. His analysis and research has taught us a lot this year. I'm thrilled that we have somebody as smart as Chip who has jumped into the digital waters with both feet. And I'll steal a word from you, Tom, it's the "noise," the hype surrounding digital that in some ways is clouding the message. Now is not a time for panic. It's a time for ideas and the application of ideas. The only way to find a system that works is through trial and error.

Digital is a way of bringing comics to new readers, so let's figure out how to actually create a demand for digital comics. It's not a "If you build it, they will come" scenario. There's work to be done.

SPURGEON: You've also shown at a lot of the various conventions since starting up; the rise of conventions has been a big story the last few years. What is it that a publisher of your size and standing gets out of the convention experience?

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GAGNON: We exhibited at a lot of conventions last year, in fact more than we've ever done before. We felt intuitively like it was a good time to go on tour. After the success of Irredeemable and our Disney/Pixar titles in '09, we thought it would be fun to take the show on the road in 2010.

It gave us an opportunity to interact with fans, get some face time with a lot of our creators, and spread the BOOM! message. It's a community thing. Anytime you can be in a situation as a publisher where you're out there interacting with the comic book community it's a good thing.

Talking to fans one-on-one is awesome. We work in such a bubble for so much of the year it's kind of surprising when you a hit a con. You have this reaction of, "Whoa, people are actually reading this stuff!" [laughs]. It's a great way to meet new creators, too. You never know what kind of opportunities will come out of convention. And, c'mon, who can turn down the nightly Bar Con?

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SPURGEON: Let's end this on a note about specific comics. So what's the last great comic that's crossed your desk there in the office, Matt, from BOOM!? A personal favorite, something that has you excited. What was the last great comic you read that wasn't from BOOM!? When a comic like those really works for you, what is it about them that strikes your fancy?

GAGNON: Let's see, sitting on my desk right now is Warriors Three by Bill Willingham (I'm a big Thor fan) and Batman: The Return. Both are unread. I need to find a second to jump into those. My favorite ongoing series right now is Scalped. I get lost in that world when I sit down to read an issue, it's so fully-formed and has powerful stories hiding in every crevice. That Jason Aaron writes a mean comic. Another thing I'm behind on is Kevin Huizenga's comics. In fact, I need to grab the newest Ganges issue at the comic shop.

What I love about comics is finding creators with a unique voice, something you haven't seen or heard before. That's something I get out of both Scalped and Ganges, for instance. There's plenty of others but we could be here all day!

There's a lot of BOOM! books I'm excited about, but I'm going to mention Dracula: The Company Of Monsters because it's a title that blows me away every issue. It's a series that Kurt Busiek created and provided the story for and it's written by a newcomer called Daryl Gregory, who is an award-winning novelist. It's a powerhouse writing team and the series artist, Scott Godlewski, is an exceptional talent. It's one of those books where everything is clicking. It's writing and art working in perfect tandem, neither overpowering the other, which is always a sign of good comics.

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* BOOM! Studios

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* photo of Matt Gagnon provided by the editor
* Mark Wait at CCI 2010; photo by me
* BOOM!
* Irredeemable, still edited by Gagnon
* LA's wonderful Meltdown; photo by me
* one of the comics I like from BOOM!
* one of the offshoots of BOOM!'s youthful culture
* one of the comics I will never read from BOOM!
* fruit of the successful Stan Lee partnership
* fruit of the successful Disney/Pixar partnership
* from Dracula: The Company Of Monsters
* another DTCOM panel I thought appropriate to the piece (below)

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