Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

April 6, 2008

CR Sunday Interview: Tim Leong



Tim Leong, Laura Hudson and their army of contributors just released the second issue of the magazine Comic Foundry, a publication that stands out among recent attempts at comics magazine launches for its combination of DIY roots and relatively sophisticated look, including color. Tim and I spoke last year when his first attempt to distribute through Diamond Comic Distributors was rebuffed, and since he's still standing, or at least still putting issues out, I thought it worth a second conversation. I liked the second issue of Comics Foundry just fine, although other than the Matt Fraction cover interview, I'm not sure there was enough there that I would seek it out if I weren't a comics obsessive and writing about them every day. On the other hand, maybe I'd be more of the magazine's target audience if I weren't reading about comics all the time anyway. I appreciate Tim taking time to answer my questions.


TOM SPURGEON: Where the hell did you come from, anyway? I can't even remember when you showed up on the comics scene, let alone what you did before. I get the sense that you had a New York magazine publishing job, but other than that, nothing. Were you a comics reader growing up?

TIM LEONG: Ha. I was a big comics reader as a kid, back in the '90s boom of X-Men #1, X-Force and foil covers. Jim Lee was totally my hero. I was big into the comic cards. Marvel Universe Series 1 anyone? But like a lot of people I eventually moved on to other things.

imageSPURGEON: Did you go to school for design?

LEONG: I actually went to the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. I started out as a reporter and I soon realized it was not what got my toes a tappin'. I was working at a student paper at the time and switched over and started doing newspaper layout instead. I worked at a few different papers in college and at an alternative weekly magazine. I was primarily doing layout work but I had to work as a reporter at the same time -- it was right when we invaded Iraq and I was primarily doing sidebar content for war stories. So even though I was toiling in editorial a bit my passion was always in design and it's where I was much more successful. I won a bunch of awards including "College Designer of the Year," which helped get me to New York and doing page design and art direction at Men's Health magazine. I'm full-time as the deputy art director at Complex Magazine now, but both places taught me so much about the relation between art and edit and how to communicate concepts clearly. The experience is invaluable and the print version of Comic Foundry would not exist without it.

SPURGEON: What got you to the point where you first showed up on-line?

LEONG: I had a cousin who went to the Kubert school and in 2003 we were talking comics and I decided to check out Midtown Comics since it was right across the street from my office. I remember it perfectly -- The Strokes were playing in the background, I went up to new issue shelf and saw this crazy Tony Harris cover to Ex Machina #2 with this skeleton Abe Lincoln. It was so graphical I bought it without even flipping through and I was just hooked after that. I was so inspired I bought the original cover art to have as a reminder. After that I was back in and trying to catch up on the 10 years I missed. Soon after I had the idea for a Web site with a friend that was an educational and community site for aspiring comic artists and writers. This was back in the Friendster boom and it made sense to me back them. Eeesh. So we had the site but to help draw people in we did 3-5 articles and interviews a week. It turned out that the interviews were what people were more interested in -- me included -- and that's the part that really took off. I had the idea for turning it into a magazine the whole time, we just weren't ready for it yet.

And this is actually the third version of Comic Foundry Magazine. We had the online version, but I also created a mock-up version that I tried pitching to Top Shelf a few years back. They passed and rightly so. I wasn't close to being ready to run it properly, nor did I have the right concept in mind. So I think failing at that definitely helped prepare me for succeeding with the current version.

SPURGEON: Remind us what the final outcome was on getting your first issue out and distributed. How did it do?

LEONG: Yeah, we were initially rejected from Previews from Diamond last year, but after a huge outcry of support from readers and the industry we struck a compromise and lowered our price and Diamond relented. And honestly they've been great. We got a bunch of reorders on the first issue. I have nothing to really compare them to since it's our first issue, but I see it as a good thing. We made our money back on issue #1 which I think is an accomplishment on its own. We were also in a tricky spot with issue 1 because we wanted to debut at the San Diego Comic Con as an exclusive, and then go in stores in September. So, we had to do a print order before we actually had numbers from Diamond. It was a pretty terrible business decision because we were printing blind but it all worked out in the end. So far at least.

SPURGEON: Looking back now, how do you look upon the problems you had with getting the first issue out and getting it carried by Diamond? Do you see it as a still screwed-up thing, or a learning experience, or something that was unavoidable or what?

LEONG: You have to look at it as a learning experience. Absolutely. You can't hold a grudge or anything like that -- it's just business. Diamond has to protect their interests and I have to protect mine. But honestly? That whole fiasco did more good than harm. We got a ton of coverage out of it and it made more people aware of our book than if I'd orchestrated some big PR scheme. Nothing gets people more motivated than a perceived wrong-doing. So while I was pretty upset about it at the time, I can certainly appreciate the outcome now.

SPURGEON: How do you see the first issue in terms of its content and aesthetic achievements? What didn't work that you won't do again?

LEONG: I'm tremendously proud of the first issue. I think we did a lot with the black and white aesthetic and got some really interesting stories that were never going to appear in other publications. Visually, issue 1 was an interesting challenge. Black and white can be very limiting but I tried to play it to our advantage as much as possible by trying to design with shape and negative space. But, there are also some stories you can't run in black and white. The prime example is actually from our first issue where we did a spotlight on these cool Voltron-inspired sneakers from Reebok. They had one shoe for each color lion, but it's pretty much pointless to run a photo of them when you can't tell the blue shoe from the red shoe when it's all grayscale.

Looking back, one thing that didn't quite jive with me was that we defaulted to an interview style in too many stories. I think it's very typical in today's blogging world and that's where we culled a lot of our writers from. That and hell, it's just easier to type up a Q and A than it is to have a written-through story. So, I want to make sure we're pushing ourselves with our content -- me included. There's certainly less this issue and I'd expect less in future issues. Things like tone and story diversity takes time to settle into. I think with each issue we're closer to the vision. Issue #2 certainly isn't perfect but we're well on our way.


SPURGEON: So color is probably the most important step from #1 to #2.

LEONG: Color has always been the plan. To be ridiculously cliche, black and white was part of the journey, never the destination. I think the color will do three main things for us going forward. One, we'll be more attractive to advertisers and two, we'll sell better. I've seen signs of both already, so I think the wheels are in motion. The third is acquiring newsstand distribution outside of comic stores. This magazine is perfect for new readers of comics, and we're not really capitalizing on the content if we're only reaching people already inside comic stores. That, and it'd make it really hard for us to feature colorists if we only ran black and white.

SPURGEON: How much did the change to color alter your work making the magazine? What possibilities did it open up for you? What production steps are different in doing a color magazine?

LEONG: The big thing was that I had to completely redesign the book. The heart of the design is there, but with a lot of tweaks. The issue 1 design was created specifically for black and white and the styles we had in place simply did not work in color. So when I redesigned the inside I figured it was an appropriate time to tweak the logo as well. I wasn't happy with the logo on issue 1 and had more cons than pros, and now was pretty much the only appropriate time to redesign it. If I'd waited there'd be all this weird brand confusion to the readers.

The major difference production-wise was adjusting the color palette on the interior pages. I wasn't sure how a lot of the colors would look in print, so I had to play with the CMYK breakdowns for the safest printing outcomes. Now that we've got the issue back I can see how different colors print and I can adjust the percentages so the colors are more representative to what's in my head. The other big time suck was manually converting all the images to the right format and then also color-correcting each one as well.

Color also helped organize the editorial in a much clearer way. Each section is now color-coded so it helps provide a solid way to help separate the sections. It's an old trick that a ton of publications use -- the classic example is USA Today. Overall, the color is such a great storytelling device that it makes the content much more approachable and understandable. It lets you add different levels of emphasis to text and allows you to create a more interactive page design with the readers. And anything that helps get the reader into the content is OK in my book. Literally.

SPURGEON: What's been the reaction to the color so far?

LEONG: The one thing I keep hearing is, "It looks like a real magazine!" Which is just hilarious to me. What does that say about our market when people are so shocked that it looks professional? A real magazine? Were they expecting it to look like a fake magazine? I don't know, but yeah, the response has been great. We've already had interest from possible advertisers based purely on the buzz, which is a fantastic sign.

SPURGEON: What's been the reaction from advertisers? Is the magazine self-supporting right now? How many does it have to sell to break even?

LEONG: Oh, it's already broken even on issue #2. Well, the print-run is paid for at least. We had a bigger initial purchase order and better ad sales so it's Thundercats Go so far. Selling ads for this issue was a bit difficult, mostly because I really only had the black and white copies of issue 1 to show advertisers. I made the initial financial investment on issue 1 but yes, we're completely self-supported. Financially, the one down-side to going color is that it's more costly. We had to go down a teensy bit in page count to help offset the cost and we're technically making less per issue, but I think in the long run it'll pay off many times over.

SPURGEON: Tell me about your editorial process in terms of collecting articles. Do you assign piece, seek to marry pieces to writers, or solicit ideas from writers? None of those? All three?

LEONG: All the above, but with much more prominence on assigning pieces. I probably come up with about 75 percent of the story ideas in the issue. Laura Hudson, my right hand man and senior editor, comes up with the majority of the rest, with a smaller percentage of pitches from writers. It's hectic but it'll probably stay like that for the next few issues until people can really understand the vision and tone of the mag.

As far as where our ideas come from? I've got a pretty big RSS list and we go through all the monthly solicitations and talk with a lot of publicists to see what's coming out in our time frame. The one thing that hurts us is that we're a quarterly magazine, so it's hard to stay timely when you're working so far in advance. A lot of publishers don't have materials ready for some of the books in the later end of time frame, so sometimes it's difficult properly covering some of those books. I also go through anywhere between 30 and 50 magazines a month, just to see what's out there and see how they deal with different types of content. A lot of ideas come from there -- just looking at a magazine that has nothing to do with comics and reading a story that has even less to do with comics and just looking at it and asking yourself, "How can I make this relate?" I'll tear out stories I think are cool and page designs that are inspiring and tape them to my walls. When people come over they think I'm a crazy person because I have all these random magazine pages and newspaper scraps covering my walls.

I really value Laura's input and I like to bounce ideas off her before we start assigning stuff out. It's great to have smart people around you with different tastes and who don't always agree with you. Sometimes my ideas are too crazy and she helps reign me back in. Anyway, once an idea is floating around we'll decide if either one of us wants to write it and if not we'll go over who is best-suited and available. Then we'll get a draft back from the writer, do an edit, have them revise, do another edit and then we'll send it to our copy editor and then it goes on page.


SPURGEON: Why a piece on Live Action Role Playing in a magazine about comics?

LEONG: In the magazine we cover the actual comics and we also cover how comics affect your lives -- the culture side of things. It's only in today's day and age that comics are so "mainstream accepted" -- at least more so than before -- that there's enough content around for us to cover it. And LARPing is part of that. No, it's not a direct tie to comics. But it's a shared interest in a lot of readers. Our magazine covers a very diverse content base. We're not just a superhero book. We're not just an indie book. We're not just a manga book. Not everything is 100 percent applicable to everyone, but part of the point of the magazine is to show we have more alike than we have different. Granted, LARPing is a bit outside the core demographic, but I think it's nice to occasionally color outside the lines as long as you can still tell what the picture is.

imageSPURGEON: But isn't doing articles on LARPs and Battlestar Galactica exactly the same kind of pandering that Wizard does, just with fewer boobies and less smirking? Isn't this just padding your magazine with related fantasy material in order to try and sell more copies? If it is, as you say, part of the wider culture that comics touches, why are you defining that culture in such narrow, 1970s terms as "related heroic fantasy"?

LEONG: Trust me, if I was really trying to sell more copies, I'd do a feature on something much more sexy than guys who dress up as lions, tigers and bears, oh my. I don't think LARPing is a coverline people are really aching for -- and wasn't even a coverline for us. We covered it not because we needed to pad an issue -- if anything we had to cut content -- it's because LARPing is a subculture within our comics subculture. And yes, I guess you could call it, as you say, "related heroic fantasy," but it's just one issue. I can guarantee you won't find a LARP feature in the next mag. It certainly doesn't define our content. There are a lot of subcultures within comics and I look forward to exploring all of them.

SPURGEON: Let me ask you something that's been bothering me since I read your second issue. What is the value to comics in trafficking in cool? I like Matt Fraction's work -- should I really give a shit if he's a cool, young guy in addition to just enjoying his talent? What is the value to comics to looking cool?

LEONG: I mean, is it better if we try to convey the idea that comics are uncool? Where does that get us? The comics medium is on a pretty good roll with the mainstream media right now -- we've all read the same lame stories that comic books are en vogue right now. Listen, I've always thought comics were cool and that's how I'm choosing to represent the medium. I'm sure the guys at Wizard thinks comics are cool but they're certainly not selling that concept to readers. All we're doing is trying to treat comics like any other contemporary magazine would treat the niche they cover. The next issue of Wired isn't going to say, "Technology. Eh, it's just OK." Treating comics as cool is our manifestation of our love for comics. It's less about us trying to sell the idea that comics are cool and more that Comics are cool and we're just covering them.

The other thing is, one of the core philosophies of the mag is to draw in new readers. For us to truly be successful in the medium, we're going to have to do more than just poach readers from Wizard and TCJ. We need to draw in new people and "Comics are Uncool" is a pretty poor pitch, I think.

SPURGEON:Tim, I know you to be a bright guy, but are you really suggesting that your only two options for general sales strategies are "comics are cool" or "comics are uncool"? Seriously? And if you're using cool to sell your magazine, how is that any different from any other cynical ploy, say one from the past like "comics are really valuable."

LEONG: Well obviously these really aren't are sales strategies, Tom. Comics are cool really isn't a main selling point — it's our approach to content. We approach comics with the mindset that they do kick ass and then write stories with that attitude. It's all about tone. Wizard has its lowest common denominator tone, and we have ours. We want to speak to our readers like they're normal people, not perpetual 13-year-olds. We think our readers are cool and that's how we choose to speak to them. It's not that we're trying to find the most salable approach, it's that we're trying to find the tone we think comics readers deserve -- and it just happens to be marketable.

SPURGEON:Are there dangers along the lines that if you emphasize cool, you end up with art form that favors young, personable, photogenic people instead of a meritocracy based on talent? Every time I read about book coverage, I see photos from a party with a whole bunch of idiotic twenty-somethings at a launch party, and it just beats any interest in buying new work right out of me.

LEONG: Ha. I can certainly understand what you mean about the parties. I'm sure creators are automatically behind anytime they go to a party. Myself included -- it took me days to dig myself out of a work hole after our launch party. But the big reason for us to have them and attend them, besides the obvious networking and publicizing, is that there's a very strong comics community here. And in this digital age where people shut themselves in and work at home, it's nice for people to come out with their creative peers. I'm a big fan of the community aspect and the connectivity of comics. Hell, being part of the online community is what helped save Comic Foundry when we needed a rally cry to get into Previews.

But I think there's a big emphasis on name recognition in the buyer's market right now. "Oh, Brian K. Vaughan? I liked that one book he did, maybe I'll try this other thing he wrote too." And if you look on the covers, creators names have been getting bigger and bigger in size during the past five years or so. And so it really is a name-game, I think, and to me, selling a creator to the readers is as important to selling a certain issue. That said, we don't just feature the pretty boys and girls of the industry. That would be the nail in the coffin for us. To answer your question, yes it's a danger. Absolutely. But it's certainly not what we're doing. I know a lot of, ahem, homely creators who are geniuses and I know a lot of sexpots who are about as smart as my left shoe. I can certainly think of uncool people we've featured whose books are cool. And that's the core thing -- like you said, it should be a meritocracy and that's the way we try to approach things. I would never feature a book that I thought was bad or that doesn't speak to our readers, no matter how gorgeous they are.

imageSPURGEON: Related question: does your magazine have any interest in cartoonists over 40? Why not?

LEONG: Nope. It's actually written in the bylaws that we legally can't feature anyone over the age of 39. I kid, of course. Sure. I don't think I've ever had a conversation where someone pitched a cartoonist and I said, "No way! He's too old!" We have some guys over 40 in the current issue and you can expect to see more in future issues. But yeah, I definitely recognize that there are talented people over 40 who do kick-ass work. Though, I will say that I think the core people buying our magazine are younger than 40. Maybe it's because I'm 26 my perspective naturally skews "younger."

SPURGEON: How do you avoid overemphasizing cartoonists and comics folk in New York over those who live outside of the city? I always hear grumbling that New York cartoonists receive more coverage than their non-NYC brethren because of their access to media people.

LEONG: That is a fantastic question. New York cartoonists absolutely get a better shake, no doubt. Not only with us but like you say -- in the mainstream media as well. The obvious reason is access. If you're doing an interview you're going to get better material if you do it face-to-face instead of email, and being in the same city allows that. The big thing for us, and not so much with the other mags, is that we run a lot of photos of creators. It's obviously much easier for me to send a photographer to Brooklyn than it is for me to find a quality photographer to shoot a cool creator in Boise. It is something I've thought about, but right now it's just one of the unfortunate realities of the situation. That obviously doesn't mean we just feature New York people though. The flip side is that we're not sitting at home thinking, "OK, who lives in New York that I can go interview..." Most of the time it's just us thinking about who we like and who we think our readers would like -- if they happen to live in New York that's great. If not, we're more than happy to still run them -- their photo just might not be as great.

But what's funny is Laura and I really like Johnny Hiro and we've been wanting to do something with Fred Chao in the book. So we finally got something set up with him last week and I offered to send him the latest issue and he sent his address and I had no idea he lived in New York. Sometimes it just works out that way.

SPURGEON: Are there benchmarks this time concerning what you need the issue to sell, or how you need it to do? Is another issue inevitable or conditional?

LEONG: There's no issue-to-issue benchmark -- each one is dependent on how many ads we sell for that particular issue. (Essentially the basic formula is printing cost - ad sales = x / amount we get from Diamond per issue). We already have some multi-issue ad contracts in place, so there will definitely be an issue 3. It'll be out in June and we had the cover shoot this past weekend, actually. This year the grand experiment continues. We've proven we can put out an issue -- the real test is if we can continue to do it on a quarterly schedule. I'm pretty sure we can, but I'm also sure it's going to give me a few more gray hairs than I should have at my age.

SPURGEON: What's the dream scenario concerning your magazine five years from now?

LEONG: It's actually really weird. I'm at a bit of a career crossroads. A year ago I would've said I'd be art directing a magazine but now that CF is doing well, who knows? I'd like to continue producing the magazine as long as I possibly can. It would take a lot for it to translate into sustainable income. I see CF just getting bigger and better and being the comics magazine of choice.

SPURGEON: Do you have more video escapades planned?

LEONG: Hopefully! They're such a time-suck though. I'd rather produce zero videos than do a bunch of mediocre ones. I'd like to do something at NYCC or MoCCA or SDCC. We have tables at all of them but it's hard to get away. I can maybe see another Eisner red carpet video on the horizon. It's funny -- comic-related video isn't too hard to find nowadays, but the one thing I've yet to see is a comic creator sex tape. Maybe it's not even something you'd want to see, and I'm not saying that's where I'm headed, but that's my prediction for 2008: The comic creator sex tape. Jumping bones and the shark all in one.





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