Firm's rise illustrates comic-book evolution

Posted: August 3, 2014 at 2:23 a.m.

Ted Adams never set out to be a comic book kingmaker. He started his company, Idea & Design Works, as a San Diego graphic design firm in 1999.

Since then, the company evolved into a publisher of its own books and now is one of the top four comic book publishers in the world. Last year, IDW sold more than 1 million graphic novels, and it competes against superhero comic stalwarts Marvel and DC, both at least five times its age.

So at the annual Comic-Con International, held July 24-27 in San Diego, Adams was in high demand. He talked about his vision during several panel presentations as IDW pushes into new areas like such as movies and television.

"My approach with our publishing business has always been to be as diverse as possible," said Adams, who as chief executive and publisher oversees IDW's monthly comics, art books, Eisner Award-winning archival lines, and the new tabletop games and television divisions.

IDW has published original horror hits 30 Days of Night and Locke & Key. But, it also has crossed over into more mainstream brands such as The X-Files and My Little Pony -- and saw a Transformers character created in its books featured in this summer's blockbuster film. The titles have helped propel the company for the last 15 years, and IDW had two booths at the convention to showcase its varied ventures old and new.

Industry observers have noticed.

"To me, IDW is most interesting because they are relentlessly focused on expanding the comics market in ways that most publishers aren't," said Rob Salkowitz, author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture and a teacher of digital strategy at the University of Washington's Communication Leadership graduate program.

IDW's publishing success is nothing that it could have anticipated at the start.

IDW didn't publish its first book, an art volume by Ashley Wood, until 2001. It got a space at that year's Comic-Con to sell Uno Fanta, and the experience helped push the company into comics.

IDW's arrival was heralded by an eye-opening original vampire story and a licensed forensic phenomenon.

Steve Niles' and Ben Templesmith's 2002 bloodsuckers-in-Alaska shocker 30 Days of Night (later a film) and a 2003 CSI series had quality that "propelled (IDW) from 'another interesting publisher' to one of the leading independent comics companies," Salkowitz said.

The metamorphosis into a major independent player was complete when IDW began publishing Transformers comics.

"It sounds very trite to say it this way, but the one that really feels transformative to the company is when we started doing Transformers," said Chris Ryall, IDW Publishing's chief creative officer and editor in chief, who joined the company in 2004 and helped land the license the next year.

"People were going, 'Wait a second, who is this little company in San Diego that was suddenly awarded this giant licensed property?'" Ryall said, noting that IDW won franchise creator Hasbro's bidding process over larger and older publishers.

He has helped lead the company to produce 60 to 70 titles a month compared with about 10 a month just a decade ago. It also licenses franchises such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Godzilla and Star Trek.

The company last year launched an entertainment unit to develop TV shows, and it has about 10 projects in various stages. IDW Entertainment hopes to begin selling the projects in fall and winter.

IDW headed into Comic-Con's Eisner Awards ceremony with nine nominations, including a combined five for its Library of American Comics and Artist's Editions archival lines. But the company is also pushing into the future.

Salkowitz credits IDW with expanding the comics market beyond comic shops, including with its early and continuing digital efforts.

Digital ventures are bringing people who rediscover comics on iPads and smartphones back into comic book stores, Adams said, citing anecdotal evidence and financial statements from IDW and other publishers that show print and digital revenues growing together.

The company also is reaching out to children in stores such as Target and Toys R Us with its Micro Comic Fun Packs for titles such as My Little Pony and Transformers that include sticker sheets and the like.

So, what might IDW look like in 15 years?

Its CEO hopes it remains a diverse publisher, that it has had some TV shows on the air -- and that it has new ventures to pursue.

"I'm hopeful that we'll have continued to take lots of risks," Adams said.

SundayMonday Business on 08/03/2014