Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blastosaurus & American Original

Above: The 'American Original' logo.

Earlier this month, Jeff Katz, ex-20th Century Fox studio executive and occasional US comics writer, made his first announcement at Wizard World Philadelphia regarding a comics line to be published by his new multi-media company 'American Original'. Of the four titles to be announced one of them will sound very familiar to New Zealand comics readers: 'Blastosaurus'.

Above: 'Blastosaurus' by Richard Fairgray copyright 2009.

If you're unfamiliar with 'Blastosaurus', the comic follows the adventures of a mutated triceratops cop who has traveled through a time portal to the present day to do battle with a street gang of mutated Raptors to save the future of Freak Out City. Oh, and he has a really big gun. If this sounds a little outlandish, it's intentional; it's influenced by the high concept cartoons of the 90's (think 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' meets 'The Thunder-Lizards' (from 'Ekk the Cat).

Written and illustrated by 24 year old Auckland cartoonist Richard Fairgray, it will be published monthly through the new imprint in partnership with Top Cow Productions. Jeff Katz met Fairgray through a mutual friend on the set of 'X-Men Origins: Wolverine', which Katz was overseeing a an executive for Fox.

Katz recently shared his plans for 'Blastosaurus' during an interview for Comic Book Resources:

"[Richard and I] met and hit it off instantly. He gave me two or three properties, all of which I picked up immediately, but the one I fell in love with was a very simple thing. It was a dinosaur cop who's mutated and brought into the future to fight crime against velociraptor street gangs in the big city in the tone of the old school, early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stuff. It plays with it edgier – not necessarily as a kid thing but in a kid's context. I look at this, and I went, 'Christ! Kids like dinosaurs. Kids like crimefighting. This is as natural a kids property with some teeth to it as there is.' What we're going to be doing is reprinting his New Zealand run of 'Blastosaurus' as a set for the American version which will come out soon after."

Katz also had a lot of praise for Richard in the same interview:

"One of the things I wanted to put across from the line is that a great big idea can come from anywhere. The reality is that in the next ten years, distribution is going to be democratized in a pretty massive way in a lot of forms of entertainment, comics included. So now, 'the big idea' suddenly doesn't have to come from a guy who's exclusive to DC. It can come from a kid in New Zealand who just happens to have a good idea...And Richard's a kid who, I'll be frank, I'm going to lose to the big two. It's inevitable. But I just think that this is one of those things that's very unique from anything else in the marketplace. But beyond that, he's come up with a thing that's a very natural, franchisable concept. We're going to be a place that takes chances on new voices because on some level, I'd argue there's a dearth of young talent getting to rise up. I think showing what this guy can do in what is ostensibly a superhero context without it at all being superheroes and what is ostensibly a kids context while at the same time being all ages, I think is a unique thing. I think this guy is going to a real voice and someone we'll be hearing about for a long time."

The other really interesting thing that sets Richard apart from other comic creators is the fact that he is legally blind, with only five percent vision in one eye. Katz was not aware of this until he was interviewed for a article on Richard for the NZ Hearld last year. I understand Phil Jemenez (The Invisibles, New X-Men) was lined up to draw the US edition of the comic, but it's since been decided that Richard will continue as both writer and artist on the book due to his unique condition.

Katz touched on this during his second announcement interview over at Newsarama:

"And to top it all off, he's legally blind. He's writing, drawing and self-publishing these things with only five percent vision in one eye. In the one eye, he sees in only two dimensions. So he sees in comic book panels, which in and of itself is interesting."

With the move to 'American Original', the New Zealand incarnation of the series will conclude with issue #13, the end of the current story arc. In October there will be a Blastosaurus Halloween Special for the Armageddon Convention which will be the last locally published issue of the series for the foreseeable future.

He's obviously got big plans for Richard, so who the HELL is Jeff Katz?

He started out as a radio talk-back host at 15, before graduating to a stint as a promoter for WCW Wrestling (...which may go a long way to explaining the 'American Original' logo). He then became an unpaid intern at New Line Cinema and worked his way up the company ladder to become vice-president of development and production.
While at New Line he helped produce 'Freddy VS Jason', 'Snakes on a Plane' and 'Shoot 'Em Up' (none of which you should watch...ever). These films may have been critically underwhelming, but they made his reputation as an executive who was in touch with the valuable 'geek audience'.
With his genre-mashing credibility established moved to 20th Century Fox as Vice President of Production. During his tenure at Fox he dabbled in comics, writing the mini-series 'Freddy VS Jason VS Ash' for Wildstorm/Dynamite, before teaming up with Geoff Johns to co-write a 'Booster Gold' ongoing series for DC Comics.

With some success under his belt in both mediums (and the release of the 'X-men Origins: Wolverine' movie on the horizon), he shocked the Hollywood press last September by announcing his resignation from Fox to setup his own multi-media company that would become 'American Original'.

In a May press release for the launch of 'American Original', it was described as "a new entertainment company that will provide content across multiple platforms geared to the growing genre consumer base as well as provide services to genre creators themselves".

Now the idea of creating a banner company for multi-media genre publishing and producing is hardly an original one, but Katz's plan to profit share with the creators is a new development. From what I understand he plans to use a business model more in keeping with the movie industry than the comics business, by giving the comic creators the gross profits of their properties after the company's production costs are covered.
In theory this is a much better (and fairer) profit sharing deal than any of the other comic companies have to offer; especially when you factor in movie, video-games and any other media platform development deals (which Katz is counting for).

This all sounds very promising on paper, but this isn't the first time a company has created a publishing line for multi-media development. In the last 10 years, 'CrossGen Comics', 'Platinum Studios' and most recently 'Virgin Comics' to name only a few, have all collapsed while chasing the all-mighty development dollar instead of focusing on creating quality comic-books.

To me this appears to be a chicken and egg race.
While Katz was working as a producer he learned about the importance of 'pre-awareness' marketing. It's basically about selling consumers products based on properties they are already aware of and enjoy. If they like a specific property, the theory is they will probably consume it across a variety of media including films, comics and video-games. For example, franchises like 'Star Trek' and 'Spider-man' both bring in billions of dollars in branded merchandising every year. It's not hard to see why this would be a fairly solid business plan to follow. Marvel Comics recently rolled the dice by bankrolling it's own big-budget movies to huge success, making Iron Man (previously a B-Grade character with little name recognition) into a house-hold name.

Here's where the chicken and egg come into it: if you launch a comic-book and then sign a movie deal at the same time, will the comic audience read the book and then watch the film? Or will the movie audience watch the movie and then buy the comic? Or will both flop because they don't have 30 years of pre-awareness to be the next 'Wolverine'? Will anyone really care about these new properties?

This kind of fishing for instant success is understandable, but VERY rarely achievable, especially in the comics business.
In the last 20 years the most successful independent comics company launch would have to be Image Comics. Todd McFarlane's 'Spawn' was an instant success as a comic and merchandising property, but drew heavily on McFarlane's profile and fan-base that he had spent years building up at Marvel (proving he was the brand, not the characters). It also didn't hurt that he tapped into the grunge zeitgeist of the early 90s, and gave his fans exactly what they wanted. That kind of success has more to do with the right timing than marketing, and can't really be artificially created.

The 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' also had a fast track to success, and the potential for 'Blastosaurus' to follow in it's merchandising footsteps clearly appealed to Katz's business sense. Genre roots aside, 'Blastosaurus' may be the most original offering from 'American Original' (I'm sure the irony of this association isn't lost on anyone).
The other announce titles on offer are: 'Vengeance of Mine' by Katz & artist Thomas Nachlik, 'Daybreak' by Gary Whitta and Brian Lynch and artist Marco Castiello and 'Comedy Deathray Anthology' edited by Scott Aukerman.

Not surprisingly, the first two titles read like genre movie pitches sitting on the 'needs more development' pile. Katz describes 'Vengeance of Mine' as "a mix of the 'Payback' or 'Get Carter' model and the monster world of movies like 'Nightbreed'." 'Daybreak' mines the highly original 'prison break' genre, best described as "an homage to the sort of swaggering, man's-man action movies of the '80s that Kurt Russell and John Carpenter did together." I guess some explanation as to why these concepts will make great comics is unnecessary...

The comedy anthology at least heads in a new direction, promising a rotating creative team made up of comedy's brightest talents. Comedy is of coarse one of the most difficult genres to pull off in comics, so it's a big ask from new creators to comics. It could really go either way; a unique stand-alone success, or a disaster of epic proportions.

Which is kind of how I feel about this whole venture; based on the information available at this time, I would have to bet my chips on the latter.

I appreciate the fact he's attempting to mine untapped areas of the comics industry to create a different spin on the multi-platform development company; but it's still the same animal with different stripes. If these books can't stand on their own, no movie, TV show, video-game or web-what-have-you development deal is going to make them any more readable.

So here's my educated guess on how I think this is going to pan out:

I give the comics line a shelf life of 6 months to a year (this could be extended by six months if any of the development deals get the green-light). Keep in mind the above titles are only the first announcement. I expect he's keeping a high-profile creator-owned book announcement for the San Diego Comic Con. My money is on a book by his 'Booster Gold' co-writer Geoff Johns, guaranteed to bring home the bacon while the other books find their sales levels.

Unfortunately, I think 'Blastosaurus' will be the first title to go.
I like Richard, he's an endearing and intelligent local creator, who deserves a great deal of credit for what he's achieved and the limitations he's overcome. It was a bold local effort; I just don't think it's ready for the blood-thirsty, overly serious mainstream american comics audience.
The series has an innocent, good-natured intention that I think will be lost on Top Cow's regular readers and would probably be more at home at an indie label like Top Shelf, which would suit it's cartoon irony much better.
There is still an outside chance a TV deal could still come through, and like TMNT it could go on to eclipse the comic as a merchandising machine in it's own right. In any event, I'm sure Richard's contagious enthusiasm will see him land on his feet.

As for Katz, I don't foresee him having the patience to nurture a comics line for the years it takes to successfully gather a loyal readership to create the 'pre-awareness' he values without giving into the temptation to develop the properties straight out the gate. I expect the recession and the continuing market shrinkage will cop the blame for the company's failure and Katz will return to the safe bet of re-packaging old movie franchises for new audiences.

Looking for big money in the comics industry is like hunting for fools gold: you may find something that looks like the real deal and shines bright in the sunlight; but if it's the rich rewards you really crave, you're digging in the wrong place.

Go off and make your movies and money, 'cause we're just making comics here.


To hear Jeff Katz talk/hype 'American Original' in his own words, check out this clip from G4's 'Attack of the Show'.

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