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March 1, 2012

Beyond the Pages with Eddie Deighton and Benjamin Shahrabani of Com.x


Eddie Deighton and Benjamin Shahrabani take us on a tour behind the operations of indie U.K. comics publisher Com.x, a little company responsible for some very big, and very good, graphic novels.

Tell us about the beginnings of Com.x and how the company formed. What are Com.x’s goals?
Benjamin Shahrabani: Com.x was founded in 2000 by my colleague Eddie Deighton, along with his business partners, Russell Uttley and Neil Googe. It was the first comic company to be formed in the UK in over two decades. At the time, the comic publishing industry was at an all-time low in terms of creativity and readership enthusiasm and they felt it was time to inject panache and excitement back into it by using the cutting-edge illustration and design skills they possessed through their advertising and design company.
And our company ethos hasn't really altered since then. The goal is to produce the finest, most interesting and original books we can.
What were the challenges you faced getting started? What are the current challenges?
Eddie Deighton: I guess the main problem we faced when we established was persuading a jaded audience that we were going to deliver on our hype. We generated some amazing PR (appearing in national newspapers, tabloids, etc., as well as standard trade magazines) that it seemed almost too good to be true. We were a young, fledgling publisher that was about to turn the industry upside-down and become an outlet for the writing and illustration talent that the rest of the comic publishing world had overlooked.
The next challenge was delivering on our promises. I think we succeeded in a number of areas, but I feel we succumbed to the pressure and tried to do too much too quickly—deadlines were our weak-point and our publishing naïveté definitely impacted on the way we managed our schedules. We were eventually forced to take a break from publishing to consolidate our working practices and take a long, hard look at what we were doing, which ultimately led to the departure of Neil and Russell in 2008 and the instigation of Ben and Jon Sloan as my business partners.
BS: For us, the challenges are still pretty much the same—producing great quality titles on restricted budgets and operating costs—but I feel our operating structure is a lot smoother now; we all feel it's much more manageable and easier to control.
ED: I think the biggest challenge we currently face is the fight for prominence on the store shelf, both at retail and in the digital market. Being a smaller publisher, we don't release as many books as the bigger companies and we have far less advertising to spend, which reduces the amount of impact we can make on a weekly and monthly basis. Additionally, because of limited resources, it's generally harder for us to immediately embrace new reading mediums (iPad, Android, etc.), even though we may be aware of the evolution in the marketplace.
How many people does Com.x comprise?
ED: Apart from the external teams that are creating most of the content, there are only three full-time members of the company: myself, Ben, and Jon Sloan. We each bring a different skill-set to the organization, which allows us to keep our external overheads low.
BS: Between the three of us, we are responsible for all facets of the business—editing, graphic design, advertising, PR, marketing, distribution, and shipping. Fortunately, we're able to draw on the expertise of our “mother company”—An.x Agency—of which Eddie is the founder and creative director. It's a purveyor of graphic design and advertising to the video game and entertainment industry.
What do you see defining Com.x’s role in the industry and setting it apart from other publishers?
BS: I think one is putting a UK or international spin on American-style comics, and another is providing an outlet to storytellers who might not have one otherwise. We have a very open policy on what a creator can produce (as the majority of our books are creator-owned), which has led to some truly wonderful output.
ED: We're extremely passionate about changing the public's perception of comics, both as a visual and literary medium. I want to push boundaries; to reinvent genres and prove that the industry is still able to evolve and not just regurgitate the same storylines and characters in the expected way. I think our last two books, Forty-Five by Andi Ewington and Seeds by Ross Mackintosh, are a good example of us trying to do something unexpected and different.
Quality is also an issue for us. It is our policy to offer the reader the best printing techniques and content. We want the Com.x brand to be synonymous with both quality story and high production values.
How tough is the marketplace right now? What has it been like getting your books to a wide readership?
BS: The marketplace is increasingly challenging. Some buyers will only pre-order a book if it's from the “big 5”—Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, IDW, and Image—and very little else. Their books are, for the most part, reliable sellers and safe bets, so retail orders accordingly. I do wish that more stores would take a chance on some of the wonderful books that the indie comic industry put out.
ED: It's fair to say that DC's 52 relaunch blew most of the industry out of the water these last few months, including its immediate competitors. What that has done is effectively nullify the majority of retail's enthusiasm for independent comics.
We've seen extremely reduced pick-up since the relaunch and I'm aware of other indies in the same position. So, for us, it's how we get our books back into the stores, because we know there are readers out there that still want our books. What this is potentially doing is forcing the smaller companies to consider the digital publishing platform as the main way of communicating with the consumer—because there's more chance their books will be available to a wider audience on launch day—but what that is doing is creating a multiple-tier publishing system where, for example, a consumer who still wants to purchase printed books may not be able to do so if he/she has seen an indie book they are interested in purchasing, because it may not exist outside of the digital medium.
BS: We do get regular emails through our site from the public saying they want to buy a particular title but that their store isn't carrying it. Hopefully, if the public asks far enough ahead, the buyers will listen to their requests and order more of our books.
What are the particular trends in the comics industry right now that you are noticing and responding to?
ED: Well, I like to think that we sit outside the generic box that people put comic publishing in; we don't react to trends, we try to redefine them. Ben, Jon, and I have been reading comics and graphic novels for years; we're constantly striving to bring something different to the marketplace, so our response to the current climate is to try and bring something different to the publishing table.
But one thing that is interesting and extremely positive is the way a lot of creators are embracing Kickstarter and IndieGoGo as publishing platforms for their content. That and the fact that digital publishing is becoming increasingly easier to adapt their books to (and more readers are buying it) means that opportunities for creators wishing to publish and the number of outlets for their books is diversifying. If you're prepared to put the time into a little research, you can get your book to the masses rather than wait on a third-party publisher that may reject your submission in the first place.
BS: I think it also poses a question about how books are distributed in the future. People are buying physical copies of books on the internet, so that must mean either their local store isn't stocking it or the pricing structure is askew. They must reinvent themselves somehow. There is also the emergence of all sorts of e-readers and tablets—we sell on a variety of them—but I tend to think that sales that result on these devices (for us at least) emerge from the initial success of the print book.
Since Com.x operates internationally, what are the differences you see in different comics marketplaces? Is the European comics market significantly different from the American one, for example?
ED: I feel we need to focus on the differences between the American market and UK market and not necessarily include the rest of Europe in how we operate. Europe (especially France, Italy, and Spain) has a thriving comic industry and books are generally sold in larger volumes and collected editions and they don't necessarily embrace the monthly issue format.
The UK tends to embrace the US distribution model, which is primarily collecting monthly titles, OGN [original graphic novel] and collected editions, but the comic readership and enthusiasm for the comic medium is far greater in America than the UK. So the UK is kind of a separate entity altogether to both the European and American markets, in that the readership isn't as high and the medium isn't embraced as openly.
Com.x adheres to a similar publishing structure to Europe in that we publish OGN and collected editions, but we certainly don't have enough content to sustain a continual presence in European comic and bookstores (yet). We see far more orders through our American distribution—surprisingly, even though we're primarily a British company, we see far more support from US stores than the UK. I'm not sure why that is, but we're looking into our methods of communicating directly with retailers in the hope we can change that.
What have been Com.x’s bestselling titles?
ED: Without a doubt, Cla$$war (written by Rob Williams, with art by Trevor Hairsine and Travel Foreman) and Sky Between Branches (created by Joshua Middleton) have been our bestselling titles. Both sold in double figures, which was impressive for an indie book.
BS: Cla$$war was originally a six issue mini-series that we first launched back in 2003, and we published a deluxe hardcover edition that came out in 2009. We consistently get a lot of requests for a reprint of that book and inquiries about a second series! Sky Between Branches was a 16-page prologue for what was a prelude to the OGN. The artwork was absolutely sublime.
ED: Most Com.x titles sell out on initial print run and we get repeat orders, but most of the time it's not cost-effective to reprint as the numbers just aren't sufficient. Smaller publishers rely heavily on first-time orders from retail; it's not cost-effective from either a manufacturing or storage perspective for us to invest heavily in speculative quantities, even though we have faith in the quality of our own books.
What future projects do you have coming up?
BS: 2012 is one of our most productive and exciting years to date. We've just released BlueSpear, the first of a trilogy of interconnected sequels to Andi Ewington's acclaimed 45. Next up we have Monster Myths by John Lupo Avanti that’s just been solicited to Diamond Comics Distribution for a late June release. John is a versatile artist—he's worked in the realms of fine art and tattooing, as well as graffiti—so we feel this book is going to be very unique. After that will be Duppy '78 by Casey Seijas and Amancay Nahuelpan-Bustamante, a supernatural Jamaican crime tome, followed by Babble, written by Lee Robson and illustrated by Bryan Coyle.
ED: We have about five or six projects already planned for this year, with more in the pipeline for 2013. Our only restriction in terms of publishing is funding; we can only produce so many books with the staff levels and the budgets we have. But for me, it's about quality over quantity; it's about redefining superheroes, about pushing the medium to the extremes and enticing more readers to embrace comics and graphic novels.