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The comics industry's hottest free agent executive isn't who you think

If comic book publishers are looking for someone to transform their business, this could be the dark horse candidate

Erik Mclean (
Image credit: Erik Mclean (

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Every ending can be a beginning, and hidden among the wave of layoffs Hasbro recently undertook was the departure of someone who was a key figure in orchestrating toy licenses such as G.I. Joe, Transformers, My Little Pony, and more to become modern-day juggernauts in the world of comic publishing, and publishing in general.

But now, in a choice that from the outside seems mind-boggling, he is now a free agent.

Michael Kelly, Hasbro's now-former VP of Global Publishing, finds himself in a position as someone with one of the most in-demand, and rare, skill sets in comics and pop culture publishing.

Why Michael Kelly would be a good fit in comics publishing

As superhero giants like Marvel and DC look towards their next moves as their parent companies become more and more involved with their decision-making, someone with a skillset like Kelly - to be a steward for a company's franchise characters internally and with external publishing partners (and in some cases, movie & TV as well) - seems like the kind of thing any major company (or a company wanting to be like that) would want.

"... I had a working relationship with Michael Kelly that lasted something like 15 years, and it was due to his championing of IDW’s efforts that the comics were able to attain the relative highs that they hit during our time managing them," former IDW president/publisher/CCO/editor-in-chief wrote recently on his Substack. "It never felt like the kind of 'licensor/licensee' relationship that people warn you about when getting into the licensed comics business. Rather, Michael made smart decisions, he took chances, he pushed management to do the same, and he allowed and enabled and encouraged the wild creative leaps we wanted to take at times."

According to financial information provided to Popverse, once Kelly became involved with Hasbro's publishing division that sector increased its revenue over 1000%. At its height under Kelly's tenure, Hasbro Publishing has an operational profit margin of 70%.

Transformers #1 Ashcan SDCC Exclusive
Image credit: Image Comics

The recent revamp of Hasbro's G.I. Joe and Transformers comics that Kelly helped orchestrate with Image Comics & Skybound is only months old, and resulted in the highest ever comic book sales for any Hasbro comic in 24 years (as reported by Bleeding Cool).

"... how many people get to make company history the day after they get laid off?" wrote Kelly on LinkedIn. "Huge congrats to the team at Skybound, the unbeatable Hasbro Publishing team, and all you G.I. JOE fans out there! Always remember: records were made to be broken."

How Michael Kelly landing at your favorite publisher would matter to you as a fan

A mantra that Kelly has repeated often is this: "Brands don't get tired, consumers get tired." Wherever you are in the comics and pop culture businss, this sounds like a rallying cry for what could be across the board.

"[Michael Kelly] built Hasbro's publishing business from the ground up, delivering strong revenue growth while expanding the landscapes and mythologies of the brands themselves," says Hasbro's former president of branded entertainment Samantha Lomow. "What I admired most about Michael over the years was the steadfast leadership and forward thinking he brought to bravely introduce topics such as mental health, inclusivity and equality, enabling fans of My Little Pony, GI Joe and Transformers to connect through more modern and advanced storytelling."

Yes, My Little Pony as well. Kelly doesn't just specialize in action stories like G.I. Joe and Transformers; according to Ryall, Hasbro & IDW's My Little Pony comics launched "far better" than either company expected, resulting in over a million copies of it sold "in short order."

While Kelly hasn't worked for a comic publisher per se, he clearly knows the medium and how to communicate at the executive level on down. Back in October, Popverse's Jim McDermott had the opportunity to speak to Kelly at length, and his comics fandom came out.

"I gravitate to books that are very character focused and tend to tell a slightly different story from the more usual super hero comic," Kelly told Popverse. "I love things like Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and Ms. Marvel, but I also love Fables and Whiteout. I tend to really love that ability to drive story and character through both writing and visual representation that comics captures."

And in words at the time talking about Hasbro's relationship with partners, Kelly gives a preview of what he could do if he were to choose to work directly in comics. "At the end of the day, we have to protect the brands, we have to protect the company and the legacy," said Kelly in October 2023. "But within that context I want people to have free reign to be creative and bring their own vision."

From looking at Kelly's track record, this isn't just lip-service or wishful thinking. It could even be a spoiler - if Kelly and a comic publisher were to decide to team up.

To 'save' Marvel & DC Comics, they need to be more experimental & take more risks (but so do readers).

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About the Author
Chris Arrant avatar

Chris Arrant


Chris Arrant is the Popverse's Editor-in-Chief. He has written about pop culture for USA Today, Life, Entertainment Weekly, Publisher's Weekly, Marvel, Newsarama, CBR, and more. He has acted as a judge for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, the Harvey Awards, and the Stan Lee Awards. (He/him)