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Do comics still have the power to shift popular culture?" new outfit The Lab Press think so

The editor-in-chief and CEO behind the new indie publisher reveal where Lab Press came from, and where it's going

The Lab Press
Image credit: The Lab Press

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Next week sees the debut of a new comic book publisher, as The Lab Press launches a Kickstarter campaign for its first release, the science fiction graphic novel Essentials.

Written by novelist and actor Luke Arnold and Emmy-nominated writer Chris 'Doc' Wyatt, Essentials boasts an art team to make other comics jealous, with DaNi, Glenn Fairy, Vince Locke, Brendan McCarthy, Andrea Mutti, M.K. Parker, Jason Howard, and Bill Sienkiewicz all attached. It’s an impressive line-up for any project, but especially the first book from a new publisher, which got us wanting to know more about The Lab Press. So we asked them.

Specifically, we asked editor-in-chief Daren Walker and chief creative officer Mike Zagari, who were more than willing to share more information on Essentials as a project, the publisher’s point of view, and where the comic industry is headed as a whole. Read on for that conversation, but if you’re looking for a preview of Essentials itself, don’t worry; we’ve got that for you as well, right here.

Popverse: Let’s start with the obvious first question: Where did The Lab Press come from? What was the origin point for this publisher?

Dagen Walker: I wouldn’t say there was a single origin point. More like a few of us deciding to connect the dots between a lot of very talented people. In a lot of ways Essentials exemplifies this approach. We started the journey with writers we already knew and they pitched us this story that would require seven different artists so now we have this amazing array of all-star comic artists: DaNi, Glenn Fabry, Jason Howard, Vince Locke, Brendan McCarthy, Andrea Mutti, M.K. Perker and a cover by legendary artist Bill Sienkiewicz.

The common point is a love for strong visual storytelling and a peculiar passion for creating gorgeous physical books. It’s a strange and beautiful bunch for sure.

Mike Zagari: To add to that, another common origin point is these stories are the ones in which the creators don’t just want to tell, they need to tell. These original graphic novels are about having a beginning, middle, and end, and to have the same powerful impact as when you finish a satisfying prose book. In terms of Essentials, our first original graphic novel, it all started with the idea of “A man living in a bunker starts talking to a child’s toy…. who starts to talk back to him”. Co-writer Luke Arnold was struck with a vision of a child’s pink suitcase, full of pure joy, in a dark post-apocalyptic world and a story that would explore the importance of living versus just surviving.

Dagen, you mentioned in the launch announcement that Lab Press loves “human moments in unhinged worlds; tales that entertain while illuminating some experiential truth.” Without getting too deep — or throwing too much shade — that’s a weighty statement in an industry that increasingly looks towards spectacle and nostalgia as motivators. It’s obviously a plus to have something that differentiates Lab Press from other publishers out there, but is there something in that statement that speaks to Lab Press’s guiding principle?

Walker: That’s cool you feel the weight of it. Consider TMNT… I love that it’s everywhere - that’s a property that I’m personally hugely nostalgic for - but when you go back to 1983 and think about Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird and how rebellious those first books were… that’s something else entirely. Most of the best rebellious ideas from the 80’s and 90’s (and even last decade) have become such corporate darlings that modern “rebelliousness” has become just another flavor being bought and sold as a pop commodity.

Which is totally cool, by the way, but also begs the question as to whether a creator can be truly different or uniquely subversive in this modern landscape? Do comics still have the power to shift popular culture, blow your mind? We believe so and want to partner with those who are interested in trying. When we say “space for the audacious” it’s a sincere description of what we’re creating here at The Lab Press.

Zagari: Great points, Dagen. One of the best aspects about looking at the roots of the original Mirage TMNT Comics, is that you can feel the impressive passion Eastman and Laird were putting into every aspect of telling those stories. As well as empowering their selected additional writers and artists to be a part of that excitement. We empower the creators we partner with to tell the stories they need to tell. That leads to different genres, as well as very different perspectives, worlds and characters. But the common thread are those personal moments in these upside-down worlds. Everyone goes through those challenging and experiences at one point or another and that is what will connect these stories so closely with our audience.

Image credit: Bill Sienkiewicz/The Lab Press

In press announcing Essentials, Mike said that it was no secret that comics is “in a period of tremendous, transformative change,” and that Lab Press is intended to “meet those challenges and opportunities head-on.” What kinds of challenges do you think the industry is looking at over the next few years, most pressingly?

Walker: I’m gonna let Mike take this one.

Zagari: We can see how the comics industry has largely evolved over the past 10+ years, from multiple angles. From looking at where and how established and up-and-coming writers and artists decide to publish their stories. To the focus on serialized, seemingly never-ending adventures versus self-contained comics. As well as the distribution methods and expanded opportunities of the direct, trade, direct-to-consumer, and crowd-funding markets. All of these have notably changed and will continue to do so in the next 10+ years. The Lab’s mission is to work closely with our writers and artists to find the best solutions to these shifts in the industry and have a bespoke approach to every single original graphic novel we publish.

To that point, it’s worth noting that Essentials launches as a crowdfunded project, offering exclusive editions that won’t be available after the campaign. How important is something like Kickstarter or other social campaigns to get projects off the ground nowadays — not just financially, but in terms of promotion and building audience awareness? Is this kind of thing central to Lab Press pushing away from more traditional publishing models?

Walker: Crowdfunding was a smart first step for us since we’re new and are interested in creating a direct conversation with potential readers. Our plan is to allow our creators the time, energy and resources needed for their particular project to find its audience. Gone are the days where you could just throw as many books at the market as possible and see what sticks… there are so many things competing for attention and all of it is changing all of the time… so we plan on staying nimble in our approach. In the short term this will probably be a combination of a publicity/crowdfunding in conjunction with more traditional marketing/publishing models as required and always putting the creators first. As they succeed, we all succeed.

Zagari: These platforms are so much more than about crowdfunding in today’s market. They are about discoverability, with an already established and savvy book buying crowd. In addition, the ordering tiers allow the core graphic novel to naturally expand to other story-focused products and experiences. Each book is treated with the utmost care, and starting with our first, the Essentials, we collaboratively produced custom-fit options that both expand the enjoyment of the core story, as well provide a closer connection with our audience. It’s also important to note that Essentials is completed and already at the printers. For The Lab, Kickstarter is more of a robust ordering platform versus a ground-up crowdfunding one.

You touched on this earlier, but when it comes to a debut project, Essentials feels like quite a statement. The creator line-up alone is something that should make people pay attention, from Luke and Doc’s involvement to a genuinely all-star line-up of artists that speaks to quality over a desire to stick to a house style. (DaNi, Fabry, and McCarthy all next to each other is wild, speaking as a fan of all three!) Was this a case of, “we have this in the works, and it shows everyone that we’re serious about this comics thing,” or was there another reason to go with this as the launch title?

The Lab Press talent grid
Image credit: The Lab Press

Walker: Oh yeah… You will not be disappointed! What a pleasure working with legends and newer talent in the same book. It was wild. We have multiple titles in progress and Essentials was the first to be completed so it became our first book; That said we feel there’s some good kismet in that timing and we agree it works awesome as a launch title for all the reasons you mentioned.

Mike Zagari: Since our announcement, The Lab has had wonderful interactions about the Essentials, and with the amount of tremendous talent involved, one topic to come up frequently is the surprise that it is not an anthology. It is one storyline, which empowers each artist to greatly contribute to the single, overall narrative. We are currently focused on providing satisfying reads that ideally transform what the comics medium can accomplish.

As if the creators involved in Essentials weren’t enough, future projects include creators like Cecil Castellucci, José Villarrubia, and artist and filmmaker Nihaarika Negi. What is The Lab Press method for finding creators? Or do they find you?

Dagen Walker: Early on we connected with Doc Wyatt, who led us to David Hyde at SuperFan who helped us connect with our partner and CCO; Mike Zagari. The goodwill these three wonderful humans enjoy in the industry could sustain a company for many years; luckily for us, in addition we have the rest of our team including Diane Richey, our VP of business development. Diane’s relentless commitment to new voices, diverse and international talent have led to some truly radical upcoming titles. And… It’s a small world in comics; we’re finding that the word is getting out among creators and artists so it’s been amazing to see our lab partners recommending us to their closest friends and collaborators.

Mike Zagari: Each talented individual The Lab aligns with is about empowering them to tell profound stories and unleashing their passion in ways they may not have had the opportunity to do so before.

What can audiences expect from Lab Press moving forward? Are there things you can tease to keep everyone on their toes?

Walker: We have super ambitious goals in terms of what we hope to accomplish creatively with our books; we’ve coupled that with a slow but steady long-term approach on the business side of things. We will be here for many years to come and, as such, we’re building long-term, career-spanning relationships with some of the best creators in comics. We expect amazing things from these story-tellers and artists as they start to feel the power of working in an untethered yet fully supportive environment. It’s gonna be worth staying tuned.

Zagari: Precisely. The Lab is laser-focused on building a strong and long-term partnership with our audience. That stems from our vision to have the same profound, long-term relationship with our writers and artists. When our creators show off their passion in new and exciting ways, the audience will share those sentiments. We have a good amount of projects developing behind-the-scenes, but each book we announce will be given the celebratory focus it deserves. We are excited to share more at the right time!

The Essentials kickstarter campaign begins next week, and updates are available here.

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