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Interview: Adam Staffaroni on Lion Forge’s Roar Comics

Lion Forge Comics launched about two years ago as a digital-first comics publisher with a line of licensed comics based on 1980s TV shows. Last year they announced an all ages imprint, Roar Comics, which includes comics adaptations of Punky Brewster and Saved by the Bell as well as original titles. The comics are already available digitally, and the print graphic novels will start hitting bookstore shelves this summer.

We were happy to have the opportunity to talk to Roar editor Adam Staffaroni about the comics, what his plans are from the line, and what he has learned in his years as an editor of all-ages comics (including his previous gig at BOOM! Studios).

I know you say “all ages,” but what age group do you hope will form the core audience for Roar?

When you look at the entire imprint, we really are going after all ages. We have projects for younger readers, middle grade, YA. We often see publishers use the term “all-ages” to mean a general “for kids” imprint, but we’re targeting each segment with different books, in different ways. And a lot of the projects we’re making for younger readers, especially the licenses, aren’t just the latest TV show—they’re characters that the current generation of young parents loved when they were kids. Just as a parent can go watch a Pixar movie and enjoy well-crafted stories and characters, we’re building three-dimensional characters and well-crafted stories. Add Punky Brewster on top of that, and suddenly you have a graphic novel that connects with a 30-something mother as much as with her daughter. These are potentially generation-spanning stories that can create a real bonding moment between parents and children.

Are you looking for any particular type of story for the Roar line?

Stories that no one else is publishing right now!

The comics industry can only grow by reaching out to new demographics, new types of readers, and that’s what the Roar imprint is all about. But it all starts with the creators—they’re the first robin of Spring, so to speak, in that a swell of new talent is going to be followed by a swell of new readers. We can’t build new audiences if the content isn’t there. And there’s so much good work being done right now—but for audiences no established publishers are aiming for, so it hasn’t reached enough readers yet.

It took a number of years for the graphic novel market to coalesce in response to Maus (as a graphic novel), because it took that long for the creative output to catch up with the format. I think we’re seeing the creative echoes of the emergence of the graphic novel, the echoes of manga hitting in the US, the echoes of how impactful Bone was on young readers—all the creators who were inspired by these industry movements of the past 15 years work are hitting their 10,000 hours and poised to change the face of the industry, and we can give them a helping hand. We’ve got to follow the talent, and the stories I want to publish are the ones they want to tell.

In the press release, you mention that Roar comics have “a highly kinetic style.” What do you mean by that, and how do you achieve it—is it the choice of artists, the instructions you give them, the writing, or something else?

“Kinetic” to me means stories and characters that are fun to read. A story where you’re halfway through before stopping to catch your breath. And we’re building teams with writers and artists that have that same idea about comics. The most successful comics are made when the team is all on the same page—and not just the creative team; that includes the editor, the marketing, the publisher, the salespeople—all working together, and learning from each other. We’re stronger as a unit than any of us could be on our own.

When the creators know we have their back, they can focus on doing the most exciting work they’ve ever done. And we’re doing everything we can to support them, busting our butts making sure we get their hard work in front of as many eyes as possible.

You also said “comics can activate a child’s imagination in a way all those other media can’t.” Can you expand on that a bit?

Sure! The easiest thing to think back on is my own experience with comics when I was a kid. I’m sure this goes for plenty of other people in the industry, but I felt this super intense draw to comics, especially newspaper strips, when I was a kid. And I’m sure there are other kids out there today, thinking the same, if we can reach them. The intersection of words and pictures clicks in a way that helps reading comprehension, helps learning, communicates ideas so clearly and powerfully in a way that’s inherently easy to absorb.

A lot of people have studied comics and the brain and come to a lot of very smart conclusions about the way we interact with comics—Chris Ware, Scott McCloud, Jeremy Short, Neil Cohn—I’m sure there are plenty more I’m forgetting. But the point is that there’s something alchemical in the format; it’s a visual entertainment experience that also involves reading and filling in blanks with your imagination, which is pretty incredible.

Publishing digital comics for children seems to be a challenge. How are children finding your digital comics right now?

I think this is a challenge for everyone. There’s a lot of regulations, as there should be, on building websites and digital platforms targeted at children. We’re available on all the normal channels for digital comics—we’re launching on comiXology soon—so we’re as discoverable as anything else, limited only by how much screen time parents will allow.

But with the seemingly limitless options available digitally, we’re competing against so much other content, so it’s going to take some inventive new method for not just us, but all kids’ comics, to build a more robust digital presence. We have some big plans on that front with more discoverable and well-promoted comics apps specifically for kids, and we can hopefully come up with some answers that don’t only work for us but work for the rest of the industry, too.

Where will the print versions be available? Comic shops? Bookstores?

All of the above and then some! Conventions, libraries, hopefully book fairs and clubs down the road. Our print distribution is handled by IDW, and through them, Diamond Book Distributors, so we’re very well-covered in terms of placement. Libraries, bookstores, comic shops, and mass accounts are all in play, and our marketing approach is designed to reach all of those buyers on their timelines. Our first print release is in June with Saved by the Bell, and we’ll have at least one new print book per season after that.

Are you marketing to parents, librarians, and other gatekeepers or directly to kids?

Absolutely all of the above! Our marketing campaigns will focus on gatekeepers, just like every trade children’s book campaign: publicity and advertising to teachers, librarians, and parents, with different levels of focus depending on the title. But directly to kids is another essential piece. Not always easy to do, but we’re planning to work with certain children’s websites and kid-targeted publications to make sure all members of our audience are hearing about this, to the best of our ability.

I noticed on my ARC of Punky Brewster that there would be a Common Core lesson plan. How do these books tie in to the Common Core?

Most of them are high-interest 6-12 literary texts, with some hitting older (the teen/YA segment we mentioned above). Since one of the main goals of the CCSS is to teach books that kids want to read, with relatable situations that apply to their lives, we thought our books were a perfect fit. Saved by the Bell is a high-school comedy; Punky Brewster is about a little kid in hard times trying to form a new family. When we get into our original, more fantasy-oriented titles like Mer and Crystal Cadets, we have to pull out the teachable themes a little more, but we’re working with folks who are both educators and comics experts, so it’s a smooth process. It’s amazing seeing what an experienced educator can glean from what I thought was just a fun story about mermaids or flying gryphons.

Today’s kids hadn’t been born yet when Punky Brewster and Saved By the Bell first ran on TV. What do you think will be the biggest draw for these comics?

The biggest draw is that the writing is great, the artwork is great, and these are fun to read completely independent of the source material. Name recognition can maybe get people to pick up the book, but if the content’s not great, or the reviews aren’t good, people are going to lose interest. We’re putting out great comics, plain and simple. Maybe they’re not the cup o’ tea of your standard comics reader, but that’s exactly the point—a lot of people assumed girls just didn’t like comics, then the manga boom happened.

But beyond that, we put a lot of care into making these comics span a generation. The movie industry always has a few big “family movies” in the run of summer blockbusters—not KID movies, but FAMILY movies. We looked at that and thought, why is there so much talk about “family” content in the dominant medium of the day, but we have to segment comics as “for kids” or “for adults”? If we can be the first true family comics publisher—putting out comics that a parent and a child can both read, and then maybe even have a conversation about, then we know we’ve done our job.

Are you handling the original properties any differently than the licensed comics?

Regardless of licensed or original, we want each project to have unique characters and a unique voice with compelling stories, so that’s the same no matter what. Licensed titles do need a little extra push into novelty, something people aren’t quite expecting, to encourage a second look, and that’s something we always keep in mind.

We’ve had a unique opportunity with Saved by the Bell and Punky Brewster in that there wasn’t a current show to tie into, so we were able to shoot off in new directions from each show’s essential premise. And we’re doing some very cool stuff with American Greetings on MadBalls that simply wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t a licensed property.

Are you trying to build a brand with Roar, something kids will recognize so if they like one comic they will reach for another, or are you planning for the different properties to stand on their own?

Short answer is yes, we want to build a brand—specifically one that kids recognize as a place for cool comics every time. We already have publishers providing educational comics for kids, and literary comics for kids, so we’d like kids to think of Roar as the one that makes fun comics.

But the long answer is we have to let the audience tell us which one of those things they want. In the beginning of the imprint, we’re going for more breadth than depth. We want to hit a number of different genres, a number of different underserved audiences. But it’s risky going after audiences that haven’t been built yet. We may do great in some areas and not so much in others, but we’re poised to follow up on the ones that work—if the audience indeed is there and eager for more content, we’ll keep making comics for them!

I think a lot of this has to do with age. I think younger readers pay less attention to publisher, and older readers focus on this a lot more. There’s more imprint loyalty in comic shops, less in bookstores and libraries. We’re straddling both of those worlds, so the only thing we can do is keep our ears open, listen to our readers, and I expect the answer is going to fall somewhere in the middle as well.

I know you were an editor at BOOM! Studios before coming to Lion Forge. How did you get started editing comics for children?

I was at DC back in 2010, during the first Warner re-org, and looking to move into an Editorial role. I hit a bunch of cons that year to see what was out there, got to meet some people from Boom, and was so impressed with what they were doing with childrens’ comics—the Roger Langridge Muppets stuff especially blew me away as inventive and risky in all the best ways.

Luckily for me, Chip Mosher had just launched the Boom Town imprint, and they thought I’d be a good fit to help out with those books. I’m not sure if they saw me on Boom Kids projects, but I got out to LA and started pitching them on an Adventure Time series in my first month on the job.

When I heard great cartoonists like Kate Beaton and Michael DeForge were working on or inspiring things in the show, I immediately thought “this needs to be a comic!”

From there, the WordGirl series fell in my lap, and I think because I came through CCS [the Center for Cartoon Studies], they thought I’d be a good fit to work on the Peanuts series, which I’m grateful for. Between the Schulz family funding the CCS library, and all the CCS grads who are now working at the Schulz Studio—Nomi Kane, Denis St. John, Donna Almendrala—I think there’s a lot of shared values there.

How do you see your role as an editor? Do you choose the creative teams? Do you actively shape the story or go back and make changes once the script is written or the art is done?

We’re still a small company, so my role is whatever needs to be done! I’m working on acquisitions for our next wave of projects, putting together the overall approaches to the licensed properties, choosing creative teams with the help of our amazing team at Lion Forge—Dave Steward and Carl Reed had already lined up a lot of fantastic writers by the time I joined, and I’ve gotten some good tips on creators from Jesse Post and Shannon Denton.

On the creative side, I’m here to help our creators’ work shine! Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, so my goal is to help when and where help is needed, and otherwise get the heck out of the way! My favorite words to say are, “No notes.”

But I’m happy to handle whatever else comes up. Barbara Kesel was nice enough to have me on her Editors panel last WonderCon, and everyone up there had amazing answers to “What is the strangest job you’ve had as an editor?” My answer was “Be Daniel Johnston’s music stand.” Since then I’ve added “clandestine Care Bear costume head transporter” to that list.

What’s the biggest challenge in working on children’s comics, and what’s your favorite part?

We’re doing kids comics because we fell in love with this medium when we were kids. I ran downstairs to get the comics page out of the newspaper every day, and devoured whatever Far Side collection I got for my birthday, and read and reread the Dell Peanuts paperbacks on my grandma’s bookcase.

Now a lot of young parents don’t get a newspaper. There’s potentially a whole generation of kids who are going to have LESS access to comics than their parents, if current trends continue. But if we can create new avenues, new channels… Then we can enable any number of kids to discover their own love of this medium. Or help them just enjoy the act of reading, instead of being so overloaded with homework that they equate reading with being a chore. Help them dream of being a writer or an artist. Give them a window to a bigger world.

Sure, these are high ideals, but they’re good ones, and they make me more excited than ever to show up at work every day.

Brigid Alverson About Brigid Alverson

Brigid Alverson, the editor of the Good Comics for Kids blog, has been reading comics since she was 4. She has an MFA in printmaking and has worked as a book editor and a newspaper reporter; now she is assistant to the mayor of Melrose, Massachusetts. In addition to editing GC4K, she writes about comics and graphic novels at MangaBlog, SLJTeen, Publishers Weekly Comics World, Comic Book Resources, MTV Geek, and Good Brigid is married to a physicist and has two daughters in college, which is why she writes so much. She was a judge for the 2012 Eisner Awards.

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