Since Devil’s Due and the revived 1First Comics merged in June (see "1First Comics, Devil’s Due Merge"), it’s become clear that the new comics company aspires to be more than a boutique independent.  A publishing program of significant scale is taking shape, with an emphasis on creator-owned work and a different business model than Image Comics, the leader in that space.

At San Diego Comic-Con, we caught up with 1First Comics co-founder Ken F. Levin for a conversation about the company’s plans.  In Part 2, we talk about the events between the purchase of the original 1First in the early 90s and the recent revival of the company, how the iPad and the recent change in the standard Vertigo contract led to the new venture, the merger, and more on the company’s launch in September.  In Part 1, we talked about the company’s massive publishing scale-up, which begins in September, including some of its new properties, plans for the classic 1First Publishing titles, and the company’s philosophy on keeping comics on schedule.

When did the original incarnation of First stop publishing?

We got bought in the early 90s in a roll-up that went public.

That was CIE?
Yeah, which did really well for our investors, which was nice because they’d been good enough to throw money at us without any real sense that it was necessarily going to succeed economically but was going to fun, and it was both of those.

And they published for a few years and then slowed down publishing.  They continued doing Classics Illustrated which was a sister company of ours, and then announced they were becoming a dot-com, which it became clear pretty quickly was going to have nothing to do with comics, nothing to do with publishing.  They owed me a bunch of money and I went in and said, "If you’re really not going to publish, why don’t we clean up your balance sheet?  I’ll make you a deal.  You give me back First Comics and you don’t have to pay me any money you owe me."  And that’s the way it went.  So we did licensing at that point.  IDW did Jon Sable.  IDW did a new Grimjack and some reprint stuff.  Badger was done by a couple of publishers; Image did some; Dark Horse did some, and some of the other titles.

It never really occurred to me to go back into print publishing, really, until I saw the iPad.  At that point there had been several of the early digital companies, like iVerse, who’d said "give us digital rights and we’ll put your comics and you’ll be able to read them on a phone."  I thought, "That’s a horrible idea!"  It’s just too small, and it doesn’t do justice to these artists.  You see the iPad and tablets and you go, "ok, I get it, that’s pretty good."

And the other thing that happened is Vertigo changed its creator-owned deal.  Bill Willingham’s Fables and Garth Ennis’ Preacher, I’ve worked with Garth and Bill for a number of years.

As an attorney, right?
As a representative.  I don’t know what hat I’m wearing, but they’re my guys and I do all their deals.  The Vertigo deal used to be a true creator-owned deal with Warner Brothers having a first negotiation right and a right to match, but there was some open market aspect about it.

The deal they changed to after Karen Berger left gives them 100% control.  It’s really not a creator-owned deal.  It gives you smaller economic passive interest so for the creators on the level I work with, it wasn’t a deal that was going to work for them.  And there weren’t obvious choices on where to go.

Image has done a really nice job putting out some wonderful titles but they’re very clear that they don’t typically support the production of those titles.  Their typical deal is you hand them a finished book which means either the artist is specking, or somebody has to come up with the money to pay it.  And they don’t market on the level that a normal, typical publisher would do.  So I decided OK, we’ll do a few books.

And then it got out of hand?
Yes.  I just couldn’t say no.  I got these tremendous opportunities.  Steve Stern and Dan Cote brought us Zen: Intergalactic Ninja, which at that point, was over 100 comic book issues (it’s really unusual for an independent to actually go that long), and they said, "We weren’t really a First Comics title, but we should have been.  We would have liked to be.  The timing didn’t work. How about we become a First Comics title now?"  I said, "absolutely!?"  So we’ve got the first of the Zen, Best of the Zen collections, recolored, remastered.  We’ve got this new Zen: Hard Bounty miniseries, five issues which Marat Michaels has done the art for and is gorgeous and we have a new Zen original graphic novel which Dan Cote, the other co-creator of Zen did the art for.  It’s gorgeous.

It’s been really nice to sort of open your doors and say "we’re about what we’ve always been about."  We try to give creators freedom to do what they want to do in space that normally they can’t get and support them and support their titles.  And our goal is always, we want great.  I had an early editors’ meeting (it was before a convention), and they said "what are we looking for?  Because we’re going to get inundated with people who will say, ‘will you look at my book, my portfolio?’"

Just anything you can envision that could be great, because there’s too much "good" in the world.  There’s a lot of people doing "good," and that’s fine, but we don’t have an infinite amount of resources and an infinite amount of title slots, so let’s always shoot for great.  And we won’t always hit it but that’s the goal.  Shoot for great, that’s the mantra.

So far, a lot of it is pretty great.

How many products will you put out in March with this launch schedule?
I have no idea.

Public Relations #2
A lot.
Yeah, because what happens is you put out Public Relations issue #1 in September and then in October, you have Zen Hardbound #1 and R.R.H. #1, but you have Public Relations #2, so as you keep doing it you have this accretion and by the time you get to March you have seven different comic books plus a collection, plus two original graphic novels, plus all the Devil’s Due things coming out, and they have some wonderful things.

There was a really nice, complementary overlap that’s happened with that.  They’re Chicago; we’re Chicago.  I’ve known Josh Blaylock for a long time.  He’s a wonderful artist and writer on his own titles, but he’s got a really good eye and he’s done that with his titles.  He’s a good marketer.  So they’re very good at keeping the train running on time with Diamond.  We’re very good with production and with helping editing and they had no Hollywood presence at all, which is where I spend more than half my life.  So it’s been a really good, complementary thing.  I couldn’t be more pleased.

In the new logo, it has the numeral 1 and the word, "first."  Is that just pronounced "first?"
Yeah.  And our website is 1First Comics. It’s our logo from the beginning has been the 1 and F.  It was always there.  We’ve been at conventions for the last four years, we’re usually near the top of the list because they do it number-wise.  Diamond used to do that, but they do it by letters now.  So that imprint is Devil’s Due/1First Comics, LLC, so we’re with the Ds in Previews.

I know we’re publishing some things that other publishers wouldn’t publish because they’re not obvious, big moneymakers. Or they seem niche, or they seem risky and we don’t strive to do that.  Most of our things are certainly commercial, mainstream.  Some of them will be on television or in films, though that’s not the goal.  The goal is put out great books and my view has been that it’ll happen because great stuff gets on.  Preacher, I just got the locked pilot the night before last. It just blows your mind. It is so good.  The result is sensational.  And I’m very confident that some of our titles will get there, too, but what we want to do is put out really good books.  And that’s always been Blaylock’s goal, too.  It’s a nice combination.

Do you have distribution into the book channel?
We don’t yet.  We are in discussions with three of the bigger distributors.  I’ve been a guest at the American Library Association annual convention in San Francisco two weeks ago.  We had meetings with the usual suspects and my expectancy is we’ll have that distribution in the next three months.  We will have that distribution.

Click here to go back to Part 1, in which we talked about the company’s massive publishing scale-up, which begins in September, including some of its new properties, plans for the classic 1First Publishing titles, and the company’s philosophy on keeping comics on schedule.