Gemstone Publishing and Disney Licensed Publishing recently announced plans for Gemstone to produce comics featuring Disney characters.  The agreement provides for Gemstone to develop comics based on the entire library of standard Disney characters, to publish previously published material, including work by Carl Barks, Don Rosa, Daan Jippes, and others.  It also allows Gemstone to continue reprinting the Carl Barks Library hardcover collections.  Gemstone has re-assembled the editorial staff of Gladstone Publishing, the last U.S. Disney comics publisher, to work on the new projects, including John Clark, Gary Leach, and Susan Daigle-Leach.


Steve Geppi, owner of Gemstone (and sister companies Diamond Comic Distributors, Alliance Game Distributors, and Diamond Galleries), has been a life-long collector and aficionado of Disney comics material, in particular the art of famed Disney artist Carl Barks.  We spoke to Geppi about his acquisition of the Disney license and his plans for the future in this two-part interview.  For Part 2 of the interview, click here.



Congratulations on the acquisition of the Disney comic license.  How long did it take you to get that done?

Oh, about three years.  It's been a long time coming -- and timing is everything in life.  I just feel that while it could have been done sooner, I am glad that it wasn't.  With us entering the bookstore market with Diamond Book Distributors, it seems to be a more appropriate time.  It gives us a fighting chance, given that in the direct market, you can't have great expectations there initially.  Though I do think that at some level I can do great things there, I can't go into this deal with the assumption that there are going to be million-sellers there in the direct market for Disney comics.


Here at ICv2 one of the most discussed topics that we've ever had in our Talk Back section concerns the lack of comics for young readers.

I can tell you this, guys, we have gotten tremendous response to this announcement from retailers like Joe Ferrara of Atlantis Fantasyworld to some of the high profile retailers and industry veterans like Joe Sarno -- all very excited because everybody realizes all of a sudden that there has been this absence of entry-level comic books.  My whole litany, even before I started negotiating the license, was that one day we are going to cut our legs off if we don't have comics for kids to find when they are five to eight or nine years old, so that they can get used to comics like you and I did.  My mother brought home comics--they were Disney comics, Archie comics, Harvey comics.  By the time I got old enough to make my own buying decisions at least I knew what a comic book was.  If you haven't had that exposure, you are not going to know what a comic book is, and you'll be buying videogames or something else.  Since the newsstand market has gone away, I am hoping that in addition to the direct market (we are going to pander to the collectors on some level), we are going to put out additional product at a lower price point that will be a bargain, so that with [Vice President Sales and Marketing] Kuo-Yu [Liang] calling on the Wal-Marts of the world (he's already had discussions with them and had tremendous response), we will be in a position to say, 'What do you want, what price point, what size?  Tell me what you will buy a lot of, and we will make it for you.'


Now a lot of the responses we've gotten are saying that they hope we will have a lower price point.  Well, we are going to come out with the prestige format books first because my goal was to pick up where Gladstone left off, so when you place my first issue on top of their last issue, they will look like they ran together, but that's not going to be the only program long term.  We are going to publish the perennial titles in that format, but we want to do these, call them...I hate the word 'digest,' not digests like you and I know traditionally what a digest is, but more the CrossGen/Bookshelf/Tokyopop size.  Now this turns out to be exactly what Wal-Mart wants, and additionally what Egmont [Disney's Northern European publisher] says sells best for them in Europe.  So that little format -- if you hold them, they're kind of handy, it's a fun little format to sit there with, you can see somebody sitting on a train in a three-piece suit not feeling uncomfortable about reading a comic book in that format.


Yeah the industry buzz is that that format has good 'hand.'

That's a good term, good terminology.


On those prestige books, how many pages will they be, and what's the cover price going to be?

They will be 64 pages, and we are going to keep the price the same as it was four years ago with Gladstone, $6.95.


Will the new releases be composed of primarily old or new material?

The technical answer to that is 'new to this market.'  Remember another beautiful thing about the timing is that over the four years [since Gladstone stopped publishing Disney comics], there's been a build-up of stories by Rosa and Van Horn that have never been seen here in the States.  By technical definition it is a reprint, but by our market standards it is new, and there will be new covers and things like that so it will be a combination of Barks reprints, Van Horn, Rosa, Jippes, Patrick Block stories that have never been seen here, along with new covers, and from time-to-time new material that we will do first before Egmont.


It sounds like you will be pulling heavily from the European Disney material rather than commissioning new material here?

Well that will be a primary focus, one that is driven economically, one that makes sense because it is new material for our market, but another advantage of the four year wait is that technology allows us to go into the Disney pool of images that are shared among the licensees.  Hence instead of me having to go out and buy original art at high prices, I can utilize, just like a foreign publisher would, the same images for a very cheap price electronically. So that's going to drive a lot of that, but ultimately I've got my relationships locked up with the Rosas of the world, the Van Horns, the Patrick Blocks, the great 'duck' artists of the world. 


Disney sends you all this stuff, not only a tremendous compilation of who's who and what's what, and what's selling, but actually analysis of how they rate the artists (I don't always agree by the way).  There are some of these Italian artists--you wouldn't believe how good some of these guys are, and I've never been exposed to them before.  But there is going to be quite a pool of talent, and we will be looking into bringing in new talent.  I've got some crazy ideas about artists who might not be traditionally looked upon as 'Disney artists,' but who might find it interesting to try their hand at the 'ducks.'  Including some of the more popular comic artists we know.


Your press release talked about the book trade, are you considering sending them the prestige comic titles?

I don't see the prestige format books going into that market.  Of course if they want to buy it, I would be happy to sell it to them.  But I see the CrossGen size/Tokyopop size formats as the primary products for the bookstore market and mass market.  Don't worry. I will offer all these formats to the direct market as well, and I have a hunch that that size might catch on in the direct market.


When will you be putting out the first material in the book format?

Well the plan right now is to put out two prestige format books, Walt Disney's Comics & Stories and Uncle Scrooge Adventures, in June, with probably the same two titles again in July, and then depending on how soon we can get into the planogram program, into the Wal-Marts of the world, that could be the deciding factor as to which month we decide to start the book program.  So for example if Wal-Mart says they'll take two titles a month for the next planogram cycle, it might be August, or sooner if that works out.  Getting the kind of numbers we need to justify the production of the books will be a deciding factor.


Are the book editions always going to be reprints of material that appeared in the prestige format comics or new material?

Different, though there may be exceptions from time to time, because one of the things that I understand from talking to the production people as well as to the people from Egmont is that some of the artists draw specifically for that smaller format rather than the prestige format.  The work of some artists like Van Horn may be more compatible with the bookshelf size trade paperbacks, and others like Rosa might work better in the normal comic format.  But nothing is etched in stone because one of the good things about my license is that I was able to get with Disney a variety of shapes and formats under the umbrella of our license, and if we do deviate we can always get an amendment to get what we want.  The beauty of this is that we have the ability to kind of create what the market tells us is the right size and the right price point that they want.


What's the territory of your license?

It's North America, but it additionally includes any orders through Previews from anywhere in the world.  One of the age-old problems that we've had is that from time to time you get a call from Disney saying, 'You can't sell Disneys in Europe.'  That's not the case now.  If you own a comic store anywhere in the world, you can order through Previews and buy your Disney comics from us.


Another format that used to be very popular were the albums that Gladstone used to publish.  Is Gemstone going to do anything with that format or that material at all?

Personally I don't think the format works in the targets we are going to hit.  They sold well for Hamilton, and helped him, but I think it was the material driving it at the time than the format.  I don't have plans immediately for continuing that format, which is more like a magazine shape rather than what is now perceived to be the new world of comics, the book shape.  Bookstores want 'book' sizes, and so we are leaning in that direction, but nothing is engraved in stone, that's why I made the license as broad as I did.  If it turns out that this format is what people want, then I can adapt to it, but there are no immediate plans for reprinting those Disney 'classics' as Gladstone called them.
For Part 2 of the interview, click here.