Jason Thibault founded Optimum Wound Comics in 2005 and since then has established an online presence and cultivated an internet audience that is the envy of just about every comics publisher. They’ve done this through serializing graphic novels online, creating extensive web content, turning the Optimum Wound website into an essential artist resource and cultivating a community on MySpace.
The company released its first print graphic novel earlier this year, Danijel Zezelj’s “Rex,” which had never before been published in the United States, and next year will begin a major publishing push. Thibault took some time out to talk to CBR Newsabout the company’s direction and plans for the future.
CBR: Why did you found Optimum Wound Press?
Jason Thibault: I was interested to see if I could put together a dark pulp quarterly that would feature the natural evolution of the kind of comics that I read in the 1980s and ‘90s. I grew up reading and obsessing over “Heavy Metal,” “Epic Illustrated,” “Mad Magazine,” “Black Hole,” “Preacher,” “Verotik,” “The Crow,” “Eightball,” “Juxtapoz” magazine, “2000AD” and anything by Frank Miller that I could get my hands on.
|"Rex" on sale now|
In the mid-to-late nineties, I fell in love with Japanese Yakuza cinema, James Ellroy and Italian genre films (both crime and westerns). My brain was about to burst at the seams. I needed to find an outlet to put all of these influences together. I called up Richard Serrao and my friend Sean Fidler. We hit our computers and dreamed up tales of vengeance, betrayal and black comedy. We hit our drawing boards and created the raw and intense artwork that needed to accompany the writing. We wanted to publish visceral stories that would climb off the page and punch your teeth out. Or something like that.
Then we discovered MySpace and webcomics.
What was your initial publishing plan for Optimum Wound and how has it changed over time?
Our initial plan was to release everything into one quarterly magazine and then perhaps print collections somewhere down the line if there was a demand. I was really interested in publishing a cool little rag to sit in your bathroom or bedroom reading collection. Nothing too high-minded or pretentious. Just a magazine that knew exactly what is was supposed to be.
We had some crazy ideas in the beginning. In the spring of 2005, I felt we needed to bombard the line-ups of the Fantasia film fest in Montreal with free Optimum Wound samplers. Those movie fanatics needed something to read during the 90-minute waits in line. We pulled together a 16-page mini, printed up 5,000 copies on newsprint and shipped a few boxes east to Quebec. We flew out to Montreal and distributed 1,000 samplers and made dead sure to hit the “Devil’s Rejects” premiere. It went over pretty well, but being new to the web and having nothing to sell, we weren’t able to capitalize on any of it.
Around the same time in mid-late 2005, Joey Manley opened the doors at webcomicsnation.com. For a hundred bucks a year, you had your own instant webcomics portal. It was too good to pass up and over a million page views later we’re still on the network.
|Optimum Wound sampler|
Following Seth Godin’s theories on publishing, we spent three years building up an audience online before attempting to put out our first book in print. Our plans have now come full circle and we’ve come back to putting all of our works into one publication.
Your first book, which you released last year, was “Rex.” How did you end up connecting with writer and artist Danijel Zezelj?
I had started up an email correspondence with Danijel back in 2002. He ended up sending me an Italian hardcover of “Rex” mentioning that it had never seen print in English. I loved the book but I was out of my depth with it. This was three years before launching Optimum Wound. Fast forward to spring, 2007. “Rex” had sat in the corner of my studio for four years taunting me.
I felt like I could take on the project. I wrote Danijel an email. He asked how serious I was. I sent him back a three-page marketing plan. He agreed to it. He retrieved the original pages from Croatia that May. By June, we were scanning them in. Sean Fidler spent the summer tweaking the English translation. It became a labor of love for all involved. Danijel drew a new cover, we launched it as a webcomic and sent Diamond a submission package by mid December.
It was pure D.I.Y. comic book publishing.
How has “Rex” performed for you as a webcomic and in print?
“Rex” has done phenomenally for us as a webcomic, closing in on 400,000 page views this month. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to a hyper-successful webcomic like “PVP” or “Penny Arcade.” But for an obscure 15-year old black and white pulpy foreign revenger, that’s awesome. It was really Danijel’s fans that gave it legs. I would find links to it on Italian blogs, German message forums and an enthusiastic write-up from a Baltimore librarian.
|Page from "Battles Without Living Witnesses"|
When it launched as a graphic novella in May 2008, it had just under 700 orders. I’m told for an independent black and white publication that’s pretty damned good. It’s moved around 1,000 units so far. We’ll be pushing it pretty hard throughout 2009 on our own soon-to-be-launched online store.
The Optimum Wound website isn’t just about the comics you publish, you’ve turned it into a real resource with interviews and information. Was this part of the idea from the beginning to try to foster a community of artists?
In 2006 and 2007 we did a series of resource posts on our MySpace page under the “Build Your Own Comic Empire” banner. They were quite popular. It encouraged us to do more of them. The feedback and love we received was unlike anything I’ve experienced. I’m in the process of transferring the old posts to optimumwound.com and expanding on them. A free e-book will follow.
This summer, we started our Masters of Ink series. It was in part inspired by CBR’s STUDIO TOURS posts, which were awesome by the way. It gave comics artists and illustrators an avenue to discuss tools, techniques and inspirations. They drill down on the nitty gritty details that I’m obsessed with. I like to know how things are done. Everyone was very generous and forthcoming.
You’ve done a good job of maintaining an online presence through social networking, but what’s the struggle of translating that popularity to creating a presence in physical bookstores?
I’m the first to admit I created a monster with our MySpace page. In 2006, it became very overwhelming dealing with the thousands of people on there. I answered every message and still do.
It was a shock to the system, becoming an honest to goodness book publisher. Luckily, I had experience with office administration, shipping and marketing so it wasn’t too hard putting a system together. But yes, it was a huge kick in the ass to become a proper business. Once we were signing vendor agreements with Diamond everything felt very real.
|Page from "Battles Without Living Witnesses"|
We are now a functioning three-way partnership with Fiona Ho (graphic designer, illustrator) and I maintaining a studio here in Vancouver and Richard maintaining the East Coast operations in Montreal.
You announced and then canceled Zezelj’s “King of Nekropolis” after low orders. How did that affect your plans for “Optimum Wound?”
It was a sad day. I wanted to build up a library of Zezelj graphic novels by releasing two or three a year. I could tell almost right away that there wasn’t the same amount of interest in “Nekropolis” as there had been in “Rex.” I had even predicted the numbers that the book would pull when talking to Diamond and I was pretty dead on. It’s a great little book but it didn’t find an audience with our readers. I think that book and any of Danijel’s rather extensive back catalog could do well with the backing of an NBM or Top Shelf-level publisher; someone who’s been at it for a few years and has more marketing muscle than an offbeat little boutique publisher up in the Canadian Northwest.
The whole situation made me realize that offering up our books one at a time from a bunch of relative unknowns was not the best business plan. We entered the scene as a collective group three years ago and that’s how we made the biggest impact. So once again we’ll be publishing everything together in one book.
What are your future plans for working with Danijel Zezelj either in print or online?
Right now our plan is to sell the remaining copies of “Rex” and then possibly do a special edition hardcover of the book. We'll definitely support any future endeavors of his whether through us or another publisher. We'll keep “Rex” online as it continues to find new readers every week. There are no current plans to publish any more books of his at this time.
|Art from "Men of Cruelty"|
Next year, you’re publishing “Optimum Wound Volume One.” What exactly is it and how does it play into your plans for the company?
“Optimum Wound” will be a 160-200-page book that will hopefully hit stores three-to-four times a year. There’ll be a couple of graphic novellas, some short stories, illustrated fiction, a lengthy feature on a cool little design house and a long text piece in the center. It’ll be sold as affordably as humanly possible and will definitely entertain you for longer than an hour. “Memento Mori” and “Battles Without Living Witnesses” will be featured in volume one.
It’s a bomb in a briefcase. Not quite a magazine and not quite an anthology. More like the tightly controlled vision of five or six like-minded creators. I think most anthology publications are a crapshoot as they often have dozens of creators working in dozen’s of different styles.
This will be our flagship book and only ongoing publication for the near future.
You’ve also been writing and drawing your own book, “Battles Without Living Witnesses.” How much does running a publishing company get in the way of making comics?
It pretty much affects everything. Putting out “Rex” was like going to publishing university. We came out of the experience relatively unscarred and hungry for more. It took me out of the writing and drawing game for over a year. That was starting to piss me off. Publishing is all-consuming when you’re learning the ropes.
I used to curse Joe Quesada for not drawing more once he became a top dog over at Marvel. Now I completely understand why.