A hearty aloha rang out from the medium-sized but enthusiastic crowd in attendance at the official Aspen Panel at Comic-Con International in San Diego. The stage was so packed with artists and writers, there wasn't enough space for the full roster of assembled talent. Hannibal Tabu, Scott Lobdell, Mark Roslan (VP, director of design and production), Josh Reed, J.T. Krul, Paolo Pantalena, T.G. Roberts, Giuseppe Cafaro, Jordan Funderson, Siya Oum, Beth Sotelo, and Vince Hernadez (VP, editor-in-chief) squeezed around the table while Laurie Hanson sat in the front row. Cosplayer MapleBunny dressed as the lead from "BubbleGun" helped pass out prizes to people asking questions later in the panel.
Frank Mastromauro ran down the books in a quick pace, primarily because there was so many to talk about and so much art and covers to show. The first title featured was ''Damsels in Excess," written by Hernandez with art by Mirka Andolfo, which debuted at Comic-Con. The story is about five princesses who are trying to rule their respective kingdoms in a world where the men have gone extinct. He says that it's done in a reality show style, where the characters break the fourth wall and talk to the readers.
Next up was "Siya Oum's Lola," which Mastromauro noted is doing great in sales. With the first volume halfway complete, Oum announced "Lola: Wasteland Madam" which takes place in Chicago and follows the titular Madam. Oum and Hernandez are collaborating on it and, after "Wasteland Madam," Oum will return with "Lola" Vol. 2.
Next was Peter Steigerwald's new book, "The Zoo Hunters," with a first peek at the variant cover for issue #1. "This book is going to look like nothing on the shelf," says Frank. There are two sketch books available at the Aspen Booth that contains previews and insights of the characters and the world.
Krul announced the second volume of "Jirni," sharing a lot of covers for the first few issues. In this next chapter, she will be exploring the world more – she sees the ocean for the first time in issue #1 – and will be "meeting new people and facing unbelievable dangers."
Mastromauro says that they learned a lot from publishing "The Lost Spark," Aspen's first novel that was written by Krul. While he works on a follow up, they will be releasing T.G. Roberts' "Seven to Die." The story, she said, is about a college age girl who comes in contact with the amulet featured on the cover and "suddenly unlocks all kinds of powers – she's strong, she's fast and she really doesn’t know why. She goes on a quest to find out who she really is and along the way meets some unsavory characters who aren't so happy about her. She has to rise to the occasion of some dangerous situations. It's definitely the beginning of a larger world."
The current volume of "All New Michael Turner's Fathom" is finishing up, and Aspen recently put out Fathom's first Annual. There will also be some more trades coming out but Mastromauro didn;t expand past that, simply stating, "It's not going away. It's our flagship title."
In addition to Free Comic Book Day, there is now Free Halloween ComicFest. Aspen is participating with a brand new type of book for them – a coloring book. "Michael Turner's Fathom: The Adventures of Ernie" is both a coloring and activities book with art by Agnes Grabowski, featuring everyone's favorite seahorse. Mastromauro says they are not shying away from exploring different ways of presenting their properties.
The recently released "All New Michael Turner's Soulfire Annual" features stories by Hanson, Krul, and Cafaro who happened to be attending his first Comic-Con. Another big announcement – Tabu is writing "Soulfire' and "Fathom" sourcebooks. He approached Mastromauro and said that since the company has been going on for long and the mythology has grown so big, it's about time to do a compendium a la Marvel, so people can really explore the worlds and learn about the characters and ease into them if they're new readers. Tabu will be working with the creators whenever possible, gathering artwork for them. He and Hernandez both expressed an affection for the various minutiae they can explore like height charts and power comparisons. An "Executive Assistant Iris" sourcebook will be next, with more likely on the way.
Cafaro is spearheading the art for "Legend of the ShadowClan vol. 2," which will debut early in 2015. A trade of volume 1 will also come out. "Dellec Vol.2" will be coming from Mastromauro and Hernandez, from which they debuted a promo piece. "We've been working...I don't even know how long, several years, just putting the story together and waiting for the right time," Mastromauro said. They're already finishing up issue #1 and will be starting #2 shortly. "It should be a hell of a ride, figuratively." "Literally," corrected Steigerwald. Mastromauro expressed mock dismay at messing that up. "We're excited it's back, [and] we already know who we want to star in the movie."
"Shrugged" vol. 3 will be coming soon, but Vol. 2 is finishing up now. "Overtaken," which Mastromauro takes personal responsibility for the delays, will be resuming soon. He's also working on a new title, "Awaken Skies," which will also be out in 2015. Frank remarks on him planning a very ambitious 2015 for himself.
Roslan has cool ideas for Vol. 2 of "BubbleGun" which will be coming soon. There are nebulous plans for "Iris," which from Mastromauro's vague hints means a movie. There are a slew of trades and non-comic plans on the horizon, and Mastromauro rapidly name checked more titles like "Charismagic," "Broken Piceces," "Idolized" and "Mindfield."
Mastromauro announced that he just signed a contract to bring Aspen to Madefire's digital comics platform. He expects the first issues to debut in September/October. There is a release structure being developed, but they have to strategize about older titles since all the art will have to be reformatted.
He also announced they just signed a contract with a video game development firm that works with all the major gaming platforms. By this time next year, you should see fruits of that labor.
There were a lot of questions from the crowd – though it wasn't huge, much of the room held up their hands up at least once. One woman said she was new comics, Aspen being her entry into the world, and she was heartily applauded. She noted that there are a lot of female leads in their titles and wondered if that was a calculated move. Hernandez said they look for strong characters and stories first – they look at what's submitted and weigh the value of it. The female to male lead ratio is just a coincidence, though he does note it's somewhat ironic that their male-led books don't get as much attention.
Before launching into his question, a gentleman commended the company for doing the "strong female leads thing" before it was a trend. Steigerwald interjected, reemphasizing that they do strong characters, period. The man's real question was, now that "Heroes Reborn" is imminent, will they be doing comic tie-ins again? Frank says it's a good question and they'll likely have some meetings and wait and see.
Another women inquired which titles were age-appropriate for middle school kids. "Shrugged" and "Soulfire" were immediately mentioned, with Steigerwald noting that most of their books are appropriate -- it's more about whether kids will be interested in the particular stories than whether they contain any sort of illicit content.
When asked about movie deals, Mastromauro said he's had some meetings and there's some "good stuff" with "Iris" and "Fathom" coming up, but he didn't want to say anything until there was definitive news. Ssked if they pick projects or start out envisioning the stories as spinning out into other platforms, Pantalena said he does think about the art cinematically so the readers can really feel they're exploring the world and really enjoy it. Hernandez said you have to concentrate on the comic book, because that's the form of the story. Some people create things that aren't so focused, with spin-offs and tie-ins in mind, and they usually don't fare well because the audience can tell.
Lobdell asked how many people saw Marvel's "The Avengers." Everyone raised their hand, leading him to ask how many people would like to see a team up book from Aspen. Everyone raised their hand again, and the writer closed the panel with the announcement that they're going to get their wish