Despite its many downsides, 2020 was an important year for comic books. After spring’s shutdown, the industry not only rebounded sales-wise, but there was a sense of rebirth of sorts. Whether that’s in DC launching its own distribution channel, or the sheer quality of books everywhere, the industry had reached a new era of success and opportunity.
Hoping to seize upon some of that momentum, three industry vets have launched a new publishing house with a model that blurs the line between the old-school and the cutting-edge.
The Origin Story
Bad Idea is the brainchild of Hunter Gorinson, who acts as publisher, and the two co-CEOs/CCOs, Dinesh Shamdasani and Warren Simons. (There’s also two other vital, long-term employees: Joshua Johns, the director of marketing, and sales head Atom Freeman.)
Despite their many varied experiences behind the scenes at industry giants like Marvel, their shared DNA, as Gorinson explained it, rests at Valiant Entertainment. (Shamdasani co-founded the company in 2005, while Simons was editor-in-chief and Gorinson served roles in the marketing and communications departments.)
As for why they each opted to start Bad Idea, there are a few different stories that all paint the same kind of picture: the industry as it is right now could be better overall.
“We all come out of the trenches of the monthly superhero comics publishing war and have a long track record at Marvel as well as Valiant,” Gorinson said. “And that was just a very rigid system. So after we found ourselves in a position to start something new, I think each of us were asking ourselves, ‘What would our ideal of what a comic book company be look like?’ ‘What are the things we would want to keep?’ ‘What are the things we’d want to break?’ That’s how we kind of arrived at the weird, but also really fun and captivating model. That’s Bad Idea.”
Shamdasani echoed similar thoughts, but he also noted that the modern comics industry has somehow gotten away from its “roots,” as it were.
“We certainly feel it, too,” Shamdasani said. “Has the industry lost this artisanal field? Certainly. You can’t really blame this [on anybody] — it’s just changed.”
He adds, “Here, we’re starting from scratch, and we can build a company that doesn’t have to try and be Marvel or even baby Marvel. We can just build a company that can make this one thing — really great comics, or what we think are really good comics — and they don’t have to blow the doors off of the sales charts, or become movies. They can just be, us with a bunch of our friends, making really cool stuff. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
That’s not to say other companies aren’t making good books, either. Rather, it might be that some of these other enterprises have become focused on a progressive business model that isn’t the best fit for every company.
“A lot of people start publishing companies, because they love Marvel, or they want to build a giant empire,” Shamdasani said. “Dark Horse has toys and book market publishing. BOOM! has a whole office with Fox where they’re developing TV shows. [In April 2020, the publisher signed a first-look deal with Netflix.] That is one way to build a publishing company.”
As Simons explained, “A successful comic may not be successful enough for people up the food chain who need a billion-dollar concept or everything else is a waste of money. We can occupy this dance in-between the raindrops, as it were, and just really refocus on committing to comics and storytelling.”
Shamdasani once more echoed a similar sentiment: the focus of comics now is far removed from what it once was. So looking back, then, is clearly the way to “innovate” and uncover a possible new segment of the larger marketplace.
“There’s a lot more money in comics that isn’t, unfortunately, for the artistry of comics,” he said. “It isn’t just a bunch of people that love this medium making stuff. So for people that love this medium, you have to make stuff for movie executives and for investors and for potentially people that go to San Diego Comic-Con. We’re hoping that we can maybe balance the scales a little bit by being a company that is doing maybe a little bit of a throwback and still using modern very modern innovative ideas.”
All of that has informed the crux of Bad Idea’s business model: No digital sales, and you’ll only find their books in participating stores nationwide. Right now, there are about 200-plus stores signed on as “partners.” That also means that to better promote their books, they’ll only ever release one to two per month. For Gorinson, it’s about getting back to those aforementioned nroots and also celebrating something essential about comics.
“I don’t think it’s so much a question of doing something ‘more organic’ as much as it is just acknowledging that every medium has fundamental pieces of its DNA that are like hard to deviate from or alter,” he said. “And for us, that is print periodical comics and comic book stores. There’s something about those two things, and our medium, that just seem intrinsically linked that’s always resonated with us.”
He added, “Trying to repackage those fundamentals into a ’21st media company,’ or something along those lines, I just don’t think that’s for us. I feel like every time people have tried to do that in recent years it does ring a little bit hollow. I think you’d have to succeed in print comics, and in comic book stores, in order to be the kind of company that everyone wants to be reading.”
The New Normal
Simons has readily seen what happens at the Big Two publishers, and he noted that the current model or means of operations often has some dire consequences for otherwise great books.
“When I was at Marvel, what we knew was that if something came out, and everyone was celebrating before it hit the shelves, it was almost doomed to die,” he said. “Very rarely did something come out where it’s not a controversial in some capacity. That doesn’t mean you want to set everything on fire. But if it’s straight down the middle, and everyone’s celebrating this before it hits stands, there’s a good chance it’ll be dead in six issues.”
He added that Bad Idea can operate “not needing to run to that game, or we do a crossover every six months. Or not needing to have five variant covers for every comic. [We’re] able to concentrate on telling the story as opposed to all the trappings that often encumbered that process. There are no shareholders for us to answer to. We don’t have to worry about the stock price with every book that we put out.”
Simons also mentioned that, as an extension of that, big-time comics publishers tend to get locked into betting on the same kinds of books time and time again.
“These are great comics, and that’s what’s going to resonate in the marketplace,” he said. “If you’re coming out of the box and trying to launch, like, Watchmen five times over, it’s not going to work well for you. You can’t try to do Dark Knight every time out. You have to isolate and find what you think is valuable and what you think works. Then, hopefully, the marketplace will react to that.”
And with its first books, Bad Idea is already positioned to provide that very sense of “newness.” The publisher launches in March with ENIAC, a dynamic new alternate history book from writer Matt Kindt and artist Doug Braithwaite about a secret rogue A.I. that helped shape post-WWII history. There’s also Tankers, from writer Robert Venditti and artist Juan Jose Ryp, a cutting satire about our nation’s oil obsession that involves dinosaurs and time-traveling soldiers. (That’s out in April.)
“We’ve given our creators a lot of free rein,” Gorinson said. “And I think that we’ve given ourselves a lot of permission to do things and take things to a place that you might not see from what from a ‘mainstream comic book publisher.'”
Making The Space
Ultimately, it’s a matter of betting on the tendencies of long-time comics fans. Those same individuals who maintain a core commitment to physical media, even as digital sales continue to grow and alter the path of the larger comics industry. So far, though, Bad Idea has seen some positive feedback.
“It certainly hasn’t been lost on us actually seeing just how much more strongly it’s hit than we thought it would,” Shamdasani said. “We’ve had a bounty of riches in terms of awareness for the kinds of things we were saying: no digital, only in comic book stores, no variants. We knew that would get people talking, and we understood that it would help awareness for what we were doing. It’s been really nice to see that, while we thought it’d be more negative, we’ve seen very little negativity.”
As Shamdasani further explained, a huge part of that reaction has been because their own work. Collectively, they’ve parlayed their experience and insights into comics to paint their model less as a gimmick and more the reaction of well-studied veterans of the comics publishing game.
“I think that it’s a testament to our ability to get the top stores; all the top stores have signed up, which was really gratifying to us,” he said. “Also, the kinds of creators that are working with us are the top tier creators; in every avenue of what we’re doing, we’re working with people that are at the top of their game business.
Because this isn’t a bunch of people that haven’t published before saying, ‘We’re going to try and change the model, and we’re going to disrupt things.’ It’s people saying we spent decades — or, in Warren’s case, centuries — working in comics. There’s a trust that we’re going to put out a good product on time, and that even though we have these crazy ideas, we have thought through the ramifications and figured out a process to make it work.”
Knowing The Way Forward
That sense of experimentation means that Bad Idea’s catalog is a little less clear and open to interpretation than some of the other houses working nowadays. Still, Shamdasani said that it’s a case that they’ll need to get their feet wet before readers/fans really understand.
“Apologies for being a little vague here, or a little nebulous, but it really comes down to what gets us excited, and what we think we’re honestly excited by,” he said of their choice of titles. “I think that Warren has said that we get excited if something’s good, which again, is a broad statement, but I don’t think we would publish something that was familiar. Or, that was a take on something else. We don’t really care what the numbers are; we just hope that the book finds the people that are going to be excited by it.”
Gorinson added, “I think that as people get their hands on the books, the actual tangible, physical comics, I think they’ll start to see that there is a unifying through-line amongst Bad Idea books. They really do feel like a little bit of a deviation from the norm, but in a good way.”
As novel as Bad Idea’s business model may seem, there’s no denying it shares some lineage with one industry giant: Image Comics. Back in the ’90s, the original founders set out to change the operating model, placing a greater emphasis on creators’ rights and publishing daring new titles. The comparison isn’t lost on Bad Idea, even if it’s not 100% accurate.
“There is an allegory there in the sense that we’re not rebels or bad boys, and I don’t think the Image guys were, either,” Shamdasani said. “It came because they saw a necessary component of the business that didn’t exist then being able to own their own creations.
As Gorinson added, “Not to chase that metaphor too far too far up the tree, but what those guys did at the time was obviously revolutionary. It reshaped the business for the next 30 plus years. I don’t think what we’re going to do is going to have that kind of impact overnight.
But I do think that the two ideas have a similar genesis as they were necessary reactions to certain trend lines in the comic industry at the time. And I think there’s definitely a case to be made that what we’re doing is a reaction against some of the common wisdom that has become a little bit too commonplace and a little bit too deep-seated over the past 10 to 15 years in the direct market.”
Shamdasani, however, sees at least a few instances of direct overlap.
“Hunter is evidently Rob Liefeld; he’s the good looking one,” he said. “Warren is the superstar, so that makes him Jim Lee. And I’m more of a Jim Valentino.”
Teamwork, Dream Works
At the end of the day, it’s that Image-esque collaboration that has brought Bad Idea at least this far. Their collaborative approach began at Valiant, which Shamdasani described as “a house that was built that maybe had been a little dilapidated, and we had to fix it up.” But through that combined effort, the trio uncovered the essential insights needed to make not just a successful company but a truly vital partnership.
“It meant that we spent a lot of late nights and a lot of energy, and a lot of stress, on projects,” Gorinson said. “We were learning each other’s shorthand and learning each other’s… weaknesses, but also learning from each other, and picking up little hints of what each other’s strengths were and incorporating those into our own abilities. Warren oversees all of our editorial operations. I handle almost all of our marketing and publishing. Then Dinesh handles a lot of the creative vision and business architecting for the company.”
As Shamdasani further explained, “He [Gorinson] could have assigned any of those three to other people, and it would have been just as accurate. I think he’s right, and there is an overlap. We’re all very passionate. We’ve spent a lot of time in comics, learning the skill set. And so there definitely is butting heads, but it’s always coming from a place of respect. Otherwise it wouldn’t work.”
Shamdasani continued, “There’s obviously a corporate ideology to segment and silo and have your employees work against each other and compete. And that’s effective to a certain degree. I don’t think it would work for us. These personalities, everyone here is too motivated, and they want to make great comics and won’t need to be motivated artificially like that. That goes across the board.”
Simons, meanwhile, noted that this same attitude doesn’t just apply to the core staff but also the creators working on Bad Idea’s books.
“It’s also been really wonderful to see how the freelancers have reacted to sort of the unshackling, as it were,” he said. “Of not needing to fit into continuity or not needing to fit into said page length or not needing to fit into a box of genre that maybe traditionally is viewed as not being sellable in direct market. I think some of these books are probably among the best that I’ve ever edited, and that we’ve ever launched as a company.”
What’s To Come
All three men readily recognize that this whole approach may blow up in their collective faces. However, as Shamdasani explained, it won’t be a boring process for anyone involved.
“We’re going to bring the readers into it, and that’s been a huge component of what we’re doing,” he said. “If this is going to be a grand experiment, that’s going to succeed or fail spectacularly, then everyone should be on the ride.”
He added, “You can’t look away. You can’t take it for granted. You can’t put us in a box. It’s just not why we’re doing this. We’re doing this because we’re going to get excited about things. And those things are going to be different.”
And while the final outcome remains to be seen, you can’t help but cheer for the work of the folks behind Bad Idea. Because after a grueling 2020, and the uncertainty that remains this year, a little good news might be just what the industry needs. Especially if it’s from a group who clearly just love comics and what this industry ultimately represents.
“If you like high quality storytelling in comics,” Gorinson said. “If you’ve ever walked into a comic book store, picked up a new comic, and felt like it was an artifact from another universe, like something that just transcends any other form of entertainment. If you’ve ever fallen in love with comics in that way, I think that that Bad Idea will have things that will capture you in the same way.”
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