St. Louis Post-Dispatch Lisa column [St. Louis Post-Dispatch :: ]
(St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 20--To find out if the superhero saves the day, today's comic book readers don't have to turn a printed page. Many comic book fans prefer swiping a screen on a tablet or e-reader, and Lion Forge Comics is building its business model around these tech-savvy readers.
Since first debuting its work in March 2013, Maryland Heights-based Lion Forge has come out with a dozen comic book titles that are available on tablets, e-readers and smartphones for about $2 each.
"Everyone is seeing digital as a side thing, but that's where we see the industry going," said Carl Reed, Lion Forge's director of visual development and one of the company's co-founders.
ICv2, a Wisconsin-based trade publication that covers pop culture, estimates that digital sales of comic books in North America reached $70 million in 2012, the most recent annual figure available, up from $25 million in 2011.
Through the third quarter of 2013, ICv2 estimated digital comic sales grew 25 percent compared with 2012.
"Digital still amounts for only a minority of all comics, about 10 percent, but it is growing," said Milton Griepp, publisher of ICv2.
Lion Forge's customer base spans from first-time comic book readers to those who typically read print comics but are switching to digital for easier access, according to Reed and David Steward II, Lion Forge's managing partner and creative director.
While Lion Forge considers itself "digital first," it also plans to one day make printed collections of some of its comic book series.
Lion Forge's biggest seller to date is its "Knight Rider" comics, giving a fresh take on the 1980s TV series about crime fighter Michael Knight and his talking car, KITT.
The company signed a licensing deal with NBC Universal Consumer Products in May 2013 that allows it to use the "Knight Rider" trademark as well as those of other TV shows that ended their runs long ago. They include "Miami Vice," "Punky Brewster," "Airwolf" and "Saved by the Bell," which Lion Forge recently released as new digital comics.
Getting a deep understanding of the decades-old shows licensed from NBC Universal was the first step in the creative process to develop the comic book versions.
That meant Lion Forge's illustrators and writers hunkered down in front of a TV for hours watching old episodes. "We got every season of 'Saved By the Bell' and watched every episode," Steward said.
The fan base of these TV shows has led to a surge in sales for Lion Forge, which is privately held, Reed said.
"It's a lot easier as a new company to have cool things that people know," he said.
Having the licenses for well-known TV titles broadens Lion Forge's customer reach and gives it an advantage over some competitors, Griepp said.
"All over the world, there are a significant number of fans" of these TV shows, he said.
In addition to its licensed titles, Lion Forge also has developed several original comics, including "Roboy," chronicling the adventures of a 12-year-old robot/boy with super strength, introduced last year.
Other original titles include "Rampage Jackson: Street Soldier," "Catalyst Prime," "Trimaxx," and "Bulletproof Knights."
New this year is Roar Comics, a digital imprint for children and teens. This is used to identify comic book titles that are suitable for younger readers.
The growth in the number of titles has led Lion Forge to increase its workforce to about 10 full-time employees and more than 20 contract employees from around the world who provide writing, illustrating and other services. It's also doubling the size of its leased office in the Westport area, to accommodate more employees.
So far, the company has published a total of 50 comic book issues for all of its titles.
Lion Forge's foray in the industry follows comic book heavyweights Marvel and DC Comics, which both have expanded their offerings to include digital comics.
And, more companies are seeing digital comics as an important investment.
This month, Amazon.com announced it is acquiring comiXology, a New York-based online comics platform founded in 2007 that has 40,000 digital comics for sale from 75 publishers, including Lion Forge. It was the top grossing nongame iPad app for the past two years.
"Content is very important for Amazon," said R.J. Hottovy, a senior equity strategist at Morningstar. "Digital comics have been growing and they're becoming more ubiquitous."
Steward's fascination with comic books and storytelling began as a teenager growing up in Creve Coeur. He found a set of "Static Shock" comics, which featured an African-American teen superhero, and Steward, who is African-American, felt a close bond with the character.
"There weren't a lot of diverse, African-American characters out there, and it caught my attention," Steward said.
Steward, 36, studied international business and marketing at American University, but he also had an interest in photography and filmmaking.
During his career, he owned a website development firm in St. Louis from 2000 to 2006, the Ego Agency, and worked for a short time as a film producer in Hollywood.
When he returned to St. Louis in 2007, Steward owned a private equity firm, the Chi Rho Group, that acquired consumer products including Porcelana skin cream and Lilt home perms, before selling the brands in 2010.
As he was exploring prospects for his next business venture, Steward came across an app that allowed him to download comics on to an electronic device.
"I was reading them, and realized that you have this access to the back catalog and could start at the beginning of the series," he said.
Having immediate access to a comic book's full story, which allows readers to buy the first issue, is an advantage over print comics, where some issues can be difficult to find, Steward said.
The demand for digital comics and the relatively low costs to produce them, compared with print, spurred the formation of Lion Forge, Steward said.
In forming the startup, Steward relied on advice from his father, David Steward, the chief executive at Maryland Heights-based World Wide Technology, one of St. Louis' largest privately held companies, who urged him to pursue a career he was passionate about.
"My dad said, 'If you're doing something you love, you'll never work a day in your life,' and that stuck with me," David Steward II said. "I've always loved the artistry that has come out of the comics medium, and that has been my biggest draw."
Since the company started, Lion Forge has put a priority on providing work for a diverse pool of creative people to work on its comics, in addition to debuting diverse characters, Steward said.
"A lot of the larger companies don't get creatives on board that represent the culture of the character they're trying to portray, and I think that's very important," he said.
Steward ultimately wants to expand Lion Forge into movies, television and video games, following the path of major comic book publishers.
Daniel Yezbick, an associate professor of English at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park who studies the comics industry, said Lion Forge stands out for not only its diverse characters but also being digitally focused.
"There's a huge debate in how digital comics is changing comics," Yezbick said. "Lion Forge is one of the few companies that's not afraid to try new things, and that speaks very highly of their initiative and creative vision."
The St. Louis region has deep roots in America's comic book industry. About 50 miles southeast of St. Louis, the Spartan Printing Co. in Sparta, Ill., was a major comic book printer for decades for Marvel, DC Comics and Archie Publications, giving the town the nickname "the comic book capital of the world." The plant closed in the 1990s.
Comic book artists who were born or live locally include Jim Lee, co-publisher of DC Entertainment, who grew up in St. Louis; "Batman" artist Rick Burchett, who lives in Webster Groves; and Cullen Bunn, a writer for Marvel and DC comics who lives in St. Louis. Bunn, whose "Sinestro" comic book with DC debuted last week, also is collaborating with Lion Forge on a project.
Steward said he's proud to be a part of a long tradition of comics in the region, and said he's found a wealth of creative talent in St. Louis.
Lion Forge holds portfolio reviews at area comic book stores, including at the Star Clipper comic book store in University City, to find local artists.
"If you have the talent, we want to work with you," Steward said.
Lisa Brown is a business reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @LisaBrownSTL and the Business section @postdispatchbiz.
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