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As comic book industry grows, smaller publishers learn to adapt

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David Steward II is the chief executive of comic book company Lion Forge, which is merging with another independent publisher Oni Press. They hope the merger will help them to leverage their characters on other media platforms, including animation and film.

New York

HOPING to stand out in a crowded market dominated by the corporate giants DC Comics and Marvel Comics, smaller publishers are adopting new business strategies to better compete.

In the latest example, two independent publishers, Lion Forge and Oni Press, announced on Wednesday that they will merge. The move, the companies say, will strengthen their library of original comics and graphic novels and help them to leverage their characters on other media platforms, including animation and film.

Other publishers are introducing direct-to-consumer sales, bingeable stories and magazine-style formats. Some are also offering greater financial stakes for creators.

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Comic books are an alluring market, in which consumers can engage with characters across multiple platforms, from mobile games to blockbuster films.

Avengers: Endgame, the 22nd installment in Marvel's movie franchise, crossed the US$2 billion box office threshold in less than two weeks. The Walking Dead, a hit for AMC with another spinoff coming, is based on an Image Comics series. And Netflix is streaming The Umbrella Academy, about a dysfunctional family of heroes from Dark Horse Comics, and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, about a teenage witch from Archie Comics.

These adaptations have fuelled growth in the comic book industry: Sales in 2018 rose US$80 million from the previous year.

A desire to expand their content to other platforms drew Lion Forge and Oni Press together.

"There's a lot of alignment, and we were going down the same path," said David Steward II, who founded Lion Forge in St Louis with Carl Reed in 2011. Rather than compete, together they can have a "bigger, stronger, singular strategy," Mr Steward said.

The consolidated publishing effort will be run out of Portland, Oregon, where Oni is based. James Lucas Jones, publisher of Oni, will be president and publisher of the new enterprise. The merger was negotiated by Edward Hamati, president of Polarity, a media company Steward founded last year to help develop Lion Forge characters outside comics.

Polarity is moving quickly to establish new distribution channels. On Monday, the company announced the formation of an animation studio to produce content for movies and TV.

"We're very excited about the resources and the business expertise that David and Polarity and Lion Forge folks are bringing over," Jones said.

Another selling point for Jones was Steward's love for comic books. Other potential partners were more interested in leveraging comic book characters for other media, but not so much the comic books themselves.

"So many potential partnership conversations that we've had in the past were really focused on looking at us like an intellectual property farm," Jones said. He added that he still had interest in other media ventures, but "at the end of the day, the mission is about publishing books."

New publishers keep entering the field, drawn by its potential. Last year, annual sales in the United States and Canada reached US$1.095 billion, according to estimates by ICV2, an online publication that covers pop culture, and Comichron, an online resource for comics research. The growth was driven by sales outside of comic book stores - book stores, online retailers and Scholastic Book Fairs - as well as digital sales.

Artists, Writers & Artisans, a publisher founded by two former Marvel executives, announced in March that it would begin selling comics in the fall. AWA will have superheroes like DC and Marvel, as well as stand-alone series like Image, and all of its creators will have a financial stake in the company.

In September, Ahoy Comics introduced a magazine-style format, publishing comics that included extras like prose stories. Last month, the company released the first issue of Planet of the Nerds, which has already drawn interest from Hollywood.

"We're talking to a film and TV agent because we've gotten some nibbles," said Tom Peyer, the company's editor-in-chief and an industry veteran editor and writer.

And December brought the arrival of TKO Studios, which introduced a direct-to-consumer approach by simultaneously offering single issues and collected editions for binge readers. The company's model forgoes a relationship with Diamond Comic Distributors, which is normally the gateway between publishers and retailers. TKO does not charge for shipping, has no minimum order requirement and delivers in two to five days in the United States.

Despite the competitive landscape, small publishers are drawn by the hope of cultivating a large, multiplatform franchise, Milton Griepp, chief executive of ICV2, said. "I think people keep trying because it's like any other entertainment business: The odds of success are low, but the payoffs are big," he said.

"There's even the bigger dream, which is somebody goes to the Avengers movie and says, 'I want to create the universe that 50 years from now is the biggest spectacle in entertainment,' " Mr Griepp said. "That's why people keep doing it." NYTIMES