After gaining trust in the publishing space with its creative partners, distributors and fans, St. Louis, Missouri-based comics publisher and transmedia house Lion Forge is charting a new course into the development and production of kids and family animated content.
For a company with a focus on young readers—and diversity in its DNA, given that its co-founders are both African-American—the move could potentially open a lot of doors.
Animation designer Carl Reed and movie producer David Steward II set up the company in 2012, in part to fuel their mutual love for comics, but mostly to address a lack of diversity and access in the North American comics marketplace—including the underrepresented perspectives of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.
“Being a part of a minority group in the industry, you understand the lack of consideration [for representation] is not always intentional. But it’s a huge thing when you don’t include different-looking people and people with different backgrounds in production authentically—both in front of the camera and behind. Inclusiveness is not only a part of our mission, it comes naturally,” says CCO Reed. “It doesn’t necessarily just mean African-American stories. It’s about changing the perception of genre and where the medium is. Comics should be for everyone, but superhero comics, for example, are often not appropriate for kids. This is why we segment our imprints by age group.”
After launching a self-titled vertical for adults, Lion Forge introduced its first imprints for younger readers—Roar for young adults and Cubhouse for the under-12 set—in 2016. The latter offers graphic novels, picture and early comic books.
These were followed by a middle-grade graphic literature imprint called Caracal. Overall, the company brings single issues, serials, trade paperback collections and original graphic novels to market, along with digital books and their physical counterparts. Lion Forge actually began by inking digital publishing deals for IPs including NBCUniversal’s Saved by the Bell, American Greetings Properties’ Care Bears and DreamWorks Animation’s Voltron: Legendary Defender.
“With digital, we realized that retailers [and traditional comic book buyers] didn’t want to support digital-first books, so we pivoted to day-and-date releases with digital and print,” says Reed, noting that digital publishing accounts for around 10% of the market and has yet to find its footing.
While Reed is hopeful for a digital resurgence, the company is riding a wave of momentum brought on by growth in the kids and middle-grade markets.
“They are embracing publishing, especially graphic novels, at a level we haven’t seen in the past. With successful series like Rachel Renée Russell’s Dork Diaries and Jeff Kinney’s Wimpy Kid, there are a lot of good opportunities in the market,” he says.
According to market researcher NPD Books, sales of children’s books in the US grew 3% in the first five months of 2018, with board books up 12%. Comics and graphic novels, meanwhile, grew 32% between 2014 and 2017.
Lion Forge’s bestselling kids title of 2018 was Sheets by Brenna Thummler. The book tells the story of a teenage girl whose world collides with the ghost of a young boy looking to find purpose in the forbidden human world. Another top seller is coming-of-age story Wrapped Up. Co-created by Dave Scheidt and Scoot McMahon (who is also the book’s illustrator), Wrapped Up is about a regular, pizza-loving 12-year-old boy—who also happens to be a mummy.
Publishing approximately 130 titles last year, the company strives for equal strength in both the comics shop market (a.k.a. the direct market) and the general bookstore market. Its content is also available for iOS devices through the Lion Forge app and can be purchased on Amazon’s Comixology platform. To date, internally created originals, creator-owned originals and licensed content each account for about 30% of the publisher’s output.
Moving forward, Lion Forge is looking to adapt some of its children’s titles into animated series, beginning with Wrapped Up.
“It’s in the early development process, but Rita Street (Space Chickens in Space) and Lina Foti (Nowhere Boys) of Australia’s Panita Productions (Los Wiggles) are helping us frame what we have before animatics begin,” says Reed.
Lion Forge is also in development on full episodes for 10 animated educational shows, and will continue to look for partners throughout the year.
“We’re open to co-productions on acquisitions and originals, and are interested in working with studios from around the world,” says Reed. “We have an affinity for a certain type of content. As we grow, hopefully we’ll meet partners who either share our mission or wish to create similar content.”