Interview: TwoMorrow’s John Morrow
Once upon a time, these would have been faznines produced using Xerox machines or newfangled offset presses. But, today, Alter Ego, Back Issue, Write Now!, Draw! and the Jack Kirby Collector are all legitimate magaines from TwoMorrows. The company has expanded to include books such as their Modern Masters series along with their welcome Companion books exploring facets of DC Comics history. We sat with founder with John Morrow to see what was new.
ComicMix: Did you ever imagine this being a fulltime gig?
John Morrow: Initially, no; furthest thing from my mind. Back in 1994, my wife and I were in the early stages of building our graphic design business, and had just gotten over those first few years where you’re killing yourself pulling all-nighters to service your clients. Just as things slowed down to a reasonable level, Jack Kirby died. I’d been out of comics for several years, but I felt compelled to produce a (albeit fairly slick) fanzine about Kirby, just to re-experience what drew me to his work originally. This led to lots more all-nighters getting the Jack Kirby Collector off the ground, but I envisioned it lasting no more than maybe six or seven issues, having some fun, then calling it a day.
CMix: What has surprised you the most about running TwoMorrows?
JM: Other than the fact that we’ve been at it for 15 years, it’d have to be the staying power of Kirby’s work and influence. I was really naïve to have ever thought Jack’s hold on the industry would wane over time; if anything, it’s probably as strong now as it ever was, with all the reissues of his work, and revamps of his characters. I don’t think I could still be doing an ongoing magazine about anyone else in comics, 50-plus issues and 15 years later.
It’s also surprising to me to think back about all the thousands of hours I spent as a kid, reading and collecting Kirby comics, and to know that, in spite of what my Dad must’ve thought, that wasn’t a waste of time and money. It ended up being as influential on my future career as my college degree — and probably ended up costing a lot less! But I am amazed how a 16-page, hand-xeroxed fanzine in 1994 led to where I am today, with multiple ongoing magazines, numerous books, and the opportunity to work closely with people like Roy Thomas, whose work I grew up reading. It really is stunning to me that I get to rub elbows with all these artists, writers, and editors from comics that I’ve always admired so much. And it all goes back to Jack Kirby; without all the good will he generated over the years, TwoMorrows wouldn’t be publishing today.
CMix: TwoMorrows seems to be chugging along nicely with its books and magazines. Are you pleased with how the business has matured?
JM: Overall, yes. We’ve tried to branch out and widen our market several times over the years, and we’ve succeeded in some areas, and not in others. I’m very pleased with the success of our magazine line, the Modern Masters books, our Companion series, and our “how-to” line of books. Recently, we’ve branched out with BrickJournal, our newest magazine for LEGO aficionados, and there’s probably as much potential there as in comics. There are so many areas I’d love to dip a toe into, but I’m well aware that we’re in the fortunate position of having found a solid niche in the industry, and we’ll always focus our primary efforts there, but I’m always on the lookout for things that will keep our product line fresh.
CMix: You cover the Golden Age through Alter Ego and the Silver and Bronze Ages through Back Issue, plus nuts and bolts through Write Now! and Draw! Is there any aspect of the field you’re missing?
JM: I’ve intentionally shied away from directly focusing on the “collecting” aspect of our hobby, as I personally don’t have much of an interest in things like Price Guides, grading, and slabbing. To me, if a comic is in readable shape and enjoyable, it’s priceless and in perfect condition for my needs. But there is an aspect of the collector mentality that I think we can further appeal to, without resorting to the speculator market, and focusing on “Wow, look how much this book is worth!”. So you’ll be seeing some new publications from us over the next couple of years that will delve more into the collecting end of the hobby, as opposed to the history. They can go hand-in-hand if we present it correctly, and they’ll complement each other nicely.
The first such book is called Grailpages, by Steven Payne, which is due out in March. The subtitle is “Original Comic Book Art and the Collectors”, and it lets original art collectors discuss their passion in their own words, and detail their collections, which range from a few pages by their favorite artist, to “theme” collections — a friend of mine only collects originals with cats on them, so has a fascinating range of different artists represented. The book gets into what makes original art collecting fun and interesting, without focusing too heavily on the value of the pages. This is the type of book I plan to do more of in the coming years.
CMix: Are you ever worried your editors will run out of history to cover?
JM: Not really, because new history is made in our medium every day. During the 1990s, we only made meager attempts at documenting the 1980s comics history, as it was still too new. Now, with Back Issue magazine, the 80s are getting their due, and the fans are loving it. I’m sure in another ten years, we’ll be focusing more on the 1990s in an historical context, although we’ve done a little of that recently, with our book on the history of Image Comics, and author George Khoury’s successful effort to get all seven original Image founders back together at the San Diego Comic-Con last year.
CMix: You make digital copies of the magazines available as an option. Is that a trend for the future, to go all-digital?
JM: I never say “never”, but I’m probably too “old school” to go all-digital. And Roy Thomas says the day we go all-digital, he’ll stop doing Alter Ego (and I can’t really blame him). I like to hold paper in my hands, and I spend plenty of time at my computer all day already. But I don’t think it’s just a passing fad; I’m hearing from more and more readers who enjoy the immediacy and portability of our Digital Editions. It’s a fast, inexpensive distribution method, and it’s been a great way to cut out the one downside of subscribing from us — that stores often get the new issues before it shows up in people’s mailboxes. Now, subscribers get a free Digital Edition before the print version is in comics shops, so they can look it over while they’re waiting for the mail to arrive. And when an older issue sells out, although it’s not usually economically feasible to reprint it, we can immediately put a reasonably priced digital version online that’ll never sell out.
Just so you don’t think TwoMorrows is too stuck in the 20th Century, we’ve had our ongoing TwoMorrows Tune-In podcast going for a couple of years, featuring interviews with our editors and authors, and some of the comics creators we cover in our various books and magazines. I’ve personally seen the response from it, and podcasting is a great medium for getting your message out to the masses. There are so many great comics-related podcasts now, that we’re bringing out a new book next May called the Comic Book Podcast Companion, by Eric Houston. It goes behind the scenes of ten of today’s top comic book podcasts, by interviewing the casts of Around Comics, iFanboy, Comic Geek Speak, and others that are leading the way in our hobby.
CMix: You launched the companion line of books which has largely focused on specific DC characters. Have you ever tried Marvel or other publishers?
JM: We’ve done a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Companion, which is non-DC, and we do have plans for some other non-DC companion-type books. DC’s been great to deal with over the years, but Marvel’s been a bit more difficult. The problem is, these aren’t huge money-makers, so licensing fees can kill a project right out of the gate. That said, we are publishing an issue-by-issue “Field Guide” to Marvel Comics in the 1960s, which’ll be out next Summer. It’s written by Pierre Comtois, who’s done some incredible research to put this book together. So hopefully that’ll be the first of many Marvel-related books if we can work out the details.
CMix: From a creative and commercial standpoint, do books like Comics Go Ape! work better than, say, the Titans Companion?
JM: I think creatively, a book like Comics Go Ape!, which focuses on apes in comics throughout comics history, lends itself to being a more purely fun read than a strict Companion book, where by necessity you want to present all the exhaustive facts and minutiae of the series its covering. But usually, a book on the Teen Titans or Flash is going to be more commercially successful than one that devotes a chapter to Beppo the Super Monkey. (laughs)
CMix: Do you see collecting pieces from the magazines for specific history books much like the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Companion?
JM: It all depends. If one of our mags does a really thorough job covering a subject, and we feel like it has merit to be fleshed out into a full book, we’ll certainly consider it. But especially with today’s economy, we’ve got to weigh the economic viability of any given book, even if it’s one I’d personally like to see published. I’ve had to pass on a large number of books that I, as a reader, would love to see, but as a publisher, I didn’t feel we could market effectively.
CMix: Several in-the-works companions got delayed or postponed. Can you address what the issue is?
JM: The main one is the Batcave Companion, which deals with Batman in the Silver Age. We’d originally planned it for Spring of 2008, but the authors, Michael Eury and Michael Kronenberg, ended up asking for more time to properly cover such a huge undertaking. So we pushed it back to Summer, not realizing that might interfere with DC Comics’ own plans for Batman-related books in conjunction with the Dark Knight film and DVD release. DC then asked us to delay the book until April 2009, so all the Dark Knight stuff would have died down. If we’d have shipped the book when originally planned, it wouldn’t have been a problem, but with the extra time needed to get it right, circumstances ended up delaying it a lot longer than we’d planned. But it’s on track for April 2009 release, and I think it’ll be worth the wait to our readers.
CMix: OK, then which books can we anticipate in the months ahead?
JM: Other than the ones I’ve already mentioned, we’ve got one final Collected Jack Kirby Collector volume (#7), which will complete the reprinting of the original 30 issues of TJKC, before it went to the current larger tabloid size. We’re also reissuing Captain Action: The Original Super-Hero Action Figure in an updated, full-color hardcover version; so now people won’t have to spend $150 on eBay for the original sold-out black-and-white edition. That’s coming in July. And we have a wide slate of new titles being worked on and planned as we speak, but nothing we’re quite ready to announce. Our new 2009 Catalog will be available in early January, and it’ll outline all our releases, both books and magazines, through the middle of next Summer.
CMix: What about other book projects such as more Modern Masters?
JM: Oh, we’ve got some great artists lined up for upcoming Modern Masters books. The Mike Ploog volume is on press now, and Kyle Baker is next month. Then we’ve got Chris Sprouse, Mark Buckingham, and Darwyn Cooke for the first half of 2009, with more in the works.
CMix: How do you decide who is a Master?
JM: As anyone who’s familiar with the series knows, they’ve first got to be one of the top talents in comics today, and actively working in the industry. Eric Nolen-Weathington, who’s the series editor, weighs a lot of options in deciding who’ll be featured, and then discusses it with me in terms of scheduling. But Eric generally makes the choices; when people see who else he’s got lined up for the next year, I think they’ll not only be very pleased, but probably pleasantly surprised by at least one of his choices.
CMix: BrickJournal seems like a labor of love. Tell me some more about it.
JM: Joe Meno, the editor of the magazine, has been a LEGO aficionado most of his life, and our friendship goes back almost two decades. But I had no idea of his LEGO fixation until about a year ago, when he told me over dinner about the online LEGO magazine he’d been producing since 2005. He was interested in taking it from online to print, and wanted some tips on printing, distribution, and promotion. I explained the basics, and told him if he decided it was more than he was ready to take on, TwoMorrows might be interested in being publisher. A few months later, he called me up and said that he would rather focus his energy on producing the magazine itself, and leave the publishing end to someone else, so we that’s how we got involved.
LEGO was not a real hobby of mine, but Joe’s work and approach on BrickJournal was so similar to how I started the Jack Kirby Collector, that I felt a kindred spirit right there. Since then, I’ve developed an amazing appreciation for what the AFOLs (Adult Fans of LEGO) accomplish as a community. Their conventions — BrickWorld, BrickFest, BrickCon and others — remind me of the vibe I used to get going to comic book conventions in the 1970s, before everything got so corporate and commercialized. And while BrickJournal is squarely aimed at more advanced LEGO builders, obviously there’s plenty of potential for even the youngest LEGO fans to work their way up in years to come.
There’s an interesting level of crossover between comics and LEGO, and the two fan bases tend to think a lot alike—although the LEGO fans are a little less commercial-minded, and more focused on “fun” than some of the more serious comics collectors. That’s not meant as a slam on comics fans; it’s just that sometimes I see comics readers who get so caught up in their books’ condition, or the need to complete a run of issues, and don’t actually enjoy the books they’re buying. I’ve been guilty of that myself, but I think getting to see LEGO conventions has rekindled in me some of the excitement I had in comics in the 1970s, and I hope that’ll help me shape TwoMorrows’ output in an even more fun direction in the future.
And the LEGO Group in Denmark has been fabulous in helping us get material for BrickJournal, and promote it. It’s currently carried in all the LEGO retail stores, and sold at LEGOLand California, as well as on newsstands across the US. And in addition to the new ongoing print version of BrickJournal, we’ve just brought out the first of four BrickJournal Compendiums, which will compile Joe’s original nine digital-only issues in print form for the first time. So we are injecting a big of commercialism into the LEGO fan community, but I think Joe’s love for LEGO comes through as loud and clear as it did when he was doing BrickJournal in digital form only.
CMix: Do you think the economy will be tough on you? If so, how do you plan to weather the storm?
JM: It’s already had an effect, but I’ve seen it coming for over a year now, and started long ago taking steps. When inflation started to become a concern, and prices on everything seemed to start increasing about a year ago, I made the conscious decision to offer an across-the-board 15% discount on our website. We’ve also had several sales throughout the year, to make sure our cash-strapped customers could keep buying our broad range of products. And by adding more Digital Editions, readers can sample our magazines for a fraction of the cost of a print copy, and that’ll hopefully lead to more print sales, both online and at comic shops. But there are a few of our more experimental publications we’ve got planned, that I’m intentionally delaying until the economy improves, so they’ll have a better shot at success when people are more financially able to try something different. For the short term, we’ll continue mostly with our bread and butter items: magazines devoted to the history and “how-to” of comics, and books about readers’ favorite creators and series. Those are what’ve gotten us to our 15th year in business, and will remain our focus regardless of the economy.
CMix: Thanks for all you time, John.
JM: Glad to do it!