Launched in 2012 as a digital startup, St. Louis–based comics publisher Lion Forge is a rapidly growing house organized around an editorial vision that looks to take advantage of demographic changes in the North American comics marketplace. In a recent interview, Lion Forge cofounders David Steward II and Carl Reed talked of building a new kind of comics publishing house that reflects a new and diverse generation of fans and creators.
Both men launched businesses and worked in the movie industry in L.A. before returning to St. Louis. The two explained that their vision of a publishing company was driven by a mutual love of comics and a mutual dissatisfaction with the comics marketplace—namely with the dearth of comics shops and access to comics, as well as a lack of diversity in comics. Both believe that the North American comics market offers new opportunities to reach current fans as well as to create new comics readers. Thus, Lion Forge was born. “We wanted to broaden access to comics,” Reed said. “If you talk to a Trump supporter or to a black kid, they will both tell you they love comics, but where do you go to find them?”
Lion Forge’s answer is to offer readers a list of graphic novels and periodical comics in a variety of genres, in addition to the more prevalent superhero comics, with selections that embrace the perspectives of women, people of color, and LGBTQ communities. The publisher’s lists are also produced and promoted by a diverse editorial and marketing staff.
The Lion Forge business model is focused on publishing for the book trade as well as for the comics shop market (aka the direct market). The company has a line with multiple imprints for adults and young readers for the general bookstore market. It has also launched a multicultural superhero imprint called Catalyst Prime, whose books are aimed primarily (though not exclusively) at the comics shop market. Catalyst Prime is organized around a cast of characters that includes women, nonwhites, members of the LGBTQ community, and those with disabilities, all of whom are featured in a complex and interlocking fictional universe.
Steward acknowledged that the book market is generating more growth in sales of graphics novels than the direct market, but he’s not giving up on the comics shop market. The direct market continues to be dominated by superhero comic books from Marvel and DC, a monthly comic book format that is in decline, and an aging fan base. “The general public only knows Marvel and DC when they talk about comics,” Steward said. “Why are other companies only playing in half the pool? We think it’s important to have a leg in each market, although the book trade is where the readers are, and where the big growth is going on in middle grade books.”
By 2016, Lion Forge began to aggressively ramp up its hiring, jumping from about 10 employees to about 60 today. The staff is based mostly in St. Louis, with additional offices in New York and Portland, Ore., and “with more hiring to come,” Steward said. This year, Lion Forge will publish about 130 titles across all its children’s and adult imprints.
Among those hired with a focus on the book trade is Rich Johnson, Yen Press cofounder and a former v-p of trade book sales at DC, who was brought on as Lion Forge’s v-p of sales, marketing, and business development. Andrea Colvin, former v-p of content in the Andrew McMeel book division, was hired to oversee Lion Forge’s kids publishing and was recently promoted to v-p, editor in chief, overseeing the house’s CubHouse (early readers), Caracal (middle grade), and Roar (YA) imprints. And with an eye to developing Lion Forge’s relationship with the library and educational market, the company hired Jill Gerber, a teacher and longtime advocate for the use of comics in the classroom, for a newly created position: director of education outreach and collections.
Also in 2016, Lion Forge acquired Magnetic Press, an independent graphic novel publisher specializing in English-language editions of European graphic novels, principally aimed at the book trade for adults and children. Magnetic Press is now an imprint under its founder and publisher, Mike Kennedy.
On the comics shop side of the company, Lion Forge has hired acclaimed comics writer Gail Simone, who’s written for just about every major character at DC and Marvel, to oversee the Catalyst Prime superhero line and write a new series for it.
Steward believes the success of Lion Forge’s publishing program in both the book and comics market will be driven by demographic changes in comics readership and what readers want to see. “You have two big, slow-moving publishing creatures in DC and Marvel, and it’s hard for them to change,” he said. “They constantly flunk on diversity. It’s not about using diversity for headlines; it’s about embracing diversity for the long term.”
Lion Forge’s Catalyst Prime superhero line features such creators as David Walker, a highly regarded black comics writer who has worked on many of the iconic characters in the DC and Marvel lineup. There’s also newcomer Sheena Howard, an African-American academic who has researched and written on issues around comics, gender, and black identity, and who is now a first-time superhero comics writer working with Walker. The two cowrite Superb, a Catalyst Prime series featuring an unusual superhero duo: a black teenage girl and her partner, a white teenage boy with Down syndrome.
On the book trade side, this year the house will publish Upgrade Soul by Ezra Claytan Daniels. Originally released as an app-based digital work, Upgrade Soul won the 2016 Dwayne McDuffie Diversity Award and is being publishing in a print edition for the first time this month.
There’s also Quillion, a newly launched Lion Forge imprint that will combine comics with tabletop gaming. The Quillion imprint is launching Rolled Told, a monthly magazine with comics, illustration, articles about gaming, and RPG adventures. The line will begin producing book-based tabletop games in 2019.
Lion Forge has even ventured into journalism. In late 2017 it acquired The Beat: The News Blog of Comics Culture, a pioneering comics and graphic novel blog founded by Heidi MacDonald, a longtime comics journalist and former PW graphic novel reviews editor.
Steward said he has ambitious goals for Lion Forge: “I want to be in the top five of comics publishers in the book market, and in the top three in the direct market. The comics market has shifted and we need to be nimble and take advantage of opportunities as they happen. We’re not bogged down by our history like older companies. You need to be diverse in this market. We don’t have to start a diversity division or create a black imprint. This stuff is in our DNA.”