by Jarrod Jones. They appeared suddenly, abruptly, seemingly from another dimension. A place where it’s perfectly normal—encouraged, even!—to read the first issue of a new series for absolutely free, where you can buy entire runs of your favorite books in whatever format you choose, right now, this minute. Imagine a world with no pre-orders, no pull lists. Imagine no wait to read a comics story in its entirety. Image a publisher like TKO Studios.
For Tze Chun, co-founder of TKO, it’s easy if you try.
“We made it clear that we wanted to be the first modern comic book publisher,” Chun tells me. “The binge-releasing strategy, the multiple formats, and the free first issue were all part of that initial pitch.”
For many comic readers, it’s a dream realized. Instantly available, binge-able comic series from the likes of Garth Ennis, Giulia Brusco, Dan McDaid, Steve Epting and more, delivered straight to your doorstep, your device, your eyeballs. The TKO strategy feels like the future. (Chun continues: “We basically said to ourselves: ‘It’s not worth doing this if we’re just going to do what everyone else is doing.'”)
For retailers, who have spent decades securing books for their customers from a single, frustrating, at times impenetrable source, TKO comes as a surprise. It would be an opportunity to adapt ordering practices, maybe even someday upend the direct market paradigm, provided TKO makes Chun and his co-founder Salvatore Simeone have a plan in store for your LCS.
“[Part of our] goal is modernizing the relationship between a comic book company and stores […] We have a relationship and a loyalty to every store that stocks our books, and part of the joy of launching TKO is trying to bolster the relationship between customers and their local comic book shop.”
Almost two months after they broke into the industry with a marketing maelstrom that challenged the possibilities of how we engage with this medium, I spoke with Tze Chun about the genesis of TKO Studios, his twin comic debuts (The Fearsome Doctor Fang and The 7 Deadly Sins), and what the future for this new comics publisher might look like.
DoomRocket: Let’s begin by talking about how you, an independent filmmaker and television writer and producer, found yourself making comics. You’ve said that you always had an abiding love for the medium, but why did you decide that comics were the next step for you as a storyteller?
Tze Chun: Comic books were my first love. I started out wanting to be a comic book writer and artist, and comics are how I learned to tell stories. I love working in film and TV but there’s times where the production and budget dictates every aspect of the kind of stories you can tell. I wanted to break out of that.
What drew me back to comics is it’s a medium where you can tell epic stories where the only limiting factor is your own imagination.
2. We’ve seen loads of talent from other media come to comics over the years, but it’s not every day that we see that talent come in, wrangle some of the best creators working today, and plant their own flag in the industry. For being new to the comics scene, TKO had the wisdom to tap Sebastian Girner as its Editor-in-Chief—how did TKO go about wooing Sebastian, and this incredible Rolodex of creators, to what could have been perceived as an untested publisher?
TC: My co-founder Salvatore Simeone and I knew that we needed someone who was a trusted name in comics with an impeccable track record. Sebastian had edited some of our favorite titles, so he was the natural choice.
As far as wooing Sebastian and other creators, everyone who works in comics does it because they love the medium and want it to succeed. It seems like everyone was waiting for somebody to come along to do something different. We made it clear that we wanted to be the first modern comic book publisher, and we were going to do things differently from existing companies. The binge-releasing strategy, the multiple formats, and the free first issue were all part of that initial pitch.
Beyond that, I also made it clear to creators that the most important thing at TKO was to help them produce their best work by assembling the best possible creative teams around them.
3. How did the TKO model (free first issue downloads, binge-able box sets of minis, trade collections, all instantly available) come into fruition?
TC: I spent a lot of time thinking about the comic book industry and how I’d like to see things done differently as a fan, as a creator, and as a publisher. And there were a lot of long conversations between Sal and I about the feasibility of all of it. But we basically said to ourselves: “It’s not worth doing this if we’re just going to do what everyone else is doing.”
Early on, we asked ourselves three questions: What’s good for our creators? What’s good for our fans? What’s good for the comics industry?
Every decision we made in TKO’s business model was based on those questions, and everything we’re doing sprang from these guiding principals.
4. Diamond Comic Distributors’ iron grip on the direct market has been a reality for comic store owners for at least three decades. TKO offers an alternative. How do you and your team go about making retailers feel confident in ordering books directly from you, when it’s easier and more convenient for readers to simply order their books from TKO?
TC: We’ve always relied on the enduring loyalty of customers to their local comic book shops. Even now, with Amazon just a click away, I prefer to buy from my local comic book shops. For a lot of people, myself included, there’s a feeling of being in a comic book store that you can’t replicate by shopping online. The smell of newsprint and ink is something you miss if you’ve been away from your comic book store for a while. The energy of being inside a comic book shop simply doesn’t exist anywhere else.
We’re trying to be the first modern comic book company, and part of that goal is modernizing the relationship between a comic book company and stores. We encourage stores to post about our books on social media, and we drive customers from our social platforms to the stores themselves. We have a relationship and a loyalty to every store that stocks our books, and part of the joy of launching TKO is trying to bolster the relationship between customers and their local comic book shop.
5. Television networks and film studios have had to learn how to modernize their reach in order to appeal to a changing market: Disney will be launching its own streaming service this year and pulling their IP from other outlets; CBS has made its new Star Trek series available exclusively on its own streaming service; Netflix pulls eyes away from audiences who used to swear fealty to the cable gods. TKO has declared itself a “modern” comics publisher—is the TKO sales model what modernity in comics publishing could—or should—look like?
TC: God, I hope so. [Laughs] I’ll let you know in a few years.
Continuing on that point: We’re seeing some creators and publishers move their ongoing series or minis into the graphic novel format in order to stay competitive, while publishers like DC are launching graphic novel lines to cater to a market that’s been shifting away from the “monthly floppy” format for decades. Is it finally time for other comics publishers to radically change their methods?
To be honest, we’ve really been focused on our own work for the last couple years in preparing to launch TKO. There are reasons our model has been successful for us, but I’m not sure it would work for other publishers. Right now we’re just focusing on making the best work possible and distributing it in a way that makes sense for us.
6. You told David Harper on the “Off Panel” podcast that TKO needed to be presented as a publisher with “staying power”. In what ways do you think TKO could evolve in the years to come to ensure that it stays ahead of the pack?
TC: We’re a publisher with staying power because the decision process really comes from a very close core within the company. There aren’t levels and levels of approvals that need to happen. When we have an idea we want to implement, or a problem we need to solve, we can do that very quickly, in hours or sometimes minutes. In the modern world, we think it’s necessary to be able to react quickly, while also putting power behind the choices we make. And we have the ability to do that.
7. I want to switch gears to your own creative output, to ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’ and ‘The Fearsome Dr. Fang’. Were these stories you’d long wanted to tell as an independent filmmaker? Did you see an opportunity to tell a particular kind of story without the burden of a production budget?
TC: Everyone knows how long it takes to make comics, but it’s nothing compared to how long it takes to push a major studio film through production. I loved these stories and wanted them to exist, first and foremost. Comics was the way where I felt I had the ability to do that.
But yeah, there’s a chase sequence in The Fearsome Doctor Fang that takes place in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake when the entire city is on fire. It was nice writing that without worrying that a line producer was going to stand up in a production meeting and shoot me in the head.
8. How has the comics process challenged you as a writer? How do you approach drama in sequential art?
TC: The format was the hardest thing for me to learn at first, before I got used to it. My favorite thing about writing comics now is doing the lettering pass, after the artwork is finished. That’s where I get to see how much of the drama can be conveyed through the images, and how much of my dialogue and setup is unnecessary.
9. Do you feel there might come a day when TKO might wish to publish an ongoing series? That you may come up with that one character you’d love to write about for years and years?
TC: There’s already so many characters in our books that I could see going on for years and years. Right now we spend a lot of time and care on each issue, and I think it shows. For us, we’d have to figure out a way where we could do a monthly comic without sacrificing the quality.
10. What’s the future look like for Tze Chun, Comics Writer? Do you have a pie-in-the-sky dream comics project? What art team would work with you?
TC: I have so many. I spent a lot of time dreaming of making comics, and I’m just really happy to be looking at TKO’s books on my bookshelf. There’s a few books I’m working on right now, but as far as dream collaborators, if you’re available just let me know. [Laugh]
‘The Fearsome Doctor Fang’, ‘The 7 Deadly Sins’, ‘Goodnight Paradise’ and ‘Sara’ are available for purchase at the TKO Studios website now. The first issues of all series are available for free download.
Check out this cover gallery of ‘Sara’,’The Fearsome Doctor Fang’, ‘The 7 Deadly Sins’ and ‘Goodnight Paradise’, courtesy of TKO Studios!
More comics interviews to get those synapses firing…