CREATING A WORLD OF FANTASTIC SUBVERSION – AN INTERVIEW WITH MAX GADNEY OF STORYWORLDS MEDIA

Max Gadney, the founder of StoryWorlds Media, sits down with Katie Liggera to discuss the creation of his company, the types of stories he's interested in publishing, the graphic novella format, and to help demystify the process of making comics.


COMIC BOOK YETI: Welcome to the Yeti site! I am grateful you have time to sit down with us, seeing as how you have such a busy schedule as a new publisher in the comics sphere. Could you tell me a bit about your background before creating StoryWorlds Media?


FAB Breakout, Book 1: Mad World, cover by Alex Ronald

MAX GADNEY: One of my earliest memories was being age 4, in a newsagent in London and reaching for a copy of 2000AD. The cover screamed “Ant Wars!” – a story about giant killer ants. I was hooked.


After studying design at school, I worked in the BBC in design and commissioning roles. This gave me a good insight into how media is made. I then ran a design business, providing some insights into how things get done and sold. For the last several years, I have also been collaborating with a friend on indie comics at weekends, just us trying stuff out. (He is Julian Parry, the artist on United States of Magic and our upcoming The Sword and the Six-Shooter.)


CBY: StoryWorlds publishes comics in a unique format. After reading the three available titles from StoryWorlds and perusing your website, it’s clear how the company approaches a different publishing format than other comic publishers out there. What compelled you to start a comic book publishing company, particularly one geared specifically toward publishing self-contained graphic novellas?


MG: Comics were wiped out in the UK by computer gaming. Our already fragile domestic market couldn’t stand up to the attractions of consoles. If comics are to compete for attention with gaming, social media, streaming services and so on, I believe they need to deliver a more complete, closed narrative. Our stories need to make their case in one impactful sitting. They are of course part of a series, with larger arcs and all our books have second arcs currently in development.


Other factors that went into the 64-page book decision are as follows:

  • The monthly 22-page periodical market has a hard production cycle to fulfill for a new business and also a saturated market.

  • Going all-out on a 200-page graphic novel would take too long.

  • The ‘album’/64-page format is popular in Europe and let's not forget The Killing Joke, which would have lost impact if delivered over two or three periodicals.

  • Graphic Novellas can also be sold on Amazon, bookshops and they use permanent ISBN product codes, whereas periodicals do not. They have a longer, ‘evergreen' shelf life which, in the rushed-attention economy, is important.

CBY: So far, it appears StoryWorlds is driven on publishing diverse, global stories about technology or topics appealing to a broad reading audience. Does StoryWorlds plan to focus on any genre specifically or appeal to a particular market?


Only Hope, Book 1: Fear Farm, Gadney/Kudryavtseva/Esposito

MG: Learning from Japan (10x the US market), and Europe (70% the size of the US market), we’ll start with multi-genre books in action, sci-fi, drama, espionage, with ensemble casts where possible. (The upcoming The Sword and Six-Shooter is a hybrid genre ‘samurai-western’!)


We actually don’t have any superhero stories. US comics are a cultural anomaly where the medium (comics) in the US is restricted to one genre of story (superheroes). It’s like only being able to hear jazz on music streaming services. I believe that happened because The Comics Code in the ‘50s squashed everything else but they couldn't say no to the un-real superheroes, just as communist regimes in Europe couldn't work out how to censor surrealism.


Manga and YA success in the US has opened the door for stories about things other than superpowers and it is those [age] 16-34 readers that we are more likely to attract than a superhero loyalist – and that’s OK – there will always be something for them.


I also want our audience to be more than just men. On the reason why we have more female heroes, while I love books about violent male lunatics (I just reread Ennis’s Punisher and I own four pages of Lewis Larosa art from ‘In the Beginning’), there are plenty of them to go around and I want to do something more positive, cerebral and escapist than dark dystopian and apocalyptic. Ramzee and I discussed that a lot in the early FAB discussions. He totally got the need to move from the ‘dark city’ sci-fi archetype towards something just as crazy, but brighter. That’s a good metaphor for all our work (OK, so maybe Only Hope is darker, but all in service of criticizing Big Tech, so it’s excused).


CBY: As of April 2021, your website says StoryWorlds is not currently accepting submissions. Do you plan on having open submissions in the future? What would the pitch process entail? In terms of what types of creators you want to work with and stories you want to publish, what will you be looking for in a pitch?


MG: We won’t be opening any submissions until we can get a steer on how the launch books have landed with audiences, sometime earlier next year. See the pitching section at the end for thoughts on how to pitch.


CBY: StoryWorlds trends toward the idea of innovation. In the publishing world, innovation proves key. Other than the graphic novella format, what sets Storyworlds apart from other publishers; or is the graphic novella format enough of a distinction?


United States of Magic, Book 1: Grand Theft Global, Gadney/Parry/Esposito

MG: In addition to the format and genre approach, we are innovating in our art styles. All books have strong graphic identities. All books look nice and are nice to own. As a body of work, we are looking to use different art styles that look outwards to a New International Style, acknowledging the global nature of our medium – the best of US, European and Asian art along with pushing the boundaries in the expression used – as Ksenia did in Only Hope book 1.


The Anthology will show more use of different art styles too, by a great collection of new artists, showing our commitment to new, up and coming talent.


Finally, we are big believers in digital distribution. It is still very early in the digital life of comics due to the negative form factor of most e-readers being too small to fit the standard US size page nicely, but tech will get cheaper and prices will come down over the years.


I think ComiXology merging closer into Amazon will help make comics more available alongside other product lines in a regular Amazon customer visit. (e.g a relative buying some Marvel gifts, may be suggested to buy comics, or someone buying Harry Potter books may be advised to buy our United States of Magic!). ComiXology is a great product, but ultimately was speaking to the converted – many more people are on Amazon/Kindle, and so that gets comics to a new audience, like getting the print books into libraries. ComiXology will remain our primary digital outlet for that reason.


CBY: What is StoryWorlds’ strategy to achieve success in such a competitive market? Unique problems inevitably arise in the process of making, marketing, and distributing comic books, be it related to the Direct Market, Diamond, Previews, physical v. Digital, Kickstarter, IP rights, etc. What was the learning curve like? Did anything surprise you, going from Commissioning Editor at the BBC to creating StoryWorlds?


MG: We are entering this space with huge respect and humility for those that have toiled before us. Yet in our own way, we want to try some new stuff and leave the space better than we found it.


"If comics are to compete for attention with gaming, social media, streaming services and so on, I believe they need to deliver a more complete, closed narrative."

I've always been a fan of DC’s darker stories over Marvel anyway, but it is interesting to see DC’s recent experiments in cutting back character lines, publishing more anthologies, single issues, digital experiments on Webtoons, and a younger audience focus. I am also interested in larger, deluxe hardback books for collectors – and I think the formats that Brubaker and Phillips are doing right now are a great example of the more European, non-periodical, high-quality books.


The Sword and the Six-Shooter, Book 1: The Demon Frontier, Gadney/Delafond/Parry/Simeone/Esposito

CBY: Now that StoryWorlds Media has been established as a company and has released several comic books, what have you learned from the past few months in the industry and what are your future plans?


MG: On our shopping list, we would be looking at first producing the second books in the launch series. We've also got some great ideas in development that speak to a YA/mixed-age audience such as ‘Spoils’ and ‘Road of Gold.’ Again, escapist sci-fi, action with diverse ensemble casts.


Then, perhaps more standalone stories, including origin stories of some of the supporting characters from launch titles (Gwen and her family in the United States of Magic could fill a shelf by themselves).

Finally, we’ve got plans for a Mature-rated Action/Horror imprint, too.


Ultimately, the more books we can get out, the more we can expose connections across the StoryWorlds universe. There are definitely emerging threads across stories and timelines and some are really exciting.


CBY: Matt Ligeti (HYIC) recently tweeted: “If readers will not understand why a series is so great until the final issue ties everything together, then maybe it should only be released as a trade. (Obviously depending on budget and many other factors.) Just knowing how many readers drop off with every subsequent issue, I’m not sure why you’d risk a monthly format if the story is written to be a 5-issue mini without the hooks and action that make monthlies so successful.”


Do you think there’s some truth to that? Can you ever envision StoryWorlds releasing standard 22-page issues on a monthly basis?


MG: I agree with Matt. The ‘wait for the hook’ strategy sounds a bit like telling a joke in a pub, then doing the punch line the next week. Human attention in 2021 is very finite and people’s experience of your work is a fraction of the rest of what they look at. We might do some shorter one-offs but not regular 22-page monthlies in the foreseeable future.


CBY: All the current StoryWorlds books, FAB: Pandora, Only Hope, and United States of Magic centralize around common themes. Intriguingly, each graphic novella also features women protagonists who encounter morally dubious situations, the dark side of technology, and conspiracies. Were these similar characteristics and common threads ones you purposely sought out to promote the first wave of comics from StoryWorlds?


MG: Our muse, our guiding star, is the idea of Fantastic Subversion. We want to tell a story about the true state of the world (be it about greed, tech companies, great power contests, etc.) and do it in a bright-burning, engaging and highly amplified manner. I am happy there is a developing theme. I’d say we have three eras we are covering: now (Only Hope, United States of Magic) near-future (FAB) and alternative history (The Sword and the Six-Shooter- upcoming in January 2022). As for the diversity of heroes, we’ll absolutely continue with that.

FAB, Book 1: Pandora, RAMZEE/Simeone/Esposito

On our heroes, I think it is important for a male-owned publisher to champion female heroes. They were thin on the ground when I was growing up and that has to change if US comics is to attract more female readers, but also more male readers who want to read about multi-genre, non-super-male stories.


CBY: FAB and Only Hope in particular illuminate the dangers of technology in a Black Mirror reminiscent mode of storytelling. With FAB Breakout Book 1: Mad World, readers return to the unhinged 3-D printing world of FAB in anthology format. What factors played a part in expanding upon the FAB universe and breaking the graphic novella format for an anthology?


MG: I think FAB is an amazingly expansive canvas that many creators can paint on. It’s almost a universe within our StoryWorlds universe due to the endless possibility of what the citizens of the FAB-world can make and what stories our creators can engineer. This made it a sound platform for new creators to start working with us. We worked with the excellent editor, Steve White, and the creators were all given a story bible for basic reference points. The stories in the FAB Anthology allow us to triangulate, just a little, a world of infinite possibility and madness.


Importantly, I found doing an anthology a good way of meeting new creators, some of whom are now involved in developing new ideas with us. Part of working with new talent is designing project formats to get to know each other like outlines, covers, short stories. Then we can move on to bigger commitments.


CBY: You’ve announced two new titles from StoryWorlds recently, including a graphic novella anthology set in the highly-creative FAB universe. What can you tell us about new concepts and new graphic novellas StoryWorlds will be publishing?


MG: In addition to the FAB Anthology mentioned above, we are publishing The Sword and the Six-Shooter. It is set in 1873, in the post-civil war US, with a hero, Ito Kojiro, who has fled the civil war in Japan to join the Texas Rangers and hunt down his master’s killer. It is a vengeance epic that asks questions about frontier myths and the conflict between violence and virtue central to the American condition.


Oh, and our hero is haunted by actual demons.


There has been a lot of historical research and the timeline means we can start book one in Western Texas, the last actual untamed part of the frontier. But, in our plans for later books, as he quests across the gilded age US, and we’ll see that it is all untamed and that the frontier values of selfish survival, killing for coin, and feverish imagination are never far away. Co-written by Simon Delafond, with editorial consulting by Jarred Luján, Julian Parry does the inks, Stefano Simeone does the colours and Taylor Esposito provides his uniquely steady, excellent and, when need be, explosive, drumbeat of lettering.


"The ‘wait for the hook’ strategy sounds a bit like telling a joke in a pub, then doing the punch line the next week."

CBY: The independent publishing market for comics has dramatically risen lately, and competition is growing. For StoryWorlds, what would you consider a success?


MG: Success will look like a combination of the following:

  • Completing one cycle of concept-to-sales has already taught us a lot. We need to keep learning and improving, doubly challenging because of the changing dynamics in, say, distribution, digital, etc.

  • Selling enough books to re-invest in the business, of course, but also to find an audience for those books and, if possible, being able to see that that audience includes new people to comics.

  • Building a creator network that will work with us again, and being able to attract creators with a reputation as being good to work with (e.g.) contracts, [being] paid on time – all the things that happen too rarely for up and coming creators.

  • Creating connections with the wider industry, including journalists and retailers, who understand what we do. And, by the way, I’d rather have less people, who actually got us, than try to have everyone onside.

CBY: As part of our series of publisher interviews, CBY wants to demystify the process of making comic books. Toward that end, below is a series of questions going through that process. To the extent you feel comfortable doing so, CBY would love to know your approach as a publisher:


MG: Happy to answer, but I’ll structure these to show how we have been working so far.

As with my comments on submissions, we are not accepting anything right now, but I’ll go with it in general terms. Also, as with any opinions, of course read mine, but seek other, wiser people!


CBY: I have a four-issue pitch. I got together with an artist/writer and we put together five sample pages for issue #1 and a mock cover. We colored it and lettered the comic ourselves for the pitch. We submit it to you and you like it enough to begin talks. What are those talks?


MG: First of all, don’t do all that work up front. We can’t pay for it and it wastes your time.