Dabel-ing in Comics (Mania.com)

By:JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Date: Saturday, February 10, 2007

In 2000, the Dabel Brothers were doing independent comic books that flew under just about everyone's radar.  A short time later they were working with Image and then, when Devil's Due left that publisher, they brought the Dabel Brothers with them to their new imprint.  However, they decided to try self-publishing in 2005 ... so how did they end up now as a partner to one of the biggest comic publishers in the world, Marvel Comics, releasing the adaptation of Laurell K. Hamilton's most famous creation, Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter?  For answers we turned to one of the founders of the company, Les Dabel ...  
 

MANIA: I think some people, who aren’t that aware of the ins and outs of the comics industry, would like to know a little about the Dabel Brothers and how you got interested in publishing comic books, please …. 

LES DABEL: Dabel Brothers Productions started in the year 2000 as an effort between myself and three of my brothers (Ernst, Pascal and David) to produce and publish our own original books. We started out with a few titles that all flopped <laughs> and decided to focus our efforts elsewhere by obtaining the license for the novella “The Hedge Knight” from George R. R. Martin and adapting it to the visual format. It became our biggest and best-known book: a sleeper hit of 2003, and was collected into one of the best-selling graphic novels of 2004. The rest, as they say, is history! 

MANIA: So how do you go from self publishing in 2000 to becoming a partner of Marvel Comics?

 

LES DABEL: In early 2006, we started down the road to self-publishing, and someone at Marvel spotted one of our press releases, realized the scope of what we were doing, and decided to contact us to discuss a partnership. Their proposal was simple: they would lend us their resources, brand name, and industry presence and help us to grow so that we could become a partner with their company and contribute our sales – and product lines - to their brand. <Laughs> It was really a win-win for both parties, and we’re tremendously pleased with the arrangement. We work very closely with Publisher Dan Buckley and VP of Sales David Gabriel to ensure that we’re keeping them happy, and they offer us whatever resources we need to get things done on our end. It’s great! 

MANIA: You were working with a publisher before, Devil's Due, why did you want to work with another publisher now and why Marvel? Especially when you seem to have enough muscle and range of talents involved in your company, and working with your company, that you could have easily self-published all of these titles on your own .... 

LES DABEL: When we were just starting out, we self-published, and we decided that we weren’t big enough to stand on our own, and we needed a publisher to help us gain credibility in the marketplace. So, we started out with Image, and when Devil’s Due Publishing split from Image and decided to stand on its own, they asked us and some other Image studios to come along. At the time, it made good business sense to follow Devil’s Due – they had great buzz around them and retailers seemed to be optimistic about their future.  

Unfortunately, our business is very different from their business, and while we had great respect for one another as entities, we found out quickly that we were not able to continue that publishing relationship. And so, in late 2005, we were faced with a choice: return to self-publishing, or find another publisher. At that point, we felt we were strong enough, with enough retailer credibility, to stand on our own, so we did, launching a new line of books in 2006 that were distinctively Dabel Brothers Productions – instead of putting our own logo front and center, our Art Director and Production Designer Bill Tortolini crafted the covers to have a red border on the top and bottom of each cover, making our line of books really pop on the shelves. 

Of course, we had no idea at the time Marvel would approach us, and our biggest concern in working with them with a publisher was ensuring that our business could work well with their business. Fortunately, they didn’t come into this wanting to change us to be more like them; they wanted to grow us to become a major studio while letting us do what we do best! So our arrangement with them is very different from what we’ve had before – they’re not just a publisher, but also a partner. 

MANIA: What role does Marvel Comics play now in your company’s life? Do they  have any kind of editorial control or other control over what Dabel Bros. releases?  

LES DABEL: We have complete control over all aspects of our company. Marvel advises us on scheduling, marketing, and editorial concerns, but they really only take charge on things if we ask them to. I guess the best analogy I could use is that they’re like a big brother helping us along. 

MANIA:  When you both had the chance to obtain new comic series or work with others to adapt novels into the comic book format, what elements were you looking for when deciding which projects you wanted to take on? 

LES DABEL: Well, our business model is pretty straightforward: we chiefly focus on licensing novels written by New York Times Best-selling Authors in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy so that we can bring them (and their fanbases!) into the comic book medium. Our goal has never been to create comic books for comic book fans, though many established comic book readers do enjoy our books. We’ve always been focused on bringing fans of major authors over into the industry, which not only helps us to grow the industry from a different angle, but also keeps us from relying on the same shrinking pool of readers that the majority of the comic book industry is trying to cater to. 

If we think a property has commercial potential, we go after it. We’ve gotten to the point now where we actually have to be selective about which properties we accept, because we have many offers from authors who love what we’re doing, and want to have us adapt their novels! 

MANIA: Speaking of selective, how did you get Laurell K. Hamilton interested in having her vampire hunter, Anita Blake, translated to the sequential art format?  

Anita Blake Art

LES DABEL: The Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter books are huge in the world of romantic fiction, but they’re just getting started in other forms of media. We’ve worked with Ms. Hamilton’s agent for many years, and when she asked us if we were interested in the Anita Blake books, I did some research and decided that they were going to be our next big thing. You see, I’ve been troubled by the fact that very little of what the comic book industry has been producing brings in female readers, and I think the market for comic of interest to women is underserved and, often, pretty misguided. In the publishing world, romance books are one of the biggest markets that no one talks about – tens of millions of women read romance books, and many romance authors are consistently bestsellers.  

But while I’d always assumed romance books were all pretty much of the variety of “bare-chested man kissing barely-dressed woman” that you see in supermarkets, I never knew that there were titles out there like the Anita Blake books, which started out in the romance genre, but crossed over into others, like fantasy and horror. 

So we talked things over with the agent, and with Ms. Hamilton, who was very interested in working with us, provided that we allowed her to have the final say in all matters on her book. Our friend and frequent artist, Brett Booth, happened to be a big fan of the books, and we asked him to draw them. It was a great match! 

MANIA: Without revealing too many secrets, what’s the negotiation process like to get a writer like Hamilton interested in having Anita Blake become a comic book series? When you were talking with her about this, were there other publishers courting the writer as well? What was it about your offer that you think made Dabel Bros come out on top? 

LES DABEL: Some authors are more difficult to convince than others, and where we were fortunate with Ms. Hamilton was that she was already looking to bring her books to comics, and she had previously been in talks with other publishers. We went out of our way to make her happy, and she responded in kind! 
 
I would also add here that our staff members Sean, Matt and Bill, and my brother Ernst do a great job of learning about the properties beforehand, which usually shocks the authors, since there have been times where we’ve pointed out small details that they’ve forgotten about!
 

MANIA: Once you have writers like Hamilton or Orson Scott Card, or any of the other non-traditional comic writers you have working with Dabel Bros., what role do you like them to have in the comic’s production?   

LES DABEL: One thing that we encourage our authors to do is to be very “hands-on” at all stages of the approval process so that we can ensure that they’re happy with what we’re doing. We give the authors three opportunities for approval on each issue: at the scripting phase, at the pencil phase, and at the proofing phase. We also bring on several “thematic consultants” for each book (often appointed by the authors) who can help us to keep the stories consistent with the details of the original novels.  

Some writers, like Laurell K. Hamilton, are extremely hands-on and offer an extraordinary amount of detail and direction. Others just let us work and offer advice as they check in with us. We work well with either style, because ultimately, we want to create the best books possible! 

MANIA: Once you have a creator agree to have his or her product be featured as an all-new comic from Dabel Bros., how do you decide when to “set” the comic? We’ve seen some as “untold” type tales and some set at later points than readers of the novels might be familiar with … why do you do that instead of just straight adaptations?  

LES DABEL: Some of the authors we worked with when we were first starting out weren’t ready to license their main stories to us right away, so they licensed short stories to us instead as sort of a “test run” to see how we’d do. Some of these stories included Raymond E. Feist’sThe Wood Boy,” Tad Williams’sThe Burning Man,” and Robert Silverberg’sThe Seventh Shrine,” all of which we adapted and published. With Raymond E. Feist, we were able to immediately follow up with “Magician,” his core series, and one of our biggest books at the moment. We are still hoping to adapt the works of Mr. Williams and Mr. Silverberg down the road as we expand our line – they were both extremely happy with our work! 

MANIA: What are some of the challenges of working with creators who aren’t familiar with the ins and outs of the comics industry and, perhaps, convincing them you know what’s best for their “babies”? 

LES DABEL: While not all of our authors are familiar with the ins and outs of the industry, most of them, at some point in their lives, have been fans of comics, and I think that it’s given most of them a good sensibility about what looks good on the page and what does not. And some of our authors (Orson Scott Card and Tad Williams, for example) have actually written comics as well, which means that they have a great idea of how the process works! 

Things are always a little tough initially as we craft a vision for a new book, but once the decisions are made and the author has had his or her input, things tend to move along smoothly! 

MANIA: Along with big names from outside the comics industry, you also are working with some notables from within this field.  Have you been actively going after creators like Michael Avon Oeming or are those people coming to you after learning about the works you’ve acquired? 

LES DABEL: We’ve been very careful on how we’ve applied our budget in production: our big names are the authors, not the production staff, and we want to keep things that way! With that said, if we can talk someone like Brett Booth or Michael Avon Oeming into working on our books within our constraints, we’re happy to do it! 

With that said, we’re not really interested right now in putting out a large number of original books, because they require a lot more work in the way of promotion and marketing – after all, you have to grow an entirely new fanbase to make them successful! That may change down the road, however, since we do plan to re-release our in-house book “Marshal” as well as a few others we’ve been promising, like Sean Jordan’sMinus World” and my own “Imperial Dragons” … 

Half Dead Chapter 1 Cover

MANIA: How do you decide which newer talents to take a try on?  What made you want to work with Barb Lien Cooper and her husband Park on their project, Half Dead?   

LES DABEL: Half Dead was a bit of an unusual situation, because it was originally going to be published through the now-defunct Speakeasy Comics. We picked it up because we really liked the project and we wanted to give it a shot. Bill Tortolini, who is a key member of our team, is friends with artist Jimmy Bott, and we also have a healthy respect for the work that Barb and Park have done in the industry. 

Plus, the story is really cool – it’s basically about armies of vampires and humans fighting throughout London underground, using chemical and biological weapons and inflicting a lot of collateral damage. When a girl named Romany gets caught up and becomes something to which death might be preferable, she finds herself in the midst of a war she can’t win, where the good guys are just as bad as the villains. And since the story is contained in a graphic novel, it’s able to go to some really cool places that a monthly comic might not be able to pull off! 

MANIA: What are some other works that Dabel Bros. is looking to release this year?  

The Hedge Knight 2: The Sworn Sword Art

LES DABEL: That remains to be seen – we’re still working on our schedule for the summer and fall, and we’ll be announcing some surprises soon. Two books I’m very excited about are R.A. Salvatore’sThe Highwayman” and George R. R. Martin’s sequel to “The Hedge Knight,” “The Sworn Sword.” The best place to find details is on our website at http://www.dabelbrothers.com – it’s the source for all our official news! 

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JENNIFER M. CONTINO is a lifelong comic book fan. She writes about the industry every weekday at http://www.comicon.com/pulse