Jeanette Batz Cooperman is a staff writer for St. Louis Magazine. She is also an accomplished author – her latest work is a chilling nurder mystery and available at Amazon here. I asked for – and received – her permission to reproduce her latest magazine article about a Lion Forge comics!
Thank you Jeanette and St. Louis Magazine for allowing me to share their article. You can read the original here.
With Lion Forge, David Steward II is reshaping comics, exploding stereotypes, and reinventing the superhero
The only thing that’s stereotypical about a Lion Forge comic is its refusal to give in to stereotype.
Comics used to be for boys, the stereotype said. White boys with muddled social skills who hung out at comic book shops, letting their brains go soggy.
In truth, those kids grew up a long time ago. Comics turned dark, edgy, and adult back in the ’90s, and now they’re morphing again to reflect a wider swath of society. “Comics are for everyone,” insists a little St. Louis company called Lion Forge that’s growing at supersonic speed.
Granted, the rest of popular culture is making the same assertion—and the push started well before T’Challa took us to Wakanda. But Marvel only “inadvertently got it right” with Black Panther, says Lion Forge co-founder and CEO David Steward II. Most of the time, the industry’s heavy-handed attempts to “do” diversity are about as subtle and real as sex with a robot.
But why should you—a grownup who prefers real books, their big words packed dense and gray on the page—care about any of this?
Because Lion Forge intends to woo you.
You don’t want to read about masked white men who fly? Maybe you’d like to read about a Jewish lesbian astrophysicist who doesn’t even want her superpower. Hate the neon jangle of comic book colors? Check out delicately detailed washes of earthtones in a sea of white space. If you despise shallow caricature and retro cheesiness, try the 528-page graphic novel Lighter Than My Shadow, about a young woman’s battles with trauma and eating disorders. And if you’re sick of heterosexual opportunism, there’s Mooncakes, a Chinese-American queer love story with an almost entirely female cast…
The only thing that’s stereotypical about a Lion Forge comic is its refusal to give in to stereotype.
It’s near the end of the millennium. David Steward II, a photographer with a degree in international marketing and a consuming love of pop culture, meets Carl Reed, animator and illustrator. They merge their studios into a full-service shop. Then each, in turn, goes off to Hollywood, Steward to produce a movie, Reed to do TV animation. They come back and join forces again, this time to pursue what they love most: comics.
In 2011 and 2012, Reed and Steward walk every square foot of the biggest cons: C2E2 in Chicago, Comic-Con International in San Diego, and New York Comic Con. Brushing past Spider-Men and stormtroopers, dodging steampunk Dr. Whos and zombies, they analyze books, costumes, action figures, animation. What’s being done wrong? What isn’t being done at all?
The world’s still a little too white, they decide, its audience a little too predictable. They will publish comics for everyone. Digital first, because that’s the future.
They choose the Wizard World St. Louis Comic Con, March 2013, for their debut. As fans mob the legendary Stan Lee—a white guy who co-created Black Panther back in the ’60s—for his autograph, Lion Forge is across the convention hall offering previews of its authentic, inclusive digital comics.
With a staff of seven, the company publishes more than a dozen digital titles in the next year. Both the industry and its audience resist, terrified of closing comic book stores and losing that slick, addictive smell of fresh ink on pulp. Skeptical fans won’t buy digital until a comic is already in print. Digital plateaus at 10 to 15 percent of the market.
Lion Forge changes gears fast.
By 2015, it has a full print infrastructure, the books of the highest quality. Fans whisper online: “Who’s behind the scenes?” “This is obviously a Hollywood company!”
Nope, just some guys in St. Louis. But Hollywood’s about to sprinkle a little stardust on them.
At NBCUniversal, the elevators have news feeds. As announcements of the studio’s deal with Lion Forge hit rival CBS, Hollywood Reporter, Variety, USA Today, and every comics website out there, the guy in charge of licensing and TV picks up his ringing phone. “What’s this about a deal we did with Lion Forge?” his boss’s boss asks. “It’s everywhere. Everywhere! Good work.”
Steward and Reed walk around the licensing show without a single preset meeting and manage—in bursts of nostalgia combined with business acumen—to negotiate licenses for Miami Vice, Knight Rider, Punky Brewster, and Saved by the Bell.
The year before, one of the first important writers to sign on with Lion Forge, Brandon Easton, invited other creative types to a Lion Forge brunch at the San Diego con. Hardly anybody showed. News of the licensing deal breaks two days before the 2013 Comic-Con, and now Easton’s flooded with messages, people wanting him to hook them up with “that company you mentioned…”
“I don’t want to talk to any of y’all,” he says. “I told you last year.”
The strategy—to lure readers with titles they already know, then hook them with the new comics—continues. Lion Forge creates a Voltron: Legendary Defender series in homage to the St. Louis–born robot knight; it adopts Care Bears and Disney’s Packages From Planet X; it bases superheroes on real celebs. In the paws of Lion Forge, mixed martial arts fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson becomes a super-werewolf empowered by a meteor. “He wanted to wolf out and fight aliens,” Steward tells reporters with a shrug.
In 2016, Lion Forge designates two new imprints, CubHouse and ROAR, to lure young readers back to comics. It’s been quite a while since the comic book burnings of the 1950s—when a psychiatrist testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee that comic books caused juvenile delinquency, sadism, and a Superman complex—and there’s some catching up to do. ROAR publishes Taproot, a queer romance ghost story for young adults. CubHouse plays with whimsy (in This Is a Taco, a funny little squirrel is convinced he’s a taco) and subversion (in The Little Red Wolf, it’s the wolf who’s in danger from humans).
Two years later, DC Comics (which, alongside Marvel, has dominated the industry for decades) announces…two new imprints for younger readers.
When Lion Forge first launches, writer Cullen Bunn is living in St. Louis, but he’s just signed an exclusive two-year contract with Marvel. Nonetheless, he and Steward meet for burgers at Araka. Steward’s ambition zags across the table like a lightning bolt. He wants Lion Forge to start its own superhero universe.
That might be a little too ambitious, Bunn thinks. They’ll get lost in the noise of DC and Marvel. But Steward has the quiet confidence of a real businessman, not a dreamy kid. He even has the universe’s name: Catalyst Prime.
And, sure enough, on Free Comic Book Day 2017, fans grab the beginning of a new universe called Catalyst Prime. Steward entrusted it to Christopher Priest (who reinvented Black Panther as a king and statesman back in 1998) and Joseph Illidge (who edited Batman).
Fans will catch on easily: Catalyst Prime is set in this world, with no special language or elaborate backstory, and its superheroes are quite human: They bathe and snack, struggle and suffer consequences.
“In classic DC and Marvel universes, every character is ramped up so high that you have to create villains who are super-strong,” Steward grumbles. “To really exist in that universe, they would pretty much tear up the world.”
He and Reed have vowed to avoid lazy writing: No inventing extra superpowers or resorting to time travel to extricate their superheroes from dilemmas. Superpowers will be distributed across a wide band of humanity, and not everyone will use them well. Characters will die only once; jaded fans won’t get to say, “Oh, DC will bring him back.”
Beyond the Dark Knight
As a kid, Steward didn’t have a comic book store nearby; his initiation came later. Reed contented himself with white superheroes, because the black options were so…limited. “Cyborg’s catchphrase was this archaic slang word, ‘Booyah!’” he remembers, wincing. “Luke Cage said, ‘Sweet Christmas!’ He wore a butterfly-collared bright-yellow shirt, and his catch phrase was ‘Sweet Christmas.’”
Supposedly, we’ve moved on. Iron Man has been replaced by an African-American woman, and Ms. Marvel is Pakistani-American. There’s even a female Thor—with breast cancer, her chemo’s toxins washed away by her superhero transformation. And there’s an Afro-Latin Spider-Man, but white-bread Peter Parker is still published alongside him, hasn’t even had the grace to die. When the Big Two, DC and Marvel, “do” diversity, they just pop somebody who’s not a white man into an existing role.
“It’s a gimmick,” mutters Reed. “It’s obviously temporary. And it’s insulting.”
One of Lion Forge’s secrets is hiring such a wild mix of folks that when a book’s written about a character from a certain group, if it’s not true to the lived experience of someone in that group, somebody on staff will correct the portrayal.
“Because we’re not coming from the outside to do a book starring a woman or a Latino character, that takes away from the stereotyping and exaggeration,” says Reed. “It’s very easy to go there, to say, ‘This character is a girl with a gun,’ and that’s it. You don’t know that character; you can’t write for that character. The emperor will be shown to have no clothes.”
The emperor, I point out, has had a good run. “The emperor has had a great run,” he agrees dryly, and leaves it there.
“The Pride Is Growing”
Today, Lion Forge calls itself a trans-media company, developing content across comic books, TV, film, and interactive gaming.
“The pride is growing,” the website quips. Freelancers are scattered around the globe, and that initial staff of seven is now 45, with another 20 hires in progress. They work behind a narrow, brightly colored door in a vast and desolate strip mall on Manchester, near Hampton.
In one of its simple conference rooms, Steward and Reed sit down to talk.
Steward looks a little professorial, a little Saturday-schlubby—glasses, jeans, receding hairline, a dark sweater with a gray tee peeking from the bottom of the V-neck. It’s not the costume you’d draw for an MICDS alum whose father founded the $10 billion World Wide Technology.
Reed, who has even less hair than Steward, looks like a benign Buddha who’s dropped some pounds and started working out. They talk like two guys who do a podcast and know the rhythms of each other’s speech. “We’re definitely yin and yang,” says Steward. “I’m a little OCD about stuff. I always like the new projects.”
Reed agrees that he’s “a little more grounded,” adding, “but I get in the weeds a lot—and call for help!”
Senior editor Joseph Illidge describes him quite differently: as “a person of calm mind and calm spirit.” Asked what Reed’s role is at Lion Forge, he says, “The right-hand person who has to help the leader protect the empire.”
That leader, meanwhile, is “unbelievably intelligent,” says Lion Forge president Geoff Gerber, who was once Stewart’s intellectual property lawyer.
“Dave sees connections and opportunities most people don’t,” Gerber says. “He moves rapidly from one thing to another and remains optimistic about everything at all times.”
He’s also “a huge fan of goofy, cheesy pop culture,” Gerber adds, bemused. “He’ll come out of his office to talk with staff about a reality TV show and what’s going on with the love life of so-and-so and who the next celebrity chef is. And he loves toys and collectibles.”
Yet there’s depth beneath these enthusiasms. Like his sister, Kimberly Steward (who produced the Oscar-nominated Manchester by the Sea), Dave is drawn to the creative side of business. He’s also a serious philanthropist. After Hurricane Maria, Lion Forge published Puerto Rico Strong, using Puerto Rican creators and donating all profits to hurricane relief.
How’d they pull it together so fast? “At big companies, you have 40 white guys sitting around, and their friends are all white guys,” Steward says with a shrug. “If we wanted to make a book about any group on this planet—”
“It wouldn’t be six degrees of separation,” Reed finishes.
The diversity of their network has become their superpower. If Reed could have another, all for himself? “The ability to slow down time. It’s really hard to get one over on someone who can slow things down.”
Steward’s grinning; he knows how often Reed is up working at 4 a.m. For his own superpower, Steward is torn: “Being able to fly would be lots of fun. What would be useful is having Wolverine’s healing factors. You could live life without fear.” But wait—he’d also like the Purple Man’s ability to convince people to do stuff for him. “That kind of character, he could take over the world in minutes.”
So is that what Steward wants to do in the comics world? Surpass the Big Two?
He shakes his head. That’s apples to oranges. He’s aiming for something more like a Big Five book publisher, because that’s where the industry is shifting, as bookstores sell more and more (12 million in 2016) graphic novels and comics collected in trade paperbacks. The new reader would rather binge on an entire series than traipse into a comic book store every Wednesday.
Lion Forge does enjoy taunting DC and Marvel, though. “Both companies are well aware that we are here,” Illidge murmurs. “At least one of them tried to convince one of my artists to defect. At the New York con, a high-ranking editor from Marvel was lurking by our booth, looking at Catalyst Prime. And we beat them out on a variety of Best of 2017 lists.”
If Lion Forge wrote itself into an epic superhero battle? “We’d be fighting a hydra,” says Reed. Two of the monster’s heads would belong to Disney-owned Marvel and Time Warner’s DC, and a third would be Diamond Comic Distributors, the colossus that bought up all the indie distributors and reshaped the industry.
While it nudges Diamond toward fairness, Lion Forge pushes ahead on technology; Reed says the industry’s production process needs the kind of tech revolution that saved American animation in the mid-’90s. Also, wages haven’t been fair. “There are legal things you can do as a business, and then there’s the right way,” Steward says. “People will say, ‘It’s only business.’ No, you’re being an A-hole. That’s one thing my dad instilled.”
Above all, there’s the Lion Forge prime directive: Comics for everyone.
Penguin recently announced that it was spinning off a diverse imprint. “Oh?” says Steward, quirking an eyebrow. “You’re going to put all your diverse content in one little section?”
“Years from now, it’s going to seem outrageous that we had to have a line featuring diverse characters,” says Reed. “We’ll be saying, ‘Well, there was a time that it mattered…’”
“Comics for all” is now a hashtag on Twitter, and the push for inclusion’s now broad enough and strong enough to get blowback from old-school fans who resent what they call forced diversity. But Lion Forge isn’t forcing anything; its content is diverse because the creators are. Nor does Steward make a big deal out of its being a black-owned business, or indie, or anything other than smart.
Gerber was pained, though, when Steward took the entire marketing team out for a celebratory dinner in New York and the waiter kept turning to Gerber, the older white guy, for decisions—even after he pointed out that Steward was their host. On another business trip, a driver tried to give Gerber the seat with legroom—even though Steward towers over him.
“It’s something wealth does not insulate you from,” Gerber observes. “Dave is a black man in America. The fact that he doesn’t appear militant doesn’t change the world in which he lives—or his desire to see it change. And he is working very hard to change the world.”
As is the rest of Lion Forge. Illidge points out that there are more women than men on staff—and not just in low-level clerical roles but actually at the CFO, VP, and executive editor levels. “Until now, comics have had a limited perspective—not only male-dominated but white male–dominated,” he remarks. “A more rounded worldview will ultimately be a more mature world view.”
A formal and meticulous thinker, Illidge calls superheroes “the aspirational mythology of our times. Someone will tell you superheroes are not real. Nothing in fantasy is real. The criterion for merit is what it says about the human condition and what insight we can gain about ourselves as human beings.
“One thing I like about the characters in our world is that different people consider themselves heroes for different reasons,” Illidge adds. “You read Noble, and various characters see themselves as having noble intentions, and the definition of that varies from person to person. And you ask yourself, ‘What does it really mean to be noble?’ Am I noble?’
“It speaks to the fact that human beings are trying to do their best every day,” he finishes. “They get up, and they keep trying. That’s heroic.”