A few weeks ago I met with some of the folks at Zenescope Entertainment at Wizard World Philadelphia. You may know them from their core titles in the Grimm Fairy Tales universe. They've been a mainstay here in the Philly area for 10 years now, and you can't really talk comics in Philadelphia without including Horsham-based publisher Zenescope. I got a chance to speak with co-founder Ralph Tedesco about their 10th anniversary and how the company's come up over the last decade.
Tushar Nene: First off, congratulations, 10 years is a huge milestone. So now 10 years in, if you look back at what your mission or your idea was back then and look at that versus where you're at now - how do you match that up?
Ralph Tedesco: "Hm... Different! Wow that's a good question, you stumped me early! We didn't really know I don't think, we first just set out to make a comic book series, we were never going to make more than a couple titles initially. And we had also thought about doing creator owned and finding a publisher such as Image - at the time I think there were other creator owned typed labels out as well back then that we considered going through. Then it kind of just took on a life of its own and started to evolve into more of a publishing company and doing more titles, and we realized after a year or two we had something special going on. And we decided to expand and try to compete in this market. And 10 years later, I can't complain. Of course you want to be competitive and being a top 3 publisher is hard, I mean you have Marvel or DC and other great publishers out there. So I guess we're happy but never satisfied."
RT: "It just seemed like it made sense - when we first decided to publish Grimm Fairy Tales the first series, we just had a simple idea. The original fairy tales are dark and twisted, wouldn't it be cool if we went back to the roots of the originals and added our modern twist to it and make it different, you know? It was simple - it was The Twilight Zone meets fairy tales. But then once we did that and had a positive reaction and started selling copies right away we thought hey this was something we could do with other public domain characters, and public domain stories like Wonderland. It kind of made sense to say since we're going this way with a lot of our titles, let's just create a universe that's interwoven like Marvel has their universe and DC has their universe, right? So I think again, it was initially not planned, then a couple years in we started realizing it made sense, and it just became very... I guess natural, it was a natural evolution. And then we said hey this fits like Robyn Hood - let's reinvent her as a badass archer and she's female. Let's reinvent Sinbad - and then it became really fun. Let's reinvent all these characters that people know and then add new characters to these worlds that we invented, and it became our world."
TN: I was here last year talking to Pat Shand about BAR Maid. You have a couple of titles like that are completely outside of the Wonderland universe - you guys have any plans for more stories that aren't a part of that core?
RT: "We do that now and we've done that for a while - not every story we want to tell fits inside the Grim universe so we always expand outside of that. For example we've done stuff like Monster Hunter Survival Guide, The Waking, Fly."
"I think a few titles a year we like to just kind of say hey, not everything needs to fit into this universe - only if it makes sense and it works. Of course Grimm fans and the fans of the universe want to see more universe stuff, so it's a harder sell I think sometimes - I think sometimes it takes a bit more marketing and a little bit more hey, if you like our main titles in the Grimm universe take a chance on this stuff outside the universe."
TN: You're also known for a lot of racy art on your covers, and you have a lot of racy variants. So when you bring back a character like Robyn Hood in your universe as a badass archer and there's these sexy variants of her, how do you feel about that and what kind of reaction do you get from readers?
RT: "One thing we realized early on, if you read our books the interiors are not really sexualized, there's not a l
ot of risque going on inside of the books. The covers - we will do variants that are sexy. I mean it sells books - unfortunately that's what the market said. What we started doing was doing some variants and we'll have some sexy variants and non-sexy variants - I mean I think the people that complain about some of the covers don't read the books a lot of times, because we have made an effort to really make sure - our titles have never been about anything to do with sex or being over the top for the sake of being over the top. They're about telling good stories. So the people complaining about the covers probably are the people that don't read the books. Fair enough, but at the same time we feel it's a minority that are up in arms about it, so we don't worry about it too much."
TN: So literally, you're saying don't judge a book by its cover?
RT: "Haha right, don't judge a book by its variant cover. That's the best I can say it. I mean we have a ton of female readers so that's what's cool, we have a lot more than I think some other companies do - I'm not saying it's a majority of readers - I don't think there's a majority of female readers in comics unfortunately, but it's growing. A lot of female readers have come to us and said Hey my boyfriend took me to a comic book store and I didn't want to be there, and I saw your titles on the shelf and I love your stuff. Most of our characters are female leads and they take care of themselves. Yeah there's variant covers that have a sexier vibe to them, nothing pornographic that I feel is overly suggestive - especially now as we've evolved we've been more conscious about that. And then we have covers that are just plain badass and cool, so there's something for everyone."
For their 10th anniversary they're publishing 6 10th anniversary one-shots based on their titles, from Snow White to Van Helsing. Tedesco said these are meant to be new reader friendly oversized double issues that someone new can jump immediately into, and are coming out with new titles later this year's at SDCC. Some of the new titles? One for one of their newer more popular characters, Baba Yaga, and Aliens vs Zombies, described as just a mash up of different genres.
So in the Philly Area, Zenescope continues to grow both their company and their core Wonderland universe with more titles on the horizon. You can check out more of what's going on at Zenescope at their blog here.