How TKO Studios Hopes to Change Comics Distribution

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(Photo: TKO Studios)

Each Wednesday, dozens and dozens of new comic books are put on the shelves at comic stores across the country. In a world where those shelves are saturated with superhero book that often blend in from one title to the next, one comics startup aims to stand out. TKO Studios is pitching a unique model that could change — dare I say, disrupt — the conventional comics distribution model.

Starting off with four miniseries, TKO has made its creed to release entire miniseries at once, creating one of the first comics publishers based on a "binge-reading" model. Sitting down with ComicBook.com, TKO Studios publisher and co-founder Tze Chun talked about the publisher's philosophy of releasing full story arcs at once. Chun says that the binge-read model came from fans wanting something new to happen in comics.

"One thing that we kept on hearing over and over again was when we started pitching them the way we were gonna binge release our books, offer the first issue free to read, and offer them in multiple formats, the thing that we kept on hearing was everyone wants something new to happen in comic books, but no one's done it yet," Chun says.

That "something new" came in the form of releasing titles three ways: digitally, in a collected trade paperback, and single issues released at once in a collectible, display-ready box set. Though the trade paperbacks and digital copies are a thing of the past, TKO's single-issue box sets are thing readers and collectors alike are bound to be interested in.

Oversized compared to their mainstream counterparts, the six single issues will always be released in a branded, display-ready box — something that the publisher takes pride in. In fact, the company brought graphic designer and cover artist Jared K. Fletcher — the mastermind behind the beautiful Paper Girls covers and logos for iconic runs like Spider-Gwen, Captain Marvel, and Wonder Woman, to name a few — on board to lead the charge in branding.

While digital releases from any publisher are often times easier to access and consume, many fans still prefer to have the physical copy in their hands. Distributing print copies of comic content, however, is a bit more difficult when it comes to the comics industry.

The way current comics distribution is set up means that every comic store has to order through the Baltimore, Maryland-based Diamond Comics Distributors. Founded in 1982 by Steve Geppi — also the proprietor of Geppi's Entertainment Museum — Diamond eventually scooped up exclusive distribution rights for Marvel, DC, and virtually any other comic book publisher looking to get its titles into local comic shops. There are some publishers available outside those channels, but relatively few.

In the 30-plus years Diamond has been in existence, it's rarely been challenged and continues to have a firm grasp of the comics distribution scene today. As a part of its initiative, TKO plans to circumvent Diamond Comics Distributors entirely.

"I love the comic book industry," says Chun. "I love the fact that comic books are unlike any other type of storytelling. And it honestly kind of hurts me to see the fact that the comic book audience has not grown, and has, in fact, dwindled over the last 20 years."

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(Photo: TKO Studios)

While Chun stops short of blaming Diamond for dwindling reader numbers, he does say he thinks a new distribution model has the opportunity to excite a new generation of comic book readers. In fact, Chun says that by cutting out the middle man and dealing with TKO directly, comic stores of any shape and size are likely to get a better discount than they would be going through traditional distribution channels.

"The monopoly that they have on the distribution model is really hard for independent and small publishers, because you're typically at the back of the catalog," Chun says. "So we knew that we didn't want to go through Diamond. It's fine if other people do. But we're willing to go to stores."

Within the past few weeks, the new comics publishing house has started to roll out its first wave of comics, which includes four titles featuring creator teams made up of a few well-known names around the industry.

Garth Ennis, a name likely familiar to readers as the creator of Vertigo's Preacher, anchors the first slate of creatives. Ennis, Steve Epting, and Elizabeth Breitweiser make up the creative team behind TKO's Sara, a World War II-era tale about a team of female Russian snipers battling back against Nazi invaders on the Eastern Front.

Chun himself wrote two of the four TKO "Wave One" titles, The 7 Deadly Sins, a Western thriller with art by Artyom Trakhanov (Turncoat), and The Fearsome Doctor Fang, a pulp tale co-written with The Mentalist's Mike Weiss and art by Dan McDaid (Judge Dredd).

Goodnight Paradise, a story which finds a homeless man on the path of vengeance after witnessing the murder of a teenage runaway, has a creative team consisting of writer Joshua Dysart (Dark Horse's B.P.R.D.), Alberto Ponticelli (The Dark Knight), and Scalped's Guilia Brusco.

Chun went on to mention that while each of the four series are six-issue arcs, there's always the opportunity to release an additional arc at a later date.

"When we talk to people about the series," says Chun. "We always refer to them as what was the world that you were building knowing that if we could, it would be great to have a second arc, even if some of the main characters die or something changes drastically between the first and second arc. We wanted that world to be open enough that it would be a sandbox where people could continue to come back to it."

For fans of the shared entertainment universes, you might be out of luck getting something of that nature with any of the offerings TKO puts out. As of now, the company is focusing on the self-contained stories for the foreseeable future instead of a massive shared universe like Marvel, DC, or Valiant.

"I don't believe there's gonna be a shared world between these particular titles," admits Chun. "But I do think that down the road we really like to think of each one of our titles as a world in and of itself. And I think that as we expand those worlds and continue to create books within those worlds, you could consider that to some degree a mini-universe."

As far as the future as TKO goes, Chun hopes to continue releasing at least four or five complete six-issue miniseries every six months. The second wave is currently scheduled to dropped sometime next summer, and features The Banks, a series from New York Times bestseller Roxanne Gay and Ming Doyle as well as Sentient, a sci-fi tale from the all-star team of Jeff Lemire and Gabriel Walta (The Vision).

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(Photo: TKO Studios)

With his background in television and film — he did serve as a writer on Fox's Gotham, after all — Chun didn't completely rule out trying to turn TKO properties into shows or movies at a later date, though the publisher did make sure to say comics will always come first.

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"Everyone's comic book is optioned," continues Chun. "We'll do it when the time is right. But right now we're excited about the comic books. And we just want to make sure that people are aware that they're out there and that we've got these great stories by amazing creators. And we hope that everyone can read them in whatever format that they like and really sit down just to binge the whole thing."

The first four titles from TKO Studios are now on sale through TKOPresents.com.