20 Years Of Innovating
2019 marks a milestone for IDW Publishing. It’s the company’s 20th anniversary and in the first of Tripwire’s celebrations, its former CEO of IDW Media Holdings who is currently on sabbatical Ted Adams speaks exclusively to our editor-in-chief Joel Meadows about how the company has evolved and changed over the years and its challenges ahead…
TRIPWIRE: Before IDW, you worked for DC’s imprint Wildstorm. What skills did you learn there that you were able to apply at IDW?
TED ADAMS: After graduating from college, I started working in comics in 1990 for Dean Mullaney and cat yronwode at Eclipse. I also met Beau Smith and Steve Niles while I worked at Eclipse and they both became life-long friends and important creators for IDW. I went from there to work for Mike Richardson at Dark Horse, Jim Lee and John Nee at Wildstorm (I worked there before DC bought the company), and Todd McFarlane and Terry Fitzgerald at Todd McFarlane Entertainment.
I learned different things from all of them but the main thing was how to be a good entrepreneur – where to take risks, how to manage cash flow, how to market comics, and a thousand other things. I have an MBA from the University of Notre Dame and that was a great educational experience but my hands on experience with all of those entrepreneurs is directly responsible for IDW being around for 20 years.
TW: What was the initial impetus to set IDW up at the beginning?
TA: I knew from a very young age that I wanted to start a company and work for myself. So, I studied business and economics both as an undergraduate and graduate student. My dad was a successful business person and was my first role model.
When we started IDW, I was working for Todd McFarlane Entertainment in Los Angeles and was still in regular touch with Alex Garner who was primarily inking J. Scott Campbell at Wildstorm at that time. (This was 1999 so we actually talked on the phone on a regular basis. That’s what friends used to do!)
When I worked at WildStorm, Kris Oprisko and I managed their creative service business (providing art and graphic design for other companies). Jim Lee and John Nee were in the midst of selling WildStorm to DC around the time we were planning IDW and they very generously offered to let us take over those creative service clients.
As an aside, people often ask me what IDW means and the answer is Idea and Design Works. That name came from a long list of suggestions that Alex put together. When we started the company, we weren’t planning on becoming a publisher and never expected that IDW would become a known brand.
Jim Lee suggested that we add Robbie Robbins to our team and the four of us (me, Alex, Kris, and Robbie) signed the LLC paperwork at a bar in San Diego. We were young guys and were willing to take on the financial risk associated with a start-up business. Needless to say, that provided great motivation to not fail.
I ran the business, Kris was our writer/product manager, Alex was the artist, and Robbie handled the graphic design. We pulled many all-nighters finishing jobs for clients and, luckily, enjoyed each other’s company. We didn’t have any money but we were having fun. The good old days, says Old Man Adams.
TW: How has IDW changed in the last 20 years?
TA: IDW today is completely different than the company the four of us started 20 years ago. In 1999, we were a creative service company that did work-for-hire creative jobs for a wide range of entertainment companies. Today, IDW is a full-fledged entertainment company that publishes comics and games and finances TV shows.
Other than me and Robbie still being with the company, I don’t think there’s anything else that has remained the same from when we started in 1999.
TW: The industry has changed enormously in the past 20 years. How does IDW adapt to these changes?
TA: Honestly, I wish the publishing industry had changed more over the past 20 years. In the direct market, we’re still selling comics to customers the same way we did when we started IDW and the only real change in the book channel is the collapse of Borders and Amazon’s domination of the market. Amazon aside, both channels still purchase and sell books largely in the same manner they did 20 years ago. That’s a problem.
The big change is, of course, the digital distribution of comics and I continue to believe there’s a large untapped audience there.
TW: How has your role at IDW changed over the years?
TA: My role at IDW grew along with the company. When we started the company we had zero employees, when I left the CEO job last summer, IDW Media Holdings, had hundreds of employees. Our first year in business, we likely did less than $500k in revenue. In 2018, we had over $60mm in revenue.
In 2007, the four founders of IDW sold a majority share of IDW to a public company. In 2009ish, that public company spun IDW and a brochure distribution company out as a separate public company known as CTM Media (CTM is the name of the brochure company). In 2015, I took over as CEO of the public company and we changed the name to IDW Media Holdings.
When I became CEO of the public company, I eventually had to step down as Publisher at IDW so I could focus on growing our entertainment division and dealing with the many headaches associated with running a public company.
My passion is publishing and I’m looking forward to getting back to it.
TW: You have also been involved as a producer on IDW related properties. How different is that to running a comic company?
TA: The scale is completely different. A comic book series can be put together for less than $50k. Even the cheapest TV show can cost tens of millions.
The similarity lies in the passion of the people producing the content. I’ve found that the people who work in both comic book publishing and TV production are extremely serious about what they do for a living. It’s exciting to be around people who want to make fun entertainment as much as I do.
TW: Relating to the TV work, what are the pros and cons of working on television series?
TA: The biggest con to TV production is how much it costs. There are no small bets when it comes to TV. We had two pilots that we financed that didn’t go to series – Brooklyn Animal Control and Locke & Key (the Hulu version) – and those were among the most difficult experiences I had in my 20 years at IDW.
The biggest pro is that I’ve been able to make TV shows with some of my closest friends – Beau Smith (Wynonna Earp), Steve Niles (October Faction), Joe Hill & Gabe Rodriguez (Locke & Key), and Jonathan Maberry (V-Wars). I wasn’t close friends with anyone when we started production on Dirk Gently but Arvind David, one of the other producers on the show, has since become one.
I much prefer books to TV and I recognize that I’m in the extreme minority with that position. But, having TV shows made that are based on their properties has brought attention to people I love. I enjoy seeing them get the recognition they deserve.
I’ve also become friends with several of the cast members of Wynonna Earp and I’ve had a lot of nice experiences with them. The Canadian producers of Wynonna Earp have also become some of my favorite people in the world.
TW: You are also on the board of the CBLDF. How important is it for you to be able to put something back into the industry with work for a body like this?
TA: My dad was what would now be called a community organizer and believed strongly in giving back to the town where I grew up. So, I was raised in a house where we were expected to help others.
My job at IDW was extremely time consuming so I found myself only being able to give back by making financial donations and I didn’t feel like that was enough. I joined the board of a San Diego non-profit called Traveling Stories about five years ago and jumped at the chance when I was invited to join the board of CBLDF in 2018.
I’ve long been impressed by CBLDF and Charles Brownstein and Alex Cox. The issues our industry faces are a lot different than when CBLDF was founded and I’m looking forward to working with the board and staff to make some changes that more reflect the world we live in now.
TW: IDW has launched two imprints over the last couple of years, Black Crown and Wood Works. How do imprints fit into the IDW business model as it stands in 2019? And what do they offer that publishing these titles as part of the main IDW line would not?
TA: We’ve had a lot more imprints than just those two. Off the top of my head we’ve also had: Library of American Comics, Yoe! Books, Desperado, Lion Forge, It’s Alive, Blue Dream Studios, Worthwhile Books, and probably another half dozen I’m forgetting. The biggest one, of course, is Top Shelf.
Imprints allow us to expand our product line. I’m very proud of the fact that IDW was an extremely diverse publisher – doing everything from Transformers to 15+ volumes of Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy to the first complete English translation of Corto Maltese to We Spoke Out to March to the shared world prose anthology V-Wars to literally thousands of other things. I liked publishing lots of different things and I think you’d be hard pressed to find any publishing company that has the diversity of IDW.
TW: IDW has also, thanks to the work of Scott Dunbier, cultivated its unique Artist’s and Artifact’s Edition line. How did this come about and what do they add to the IDW mix as a publisher?
TA: Not to be too flippant but, it came about because Scott asked me if we could do it, and I said, “yes.” It’s the same way we developed Micro Comic Fun Packs – that one was suggested by Jerry Bennington. Jerry was also the one to suggest we start IDW Games. I was generally a pretty easy ‘yes’ when someone wanted to try something new. Most of the time that was the right approach. I always felt that one of our greatest strengths as a small company was to try new things and to take some risks that the bigger companies wouldn’t.
The Artists Editions allowed us to publish some of the greatest comic book artists of all time – Jack Kirby, Walter Simonson, Bernie Wrightson, Bill Sienkiewicz, Jim Lee, and the list goes on and on…
TW: If you had to pick one project that IDW has published over the past 20 years, what would it be?
TA: I couldn’t possibly pick just one project from the many thousands of titles IDW published. I can tell you about a couple of experiences that made me happy.
Although I stake no claim to being the initial publisher – that was Chris Staros at Top Shelf – attending the National Book Awards where John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell won for March was the best moment I had in publishing.
Next would be attending the WonderCon premiere of Wynonna Earp with Beau Smith.
TW: You stepped down as CEO last year. What is your current role at IDW?
TA: When my sabbatical ends, I’m planning to come back in a role that focuses on publishing.
TW: What do you think the next 20 years hold for IDW as a company?
TA: My hope is the company will continue to be a diverse and interesting entertainment company.