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DF Interview: Publisher Keven Gardner talks 12-Gauge Comics
By Byron Brewer
A decade ago, a comic book called The Ride #1 was the top-selling debut black and white comic of that year, and 12-Gauge Comics was off and running.
Since that time, the company has established its niche in the market with such titles as The O.C.T., R.P.M. and Boondock Saints.
Dynamic Forces caught up recently to ask 12-Gauge Comics publisher Keven Gardner about the success of the comic company and its future in the industry.
Dynamic Forces: Keven, your 12-Gauge Comics is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Anything you guys are doing special for your loyal core of readers or to increase that readership?
Keven Gardner: I’m sad to say that it didn’t hit me until recently that we’d been at this for a decade. Our first book, The Ride #1, debuted in June of 2004. The time has literally flown by…but to answer your question, I guess I need to get on that ASAP!
DF: As I recall, The Ride actually launched as the top-selling new black-and-white comic of that year. What did that feel like after what was undoubtedly hard work?
Keven Gardner: It was a wonderful thing to get that kind of reaction right out of the gate. We had a great group of creators, all bringing something to the table, and certainly all bringing their A-game. The reviews were great, fans responded, and the creative community really embraced the concept.
DF: Keven, many readers might not know, so how did you first get involved in comics, what are your strengths (writing, art, etc.) and what caused you to venture into the indie comics biz following the industry’s worst decade in the late 1990s. Even Marvel had gone bust!
Keven Gardner: I’d been a life-long comic book fan and actually opened a comic store when I was in college (May of 1993, to be exact). As luck would have it I landed a job at Valiant Comics in 1995 as the Direct Sales Manager, and that’s where I really got the bug to publish. It was around the same time that the idea of the book that would become The Ride started kicking around in my head, but the market was seeing a huge contraction and I really didn’t think it was a great time to try and make a go of it. Fast forward to 2003— I was completely out of the industry when I went to my friend, writer Doug Wagner, and told him I was ready to take the plunge into publishing (we’d been talking about doing our own books for years and it was time to either do it or shut up). Doug and I were friends with the Gaijin Studios crew in Atlanta so we went to Jason Pearson, Cully Hamner, Brian Stelfreeze, Georges Jeanty, Dexter Vines (Dex wasn’t technically Gaijin, but he was one of the gang) and Adam Hughes and asked if they’d be interested in doing a book with us. They all agreed— as long as the story was good. And trust me, these guys were not going to cut us any slack. So I honed the concept of The Ride (a crime/action anthology built around a classic muscle car) and Doug wrote the story. Adam did the first two covers and each interior artist did a chapter of the initial limited series (11 pages each). I presented the first issue to Eric Stephenson at Image Comics, he loved it, and we were off to the races.
As far as my talents, the list is pretty short. When an idea hits me I like to play around with it and then turn it over to the guys who know what they’re doing. The Ride is a great example of that, as well as I.C.E. While The Ride was more of a playground created specifically for artists to have fun, I.C.E. was a story idea where I knew who the main character was, how the story would start and how it would end. I bounced what I had off of Doug Wagner and Brian Stelfreeze, they brought tons of great ideas to the table, Brian agreed to do character designs, covers, and co-features in each issue, and Doug took the few nuggets I’d come up with, added all the meat and supporting characters and crafted a killer story. We brought artist Jose Holder in to do the main feature, and then it was up to me to get the thing out to the stores.
DF: One of your earlier successes, THE O.C.T., has been featured on The Today Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Access Hollywood and many other media outlets. Tell us about it, and its unique co-creator.
Keven Gardner: That was a whirlwind and so much fun. I had known David Atchison (the writer) and Tony Shasteen (the artist) for a few years, so when David came to me with this project I was blown away at how awesome it was. Oh, and did I mention they had Rosario Dawson attached as a co-creator and star of the book? David asked if I could help get it published, which I was more than happy to do. At the time they just had a few pages of the first book finished, so I got to jump in and help edit the book and then promote it. Rosario was very involved, even going with us to conventions when we launched the series and again when the trade came out, which was a completely insane experience. Rosario was blowing up with the Sin City movie being out and Grindhouse on the way, so interest in the book was massive. Obviously 12-Gauge got a great rub by being a part of all that, on top of it just being so much fun. The panels and press events at SDCC were like nothing I’d ever experienced. To this day the whole thing is still a highlight of my time in comics.
DF: Many of your early books came out as a part of Image Comics. But in 2009, 12-Gauge began publishing under its own banner. Tell us about this decision and those books.
Keven Gardner: There comes a time in your life when you just need to take the plunge (like putting together the first issue of The Ride in some ways). It was a challenge I wanted to try and take on. There were no problems at Image; it was just the decision that seemed best at that point in time for my company. After producing some good books for a few years the 12-Gauge brand had formed an identity, we’d just grabbed the Boondock Saints license, and we were working on 25 to Life, Magus, Luke McBain, etc., so it was a good time for the company from a content standpoint. I actually ran into to Eric Stephenson at SDCC a year or so ago and we had a good laugh when he said, “Publishing is a lot of work, isn’t it?”
Yes. It. Is. Dealing directly with Diamond, the printer, shipping, publicity…yeah, it takes a lot of time and a lot of it isn’t fun. But, when all is said and done, it’s nice to sink or swim on your own. Although there are definitely times I wish I could just produce the books and let someone else handle all that other stuff!
DF: Two words: Trace Adkins. Thoughts?
Keven Gardner: Lots of people in the comic industry just didn’t get that one at all, but I’m very proud of the Luke McBain series; it accomplished everything I wanted and more. It was a quality project written by a very talented writer in David Tischman, with art by the amazing Kody Chamberlain, wrapped in covers by Brian Stelfreeze, and created with the input of Trace Adkins, who was great to work with every step of the way. Trace was a guy sitting on top of the country music world, which I admit is a foreign place to a lot of comic fans, but getting him to agree to this was a really big deal at the time.
The project came about because I was telling David I wanted to do a story in the same space as the original Walking Tall and Billy Jack films. David also loved those movies so we started talking about what our story could be. For some background, David and I had packaged the first volume of The Amory Wars for Claudio Sanchez, which was very successful as a comic series and also as a piece of touring merchandise. David had the idea of trying to do something similar with a country star and this series, so we targeted Trace Adkins and created the character and story around him. Trace has a “bigger than life” personality (on top of looking about 6’ 8” with his boots and cowboy hat on) and he just fit right into the package. David and I went to Nashville and pitched the idea of Luke McBain to Trace and his team. After he wrapped his head around it he got on board and we went to work. The book hit on a Wednesday, Trace went on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson Thursday night to promote it (which was an awesome segment) and the first issue sold out in comic stores the next day. We still had the special tour edition of the comic that Trace was selling at his concerts and his fans ate it up. Although combining country music and comics didn’t make sense to most people in the industry, it made perfect sense for 12-Gauge, especially with the company being located in the South.
That series is still opening doors for me today in the music industry, as we’re now packaging a series of kid’s books for the music label Average Joes Entertainment, starring another country music star named Colt Ford. The first issue was packaged in his new CD and just went on sale exclusively at Wal-Mart. It’s currently sitting at #2 on the country album charts, which means 12-Gauge is gaining fans that don’t normally shop in comic stores and we’re on the shelves at the largest retailer in the world.
So yeah…Trace Adkins!
DF: You actually had a book written by former WWE Champion and New York Times best-selling author Mick Foley. Tell us about the book and the collaboration.
Keven Gardner: While at Image I packaged an original graphic novel called The Safest Place, which was written by Stephen Grant and Victor Riches, with art by Tom Mandrake. Victor’s brother Shane had initially approached me about getting it published and we’d stayed in touch after the release. A year or two later Shane and I were catching up and he mentioned knowing Mick Foley. I was a big fan of Mick’s book Tietam Brown, so I knew he was a great writer. What I didn’t know was the he was also a big comic fan, so when Shane mentioned he might be up for creating a comic I jumped all over it, and R.P.M. was born. While R.P.M. is a fun action book, Mick, being a history buff, made our hero a direct descendant of Paul Revere. It’s a bit of the Transporter mixed with Fast and Furious, but set in Boston and told with the “Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” running in the background. Both a smart and entertaining read.
DF: What are the books that are tops in the 12-Gauge stable today?
Keven Gardner: The Boondock Saints trade is our most consistent seller (it doesn’t hurt that Norman Reedus is on the cover!). We just launched a new limited series called Sherwood, TX and it’s a certified hit. It’s Robin Hood told as a modern day spaghetti western, set along the Texas/Mexico border with biker gangs, drug dealers and crooked cops. Issue #1 is officially sold out after just a few days on the shelves, so we’re very excited about it.
We’re also about to announce a new limited series of our action-franchise I.C.E., along with a new printing of the volume one trade, both on sale in November.
Early next year will see the release of Skull One-Six, which is a realistic look at the modern day Green Berets fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The series is being written by New York Times best-selling author Kevin Maurer (No Easy Day) with art by Tony Shasteen. A few other things are in development but aren’t quite ready to announce just yet.
DF: Keven, most importantly to you, where can our readers acquire your indie comic books?
Keven Gardner: Most comic shops carry our books, but even if your local store doesn’t they certainly can order them for you if you ask. We also sell all of our books on our website, our trades are at Amazon, and if you prefer digital books you can get them at comiXology. If you’re a fan of crime and action stories, chances are you’ll find a few 12-Gauge books that you’ll thoroughly enjoy.
Dynamic Forces would like to thank Keven Gardner from taking time out of his extremely busy schedule to answer our questions.
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