Marketing a New Universe of Heroes; How Milestone Media Broke Open the Comic Book Industry with a Blockbuster Distribution and Publishing Deal

Article excerpt

How Milestone Media broke open the comic book industry with a blockbuster distribution and publishing deal.

There is a revolution going on in a Manhattan high-rise on 23rd Street near the Avenue of the Americas. On the fourth floor, a small army is busy creating a new universe. It is a world not unlike ours, full of colorful heroes and sinister villains: Blood Syndicate, Hardware, Icon, Kobalt, Shadow Cabinet, Static Xombi. The denizens of this world are made in the image of their creators - a band of artists, editors and writers of backgrounds not limited by race, age or gender. It's a strange new world, one you may not have heard of yet, largely because its universe is the comic book industry. As a poster in a far corner of these offices proclaims, "This Revolution Will Not Be Televised."

At least not yet.

Welcome to Milestone Media Inc., a three-year-old, black-owned comic book company based in New York. Milestone's operating philosophy is based on the premise that comic book characters with "powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men," as well as the artists and writers that tell their stories, should be African-American, Asian, Latino and female - as well as white and male.

That premise has been validated at the cash register. Since Milestone's first comic book debuted in February of 1993, the publishing company has sold about seven million copies of seven monthly titles to the retailers that make up the industry's direct market. Sales for 1993 alone hit 3.5 million copies, raking in more than $5 million in sales. Milestone's fans range from U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas to filmmaker John Singleton.

But diversity alone is not what makes this company special. Afrocentric and multicultural comics are far from new to the industry (see sidebar, The New Adventures of Blacks in the Comic Book Business"). The Milestone revolution is driven by the application of a more basic business premise: The greatest product in the world won't make money if you can't make consumers aware of it, and then get it to them.

By cutting an unprecedented marketing and distribution deal with industry giant DC Comics Inc., Milestone's principals, President and CEO Derek T. Dingle, V.P./Editor-in-Chief Dwayne McDuffie and V.P./Creative Director Denys Cowan, have staked a claim on a $1 billion industry, long lacking in minority representation.

Partnerships between large corporations and small independent companies are hardly new, but Milestone serves as a model of how a small black firm can benefit from forging a strategic alliance with big business.

WHO'S FRONTING?

Such alliances bring with them their share of challenges, particularly for black companies. For example, several other black comic book publishers have charged Milestone with not being truly black-owned, but merely a division - or worse, a front - for DC's courtship of the black consumer market.

However, Milestone is quick to note that DC has no equity in the company. The partners pooled over $300,000 in personal savings to bankroll the start-up, and the company is now looking to establish lines of credit with local banks.

Milestone's relationship with DC can be likened to that of an independent film production company affiliated with a major Hollywood studio, or an independent label tied to a major record company. Milestone hires the writers and artists to create the characters and develop the story lines. In turn, DC, which is owned by multimedia giant Time Warner Inc., prints, markets and distributes the books.

In fact, Milestone's partners compare their alliance with DC to Spike Lee's arrangement with Universal Pictures, and the deal with Warner Bros. made by the artist formerly known as Prince. These partnerships do not mean that Forty Acres And A Mule Filmworks or Paisley Park are not black-owned companies.

"We are going to continue to see these types of relationships in the industry," says Maggie Thompson, editor of The Comic Buyers Guide, a comic book industry trade publication. …