On the Past, Present, and Future of Mad Cave with Senior VP of Business Development Mark Irwin

When I’ve mentioned the publisher Mad Cave Studios on the site or podcast in the past, it often comes with an admission: I don’t really understand them!

I don’t mean that in a “I don’t understand what a comic publisher is” sort of way. I get that. It’s just that Mad Cave as a company has always seemed to punch above its weight class, whether that’s in its acquisition of a fairly major name in the all-ages publishing world in Papercutz, the licenses it brings on like Disney and Flash Gordon, or the sheer size of the company. The latter part may be especially notable, as Mad Cave isn’t just a single-threaded company, but an umbrella that comprises its single-issue side at Mad Cave itself, a graphic novel focused all-ages house in Papercutz, and a YA-centric graphic novel imprint in Maverick. It’s doing all that while operating in interesting and innovative ways, and even developing a sterling reputation amongst creators I talk to at the same time. Finding all that in a comic publisher that just turned ten years old isn’t just rare — it’s almost unbelievable!

That’s why I finally have fulfilled a promise/threat I’ve been throwing out there for a while: I needed to talk to the team over there. I reached out to Mad Cave a few weeks back to see if I could get the inside scoop on how they operate, how they view themselves, some of those unconventional approaches they take on, the varying pillars of their business, managing creator relationships, and a whole lot more. Thankfully, they agreed, and I had the chance to pop on Zoom recently with Mad Cave’s Senior VP of Business Development, Mark Irwin — a veteran of the comics world in a variety of roles, both on the executive side and the creative one — and chat with him about all that and more. It proved to be an insightful and frank conversation about Mad Cave, the wider world of comics they are operating in, and what they’re doing to navigate these unique times.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start with who you are and what you do in specific. You are Mad Cave’s Senior VP of Business Development. What does that mean? What is your role exactly?

Mark Irwin: My role is a mix and match of multiple roles. I’m tasked with running the day-to-day of the company alongside our Publisher (Chris Fernandez) and our Editor-in-Chief (Mike Marts) and our Director of Sales (Kurt Nelson) and our Directors of Marketing (Allison Pond and Keith Davidsen). I’m also tasked with the macro thinking that goes on behind what we do, and that comes down to our growth and identifying different business opportunities that make sense for us, while also maintaining the steady growth that we’ve experienced. Things like switching distribution from Diamond Books to Simon & Schuster, the purchase of Papercutz, all that kind of stuff. That is under my purview.

When you hear business development, you think suits, you think making back-office deals, and everything like that. But you’re coming from a long history on the creative side. You went to The Kubert School, you were an inker, you did all that. That’s not to say you haven’t done other things. I know you worked for Heavy Metal as I believe the editorial director, but it is interesting that you’re coming more from the creative side into the business development side. How do you feel that background has helped you in this role?

Irwin: Well, I think I’ve gained experience over time in a number of different roles. Heavy Metal was right after I graduated Kubert, and I was the art director there actually. And then I went to WildStorm and I was an inker there, but I also ended up being an art director for their consumer products department. I had a lot of good mentors in each one of my stops. Going from there to Upper Deck and watching the thought process on the business side of how products were constructed, why they were constructed, and how to approach the market with sales, all that kind of stuff. So, you just end up picking up all these little bits and pieces along the way.

And having that balance of being somebody who’s written and drawn stuff, I come to the table with a little bit of a unique viewpoint. At Mad Cave, we really pride ourselves on being a company that is pro-creative. We write contracts specifically that would be attractive to us as freelance creatives. We’re not seeking to take advantage of people. We’re seeking to allow them to flourish so that we can flourish as well. All those things really come from the fact that I started on the creative side.

I want to do right by creators. I want to make cool things, and I want to do it with an eye toward what makes the most sense for both parties. You’re always trying to find a way that’s a win for everybody involved, whether it’s the people you’re selling to, the people that are working with you to create the thing, or your own business. And if you can find a balance within that, I think it’s a much better way to do things. We can all go to sleep at night feeling good about the way we’ve gone about doing our business.

I imagine having that background also grounds a lot of your thinking. You might see potential in something like the pandemic boom that really popped off in 2021 and carried into 2022. Everyone might have had stars in their eyes about the possibilities. But I imagine coming from the creative side would ground you in the sense that it would help you understand what is realistic and what you can actually do while still maintaining positive creative relationships. And I imagine that type of thing is important when you’re not just looking at spreadsheets, you’re also thinking about, “What does it take to actually implement all this?”

Irwin: 100%. We’re celebrating our 10th anniversary this year and Mad Cave is truly a unique place in the comics verse. It’s a group of people that started the company as a way to make their own comics. And they didn’t come from the industry. They didn’t really know what went on or how people operated within the industry. They just wanted to make their own books and to tell their own stories. And they sort of winged it (laughs), but in the very pure way a lot of us started at in comics. They just happened to have the money to make sure that they could actually put those comics out.

And along the way there were some lessons learned, there was growth that happened and then they brought in some old hands. People like Mike Marts and myself, we have the experience without the jadedness, maybe. That does exist in our industry. There is an old guys’ network in this industry, and I like to think that none of us have that. We all approach it with fresh eyes and excitement. Every day is a new challenge and we’re all super excited to do it.

I have to admit, part of the reason I wanted to do this interview is I’ve always found Mad Cave to be kind of…I don’t want to say confusing (Mark laughs). Confusing is inaccurate. I’ve always found it to be a fascinating company. For example, I was looking at the timeline for the 10-year anniversary of Mad Cave, and you all started in 2014 but didn’t have direct market distribution until 2017. That’s a pretty sizable chunk of time to exist as a publisher without distribution. And then there’s Papercutz. I remember when I found out that Mad Cave acquired Papercutz, it felt like a little fish eating the big fish. Papercutz has been making comics for a long time in the book market, and I was like, “Who’s Mad Cave to be buying them?”

That’s part of the reason I wanted to do this. I wanted to better understand what you all do. To start with, let’s talk about Mad Cave’s identity. I know you joined in September 2021. What do you view Mad Cave as? Are you a direct market-centric company? Are you book market oriented? Is it a little bit of column A, a bit of column B, and maybe even columns I haven’t mentioned?

Irwin: I would consider us a publishing company that specializes in graphic storytelling. And when I say it like that, what I’m trying to say is we’re not just a direct market company. Two of our three imprints are actually book market imprints. And in today’s market, the book market is the stronger of the two markets. The direct market, as we all know, has its issues. We try to look at everything holistically in a way that we can really support both markets. We have an incredible marketing team and sales team, and we work very hard to establish ourselves in both those markets. But the book market is the stronger of the two. We certainly see that on a spreadsheet. We try to keep an eye on what works best in both markets. We do feel we make a concerted effort to be unique.

I think if you look at our titles, especially on the direct market side, we do some weird stuff. We put out some books that I don’t know if any other publisher would take a chance on. But we believe in them. We’ve also found that a lot of those books have established a fan base and really made people pay attention to what we’re doing and brought new eyes to all of our imprints in different ways. Obviously, we have the licensed content. We have things like Smurfs and Asterix, the best-selling comic book in the world. But we also have things like Flash Gordon, Gatchaman, and Dick Tracy that are leading the way for the direct market. I think our goal is to always be a little unpredictable, to do some cool things, but all with an eye toward growth. We really want to have a strong back list. We do our best to have a great front list. We have Disney coming later on this year. There are quite a bit of things happening here, and I like to think that it’s all strategic in the way that we’re approaching it.

I thought it is interesting how much direct to consumer you all do. The Mad Cave site is effectively an online store. And not only that, but I have to give your team credit. This is unusually rare for a comic book company, but I went on your online store and looked at one page and was immediately served retargeting ads on Meta’s platforms telling me to go back and buy comics, either in print or digitally. That is not unusual for most publishing companies or retail-oriented companies. But it’s extraordinarily rare for publishers in comics. How big of a part of your business is that? Is that a sizable chunk, or is that more just something to compliment the rest?

Irwin: I would say that digital currently exists for us is a complementary piece. It’s certainly growing. We have some big digital things that we’ll be announcing over the course of the next several months, but right now it’s more of a complementary piece. It’s a piece that we would like to grow. But we try to take a look at everything that goes on in publishing and see what makes sense for us to try. We’re a small enough company that we can be agile, so we try to take a look at everything across the board and say, “Okay, that person or that company had success with that thing. Does that mean that that’s a trend, or does that mean that it’s just a one-off thing? Where does that fit into what we do?” And we’re always trying to just keep an eye on what’s happening and try to recognize things before they get hot and get in on the ground floor. So, there’s a lot of movement to everything that we do.

Direct to consumer is also a complementary piece, but it is a piece that we have a cool build around. You can read the series digitally and then we’ll send you the trade right after. That subscription model, the way that’s set up, is pretty cool.

Shane Connery Volk’s cover to Nottingham Vol. 1

Really? So, let’s say I bought the first volume of Nottingham on the online store. You would also send me a link for the digital version so I could read it with the trade coming? Or what do you mean by that?

Irwin: The other way around. When the series starts and you subscribe to it digitally, you’ll get the copies digitally as they come out, but when the series has ended, you’ll get that trade paperback physically sent to your home.

Whoa. That is…I’m going to say atypical. Very atypical. Comic publishers are not famous for handing out free trade paperbacks after somebody has read all the digital copies.

Irwin: It’s not free. (laughs) It’s built under the price of the subscription.

I know, but you know what I mean. It’s a bonus.

You told ICv2 once that, and I quote, “Our mix has always been one third of each, licensing, originals and create around.” Was that in reference to Mad Cave, not Papercutz or Maverick, or is it all of it?

Irwin: It’s actually across the board. If you look at Papercutz, right now most of the content is licensed, because that’s the company we bought. But we are inserting our own books in there. We’re bringing new creators and titles to that mix. And then Maverick is mostly creator-owned with a few homegrown ideas and then a very tiny bit of licensing. But Mad Cave has the truest mix of that one third, one third, one third. But we take that same approach with all three of them.

Why is that the ideal mix?

Irwin: It’s relying on past experiences across the board with a number of different companies. I’ve seen some companies suffer from an overreliance on licensing and lack of development of originals. Mad Cave is a company that started as completely original content. The owner of the company, Mark London, he’s still writing and putting out books, and he comes up with great concepts.

Nottingham, for instance, is actually a Mad Cave original. David Hazan and Shane Connery Volk won our talent search that we do yearly, and they got the right to publish a comic. That was a concept that was given to them by us. And it’s a breakout hit. All credit to them, of course, for how well they took that and just made it a monster. But yeah, I think the way we try to look at everything is we can’t bypass licensing opportunities that make sense for us. There’s certain products that we’re fans. Gatchaman was my dream from when I was a kid. I am excited to be publishing Gatchaman. Same with Flash Gordon, honestly, and Dick Tracy obviously. All those things have meaning and have different groups of fans that they can reach. Just like our imprints, Papercutz is geared toward that middle grade kind of all ages reader. Maverick is geared toward that young adult kind of sweet space in the graphic novel arena right now. And then Mad Cave is your typical genre comic reader.

But within each of those imprints it does make sense to cater to new readers, to cater to LGBTQ readers, to cater to female readers, to cater to the guys that on a comic shop on Wednesdays. We want to make sure that we’re making product that fits all of them and gives them all a place to go to get that product, whether it’s through our direct consumer services or through our mass distribution or through even things like education. We have a book called Digital Lizards of Doom that actually has a curriculum program that is being taught here in San Diego through the San Diego Unified School district. Kids are actually in class reading a graphic novel that we made along with a curriculum.

You’re looking for all these different ways to reach different audiences, and it’s my firm belief that graphic storytelling is absolutely the greatest thing on the planet. You can tell any story of any kind through a comic book. You just have to find the right people. You have to find the right story to show it to the right people.

Dan Panosian’s cover to Flash Gordon’s Free Comic Book Day issue

One of the points you made was interesting, where you were talking about balancing out your output and how things can get askew if you go too hard in one direction. That’s something we’ve seen in recent years. For example, if you lean too heavy into licenses, and a bunch of those licenses go away, that can put you in for some lean times. I’d say Mad Cave is one of the publishers that has seemingly had…this is a funny phrasing, but I think you’ll understand what I mean. You’ve had a good pandemic. It led to growth.

But there have been several publishers that rode the wave of the pandemic boom and overextended themselves and made some eventually highly public mistakes that have harmed their ability to sustain what they do and maintain strong relationships with creators. With that in mind, how do you and your team try to learn from others in this space, both in terms of what’s working and what has proven to be harmful overall?

Irwin: Well, it’s a multi-tiered approach, really. When I joined the company, we had a long talk about the nature of creator contracts, and what I felt was sort of the ethical and kind of right approach to dealing with any creators. Thankfully, Mark London agreed. We’re both creators, so we tried to look at it the way we would look at a contract when somebody approached us. I think that is the first step.

The other thing is just…this sounds silly when I say it out loud. But it’s sort of a company-wide ethos. Somebody emails you, answer the email, somebody calls you, answer the call. A lot of creators, you’re working in your cave at home and you’re not talking to people or whatever, and all of a sudden one day you’re like, “Oh my God, I haven’t heard from my editor in a week. I wonder what’s going on with my book. Let me type an email or let me give them a call real quick.” Nine times out of 10 with almost every other company, they will not respond. Our people always will.

We try to do a good job of marketing as well. Our marketing team is in constant contact with our creators, and not just telling them how something is going to be marketed, but also working with them. How would you like to be marketed? What are the things that we can do? Obviously, this is your baby… what do you think is going to make the most impact if we’re going to market your title? We have those conversations on a daily basis. We work hard to always be available and open and willing. If we have creators that ask for specific things and that specific thing isn’t something that’s going to hurt us in the long run, but it’s something that we feel, “Yeah, that person deserves that,” or “Yeah, we can help them in that way.” We find ways to do that too. I won’t name any companies or name names. But I think it’s easy to do.

To a certain extent, as you get bigger, you’re so big that all of a sudden you don’t have time. You don’t have time to answer phone calls, you don’t have time to answer your emails. Hopefully we can keep finding that balance where we can do both, where we can continue to grow and still be that friendly voice at the end of the phone or that friendly email away that lets you know, “Yeah, we’re here and we’re supporting you and we’re making sure that your book’s selling. We’re doing our best to get it out there and get the word out. And yeah, we’re in your corner.”

I think that really changes the dynamic of how creators view you.

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