Vancouver comics publisher embraces a digital frontier

Bluewater Productions sticks with biographical stories in face of criticism

By Stover E. Harger III, Columbian neighborhood news coordinator

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On the Web:

http://www.bluewaterprod.com/.

Order print copies of its comics at http://www.comicfleamarket.com. Digital copies are available at iTunes and http://www.comixology.com.

When working in any creative field, a thick skin can help temper harsh criticism. Darren Davis' hide can be as thin as a page of one of his comic books.

Davis, 44, believes his Bluewater Productions comic book publishing company is on the verge of something grand with its recent decision to dive headfirst into the not fully realized world of digital distribution and print-on-demand.

But just as he's thrilled with the potentials of such a shift -- which Davis said has already decreased expenses and helped stop the bleeding from dwindling industry-wide print sales -- prevalent Internet-based smears against Bluewater needle Davis.

A Web search for Bluewater brings up mentions by The New York Times and NBC's "Today" show, but also pages of flippant blog posts lambasting the company's latest celebrity-themed comic book; this month it was 7-year-old reality show lightning rod Honey Boo Boo. Throw in anonymous personal attacks and it's almost too much to take for someone like Davis, a self-described "outcast."

"I don't have a thick skin," he said. "I internalize it, I stress out about it."

Therapy sessions help Davis depressurize a bit, but the lingering feeling remains that, to some, he is a comiclike villain in a trade he adores.

"I end up doing nothing about it and I let it fester," Davis said.

Bluewater Productions, which releases about 10 titles a month, splits its output between typical comic fare of fantastical tales and the more-lucrative biographical stories featuring the likes of Lady Gaga,

Howard Stern and Kristen Stewart. It also worked with William Shatner on comic versions of his "TekWar" novels and 1960s TV Batman Adam West on "The Mis-Adventures of Adam West."

Stewart, the "Twilight" series star, is one of a handful of presumably irritated celebrities who filed cease-and-desist letters with Bluewater for using their likenesses. But Davis is adamant his company is well within the law to publish the sometimes-unauthorized biographies as long as it continues to avoid violating copyrights in its books. He said his company has never been sued.

"The biography comics changed the way that we published," Davis said about adding nonfiction to his company's catalog in 2008. "If it wasn't for those, we wouldn't be around."

After a nearly 25 percent sales spike between 2009 and 2010, thanks to those biographical books receiving broad exposure, Bluewater reports its yearly income now generally gravitates around $2 million.

Besides its large team of regular freelance artists and writers, Bluewater has only four employees. The company moved to Vancouver from Bellingham in 2009.

Davis estimates he sells between 5,000 and 10,000 copies of his popular titles, but others have failed to take hold, selling only hundreds. He said the break-even point on a comic is about 1,800 copies. Occasionally, a Bluewater biographical book will skyrocket in sales. A Michelle Obama comic, part of the ongoing "Female Force" series, sold a massive 150,000 or so.

But with digital and print-on-demand there's more leeway, especially when you eliminate pricey paper and ink costs, Davis said. Bluewater's graphic novels, longer than standard single-issue comics, are still available in traditional brick-and-mortar shops.

The country's largest independent comic book publisher, Dark Horse Comics, headquartered in Milwaukie, Ore., is in the midst of its own digital rebirth. Last year it launched an iPhone app, followed by other digital platforms. On Nov. 19 the company made many of its titles available on the Kindle e-reader.

"The physical printed copies will never go away, although it is going to become a smaller part of the market as time goes on," said Mark Bernardi, Dark Horse director of digital publishing.

Criticisms persist

The criticisms against Bluewater aren't just held to the world of blogs. Because of what he felt were increasingly negative attitudes toward the company from many in the comic world, Chris Simons, owner of I Like Comics, 2101 E. Fourth Plain Blvd., stopped carrying their titles, many of which he dismisses as "sensationalistic."

Some will always find fault in Bluewater's business decisions, Davis said, particularly in printing the biography comics that keep the company afloat, but also open it up to denigration from comic purists.

"They thought we were basically whores and bottom feeders," he said. "If you take anything out of the superheroes and tights people have a problem calling it a comic book."

Davis said he loves the Vancouver community and makes it a point to have Bluewater be a part of it. The company regularly holds free comic creation workshops for kids at libraries and schools. The Ridgefield Community Library hosted classes in 2010 and 2011.

Ridgefield Senior Library Assistant Lois Lamkin said there was a "little bit of magic" in the room last year as Davis showed children how to create entirely new worlds with only pencil and paper.

"They are amazing," Lamkin said. "They give the kids the whole feel of what it takes to produce a comic book."

While he still searches for himself on the Web and continually comes across fresh attacks or crummy reviews, Davis is trying to keep a level head about the insults. It continues to irk him, but he's now learning an important lesson.

"I've learned that I'm not my company. When they attack my company, they are not attacking me personally," he said.