IN CONVERSATION WITH…
DAVID STEWARD II, Co-Founder, and CEO of Lion Forge
“If we, as African Americans, can see ourselves in certain fields then we will more readily go into them, so I want to make certain we are represented in the graphic novel universe and animation.”
Father of 2
Graphic Novel Universe Disrupter
I think of myself as a creator, fan, and enthusiast of pop culture. I love the process of creating and imagining new worlds, so I think that type of undercurrent is what flows through everything that I have done in my professional life and the DNA of my companies. We live and die off our imaginations and what we build in that into everything.
My path to comics was not a normal path. Growing up I did not have access to a comic book store nor someone to really introduce me to that world, so my view into the industry has been through other mediums; movies, television and Saturday morning cartoons. My first big introduction to comics happened around 1991 when Milestone hit the media. It was the first black-owned comic book company. I remember seeing them on CNN and thinking that was really cool and then going on to collect some of the initial volumes. Out of college, I worked in media initially and then went into private equity. For some time, I had been thinking about a career shift and returning to media, in some capacity, was always in my mind. I wanted to get back to creating things and found myself reading comic books again.
Around this time, roughly 2009, digital was starting to hit. I found it easier to jump in and explore the world of graphic novels because I could access back issues instead of being concerned about missing out on the traditional print availability. Digital allowed me to get to the source material. A partnership with CARL REED soon followed. Together we created Lion Forge.
You have to have a vision and direction, but never be so committed to that to pivot as needed. The company was initially built on a digital distribution strategy, and about three years into that the market shifted to its roots, making print dominant which caused us to create a full-fledged print infrastructure eventually, but first, we did a strategic partnership until we could scale.
In the same way that digital consumed music, I thought that it would change the way that people consumed graphic novels, but that was not the case. We were wrong. Digital was additive. It grew the market to about ten to fifteen percent and then it stopped. People still like the feel of the page and like to have books on their shelves; a collector’s item. The most important thing is to keep your eyes on the prize and not be afraid to make the adjustments that get you there. For us, it was to create comic books that people wanted to read and get them in the market. We never lost sight of that and made the quick adjustment to do so.
BARRIERS TO ENTRY
Marvel and DC are indeed the 300lb dominators of the market, but they are not the totality of the graphic novel universe. What both do exceedingly well are superhero stories, but that is just one portion of the graphic novel universe. In the world, there is Adventure, Crime, Fantasy, Historic, Horror, Humor, LGBT, Non-Fiction, and Science. Our approach was to look at the market as a whole, not seek to compete in a specific genre. There were vast opportunities to explore. We built our comic universe on inclusivity; race, gender, and abilities, which makes me very proud to see that across titles our characters represent society overall.
‘Lighter Than My Shadow’ by KATIE GREEN, is a great example of that. It is the true-life story of a young woman overcoming anorexia and abuse at the hands of a therapist. This book was Amazon’s 2017 pick for Best Graphic Novel.
We are committed to showcases voices authentic to the world we live in. That is important. As much as I loved ‘Black Panther,’ the comic book, it was created by Stan Lee in 1966. At that time, you could tell that it was not necessarily a story that was for African-Americans by African-Americans. In later fascinations of the story and definitely in the film it did become that; about us, for us, but it was not conceived.
Finding talented writers was very challenging at the beginning because our market is very insular, in that it is hard for outsiders to come in. As a result, we had to spend a lot of time showing them that we were a legitimate company and worth working for. BRANDON EASTON, who co-writes on Catalyst Prime, was the first writer willing to work with us. We met at a San Diego Comic-Con panel. That one relationship branched out. He introduced us to other people around the same time our deal with NBC was announced which gave us enough publicity in the marketplace that people started coming to us.
Now, we have a portal on our website where people send in material for us to review. We also publish material from international. We find those from comic conventions, book fairs, and publisher relationships in order to determine what makes sense for the American market.
In the last fifteen years, comics have become so much more. The audience is no longer just white males who favor sci-fi conventions, and that is because of the variance that you can get now. The biggest growing segment right now is middle school girls. RAINA TELGEMEIER’s ‘Smile’ is one of the biggest-selling comic books of the last twenty years, with more than 2 Million units sold. Comics are also now accepted as means of literature. Schools and teachers have started to adopt comics into the classroom. We have division specific to helping educators learn the tools to reach their students through graphic novels.
I am fortunate to be a third-generation entrepreneur. My grandfather was tasked with taking care of eight kids and a wife. Living in a small town he had to find multiple ways of making money from bartending to driving a truck. He did them all. My dad, DAVID STEWARD, successfully started a couple of different businesses during his career and in the midst of doing that he always made time for my sister, KIMBERLY, and I. He made certain to show us how important we were in his life and made a point to be present in our lives-at our schooling events. I try to do the same things with my kids. Yes, it is about balancing, but it is also about knowing. My kids are 5 and 2 ½. I am always home for dinner and bedtime. I prioritize their special times. I am fortunate to be in a business that I can bring work home in order to work around their schedules. My dad was always home for family dinner. We always sat around the table, talked and that registered with me.
BY HIS EXAMPLE
What stretched me the most was being front and center. My Dad, to date, has had tremendous success,, but that was not the case when I was growing up. People tend to look at current success as what has always been there, but it is not accurate. In many ways I have seen both sides of the track; the struggles of what it takes to build a business—literally coming off a farm in a small town to the big city.
He started World Wide Technology, a telecom service provider for commercial and public sectors, in 1990. It was an inflection point. He had to shut down the pre-existing business he had and was learned that his business partner was embezzling money from the company. At that time my parents had just put my sister and me in a very prominent private school. As a result, they had to make a lot of sacrifices not to upset the way we were living and our education. I saw the adjustments they made at home. My dad's car was reposed. We went down to one car. I was in high school during that time. Things didn’t really start to turn around until my second semester of college. What impacted me was how my parents responded. That lesson has never left me. It showed me what is important and understanding what everyone has to go through in various levels of society. Now as an adult, I am conscious of what it takes to build something and have that appreciation for people who are trying to achieve and do great things.
The running conversation that my dad was always having with me was a visionary one. It was always positive outlooks and moving forward despite everything being on the line. He would state his intentions to me, ‘This year we are going to grow the business this much…’. His comments to me where never mired in the adversity. I learned from him that if your mind and vision are tied to everything that is going wrong, then you don't see the positive and pathway out of the situation.
WHY ST. LOUIS
I am often asked why am I still living in St Louis, and running the headquarters of the company from here? I like being in St. Louis. It is representative of the rest of the country in a lot of ways so to be able to get graphic ideas and be able to incubate and think about those ideas in this market, is incredibly powerful. If something can be successful here, then it will probably be successful in the rest of the country. When you get in LA and New York, especially from a creative standpoint, ideas kind of get washed and rewashed so you kind of end up in a bubble with the same concepts recycling. Getting out of that rat race is freeing.
As the company continues to scale my role has changed significantly. Chiefly, I no longer have to edit books and write them. Yes, I have authored a number of our titles, but folks will never know which ones (laughter). I enjoy the creative process and am not a micro-manager. To grow, you have to rely on other people to do specific roles and task them with maintaining the vision of what you are trying to achieve. In 2018, we published 130 titles. In 2019, we will increase to 200 titles. To do this we must have an excellent Sales staff, Editorial staff who understands the DNA and vision Carl and I have for the company.
Perspective + Faith in knowing that GOD HAS GOT MY BACK. I go into the world with the assurance of that. Anything that you see or may experience that appears to be blocking your path, don’t think of it as a roadblock. Think of it as something to overcome and go around. You have to think outside the box. Don’t overanalyze. Deal with it and determine your course. It is either over it, through it, or around it, but there is always a way to scale.
A huge part of my upbringing is faith, watching my parents walk by it and leaning on their faith in God to get us through. I am very aware of the promises that God has laid out. They are the underpinnings of my life.
One lesson I would pass on to my kids is to build good lasting relationships with people who have the same values and worldviews that comport with theirs. People who are going to do right by them. Independent of position in life, or profession the most powerful asset that you can have and build is relationships. Having the right relationships means everything.
I would like to open up pathways and doorways of people’s minds to be able to let the next generation of creators be able to do things that were challenging for me to do and they are accepted for doing that more readily. With our market, there are diverse creators, but there can be more not just in comics but especially in animation. In animation, there is quite a deficit.
Everyone that has come before us has helped to lay the foundation for what we are now able to do. If we, as African Americans, can see ourselves in certain fields then we will more readily go into them, so I want to make sure we are represented in the graphic novel universe and animation. Allowing us to have more representation in those mediums than we ever had before. We have quite a way to go, but that is the fun part. We are willing to start the route. We have created a strategy around that. We purchased ‘The Beat,’ a comic news blog to ensure expanded coverage of the industry. This allows us the ability to be active in the expansion of the industry and be instrumental in its inclusivity.
There are a lot of things that are possible. It is just about being maverick enough to pursue it and ask the questions. Don't be hampered by the rules. Or the phrase ‘you know they won’t let you do that.’ There are lots of things that are possible. My grandfather always said, ‘You don’t ask, you don’t get.’ You can’t be afraid to pursue your dream.
Static Shock (Milestone) – This was the first comic book I read from cover to cover. It resonated with me because at first glance resonated with the hero. Here was this teenage kid with a Malcolm X hat. I saw myself to some degree, and that was cool. Everyone wants to see themselves in represented.
5 THINGS I CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT
I have a strong three.
Phone and my tablet
Cars – I have a small collection of Japanese sports cars; Acura NSX, Toyota Supra, Nissan GTR, and 240SX, Honda S2000
Shotgun – I enjoy shooting sporting clays. I call it golf with a shotgun because you go to different stations and shoot different skeet-type of targets.