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Going Viral: Publisher David Erwin on Virus Comics

David Erwin has a strong history of building out established and new universes, both during his tenure at DC Entertainment as executive director, as well as creative lead at Hasbro, helping to oversee the Transformers brand. Most recently he has joined Heavy Metal as Publisher and Chief Creative Overlord.  

This month we had a chance to sit down with David to hear what’s in store with Heavy Metal’s most ambitious project to date — Virus comics, a creator-owned imprint that is one of the best opportunities that the field has to offer for new and established talent.   

HEAVY METAL: So, how did Virus get started? What brought about the idea? 

DAVID ERWIN: It all started when I was having a conversation with (Heavy Metal CEO) Matt Medney. I had just joined as publisher and learned about Matt’s own company, HERO comics, which specializes in custom comics for musical artists. When he told me the titles he was producing were digitally printed, I didn’t believe it because the quality of the books was equal to offset printing. That’s when a lightbulb went off. 

Given that COVID had damaged distributors such as Diamond, selling at the retail level became a big concern. Matt made it a priority to build out Heavy Metal’s online business. Each month it continues to grow steadily. Since we had an online direct-to-consumer business becoming more robust, we quickly realized that utililizing a high-quality  print on-demand service would give us many advantages. Not just from a business perspective, but also for our readers — it allows us to switch cover stocks, finishes and images with ease.  Most importantly we wanted to find a way to continue giving fans access to comic books during this time.  

What’s the message you are trying to get across with this initiative? 

Virus is coming out of a place of respect for the industry. We are such fans of this medium it forced us to creatively think of how to support and hopefully build on this industry while we are faced with this dire event. As you know, retail in the comic industry has been struggling for some time and this only made it worse. I want the fans to really understand we are looking at Virus as a way to not only keep this business on life support but to grow it. 

What makes Virus different from other imprints, i.e. Image, etc? 

First off, the creators get profits from the first comic off the press. Whereas with Image and other publishers there are barriers before they start to see a check. So it’s to the creators’ advantage in the sense that they are seeing checks from day one, or copy one. No one else is doing that now.

What are the types of stories you are looking for? 

ERWIN: Matt is very big into sci-fi. Me, I’m trying to have a balance of sci-fi, fantasy and horror because I like all of them equally. In the end, it’s really about great stories. Even if they are mash-ups, that’s fine too. It’s easy to say what we don’t want. We don’t want to dive into the superhero world. Leave that to Marvel, DC and Valiant. If you think of what Disney represents, or Pixar — you know what you are getting into. You know the universe, the worlds. We want the edgy stuff. We want content that’s more provocative. Not in a gratuitous fashion. Something as an example would be the film Get Out. It’s a horror film, but it is dealing with provocative issues in a brilliant manner. We can do the same by addressing issues that are uncomfortable in a lens of genre. Those are the stories we are drawn to. That’s where we want Heavy Metal to be. 

What are some of the titles you are excited about

ERWIN: I’m excited about a lot of the properties that we have. They each bring something different to the audience. I’m thrilled that we are working with George C. Romero, the son of the godfather of zombies, on titles like The Rise. We are building out the character Nelson from the Heavy Metal movie — I wrote a bible for a new universe. It gave us an opportunity to explore zombies in a new light and make them different from anything that we have ever seen before. And that’s what George’s son got excited about. How do we take the genre of zombies and bring a fresh take to it?  We are calling it the Deadverse. 

Heavy Metal is growing really fast right now. Talk about how being nimble has  helped the company survive and thrive during this crisis. 

ERWIN: We are a small company that’s not beholden to shareholders and we are one of the few known comic companies. We don’t have the same compliances in the type of materials that we publish. We truly are the alternative. Because we are small, we are also very nimble and can move quickly. And in this world today, we need to move quickly. When COVID came along, it forced us to think creatively. How do we keep this alive? Because ultimately there will be casualties on the brick and mortar side. How do we continue to provide this beautiful form of entertainment? We decided let’s at least start publishing titles that we don’t have room to publish in our magazine. Once we opened that door, that brought forth the types of new voices we could introduce to the market and has created the new opportunities that we are pursuing. 

Outside of VIRUS, what’s the long term goal? To be Marvel? To create a huge shared universe? There are a lot of media companies aiming for the same goal – what makes Heavy Metal different? 

ERWIN: Universal Studios is trying to create a universe. Coming out of Hasbro, my job was to lead the creation of the Transformers universe and to also bring other properties like Rom, GI Joe and Micronauts into the mix.  All of these were properties I had to work on to build out a shared cosmology. There are people who are trying to do a lot of the same thing. The biggest distinction that we have is our brand — our mark really does represent a brand identity. 

Marvel and DC what is their brand identity? They’ve done horror and sci-fi books but their true identity lies with superheroes. The Heavy Metal brand identity is sci-fi, fantasy and horror. There isn’t another brand in comics that fans identify with as being brands for those genres. You identify them as being a publisher. 

The long term goal is to be the place where people want to be entertained by those genres, regardless of medium — TV, film, video games, podcasts. Heavy Metal will represent the compelling stories that you can expect under our brand.  

Right now we are working to elevate the perception of Heavy Metal as a publisher of edgy, international talent. And we have a rich history of that, from Moebius during the Metal Hurlant years, as well as a long list of incredible French, Spanish, Italian and American creators who have contributed over the years. 

How does Virus tie into those ambitions? 

ERWIN: Virus allows us to share more talent beyond the magazine. We are also making Heavy Metal a monthly publication.  In the past publishing dates for Heavy Metal have been very erratic, but even in a monthly schedule that still limits how much we can share. Virus will help us showcase more talent throughout the world that may not have had a chance to be exposed before. 

Is there a Heavy Metal universe? 

ERWIN: Yes, but it’s more than just a contained universe. The universe that we have created will be very open with many opportunities for creators to be a part of it. 

Talk about international creatives that you’ve signed. 

ERWIN: We just signed a contract with a creator from Italy. Just the night before, Matt and I were on a video chat past 10 PM with creators who we recruited from Australia. We are thrilled about the science fiction story they pitched us. Each country has different sensibilities and voices dealing with the same genres, but they explore them in new ways we never thought of before, which excites us. 

What’s your biggest challenge right now? 

ERWIN: There’s more opportunity than bandwidth, luckily that’s a good thing. 

To learn more about Virus – check out these great titles HERE.

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