Comic-book creator’s job is to produce make-believe worlds that entice, draw in readers
|Darren Davis was hooked on comic books as a youth growing up in Southern California. As an adult, not that much has changed; he’s still hooked, but now it’s his own company, BlueWater Productions, that is creating the comics for the next generation of enthusiasts.|
As a kid, in the dark wee hours of Christmas morning — when most children were asleep in their beds — the only thing that would get Darren Davis to “shut up” was a good Greek mythology story.
“The night before Christmas, you can’t sleep when you’re a kid,” said Davis, who at 38 is living the life many kids would love to lead. “My brother would just sit up at three o’clock in the morning and read me mythology stories.”
So many years later, Davis still loves a good story — and he’s made a livelihood out of telling them, too. The Bellingham resident is the president and editor-in-chief of BlueWater Productions, an independent publisher of comics, young adult books and graphic novel titles, and two comics that he created may become movies in the near future.
Davis’ road to success has not happened without hard work, imagination and a clear vision of where he wanted to go.
The Tartikoff inspiration
Davis said it takes approximately 30 days to create a comic, from the conceptual idea to the finished product. For the 10 titles he has creative control over, his part of this process involves two to three days of plot development, then a handoff to a scriptwriter and eventually an artist.
“I create the world that’s around the character,” he said. “I create everything from the background story to the design of the costume.”
He said he still loves seeing his ideas drawn into life.
“It’s like Christmas every day, when I go to my e-mail and check it and I see comic book pages,” Davis said of the development process. “I’m just like, ‘Wow, this is what I created.’ It really is cool.”
And of course, he still takes time to read comic books — despite his frenetic schedule, which includes part-time work at the Evergreen AIDS Foundation four days per week and six hours of work daily on comic book-related projects.
“Wednesday is comic book day,” he said. “That’s when new comics come out, so that’s when I’ll go pick up what I want.”
Not a lot has changed for Davis over the years.
Davis said comics and stories have been a part of his life for as long as he can remember.
“I think it was escapism,” he said of his initial interest in the genre. “When I was a little kid, (collecting comics) was almost in a sense a freedom. I used to ride my bike to 7-Eleven, and I’d get to (buy them) by myself.”
He was also a fan of the television cartoon called "Super Friends," a show created in the mid-1970s that pitted DC Comics superheroes, such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Aquaman, against the forces of evil. His favorite character was Batman.
“He had no super powers,” Davis said. “He was just a regular guy that had a mission.”
In a sense, you could say that Davis had a mission as well.
Davis grew up in Southern California, not too far from Hollywood, and his goal was simple and to the point, he said — much like Batman’s.
“My goal was to basically take over Hollywood and be a big Hollywood power player,” he said. “My inspiration was probably this guy named Brandon Tartikoff.”
Tartikoff was the NBC executive who was credited with turning around NBC’s low primetime reputation with such series as “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law,” “Family Ties,” “The Cosby Show,” and “Cheers,” among many other shows.
“My brother used to collect baseball cards,” Davis said. “I used to want to be Brandon Tartikoff.”
When Davis was working in the advertising department at USA Network during his mid-20s, he ended up not only meeting Tartikoff, but also establishing a professional relationship with him.
“He was such an inspiration for me, and such a cool guy,” Davis said. “That’s when I decided I wanted to do more,” he said. And he did.
After working in the world of marketing for the entertainment industry at such companies as E! Entertainment Television, USA Network and Lion’s Gate Films, he took on a marketing position at WildStorm Productions — which eventually merged with comic book conglomerate, DC Comics.
It was while he was working at WildStorm in the company’s marketing division for several years that he made key connections with industry leaders that led to the formation of his first company, TidalWave.
At TidalWave, he helped connect artists with work, and in turn made a name for himself as a talent agent. As Davis became more known by comic book artists, he became more interested in the final product they were producing. He watched as others created their own properties, and he started to wonder if he could do it himself.
“I was thinking, God I could do this,” he said.
TidalWave folded after a short run for various reasons, including, he said, professional burnout. However, while at TidalWave, he produced one of his most successful comic characters, “The 10th Muse,” which was the sixth-highest selling independent comic in November 2001.
He ended up selling the rights to “The 10th Muse” and leaving the industry for two years, but in 2004, he decided to give it another go: that was the year he started BlueWater, and he bought back the rights to “Muse.” Now things are going better than ever.
“Darren is really easy to work with,” said Nadir Balan, a comic book artist who has been collaborating with Davis on a handful of projects over the past two years. “From the artists I’ve talked to at conventions, they really like and respect him. He seems to know everybody in the industry.”
The comic book industry is not an easy one to have success in, Davis said — at least compared to what it used to be.
“There are so many comic books out there that just sit on the shelf,” he said. He attributes the industry’s decline to several factors, including the popularity of video games and a general loss of interest in reading.
“When “X-Men” launched the newer issues with (comic book artist) Jim Lee in (the late 80s), comic books were selling eight million copies for a single issue,” said Davis, who admits he was not a big reader growing up. “Now, the top-selling comic book … you’re lucky if you even (sell) 200,000 (copies).”
Independent comic books have even smaller readership, he said. The first issue of his highest-selling comic book series, “Victoria’s Secret Service,” reached about 13,000 readers — but his work has garnered enough attention to land him two potential movie adaptations based on his creations.
Davis said the rights to his graphic novel, “The Legend of Isis,” was bought by actor Kelsey Grammer’s production company Grammnet Productions, and if things pan out, the book will become a movie. Another comic book series, “Victoria’s Secret Service,” will likely have the rights bought by 20th Century Fox, he said, adding that the two sides are close to an agreement.
“It’s surreal to actually have someone pick up something that I did,” Davis said. “It’s amazing.”
Davis has used a variety of tools to attract attention to his products, including the use of celebrity models such as former Baywatch television star Traci Bingham, the cover model for his new comic, “The Blackbeard Legacy”; model/actress Cindy Margolis (“The 10th Muse”) and former World Wrestling Federation star “Sable” (“The 10th Muse”).
“There are some people who are turned off by a celebrity comic,” he said. “(But) the celebrity thing gets me entertainment press. It will also bring new comic book readers that only care about celebrities.”
His marketing efforts have included the production of a Cindy Margolis calendar, a line of “Victoria’s Secret Service” action figures, a cookbook for girls based on Margolis’ “Muse” character — as well as a line of award-winning children’s books.
“I always think about marketing around (comic books), rather than just creating a cool comic book for people just to pick up,” he said. “These comics can do well without (celebrities), but there is always some marketing hook that I have with it.”
Balan said Davis is always looking to evolve.
“Darren is always changing things,” Balan said. “He’s always looking out for something new.”
Davis puts a considerable amount of effort into both the business and creative side of his professional life. And networking, he said, is a huge component of what he does.
“Fridays are my days to go to retailers and bookstores and basically interact with them,” said Davis, who has lived in Bellingham off and on for the past three years. This means traveling to places around the region, both in the Pacific Northwest and Canada. “I’m going into these stores and talking to people. As long as you have a relationship with the retailer, they’ll pick up your stuff.”
“He’s a really good guy,” said T.J. Tipton, owner of Cosmic Comics in Bellingham. “I think he’s definitely doing it the right way. When he creates his stuff, he’s looking at the bigger marketing potential of his products.”
Tipton said Davis has been a good source for local artists as well.
“Darren has been great as far as connecting with local artists (with work),” he said
Regionally, he has publications for sale at Village Books, Borders Books and Music and Wal-Mart, and his company has a contract with Ingram Book Group, the world’s largest wholesale distributor of books, as well as a distribution deal with Diamond Comic Distributors, Inc.
He also tries to harness the power of media.
“You always want to be in the news three or four times per month,” he said. “You have to have a polished product out there, and not just think of it with ego involved.”
This may include setting up book signings for the comic book talent he works with around the country, speaking with kids at elementary schools about the industry or maintaining his company’s information-packed Web site, www.bluewaterprod.com.
“Always be in somebody’s ear,” he said. “Always send thank you e-mails. Always send thank you letters. When you take a picture with somebody, send them a picture.”
It’s just a good story
Flipping through the color-textured pages of Davis’ work, it’s easy to see where his focus is. In addition to mythological influences, most of his stories have women as the central character.
He said he wants the female characters to be portrayed as “strong, independent women,” and he doesn’t want their bodies — which are often adorned in clothing that accentuate unrealistic, Amazonian features — to detract from the stories.
“(My characters look) no different than Barbie or Wonder Woman,” he said. “They’re super heroes, just like Superman or Batman — they’re all beefy guys.”
He also uses family members in his work.
“Every single character in my comic books is named after a family member,” he said. For instance, Emma Sonnet is the name of the 10th Muse, and Davis’ niece is named Emma; and the 10th Muse’s best friend is Brett — the name of his nephew.
He said he’s especially proud of his children’s books, which incorporate educational themes, such as the alphabet, numbers and safety. He has also tackled tough issues: According to Davis, his comic “Zak Raven, Esq.,” was one of the first mainstream comic books in which the main character was infected with the HIV virus.
“(The character) writes about what it’s like to be (HIV) positive, and how he feels. It’s not the touchy feely stuff,” said Davis of the story, adding that the tale was not intended to have a lesson. “It’s just a good story.” In fact, Yale University recently invited Davis to speak to a group this fall about the “Zak Raven” character, which was based on one of Davis’ friends who died of AIDS.
In the end, Davis said, he’s doing this all under his own terms, something he’s done since he was that little boy waiting for Christmas to arrive.
“There was a Wonderboy character that I actually created when I was a little kid,” he said. “My brother and I would always play superheroes, and I would be Wonderboy. It was kind of like a Superman kind of character. In the comic books now, I’ve actually brought him back. I actually developed that character into one of my staple characters, just for total retro-cheese purposes. I don’t care if anybody likes it, it’s for me.”