disney_comics19894-1Although comics based on Disney characters remain hugely popular around the world—thanks to large followings across Europe and South America—domestically they have yet to claim a space in the growing comics market. However that appears to be changing, as the mouse house is planning a “case by case” expansion, starting with Space Mountain, its first ever original graphic novel under the Disney Comics imprint.

Set for May release, Space Mountain is the first in a planned trilogy of graphic novels aimed squarely at the middle school boy market, a sweet spot still underserved by the market, according to Rich Thomas, associate publisher at Disney Publishing Worldwide. The idea is loosely based on the venerable Disney ride Space Mountain, one of the premiere attractions in parks around the globe. Written by Bryan Q. Miller with art by industry veteran Kelley Jones and Hi-Fi Colors, the trilogy will tell the story of two young space cadets who join a dangerous space mission set 24 hours in their future, but have to save themselves—and the galaxy— when the mission goes wrong. Space Mountain will be followed by Return to Space Mountain in 2015 and Battle for Space Mountain in 2016.

According to Thomas, although this is the first graphic novel for Disney it won’t be the last. Bearing in mind the lack of comics content for middle school boys throughout the industry, Thomas says this is “the fastest way to reach them. “ Disney Press worked closely with Imagineering—the Disney department that plans and builds rides— to add layers to the story, and “blow it up.” The book will be published in both hardcover and trade paperback, the former for the institutional market which is very receptive to graphic novel format.

Meanwhile, Disney’s licensing publishing division has also launched original comics content in the form of several Comic Zone magazines, featuring current characters from film and the Disney Channel.

“Comics are [present] in a big way globally right now,” says Tonya Agurto, v-p of Global Licensing at Disney Publishing Worldwide. The numbers back that up: Disney publishes some 280 comics magazines around the world, producing 60,000 pages of comics and 11,000 pages of editorial a year, all overseen by a central office in Milan. (In Italy Disney comics are wildly popular even among adults.)

Agurto oversees other Disney comics-related efforts, including the licensing program and the Comic Zone relaunch, a newsstand magazine consisting of comics and editorial. Comic Zone has been released on a sporadic basis with two recent one shots, says Agurto; timing depends on other Disney priorities. “It’s strategically based around events, or seasonality,’ she told PWCW. “This format allows us to showcase all our characters.” Franchises included Monsters U, Brave, Mickey Mouse, and various comics tying into Disney Channel programs, including Gravity Falls and Phineas and Ferb, and even live-action movies like Oz the Great and Powerful. Another issue earlier this year spotlighted Daisy Duck and Minnie Mouse, a rare comics special specifically targeted at girls.

The new comics programs for Disney follows a period in which comics were always present in Disney’s publishing plans, but never took center stage. Previous efforts include well-received adaptations of Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl and Rick Riordan’s Lightning Thief and a critically acclaimed partnership with FSG and the Center for Cartoon Studies to publish a series of comics biographies. Agurto also oversees the much-lauded series of Fantagraphics-published reprints of classic Disney comics by Carl Barks and Floyd Gottfredson.

19856-v1-400xAnd of course, there is the massive Marvel Universe of comics, which is overseen separately but occasionally dabbles in Disney-themed material. A new Marvel line called Disney Kingdoms will collaborate with the theme parks to spin off tales based on various projects; the first, Seekers of the Weird, is based on an abandoned theme park concept called the Museum of the Weird.

The Space Mountain GN marks something else new for Disney: while the book will be released via Disney Press, it will bear the Disney Comics logo, a first for this kind of book.

“We really think this is going to open up a lot of opportunities,” Thomas told PW. Although Disney has not invested in making its own graphic novels until now, “we’ve always felt that we wanted to get more involved, but we really wanted to make sure we had the right stories.” Thomas hopes the book will find favor with bookstores, institutions and comics specialty shops, where mass market material for boys aged 8-12 is in short supply, he feels.

Disney has had a up and down track record with expanding on their rides for storytelling. The films loosely based on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride were huge successes, but Haunted Mansion was not. For Space Mountain, the discussion was how best to present it, and a graphic novel series seemed like a very appropriate way. “It just felt like it was the right approach,” says Thomas. “It’s full of incredibly graphic images, with space scapes, space craft and robotics. And a lot of it is influenced by the parks.”

Although the project is clearly aimed at boys, Thomas says that the girl audience won’t be ignored. “We’re very, very conscious about the fact that girls will be reading this too, and there is a strong female protagonist alongside the strong male protagonist. Boys are reading more graphic novels than girls but we know that doesn’t mean girls aren’t reading them.”

19857-v1-250xAgurto also hopes to grow their US comics and magazine program in 2014, including talking to potential licensed comics publishers. “We do like the comics format—it helps foster children’s love of reading, and the short comics format which is kind of unique in publishing,” by showcasing a variety of franchises in one collection.

Both Thomas and Agurto agree that the demand for kids comics led in the comics specialty market by such brands as Adventure Time and Avatar: The Last Airbender is being felt everywhere. “I see much more of a demand on an interest for kids comics now,” says Agurto. “Ten years ago, people looked at you like ‘Huh – comics for kids?’ but it seems to have been accepted by the culture now.”

“The bigger picture is that we are truly exploring all business models, whether through the vertical comic magazine business or licensing or through our vertical book publishing business,” she continues. “All segments will be pursuing comics because we believe in the format. There is probably not a rhythm or rhyme, we look at things based on strategies.”

Thomas agrees that there is no set plan for graphic novels—for instance, there are no plans for comics adaptations of such upcoming films as Frozen and Planes 2. Although Disney published stories based on live action films Tron and Prince of Persia, the format doesn’t always make sense, he says. “Frozen is an amazing movie, but I’m not sure we would offer anything more by depicting that in GN form. Part of what we’re doing is always making sure the story is right for graphic novel storytelling.”

Agurto and Thomas both see digital as a growing channel as well—Space Mountain will be released as an e-book, and several comics apps are already available for tablets and smartphones. For instance, a digital version of Disney Junior magazine is now available for the iPad and iPad mini this past spring, available both as a digital subscription or single issues. “I think we’re watching that business closely,” said Agurto. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity to expand further with the digital comics arena.”

All the enthusiasm for comics hasn’t been without a few setbacks, though; in September the domestic magazine division was downsized to reliagn resources. A Disney spokesperson said this wouldn’t affect any plans going forward, but no Comic Zone magazines are on the schedule at present.

The Space Mountain original graphic novel remains a unique project at Disney. “We do see this book as sort of a groundbreaking title that will open up more opportunities, particularly for action adventure comics for middle-grade readers,” says Thomas. “Out of everything we’ve done, this is the first book to hit this particular sweet spot and we hope it will lead to more.”