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.”