Free Comics Boost the Luck of O'Reilly

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Last summer, Sean O'Reilly took what he calls "the biggest gamble of my life". The Coquitlam schoolteacher had just paid to print up 1,000 copies of Kade, his first comic book, and had driven to San Diego for what has become one of the largest comics conventions in the world. He had rented a booth for the gathering's five-day duration at a cost of US$2,000. There was just one problem: he had nothing to sell.

"So there I was, at this convention to sell comic books, at this empty booth, with nothing but a banner saying Kade," recalls O'Reilly over a juice at a Commercial Drive establishment. "I was terrified and feeling like an idiot, wondering 'What did I just do?' "

Fortunately, an hour before the end of the con's kickoff event, the boxes of Kade #1 arrived. And a year later, O'Reilly is an industry success story. His company, Arcana Studio (www.arcanastudio.com/), currently publishes three bimonthly titles, with each averaging print runs of five to six thousand copies. (In comparison, a popular title from second-tier publisher Image might sell about 9,000.) More importantly, Arcana has been asked to participate in the third annual Free Comic Book Day this Saturday (July 3).

Timed this year to tie in with the theatrical release of Spider-Man 2, the promotional event involves publishers and comic-book stores giving away specially produced titles from over two dozen publishers. (For a list of participating publishers and stores, visit www.freecomicbookday.com/.) The big two, DC and Marvel, provide the bait with hot properties such as Teen Titans and Spider-Man, respectively. Medium-sized companies such as Archie, Image (Spawn), and Dark Horse (Hellboy) benefit by increasing awareness of their product. But the event is truly a boon for less-established houses like Avatar, Jetpack, ONI, Slave Labor, and, of course, Arcana.

"This is the best ad I'll ever buy," says O'Reilly. "You're putting the books in people's hands. And honestly, we've worked harder on this than anything else."

For Free Comic Book Day, O'Reilly has printed up a special anthology that showcases Arcana's three main characters. Kade is a milk-white warrior with long black hair who roams a medieval world hacking up demons, monsters, and evil sorcerers in a search for answers to his past. Ezra, a spinoff character from the first issue of Kade, is basically a female version of Kade, but with more mercenary leanings and the fashion sense of an aerobics instructor. Ant, the only story not written by O'Reilly, is about a little girl who imagines she's the insectoid superheroine of the title.

These three characters, all of whom have their own titles, are just the beginning, says O'Reilly. In August, Arcana will begin publishing two new books, 100 Girls and Starkweather. O'Reilly sees trade-paperback collections in the company's future, and hopes to license characters to video-game companies and film producers.

Any such deals would provide a financial buffer, since comics-publishing remains an uncertain business: on the day of our interview, CrossGen Entertainment, one of the top 10 best-selling comics publishers, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. So O'Reilly keeps his eye on the bottom line while writing the adventures of his heroes and maintaining his day job teaching Grade 8 math, science, and French. And he's married, with a child due soon. "I'm telling my wife, 'Just wait 'til after Free Comic Book Day,' " says the 29-year-old, who's scheduled to sign copies of Kade and Ezra at three stores--including Elfsar Collection (1007 Hamilton Street)--on Saturday.

But even if his comics dream "blows up in my face", as he puts it, O'Reilly will always have a moment from last year's San Diego Comic-Con International. The books had finally arrived and he was talking to other fans when his booth was paid a visit by no less a legend than Stan Lee, creator of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and numerous others. "He was very funny, very easygoing," O'Reilly says. "He grabbed one of our books and asked if he could sign it."

Of course O'Reilly said yes, and the signed cover--which reads "This looks great, Stan Lee"--hangs in the Arcana studio, proof that his publishing dream has been worth the risk.

Free Comic Book Day happens around the Lower Mainland on Saturday (July 3).