Canada may be a haven for talented comic book writers and artists, but there’s never really been a major comic book publisher around, that is until Adam Fortier came on the scene.  Getting his start in “the industry” during his teen years as a volunteer stock boy in Scarborough’s 1,000,000 Comics, he was eventually hired on and ultimately promoted through the ranks to manager.  After spending a few years working towards a mathematics degree at University Of Toronto, he became a computer programmer, started a multimedia company which turned into a 3-D animation company that ultimately led him to Dreamwave.

Fortier was instrumental in acquiring the Transformers license for Dreamwave, which became an immediate and surprising best-selling comic, and pushed the Toronto-based publisher and Fortier into the big-time.   After leaving Dreamwave (long before its implosion), Fortier became a consultant for various publishers and studios like IDW, Devil’s Due and Udon.

The thought of his own publishing company percolating in the back of his brain for some time, in 2004 Fortier threw his hat in the ring and Speakeasy was born, not just as a publisher but also offering various creator services.  Over a year later, Speakeasy has produced numerous sold-out titles and gained much critical praise for its strong output, and it shows no signs of easing up.  Though young, Speakeasy has become a highly reputable name in comics to both readers and creators alike.

When I met up with Adam Fortier at his Toronto-based office (convenient for Toronto-based me) a few weeks back, he noted that he’d just gotten off the phone with CHUD honcho Nick Nunziata, working the deal for Left Turn (RIGHT HERE), I presume.  I sat down for a few drinks and a nearly 90-minute conversation with this affable, humorous, opinionated and very smart businessman, to talk about Speakeasy’s creation, its publications, its place in the market and its future.

Q: The gestation of Speakeasy started sometime in 2004, or was it before?

Fortier: Sometime in 2004.  I had had the idea for a while.  I had wanted to set up something something, basically an alternative to Image.  Not a strict competitor, because, to a large extent, we publish different material and have a different business philosophy too, so they’re really not a parody of each other. 

 I had the idea for a while and I had the idea for my own comic book, so I just decided to merge the two.  And Sal (Abbinanti, artist/creator of Atomika) was my first client.  That was a lot of fun and Sal is a great guy, and he was a great guy to be able to cut my teeth on.  And it’s really blown up from there.  We probably get anywhere from 250 to 500 submissions a month.

Q: Wow.  And do you have assistants that go through it or is that you specifically?

Fortier: Assistants will go through a certain amount of it, and the once they glean that little bit off I go through the rest.  And you know we do pride ourselves on – it might be a couple of months – but we work on communicating with everybody who sends us something, provided that we still have their email.  Even if it’s just a rejection letter because they deserve that, they don’t deserve to just be ignored.  It can be very time consuming, but we’re sitting on a number of books – almost 100 – that, you know, we’ve said “these have some good potential.  And it’s frightening because you can’t publish that amount.  So we’re in an enviable position of having to turn down good books that we would probably buy because we just can’t publish them.

Q: Erik Larsen was saying recently the same thing about Image, that they get thousands upon thousands of submissions and 95% are immediate crap, and the rest are the sort you have to figure out whether you can actually do it or not.

Fortier: Honestly, even the crap people deserve a voice.  Something that you might consider crap other people wouldn’t.  As Frank Espinosa (Rocketo) will be happy to tell you, he shopped his project around and nobody wanted it.  Sal was our breakout hit with Atomika, and everybody had turned him down his whole life. 

So you know you can’t really say “Yeah this stuff is crap,” so we actually have a number of people filtering through it which means one person’s taste isn’t another person’s and so that one person might catch it.  Essentially, there’s three people that send it off to the next realm.  If it’s unanimous it goes straight to the top.  If it’s 2 out of 3 then it goes into the “this has potential” pile.   If it’s one out of three and that one person really decides to champion it, then it goes in the “has potential” pile.  If nobody likes it, then we put it in the rejection pile, so it’s not really one person’s opinion.  It’s kind of by consensus, which takes more time, but you catch the projects that otherwise you might not publish.

Q: Looking at what you’re publishing, a lot of them seem to be coming through a studio to you.  Having not gone through all the fine print, does Speakeasy own any of the titles.  Are any of the titles you’re currently publishing a “Speakeasy title”…

Fortier: Some of them are my titles, which are Grimoire, Beowulf, and Spellgame, and they’re actually like their own universe.  It’s called Hawkes Studios, the company that I publish them under, and you know that’s the impetus for Speakeasy, those were the ideas that I’d had for quite a long and wanted to get out.

 Q: Did you shop them out to artists and writers?

Fortier: What I did was kind of a casting call to people, and said “Who’s got ideas?”  So I worked with Brian Augustyn and built a framework, basically a Bible, and said, “this is the Bible for the universe, anybody who wants to pitch me ideas within this universe that operate under the same philosophies, happy to hear it.  And then I’ll take it along, pay the costs, and we’ll work on a co-deal and you’ll get it published.”   A number of people had agreed, and I’ve been working with people like Brian Augustyn who did Beowulf, and Dan Mishkin has done a phenomenal job on Spellgame.  It’s just phenomenal, we’re really able to get some gems out of that.  And Grimoire with Sebastien Caisse.

Q: It’s interesting because –obviously Spellgame isn’t out yet – but I didn’t associate Grimoire and Beowulf as being a shared universe.

Fortier: That’s the whole point.

Q: Then you’re not falling into the trappings of having to share that universe, it’s just that they are there if so.

Fortier: You’ll actually find Beowulf shows up in the Grimoire, number three or four, so that’s something to watch out for.

I will tell you, and you will be the first guy to break this news, we’re doing backup stories in the comic books as well for the next arch.  We got a couple of really nice backup stories by some very good artists and writers that are freebie 6-pagers that go over a six issue story arch.

You know, I love the Golden Age and the Silver Age because even when you were buying just Superman you got little bonuses.  And it was really just a plethora of stories for everybody.  I really wanted to bring back the feel of a bonus.  So you get 28 pages of content and you get to see some really great artists and writers, so awesome.

Q: It was announced recently about a month or month and a half ago that there would be rotating teams on Beowulf.  Was that originally the plan or just something that happened?

Fortier: It was sort of something that happened.  It was in response to a situation that arose, and honestly I couldn’t be happier with what’s come out of (new artist) Atilla (Adorjany) who’s done a phenomenal job on issue #4.  Some people haven’t liked it but more people have liked it, so that’s what you want to do. 

There is, I believe probably, not a single creator that doesn’t get some form of hate mail.  Live with it.  You’ve really got to develop a hard skin and I think it’s with the advent of the Internet that people feel that they’re allowed to really harshly share their opinion.  I have no issue with criticism – I know that regardless of whatever I do it won’t please everybody – but there are people that will come out and essentially say “You’re worthless, why don’t you just go into a backroom with a gun and end your life, because you’re destroying my life by destroying this comic book” (laughs) and it’s like “Holy crap, you are just a mean spirited person.”

That’s kind of the Internet and you really have to protect yourself against it.  There are a number of creators that I know that just do not use the Internet at all.  They’re like “I’ve got to stay away from that because if I go on the Internet, then the one guy who has a criticism that might not be justified, I might implement that, and alter my creative for that one guy instead of the other 5000 people that are happy with what I’m doing.”  So it’s tough.

We’ve altered the creative team for Grimoire #7 onwards as well.  That’s going to be Tom Fowler, who did Green Arrow as well, and JJ Kirby is doing the covers and he’s doing such a fantastic job.  And, oh, this one’s fun.  This is going to be talked about for a while, and you’ll be the first one to hear this: in Beowulf #7 and 8 we have this character that essentially exudes drugs, so when you fight him you get high (laughs).  So what we’ve done is we’ve decided to go “Beowulf baked, Beowulf high, Beowulf coked out…” and we’ve brought in other artists in order to help out with the visualizations.  We’ve got Jim Mahfood, Dean Haspiel, Frank Espanosa, and Atilla is helping out as well.  So that’s going to be a lot of fun, and to be able to do things like that is reason enough to start your own company, because there are a lot of people that would really not let you do that.  I think sometimes you need to tell unapologetic stories, stories that are significant and valid.

Green Lantern/Green Arrow # 76 where Speedy is a drug addict.  That’s a very powerful image, and something that most people reading comics now can recognize, and we don’t address these things ever.  Sometimes we build too much of a utopia in the comic book world and sometimes we make it just such a horrible place, literally gone to hell.  Chances are you poll your friends you’re going to find a drug addict…

 Q: Or an addict of some sort at the very least…

Fortier: At the very least, and you know, maybe a comic book addict.  And we have to accept this and we have to decide if this is a part of our friend that we want to accept or we want to help out.  It’s not enough to ignore it.

Q: You’ve had a lot of success with a lot of your titles selling out, obviously the next step is to go to trade-paperback, so what’s your plans on doing that for your titles?

Fortier: We’ve gone straight to trade paperback with our titles.  We’re very shortly going to announce that basically for the first story arc we’re going to go directly to trade, and then afterward it will be a year spaced.  So, by the time issue 18 comes out of Grimoire, we will be putting out the second trade.  We need to make the comic books friendly to the retailers otherwise why the fuck are they going to buy it?  If everyone’s going to wait for the trade, why buy the floppy?  But you know, I’m a lover of the floppy.

Q: I’m glad you’re using that term, because I’ve been using it for months now and people still look at me weird.  It’s the floppy!

Fortier: It’s the floppy!  Come on, it’s floppy.  It’s not rocket science here people.  It’s floppy, I call it a floppy.

Q: You’re the second person, aside from my self I’ve heard use that term.

Fortier: We’re going to start a revolution, one person at a time.

Q: So, Rocketo… it’s stellar.  It’s huge, in terms of critical reaction at the very least.

Fortier: Yup.  It is a comic book artists’ comic.  I saw this book in Wizard World LA, and I really had hesitated before even going to Wizard World LA.  I had Atomeka #1 and Grimoire #1.  So I was like, “Why the hell am I going to this?” (laughs)  I was given on the Sunday the pitch for this.  I had Darwyn Cooke at my table and Alex Ross brought Frank Espinosa over and said “Look at this.” And then Darwyn very subtly tells me I would be stupid not to pick this up (laughs).  I distinctly remember standing off to the side with Frank while Darwyn and Alex went through his stuff and started talking shoptalk back and forth.  Frank’s like, “So, what do you think,” and I was like, “Yeah, I’ll publish it.”  And they spent another half an hour convincing each other that the book should be published (laughs), and I was like, “No we’ve already done our thing.  You guys go nuts. We’re good.”   I couldn’t be happier with it.  Of course, we are having the sell-out issue.  Do we go back to print?  When do we go back to print?  How many do we print?  So there are some difficulties and this is an incredibly rare book to have.  I think the people that have it feel special, and that’s great to be able to give to somebody.

Q: Is every issue going to be in “widescreen” format?

Fortier: Yeah.  With issue number one, because this was the first widescreen book I did, it flopped over, hence floppy.  So, we did do card stock for issue number two onwards, sot that it can actually stand up.  Yeah, every single was in the side format, and we hummed and hawed and, initially, we were actually reformatting it for the upright format and then we said, the story is just so much better sideways, so why fuck with it.  It’s not that it didn’t work out, but this was just a book that is worthy of its own format.  Just use the best way to tell the story and people with adapt to it.

Q: It just gives it that extra bit of special.  Not that it’s not special enough as it, but it just makes it stand out that much more.

  Fortier: Yeah, and for Butternut Squash, a book that’s coming out in November, we are kind of doing a little bit of a reformat so it can be up and down, even though it is done in the panel style of, like, Liberty Meadows.   So it’s just dependent on the project, you look at the project and then dictate the format.

Q: Are there many projects coming to you that aren’t generally in standard format or are you getting some more of the digest-sized things in your submissions.  I guess because of the whole Manga thing it’s just that it’s ” the new black” of comics right now.

Fortier: I like the 6×9 Sin City format, I think that’s a very good format.  I don’t actually like to go smaller, you know, because I think that kind of harms the storytelling.  Manga is perfect because Manga was generated to be a weekly story.   It’s not that pretty, but goddamn is it dynamic. North American comics are totally different from Japanese comics, and Chinese comics and Korean comics, and even European comics for that matter.  We have to recognize that and understand that and not try and mimic a format that is selling well for us right now, because we are basically perverting our own style of storytelling in trying to mimic an Asian storyteller.

Q: It’s that sort of thing that everybody is sort of disparaging the North American comic right now, but not realizing that the North American comic is… it is it’s own style.  It has its own flavor to it.

Fortier: There are a lot shit comics out there.  There really are.  And I am just as guilty at buying these shit comics as other people are… and I mean, you’ve done it.  Come on…

Q: Yeah, yeah.

Fortier: You know, you get to issue number two and you’re like, “Oh my god, this sucks!”

Q: And then four or five issues later you’re like, “I’m not buying this anymore.”

Fortier: “I’m not buying this anymore!” (laughs) And then finally it gets cancelled at issue number 14 and you’re like “I’ve got to get up to issue number 14, because…”

Q: “I’ve already got this far…”

Fortier: And yeah, then you have the complaints that, like, an Elk’s Run isn’t getting represented or Rocketo, Grimoire or, a, hell, there’s tons of examples within Image… or Alias’ Lions, Tigers & Bears – phenomenal story – that aren’t being represented because people are buying the 40th title based upon the X-titles… and after number 12 it starts to get a little bit dodgy (laughs).  It’s unfortunate because we’re shooting ourselves in the foot because we’re almost punishing creativity.  We’re saying, “If it’s not something I’m used to, something I can understand, I just don’t want to support it at all.”

Q: It’s sort of analogous to the two party system of politics in the States where you have two parties and don’t even bother going outside those two parties, because you’re not going to find anything that you want there.  So you just stick as much as can to those two parties.  So you have the “big two”, and then everything else is, “Well, I might get to that” or “I might check out something.”   There are very few people that are abandoning altogether the “big two” and just focussing on everything else.   And on that, I hear Speakeasy often lumped as part of the “New Mainstream”…

Fortier: Yeah.

Q: …which every five or ten years there seems to be a “New Mainstream” of publishers.  Does that frighten you, the turnaround in the “New Mainstream” of publishers? (laughs)

Fortier: Um, honestly, I stick in my corner and do my thing (laughs).  We’re going to be bumping around and we’re going to try some things that aren’t necessarily going to work out and we’re going to try some things that will make us look like geniuses.  You know, I have a great amount of respect for a company like Dark Horse.  Dark Horse is a phenomenal example in that, in the beginning, they were thoroughly punished for what they did.  Nobody thought that they would be anything special and they were able to, at that time, think outside the box, get some licensed properties, get some creator properties – Sin City, Hellboy .  At the time people were like “Meh, whatever,” and they just did their thing and they truly believed in what they did, so I gotta have a lot of respect for a company like that.  That’s more the model that I want.  You can go through Dark Horse’s history and you can find a number of things that they’ve done wrong.  But what’s made them what they are today is the things they’ve done right.  So, you know, do more things write than you’ve done wrong and you’ll be okay (laughs).  Flip that around and you’re fucked.

Q: So what’s the next huge one from Speakeasy? Spellgame looks promising and I read the Mercury Chronicles preview and that looks great…

Fortier: And that is Mike Lilly on the artwork and Vito Delsante as the writer… uh…

Q: So many, eh? (laughs)

 Fortier: You have no idea.  There are a lot.  There’s Athena Voltaire, there’s Strange Ways, there’s Butternut Squash of course… there’s Silent Ghost from Chimera Studios and that’s gonna be huge, just in terms of people in the know who are going to pick it up and think it’s awesome.  And what else…

There’s so much goddamn stuff.  Andrew Foley has another great comic – he did Parting Ways, it’s a phenomenal book and he’s got another book that we’re going to be doing, another original graphic novel.  We’ve actually picked up a number of original graphic novels which are exciting for us.  In terms of what I’m excited about, honestly, if I wasn’t excited about it I wouldn’t be publishing it.  There’s really nothing I’m publishing that I’m saying “I’ll do it just to collect the cash,” there’s just nothing like that.

Q: There’s been a few instances where you’re taking previously existing comics and publishing collections.  Are you still doing that or are you focusing on original works?

Fortier: Sometimes we’re doing that, and sometimes not, but it’s kind of dependant on the individual project.  But, 20/20 Visions is our most successful project to date in terms of Graphic Novels, so it can’t be all a bad idea.

Q: Any names surprised you that have come past your door?

Fortier: What, in terms of people who have pitched us work?

Q: Yes.

Fortier: Yes, for sure, and I will not name them out of respect. (laughs)  But yeah, there have been times when I have been at conventions and people have started talking to me and I’m like “Shit, I’m nobody.  I know who you are.”  That is kind of cool.

Q: So, let’s get into this: you have two titles set in New Orleans.  Have you had conversations with the writers about that yet?

Fortier: Yes and no.  There was a lot of desire on some of the creator parts to do a like New Orleans comic book fundraiser and everything like that, but kind of ultimately decided that after talking to a number of different to just do our own thing and donate money to the Red Cross or do whatever you can do to help… I’m going to leave it with them.  The stories that they’re telling, it’s not essential that it reflects the real world.  I think it was just kind of a creepy coincidence.   We actually have another project coming out based in New Orleans, so it was really kind of creepy.  It’s not going to be much… if anyone asks we’ll just say it was in the French Quarter…. Yeah.  That was just tragic.   Sorry, I’m kind of a little bummed now and I need my next beer.

Q: I’m sorry to bring it down, but it was the question that immediately popped in my head upon reading Of Bitter Souls #2.  And it’s weird because it gives it an interesting perspective because all of a sudden you know where they are, you know the French Quarter, you know all these things.  People who have never been there all of a sudden know what’s going on…

Fortier: Yeah, I think it probably draws more of a connection than it did before, again, I just don’t think it needs to reflect in the comic book what happened.. but should a creator choose to do that I have no issue.

Q: Editorial influence, is it Speakeasy doing editorial or is it the individual Studio’s doing their own editing?

Fortier: After we get to a certain stage, we usually say, “Okay, go nuts.”  There are certain things I won’t allow in my books…

Q: Okay, speak to that.

 Fortier: (laughs) Okay… Pedophilia, um… I’m not going to have swearing, violence or whatever just for the sake of doing it.  There was a very successful limited series by a major publisher that had a significantly horrific act against a female that I didn’t necessarily thing was warranted.  So I will fight against that unless I feel it is done in a dignified manner or valid manner.  If it’s not going to advance the story or it’s not going to be integral to character development then it’s just something to get attention, and I don’t like that.

As a matter of fact we have a great book coming out by Marie Croall called Shelter that deals with a battered woman and a non battered woman coming to the rescue of battered and addicted women.  I was just so happy with it because it was all handled very well, very tastefully, very strongly.   So I have no issue with publishing something like that, but if I feel that it’s violence for violence sake or swearing for swearing sake I’m just not going to accept that.

Q: You’re not doing expoitation, basically…

Fortier: No. There’s no need to.

Q: You’re not doing an adaptation of Ilsa: The She Wolf any time soon.

Fortier: Hmmm… (laughs)  I mean, whether it be nudity, violence, sex, swearing… I have no issue those being in comic books, it just has to be handled appropriately. 

Q: It’s just a matter of context.

Fortier: Exactly.   There are a lot of homosexual people in comic books, but most of them have no real relevance.  You’re reading that or you’re watching them on television and often you realize those are real, those are just straight people’s interpretations of what a homosexual should be.  That’s exploitation.  That’s not empowerment, that’s not helping represent the cause, that’s simply exploiting them for a cheap laugh.  So something like that shouldn’t have any place on television, on the internet, or in comic books.  Whereas, if they were treated appropriately, go ahead.

Q: Sheltered sounds divergent even from what’s been sort of standard out of Speakeasy.  So you’re not just limiting yourself to just the genre niches, you’re going anywhere…

Fortier: Anywhere that a good story is.  If it’s good, I want to publish it.  I’d publish Manga if I had a good Manga pitched at me.  Mostly Tokyo Pop gets the good Manga so that’s not going to happen much (laughs).  There’s nothing that I will not publish, but it has to be good.   I have to enjoy it.  But hey, if it gets out there and everybody goes “Oh shit, this isn’t good,” then I’ll go “Hey, my bad. Here’s another one, try this out.” 

Somebody who buys our product needs to have a certain amount of confidence that what they get will be up to a certain standard.  I have no problem if somebody picks up a book and says “you know, this isn’t to my taste”, but if somebody picks up a book and says this is a piece of crap, I get upset.  You know, I don’t want to publish crap, I want to publish different things, and if it doesn’t speak to you, so be it.

Q: Previews has thousands of books solicited every month, is it frightening as a publisher realizing how much competition and product is out there?

Fortier: It’s very frightening.  It’s frightening how easy it is to get up to that number.  It’s not hard, it really isn’t.

Q: Looking at your next solicits for the next two months you’re up to about almost 15 books each month.

 Fortier: I think we’ll most likely maximize at 20. I can see us eventually getting up to 30.  But what I want to do is get up to the 15 to 20 area, and I want to really focus on making sure that every book we put out is the best it can be, and has the best sales as well, and then I’ll go from there.  Instead of just trying to throw whatever I can against a wall and see what sticks.

Q: My conceptualization on that kind of glut is to go with more finite series rather than immediately launching ongoing series.  More finite ideas…

Fortier: You’ll find that the majority of the books that are being published are finite books.  The difficulty is that it’s so goddamn easy to publish a finite series.  The majority of the books that we are publishing are finite.  If I wanted to accept everything that I thought had merit I’d probably be up to about 60 books a month and that’s frightening.   I think we need to cut back all the X-titles, all the Spider-titles, all the Bat-titles, and all the Super-titles.  I’d like to see DC and Marvel publish 30% of what they’re publishing now.

I think that we’re retailing a lot of the same stories.  Ultimate Spider-Man feels like Amazing Spider-Man because it is Amazing Spider-Man from the ‘60’s and ‘70’s so who cares, you know?  We need to be publishing something new, we need to be publishing something different and the hope is everybody realizes that.

There’s no embarrassment in publishing Astonishing X-Men.  You know, it’s Joss Whedon, it’s John Cassaday and it’s like Bad Boys.  It’s like that movie that you go to that you know it’s going to be exactly what it is, it’s not subversive, it’s not deviant, it’s not going to make you seem like a smart person when you see it, but it’s going to entertain you.  There’s almost a little bit of an embarrassment to making these kind of comic books, and we need to get over that.  We need to realize that Harry Potter is such an effective book and such an effective movie because it’s pure entertainment.  I’m not smarter for reading the latest Harry Potter book, but I’m more entertained for reading it. 

You get the snobs who say “this has to be an artistic medium, this has to be something more than what it is,” and then you get the other ones who go the exact opposite direction and say “I want this so dumb that an illiterate can understand it,” and if an illiterate can understand it then you’re not doing your job.

Q: Where’s Speakeasy going?  You have a multimedia background, are you going anywhere with that, or are you still focussed on wading through the piles and piles of submissions?

Fortier: You know, I wanted to created a comic book company that could survive as a comic book company.  I have definitely made trips to LA.  I haven’t announced them because I get the opportunity to sit on my ass and say “Come back to me with something that will really knock my socks off,” instead of saying “Well fuck, I’m going bankrupt in three months so I gotta sell stuff,” and that’s the way you need to do it, I think. 

It’s all about the publishing.  It’s all about the publishing.  Will you see in the next year movie announcements, multimedia announcements, video game announcements?  For sure.  But I think that’s a result of focusing on the publishing and publishing a good product, as opposed to spending all my time working making myself into movies.  I mean, Crossg