Long before Thomas Jane hit leading man status playing a well-proportioned stud on HBO’s Hung, monster battler in Frank Darabont’s The Mist, and gun-toting vigilante in Lions Gate/Marvel Studios’ The Punisher, he was an inveterate comic geek—from fan and comic art collector to student of comic horror.
Eight years ago, he took that passion to another level, teaming with Eisner Award-nominated illustrator Tim Bradstreet to form boutique comics publishing and production company, Raw Studios. Guided more by creative than strategic instincts, the company’s output has blossomed from a single comic series, Bad Planet, to a slate of more than a dozen current and upcoming print and digital comics and graphic novels, films, TV series, radio show, video game, and—as of last month—a music CD.
"We connected a long time ago on a similar aesthetic sensibility and try to raise each other’s game," says Jane of his partnership with Bradstreet. "We use a shorthand and finish each other’s sentences. Any of these creative ventures is a collaboration, so you really need partners like that."
This week, they’ll be making their annual pilgrimage to San Diego Comic Con, where Bradstreet is being honored as a special guest. The guys will hold court at the Raw Studios booth and July 14 panel, where they’ll premiere a short comic-themed action thriller that Jane produced and stars in alongside Ron Perlman.
Their projects, which Jane dubs "elevated genre" books and films, pay homage to the pre-Code horror, crime, sci-fi, and western comics of the late 1940s to early 1950s still unbridled by the 1954 Comic Code Authority’s self-censorship. They’ve attracted such comic talent as Steve Niles, Bernie Wrightson, and William Stout, and actors like Perlman, Jeremy Piven, Rob Lowe, Nick Nolte and Jeremy Irons.
To those who regard Jane—rumored to next appear in Darabont’s L.A. Noir series—as another Hollywood celebrity cashing in on comic popularity, "All you have to do is listen to him talk," says Bradstreet. "This is a guy who knows the artists and references and history of comic books, and he puts them together in a way that pays homage to comic creators of that era."
As their stars have risen in their respective fields, they have begun to attract one another’s fans. "It’s kind of neat when 25-year-old gals and 50-year-old mothers who are fans of Tom are pleasantly surprised we make comic books," says Bradstreet. "We’ve turned people onto graphic novels who probably would never have read them."
Their respective money-making ventures in acting and illustration enable each to devote a cumulative six months a year to Raw, switching hats from creating product to handling budgets, promotions and printing. Jane serves as creative spirit, writer, director, and entrepreneur; Tim as creative director, codifying Jane’s ideas, working with artists, overseeing book and film production design.
"Tom is about the artist collective at heart," says Bradstreet. "Anything creative trips a trigger to explore other things, whether it’s acting, comics, directing or music. We’re both kind of lone wolves, and can give each other space. But we have similar tastes. When Tom comes up with an idea, it’s rare that I go, `That’s nuts.’ And what I do think is nuts turns out to be genius, and I’m just not wrapping my mind around it."
"With Tim, I just skip right to the genius part," laughs Jane.
"Tom has ideas in his head that he needs to see realized," adds Bradstreet. "I can shape them into where we need to go with it. Tom looks at that as a challenge. We keep each other on our toes that way."
Jane got his first taste of comic books at age eight, when his dad brought home a Mad Magazine (which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year). From there, it was a slippery slope to trolling through musty boxes of comics while accompanying his antique dealer parents on scouting missions. Rediscovering comics in his mid-20s, he began collecting original art from EC Comics, best known for the Tales from the Crypt series, and later absorbed into DC Comics.
Despite both growing up in Baltimore, Jane didn’t meet Bradstreet—a burly no-nonsense NASA brat best known for his photorealistic style and iconic covers of Vertigo’s John Constantine: Hellblazer series and concept art for director Guillermo del Toro’s Blade II—until late 2003 at a photo shoot to provide Bradstreet reference material for creating The Punisher movie poster and teaser artwork.
"He shows up in a Mercedes convertible, shirt open, and barefoot, and I’m thinking, `How am I going to make this guy look like the Punisher?’ " recalls Bradstreet. "He said, `I’m a huge comic fan’ and starts talking about comics and really knows his stuff. Then he gets into costume and gets out the weapons, and there’s this huge transformation. We were supposed to have him for an hour. He was supposed to leave for a party, but he gave us two-plus hours. He says, `I’ll leave when you guys have what you need.’ Tom had the idea for us to promote the film with poster signings at comic stores. After one of the signings, he said to me, `I have this idea for a comic book…"
Jane enlisted Eisner-nominated horror comic writer Steve Niles, best known for IDW’s 30 Days of Night, to help translate his idea into comic form. The result was the sci-fi series Bad Planet, which launched Raw Studios and sold about 10,000 copies—respectable for an indie comic. (Niles, an early Raw partner, eventually left to pursue his own projects.) "My attitude was, if I could break even and make my money back, and then put that into the next book, I’d be very happy," says Jane.
They focused on selling their comics at conventions and online until last year, when they decided to expand the business, adding a few more book titles and making a deal with Diamond Book Distributors, a major distributor of comics and graphic novels.
Meanwhile, the production division, Raw Entertainment, grew up concurrently, co-producing Jane’s 2009 directorial debut Dark Country (whose graphic novel version unveils at SDCC) and last year’s I Melt With You, which starred Jane, Jeremy Piven, and Rob Lowe. Pineapple Express director David Gordon Green recently optioned the film rights to Raw’s campy sci-fi Alien Pig Farm 3000 comic, while Austin-based Red Fly Games is developing Bad Planet’s second series into a mobile game. Raw is also developing a TV series based on Twisted Tales, an early `80s horror comics anthology it optioned. It’s also in pre-production for A Magnificent Death from a Shattered Hand, a gothic western produced by Wall Street’s Ed Pressman that Jane wrote, will direct, and star in with Nick Nolte and Jeremy Irons.
This spring, Raw began mining other media. Digital comics distributor ComiXology has released a digital version of the Dark Country graphic novel, based on the Tab Murphy short story that inspired the film and illustrated by Swedish artist Thomas Ott. Raw is working with AudioComics Company on a radio drama of Bad Planet, and creating an original digital comic series for MadeFire, a Berkeley, CA start-up with a new app enabling interactive motion comics with sound and visual effects.Raw’s most extrinsic venture arrived in June with a four-song EP of bluesy busker Rusty Blades who Wikipedia intimates is actually Jane (a one-time street musician when he first arrived in L.A. at 18), but who Jane insists he chanced upon in New Orleans. (When alerted to the discrepancy, Jane clarified, "Fuck Wikipedia.") Jane produced, rounding up some music business friends to help, and enlisted the bestselling Kabuki creator David Mack for the album cover. Available on most digital platforms, Raw is also pressing a vinyl version as a kind of nostalgic novelty.
"We’re constantly experimenting and trying to be innovative," says Jane. "But a boutique company has a lot of challenges. We lose artists to video games and better paying jobs with health care. We’re trying to stay alive, so our business plan is low output of high-end product. We don’t want to start taking on projects just to sell them. We want to do them for a special reason and appeal to artists who want to do it for the love of it."