What do three established businessmen do when their kids are finally off to college and they’re careening toward a mid-life crisis?
Dust off their inner fanboys and write a graphic novel.
"You’re at that point of time in your life when you think, 'What do I need to be doing now?" says co-author Jack Lowe, culture project manager at Chick-fil-A in Atlanta. "Things that were hobbies could come back to the fore again. Instead of focusing on individual interests, we thought, 'What can we do creatively together? Let’s do something we don’t know how to do. I always wanted to write a great story."
The "we" includes two old friends—Georgia Motor Trucking Association CEO Ed Crowell and Chick-fil-A innovation coach Steve Nedvidek. Their collective middle-aged accounting and a three-year creative gestation produced (Top Shelf/IDW), which re-imagines history as superheroes really existing after World War I and fighting the forces of anarchy?
The first of the planned six-book series came out last spring, and marketed with signings and cosplayers at San Diego Comic-Con, with the second already in production. The authors will be signing at New York Comic-Con this week.
Their journey exemplifies how they leveraged their business skills, not only in finding the right expertise and moving the project forward, but in creative collaboration.
Lowe, who’d previously worked in editorial cartooning and in film production before moving to Chick-fil-A, presented the kernel of the idea to his friends. In their first meeting, Crowell brought up Jekyll Island—a small island off the coast Georgia where the world’s wealthiest capitalists had summer homes, and drafted plans for the Federal Reserve Bank.
"So at anytime during the summer, a sixth of the world’s wealth was on Georgia," says Lowe. "The three of us started throwing things against the wall, putting pieces of alternate history, fantasy and sci-fi stuff around the facts, stretching and shifted them into an alternate history, and crafted this story." What if the gentlemen vacationing on Jekyll Island used their wealth to create superheroes to try to help the country overcome anarchy?
"Like Downton Abbey meets The Avengers," says Nedvidek.
Then their business side kicked in.
Nedvidek, who had a relationship with the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) through his work, suggested a novel class where sequential arts graduate students could earn credit creating a pitch packet for their story they could shop to publishers. Crowell, Nedvidek and Lowe would write the concept, story, and script, and own the intellectual property rights; students would engage work-for-hire, non-disclosure agreements to visually realize characters, and some locations and pages, but be able to use the work in their portfolios.
"It wasn’t unheard of for corporations to collaborate with students, but it had never been done by a private individual on a graphic novel," says Lowe.
It was a learning curve for both sides.
"It added to our accountability and created a timeline for us," says Crowell. "There was more they needed. We had to create backstories for the characters in order to tell these students the stories of individual individual characters. It helped them figure out how to draw them, what they needed to look like, how they were going to act. We had to talk about the kind of technology that was going to be in it. So having the class helped us hit deadlines and through production.
"We actually taught the kids a lot about that too," he adds. "Some of those students were used to drawing their own pictures for their own purposes. The idea of delivering ordered work to someone and meeting deadlines were things that would be useful to them in their future, and that they were learning for the first time. So it worked well for both of us."
SCAD lead them to the nearby Top Shelf Productions and CEO Chris Staros—best known for publishing Congressman John Lewis’ bestselling March trilogy—who took an immediate interest, but, given their newbie status, wouldn’t commit to a printing until after the book was completed.
"Chris was willing to work with us and have us bounce ideas off him," says Lowe. "He said, 'I’ll help you whether Top Shelf ends up being the publisher of not.’ But in the end, the product we delivered, he wanted to publish.
"In lots of ways, we were starting a small business and producing a product," he adds. "We parlayed our business knowledge into at least getting it done. We did the initial investment ourselves—hiring an artist and colorist—then went out and got other investors through Kickstarter to get the tools needed to bring it to market, create a logo, business cards, and website."
They named their collective the Lost Mountain Mechanicals, which referenced nearby Lost Mountain, Georgia and the dysfunctional theater troupe in Midsummer Night’s Dream.
"The Mechanicals were working stiffs who wanted to do a play," says Lowe. "We’re kind of the same."
Draft 1 took two and a half years to finish. For draft 2, they enlisted a Kickstarter campaign to raise $34,000—$9000 more than their goal—to hire two SCAD graduates from their old class.
"There’s an upside to being guys with business experience," says Crowell. "We tackled this like any other business project—looked where the best opportunities for success were going to be. Kickstarter is more well-known and project-oriented, but more nerve-wracking because if you don’t make your goal, you lose it all. We created a video, and wrote a script that told people what we were going to do."
The graphic novel published in May, selling More than half the first run sold at the June launch party. From there, they were able to parlay past marketing experience to Comic-Con’s unique opportunities.
Like having Iron Man special effects artist Alan Scott design a steampunk-esque leg contraption from the book for a cosplayer to wear at the convention. "He’s a friend I made years ago when he worked on an animatronic cow costume for Chick-fil-A," says Nedvidek. "When I told him we were going to do this, he said, 'Man, I’m building your legs.’ Now my son is eight feet up in the air on these legs walking around Comic-Con drawing a huge crowd."
All in all, a pretty successful mid-life crisis, though the trio still haven’t ruled out more traditional salves.
"This is not necessarily instead of a Porsche," jokes Nedvidek.
"For the record," adds Lowe. " I do not have a Porsche."
Nedvidek counters: "I don’t have one—yet."
Jack Lowe, Steve Nedvidek, and Ed Crowell will be at NYCC in the IDW booth #1844, signing on Friday 10–11am, Saturday 10-11am, and Sunday 12–1pm.