Pow! Steve Jobs presents the Macintosh. Bam! Bill Gates comes up with MS-DOS. Biff! Sergei Brin meets Larry Page.
Minus the sound effects, those are some of the key events in a new line of comic books that tell the stories of today’s tech titans. The comics, from Bluewater Productions
The worlds of technology and comic books are no strangers to each other, of course. Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, Batman’s Batcave, and the Fantastic Four’s Baxter Building headquarters have always boasted impressive computer walls. On the big screen, Iron Man 2 and The Avengers gave Oracle some product placement, and Oracle Magazine even ran an interview with the fictional IT director of S.H.I.E.L.D., the secret organization behind the Avengers. Nokia, following its release last year of a Batman-themed phone to coincide with The Dark Knight Rises movie, this year has a Lumia 925 phone that appears in the new Man of Steel film release.
All of those connections focused on technology products, while Bluewater’s comics focus on the people behind them. In addition to Jobs, Gates, and the Google founders, the company has produced issues about Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Jack Dorsey of Twitter. "We had the Zuckerberg one optioned as an animated film right before The Social Network came out," recalls Bluewater publisher Darren Davis.
While most of the books are straight biographies, Davis went "out of the box" with the Dorsey book, pitting him against an archenemy who plans to force Twitter users to use proper grammar and spelling.
Hi-tech leaders may be a new subject for Bluewater, but comic book biographies are a familiar landscape. "I’ve been publishing comics since 1998," says Davis, explaining that he started by producing titles under another company’s imprint. In 2006, he launched Bluewater in order to have more freedom with the material.
"We never thought to really do biographies," Davis continues. The company published numerous adventure and superhero comics, including the science fiction Man o’ War series, developed in collaboration with William Shatner; The Mis-Adventures of Adam West, a collaboration with the former Batman portrayer; and Quatermain. However, "tights and capes weren’t selling for us," Davis says.
Then, in 2008, another comics company came out with biographies of Barack Obama and John McCain. Bluewater already had published several "female empowerment" books featuring women protagonist superheroes, and putting the two ideas together, Davis launched a new line called Female Force, with biographies of Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton. "It just took off," he says.
For the next year and a half, Bluewater concentrated on influential women, publishing comics on subjects ranging from Ellen DeGeneres to Martha Stewart. The company also produced comics on politicians and public figures, such as Colin Powell and Donald Trump. "I worked at Entertainment Television," says Davis, "so I knew the power of celebrity."
The next logical step was the Fame series, featuring sports stars (David Beckham), pop stars (Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber), actors (Robert Pattinson), and the like. Currently, about 30 percent of Bluewater’s comics are biographies, while the rest are purely fictional. "We got known as ‘the biography company,’" boasts Davis. "The biography books are now being taught in schools."
Some of the male readers were feeling a little left out, however, by all the Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber bios. "So we created a new line called Orbit with more of a male skew to it," Davis says. The Orbit line features biographies of subjects like Howard Stern, Keith Richards, and Stephen King. It was the Orbit line that gave Davis the idea of doing a biographic comic of Steve Jobs; one thought led to another, and he realized there weren’t many popular publications available about tech leaders. That’s how the current line of comics was born.
The ideas for the comics are all generated inside Bluewater—"I pick people I really want to know about," says Davis, who’s quick to point out that none of them are promotional or authorized by the subjects. "We do get access to some of the subjects," he says. "But the business people don’t have the time. We’ll reach out and see if they want us to donate some of the proceeds to a charity," he says; Ellen DeGeneres is one subject who took them up on the offer, directing a donation to the Humane Society.
It can take from a month to a year to finish one of the comics, with most of that time required mainly to complete all the artwork. Davis relies on a stable of writers to handle the research and writing. "I tell them, ‘do not use Wikipedia,’" he says; ‘Do your own research.’"
The biographies do make money—Davis tries to choose subjects that are likely to sell well, "but it’s turned into a total crapshoot," he says. "Bieber makes tons of money. Jobs will, but Dorsey won’t."
Part of the company’s evolution has been to embrace new, digital distribution channels. Readers who want paper copies can order them printed on-demand from the Comic Flea Market
Davis already has his eye on other subjects in the tech world. Next on his wish list is Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. He also hopes to do comics on Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and on Melinda Gates (although Gates likely will be featured in the Female Force series).
Logan Kugler is a freelance technology writer based in Silicon Valley. He has written for over 60 major publications.