Soul Men

Niche marketing of black superheroes takes comic book company sales up, up and away

When Alonzo Washington introduced a black comic book, Original Man, to some Kansas City youths, it was meant to be a one-time tactic to build black children’s self-esteem. But what started as a crusade to provide positive role models for kids has turned into a profitable business venture that reached $276,000 in sales last year.

Washington, 29, is the owner of Omega 7 Inc., one of a handful of black- owned comic book companies. Omega comics showcase black male and female action heroes stomping out crime and violence, campaigning against racism and crusading for cures to deadly diseases.

More than 100,000 of the books–which range in price from $2-$4–have been distributed in the U.S. and abroad. Washington, the mastermind behind the project, develops each comic and writes the storylines. Thus far, he’s developed six titles: Mighty Ace, Dark Force, Original Man, Omega Man, Original Boy and The Omega 7.

A few independent artists help draw the characters and his mother, Millie, and wife, Dana, help with the day-to-day operations, which include promoting the message behind the comics. “My wife responds to a community crisis like a real superhero. She dresses up as Original Woman and goes to schools, talks to kids and tells them to stay off drugs,” says Washington, who also promotes his characters on T-shirts, mugs and caps.

Washington, who’s been reading comic books since he was a kid, grew tired of seeing mainstream publications portray black characters as villains and ex-cons, and decided to create positive characters who would deal with “real” issues rather than fantasy. In 1992, he began researching the publishing business and talked with comic book publishers about his ideas, but found little support.

Washington self-promoted his first comic book, Original Man, on posters and flyers. “I also began to send literature to cultural shops. I didn’t really expect people to take orders, but the cultural shops liked the idea and began to send money before the book was actually published,” he says. Washington received $1,000 in advance orders, which he used as a down payment to have 5,000 copies printed. Total production costs, including color separations, paper, ink, shipping and boxes, cost $5,000. To pay the balance, Washington carried the comics to a community bookstore for a signing in 1992. He sold 2,000 copies for $2 a piece, took orders for another 13,000 copies and walked away with $30,000 in sales from the first issue. Putting the money back into the business, Washington developed four more comics, all of which are distributed through Diamond Comic Distributors Inc. and United Brothers and Sisters Communications Systems Inc.

Washington predicts sales to reach $1.5 million this year with the launch of a black action figure, Omega Man. He plans to sell the six- inch action figure, which costs $9.99, to large toy chains. Toys ‘R’ Us has ordered 100 dozen.

Omega 7 Inc., P.O. Box 171046, Kansas City, KS 66117; 913-321-6764

ACROSS THE WEB