Comics publisher makes CEO exploits the stuff of funny pages

'Tycoon: Rising to the Top' cover
Bluewater Productions

Business executives are no strangers to comic books. Bruce Wayne runs a multi-billion dollar conglomerate by day, and takes on Gotham City's crime by night. Superman's archenemy, Lex Luthor, schemed from the offices of his company Lexcorp. Even Green Arrow's alter ego is a titan of industry.

Now, one independent comic book publisher is banking on the exploits of corporate ladder-climbers and entrepreneurs in an unusual way. He thinks they are compelling enough to stand on their own—no cape, cowl, or superpowers required.

This week, Bluewater Productions released "Orbit: Tycoons: Rising to the Top," a collection of comics that tell the stories of four giants in their industries: retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch, Starbucks chief Howard Schultz, former restaurant executive and one-time Tea Party presidential candidate Herman Cain, and the billionaire Russian owner of the Brooklyn Nets Mikhail Prokhorov.

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The premise may sound out of the ordinary, but these days there are few subjects comic book publishers won't take on. In addition, biographic books have been a big part of Bluewater's success, said founder and publisher Darren Davis.

"Fifty percent of the stuff we did is fiction, but non-fiction is what gets us attention," he told CNBC in an interview.

Palin, Clinton and Winfrey

Davis formed Bluewater in 2007 after working in the entertainment industry and as an agent for comic book artists.

Following the success of a slew of comics about Barack Obama, Davis decided to tell the tales of two political heavyweights in word balloons and panels. In 2009, Bluewater launched its Female Force series, with Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin comics—and garnered attention for tackling the divisive figures.

"If you didn't like either one you still have to respect their drive and motivation for what they are," he said. "From there we decided to do women that have made a difference in the world from this female empowerment angle."

Comics on Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, and Caroline Kennedy followed, but also illustrated biographies of politicians, journalists, and pop stars.

Bluewater's Michelle Obama comic is its best-selling to date—it shipped 150,000 copies altogether—followed by its Justin Bieber issue, which sold about 70,000 units.

Still, those figures fall short of the comparatively brisk sales of major comic publishers. Top superhero comic books from publishers like Marvel and DC typically ships between 100,000 and 150,000 copies each month to specialty stores, and collector's issues occasionally sell significantly more.

Soon enough, Davis turned his attention to a subject that fascinated him since he was an adolescent: corporate America. He said he was the kind of kid who read Donald Trump's autobiography in junior high.

'Don't judge, just report'

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Bluewater has previously published comics about Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, and Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Some of the books' authors are working reporters, and Davis said he encourages all creators to handle the stories like journalists. His policy is, "Don't judge. Just report."

So while writer C.W. Cooke highlights Howard Schultz's vision and capability as leader of Starbucks, he dedicates a few pages to his ill-fated ownership of the Seattle Supersonics.

Similarly, in chronicling GE's tremendous growth under Jack Welch, Marc Shapiro notes that opinion remains divided on his policy of firing under performers en masse, and his defense of sky-high executive pay.

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The books have found an audience beyond comic book collectors, Davis said. Schools and libraries have embraced Bluewater's biographies, and the publisher has turned brand loyalists into comic book readers.

"Starbucks alone has collectors of anything Starbucks-related," he said.

Bluewater's next business-oriented biography features FedEx founder Frederick Smith and was written by John Blundell, the late British conservative and author and former head of the Institute of Economic Affairs. A comic about Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton is also in development.