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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Interview From the Tomb

I had almost forgot about this interview from a couple of years ago but it does cover the early days of Caliber as well.

It's a good length and you may have to zoom in on the small print but the interview covers the early days of Caliber as well as the start up of Transfuzion.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Caliber- Branching out

It’s been awhile since I last reflected on the early days of Caliber.  I’ve gotten quite a few requests to continue and so I figured I’d cover a little bit more.  It’s rather funny as when I was going through it, I knew I was busy but in looking back, it’s rather amazing how fast everything was occurring.

After the initial launch in 89, the core group at that time had started moving on.  Guy Davis and Vince Locke got hired by DC, O’Barr went to Tundra where everyone was going because of the high page rates, and Mark Bloodworth was hired by Marvel.  Guy, Vince, and Mark were still involved the next year or so but they were crossing over to the big time and soon would be gone for good.

The next group of creators that formed the bulk of Caliber’s output were Michael Allred, Bruce Zick, Michael Lark, Ed Brubaker, and Jim Calafiore.  Allred did a one shot called Creatures of the Id which introduced Frank Einstein who of course, would become Madman.  Brubaker had his Lowlife comic, Lark brought his Airwaves series and also did the Taken Under serial for Caliber Presents.  Bruce Zick worked in animation and I believe he did some Marvel work, I think it was an adaptation of an animated feature but showed a whole different look with his atmospheric Zone Continuum.  Calafiore did a couple of creator owned projects such as Progeny and God’s Hammer before tackling Camelot Eternal.  There was also Patrick Zircher who worked on a number of different titles as he was starting out.

As I mentioned previously, I had brought in Kevin VanHook and Caliber released our best selling adaptation of Rocky Horror Picture Show.  But we also licensed another property and this was Kevin Siembieda’s Mechanoids from Palladium Books.  Kevin had become a friend as he shopped at my stores so over this period, we did an adaptation of one of his games, he started the ball rolling on adapting some of our comics (such as Deadworld) but never materialized.  I even wrote a role playing game supplement.  It was on Robotech and I didn’t follow Robotech nor did I role play…but it worked out okay.  Mainly the writers just had to come up with stories and scenarios.

Caliber also produced a comic for Troma Films.  It was called Frostbiter: Wrath of the Wendigo.  It was supposed to be a 3 issue series but we only did one issue but I don’t remember why.  I think it was because they wanted to pass out 5,000 copies at Cannes Film Festival and I told them that was not part of our publishing strategy.

At about this time, I was figuring out what to do with Caliber.  We were now in our third year and had put out some significant titles and were attracting some new talent that had an opportunity to showcase their skills.  But I had felt that comics were extremely limited in their appeal.  Having four comic stores at the same time, I realized that the market was bound by its reliance on superheroes.  In order for comics to truly grow into a mass market appeal, there had to be something for everyone.  So, I created a line of comics based on literature, history, and reference.  That was Tome Press.

I loved the Tome Press line and devoted most of my writing over the next couple of years to it.  My problem…and Tome’s problem…was deciding what to do as there were so many choices.  The output was varied, not only in subject matter but presentation.  Some were full comics, others were full prose, and many a hybrid between the two.  We did classic artists such as Mucha, Beardsley, Remington, Currier & Ives to print series based on Dore, Goya, Holbein and others.  There were literature adaptations of Jack London, Jason and the Argonauts, Honest Thief, A Modest Proposal and Pied Pieper of Hamelin, to biographies of notable such as Amelia Earhart, Jeremiah Johnson, and others.  I loved the historical stuff such as Henry V, The Alamo, Russian Revolution, El Cid, the Zulu Wars, etc.  In all, about 80-90 titles were released.  The H.P. Lovecraft and Sherlock Holmes titles did quite well and there was a great response to the new translation of Dante’s Inferno that utilized Dore’s classic imagery.

The Tome line continued throughout the rest of Caliber’s days, some 8-9 years more since the launch although production stopped for a year or two.  The sales in the comics market weren’t exceptional but they outsold some of the creator owned line yet we also had substantial re-orders.  Many comic shops would frequently order every few months so the Tome line always had to have large over-printings.  When Caliber launched its internet store, and we were one of the very first, almost all the sales were Tome Press titles.  Later, we worked out a deal with Wal-Mart where about a dozen or so titles were mass produced for the chain and I think we sold 10,000-20,000 of each to them.  We would later produce a Frankenstein adaptation for them that had sales of 80,000 copies.

Those were busy times.  After Kevin had his one year at editor, I didn’t replace him for awhile.  The production team consisted of me and others.  Mark Winfrey and Guy Davis took their turn at production but eventually, they moved on and Nate Pride, who worked at one of my stores, eventually took on a full time role and he remained until the end days of Caliber.  Most of the accounting was done at the stores as it was all one company, but later, Caliber and the store chain would separate completely.   I think one month, Nate and I put together about 20 issues and got them out the door and that was in an era that was all paste up.  The days of computers and design programs were still a way off.

The situation at Caliber was that it was always in flux.   Creators and titles came but so many of the creators were hired away by other companies that I knew we were a pretty transient company.  A lot of people had trouble pegging what kind of company we were and to be honest, I don’t know if I could’ve explained it.  We were essentially a company of diversity and a company of change.  That was just the way it was.

Next time, and I promise it will be sooner than the last update, I’ll talk about the next set of creators that came in and the expansion into even more imprints.

Monday, September 26, 2011

On Conventions

Just got done with Detroit Fanfare.  All in all, it didn't quite work out as well as we hoped (I'm one of the promoters of it) and there's a lot of reasons (not excuses) for that but that's something to be discussed out side the public forum and just with the people directly affected by it which I intend to do.  The attendees all had a fantastic time and we got incredible out pouring of support about it from the fans.

But there were some complaints from some of the folks that set up.  In no way am I going to suggest that some people didn't have a valid point but I was just struck by the vitriol some people had.  

I’ve gone to shows where I’ve sold out of a dozen or more titles…and other shows, where I’ve barely moved a couple.  Attendance doesn’t seem to be a big factor…show with 10K can be slow and  a show with  just 500 can be a huge success.  There doesn’t seem to be any rationale behind it.  If I were just a creator at Fanfare, I would have had a very successful show as I sold 100's of graphic novels and had 3-4 titles completely sold out.  I don't know why.  What is especially puzzling...and a bit that I was rarely behind the table as I was dealing with all the situations that got thrown at us during the convention.  I was too busy to be at my own table yet I had pretty good sales.  I may have found a new strategy.

When I have a bad show in terms of sales…unless it was a complete dud, like this one show I did in Chicago where there were NO people...I would never think of blaming the promoter .  If I sold a single book at a show with a couple thousand people there,  who’s the blame go to…the promoter?  Really?  Does that mean if there were 5,000 people, I would have sold 2 books? And geez, if they got up to 10,000 people, I'd get a whopping 4 books sold.  

The last con I did was Summit City Convention.  I was set up in Artist Alley and I did horribly.  I sold a couple of books...that was it.  It didn't come close to covering my costs (and they even gave me my space).  But it was a great convention.  It was well organized, the staff was fantastic...just about every facet of it was well done and to be commended.  But I didn't sell anything there.  I didn't blame Zack even though the attendance was lighter than expected.  I still should have sold some.  But there was just no interest in me or my stuff there...that's not on anyone.  I've done shows half that size and sold dozens and dozens of books.  To me, Zack did what he was supposed to do as far as the setup and treatment of the guests were and I would recommend the show to any guest that inquired. The attendance wasn't what he wanted but there were people there.  I appreciated him giving me the space but I wouldn't do it again for the foreseeable future.  I don't blame him, I don't blame Fort Wayne (which I found to be a very nice place), and I certainly don't blame the fans of Fort Wayne because they didn't buy my stuff.  Sometimes, things just don't click.  I don't do that well in Chicago as a general rule and that's a pretty large city.

If someone doesn't do well at a show, they have every right to acknowledge that the show wasn't good...FOR THEM.  To make the assumption that because they had a bad show, that means everyone did is just...well, stupid.

You know---just because you have a table at a convention, it does not guarantee sales. It could be for a number of different reasons...your personality, your art, your lack of new material, of just because no one wants your stuff.  Who knows why?  When I'm at a con and things are slow...someone asks me how the show is, I tell them slow. For one, that sums it up and two, it implies that I have no idea of why sales are slagging.  A lot of people like to come up with reasons why but they don't really know.  If we knew, it wouldn't be a problem as we could fix it.   My favorite reason this last weekend was that there were too many good artists at the show so no one would buy this artist's work.

Yes, a creator has every right to be upset and you know, cross that covention off your list.  But to lash out at a promoter, the city, the fans, etc. just makes them look small and petty.  It reeks of displaced frustration.

Conventions can be a lot like comic distribution in the sense that it is very easy to get on equal footing with the bigger names.  But that doesn't automatically mean you're gong to sell like one.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Creator Owned Comics are not all the Same

The last few entries have dealt with the beginning days of Caliber and I may come back to the second year of Caliber but after awhile, it seemed a bit self indulgent… but there may be some interesting things ahead.  How Caliber started was one of the most common questions I get and another is whether Caliber Comics is going to return.  That also ties into other frequent questions about if a company such as Caliber could…or should…exist today.  I addressed the launch of Caliber and figured now would be a good time to look at some of the other questions.

Caliber Comics started as being a wholly creator owned company in that the creators owned their properties 100%.  For the most part, it was strictly a royalty basis whereby the creator received 60% of the profits and Caliber 40%.  Of course, we had to rely on new talent who were looking for a way to get exposure and hopefully money.  While most had the opportunity to let their work get shown, not all of them made much money.  But some did, as there were a few creators, even at Caliber, that could quit their “day” job and devote themselves full time to comics.

There were a lot of creators known today that got their start at Caliber, and there were others, who may not have started off at Caliber but they honed their skills to get themselves to the next level. Guy Davis, Vince Locke, Mark Bloodworth, David Mack, Patrick Zircher, Mike Perkins, Michael Gaydos, Ed Brubaker, Jim Calafiore, Philip Hester, Ande Parks, Mike Carey, Jacen Burrows, Michael Allred, Dave Cooper, Jimmy Gownley, Brandon Peterson, James O'Barr, Don Kramer, Jason Lutes, Brian Bendis, Paul Sizer, Mark Ricketts, Paul Tobin, Troy Nixey, and many others did all or part of their "apprenticeship" at Caliber.

But Caliber was more than just a new breeding ground for talent.  Once we got established, we were also a home for proven and established talent that wanted to do their creator owned projects. We picked up creator owned titles such as Dicks, Maze Agency, Mr. Monster, Lori Lovecraft, Mr. X, and more.  We published the likes of Moebius, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Mike Vosburg, Alan Grant, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis, and many others.  We even had an original cover from Todd McFarlane.

So, Caliber was a company that maintained it “creator owned” status while not just developing new talent but working with some of the biggest names in the business.  And again, I want to point out that Caliber was not unique in either of these strategies. 

So, could a company such as Caliber exist today?  It could, but I don’t know how successful it would be.  The dynamics of the market are completely different.  When Caliber started, there were over a dozen distributors and of course, now there is only one.  And that one determines what is going to go into their catalog which has become the source for just about all information about upcoming titles (well, as far as ordering goes).  There is an imbalance in the offerings, not just in placement within that single catalog but also discount structure, support on reorders, and order adjustments.  

Do I blame Diamond for inhibiting the growth of independents or missing the next “big” thing?  Not really.  First and foremost, Diamond is a business.  The processing of extremely low sellers can cost money.  The last thing the comics market needs is for Diamond to have financial troubles (and from what some people claim, they already do).  Right now, Diamond is one of the few areas of the market that is stable and consistent.  The talk of an alternative distributor popping up to give Diamond competition is just that…talk.  There’s no way that a new distributor could compete, or for that matter, survive, without those publishers locked into exclusive agreements with Diamond. There just isn’t enough demand for these other titles.

A lot of creators, mostly those just starting out, rally around any mention about new distribution methods.  But what is stopping most of these titles from mass distribution is not Diamond per se, but the potential market that exists.  When you have well established characters, backed by decades of exposure, top creative and popular teams, sometimes propelled by movies and other licensing, and they’re only pushing the 15,000 sales mark, why would an unheard of title by unknown creators from a new publisher do better?  It seems there are so many creators out there who think that all they need is to be seen and they’d be successes.

Well, they can be seen.  The Internet is the great equalizer, whether its listings on Amazon, blogs, previews on fan sites, facebook, press releases, podcasts…whatever.  A lot of titles max out on the publicity and still have minimal sales.  Many of those creators blame Diamond…if only Diamond carried them, then they would turn the money losing book into a huge success…and profit.  But in actuality, that rarely happens.  Sure, there are exceptions but you can’t build a business…or launch a viable comic series…or start a career…on exceptions.  Those exceptions get so much attention because they are just that…outside the norm or expected.

I’m not saying Diamond is the good guy here ---what I’m saying is that Diamond is not necessarily the bad guy. Yes, there are a lot of good projects out there that get the shaft, distribution wise.  I’ve experienced it myself as a creator and a publisher.  I get pissed off and think that they’re being short-sighted and this not only applies to Diamond, but retailers, and fans as well.  But comics are no different from the millions of books that get published every year or the 1,000s of independent films that receive no distribution.  I’m not sure if people complain in those fields about how it’s the obligation of a distributor to carry EVERYTHING.

Let’s face it, there is a lot of crap out there in addition to the good stuff.  That’s where a company like Caliber served a function as well as many other companies (Slave Labor, Antarctic, etc)…it was a form of validation.  Sure, not all of the titles were great, or even good by some standards, but by being accepted by a publisher, it validated the title to some degree.  It told potential fans that someone else found this title interesting enough to publish so I believe that it gave a bit of creditability to that project.  Granted, it was usually based on just one person’s opinion (often the publisher) but at least it made the first cut.  Well, now Diamond is that cut.  They have a retailer committee evaluate the title to see if it would be something that could sustain itself in the direct market.  It’s a great idea by Diamond as it brings in more voices and at the same time, lets them off the hook as they can explain it was a team of retailers who determined it…not them.

The restriction on distribution isn’t the only hurdle, of course.  The simple (well, simple in principle, not execution) act of putting together a comic is not only a lot of work but can cost money.  Sites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have opened enormous opportunities for creators to get funding for their projects.  But that still doesn’t address the distribution or awareness situation, and consequently, sales.

One of the major problems I see with all this talk of “creator owned” books and the formation of any kind of group, association, union, guild, alliance…whatever it’s called or whatever the implied structure discussed, is that not all “creators” are the same.  Just because someone wants to create their own comic, it doesn’t level the playing field and put them in the same category as everyone else.  Someone coming off a year’s run on Fantastic Four versus someone who draws stick figures do not bring the same essence to creator owned comics.

That’s one of the major problems we have when discussing comics.  We continually define the field by the medium (comics) above everything else.  Somehow, all creators, regardless of genre or distribution (via Diamond or web or print on demand) are somehow put into the same boat.  There’s a sense of unity inherent simply because of the quest to do comics even though the appeal and sensibilities are as different as Stephen King and Barbara Cartland are in books.

There are a lot of creators who simply want to do comics.  They have no intention of quitting their day job and realize that it is akin to a hobby… a serious hobby, but a hobby nonetheless even though it may be labeled many different things.  Of course, you have others who devote everything they have into producing comics and have no plan B.  If they fail, they’re still at ground level in their life and haven’t made any contingencies.

The ones you hear often about are the “big name” creators who want to create their own titles, primarily to own and exploit their properties.  But with few exceptions, most of these bigger name creators made their names by working for Marvel, DC, or had a successful title with one of the major independents such as Image or Dark Horse.
You also have a lot of creators that go “independent” simply because they have to.  They can’t get work from the big companies any more so their only alternative is to head towards doing a creator owned project. The path of creator owned comics is not “a” option, it is the “only” option.  Far too many times, when I hear about independent creators pushing for something different and providing entertainment that the “Big Two” are ignoring, many of them just don’t have any other alternatives.  They don’t have regular, good paying work so they decide to do their own in the meantime.  Most of them would abandon their projects if given the chance to work on Spider-Man or Batman.

And you know what, I don’t blame them.  It’s hell to be a struggling creator and most of the time, unless you’re working for the major companies, you’re going to be a struggling creator.  That can get old real quick.  Even many of the talents working for the big guys find it difficult to make a good living.   They got mortgages or rent, car payments, mouths to feed, etc.  They have to do what’s best for them. The success stories are few and don’t represent the vast majority of the talents working on comics, regardless of which company.

But that’s the way it is in just about any kind of artistic or entertainment field.  How many actors devote themselves to acting but can only secure jobs at local theaters?  Authors who toil away on books, taking on interruptions to do a magazine article so they can pay bills?  Or painters who find their best success is providing the original oil paintings to hang in motel rooms?

A lot of fans forget that most of today’s creators got into the business because they loved comics and it’s hard for many creators to turn away from an opportunity to do a childhood favorite character---and at good pay---in order to do their creator owned book.  That’s one area where comics are different than just about every other medium….the reliance on essentially the two universes of Marvel and DC.  Imagine if movies focused on regurgitations of Star Wars and the Godfather, re-inventing them every few years….or if books focused on only on derivatives of Harry Potter and Twilight.

So, could a company like Caliber exist today?  Sure.  I can see it with my Transfuzion Publishing that I started up with Rafael Nieves about three years ago.  The purpose was low key, essentially bringing our stuff back in print.  I knew that eventually I’d have to get my hardcopies into a digital format and figured if the pages are being digitized, I might as well print them as I go along.  Transfuzion has done about 30 books in the last three years and recently, many of the releases are all new material from other creators.  Some get Diamond distribution and some don’t.  On the reprint material, getting orders online, via mail order, some store orders, and in the digital market have brought a profit to each book.  On new material, the books can make money but not necessarily cover the cost of producing the work although a couple will likely do pretty good for the creators.

To launch a full blown publishing venture that fits into the mold of what we think of a major comic publisher would be difficult…very difficult.  Look at what’s out there…most of the bigger companies outside of Marvel and DC rely on licensed properties.  Image is different as they are truly a creator owned haven…and again, they are am exception.  They were built on Marvel creators forming their own company and that gave them an incredible presence which they managed to retool into a creator owned publishing house.  Their strategy is similar to what Caliber’s was in that it is no money up front and the creator owns everything, but actually, they do it a bit smarter.  They don’t do a royalty split and in today’s market, very few books would make much in royalties anyway…they charge a flat fee for processing and let the creators keep the rest.  Sure, they may lose out on the big sellers but they don’t take all the hits along the way.  The Caliber way would benefit the publisher if the book did well but in two cases for Caliber, when the books sold well enough for Caliber to earn substantial revenues from its 40%, the creators threatened to leave or re-negotiate the deal so Caliber got a much smaller share.

When someone asks me about Caliber re-launching or being brought back, all I can say is “I don’t know” because I don’t.  Everything changes so fast nowadays that how I saw things five years ago has no applicable bearing on today and so who knows what will happen over the next five years?  I keep the options open but I do know that it wouldn’t be the same thing as it was.  That time has passed.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Caliber Part 6- Growing Pains

The early days of Caliber were before the Internet, so response to new releases was minimal until the next set of orders came in-- unless you had an unusual amount of re-orders but the system wasn’t really set up well for that.  Fan letters were already dying out at that time, but we did get quite a few in the first few years.

So, after the initial launch, I really didn’t know what the reaction was.  We got some fan letters and quite a few submissions but I didn’t really have anything to judge it against.  However, about two or three months  after the launch, Caliber attended the Capital City Trade Show.  At this particular show, publishers were invited to submit one piece for a print and I believe they expected to have the artist on hand at the trade show.  I took Jim O’Barr with me and the print was for The Crow.  Not sure why it was Jim and The Crow versus Vince and Deadworld or Guy with Baker Street.  Likely it was based on availability and Jim and I shared a lot more in common.  We were both from Detroit…we drank, we were both smokers, late night coffee drinkers, etc.  Jim and I got along pretty well in the early days.

At the show, I remember that we had assembled white folders with our logo stickered on the front. Inside were the first Caliber Rounds which was our newsletter, and samples of the new releases.  There were the first issues of The Crow, Baker Street, and Caliber PresentsDeadworld and Realm were existing titles and our first issues sold out immediately but I had over-printed on the new #1s.  At the trade shows we did early that year, just months after our launch, I gave away about 1,000 of each issue to retailers.

The response at the trade shows was enthusiastic and actually, a bit over-whelming.  It seemed that we had matched up well with quite a few retailers although of course, not all.  So, it seemed that Caliber had gotten off to a great start and things were looking positive for establishing the company.

The thing to remember about Caliber, though, is that it was a creator owned model.  That meant the creators not only owned their titles but also controlled their output.  When you’re working with a lot of artists who have not established themselves yet in the business, well, most of them are going to have real jobs in order to provide some kind of income.  And also with many new artists, it takes awhile before they can structure their motivation, capabilities, and desire to do a monthly or even a bi-monthly book.  The books all started to run late with the second and third issues, and some of them ran real late.

It would be almost 4 months for the next issue of The CrowBaker Street maintained a bi-monthly release for the first three issues but then got hit with long delays between issues.  Realm and Deadworld both had the next issues ship relatively close to a bi-monthly but then hit long delays between issues.  Only Caliber Presents had any semblance to a real schedule and that monthly book was shipping about every 6 weeks.  As the first year progressed, the delays increased.  It took over a year to get 4 issues of The Crow and Baker Street got 5 issues out.   Deadworld had three issues ship on time at the beginning but only 3 more issues would ship over the next year and The Realm was even worse.

Even with the scheduling problems, independent companies had a bit more leeway as fans seem to understand the situation of the creators.  There was more of sense of frustration than anger from the fans and being a new company working with quite a few new creators, it took all of us awhile to realize what is realistic versus optimistic.

But it did drive home the point that Caliber could grow with more titles as the monthly output wouldn’t really increase that much.  The earliest expansion from the initial launch was Mark Shainblum and Matrix Graphics.  Matrix was a Canadian publisher that had recently stopped publishing.   Mark brought some of the titles to Caliber.  Northguard was the flagship title and we immediately released a three issue series in addition to a trade reprinting earlier material.  Later we would bring on Dragon’s Star and Bernie Mireault’s Mackenzie Queen.
We had some one shots that appeared and of course, there were no scheduling problems there.  Mark Bloodworth illustrated a fun romp called Cheerleaders from Hell which sold pretty well.  A one shot set in the Realm universe called Silverfawn was released and also The Fugitive which was also a serial in Caliber Presents.  

What shifted Caliber into a much broader expansion was our appearance at the old Chicago Con which at that time, rivaled San Diego as the biggest show. Caliber set up about 5-6 months after our initial launch.  I remember getting an end cap display area and that Vince Locke, Guy Davis, Jim O’Barr, and perhaps a few others came.  It was the first public appearance for Caliber and I didn’t know how things would go.  We seemed to be getting good feedback but now we were at a major show with every other publisher.

The response was near mind-blowing.  We sold large quantities of the titles, maybe even selling out some of what we brought.  But the biggest response was from other creators and newbies trying to break into the business.  It was an exhausting convention and I think on Saturday, I just stayed in the room as I was tired of talking.  I had brought up the submissions that I received during the show and from what I can remember, it was 4-5 boxes worth.

It was at that show that I picked up two titles that I still think are some of the best titles to ever come out of Caliber.  One was Fringe.  It was written by Paul Tobin and penciled by Phil Hester.   Fringe was very rare in that it wasn’t presented as a complete package, I just had the scripts and some illustrations from Phil so it was highly unusual in that I accepted it without really seeing what the final product would look like.

Also at the convention, I met Starlan Baxter and Bill Widener.  They had put out a self published magazine called Nerve.  Each of them worked on their own characters.  Starlan did Mack the Knife about a cartoon world and characters in it while Bill did a futuristic tale of a public persona hero called Go-Man.  Mack the Knife, I instantly got.  It had appeal, it was fun, and Starlan wanted to collect the old material and launch a new series of stand alone one shots.  But it was Go-Man that really grabbed me.  The art, at first look, was not just rough, it was harsh.  I remember starting to read it because at that time, I really did try to give every submission a fair shot (something that just grew to be impossible with 100’s of submissions a month).  Go-Man launched just a couple of months after the convention and as I said, remains one of my all time favorite Caliber series as does Fringe.
I know I met a lot of people at the show and at San Diego Con but a lot of is foggy.  Things were accelerating pretty fast and as Caliber started consuming all my time, I still had my stores and worked from home a few days watching the kids.  Life in many ways was a blur.

By the end of Caliber’s first year, now in the first quarter of 1990, some new titles had joined the original launch.  There was Go-Man and Fringe.  Jazz Age Chronicles from Ted Slampyak had been released from a company no longer publishing and so Caliber would do a new series and collect the previous material.  Jim Calafiore sent in an original graphic novel called Progeny and this was followed by a mini-series called God’s Hammer.  Dutch Decker, a historical piece predating the Spanish American War, was launched.  Kevin Atkinson brought his zany Snarl mini-series to Caliber.  Two anthology series collecting older material were launched with Day Brothers Present and Greg Theakston’s Buried Treasures collecting golden age stories.

Somewhere along this time, I came into contact with Kevin VanHook.  I know that his Frost story was collected but not sure how we actually met (although Kevin might remember---I’ve never seen anyone with a memory like his), and Kevin eventually was the first “official” hire of Caliber as he came on board as Editor.  Kevin came with experience in a lot of areas that I didn’t have so he was a great help.  At first, I don’t think some of Caliber guys liked Kevin as he brought a bit of order to things. Schedules, editing, etc. and this was different from my more hands off approach.  I distinctly do remember though, that after Kevin announced he was leaving, a large group of us drove together to New York for a convention and Kevin got a chance to relax and I think all the guys got a chance to know him on a more personal level and things worked out good.

Kevin, of course, went on to work for Valiant and ended up becoming Executive Editor and VP before leaving to launch his film career where he wrote and directed a number of films, mostly for the Sci-Fi network.  Currently, he’s writing some DC titles also.

The upshot was that Caliber had grown dramatically in the first year.  We ventured into a lot of different areas and showcased an incredible diversity of titles.  As we entered into the year, a deal was signed to do an adaptation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and that would catapult Caliber into the Top 10 comic publishers…albeit for a very brief time.  By the end of the year, I targeted a new direction I wanted to take Caliber to but in order to keep it distinct, it would be a new imprint and this was Tome Press.

To some in the comic business, Tome was a head scratcher and to others, it was a huge success.  To me, it was what publishing was all about.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Caliber Part 5- The Launch

On these missives about the beginning of Caliber, I have always found it interesting that so many people ask me how Caliber started.  I don’t know if other companies always get that as the first question and I’m not sure why it seems to be a special interest with Caliber.  So, that’s my attempt here…just to give an idea of how things played out.  Excuse my tendency to ramble but I think it’s important to understand the thought process I was going through.  I’m sure that I’m forgetting some precise details and perhaps some events totally but I do what I can.

It was in late summer of 1988 when I was formulating the plans for Caliber.  I wasn’t sure of the exact launch date as I had to see how things came together.  Some of the titles came with work already done as Vince’s Deadworld. He hadn’t completed a full issue but there was some Deadworld material that would end up running in Caliber Presents and as a backup in the ongoing Deadworld series.  Guy, on the other hand, had the next two issues of Realm penciled.  At that time, Guy used inkers instead of doing it on his own.

With Deadworld and Realm and my idea for the High Caliber anthology, I figured I needed just one more title to get things rolling.  A big part of the early days was the association with Arrow Comics.  They were almost all local creators and often times, hung out together, usually at Arrow functions.  Although I knew that some of them could deliver quality material, I didn’t want to be just a rehash of Arrow.  There was going to be a perception that the company was just Arrow reincarnated unless I brought some titles to distinguish Caliber.

That didn’t mean I would discount the contributions from the ex-Arrow crew.  Susan Van Camp was planning on doing a Varcel’s Vixens graphic novel.  Mark Winfrey had an idea for a futuristic tale of a cop on a penal colony planet which became Thrill Kill, and Mark Bloodworth and Arrow had 5 issues of his popular Night Streets and he was thinking about continuing it.  

Thrill Kill went to the anthology and both Bloodworth and I agreed that just bringing out the 6th issue of Night Streets was not going to work but it couldn’t be a new number one because it was in the middle of the story.  So, we pushed it back to release it as a graphic novel to accompanying the reprinting of the earlier issues.  Varcels’ Vixens was later released it as a three issue series instead of a graphic novel.

So, as I was searching for the elusive 4th title, Guy Davis informed me that he wanted to move on from The Realm.  He had penciled the last two issues quite awhile ago and his art was evolving.  It isn’t too evident on The Realm series itself because he felt he should maintain the same style.  I talked to Stu Kerr, the writer, and he wanted to continue.  So, after Guy’s two issues, the new artist, and yet another local, John Dennis would take over.

Guy pitched me an idea he had for a new series.  It was an alternative world where World War II never happened and would feature a female punk Sherlock Holmes character.  Guy’s plan was to retell all of the Conan Doyle stories but in this new setting and with a different type of Holmes.  The Watson character would be an abrasive punk (as in punk culture).  I felt that it wouldn’t work because fans of the original stories wouldn’t want to re-read the same story with a different “Holmes” type character and non-fans of Holmes might not want to venture into the traditional stories.  We discussed it quite a bit and I felt it needed a lead character that was exposed to that world as the reader was and everything would be seen through her eyes.  

It’s funny, I distinctly remember the first long conversation we had on what would become Baker Street.  It was outside my office in the warehouse of the store and Guy had lots of character illustrations and building designs.  It was obvious he wanted to keep the Victorian atmosphere but in modern times, hence the alternative world.  I remember working on some notes and filling page after page of ideas and suggestions.  I still have all my notes as well as most of Guy’s notes that he copied for me.  Anyway, it was decided somehow that I would co-develop and co-write the series.  Guy’s art had really changed since his last pencils on The Realm but he still wanted an inker.  Alan Oldham was brought in and worked on some of the first issue, it wasn’t the style that fit the story as Alan was more of a clean style and Guy wanted it grittier. The title was also announced in color.  Later, Vince worked on the book with Guy (they were close friends) and eventually, Guy took to inking his own work. 

With Baker Street, I felt pretty comfortable to get things in motion.  Another situation popped up as Vince also wanted to move on to something else.  He didn’t want to be drawing zombies for the rest of his life.  However, he would stay on the book until something came along but his contributions diminished gradually over the next few issues.  

Now, I had to fill the anthology.  Although I was planning to utilize it to showcase other titles, I knew it had to have its own appeal. I must have made an announcement about the publishing line as I started receiving submissions before we even put anything out.  I got a letter from Tim Vigil, who was well known for his Faust work at the time, and he had a serial that he was looking to place.  I think that Vigil’s Cuda series really made people notice Caliber and when we launched, he was our “big gun”.  Vince and Guy had their fans but Vigil was an attention getter.  I still talk to Tim occasionally but I don’t know if I ever thanked him for his contributions.

I decided to develop some regular features for the anthology.  I came up with two serials, each could stand on their own each issue and they would alternate issues.  The first was Street Shadows which told tales of ordinary people in a big city.  There would be “slice of life” tales.  The second was Gideon’s which was a pawn shop that could exist anywhere and at any time.  The hook was that you could get anything you wanted at Gideon’s but there was always an unexpected price.  Sort of a Twilight Zone or O. Henry twist.  I was obviously influenced by Munden’s Bar which was a backup in the Grimjack series.  

What I also figured out about the anthology is that it would have to be a paying gig for creators.  It would be too hard to divide up in royalties and with Street Shadows and Gideon’s, I wanted to keep ownership so that I could continue with them and keep some sense of coherency.  I allowed other creators to play around with them and sort of do what they wanted, but I didn’t want either of those going when a creator left.

There were a few other titles that popped up and some were going to be held for the First Caliber line which was a series of one-shots.  The First Caliber designation was used at the beginning but quickly dropped and forgotten about.   I had Hot Shots by Stan Timmons and Gary  T. Washington lined up and I was real excited when I talked to Justice Machine’s Mike Gustovich about his Cobalt Blue title.  In my mind, Cobalt Blue was the key title for Caliber.  It was a color super-heroish book but still alternative enough and from a well established creator.

What ended up being the initial of the First Caliber line was a movie adaptation.  A local company was putting together a film utilizing local actor who was making a somewhat successful career in Bruce Campbell.  They had signed up Star Trek’s Walter Koenig to star in the film called Moontrap.  My friend, Paul Burke of Stabur Corp. (he did the Stan Lee videos and the Museum of Cartoon Art prints and would later co-found McFarlane Toys with Todd), knew I was starting a publishing company and he connected the two of us.  So, we signed up Moontrap.  I knew I needed an established artist so we got Gary Kwapsiz (Marvel's Conan series) who again, was local, to do the pencils.  But, Moontrap was going to require page rates.  The simple idea of doing creator owned books was expanding into advance payments.

At the time, I felt that if I was going to do it, I might as well take the big gamble.  Baker Street and Cobalt Blue would be color with Deadworld, Realm, and the anthology in black and white.  Moontrap would also be in black and white as it was seen to be more of a promotional tool although I felt I could sell enough copies to cover the costs.

Of course, things changed and a key development it the beginnings of Caliber grew from the original intent of creator owned books.  One of my customers at my stores was Jim O’Barr.  He worked for an auto dealership delivering paint and parts, I believe.  He would end up popping up at the different stores.  At that time, we consigned a lot of local artists’ paintings and drawings as well as t-shirts.  We ended up putting up some of Jim’s shirts at the stores.  Most of his shirts were on Batman who was the hot seller those days because of the attention of the upcoming movie.

Jim heard about the comic company forming and asked if I’d be interested in looking at something he was doing.  In talking with him, I found that he had a few things submitted and published over the years.  Again, just like with Guy talking about the beginnings of Baker Street, I have a vivid recollection of Jim first showing me the pages of The Crow.  At the time, I worked at home a couple days of the week to watch my daughters as my wife worked 12 hour shifts 3 or 4 days a week.  Jim came to my house and I remember sitting outside the whole time.  One reason was that we were both smokers and with the kids in the house, there was no smoking except in the basement.

Jim had about 14 pages of The Crow done. He might have had more but that’s all I saw. He explained it was based on a story he read where a girl was killed over a $20 ring.  So, he extrapolated the tale to have the boyfriend killed and to come back for revenge.  There was no mention of any personal tragedy that impacted Jim and I didn’t hear anything about that until years later.

I thought The Crow was a bit rough in spots but I liked the sensibility of it.  I mean, anyone who can bring in quotes from the like of Antonin Artuad (“morphine for a wooden leg”) as well as music and literature…that shapes up to be a cool project.  It was a straight out "revenge from the grave" type story but it had mood and as I said, lots of literary nuances scattered throughout which appealed to me.  Much of what ended up being The Crow was redrawn although there are some of the very first pages scattered throughout.

Jim was a great addition to the beginning of Caliber.  It wasn’t just for his series, The Crow, but he seemed to be excited about being a part of an artist community.  The Arrow crew, especially Guy and Vince, had been published and they were all growing in a lot of directions.  At the store, I had some employees who were also artists.  In the early days, there would be some occasions where the artists would come on Friday night, perhaps have some pizza, play video games, and discuss art.  Sketchbooks were started and passed around and sometimes, we’d all go through the submissions.  

O’Barr jumped in and got involved in a lot of different things.  He did some covers, inked over Vince on Deadworld, and did a preview of The Crow for the anthology.  He worked with Guy on the story of IO which was serialized, but only for two parts.  It was intended to be an original graphic novel but ran in the anthology instead but never finished. The IO stories were done under the name of Barb Wire Halo Studios which was Jim and some friends of his.  I guess Guy was part of it for that story. 

I worked with Jim for the first Gideon’s story which was just a quick introduction to how things were set up for the storyline.  I was pretty open about letting Jim use Gideon’s in The Crow but I was a bit surprised to see it in the movie.  But I didn’t care, after all, it was in the comic and I don’t think it damaged my potential use of the character.

Right about the time I got the printing situated, I got a threatening letter from “Hollywood” concerning the name of the anthology, High Caliber.  A producer was doing a movie with the same name starring Sybil Danning.  He threw out some threats and so I changed the name.  I would learn later that he really didn’t have much to threaten me with, but I didn’t know better at the time and since we hadn’t even published the first issue yet, didn’t really matter that much.  So High Caliber became Caliber Presents. . If you look at the first issue, you can see the “High” whitened out in the ads and indicia.  

Then, Cobalt Blue from Gustovich was not going to happen as Mike got too busy with much higher paying jobs so that book was gone.  Also, by now, it was becoming evident that the cost of doing color books was too high so Baker Street would be like the other books, in black and white.  Looking back, probably the best thing that happened as many of the early Caliber creators, like Guy, knew how to draw for black and white.

So, the early announced titles such as Cobalt Blue and Hot Shots didn’t pan out. Titles such as Night Streets and Varcels Vixens were pushed back.  In addition to Caliber Presents, Caliber was releasing two new titles in Baker Street and The Crow with Deadworld and The Realm carrying over from Arrow.  I had high hopes for the two new series and again, the anthology would serve a purpose even if it wasn’t a big money maker.

We printed the books at Preney Printing who handled Cerebus, the AV line, and Renegade Press.  Kim Preney was a great help in how to structure everything and possibly one of the nicest guys in the business. Since they were right across the river in Windsor, it was just a short ride.  The solicitations went out and then the anticipation of the orders.  I had no idea of what to expect.  Black and white books were suffering from the backlash of the boom and bust a few years earlier. I hoped to keep the Deadworld and Realm audience and Vigil would help Caliber PresentsMoontrap would have other outlets so the biggest mysteries were the two new series, Baker Street and The Crow.

The actual first release from Caliber, outside of the Pocket Classics, was Deadworld #10 which came out at the end of 1988.  In early 1989, when most of the books were scheduled (I think for January or February), I found out just how long the printing process took and how artists interpret deadlines.  It was more than just a slight learning curve.

I’m pretty sure that in February of 1989, Realm 14 and Caliber Presents 1 debuted and they were scheduled for January so right out of the gate, we were a bit behind. On the February books, The Crow came out towards the end of March and Baker Street was in April, I think.  Not sure when Moontrap shipped but it was around the same time for the film premiere in Ann Arbor.

If you talk to some people, they “remember” Caliber as the company that produced The Crow as their first title and some have gone so far as to say that Caliber started because of The Crow.  People have to remember that The Crow was completely unknown at the time.  On the first orders of the first six titles, The Crow was actually the worst selling.  Deadworld sold about 11,000 copies, Moontrap around 8,500, Baker Street was about 7,500, Caliber Presents and Realm both did around 6,600.  The Crow had initial orders under 4,000 but because it ran late, more orders came in before printing which bumped it up to t 5,300 copies. Deadworld and Realm were printed pretty close to orders but I took Caliber Presents, Baker Street, and The Crow up to a print run of 10,000. 

The response to the new company and the new titles especially was unexpected and with the official establishment of Caliber at trade shows and conventions, I had no idea of just how fast it would take off.

So, even though things didn’t work out as planned originally, the first few months of starting the company were exciting times with a lot of adjustments and learning.  But I was having a blast.

Next time, I’ll talk about the “coming” out of Caliber and the rapid change of a small company growing, perhaps a bit too rapidly.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Caliber Part 4-The decision

As I said previously, starting a publishing company was not a burning desire of mine. The decision to do so was a matter of circumstances that led to a path that was really never a consideration until I ended up doing it.

I opened my first book store in the early 80’s while still a student in college. As I went on to my Master’s degree, I not only kept up my store but expanded to four stores by the time I graduated. The book store, over time, eventually became a comic shop. Two of the new stores I opened were just comics, no books.

I had also started up conventions during those early years. The first two were held on the campus of Eastern Michigan and then outgrowing that, I moved it to Dearborn. The conventions were important to the start up of Caliber as I got a chance to meet a lot of creators, publishers, and dealers outside of the metro Detroit area and gave me a different insight.

While running the comic shops, I kept up on all the comics as I felt it was important for business. I had read a lot of comics as a kid and I enjoyed seeing what happened to all the characters I grew up with. I had devoured all of the Classics Illustrated as a kid and even though comics had branched out to sophisticated story telling in the early to mid-80’s, I thought that adaptations of classic literature must have an audience. I promoted those types of titles heavily in my store, especially when we carried a full line of books as it seemed a natural cross over.
The Classics Illustrated line was gone (it would be resurrected later by First Comics) and so I looked at types of material that could serve as an introduction to comics. I found a small company that did small paperbacks of the classics in comic book format. The art was simplistic (and un-credited) but these “Pocket Classics” were inexpensive and, I thought, a great bridge to turning book readers into comic readers. I bring this up for multiple reasons but it does help to explain the Tome Press imprint I soon started once Caliber was up and running.

I started carrying the Pocket Classics in my stores. They did okay, not great. I struck a deal with them to distribute them wholesale and decided to bring them to the comics market. After all, if I could move a few copies each of the 60 or so titles, so could other stores. I contacted the many comic distributors about providing the copies and was introduced to the world of distribution. The distributors were receptive to the idea of the Pocket Classics; after all, they would just sell what was ordered by retailers so they were taking no risks. So, that introduced me to the distributors and how that worked. But things were developing on another side of things at the same time and though I did eventually distribute the Pocket Classics, I held off for a bit as I saw them as a tool that could help out another entity… Caliber Comics.

At my main store, I used to bring in guest artists as shops tend to do. Arrow Comics, which had launched during the black and white boom and headed up by Ralph Griffith and Stu Kerr, were frequent visitors as they were local. Most of their creators were as well. Vince Locke lived right down the street from the store and other creators such as Guy Davis, Mark Bloodworth, Susan Van Camp, Randy Zimmerman, Mark Winfrey, Jason Moore, were all relatively close. I also had a cable TV show which was primarily manned by my store manager, Chet Jacques, as well as a radio show. The Arrow crew made appearances at both.

After the black and white bust, many of the publishers had to quit because of mounting unpaid invoices from the distributors. Arrow was one of them. Although I never knew what happened to all the money that Arrow did make when things were going well, I do have to give Ralph and Stu credit for taking care of what they could with Vince and Guy. Both were owed money for work they did on Deadworld and Realm respectively. In lieu of payment, Ralph and Stu transferred the rights to their titles to Vince and Guy.

So, now Vince and Guy had ownership of the first real comics they ever worked on. It was a case of “now what?” They came to me and asked if I could help find a publisher. They knew I was familiar with most of them, primarily from the trade shows which were common back then. Instead of conventions with fans, the trade shows brought together the publishers and retailers. I always found them to be a great benefit, not just from talking with the publishers but also other retailers.

I did talk to a few publishers to see if they would be interested. But this was right after the bust part of the boom-bust of the black and whites so there wasn’t much interest in taking on titles that had already run their course. The new approach was to do high production color comics to compete directly with Marvel and DC and any holdover black and white titles were exceptions that would surely die out quickly. However, I knew that both Deadworld and Realm were not titles thrown out during the boom to jump on a trend…they had each developed quite a core following. Sure, they both started off a bit derivative but they were finding themselves.

With everything going on at the time, finding a publisher was not foremost on my mind. Randy Zimmerman, who probably played as key of a role as a non-owner could in Arrow, launched a new company called Wee-Bee Comics. He took on Deadworld and released a trade collection and also continued The Realm with issue 13. But Wee Bee ended as quickly as it started.

I’m not exactly sure how it finally came together but I found myself telling Vince and Guy that I would publish the books. Not only that, I would start up a whole publishing company. When that decision clicked on, I can’t recall. I’m sure that I didn’t contemplate it for long but I probably looked at it as an extension of the business. Stores, TV show, radio show, conventions…what’s one more thing?

Once I made the decision, there were quite a bit of details to work out. First, I needed a publishing office. I had a very large store…to give you an idea, when I moved out of there, a major drug store chain moved in. I don’t know what the square footage was but it was huge. The warehouse in the back was also enormous and that’s where I had my personal office, room for 100’s if not 1000’s boxes of back stock ( I had recently bought out all the back stock from one of the major distributors who was closing a branch office). I also had a portion of the store that was sectioned off. We used it as a video arcade but by that time, video games were dying off. I moved the games to another section of the store and utilized that part as the Caliber area. It held a couple of desks, drafting table, a conference table, and all the other equipment we needed.

Before I went further, I wanted a name for the company. I felt I needed to give this new company an identity before I started talking more about it. I looked at a lot of names and I set some parameters up for the name. First off, I didn’t want it to sound pretentious. I also wanted to get away from something too generic. I always hated when companies went the opposite of being too lofty and instead went with something too irreverent…you know, such as Dandy Don’s Big Monkey Comics. . I wanted a name that sounded fine as a small press company yet could also fit a much larger company. I felt it was important to keep the name simple yet be able to build a motif around it. I liked the play of being quality as in high caliber…and I felt that I could utilize the weaponry part of the name. It’s kind of funny as I used to get people asking me if the company was Caliber Comics or Caliber Press. It was both; it sort of flipped flopped on a whim. But the trademark is for Caliber Comics.

I had already decided that when I solicited the titles, I was going to include the Pocket Classics as part of the line. For one, I thought it legitimized the company a bit more…gave us more weight as we were bringing known quantities along with the new comic material. I felt stores would pay more attention. I actually talked to the publisher of the Pocket Classics to see if I could reprint the books under the Caliber masthead but that proved to be too expensive. If I just distributed them as is, it was a sure profit.

For financing, my stores were doing well enough that I could funnel everything through there. I think for the first 3-4 years, everything ran through one single company. Caliber was not really a separate entity but just a part of the Reader’s store system. I get asked how much it cost to start Caliber and I usually joke that it was 18 cents as that’s the money I had in my pocket at the time.

So, I had two titles to start the new company plus the distribution deal of the Pocket Classics. I know that the strategy for a lot of companies is to start out small and slowly grow but I felt to make an impact, I had to have a solid lineup of multiple titles. I already had Deadworld and The Realm but I figured I could add to these since both of these were known quantities so if I added two titles, it really would be just two new comics.

I wanted an anthology. I felt that was a great way to find new talent and put them on short projects to see how they worked out. Fanzines had already passed by this time and that’s where a lot of artists got a chance so I figured that if I did an anthology with a fanzine mentality, it could work. Even if it didn’t sell that well, it was a way of trying out new people and not having major risks involved. I added a preview to each issue so it would have some promotional value and I wanted to put in an artist sketchbook feature, not only to fill up pages, but sort of push the different artists. I quickly found that I was getting so much material, I didn’t get the sketch book in until later issues.

With the anthology, at first called High Caliber, I now had three titles. I was looking for a fourth. I was thinking that perhaps I could do a series of one-shots, sort of an extended anthology, but felt it would be too early for that. The line was going to be called First Caliber but I realized that I had to have an ongoing series or at least a 4-5 issue mini-series.

Again, working on royalties, I couldn’t pay people up front. I had budgeted for some advertising, the printing costs up front…but there was no way I could…or wanted to, pay up front for creators. The only exception was for cover artists on the anthology.

I called a meeting of some local artists to let them know that I was starting the publishing company and wanted to see if they would want to be involved. I can’t say for sure who was at that very first meeting but there were frequent meetings and I know that the attendance was varied. The earliest members of the pre-Caliber meetings (I think) were Vince and Guy, of course; Mark Bloodworth, Randy Zimmerman, Dirk Johnston, Alan Oldham, Mark Winfrey, and I think Sandy Schreiber who did some inking on The Realm. I can’t remember if Jason Moore and Susan Van Camp came or not. Of course, I am probably missing some people or perhaps mis-remembering who was there…but these were essentially the people that I was structuring the company around and most were from Arrow except Dirk who was a customer of mine and did some illustrated prints.

Once I announced to the group what the plans were, and I laid out some concrete plans….I was surprised by just how fast those plans unraveled and what became Caliber Comics spun out of a bit of serendipity, luck, and risk.

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