Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Idea of Caliber Part 2

The idea to start up Caliber was not to fulfill a dream or to set up a revolutionary new type of company. I mean, Caliber was hardly revolutionary in how it was structured or what it published. I’m not being overly modest here, just honest. Did we publish good stuff?…hell yes…well, most of the time. There are still some cringe worthy titles that somehow slipped through but I must have thought it was a good idea at the time.

I was very careful in the early days about how I touted the company. I didn’t claim that I was setting a new standard, or doing something different…you know, revolutionary. I saw the publishing as an opportunity to put out some good books and hopefully, to make money at doing so. Having great intentions always have to be balanced on a financial end, otherwise, you can’t continue. I let the work speak for itself and promoted the titles because after all, there was no real theme that connected the offerings…something like a shared universe or something.

In fact, when I hear about a new company announcing itself as “revolutionary”, I find myself dismissing the company right from the get go. For one, I hate hyperbole, but usually if a company is spouting off how they’re so different, or unique even, they likely don’t have a firm understanding of the comics market.

I think what drove me to enter publishing, besides the opportunity that presented itself as I will explain in more detail next time, was joining the movement of how comics were changing. I grew up reading comics but as an adult, I had little interest. About the time I started my book stores and subsequently picking up lines of comics in order to get kids into the store---which shows you how much I knew at the time as even back then, adults were a substantial part of the readers---I did start to read them again. It was primarily out of nostalgia…to see what happened to the characters I grew up with. I was quite surprised.
The 1980’s were a dramatic shift in what comics could be. Of course, the Big Two were revamping their characters but I found myself immersed in what was collectively called the “independents”. Sure, DC had Alan Moore on Saga of the Swamp Thing and Watchmen and Karen Berger was putting together what eventually would evolve into Vertigo and Marvel had Frank Miller on Daredevil and the output from Epic Comics. But, it was the independents that illustrated to me that comics were erupting with adult tales and themes and that comics could really be expressed as a viable medium for telling sophisticated stories.
The decade had the launch of companies such as Pacific, First, Eclipse (although officially they started I the 70’s), Comico, and many others. I don’t want to do a history here but there were some incredible comics that came out at this time…Miracleman, Grimjack, American Flagg, Grendel, and far too many to list.

At that time however, most of those titles seemed to be coming from “big” companies…I had no idea of just how small many of them were or how fragile their economics were. And the idea of doing color books on glossy paper just didn’t seem feasible with a limited budget. You also have to remember that the idea of publishing comics was not one that I dwelled on for a long period…again, an opportunity presented itself so this internal debate that I think back on was probably over a matter of weeks, maybe only days.
By the time Caliber started up, somewhere in late 1988 but in reality, the initial publishing schedule was in 1989, the black and white explosion and implosion---the boom and bust---had already passed. So, as a publishing factor, that fact was seen as a negative as many people were shying away from anyone trying to launch a bunch of new titles. You know how it is, a trend can come and go yet you often times have people still trying to jump on a bandwagon that has already derailed. 

But what the black and white boom-bust had done was to bring the mechanics of publishing and distributing out of that mysterious realm that corporations live in. These new companies were providing professionally printed material (and I will grant, that there were many misses as far as content goes…but there were some excellent titles) and had an equal standing in terms of promotability with the well established “corporate” companies. These upstarts were instantly on the same level as far as opportunity goes. As a retailer, the black and white boom was a huge success for my stores. We did exceptionally well with it overall. Yes, I got hurt a bit at the end, but probably not nearly as bad as others. During the heyday, I ended up becoming a de facto sub distributor for awhile as I seemed to have a good handle on what had true selling power as opposed to being just a simple gimmick. I certainly missed out on some but overall, I did quite well with the black and white glut.

Overall, that black and white explosion built on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles phenomena, proved that virtually any one can publish comics and just like my previous experience in opening stores, running conventions, having a TV show, maintaining a radio show, etc., I knew that I could figure it out. One of the mottos that I’ve always had with people was “just do it” (that was before Nike) which means don’t get caught up in what can or cannot be done, just delve into it. If it proves to be something that is too involved, well, weigh all the options and make a decision.

So, I just did it. I’ll go into more detail next time about the actual sequencing of things but once I got started on the path, I didn’t feel any sense of anxiety. I had limited my exposure by doing something that seemed sensible to me, yet curtailed any massive amount of money to be spent. I decided to do creator owned books ala Pacific, Eclipse, and the others. Now, it wasn’t purely economics that made that decision for me. I realized I had never thought about the comics world and how all of these writers and artists were basically creating characters and not only for a company but they weren’t even acknowledged. I had assumed that authors owned their books, musicians their music, screenwriters their stories, etc…which of course, is not always the case but the idea of creating something and not owning it seemed…well, bizarre. Now, I see both sides and the advantages and disadvantages (as long as people know and are willingly making a choice…usually for upfront money or exposure) but back then, it didn’t sit well. I never even considered the idea of the comics not being owned by their creators.
The structure of the company was based around releasing creator owned comics. As anyone who deals with purely creator owned titles can attest, the outlay in most cases is far less, but there’s a whole set of other problems that accompany that economic method. It really wasn’t even a decision that I had to make, it just was the way it was going to be. I had no interest in starting up a company to launch a bunch of characters that I owned and finding some other ways to exploit them. I wasn’t interested in owning anything, unless of course, I created it. The details next time on what became the initial launch of Caliber, but I wanted to acknowledge certain titles that sort of set the standard of what I envisioned Caliber could and should be.

When I envisioned what kind of titles I was interested in publishing, there were quite a few titles in existence either at that time or just a few years prior. In my head, I saw these types of titles as what I would like to publish. It wasn’t that they were best sellers, because many of them were not, but just the type of material that I wanted to release…to share with others. You know how it is, you read a good book or see a great film, there’s that enjoyment of knowing other people also enjoy it. Again, there were so many great titles coming out in the 80’s but the following are the ones that stood out to me as “Caliber-like” in terms of what I liked and what was feasible (which meant no color).
Renegade Press had a huge impact on me with titles such as Cases of Sherlock Holmes that was illustrated by the Day Brothers and Wordsmith from Dave Darrigo and R.G. Taylor. It isn’t surprising that eventually Caliber would end up publishing both after Renegade faded away. Another title I liked a lot from Renegade was Silent Invasion which also would move to Caliber for a short run. But if I had to pick a single title that epitomized what I envisioned Caliber could be, it would be from Renegade’s precursor, A-V International and that was Puma Blues, from Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli. It showed how magnificent black and white artwork could be. The story was dense, surreal and dreamlike but powerful. I’m not saying that it propelled me on my path but it was something that I held in high regard and felt that is what independent comics can be.

When I look back over the many titles we did under the Caliber imprint, I think the success rate was pretty damn high in terms of matching what I originally intended.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Regarding Caliber part 1

In the last year, there has been a growing groundswell regarding creator owned comics. In many minds, the Big Two are just now corporations making comics purely for exploitative purposes and the comics limp along….lifeless even though every year the characters are reinvented.

This movement has coincided with a renewed interest in my former publishing company, Caliber Comics. Part of this interest of course, is the availability of social sites such as Facebook which is a great tool to reconnect with former colleagues. But another part is the desire to go back to the days when creator owned comics had outlets such as Caliber, or Slave Labor, or many of the other companies that were around in the 1980’s and through the 90’s. Of course, today, we have the powerhouse of all creator owned comics in Image yet they are still tainted with a stigma in the eyes of some for the devastation in bringing the market to its knees (an incorrect blame, by the way).

Caliber was a company of the 1990’s although officially it launched late in the 80’s. Over the 11-12 years of operation, it produced about 1,300 comics and 70 graphic novels. It received over 40 nominations in the various industry awards (Harvey, Eisner, Don Thompson) and had 5 nominations for Best New Talent in the Russ Manning Awards.

There was a lot of competition during this time period and getting any kind of market share was very tough. In addition to all the “big guys”, there were many small independent companies also vying for the same market. We seldom made the Top 10 but one month, did move up to #8 in market share.

What I did with Caliber wasn’t anything original and many companies were set up the same. I essentially offered creators a chance to publish their books and mostly it was a simple profit sharing, with the creators getting 60% and Caliber retaining 40%. That profit sharing is sort of the model for companies before, during, and after Caliber’s run. There were some differences, of course, as some companies took more (some took less) and a variety of different aspects factored into the accounting. At Caliber, we handled everything with our 40% including overhead, promotion, and often provided a lot of design work. I’d estimate that over half of the logos used on creators’ books, for example, were designed by us.

I think what made Caliber different was because we were different. There really wasn’t any house style or type of material published by Caliber. There was tremendous diversity within the publishing line and what Caliber published was primarily based on what I liked. However, there were some titles that I was personally not too enamored with but I thought they were worthwhile projects so I published them. I tended to stay away from superhero titles but Caliber certainly published a good many of those, but usually for a specific reason.

The promotional part of the company gets over-shadowed quite a bit. Sure, we did the general ads that ran in publications such as Comic Buyer’s Guide and many other magazines at that time, but we reached out to a lot of retailers directly. We attended most of the distributor trade shows in addition to conventions, and produced our monthly Caliber Rounds. Rounds was a newspaper format hype sheet which sometimes ran up to 24 pages. In addition to solicitation information, we had interviews with the creators, preview art, and anything else to push the titles. We produced promotional trading cards, posters, sell sheets, and anything else we could think of to promote the line. Granted, it was a different time back then and especially with all the distributors, it was easier to get to all the retailers.

One advantage we had was the cross pollination ads in the different books and I used the Caliber Presents anthology to promote artists with the sketchbook feature and we often ran a preview of an upcoming title.

When people discuss Caliber with me, there are a few questions that repeatedly come up. One if why I stopped publishing and as frequently, is how Caliber got its start. I often get asked if something like Caliber could exist in today’s market and recently, a lot of inquiries regarding whether I plan to bring Caliber back.

I appreciate the interest and I plan to go over those questions and more on this blog. I haven’t kept up on the blog as I keep promising myself to do but that’s sort of a sign of the times as blogs have faded with the immediacy and access of sites such as Facebook. But blogs still can serve a purpose of expanding certain areas and so I will give a narrative of Caliber. I don’t plan on doing a sequential history of the company as that just sounds too formal…and frankly, a bit daunting.

Even though I was the owner of Caliber, it is important to note, and I plan to do so, to bring up other people that worked for Caliber as they played key roles. Caliber was not just me although I will take the lion’s share of the credit, of course…but also any of the blame for things that need blaming.

I’m always surprised by the reaction to Caliber by many people and the fondness that so many people remember. That is appreciated more than people may realize. I think what made Caliber unique to some extent was the camaraderie that existed with the creators amongst themselves and with the Caliber staff. I know a lot of them have become very close with each other and I’ve developed some lifelong friendships with some.

Feel free to pepper me with questions about anything and I’ll be glad to answer what I can.

Next time, I’ll start off with the beginnings of Caliber and try to dissuade some beliefs of what was behind it all.

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