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.


Jason Moore said...

I can already tell.... I going to love this series of posts. Looking forward to them Gary!

J.M. Martin said...

I'm with you, Jason. Having been on staff at Caliber for a while, I still find this glimpse into Gary's mind and the whole origin of Caliber fascinating.

Jason Moore said...

I agree! I was around at the very beginning of Caliber when it was in the back of Gary's store in Westland. Very influential times for me, even though I bet Gary never knew that! LOL

Jon Johnson (Sir) said...

As a huge Caliber fan, I can see I'm going to enjoy this deep, revealing search into the past. Uh, that didn't sound like we're all too old, did it?

Anonymous said...

All ways said this would make a great documentary.

Gary F.

Oneiros said...

Excellent posts as always Gary.

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