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.


Jason Moore said...

I'm loving these blogs Gary! I was indeed among the first meetings you had with the old Arrow crew at the formation of Caliber. I remember all of those you mentioned being at those initial meetings except for Susan VanCamp. I know Varcel's Vixens was one of the intial books released among Realm, Deadworld and Caliber Presents...but I just can't recall her being at those meetings. Any clue what ever happened to John Dennis who took over The Realm after Guy left? I can't find any mention of him anywhere online on any of the social media sites, not through Google.

Gabriel said...

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