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.


Jason Moore said...

I'll say it again...Thanks for these blogs Gary! It brings back memories of such a great and inspirational time for me as a creator. I'll always look back fondly at my time being with Caliber and being at those meetings and hanging with the crew.

Jon Johnson (Sir) said...

Well, I remember the first Caliber title I picked up, and it was definitely Deadworld. I could barely contain myself when it returned and doubly so when The Realm came back to life. I remember wanting nearly everything Caliber had listed and was pretty disappointed when some didn't show. I got a thick skin from all that, though.

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