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.

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