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 Presents. Deadworld 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 Crow. Baker 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.