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.


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