By the fourth year of Caliber, we were considered by many a proven company. We had launched with both critical picks and commercial hits---but often, one title was not both---and had built up a good following and outside of some scheduling problems (an accompaniment to creator owned comics), had provided a reliable product. But a huge change, one that was totally unpredicted was about to occur.
In 1993, Caliber merged with Stabur Publishing. Stabur was owned by Paul Burke who lived in the same area as I did and who I first met at conventions. We became friends and discussed business often. Stabur at that time was releasing the Stan Lee How to Videos which had Stan interviewing many of the top creators in comics. Paul was also the force behind a series of cartoonist prints by the greats in the industry, and was also doing a series of Glamour prints. It was Paul who connected me with Rocky Horror for our comic adaptation.
Paul was expanding into a lot of different areas. He opened the idea of bringing our two companies together and combined, we could have the synergistic ability to do more. It was quickly set up as both of us agreed and the two companies merged together with the notion that for the most part, things at Caliber would continue as before but with hopefully, more opportunities.
Things exploded on the Stabur end initially. We ended up in discussions with some major players in developing product. There were a number of meetings with Disney, Penthouse Magazine, the Miss America pageant, Romantic Times (magazine about romance novels), and many more. We would be launching a series of books based within Disney and on the other side; we would be doing a special 25th anniversary on Penthouse Magazine. One of the jobs we had would be to go to New York into the files of Penthouse and sort through all the photos of the Pets to choose the shots we wanted to include. It was amazing to see the effects of air-brushing and breast implants on the newer years compared to the earlier years.
While all this was going on, Paul received a call from Todd McFarlane. Todd had met Paul during the shooting of the Stan Lee videos and Paul had produced some specialized and limited jewelry for the Spawn line (rings, pendants, etc). Todd knew Paul was involved in lots of different things and wanted to discuss the idea of toys with Paul. At this time, Todd was receiving offers from the major toy companies to do toys based on Spawn. Todd was hesitant, first off on what changes they might want to make to a “devil spawned” figure and also of the quality that existed in toys at the time. He and Paul talked with essentially the discussion boiling down to if Todd wanted to have great toys, he would have to do it himself. And of course, Paul could make that happen.
So, Todd and Paul had decided to co-own a company to make Spawn toys. At the Michigan office where Stabur/Caliber was at (it was actually the Stabur/Caliber offices and Todd was in Arizona), we sat down to discuss the formation of the new company. It was Paul, I, and Bill Martin who was formerly a manager for a major printing press company in Detroit. Bill’s expertise was in production. As we discussed how to make a toy company, we realized that although none of us really had much of an idea on how to do it, we knew we could figure it out. One of the key occurrences was that one of the graphic designers we used had a brother that was a toy designer in New Jersey. We contacted them and thus, AEB (Ed Frank and Tony Bilotto) were brought in to design the toys.
It was at this stage that things moved the Spawn toys into the direction that would make them unique. The edict from Todd was that he wanted cool toys- that’s what mattered the most. Cost and even sales were not important. If only a handful of toys would end up being produced, well, at least they would be cool. The designers were given the okay to go all out and design the ultimate toys and not worry too much about cost or what was the “norm.” As Ed and Tony designed the toys, Todd would look at the pictures and prototypes and suggest changes. Some were minor, some major but again, the thought was to just make them cool and whatever happened after that didn’t matter as much.
On the management side (in Michigan), we had to develop all of the other considerations. We had to structure the company, handle all the financing and logistics, and figure a way to make it all work. Paul handled almost all the financial part, Bill dealt with the production aspects such as finding manufacturers in China and tooling companies and I sort of structured the office. I hired a lot of people the first couple of years and I almost always hired people on what they could do rather than what they’ve done in the past. I felt that intelligent people with the ability to see things in different ways was more important than their educational degree. Don’t get me wrong, I value education as extremely important, but sometimes intelligence and degrees don’t coincide. I also dealt a lot with PR and promotions, including buying TV spots which was something totally foreign to me. But almost everything we did at the beginning was by informal committees but as the company grew, we had to start specializing in certain areas.
As I had a background in comics and also as a comics retailer (in fact, while all of this was going on, I was still publishing Caliber, had taken over Stabur as President, and still had my comic shops) that the collector’s market was huge. People would pay more for quality and you could turn toys into collector items, not just based on nostalgia, which was the collectors’ market for toys at that time, but also on supply and demand. Of course, the others saw this as well, it wasn’t just my idea. I did push strongly for a collectors club and that proved to be a very successful part of the toy line for years to come.
We ended up hiring a sales manager and we got a guy that knew the corporate world but also could fit into the collectors’ world. The launch at Toy Fair was a simple affair, mostly just pictures but the reaction was amazing. As we started talking to the major chains such as Toys R Us, Wal-Mart, and others, we also offered specialized variants which for the most part, toys didn’t do at that time.
I think one of the key things that launched the company to such heights was the Malebolgia figure. It was heavy…almost too heavy to hang on the stores’ shelves. If I remember right, we made very little money on the Malebolgia figure (maybe even cost us money to make). We decided to pack one Malebolgia figure to each case and so that was the “chase” figure. You wanted a Malebolgia, buy a case. We later found out that at Christmas time, a lot of the part time employees, hired for the season, would rifle through all the cases and pull out the Malebolgia figure and so they never even made the shelves.
The launch was incredible and we went from a startup company to a company that had revenues over 10 million dollars in the first full year and the company would grow almost exponentially from there. It was a whirlwind of growth in all aspects. When we started, it was essentially three guys in Michigan and Todd in Arizona. After the first year, we had new offices, a warehouse, and offices in AZ, NJ, and China. I think we hit around 40 people on the payroll.
When I look back on the time at the toy company, which was about three years, I think I played a key role. In the early days, we sat around and figured out what we could and everyone contributed to the overall success. It wasn’t a case of stumbling around in the dark, we lined up what we had to do and figured out how to do it. The only time we ever really made mistakes were when we came down to the traditional methods of “doing things” and that wasn’t too often. So, I was a key member but I certainly wasn’t indispensible. I realize it would’ve happened if I wasn’t there but I can feel I was part of it. But making toys was not something I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing but I enjoyed it for the time I was involved.
Of course, while all of this was going on with the toy company, Caliber was still moving along and I’ll come back to that next time.