Friday, April 13, 2012

Caliber pt. 12- Caliber and troubles

Well, getting close to wrapping up the discussion on Caliber. I think probably two more posts as I want to concentrate on what’s happening now. But again, I get asked so often about this time period and people seem to have a genuine interest so I do want to sort of conclude it.

I left off last time talking about my discussion with Todd McFarlane about not only my future as Vice President of his company but Caliber as well. It had become an either or situation…either Caliber is rolled into McFarlane Productions or Caliber (and me) leave. Of course, I was torn. Obviously, I didn’t want to abandon Caliber as I had put so much into it over the years. But, even though I did not own any of McFarlane Toys, I was one of the founders and had seen a handful of us take an idea and spin it into an industry changing multi-million dollar company in less than three years. So, there was a bit of sadness in contemplating leaving something.

But there was also anger. Not resentful anger but more of a frustrational one. I think the problem was that others couldn’t conceive on my ability to multi-task in so many areas. I was VP of the toy company, publisher of a major independent company (Caliber), writing a number of titles on a regular basis, and owner of a chain of comic shops. I assume they (and I was never sure of who “they” were…it could’ve been just Todd) were worried about burn out on my end. And I know Todd was a huge believer in not letting work consume your life and to make sure there was balance of work and home. Yet, I maintained that. I was with my kids in the morning as they got ready for school, I was home just about every night for dinner and we all ate together (and I usually prepared dinner), I never missed any of the kids’ events, etc. Sure, I would go back in later at night to work or work from home, but that’s what I did instead of watching TV or movies. I think I did a good job of maintaining a proper balance of work and home even though others may not have seen it.

I think I was also very good at recognizing the skill sets of employees and giving them the opportunity to do their job, which of course, lessened my direct involvement. I was never a micro-manager but saw myself as an overseer and let people do the job they were hired for. At my stores, I had good managers and with Caliber I had Jim Pruett and other editors were perfectly fine in fitting my concepts into theirs. I had a staff at the toy company and a personal assistant that I swear could read my mind.

So, I was a bit pissed about the whole situation as I felt that someone else’s guidelines were being applied to me. But at the same time, I understood I was drawing a salary from McFarlane Toys and it was to be expected that I would devote ALL my time to it. I got that and if I was in his position, I’d likely do the same thing. I’m not trying to placate anyone but just accepting how I really would’ve felt if the roles were reversed. I also got the idea of rolling Caliber into McFarlane Productions…it made sense, a lot of sense.

When Todd and I talked, I really had no idea of what I was thinking. We talked a long time and I don’t want to get into what was essentially a private conversation but it was a pleasant one and not an ultimatum filled one. I had always gotten along with Todd pretty well and we both knew the extent of what we were discussing. It was at one point that made my mind up. Todd was explaining that if he was going to be in charge of Caliber, he was the guy in charge and I’d have to live with that. Then he said, for example, he might decide that one month, all Caliber titles would have to be purple. I remember a long period before I responded. It wasn’t about the “purpleness” --- Todd often used extreme examples to get the point across as the point was the important thing, not the example. I mean, I knew he wasn’t going to make all the covers purple but it was to showcase the situation. And when I answered, I knew my mind was made up and so did Todd.

I said I don’t like purple.

Todd said something to the effect of “there you go” and that was pretty much it. Again, for Todd, it was one conversation of dozens likely that day but for me, it was a major dramatic shift. Now, I had planned on all the contingencies and so I had gone through the numbers over and over. I’m pretty handy with excel spreadsheets and I worked out so many different scenarios of Caliber on its own. I felt that it could do quite well. When it came down to making the decision, my always supportive wife said do what I felt was right, nothing else mattered.

So, I left. Of course, I took Nate Pride (production) and Jim Pruett (editor) with me. I also took my assistant, Nancy Durand as well as Joe Martin and Tim Parsons. I took a couple of other people who would help with warehousing and mailings. I found a building not too far from the toy company and also near my house and it was not an elaborate place but very nice…actually sort of Zen like and everyone had their own offices plus we had quite a few common areas and large enough basement to serve as the warehouse.

The relationship with the toy company remained as people would go back and forth for lunches and we even formed a joint team for softball leagues. I visited the toy company probably a couple of times a week so the split was very amicable.

With Caliber at this time, things were shifting quite a bit. I was bringing in more company owned titles and we were branching out to quite a few name creators. Joe Pruett was hired and moved up from Atlanta to serve as Creative Director and was instrumental in obtaining a number of major series from big names. The Caliber lineup was always changing as creator owned titles moved in and out. Brian Bendis had left and gone to Image. I worked with David Mack on where to take Kabuki as he wanted to do it in color and the fact was, we couldn’t sell enough in color but if he took it to an independent company that could sell color titles, he’d get enough sales. Sure enough, when he went to Image, his sales skyrocketed. Same creator, same book…just different logo on the front. Such is the comics biz.

But Caliber had some great titles as along with Moebius Comics, we had Garth Ennis and John McCrae on Dicks, plus Maze Agency and Mr. Monster returned. We had signed up Whitley Streiber’s Communion and Brian Lumley’s Necroscope and relaunched the acclaimed Mr. X in both a comic series and full length stories in a science fiction themed anthology called New Worlds.

I think that first year was the best selling year in the history of the company.  I know on a personal level, they were the best times I ever had with Caliber. The Caliber staff got along very well and I think everyone worked really hard yet also had a great time. It was one of those fun places for just about everyone working there. Even now, many of the guys, and I keep in constant touch with almost all of them; say it was the best job they ever had.

Obviously, it wouldn’t last. Problems appeared on a number of different fronts. For one, our graphic novel printer screwed up and our graphic novels fell apart. Caliber was big on graphic novels and that put a severe dent in our reputation. We had nearly 70 graphic novels before the whole graphic novel explosion took off. The printer agreed to reprint all the books and they sent them out to the comic shops but after about a month, those too started falling apart. It was not only financially devastating, it was embarrassing. All we could do is have a toll free line that people could call and we would ship a replacement copy out, no questions asked. However, we found after almost two years of doing this, we still had a number of calls coming in, we found out a couple of creators were selling the defective books to fans and then telling them to call us for free replacements.

It was also at this time that we realized just how bad the sorting of the Power Cardz had been. We had purchase orders in the millions of dollars and when the printer screwed up the allocation of the cards, the purchase orders were cancelled or product returned. It was a massive blow, I mean, a massive blow…especially to Joe and Tim who had worked on the cards some 16 hours a day for months on end. They were also to benefit from a bonus based on profit for their work and now there would be no profit, in fact, money would be lost. I ended up suing the printer and it took years to get settled but by then, the printer had gone bankrupt and I got nothing but the victory in court.

There were some other situations that occurred about the same time, all hitting Caliber with some extreme problems. From our printer rep committing fraud to a printer deciding to use Fedex for overnight delivery on 1,000’s of books because they blew the deadline, none were as major as the Power Cardz screw-up which was like a punch that totally deflated everything.

Even with all the problems and situations, I think we were pretty resilient and managed to construct some strategies that might just see us through but eventually, there were just too many things…most out of our control, that Caliber…or rather what I wanted Caliber to be…couldn’t survive.


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