Monday, August 1, 2011

Writing Part 7 (Comics Part 4)

Continued from my previous blog...

I'm a little fuzzy on the dates of some of the following, but the general sequence of events is correct.

In the summer if 1991, I believe, I was reading an issue of The Comics Buyers Guide, a weekly newspaper dedicated to comics fandom (one of the first and longest running mags about comics). There was a brief, two-paragraph article announcing the formation of the Xeric Foundation. Peter Laird, artist of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and multi-gazillionaire by this point had formed Xeric to fund charitable organizations in his home state (Vermont at the time, I think, but don't quote me on that), and to give money to comics creators for the purpose of self-publishing. There wasn't a lot of specific info but there was an address to write to for more information.

We literally had a letter in the mail the next day. Within a few days we received a packet of information giving us the guidelines. Essentially, we had to write a full grant proposal. We needed to submit a publishing plan, a proposed budget, story outlines, artwork, a marketing plan... the whole bit. The deadline by which all of this had to be turned in by was the following January, I think. We were good to go with the story outline and artwork, but the rest of that stuff was a little out of our area of expertise. I had had a grant-writing class in undergrad, but remembered very little of it. We asked around for some input, but essentially we figured a lot of it out on our own.

Let me stress again, this was pre-internet, so the option of typing a few questions into a search engine or sending emails simply was not an option. I'm not even sure how we figured some of this stuff out. We wrote to several of the comics distributors (this was in the day when there were several distributors, instead of just Diamond), and received packets of info from them in terms of what they needed from a new publisher. After talking to a couple of local printing companies we discovered none of them had the slightest clue of how to print comics. Somehow we found out what printer Fantagraphics used to print their books (we had decided on a black and white magazine-sized format like Love & Rockets was printed). I don't know if there was an article someplace, or if the printer was listed in some of their comics, or if there was an ad, or if I simply called information and got Fantagraphics number and called them. I was much better at doing that sort of thing in those days. I spoke directly to the guy who printed L&R and he knew exactly what we wanted. He sent us paper stocks to compare, both interior pages and cover stocks. He explained what he needed for the color covers. He told us what a print run would cost and how much they would charge us for shipping to the various distributors.

So we wrote the proposal, using all of this information to come up with a budget and a plan. After a lot of sweat we sent it in. We included copies of our mini-comics to show what the final product would look like. Then we waited.

I honestly don't remember if we found out through the mail or a phone call, but sometime in 1992 we were told we had been awarded the Grant.

Xeric has funded eight projects a year (two sets of four every six months or so) starting in 1993 and continuing up until this year. In July, 2011 it was announced that the Xeric Foundation was officially coming to an end. Some figures say they awarded over two and a half million dollars in the course of their existence. I know of two other Xeric winners in Pittsburgh. Tom Scioli won in 1999 for Myth of 8-Opus. Tom has gone on to work for the major publishers, most notably on Godland for Image. Rachel Masilimani won in 2000 for RPM Comics. Many of the recipients went on to regular comics careers.

We were one of the first four projects funded. Now all we had to do was publish the book.

Our contact person at the Xeric Foundation was a lovely woman named Kendall Clark Engleman. We never met, but she was amazingly patient and helpful in every phone conversation we had. She let us know that since this was the first time the Award had been granted they were all completely new to this process and were learning what to do the same time as we were. It made the experience less stressful somehow, knowing that they were, at times, stumbling for answers as well.

Fred and I actually filled out the paperwork to become a Limited Partnership. We got a tax ID number, a business bank account, and a giant checkbook. During this time we were both working as temps, and doing freelance art and writing, as well as this business endeavor... our taxes were a giant pain in the ass the next year.

Around that same time I started teaching a class on Comics for Kids through the Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC). I answered an ad looking for people to teach various specialty courses. The proposal I sent was for an adult class, but I think someone there just couldn't imagine that comics could be for adults. Imagine my surprise when I showed up for my first class and it was a room full of ten-year-olds. This was not the class I thought I was teaching and I was simply not prepared with appropriate material at all. But, the class was scheduled to run for 12 weeks or so, and they were paying me at a time when those temp check were spread pretty thin. So I improvised. I improvised every semester for the next three or four years. It was a good experience. One of my students was Eddie Piskor, who has since gone on to a career as a professional comics artist. He has worked with Harvey Pekar on American Splendor, The Beats and Macedonia. He has created his own series of graphic novels called Wizzywig, and did the character design for the Cartoon Network Adult Swim series Mongo Wrestling Alliance. I'm incredibly proud of Ed, and happy that now he is an adult we have developed a friendship.

Anyway, back to the Xeric experience...

The size we had published the mini-comics was proportional to the magazine format we wanted, so we really didn't need to change the art (that was planned from the beginning for just this reason). We planed on using the first two stories we had published, You Make Me Feel Like Dancing and Wild Universe for the Xeric issue. It would have been easy to simply use the already finished pages. But no, we had to make life difficult for ourselves. By this time it had been a year or two since we had drawn that minis and we knew we were better artists. So we redrew the entire first story. When that was done we redrew the entire second story.


But it was worth it. We really were better artists the second time around. We didn't change the layouts or page design or elements of the storytelling at all, but Fred re-penciled and re-lettered, and I re-inked every bloody page. If you compare the two versions side-by-side you can see the difference. We can, anyway. We added a couple of new intro pages, as well as a couple of chapter headers, wrote an editorial, designed and produced the front and back covers and we were ready to go.

While we were doing that we were also doing the business end of things. We wrote to the distributors again to see exactly what we needed to do to solicit a comic through them. There were very specific guidelines from each company. In the end I believe we were carried by four distributors: Diamond, Capitol City, Heroes World, and Styx Publications, a Canadian distributor. Diamond was the least helpful of them all. The others sent very professional packets of info to us with everything we needed to do business with them. Diamond returned our original letter with brief answers to our questions hastily scribbled in the margins. As a result our info got to Diamond a couple of days after their deadline (which they hadn't bothered to tell us). Were still included in the catalog, but were in the “other comics” section in the back instead of an alphabetical by company listing in the main part of the book. Capitol City and Heroes World both hooked us up. At both companies someone on staff really took a liking to the packet we sent them. Not only was our listing in the main catalog but in both we received little promo boxes as one of their Indy picks for the month.

Styx solicitation page.
This has the solicitation for issue #2 as well, which makes me think
we solicited through them a little later than the others.
Heroes World solicitation.
Diamond solicitation.
Capitol City solicitation.

At the same time, Comics Buyers Guide was running sample pages of indy comics in their weekly paper. We sent the entire first story and they printed it. I have to believe that got us some notice and sales.

Finally, we sent it to the printer. It hit the comics shops in June of 1993 (it was drastically overshadowed by the same-day release of the first Batman/Grendel crossover by Matt Wagner). The Xeric Foundation paid all of the bills and we got to keep the profits from whatever we sold.

You can read the entire issue at Drunk Duck, as well as see a whole bunch of other Grey Legacy related artwork.

We didn't exactly light the 90's on fire. If you know anything about the comics scene in 1993 you know that small press, black and white books from unknown creators was not what was hot at the time (Jeff Smith's Bone notwithstanding). We weren't Spawn or Youngblood, and we hadn't killed Superman in our pages. Our book, while I believe in it, was never going to be the biggest thing in the comics market, but man did we pick a bad year to be Alternative.

We did signings at several local comics shops, including my current place of employment, Phantom of the Attic. We appeared there with artist Steve Lieber who was drawing Hawkman at DC at the time. He's done a ton of stuff since, including the art on the comic Whiteout which became a movie. We did a few conventions, this time with an actual book in our hands. We met Wayno (he was in Wavemakers with us) at a Pittsburgh Con and discovered he lived here too (I still see Wayno on a fairly regular basis at comics events). In 1994 we were among the dozen or so publishers at the very first Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, along with Dave Sim, Steve Bissette and a small handful of others. SPX still exists. The last time I went there were dozens and dozens of publishers represented (take a look at this year's enormous guest list here).

We went to a huge Philadelphia convention to promote the book. We weren't official guests, just attendees, but we had a book and a lot of flyers, and we wanted to show it to some people. Peter Laird was there, so we got the chance to thank him in person. He told us he thought we had a “really good book.” Scott McCloud was a guest in Artist's Alley. This was the year that his acclaimed Understanding Comics was published. Unfortunately for him, fortunately for us, far more people were interested in getting their picture taken in the Spawn-Mobile than in talking to him about comics. So while the line for that wrapped around the convention center we pretty much had Scott all to ourselves. I had been a huge fan of his book Zot! and Scott was one of the creators who had always written back to us offering encouragement and support. While looking through Grey Legacy he paused at what was then, and is still, my favorite page from the book. He said, more to himself than to us, “Wow... this is really strong work.”

My knees went a little weak. We gave him a copy of the book, but he bought a t-shirt from us.

Given everything we had going against us we did pretty well. We made some money, some from the distributors, some from selling our books by hand, some through the mail. More importantly, we received a lot of feedback, most of it overwhelmingly positive.

We started production of issue #2. Two-thirds of it had appeared in the mini-comics. But, we were burnt out. One of the lessons we learned is that there was no way we could produce a book of that size on anything resembling a regular schedule. Fred and I, for the first time, started to get on each others nerves. The deadlines and pressure to produce, coupled with the need to promote our work, and the need to pay our bills (still working as temps and living check to check at this point, even with the bump in our finances from the comic), really started to show. I want to stress that even with this, he and I never really fell out or fought. The friendship was and is more important. He hit a fairly major artist's block that I know frustrated him far more than it did me. It took him a long time to work through it. He did though, and these days is working pretty regularly as an artist for Topps Trading Cards doing Wacky Packages and Garbage Pail Kids (check out his stuff here). I'm sure I brought my own issues to the table as well.

I'm sad to say Grey Legacy #2 has never seen the light of day. To save our sanity and our friendship (though, really, that part was never in question), we backed away from it. We still have the pages, and periodically we both talk about finally finishing it. I would like to, and so would he, and if the time is ever right it may happen. But it's not as important to me now as it was then.

In the meantime, we didn't come close to selling the entire print run of Grey Legacy #1. Someone else paid for it, and after the initial set-up costs of the printer additional copies were negligible. So we way over-printed. Fred and I both have unopened boxes of the first issue in our basements. Someday I'll figure out a way to sell them online that doesn't involve more envelopes and stamps than I want to deal with (though a SASE with cash in it would be a return to the starting point of all of this).

Other than random drawings here and there it would be the fall of 2009 before I produced another full comic book, this time on my own. I wasn't idle all those years. My art took a back seat to my writing.

More on that next time.

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