Remembering the Self-Publishing Movement continues with today's guest blog by Rick Veitch. Rick's career in comics covers so many aspects it's difficult to know where to begin. His run on Swamp-Thing is legendary, his Rare Bit Fiend dream comics (my personal favorites) are visionary, Brat Pack is a cult phenomenon, his new book Our Army@Love is a hit, and Rick was the main force behind Comicon.com, the website that revolutionized the comics community on line. Both part one and especially part two of his essay on the self-publishers are filled with "Road Bits", little drawings scribbled by everyone into Veitch's notebooks during shows and later in the lounge.
A quick note: Rick brings up "bar signings." Bar cons came about because the self-publishers were often forbidden to do certain things during conventions or retailer meetings; things like causing long lines or selling our books, so we started announcing that we'd be hanging out in the bar, and anyone who wanted to hang with us – - and get a skecth or buy one of our books – - was more than welcome to join us. And join us they did…
Rick Veitch, Part 1:
Self Publishing: My Early Days
The first time I ever heard the phrase "self-publishing" applied to a comic book was in Archie Goodwin's office at Epic circa 1979. Jim Shooter was telling us about a funny animal/barbarian comic that was catching on in the blossoming network of comics specialty stores. That was the first time I ever heard the name "Dave Sim" too.
At that point in time, I had somehow caught the first wave of creator ownership deals ever offered by the New York comics industry. I was deliberately working the EPIC Illustrated "one-time-use" deal for all I could to amass a portfolio of stories and graphic novels that I retained ownership to. So I was intrigued by this concept of "self-publishing".
I ultimately got drawn into it, not via Dave Sim's increasingly public evangelism, but by knowing Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird. They were a couple of fun New England cartoonists I'd met at regional shows who hit the collector motherload with their first self published issue of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. In the wake of their success a glut of other black and white self-published titles erupted into the marketplace causing what I think was the first speculator bubble in the Direct Sales Market.
Creatively content doing SWAMP THING at the time, I luckily dodged that train wreck. But I was meeting regularly with Kevin, Peter, Steve Bissette, Steve Murphy and Michael Zulli to eat greasy diner food and talk about reforming the business. We called ourselves the Blacklist Group, having originally formed to support Murphy and Zulli, who were caught in a shooting-war between their publisher, Dave Sim and Diamond Distribution.
Sim had just found a fresh vein in the market by reformatting CEREBUS into fat graphic novels. He was also self distributing the books to great success. Diamond, then one of a dozen distributors serving the Direct Sales Market, pushed back at Sim by dropping Murphy and Zulli's PUMA BLUES. Dave, who was already actively forming strategic alliances with other self-publishers, turned up the temperature by hosting creator "summits". At one of these, in Northampton MA, a group of us debated and signed the "Creators Bill Of Rights".
In the midst of all this, and much more, I finally jumped into self-publishing; forming KING HELL PRESS in 1989 and releasing a trade paperback collection of THE ONE, originally published as a color Epic Comics Limited Series, the rights of which had reverted back to me. I couldn't manage a color collection, so I rebooted it as a black and white. Sim and Gerhard got me a credit line at Preney Press and the Mirage office helped me through the solicitation process. Steve Bissette corralled Neil Gaiman and Tom Veitch at San Diego for a roundtable on the "Revisionist Superhero" which we included in the back. The end result was a bit crude and weak in the binding, but orders were decent. THE ONE is still in print today (although in a much nicer and sturdier edition).
I was in the process of preparing a new self published title, BRAT PACK, when Kevin Eastman invited me to help brainstorm his next project: a creator-friendly publishing house he named Tundra. One of the plans was for Tundra to act as an exoskeleton for an existing self-publisher; offering marketing muscle, higher production values, printing costs paid and a page rate up front for half the action no strings attached. BRAT PACK, published through Tundra under the King Hell imprint, became it's guinea pig title.
Even though none of us knew what we were doing, the "twisted superheroes" concept of BRAT PACK hit a nerve, and sold well both as a series and a graphic novel. Tundra ultimately moved away from its creator friendly roots before famously flaming out, but King Hell's projects there ended up being good for everybody.
Self Publishing: My Middle Period
When Tundra and Kitchen Sink merged, I left owning 100% of my intellectual properties and half the inventory which I was able to begin moving through existing distribution channels. New King Hell editions of BRAT PACK and MAXIMORTAL, along with THE ONE, form the superheroic spine of my self-published backlist today.
I launched into an Image series with Alan Moore and Steve Bissette, which paid off better than any of us hoped. Steve and I suddenly found ourselves with the grubstakes we needed to really self publish. Dave Sim had formed a traveling group with Larry, Jeff, Colleen, James and Martin and it seemed like a happening thing. Bissette and I slotted right into the mad whirl of the shows that Dave and the original group were doing just as the lava-dome of the Direct Sales Market began to blow flaming chunks.
Even living under a volcano, the carnival atmosphere on the self publisher circuit was great fun and the effort we were all putting in certainly helped promote our books. Amazing cartoonists, like Paul Pope, began climbing out of the woodwork. We could see a sub-market of fans who focused on this kind of stuff developing. There were distributors and want-to-be distributors shadowing us; looking at what we did as a potential profit center. Retailers were a little less supportive, having been burned by the black and white bubble in the late 80's and in the process of trying to digest the Image bubble of the 90's.
Some of the best moments had to be the bar signings. We didn't have swag to give the retailers at staged events like the big publishers routinely did, so we'd set up in a hotel pub and offer free sketches to all comers. I can remember a couple of those scenes that were just howlers.
You'd think that when I returned to self-publishing, I'd have focused on my well established brands. Instead, flush with Image bubble money, I decided to buy myself complete artistic freedom and do a dream comic called RARE BIT FIENDS. I was already writing down my dreams, so it was easy to start making comics from them. The process of doing that kind of art is organic, intuitive and really satisfying on a lot of personal levels. I brought an unusual focus to the dreams I had about my fellow cartoonists, many of whom were self publishers and collaborators.
To anyone interested in this era of self publishing, the first RARE BIT FIENDS collection, RABID EYE, provides a surreal snapshot of who and what we were. On the road, I began carrying a small sketchbook to the after-show parties. I'd open it to any cartoonist who wanted to draw their dream, then assemble the stuff into pages and publish it as ROAD BITS in the next RARE BIT FIENDS. The whole ROAD BITS experience seemed to add a playful creative space in the middle of the nuts and bolts business of selling our books.
There have been previous dream records of art movements, such as the Beats, executed in prose by the likes of jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. But I like to think that RARE BIT FIENDS, with ROAD BITS, is the only graphic dream record of a distinct group of artists. The fact that it occured during a very interesting time in their development, and the development of the field, is even cooler.
I'm sure I confused every BRAT PACK fan that ever lived, but that period when I was doing RARE BIT FIENDS remains the most creatively satisfying of my whole life. During that crazy time, King Hell released 21 monthly issues of RARE BIT FIENDS and two trade collections, RABID EYE and POCKET UNIVERSE. I also managed a fresh edition of THE ONE and a new black and white collection of THE MAXIMORTAL.
But the business of comics was eroding under our feet. Marvel tore the already wounded Direct Market apart by attempting and failing to self distribute, sending all the other comics distributors into a spiral of collapse. By the time Sim launched the "Spirits of Independence" tour the first distributors were dropping out or being gobbled up; the readerships they served vanishing forever.
The last year of the circus was the Spirits Tour, which was really a bunch of small shows put on in various cities by self publishers working with local retailers. I made about half the tour, beginning in Austin. I also helped organize ACE in Manchester Vermont with Steve Bissette and retailer John Rovnak. We had a great show in Manchester and the other ones I attended were good too. The market we'd seen developing was taking on a size and shape that was not unlike the first con I attended in Berkley in 1974. Here were groups of fans, two hundred here, three hundred there, four hundred over here, who were willing to come out and focus completely on self published books.
At the last Spirits show, in Montreal, none of us had been paid by Capital City for over seven months. DC and Image had signed exclusives with Diamond essentially creating two tiers of distribution with small and self publishers on the bottom tier. Marvel moved back into the Direct Market by going exclusive with Diamond which finished off Capital City. But Diamond couldn't assimilate all this and wheels started flying off their operation. King Hell books got caught in a bizarre inventory snafu that stopped all payments from what was then my only distributor. The problem took a year to sort through and in the interim I found myself knocked right out of the batters box.
End of Part 1