War And Peace Version
Like all liberal arts college students, I adopted emblems
and mannerisms with which to exhibit my individuality. Mine were greasy
hair, a sparse beard, a ridiculous and omnipresent hat, editing the school
newspaper, listening to Zappa, and reading comic books. Only Zappa stuck,
thankfully, but the affectation that lasted second longest – and did the
most to establish my adult public identity – was comics. My tastes were
typical for someone of my generation, but not my age. By college, instead
of graduating to Underground comics or giving up the hobby altogether,
I was stuck in 16-year-old mode, collecting and reading just about every
Marvel Comics superhero title published.
By 1980 I was two years out of college, one year out of
editing and writing a neighborhood newspaper, six months into an engineering
job, writing (and being rejected for) SF short stories, and looking for
further ways to flex my literary muscles. A flyer I found in my local comic
store provided inspiration; in August Denver’s first comic convention was
Like many of Denver’s moderately priced hookers, I found
myself in the back room of a moderately priced west Denver restaurant.
The "Collector’s Con" was little more than a couple dozen tables manned
by the denizens of the Denver comic-collecting community, trying to out-craft
each other with elaborate trades. Even at that first meeting, I found most
of those folks annoying at least, but - like many of Denver’s moderately
priced hookers - they had nothing that a hot shower with a mild disinfectant
soap couldn't remedy.
Dan Mares, a civil engineer and recent New Mexico transplant
about my age, sponsored the event and had a table at the front of the room.
In addition to the usual collection of comics in plastic bags, Dan was
selling the first issue of his comics fanzine, Fantasian. I tried
to pronounce it "Fan-ta-zee-an", but Dan quickly corrected me; it’s
pronounced like the Disney movie: "Fan-tay-shun". My editor’s eye
could see that Dan needed some help, but fast. The zine (eight sides of
typing paper with typewriter typeset and scratchy reproductions of Dan’s
art) was well intended, but lacked focus, design, and grammar. Dan claimed
to be eager for my help, but demonstrated a characteristic paranoia and
reluctance to surrender control. I would validate his suspicions all too
Also in attendance at that fateful convention (selling
comics and T-shirts) was Kevin Robinette, a decade our senior, a half-foot
my superior, graphics artist, long-time Denver resident and comic collector.
Kevin also expressed interest in the fanzine, and with his design skills
and access to affordable (i.e. free) typesetting and reproduction equipment,
he formed the perfect conclusive character in the first of what would become
a series of Denver Comic Mafia triads.
The real Denver Comic Mafia was a singular force:
Chuck Rosanski of Mile High Comics, the largest comics mail-order company
in the world, with a chain of a half-dozen retail stores in Denver and
Boulder. Chuck started his empire by cheating – er, craftily negotiating
with – a widow for a set of pristine Golden-Age comics her husband had
kept in a trunk. This became the foundation of the legendary Mile High
Collection, the standard by which all other comics of that age were judged.
First via mail orders and later in storefronts, Chuck was the most successful
retailer in the newly emerging direct-sales comics business. His was the
standard by which all others could measure their avarice (as in, "well,
maybe I just screwed that 11-year-old kid by giving him a buck for a comic
I’ll be able to sell for $25, but at least I’m not hiring him to fill my
mail orders and paying him in "trade credit" that comes out to about 50
cents an hour"). Chuck prides himself on being a comics expert, but I’ll
qualify that by recognizing him as a comics retail expert. His idea
of a "good" comic depends on the condition of its corners and what the
holy Price Guide says some schmoe in Delaware will pay for it.
If I had been a customer of Mile High Comics in 1980,
I probably wouldn't have heard of the aforementioned convention. Chuck
forbade flyers announcing events of that type from being displayed in his
stores, and even went so far as instructing his employees to feign ignorance
if anyone asked about conventions, clubs, or the like. The less his preteen
clientele knew about what other people were buying and selling comics for,
the better for him. This became an ongoing confrontation between our group
and Mile High over the years. When we started sponsoring our own annual
conventions (1981-1985), we were often reduced to hanging out in front
of his retail stores and handing out our flyers.
Fantasian #2 (October 1980) displayed the initial
efforts of the three of us. Photocopied on two sides of an oversized (17
x 11) sheet of paper, and folded into fourths, it featured artwork by Dan,
Kevin, my brother Dave, and long-time Denver fan artist Richard Delmendo.
Dan, a couple other Denver comics alumni - Bob Verhey and Jon Liggett -
and I supplied articles. I proceeded to piss off the SF fan community by
headlining an announcement for MileHiCon 12 "MileHi SciFi", "sci fi" being
considered a term of derision (like calling comics "funny books"). I didn't
care; I remember having a conversation at a SF convention with a man dressed
in full Star Trek regalia, lecturing me on how much more "mature" science
fiction was compared to comics. The broad-sheet format – adopted by Kevin
because it was a way we could get free photocopying – lasted through #7,
July 1981; six issues in nine months.
Kevin was the driving force behind Colorado Comic Art
Convention I in May 1981, and his imprint distinguished it from Dan’s earlier
effort and with most conventions across the country. Instead of a restaurant
back room, we mingled with the hookers on Colfax Avenue by holding it in
the Rocky Mountain School of Art. Associating the convention with an art
school gave it a perspective away from the dealer’s tables and more toward
the craft, and programming that included illustration instruction confirmed
that attitude. Kevin utilized his long-time association with John Severin,
Denver resident and legendary EC, Marvel, and Cracked magazine artist,
for help in getting program advertising, comic pages for display, and a
general legitimacy we wouldn't have otherwise had. Severin eschewed adulation,
and so would never agree to appear as a guest, which made it all the more
fun for us in the know when he would drop by, year after year. Dan took
over from Kevin for CCAC numbers II through V, each distinguished with
an eclectic guest list and program of special events.
Over the next year (September 1981 – December 1982) we
published Fantasian #8 through #14, in a more traditional digest-sized
format and an expanded page count. It was typical in content (praising
the work of Byrne, Claremont, Miller, Layton, and the other stars of the
Marvel Bullpen of the era), but perhaps distinguished itself in literacy
and layout. I was writing about half of the content (under a couple obvious
nomes-de-plume), and correcting the spelling of the other half-dozen article contributors. We had a loose staff of 20-plus art contributors, drawing on assignment
and whim. You would’ve thought that with that imbalance of interest of
drawing to writing, we would’ve modified the zine’s format to allow for
more art than articles, but it took an outside event to push us that way.
In July 1981, Mile High Comics sponsored an appearance
by Stan Lee. It was a clumsily choreographed affair; at the signing sessions
Rosanski tried to make sure only product purchased in his store was presented
to the Great One to be signed. Lee acted the congenial guest. When one
7-year-old shoved a DC comic under his nose, Lee flipped through it, remarked
"not bad", and commenced to sign a book with which he had nothing whatsoever
to do. Part of the visit was a lecture at a local high school auditorium,
with a paid admission of about 20 people. Chuck lost his shirt on the scheme,
but I was to lose even more; a decade of my life. Included in that scant
audience was one T Motley. If my life were a movie, the ominous music
would’ve echoed in my ears.
After the lecture, most of the adults in the audience
assembled at a nearby bar and started talking about comics. Dan was soliciting
for more contributors to Fantasian. Motley suggested something different:
instead of writing about the comics that were being published, how about
we create some of our own. I commented that I had thought up an X-Men story
I would be interested in having someone draw. Motley replied no, he wanted
to write and draw his own stories, stories that had nothing to do with
Marvel or DC superheroes. Motley claims I looked at him as if he were insane,
or maybe just stupid. I don’t doubt it.
The folks we met at the Lee event almost doubled our contributors.
Phil Normand, an elder of the Denver fan scene (mostly SF and full illustrations),
was a gracious help. His articles on subjects like the early issues of
American Splendor (before anyone else was paying much attention to it) helped
give the last issues of Fantasian a balance we hadn't had before,
and helped mature my reading habits. Alan Jones, a superb SF illustrator,
would appear with a brilliant story and a burst of energy, only to disappear
just as quickly. George Doro, Joel Millsapps, and others I’ll mention later
or forget undeservedly, all gave energy and effort to our cause.
Fantasian chugged along for awhile, but interest
was waning. Kevin became less involved with the group, and Dan began devoting
most of his time to organizing the conventions. Most of the others – all
artists, no writers - were off with Motley, talking about publishing their
own fanzine. After a year of meetings, they were no closer to having any
work finished or any concrete plans for publishing, save for a clever name.
Bored with Fantasian (and perhaps seeing a need), I attended a meeting
of the Acme group, and immediately began to take charge. In relatively
short order, folks had assignments and deadlines, Kevin drew a cover and
lined up a printer, and Acme Comics #1 (Fall 1982) rolled off the
The name "Acme" seemed especially appropriate for the group.
It was blatantly cribbed from the Chuck Jones "Roadrunner" cartoons, wherein all of the outlandish
traps and devices used by the Coyote came from a company of that name, which itself was
taken from the Acme Tool and Die Company, manufacturer of almost all of the animation equipment
that surrounded Jones every day. The dictionary meaning is a summit or pinnacle, but so many
companies have adopted the name (in order to be listed early in the yellow pages?) that it
now usually describes that which is common or generic. The irony of the name fit our group, as we
aspired as high as we might, but realized our meager abilities. I don't think the Great Britain
"Acme Comics" knew of our existence - though I suspect we predated them, but I flatter myself to
imagine that Chris Ware was partially inspired by our title when he created his "Acme Novelty Library".
Such is my desperation to bask in another's limelight.
My own intentions were clear from the editorial in that
first issue. Acme was a collection of work by amateurs intent on
honing their craft to the point of becoming hirable. I remember thinking
about writing superhero comics as a profession, as a Mecca, as an … acme.
This is an occupation that generally considers writing for Saturday-morning
cartoons as a promotion, for Christ’s sake. Somewhere along the
line (about issue #6, Fall 1985, I would estimate), Motley hyp-mo-tized
most of us into adopting a different approach. A free expression through
illustrations and story: Art. Or at least art.
To be honest, though, most of us still sought validation through commercial
success. We are, after all, Americans.
There was a short period when we were publishing both Acme and
but the old article zine was soon history. Part of the reason was that,
as we started doing our own comics, we realized how easy it was, and how
really poor most mainstream comics were, and many of us started growing
disinterested in them. Motley was the heart of Acme, I was the backbone,
but we needed a third – a brain - if we were to last. Enter Norm Dwyer.
Norman P. Dwyer, graduate of Montana State University, moved to Denver
with his new wife and fellow graphic designer Shelly Goodman, in late 1982.
He poked around the retail shops looking for information about any groups
doing fanzines in the city, and we were lucky enough to connect with him.
From the start, he became the important third member of the new triad.
His cartooning ability was a notch higher than anyone in the group (at
the time) except Motley, and inspired others in the group more than Mot
(whose work often confounded as much as it impressed). As important, Norm
couldn't write very well, so I found myself with a partner that could interpret
anything I wrote better than I could imagine it.
Financing the publication was always a problem. We never expected to
make a profit, but breaking even would’ve been nice. We set up a dues structure
that never was well enforced. It’s no fun to explain to an artist that,
not only was he not going to be paid for his work, but he was going to
be charged per page to have his work published; the more he worked
the more he would owe. Selling advertising would’ve been difficult even
without the Mile High influence, as most retailers didn't like having ads
for competitors in magazines sold in their stores. Enter Dennis and his
spanking-new IBM PC.
Early on, Dan, Kevin, and several other members of the group got the
idea of ordering comics directly from the newly-forming direct distributors,
at a significant (40-60%) discount from the cover price. The only kicker
was that titles had to be ordered in lots of five, which resulted in a
lot of hesitant "well, I don’t really want more that one of that, but I’ll
take an extra copy if I have to" conversations. Placing orders and dividing
up shipments was a four-plus hour biweekly ordeal, and interest in participating
started to wane. I elbowed my way in and offered to mechanize the process,
in exchange for part of the discount to go toward a fund for publishing.
Fantasian Productions - a checking account, a PO Box, and a tax-free non-profit
organization (the Colorado Comic Collectors and Creators Association –
the COCOCACA) - was established. The four-plus hour biweekly ordeal for
everyone turned into a 20-plus hour monthly ordeal for yours truly, but
at least we were making 50-100 bucks a month to pay for our projects. We
ordered from several different distributors and retailers through the years.
Every one was disorganized, mercenary, scheming, and clueless to the basic
tenets of ethics. I was beginning to understand the comic book business.
Membership grew in fits and starts. We’d stumble across a pocket of
cartoonists, invite them over, and a few would stick for a long or short
while. We established relationships with other publishers. In the west
Denver suburb of Lakewood, Bob Conway’s Phantasy Press was publishing 4-color
mini-comics - some of the best stories and printing that medium had ever.
Through Bob we acquired two ongoing contributors of note, the energetic
and hilarious Richard Florence and the eccentrically gifted Harry Lyrico.
Artie Romero’s Everyman Studios had been around even longer in Colorado
Springs, publishing underground-influenced science fiction and humor comics
and animation. We corresponded with other groups like ours nationally and
across the world. Unlike most of these groups, we tried to maintain a very
open, inclusionary philosophy. Anyone who would at least consider our critiques
and finish a story would be published, we decided. It made the "quality"
of our publications spotty, perhaps, but we dripped sincerity. We felt
we were serving a higher purpose. An early tag line we used to introduce
ourselves was, "if every community doesn't have a group like Acme, they
The first Acme splinter groups – most dissatisfied with our amateur
inclinations, our plodding pace, or my autocratic (as Motley’s puppet,
actually) dominance – began to form. Bill Dunn self-published Animal
Armor, a Conan-esque feature, in 1983. Early Fantasian and Acme
contributors Frank Albanese, Kirk Bath, Craig Gassen, Stefano Gaudiano,
and Steve Csutoras began publishing Crimson Dreams, a well-regarded
anthology that survived over a dozen issues, in 1984. Douglas Hawk, another
writer-who-couldn’t-draw, worked with CD for awhile and then moved
into a career as a horror novelist (our first "success" story?). Our relationship
with such groups was uncertain. There was usually a fundamental philosophical
disagreement among the principals, but on the other hand we wanted to encourage
any effort to work within the medium. We were coolly civil to each other,
like Democrats and Republicans at a dinner party.
Emulating Phantasy Press, we published a couple mini-comics under a
"Thumbprint Comics" imprint (1985-1987). With an eye toward commercial
viability (ah!), we printed them with a postcard-like back cover, the idea
being they could be mailed. Our marketing proved as consistently clueless
as ever, but at least Motley got a little more work in print: Es Brillig
War (an illustrated version of a German Translation of the poem "Jabberwocky"),
The Drawing Stick (a love story of sorts), and Let Me Out Of Here!
(a copy of which I sent to Psychology Today for review; the bastards
never wrote back). Based on an idea by Richard, Shelly Goodman designed a nifty stand for mini-comics,
a stand that would sit on a retail store countertop that looked like a
flasher throwing his coat open, with three pockets on each side to hold the comics.
We built a couple by hand, but none of
the card stores we approached were interested. I think Motley still has
one of them, and a couple Denver Comic stores still use them to display
minis. Another shot at financial legitimacy lost.
By 1986, Scott Johnson and John McColloch found us. John was a solid
cartoonist and a regular contributor, but Scott was even more important
to the group, especially when Norm announced that he and Shelly were leaving
Denver to seek their fortunes in Chicago. I believe that Norm’s departure
could have caused the group to dissolve just as we were getting started,
if Scott hadn't replaced him as the third essential member of our triad.
The difference between Scott and Norm was the difference between the early
and the later Acme. Both were skilled and enlightening illustrators, but
Scott was influenced by underground comics and other sources outside the
mainstream, while Norm was Marvel/DC all the way.
Possibly influenced by other publishers with whom we were in correspondence,
in 1987 we started thinking about branching out, helping individual artists
publish books we would like to read. Under the umbrella name of "Fandom
House", we planned an ambitious line of titles. Motley was drawing Steel
Pulse, Pro Wrestling Adventures. Scott and I spearheaded a science
fiction anthology, Near To Now. Richard planned a comic-sized Hap Hazard, an adventure/humor series of which Phantasy Press had published three issues and who had appeared in Acmes #6 and #10 .
Through Phantasy Press we contacted Matt Howarth, who was well-known in SF-comics circles as a blazing talent, and began discussing publishing
some of his work in NTN as well as collections that were exclusively
his work. Howarth went on to become one of the most widely-published alternative
cartoonists. I suspect he holds the record for the number of different
publishers he’s worked with (and, as far as I know, remains on good terms
with all of them).
As sleazy as prior experiences with the "professional" comics business
had been, the most base was yet to come. By 1987, the direct-sales comics
market was solidly entrenched, and it turned out to have an advantage for
everyone. Previously, publishers would print more than twice the copies
they expected to sell, and retail stores were allowed to return the covers
of any unsold copies for credit (I can remember as a kid the proliferation
of coverless comics – selling them was a contract breach - at flea markets
and elsewhere). With a direct market, stores would pre-order the number
of copies and the print runs could be determined more exactly. No one with
any collector’s (as opposed to reader’s) sense was buying books
from the corner 7-11; there were retail shops in the murkier parts of town
and in the lower levels of pre-dilapidated malls that specialized. Now,
if you usually bought four copies of each issue of Spider-Man, you
could be assured that you wouldn't miss out and only get one - unless the
proprietor sensed that the particular issue had some collectable worth,
then all but one copy would disappear before they hit the shelf. Publishing
new titles were less risky, since interest could be gauged from the beginning
from advance orders. Because the industry was relying on a small, dedicated
audience and not casual convenience store browsers, the cost of an issue
could rise dramatically.
A small number of distribution companies carved up the country, and
nibbled at each other about the edges. With printing costs more manageable
and inflated cover prices acceptable, smaller print runs could be profitable,
and one way distributors saw of controlling product was to publish titles
themselves. Regularity (get your monthly super hero), volume
(consume mass quantities of similar stories), and collectability
(owning 100 copies of an issue, supposedly to later sell at a profit) became
more important and easier to attain than quality. At first, the
direct-market books were pretty much the same in genre and format as their
"mainstream" ancestors, but soon comics with color covers and black-and-white
interiors became common. The quality of the art dipped, but not nearly
a severely as the quality of the writing. People were still looking at
the books (about 1 out of 10 copies, anyway; the rest went straight into
the mylar bags), but very few were reading them at all.
Distributors took full, rape-and-pillage advantage. The rumor
of a "collectable issue" – particularly a first issue – could cause
purchases to skyrocket. Since only the publishers (who were also the distributors)
knew the actual print runs, they could lead retailers (and the retailers’
customers) to believe that there were fewer copies of an issue available
than there really where, thus increasing its "collectability", thus inflating
the price of the warehouse full of "few remaining copies" they doled out.
Acme had a small national distribution prior to this. In order
to deliver issues on time, I would usually have 1000-2000 copies - more
than twice what I could expect to sell - printed prior to soliciting the
distributors, knowing that orders across the country would be a couple
hundred. Suddenly we got orders 10 times larger than any before. When Acme
#8 (Fall 1987) and Steel Pulse #1 was announced, the frenzy was
in full piranha boil. We thought it was validation; was it unreasonable
to assume 10,000 people – roughly 5% of the readership of X-Men
– would be interested in our work? Our egos were in full bloom, and I was
proud to present Motley a check for over $600 for profit on Steel Pulse
#1. It would turn out to be the only check of that type I would ever present
to any member of Acme. Most copies of that issue were bagged unread, or
– even worse – filed into back room boxes of retail shops. I’m sure they’re
landfill by now. Check that – knowing the sanitary habits of most comic
shop proprietors, I’m sure they’re still in those back rooms, getting annually
cited as fire hazards.
Undaunted, we determined that, as long as we didn't lose too much money,
as long as we still enjoyed ourselves, we would continue to publish. The
"Black And White Boom" lasted a couple years, although Acme didn't
benefit much from it save the issue that came out at the same time as Steel
Pulse #1. We managed to get the whole 4-issue Steel Pulse series
out, three issues of Near To Now (two comic-sized, and the last
a nice looking digest with bad glue binding), Hap Hazard, and several
works by Howarth and associates.
Our most famous contributor of all was Jerry Siegel, the co-creator
of Superman. How he found our address I’m not sure, but one day I found
a large package of his script submissions in my PO Box. On reading them,
I got the impression of a man, 50 years my senior, who was as befuddled
about the modern comics industry as I. His work was competently written,
with themes that suggested the rage and grim distopia he saw in the best
selling titles of the day. His superheroes had spikes on their helmets
and wrists, and their motives where joyless vengeance. The creator of Truth,
Justice, and the American Way now reflected the betrayal that the industry
had inflicted on him. I took the package to a barbecue at Richard’s house,
and to grand hilarity we read the most impassioned of the scripts aloud.
Only Scott realized what we had: an opportunity to work with a founder
of the medium who only wanted an audience for his voice. So Scott and I
gave to Jerry Siegel what DC Comics should have given him out of pure shame.
We published two stories of "Sgt. Space Cop" in Near To Now. Scott
became the last illustrator and I became the last editor to work with the
great Jerry Siegel. Now, how cool is that?
In 1986, a small classified ad in local papers caught the eye of several
Acme members. Dyna-Search, a California-based talent agency, was looking
for cartoonists to supply work for the expansive Japanese comics market.
While most members were constructing elaborate proposal packages, Richard
cut the doodles on his desk blotter into envelope-sized pieces and mailed
them off. Guess who got the job? "Felix in the Black Lands", a fantasy
based on Richard’s dog, ran for a dozen installments. Several more humor
stories – still starring the dog, this time acting like a dog – came next.
Richard worked on assignment for two years, until the vexation of working
in cultural confusion ("give us more stories where we see people making
change") caused him to give it up. Alan Jones reappeared at this time,
having also been accepted by Dyna-Search. True to form, he drew 4 brilliant
pages of a 20 page story and never submitted any work.
Since we were now publishing several different titles, we needed to
maintain some sort of national visibility, a challenge we treated as another
creative exercise (substituting brain and back power for money is a constant
theme for all small publishers). There were three major publications that
could help our cause. The Comics Buyer’s Guide, edited by well-known
SF fan publishers Don and Maggie Thompson, was a weekly tabloid newspaper
that was true to its name, it was influential in supporting the collector’s
market, particularly of the mainstream superhero genre. The Comics Journal
was a monthly magazine with higher aspirations, published by Gary Groth
and Kim Thompson (no relation to Don and Maggie). A sister magazine, the
more low-brow Amazing Heroes, published an annual Preview Special
that attempted to profile all comics titles planned for the next year.
I began sending press releases announcing upcoming issues, most with a
self-effacing or satiric theme. "Steel Pulse Sells Out" announced one release,
relating that the title character of the book had inked deals with various
commercial enterprises to use his name to promote their products (get it?
The book didn't sell out, the character did). Another proclaimed
that I thought the upcoming year would be a "watershed year for Acme Comics",
because "if these books don’t sell, I’ll end up living in my parents’ water
shed." TCJ usually boiled down the announcements to their base information
and printed a single-paragraph (or often one-line) summary, though I flatter
myself to think that the clever hooks entertained them enough to give us
a little more consideration than our contemporaries. AHPS treated
us about the same as everyone else, though again I think our entries were
perhaps a bit livelier than usual. TCBG printed just about everything
I sent them, and I personally was cited (in an interview with Maggie Thompson)
as being entertaining and different enough to influence them. The fact
that I double-spaced the typed releases and wrote them in a block paragraph
form that was easily editable by drones desperate to fill a hole of specific
size probably helped just as much, I admit.
Our relationship with TCBG was two-faceted. Besides running our
press releases ver batum, Don Thompson reviewed the books we sent
him in his weekly column. With rare exception, Thompson found our work
execrable. Although he didn't share Rosanski’s commercial myopia, he had
a white-bread sensibility that was vexing, if not expected. Motley described
Thompson’s comics taste as a hole dead in the middle of a graph with Aspiration
and Quality along the axis’. I think it was his influence rather than his
taste that angered me. As self-appointed critic of the largest-selling
specialty publication in our "industry", he could’ve used his power for
good, but instead he merely reinforced the bland tastes of his readership, never challenging them to expand their horizons beyond "The Kid Who Collected
Spider-Man". I consoled myself by knowing I would likely outlive him, and
when he died a couple years ago I toasted the event with a cold, cold draught
of satisfaction. How’s that for sick?
Fallout from the B&W Boom/Bust continued to affect us for years,
both in positive and negative ways. While still in Denver, Norm Dwyer had
gotten some positive interest for his work from our convention guests –
particularly from Marshall Rogers at CCAC III in 1983. Norm had a sci-fi/detective/female biker named Libby Ellis he was showing around, and I attached myself to
the project and like a literary barnacle. We pulled together a submission
package and mailed it out, and even took a trip to the San Diego Comic
Convention in 1986 to stand in lines with all the other wannabes. The rumor
was Fantagraphics Books had our submission floating around their office
for quite awhile, but signing us would’ve given them a legitimacy they
didn't deserve. A couple office flunkies, David Olbrich and Tom Mason,
snatched the package as they were escorted out the door. The two joined
forces with the sleaziest of the sleazy distributors (Sunshine Distributors)
to form – among a half-dozen other low-rent publishers – Malibu Comics.
They contacted Norm (now in Chicago), and Libby Ellis became one
of the first titles of their line (my favorite of their titles was Stealth
Force. The first-issue cover showed explosions, shouting, and machine
gun fire; stealth indeed).
I have to credit Malibu Comics for dealing fairly. They sent us a contract
that was fundamentally unacceptable, but still signed us when we doubled
every dollar amount offered, dropped the clause about hiring replacement
artists if we missed deadlines, and changed the publishing schedule from
six bimonthly issues to four issues annually (published in monthly succession
during the summer months – when comics sales were best). We had full editorial
control, providing all art and writing for the title save house advertising.
We lasted two years, eight memorable issues. We probably set a precedent
of some sort when Malibu, in planning to release a bound collection of
the first year’s issues (a common practice for the times), asked us to
take a cut in our advance money because orders were low. I suggested that
low orders might indicate low interest, and perhaps the best course would
be to cancel the project. Norm pulled the plug after the second year because
the amount of work required of him wasn’t worth the money (I sympathized;
three weekends on my part resulted in six weeks of work on his), and I
agreed because the printing on the last issues where terrible. Norm went
on to work on Speed Racer for Now Comics, a couple filler issues
for Marvel and DC, and now is a premier computer graphics illustrator.
I went on in search of other talent to leech.
The Catch-22 of working with national distributors was that their orders
made us able to order higher print runs at a lower per-copy cost, but they
demanded a large discount (60%) and required us to pay for shipping. We
soon realized we lost the same amount of money whether we sold to distributors
or not, so to avoid the hassle, we decided to cut back our print runs and
deal with only local stores and through the mail.
At the start, mail orders were a tiny part of our distribution scheme.
Now, however, it was going to be the only way to get issues into the hands
of those few-enough interested readers, and we needed to expand. My own
experience with ordering from small publishers across the country inspired
me. Almost everyone had a catalogue of their publications, but it often
wasn’t worthwhile to order the one or two books from each, writing a dozen
two-dollar checks to get a hour’s worth of reading material. Taking a page
from the national distributors, I wrote to some of the better small-press
publishers I knew and proposed they sell me a quantity (5-20) of their
comics at a discount (50%), which I would sell through our expanded "Fandom
House Catalogue". My computer database skills served to our advantage again;
I slowly built a list of a couple thousand addresses (culled from TCBG,
and elsewhere), and automated the process as much as possible. For a few
years, our mail-order catalogue was the premier source of small-press publications
in the world (a-hem!).
Our renegade sensibilities challenged us again. How could we be selective
and establish a level of quality in the catalogue without setting an exclusionary
policy? Why should I enforce my tastes on my reading public? Would others
eagerly anticipate my own premature death? Our compromise was to list any
free publication (usually their catalogues) by any publisher, from the
alternatives in the professional industry (Fantagraphics Books, Rip Off
Press, Kitchen Sink), to basement publishers with a single mini comic to
promote. I think it worked; we only made a few enemies, and those where
without exception untalented, insignificant simpletons who were beneath
my notice. Dozens of different publishers, hundreds of comics, thousands
of subscribers. Not bad for a break-even basement business.
Part of the programming of all our conventions were lectures and demonstrations
on drawing, given by guests and members of our group. Motley took that
aspect further in 1988 by offering a class in Comics & Cartooning through
Colorado Free University. The course, five weekly sessions, was well received
during its several-year run, with attendance often reaching the 20-person
capacity. Mot roped me into making frequent guest appearances, and for
a couple sessions I gave the concluding presentation, on publishing and
the professional business. The class is immortalized in a 5-issue mini
comic series, handed out in class and sold through the catalogue. Everything
Motley knows about the craft of cartooning is in those 68 tiny pages, though
he had to pad it quite a bit. Motley continues to tutor privately; his
ability to articulate his talent makes him a formidable instructor. The
course also attracted a few new members, including Tim Stark, Lauri Ross, Tim Winkelman,
and Stan Yan.
Another scheme to generate a little publishing cash came to fruition
about this time. In 1990, we rented a booth at the Capitol Hill People’s
Fair, an annual summer festival, selling "Comicatures". As usual, we decided
to maximize the required effort for the compensation, so instead of doing
the simple "big head, little body" caricature, we would work the customers
into a two or three-panel cartoon strip. Thrice the work for half the price;
another example of our shrewd commercial instincts. Scott and Richard proved
to be absolutely brilliant. They could draw anyone dead-on (Scott did one
from a vague description, a la’ a police sketch artist, astounding his
audience with his accuracy), they were fast (15-20 minutes on average),
and the cartooning was good. A second team of relievers was recruited,
John McColloch, his friend Mikey, and Phil Normand being the best. Phil
once took two hours to do a single strip. It was gorgeous (when I recently
reminded him of this, he commented, "and it’s probably in the trash by
now"). Motley failed for the first time. Acme’s slowest but most prolific
artist couldn't draw from the hip with any speed or accuracy, so we made
him our delivery boy. I stayed in the middle as organizer, huckster (one
of my duties during the conventions was that of "Human PA System"), and
jokester. We developed a repertoire of jokes we could sell to our standard
customers (Panel 1: She says, "Hey Honey, why don’t we try it doggie style?".
He says, "OK!". Panel 2: she’s tossing a Frisbee and he’s catching it in
his teeth). We worked the Fair for 4 or 5 years, and branched out to a
few kids’ parties and special consignments. We made a couple hundred bucks
for publishing, got a chance to show off, and had some fun.
The need for strong backs and malleable wills to work the People’s Fair
lead to the creation of the "Acme Mule Team", really just the same group-within-a-group
that used to work the conventions for me, a half-dozen regulars whom I
could count on when the need was for heavy lifting. Richard drew a logo
(from memory of the "20-Mule Team Borax" logo, on a bar napkin, in three
minutes), and we had T-shirts made. The shirts are coveted to this day.
Never to be outdone, Motley formed his own clique within Acme. He invited
various associates to work with him on a panel strip – named Hector
- to submit to weekly tabloids and other independent publications. I suppose
his criteria for invitation was based on a quality standard, but you could’ve
fooled me. "Eclectic" is among the words starting with "E" that I would
use to describe the people who draw under the Hector banner, and
for the strips they produce. Maybe I’m just bitter because they never used
my submitted idea: "Seven Brides For Seven Dwarves" (Crampy, Floozy, Bitchy,
Preggers, Ditzy, Perky, and Lesbo). Hector continues to get a fair
My fun gauge was nearing empty, however. The very things that kept Acme
alive for so long – the group comics orders and the mail-order catalogue
– were diverting my attention and energy from any actual comic work. Although
I still worked with any cartoonist that showed interest, no one really
replaced Norm, and my partnership with him was long in the past. Scott
had given up long before, and Richard made an annual appearance at most.
The twenty-something Rich Moyer – a stellar talent who had attended a meeting
years before as a teenager – reappeared as publisher of his own humor tabloid,
and for awhile I had hopes that he could replace Scott in our triad. Rich
was looking for someone to work with him on a superhero proposal for Image
Comics, and I was happy to oblige. I realized quickly that Rich’s talent
really lied in his big-foot, humorous style, and I flatter myself into
thinking I helped guide him toward a still-budding career of syndicated
strip cartoonist (Ick) and animator. But besides Rich and the old
friends, I was tired of having this geek convention showing up at my house
every month, tracking in who knows what sort of infectious affliction.
For me, it was time to fold the tents.
I always told Motley I would stick it out as long as he would, but his
devotion proved me a liar. It took over a year, but I disassociated myself
with Acme, closed down the comics orders, handed off the mail-order catalogue
(and PO Box), published a final 100-page "clean out the closets" issue,
and had the locks on my house changed. Acme was effectively dissolved,
but Motley, Gassen, and others carry the torch with Squid Works, another
incarnation with the same lofty goal.
In all, 10 issues of Acme were published, including the finale
(1994) that appeared five years after #9. On my infrequent visits to Squid
Works meetings, I see the current efforts with an informed subjectivity,
like viewing one’s own high school work. Like most casual observers, I
can see the absence of commercial sophistication that dooms its creators
to inescapable amateurism. But in spite of that, I still appreciate the
folk art quality in their work and in the pages of Acme, like hearing
a well-practiced street musician or viewing a hobbyist’s photographs.
I remember being summoned to Chuck Rosanski’s office when we were trying
to get him to carry Acme #1 in his stores. I listened to him pontificate
for over an hour about how he had built the glorious direct market system,
how he had the ear of the powerful Jim Shooter (at the time the cloddish
time-keeper of an editor of Marvel’s line), and how he was going to buy
10 copies of our comic and destroy them to save us from future embarrassment.
"What would you say to your son’s date 15 years from now if she saw this
book?" he asked. It’s close to fifteen years later now, and I can honestly
say I remain unashamed. While profiteers were cannibalizing an art form,
while most were watching TV, I created, as well as I was able. Integrity
trumps commodity - even here, even now.