Here we have the beginning of a series of contributions to this blog from creators we work with at Avatar. Up first is our debut post from writer/artist Mike Wolfer, the creator of Widow, Warren Ellis’ collaborator on the William Gravel saga in Strange Kiss (Stranger Kisses, Strange Killings), and artist on the upcoming Garth Ennis Western title Streets of Glory.
HOW AVATAR PRESS SAVED MY LIFE, Part 1: The Start-Up
By Mike Wolfer
Okay, so that’s an exaggeration, to be sure, but my life as a comic book creator sure has changed radically since my beginnings as a self-publisher way back in 1987.
Aspiring artists and writers often ask how to break into the business, how do you publish your own comic book and what does it take to “make it”? I suppose there’s someone out there who walked up to a submissions editor at a convention and was hired on the spot; I’d like to meet that person, if only to ask them how THEY did it.
I was fresh out of the Joe Kubert School (a time which was chock-full of interesting and sordid stories, but those are tales for another blog) when I decided to enter the burgeoning independent comic book publishing business. It was the late 1980’s, Eastman and Laird were blazing, Brian Pulido was shocking mainstream readers and the floodgates were opened by Diamond, Capital City, Friendly Frank’s, Heroes World and a slew of other American and Canadian comic book distributors who all realized that there was money to be made from all of those little, “indy” publishers who were clawing their way into the market.
Mirage, Eclipse, Chaos and so many other publishers proved that it could be done, that success could be achieved without the might of a giant, corporate entity behind them, and more importantly, they exposed the little-known reality that there were tens of thousands of comic book readers out there who were not superhero comic book readers. Therein lay the strength of the independent comic book publisher: Diversity.
Knowing that my own creative proficiency was not up to par with the standards of the “majors”, self-publishing was the perfect outlet for me to begin building a fan-base and make some cash on the side, all the while honing my abilities in the hopes of achieving my childhood dream of one day working for one of the “Big Two”. It would be simple: Draw comic, publish comic, show comic to large company editor, sign contract to draw Marvel Team-Up. It could happen, right?
By the Fall of 1986, my first comic, DAIKAZU, was ready to roll and after a nerve-wracking, sit-down meeting with Diamond in Baltimore, I was accepted for distribution. With the world’s largest comic book distributor behind me, others soon followed suit in agreeing to carry my book. Acceptance itself did not mean that I had a run-away hit on my hands; the public hadn’t even seen the book yet, but a green light from distributors was enough to give me the confidence that I might be the next “big thing.” You’re right. I was young and idealistic.
I was ready… Or so I thought.
Forget for a moment the roughly 200 hours I spent actually writing and drawing that first book; the business aspect of self-publishing was a whole other animal that had to be tamed. The real work then began, as time, money and effort began to wing its way out the window and my “To Do” list began to grow exponentially. I needed to set up a Post Office box, design a Ground Zero Comics company logo and get stationary, envelopes and business cards printed. I found the most inexpensive, local printer that I could (who had never printed a comic book, but assured me that they could). I researched and gathered names, addresses and phone numbers of every comic convention organizer in the Tri-State area so that I could promote the book on the road. I scraped-up every cent I could to run ads in the distributor catalogs and the Comics Buyer’s Guide. I did direct mailings to the largest comics retail outlets around the country to alert them to the impending release of DAIKAZU #1. And on and on and on. Have I mentioned that I did all of this by myself, with no assistants or business partners? Right. That’s why it’s called “self-publishing.” Oh, yeah, by the way, I was also working a full-time job at a printing company. And gigging about 8 times a month in the band Crash Tokyo.
Drive and the ambition can go a long way, but I still don’t know how I did it all.
After a lot of sweating and months of anticipation, the distributor “numbers” came in, publisher’s slang for the total number of copies of DAIKAZU #1 advance ordered from comic book retailers around the globe. It was the moment of truth, when I would find out if my year or so of dreams and hard labor would bear fruit, and if anyone out there gave a damn about me, my work or a giant, Japanese monster.
If I thought that I had worked my ass off up to that point as an up-and-coming indy publisher, I hadn’t seen anything yet…
To be continued…