The Hot Seat

Tue, February 26th, 2002 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
The Hot Seat, Columnist

Better late than never is how the saying goes and it applies this week. The Hot Seat is regularly published every Monday here at CBR. Unfortunately a hectic convention schedule and a last minute bout with the flu kept this week's contributor, CrossGen Publisher Mark Alessi, down just a bit, but he fought back valiantly to deliver this his second Hot Seat column. Three weeks ago he spoke about some new initiatives his company had announced and this past weekend CrossGen announced a slew of news ones at MegaCon in Orland, Florida. We'll let Mark take it from here.

"There are risks and costs to a program of action, but they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction."


-- John F. Kennedy

Got comics?

We do. And we're making more. For the last two years, we've been making comics, and everyone who has been near a comic book shop, a newspaper or a comics Web site has seen that. We've probably generated more press - both mainstream and industry - than any other new publisher in this field in recent years.

But what people haven't been able to see is what's been going on behind the scenes as the comics have been produced. Beneath the storied and much-vaunted veil of secrecy here at CrossGen, something else has been going on. For the last 18 months, our team has been working on bringing together all the myriad pieces to a puzzle, even as the picture of what the puzzle was going to look like assembled was still coming into focus. Going into this, we had some basic assumptions:

  1. We need new readers - When I say we, I refer to the comics industry at large. I said this a few weeks ago, and I'll say it again here: You cannot sell a product at ever-increasing prices to an ever-dwindling customer base and expect to have a future. In fact, publishers who believe that no longer have the right to be surprised when they see the red ink on the balance sheet.

  2. We need more choices for readers - Single-issue comics and trade paperbacks are just two flavors (despite the concept of variant covers), and even Neapolitan ice cream serves up three flavors. If we are to succeed in attracting those elusive new readers, we need to make sure there are a lot more points of entry for them into this hobby. In the mainstream consumer entertainment marketplace, consumers are given many choices on how they are going to purchase a single product. We needed to adopt a similar model if we were going to succeed in closing new sales with that type of customer.

  3. We needed new footpaths - Logic would suggest that if everything that has been tried thus far hasn't worked, our chances of success would at least not decrease if we tried something different. To suggest that we would succeed in executing the same strategies of the past where many others before us have failed is the height of hubris. I may be a little bit arrogant, sure, but I'm not dumb.

Which brings us to this past weekend. It was a whirlwind, because in it, we took the opportunity to announce about 65 percent of the deals, plans and strategies that have taken up the bulk of our time, our efforts and our lives behind the closed doors at CrossGen for the better part of the last two years. I'm now going to try to explain how all of it fits together in another page or two. It won't do much justice to the enormity of the work, but hopefully it will provide some understanding for those who are wondering what we're doing, where we are going and how it will benefit the comics industry in general.

First, let's run through our announcements from this past weekend:

  • The launch of CrossGen Comics on the Web - This new Flash-enhanced library of CrossGen's backlist will be distributed to a potential audience base of more than 100 million people over the course of the next ten months via Web portal partners such as uclick and Mercury Media, as well as comics and other entertainment niche portal partners. CrossGen's $1 per month subscription places a very reasonable value on Web comics, opens a new audience base for comics and - this one's important - feeds new readers back into the comics hobby! The comics base will grow monthly (4,000-plus pages of story and art in 2002, growing to nearly 20,000 by 2005), and will almost always stay five months behind whatever is in retail stores, providing lots of reasons for Web users to go back to retail locations to pick up what they are missing.

  • Book trade distribution - CrossGen Compendia (our monthly anthology comics package announced a few weeks ago) will accompany our trade paperbacks into the book trade in a wide-ranging deal with LPC Book Distribution, who distributes books to major bookstores, department stores, libraries, chain stores and other mainstream retailers. For that press release, click here.

  • TV & Movies - CrossGen is fortunate to have a very tight professional team in the form of Branded Entertainment, featuring Batman film executive producer and Emmy-Award winner Michael Uslan and Nancy Newhouse Porter, an entertainment attorney whose feature film deals include Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc. and Shrek. They make up and one-two punch that has been able to place all 13 of CrossGen's existing entertainment properties - nine published and four unpublished - into various stages of discussion or serious contract negotiations. Their combined efforts have resulted in the interest of multiple studios in each of our properties. Understand, however, that CrossGen is not buying into "The Big Lie" that publishers like CrossGen will make bountiful money from these media projects. The truth is that the money in these projects for CrossGen is not as significant as the advertising and marketing potential that films and television shows present for our comics. With our combined product line, unprecedented Web presence and mass market distribution, we are better positioned to take advantage of the opportunity to sell more Comics on the Web subscriptions, printed comics, Compendia and trades than any publisher that has traveled this road before. We're going to Hollywood with our eyes open, and with a better strategy in place.

Whew. Now, let's see if we can connect the dots.

As the newsstand was the direct market feeder system more than a decade ago, the Internet will take up that mantle today. Comics on the Web introduces comics to a new generation of readers in places where they already congregate. Instead of simply putting our Web comics on crossgen.com, where we will only interest people who already read our comics, we wanted to distribute our Comics on the Web, in much the same way comics were distributed on newsstands. Ours work better on the Web than most because of our strong mainstream appeal (using science fiction and fantasy stories instead of super-heroes) and also because they load fast, are easy to read and cost so little. That's where the price tag comes in. We can afford to create these in an exciting Flash format and distribute them because the shared subscription model creates a revenue stream for our Web partners. Now, we can place Comics on the Web where they may have never been placed before. In an industry that has been screaming for a "Got Milk" style advertising campaign to advocate the coolness of comics - of which my opening query was a veiled reference to - Comics on the Web amounts to a national advertising campaign on the Internet that pays for itself through the offering of the most valuable commodity in CrossGen's arsenal - our serialized graphic stories.

To support all these potential new readers as well as our existing fan base, we therefore have created a wide variety of entry points with a wider variety of price points -- $1 (for Web comics), $2.95 (for single issues), $9.95 to $11.95 (for Compendia), $15.95 (for upcoming trades) and $19.95 (for current trades). Consumers like and need choices, and this line-up helps to open up the growth chain. We interest readers with a distributed Web comic line that's inexpensive and easy to read, provide them a wide variety of choices for the types of comics they might want to purchase, and present retail options in bookstores as well as direct market outlets. We'll provide maps back to our retail partners in order to spark activity and sales in those locations, and use just about every other media - the Web, print, television and film - to promote and advertise our comics. Mercury Media, a major promotional arm for companies like Sony, Tivo and Activision, will drive more Web eyeballs through both advertising and further distribution of our Comics on the Web, our television and film projects will include specific elements aimed at driving people back to their comic book source material, and the continuing focus in-house at CrossGen will be to produce and market the best comics available anywhere.

There is not a single part of this puzzle that doesn't fit into the big picture in multiple ways. It is a multi-tiered platform that at the center of it on every level is the best possible comics, borne from the passion of 60-plus families united in their dreams of making this industry vibrant and dynamic again.

Which brings me to the question that I get all the time. Thanks to my much-vaunted public relations team, I now have the reputation as a millionaire-fanboy, so no matter where I go, I get the same question time and again.

"So, why aren't you sitting by your pool, enjoying your hard-earned money?"

To answer this question for myself, I've looked back on all the success I've been blessed with, and it all came back to something so blindingly simple and so obvious. All my life, I've lived by a set of rules that I learned as a child. Those lessons included the use of might for right, the inherent responsibility that comes with power and the idea that doing the right thing is far more important than doing the easy thing. Now, these lessons were taught to me by my parents, but what child ever listens to authority figures exclusively?

What made many of those lessons resonate with me, and what made them cool for me, were the stories I read in comic books. The comics I read - by people like Stan Lee, John Buscema, John Romita, Joe Kubert, Gardner Fox and others - were part of the glue that held my parents' lessons together for me.

And as I emerged from the haze of the technology world, with my love for comics still intact, I looked around and couldn't see anything that resembled what I remembered as a kid. In its place, I saw news stories about kids with guns and knives in school. I saw people dying for the sneakers they were wearing. I saw bomb threats and gang violence. I saw kids killing kids. And then, I saw Columbine High.

The messages I remembered as a kid, the ideas and thoughts that helped shape my life as a professional and as a father - might for right, justice for all, bullies never prosper - were no longer cool. They were no longer relevant. The medium that helped guide me as a child was becoming bereft of those sentiments, and in its place was a slowly dying marketing and distribution machine, which was losing its existing readership to old age and had no plan in place to bring in the next generation.

Perhaps equally important, given the last six months, is Comics on the Web, which will eventually be available in every language supported by CrossGen's international licensed publishers. Since the Internet is free, Comics on the Web will allow people all over the world to hear a different message from the average American, not the well-reputed "ugly American" we always read about. Through our stories we can let the whole world see how strongly we believe in might for right and justice for all. We don't need spandex or capes, but rather, we'll use universal characters that harken back to the classic heroic fiction and mythology that has been around for thousands of years all around the world.

Well, I knew I wanted to do my damndest to make those messages cool again, but I knew I couldn't write comics. I knew I couldn't draw them. About the only thing I do best, and have done reasonably well in most of my professional career, is sell. I can sell things. I can take a sales problem and create a roadmap to eliminate sales objections.

So, I needed to build a company that would assemble the best creative capabilities possible - with the caveats that we produce American style comics aimed at bringing those messages back to the medium at such a high level of quality that it could not be ignored - and then all I'd have to do is sell it.

Nearly three years later, all the preparation, the planning and conviction has come together. And no one part of this plan is more important than the other. The business side and the creative side are symbiotic, in that neither would be able to exist without the other. Creators get a great facility, profit-sharing, equity sharing and a piece of the action on all the success of the company, and the company gets the best efforts of every single individual on the team, with very little turnover and superior commitment.

And here's the best part - the biggest winners are comics retailers and comics fans. Now you finally know who we are, what we're doing and why we're here together. You also know we won't be going away any time soon. And now, after the last two years of thinking, planning, working, sleepless nights, endless days and suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, our call to action for you is simply this:

Enjoy.

-- Mark Alessi

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