The Column: Issue #10

Fri, September 27th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Mark Millar, Columnist

THE CHAIR (2 of 3)

Mark Alessi at CCI 2001
Mark Alessi is a real character. He built a bleeding edge technology company in the early to mid 90's developing software utilizing the frameworks and design techniques that would evolve into the product Java and sold this firm to Ross Perot for an amount rumoured to be in the mid eight-figures. Instead of blowing this cash on coke and hookers like most of us would, he pioneered a new kind of comic-book company called CrossGen and the results have been decidedly mixed. Salaries and production values have been high and enthusiasm from certain quarters has been zealous, but sales have been modest and rumours abound in the creative community regarding staff morale and his personal behaviour at his Florida-based offices. Talking to him yesterday, I found him brimming with enthusiasm and admirably willing to take on every question raised about him over the last few years. This was an experience.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Mark Alessi is next in THE CHAIR:

Mark Millar: You're a colourful character and you created a lot of interest when you appeared on the scene a few years ago. What do you feel made you qualified to shape an entire line of books for established creators when your previous job experience was outside the industry?

Mark Alessi: Clearly my qualifications are more from a business perspective than a creative perspective. That's why I have surrounded myself with experienced professionals from the creative side of the house who currently manage the creative process from both a creative and management perspective. We have 8 art directors across four disciplines (penciling, inking, coloring and lettering) so that our teams are supported by peers who understand and can relate to their daily issues and concerns. The writing team support each other thru weekly review sessions and frankly I generally get to read our own books one or two months after they are released. I mostly concern myself with external business opportunities for which I have over 27 years of experience! While I ran technology companies for multiple decades my daughter is probably better on a computer than I will ever be. My expertise if any, is in perceiving opportunity and pursuing it. I'm in comics because I love the medium and believe that some level of cross-industry expertise can be valuable.

MM: You've spent a great deal of money on this venture and launched at a time when fantasy products like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings are having enormous success in the same genre. Why do you feel your books have only achieved a four per cent stake in the direct market?

MA: First of all, our four percent stake in the market is larger than any independent Image-style company -- larger than Black Bull and probably larger than Dark Horse if you eliminate their extensive backlist of products. Second, our market share is growing monthly, our backlist sales are growing monthly and we have just recently had the largest new publisher launch in comics history in the book trade, representing more than $1.2 million in trade paperbacks and Compendia that have been moved into bookstores in just 2-1/2 months. Much credit must be given to Chris Oarr for his outstanding efforts in reaching out to the library trade, school libraries, as well as the more traditional book venues. Quite frankly, we are doing very well in a market -- the direct market -- which is primarily designed for super-heroes. Growing every month isn't a bad sign, and as soon as the second wave of CGE and affiliate books hit the stands, you can expect our market share to double, even in the direct market. Perhaps more importantly, we appear to be selling a much higher quantity of books to women than any other major publisher, which we believe will not only broaden the market, but there is no reason why the direct market has to be male-dominated. Now, please keep in perspective that the market share numbers you are quoting are Diamond-only, and we have a massive backlist sales program with hundreds of thousands of backlist books being sold through other distributors. If you plug all the numbers in, you'll find that the four percent number you quoted is clearly inaccurate and only a recognition of Diamond's pre-order sales, which are largely driven by the amount of support given the Big Four. What other publisher has come out of the gate this consistent in both delivery and growth? We are just starting. Watch what happens over the next year or two.

MM: How many copies does your top-selling title do domestically and would they sell more if British people were working on them?

MA: This question requires a more complex answer, since our comics are sold through so many venues. An initial answer would be that our top domestic selling title is just under 40,000 per month, but that doesn't consider Compendia, which many people are switching to because they are so cost-effective, or Comics on the Web, which has thousands of subscribers and is accessed by users from more than 130 different countries as of this last month. If you put those numbers in, plus our backlist comic book sales, we're probably 35 to 40 percent higher. And to answer the second part of your question, we currently have both Mike Perkins and Jim Cheung, who at last check are British, working at CrossGen. I believe our books would sell better if more British people bought them and Diamond UK put a more extensive effort into promoting them, which we believe has been sadly lacking. Some of our strongest supporters via both mail and email letters are from the UK, and their biggest complaint is the lack of availability of our comics, not the comics themselves.

MM: Hypothetical question: Kevin Smith, JMS and myself are all writing top 10 books and selling in excess of 100,000 copies a month on sometimes new or unlikely hits. If we offered to write three Crossgen books for a year or two, but didn't want to move into the Florida complex, would you still hire us as a means of taking the sales further?

MA: This is precisely why we built the Code 6 and affiliate programs, because we know there are other great stories to be told and creators who want a more fair opportunity to distribute their wares and get a better share of the rewards. Traditionally, all full-time employees on CrossGen books must relocate to Florida, however, no matter what your rule structure, common sense has to prevail in certain circumstances. Scott Beatty currently writes an internally-produced book for CrossGen, however it would be inconsiderate and unfair to ask him to relocate for just one book. George Perez starts work on his new title October 1st, but he still primarily works from home because of health concerns. If you, Kevin Smith, and JMS want to do a book with CrossGen, clearly we would be open to an arrangement under Code 6 or the affiliate program based upon the type of book you want to do and how we feel it would fit in our business strategy of being able to market the book to a broad range of age-groups, gender, and cultures in the mainstream marketplace. That strategy is why our entire line of books are sold in 34 countries across 12 languages. As a very unique example, the People's Republic of China has approved our entire line for publishing, primarily because our books are all about inclusion, not about exclusion regardless of intent. So, when can I expect your submission?

MM: Let's talk yankee dollar first, baby. But what about Mark Waid? It was a HUGE story when Waid signed for you guys because he signed on the back of Captain America, Kingdom Come, Flash, JLA and just about everything that made DC work in the late nineties. How much of a knock to your plans has his resignation been?

MA: Mark Waid and myself initially seemed to share the same goals and vision. However, as I've said before, the system we work under -- which, by the way, has resulted in less than 4 percent turnover in 3 years -- isn't for everyone. By now, it would be apparent to all that Mark Waid was unhappy in this system, did his best to add value, and we tried to accommodate his needs. It just didn't work out. His departure has legitimately had little to no negative impact internally. In fact, our willingness to attempt to accommodate Mark and our determination to stay within our guidelines has actually reaped significant internal benefits. Everyone here knows that no one will be treated uniquely, and because of that, his departure has in many ways brought the organization together. Please understand, this is no knock on Mark Waid. In the super-hero realm, he is a fine writer and while he was here, he put some very positive directional spins on our stories. We wish him nothing but the best for the future. In fact, our recommended read in our upcoming issues is for his first issue of Fantastic Four.

MM: Nevertheless, Waid was writing what was undoubtedly the most critically acclaimed book the company has had. In hindsight, do you feel it was wise to rewrite a script without his knowledge and pass it directly to an artist?

MA: We treated Mark Waid and his scripts no differently than any other player at CrossGen. As of this article, have you heard complaints from any other writers at CrossGen? Do you think the story might be different than you've heard? No amount of discussion regarding Mark Waid, his involvement with the company and his peers on his various books will do Mark Waid any good, and I respectfully decline further comment regarding Mark.

MM: I respect that so I'll raise two questions in response to your answer. I've heard that Crossgen employees must make all statements through the company. Isn't THIS the reason no other creators have openly criticized the working environment? Also, is it true that all EX employees must sign a gagging-order where they are forbidden to talk about their time in the Crossgen facility?

MA: Clearly, public perception regarding CrossGen is consistent with the view that we produce fantasy-related books, since most of the information regarding our company and its policies is pure fantasy. We promote creators discussing the working environment. Almost every employee that has joined our company is flown down to Tampa, generally with their spouse if applicable, and is provided free access to all employees, who are instructed to answer all their questions openly and honestly -- both the good and the bad regarding our work structure and ethics. There have been a great many interviews (contact Tony Panaccio if you would like copies) with our employees who, by the way, are co-owners of the company, in which they discussed the working environment. But don't ask me. Ask Chuck Dixon if he has to pass anything he posts on his Dixonverse Website by the management team before he posts it. Ask any of our employees if they have to ask permission to post on message boards or run information by management prior to interviews. To be realistic, there is some internal information which is confidential, and employees have no right to share it without management permission. However, I would be surprised if we are the only company in this business or any other business that doesn't have internal-only confidential information. Regarding gag orders, that is just plain nonsense, and if you want an explicit answer, there is no policy written or unwritten that requires CrossGen employees to make all public statement through the company, whether they are currently employed or after they have left. Several employees have left and we have mutually-signed non-disparagement clauses which, if we hadn't, would probably have subjected those employees to extensive criticism by their peers, regardless of what the management team thought. In effect, we have tried to take the high road, have been subjected to unfair and unverifiable criticism while keeping silent. We intend to keep the high road and eventually, as it inevitably does, the truth will surface.

MM : Are you saying here, on-record, that no former Crossgen employees are subject to gagging-orders at this precise moment in time? There is no litigation currently preventing any ex-employees from speaking in public about their time at Crossgen?

MA : On the record, currently several -- not all -- former CrossGen employees are under non-disparagement agreements (which are clearly different from gag orders), as is the company. You have no idea of how often many of us here, management and non-management like all people everywhere, wish we could speak our minds free from restraint. There is a lot of loose talk and speculation about things that are simply untrue, and we would love to be able to talk about these issues and let the truth be known. However, we have signed agreements for the mutual protection of all concerned, and we, at least, intend to stick by them.

Very early in the company's history, we were forced as part of termination proceedings to file for injunctive relief since individuals, who will remain unnamed, were disparaging this company, defaming personnel, etc., under pseudonyms through various online message boards. So while we have no current disparagement litigation issues regarding ex-employees, we were forced years ago into requesting assistance through proper legal channels to protect individuals who were and currently are at CrossGen. Unfortunately, those early situations did not allow us to pursue any other option, since what was being said was not only untrue, it was tremendously defamatory and damaging to employees and their families. You might recall that this occurred during the time that my late wife passed away.

MM: I remember reading an article about you guys when you first appeared on the scene. It was a feature in Wizard which talked about a whole new deal for freelancers and it sounded incredibly attractive. I commend the fact that you actually pay salaries as opposed to page rates and your people all have free healthcare, pension plans and shares in the company. Is it true you also pay relocation costs and, as has been rumoured, healthy signing-on bonuses?

MA: Thanks for the compliment. Part of the reason that CrossGen was started and why I helped initiate the ACTOR program with Jim McLauchlin is that I believe all creative talent in this industry deserves the same kind of traditional benefits and security that most people have in any other job-related endeavor. We pay salary twice a month, provide healthcare including disability and dental, have equity sharing and profit sharing. We pay relocation costs for permanent employees and have paid reasonable signing bonuses in unique situations.

MM: Is it true that anyone who wishes to leave has to PAY BACK both the relocation costs and the signing-on fee?

MA: No, that's not true. When an employee makes a decision to join CrossGen, we pay a great deal of money in relocation fees and the occasional sign-on bonus. Like most companies in most industries, if the employee decides to leave after a very short tenure (in most cases, less than one year), they are required to pay back relocation and signing bonuses. Since, prior to hiring them, we have paid for them to visit CrossGen with their spouse, assisted them in taking a look at the area, housing, school systems, etc., we expect that they are capable of making an informed employment decision. Therefore, we respectfully require repayment should they leave as noted above. However, there have been cases where people have left prior to one year and not only have we waived repayment, we have also assisted them financially in relocating back to their original home without requesting or requiring repayment. I'll bet that's never come to the attention of the press.

As I have said in our earlier responses, much of what is discussed about this company is inaccurate, untrue and frequently, there is an underlying negative goal by the individual(s) making the statements. I mean, how much press did CrossGen get when it allocated many thousands of dollars to ACTOR from its MegaCon proceedings, or the many hundreds if not thousands of man-hours it dedicated to supporting ACTOR's initial two auctions? As soon as people drop their preconceived notions and become aware that CrossGen's goals and actions are and have been positive for the creators, the fans and the industry, perhaps they will stop fantasizing about who and what we are in the unfounded rumors circuit. Truth, like cream, eventually rises to the top. Almost every week, one or more of our creators are contacted by our competitors who are interested in hiring them. If all the negatives about this company, or even a small number of the negatives in the rumors were true, how would we retain 97 percent of them? Does anyone else in this industry have a 97 percent retention rate? Either we take good care of our people, or they are inordinately stupid for staying, and for those who feel that's the case, they can discuss it with them individually since we've now cleared up that they are not under gag orders.

MM: Some say their reason for staying is the ninety day exclusivity clause in your contracts which forbid former employees for working anywhere else for three months. Three months without a salary is a long time for anyone. Why do you insist on this when no other comic-book company requires this from either their freelancers or their staffers?

MA: I've answered this before in many forums, so let's do it again one more time. We have a 90-day exclusivity clause in all our contracts because there is a 90-day solicitation window that is tied specifically to both the writer and the penciler of a book once it has been solicited. If the writer or the penciler is different when the book comes out, it becomes returnable. Now, if someone is inclined to leave the company without sufficient notice, the company is put in the position of requesting that creator to stay on long enough to meet their responsibilities based on what we have solicited in Previews. If they choose not to do so, the company has zero leverage with that employee without some kind of penalty for causing the loss of that book's revenue under the returnability clause in Diamond's contract. The purpose here is NOT to prevent someone from making a living. The purpose is to allow the company to protect the remaining employees by keeping the solicited comics from becoming returnable. We require it of everyone, and not just writers and pencilers, because we've decided that rather than set up multiple classes of employee at CrossGen, that all employees, including administration, will have that clause.

In fact, if a creator meets their responsibilities to CrossGen, we have consistently waived that clause. Mark Waid is a perfect example of that. He was working for Marvel on The Fantastic Four many months before his responsibilities to CrossGen had ended. We supported this because he was willing to meet his responsibilities to his peers at CrossGen. Remember, the employees own part of the company, and returns will affect their profit-sharing. If you are inconsiderate enough to leave without notice, and negatively impact your peers income, then, we will implement this incredibly short-term non-compete clause. Why should you profit while you've hurt your peers' income? However, truth be told, I don't believe we have ever implemented the non-compete clause for any individual who left unless they were terminated for cause and, given our turnover numbers, it should be easy to figure out that it is not very many people.

It also should be noted that we apply this logic to new employees coming on board. Any employee who has committed responsibilities to other publishers is allowed to finish those commitments while receiving a salary at CrossGen, because to do anything else would be hypocritical. Point of fact is that more people, by an order of magnitude, have completed work for other publishers while on our payroll many more times than we have implemented our non-compete clause.

MM: Wouldn't it be less troublesome to just have them stay ahead of their deadlines? DC Comics almost never have returnable books using this simpler and less problematic method. Three months salary might not be back-breaking to a millionaire, but it's enough to ruin a family -- or keep them in a working environment they might not consider ideal. Add moving costs to this and a possible repayment of both signing fee and INITIAL moving costs and you must appreciate that some employees are going to find it very, very difficult to leave.

MA: If anyone is that far ahead of their deadlines, then obviously, based on my prior answer, there is no issue, since they will have met their responsibilities against the solicitation timeframes. So, clearly, this clause can only impact people who aren't that far ahead of their deadlines. And yes, you're right, that would be less troublesome. By the way, can you name one individual who has lost three months salary, repaid us moving costs and signing bonus? I don't think so, because it hasn't happened. With no offense intended, Mark, this is much ado about nothing. Perhaps it might be more appropriate to have a detailed investigation into lost vouchers for payment to freelancers, which delays their compensation to the next pay cycle and is the mode of operation in most other publishers. I've heard this story so many times from employees who have joined our company, yet I don't believe there is one individual out there who has the ability to prove a case that they have lost even one month's salary from our non-compete. Isn't it about time to drop this red herring, since this is obviously not a problem in implementation, but the traditional freelance fear of the word "exclusivity" or "non-compete?" If you're going to address this issue, then let's address it fairly. We don't have exclusivity unless you are drawing a salary. If you are drawing a salary, we pay you when you're sick, on vacation, or have to take your kids to the dentist. However, our esteemed competitors seem to be knocking themselves silly signing as many people as possible to exclusive long-term contracts, and yet, those people are still paid by a page-rate. Figure it out. We don't have exclusive contracts, and we pay our people twice a month, rain or shine, mostly by direct deposit. In other companies, people have long-term exclusive contracts and are only paid based on submitted vouchers for work completed. That's why so many people have chosen to come here. The reality is clearly different than the fear.

So, let's get it straight. CrossGen does not have exclusive contracts. CrossGen has employment agreements that do not in any way, shape or form negatively impact any employee as long as they meet their baseline commitments to their peers. So, if you elect to leave CrossGen, you are free to go with even no notice, as long as you don't negatively impact your peers and their children's income. So, if you want to leave CrossGen, but you complete the work -- and get paid for the work -- we have already solicited, you can start working for a competitor the next day. If you choose to leave your team holding the bag, it's appropriate you shouldn't be rewarded.

MM: Sorry, Mark. Just to reiterate what you've said here for the record; anyone working at Crossgen isn't subject to a ninety-day exclusivity ruling providing their work meets what is currently being solicited?

MA: That is substantially correct. A better way to say it is "Anyone working at CrossGen isn't subject to our 90-day non-compete if they've completed their solicited work and are no longer drawing salary."

MM: Like I said earlier, I appreciate a lot of what you're doing. I think you're offering something which, as far as I'm aware, has never really been given to creators in the past and that's job stability. You're a fellow catholic, so I give you the benefit of the doubt when you say you're trying to make things better for everyone. However, I'm disturbed when I hear reports from inside the compound of bullying and abusive behaviour towards your hired staff. Every convention I go to seems to have another few Alessi stories. Is it true, for example, that you made one employee stand in a corner?

MA: Again, bullying and abusive behavior wouldn't result in the kinds of retention rates we have. Is there any other company in this industry where any staff member can walk into the publisher's or the CEO's office to discuss a problem or issue? Is life perfect at CrossGen? No, probably not. Certainly it is no more perfect than any kind of company in which the employees have become an extended family to each other. But, if the rumors were true, they'd be leaving in droves, instead of turning down foolishly lucrative long-term contracts, which have been thrown at some of them. You know, there will always be Alessi stories. I, myself, have heard a few Millar stories. The comment most frequently stated to me at conventions is "Oh, you're Mark Alessi. I would have thought you'd be much taller." So much for convention stories. So what? We have restrained ourselves in the past from responding to the sustained flow of foolish rumors, because response not only has a tendency to lend credence, it also draws attention away from the real issues that plague this industry. It's clear from anyone who has met me that I am an intense and driven individual. I expect the best from all of our people, and myself. I got into this industry, have injected millions, and worked 70 hours a week for the privilege of answering drivel like this. I love this medium. I respect the massively long hours and dedication it takes to produce quality monthly comics, and I have nothing but respect and affection for the people at CrossGen. They are accountable to me for their actions, and I am responsible to them for my decisions. While they choose to stay, I'll choose to work my butt off for them, and I'm not going to back down from the bullying tactics that have plagued this industry, nor will I refuse to address legitimately relevant issues that the rumormongers in this industry persist in ignoring. Both internally and externally, I can be blunt and direct and it may rub some folks the wrong way, I admit. I make no apologies for speaking to topic. Those who don't speak to topic should be apologizing. U-decide!

You asked a direct question, so for you, I will break my policy of not responding to the silly rumors. Give me a break about this standing in the corner story. The bottom line truth is that story has been circulated for a while. It was purportedly Ian Feller. He can tell you himself it's not true, like he's told so many others. And yes, I eat small children for breakfast. You know, someday, someone in this industry is actually going to have questions about things like:

  • "Why have over 20 reasonably well-funded to extremely well-funded comic publishing companies folded in the last 8 years?"

  • "Why do multiple golden-age creators live in trailer parks and their idea of a feast is macaroni and cheese?"

  • "Why do Diamond's Top 100 include only initial orders and how does that coincidentally tie into Marvel's print to order policy?"

  • "Why did the 9,700 comic retailers of about 10 years ago dwindle to about 2,700, and what can be done to reverse the trend?"

  • "Why did it take Brian Hibbs' lawsuit to get Marvel to meet their own contractual agreements with direct market retailers?"

  • "Why isn't there an even playing field for new publishers with regard to pricing and discounting?"

What about questions like that, instead of 'Did you really make Ian stand in the corner?' or 'Why aren't you taller?' Give me a break! The same issues in this industry that are legitimately relevant continue to be ignored, while these kinds of nonsense rumors continue to take the time and attention of the industry. We're beginning to resemble politicians

MM: Are the Millar stories just rumours about an unusually-large penis?

MA: Now that's something you can stand in the corner for.

MM: Okay, rapid-fire questions to wrap-up this up. Let's keep these nice and short and get this sucker in the can... Why do you take all your shots at Marvel over DC?

MA: The people at DC at least appear to be ladies and gentlemen. U-connect the dots.

MM: Do you still think Diamond treat you inconsistently as you have said in the past?

MA: Absolutely.

MM: Why are Marvel consistently dominating the top 25 and pulling themselves out of the red and into the black?

MA: Print to order, foolish gimmicks, high-profile, high-end short-term talent, a few million dollars or more from Sony's Spider-Man movie, and the initial creativity of folks like Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby, John Romita Sr., John Buscema and DIck Ayers which established a baseline of loyal fans. You don't think that Spider-Man movie was about the current continuity, do you? Oh, lest we forget, an across the board reduction in colorist rates, and that high-profile paper they use. Let's see where they are next year.

MM: Bush or Gore?

MA: Quemas. Maybe they can pull the country out of the red.

MM: War on the Third World or a peaceful solution?

MA: Killing the innocent or killing in the name of God, both are disgusting to me.

MM: Is is true that there are no clocks, no windows and no natural light in almost all areas of the Crossgen complex?

MA: The answer is few clocks, windows in the front of the building, and lighting is set low based on the requests of our computer colorists. However, there is advanced technology, free soft drinks, free coffee, large cafeteria, food in the freezer for the folks who work late, showers, foosball table, and the knowledge that you'll get paid every two weeks, and when your kid is sick, you can afford to take them to the doctor.

MM: Is it true that employees are forbidden to have beards? If not, please clarify.

MA: No. The only requirement for male employees (and I assume that is who you are referring to) is to shave daily those areas of their face that aren't committed to beard, mustache or goatee. Eyebrows are a personal choice. P.S. -- you also have to shower every day. I am a cruel SOB, am I not?

MM: I know there's been a lot of gags about how you're running a cult down there and you're keeping them all drip-fed on Kool-Aid. However, just for fun, do you think you could answer the following questionaire which I found at http://www.csj.org/infoserv_cult101/checklis.htm?

This is a series of questions which have been put together by a respected psychologist called Doctor Michael Langone which the federal government have used to define what is and what isn't a cult. Could you please answer YES or NO to each of them in regard to the Crossgen er, community?

  1. The group is focused on a living leader to whom members seem to display excessively zealous, unquestioning commitment.

  2. The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members.

  3. The group is preoccupied with making money.

  4. Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished.

  5. Mind-numbing techniques (such as meditation, chanting, speaking in tongues, denunciation sessions, debilitating work routines) are used to suppress doubts about the group and its leader(s).

  6. The leadership dictates sometimes in great detail how members should think, act, and feel (for example: members must get permission from leaders to date, change jobs, get married; leaders may prescribe what types of clothes to wear, where to live, how to discipline children, and so forth).

  7. The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s), and members (for example: the leader is considered the Messiah or an avatar; the group and/or the leader has a special mission to save humanity).

  8. The group has a polarized us- versus-them mentality, which causes conflict with the wider society.

  9. The group's leader is not accountable to any authorities (as are, for example, military commanders and ministers, priests, monks, and rabbis of mainstream denominations).

  10. The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify means that members would have considered unethical before joining the group (for example: collecting money for bogus charities).

  11. The leadership induces guilt feelings in members in order to control them.

  12. Members' subservience to the group causes them to cut ties with family and friends, and to give up personal goals and activities that were of interest before joining the group.

  13. Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group.

  14. Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members

MA: You'd have a better chance asking me about my penis, and yes, there is only one water fountain at CrossGen.

Thank you, Mark Alessi. NEXT WEEK in The Chair: DC COMICS

Visit Mark Millar on the Web at www.millarworld.biz.

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