Comic Book Publishing Follies

Fri, September 7th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Todd Allen, Columnist

KEVIN SMITH'S IN THE MIDDLE OF IT, AGAIN

It's not everyday you get to see a charity fundraiser turn into a messageboard flame war, but that's just what seems to have happened when the Hero Initiative put out a DVD of Marvel co-creator/legend Stan Lee, current Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada and filmmaker/comics gadfly Kevin Smith have a long chat at UCLA. A full eport of that chat can be found here.

In the spirit of getting to the bottom of it, I dropped a few questions on the DVD's producer, Tony Panaccio.

CBPF: There seem to be a few things askew with the DVD's reception. I understand there are some audio difficulties with parts of the video. I've heard it was a microphone problem. I've heard it was a problem with UCLA students doing the recording. I've also heard it was part of the program. What's the real story with the DVD's audio track?

TP: Well, there are about four real stories and they all step on each other. First, Stan will be the first guy to tell you that his hearing isn't what it used to be. Now, considering the guy has a public company, a first-look deal with Disney, a top-rated TV series, input on a whole slate of Marvel movies, about a dozen other projects in development, and works 10 hours a day seven days a week, I figure he's earned a little slack on the hearing thing. The problem is, when he's on-stage, he can't hear people who are 20 or 30 feet away from him unless there is a monitor near the stage directed toward him, which will always result in a little feedback now and then. No way to avoid it, unless we used a wire feed going directly into his ear piece, but UCLA didn't have that kind of equipment in their tech department. So, we stuck a speaker behind the couch Stan was sitting on. That would have worked, as long as Stan stayed in his seat. Yeah, shoulda known that wasn't gonna happen. Pile on top of that, Stan's publicist was at the show, and she found her way to the sound mixer's table, and in trying to tinker with the sound levels to increase the gain on the speaker behind Stan so he could hear better, it increased the feedback. I could go on, but I'm starting to feel the stomach acid rising again. It was just the result of a whole bunch of people with the best of intentions tripping over each other. It was like a "Seinfeld" episode, only without the charm. During the editing process, we decided to leave most of the gaffs in the video, because Kevin and Stan and Joe turned it into a running gag, and we didn't want to put out a video that wasn't reflective of the full live experience. Half the fun of live shows can be the little technical difficulties that result from it being live.

CBPF: So we're basically talking about the sort of microphone feedback that happens at least once at every A-V enabled book signing in recorded history, except that Smith turned it into a punchline?

TP: Stan, Joe and Kevin all had a little fun with it. Although the irony of Kevin busting on a low-budget production was not lost on some of us.

CBPF: Kevin Smith also seems to have gotten in the middle of the argument. If you haven't seen Kevin Smith at a convention panel, well, let's just say the creative profanity his film characters use isn't too far off Smith's real life dialogue when he gets on a roll. This has led to some concerns about suitability for children and questions of what kind of scripting went into the event. Was blue language something that was addressed prior to filming, given Smith's fairly well-known phrase-turning?

TP: Well, that one's a little off. At no point in time did we ever pretend that this was going to be a family-friendly show. We added a bleeped track as a courtesy to some people who like the subject matter but who aren't as comfortable with certain words being uttered in their homes, but we never marketed this as a Barney video to entertain the kiddies. Our Web site, packaging, advertising and press releases all reflected that this was a casual conversation between these guys, and that it was intended for adults. Moreover, we designed the set and the atmosphere to get Stan and Kevin and Joe comfortable enough on stage so that they could kind of ignore the audience a little bit and let down their guard some, so we knew there'd be a little language going on. So, if there is controversy from people who buy a Kevin Smith hosted DVD and being surprised that he used adult language, I would blame that on the consumer being a little unclear on the concept. I mean, crap, did you see "Clerks 2?"

And as far as scripting goes, let's do a quick reality check. Stan is possibly busier than he was when he worked at Marvel. When Kevin isn't directing a film, he's acting in someone else's film. And Joe - well, let's just say this guy is busting his butt to make sure "One More Day" is one of the best works of his career, in addition to being Editor-in-Chief of one of the largest publishing houses of any kind in the world. Getting them all in one room together at the same time was like trying to keep Lindsay Lohan in rehab. At what point would we have been able to script a whole lot of anything, and when would we have briefed them on it? Jim McLauchlin did a helluva job putting together a show flow and did a better job of keeping these three guys, whose minds move a mile a minute, on it. I think people who want to see Kevin and Joe and Stan "scripted" are probably missing the point of this production. The attraction of what we did was this discussion was unscripted, and what you saw were three of the most significant figures in pop culture today with their guards down, just talking about the things that fuel their creative passion. If you want scripted and sanitized, this is not the DVD for you.

CBPF: It really is hard to believe, in the age of YouTube, that anyone would pick up something with Kevin Smith on the cover and be shocked at some F-bombs or mentions of that chicken, what crows in the morning. Speaking of shock and novelty value, do the "Deadwood" fans in the room get to hear Stan cut loose on a blue streak?

TP: No, it was pretty much confined to Kevin, but trust me, he did his share, Joe's share and Stan's share. But there are a lot of insider moments fans will recognize. And watch for the uncredited appearance of Nick Barrucci [of Dynamic Forces and Dynamite Publishing] at the end of the show. It's a keeper.

CBPF: Finally, distribution has become an issue. What kind of distribution channels have you been using for this? A common complaint seems to be a desire to rent the DVD, but a lack of availability with Blockbuster and Netflix. For that matter, it doesn't seem to have penetrated comic shops the way you might expect something with that set of headliners to have done. How does Diamond work as a DVD distributor?

TP: Well, there are two problems with that. First, this is a project that was designed as a charity project for the Hero Initiative, an organization that helps comic pros in need. Now, part of that food chain is the comic retailer -- many of whom have stepped up and helped us out in the past. We wanted to give them a chance to make a few dollars, as well, as a way of giving back to them as a community. As a charity, we stick our hands out a lot asking for money. This project was a way of trying to put something back in people's hands as a thank you for their support. To leave the retailers who have done some great things for us in the past out of this mix would have been disrespectful to the industry we are trying to support. Just selling a bunch of DVDs to Netflix and Blockbuster to make a few quick bucks might have been more expedient and made it easier for consumers to get the DVD, but it would have hurt the retailers who bought their copies from Diamond in the first place. To those who would rather rent it, I'd remind them that this project ain't nothin' but a family thing. We want to support our comics family, and we'd hope that they'd understand if we stick to the comics distribution channel for now.

As far as Diamond goes, we got placed in the back of the Previews book, where they normally place products listed from the Hero Initiative. So, if you were looking on page 310, you'd have found it, and a lot of retailers did. If more want to order it, I'd suggest they call their Diamond rep and order some. Now, I'm sure Diamond works fine as a DVD distributor if you're an exclusive premier vendor. Not so much if you're not. It's not a knock against Diamond - they have very complex contracts and procedures in place to protect the companies who generate the most revenue. That's just business. Still, there are guys like Ted Adams and Chris Ryall at IDW, who, when asked, stepped up in a big way and gave us a free ad in their July comics to help us move some units. Guys like Mike Malve at Atomic Comics who even pre-paid his order way in advance to help us pay some of the production costs. Guys like Brad Plevyak at NewsAskew who helped us promote the event to the bejesus so we could fill the room. Yeah, they all have businesses, but they also recognize when organizations like Hero are just trying to help the little guy get along. It would really be nice if some of the folks in the food chain out there could take a hint from them and step up a bit more.

I'd urge people to ask their retailer about the DVD if they haven't already. If their retailer can't reorder it from Diamond, tell the retailer that we'll honor the same discount if they order it directly from us. We want to do everything we can to put this in the hands of retailers and consumers. Retailers can email me directly at tonypanaccio@yahoo.com.

To close, I just want to say that this DVD is a landmark piece where we get to hear some of the great old stories we remember, and some new ones we didn't know, and just share in the fun that we all had one night in Los Angeles.

And we here at the Comic Book Publishing Follies remind you that if your local shop owner happens to be one of the lame ones who never wants to do a reorder (they exist, especially when it comes to the back of the catalog), you can slip over to http://www.thenandnowdvd.org and get it there.

TRANSFUZION'S UNCONVENTIONAL DISTRIBUTION MODEL

"I hate the comics market, but I love the medium," offered Gary Reed at Wizard World Chicago.

Older readers may remember Gary Reed as the man behind Caliber Comics in the '80s and '90s. Others may remember him as the writer behind "Deadworld," one of the original '80s zombie comics that's been making a comeback as zombie books have been all the rage of late. Reed's new venture is Transfuzion, where he seeks to sell trade paperbacks direct to the consumer, retailers and libraries.

"My stuff sells outside the comics market," Reed explained further. His work for Penguin introduced him to libraries and bookstores, so while you may not see a lot of his work on a comic shop shelf, Reed finds a measure of popularity in libraries and, increasingly, on Amazon, where its easier for people to track down his work.

Reed came to grips with the reality that the direct market, especially as typified by Diamond and the back of the catalog, often may not produce enough orders to justify a print run of sufficient size to bring the unit cost low enough to be profitable with Diamond's discount structure. Instead, Reed is looking to introduce his comics online and utilize an arsenal of Print On Demand, the Amazon Advantage program, eBay and web sales, while continuing to engage interested retailers on an individual basis.

"The main thing is to limit the financial exposure," Reed said. While Print On Demand isn't economical for Diamond's bulk discount, it can work out for "normal" retailer discounts and a full cover price web sale should always be fine. "It's not an antagonistic thing," Reed facing the reality of the situation, with perhaps a twinge of longing for the older, more indie friendly distribution days detectable in his voice.

Currently, he's using Kablam and Lulu for printing up graphic novels, which Reed says are a must for dealing with Hollywood, and convey an extra benefit when sold online. "They see the [graphic novel] on Amazon and if they don't want to talk to you, they buy it," said Reed. Thus, turning a sample request into a sale and saving the Fed Ex charges he'd normally get hit with.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. Future Comics made an attempt at direct-to-retailer sales a few years back, only to crash and burn. Transfuzion seems to emphasize the consumer aspect more, and the overt library angle is somewhat unusual for small press, and all the more odd for having an author whose name librarians are used to. Introducing readers to content by putting it online has also worked for a number of web-based cartoonists, so what we're seeing here is a reformulation of a few established components.

He's also absolutely right in that P.O.D. will drastically limit his ability to lose money and, as he puts it, "Let's me do publishing without doing publishing."

OK, YOU ASKED FOR IT

Here's one you don't see every day. A small press start-up actually listening to what retailers say they want. Aaron Shaps of General Jack Cosmo Productions heard the retailers talking about wanting to see a book before ordering and is doing the heretofore unthinkable - when talking to him at Wizard World Chicago, he was preparing to print up 100-125 copies of a book being solicited for January release and send them out to reviewers and to store owners in August, so that reviews could be up and store owners could see the product before the November solicitation for January orders. And this for "regular" magazine format comics, not graphic novels. I've not heard of this being done on a regular basis, but Shap is ready to show his wares well in advance. Probably means there's less chance of a late ship, too.

More interestingly, Shap has a couple of those rare positive stories to tell, such that you don't hear out of the very small press terribly often. At Wizard World Chicago 2006, a Diamond rep approached him at his booth and encouraged him to submit a book for solicitation. Once there and one published anthology under his belt, Shap has nothing but glowing praise for Diamond brand manager William West, who he cites as a big backer of the book.

Shap also has a Kablam story. As with many small press publishers, General Jack was getting convention copies printed up in a short run. Then UPS hit a snag with the delivery. Kablam had started printing replacement copies for the convention by the time UPS figured out where they'd put the package. Absolutely nothing wrong with a printer going out his way to cover a client's back during convention season.

A fellow just doesn't hear enough good experiences from the up and comer's these days, so if you're a retailer and want to see what he's offering, hit that myspace page or http://www.cosmo-verse.com/. It will be interesting to see what happens when the oft-cited request for pre-order viewing actually happens.

Todd Allen is the author of "The Economics of Webcomics, 2nd Edition." He consults on media and technology issues and is an adjunct professor with the Arts, Entertainment and Media Management Department at Columbia College Chicago. For more information, see www.BusinessOfContent.com. Todd even did a webcomic. Sort of.

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