Nat Gertler of About Comics is one of the nicest guys in comics, but there's more to him than that. He’s been a major proponent of 24 Hour Comics, published two volumes of "Writers on Comics Scriptwriting" as well as “You’ll All Be Sorry,” a collection of Gail Simone’s columns originally published here on Comic Book Resources. This fall, he’ll also publish “Tales of the Uncanny: N-Man & Friends - A Naut Comics History, Vol. 1,” a book CBR spoke about at length with Steve Bissette earlier this year.
By now the tragedy surrounding the death of Steve Perry is known to most comics fans. The comics and animation writer, known for his work on television shows including “Thundercats” and “Silverhawks” and comics such as “Time Spirits” as well as contributions to “Heavy Metal” and “Epic Illustrated,” was dying of cancer when he was murdered earlier this year. Before his death, Perry arranged with Gertler to publish “Salimba,” a comic that Perry created with Paul Chadwick of “Concrete” fame. It’s a fun jungle girl comic featuring pirates and zombie apes, but it’s also much more. Ten percent of the book’s print run will be donated to The Hero Initiative so that the organization can help other creators just as they helped Perry. CBR News spoke with Gertler about the project, losing his friend Perry and the decision to give back to the Hero Initiative.
CBR News: Nat, what is "Salimba" for those of us who don’t know?
Nat Gertler: “Salimba” is a jungle girl comic created in the mid-1980s, drawn by Paul Chadwick before he won all those Eisner awards for his “Concrete” series, and written by Stephen Perry, known for his comics such as “Timespirits” and his TV work on such shows as “Thundercats” and “Silverhawks.” It definitely comes from the tradition of jungle girl comics, but it brings with it Perry's own spiritual, mystic sensibility. It also varies from the jungle girl tradition [in that she] isn't white, she isn't an outsider come to save the jungle. But I don't want that to make this sound like some sort of heavy thought-piece or lecture - this is a comic with pirates and monsters and, yes, zombie apes.
How did you first encounter the book? Did you know about it from its initial release?
I think I missed it when it came around the very first time. The work had originally been intended for “Pacific Presents,” the anthology best remembered for the early “Rocketeer” appearances, but that book went away before it saw print. When the material first came out, it was buried in a glut of 3-D material that Blackthorne Publishing was putting out - technically issues 6 and 9 of a series that included everything from “Gumby” to “Rambo” - so I think I missed it the first time, but I did eventually discover both the back issues of that edition and the non-3-D collected edition that Blackthorne put out in 1989, after “Concrete” had created Paul Chadwick fans. I probably really found it in '89.
You secured the rights to “Salimba” from Perry at a time when we sadly know that he was in tough financial straits. How did that come about and what did it involve?
I had heard about Perry's health and financial problems - various people in the comics community were doing a good job of spreading the word. For those who don't know, Perry was not only living in poverty but dying of cancer, and there wasn't that much hope that he would live long. I had sent him a few bucks myself, not because I knew him - I'd never met him - but a little because I had real respect for some of his work, but more importantly because I could see myself in his shoes. We've both been comics writers, both written for animation, his son Leo is the same age as my daughter, and we've both made good decisions and bad decisions over the years. Maybe it's an imperfect instinct to feel for those who are most like ourselves, but it's better than not feeling for anyone.
I heard from a friend of his, Jim Wheelock, that Chadwick had made a gift of his share of the “Salimba” rights to Perry, and Perry was trying to find a publishing home for it to raise some much-needed cash. He had to not only worry about his day-to-day living for himself and his son, but there were steep medical expenses, and there was the hope of doing whatever he could to make sure there was a good home for his son should he pass away. When I heard that he was looking for a publisher for “Salimba,” I took a while thinking about it - longer than I should have - and I realized that the problem of setting up a publishing deal, at least a standard reprint deal in the direct market, is that it doesn't generate money quickly. Between cutting the deal, getting the book prepared, soliciting it months in advance of publication, publishing it, waiting for the distributors to pay for the copies and then waiting for the publisher to cut a royalty check, you can reasonably expect it to be at least a year between publisher interest and actually seeing money.
Perry didn't likely have a year, so I wanted to give him an idea of how to raise the most money quickly, and that would be to have an auction and auction off all of the rights - the copyrights to the stories, the characters, any trademarks. That way, instead of going from publisher to publisher, figuring out what deal is possible, you get publishers bidding against one another, and with a little appropriate publicity, perhaps reaching interested parties who they wouldn't think of reaching out to - film companies, people planning as-yet-unannounced publishing lines, whatever. To encourage him, I guaranteed an opening bid. It wasn't a huge amount of money - I was confident that others would bid more - but it reflected what the property was worth to me, to my About Comics line.
What I hadn't expected is that Perry was so eager for money now, rather than waiting for an auction to be publicized, that he took my opening bid and immediately sold it to me for that.
How involved with the book was Perry prior to his death earlier this year?
The deal was made early this year. There wasn't a lot of specific planning to be done; it's largely a reprint book. However, once I bought the rights, there was one more thing Perry wanted to do - he had an idea for a Salimba prose story that he had never finished up. He offered me one-time publishing rights for one price, or ownership of the copyright for a larger price. I paid the larger price, and he finished up "Baby," a new tale that runs over 10,000 words, longer than either of us expected it to be. He and I joked about how some elements of the comics press would cover it as "Evil Publisher Buys Dying Creator's Baby."
The story is a tale of drugs and murder and the child left behind. While both of us expected that Perry may not see its publication - when he sent the final manuscript, he noted that it was the last piece of fiction he'd ever finish - neither of us realized how those themes would be reflected in the way that Perry's end actually came. Well, we knew the child would be left behind.
How did you connect with Steve Bissette to work on the book?
Bissette and I have known each other for decades; we've never actually met, but we were in an Amateur Press Association together way back when, and I've published a story of his in the anthology "24 Hour Comics," so he gets a check from me every year. When I decided to reach out to Perry with my idea of auctioning off “Salimba,” Bissette sweetened the pot on the work by promising an introduction or an illustration. Eventually this morphed into a couple of illustrations, bringing some visuals to the driving prose of "Baby."
You’re also donating to the Hero Initiative. What are you giving exactly and why did you feel this was important?
We're giving 10% of the print run to The Hero Initiative, which means that for every nine copies About Comics gets to sell, The Hero Initiative gets one to sell. While The Hero Initiative gets some of their money out of straight-out financial donations, a lot of what they bring in is off of sales of items, whether it be art auctions or books sold at conventions and the like.
The Hero Initiative is a charity that is dear to me, because they help some deserving folks [Editor's note: Hero Initiative is a charity that helps veteran comics creators in need]. They were a great help to Steve Gerber, who was sort of my mentor as a writer, in his final years. They've helped Gene Colan. They've helped Bill Loebs. And these are just some of the folks I've published who they've helped. So we've been helping The Hero Initiative for years. We auctioned off the right for someone to put a message in a word balloon on the cover of “Licensable Bear™” #4, for example. When that particular issue ended up becoming a sought-after collectors' item [Editor's note: This issue was the first comic book with a Barack Obama appearance, beating others by more than a year], we came out with an ultra-limited second edition with an Obama-themed cover, just for The Hero Initiative.
Most relevantly to this, they were helping Steve Perry during his tough times. So while this isn't a "charity book" - buying the rights was a business deal for me, and I'm hoping to make money publishing it - I wanted the book to help The Hero Initiative help the next creator in need as well.
What can you tell anyone interested in ordering the book regarding content, page count and release date?
This is a standard-size black and white trade paperback, 96 pages on recycled paper (because Salimba would want it that way!) for an affordable $9.99. It has all three of the Perry/Chadwick stories, including some Chadwick inks but also Tom Palmer and Bruce Patterson. Plus there's "Baby" with the Bissette illustrations. The book hits in October, and can be found in the August Previews - the one that's in readers' hands right now - on page 216, item AUG10 0727.
One thing that I'll note is that the more copies that comic shops order up front, the more we print, and that means the more The Hero Initiative gets. Customers can help The Hero Initiative (and me) by letting their comic shop know - now - that they're going to want a copy.