Shelf Life: Giving Thanks for a CrossGen Thanksgiving

Fri, November 23rd, 2012 at 11:58am PST

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

Giving Thanks for a CrossGen Thanksgiving

A younger Ron in his CrossGen days
Photo by Ed Matthews

One of the best Thanksgivings I ever had was when we were living in Florida, just north of Tampa, during my time working for CrossGen Comics. From the start, we viewed moving there as an adventure; if it didn't work out, or we simply didn't like it, we could pack up and head north again. Turns out that's exactly what happened, after CrossGen started a death spiral, eventually shutting the doors and passing into bankruptcy. But for a few years, it showed some real promise.

Working at CrossGen meant you had a staff job, a real job, with benefits and vacation time and sick days. It also meant moving to Florida so the staff could work together in the same studio. Pretty unusual in a freelance-oriented industry like comics, but pretty standard in most other professions. The vast majority of the employees came from elsewhere: other states, other countries. Some of us knew each other before moving there, friends recommended friends to be hired. But a great many didn't know each other. We were in new surroundings, without extended family nearby, so CrossGen became the extended family for a lot of the employees.

The boss at CrossGen was Mark Alessi. Founding the company was his dream, his money backed the idea, his was the initial vision of the CrossGen Universe. Whatever his faults might have been, he was a big believer in family. The prior year, he held a lavish Thanksgiving feast at his house, inviting everyone on staff. The next year, the staff had grown too large to have everybody together at one meal. So Mark pulled me aside a week or so prior to Thanksgiving, and asked me if I'd be willing to take in some of the "Thanksgiving orphans" -- people without families, or maybe just without plans -- for dinner. And then he handed me $400 to pay for the entire meal, and told me to come get more money if we needed it.

So our Thanksgiving dinner grew from about a dozen friends and family to about twice that, and a huge production of food and drink. I don't recall everyone on the guest list, but I think it included Bart Sears, Andy Smith, Mike Atiyeh, Mike Perkins and their wives and families, as well as Brandon Peterson, Jim Cheung, Paul Pelletier, Jim Fern and others.

It was the first time my wife ever cooked a turkey, a monster bird to feed that many people. So much time and effort went into that day, but it's probably my favorite Thanksgiving ever, because we were able to open our home and bring together an extended family.

It's hard for me to fathom that CrossGen happened a decade ago. Our time in Florida was integral to our lives. Two of our three children were born there. So I mostly think of CrossGen fondly, especially in terms of the friendships made and the comics created. I'm still proud of a lot of the work I was able to do there. Of course there were frustrations and annoyances, and sometimes personality conflicts and office politics. But what job doesn't have those? I regret the way it ended, and the opportunities lost, not the experience itself. The vast majority of my memories are positive.

A shot of the CrossGen 'compound'

It always got under my skin that people referred to the CrossGen studio as "the compound," and believed the employees and their families actually lived there like some religious cult. It opened my eyes to how gullible people can be, believing such wildly overblown tales. The studio was in an office building, in an office park, in Oldsmar, Florida, which was about halfway between Tampa and Clearwater.

At its zenith, CrossGen had more than 100 employees, and actually had to expand into adjacent office space. Ultimately, that's a reflection of what killed CrossGen: too many titles, too many salaries, too much money going out, too little coming in. It was hubris on the part of Mark Alessi to believe he could compete with Marvel and DC. That was never the plan, as far as the employees were concerned. We all thought we'd come to work at a boutique publisher, that maybe in a decade could grow itself to being the number three publisher. There were no delusions of grandeur. We were simply reaching for the chance to have the benefits of "real" jobs, rather than the constant and uncertain hustle of freelancing.

I remember sitting, with other CrossGen employees, in the audience for a Wizard World Chicago panel featuring Alessi. At that panel, he announced -- much to our shock -- that CrossGen would "knock Marvel and DC off their pedestal." We all looked at each other like, "What the hell is he talking about?"

It was too much, too soon. Too many ventures, not enough growing our core competency of producing comics. Reach always exceeded grasp. The burn rate of the money was never matched by the profits coming in. The profit-sharing plan that was enticement to so many of us never materialized, because profits never materialized. Dreams were dashed. Most everybody scurried back to freelance.

Yes, there was an industrial fridge full of beer at the CrossGen studio. Mostly Heineken, as I recall. There was also hard liquor in a lunch-room cabinet, if that was your preference, as well as a soda fountain. If you felt like having a beer or a cocktail at the end of the day, you could do that. There was a standing, signed agreement for employees that if anybody got too tipsy to drive home, the company would pay for a cab.

This Jack Kirby original hung in the front coffee break room at the CrossGen offices

Alessi's personal art collection adorned the walls at the studio. It contained everything from the ridiculous to the sublime, reflecting a personal taste for leggy ladies and sword-swinging heroes. A great deal of it was highly valuable; the Frazetta watercolor of Tarzan in the lobby had a magnetic alarm. Other pieces weren't worth what it had cost to matte and frame them.

There was a Joe Kubert "Viking Prince" page hanging outside my office, an entire Barry Windsor-Smith Conan story along the back wall, a Kirby cutaway diagram of the Baxter Building in the front coffee room. And there were honestly lesser pieces that a lot of the art staff snickered up their sleeves about.

It was easy to get used to the art on the walls, and not really notice it after a while, even the amazing pieces. Every once in a while you had to remind yourself to pause and soak up the inspiration.

I still believe the CrossGen studio contained the greatest concentration of artistic talent in one place that comics has ever seen. Just look at the list of staff pencilers: George Perez, Butch Guice, Steve Epting, Brandon Peterson, Bart Sears, Jim Cheung, Greg Land, Steve McNiven, Josh Middleton, Paul Pelletier, Jeff Johnson, Matthew Dow Smith, Karl Moline and more. Mike Perkins and Andy Smith, guys who had penciled previously, were initially hired as inkers, and had to "graduate" to penciling again.

You know the roster is pretty good when a talent like Steve McNiven started out as, essentially, an intern. Steve was followed by Andrea DiVito, who initially served as Claudio Castellini's interpreter, but eventually showed off his own Buscema-inspired art and claimed a place in the studio.

(An aside: Alessi had the entire staff take weekly Italian-language lessons from the same instructor who was tutoring Castellini in English while he was in the studio. It was supposed to be a sign of respect for our visiting artist, though I learned very little, and promptly forgot all of it.)

Working in the same office with the art teams was, for me, a little bit like having a front-row seat to watch the magician do his tricks. There's still magic in seeing art created, whether it's on paper or on a screen. There was a healthy competition within the studio. Pages of pencils, and the inks, were posted on the walls of each team's "quad" in the studio. Nobody wanted to hang up the weak page of the day. I think that combination of competition with, and learning from, each other is why virtually everybody who went into the studio came out of it a better artist.

Creatively, the most satisfying aspect was being able to sit down with the rest of your team and talk about the direction of the book, specifics of a page, or even a panel. Pencilers could look over a colorist's shoulder and fuss with a page to get just the look they had in mind. Not that the colorists always appreciated that.

We had no editors. The phrase often bandied about was that creative teams "took ownership" of their books. The last people to see a book before files were sent to press were always the creative team. We proofed our own books, fine-tuned them, rooted out mistakes. I learned more about putting a comic together, start to finish, in a few years at CrossGen than I did in a prior decade of freelancing.

The writers were the de facto editors of the books, and the art director and his assistants were responsible for tracking pages and scheduling. Inkers, colorists and even pencilers pitched in to help out on other books as needed, to make sure issues came out on time. And the books came out on time, every time, for the first couple years of the company. When a CrossGen book finally missed its ship date, it was because of an overdue bill at the printers, not because the issue wasn't ready.

Ron wrote fake, sexually-explicit pages for Mystic #7 as a practical joke on then-rookie Steve McNiven

One of Steve McNiven's first gigs was issue #7 of "Mystic," a title I was writing at the time (before turning it over to Tony Bedard). I wrote the first batch of script pages to get Steve started, and while he was drawing the initial scene, I was finishing the rest of the script. Writing scripts in piecemeal fashion is one of my least favorite things to do, but sometimes it's a necessity. In this case, it was also an opportunity.

When Steve headed home on Friday, I told him I'd leave the rest of the script on his chair, since he was planning on coming in on Saturday to get a jump on the next week's work. I stayed later that evening and finished the script. Then, instead of leaving the script for Steve, I wrote four or five pages of an extremely explicit lesbian sex scene between the sisters who were main characters, and left that on his chair.

Steve came in the next day, read the pages and, according to him, panicked. Steve had been an art teacher in Canada, and had taken one final shot at breaking into comics, resulting in his spot as an "associate penciler" at CrossGen. This was his first full issue. There had to be some mistake, right? He couldn't draw those pages!

After a fruitless search, Steve called me at home. I confessed that the real script was in my desk drawer. He thanked me, cursed me, and started drawing.

Next week: more of my CrossGen memories, including the worst first day on the job ever, ghost stories, and convincing one of the artists that he was about to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" for Top Cow, "Prophecy" for Dynamite and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, crossgen, steve mcniven, mystic

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