More Memories of CrossGen
Last week, I wrote about some of my memories of working at CrossGen Comics. The deeper I got into that piece, the more stories surfaced, too many to contain in one column. The further away the whole thing gets in the rear-view mirror, the easier it is to dwell on the positive, and eschew the negative.
I don't mean to candy-coat the whole experience. More than a few people had their lives practically ruined by CrossGen's collapse. I got off comparatively lucky; I was left holding the bag for about $4,000. Many were on the hook for even more. My friend Luke Ross was dinged for a much larger sum. The bankruptcy was tragic, because it never would have happened with a better business plan and management in place. But that, too, was only obvious in the rear-view mirror.
On my first day in the office, the boss, Mark Alessi, stormed out of a creative meeting, in no small part due to being angry with me. He left the building, and I thought, "Okay, maybe we're not moving to Tampa after all."
The initial creative personnel -- me, Barbara Kesel, Brandon Peterson, and Alessi's cousin, Gina Villa -- had gathered with Alessi in the posh conference room to brainstorm details of the first four titles. Mark and Gina had generated the initial concepts for what would become "Mystic," "Scion," "Sigil" and "Meridian." Those were sent to me as part of the package to recruit me for the job. But it was merely the broad strokes; at this point, we didn't have character names or even proper titles. In my mind, it was a brainstorming session, figuring out what worked and what didn't, so we could build better books. As it turned out, not everybody was approaching it with that mindset.
The original "Mystic" concept was set upon a magical world, and as envisioned in the CrossGen bible that was presented to me, its protagonist was a student of that magic. She craved to excel in the mystic arts, to be the preeminent sorcerer of her world. So she dedicated herself, studied very hard... and became the preeminent sorcerer of her world.
"That's boring," I said in the meeting. Probably a little more blunt than I should've been. "She basically wants something, she works hard, and she gets it. That's not a story."
So I suggested the direction that eventually became the "Mystic" storyline: a younger party-girl sister, who neither wants such power nor knows what to do with it, gets what the older sister wanted. Maybe not the most shockingly original concept, but more interesting than "study hard, get what you want."
It was quite a bit different than the story Alessi had envisioned. It was also the last straw for Day One. There'd been an undercurrent of tension in the room all day, as we pulled apart and rebuilt the concept Alessi and Villa had hatched. The tension boiled over, and about 3 p.m., Alessi got up and left. Walked out of the conference room, gathered his leather briefcase, got in his car and left. Nobody in the conference room quite knew what to say.
I understood it, especially for someone coming from a non-creative background (Alessi had made his money in IT). Even if you're used to the process, it's not easy to have your ideas dragged onto the exam table and picked over. I'm not excusing the petulant behavior... I'm just saying I understood it.
We came in the next morning, no one sure what to expect. Maybe Alessi wouldn't even show up. Maybe he'd just fire somebody's ass (like mine). But he arrived promptly, and used the intercom in the conference room to summon all of us. When we were all seated, Alessi launched into a lengthy apology, admitting that he was angry at his ideas getting kicked around and sometimes cast aside. But then he said that after a night's reflection, he realized that's why he hired us. We were the ones with the creative experience; he needed to trust us, and accept the process, even when it was difficult. It was heartfelt. It was nakedly honest.
It was also being heard throughout the entire building, since Alessi hadn't turned off the intercom. None of us knew until Mike Beattie, the Chief Financial Officer, stuck his head in the conference room and said, "Uh, everybody can hear you."
The difficult apology had been overheard by the entire staff. There was a long pause, and again, nobody quite knew what to say. Again, the tension was palpable. But this time, Alessi started to giggle at the whole farcical situation, and burst into full laughter. That too went out over the intercom. Everybody else around the table joined in. That, to me, is the moment when CrossGen was really born.
One of the popular stories at the CrossGen studio was that it was haunted. Yes, haunted. I personally never had any strange experiences in the studio. Well, actually, I had quite a few strange experiences in the studio, but none that could qualify as supernatural.
Quite a few others, however, did. Guys who had a habit of working late into the evening reported see moving shadows from the periphery of their vision. Sometimes unexplained noises were heard on the other end of the otherwise deserted studio, sounds like doors opening or closing.
Working late in my office one night to finish up a script, I heard inker John Dell exclaim, "Aw, God damn it!" from his drawing table. I walked out to see what was going on, and John looked equal parts annoyed and shaken. He told me he saw a shadowy figure pass between the cubicle walls. The hair on his arms was still standing up. John packed up his gear, and finished his page at home that night.
John wasn't the only one to report a similar encounter. Colorists Caesar Rodriguez and Justin Ponsor, penciler Jim Cheung, and letterers Dave Lanphear and Troy Peteri each had some kind of unsettling, late-night experience. The stories all matched: a tall, shadowy figure with a pale face and dark hair, most often seen toward the back of the studio. Dave swore the handle of his closed office door was jiggled from the outside one night when there was no one else in the building.
As far as I've been able to find out, the former CrossGen office space is vacant at present, so the ghost has the place to himself now.
Greg Land was originally slated to take over "Meridian" for the departing Josh Middleton. But in phone conversations with Greg prior to his arrival in town, it was pretty obvious he wasn't terribly enthused about drawing the adventures of a teen girl. So I proposed to Alessi the idea of me coming up with a new fantasy series for Greg to draw, something more in the Tolkien tradition (since Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" films were impending, and I felt like pure fantasy was woefully underserved in comics). With a little convincing, Alessi agreed. I went into my office and in three days worked up the series bible for what would become "Sojourn."
The conceptual framework for "Sigil," "Meridian," "Mystic" and "Scion" had been in place since day one. The creative teams added character names, story direction, details, and in some cases (like "Mystic") more than that. "Sojourn" was the first title essentially created from whole cloth. Alessi's only comment, once he'd read the bible, was "put a dog in it. People like dogs." So we put a dog in it. At the, uh, request of the boss, the dog was modeled after a Belgian Shepherd named Krieg that Alessi's wife once owned. Alessi wanted us to keep the dog's name, but I refused to just transport the German spelling to our fantasy world of the Five Lands. Thus: Kreeg.
One of the fringe benefits of working at CrossGen was that the company had a luxury box at what was then called the Ice Palace, the sports arena/concert hall in Tampa. We saw a lot of Tampa Bay Lightning hockey games from that box, as well as concerts including Springsteen, Kiss and Roger Waters. During CrossGen's first year, those outings helped turn a bunch of relative strangers into friends.
Mark Alessi also had four season tickets to the Buccaneers, seats on about the 40-yard-line, with access to the club level. If Alessi didn't use them for a game, he'd usually give them to a CrossGen staffer who was a football fan. I'd get the tickets if the Giants were in town. Greg Land would get the tickets when his beloved Green Bay Packers visited.
The Vikings were in town for one Monday Night Football I attended with Alessi, Jim McLauchlin (then of "Wizard" magazine, now the guiding light of Hero Initiative), and artist Claudio Castellini, who drew the very first CrossGen comic, "CrossGen Chronicles" #1. Claudio was visiting from Rome, and was virtually clueless about American football. And because boys will be boys, we spent most of the evening trying to convince him he was going to have to suit up and play in the game.
I'll let McLauchlin tell it:
"I yanked a Bucs helmet -- a pretty authentic-looking one -- from Alessi's garage as we were hopping in the car. I put it on the floor as I was in the front passenger seat. Halfway through the drive the game, as Ron and Claudio were in the back, I handed the helmet to Claudio, telling him that he was expected to play in the game. I told him that Monday Night Football was a huge cultural event in the United States, and as he was a visiting dignitary from a foreign land, we had arranged to give him our country's highest honor -- he was going to get to play. Just a few plays, of course. But it was necessary, and an honor that was so significant, it could not be refused without causing an international incident of pretty immense magnitude. He was going to have to strap it on, and get his ass drummed into the ground by John Randle for the sake of Italian-American relations. We assured him that there were ambulances, and even a med-evac helicopter at the ready, just in case."
We had Claudio fairly well convinced he was going to have to play after halftime (a few beers and a couple rounds of tequila shots didn't hurt the process). He was rightly concerned, because, as he pointed out, "American football players, they are very big."
When we finally admitted he wouldn't really have to play, Claudio's relief was palpable. Nobody escaped without injury, though: the hangovers were pretty severe. I don't think any of us made it into the office much before noon on Tuesday.
At the end of it all, CrossGen died a slow death. Paychecks started to be late, then there were "half checks," and eventually, for those who stayed until the bitter end, no checks. There was a wave of layoffs in which probably half the staff was let go. There were tears that day, both from the people let go and the people being retained. Half the family was suddenly gone.
I was retained, but under salary and job-duty parameters that weren't acceptable to me, so I resigned amiably and went back to freelance. Friends in editorial at other publishers reached out, and shortly I was writing "Star Wars" for Dark Horse and more "Green Lantern" at DC. Jim McLauchlin -- the same Jim McLauchlin who convinced Claudio Castellini that he'd need to suit up for the Bucs -- got in touch and offered me work at Top Cow, where he was editor-in-chief. My relationship with Top Cow has been continuous, and fruitful, ever since. One door closes, another opens.
At the time, the disappointment at the situation, and even more, at the falsehoods and delusions, left almost everyone bitter, me included. I needed to put it behind me and move on. I took all the CrossGen gear I'd amassed -- a huge pile of T-shirts, polo shirts and hats -- and dumped it in a donation box for some charitable organization that distributes clothes overseas. I've always assumed there's a poor village in somewhere Central America, or maybe Africa, where almost everyone is walking around in CrossGen T-shirts.
I still have the custom-made CrossGen football jersey, and the leather bomber jacket, probably a hat. I know there's still a polo shirt, with a logo for "The Path" embroidered on it, hanging in the closet. When CrossGen failed, I looked at those things as reminders of that failure. Now I look at them as keepsakes from a brief time in my life and in my career. I'm glad I still have them.
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.