This past week, a comic book odyssey reached a major public turning point when Black Mask Studios released "Occupy Comics" #1. The project features work from a bevy of comic creators including new stories from Ben Templesmith, Joshua Hale Fialkov, J.M. DeMatteis, Douglas Rushkoff and Dean Haspiel as well as illustrations from the likes of Art Spiegelman and David Lloyd and a new essay by Alan Moore, all wrapped by a Mike Allred cover. The anthology was born over a year ago when Matt Pizzolo, CCO of the Halo-8 entertainment company and comics maker, began gathering talent for a benefit series inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York City's Zuccotti Park and dedicated to giving back to causes close to those involved.
And if the meaning and momentum of the Occupy movement has changed in that time, the "Occupy Comics" anthology has kept pace with its spiritual forbearer. From its initial Kickstarter endowment of over $28,000 the project has grown in size and scope, grabbing headlines for the involvement of Moore and Lloyd (whose "V For Vendetta" iconography was embraced by the Occupy movement) and eventually joining Black Mask as an official release.
The upstart comic company is a joint venture between Pizzolo, comics writer Steve Niles and Epitaph Records owner/Bad Religion guitarist Brett Gurewitz. The trio approach the company much like "Occupy Comics" has been put together – as a collaborative effort driven by the punk Do It Yourself ethos.
"With 'Occupy Comics' it was something I put together with a coalition of people," Pizzolo explained to CBR New. "Steve was one of the first people I started talking to about it, and Aaron Colter [formerly of Dark Horse] came on board and was a tremendous project on it. It's interesting how that's changed over time. At the beginning, it was specifically about the Occupy Wall Street protest, but by the time the Kickstarter was done, the park was cleared. So the whole thing had to shift, and each creator gets to choose where their share of the money goes. Most of them are contributing to Strike Debt and the Rolling Jubilee and things that Occupy is becoming.
"And what's really exciting is that in coming out now, I was worried about whether it would still be relevant. But what's shifted is that it's not really perceived as being all about the Occupy movement anymore. It's about seeing all these creators come together for this socially conscious stories. And it's sort of become about the themes of Occupy even though the actual protests aren't on the ground anymore. It's new territory to be sharing these ideas."
Pizzolo said that tying the project to Black Mask was a similar organic evolution in the company's own history. In its one year of life, the company has gotten behind comics like the just-released Ghostface Killah album tie-in "Twelve Reasons To Die" and the incoming Darick Robertson series "Ballistic," and all of its projects are made with an eye towards expanding the audience for comics both in subject matter and distribution as Epitaph is helping Black Mask find new sales venues for the books.
"Steve and I met on the horror comics panel at San Diego a year and a half ago, and there was this question about how many books we sell. What's the market size for your book?" Pizzolo recalled of the company's birth. "And Steve told this story about how he'd gotten a call maybe 15 years ago where they told him his book had been cancelled because it went below the threshold this indie publisher doing black and white horror comics could sustain...and that was 70,000 copies. The other guys on the panel who were all successful were doing books in the five, ten, 15,000 range or something like that.
"They got to me and this project called 'Godkiller,' which wasn't even in the comics space – it goes out horror and anime audiences – and I felt like a dick because I'd done a couple of hundred [thousand] at that point. It's a different world when you can reach out beyond the Direct Market. I think the Direct Market is great, and I used to work at [longtime NYC comics shop] St. Mark's Comics. But there are a lot of people not being reached right now that are potential readers. And Steve and I started talking after that panel and saying that someone needs to do the work to build the infrastructure to bring people into this space."
For each Black Mask series, the principals weigh in on whether pitched projects fit their vision of what Black Mask should be doing, and while the approach is more decentralized than traditional comics publisher, Pizzolo has confidence that the results trump the roadbumps. "We're all chipping in where we can. Everyone is washing dishes and sweeping the floors. Basically, all three of us have to like it and want to work on it. It's not a regimented corporate thing where Steve is the Don Draper," he laughed.
"For me, the goal with the company is that most publishers are in the volume business right now. The sales numbers are low, so they're going to publish as many books as they can. But then the creators don't get the attention, and the individual books don't get as much attention. So what we want to do is be more of a boutique where we pick a couple of things we're passionate about and work really hard to make them reach as big an audience as they can. We're not just going to put them into Previews and then just move onto the next thing. The D.I.Y. aspect of it forces us to be passionate because it's going to be a lot of work for us. And when we work with the creators, if they don't want notes and want us out of their way, we're fine. But in a lot of cases, it's more collaborative. They want feedback. There's no editorial team who's busting their chops and going 'This isn't our method.' But we do offer editorial feeback and support. Steve has 30 years experience on this stuff."
With "Twelve Reasons To Die," the project was largely edited by co-writer Matthew Rosenberg – a writer known for his apocalyptic boy-meets-dog indie comic "Menu" from Ashcan Press and the "Intellectual Propery" backup in Image Comics "Give Ghost: The Haunting of Fabian Gray." Rosenberg explained that his collaboration with Rza and Ghostface of the Wu-Tang Clan came through his own work and before joining the Black Mask stable. "I worked in music for a long time," he said. "For ten years I ran a label, and when I started writing comics someone at Sony who knew me – and I don't know who – ended up sending Rza's manager my way. They said he wanted to do a comic with the new Ghostface record, and after a couple of meetings they asked for a writing sample and then if I could put the book together. I have a weird credit in the book because I'm writer but I'm also 'bookrunner' because I brought the book to Black Mask and hired everyone working on it."
Rosenberg said he went with Black Mask after assembling an all-star art lineup that allowed him to catch the ear of a number of possible publishing partners. "We have a lot of amazing artists on the book – big names like Tim Seeley, Phil Noto, Paolo Rivera and Ramon Perez. So the publishers I met with were all really cool and enthusiastic, but Black Mask was the only publisher who said, 'Sounds cool. Tell us what you want.' Black Mask understands comics and are real receptive to everything, but it's also run by three guys who are completely self-made men. Matt, Brett and Steve are amazing guys who have been doing their own thing, and they have good ideas, but they're never going to force anything on you. It's kind of the best of both worlds."
The end result is a kung-fu crime comic that's equal parts hip hop concept and indie comic style. "The album is a concept album which is 12 songs that tell a story," Rosenberg explained. "Adrian Younge, one of the main producers of the record, and Ghostface had this barebones ideas. They brought me in to move things around and shuffle things, so there's stuff on the record influenced by my work on the comic, and there's stuff in the comic that comes straight from the record. They talk about the record as a soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist, and I like that idea. We're both kind of adapting a story, but the comic goes further in time and some stuff doesn't match up. But that's intentional. You can't do the things I do in the comic within a song, but you can draw what Ghost does in a bunch of the music. They were very much created together to be collaborative."
Pizzolo similarly enthused over the final comic, which like "Occupy Comics" became something different than may seem at first blush. "I'm really excited about how good it came out. Matthew Rosenberg and Patrick Kindlon are the writers on it, but they're also the book runners, and they've really pulled together the team and organizing everything. There's no way this should be as good as it is. I mean, it's awesome that there's a Wu-Tang comic, but you wouldn't assume it's actually good. But it's shocking how good it is. We're working with different types of creators but also established comic book people. This is not a licensed book. It's not like Wu-Tang decided to make a book, and we're putting it out as some kind of licensed deal. We're bringing the creative teams together. It's people who are devoted to sequential art storytelling."
And as "Occupy Comics" and "Twelve Reasons To Die" roll on to their second issues, Black Mask will continue to open up to new creator's including writer Matt Miner's "Liberator" later this summer. "We want to support the Direct Market and do as much outreach as we can to the current readers and not ignore them while also reaching out to new people. I think our books reach out to new audiences and not in a cynical way," said Pizzolo. "With 'Liberator,' I don't know if anyone in the comics space will say 'Oh my God, I need an animal rights comic!' But when Matt Miner pitched me on the book, I said, 'I don't know how that will do in comic shops, but I know there's an audience who wants it.' Matt is an actual animal rescuer. He's been running a dog rescue for years, and he lives in Rockaway so during Hurricane Sandy he stayed there and was caring for dogs that were abandoned. But he's also a comic book geek who studied under Scott Snyder. So he's got the talent and the real life experience to draw from."
"Occupy Comics" and "Twelve Reasons To Die" #1 are both on sale now from Black Mask Studios.