Maybe it was the low turnout, or maybe it was the fact that the thing was held on a sleepy Sunday morning, or maybe, just maybe, it was because it was just one of those days.
But, for whatever reason, Slave Labor's panel on day three of the New York Comic-Con Sunday quickly shifted gears from its intended purpose, a presentation detailing SLG's many upcoming new projects, prominent among these being its four newly acquired Disney licenses, to an open forum-like discussion with the smallish crowd over the current state (or plight) of the independent publishing and the many obstacles that the direct market's distribution program contrives to throw in its path.
"Today there is one distributor for the whole entire direct market. One distributor. Where's the competition?" an exasperated Dan Vado, Slave Labors President and Publisher, rhetorically asked the audience. "Competition in a free market is essential. A lack of real competition kills anything. And, if you don't believe me, you can just look at ninety-five percent of the stuff on the stands right now. It's all the same."
"I think in any industry in terms of the content and what's out there, things tend to follow trends…or, more precisely, the trend that happens to be hottest at that particular moment. And you can bet that the comic industry's no different. So, if one Batman book sells well, and this is the reasoning of most of the people actually in some sort of a position to make these types of decisions, then they figure that putting out a hundred Batman books will sell even better. It's ridiculous. It's cannibalism is what it is. The Big Two are consuming themselves. I call that, 'Biff! Bam! Pow! Marketing,' and I think you can probably guess why. It's sucking the diversity right out of the whole medium."
Vado went on to say that it is Slave Labor's Mission Statement, and has been since the publisher first set up shop back in 1986, to do everything in its power possible to buck this trend.
"I can remember when we first started back in the mid-eighties, when Frank Miller's 'Batman: The Dark Knight Returns' and [Alan] Moore and [Dave] Gibbons 'Watchmen' were coming out and the press on those two series was unbelievable. I mean, you couldn't open a newspaper back then without seeing something about one of those two series in it. And an awful lot of creators at that time were saying to themselves, as well as to their peers in the comic community, 'Yes! Finally, people are starting to take us seriously as actual works of art and realize all that we're capable of doing in this medium now. Maybe now we can finally start telling the stories that we've always wanted to tell and people will actual listen.'"
"But, instead, what happened? All the higher-ups at Marvel and DC did was put out a million carbon copies of 'Dark Night' and 'Watchmen', since that was what was popular at the time, series that were billed as 'grim and gritty' takes on established characters, and there wasn't actually anything of any substance in any of that stuff. Which eventually led to the whole Image Comics boom of the early nineties, just 'Cool-looking' pictures with no sense of story whatsoever, and in a lot of ways the industry is still trying to recover from that whole trend."
And for readers seeking original, intriguing, entertaining stories a little more off the beaten path than most of the current mainstream comics?
"Hell, I'd put the stuff that Jhonen Vasquez has done for us in the past ten years or so up against anything that Frank Miller's done in that time. You want an example of real comics storytelling, that's it right there. But, again, we can't make very many inroads with that stuff in the direct market-mainly because there aren't any superheroes to be found anywhere in it.
"But you go into a Hot Topic in any mall right now and mention the name Roman Dirge and watch what happens."
When asked by an audience member if Vasquez has any new work planned for the publisher, Vado responded, "Not at this time, no."
Other recent successes for Slave Labor have included Jim Rugg and Brian Marcua's "Street Angel," which Vado said has been extremely well received thus far in its trade paperback form and James Turner's "Rex Libris", about a librarian who fights demons, monsters, and aliens to retrieve overdue library books.
"Rex Libris" is currently on its third issue, and Vado says that it is one comic that no true fan of the medium should be missing out on.
Vado was also extremely high on SLG's upcoming "Ursa Minors!" series from the creative team of Neil Kleid, Paul Cote, and Fernado Pinto about a group of four youngsters who don robotic bear armor to combat evil.
"'Ursa Minors!' is going to be a superhero comic if written by Dennis Miller. Anybody who liked 'Street Angel' will love 'Ursa Minors!'"
The panel began by Vado and upcoming "Tron" writer LandryWalker showing off slides of SLG's four upcoming Disney licensed properties, and Vado had this to say about Slave Labor's take on each of the following series:
"'Tron's' going to be by the writing team of Landry Walker and Eric Jones, with art by Louie De Martinis. I think fans of the movie will be satisfied with it, but it's definitely its own story. So people shouldn't just expect a continuation of the movie or a prequel to it or anything like that."
Vado then went on to say that Landry was a total geek when it comes to the movie and had been bugging the Publisher to acquire the property for the past five or so years. The first issue of "Tron" is tentatively scheduled for an April release.
"The Haunted Mansion", the first of the four Disney properties to actually see release, sporting covers by Dirge, and currently on its second issue, is an anthology-type series that will feature a rotating crew of artist and writers coming together to tell the tales of the, "999 haunts that reside within the walls of stately Gracey Manor."
Vado says that when Disney read the first issue of the series they actually asked that Slave Labor place a label on the cover denoting that the book was intended for teens and up, because they were a little leery about some of its more darkly morbid content falling into the hands of young children, Vado said, which he went on to add is nothing that fans of the actual "Haunted Mansion" roller coaster ride wouldn't already be familiar with.
"You go on [the ride] at Disneyland and one of the first things that shoots down at you is a bloody corpse suspended from the ceiling. So it's not anything different in that respect."
Of the four Disney properties, probably the one that Vado himself was most excited about seeing was "Wonderland", which the Publisher described as the story of Lewis Carol's "Alice In Wonderland" after Alice leaves-and a young girl named Marianne arrives in the enchanted kingdom.
"I wanted to do something with 'Wonderland' that will stand the test of time. So we took the best elements from both the movie and Carol's books and combined them to do something entirely new, different, and utterly original…which probably means that fans of both works will hate the thing. But, all the same, I don't care, because the series more than stands on its own as an honest attempt to try something new and original with the material."
"Wonderland", slated for a May release, will be by the creative team of writer Tommy Kovac and artist Sonny Liew, whose finished pencils on the series thus far Vado couldn't stop raving about, "Sonny's going to be the next 'Big Guy' by the end of this series, trust me. The work that he's doing on it is just that good. Every panel's like a postcard. It's almost a shame to put letters on them."
Vado said that all the Disney series would probably be collected as digest-sized trades, which is what the bookstores most want to see right now, but that he's going to press hard to also see "Wonderland" released as a limited edition hardcover. "It would be a real shame to shrink Sonny [Liew's] work on that series. It's really that amazing."
"Gargoyles," a continuation of the animated series that ran on Fox in the mid-nineties, will be the publisher's fourth and final (for now) Disney project, by original creator Greg Weisman and artist David Hedgecock. "Gargoyles" is scheduled for a June release.
"Greg didn't work on the third and final season of "Gargoyles", so this series is his take on the third season of 'Gargoyles.'"
Vado says that fan reaction since last years deal with Disney was announced has been unbelievable, and also a little intimidating, "We've been in the crosshairs as a company since we first announced this thing. I was surprised at the exact number of fans still out there for each one of these properties. I mean, I've been to 'Gargoyles' conventions since then…and, believe me, those things are the real deal. If you think the fans at one of these Comic-cons are serious, you should see those 'Gargoyle' guys."
When asked what Slave Labor hoped to accomplish with its new Disney properties, Vado said, "What we're trying to establish with these Disney licenses is to prove to people that we're still here as a publishing company, and that we're not going away any time soon either."
"These aren't going to be your typical licensed adaptations. What we're trying to do instead is really do the material justice. When fans read the 'Haunted Mansion' comic they're not going to feel like they're reading just another comic book adaptation of a Hollywood property, they're going to feel like they're actually inside the "Haunted Mansion."
On the subject of whether or not there are any other Disney licenses that intrigued Vado enough to pursue, he responded, "I'd like to do something with the Seven Dwarfs eventually. Because, to me, there's nothing 'Happily Ever After…' about having to go off to work in a coal mine while the beautiful girl that you helped rescue gets to ride off into the sunset with a handsome prince."
"Pirates of the Caribbean" intrigued Vado as well, but the Publisher felt that, "Disney might consider that a little 'too big' for us right now. So we'll see…"
Another fan then asked, "So you're not going to be doing something like "Bambi 2" any time soon then?"
"No," Vado and Landry replied in an emphatic unison.
But when yet another fan chimed in, jokingly, with the suggestion, "Wait, couldn't you guys do something like "Bambi 2" with a Zombie Bambi's Mother? That would be sorta cool," both Vado and Landry seemed genuinely intrigued by the suggestion.
"Actually, that's not a bad idea at all. Hmm…" Vado mused.
Vado says that his sole claim to comic fame, or infamy, is that he was the writer who immediately preceded Grant Morrison's fan-favorite run on "JLA".
"Yeah, I'm the guy who ruined the Justice League. Seriously. By the time I was done with the book they couldn't do anything else but kill everybody off and cancel the whole darn series. But then they got Grant Morrison to come in and do the thing and the series' been pretty good since then. So, if anything, I suppose I'm a footnote in Comics History somewhere."
The Publisher also wanted to stress that all of Slave Labor's Disney titles and "Rex Libris," including its monthly single issues, are available for order through Amazon.com.
On the topic of what, if anything, Vado and Slave Labor were planning on doing to commemorate the companies twentieth year of publishing, Vado replied, "Well, I suppose I've been drinking a lot lately."
When asked for his preference, "Oh, I'm definitely a rum man myself."
CBR's coverage of the New York Comic-Con is Sponsored by Comics Unlimited.