CCI Xtra: 20 Years of Slave Labor Graphics

Thu, July 27th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Jim MacQuarrie, Guest Contributor

Dan Vado, publisher of Slave Labor Graphics/Amaze Ink, sat down to discuss the company's history in a panel made up of himself and Art Director Scott Saavedra. The panel was part of Friday's programming at Comic-Con International in San Diego. Saavedra admitted that he joined the company only because he wanted to "get out of the shoe department at Macy's," where he had been employed prior to entering comics.

One of the first talents that Slave Labor signed was Evan Dorkin. Vado explained that they had met at a convention, and "because I didn't kill him, we began to publish him." Dorkin was promoting his own comics at the time, and in order to attract attention, he had a wind-up monkey that bounced and clanged cymbals, and he would set it going across his table at regular intervals. Dorkin also had a wolf whistle and bell; every time anyone bought one of his comics, he would blow the whistle and ring the bell. "He made a striking impression," Vado said, explaining that the SLG booth was adjacent to Dorkin's, and after a couple days of his cacophony, they wanted to strangle him. Instead, they took a look at his book and decided that he should be part of their line. They published Dorkin's "Pirate Corp$!" and other work, leading up to "Milk & Cheese," which was a big success for them.

SLG founded the Alternative Press Expo (APE), which helped to establish their reputation in the independent comic marketplace.

At the same time, the company had taken on a project creating a comic for a low-budget television program called "Fish Masters," and as part of their deal, they got a mention in every episode, "Fish Masters Comics published by Slave Labor Graphics." The program, which ran very late at night, was not a success and was eventually cancelled, but not before "the one viewer" took note of the company; a young aspiring artist named Jhonen Vasquez saw the show and called on SLG, bringing them his comic, a book called "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac."

The one thing that bothered Vado was his own portrayal in the series. Vasquez asked if Vado would mind being shown in the story, and Vado said he would not object, as long as it was tasteful. Vasquez portrayed him as a psychotic maniac wearing a vest made of aborted fetuses. "I hate that," Vado shouted in mock outrage.

Similar such elements provoked the inevitable response from angry parents and teachers, Vado explained, describing a phone call he received from a mother whose son had brought home a copy of "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" that he had bought at Hot Topic. "I told her to take it back to the store, and she said she had but they wouldn't allow her to return it, so I told her to send it to me and I would refund her money. She continued on about how awful it was, so I said 'is there anything more I can do for you other than giving you your money back?' She told me I could stop printing them, and I said I'm not going to do that." He went on to explain that he is irritated by people who feel that because they don't like something, it should be prohibited. "Now I want to eat a baby just to spite them."

When asked which SLG book is his favorite, Vado cited "Tales From the Heart," an autobiographical account of Cindy Goff's experiences during two tours as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. At the time the book was done, true-life stories were popular, but Vado feels that most such books are unwarranted. "Unless you've actually done something, your life story is really not very interesting," he explained. He found "Tales from the Heart" to be a very powerful, moving story that he is proud to have published.

A new direction for SLG began recently with the acquisition of licenses for Disney projects including "Gargoyles," "Haunted Mansion," "Tron" and "Alice in Wonderland." Vado explained that their first contact with the studio was when Disney called wanting SLG to publish a movie adaptation. The film producers were very unhappy with the adaptation that was done by Disney's european studio, and they provided a short list of comics publishers they felt would do a good job, and SLG was one of them. Ultimately, due to time constraints, SLG passed on the project. Some time later, Greg Weisman wanted to continue the story he began with the "Gargoyles" cartoon series, so he approached Disney seeking the license, intending to self-publish, but Disney turned him down due to his inexperience in publishing. Somebody at Disney remembered SLG from the earlier project and referred Weisman to the publisher. Slave Labor was able to secure the license that would allow Weisman to write his comic. This opened the door for the other projects based on Disney properties.

Mid-way through the panel, Vado and Saavedra beckoned Roman Dirge ("Lenore") out of the audience and insisted that he join them on the panel. Vado explained that "Lenore" was instrumental in getting their comics into stores like Hot Topic.

Vado explained his process for assessing aspiring comic creators. "What I look for is some sincerity on the part of the artist," he explained. He looks for creators who are committed to their projects; if someone comes in with a handful of different pitches, he knows that the artist is not passionate about his or her work. Passion is more important to Vado than technical perfection or experience. "If you wait until a guy is 100% realized, he's going to realize himself someplace else."

In 2003, SLG's offices were invaded by a late-night intruder. A drunk driver piloted her car through the front of the building, then destroyed the lobby trying to drive back out. Vado received a call from the alarm company and went to the office to find the police already on the scene. An officer greeted him with the usual "nothing to see here, move along," but when Vado told him that this was his office, the reply was "oh, well, you've gotta see this!" Most of what was destroyed was covered by insurance, but several discs of irreplaceable files were broken in the accident. "No amount of money could replace those," Vado stated.

Asked to reflect on the past twenty years, Vado said, "If I knew then what I know now, I probably wouldn't do it. There were probably smarter things I could have done. I don't regret it, it's been great and a lot of fun, but if I had known what I was getting into, I probably would have done something else."

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