A Valiant effort without much Acclaim: Jim Perham Interview

[Jim Perham Interview]Every family has a black sheep in their family who has -- what most of their teachers claim to be -- "wasted potential." The seeds of success fall upon what seems to be fertile ground only to show them dry out and blow away upon hard unyielding rock. They have everything going for them, but for the life of them, they cannot get that boost of momentum to get them on their way.

Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory every time.

Metaphors (and Rob Liefeld) aside, Acclaim (formerly Valiant) Comics is your juvenile delinquent brother. No small company has the kind of backing that they do. Bought for $65 million in 1994, it was showing a profit in the millions. It had established characters that had a rabid, if small, following. It was going to have the money -- and autonomy -- it needed to jump into the ring and come out on top.

The road to hell is paved with what Acclaim had in mind.

It sparked and sputtered like a $100 Chevy Nova, even when people like Keith Giffen, Andy Smith, Bart Sears and Fabian Nicieza were walking through the door. It never turned over and got to where it had intended.

Even now, the company with the Unity 2000 "event" is having a hard time revving interest in general readership. Jim Shooter (the one who started it all), Jim Starlin & Joe Rubinstein (the veteran, talented art pros), Digital Chameleon (top-notch digital color) and Chris Eliopoulos (consistent proven letterer) have not helped give people the impression that Acclaim is anything but a comic book cancer victim; holding on by a thread, but never quite dying.

Meet Jim Perham. His official title is long and drawn out, but his mission is clear: clean house, get Acclaim back on track and make good comic books that people want to read. He's trying to apply that tough love that only someone who cares can administer to a loved one who has lost his way. His is an attitude that mirrors all too closely to that of his namesake and former co-owner of the company lo those many years ago, Jim Shooter: do good work and let it stand on its merits.

In this interview, Perham gives us an inside look at how the best of intentions can come to disastrous results, why top talent doesn't always mean good comics and what the future holds for Acclaim Comics.

MICHAEL DAVID THOMAS: What's your position at Acclaim?

JIM PERHAM: My official title is -- they change it so often -- Manager of Affiliate Publishing and Operational Support for Acclaim Entertainment. They brought me in to help out with comics. For all intents and purposes, I'm head editor at comics right now. As far as my background, I actually joined Voyager Communications in October 1992. Was with the company, started out in Marketing then was in Operations for several years until they closed down the Manhattan office and moved the people to the Glen Cove office. At that point, that's when I was transferred to Acclaim the parent company.

I do have a long history with comics. I had written several books for us, had done a lot of things. That's kind of why they brought me in.

MDT: Kind of a jack of all trades...

JP: Exactly.

MDT: You're pretty deep as far as day-to-day operations for Acclaim Comics?

JP: Yes.

MDT: You were there while Steve Massarsky and company were there. What kind of difference is there between then and now, as far as the work environment, all that stuff? Any change in particular?

JP: Acclaim has always had this attitude -- and this goes from day one when they bought comics -- "Look, we don't know the comics industry. You know the comics industry. That's why we bought you and pay you the big bucks we pay you. Go do comics."

This is going to sound weird and I know this is going to go against all the rumors that have gone on, but at no point has Acclaim come in and said, "No, do this." It's always been, "What do you want to do?" That's good, because you have autonomy. But that's bad, because sometimes they don't know what to watch out for.

I think we've seen what's happened since they bought us in 1994 and there was never anyone to stand and say, "Are you sure that this is the right thing to do?" ... There were some things that just weren't the right things to do. There were definitely some decisions made that were very questionable. And Acclaim at no point never stepped in and called them on it. That caused some problems and put us in the position we're in now.

MDT: So they essentially trust that the people who are doing comics...

JP: They're not comics people. They have no idea what the comics market is like... They know it's a depressed market... As far as what you should do, what books you should do, what things you should push, they have no idea. They'll be the first to admit it. They know video games, that's their business and what they're looking for is -- these properties that they have purchased -- to try and turn them into video games. That's how they're going to make their money back.

MDT: And licensing and that kind of thing.

JP: That's what their focus is. So, when I was given the opportunity to step in, my take on it has been, my job is to be a caretaker of these properties. For the longest time, nobody seemed to have cared about these characters. they're the ones who have really taken the beating and that's not fair. You should be true to your product and true to the characters. Those seem to be the last things that have been taken into consideration.

MDT: When Acclaim bought Valiant, you guys had a lot of big names come through the door: Keith Giffen, Andy Smith, Bart Sears, Kevin Maguire, and Fabian Nicieza to name a few. Kind of like DC, you have a big company that's funding you I think with enough capital. What's happened or hasn't happened to hamper that mainstream success in comic book publishing?

JP: Part of the problem was, you had at various times, the people who were running the show... had their own agendas. You bring in a lot of big-name people, but you have to expect them to give you the juice. Sometimes some of these guys come in and -- I'm not going to name any names -- but their attitudes were, "Oh, it's just a paycheck." That doesn't do you any good. You'd like these people to give you their "A" game.

There was one person in particular who was making a lot of money during our heyday and his attitude was, "This is gravy money, Marvel's my paying job." We were making him more money than he was at Marvel, but his attitude was, "No, this is just a side job. Marvel's where I make my money."

That's a very frustrating attitude for people to have. It's not something you can say, it's just a freelancer's problem. Not at all.

Some of the people whom we've put in editorial positions in the past are people who maybe could be really good editors, but they weren't at the time. They weren't ready for it.

Unfortunately, we've had a history of a lot of people just taking off. At one point, we had an executive editor who -- six months prior -- had been an intern. That's insane. The guy is now working somewhere else and is absolutely wonderful as an editor. But that's literally five years removed from when he was executive editor at Acclaim, or when it was Valiant. And it's taken him that five years for him to become a good editor... Literally people were getting thrown in and expected to do a great job and [someone would say], "Oh, I'll look over it." There were so many things going on that the big bosses didn't have the time to look over everything. They were letting things slip through or worse sometimes they're editing after the comics have gone out.

MDT: A lot of botched decisions, wrong time, wrong person...

JP: The thing I would wholehearted agree with Jim Shooter on is that this has been a tragedy. These are some really top-notch characters and this was a company that could have done so many incredible things and gone somewhere. We shot ourselves in the foot so many times that it seems to be a broken record, over and over. Every time you think you're going to get out of the jungle, BOOM! there it is again.

MDT: I think Shooter said, "Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory."

JP: Very much so... We had our chance to turn it all around with Birthquake.

Acclaim had just bought us. Acclaim was willing to give us the money if we could show them how we'd spend it. They said, "Look, we're going to bring in these guys and we're going to make a name for ourselves and we're going to take off." But what happened is, instead of bringing in the top-top level guys that they were originally shooting for, when they couldn't get them, they got the next level guys. But they paid them so much that it hurt the industry across the board. Because now these guys' page rates have been elevated to the point that everybody else is calling for the same thing. You suddenly get these editors who didn't feel they could edit these people.

MDT: They just gave them carte blanche.

JP: It's like, "Oh, don't worry, they'll do good stuff." And, it's like, no, you need editors. You need somebody to stand there and it doesn't matter who it is, but you need a second opinion... And that wasn't there. There was no kind of guidance.

That was our opportunity. Wasted. [We] wasted an opportunity and [we] wasted a lot of Acclaim's money.

MDT: Fabian Nicieza has said that -- while he was doing a lot of writing there and editor-in-chief -- the bulk of his job there was licensing the characters for Hollywood and other media outlets (video games, animation and others). How much of Acclaim's mission to make money licensing rather than in comic book publishing?

JP: To be totally honest with you, with the way the industry is now, I'm not sure if we -- at the position we are in -- can expect to make money off of comic book operations and sales. We have a goal trying to break even or come as close as possible. If we could make money that would be fantastic.

- Jim Perham

With Marvel and DC putting out as much stuff as they are and they're having a hard time. And the way the market is continuing to get smaller and smaller, dealers having a harder and harder time, the last thing the market needs is another regular series from Acclaim. Which is why we're trying to do one-shots and if we get a good reaction to the one-shots, maybe trying mini-series. But to try and treat it as if it's business as usual, we're going to spend more of Acclaim's money.

Because of all the things that have happened, they want to see a return on investment. And that's understandable. They've been footing the bill for six years now.

MDT: Have there been discussions on simply canceling the comics line and concentrate solely on licensing the characters out, either for Hollywood, video games and for other companies to publish them?

JP: Not at all. One of the things that I'm very happy to say is that they haven't gone and said, we should do this. We've looked at cut back the comics, trying to do what makes sense. The comic book form itself... still [has] great uses, [but] not necessarily as a product in and of itself. What we we're looking at it is as R&D towards video games. [I]t's a lot less expensive for me to take a concept and turn it into a comic book, see how people respond to it than Acclaim trying to put together... a video game. These are comic book characters. The best way to see what they can do is to see them in comics.

MDT: Like their context would be screwed up if they were just in a video game or in a Hollywood.

JP: Yes. [You] can still do so many incredible things with comic books. You can do [them] in video games... but it's going to cost you a ton of money. The beauty of the comic book is the fact is that I have the entire world to play with. In a video game, it's going to take a lot of time and money. A budget for a comic book is $10-15,000 at the low end. A budget for a video game is [$500,000 to $1 million].

Your risk is infinitely greater with a video game. Having comic books to show -- especially with Hollywood because their visual people -- ... helps them a lot better to understand these things and see the potential of a property than to just hand them a written proposal.

[Unity 2000]MDT: Shooter started writing Unity 2000 when?

JP: I believe it was the summer of '99. Because it was at San Diego of 1999 when the power that be started pushing the fact that Shooter was coming back to do it.

MDT: What kind of expectations did the company have?

JP: What they were hoping was to use this as jumping point to bigger and better things. It was a chance to give the fans what they wanted, to bring Jim back and give him a go at the characters again. And use that as a starting point for a whole new set of adventures.

That was the expectations. Did it meet expectations? No, of course not. Unity 2000 has been nothing but a nightmare. That's not Jim Shooter's fault at all. [It's] been our fault.

MDT: What happened?

JP: It started off with our new stuff, which just wasn't working. People didn't seem to be interested in them. This was coming off of VH2, the Valiant universe that Fabian had spearheaded.

The folks at the time said, "OK, what can we do?" There's still this core fan following, that, even though they didn't like the VH2 books, liked the characters enough that they were buying the books. That was the amazing thing. We have a core fan following of 8,000-10,000 people and these people are going to buy the books in whatever format they are.

You've got to say that it's a tribute to the early work that Jim [Shooter] did and the early work of Valiant that these people believed in it so much and are sticking through it through all this madness. The thing was, what those fans wanted -- plain and simple -- [was] Rai #0 and the early Valiant and even through the later VH1 universe for lack of a better term, things like the death of Shadowman, Jack Boniface, in the year 1999.

There was some big event that was supposed to happen in 1999. This was what they were looking for, that this big event would lead to his death. And unfortunately, that was sort of transposed and became this Crisis on Infinite Earths wannabe 2000.

It's not what the people wanted. I think there were some misconceptions with what the people who were running comics wanted and what the fans wanted. The fans weren't looking for a new universe. It's now to the point where they won't have a choice.

It made perfect sense for Jim to come in and do this. Everyone knows Jim Shooter's resume and our history with him. I was amazed he even said yes and he would come in. It's a tribute that he's willing to set aside his differences with the company. To be totally honest, I don't think he had any differences with the company per se. From his interview, it proves he had problems with the people who were running the company at the time. Those people were no longer there.

So when he was given the opportunity to take these characters back. Unfortunately, from that point on, the ball just got fumbled and kicked around. It was ridiculous.

MDT: You look at Unity 2000 and it's a who's who's of comic book production. Jim Shooter, Jim Starlin, Joe Rubinstein, Digital Chameleon, Chris Eliopoulous. An "A" list of comic book people.

JP: We had all the hings. If we had everything hitting on all cylinders, it was going to move. It was going to be fantastic. Unfortunately, rapidly things started to spiral out of control.

MDT: Was there a single catalyst that precipitated this?

JP: One of the people who was the vision behind Unity 2000 and was going to be the driving force behind it left the company.

MDT: Was that Mike Marts, who had called Shooter?

JP: Yes. In many ways, Mike was the brainchild behind this thing. And he jumped ship. He decided he had a better offer over at Marvel. He had a better opportunity and he had to go for it. Unfortunately, the people that were left behind weren't up to the task of keeping the thing going.

Unity 2000 was a six-issue mini-series started in November of 1999. It should have finished in April of 2000. Here it is October 2000, #4 hasn't come out and we're going to do everything in our power to get everything out before the end of the real millennium in 2001.

I have come to a realization that I must have been a horrible, horrible person in a past life, this is my penance. I have to be earning some serious brownie points for this. Every day, you come in and "What now?"

- Jim Perham

MDT: Like putting out little fires....

JP: It started out with little fires and it became like forest fires.

My first big one is #4 is done, #5 needs to be inked. #6 needs to be inked and the script for 5 and 6 needs to come in. So we're ready to go. We've been talking with the people for the colors for 4 and it was like everything's OK.

Three weeks before we're ready to go to press with it, they say, "We have a problem." "What's the problem?" "Our server went down and our one backup we sent to you."

I have torn through this place and I can't find it. I think aliens stole that backup disk. They don't have it so we have to get it re-colored.

The thing with 5 and -- I'll say it right now -- Jim's absolutely right, we have not paid him for 5. That was a massive blunder on our part. What happened there was, because we're an affiliate, we have a strange relationship with Acclaim. We incur the bills, Acclaim pays the bills. The person who handling it at the time, left the company and it never went through. So I didn't hear anything from Jim because he didn't know who I was, that I was heading up the stuff. He was talking with Walter. I'm not sure what going on there between Jim and Walter. My understanding was that Walter was taking care of everything.

About a week ago, I got a call from Jim saying, I haven't gotten paid for 5 yet. Of course, I'm trying to take care of everything I can, I haven't had a chance to speak with him yet, but essentially once I get him paid for 5, I would like to convince him to come back and do 6. I really want him to finish up the series. I know that the fans, the people who are really reading it, don't want it written by someone else.

As far as the solicitation issue goes, that's one of those funny things. At the time that we solicited for them, that was June. Four months in advance from when you solicit for something to when it comes out. At the time, everything was hunky dory with Jim. He had plotted the entire series so there was no problem putting Jim's name on the solicitation.

MDT: And cut to three months later...

JP: Yeah. "Oh, by the way, you haven't paid the guy yet." "Uhhh..." Yet another twist of the knife in my gut.

MDT: You do want to get Jim back on board for the remainder of Unity?

JP: Most definitely.

MDT: He had talked about how there were plans for him to come back and do some more building within the universe.

JP: I know they were talking about at one point, having him do more stuff within the universe.

MDT: Have you thought about smoothing it out to the point to where he would do post-Unity stuff?

JP: I've thought about it, but I've got a couple of problems with it.

One, the direction I want to go with, I can't afford Jim Shooter. His price tag is well out of my league right now. The thing that makes the most sense is to try to do good work, find younger people, newer people to try out some new things and see what people can do from there. I'm trying to find some guys who'll make mistakes but who potentially could do some incredible work. That's not saying that Jim couldn't do incredible work, it's purely from a financial standpoint.

When I sat down and I came in, I sat and looked at our Diamond numbers and you know something, we were number 5 up to a point. Probably as of 3 or 4 months, we were paying number 5 rates. For the last three years, we've been number 20. I'd been on par with the Antarctics. I can't justify those kind of numbers. If I'm getting 8-10,000 sold, and I'm charging $2.50 a book, that means I'm pulling back $8-10,000. Unfortunately, if I'm paying $150 a page for writing times 22, $150-$250 a page for pencils and $175 for inks. And another $175 for that, I'm spending $20,000 to make $10,000 back. It makes no sense.

It's in the shareholders best interest that comics is trying to make money. Or if not, at least not losing lots of money. For six years, it's been a black hole. There's go more money. There goes a million.

After a point, somebody has to come in and say stop the madness. I think Jim could do some incredible stuff. I also think that the universe they were talking to Jim about setting up was a nightmare. The things that they wanted, the things that they told him, I don't understand. It was a mish-mosh of this, some of this, some of them. Oh and these characters.

The thing that I hope I get out of Unity 2000 is that I have hair. And that would be my own personal goal for Unity 2000.

MDT: Either you pulling it out or falling out from stress.

JP: Exactly.

MDT: What do you have planned in general for post-Unity?

JP: The universe that is set-up post Unity just doesn't work. We have a way around it that I won't go into, but it won't cost anybody anymore money to find out. "OK, this is Unity 2000. And here's Unity 2000 the untold story, 8-issue mini-series that costs $4.95 per issue..." You've squeezed the people for money for so long, stop it. We have something specific in mind.

As far as what's coming out of it. The idea is to take some of these characters and put them in situations that I hope will make for some compelling stories. And that is going to get them interested in picking them up. The new universe is not VH1, not VH2.

The characters, some of them are going to be similar to what was done in VH1. Because that was the universe that I was with for the longest time and those are the characters I believe in. But I was also there for Fabian's VH2 and there were some cool things that were done in there. Some of that is going to carry over. But a lot of it's going to be similar to the first universe.

MDT: Where does Acclaim see itself in five years?

JP: I'm hoping that in five years, we'll still be around. I'm hoping that we will be doing some quality material. That we're back in top 10. I want to be realistic. I don't think we'll be back to top 5 anytime soon.

I would like to be a mid-size company. I would like to be on par with a Chaos! as far as size goes.

I would love to get back to doing monthly series at some point, I just don't know if that's possible simply from where the industry is right now. The way it's set up right now, there's a four month window between when you solicit and when it comes out. That retailer, he's ordering number four before he ever sees number one. Whatever he does with one, he going to cut back his numbers by the time he gets to four. Four, five, six, those numbers plateau and he's hoping those numbers stay up. I'm not sure if regular monthly series are the way to go.

Maybe if we got one title that's doing really, really well, I won't rule out monthly series. I think trying to do one-shots and mini-series -- and one of the things we're hoping to do sometime next year January or February -- is Web comics.

The idea is essentially is I have a ton of characters and I want to do a Web anthology. Every month, you get two full-length stories. Down the road, print that in a comic format. The idea being that there are people who don't have access to the Web. Shocking as that may be. There's also some people who are collectors and want a physical comic book. They will have the chance to collect it.

Because it's reprint materials, I want to price it more friendly. We're looking at a 48-page book at $3.50. That's pretty good. The big thing there is I'm trying to make back some of the cost of the Web comic, but get those stories to people at a good price.

It's something we feel happy with and when I took it the person who was essentially over the comics guy -- a guy name John Ma -- who is my direct boss he was excited. He thought this was a good idea.

It'll get these people to come to the Acclaim Web site and because it's an anthology, it gives you a chance to do all sorts of characters. If one concept takes off, we can look at doing a regular Web comic for it and maybe a big book for it. A single story. That's down the road. It's more of a let's see how the fans respond to it.

[Doctor Mirage]As far as specific projects we have in mind. First and foremost in December, the Second Life of Doctor Mirage returns. We're doing something a little different with it. The original concept when Bob Layton came up with it, was that Doctor Mirage was going to be the -- for lack of a better term -- the Sorcerer Supreme of the Valiant universe. I was lucky enough to write the last five issues of Doctor Mirage. I really fell in love with those characters and there was a lot of stuff we were building towards that unfortunately -- when we had that big implosion and we canceled half the line back in 1995 -- Mirage was one of the books that got it. We were building towards things that we didn't get a chance to do.

OK, what would you do if you could start all over and you've got all the characters, but you could do something different with it? OK, suppose instead of it being one guy who happens to get the power, suppose he's a legacy character. There's been Doctor Mirages for a long time. And when Mirage -- the character that we know -- something happens to him. In the first series, it was that he was alive and then he was dead, died and then he became a ghost. in this one, it's the fact that his wife knew nothing about his second life. She thought he was this mild mannered archeologist. She suddenly finds out that he's most powerful sorcerer on Earth. She finds out that these evil forces he's been fighting so long and now they're after her.

I think it's going to be a lot of fun. A different take on the series. I think people are going to enjoy it a lot. The art's being done by a guy named Jack Jadson, who has done some work with Image, for Chaos. He's one of those Studio 3 guys down in Brazil. I've gotten 10 pages in so far and it looks absolutely incredible. I think it's going to be a real rockin' book.

MDT: Do you talk to Doug Miers [American agent for Studio 3 and publisher of Comics Conspiracy (Operator 99 & Taxman)] at all?

JP: As a matter of fact, I met Doug through Shon Bury, who wrote the Turok 3 adaptation of the video game that will be out in about a week and a half. Shon was the one who said you should talk to these guys. He sent us a packet of their stuff. I started looking at this and said, "Wow!" When I was looking for somebody for Turok and I called up Doug and said, can you help find somebody for this? He said, sure. One of the pinups was done by a guy name John Bosco who was doing Alley Cat and he said, use this guy. John did the pencils for Turok 3 and they were absolutely wonderful. I said, who else do you have? Who do you think can handle this Doctor Mirage? He said, try this guy. Everything we've gotten back from him has been absolutely wonderful.

MDT: He's got some incredible artists.

JP: We're talking top-notch guys and more importantly, top-notch guys who are within my price range. Helps a lot. You don't want to start out in the hole with new projects. Antonio [Martin, Jr.], who's the studio manager down there, they're both great guys to work with. I've had a little bit of experience, but I'm still a novice. There's still a lot of things I'm learning.

I've also got other good people I'm working with. The inker on both Turok and Doctor Mirage, this guy named Jimmy Lyle, who has been doing a lot of small press things. He's one of those guys who if this were the old days when everyone was given a chance, he would be working full-time for Marvel or DC. This guy is that quality of an inker. [He] has done an absolutely marvelous job. I think when Turok 3 comes out, people are going to be really excited about the book.

On top of that, I lucked out and got myself a top-notch colorist from DC named Buzz Setzer who was recently doing Superboy and did Catwoman. He's going to come in and color Mirage and Magnus, Robot Fighter -- which is going to be our March book -- and go forward. This is another guy who has 10-12 years of experience in the industry and is stepping in and helping me out. Helping out from both I know I can trust this guy, I know he's going to do the job, but also you can send him stuff and he'll pick things up that I won't. It's not editing by committee because ultimately I have to make the decision, but it's good to have other people's opinion on things.

MDT: Sounds like you're surrounding yourself with good people.

JP: That's the idea. Get people who can do the job, willing to give you their experience, who want to be team members. The most important thing is, these are people who know that if their name is on the book, it means something. You have to have a certain amount of pride in that product. You can be the greatest penciler of all time, if you don't have pride in that product, then it's no good. You have to believe in what you're doing, you have to believe in the product. Those are the type of people I'm trying to bring in.

MDT: Anything you'd like to add about Acclaim that you haven't already talked about....?

JP: The thing is, there have been so many rumors about Acclaim's impending demise.

For the longest time I've been a believer in that you don't talk about it, you just do it. You let the strength of the work itself stand out. You put out a good product and say to people, this is a pretty good product and we're going to get better.

We've burned a lot of bridges and done so many bad things, shot ourselves in the foot so many times. Some people have no faith in us. I can understand that.

Right now, I'm trying to take care of the old problems, get us to zero and build upon that. I hope that at some point, they'll take a look and see. I think they'll be surprised at what they see. I think it's going to be some good product and we'll go from there.

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