Crossing More CrossGen Stories Off My List
This past weekend, I was in the Detroit area to appear at the Great Lakes Comic Con. It’s a very nice two-day (or more correctly, one-evening/one-day) show that’s almost exclusively about comics. The promoter, Mike DeSantis, puts on the show to spread the gospel of comics.
The Friday night/Saturday day schedule allowed me to fly in Friday afternoon and back home Saturday night. I ran into writer J.M. DeMatteis once my flight landed at Albany Airport. J.M. lives about an hour south, in my hometown, in fact. We’d been on the same flight from Detroit (he was making a connection from Los Angeles), and never realized it. We vowed to make our long-standing lunch plans happen soon.
At the Great Lakes show, like at most shows honestly, I signed my share of CrossGen comics. The issues are all more than a decade old, from a company that exists now only as an unused corner of Disney’s intellectual property catalog. I signed copies of “The Path,” “Sojourn” and “Mystic.” No “Scion” issues this time, but those usually make an appearance as well. Those titles seem like they still resonate with people, even though CrossGen was ultimately a failure, going out of business a little more than four years after opening its doors.
I’ve written previously about some of my experiences at CrossGen, which was located in Oldsmar, FL, near Tampa. I’ve written about the ghost that apparently haunted the studio, about convincing artist Claudio Castellini that he’d have to suit and play the second half of a Tampa Bay Buccaneers football game, and about working on singular issues with Walter Simonson (“The Path”) and Jim Cheung (“Scion”).
But there are still more stories to tell. Some of them I can never put into print, either because they’re embarrassing to some people, or because certain things behind the curtain should stay behind the curtain. But here are some that have bubbled to the surface.
I have a vivid memory of Bryan Hitch sitting with me and my wife as we shared a nice bottle of Shiraz by the pool of the house we were renting. This was in the early days of CrossGen, when the possibilities seemed limitless, and Bryan was over visiting from England. It was a typical Florida night, warm with a gentle breeze rustling the palm trees next to the lanai that covered the pool. It’s hard to beat good wine with a good friend.
At one point, it was very likely that Bryan would join CrossGen in Florida. He visited the office a few times and was offered a place. In the end, it didn’t quite work out. But I sometimes wonder if Bryan had joined us, what it would have meant for “The Ultimates” title he went on to draw for Marvel. Obviously without Bryan on board, it might have been a very different book. Meaning “The Avengers” film, which drew so much obvious inspiration from “The Ultimates,” likely would have been a very different movie.
At one point, early in the company’s lifespan, there were management concerns with people showing up to the office on time. And by “management,” I mean Mark Alessi, whose business background (and fortune) was via a tech company that he eventually sold to Ross Perot.
Most of the staff rolled into the office between 9 and 10 a.m., sometimes later if anyone had burned the midnight oil at the studio. The notion of people not showing up “on time” ate at Alessi’s business sensibilities. It was simply outside his experience that people might enjoy their jobs, and would get the work done without adhering to a time clock.
The situation festered until Alessi’s cousin Gina Villa, who served as the Chief Operating Officer, was tasked with standing in the lobby with a clipboard, checking in people as they arrived in the morning. Those who didn’t arrive by 9 a.m. were in trouble. It was ridiculous, of course, leading to ever-increasing resentment. But it wasn’t out of spite, it was simply a case of creative impulse and business structure rubbing up against one another and creating friction.
Finally, a few of us more senior staff members were able to convince Alessi that people actually liked making comics. We wanted to do our jobs. But putting a strict clock on creative output — beyond hitting the monthly deadlines — was counter-productive.
The first CrossGen Christmas party was held at the home of Beth Widera, a former school teacher who was part of CrossGen from the beginning, helping new staffers with moving, find new accommodations and just generally settling in to a new environment. Beth is one of my favorite people on the planet. She and her husband Richard eventually bought Orlando’s MegaCon from CrossGen as the company imploded, and have grown it into an immensely successful convention.
The staff was still fairly small at the time, a lot of “orphans” who had been uprooted from familiar surroundings and transplanted in Florida together. After some cajoling, artist Josh Middleton showed off his singing and guitar playing at the party. You could’ve heard a pin drop when he was finished with the blues song he performed. He was that good.
Two years later, the staff and ambitions of CrossGen had grown to the point of having the Christmas party at a country club, with semi-formal attire, a catered meal and an open bar. It was supposed to be a celebration of what the company had accomplished, as well as an exercise in morale boosting. It was a pretty great night… though the end of it was a little fuzzy for me, thanks to artist Jeff Johnson teaching the bartender a deadly martini recipe he’d picked up in California.
I was seated at the same table with George Perez for Alessi’s kickoff speech. The opening of the speech was supposed to remind us that Alessi had invested a lot of his personal wealth in CrossGen, and that he was as tied to its success as everyone else. His opening line was, “I am a rich man.” George leaned over to me with a mischievous grin on his face and whispered, “We’ll take care of that!”
It proved unfortunately prophetic, as CrossGen expanded too quickly, burned through its investment funds, and eventually crashed and burned. Disney came in and bought everything for a million dollars, though the primary object of its affection was “Abadazad,” the delightful all-ages comic that J.M. DeMatteis and Mike Ploog had brought to CrossGen. Disney’s Hyperion imprint produced a few “Abadazad” books that were a curious hybrid of prose and comics, but that was it.
For the most part, it seemed like Disney didn’t really know what to do with everything it had purchased along with “Abadazad”… meaning the entire CrossGen Universe. Disney even inherited piles of original artwork by staff artists like Butch Guice, Steve Epting, Bart Sears and more. Having no clue about the art’s value, someone at Hyperion eventually reached out to art dealer Spencer Beck, asking, “What is this stuff?” Spencer helped the artwork find its way back to the artists who had produced it.
There were weekly lunch barbecues held out behind the studio, with everything provided by the company. Facilities manager John Smith, who was also the shortstop and cleanup hitter on our company softball team, manned the grill.
We had a few basketball players in the studio, and for a while we played pretty regularly. During one game, artist Paul Pelletier was guarding me, and I tried to slip a bounce pass between his legs. The bounce came up a little short and hit Paul… well, let’s say not in his drawing hand. He still reminds me about it.
The west coast of Florida is blessed with quite a few spring training sites for major league baseball teams. I tried to get out of the studio for a few games every year, even if it meant sneaking away for the afternoon. The Yankees were right in Tampa, the Phillies over in Clearwater, the Blue Jays in Dunedin, even more teams within an hour drive or so. One of my best days in Florida was a Saturday afternoon sitting in the stands at the tiny Blue Jays stadium with Steve McNiven, drinking a beer, eating a hot dog, watching a ball game.
Doctor Strange appeared in an issue of “Mystic.” So did Clea, the Seven Dwarfs, Harry Potter, Gandalf, Etrigan and a bunch of others. It’s true. Go look it up.
In many ways, I feel like if CrossGen had come along five years later (and, obviously, displayed better business sense), it likely would be thriving today. The comics-to-Hollywood pipeline was just beginning, and comic culture hadn’t exploded into the mainstream yet.
Still, even then CrossGen had it share of film interest. Michael Uslan, best known as a producer on the “Batman” films, was on board as a consultant and brought a number of possible deals to the table. A fair amount of pitch art was produced by artists in the studio, some really stunning work, most of which has never been seen.
Chuck Russell, director of “The Mask” and “The Scorpion King,” was keen to make a “Way of the Rat” film. Meetings were had, pitches were written, and for a while it looked likely to happen. There was also a lot of interest in “Meridian” as a feature. “Mystic” was mentioned as a possible television project.
There were discussions with director Ridley Scott’s production company about a film of “The Path” samurai series that I was writing. I had a few conversations with people at the production company, particularly exciting for me since Ridley Scott is one of my all-time favorite directors. The art team produced a one-off poster, we all signed it, and the piece was framed and shipped out to Ridley.
None of it ever amounted to anything, though, as Mark Alessi was always reluctant to take an option deal. He wanted to be in partnership with a studio or production company, sharing the risks and well as the rewards. Deals of that nature unfortunately never came to fruition.
I hardly ever take out any CrossGen issues and peruse them (though once in a while I pull down the French hardcover edition of “Ruse,” in landscape format, to bask in the glorious artwork that Butch Guice, Mike Perkins and Laura Martin produced). Mostly, I flip through issues when they’re presented to me at a con or signing. And I still like most of what I see.
CrossGen isn’t much more than a footnote in comics history, more about what it could have been, than about what it was. But I’m still proud of a lot of those books. I wish the audience could access them without diving through quarter bins. CrossGen was one of the first to offer comics via digital distribution. It’d be fitting if what we did there finds a little bit of new life digitally.
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it’s pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes “Witchblade” and the graphic novel series “Ravine” for Top Cow, “Skylanders” for IDW, “John Carter: Warlord of Mars” for Dynamite, “The Protectors” for Athlitacomics, and Sunday-style strips “The Mucker” and “Korak” for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.
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