Gorilla Comics: A profile of the creator owned imprint

Gorilla Comics, the long-awaited creator-owned imprint founded by Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, and some of their best-selling friends, made its official debut this past weekend at the Mid-Ohio-Con in Columbus, Ohio.

At 2:30 PM on Saturday, Nov. 27th, longtime Mid-Ohio-Con associate Tony Isabella started warming up the crowd in the Adam's Mark Hotel's main auditorium. The Gorilla members, who had earlier been talking to fans and signing their work at a large, colorful display on the convention floor, were now huddled behind closed doors in anticipation of their imprint's formal unveiling. Isabella led the expectant audience in making all sorts of jungle noises - in homage to, and good-natured mockery of, the instantly infamous "Ook Ook" Gorilla tagline - before bringing in Image Comics publisher Jim Valentino to introduce the creators one by one:

Busiek. Waid. Joe Kelly. Karl Kesel. Tom Grummett. Stuart Immonen. Mike Wieringo.

The long-rumored Gorilla was now a reality, at least as a corporate entity and a comics-convention phenomenon; no actual projects are slated to be released until next spring.

Yes, George Pérez and Barry Kitson were missing. And no, Immonen wasn't listed among the founding eight members in the huge poster on display at the Gorilla booth, because he is not actually a Gorilla partner - although he was invited to join the fun; in fact, Immonen collaborated with Busiek on the upcoming Gorilla project Superstar, which itself debuted at Mid-Ohio-Con in the form of an ashcan published by Busiek's Juke Box Productions.

All of which begs the following questions: Just what is Gorilla Comics? How is it structured, who came up with the idea, what exactly is its relationship with Image, and what will the starting lineup of Gorilla titles be?

The Gorilla team only had partial answers, and that's by design.

Busiek, the group's unofficial leader and spokesperson, and, with Waid, co-founder of the Gorilla concept, said that the decision to withhold most information on the initial slate of Gorilla projects was quite deliberate. The first title, to be written by Busiek, is tentatively scheduled for launch in April, with the second title, from Waid and Kitson, planned for May, and so on down the line until six series have made their debut. Announcing those six series now, said Busiek, would take something away from the main story here - Gorilla's formation - and likewise would give short shrift to each of the six inaugural titles, which will likely be announced individually over the coming months to maximize their time in the spotlight.

What the Gorilla gang did have to share, however, was thoughts on the imprint's raison d'etre and the tale of how it all came together.

It started with a phone call from Waid to Busiek. "Kurt's like the id to my superego sometimes," Waid told CBR in an exclusive interview the day after the formal announcement. "I was just venting; I was screaming and ranting and raving because I'd just heard of a Marvel editor who'd said to several people, and I quote, 'We see writer-driven comics as an experiment that's failed' - and if my head had been a thermometer, I would've just exploded all over the studio. That was at the end of a year's worth of dominoes falling, and I realized that, as much fun as it is to toil among the company-owned stuff - and I'll always do it - I really needed an outlet where I could do whatever I wanted to do and not have to answer to, y'know, a 19-year-old assistant editor who just came out of the copy room.

- Mark Waid

"So I was thinking about creator-owned stuff," Waid continued. "Kurt has always had creator-owned stuff up his sleeve, and we just opted to latch our life rafts together in the turbulent storm of the marketplace. And at that point, we said, 'If it's you and me, who else ? Joe Kelly would be good; let's call Joe Kelly.' And then we started building from there."

At this point, there are no plans for projects that involve creators wholly unaffiliated with Gorilla. "Right now we're just going to launch a slate of six books that all involve Gorilla partners," said Waid, "as at least writer or artist and most likely both. Beyond that we'll just see how it goes. We'd love to create a sanctuary where people can come with ideas and not feel like somebody's telling them how to do it differently."

Gorilla, it should be noted, isn't the first joint venture attempted by its instigators. Back in his Impulse days, Waid had shared with this reporter some of his ideas for a creator-owned project called Mall Crawlers; it was to be part of an anthology series, tentatively titled Heroics, that would've included work by Busiek and Kesel, among others. Lacking a publisher, a marketing staff, and the appropriate investors, however, the series never made it very far. "We had several offers on it," recalled Waid, "but nothing was ever really right, so the properties just lay dormant." In a handful of cases, at least, some of those properties are being resurrected for Gorilla. Waid has no immediate plans for the Mall Crawlers concept, but Busiek and Immonen's creation Superstar dates from the same period, while Kesel and Grummett have revived their own Heroics project for their new imprint.

And this time the support staff is in place. Dave Olbrich, Gorilla's president, joined the creators onstage at the Saturday panel, and - along with Jim Valentino, who ran up and down the center aisle with a microphone to field audience questions - elaborated a bit on the business end of things. Olbrich is, with Gary Guzzo, co-founder of the comics-industry talent agency DOGG Works, and was publisher of Malibu Comics when Image made its debut as part of the Malibu line. Already publishing its own superhero and non-superhero material when the seven Image founders approached Olbrich with their maverick idea, Malibu served as a much-needed buffer zone between the Image principals and the comics industry's distribution outfits until Image was ready to handle everything in-house. Image is now, somewhat ironically, providing similar services to Olbrich and the Gorilla crew.

The financial backing for Gorilla comes from eHero.com, a new Website that's scheduled to be up and running January 1st, 2000. It was founded by John T. Wells, who will serve as its CEO and who, according to a Gorilla press release, has considerable experience in online marketing and multimedia merchandising. Nonetheless, the Gorilla partners were uniformly adamant at their panel that making good comic books comes first, and that films, videogames, action figures, and the like will be considered on a case-by-case basis by the creators involved when and only when the comic books are being produced on time. Olbrich holds the title of eHero.com President in addition to his duties as president of the Gorilla Comics line. And while its titles will be released under the Image banner for the foreseeable future - meaning that they will most likely be bound by Image's direct-market exclusivity contract with Diamond Comic Distributors - eHero.com is, at least titularly, Gorilla's publisher.

If you drop by the eHero.com Website right now, you'll find only the barest hint of what's to come, but it certainly looks like more than just Gorilla's Internet home. There are as-yet-inactive links to an online store, auctions, a price guide, eHero E-mail, sections titled "My eHero" and "eHeroes Only," chat rooms, message boards, workshops, trivia, role-playing games, a comics-shop locator, and specific links to areas about DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, Image, and Gorilla itself. Gorilla creator bios and other press releases, meanwhile, can be accessed at guzzo.com/gorilla, part of a Website dedicated to Gary Guzzo's print-and-Internet design company Atomic Studios.

One key position yet to be filled is that of Gorilla editor-in-chief, although an announcement is expected shortly. Busiek is serving, at least for now, as ringleader. "Kurt is kind of the head banana," Waid said before groaning. "But only in the sense that organizational duties fall to him because he's had as much experience as any of us - and more than most of us - with creator-owned stuff, so he's just a good go-to guy. As he puts it, we're all equal but he has the gavel, and when the rest of us are messing around he can kind of call us to attention or make certain low-level decisions on the fly."

Gorilla Comics, its members agree, is going to be around for the long haul no matter what obstacles lie ahead. Busiek told a packed auditorium that he hoped and intended to publish through the imprint for the rest of his life. His compatriots, in a moving display of solidarity, likewise proclaimed that they planned to contribute to Gorilla for the rest of Busiek's life, and, as happy as these guys seem, the man couldn't ask for better health insurance.


Mark Waid is the only Gorilla founder who didn't get a call from Kurt Busiek about joining the imprint - aside from Busiek himself, of course. That's because Waid was the one who called Busiek in the first place.

Did the writer have anything specific in mind when he was brainstorming the new creator-owned comics line?

"Yeah," said Waid. "It's something that I've been talking about doing for awhile, but I can't quite reveal it yet. Barry Kitson and I are going to be working on it together.

Pressed for more information, Waid would only talk off the record. "It's one of those extremely rare ideas - nobody's done it yet, and I can't believe that nobody's done it yet. I fell over it, and I've been keeping it under my hat until the time was right. And now I can't wait to get to it."

Waid's plate is full in the meantime. He's still on Flash at DC, will be taking over JLA when Grant Morrison steps down, and is writing Gatecrasher, the debut title from another new comic-book company, Gareb Shamus' Black Bull Entertainment.

How did he get involved with that last one?

It's a lot like the familiar Gorilla story: Shamus, penciler Amanda Connor, and inker Jimmy Palmiotti asked. "Jimmy and Amanda are good friends, and it just looked like it'd be a lot of fun. It's not Watchmen, but, y'know… It looks fabulous. Amanda Connor's doing great work."

Gatecrasher debuts just after New Year's, but Waid's amicable takeover of JLA keeps getting postponed. "Now it's #43," Waid said. "It was going to be #41, and then Grant wrote part six of five, so it was going to be #42, and then Grant wrote part seven of five, so now it's #43." For those of you keeping score at home, that would, if shipping schedules are met, translate into the month of May, the same month that will see the debut of Waid and Kitson's Gorilla project.

And next summer readers will get a taste of things to come with JLA: Heaven's Ladder, which is being illustrated by penciler Bryan Hitch, inker Paul Neary, and colorist Laura DePuy. The tabloid-sized one-shot - with a special twist that Waid won't reveal just yet - will precede Hitch and Neary's first issue as the new regular JLA art team by a month or so. Heaven's Ladder, according to Waid, tells a very different kind of JLA story that involves a group of alien beings known as the Quantum Mechanics, so you can imagine his delight when he saw a villain called the Quantum Mechanic pop up in a panel of the Superstar ashcan just published by his fellow big, hairy apes Busiek and Stuart Immonen. True to their namesakes, said Waid, "We'll have to have a big wrestling match over that later."

- Mark Waid

Even after a whirlwind tour of traveling, autographing, talking, more autographing, singing in front of a full house during an installment of Mid-Ohio-Con's own pros-and-fans version of Hollywood Squares, and, soon, traveling some more, Waid was pumped about his new company.

"I have faith in this, I really do," he said after polishing off a banana split in the Adam's Mark Hotel's festive Gorilla Lounge. "The best comics are always done by guys who have a really strong vision and are wing-walkers, are willing to get out there and take chances." And if you do it with a little help from your friends, according to Waid, it only gets better.

"People asked us [Saturday] why we don't just do creator-owned things for other companies," he recalled. "And the answer is that then we still have to sell it - we still have to get a new publisher interested, we still have to write a proposal, we still have to do the dog-and-pony show to get it approved." With Gorilla, the only audiences that Waid and company have to convince are the retailers and readers, and on that score Gorilla's confidence shines.


What stands out in Kurt Busiek's mind as perhaps the most memorable aspect of all of this Gorilla hullabaloo?

"I was dumb enough to go first."

Busiek and Stuart Immonen volunteered to inaugurate the Gorilla imprint with a new series set to debut in April. The pair isn't willing to go on the record yet with just what the project is, but Busiek will tell you what it isn't.

A popular online rumor mill suggested that Busiek would kick off the Gorilla festivities with a series about pirates. "That was the reporting of a nitwit," he told CBR plainly. More surprising, however, is the fact that Busiek and Immonen's Superstar, the only Gorilla project to make it into the public eye in any form, won't be part of the imprint's launch.

The Superstar ashcan that went on sale at this year's Mid-Ohio-Con, said Busiek, contains "the first eight pages of the Superstar one-shot, which will be the first Superstar project published." And even that one-shot, he said, "won't be coming out until we're done or almost done with the first miniseries."

While the title of his real, true Gorilla debut is still under wraps, Busiek did offer the following: "The book that Stuart and I will be doing will be something of a high-tech adventure thriller, with a lot of characterization and a lot of people stuff."

Busiek's decision to cut his monthly writing chores nearly in half recently was widely reported, and fueled speculation that the long-awaited introduction of Gorilla was imminent. At the same time, the past year has seen the birth of Busiek's first child and a continuation of long-standing health problems. Some have wondered, particularly given the chronic lateness of his creator-owned Astro City, whether this spelled trouble for Gorilla before the imprint even got off the ground.

"I'm working on Avengers and Astro City, and, while I have a couple of other things - like an Iron Man special - to do, Avengers and Astro City are my only ongoing assignments at this point," Busiek said in response to such concerns. "So the work that I do for Gorilla should fit into that schedule just fine.

As the Gorilla creator with the most established body of creator-owned work, Busiek has also been asked time and again whether Astro City, which is currently being published by the Homage imprint of WildStorm Productions, will be making the move to Gorilla once the relevant contracts with Homage expire.

"Right now," according to Busiek, "it's an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' situation. WildStorm is doing very, very well with it, and - unless that were to change - I can't see any reason to move it just for the sake of moving it." If the move were made, it would mean - as more than one observer has noted - that Astro City, a part of the DC Comics family since DC's acquisition of WildStorm from Image co-founder Jim Lee, would, through Gorilla, once again be solicited by Image, whose central office handled the series before Busiek took Lee up on his offer to join Homage.

Asked for some final thoughts, Busiek replied, "It's been a wonderful life, and I hope that all my descendants are happy with me gone. Oh… Not that kind of final thoughts. I hope that readers are as excited and energized by Gorilla as we creators are, and I'm looking forward to seeing what people think." The Gorilla spirit, he said, is "a spirit of fun, of energy, of being excited and involved in the kinds of comics that we each do. Joe produces different kinds of comics than Karl Kesel, who produces different kinds of comics than I do, but I think that we all have a certain level of energy and commitment that comes through in the work."


How did Joe Kelly get involved in Gorilla?

"It's probably the same story that everybody else has already told," Kelly said. "I was cold, hungry, and alone, dragging myself through the woods, and… No, I was just about to finish things up over at Marvel, and I had decided to throw some [feelers] out there to see if anything else was going on. Kurt and Mark called, and asked if I'd be interested in getting together to start working on a new company. And of course I said yes; I was really honored, and it was literally that simple."

Kelly had, ironically, just launched a pair of creator-owned properties, M-Rex at Image through Avalon Studios, and Steampunk for the Cliffhanger imprint of WildStorm Productions.

"I was lucky enough that people offered me opportunities to do creator-owned work," the writer told CBR, "and when I was talking to [Waid and Busiek] it was still pretty ethereal. Steampunk and M-Rex were more concretized offers, and I was able to start working on them a lot sooner. That's why it looks like it's all happening at the same time.

"Luckily, I have a foothold in the other world, too," Kelly continued. "I'm still doing Action Comics.."

That job was also the result of an unexpected but timely phone call. Superman family editor Eddie Berganza was among the first to ring Kelly up as the writer was finishing his work on Marvel's Deadpool, which led to a conference about steering the Man of Steel's titles in a new direction. "And that was very quick," Kelly said of the Action gig. "A month and a half later, I was already working on it."

Didn't Kelly's Deadpool material worry any of the DC brass?

"There have been numerous articles written about how Action Comics will be the one with the [off-color] jokes," Kelly grinned. "When I was first hired, though, [the editors] made it very clear that there's a certain type of humor that's appropriate to Superman, and I totally understand that. I try to get in what I can, but…"

How does Kelly - a new father and a relative newlywed - enjoy writing the Lois and Clark relationship?

"I love it," he said. "And some of it is certainly modeled on my own relationship. Eddie actually called me up at one point and said, 'You guys must have a really good marriage, 'cause that dialogue is fun,' which I thought was nice.

- Joe Kelly

"I'm totally into their relationship as a young couple, even though, obviously, they've been married for a while [in terms of publication time] and there are continuity issues there. For me as a writer, coming to the project fresh, they're a young couple, who aren't just starting out in life per se but are still young professionals good at what they do."

Isn't it a bit odd for the 28-year-old writer - who's only a year younger than your humble reporter - to find himself rapidly catching up to Superman in age?

"Yeah," Kelly laughed. "That's a good question. And I definitely see Superman as our age. He's in his 30s, maybe; he's from 25 to 35 depending on how you want to think about him, but I put him at pretty much my own age. It is weird. You definitely get to that man-behind-the-curtain moment. 'I'm supposed to be Superman? I can't even leap the curb in a single bound sometimes.'"

Kelly's enthusiasm for creator- and company-owned work runs fairly equal right now. "I love classic characters," he admitted. "One day I really do want to write Spider-Man. I love writing Superman; I'm having a great time. There are a lot of DC characters that I'd like to write; there are a lot of Marvel characters that I'd still like to write." But the lure of the Gorilla imprint was too strong to resist, even with M-Rex and Steampunk currently under separate contracts outside of Gorilla.

Steampunk, Kelly said, won't be going anywhere for the time being. "That's a pre-established thing. We own it, but, the way the logistics of it work, Chris [Bachalo] was approached by Cliffhanger - he brought them our property, and we own the property together, but he's hooked up with Cliffhanger for a certain period of time.

"And with M-Rex ," he continued, "we're happy working with the guys at Avalon. If circumstances ever got weird or sales [dropped] or something, and we needed to make a change, I'd be happy to bring it to Gorilla, but, if things are going well, I wouldn't move it just the same way Kurt wouldn't move Astro City."

Kelly's first Gorilla project is already set to go with Pascual Ferry handling the art. "I keep talking about it as sort-of Weird Science meets I Dream of Jeannie with suburban teenage angst underneath it. It's definitely going to be strange, and it's definitely going to be quirky. A lot of it takes place in a high-school setting, but with fantastic elements added to it."

"I'm very lucky," the writer said as the interview wound down. "For me, it's been a fantastic couple of years; I've been really fortunate to have had a lot of great opportunities, and this is just another great opportunity. To work with and learn from the best in the business, and to get to do what I enjoy doing for myself, I could not be happier."

- Joe Kelly

Kelly turned serious for a moment. "This is a long-term plan," he said, as if momentarily aware of just how big a deal Gorilla could be. And then a grin broke out once more. "I mean, ideally, like we said yesterday, we're in it 'til Kurt dies."

GORILLA SPOTLIGHT: Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett

The Gorilla tag-team award clearly goes to longtime collaborators Karl Kesel and Tom Grummett. When CBR sat down to ask them about their participation in the new imprint, it almost literally got double-talk.

Could they share the premise of their Gorilla project?

Kesel: "No."

Grummett: "No."

Would they be staying on DC's Superboy once Gorilla got off the ground?

Grummett: "Yes."

Kesel: "Yes. Definitely."

Perhaps they could enlighten us about how they were approached to join the 800-pound imprint…

"In my case," said Kesel, "it was a phone call from Kurt, offering a chance to join the group."

"And in my case," said Grummett, "it was a phone call from Karl, asking me to join him in joining the group."

Lewis Carroll would have a field day with these guys.

It took a question about Kesel's wife to break the Wonder Twins up. Barbara Randall Kesel, a former DC editor and freelancer, recently signed up for a bullpen job with Cross Generation Comics, a fledgling publisher, by definition becoming Karl's competition.

Strange? "It's a friendly competition," he laughed. "There's a lot that we say between ourselves that goes no further, obviously, and it'll be kind-of interesting because I believe that we'll be launching the two companies at about the same time."

Launching shortly after Gorilla next year is DC's ongoing Harley Quinn title, based on the animated character who's only recently been introduced into DC Universe continuity.

- Tom Grummett

"I'm just at the beginning of that," said Kesel when asked about the series. "It's probably going to be [starting up] next summer."

Would Harley Quinn be tied to the Batman family titles, or is the Joker's best gal ditching him to wreak havoc across the land?

"It's a fine line to walk," Kesel admitted. "You can't really remove her from the Joker, because the Joker's part of her whole motivation. So we've had to figure out how to have her orbit beyond the Joker and then come back periodically. The Joker will be this magnetic center in her life that she's always drawn back to, no matter how far away from him she gets."

Jack Kirby - speaking of compelling forces - is a definite influence on Kesel and Grummett's Superboy; in fact, the late King is paid homage in the credit box of every issue. CBR naturally wondered how much of of that brand of energy would be injected into the duo's Gorilla debut.

"I think that you'll find similar sensibilities," said Kesel.

"But this is going to be a new thing," Grummett added, "and hopefully handled in a way that no-one's really seen before. We're not going to be striving to ape anybody, no pun intended, but our influences are going to creep in."

It was surely no coincidence, after all, that Kesel used the words "fantastic" and "unknown" when describing his and Grummett's simian storyline. He's written the Kirby-created Challengers of the Unknown on more than one occasion, and, after following up his breakout Amalgam one-shot Spider-Boy with Challengers of the Fantastic the following year, he finally got his hands on the Fantastic Four themselves in a well-regarded 1998 annual.

"This is really a case where we've tailored something that not only takes advantage of our love of the 'Kirbyesque' approach," said Kesel, "but incorporates a lot of things that I've admired about Milton Caniff's work." He pointed out that, of course, Gorilla won't have any of its own Kirby-created characters to build from, while at the same time admitting that a Kirby influence is inevitable. "That's very much a part of what I enjoy in comics, and I think that Tom enjoys those sorts of things too."

"Keep your eyes on Gorilla," said Grummett in conclusion. "I don't think that anyone's going to be disappointed."

Neither Karl Kesel nor Tom Grummett were harmed during the making of this article, and this reporter would like to thank both gentlemen for putting up with him after a weekend of too little sleep all around.


How did Mike Wieringo get involved with Gorilla?

"Kurt just called one day on the phone and asked me if I'd be interested in being involved," the artist told CBR, "and I had to say yes. I knew a good thing when I saw it."

Wieringo and Todd DeZago are currently publishing Tellos through Image's central office. And his participation in the new imprint leaves him open to questions about bringing that creator-owned series under the Gorilla umbrella.

- Mike Wieringo

"The situation there," the artist explained, "is that since Todd is co-creator and co-owner of the project, he has to okay it as well; I can't just say 'Tellos is going to be a Gorilla book now.' And he's leaning in that direction, but I don't have a final word from him on whether he wants to do it or not."

Wieringo is looking forward to getting comfortable in his new home even if Tellos remains down the block. "I am developing other things that I'll do with Gorilla," he said. "The beauty of this company is that it gives us the freedom to do a bunch of different things."


How did Stuart Immonen get involved with Gorilla?

"The simple answer is that Kurt called me to get involved," Immonen said. "Kurt and I have been trying to do something on a regular basis for a while now; we started working on Superstar together years ago. He didn't seem to find the right place for it, so he made his own place, which has benefited us both."

Unlike the rest of the creators who showed up at the first-ever Gorilla meet-and-greet, Immonen isn't technically a founding member of the team. "I had the offer, as everyone else did," he told CBR, but after thinking it over decided that "it's just not the place where I want to be in my career right now."

Founding member or not, Immonen's position is an enviable one. He'll soon be as closely associated with Kurt Busiek as are Alex Ross and George Pérez. Having collaborated with Busiek on Avengers #0, a special issue polybagged with a recent edition of Wizard, he'll be spelling Pérez by stepping in to pencil Avengers #26 - "prior to the big team change-up" - before moving on to his first official Gorilla project.

"Kurt's and my book will be the first one out of the box come April," Immonen noted before Busiek, leader of the pack, corrected him: "Out of the jungle!"

Meantime, Immonen's long association with DC's Superman titles is ending with a bang, thanks to Superman: End of the Century, a 96-page hardcover that's pretty much his from start to finish. "I wrote the entire thing," he said while moving posters down an assembly line of Gorillas who were clearly approaching the event horizon of carpal-tunnel syndrome. "I did the scripts, the dialogue, the plot. Some of the pages are traditional linework, pencils and inks; other pieces are watercolor painted; there's also some computer and photographic work inside. I really wanted it to be something that would be worth the reader's while to spend $25 or $30 on the book."

"I'm very happy with it," confessed Immonen, but he also admitted that it actually won't be his very last Superman work. End of the Century is planned for a December release. January will find him handling Adventures of Superman #576, his last complete issue of the title, before his real swan song on #577 in February. "I'll be plotting the whole issue," he said of the February Adventures, "as I've been doing for the past year. And then I'll be drawing my final six pages on Superman."

Despite leaving behind one of the most widely recognized fictional characters in the world, Immonen isn't complaining about putting all of his bananas in one basket with Gorilla. "I'm very pleased to be a part of the team. I have a lot of respect for everybody involved, and I have a lot of faith in particular in the project that Kurt and I are cooking up."

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