On Time, All The Time: 12 Gauge's New Commitment

For Keven Gardner and his 12 Gauge Comics studio, life's had a lot of ups and downs. When they first set-up shop with Image Comics in the summer of 2004, the studio made a big splash with their flagship title "The Ride," which generated massive attention and buzz. Things were looking up for the studio as they looked to expand their line, but an all too familiar plague hit 12 Gauge, knocking them down just as they were standing tall – delays. The quality was always there, but the shipping unreliability of 12 Gauge found retailers shying away from ordering their books. Whether because of artist injuries or something else, the delays were real, and early buzz the company generated began to fade.

That's all set to change, hopes Gardner, as he and his 12 Gauge crew ready their "Shotgun Summer" initiative. Featuring three new books this June, the project seeks to change readers and retailers' opinions of 12 Gauge with on-time shipping – all the time. CBR News spoke with Gardner to get the fully story and find out how 12 Gauge plans to stay on schedule.

The birth of 12 Gauge was the result of Gardner and Doug Wagner (writer of "Gun Candy" and "The Ride") deciding after years of threatening to do it, that it was time they published comics themselves. Gardner, a former retailer as well as Direct Sales Manager at Valiant Comics, knew the comics industry well and was ready to navigate its waters. By teaming with his friends at Gaijin Studios (Cully Hamner and Brian Stelfreeze), 12 Gauge was front-loaded with talent and ideas. Gardner came up with the idea for "The Ride," a series that follows a single 1968 Chevy Camaro and its various owners, and his friends began working on the series. By April of 2004, the first issue was finished, Image Comics picked up 12 Gauge, and off they went.

With "The Ride," Gardner created a two-issue limited series, broken into four eleven-page chapters by four different artists - Cully Hamner, Brian Stelfreeze, Georges Jeanty inked by Dexter Vines, and Jason Pearson. Issue #1 shipped right on time and issue #2 was more than half-way done when solicited, but then tragedy struck. Just as Pearson was getting into the flow of things, his father succumbed to the effects of cancer. "That just stopped everything," Gardner told CBR News. "We had to let the book go through order adjustments, which reduced the numbers, but when it came out it looked great and at the end of the day, I knew we had produced a high quality product."

12 Gauge followed that second issue with two separate "Ride" one-shots, and Gardner thought things were looking good for his company moving forward into 2005. "The summer of 2005 was our first big 12 Gauge push," Gardner explained. "We lined up a 64 page sketchbook with Ed McGuinness' 'Artxilla' crew, the 'Body Bags: Father's Day' limited series, our first 'Ride" trade and two 'Ride/Gun Candy' 48 page flip books. We had Brian Stelfreeze doing 20 pages or so in each of those flip books, along with chapters by Phil Noto, Sanford Greene, Rob Haynes and Jason Pearson. Everything was turned in early. Issue one - shipped on time. Issue two - on schedule. Phil was done about a month ahead of schedule with his pages for the second issue. Sanford was right there; Brain had about twelve pages finished and in good shape.

"Then Brian breaks his drawing hand while playing volleyball. I mean, come on! How many comic book artists do you know that even play volleyball? If he would have just been in front of the TV like me - no problems. That exercise stuff will just kill you (said with a smile). The circumstances that led to the late books, I consider those to be things out of my control. But there are no excuses for last year."

Gardner continued, "With the late 'Body Bags' books, I was just guilty of thinking and hoping that Jason would do what he thought he could and it just didn't happen. 'Body Bags: 3 The Hard Way' shipped late and the new 48-pager was late beyond reason, so we just cancelled it and will re-solicit it when it is done (I'm happy to say it is almost finished now, so look for an announcement on it soon)."

Stelfreeze was healed up and was ready to get back in the fast lane with more of "The Ride." With Doug Wagner, Stellfreeze came up with a new "Ride" story and began putting pencil to page. "The first book was moving at a good clip and we solicited the series," Gardner said. But once again, the book missed its deadline. "I don't have a good excuse here. Brian got behind and we just cancelled it at issue #2. He just wasn't ready to do monthly work yet. He really wanted to be ready, but it just wasn't going to happen. Luckily we figured it out quick and didn't keep soliciting while rubbing a rabbit's foot."

Then came the release of 12 Gauge's biggest hit to date, "The O.C.T." from actress and noted fangirl Rosario Dawson. "We solicited that series with one book in the can, the second almost done," Gardner explained. "The problem there was having a new comic book creative team that didn't realize what they were getting into, and me, the guy producing the thing for Image, not grasping how big it was going to be.

"The media ate it up. We hit Heroes Con. [The team] had a big press event in New York a week later, then Comic-Con a week or two after that. Issue #2 was delayed because Tony [Shasteen, illustrator] was doing all the cons and press events. Then they get a movie deal and that takes up lots of time. Tony was still doing his day job and David [Atchison, writer] and Rosario were making sure the story ends up exactly the way they wanted - it was all overwhelming. But, I'm happy to say, issue #3 was finally released and issue #4 is at the letterer today and it is Tony's best work so far - he got better and better with each issue, which is really saying something. Whew."

Gardner admits all these delays took a serious toll on 12 Gauge. "It hurt - no question. Eric Stephenson [Image Comics Executive Director] told me we had the best buzz on a new Image book in quite some time when we launched 'The Ride.' They were all very excited at the potential. The issue #1 sales blew away my expectations. But not shipping that second issue on time was awful for our reputation. Retailers slashed orders. Fans couldn't find issue #2 - it was a mess. Our third and fourth books started going back up and the 'Ride/Gun Candy' flip book was back in the range we were hoping for…then snap! (Sorry Brian, that kind of hurt to type).

"Fans were happy with the books we were putting out; they just wanted to know why the next one wasn't on the shelf when it should have been."

While retailers were obviously frustrated, 12 Gauge found the professional community was still very supportive of their goals. "Most of them know what it's like to miss a deadline," said Gardner. "On top of that, the guys drawing many of our books are 'artist's artists,' so most pros just like to see what they've done, no matter how long it takes. I don't get to do many comic conventions, but when I do I always have creators that I respect and admire drop by and tell me how much they love what we're doing. That means a lot."

Jumping into the publishing field has been challenging for Gardner and 12 Gauge, but he's learned a lot from his first three years and in his fourth year is committed to shipping books on time and has a simple plan to ensure that stays the case. "There's really no grand plan, it's just getting the art done before the books hit Previews," said Gardner. "We're just eliminating a lot of the problem by getting the hardest part done way ahead of time."

The last straw for Gardner was exhibiting at Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2006 without new "Ride" or "Body Bags" books to offer admiring fans. Gardner said that was a new low for him. "After the plane ride home, I sat down with the whole 12 Gauge crew. We had one of those 'come-to-Jesus' meetings (at least, that is what we call them in the South)," said Gardner. "Doug, Brian, Cully, Jason and I all talked about what was wrong and what needed to be done to correct the problem. At the end of the day, we agreed to stop soliciting any books that weren't at least drawn, maybe not colored, but all the heavy lifting had to be out of the way. I know this sounds easy, but it takes a lot of money."

"I'd rather not have to spend so much up front, but it just has to be done," Gardner added. "I just felt that if we didn't get it under control the retailers and fans would tell us to take a hike, once and for all. Hopefully after 2007 is behind us, we'll have had a great year with hitting our release dates."

Things do look bright for 12 Gauge moving forward. "Brian and Doug came up with a new take on 'The Ride' story they wanted to do last year and it is even better, so that is a positive," said Gardner of the latest series, titled The Ride: Die Valkyrie." "The best thing is their three issue limited series is almost finished. #1 and #2 are in the can. Penciled and inked. They just need to be lettered, and that is happening now. Brian just sent another finished page in today on issue #3. That book will be done in two or three weeks. It will ship on time, or I'm going to be pretty mad at somebody!"

In addition to the new "The Ride" series this summer, 12 Gauge has two other big releases to offer: first up is "The Amory Wars" from rock band Coheed & Cambria's Claudio Sanchez, which has two issues completed and the third issue deep into production. There's also Paul Jenkins' "Sidekick," which Gardner says is humming along nicely. "June will be a great month for us!" exclaimed Gardner.

There will also be a new two issue limited series for July and August, which Gardner wouldn't name yet. "The art is 95% done (even colored) already. I've got a 'Ride' book on the schedule for October that is half-way finished. This is all good!"

Of course, there are those retailers out there who've heard similarly rosy declarations before. As a former retailer himself, Gardner admits he'd probably be skeptical as well. "The difference this time, for 12 Gauge anyway, is the books are actually drawn. I've never made a claim like that before," said Gardner. "If I was just some kind of hype machine, then sure, be skeptical, but I've only said that we were trying before. And we were. All of us. Do you think Jason didn't want 'Body Bags' out on time? Of course not. He's my friend and when he told me he could do it, I believed him. Now, we've all agreed that 'Body Bags' won't go back in Previews until he finishes drawing the damn thing. Every time - no exceptions. While I'm talking about 'Body Bags,' I have to throw in that the new 48 page book is the best work he's ever produced. The detail is amazing. This is like his 'Ultimates.' Fans will love it and retailers will sell lots of copies. And when it shows up in Previews you'll know that Jason has finished drawing it. That is the bottom line."

"I just want the fans and retailers to know we've really tried," Gardner continued. "It hasn't been good enough all of the time, but it was never for a lack of caring or not doing what we thought was right. 12 Gauge is in this for the long haul. We have a great publishing partner in Image Comics and they have been very supportive every step of the way.

"I just hope everyone understands that there is no multi-millionaire funding 12 Gauge. It is just a group of guys that love comics, love making comics and want to do things their way - both from the business side and most importantly, from the creative side.

Not that there is anything wrong with working for the big guys, but sometimes it is nice to say, 'This is my cover and I'm drawing it the way I want' or 'Mack is going to kill so-in-so this way and it is going to be bloody,' or whatever. That is what 12 Gauge is to the guys creating these books.

"I think we've been known for producing quality comics; they just haven't always been on time. The quality is still there and it is only getting better. Now, you'll still get the 12 Gauge quality you've come to expect and you'll get it when we said you would, so give us another look. It is a great time to grab 'The Ride Vol. 1 TPB.' The original printing sold out last summer and now it is back with more pages and printed at a much higher quality. I'm thrilled to be working with Paul Jenkins on 'Sidekick,' both with the trade and the new series. We're launching 'The Amory Wars,' from Coheed & Cambria's Claudio Sanchez - not to mention the new title we'll debut in July. If you're looking for some good, fun reads, with exceptional art, we've got some books for you!

"One last thing; thanks for taking the time to read this. I hope this interview helps people understand why some of your favorite comics might ship late from time to time (not just from us), and to all the comic book artists out there: stay away from volleyball!"

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