Pipeline, Issue #329


[CrossGen]CrossGen the Dream died this week. CrossGen the Company survived to fight another day.

I think that's an important distinction. I don't think you've seen the end of their books. I don't think they'll even be gone within a year, as so many do. I think it's the business model which died last week, but not the comics. As much as I like many of their books, I think it's the business model's death that hurts the industry more than the potential loss of the variety of titles.

It's The Dream that hurts. You read pundits across the internet expound on what's wrong with the industry all the time. Many of them even have solutions, most of which are untenable Blue Sky concepts. There's not enough money in comics as a start-up to buy rack space at the supermarket stand. Bookstores are great markets, but they're not going to buy everything and save every company. Television commercials are a wonderful idea, but how many products under $3 with relatively low distribution do you see advertised on TV today?

Along came Mark Alessi. With a sizable wallet poking out of his back pocket, he had solutions for many of comics' problems and the money with which to tackle them. No, he didn't follow any of the suggestions listed above. He created CrossGen and thought -- please forgive me for this annoying figure of speech -- outside the box. CrossGen sought to reach out beyond the direct market in ways no other company was doing. Comics were sold at amazingly low prices on the world wide web as a web product. A scholastic initiative was built, whereby CrossGen titles would be the textbooks and teachers could interest students in reading while they learned something. Comics on DVD started coming out in places with distribution that the direct market could only dream of -- WalMarts, Toys R Us, etc. Trade paperbacks were swift and regular. They were available in two sizes and price points for different audiences. A digest compendium was even attempted to give people access to the entire line at a low monthly cost. Hollywood deals were worked out that guaranteed CrossGen some level of creative input. The plan was for all of these channels to feed on one another.

If any Fanboy on the 'net had proposed all of this four years ago, any of us would have ridiculed him for thinking outside the reach of the comics industry. Instead, someone actually tried it and all he got for it was grief that the DVDs wouldn't be available in the direct market or that the compendium was too small, or the regular titles were too expensive.

Now, of course, the armchair economists come out. The Sigil killed the company. They expanded too fast. The books should never have been interlinked. Alessi's big mouth killed the company with bad will.

Some even continue to think that selling ads on the back covers could help save the company.

There's some truth, perhaps, in all of that. You could see the handwriting on the wall, though, even if it wasn't intentional. Creative team interruptions were more frequent. Creative team turnovers happened at a nearly alarming rate, although it was understandable from the Recharging-Creative-Batteries point of view. Crossovers between books became more frequent. Mini-series and one-shots showed up. SOLUS was a book designed to look up its own ass. When they announced this summer that George Perez would be doing a CrossGen version of Secret Wars, I smelled trouble. Wasn't a universe-spanning crossover event the kind of thing Alessi, et. al. once railed against? Wasn't the point of the CrossGen Universe that a reader should feel free to read any of the books he or she likes, but not need to read them all? Wasn't the point that those who did read everything would see the hidden threads and be rewarded for it? It quickly came to be that you did need to read more than one title to "get it." If you read CRUX, you should read NEGATION. If you read WAY OF THE RAT, the characters will be showing up in THE PATH pretty soon. BRATH emerged from a cameo in SIGIL. If you wanted to know what that non sequiter was in MERIDIAN, you had to try SIGIL. Are there more disparate books in the CrossGen lineup than those two? And next, THE WAR threatened to be the end point for many on-going series. Candy coat it all you want, but those were crossovers.

When stories of freelancer non-payment surfaced, all those other rumors about employees dipping their toes in the Marvel/DC waters suddenly seemed that much more likely, despite being around since Day One of the company.

I'm not sure I buy the idea that the Sigil killed the sales on the books. Those same people also argued that the books didn't sell because CrossGen didn't do superheroes, which would attract the type of audience that would crave the sigil. CRUX was a very thinly-veiled superhero book, anyway. They just didn't wear costumes, which is another one of those things that so many people in the internet community craved, but never supported.

The point, though, is fast getting lost in a series of the illogical fallacies of internet fandom. To me, the most exciting part of CrossGen was its set-up as a business and distribution outlet. They offered freelancers a place to work a regular job, complete with benefits and even the lure of employee ownership should the company thrive. The bullpen concept was a creative dynamo that glued the creative teams together and allowed for the sort of assembly line interaction that you don't get anywhere else in comics today. That's all gone now.

Along with that comes the threat of losing some of the top talent that the company has. CrossGen made big names of many creators who had toiled at Marvel/DC without anywhere near the credit they deserved. The work Greg Land and Butch Guice did at DC with BIRDS OF PREY and NIGHTWING was phenomenal, but there was no buzz there. Steve Epting was a journeyman, whose work going back to AVENGERS up through AQUAMAN was breathtaking, but never acknowledged. Paul Pelletier floated around, but never ended up on The Big Assignment that would have made his career. These are all artists now that have strong fan bases and high name recognition. These are artists who, at last, are being recognized for the high quality of their art. Does that threaten to drop when they're back to working for a page rate and don't have the comfort of a bi-weekly CrossGen check? That possibility exists, but I doubt we'll see it. I think the more realistic expectation is that we'll see many of them back at Marvel/DC in short order, doing more titles. My educated guess? Expect to see covers by top CrossGen talents on Marvel and DC books until schedules align to allow them interior credits.

CrossGen will survive. Sadly, they will survive without the infrastructure and business model that proved to be a house of cards. Sales couldn't justify it, for whatever reason you choose to believe. They will survive as a company with a much smaller line. They will carry on as a company of freelancers and will probably have to add an editor or traffic manager now. Hollywood money will become a bigger necessity now, and some creative control might have to be given up in exchanged for the bigger check. Or, perhaps one of the projects will finally get off the ground, show up on a screen somewhere, and ignite new interest in the company from Hollywood, sparking a bidding war that will reap its own rewards for CrossGen. A lot of the extra distribution channels might close off. Will the money be there for the academic "Bridges" program? Will the sales on the first wave of these Digital Comic Books warrant a second wave? Will the technology created for it to be shared with other companies reap any financial rewards for the company? What once was done for the better interests of comics might have to be done now in the name of company profit. Did you know that technologies created by CrossGen for use in those Digital Comic Books have been made available to other companies interested in the process?

But CrossGen The Dream is dead. Let's hope the survivors will find a way to flourish in the style comics companies have muddled by in for the past twenty years since the invention of the Direct Market. It's going to be tough. If there's one thing we've learned in this industry over the years, it's that perception is everything. If people smell a carcass, they'll move away from it. The news out of Florida this past week stinks. It's not the end, but there are many people willing to jump to that conclusion already. This also points to a failing in public relations on CrossGen's part. Once the news is out there, they should try to control it as best they can. I realize the fallout is still happening, but they should have issued a statement by now. It's Sunday night as I write this, and all is still quiet on the Tampa front.

Perhaps a smaller and more focused line will serve top revitalize the fanbase and reach out to new readers. Surely, EL CAZADOR has had great buzz and opened many eyes to the CrossGen line that haven't been there for a long time. While the financial recreation of the company is happening, perhaps it's time for a radical editorial change, as well?

We'll see. I'm not counting the company out yet, and I hope you don't, either. CrossGen has given us an exciting four years so far, and I hope to see four more coming from them in some form.

BEING AN ACCOUNT OF THE FIRST SERIAL KILLER [Beast of Chicago]The latest entry in Rick Geary's "Treasury of Victorian Murder" is THE BEAST OF CHICAGO, retelling the true story of the world's first serial killer. Once again, Geary expertly uses the facts of a case alongside his quirky artistic style to both enchant and horrify readers.

H.H. Holmes was the killer's name, and his rampage might have gone on for over 200 murders, but the world will never know for sure. His murders were second only to his amazing ability to fool people, both in business and his personal life. While the man murdered people in his own house, he also maintained multiple families, a successfully pharmacy business, and an insurance scam or two. It's the kind of material that Hollywood would kill for. In fact, there are at least two movies in the works now, thanks to a recent best-seller called THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY by Erik Larson. (No relation to the comics pro, whose name is spelled differently.)

Holmes constructed a house nicknamed "The Castle" to carry out his deeds. He designed it himself and nobody else saw the grand plan to it besides him. He kept workers on their toes by firing them regularly, or only hiring them for small parts of the house. There were mysterious closed rooms, trap doors, a sealed room, a maze room, and more. It's the kind of thing you'd discount as being unbelievable if it showed up in a fiction book. It gets even more bizarre when you learn of Holmes' multiple wives, none of whom knew about the others. He kept them in different states, and would journey between them.

Perhaps inspired by the strength of the story, I think this is Geary's finest artistic effort in the series thus far. The story is structured solidly. Geary starts by setting up the scene of the Chicago's World Fair succinctly in the beginning, then telling the story of how the flocks of tourists for the event fed into Holmes' murdering ways, followed quickly by his run from the law. The artwork is a strange blend of stark minimalism and cartoony madness. You wouldn't expect these sweet looking characters -- or even the slightly mischievous ones that glance towards the readers out of the corners of their eyes -- to go around committing murders.

Geary is honest with his readers. He reiterates the basic facts of the case, throwing in some popular theories as he goes along, but never fabricating scenes for dramatic purposes. The material is strong enough not to need it, and Geary is smart enough to see that. In fact, most of the murders happen off-panel when they're even mentioned at all. Geary's minimalism is what excites the imagination so much while reading a non-fiction book.

THE BEAST OF CHICAGO is available now in both hardcover and softcover form from NBM, under their "ComicsLit" lineup. I have the hardcover edition ($16) and love it. The pages are very heavy stock paper, without any problems of ink lines bleeding through.

The next book in this series is slated to cover the assassination of President Lincoln. It should make a nice companion to his volume on the assassination of President Garfield.

If you want to see the progression of Geary's work, I'd recommend picking up A TREASURY OF VICTORIAN MURDERS, also available from NBM. This thin volume contains three stories of period homicides. The stories originally saw print in the mid- to late 1980s. It is unmistakably Geary's work, but the pen line is a little less sure. It's just as cartoony and has just as much detail, but the ink line is thinner, and there's a tendency to draw everything with the same line weight. Looking at BEAST, you can see an artist 15 years later who is more comfortable in drawing with a heavier line weight, and varying it up between background and foreground. He has more tools available to him when it comes to storytelling, also, and doesn't rely on so much photo reference. There are images in this earlier book that look like they were traced off authentic period photographs. While I'm sure Geary is still using photo reference, he's much more free with his interpretation of it these days. The TREASURY book acts as a great introduction to the time period and the people in it. The softcover edition is available for just $9.

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

Somewhere around 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.

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