LUNCHING WITH MARK ALESSI
Welcome to Mark Alessi's retirement plan. Most people who cash out of the computer industry at an early age would sip on martinis, improve their golf game, and enjoy the easy life. Not Mark Alessi. A lifelong comic fan, he decided to create his own publishing empire. He hasn't done it halfway, either. He's using a brand new model for his company, the structure of which hasn't been seen in this industry before. He's based it all on his experiences in the so-called "outside world."
It's easy to think of Alessi as the H. Ross Perot of the comics industry. He's got an analogy for every situation, a willingness to point out anything or anyone he finds ridiculous, and the confidence to do it all with a smile, without worrying about how it might look later. The biggest difference between them is that Alessi comes across as a sane enthusiast.
One core concept is at the heart of his business model:
There's no reason a comic book company can't be run like any other corporation in modern America.
On the Friday afternoon of the 2001 Wizard World Convention, CrossGen hosted a small gathering of comics journalists for lunch. Along with Director of Corporate Communications Ian Feller, Alessi answered all of our questions without flinching. He taunted us to ask him the hard ones. I think I caught Feller flinching once or twice, but that was probably at the thought of having to mop up some of Alessi's more colorful proclamations.
Alas, I didn't bring a tape recorder. There were some great sound bites. I filled up seven pages' worth of notes, of which this column represents a very small sampling. Here's an overview of some of the topics that were brought up, which lasted from noon to about 1:30 p.m.
CrossGen is, by Alessi's own admission, a work in progress. What took 14-16 months to plan out has continuously changed. Alessi refers to the progress of the company as "evolutionary." He figures that between 50 and 60 percent of the company has changed since its conception.
(Keep in mind that Alessi comes from a corporate culture. It's really easy for him to toss out facts and figures and timeframes and all the rest. I can almost picture a Power Point presentation going on in his head as he talks at times, but it comes off too conversationally.)
The thing that's changed most about CrossGen since the beginning is the type of employee that works best. At first, Alessi thought that hiring the young artists and writers would work out for the best, since they weren't accustomed to the same old practices of the comic book industry of the past 60 years. As it turns out, just the opposite has happened. The older employees with families and responsibilities and experience are the ones looking to settle down and draw a paycheck and get medical and dental coverage. The younger ones want to be stars right out of the gate without apprenticing first.
That's a large part of what the Associate Writer and Artist program is about. This is the chance to practice the ages-old tradition of learning from more experienced craftsman of their own kind. It's something that's not necessarily revolutionary in the comics field. There have been plenty of examples of studio systems and artist assistants in the past that learned by helping an experienced artist. It's just not something you see that much anymore in a smaller world that allows artists from all over the world to collaborate on a book.
The first associate writer will be named in the next month or three. Mark Waid will be heading that up and acting as tutor. CrossGen has narrowed it down to 6 or 8 candidates and will eventually fly out the top two or three to the CrossGen compound. Like any prospective employee, each candidate will have the run of the place for a day. They're welcome to bring their spouse, and to sit down with Alessi and ask any questions they want to. The current employees are also open to answer any questions and must answer truthfully. If they're picked, CrossGen picks up the relocation tab and starts the newbie right away.
The trick after that is in keeping the employee that CrossGen just spent so much money in getting. Alessi said that the first thing that's necessary is to make the terms of the deal explicit from the outset. It was something he experienced while working at IBM. There was an employee's handbook that outlined how the employees would be compensated. It was done in a way that benefited both employee and employer and made everyone happy. The same thing happens with CrossGen. You don't see something like that anywhere else, with some possible exceptions in creators who are under exclusive contract to Marvel or DC.
Employees share in 25% ownership of the company. That ownership, Alessi pointed out, is meaningless unless they get bought out or have an IPO. If an employee is terminated or quits -- as any employee is allowed to do at any time with two weeks' notice -- they give back their shares. They don't get compensated additionally for them, but that was made clear at the outset.
The other half of the equation is less materialistic. Alessi talked about something else that CrossGen offers prospective employees. "People want to be a part of something that has hope." They want, he says, a shot at going to the SuperBowl. With CrossGen's long-range plan and commitment, it's a good bet to place.
The company does own the characters. Period. "End of story," Alessi emphasized. ("I intend to own the entire comic book universe. I want to be a god," he jests.) You root for each other and everyone prospers with the prospect of employee ownership. While there is the friendly competition amongst artists to post the best pages in their cube day after day and week after week, it isn't a destructive competition. It's enough to keep everyone working together as a team. You do your best to do your best job because it benefits not just your book, but also the entire line. You help out your fellow artists and writers if need be because it benefits you in the long run. It's a rather healthy side affect of a centralized comics company with corporate-owned characters.
Alessi's grand design for CrossGen is to put out 24 books a month in eight to ten years' time. The line started with four titles, and has since expanded to nine announced monthly titles, plus one quarterly. (You can see the CrossGen section of PREVIEWS getting slightly more crowded every month.)
But he doesn't plan on doing it in the usual way. He is, however, reticent with the details, promising to reveal them at some point in the coming year. (Quite honestly, I have about three different time frames written in my notes. 3 to 9 months is there. 2 to 4 months is, also. I've got one that says to look for it in the next 12 months.) He does drop hints, however:
When I asked about the next wave of trade paperbacks, he pointed to the upcoming FIRST trade. He wouldn't announce a release date for the second volumes of trades for the rest of the line. It's part of the future of CrossGen. Now that they've established market awareness and market share, it's time to grow the company in the face of a "hostile environment" filled with super-hero groups.
Plans towards growth in that direction include tech-driven solutions, such as the CrossGen Mall, whose launch has just been pushed back to October 1. (The concept of the mall is incredibly smart, though. You can design your own CrossGen posters, and even have them signed and framed to your specifications if you'd like. That's just one example.) The other part is to get into mainstream bookstores where people can stumble over these books. Alessi said those publishers who aren't planning on going outside the direct market to grow their company are either "liars or tools."
One key component for CrossGen's infiltration to the book market is to map their titles to bookstore departments. They've already gotten that with titles that fit neatly into science fiction, fantasy, and magic.
Another key has to do with returnability. Alessi said that the biggest problem with returns is a product that can be damaged. If you create a book that can't be automatically returned due to poor condition, you can cut out a large percentage of returns. "We've got that system figured out." Asked for more hints, he said that CrossGen has looked at the way comics are packaged and sold in the European and Japanese markets for inspiration, where "heroic fiction" sells.
"That's where we're going."
(If I had a guess, I would imagine CrossGen would be going towards something hard covered, and possibly in the same album format favored by Humanoids Publishing or that Image is experimenting with in upcoming LEAVE IT TO CHANCE and OZ reprints. That's pure speculation on my part, though.)
FINAL CROSSGEN THOUGHTS
I've talked with enough comics professionals and fans in the past decade to have heard one common idea expressed from everyone: Many of the comics industry's biggest problems won't be fixed until someone spends the money to fix them. This holds for advertising, distribution, racking, assembling creative talent, the works. In CrossGen now, we have someone who's willing to spend a lot of money to try something radically different in the industry. More than that, we have someone who's not spending the money willy-nilly. He's doing it with a sense of purpose and a grand design in mind that's only started to be shown.
Will it all work? Or will it go down in an endless series of high-minded failures? Will it be too little and too late?
It's too early to tell, but I think that CrossGen has the best chance of any comics line I've seen in the past ten years.
Please pass the Kool Aid.
UPDATES FROM LAST WEEK
I got a lot of responses from last week's contest on the Kids Comics giveaway. So many, as a matter of fact, that I picked two winners. Congratulations to Lauren in North Carolina. She's the first winner and has been sent a care package of books including ALISON DARE #2, JETCAT CLUBHOUSE, and a couple of LOONEY TUNES comics.
One other package hasn't been sent out yet for various reasons, most of them my own. But that'll be going next week and I'll be announcing his name officially here at that point. His aunt won the contest for him so I'm trying to keep it something of a surprise.
On to baseball: Milton Bradley no longer plays for the Montreal Expos. The Expos (Major League Baseball's major league farm team/talent pool) traded him into in the Indians farm system, where he is playing Chutes and Ladders at triple-A. (Thanks to Jason, Joe, and Trip for pointing that out right away.)
While I'm at it, congratulations to the Boston Red Sox team for keeping the curse alive and self-destructing.
Finally, J.G. Jones has not disappeared on us. He's in the middle of drawing a 96-page Wonder Woman graphic novel that Greg Rucka wrote that I forgot about. The cover work is a nice way to pick up a few bucks while working on that, I would imagine. And good for him. Looking forward to that book. As penance for this lapse, I'll be treating myself to Rucka's KEEPER novel next. Yes, I'll be sure to review it here when I'm done.
Next week: A bunch of reviews, with a lot of them having an indie-theme. Since next week is the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, I thought it would be nice to get into the mood with a few reviews of books you might find there.Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page, a horrifically coded piece of HTML.
I'll be at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland next Saturday.