Manifesto: Part II - Vent: A First Salvo
Imagine walking through the doors of Marvel Comics in 1961 and being asked if you wanted to be part of it. Or Image in 1991. DC. Dark Horse. You name it – we all want to be there and we’re generally jealous of those who were. My involvement with the publisher A First Salvo began in 2006 when I heard from Norm Breyfogle who’d been tapped to work for them. From there I was introduced, on line, to Thad Branco, one of the owners of the imprint. Thad seemed nice enough; certainly he was enthusiastic and wanted to make a lasting impression. Emails began going back and forth and suggestions made. I was informed that an impressive number of artists had been approached and commissioned, Sal Velluto and Bob Almond, Ron Frenz, Bart Sears, Dave Ross, Tony DeZungia, Joe Sinnott, Joe Rubenstein, Mark McKenna and many others.
Early in the picture the Salvos were trying to sell their books to a distributor, namely Image. The first pitch was rejected due to story problems. The art was fine, the story was, well, shall we say hard to follow? And indeed it was. I spent days and months going back and forth with Thad suggesting ideas on how to tighten the scripts that they had for their two debut books, Danger’s Dozen and Wild Days (the latter drawn by Sal Velluto), all the time mindful of whatever was suggested would have to incorporate the bulk of the art already drawn. In effect In was acting as a defacto editor on a story that we didn’t write. The Image deal fell through and the Salvos decided that they’d not look elsewhere; they’d publish the comics themselves. Thad then asked me to help them out with an internet presence. This I was only too happy to do. I began to act as the Salvos’ number #1 cheerleader. I gave them space on my blog, links everywhere, I haunted forums and plugged away with information about them. I assisted them by running their own forums. I did everything short of paint the logo onto myself and run naked across a football ground.
More concrete involvement with the Salvos came when I was asked to provide additional material in the form of interviews and articles. These interviews, I was informed, would form the basis of bonus material in future collected volumes. The first job I was handed was to interview Norm Breyfogle about the Salvos and the book he’d be working on, Danger’s Dozen. This was done on time, submitted and accepted and I was informed that it'd appear in a trade paperback that'd collect the first six issues of Danger's Dozen as a bonus. I was good with this and expressed my gratitude. The reply email to that was to commission me to write the official biography of Norm Breyfogle.
Thad and I agreed to terms for an Art Of Norm Breyfogle book and once my schedule was free I began work. In July 2007 I sent over a rough outline which was duly approved. I then interviewed Norm at length, spoke to both Norm and inker Steve Mitchell as a joint interview and contacted and received testimonials from a lot of people, Denny O'Neil, J.M. DeMatties and Rick Veitch were amongst those who put forward their views on Norm and I also commissioned an introduction from Alan Grant. My deadline was open and to date the book is 90% finished. The idea for the Art Of Norm book was for a large sized coffee table book, all glossy and very prestigious. This book wouldn’t be sold in comic shops, indeed it’d be targeted for book stores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble. Further emails revealed that they saw this as the first in a line of biographies with a host of names mentioned.
Now here’s where the wheels began to fall off. I made the big mistake of trusting Thad. Each email he’d refer me as ‘brother’. He knew the trust problems I’d had with other publishers and he’d keep boosting my confidence and insisting that, no matter what, I’d be getting paid. I was assured that there was plenty of cash to go around and that all projects would be fully funded, in most cases with an upfront payment, incentives and bonuses. However, at this point, no warning bells were ringing.
Eventually Thad asked if I’d ever thought about writing a comic book. I floated the idea past a few people, everyone appeared enthusiastic so I replied I’d only do it if they’d agree to my artist of choice, this time it was Alan Weiss. AFS asked us to pitch a concept that would fit into the Salvo’s universe. Alan and I batted around a few ideas before we hit upon the concept we wanted - an Aboriginal character with a twist set in the 1880s. Over the course of the following months we worked out the nuts and bolts. The pitch, for a stand alone character names Simon Saurian, was sent over in February 2007 and given the green light. A few days after that Thad spoke to Alan and emailed me this, “Your first Simon story will be 12 pages and we are not sure where it is seeing print - as we don't want that long wait for it to come, but, we'll sort that out.”
The first issue of Dangers Dozen hit the stores, not with a bang but more like a wet thud. The Salvos didn’t seem to understand why this was but the general lack of promotion might have had something to do with it. I’d been busy plugging the comic everywhere and anywhere I could, but the common complaint was that no-one could find the book. Added to that was when people did find the book there was confusion about a book that began with a page of text with the title, “Previously”. I had argued against the opening on the grounds that referencing to previous stories that don’t yet exist only leads to people wondering what they missed and having so sense of connection with the characters. Future issues did little to clear up the confusion; issue three was a giant sized issue that appeared to end the story arc (originally intended for six issues) and also featured a preview of the upcoming title, Contract. After that a black and white book, titled Interlude, followed, sporting a cover by Trevor Von Eeden and Norm Breyfogle.
Come November 2007 the line had been launched and people attended the New York Convention to be on hand to promote the line. This wasn’t as simple as it sounds as Thad had elected me to run the stands at the National in order to promote A First Salvo. Once it became clear that I’d not be able to attend the banner was handed to Alan Weiss. I was a party to the emails going back and forth and it became clear that no-one had the first clue as to what to do. Weiss knew but he’d been elected to run the stand by proxy and clearly wasn’t happy about doing all the work. Again the promotion wasn’t the best and all reports I got back from the event spoke more about the socialising than it did the actually Salvo stand. After the convention communication lines remained open until Christmas Day 2007. I got an email wishing me a merry Christmas and then silence. I’d email about the status of our own project and get no reply.
They were speaking to Alan Weiss though. Alan was tapped to draw three pages in an upcoming Dangers Dozen book. These three pages would feature the main character from DD, Boss Aman, travelling through time and space and meeting a number of characters from Norm Breyfogle’s Metaphysique to Baron and Rudes Nexus through to Weiss’s own Steelgrip Starkey and our Simon Saurian. Alan did the work and requested that I script the Simon Saurian panels in order to give the character a consistent voice. This I did, oddly enough to some resistance from AFS, and I still have no idea if, when the pages eventually appear, my dialogue will be used. This was important to me as Simon is a character that was partly my making. His voice comes from me. The words are important and they matter to me.
And here’s where it began to get really ugly. First up, I just want everyone to be sure of a few things. I like Thad. I’m not happy with him right now, but I can understand that he’s under some enormous pressure and that what follows might not be entirely his doing. Second, other than Thad I’ve never had any communication with the other Salvo partners. Let me continue to tell you what happened.
Nothing happened other than total silence.
I’d email about the status of the Norm book and Simon and get no reply. I’d done a fair bit of work, all unpaid and a lot of it behind the scenes. I’d email about deadlines and heard nothing. I began to worry and each time I spoke with Alan, we’d ask if the other had heard from Thad, usually with the same reply, a resounding no. Then the shoes dropped. In reply to one of Alan’s emails he was informed that AFS was now defunct as a publisher and that all jobs had been cancelled. They proceeded to informed Alan that they had clarified to me that I was always fully financially responsible for the Simon Saurian project after making it clear that they would be paying him for the work. My heart dropped and I felt physically sick at reading the ‘news’. I couldn’t believe what I’d read. I went away, went for a walk and came back hoping that I’d read it wrong or that the words would be different. I gathered my thoughts and fired off an email asking what the hell was going on. I received a reply that stated that I was now, “..free to farm around the Art of Norm Breyfogle.” I asked about Alan’s payment for Simon and read this as a reply, “Whether Simon was created to "exist" in the Salvoverse as Alan calls it, doesn't matter. WE First Salvo owned neither the art nor characters. We aren't going to pay for any of it. IF Alan was to be paid, he'd be paid by you.” Thus they decided, in one fell swoop, to put the burden and onus onto myself to my surprise and astonishment. I instantly offered to pay Alan for the pages. Alan, to his credit, refuses to entertain such an offer as the project was commissioned by the Salvos. I also had to break the news to Norm that the book deal had been cancelled. Norm took this in good grace, he's been around long enough to see publishers come and go.
With the writing on the wall I began to approach some friends who I knew had worked for A First Salvo. The replies I got back made me more despondent than ever. “Thad Branco was ok early on but he became such a bastard last fall when I returned,” read one email. “There were some weird glitches with wire payment delays that added tension. But I was paid in full and my time thankfully ended before the big burn.”
“I haven’t heard from Thad in months,” read another. “I have been dealing with Garan Madieros, but I am done with my part of the book. I have heard that Garan can’t get the book finished for shipping. What a mess!” There were other comments. “I was paid for his one short story back last December,” read another email. “When I asked for more work Thad went from friendly to distant to cold to gone.” Other artists spoke of late payments and having to badger the company for money owed.
All of this leads us to this point: As a publisher A First Salvo is out of business.
Most independent comic book companies fail. Some, like Image or Dark Horse succeed. Some just quietly slip beneath the waves, such as Claypool, with dignity, honour and reputation still intact. When the ones that crash and burn, they usually take people with them in a spectacular fashion. However there are several positive things to come out of all of this. They are:
1] I have a story that I co-plotted and co-created with Alan Weiss. It doesn’t get much better than that.
2] I have a stunning biography on Norm Breyfogle ready to be polished, edited and published. I’m not getting a kill fee for it, nor am I getting paid for my work already done. If anyone is interested in either then make contact.
3] More lessons learnt about human nature and that word ‘trust’.
4] I have the Trevor Von Eeden and Norm Breyfogle cover on my wall, along with the Alan Weiss and Norm Breyfogle pin-up. They look stunning and for that I am happy. The trick with all of this is to find the positives and not focus too much on the negative. Hence the art is on the wall to remind me that my friends are artisitic giants, not to remind me that a publisher hasn't done the good thing.
Live and learn. It's not too late for the Salvo's to do the right thing and extract some form of decency out of all of this mess.