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Back again, with an extra-long column this time, though much of this is from reprinting wholesale a letter from former Future Comics honcho Bob Layton on the Future website, regarding Bob’s take on why the company failed. I’m a little leery of running it, as I admit I come off a bit mean in it, but others have said it’s mean but fair, so now you can be the judge. There are also a number of reviews, and damn if some of those don’t come off pretty harsh as well, but that’s just the way it turned out. By the way, thanks to Ye Ed, Alan David Doane, for asking me to fill in and gab for his excellent 5Q feature at Newsarama. I’m fully aware that if he didn’t already know me, there’d be no way I’d be asked to fill in and give great artists like Sean Philips an extra week to complete their interview questions. Also, kudos to Tom Spurgeon for the instantly essential comics commentary site, The Comics Reporter.
This should be a cautionary tale to anyone in the comics industry -- don’t get old. Or at least, age gracefully. Will Eisner? Fine. Jules Feiffer? No problem. Bob Layton? About 30 years younger than either of them, but -- uh-oh. I don’t want to go into a long rant here -- Layton’s and Michelinie’s IRON MAN run, while most doesn’t hold up well today, earns them some slack, and really, who needs a lengthy post-mortem on a company so quickly forgotten as Future Comics?
Well, okay, if you insist.
Layton's comments are in bold.
Before I explain the root causes of our failure in the marketplace, allow me to briefly refresh you on our company's history:
The formation of FUTURE COMICS was announced by Dick Giordano and me at a press conference on Saturday, June 9th, 2000 during the HEROES CON in Charlotte, NC. Dick, Head Writer David Michelinie and I
The aforementioned root causes of FUTURE’s failure
believed that comics should be readily accessible and written for a general audience, something that's gone by the wayside in recent years. Everybody in the comics industry seems to be upset that there are no new readers coming in, and though they are trying gimmicks to get people into the genre [medium], it's not really working.
Despite sales being up on comics in general, manga exploding and trade paperback/graphic novel sales showing steady growth. But I guess these are gimmicks.
I firmly adhere to the philosophy that the root cause lies in the fact that the product is being written exclusively for a niche’ [sic] audience. As a result, comics are not attractive to a mass market readership. The creative principles in the company strongly felt that we should tailor Future Comics projects, for lack of a better term, a little more mainstream—stuff that could be read by the 'Average Joe'.
And what’s more mainstream than the declining-for-decades-genre of superheroes?
The first Future Comics offering was FREEMIND in August of 2002. Following Freemind, Future Comics’ second, regular monthly series launched in November with METALLIX. Altogether, the company released three action titles by August of 2003 which included our best seller—Deathmask.
The Average Joe likes masks, and death.
The Future titles met with near-unanimously glowing reviews—heralding our debut as a “return to greatness” or referring to us as “The next Marvel Comics”.
Simply not true. I never kept track, but I’m certain that prominent reviewers like Randy Lander, Augie DeBlieck, Jr., Tony Isabella and Steven Grant were not at all glowing in their reviews; mildly encouraging at best. If there were glowing reviews, I never saw them.
However, good reviews do not necessarily translate into a successful operation.
The Direct Market is a term used to identify the loosely-associated chain of 1100 independent book stores whose main business is the sales of comic books and related merchandise. All merchandise purchased from wholesale outlets to these stores is non-returnable. Meaning: whatever quantities they buy at the wholesale level—those sales are considered final. All mainstream comics sold to these comic shops are done the under the auspices of a single, monopolistic (and possibly malevolent) entity—Diamond Comic Distributors.
Possibly malevolent? Oh, come on, Bob. They’re a business trying to make money. Monopolistic they may be, but that doesn’t make them evil.
In many ways, Future Comics was revolutionary, but especially so in our radical business plan which used the internet to exclusively self-distribute our publications. For two years prior to our first release, Dick Giordano and I mapped out a daring, but sound, business plan that would allow an independent publisher to be profitable in a market dominated by Marvel, DC and Diamond. The only way that could be accomplished was to cut Diamond's discount of 60% off the cover price out of the mix. Which we did--and magically, the numbers worked.
Now all we needed were some books people had the slightest interest in reading.
By the spring of 2003, almost half of 1100 comic retail shops in America were signed up to participate in our Future Comics Retailers’ Club.
The decoder ring prototype was almost ready, when…
It was at that point that Diamond, being genuinely concerned that our operation might pose a threat to them
Because our half-dozen books were about to take all the sales away from the other couple thousand books Diamond had in their malevolent clutches.
…proposed that they partner with us in the distribution of our products—promising to double our sales and bring our little start-up into the limelight with a premiere [sic] publisher status in their catalogue. So...we bit.
Hey, daring but financially sound plans were made to be abandoned on nothing more than promises!
Unfortunately, this move proved to be disastrous for us on several levels.
Foremost, the promises made by Diamond were hollow. They rarely followed up on any request and never promoted our products as promised. Additionally, our Retailers’ Club members abandoned us en masse’[sic], generally feeling betrayed that we ”sold out” to the despised monopolistic distributor.
Which we did. But we wouldn’t have without those hollow promises and the gun to our heads, and our lack of business acumen, and our self-delusion. So don’t blame us.
The sad truth is
Something I’m not willing to accept at this time, so instead let’s go with this idea:
…that abandoning our original self-distribution plan is what ultimately lead to the company's sad demise. Before Diamond entered the picture, our self-distribution plan was working.
In what way?
It was a regrettable miscalculation to accept Diamond’s offer to distribute us instead of staying the course with our original business model. However, their promise of doubling our sales and reaching profitability in our first year of operation proved to be too great of a temptation to pass up. Prior to the deal, we felt as if we had Diamond "between a rock and a hard place" with our successful distribution operation.
Again, what could he possibly mean by “successful”?
I received calls from Diamond's V.P. on a weekly basis, trying to sweeten the deal or suggesting some sort of compromise to get us onboard. Little did we suspect that it was a ploy to break the back of a little publisher that dared to defy the 'Overlords of Comic Distribution'.
And then—there was Free Comic Book Day on May 3rd, 2003.
F.C.B.D. was a bust, even though we successfully distributed over 90K copies of Metallix #1 nationwide-- totally for free, in a quality package that far exceeded our competitions’ product.
First, yes, FCBD has not led to any huge influx of new readers, but I don’t think many people expected that. Isn’t it supposed to be a gradual thing? But here we do get a better idea of what Layton means by “successful distribution”—he got his free comics into retailers’ hands. Mission accomplished. And presumably, if the retailers had done their job, everyone who had picked up the free Future Comics releases would have then come back for more, but maybe the retailers didn’t try to sell the books that hard, since they felt betrayed by Future’s perceived sellout to Diamond? I guess that’s the excuse. As far as the product far exceeding the competition, well, that’s his opinion, but ultimately the proof is there in the apathy shown toward the product. Could it possibly be that Metallix just didn’t do it for people? We know that if FCBD is a bust, it’s due to not bringing in new readers, so if the niche superhero audience didn’t like Future, what hope did they have to win over Average Joe?
Diamond encouraged us to participate, guaranteeing that we would see a 12% increase in sales as a result. That estimation was, as it turned out, highly-speculative and proved to be entirely false. And, when it was all over, we didn’t get a single percentage point bump in our sales, after spending a whopping $16,000.00 in promotional expenses.
That’s whopping? But of course it was highly speculative—who could accurately predict, after just a year of doing it, how FCBD would affect sales of a comic? Now, one point I will give Layton is that it does sound a bit like Diamond was taking them for a ride, in that they really should have just told them that the Future books were cruddy and not likely to last beyond a year, and to save their $16,000.
The Direct Market retail community is ruled by Diamond’s iron-fisted approach. Many retailers voiced to us that they were fearful of reprisals by Diamond if they purchased their Future titles from us directly. No matter how we sweetened the 'deal', the retail community remained stubbornly resistant.
This may be true, but can you blame the retailers? Better to drop an iffy proposition like Future if it means they might get shorted on hot Marvel and DC books guaranteed to sell. But then, I’m a little unclear how this works—after signing with Diamond, was Future still trying to do the direct-to-retailers plan? If so, isn’t it they who are screwing Diamond? Like a mouse sodomizing an elephant, but still.
Here are merely four examples of how Future Comics' distribution catered to the retail community without success:
Future Comics gave the Direct Market free shipping (not available thru Diamond) We gave them deeper wholesale discounts than Diamond. But still, the retailers still didn’t order sufficient quantities to keep us going.
It’s now the retailers’ fault?
2. We made our products 100% returnable (free for all intents and purposes) while all sales from Diamond are non-returnable. But still, the retailers still didn’t order sufficient quantities to keep us going.
Damn you, retailers, we met you more than halfway, with terrible, dated, nonsensical books! Order them!
3. The storeowners complained that they wanted us to lower the cover price from $3.50 to $2.99— which we did. But still, the retailers still didn’t order sufficient quantities to keep us going.
Because $2.99 was still too much for the product. People didn’t want it for free, much less $2.99.
4. They wanted us to make our products available thru Diamond too, which we did-- but even after that, the retailers still didn’t order sufficient quantities to keep us going. In fact, orders dropped.
Must be Diamond’s fault, and not the usual drop in orders that occurs with almost every series.
One of the major reasons that we started Future Comics was that nearly every retailer that Dick Giordano and I talked to in the Direct Market voiced that they were tired of the callous way they were being treated by Diamond and pledged to support our efforts. It seemed to us that they were crying out for someone to attempt to change the system…and to show them some respect in the process. As it turned out—that was not entirely true.
While there are many respectable and business-savvy retailers in the Direct Market, the majority of them are penny-ante dabblers whose whims change with the drop of the proverbial hat with little or no business sense whatsoever.
Not savvy businessmen like me, smart enough to change our entire distribution model based on non-binding promises, and (as we shall see below) hiring both untrustworthy, and entirely too many, employees.
It's no longer a mystery to me as to why the Direct Market has been slowly shrinking into oblivion.
It’s the deluded, vain old hucksters preying on the penny-ante dabblers with promises of saleable product of glory-days quality.
And, a grim fact has to be taken into consideration in all of this: The comics industry is totally (and possibly illegally) controlled by Diamond, Marvel, DC, Wizard and Quebecor. There's a substantial amount of 'under the table' dealings occurring between these entities on a steady basis. They work closely and clandestinely to control the marketplace and unfairly squeeze out any competition.
And by willing to forget our agreements with our retailers, jump into bed with Diamond in the hopes of being “the next Marvel Comics”, we had no problem with any of this—as long as we got our share, baby. Now we can’t even afford a table to deal under.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t merely miscalculations in the Direct Market that affected Future Comics adversely.
A substantial amount of our debt was incurred through mismanagement by our financial department during the early phases of the company’s start-up. We were basically being robbed blind. Unfortunately, since those employees had name authorization with our financial accounts, none of the creditors were willing to allow us to file theft claims. When combined with lackluster sales in the Direct Market, it became readily apparent that we might be heading in the wrong direction as a business entity.
Without details, it’s hard to say much about this, other than—why do you need a financial department when you’re publishing four books? I hope he just means one accountant. I mean, come on. Did no one oversee their work? I sympathize to some extent, but this just seems like a very foolishly run venture from the get-go.
Once our eyes were opened to the mismanagement crisis, we initiated a sizable layoff of the employees in non-critical positions in January of 2003.
How many were there? Why were there any non-critical employees? Are we running a business or a social club here?
Then, on Monday, February 17 of 2003, Future Comics’ office was vandalized and our computer network infected with a virus that all but shut the company down. We discovered that thieves had broken into the complex’s externally-located electronics room, sabotaging only the equipment that allowed Future Comics to conduct its e-commerce business. Additionally, a virus was implanted into our network, shutting us entirely down for over a week. Although we had no idea who was responsible for this act of sabotage, we continued to pursue every avenue to uncover the perpetrators and prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law. In addition to the e-commerce side of Future Comics’ business being adversely affected, PDF files of our latest crop of books were corrupted beyond repair. Replacing the corrupted files delayed the launch of that month's books until late March. That meant almost two months without any income from sales, while vouchers and bills continued to pour in.
Undaunted by this chain of adversity, we rushed to get everything back to normal within the following 7-10 days and apologized to our retailers, urging them to continue doing business with us.
Unfortunately, we were never able to trace the sabotage back to the perpetrators, but it was more than likely the work of disgruntled former employees, given that the attack was 'insider specific'.
Realizing that the overall Direct Market was declining in sales every month, as well, we made the difficult decision to redirect our efforts into a more profitable market.
Comics, on average, are selling at a fraction of those mid-decade numbers.
Which he knew before Future started, surely.
When I was still freelancing, not a single editor or publisher ever asked me to take a pay cut (which I would have gladly done) in order to curb rising art & editorial costs.
Why would he have done this gladly as a freelancer? This strikes me as disingenous, especially when he would not share in the company’s success.
I’m an artist and a writer—but I’m also a businessman.
And as we’ve seen, a bad one (businessmen).
A&E is the single determining factor to the high price of comics today. It only costs about $0.22-$0.40 per copy to print the bloody things. A & E costs are simply not aligned to the percentage of sales in the comics industry. So, if readers want to be pissed off at the industry for the rising cost of a comic book, they should aim the anger where it belongs—at the Big Publishers and the inflated pages rates that their favorite artists receive.
Yeah, because all those artists are filthy rich! Greg Land eats salad made from $100 bills! That Scott McDaniel has a solid gold drawing board! They’re all rolling in it, from Jim Lee on down to Mark (Bags O’ Cash) Bagley! Let’s get them!
Future Comics announced in August of 2003 that we would be concentrating our efforts on creating mass market books and would cease publication of our regular monthly titles. It had become rather obvious that consumer tastes were gravitating towards the trade paperback format. While the Direct Market has continued to decline in 2003, mass market interest in the genre has been on the increase. We had prided ourselves on breaking new ground, whether it's self-distribution, returnability or, in this case, creating material exclusively for the mass market. Europe and Japan have embraced that format for decades and statistics clearly show that the U.S. is now heading in the same direction. In the last few years, revenues from the mass market have eclipsed that of the entire Direct Market with a 30% growth projected for 2004.
And yet, somehow, we considered our entry in the trade paperback market as breaking new ground. Of course, it’s always been this way—in the 80s Tony Stark was the first superhero with a perm.
That, and the skyrocketing costs of producing the 21 page monthly format, made our move a "no-brainer".
But we were determined to screw this up, too. Read on.
However, I made the crucial decision to return to self-distribution and a mass market format far too late in the game to prevent the company from drowning in debt. Desperately, I sought out new investors to finance our new, more austere business model. However, new funding was not found in time to initiate that plan.
Wait, whoooaaa, hoss. Hold up. Are we forgetting that trade paperbacks of the first story arcs of all four series were in fact solicited? I distinctly remember the prices being $16-$17 each, meaning for a four issue arc, each $2.99-$3.50 issue was now, sans individual cover, priced at $4.00 and up. Breaking new ground in stupidity, but still the still retailers still wouldn’t still increase their still orders.
So Future Comics was forced to close its doors for good.
Freemask, we hardly knew ye. Deathlix, Peacemind and Metalkeeper, neither.
However, there continues to be interest from Hollywood in producing feature film versions [of] the Future Comics characters. Those talks are ongoing. In fact, I’m heading back out to there next week to meet with three major studios. Hopefully, our labor of love may yet live on in an entirely different venue. Only time will tell.
I know, I know, maybe I went too far there. I’d honestly intended to just briefly summarize his letter and quickly comment on the wrongness of it, but there was just so much. I don’t have anything against Layton or Giordano or the rest of the Future Comics folks. If they manage to sell a movie option or two, good for them. My interest in this is: why does it make me so angry? Part of it’s dishonesty, as Layton clearly warps truth and logic to his own purpose as some sort of revolutionary, innovative creator and businessman beset on all sides by deceivers either malicious or easily manipulated, taking absolutely no blame for the failure of his company’s books. I see this distortion and am angered by it, but it’s no good to just be angry; you should try to figure out why? Well, anger comes from fear, right? I have an ego like anyone else. You have to, to be able to consistently give your opinion and ascribe some weight to it. And I’m embarking on some comics creation of my own. If the books fail, would I come up with a laundry list of reasons for their failure besides the most logical one: people didn’t like them, or they just didn’t look interesting enough for people to pick them up and give them a chance? As we’ve seen, some pretty good books fail all the time. Great books? Not too often. Did Layton honestly feel anything from Future was great and special and so alarmingly different it would leap off the shelf? He seems to, and that’s scary. Did he look at the comparative sales figures of the past several years for books from his contemporaries, and draw any conclusions from this? There’s only one Frank Miller, and peers like John Byrne and Walt Simonson don’t sell well anymore, and George Perez’ sales appear to be largely dependent on established superhero properties. These are just realities of the marketplace; these guys are all probably still capable of terrific work. One would think Layton, Giordano, Michelinie and the rest would have examined what books were selling; what their subject matter was; what writing and art styles were being employed; and whether anything could be learned from this. They seemed to think that they and their similarly-aged artists somehow, despite lack of commercial success for several years, knew better than the successful publishers who’d previously employed them what the marketplace wanted seems somewhat arrogant. I mean, look, it comes down to this. The great artists, the geniuses, the real influential movers and shakers, the consummate pros, etc.—they don’t make a lot of excuses. They don’t tell you they did something great and it’s someone else’s fault if they didn’t like it or didn’t buy it. They’re never satisfied with what they do. What everyone thinks is their best work, they may hate it. They don’t dwell on past glories, and they certainly don’t dwell on past failures.
Some gerunds are good: Stephen King’s The Shining; Studs Turkel’s Working; Good Will Hunting.
Some, not so good: Itching; Burning; Saving Christmas
Unfortunately, this new graphic novel belongs in the latter category. Shaffer showed real promise in the supernatural tinged con artist tale One Plus One but didn’t quite pull that together. Last Exit Before Toll had a similar problem but moreso, and now The Awakening takes off at a brisk walk away from good and never looks back.
The story, about an exclusive, religious girls boarding school suffering from a wave of mysterious murders, is more overtly supernatural this time. In fact, it seems to be a tribute of sorts to the exploitative Italian slasher films of Dario Argento and others. So, if you like to see promiscuous girls get the disembowelment they so richly deserve, this one might be for you. However, some missteps get in the way of what could at least have been entertaining exploitation, such as a confusing, distancing climax and ending, followed by a dreadful epilogue that should have been cut entirely. Worse is the scene where either Shaffer or Genovese chooses to have the comatose hot girl naked in a hospital bed. They don’t have gowns?!
Genovese isn’t a bad artist, though the choice of using uninked pencils makes the pages less dramatic. It, along with odd touches like giving the villain the name and likeness of gentle TV giant Merlin Olsen, seem like attempts to preserve a kind of indie comics cred, when what this really is, is just trash without the fun parts.
Wally Wood’s M.A.R.S. Patrol: Total War
As a comics reader of at least average historical knowledge of the medium, it’s pretty rare when a publisher collects some old classic or near-classic I’ve never even heard of, but this is one of them. Wood and his inking assistants produced just the first three issues of this Gold Key series in 1965, and neither the Batton Lash Introduction nor Adkins’ Afterword makes it clear if the succeeding creators ever brought the story to a conclusion. And it’s a shame, too, because for these three issues, Wood & Co create a tremendously tense, exciting war comic.
The “M.A.R.S.” stands for Marine Attack Rescue Service, a team of elite military specialists who take on jobs the traditional military branches can’t handle. Helpfully, they often dress in different, brightly colored costumes to differentiate themselves, like action figures. Most of the team are interchangeable white guys, with only African-American Joe Striker and Japanese-American Ken Hiro distinguishing themselves, and I don’t just mean physically. Wood lets Striker shine with quick thinking and heroism in the third issue, while underwater specialist Hiro has the most personality throughout, responding to every hint of racism with a ready fist or an ironic Confucian one-liner.
In “Total War”, the world finds itself prey to an army of invaders with brilliant plans, covert intelligence, and a willingness to die for their cause. Their bald heads, strange uniforms and crab insignia are unnerving, as is the way Wood withholds any information on who they are or what evil mastermind might be guiding them. They’re just soldiers who keep coming out of nowhere, killing civilians and military and taking what they need, be it a top-secret new jet or fuel or food. The M.A.R.S. Patrol is always there to stop them, often with clever and even brutal tactics such as flooding invader tanks trapped in a valley with thousands of gallons of burning fuel oil. No blood is shown, but it’s a very hard-edged book for 1965, though ironically language is still kept clean, with “buzzards!” substituting for “bastards!” and the like. As it’s clear the invaders are totally evil, it’s some refreshing wish fulfillment to see them get theirs in these ambiguous times.
It should be noted that the reproduction is somewhat poor, especially considering the excellent recoloring Dark Horse has afforded to the 70s Conan comics recently. This appears to be just copies of the comic books, with the panels replaced into clean white areas, as the panels themselves seem to have the grain of the original newsprint to them. Still, the original colorist(s) did well with the palette available at the time, and Wood’s work is so dynamic and detailed no amount of murky coloring can diminish it very much. This is a thrilling chunk of comics that probably would have been undisputed classics if Wood had been able to tell the whole story to its conclusion.
Star Wars: Panel To Panel
Dark Horse has been publishing licensed Star Wars comics since 1991, both original and adapted stories, from some fine writers and a wealth of good artists. This volume is not really an attempt to examine the history and chronology of the comics, nor does it try to cover the various creators and their approaches to the work. It’s really just a coffee table book much like the Art of Star Wars books published by Topps, with a lot of artwork divided into chapters for Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, bad guys, etc. Randy Stradley provides the little amount of text available, and it’s informative if not particularly insightful. Still, the artwork—mostly covers or large single panels rather than sequential work—is attractive and well-chosen, featuring expected artists like Dave Dorman, Drew Struzan, Huge Fleming and others. It should satisfy non-comics fans who find it in bookstores and like fresh images of their favorite characters, but there’s nothing to really then draw them to the comics themselves. Those who are familiar with the comics will like having the best art all in one volume, on glossy paper, and the book doesn’t really need to be anything more than this.
The Dark Gate
Brett Ewins is an artist better-known in his native England than across the pond here, though recently his work with Peter Milligan on Skreemer and the earlier Bad Company has been collected. Perhaps for that reason, Cyberosia has released this anthology of six stories Ewins drew, one of which he also wrote. The striking cover aside, the most interesting aspect of this book is its history. It began as a way for the artist to work through a breakdown that left him unable to take any assignments that had a deadline. Close friends, one of whom was not even a comics writer, contributed stories to him which he completed over the course of eight years.
As dramatic as that is, one would have expected a lot more from the results, both in story and art. Milligan leads off with an enjoyable, jokey sci-fi story perfectly in keeping with the ironic two-page “Future Shocks” stories for 2000 A.D., but it’s no better than average for those. Ewins draws in a more detailed style here than elsewhere, and his designs are good, but the reproduction is rather flat and faded. As we see later, the entire book, aside from the last story, appears to be taken from rather faded photocopies, and the blacks are never as dark and vibrant as they should be.
“A Whitehouse Dream” is just that, a dream writer Michael White had that he recounted to Ewins. It’s silent and makes little literal sense, but despite Ewins using his flatter, more basic art style, it’s one of the more interesting pieces in the book. Cici Roman’s “Gamma 14” is an odd bit of race relations science fiction, successful in its first couple pages as a twist ending reveals two fighting Caucasians to be part of an experiment conducted by Blacks, a neat reversal of the shameful Tuskegee chapter in American history. After that the story goes nowhere, seeming to become the elliptical prologue to a series we’ll never see. Ewins draws this one like a less lascivious Paul Gulacy. “Tales of Sun Tzu: The King’s Concubines” tells an apocryphal tale of the legendary The Art of War author’s training of the king’s concubines into a skilled army to keep favor with the king. Despite an interesting premise, there seems to be no point to the story, other than “don’t train an army unless you’re prepared to use them against another army”, which is a little less than inspirational, though quite keeping with Sun Tzu’s teachings. Alan Grant’s “I Reached Beyond Democracy for the Glory of the Stars” is a nigh-incomprehensible bit of agit-props, hampered further by the use of Photostats, which makes the already copied art one more step removed from attractive. Ewins finishes pretty strongly with “Machine”, about a man conditioned by invisible forces to become a drug addict, a self-destructive, suicidal failure, apparently an allegory for his own inner turmoil. The art is again in the crude style employed in much of his work, but at least there’s some real emotion in this one. Overall, though, the poor reproduction alone should have kept this one from being published, at least at the $9.95 price.
Review copies may be sent to me at:
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