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The Conversation: Part Two
ADD: A friend recently gave me a huge amount -- probably at least $200.00 retail -- of CrossGen comics and trade paperbacks (I hesitate to call them "graphic novels") for free, for my daughter. He knew that she had enjoyed a few of their titles, and he told me that he didn't think he could sell them on eBay because no one would be interested now that the company has all but disappeared from the face of the planet.
Now, CrossGen sent me comps of virtually everything they published for the entirety of their existence. I'd estimate that 90-95 percent of their floppy, monthly comics and trade paperbacks ended up in my mailbox over the course of the company's run, and every month when that gigantic envelope would arrive, I would dutifully give everything at least a look. A few titles were of sufficient quality for me to follow them, including Route 666 and most notably Ruse by Mark Waid, Butch Guice, and the sublimely talented Laura Martin. Ruse, I submit to you, was the only true title of exceptional quality in the whole of CrossGen's lifespan.
So of course, they screwed that one up; Mark Waid left under obviously less-than-optimum circumstances, and the title immediately -- immediately -- joined the rest of the relentlessly competent CrossGen line in being something that I really just didn't want to read very much.
CA: I seem to remember Scott Beatty's first Ruse being actually pretty bad in comparison to Waid's work, but yeah, it quickly rose to be an okay enough book, with one big difference I remember being that Waid actually wrote little mysteries, while Beatty did more of a period crime book with a lot of coincidence. I didn't mind Waid's and Epting's Crux, either, and even his Sigil was fair for a less-than-inspired premise he inherited.
ADD: My reservations about the quality of CrossGen's work were fairly immediate. My first, vivid memory of the company's comics was on a day in 2000 when I had received a glossy, extensive promotional kit from them and brought it along to look at while my car was getting worked on. In addition to press releases (including one that went into bizarre detail about the design of the "the compound," the company property in Florida where the creators were required to work), there were preview copies of the four debut titles: Mystic, Meridian, Sigil and Scion. I was intrigued by Meridian's art (by Joshua Middleton, who didn't last long under the company's unusual structure and left under less-than-elegant circumstances), but the other titles more or less left me cold, being a blend of fantasy and science fiction and not evincing anything more than a baseline competence; and Mystic, perhaps not even that.
The biggest problem with the books -- made even more immediate a few weeks later when the first issue of CrossGen Chronicles (or whatever it was called -- the company's first real release, anyway) came out and featured a bland mishmash of cosmic comics cliches that hinted at the vast universe of mediocrity to come.
I was impressed by the production values of the books, and it was clear a lot of money was being spent here, but the most important thing about a new comic (or any form of art-slash-entertainment) is that there be some creative energy at work, some life to the material that suggests to readers that the creators are in full command of their craft and have an unpredictible, exciting journey planned for their characters (and readers). Looking back, it was pretty obvious from the very beginning that that wasn't going to happen.
CA: I didn't read any CrossGen titles when they first came out, as none of the concepts or creators interested me. I didn't know the young artists, Barbara Kesel and Ron Marz had never done anything for me, and George Perez was stuck in some expensive showcase title (the aforementioned Chronicles) that required that one read the other books it tied into to fully enjoy it. And, let's face it, some of the titles were squarely aimed at teen girls, not big he-men like me.
ADD: I've discussed with you privately, Chris, and a few other people over the past few years my personal theory about CrossGen and how they picked their writers and artists. It seemed almost from the very beginning, and was certainly confirmed by virtually all of their later hires, that they looked to the "mainstream" corporate comics companies and tried to discern who were the competent craftspeople working there who could be lured by promises of better money and more job security and benefits into a strange working environment that, while seeming cult-like to an outside observer, probably would fulfill the company's goal of creating some sort of creative fusion that would result in these competent craftspeople doing better work than they had done for Marvel and DC.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the actual artists the company ever seemed to employ -- folks with a spark of genuine creativity like Joshua Middleton, Mark Waid, George Perez or Laura Martin. Interesting, too, that frequently these relationships seemed the most volatile and subject to breakdown (Middleton, Waid). It was becoming clear that CrossGen and its chief Mark Alessi needed compliant craftspeople to fulfill his dream and make his company into what he considered a success.
For the most part, though, the books were crafted by people whose work for the corporate companies was rarely anything more than competent, and more often was just plain fodder for the corporate comics shelfwars. Ron Marz. Chuck Dixon. And. All. Those. Competent. Artists.
CA: I don't really know CrossGen Publisher Mark Alessi's story -- he was a young dotcom millionaire or something? But I don't really fault his game plan. Like an expansion sports team in their first year of play, he tried to fill the roster with experienced veterans who would guide the young rookies. The rookies -- the artists -- would work cheap and, being kept on a short leash with the "compound" and having to do their art inside it, would work their hearts out. The veteran writers Kesel and Marz had plenty of experience in meeting deadlines and working on company-owned characters, and probably were very happy at getting health benefits and having their own offices and all that, with the added bonus for Alessi that neither writer had much pull in the industry at this point and would follow orders without squawking.
The thing is, though, these were not big enough names to guarantee sales, and nice production values and Alessi's big mouth could only buy so much attention. Alessi's team needed a veteran who could actually move some comics...enter Mark Waid. Waid was a good choice in that he was still nursing the wounds of being spurned by DC with his Superman revamp idea with Grant Morrison, and his creator-owned stuff under the Gorilla imprint had cost him a lot of money. He came to CrossGen with what appeared to be a great deal of enthusiasm and ideas -- was Ruse his own creation?
ADD: I don't know for sure, but I think the biggest thing the title had going for it -- other than gorgeous, career-redefining artwork from Butch Guide and the incredible colours of Laura Martin -- was the fact that Waid virtually ignored the entire Sigil premise that the rest of the line at that time was tied in to. You didn't have to read any of the other books to appreciate Ruse, and in fact, your appreciation was probably increased based on how much of the other books you weren't reading.
CA: When I got on the CrossGen comp list after many months in business, it was kind of fun at first. It's always nice to get mail. And, eager to please as I was at the time, I caught up on some of their series, reading the first year of the Kesel/Bart Sears book The First within a week, along with the Kesel/Scott Eaton Sigil book. Those and subsequent series let me know the big problem with CrossGen. No, I don't mean the fact that almost every book was shackled to this "sigil" idea and the dread-filled promise of a multi-title crossover "war", nor do I mean Alessi's ego leading him into the disastrous idea of pumping out way too many titles rather than growing a few successful ones first. Those were big problems, yes, but surmountable ones...if the books were really good. That's where the armchair quarterbacking and analysis fails--these were not great books, and they really had to be, in order to grab a significant piece of Marvel/DC/Image/Dark Horse/Tokyopop/Viz market share. If it was a decade earlier, maybe starting a company with some cool artists like Greg Land and Butch Guice and some veteran writers would have been enough -- Image did well with superstar artists and scripts generated by a Commodore 64 nicknamed "Brandon Choi"--but the consumer today is just a little bit wiser and comics quite a bit more expensive.
ADD: I don't think that the timing made that much of a difference; I think more that, at the core of the CrossGen universe, there was never an exciting concept that could fire up the imagination of readers and get them immersed in the line. I don't think that's necessary -- or even desirable -- when starting a new line of comics. I think it's much, much more important to start with a core group of creative writers and artists who are bringing a myriad of ideas to the table and are truly excited about the opportunity to tell their stories, their way. Instead, with CrossGen, right out of the gate, you got a line of comics that seemed for all the world like they were created by a group of creators really excited about the possibility of good health care coverage and a regular income. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course, but that was the only passion I could see evident in 95 percent of the CrossGen comics I ever read throughout the entirety of the company's functional publishing existence. The best corporate comics combine art and commerce -- just to evoke Moore and Morrison, again -- and CrossGen was all commerce and virtually no art, just mostly solid, reliable craft that did not excite and will not endure.
I think about what some of the most artistically successful corporate comics creators gave to the companies they worked for -- Grant Morrison's Xorn, Beak and Angel, Frank Miller's Elektra, which had been an idea he'd had long before coming to Marvel, or Alan Moore's John Constantine. All of these were fresh, new characters introduced into existing franchises and reinvigorating in most cases the entire company with the artistic synergy they created. I'm trying to think of what comparable characters a Ron Marz or Chuck Dixon introduced while at CrossGen, and all I keep coming back to is that fucking monkey Po-Po, in Way of the Rat.
CA: Well, I know he was a talking monkey, but I bailed out of that book before he got down to the fucking.
Now, I think you're getting at the problem with CrossGen here. The insidious nature of most of the CrossGen books -- and lots of Marvels, DCs and Image titles as well (and let's throw in a heaping helping of Dark Horse's Star Wars line and all of the Rocket Comics imprint) is not that they're garbage, but that they're competent. Good covers at times, some nice paper stock here and there, and lots of creators you've heard of and liked on other things, but just...competent. Mediocre. Uninspired. Listless. Lackluster. Filling a slot. Paying the bills. Punching the clock. Pencils in the acoustic tile. Tie me kangaroo down. How many of the tales in Star Wars Tales represent something the author was just itching to get out of his system? Any? With all the Kesel and Marz and Chuck Dixon stories I read, I felt like there was this three card monte game going on, this sort of attractive and vague promise that the characters might actually get somewhere and accomplish something, and it just didn't happen. The same can be said of most company-owned properties, I admit, but if the books are fun, it doesn't matter. I hate when readers and critics try to get inside the head of creators, and decide how much effort was put in, so I won't do that.
ADD: Oh, I absolutely think most of them were doing the very best they could, and as I mentioned earlier, actually doing better work in many cases than they previously had been doing at Marvel and DC.
CA: These guys and gals may have done everything in their power to make these books good, and certainly there is evidence that the structure and sigil mandate from Alessi and cohort Gina Villa may have been an impediment. But the fact is, these books weren't good enough, by and large. I can see Ruse getting sold off and turning into something again, maybe, but nearly all the other books are going to be forgotten quickly, with only Alessi's hubris and folly remembered. I don't think Comic Book Artist or Back Issue will do a loving look back the way they have for quirky failed lines like Tower Comics or Charlton. No Wally Woods or Steve Ditkos graced CrossGen, and the one writer of wit and verve they had, they pissed off.
ADD: In the end, I don't think the loss of CrossGen hurts the artform a bit, as it eliminates just one more source of mediocre shelf-fillers from the direct market. I don't think, in the long run, that the industry is hurt, either, because Alessi's wanna-be empire seems to have been built on an extremely weak foundation and when a crisis was upon him and everything he built, instead of being honest with his staff -- many of whom he'd lured across the country to suit his whim -- creators have alleged he lied about when people could expect to be paid and went to the comics press to imply that the creators were to blame for his problems, telling Newsarama "If they had enough courage to come forward -- which was really blackmail -- they should have the courage to tell the whole story...They weren't protecting anyone, they were blackmailing."
It's astonishing that Alessi would actually accuse his creators of a crime, but there it is. His public petulance and the bunker mentality that it hinted at showed that at its heart, CrossGen wasn't the creative cooperative he wanted readers to believe it was. No, it was the vision of one rich man with an enthusiasm for comics but little imagination except when it came to creating excuses for why people weren't getting paid. It was the vision of a guy who then went on to publish books by creators who hadn't been paid, which is pretty loathsome in my book. I don't think The industry is hurt by CrossGen's loss, because we already have plenty of publishers like that, and what's one more, more or less?