I’ve raised up some reasons as underreported and dismissed others as false. But I think that the single biggest reason CrossGen failed is its broken promises. The company could have struggled through the industry realities. The fans would have forgiven some of the failed business innovations. But nothing soured working professionals, aspiring professionals or fans more than Mark Alessi’s lies.
Before I go any further, I want clarify what I’m talking about. Just as you can’t publish a book that will please everyone (even the number one seller has its detractors), you can’t run a company and please everyone. Every company has a few artists mad at its editors and threatening never to work there again. And every company will have aspiring professionals resent them for not giving them the break they feel they deserve. Not everyone who has become angry with CrossGen does so with the same righteous indignation.
But even as I give myself that out, CrossGen broke promises that it made to its employees and to its fans. And those broken promises doomed that company.
CrossGen had promised to respect its creators and it failed. CrossGen offered many lures to entice artists to move to Tampa. Some of those lures turned out to be illusions. Because CrossGen never officially turned a profit, the employees never received the promised benefit of profit sharing. Drew Geraci has reported that he still receives royalties from DC for his work on JLA and Nightwing, but nothing from CrossGen despite working on Sojourn, their best-selling book. Whatever profits the comics may have created were immediately redirected into the other risky business ventures. Another lure that turned out to be false was the promise of a retirement plan. The plan was never created and the employees feel rightly cheated out of another one of their benefits.
Even outside of these financial concerns, creators felt they weren’t receiving the respect they were promised. Mark Waid had been promised flexible hours and the privilege of working at home where there would be fewer distractions. Those perks were reneged shortly after Waid joined the company. As the result of those and other instances, Mark Waid described his tenure at CrossGen as “like being punched in the gut everyday.” Other creators describe favoritism and browbeating that made them feel less important than the furniture instead of the cream of the business as Mark Alessi would brag to outsiders.
It’s not easy to document or prove favoritism, but it is clear that CrossGen had a double standard when it came to paid staff and freelancers. It’s hard to fault a company for siding with their own, but this double standard would come back to haunt them. The two most documented cases involve Mark Waid and Robin Riggs. Although Mark Waid had left the company’s staff, he stayed on as a freelance writer for the mystery title Ruse. After several months, Waid abruptly quit that title as well. There was much speculation about a falling-out between the two Marks and little information because of the non-compete clause. But months later, the truth leaked out. Mark Waid was upset because penciller Butch Guice was changing his plots, including those that were supposed to be forwarded to guest penciller Paul Ryan. Waid wouldn’t stand for the interference. Alessi chose to stand with his own. Fans chose to stand with Mark Waid. Even though it was a creator-vs.-creator issue and not a creator-vs.-publisher issue, CrossGen’s reputation as the creator friendly company was damaged.
The next major incident involved freelance inker Robin Riggs. Andy Smith, who had previously been the inker on The First had been promoted to that series penciller. CrossGen didn’t have a staff inker ready to replace Smith so they contracted Riggs to ink that particular title. After inking only a couple of pages, Riggs was abruptly fired. He was given no reason. Apparently, Andy Smith didn’t like Riggs’ inks. Again, CrossGen understandably sided with their own, but this time the fallout was much worse.
The incident with Robin Riggs occurred in the spring of 2003. That was the same time that CrossGen first failed to pay some of its contributors- including Riggs. Since Riggs already felt mistreated, he began to contact other inkers to warn them of CrossGen’s non-payment. Riggs has said that he was only trying to protect others but whatever his intentions the warnings became public. Riggs found himself at the center of a firestorm.
Despite the horrible things that have been said and written about Riggs, it turns out that he was right. CrossGen had expanded too rapidly and among other things, had tied up too much money in their failed trade paperback venture. They were woefully short on cash. Their non-payment of Robin Riggs was only the tip of the iceberg. By the end of the summer, CrossGen admitted that they owed money to more than 60 different creators. And some of those creators were freelancers who had signed contracts months after CrossGen had failed to pay Riggs.
At this point, it’s appropriate to look back at CrossGen’s financial situation. It has now been established that CrossGen missed payments as early as March of 2003. In order for them to have sunk to that point, they had to have been losing money for several months before that. Since CrossGen had debuted its key issue program only five months earlier, it is reasonable to speculate that the key issues were begun in response to either actual losses or foreseen losses. In other words, CrossGen had known for months that they were running out of money. And rather than cut titles and stem those losses, CrossGen tried to bolster their lowest selling titles with key issues. Instead, CrossGen carried on with business as usual until they finally missed a payment to someone with more clout than an inker: the company that printed their comics, Quebecor.
I didn’t mean to digress into such a history lesson. But I think that the series of events most clearly establishes that CrossGen broke its promise of respecting creators. Since fans tend to side with the creators in any creator-company controversy that broken promise led directly to a loss in sales and yes, profits.
CrossGen had also promised that it would respect its fans. And indeed, the company delivered on that promise in some very visible ways. CrossGen sent sizable delegations to all of the major conventions. And CrossGen prided itself on its accessibility at those conventions. Indeed, fans used to compare stories about meeting CrossGen staff. CrossGen also maintained a company message board in which fans and creators alike could converse.
But the promise to respect the fans was broken just as irreparably as the promise to respect creators. When CrossGen experienced its financial crisis, fans were not only left out of the loop, they were outright lied to. When Quebecor stopped printing CrossGen comics because of money owed, CrossGen told fans that the delay was due to a computer glitch. Some fans felt jilted by a company that was open and honest only when things were going well.
The lies however didn’t stop even after the immediate crisis was averted. Sojourn wasn’t cancelled because of low sales; it was still CrossGen’s highest selling title. Sojourn was cancelled because the title didn’t have a writer after both Ian Edginton and Bill Rosemann left the company. Fans quickly recognized that “on hiatus” meant “cancelled.” And fans quickly grew tired of the lies.
Even at the end of last summer, this tragedy could have been averted with fan support. The fans have shown that, despite their brand loyalty, they do want every company to succeed. In the last couple of years, fans have helped Fantagraphics and other companies stay in business. Fantagraphics for example had told fans that it needed $10,000 to meet bills that had come due. Their online store did over $20,000 in sales within two weeks.
Fans were ready to lend similar support to CrossGen but CrossGen never asked. Some of those who had previously been hostile to the company had softened now that the company was humbled. And even if CrossGen wouldn’t ask for help, their fans would again lead the charge. Many fans encouraged others to buy CrossGen products. I know of several stores that restocked CrossGen trades and travelers at that time. And the numbers show that CrossGen’s prospects increased despite missing an entire month.
After missing a month, sales went up on Meridian, Negation, Sojourn and Lady Death. Sojourn increased its sales for three consecutive months, gaining 900 issues over its earlier numbers. Other titles, like Mystic and The First experienced their smallest decreases since their key issues. The rate of decline for most issues was halved. And the month after their financial setbacks were made public, CrossGen experienced their greatest success. Reorders pushed the sales on El Cazador #1 past 25,000 making it CrossGen’s second highest debut. And unlike their previous record-maker, El Cazador was well-received and lost only 5% of its sales by the third issue.
All of these numbers show that the fans weren’t ready to abandon CrossGen in September and October of 2003. But all of this good will evaporated. When CrossGen finally admitted that they were experiencing a financial bind, Mark Alessi promised that all creators would receive full payment by an October 1st deadline. Although the promise was met with some skepticism, most fans were willing to believe and to do their part to make sure these creators got their due.
CrossGen missed the deadline. A deadline they had created. And it’s my opinion that once they missed that deadline, CrossGen was no longer viable as an entertainment company. We didn’t necessarily know it at the time, but it is now obvious that the missed deadline was their last mistake. They could make no more reassurances that would be believed. And when the missed deadline became public, fans withdrew their support. El Cazador experienced a sharp decline beginning in November. Over the next four months, Sojourn lost all of its gains and more. CrossGen’s new titles received critical success but that was about it. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Abadazad were CrossGen’s third and fourth lowest selling debuts (beating out only DemonWars and CrossOvers). A new number one for Lady Death gained only 1500 readers which left it well shy of its October numbers. Negation may have brought good news when its restart as Negation War gave it a 5000 reader boost, but that still left the total below both Lady Death and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
It should now be obvious that CrossGen just doesn’t have the fan support to be a profitable publishing company. If they were fighting an uphill battle when they first set out, they are now trying to climb a mountain. And they have disillusioned and disappointed too many to rebuild their company with the same word-of-mouth support that had them nipping at the heels of Dark Horse and Image. CrossGen lost money when they over-committed to new publishing models, but they lost their fan base when they repeatedly broke their promises to creators and to the fans.
I’ve tried to be as comprehensive as I can, but I still feel like there are things I barely touched upon or only alluded to. Some of those things have been described by others-like the role chasing after Premier Retailer status played in CrossGen’s over-expansion, or moving two of their most-established artists into predominantly administrative roles- but the rest will have to go unsaid for now. I’ve said my piece.