One of the reasons that so many in the industry embraced CrossGen was its innovations. CrossGen tried new things. Industry pundits had been prophesying the need for experimentation and CrossGen fit the bill. Unfortunately, almost all of those innovations backfired.
The biggest disaster can be attributed directly to CrossGen’s vision. Early on, Mark Alessi said that CrossGen was going to make their books available in a wide variety of formats. He compared comics to Coca-Cola. Coke is available in bottles, cans, two-liters and fountain dispensers. If you want your Coke a certain way, they’ll sell it to you that way. CrossGen was going to do for comics what Coke had done for soft drinks.
CrossGen published monthly comics. They were the first to introduce a total trade-paperback program, collecting every issue of every series. They re-introduced the anthology to the North American market. It was a widely successful format in Japan and many were clamoring for its inclusion over here. CrossGen also introduced Comics on the Web. Up to that point, there were print publishers and web publishers, but the two were never the same. And before too long, CrossGen began working on the technology needed to create comics on DVD or CD-Rom.
The plan sounded beautiful. It is certainly one of the reasons that so many others attached themselves to the company. But the plan was missing one key component. Coke didn’t start by selling their product in a dozen different manners. They started selling it one way. When that way proved to be successful (by which I mean profitable), Coke expanded to another method. CrossGen didn’t wait for its profits to catch up to its plans. Instead, each new initiative was launched before the results of the previous could be determined. The result is that CrossGen always had a lot of money tied up in their next scheme. If any scheme didn’t pan out, the company would suffer. If none of the schemes panned out, well, you know what happened.
The monthly comics were profitable. Not hugely profitable, and maybe not enough to offset the huge salary expenditures but they all started by making money. The same can not be said for CrossGen’s other ventures.
We’ll start with the trade paperback program. The trade program was a great way to augment the sales of the monthly titles and defray the creative costs. There is a reason why more and more titles are being collected as trade paperbacks. But CrossGen looked at its trade program as more than a secondary source of income. For several years, industry observers had been pointing to the bookstore market as the new place to sell comics. The comics specialty store was a dying breed (which was true, the number of comics stores halved between 1995 and 2000). For the industry to survive, it would have to reach a new audience and that new audience could be found in bookstores. Mark Alessi made CrossGen the first company to pursue that bookstore market. What the industry observers hadn’t said was that the bookstore market of the 2000s carried the same risks as the newsstand market of the 1970s.
Comics specialty stores had been appealing to comics publishers because it was a direct market. The stores bought the comics directly from the publisher and then tried to sell them to the customer. Whether the books were sold or not, the publisher got the money. That wasn’t true of the newsstand. Those outlets had returnable arrangements with comics publishers. If a newsstand couldn’t sell a comic, it could return it and get back its money. Since comics had a small profit margin for newsstands compared to magazines like Time, newsstands paid little attention to comic books. People who were in the industry in the ‘70s can tell of horror stories of unsold boxes being returned to publishers and crates of unopened comics sitting on loading docks. The direct market was a safe harbor in a harsh world.
The bookstore, like the newsstand, was a returnable market. If the store didn’t sell the material, it could send it back. Furthermore, the bookstore had no vested interest in the survival of the comics industry. The stores were naturally concerned only with their own profits. CrossGen printed thousands of trade paperbacks for bookstores. They tried to partner with major chains like Barnes and Noble. They created “cascades” in order to better display their product. But it didn’t work. The sad truth about the bookstore market is that it is not receptive to comic books. Only six properties sell in bookstores: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, Star Wars and manga. CrossGen didn’t fit any of those categories. There are horror stories of entire shipments being returned. There are much documented examples of bookstores offering the trades at 2 for 1 or worse. CrossGen took a bath in the bookstores. They tied up thousands of dollars of capital in something they couldn’t sell.
To be fair, CrossGen was not the only victim of the bookstore enthusiasm. Marvel had also turned to bookstores as the way of the future. Marvel did happen to have two of the sellable properties so they weren’t hit as hard, and as a major corporation, Marvel was in a better position to absorb the losses, but make no mistake about it, Marvel’s bookstore failure was one the chief reasons Bill Jemas lost his job. Oh, and also to be fair, many within the industry are ignoring the tremendous setbacks for both CrossGen and Marvel and still proclaim the bookstore as the future of comics.
The other format innovations make for less spectacular stories but were equally unprofitable. CrossGen tried to make a go of their two anthologies, and at one point they announced a third, but the sales were so low that CG was losing $40,000 per issue. Comics on the Web was probably too ambitious. The monthly titles needed all of the sales help they could get. If only a couple thousand people chose to spend $1 to read the comics on the internet instead of from a hard copy, the monthly titles would drop into unprofitabitilty. The low profit margin of Comics on the Web couldn’t offset those other gains. This is one venture that other publishers have learned from. There’s no good reason to offer all of your comics online. Instead it’s wiser to offer some of the comics online for free in order to entice people to buy the product. Marvel now does this with 8-page previews. Image offers the entire first issue of most series. CrossGen would have been better served by offering only the first issues of series or story arcs and not the entire library.
And finally, there just wasn’t the market for comics on DVD. Again, Marvel tried to follow CrossGen into these uncharted waters (as a sidenote, I find it amusing that the company that was so publicly hostile to CrossGen was the one that also imitated many of their innovations) but again the sales weren’t there. As had happened with their trade paperbacks, stores were eventually offering the DVDs at half price.
The dream sounded good, but rather than expanding their market and increasing their profits, almost every venture ended up costing CrossGen money. Even if the monthly titles were profitable (which has been debated), it would be next to impossible for them to offset losses in so many categories. And just as the phrase “too much too fast” has been used to describe the number of CrossGen titles, the same phrase could apply equally to the number of CrossGen formats. That latter reason for CrossGen’s failure is rarely forwarded. Too many people liked the idea of the anthology and the DVD even if they didn’t buy them. And many still refuse to admit that these innovations contributed to CrossGen’s demise when they were predicted to save the industry.
That’s the big innovation, but it’s not the only one. And many of the others didn’t backfire. CrossGen astutely copied their Italian license-holder by introducing a smaller trade paperback. CrossGen called them travelers. The smaller edition meant that CrossGen laid out less money upfront. It also meant they cost less in the stores which enticed more readers to buy them. The travelers were a profitable idea. And the idea was again copied. Marvel used a traveler-sized trade for their Tsunami titles. Dark Horse has now used it for SpyBoy and other independents like About Comics have used it to resurrect older titles like The Liberty Project. Unfortunately for CrossGen, the profitable travelers couldn’t offset so many other losses.
Despite its many failings, CrossGen does deserve credit for its innovations. One of the most-widely discussed innovation was the reintroduction of the studio system.
Earlier, in the section on Industry Realities, we looked at many of the benefits that CrossGen offered to their employees. We didn’t however look at the requirements. Some of those requirements have been ridiculed, like the personal hygiene clause, and some have been scorned, like the non-compete and non-disclosure clauses. But one requirement would generate more discussion, both pro and con, than any other.
CrossGen required all of its employees to move to the Tampa Bay area and work in one big studio (sometimes called the compound). Critics derided the requirement. They claimed that CrossGen was unnecessarily restricting its talent pool. One of the most vocal critics was Mark Millar, who was then writing comics for Marvel as well as an online column. Millar interviewed Mark Alessi and attacked him for not providing a forum for freelancers like himself. Alessi defended CrossGen by describing their creator-owned imprint Code 6 but Millar didn’t let up.
But despite the criticisms, CrossGen’s studio system was remarkably successful. The artists who worked at CrossGen made tremendous improvements in their art. That last statement deserves some explanation because it is a bone of contention. There are a few who preferred a given artists’ work prior to his participation at CrossGen. And so there are a few who would argue that point. However, the evidence and the majority opinion would support it. Yet some of those who debate this point deserve to be heard: the artists themselves. Some of the artists felt that the studio was getting the credit for their work. The studio didn’t draw those pages. The building didn’t put ink to paper. Scot Eaton, an artist who left CrossGen before the company’s financial collapse, is one to argue this point. According to Eaton, the credit to the company overwhelmed the credit to the artists, the ones who earned it.
The artists do deserve the credit. They do deserve the fan following they now have. And the effect of the studio may have been overstated. But it did exist. The artists did improve, and again there are multiple reasons. One reason that many of the artists cite is that they worked hard at improving. Along with the self-motivation, another reason may have been the company-provided motivation of profit sharing. The artists had a reason to work harder. They had a reason to want to see the company succeed. Another reason may have been the stability that the company provided. Quite a few of the artists hadn’t been able to find consistent work. CrossGen gave some of those artists the opportunity to work regularly, and their work improved as a natural result.
And one reason was indeed the studio system. Eaton has complained that neither Andrew Hennessy nor Andrew Crossley, his inker and colorist on Sigil, needed him looking over their shoulder. And there were some definite drawbacks. But others who worked at CrossGen said that the feedback from the different members of the art team had a tremendous effect on their art. And many of the artists claim that they were helped by the presence of others in their field. During CrossGen’s heyday, the artists would hang their finished work on the outside of their cubicles for others to admire. It wasn’t long before the artists were competing with one another: no one wanted to hang up substandard art. I’ve heard this process described as insidious and if it was a company mandate I may have agreed. But it was initiated by the artists themselves and a little bit of healthy competition isn’t a bad thing. It most likely helped Bernie Wrightson and Mike Kaluta to be a part of “The Studio” in the 1970s. And it’s beneficial to artists like Adam Hughes and Drew Johnson to work in studios now (or so they claim).
I think that’s enough on the studio. This is after all, an article on what went wrong not on what went right. However, this discussion of the studio system and particularly the antipathy that some artists now show towards it leads us right into our final category.