Comic Book Entrepreneur at the Dawn of the Indie Age
As the Seventies stumbled to a close, I found myself at a Ramones concert just before Christmas with an ascendant case of the flu, which my girlfriend attempted to nurse with a few tiny tiny spoonfuls of cocaine. Never liked that awful stuff too much, the flu had it's way with me, yet somehow I survived the show and made it through the next week and a half to the Eighties with my newly minted Bachelor of Fine Arts degree (and perhaps enough money to last two weeks if I stuck to beans & rice).
This was something of a comedown from where I'd parked my psychological living space for my undergraduate years. Fact is, getting my art degree (with a focus on painting) was a bit of a dodge, a pleasant enough way to be “going to college” while I pursued my real education, which was comprised of writing & drawing a daily comic strip for the school newspaper. The Massachusetts Daily Collegian offered four or five much coveted slots to students to work out their chops on the comics page. By my second semester, I talked my way into grabbing a spot there, and held it for the next four years until graduating.
Luckily, my strip Aluminum Foil captured the zeitgeist of the moment, and the strip was widely appreciated at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, a diploma factory of gargantuan proportions, that once earned the dubious distinction of being Playboy magazine's party school of the year. Aluminum Foil chronicled the adventures of Gerald (a stoner foilhead/everyman) and his sidekick Benb (a dapper, overweight, mute smiling scarecrow).
The highlight of the UMass social calendar was of course Halloween. At UMass in the late Seventies, Halloween was nothing less than a weekend long, full on psychedelic pagan bacchanal. Hordes of tripping, costumed students would converge on the concourse of the campus center building for a convivial mass celebration of All Hallows Eve. It was something to behold, especially for me, as many of the party goers would be dressed as Benb & Gerald (Gerald in particular being the easy costume—just fashion a helmet of Aluminum Foil, poke some eye holes in it, roll a fat doobie for a prop, and there you are!).
Which brings us back to January 1980. There I am, ego inflated beyond all reasonable proportion after four years of basking in the glow of the successful run of comics, with barely enough money for a six pack of beer. What to do? I tried a standard forty hour job for all of six weeks, working on the loading dock of a down market department store for minimum wage. This was depressing (in the dead of a freezing ass cold western Massachusetts winter, no less), and the final straw came when the boss instructed me to drown a cute little mole that had invaded the warm store during one particularly nasty freeze. Not willing to whack a mole for minimum wage, I released the little guy into the frozen tundra and resigned.
Having some experience with screen printing T Shirts, I started freelancing wholesale shirt jobs (always a popular product when it's twenty degrees outside!). This took care of keeping food in my belly and a roof overhead, but how to sweep the world of cartooning with my (obviously) unparalleled genius?!
In retrospect, it's clear to me now that I came pre-installed with the “publishing gene”. This is a genetic quirk whereby an artist or writer can (by some mysterious alchemy) justify shoveling pots and pots of money into the never ending project of publishing their precious works. To say I was burning up to get started in the field is an understatement. It was pretty much all I could think about.
I'd managed to save $150.00 from my heroic efforts on the loading dock. Armed with the idea of collecting the best of my college strips into a one hundred page volume, I dropped by a local printer to get an estimate on having books produced. Turns out they wanted nine hundred bucks to do a run of five hundred, a bit beyond my means. Just about then, an important adjunct to the publisher gene kicked in, and I became a financier as well.
Turns out one of my housemates, Betsy Hilborn, an amiable, fun loving & somewhat cynical nursing student, has been listening to me chatter about my plans and offered to pony up most of the funds for my initial publishing effort. So with $600.00 from Betsy, my paltry $150.00 is savings and another $150.00 coaxed out of my dubious parents, I threw my hat into the ring as a comics publisher.
I had penned some four hundred plus daily strips during the run of Aluminum Foil. I figured I'd publish them over two volumes, with the first one hundred page volume featuring two strips per page. I hauled my strips down to the print shop, and within a couple weeks I had five hundred copies of Benb & Gerald in hand!
Although I was a completely naive amateur, I left no stone unturned over the next several weeks in an effort to sell the books. As I'd promised Betsy that I would pay her back within a couple months, I sprung into action like a man sitting on a hot stove—I was determined to be as good as my word.
The first step was to stage a publishing party. It was my good fortune to be friends with Carl Mayfield, lead guitarist and vocalist for Martian Highway, a local party band with a strong following. Carl was an accomplished illustrator as well, and we jammed on an 11” x 17” poster for a Martian Highway gig that would double as a costume ball / publishing party.
Given the tenor of the times, Carl hit on the clever idea that we would print the poster in silver ink on black paper. Why? To make it look like a giant hit of blotter acid, of course! Sitting down with our drawing gear and a stack of late Seventies punk rock and Grateful Dead records (go figure), we created a gorgeous drawing featuring Benb & Gerald driving a late model Ford with an electric, glowing Martian in the back seat. Carl added the requisite typography, and we scribbled a manic cast of characters over every square inch of the art, including the first image of my future lead character, Dog Boy (although I did not name him in this drawing, the fully formed image was there).
One wag suggested that we were quite bold to produce a silver on black poster that was “virtually unreadable”; I had no problem reading the poster myself! We papered the UMass campus and local towns with the poster. It stood out like a beacon to those in the know, and the party was well attended by costumed, tripping revelers.
Green kid that I was, I felt disappointment with selling 33 books at the party, and another 40 or so from my prepublication advertising and marketing. In retrospect, I recognize that it was a pretty good first day as a small time publisher, making a nice dent in the money I owed Betsy. The following month saw me hawking books in front of the UMass campus center building dressed as Gerald, replete with Aluminum Foil mask (but only once—too embarrassing!), making a critical connection with the book buyer at the campus bookstore, and placing books in every local book & record shop that would take a few.
With the unrelenting verve & energy of youth, I managed to make the whole thing work and somehow sold enough copies to pay back the loan to Betsy ahead of time. Other key breaks came along, for example I received a positive review from cartoonist Jay Kinney in a column he was then writing about underground comix for Heavy Metal magazine—this one review alone sold a good thirty books via mail order.
By the time mid summer rolled around, I'd sold all but a handful of my run of five hundred books, turning a modest profit. Considering I'd had a near captive audience of 20,000 daily for four years in the Amherst – Northampton area, it wasn't unreasonable for me to assume I could pull it off. In any case, it was a remarkable initiation into the rough & tumble world of comics publishing for me, making a profit my first time out despite being almost completely ignorant of the biz. It whetted my taste for further adventures into the world of indie comics publishing at the dawn of the Eighties.