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Friday, May 20, 2016

2016 Ottawa Comiccon Panel featuring Whilce Portacio, Mike Grell and James O'Barr

On May 15th 2016, the Ottawa Comiccon held a panel called Creative Talk with Mike Grell, Whilce Portacio and Jame O'Barr. For the life of me, I have no clue who the MC was. If you know, please leave a comment and I'll credit him to this line-up.

[Please note: This panel was recorded with an extremely low-quality audio recording device. I wasn't able to catch everything, but thankfully I was able to catch a significant amount. If anyone has the complete audio recording, please contact me and I'll "fill the gaps". -J]

The panel was well into a story about Portacio's first experiences on Marvel's X-Men with Jim Lee (early 90s) before I got my recorder set up...

PORTACIO: Jim Lee, myself and Scott [Lobdell] were really proud of ourselves that Bob Harras, then X-Men editor, called us up and said "Hey, someone fell out so could you do this issue in 19 days?" and we stood up, puffed our chests and said "we can do it in 14 days". And here, Jack [Kirby] does it in 2 days.

O'BARR: ...and he [Kirby] wrote it.

GRELL: At my peak I was writing and drawing a couple different books, but I think the best I ever did was pencil about 5 pages a day.


GRELL: I actually fell asleep inking a page one day and the hand kept moving. When I woke up I had drawn this ball of... I don't know... snot or something like that 3/4 of the way down the page and rather than take the extra time to grind it off with an eraser, or painting over it with whiteout, I actually worked it into the design of the page.

PORTACIO: But seriously though, that is part of the job description. Because we have so little time. Let me brag a little bit - you now have concept designers for movies, animation and toys and you have animators and then you have storyboard artists and stuff. It's all the same skill set with comics. This is the way I put it: the plot that we get for that month and we have to do in 4 weeks - storytelling, designing of new characters, or whatever and writing - we get 4 weeks to do that. You put that workload to all of them, they get 4 years.

O'BARR: and we're doing, essentially, 6 or 7 drawings were they're doing 1. per page. so... it's a lot of work. At my peak - well, I can still pencil, ink and I do my own lettering too - a page a day. I don't play well with others. It's just easier if I do it myself.

Page from The Crow TPB Kitchen Sink Press. Property of James O'Barr.
James O'Barr's The Crow (1989)

MC: The thread I wanted to pursue in this discussion was the idea of independent comics.

O'BARR: You should get Kevin Eastman up here. He's the one who opened it up. The turtles opened it up for all of us. I mean, there was Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse.

GRELL: There wasn't Dark Horse. Not in the beginning. It was Pacific Comics first, and then First Comics.

O'BARR: Yeah, but they were doing full color comics trying to compete with Marvel and DC. But the turtles came out in a black and white book, and Kevin's a good friend but he'll tell you it was essentially a joke comic and it caught on. And it just kind of opened the doors for all of us. You didn't have to compete with Marvel or DC, you could do your own book.

GRELL: To understand what he just said about the 'joke' you have to fade back in time. At the time they did Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the most popular characters in comics were Teenagers, Mutants and Ninjas. So they very cleverly added the 'turtle' part - which I think is the secret to the whole thing. The first book was a spoof - it was a joke.

O'BARR: It was essentially a MAD Magazine excerpt... and it caught on,... then they had to create a whole universe.

GRELL: "Oh crap! We're going to have to do this for a career now!"

GRELL: The other part of the independent publishers came about through a few different auspices: Kitchen Sink Press - they had just a tremendous amount of independent material at that time. Fantagraphics, too. Pacific Comics showed up on the scene and came knocking on my door, and they knew that I had a project called 'Starslayer' that had originally been intended as a counterpart to the Warlord at DC comics. The reason it never got published over there was because of the DC implosion that happened when a massive quantity of DC titles got cancelled.

O'BARR: It's a cycle. It happens every 6 or 7 years were they just go cancel 15 to 20 titles that aren't making enough money for them. So, it's a cycle.

GRELL: So Starslayer was supposed to be on the publishing schedule for DC. It was the opposite of the Warlord - I had a modern man in a primitive society, so [in Starslayer] I had a primitive man in a futuristic society. Pacific came knocking on my door said "how would you like to do it over here? We'll give you creator-ownership - which is #1 - and a royalty. If you sell enough copies, you'll earn your advance back and we'll pay you royalties" and that was unheard of in those days. So I jumped. I was the first artist to sign with Pacific. Jack Kirby was the second. Jack's book came out ahead of mine by about 2 months. Jack could write and draw a page while I've been yammering on here about Pacific Comics. I think Neal Adams was the third to sign on. Pacific didn't last - they just couldn't hold their act together. Hard on the heels of that came First Comics.

Starslayer #5 (1982) Pacific Comics

O'BARR: They lasted quite a while. 6 or 7 years?

GRELL: James was right when said they were looking to go toe-to-toe with the big guys.

O'BARR: ...and that's when comics were still on spinner racks. There wasn't a lot of space to go around. Marvel and DC pretty much crowded them out even though they had the same level of talent. It wasn't that the material wasn't as good as Marvel or DC's, but they already had a foothold on it. There weren't the comic stores like there are now, you had to go to the drugstore and they had the spinner rack. They essentially choked them out of the business.

MC: Are those models that you guys looked at while you were thinking of Image? Like previous ideas? [directed at Whilce Portacio]

PORTACIO: No, because we were young and dumb. [laughs] I think it was Rob [Liefeld] and Todd [McFarlane] that figured out the basic idea and then we go "yeah sure". My story? My story with that was every year at that time I would go to the Philippines for a month. So, I'm leaving, I'm going to the airport, and Jim Lee calls me up and says "Oh Whilce, something BIG is happening. we're going to do something and I can't say anything now but when you get back maybe I'll be able to tell you something" so I get back a month later and Jim calls me up again and says "oh, we did it." and I asked "what did you do?" and then goes "so and so, so and so. We've formed up Image and we're going to leave Marvel. and we've already written out the press release, so we're going to do it. so we just want you on board and want to know if you want to do it." and I was jet-lagged, still. So I just asked Scott, my best friend (we went to high school together), and he just said "yeah". Again, like i said, we were young and dumb. we were really full of ourselves - which is a good thing in art. You actually have to be that way in our business because it is a solitary business and, especially in the beginning, it was like - y'know - when you're younger your parents are after you and maybe you've got a girlfriend and she wants to get serious - and they're after you like "are you really going to do this?" so you really had to be confident that you were an artist. Think about it: Jim and I especially, we were in the X-office - the top office - earning the bucks, earning the royalties, getting the audience, and should we do this? What if it fails?

Whilce Portacio Uncanny X-Men #281 (1991) art

O'BARR: So what was the reason that everyone got together and decided to leave [Marvel]?

PORTACIO: I'll give it to you in a story that doesn't touch on any of the scandal parts. [laughs] Jim [Lee] and I would go to conventions, and kids would come up and we'd sign their books. All of a sudden we started noticing their t-shirts, and they had our drawings on them. But not only our drawings - there was like 10 or 15 different t-shirts with different drawings. So, we called up Marvel and said "Hey, do you KNOW about this?" and they said "Okay, we'll have our lawyers check". Weeks later, they called us up and said "the lawyers made a deal. so you'll be getting a cheque pretty soon". And this is the way I remember it: we got a cheque. I got a cheque for $34! And then I think it was Todd who found out it was a million dollar company. so - them: corporate lawyer, right? me: no lawyer. And then we started looking at the royalties, and at the time - remember they printed out the circulation sheets in the books...

O'BARR: ...required by law

PORTACIO: ...and at the time our books were making 400 a month. and we're going "this is a nice cheque, but... what's the computation for that?" and that with other things we started realizing there's a lot more money.

O'BARR: That's 400 thousand copies, by the way.

PORTACIO: yeah, that's 400,000 copies - which even back then I think translates to about a dollar of profit per issue. so that's 400,000 bucks right there.


[From memory: because Image was mainly comprised of all of Marvel's former superstars, the printers gave Image comics a printing discount on par with Marvel comics, realizing that Image could sell just as many books (if not more) than Marvel. Those gold foil and platinum limited edition variant covers? It didn't cost Image as much as you think it did to print them. A lot of their secondary market value was based on desirability and scarcity - not actual value.]

PORTACIO: Before this Photoshop thing with millions of colors and you could do all of these multiple shades, it was 4 color process. Meaning you would give them a color guide, and then some schmoe would need to cut the shape out.

[barely inaudible - I'm really trying to fill in the gaps here from memory]

PORTACIO: It was really Rob Liefeld's fault. [laughs] The real reasons multiple covers started: we all agreed that we'd start with our all-new books [WildC.A.T.S., Youngblood, Spawn] - but if you guys remember, very early on, we decided to do multiple books and bring in new artists. So this is how that happened: we're all oohing over our new books and bragging with each other about our first issues, around this time we had also bought fax machines in the office - you pay a lot for these office toys so you gotta make it worth it - so we started faxing each other all the time. All of a sudden, Rob started faxing us all these new character designs - with titles, too. And this one last fax had, like, a hundred titles and at the end it said "Hey, isn't this cool? By the way, I've copyrighted all of this". So Jim [Lee] gets on the phone and he starts asking people for ideas for titles and stuff and he sends it back to Rob. "If he's going to do this, then I'm going to do this too", Jim's thinking.


[One of the panelists, possibly MIKE GRELL, chimed in that while the battle of gimmick covers were occurring they thought DC was crazy for not jumping in and competing. Apparently, DC insisted on telling good stories and maintaining a solid, secure readership rather than getting 'caught up in the hype'. For the most part, this plan worked as DC's readership stayed consistent during the early 90s.]


[PORTACIO also told us a story about ashcans. I'm paraphrasing here and drawing a lot from memory - but if I recall correctly: Whilce explained that an ashcan was proof that you started a book - this was important because Image's production schedule was notoriously late in the beginning. An ashcan was an xerox of the first 10 or so penciled pages. Whilce went to a major convention and gave away ashcans for free from his booth that morning. They were all gone quickly. By noon, they were being re-sold by convention vendors for $40. Kids were bringing their ashcans to Whilce to be signed, and the signed copies were being re-sold for even more money. That's when the Image comics gang realized that there was a market for collectible and variant comics (gold stamp, platinum). I believe Whilce specifically gave credit to Rob Liefeld for this idea...]

Wetworks Ashcan (1993) illustrated by Whilce Portacio


[PORTACIO started a conversation by explaining that Wall Street was to blame for the eventual comic book boom and crash]

PORTACIO: they were the first guys to buy boxes and boxes of stuff [comic book]. So Diamond and everybody was saying "oh, we've got to print more" - and that's where the experiment started happening with pushing up the numbers from 400k. All of us had warehouses full of stuff.

PORTACIO: Do you know how Todd [McFarlane] beat the toy companies? Toy companies were basically Barbie at the time...

O'BARR: Barbie and GI Joe

PORTACIO: ...billion dollar properties. As corporate goes, and we knew corporate by that time, we knew they weren't going to touch that. They weren't going to rock the boat. Todd goes, "Okay, I'm making a couple hundred thousand a month on royalties for a comic book, let me spend 300k a month and I can throw it away on toys. So I'm going to pay the top sculptors, and I'm going to pay the prices to have a lot detail that nobody else will do - and then I'll lower the price too. Because I can go on for a couple months as long as Spawn comes out and not make money on my toys.

Spawn of McFarlane toys. image source: combosactionfigure.blogspot.c
McFarlane Toys

Thank you, once again, to the 2016 Ottawa Comiccon for organizing this event. Leeja and Denise, very big thank-yous to both of you.

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