[Puma Blues #20 cover © 1988, 2009 Michael Zulli; Puma Blues TM Steve Murphy and Michael Zulli. Cover pencils by Michael Zulli, inks by Stephen R. Bissette, colors by Gerhard]
Taboo Origins, Part 6:
The Learning Curve; Or, How the System Worked, and How It Didn’t
Between March of 1986 — by which time Dave Sim had established Aardvark One International as his publishing experiment wing supporting a few select projects, among them the horror anthology John Totleben and I were working on that would become Taboo — and the fall of 1988, when Taboo 1 finally saw print under a new imprint, SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications after the dissolving of Aardvark One International, something momentous went down.
It was essentially invisible to the marketplace, unless you were a reader of either Cerebus or Puma Blues — the only comic that was actually published by Aardvark One, in a certain sense — or really scoured the pages of The Comic Buyer’s Guide or The Comics Journal.
Still, this invisible event profoundly impacted a key circle of 1980s creators who were in Dave’s orbit at the time.
These events were essential to what became Taboo, and what Taboo became.
Before we get into all the following, there’s one fundamental fact you need to know.
If memory serves me, Dave once explained that a few years before all this went down — in hopes of incentivizing distributors to increase support and orders for Cerebus — he at one point in Cerebus‘s self-publishing history offered an additional 5% discount to certain distributors, primary among them Diamond.
Thus, Cerebus was selling to Diamond for 65% off cover price, rather than the usual 60% off cover price publishers and self-publishers worked with.
Much of what follows was over that 5%.
If memory serves, Dave explained to a number of us during the subsequent creator summits (more on those soon) that not only did this additional discount not result in the support from distributors he was promised and/or hoping for, but it became the standing discount for all time on Cerebus — meaning, Dave simply gave up an additional 5% of his profit margin, with no return. No measurable support, no boost in circulation, just a new business arrangement he had to live with.
In 1986, Dave kicked up a shitstorm when he decided to publish the first ‘phone book’ edition of Cerebus — High Society, by name.
[The Breakthrough Graphic Novel: High Society -- a later printing, as indicated by the '2' on the spine -- cover art ©1986, 2009 Dave Sim and Gerhard; Cerebus © and TM Dave Sim.]
In short, when Dave decided to make comics history by publishing the first collected editions of Cerebus that were larger in format and page count than any previous North American comics volume — breaking the glass ceiling in ways that would immediately and profoundly reshape the marketplace, paving the way for DC to publish the hardcover complete The Dark Knight Returns, among other publishers and projects that followed — he got a lot of resistance.
Distributors just initially just wanted more Swords of Cerebus format trades — slim trade paperbacks cover priced at $12.95. At the time, $12.95 to $14.95 was the top price collections were going for.
I recall Dave saying in 1985, “They call these ‘graphic novels’ — 64 pages, 80 pages? Those are giant annuals. Those aren’t novels. I’ll show everyone what a graphic novel is…”
Dave had something more definitive and expansive in mind — 400-500 page collections, multiple volumes putting and keeping the whole of Cerebus in print.
The market didn’t want that.
Dave and his printer, Kim Preney at Preney Print & Litho, crunched the numbers. Newsprint pages, softbound.
They would have to sell for $25 retail.
A bargain, really, given the page count and content.
But Dave did not want to offer the new collection to distributors at the ‘standard Cerebus discount’ of 65% off cover price.
These were, after all, new products, in a new format.
The terms would have to be negotiated.
Now, from hard experience, I can tell you — folks in the comics industry are by and large pretty bad about negotiating. Some say they are negotiating when they aren’t doing any such thing.
Dave wasn’t obligated to apply the terms under which the monthly Cerebus pamphlet-format saddle-stitched black-and-white comicbook were printed and shipped to Diamond, Capital and the other distributors still active in 1986.
As I recall, the distributors initially didn’t want giant $25 books — and if they were going to consider this crazy new format, they wanted them at 60-65% off.
I could be wrong — I’m happy to stand corrected if I am wrong. As I recall, that was much of what follows was about, folks.
Anyhoot, whatever the specifics, the distributors didn’t like Dave’s new format or his terms.
Dave didn’t like the distributors’ terms, so — well, what the hell.
Dave owned his own work, had a printer, and could print and sell the books himself.
Why fight about it?
Dave decided to just do it himself.
He set up a dedicated 800 phone number and FAX line at Aardvark-Vanaheim, set up with his bank to process credit card orders, and decided to just print and sell the books direct, himself.
Besides, for the financial well-being of Dave, Gerhard, Aardvark-Vanaheim and Cerebus, selling direct made sense. It was a risk, yes. But after all, why cut into profits to sustain a middle-man — particularly one that wanted all or nothing, and/or was leery of the whole enterprise in the first place?
So, that’s what Dave did.
He sold High Society directly, exclusive from Aardvark-Vanaheim.
As the author of the following article Bill Moulage points out in one of his postscripts, “neither printing of High Society was truly unavailable to distributors. Rather, both printings were unavailable at usual distributor discounts” (Moulage, Puma Blues #20, “Aardvark-Diamond Chronology,” “The Main Events,” pg. 20).
But don’t take my word for it.
For historical purposes, the following narrative is excerpted from Puma Blues #20, the benefit ‘Eat or Be Eaten’ issue for which many fellow creators donated their work in solidarity with Puma Blues creators Steve Murphy and Michael Zulli — and to help offset lost income from Puma Blues, which Steve and Michael removed from the table for a time until the following Diamond Dist. debacle was resolved. Thus, technically, “Diamond never did miss soliciting for a single issue of Puma Blues…” (Moulage, Ibid.)
[The following is ©1988, 2009 Bill Moulage; Bill, if you're out there, drop me a line, please.]
As all this was happening, I was doing my last pencilling work at DC Comics for Saga of the Swamp Thing and a couple of related projects.
Rick Veitch and I finished pencils for Saga of the Swamp Thing #50 early in ’86 (cover dated July 1986), and after that I stayed on doing the line-art covers for a portion (#51-58, 61-63) of Rick Veitch’s run on the book after he assumed all pencilling duties solo.
I guest-scripted two or three issues, too — SOTST #59 (cover dated April 1987), #78 (cover dated November 1988) and the Swamp Thing Annual #4 (1988). I returned to the drawing board at editor Karen Berger‘s request to pencil pages (along with Rick Veitch and the original SOTST artist and our ol’ Kubert School classmate Tom Yeates) for Alan’s final issue, SOTST #64 (cover dated September 1987). [Note: That was my final pencil work for the series with the sole exception of my last-ever pro mainstream comics gig, collaborating with John again to illustrate Neil Gaiman's script "Jack-in-the-Green" for Midnight Days, 1999.]
I also worked elsewhere, and began writing for various venues. I was feeling completely burned out from the whole Swamp Thing experience, and writing was interesting me more and more.
In any case, I was remaining productive and earning freelance income while working on the horror anthology soon-to-be-titled Taboo.
[Artwork completed in July 1986: Double-page spread by Bissette and John Totleben for DC Who's Who: The Definitive Directory of the DC Universe, Volume XXII, cover dated December 1986, pp. 30-31; ©1986, 2009 DC Comics, Inc.]
Meanwhile, work on what became Taboo continued and gained further momentum.
Even as it was becoming more and more real and all-consuming for me, John was incrementally stepping away from the project. By the time it was becoming a reality, John had essentially put it behind him.
John in fact never finished the one Taboo story he’d committed to (from a Mike Baron script), though he did paint the marvelous, memorable cover for Taboo 2. John was soon elsewhere, working on other projects, and I completely understood — there was never any acrimony over this. He had bigger fish to fry: solo issues of Swamp Thing (#53, “The Garden of Earthly Delight,” an expansive 38-page story featuring Batman, cover dated October 1986; #60′s “Loving the Alien,” cover dated May 1987) and the magnum opus he and Alan were working on for Miracleman, which became all-consuming for John beginning in 1986.
The labor associated with editing and publishing interested John not at all, the time it demanded interested him even less.
My first wife Nancy (now Marlene) O’Connor assumed some of those duties, though her heart wasn’t in it the way mine was — much of what I was accepting for Taboo was too disturbing for her.
Dave’s support and belief in me never wavered, however, though it had by now grown into a 100+ page trade paperback in format.
Among the first original stories completed exclusively for the anthology was “Scarecrow” by Charles Vess, which arrived in the early summer of 1986 and indeed saw print in Taboo 1 (1988).
Meanwhile, things got crazier and crazier between Dave and Diamond.
For me, it was like learning to box by listening to vets hammering one another to pulp — albeit in super-slow-motion.
To be continued: The Puma Blues Blues…