Some two decades ago, a small company in New Jersey began contracting with comic artists and writers to autograph their comics for repackaging and distribution through Diamond, Capital City, Heroes World and Friendly Franks. The creators got a few bucks, fans with no access to convention signings could purchase autographed comics, and everyone was happy.
I am not speaking of Dynamic Forces, which took a heavy stake in this business space during the ‘90s, but of Clobbering Time in Union, New Jersey. I was one of Clobbering Times’ two proprietors. We also had several stores. Then Superman died and Ebay was born. It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
It wasn’t long before I took an interest in publishing. It made sense. I had a good Rolodex of writers and artists, a solid relationship with major distributors, and often found myself seeking a more immediate outlet for my own material. Besides, how hard could it be to publish comics?
Well, it’s harder than it looks. There are deadlines to meet, budgets to balance, and that nasty bugaboo returns. Nowhere in any industry of my acquaintance is it more evident that the devil is indeed in the details. The most innocent of gestures (or bone-headed of oversights) can be amplified exponentially by the type of people you’d expect to find in an oversized mom-and-pop industry.
For its part, my fledgling Aardwolf Publishing made one stunning faux pas with our earliest project. We took a cover we had commissioned and paid for and then re-used it on a book’s sequel without first seeking the cover artist’s permission. It wasn’t a business decision intended to cheat anyone but the burden of communication certainly fell upon us and we dropped that ball hard. It burnt a relationship with a creator that I respected and taught me at least one valuable lesson: The value of good communications.
Dynamite Entertainment was another New Jersey-based publishing house that, like Aardwolf, sprung (or crawled) out of the parasitic repackaging business. I never thought of it that way until Mike Kelley, at Stan Lee’s POW Entertainment, recently told me he considered the burgeoning CGC a leech on the industry. It’s not necessarily meant as a derogatory statement. Parasites, like gut worms, are a legitimate part of the food chain, albeit a disgusting part.
While I am loathe to source the ever-changing digital-graffiti repository Wikipedia, that site’s current description of Dynamite Entertainment (henceforth Dynamite) is significant only insofar as it was clearly keyed in by a company employee. Thus: “Dynamite Entertainment is a comic book publisher founded by Nick Barrucci in 2005, first producing two Army of Darkness limited series published through Devil's Due Publishing until self-publishing their titles later that year. The first two years saw them adding only a handful of titles like Red Sonja and Xena. After devoting itself to publishing only Army of Darkness, Dynamite came back one year later with Red Sonja, debuting with a 25-cent issue #0. It sold 240,000 copies and #1, the first to sell at a full cover price of $2.99, sold 100,000 in initial orders which cemented Dynamite's position as a force in the American comic book industry. Now Dynamite publishes a current slate of 14-20 comic books and 2-10 collections per month.”
I’ve had no personal experiences with Dynamite and, until this article, only chance few occasions to meet or speak with its founder/president Nick Barrucci.
I first saw Nick at Will Eisner’s memorial service in New York City where I watched him volunteer to address the assembled who’s who of still-living comics icons gathered there to pay respects. Since then, Nick and I have met several times at various industry functions; we briefly discussed potential business when I was at IDT Entertainment five years ago, and, more recently, the possibility of reprinting Dave Cockrum’s Futurians. None of these talks went anywhere; neither of us pursued them. No harm, no foul.
All of this is to say that I have no axe to grind with Nick Barrucci, no bad history, and, given our background, even some common ground.
So where is the bad guy?
DON McGREGOR: RUBBED RAW, DOESN'T HIDE
On June 2, I became aware of a situation broiling between Barrucci and the writer Don McGregor when Don forwarded a piece that Michael Netzer had written.
In the interest of full disclosure, allow me to note that I am friends with Netzer and have collaborated with him on numerous occasions. I am also very fond of Don McGregor and overly protective of him as I find him to appear in a weakened state. Both he and his wife have been ill for as long as I’ve known them. Further, work has been scarce for the 67-year-old creator. From our first encounter in Gene Colan’s living room years ago, this warm and extremely emotional man has expressed one need very clearly: He wants his work taken seriously. Consequently, like others who haven’t had a hit record for some time, Don clings to his former successes. And rightly so—his were formidable. His work with Colan on Ragamuffins was splendid. His Black Panther run on Jungle Action is among the finest series of the Bronze Age. There are many other robust examples. But fate is a fickle editor and even the cruelest plots have nothing on real life, so Don spends more time in Lenox Hill Hospital these days than he does in front of a typewriter.
By the time I began to investigate the Barrucci-McGregor melee, it seemed to be over. A venerable tempest in a teapot, it began with an announcement that Dynamite had licensed Lady Rawhide, a property initially published by Topps Comics in 1995. The project had been announced weeks earlier by Dynamite along with a startling cover image that brought my ironic connection to this tale full circle. But more on that later.
While Lady Rawhide had been created by McGregor and artist Mike Mayhew, the announcement from Dynamite lacked mention of McGregor. Learning of this for the first time from a Facebook friend, McGregor expressed his distress at what he considered a glaring omission:
"First I'm reading about it. I created Lady Rawhide, and wrote every Topps comic featuring her. Zorro Productions has a contract with me that I get a percentage of anything done with characters I created. Are Zorro Productions and Dynamite now screwing creators?"
In little time, both Heidi McDonald at The Beat and Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool gave the story attention, and both solicited a response from Barrucci:
“I’m running around the city in meetings,” Barrucci wrote. “Funny coincidence – Last night I had a meeting with two comics creators, and the interesting thing about when they talk about royalties. They get them after the book ships and after the end of the reporting period. You know, the way the world works. They don’t seem to get paid based on an announcement. Now, a book gets announced and Don is already being screwed out of any financial compensation that he has an agreement on? I doubt it. I’ve worked with the Zorro Property Owners for 4 years, and they always honor not only their contracts, but their word. I’m not speaking for them, but saying what in my experience and what I can comfortably say for the experience that I’ve had with Matt Wagner and others. Don talks about “honest failure” to the audience. I guess it’s ok if he lets them down. I have a lot of respect for Don. But this was unfair to Zorro Properties to go out there and make these claims without asking anyone what the release schedule was, the book ships, etc. It would have been nice if Don would have been professional and asked honest questions before making wild assertions. And then complain if he’s not happy. Which he is happy to do. Don – feel free to drop me a line directly to answer any questions –firstname.lastname@example.org”
Forum discussions at Bleeding Cool and comments at The Beat displayed a divided response. No one used the word cheated and the matter would have likely simmered out quickly had someone not blazed a more profound tangent.
MIKE NETZER SPEAKS SOFTLY AND CARRIES A BIG STICK
Michael Netzer’s response to the situation, which arrived on June 2 in the form of both an article and an illustration, is best taken in its historical context.
Netzer, age 57, first emerged on the comics’ scene as Mike Nassar and came under the tutelage of comics pioneer Neal Adams. When I say pioneer, I refer less to Adams’ industry-changing art than his vocal and widely covered fight for creators’ rights—both the return of original artwork to artists and, more importantly to comics’ fans, his historic battle on behalf of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Eventually securing work at both DC and Marvel, Michael’s nascent years were spent witnessing how a previous generation had been largely robbed and mistreated by publishers whose bottom lines excluded any regard for those comics’ creators who’d birthed and popularized the intellectual properties these publishers now milked. Disgusted with what he’d experienced and desirous of pursuing other callings, Netzer left comics. When he returned 15 years later, it was to Dynamite.
“I have mixed feelings about my experience with [Nick],” Netzer wrote to me when asked for a statement for this article. “Our communications were cordial but not warm. My first comics’ job in 15 years, those b/w Green Hornet covers, he asked me to do them in some other artist's style that he obviously didn't want to pay for. Then he published the covers in a flamboyant press release. All four cover variations in an art showcase, and not the slightest mention of the artist. What a way to make a comeback. I kept quiet about it out of respect for him. Now I see it's a way of life. He only gives a shit about creators he caters to and needs for more work. Everything else seems expendable to him.”
There’s no need to interpret Netzer’s statement. His pain bubbles to the surface. He doesn’t accuse Barrucci of lying to him or cheating him in any way—but of treating him expendably. Given that context, coupled with the history of BIG comics publishers treading on comparatively small creators that haunts Netzer’s generation (to say nothing of those who witnessed the recent dismantling of Ghost Rider creator Gary Friedrich), Netzer’s response to Barrucci was not unpredictable. That Netzer allowed his reaction to sit for so long until another, older creator was similarly slighted should not surprise anyone either. Netzer’s basic nature is balance, not battle. He’s an artist first and foremost.
Nevertheless, a heated discussion arose with multiple battlefronts, from the forums and comments of the aforementioned articles to various threads on Facebook. At one juncture, Netzer declared, “This is a war.” Tongue in cheek? Perhaps. But the gauntlet was thrown.
COMICS BULLETIN FIRES A SHOT
On June 5, I was asked by Jason Sacks, owner/editor of the ComicsBulletin website, to look over an article he was preparing on the subject. I was approached, I suspect, for various reasons. For one, Jason is currently engaged as the digital coordinator for a project of mine at Aardwolf. More importantly, Jason edited my “Past Masters” columns a decade ago for ComicsBulletin. That column, in which I detailed the injustices suffered by X-Men co-creator Dave Cockrum, was part of a strategy to get Cockrum attention with an eye towards an eventual settlement with Marvel.
Awash in my own workload, I read Jason’s article quickly and made some small editorial suggestions for the opening graphs that had less to do with content than style. The next day, Jason’s article “The Woman with a Whip: Why Lady Rawhide Matters” appeared. And in referencing it on his own Facebook, Jason mentioned me: “It's great that so much attention is paid to creators' rights these days. But the price of creators' rights is that we need to be eternally vigilant about those rights. Last week's incidents around Don McGregor show why that is so important, as Michael Netzer and Clifford Meth often remind us.”
It would become a heated, back-and-forth exchange. Barrucci was the first to respond to Jason’s post: “Yes, creators need to be vigilant about their rights. But a direct phone call or e-mail to ask the person that they need to talk with is better than the lynch mob which you claim did not happen. There was a lynch mob. And guess what, I'm not chiming in for me. I'm now posting now because every publisher has to be concerned with any internet "mob" that wants to rile up and attack anyone.”
Barrucci’s post was actually three-times longer than what I’ve quoted. I read the lengthy, overwritten billet-doux and, against my better judgment, chimed in:
“Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
It was just my little toe in the water. But now, like it or not, I was fully engaged. Nick’s replies were instant. A précis of our public June 6th conversation follows:
Barrucci: Cliff - really? the play actually sucked
Meth: Just trying to lighten the air, Nick. Didn't I read on Michael Netzer’s blog that everyone lived happily ever after?
Barrucci: We were supposed to. But then some more people assuming and throwing stones showed up just as we were finishing kissing and making up.
Meth: (Old Arabic saying: All the arbitrator gets is torn clothes)
Barrucci: is that why there aren't any arbitrator's in comics?
Meth: Just Gary Groth.
Barrucci: Cliff - you're publishing, and you've worked with a lot of creators. Do you think that all publishers are out to screw creators? Do we not get the same chance to talk to people that you would expect us to give creators?
Meth: I don't think that for one second.
Barrucci: oh, shit, watch it. you said some bad internet words - you just said that not all publishers are evil (this is kidding - no context).
Meth: The Jack Kirby crucifixion, to say nothing of those poor old guys who created Superman, has created a fairly strong gut reaction in those of us who care about history/comics/people. And every case is individual. And there are LOTS of publishers.
Barrucci: Basically, and not saying you, but everyone said creators have been treated like shit for years, now let's have karma and treat publishers like shit.
Meth: I think it's a fair assessment that creators in comics have mistakenly NOT been part of a unionized effort that would allow for collective bargaining. The Writers Guild protects Hollywood writers. SFWA protects SF writers. Comics writers/artists are at the mercy of BIG publishers with BIG legal teams; and they are naive when they are young and desperate when they are older. There have been some terrible injustices. But that is not a reflection on every individual publishing house. It's just an equation that makes it clear, to me at least, that writers and artists need to better organize. What just happened with you and Don can easily be chalked up to a miscommunication where many people jumped in (because of their love for Don, hatred of injustice, or memories of little guys getting run over by BIGGER guys). I happen to like Don very, very much. I might even have his baby. But my real interest in this was how Michael Netzer grabbed it (for right or wrong, depending on your vantage point) and was able to create a small riot. THAT, Nick, is fascinating.
And that’s where I was willing to leave it.
It wasn’t long before Sacks and Netzer had joined the conversation. I lurked for a bit but it grew late so I signed off with the following, which would become my own Facebook status for a day: “I wouldn't worry about a guild rising up in the comics world anytime soon. People here are too childish. They still read comics.”
GIVE WAR A CHANCE
It seemed that McGregor had worked out his issues with Barucci. The bigger problem for Barrucci, near as I could tell, was the quantity, if not the quality, of his own responses, which, when taken together and measured by the word, likely outweighed all those of his many detractors and defenders combined.
Netzer responded directly to me: “After we settled everything about Don McGregor, he [Barrucci] started flipping out all over the internet trying to silence anyone talking about him with personal attacks, disingenuous self-accolades, pathetic attempts to pit creators against each other, evading issues and calling on favors he must have done for people to continue a fight that nobody else but him was fighting anymore. I don't think it's dishonest, just extremely immature and disrespectful, like his first response to Don that started all this. I can imagine what a shitty feeling it must be for artists and writers who have to work with him, or fall between the cracks because he doesn't need them anymore.”
On his own website, Netzer added: “Barrucci’s cynical ploy to turn the tables on the creator whose work he intends to exploit, entirely disregarded the fact that Don made no mention of payments, only the basic professional courtesy failings of keeping the creator out of the loop and not even mentioning his name in the promotional material. As has been the case in such internet discussions, which I’ve commented on at Tom Spurgeon’s Comics Reporter, the talk quickly lost focus, giving way into bickering over the legal responsibility of the publisher. I’ve joined a few good members at both venues, trying not to lose track of the unprofessional and disingenuous way that Nick Barrucci responded – and the effective attempt to insult Don McGregor, most likely to cover up for his own failing in how the affair has been handled… Don McGregor is owed a sincere apology from Nick Barrucci for his distasteful and abusive response to Don’s justified grievance.”
In sum, it wasn’t about what Barrucci did or didn’t initially do to McGregor—it was about the way he did it. Or didn’t do it. Or refused to own up to it. And the deep hole he refused to stop digging.
SEEKING BALANCE: BARRUCCI’S ARMY ARRIVES TO DISPELL THE DARKNESS
On June 9, I used Facebook, Twitter and good old word-of-mouth to put out a call to creators, asking them to contact me privately regarding their experiences with Dynamite Entertainment and Dynamic Forces. I gave all involved parties a heads up. My stated goal was "a balanced article."
The first objection came from Barrucci. A précis of our email exchange follows:
Barrucci: My quick request is to ask that you just have your facebook post say Dynamite [and not Dynamic Forces]. The two divisions do two different things and so far, everything has been about Dynamite.
Meth: The two might be different divisions, but they both work with comics’ creators. At this point, I am simply shaking the trees.
Barrucci: Sure, I do see that, but at the same time, one handles publishing and things with creators and one is about signing books with creators. Other collectibles, but you're looking for the comics’ part. Is it too much to ask?
It was too much to ask, so I didn’t reply. I wasn’t going to argue with anyone about what they believed was relevant to my research. Indeed, Barrucci’s request struck me as oddly self-damning.
Barrucci’s next email to me regarded Mark Ellis, an author he had attempted to do business with. The two, apparently, had left the non-deal disliking each other more than a little. I had no interest in this preemptive attack and won’t quote from it, nor did I attempt to contact Ellis. The two had not done business. They had merely pissed on each other’s shoes.
Over the next 24 hours I received messages and emails from various comics’ creators who wanted to give me their perceptions of Dynamite/Barrucci. My first question to all of them was the same: “Did Nick send you?”
Yes, they said, Nick had sent them.
The following is an excerpt of their offerings:
Dennis Calero: Nick has been one of the most professional, fair and even handed publishers I ever worked with. I don't know what this individual situation is about, but if Nick says it was a misunderstanding, I would at least initially take him at his word.
Jai Nitz: I've written quite a bit for Dynamite in the last few years… All told, over 50 issues of comics. I'd be happy to go on the record about working at Dynamite.
Ken Haeser: I've never had any real problems with them the few years I've known them. They have always been upfront with everything and as far as I know, never tried to screw me.
Colton Worley: Been with them since 2009 and haven't had any problems with them.
Heubert Khan Michael: I have been under exclusive contract with DE since March, 2011. From the very beginning—from my asking for a higher rate than initially offered to my "demand" that I be given regular work since I am the family's breadwinner—Nick was all instant "yes", no dead air or hesitation to give what I asked for over our overseas phone conversation. Minutes after hanging up he emailed the contract—with all my requested provisions stated in black and white. Two years and Nick's yet to break that agreement, and I've already lost count the times he's went out of his way to help me when I was in need. Nick's also very supportive of my growth as an artist. He'd send me emails directly but tactfully telling me things I should improve on every now and then. He would also look out for me whenever I attend conventions in the US, and see to it that we get to chat about projects, my work, and ask about what else I would want to stay happy at DE. I don't think a newcomer like me can be any happier being given a flagship title on a regular basis, and I thank Nick for having that much faith in me.
Arvid Nelson: I guess there's some kind of kerfuffle going on, and Nick Barrucci emailed me asking me to PM you about my experience working for him. I can't speak to whatever's going on (of course!) but Nick's always treated me very well. Prompt payment, consistently upfront about what's going on. I have nothing but warm, fuzzy feeling for him.
Ande Parks: Not everything has always been perfect. Nick and I have had a few misunderstandings and/or miscommunications. These have been handled directly, on both sides of the equation. If I'm upset, I talk to Nick about it. If he agrees that he screwed up, he apologizes and we find a way to fix it that pleases both parties. If I screw up or fail to deliver, we handle it the same way. I've always felt that I can call Nick and hash things out. I think he feels the same… Nick is honest and straight-forward. He will tell you he's got to watch his bottom line to keep his company going. He'll tell you what he can afford to pay. He'll tell you if a book is selling well. He'll tell you if it's doing poorly. He'll tell you what he wants and listen if your needs don't coincide with his. Of course, I say all this as someone who is still getting paid by Dynamite on a monthly basis (as an aside, their voucher-processing and check-cutting system is as smooth as any I've ever dealt with). If I no longer worked for Dynamite as of tomorrow, I would offer the same assessment, but people will have to take my word on that. I understand that some may think I'm biased or wanting to court favor. My answer would be that my integrity is not for sale.
Tom Sniegoski [who responded to my asking if Barrucci had sent him with, “I just decided to put my two cents in”]: I've known Nick Barrucci for over 20 years, and have worked with him and his company on various things… and I've never had any problems. Sure, Nick might be a little bit difficult to get in touch with here and there, but I've never been given the impression that he was trying to screw me over in any way. Basically I think Nick is a good guy, that really does love the comic book art form, and I'm glad he's in business.
There were two other comics’ creators I spoke with. I reached out to Gail Simone, who has an excellent reputation for, among other things, being outspoken. Gail replied, via Twitter for all to see, “I am working for them right now, I am re-launching Red Sonja, lovely bunch. I have nothing but positive things to say!”
I also had a very pleasant conversation with Mark Waid who reached out to me and who, in sum, had only nice things to say about “Nicky” and was saddened to see this episode engulf so many people. “Anyone can have a shitty day,” said Mark.
BIAS? BY US?
I estimate that in 10 days, Nick Barrucci wrote more words in response to this subject than I have written about anything in a month or perhaps two months. And I’m a writer. That’s how I make my living.
I don’t call attention to the volume of Barrucci’s voluminous responses to belittle him. I state it as fact and as part of my theory: Nick Barrucci has, in this instance, become the victim of protesting too much. As in the lady doth.
Further, many of Barrucci’s protestations were less than polished. I have not included any [sic] inserts, as William F. Buckley most assuredly would have—I’ve just quoted and reprinted Barrucci’s responses as they came in and left the grammar, or lack thereof, intact. Another observation: In a public internet graffiti arena with writers and would-be writers, lack of net-eloquence is tantamount to picking a fight with a gorilla.
And then there’s the paranoia:
“Cliff,” Nick emailed at past-midnight last night, in perhaps his tenth email to me in just three hours, “You should ask Joe Rubinstein how Michael [Netzer] really needed work years ago and contacted me and we worked out a promotion for Mike to draw 4 covers and created an annual for him to draw to help him. But Michael does not like that to be mentioned. I mention it because Michael was one of the ones who hit me hardest. The only thing that I can think of that happened was I helped Michael, and it wasn't enough. I know your close with Michael, so I should actually be careful with my words, but the whole situation was unfair and my name is f'ed on this situation forever.”
I took umbrage with that last part—the bit about being close with Netzer and therefore someone Barrucci had to be careful with. I said as much in my response:
“Yes, I'm friends with Mike Netzer,” I wrote, “but I am not writing an editorial… This is a bigger piece than you and Don and Michael.”
But what I wrote wasn’t true, although I meant it when I wrote it. This piece would certainly be editorialized. It's gonzo journalism. Only obituaries are free of bias. And even that’s arguable.
So I asked myself: Can I write an honest story that includes Michael Netzer? I believed so. I thought I could look past the many times I’d turned to Michael during a moment of personal turmoil seeking his usually unusual gift of calm. I was fairly certain I could put aside memories of the times Michael and I worked together, the gifts we’d exchanged, the beautiful pieces of Netzer art hanging in my children’s bedrooms… But not of my tendency to see Michael as vulnerable. As a brave man, sure, but one who is older than I and physically frail; an artist of meager means who supports a large family and lives in a besieged community; a man who often appears to struggle (as compared with, well, this suburban New Jersey-based writer).
Unbiased? Maybe not.
It was nearly 1 a.m. Nick Barrucci and Michael Netzer were still on Facebook trading insults in a thread that had gone on for days. And every fifteen minutes I got another email from Barrucci, each one more desperate than the last. “It’s been 10 days of these attacks,” he wrote, defending himself more than any innocent man should have to, talking about “haters” and injustice and leveling “how would you like it?” sentences at me that were filled with misspellings.
“Go to bed” I told him.
UNDER THE COVERS
I suffered from lack of sleep. There’s worse things, sure, but it’s hard to think of them when you’re exhausted. I was considering how easily all of this might have been avoided, and how much time I’d already spent on this matter, and how utterly dumb that was when I had deadlines and paying work in front of me.
There was a new note on Twitter regarding L’affaire Barrucci. “They've always been straight shooters with me,” said artist Phillip Hester.
The preceding incidents, this 5,000-word arbitration, and the torn clothes that will follow cost me at least ten waking hours. I can only imagine the toll on Don McGregor, who needs that time for his wife who is hospitalized, or on Michael Netzer, who needs time to work and feed his family, or on Nick Barrucci, who is tasked with running a company.
I stared at the cover of the advertised Dynamite Lady Rawhide by artist Joseph Michael Linsner—a sexy, voluptuous drawing of a well-endowed cowgirl staring back. And I recalled, sadly, how despite our once budding friendship, Joe Linsner hadn’t spoken to me in nearly two decades because of my own little company’s foolish failure to contact him and ask for permission to use his cover a second time.
So where’s the bad guy? I looked in the mirror.
Accidents happen and can be mitigated with a few words. If they’re the right words. If you have the right words. Or so one would hope.
In the meantime, what we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.
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