Monday, February 13, 2012

Origins of Independence In Comics: First and Caliber Comics

These probably aren't going to be long posts, but this is going to be the first in a series. Before Image Comics and before creators like Robert Kirkman, there were independent comic publishers championing the cause of creator ownership in comics. Today we are going to talk about two of these publishers: First Comics and Caliber Comics. I'm going to start with these two because they were the companies that I was most familiar with back in the day because of their proximity to me at different points in my life. First Comics was a Chicago-based company best known for comics like Dreadstar, Nexus, Badger, Jon Sable, Grimjack and American Flagg, bringing us creators like Tim Truman, Howard Chaykin, Steve Rude, Mike Baron, John Ostrander and others. Detroit-based Caliber is known for publishing books like Deadworld, The Crow, and Baker Street, as well as starting the comic careers of creators like David Mack and Brian Bendis.

Unfortunately, First Comics can serve as a cautionary tale for comic creators. The company co-owned the rights to many of the things that they published, and when financial troubles caused the company to go under those rights went into limbo. Luckily, all of the creators were able to extract their creations eventually (with Dark Horse Comics helping out Rude and Baron with Nexus and Badger). However, while it was publishing, First Comics was a bright light in the world of creator owned comics, publishing a variety of different kinds of books from the dystopian future satire of Chaykin's American Flagg! to the multidimensional science fantasy of Truman and Ostrander's Grimjack to the zany super-heroics of Joe Stanton's E-Man (rescued by First from the wreckage of Charlton Comics' demise).

I was introduced to First Comics through the character of Mike Baron's Badger (originally drawn by Jeff Dee of Villains & Vigilantes and early D&D art fame). The Badger, in a way, is the forefather of the "real world super-hero" fad that we're currently experiencing. In the comic, Vietnam vet Norbert Sykes suffered from multiple personality disorder that lead him to believe that he was The Badger (the super-hero of Madison, Wisconsin), among other personalities. The Badger fought crime in Madison and became embroiled in various martial arts and mystical menaces that plagued Wisconsin and the world. It was Baron's work with the Badger that led to him being given the opportunity to revamp The Punisher for Marvel Comics in the 1980s, laying the ground work that has been used by writers on the character to the present day, as well as bringing Wally West to prominence as the Flash for DC Comics.

From the Badger, this introduced me to characters like Chaykin's Reuben Flagg of American Flagg! and Truman (another comic artist who got their start illustrating for TSR back in the day) and Ostrander's Grimjack. American Flagg! is an obvious influence on works like Warren Ellis and Darrick Robertson's Transmetropolitan comic. Grimjack was a character-centered rollick through time, space and a multitude of other dimensions that paved the way for comics like Ostrander's phenomenal run on The Suicide Squad for DC Comics in the 80s and 90s.

If you aren't familiar with any of these comics originally publlished by First Comics, and you would like to know more (and man should you read some of these books), you can find many current printings of these books available over on Amazon.

Grimjack Omnibus
Complete Badger Volume 1 (v. 1)
American Flagg! Vol. 1 (v. 1)

All three of those have affiliate links that help to support this blog, so if you click through, I hope you decide to use them.

Detroit's Caliber Comics was started by writer/editor Gary Reed, and if it had done nothing else it would be known for launching the franchise known as The Crow. Unlike First, who published a gamut of genres and characters, Caliber tended to stick to fantasy and horror genres in their books. I say tended, because there are always books that go against that, like my Caliber favorite Baker Street, done by Reed and comic artist Guy Davis. Baker Street was an alt-history, a modern world where a lack of WWII never ended a Victorian influence on the world but the comic dealt with the impact of the punk sensibility on that world. Probably the closest thing to an actual steampunk story done, it dealt with the Victorian and the punk in equal measures. As the title may hint, Baker Street was a Sherlock Holmes pastiche however with a female protagonist taking the place of Holmes.

A great interview with Gary Reed about the formation of Caliber and the creation of Baker Street can be found here. One thing that I have wanted for a long, long time was to do a game that was set in the world of Baker Street. A few years ago, when I was still involved with Seraphim Guard, I tried to negotiate a deal with Reed to adapt the comic to an RPG but, unfortunately, it was not to be, because of some bad experiences that co-owner Davis had had with game publishers in the past. We did agree on doing a Deadworld role-playing game, that I was going to write, but unfortunately when I left Seraphim Guard, my involvement with the Deadworld RPG ended as well. Sadly, it looks like that project has since become vaporware, no doubt with the chances of ever seeing a Baker Street game either.

Caliber also started the careers of two comic creators, one of whom has gone on to become an Architect of the Marvel Universe, Brian Bendis and David Mack. Caliber published the early issues of Mack's incredible Kabuki comic, as well as Bendis' AKA Goldfish and Jinx (the books that led to Bendis working first for Todd McFarlane and then eventually for Marvel).

Like I did with First Comics, above, I am providing links to a couple of the comics published originally by Calber (both written by Gary Reed) that I think you might be interested in finding out more about. Again, these both affiliate links, and I would appreciate you sharing the love if you buy them. I can't recommend Baker Street highly enough for anyone who likes Victoriana, Sherlock Holmes or punk.

Deadworld Chronicles
Honour Among Punks: The Complete Baker Street Graphic Novel

So, we have dipped our collective toes into the history of creator owned comic publishers. I'm thinking that I will talk about Pacific Comics next, but that will take a little digging on my part since I am not as familiar with their books. Pacific is important to the history of creator owned comics because they were the ones to publish the Silver Star and Captain Victory comics created by Jack Kirby, the characters from which are currently being used in comics being published by Dynamite Comics.