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Cross Plains Comics Speaks!

An interview with Managing Editor, Richard Ashford
by Edward Waterman - June 1999

(Copyright 1999 Edward Waterman - All rights reserved)



The Beginning

What is cross plains comics (CPC)?

A comic company formed around the works of Robert E. Howard to bring the definitive adaptations of his stories into comic books. And to make the readers aware of the man and his works

How did cross plains comics come into being?

I used to edit the Conan comics at Marvel before being part of the Marvel cut backs. When Marvel stopped publishing Conan I approached Roy Thomas and Rafael Kayanan to help me put together a proposal for Conan Properties Inc.. We suggested that we form an independent company to continue with Conan. The contract that CPI had with Marvel could only be terminated if Marvel agreed. Unfortunately for us a lot of people at Marvel are very attached to the Conan character and wanted to continue publishing it. We had always planned for Conan to be part of a wider array of Howard characters, so we decided to move ahead without Conan. I contacted Howard properties and spoke with Jack and Barbara Baum who were very supportive. Before Marvel, I ran an independent publishing company in England, called Acme Press. There we published a range of material from licensed characters to collected works to a monthly comics newspaper. I was responsible for the business aspect of the company as well as the editorial aspects.

Tell me about your vision for CPC and where the company is headed?

Ultimately I would like to adapt all the Howard stories into comic book form and to take some of the many characters Howard created and spin them off into a series or one off stories. Within the comic market Howard is only known for his sword and sorcery stories yet the range and style of his writings was extensive. We would like to show this range, from boxing to westerns to humor -- all these stories should be adapted. At the moment we are concentrating on trying to find our niche within the comics market.

What is your role at CPC now, and what are some of the typical things you do?

I edit the books and run the company, as with any small company you do a lot of everything. I concentrate on the day to day editorial decisions and manage the business affairs of the company. The general editorial policy is discussed with Roy Thomas and Rafael Kayanan in consultation with the Baums. We also rely on many friends for help which includes nearly everyone who works for us creatively.

What artistic background do you have, either literary, performance, or art?

I took a communications degree majoring in film. It had a very heavy practical core involving foundation courses in art. I have produced and directed documentaries for broadcast and education. I have always had an interest in comics since I was very young and it developed into a professional interest by creating a fanzine and taking it into a professional newspaper on comics.

If I may ask, do you have any favorite hobbies? Favorite authors? What do you do with your time away from work?

My interests have always revolved around movies and comics with an interest in science fiction. As to favorite authors, it's a pretty long list, most of the usual suspects but I tend to focus on stories rather than being totally inclusive of an author. Having said that, a few that come to mind in terms of Science Fiction, Philip K Dick, Harlan Ellison, Michael Moorcock, Kurt Vonnegut, Frank Herbert and James White for mystery, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, James M Cain and Dashiell Hammett and generally Charles Dickens, Joseph Heller, Jorge Luis Borges and Yukio Mishima.

Are you a fan of Robert E. Howard's work?

Yes, and I have no doubt bored everybody to death with my introduction to Howard. It was Conan the Barbarian #3 "The Grey God Passes". It was the first Conan story that I saw and read and my first awareness of Howard. It had actually been adapted from a non-Conan short story. I liked Conan and loved the story and I went back for more. In England, we get everything late and I can remember seeing the lancer paperbacks with the Frazetta covers for sale after this. Conan the Cimmerian was the one I bought but not the last. At the time, I didn't mind other people filling in the holes in Conan's career but I preferred the Howard stories. In truth, I do not think I could do a sophisticated reading on them, highlighting where the Howard prose began or ended, just a general feeling. The more stories Marvel adapted into comics the more I wanted to read the originals.

Who else is on the CPC team, and what do they do?

As I have mentioned, Rafael Kayanan overlooks the art and design and the look of the books and company. His brother, Ricardo helped put the first book together and our web site. Barbara Gillespie, Rafael's wife, advises on any art production question. Cefn Ridout, who is not related to Rafael, is the copy editor from Oz. Roy Thomas is the primary scripter and helps me with the editing. Steve and Marianne Lightle, who have been giving so much time and energy to any project they are involved with... and me.

What do you perceive are the tasks to be accomplished this year?

To survive and hopefully get people aware that we exist -- and to put out comics that we enjoy.

 

The Comics Industry

I've heard rumors that Marvel Comics is not doing well financially. Have you heard the same, and if so, what do you think is the cause of marvel's situation?

Marvel has been having a lot of problems financially for about the last three or so years. Regular changes in management have not helped either. They have recently been losing market share to DC but still have some of the most popular comics and characters being published today.

In fact, some might say that the comic book industry itself is in trouble. Do you see something similar?

It is certainly a different market than the early 90's, sales are low and getting lower. The comic book is cyclical and has been through slumps before. It is ironic that we talk about problems in the comic book market when the rest of the economy is in the middle of a financial boom and one would expect people to have more disposable income for their hobbies and interests. In the seventies people in the industry thought they would be the last creators to work in comics. Hopefully there is a future for comics, as it's a field I love working in.

If the industry is not doing well, how can anyone expect CPC to do well?

This is a hard time to launch a comic book company, but there will always be hundreds of reasons for not doing something. The magazine publishing industry is a niche industry with magazines concentrating on smaller more specialized audiences. That is why we have tried to be very focussed at Cross Plains Comics.

Can you tell me about the likely future problems facing an independent comic book company like CPC?

Building awareness of our existence, and getting sales.

Over the last 10-15 years, I understand that numerous independent comic book companies have come into existence, including CPC. That's a big change from the DC/Marvel dominated industry of the past. Why do you think we've seen this tremendous growth of independent comic makers?

I think independent publishing goes back nearly 30 years. It was obviously helped by the formation of the direct sales market. Initially publishiers found the market, if not as big as Marvel and DC, then workable. If they put out a project with the right creative team, people would buy it. With the sometimes phenomenal success of comic books outside the comic book market, like the Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, we have seen a greater proliferation of individuals and companies hoping for the next big hit. The bankruptcy of many comic shops, and therefore the loss of the speculator in the buying market has meant that sales of all these books are spread thinner. If you look at a copy of Diamonds Preview it is nearly impossible for anyone, even if they are actively looking, to find one or two titles buried in those pages. The bigger companies can afford to buy themselves the front of the book with more space to display; the rest are fighting for attention. That is why I thought targeting the shops was important, but luck plays just as equal a role as advertising.

Because there are more independent comic book companies, does that also mean there is more competition in the industry? If so, how does CPC compare to its competitors? What are CPC's differences?

Well, I do not want to talk in terms of, "we do quality books and no one else does." The books that we put out share our sensibilities of what makes a great comic. The same is true for all the people working in the industry. A reader may not share those sensibilities and therefore believe that the project is bad. During my time at Marvel, I never came across anyone who thought they were regularly putting out a bad book. I might not have liked half of what was coming out, but that was because their tastes were different than mine. Of course, we all believe that our tastes are the right ones and should be the arbiter for the industry's standard of good and bad, but ultimately it is for the reader to chose.

 

Marketing

What are the strongest appeals for purchasing a CPC comic?

I think basing a company around the works of REH gives us a very strong appeal to the general reader who is looking for something a little different. We have so many well-written stories and dynamic characters to draw on that once people are aware of us I think they will be hooked on Howard's work.

What is it, do you think, about Howard's work that appeals to people?

Unlike some writers of his period Howard's work has not dated as much. Of course I am only familiar with what is in print, but if you take the Baen books as being a good cross section, I think it holds true. There is a dynamic to his work that just draws you in.

What demographics, if any, is CPC targeting in the marketplace for CPC's comics?

Anyone who will buy the book. We are trying to be led by the stories. Because of their content, the stories tend to push us to the more mature audience.

How large do you think the market is for CPC comics, and how many books do you expect to sell this year? Next year?

I think there is a large audience out there -- it is just a case of reaching them, which is going to be very hard if we only rely on the US comic book market. We have interest abroad from a number of publishers in anything we produce based on REH's work. They are not so confined in their tastes as the US comic book market.

What are the key factors that will determine CPC's success? (quality, price, advertising, design, R&D, service, etc.)

I like to think quality (and I count design as part of that) plays an important factor in any books success. It is also the one thing you have the most control over. With price there are ranges you have to operate within, and being an independent makes it impossible for us to get the economy of scale that Marvel or DC enjoys. Advertising is difficult and expensive, and not necessarily any guarantee of success as witnessed by Acclaim, Teckno Comics and Malibu. If Marvel didn't advertise the X-Men I don't think sales would drop dramatically. When I was at Marvel it was always a problem getting advertising for average or poor selling titles, which, for the promotions people, are going to be a harder sale. We have focussed our limited budget on making the shop owner aware of who we are. However, that has only been partially successful. I emailed, through Diamond, all the shops it serves with email. When I talked to the shops (and this has been reported by others), they did not even look at their email from Diamond.

What are the critical factors for an independent comic book company like CPC to get national distribution for their product?

With Diamond Distributors and comic shops it is pretty easy to get national distribution. That market however is focussed on the super-hero comic and is unlikely to try anything new. Ironically, we have potential with newsstand sales as we are dealing with a writer and characters that are, thanks to the popularity of Conan, reasonably well known. Yet the newsstand is one of the more unsafe markets for comics today. That is why we have developed a web site in the hope we can reach an audience interested in the works of Robert E. Howard.

You mention that CPC has a potential to sell their books on newsstands... Does this refer to newsstands inside large book chains such as Barnes and Noble, or were you talking about specialty newspaper and magazine shops? And do you think CPC's books are suitable to be offered at regular book stores?

I see two distinct non-comics shop markets, the traditional newsstand and bookshops. In shops, such as Barnes and Nobles, there are two sections where comics are placed, in with the magazine and in the graphic novel sections. Of the two, I would say the later is the one we are aiming for where returns are likely to be less. The whole look, design, pricing and packaging of the books is meant to be bookshop friendly.

When you say that you decided to focus advertising money toward shop owners, does that mean that, aside from the CPC website, there has been no advertising targeted at consumers? And if not, do you intend to target and advertise to consumers in the future and, if so, how?

We had an ad in Realms of Fantasy, which we hoped would reach a wider fantasy market. It is still too early to say how effective it has been. I am not much of a believer in the success of advertising for comics and I would rather spend the money elsewhere.

What do you think readers are looking for in a comic?

Hard to tell. I know what is important for me, good stories, well-written with strong art. I want to put out comic books that not only look beautiful, but are rewarding to read and cannot be read in a few minutes.

Do you think readers appreciate art more than story content? And why?

Some do but comics are a synthesis of the two. To prioritize one over the other would be a mistake.

 

Artists and Licensing

What strategy does CPC have to attract quality artists and writers?

Giving writers and artists a chance to work on Howard material is all the draw we need. Many people came into comics in order to work on Conan or to adapt some favourite Howard story of theirs -- and now they have to come to us.

If I were an artist or writer, why would I consider working for CPC?

Well it certainly wouldn't be our rates. If the creative team is not motivated by Howard to some extent then CPC might not be the ideal place to work. We do, however, try to give people healthy deadlines so that they do not have to scrabble around to finish the work.

Many independent comic book companies try to create a strong relationship with their artists and writers, permitting them to retain the rights to their art, negotiating royalties, and other such incentives that attempt to give the artist a stake in the product in an effort to raise quality, promote new and creative products, and better insure success. What is the downside to these policies?

We are much more limited, working with licensed material, in giving rights to creators. However that does vary on a character to character basis. For example Kull and Red Sonja are solely work for hire as per our agreement with the licensors. Our standard contract, which covers most of the material licensed from Howard Properties, is, I think, very generous. It gives the right for the artist to use their work in books, cards etc. I think the term is "art rights." Howard Properties retains all rights including copyright and trademark. To give an example, we hit a snag with Mark Schultz who only does work where he maintains the copyright. Howard Properties and Mr. Schultz were able to come to mutually acceptable terms. Which is certainly more than a company like DC could have done. And again, to get a Brom cover for "The Marchers Of Valhalla" we only took partial rights, so there is flexibility.

Are CPC's practices different from the above policies, and if so, how?

We do not hold any rights in the Howard material, we commission all that belongs to the licensors. If we were putting out something directly ourselves, we would operate on the independent basis of giving rights to creators.

I understand that Barbara and Jack Baum, the current heirs to the Howard estate, are stakeholders in CPC. How are they involved?

They have been supportive of everything we have done from day one. They are a delight to work with and are very committed to the work of REH. Like any license holder, they are protective of the property and feel close to it. They do not make unreasonable demands, as many license owners can. They underwrote the creative talent on the first issue because they wanted to launch Cross Plains Comics with a high profile. They wanted a top quality book and were prepared to make it happen. They do not have any legal, or financial control over the company.

How much creative control do the Baums have over the comics which CPC produces?

They have final approval of all our books, which is normal for any license holder but, by working closely with them, there have been no major problems.

 

Editorial Policy

Typically in the movies, a film that is based on a writer's work does not adhere to the author's concepts and story. What is CPC's position toward preserving Howard's original words and concepts while going through the adaptation process for comics?

When we say we want it to be the definitive Howard adaptation, there is no other way than being as faithful as possible to Howard's prose. There is editing and condensing of the stories when adapting them into comic book form, but we are not setting artificial limits that every adaptation has to be 20 pages. This flexibility will help I think. Roy has an incredible knowledge of Howard's writing and has just the right ear to carry off these adaptations. We are interested if anyone can point us to original sources so that we do not fall into the trap of past adaptations being based on faulty text. Working with short stories helps us keep closer to the originals when adapting them, as there is less to cut. One area were we would rework the text is in the case of patois for black characters and extreme racial comments. I do not think Howard was a racist, but a lot of popular fiction and imagery of the period would, today, be considered racist and unprintable. Writers then were reflecting their world and its concerns, and I think that has to be taken into account when reading work from that period. It is an individual choice of what you feel comfortable with.

Many Howard stories contain graphic violence and nudity. In fact, you might say that these are hallmarks of Howard's yarns. What is your editorial policy regarding sex and violence, and how much are you (CPC) willing to show in your comics?

We are working closely with Howard Properties and this is an area of trial and error. Nobody wants to be as restrictive as Marvel, i.e., no red blood no exit wounds, no insinuation of nudity. However, we are not seeking an "adult audience only" sticker on our books. One of the problems that the estate has is that when things are written, they are more open to interpretation. When a story is visualized, it is more direct. I do not want to take the books along the Veroticka line which for me is far to extreme in its depiction of violence.

The artists that we are dealing with know how to tell a story that has adult themes without resorting to the use of gratuitous images. In Dermod's Bane for example, there is a lot of violence that could have been shown but Kelly focused on the moments after, such as the shot of the dead youth, rather than the slaying itself. I no not think it loses its impact, as the reader is always connecting what is shown with what is not shown between the frames. I know from Kelly's close reading of the story that he had in mind to convey the brutality without necessarily showing every blow.

Are there any plans for CPC to produce pastiches using Howard's characters and story settings in the future?

We do have plans for this but it is so far down the line that it might not be worth mentioning.

 

Myth Maker and Other Books

I understand CPC's first release will be a comic called, Robert E. Howard's Myth Maker. What can you tell me about this publication?

It is an anthology book that brings together some very interesting interpretations of Howard's stories. Richard Corben does a beautiful job adapting "Spear and Fang," Howard's first sale to Weird Tales. Tim Sale adapted "Dreamsnake," which is his favorite Howard short story. It was actually something he had broken down about seven years ago on spec and sent to Roy. Roy, who has drawers full of interesting material like this, showed it to me. I approached Mike Friedrich, Tim's agent, to see if Tim would finish it. It was an interesting challenge for Tim to return to the work. Finally, Kelley Jones on "Dermod's Bane." His enthusiasm for the story, which was assigned to him, was phenomenal. He put in so much work, not just in the art, but in the story telling. Every image, every line is there for a reason. It was wonderful talking with him and hearing his take on the story. With the unfortunate death of Novalyne Price Ellis, we decided to dedicate the issue to her and used an expanded tribute from Rusty Burke. All the adaptations are by Roy Thomas, who I think is second to none in his appreciation of Howard's work. Myth Maker is in the shops now, but it is selling out fast in Manhattan.

Are you trying to do anything different from Howard related comics of the past with Myth Maker?

No, I am not trying to do anything different from the Howard adaptations of the past, except maybe give more room to the adaptations and to stay with the original stories, i.e. not rewriting them as Conan stories, etc. Those early Conan comics is what formed my tastes in Sword and Sorcery and Howard adaptations. To me they were focussed on the source, Howard. The problem I had with the later work was a lack of direction in the stories... they could have been any character. I think Myth Maker is going to look different and stand out because we are not pandering to the whims of the moment but using the strength of the creative talents who are working on the books.

Why did you choose to produce a book like Myth Maker as your first publication?

There are so many reasons for doing anything, but there are some that come to mind. We wanted to show the range of Howard's writing and not just focus on people's expectation of Sword and Sorcery. We wanted stories that had never been adapted for our first issue. And we wanted creators who get attention, which we hoped would focus people on Howard.

I've also heard that CPC is soon releasing a different book, REH: A Short Biography. What can you tell me about this book?

When we inherited the artwork that Marvel had produced for over the last twenty years or so, Rafael came up with the idea of a collecting the best of the art into one book. But to give it added appeal we added a biography of REH, which has not been done for a while.

What is the layout of the book?

I think it is very special. If you loved the cover to Myth Maker, then you are going to love the bio book. It is Rafael unleashed.

Why did CPC decide to publish a bio of Howard as its second publication?

We were going to release them simultaneously so people could become more aware of REH, but we needed more time for the bio.

Biographies, albeit wrongly, sometimes have a bad rap of being boring. What can you say about REH: A Short Biography that would interest readers?

It is short and has pretty pictures. I don't necessary buy into the idea of bios as boring but one is certainly overdue on REH.

What kind of publications will CPC be producing in the future?

A range of Howard stories that we are collecting into 64 page packages, and then we will be releasing a comic book series on Red Sonja. Even though this is not pure Howard, it is a very popular character.

And lastly, where can someone buy a CPC comic, and what will be the average price of a CPC book?

We are experimenting with different price and packages but to give you an indication $6.95 full color 64 page comic book size, $9.95 for the reprint graphic albums like Worms of the Earth, and $2.95 for the regular comics.

 

Thank you for your time, Mr. Ashford. Good fortune to you and cross plains comics.

 

Edward Waterman is a collector and advocate of Robert E. Howard's work, and a member of the Robert E. Howard United Press Association







 
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