Multiversity’s history column returns to examine pivotal events from the year 2000. We start with a basic overview of the state of the industry before taking a closer look at Gorilla Comics, CrossGen, and Ultimate Marvel.
The comic industry was in recession in 2000. Total US sales for the year were a paltry $265 million, about the same level as 1988 and about half of where they were in 1991. As everyone looked for ways to streamline business models and reduce costs, Diamond began allowing retailers to order new books online. Meanwhile, the comics received some unexpected attention after Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” put a spotlight on some unsavory practices from earlier in the industry.
As in other recessions, the hard times brought out the entrepreneurial optimists. A successful example is the third-party grading company CGC introduced itself to the market in January 2000 A less successful example is Gorilla Comics.
Gorilla Comics was a collection of 10 writers and artists (George Perez, Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, Barry Kitson, Karl Kesel, Stuart Immonen, Mike Wieringo, Todd Dezago, Tom Grummett, and Joe Kelly) backed by venture capitalist eHero.com. The group would have been like a second coming of Image, but without delays or attempts at a shared universe. They made convention appearances and heavily marketed their upcoming titles until eHero failed to provide the promised funding. Some first issues were printed, but the creators were stuck with the bill. Without working capital, the promising line was killed in its infancy.
A more successful new company was CrossGen, founded by millionaire businessman Mark Alessi in late 1999. He recruited top-tier talent like Mark Waid, George Perez, Ron Marz, Barbara Kesel, and Greg Land, offering great pay and benefits with the catch that employees had to relocate to Tampa, Florida and work in the company headquarters. CrossGen’s first comic, [get this], was published in May 2000.
One of Alessi’s first steps was to create a story bible for his new universe. His BIG IDEA was a collection of independent titles with settings on different planets and separated by centuries, but with a shared mythology. Thanks to this low bar for buy-in, coupled with high quality and extensive outreach efforts, CrossGen grew at an incredible pace – after one year their sales were up 147%, and the year after that they had grown an additional 250%! Being the fifth largest publisher in their sophomore year isn’t too shabby.
Alessi put genuine effort into improving the industry as a whole. Because all the creators were working together in one place, CrossGen was able to offer an artist mentorship program. A young Steve McNiven was the first graduate. On the other end of the age spectrum, Alessi was one of several founder of the charity A Commitment To Our Roots (ACTOR) in October 2000 to help aging comic creators. (The entity was renamed Hero Initiative in 2006 because the acronym confused Hollywood actors, who kept applying for benefits.)
CrossGen made some fatal errors, however. Because he paid them so well, Alessi expected creators to do what he told them to do and work the way he wanted them to work. That involved some minor things like keeping regular work hours, and some major things like getting “back to work” while the World Trade Center was burning the morning of September 11, 2001. More damaging than staff grievances were the financial overreaches. Alessi & Co had a large number ideas for expanding their audience, and they tried all of them pretty much at the same time. When the returns were lower than expected, CrossGen ran into cash flow problems.
CrossGen ceased publishing comics in May 2004, and filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy a month later.
After almost a decade of development, the first X-Men film was released in 2000 and proved mainstream audiences would embrace superheroes other than Superman and Batman. Unfortunately, Marvel didn’t reap much reward from it. When Fox licensed the film rights, Marvel had taken the safe bet and agreed to a guaranteed flat fee upon release instead of a percentage. Meanwhile, Marvel’s affiliate Toy Biz botched the merchandising line and missed an opportunity for bigger sales.
Bill Jemas had just recently become President of Publishing at Marvel (February 18, 2000) with a mandate to pull the company out of bankruptcy. He was frustrated by the lack of effort to capitalize on the X-Men film, especially when he learned there had been no effort at all to make the X-Men comics appealing to any potential new readers drawn in by the movie – the comics were so convoluted with continuity that Jemas couldn’t make sense of one when he read it.
To avoid a repeat of this fiasco in two years when the Spider-Man movie was set for release, Jemas imagined a new line of books starring the company’s biggest characters, but starting from scratch and packaged in a way to make it palatable to non-comic readers (see this entry on trade paperbacks from earlier this year). He turned to Joe Quesada, the artist-turned-editor who had re-invigorated “Daredevil” and other struggling Marvel characters in the 1998 Marvel Knights line to recruit new talent.
Quesada turned to “Daredevil” fill-in writer Brian Bendis to launch “Ultimate Spider-Man” and partnered him with long-time Spider-Man artist Mark Bagley. The series debuted in September 2000, and Jemas pushed eight million copies into Walmarts, toy stores, and shoe stores. By the time Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was released in May 2002, bookstores and department stores were able to stock the first two trade paperbacks, giving movie audiences an easy entry to the comic universe.
“Ultimate Spider-Man” was soon followed by “Ultimate X-Men” and “The Ultimates”, with “Ultimate Fantastic Four” joining the bunch in time for Fox’s release of Fantastic Four in 2005. The line gave writers a chance to experiment and paved the way for what the regular Marvel Universe would become, right up to the point where the Ultimate line made itself redundant and withered away.