Requiem for a Virgin

Looking at my calendar for today, there was a single item, planned about a month ago:

12:00 — Lunch with Virgin Comics

The meeting had already been postponed once — it was a planned confab between Publishers Weekly’s team with Virgin’s people to talk about upcoming projects and how we could “work together.” Pretty standard stuff in the publishing biz, but a lunch that was never to be.


Last month, at one of San Diego’s numerous parties, I ran into a colleague from back in the day, a veteran of many companies and many booms and busts. We were talking about the problems at Tokyopop and Platinum, and the question came up of what company would be next. I have to admit, when asked, I was stumped. Virgin flashed briefly through my mind, but things like the looming lunch hoodwinked me into thinking that systems at Virgin were go. I never really had any reason to think they were “go,” but Virgin didn’t really do anything that showed they even considered panicking, or shoring up or cutting back…or ANYTHING business related, really. Putting out books by celebrities — with an occasional, half-hearted marketing push — seemed to be the sum extent of Virgin’s business plan.


But apparently, the handwriting had been on the wall, as an official statement released yesterday showed:

Virgin Comics announced today that it will be reorganizing its operations and closing its New York office to consolidate in an LA base.
The Company is currently working with management to restructure the business and will release its future plans in the next few weeks.
Sharad Devarajan, CEO, said, “We remain excited about the business and partnerships we have built through Virgin Comics and are working towards a restructuring that properly takes the business forward. The decision to scale down the New York operations and concentrate on core activities is due to the current macro-economic downturn and is in no way a reflection on the dedicated and valuable employees we have had the privilege to work with.”


Or, as I predicted the other day, all those pacts and movie deals will probably stick around. According to the PW piece, the Indian animation studio will also stay in place.

And so, another grave marker for another pamphlet publisher. Virgin’s seeming demise has turned in some online quarters in to yet another battle for the soul of the Direct Market — or perhaps even more accurately, an examination of whether the DM even has a soul.

I’ll return to this in a bit, but to me, anyway, the blazingly obvious thing about Virgin’s publishing failure — and the concurrent problems at Tokyopop and Platinum — is that starting a comic book company just to get movie options as a business plan — THAT DOES NOT WORK. Or as a a financial analyst told PWCW, “movie and video game deals are typically seen as one-time windfalls, not a bankable business strategy.”

Oh, it may work for the folks at the top — I doubt Scott Rosenberg or Stuart Levy is in any danger of losing their homes over the failures of their own business plans. And perhaps that is all that matters. But anyone who hopes to make an ongoing business out of optioning comics plots to Hollywood without actually publishing comics that people want to read, will be in for some disappointment. (Ironically, Tokyopop actually did publish lots of comics that people wanted to read–but they haven’t been able to sell Hollywood on any of these ideas.) Everyone who has tried it has failed — from Tekno to late-period CrossGen on. And there’s no evidence to show it’s going to start working soon — Radical, I’m looking at you.

The other day, I joked that Oni was an “IP farm” which drew a nice letter from Oni President Joe Nozemack. Joe knew I was joking, but said, ” …we just want to make sure that people realize it’s about the comics first for us. There are going to be a number of announcements in the next few months and we just want to make sure that people realize it’s about the comics first for us. We left past representation and partners because they wanted us to change things in the comic to make them easier to sell and we just don’t feel that is the right way to do it.” Indeed, while Oni and IDW have been seen as getting in on the “Movie Option” bandwagon, they are living examples of what Frank Miller preached at the Eisners: “If it doesn’t make a good comic book, it won’t make a good movie.” Compare THE LAST CALL or WORMWOOD or MAINTENANCE to any randomly selected Virgin book and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

Then there’s Boom!, the last company standing from the Class of ’05, and a company that has managed to keep tilling the fields at the “comics-to-movies” plantation. Now, I remain as skeptical as anyone that Boom’s pamphlet publishing program is a massively profitable one, but they’ve also managed to put out comics that are modestly entertaining on their own terms and no one seems to think they are rip-off artists. In fact, they’ve managed to inspire more ire from comics shops for unorthodox marketing methods than any other faction.

As for Virgin’s specific story, they were never the object of widespread hate and gossip the way other companies I’ve mentioned here have been. I think everyone just knew that they were going to run out of development money some day and it would all fold up. By every account I’ve heard, they treated freelancers decently — I wouldn’t expect any different from the extremely professional and smart editors who worked there, like Mackenzie Cadenhead. I interviewed the top guys, Sharad Devarajan and Gotham Chopra a few times, and while they had something of the salesman about them, it was also clear that their enthusiasm for comics was real, as was, I think — and maybe I’m just being naive — their hope that they could create popular characters for the Indian subcontinent. I don’t think they ever had any doubt that Richard Branson hadn’t written them a blank check, however, and I don’t think they ever really thought that they’d be buried next to Michael Silberkleit, either.

In many ways Virgin was just another example of Underpants Gnome thinking. You know the drill:


1: Collect underpants; Step 2: ??? Step 3: Profit!

Step 2 was never more than an ephemeral notion of wistful hopes. I’m sure that Nicolas Cage was actually quite happy to find someone to publish his comic book idea — Cage is a lifelong comics nerd, and certainly as welcome as any LCN to try to break into the big leagues of comics. But take it from a former editor for a few major companies — everyone who walked into my office, whether an escapee from jail or a celebrity, had an idea for a comic book (and a movie and a TV show and probably a novel). And most of them sucked. I certainly wouldn’t base a business plan around these sorts of ideas.

Virgin’s comics, with a few exceptions, were faceless and vague. The production values were high, but the concepts were generally not ones that anyone could latch onto. The lack of outcry among online readers over the end of the company’s major publishing plans has been chilling. (A Millarworld thread quickly turns into a discussion of Space Ghost.)

When TP and Platinum ran into troubles, my inbox was filled with people who couldn’t wait to spill their stories. Virgin has been mostly absent of such stories (but see below) and most people are just chalking it up to experience. Contacted for his comments, former freelance editor Stuart Moore had nothing but nice things to say. “I had a blast working with those people, and I’m square with them. Everyone there was both really nice and had a passion for the work and the art form; I look forward to working with them again, wherever they may pop up.”

Mark Frangos was one of several marketing people I dealt with over the life of Virgin — Michelle Gomes was the other — and both were as nice and helpful as could be. Mark sent us the following requiem:

I was the first employee hired by Virgin Comics in New York City. I saw great promise in this company that was staffed by people who loved comics and backed by a huge company like Virgin. I was excited when I heard that big names like John Woo, Nicholas Cage and Guy Ritchie would be working with us. It was a great experience working there and I met some great people.
Many comic book publishers have failed for a variety of reasons. It’s a tough business to be successful in, especially when you think you can compete with Marvel and DC (which is impossible for any new publisher). When John Woo’s Seven Brothers #1 was released, I was ecstatic to hear we sold more than 15,000 copies, placing us in the top 125 comics that month. It was the highest selling book starring original characters. At Virgin though, this was considered a letdown. They were reaching for the top.
Some of the things Virgin Comics did made them pioneers. The problem with pioneers is they tend to get shot. I learned a lot working for Virgin Comics. I wish everyone that I worked with the very best, especially the marketing and editorial departments and my mentor and friend, Larry Lieberman.


However, one person I contacted for comment had more critical things to say, namely Laura Hudson, who worked briefly on the business side of Virgin. I’m printing Laura’s comments in total below:

Virgin Comics failed, ultimately, because it viewed comics as a means to an end and afforded them the same respect that implies. And when I say Virgin Comics, I mean the people at the top—the people who developed the business model, not the incredibly hard-working employees, editors, studio artists, and creators who gave their all to produce the best work they could within the rather significant limitations of the company.

Although there were certainly people at Virgin who cared about they were doing, the vast majority of hires had absolutely no experience with the comic book industry, which put the company behind the eight ball from day one. Worse, this ignorance extended to the very top of the company. Rather than looking at models of successful publishers within comics, Virgin modeled itself as a mass-media entertainment company – perhaps unsurprising, given CMO Larry Lieberman’s background in television.

The problem is that you can’t behave like a comic book-based mass-media entertainment company unless you have properties capable of transferring to mass media. While a company like Marvel has an entire stable of characters with decades of history to license, Virgin had none of its own, and behaved as though it could create them own from scratch with the specific intent of licensing them and achieve the same kind of success.

There was a particular obsession with Dynamite, another fairly new company that was experiencing better sales. Despite the fact that this was almost entirely due to their reliance on licensed properties like Battlestar Galactica et al, I was constantly asked how we could duplicate their success with original Virgin properties. The CMO once brought up the reader response to Dynamite’s Lone Ranger saying, “If they want some guy in the desert wearing a hat, we can make a comic about a guy in the desert wearing a hat.”

He subsequently drew a picture for me to explain our business model wherein Dynamite and Virgin Comics were both rocket ships, and the Virgin rocketship soared ahead of the Dynamite rocket. The parabolic arcs of both rockets ended with them crashing into the ground, though the implications of that escaped him. Sequential art wasn’t really his strong suit. (I still have this picture, btw)

Comics wasn’t considered an art by management—it was a property machine. There was an expectation that by plugging certain variables – like creators, or worse, celebrities – into the equation, that direct market sales should follow in predictable ways. More than once, I was called into marketing meetings where my boss demanded that I explain why Garth Ennis’ 7 Brothers wasn’t selling commensurate with Preacher, or why Mike Carey’s Voodoo Child wasn’t selling like Hellblazer.

I have plenty of personal problems with the way the company was run, mostly revolving around the fact that in one instance the entertainment industry model also extended to the worst caricatures of the verbally abusive executive, but my biggest issue with Virgin – and Virgin’s biggest issue in general — was the disdain for the medium and the fanbase inherent in the way its executives ran it. And ultimately, ran it into the ground.

So there you go. Virgin’s clear plan of company ownership from the git-go and use of industry vets resulted in seemingly fewer broken hearts than Tokyopop left in its wake. Maybe that’s because, very simply, no one ever took Virgin very seriously as a publisher.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about the soul of the DM, but that’s all for now.

Comments

  1. He subsequently drew a picture for me to explain our business model wherein Dynamite and Virgin Comics were both rocket ships, and the Virgin rocketship soared ahead of the Dynamite rocket. The parabolic arcs of both rockets ended with them crashing into the ground, though the implications of that escaped him. Sequential art wasn’t really his strong suit. (I still have this picture, btw)

    This is probably my favorite comic exec quote, and I wish I could see the image! It’s just amazing.

  2. [i]”But anyone who hopes to make an ongoing business out of optioning comics plots to Hollywood without actually publishing comics that people want to read, will be in for some disappointment.”[/quote]

    What I want to then, is how Rob Liefeld has managed to do it? :^D

  3. [i]”But anyone who hopes to make an ongoing business out of optioning comics plots to Hollywood without actually publishing comics that people want to read, will be in for some disappointment.”[/i]

    What I want to know then is how Rob Liefeld has been able to do it? :^D

  4. Sorry for the double post hiccup!

  5. Yeah, it’s a tune we’ve heard before and will hear again, I’ve no doubt. I tried to collect my thoughts on Virgin Comics and I think you said it right, and I agree that there wasn’t anything of interest there for me. Nothing got my attention beyond the issues being in the 50 cent bins at the local comic show. Live and learn I guess.

  6. Tom Spurgeon says:

    Some people will go to incredible lengths to avoid a lunch date.

  7. As said before, this type of thinking seems to be the top single on the “Intellectual property farming” greatest hits album. And we’ll hear it again and again I’m sure… (I’m looking at you as well Radical… ) What always throws me for a loop is why do these people think that in one year (or less) they can instantly create properties with the same significance and media weight as Batman, Spider-man, or even the Lone Ranger (characters that have been around for 50 years plus…)

    I’m assuming they’re banking on (some or all) Hollywood execs to be too stupid to know the difference and have the “its a comic” bullet point in the movie/TV/Videogame pitch mean (to someone who doesn’t know any better) “It’ll make Dark Knight/Iron Man money” without having to put in that annoying 40-50 years of fan base building. That’s just gambling… It’s dumb as hell but at least I see the angle.

    But, if they actually need to have a truly successful publishing division, as a requirement to sustaining their business and/or business model… most see the doomsday a mile away because it seems none of these companies never seem to plan for anything other than Batman/Spiderman success right out of the gate. If I’m going to put up x amount of money to start a widget business… Isn’t it dumb to assume (and bank my money on the idea) that my first attempt a widget manufacturing will instantly be successful and make me a player in the widget market littered with 60-year veterans. Shouldn’t I start small and bank on building off of smaller goals.

  8. timothycat says:

    If you want to start a main stream new company there is but one example to study, IDW. The only succesul mainstream company to launch since Darkhorse/Image (obviously leaving out TopShelf and D&Q) though Dynamite is looking to be an exception . A combination of licensed and new material is the key and top flight talent is neccesary. Also helps to be doing some archivial material, lots of dough in such projects especially from those with a decent income. Though, other than Doonesbury, I’m not sure what archival material remains for a really strong line that will be big in bookstores. Strikes me that there is some money in what Pure Imagination is doing but in color. Have little interest in Theakstonised B&W and according to sales no one else does. virgin’s big name directors were only of interest to those of us who actually follow directors other than Lucas and his ilk. Most folks unfortunately don’t have a clue who John Woo or Guy Ritchie are. I tried but never found a trade of Guy Ritchie’s Game Keeper. And how about major names sticking around. Didn’t bother to follow John Woo’s book once Ennis left, it was weak anyways. I never found a copy of Megas, which had some buzz. I could go on but won’t. The mistakes, though handled in a unique fashion with Virgin were obvious, and are of course those that us comic buyers have become very used to.

  9. LOL love the fact they thought cause Dynamite did it, they should be able to and do it better.

    Never mind the fact that Dynamite’s been around as Dynamic Forces for how long now so at least they always had a better idea of how to handle the market.

  10. The attitude reminds me of how occasionally folks at Marvel and DC have thought of events and gimmicks that were sure to make money and felt that the story was something incidental, just a device to package around the money maker.

    “For the 100th issue of WEB OF SPIDER-MAN, we want him to wear armor that we can sell as a separate action figure. Quick, write a story where that happens. And hey, that Spawn character at Image is doing well, so let’s also introduce a new character in that same issue who looks exactly like Spawn. We’ll call him Nightwatch and then put him in his own series and act like he’s a spin-off character. Quick, go write! We need to make money!”

    If it was that easy to guarantee marketing success, we would not need writers at all. The fact that Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man have not been forgotten and replaced by “edgier” pretenders is all the proof you need that you have to be more creative than just asking “Hey, what’s selling today?”

    And props to my girl Laura for continuing to kick ass. I knew there was a reason I liked her. :-)

  11. Sphinx Magoo says:

    [i]But take it from a former editor for a few major companies — everyone who walked into my office, whether an escapee from jail or a celebrity, had an idea for a comic book (and a movie and a TV show and probably a novel). And most of them sucked. I certainly wouldn’t base a business plan around these sorts of ideas.[/i]

    This, then, is the Holy Grail for comics or for anything really: to create a product that doesn’t suck. But how do you do that? How do you know when something sucks and when it doesn’t? What’s the criteria? What are the clues? What reality checks can one use to go from suck to success?

  12. John Tebbel says:

    Most of the big deals I can think of (Supes, Barbie, D&D to start) were bottom up affairs cooked up by flat broke creators, not calculated chess moves by some plutocrats.

  13. Jesse says:

    Haha…Laura kickin ass and takin names

  14. Edward Liu says:

    So does this mean we won’t have Jenna Jameson around any more to show us a real, kick-ass strong woman as both a comics creator and a comics character? How will comics possibly survive the loss?

  15. legitsquare says:

    Random thought:

    I really liked Walk-in by Jeff Parker. It was highly entertaning.

    However I had to Wiki “Dave Stewart” the expected B-list celeberity attached to the title as it’s ‘idea man’. You know, “Dave Stewart’s Walk-In”

    He’s the dude from the Eurethmyics, who if not for Marilyn Manson covering Sweet Dreams in my mispent youth of the 1990’s i would have also had to Wiki.

    I wonder if the book would have sold better in trade only format (not floppies!) and was “From the awesome writer who brought you Marvel Adventures Avengers and Agents of Atlas.

    I woulnd’t have sold better by much… but maybe just a little.

  16. Step One: Produce comics.
    Step Two: ???
    Step Three: Profit!

  17. i’m fairly certain that step two involves the power of prayer.

  18. Leaving aside the politics of it all, I’ll second that recommendation of WALK-IN. A really underrated little project, well worth hunting down.

  19. The Beat says:

    I enjoyed DOCK-WALLOPER myself. And DAN DARE, as everyone else seemed to.

  20. I conducted an inspiring interview with David Fickling, publisher of the new weekly subscription only comic The DFC yesterday, which will feature on downthetubes.net soon. His attitude to The DFC is quite the reverse of the ‘rocketship’ mentality: a slow build of sales, developing the comic’s web site and building readers over time rather than launching on a huge budget and as a result, having to meet huge and perhaps unfulfilled expectations from a publisher. I hope it works, certainly talking to a publisher who had grown up reading comics and had wanted to publish a comic all his life was very encouraging, as is The DFC’s approach to rights and more for creators.

  21. Torsten Adair says:

    The IDW model is very similar to the Dark Horse model. Licensed properties are the best way to generate attention, as most people know what to expect when they buy a Star Trek or Godzilla comicbook. Less so when a famous name is attached.

    Image took established famous names from Marvel and launched their line. Maverick tried something similar, but with less success. (Although three movies for such a small line is pretty successful.)

    Dark Horse and D&Q started with anthologies (the DC model), which allow readers to sample a variety of stories. Fan response then suggests which characters are best suited for spin-off success.

    Then there’s the import model, used by D&Q and NBM (and Gladstone and Tokyopop and Viz…): production costs are lowered as the art and story are already finished, and only need to be formatted and translated.

    The collected reprint editions model started Pantheon’s line (Maus, Life in Hell).

    Although comicstrip collections no longer sell in the millions, they are a stable section of most bookstores’ humor sections. There is also a (mostly) silent majority of comicstrip fans out there… everyone reads them in the newspaper, and there are many people willing to try a new strip. (Omaha never carried Bloom County, but I became a devoted fan when I discovered it at the local Waldenbooks.) While most modern strips have been collected, there are many older blockbusters which have yet to be reprinted. (Joe Palooka, Barnaby, Katzenjammer Kids)

    The only model not yet exploited: starting a title online, and using that instead of paper periodical publishing. This is unlikely, as most titles are creator-owned, not part of a collective or publisher website. Since creator owned, book publishers can license the property without needing to create a line of titles.

  22. “The only model not yet exploited: starting a title online, and using that instead of paper periodical publishing.”

    Actually, this is what Big Head Press is doing. Our results, financially, have been less than spectacular so far, but we’re learning, and applying the things we’ve learned to every new project. And we’re on the slow-build track.

  23. Louis Lane says:

    I’d like to see (a) the market research that led Virgin to belive their line was viable, and (b) their rationale believing a hodge-podge of Indian mythology, B-List creator, and action/adventure titles (all marketed under one imprint) would make a good mix.

    LL

  24. Dan Dare looked like it was actually going to hold up over the long haul.

    Pity.

  25. I think that the surest way to create a successful comic–successful in terms of building up a readership–is to make the kind of comic book you would love to read. There’s no guarantee, of course. But, you’ll have a better chance this way. It comes down to passion. Write and/or draw what you love (Hopefully, it has some redeeming qualities to it.). And everything else will fall into place.

  26. sourcearticle.info has a similiar post if anyone’s interested

Trackbacks

  1. […] A última idéia de Branson não foi exatamente sua mais brilhante. Após apenas alguns meses, a Virgin Comics, seu braço de quadrinhos fundada em parceria com Deepak Chopra (sim, ele mesmo) e contando com nomes do calibre de John Woo, Guy Ritchie e Nicholas Cage (para quem não conhece quadrinhos) e Garth Ennis, Mike Carey e Gary Erskine (para quem conhece quadrinhos), simplesmente faliu. Há uma extensa discussão sobre o tema e as patéticas premissas do negócio (que só poderia acabar do jeito que acabou) na Publisher’s Weekly, como por exemplo a idéia de que uma editora de quadrinhos nada mais é do que uma plataforma de lançamento de personagens (properties), mesmo que estas revistas sequer vingassem ou fossem lidas. […]

  2. […] Oh, before I forget: Brian Hibbs responds to yesterday’s nastiness. I’ve replied in the comments section of Hibbs’ blogpost, to avoid yet another iteration of the twice-yearly weeklong blogwar he and I seem to perpetually wage. One retailer at a time, I figure. Heidi MacDonald, Simon Jones and Charles Yoakum have more on the subject, should you be interested, while Steve Holland ponders why their Dan Dare relaunch didn’t connect with buyers. […]

  3. […] a diferença da Virgin pra Crossgen é que não obrigava seus autores a morar perto da redação e pelo menos por hora parece que todos os freelancers foram pagos em dia e quase todos só têm elogios pra família Chopra [mais a respeito logo abaixo]. a Crossgen tá devendo até hoje, inclusive pro brasileiro Luke Ross. […]

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  5. […] Heidi MacDonald sheds more light on the Virgin Birth and it’s recent premature passing (I told you I’d be here all week, and we really have a lot of veal in the freezer.) The “go us, we were a great company” comment by Mark Frangos is to be expected, but it really doesn’t get interesting until Heidi gets to an ex-employee with a bit more… openness about how Virgin worked. Or rather, didn’t. [CMO Larry Lieberman]subsequently drew a picture for me to explain ourbusiness model wherein Dynamite and Virgin Comics were both rocket ships, and the Virgin rocketship soared ahead of the Dynamite rocket. The parabolic arcs of both rockets ended with them crashing into the ground, though the implications of that escaped him. Sequential art wasn’t really his strong suit. […]

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