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.