200703050202JK Parkin’s report on the Slave Labor panel from WonderCon includes much more from SLG head honcho Dan Vado on his Disney mishaps, but an even more eye-popping quote when he’s asked what he would do differently:

He added, “On the serious end, I would not publish creator-owned work. It’s a terrible business model as a publisher.” He said the successful companies in the industry own their characters, mentioning Spider-Man as an example.

“When you’ve got an environment where someone can come in, cut their teeth with you, then turn around and walk out, taking the stuff that you put money into with them, it’s just not a healthy way to do it,” he said. “I would not offer creator-owned contracts, I’d own it; I’d own it all. And sure, maybe there would have been things that wouldn’t have come our way, but I guarantee you if we’d had an equitable way of taking those properties on, if I’d owned Johnny, if I’d owned Milk & Cheese, if I’d owned Lenore, if I’d owned everything I’ve published over the last 20 years, this company would be in a lot better shape as a company. So that’s what I would do differently, and that would be my advice: no creator-owned comics.”

This is pretty much the saddest thing we’ve ever read. It’s easy to understand Vado’s bitterness when larger publishers practically use his company as a farm team — a few editors from larger companies are known to go up to SLG creators right at the booth and ask them about working for them. That would be galling for anyone. While it’s hard to argue that the life of the American cartoonist isn’t still so meagre that a page rate is enough to make most of them throw loyalty out the window, there are so many other variables involved. The direct sales market’s lack of support for non-superhero books; Marvel and DC’s lack of support for non-superhero work; the emergence of the book publishing model as a viable place for creators now.

It’s hard to imagine Marvel or DC taking a flyer on Johnny the Homicidal Maniac or Milk and Cheese, and hard to imagine Jhonen Vasquez or Evan Dorkin doing them as work for hire books for anyone. And although Vado is a curmudgeon with the best of them, he’s also run one of the most successful indie comics publishers over a period when scores of other fell by the wayside.

Anyway, we’re just going to have to let this one sit and stew for a while.


  1. he is 100% right.

    knowing that he should have asked for a small % to be owned by the company. I agree with what he says about things now and maybe he can move forward with a new attitude.

    also, d.c puts out crime comics, drama, westerns, fantasy, kids books and a who line of manga.

    sorry, but that statment is way off.

  2. I am disappointed about the DC comics being focused only on Superhero comics. THey are trying to develop other brands such as CMX and Minx.
    The main point about owning it all is a good point. You can make more money on merchandising, tv and movie rights than the comics and graphic novels are sold. THere will now be Creator owned books and that wont’ changed. The pandora’s cube (in DC and Marvel’s view) has been opened and won’t be closed.

  3. What it comes down to is, as a publisher, do you want to publish strong, individual works, or do you want to develop a franchise that you can suck dry over the course of decades. It seems to be the latter is what Vado wants, and it seems to me that his attempts to do that are what screwed his company. Everyone I know refers to slavelabor as “that goth comcis company.” Instead of publishing lots and lots of varied and different works, SLG stuck to one kind of comic that seemed to work, making all kinds of toys and statues and merchandise to accompany their most popular characters. Basically, they were trying to develop franchises with company characters, except thay didn’t blong to the company. Of COURSE that didn’t work. What he should have been doing is printing more good books and doing less merchandising.

    I’m very upset and disturbed to hear that this is Vado’s publishing philosophy now.

  4. The money is in the intellectual property. If you don’t own it, you have fewer options. That’s just how it works, and that’s one of the reasons you see more solo acts online.

  5. I don’t know Matthew. I have a number of ridiculously good books from SLG (Mister Blank and Sparks among others) and not a single one of them is remotely goth. Your perception might be more accurate, but from the SLG books I have, it seems a bit askew.

  6. With all due respect, guys, could you really imagine Vertigo publishing Johnny the Homicidal Maniac or Milk and Cheese? Or putting a CMX book on the cover of Diamond Previews? DC is making a great effort with the MInx line, and Vertigo has definitely published many books defy genre, but I think its fair to say that DC’s focus is on superheroes.

  7. It’s hard to point to any publisher focusing on publisher-owned material to launch within a few years of Slave Labor and thrive. Most of them are gone. The closest that comes to mind is Dark Horse, which has owned some properties (Comics Greatest World, for example) but whose main publishing sales come from either licensed properties or creator-owned work… some of which they control licensing or have similar financial involvement in. Oh, I suppose NEC counts on some level.
    There is something to be said for being in the publishing business rather than the properties business.

  8. I don’t normally jump into blog discussions as I find little productive comes from the online arguments that usually follow these things. But, I do take exception that the one of the posters above made regarding our being the goth comics company.

    That is something I hear a lot and really it is a statement that is made out of ignorance. SLG publishes a wide variety of titles, go to our website and look through what’s there and you will find all manner of comics. The “goth comics publisher” thing is something that is born from the fact that so few places carry anything but our best-selling comics and graphic novels, which happen to be the spookier titles like Lenore or Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.

    I am sorry you have never seen titles like Midnight Sun, Emo Boy, Dr. Radium, Patty Cake, Jet Pack Pets or even any of our Disney licensed titles but just as most retailers in the direct market focus on super-hero titles so do they mostly only order the spookier stuff we do.

    As for the poster being “upset and disturbed” at what he says is my new publishing philosophy, you missed the point. I was asked a question about what I would have done differently. Other than simply not waste 20 years of my life publishing comics the answer the answer was I would not have offered creator-owned contracts. I did not say I would no longer publish creator-owned work, the fact is that we are still giving people contracts which lets them own their work. I had just finished showing a slideshow of new projects, all of them creator-owned, when I was asked the question for Pete’s sake.

    But it is a crappy business model (and no, I am not going to start tossing people I have worked with under a bus by listing all the stuff that has happened to us that lead me to this conclusion) and not one I would advise anyone wanting to get into the publishing business to follow.

  9. ” Instead of publishing lots and lots of varied and different works, SLG stuck to one kind of comic that seemed to work”

    That couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Patty Cake by Scott Roberts,
    Slow New Day by Andi Watson
    Street Angel by Jim Rugg
    Loyola Chin and The San Peligran Order by Gene Yang
    Bill and Ted by Evan Dorkin
    Life of a Fetus by Andy Ristaino
    Rex Libres
    Egg Story by J. Marc Schmidt
    Emily and the Intergalactic Lemonade Stand
    Jet Pack Pets by Gary Black
    Halo and Sprocket

    What do these books all have in common? Certainly not that they are goth. If anything SLG skews towards comics that are funny. Throw in the creepy humor, horror, and disney books into the mix and SLG has one of the most diverse line of comics of ANY publisher.

    I’m taking Dan’s comments with a grain of salt. I’ve always gotten the sense that many SLG artists like Evan and Jhonen are pretty loyal to Dan and the company and appreciative of their creative freedom.

  10. Haven’t most of SLG’s biggest artists (Vasques, Dirge, Valentino, Dorkin, Watson) stayed with the company over the years?
    And doesn’t SLG still benefit from the backstock of earlier books from creators that have gone on to bigger book deals (like Jim Rugg, Andi Watson or Gene Yang)?

    If an SLG publisher got snatched up by a mainstream book publisher they would still retain the rights to their characters. Don’t most writers and artist keep their copyrights and ownership rights when they are published by Random House or Scholastic? EXCEPT when the properties are developed in house first.

    As more mainstream book publishers start offering cartoonists advances and living wages AND the ability to keep creative rights, this will hopefully become the standard.

    Marvel and DC will never really be a place people go to submit their most personal projects.

  11. > I think there is a definite middle-ground between creator-owned
    > and publisher-owned work.

    I tend to agree. Then again, I come from a background in “real” book publishing, where a common scenario has the author owning the work and the publisher enjoying broad rights in selling that work, and where it’s comparatively clear how and how much the author earns when that work is sold by various means, and what responsibilities the publsiher and author have toward one another with regard to the ending of the publishing relationship.

  12. As a writer with many personal ideas I’d like to develop, I’d most likely go the trade route, publishing a complete work.
    SLG has a great backlist which appeals to average readers. My personal fave is Tales From The Heart Of Africa.
    The model now is Book Publishing. Offer Talent a decent wage and professional editors, and most will be loyal, allowing a publisher to develop a backlist.

  13. Ooo. Tough Subject.

    As a creator myself, and as someone who got my start working for Archie Goodwin at Epic Comics, I am very sympathetic to the idea of Creator-ownership. One might say I “grew up” with that as an ideal.

    On the other hand, I’ve also tried my hand at small-press publishing (Comiculture), and it’s hard for anyone who hasn’t been there to truly appreciate the time, effort and money that publishers invest on any given project. Especially on the small-press level.

    In my case, we had no Production Department to put together books, no Marketing Department to promote books, no Manufacturing Department to deal with printers, no Accounting Dept., et cetera. Nobody was making any money–but It was MY money being SPENT on everything, so I was also the only one truly invested in making the project work.

    Comiulture was an “Epic” modeled creator-owned anthology, BTW.

    We had all kinds of problems, but the one that is relevant here is that creators often don’t believe that publishers deserve to “own” any part of their works; they just don’t appreciate all that is involved “behind the scenes” in publishing. And, how could they? Most creators are focused on the work they are creating and have no experience in the peripheral jobs that go toward producing a successful publication.

    Today I’m working on a book for Tokyopop. They have a “shared copyright” deal that (at least right now) seems pretty fair. We both take a risk and share possible rewards.

    I think there are times when both Creator-Owned and Work-For-Hire deals (and various hybrids) are appropriate. I would just say that publishers who wish to own properties outright REALLY need to pay higher, more competetive rates to artists. If they can’t afford to pay, then publishers need to consider more of a partnership with creators, if they don’t want to have them poached by companies with deep pockets.

    It’s all well and good for Vado to sat he’d “own it all,” but the reality is that unless he’s willing to pay top dollar to keep top talent, all he’d own is a library of substandard books that nobody wants.

  14. Bring back Scarlet Thunder and The Griffin. ;-)

    Actually, one that I enjoyed quite a bit was Replacement God. What most people don’t know is that Dan arranged for the local newsstand in Grinnell, Iowa (where Zander Cannon went to college) to carry the comic. Very classy.

  15. Postscript:

    My last comment ended with what might sound like a slam on Dan Vado. To clarify: it was not. Creators do not generally understand what the publisher “adds” to the equation, except for money. If they don’t get money, they aren’t likely to be as loyal to the publisher, therefore the publisher won’t have the great talent. (does that make more or less sense?)


  16. As someone who has worked in various capacities behind both sides of this argument, it is hard not to feel sympathetic with Vado. I think Steve really laid it out fairly succinctly. (Hey Buce!) At the end of the day, what do creator owned publishing companies have? Good will, distribution agreements with Diamond, and maybe good placement in Previews? You can only leverage those assets so far…the real assets are the properties and when you can’t exploit them in the best sense of the word….? If this was the ’80s I would be singing a different tune, but it’s not. The market is totally different than when Creator’s Bill or Rights was created or WAP was around…Most of the publshers out there are doing a lot with very little. And I do think that some do not realize what is entailed in the process of getting a book to market after the intial creation. Still…I am torn.

  17. Speaking as someone who has been on the publishing end of comics for the past 15 years, everything Dan Vado said is 100% spot-on.

  18. Then he probably should have worked on some company owned projects? I mean, creators can’t stick around when they’re hard work isn’t selling over 2000 copies a month, you know?

  19. The point is that from a business perspective, as a publisher with a financial interest in the work, it makes more business sense for the publisher to own some or all parts of a property so that he/she can get the most ROI on the books that are put out. I read Vado’s comments from the perspective of a businessman who in looking back on how he’s run a very successful company said “this is what I would have done different to be more profitable.” I don’t think he is saying that he’d like to strip, steal, and exploit the works of the artists in his stable.

    I think over the years we’ve seen and heard so many horror stories of creators who have seen their life’s work turned into these huge cash cows by the publishers without ever seeing a cent that as comics fans and creators, we villifiy a company who would ask for ownership of a property. Comics publishing isn’t charity work, it’s business – and we all love the art form so much that we sometimes lose sight of that.

  20. When I’m flat wrong, I’m flat wrong. I did know you guys published other kinds of comics, but I figured the reason I wasn’t ever seeing them on shelves or advertised prominently was because the company wasn’t pushing them nearly as hard. I was wrong, and I apologize.

    I can see the business reason for stores ordering and stocking your best selling stuff, but it’s clearly something that has done your company harm, and that’s sad. I’d have to say though, I get your email newsletter about new books and products, and it leans pretty heavy on the bestseller stuff. Every time I read it it’s Gloom cookie this and Cthulhu Carl that. That may be something to fix.

    I also did misinterpret you to mean that you no longer wanted to sign creator-owned contracts. In my defense, that isn’t a carzy conclusion to come to based on what you said. And I really have a big problem with non-creator owned work. Not having gone through the nightmares you have, however, I lack the perspective to criticize you in aything but a bery abstract and naieve way.

    But since you were saying how you’d have done it differently, and not how you were going to be doing things, My feelings are very different, and again, I apologize for the misinterpretation.

    I do wonder, though: if you think it’s a bad idea, and you have no moral issues with non-creator owned work, then why on earth ARE you still signing creator owned contracts? I’m glad to hear you are, but from what you’ve said I haven’t the faintest idea why you would.

    And thanks, Dave, for jumping in to correct me too.

  21. I’ve got a book coming out in August from Random House called Squirrelly Gray. Not only do I still own the copyright, they don’t even take a percentage of film rights or merchandise or anything!

    So… if creator ownership works for a giant like Random House, it must not be such bad business after all.

  22. James, I get what you are saying…but Random House is part of Bertelsmann. It’s business model isn’t solely aligned with Diamond and the direct market. They have the muscle to do deals with the book store market that companies like SLG do not. The upside is…you benefit. In any case – congrates on your book!

  23. I like Creator-ownership, but just to play “devil’s advocate,” with James Kolchalka’s point:

    Random House is a huge company–one of the”foremost media companies in the world” according to their own website. They can afford to make any deals they wants with whatever creators they desires. Small-press publishers (including “larger” imprints like Slave Labor) don’t have such deep pockets. Every deal they make has to make sense because they don’t have a bunch of “best-sellers” that provide income that can be used to grow their library.

    Ultimately, it’s about the risk. Who is bringing what to the table, and what is that worth, ultimately? Especially in the case where a publisher is putting out the work of someone without a proven track record. It’s easy to be happy with just the publishing rights if you know you’re going to sell a whole bunch of books.

  24. A tip of the hat from France to Dan Vado for publishing those unusual and good comics I bought from his company those last years:

    – Egg story
    – Autumn (c’ant wait for issue 6!!!)
    – Wonderland
    – The cat with a really big head
    – Strange Eggs
    – Marlene

    a big thank you to you. I always stop at the Amaze Ink section of the sollicitation to look at what is being published by you.

    Why those 3 names Amaze Ink/ Slave Salor/ SLG?

    I , for one sure fact, would not be interest by digital comics, no matter the cost. I’m ready to pay 4$ per issue, why not raising your prices a little. Sales can’t be worse as they are and I d’ont see people stopping to buy your titles for this, knowing how the market is difficult for you.

  25. For the most part, I agree with Dan. Doing creator owned comics is not a viable model for a comic publishing company. And I think it’s important that Dan was talking about a business model, not necessarily the creator aspect. When Caliber was around, we did a lot of creator owned books as did Slave Labor, Antarctic, and many other companies but times were different back then as the market was expanding. Books may be expanding now but comics aren’t.

    That’s not to say that all creator owned projects were detrimental to the bottom line. But far too many books cost the publishers money and there is no return. As happened many times, if a creator/title got popular, it moved elsewhere. Can’t really blame the creator if someone starts wagging money in front of them and I only had animosity towards one creator over that but it was due to different reasons.

    Yes, there is value in doing some creator owned books. With Caliber, certainly it was with Moebius, Dicks, UN Force, etc. But I think Dan is mainly referring (and not trying to put words into his mouth) unproven talent.

    All in all, creator books have their place but the point is, it is not a good business model for a publisher. I know that I would never again do a publishing company structured around that concept.

    I don’t know about the decision to go digital on new releases. I understand it, but not sure how it will work out. It certainly won’t lose money except for the creators’ time but that doesn’t seem to be a concern for the 1000’s of people doing webcomics. With the Caliber library, I put the old stuff online just to keep it available but as far as new stuff, only one issue of a trade to serve as a preview.

  26. I love SLG books and will continue to buy many of their creator owned books that I like. I think SLG is one of the top, premier indie companies out there, but it is a bit disheartening to hear how disappointed Vado is with his chosen business.

    If the company can support itself AND talented creators out there, what is there to be unhappy about?

  27. I think the best model for publishing, whether comics or prose, is the model used by most publishers outside the comics industry: that is, the publisher pays an advance for the book and the creator is then obligated to deliver. The creator can only pick up stakes if he or she pays off their advance. The advance doesn’t have to be huge either. Even a $5k advance on a single graphic novel is enough to keep most starting comics creators rooted to their publisher for years.

    I think in the end all Dan is saying here is that he’s tired of other publishers using him as an unpaid talent scout — but I also think he still has a greater loyalty rate than most publishers, because he’s a good guy to work with. I have four full graphic novels with Tokyopop now, but I still miss my time with SLG.

  28. I really wish people like Mr. Kochalka would stop comparing book distribution to comics distribution without detailing why the comparison is appropriate in that particular case. Yes, books are mostly creator owned but OTOH most TV and film work isn’t and both have exactly zero relevance to the DM business model.
    Now, if one is talking specifics, like e.g. heavily serialised books targetted mostly at adolescent males and sold mostly on the basis of the underlying IP, we’d find lots of books _in that segement_ which are not creator owned at all.
    But, back to the original point, the comparison to books may have relevance in some cases, but in general it’s still comparing two different media. That gap closes for stand-alone books by a single creator, but those are – for better or worse – hardly what is usually understood by “comics”. Vado was talking about a business model for the DM.

  29. About 15 years ago, when I was transitioning from what little interest I ever had in the mainstream to indie, it was more often than not SLG titles and creators who I gave my money to (ie, Dorkin, Vasquez, Valentino, et al). As far as I can tell, those foundations are still in place, despite success from outside the SLG camp, as well as outside comics. When I was first considering making my own comics, it was SLG through which I first thought of trying to get my book published, and I told Dan so at WizardWorld Chicago ’99 (which he greeted with characteristic nonchalance). So I have mad love for Slave Labor and Dan as its human incarnation.

    That said, Dan’s got to recognize that the “rules” by which the comics industry has operated for so long are in their final stages of breaking down, and that if one wishes to be a successful businessman, even in comics, you’ve got to rely less on bonhomie and more on contract decisions based upon product evaluations in the context of market research. However, if he wants to continue as an innovator and caterer to the comics zeitgeist, and I hope he does, he has to accept the inevitable risk of little if any reward that comes with the territory. Somehow others in his position have been able to balance these factors, encouraging loyalty and respecting creators’ rights while also putting out products that are safer bets.

    But don’t grouse about not being adequately compensated or recognized for making the almost purely virtuous choice. You don’t make that choice and expect to profit by it; if you’re lucky, you might die with the coins for your eyes.

  30. Tag, don’t you think that Dan’s comment reflects his recognition of the changing nature of the industry rather than grousing? I do. I don’t see the “grousing” here, in fact. Dan was answering a question completely honestly. It’s almost a shock to seeing someone being so honest in a public forum, even though I am used to how straightforward Dan is after working for him for nearly six years now.

    Eh, I was going to type more, but I have to get a bunch of comics and graphic novels to the printer. It’s like it’s my job or something.

  31. I’ve published a handful of creator owned books (STRANGE EMBRACE, FLY CHRONICLES, THE SPIRAL CAGE and SKIDMARKS) which I have no stake in, a couple or three of which I have a small piece (SOLSTICE, GUNPOWDER GIRL and BALLAST) and two books which I wholly create and wholly own (HIP FLASK and ELEPHANTMEN.

    Of the three deals I can tell you that I definitely prefer the last, but I learned a lot by working with other creators and published their properties not because I wanted to make money on ancilliary rights, but because I thought they were great pieces of work and wanted to help my friends get their books out there. Many of the creators I’ve published are people I’ve worked with and known a long time and I prefer NOT to get into how much I’ve spent and why I should perhaps get more… nevertheless I fully understand why other publishers have a 50/50 or 35/65 take-it-or-leave-it deal on all rights relating to creators’ properties. Publishers have to think about their future as well as yours.

    The costs involved in running a publishing company are ridiculous. Promotion alone can often cost more than your print bill. Establishing a presence at a show like Comic-con can cost a small publisher THOUSANDS of dollars, and if you make a thousand dollars a day selling product you might just break even… However, very few publishers can make that kind of money without a broad range of product, a few high ticket items and three or four employees managing the booth — and, hey, costs of shipping, hotels and floor space just doubled… now you have to make $2,000 a day!

    Chris Staros once told me that he attended 18 shows a year to build the TOP SHELF name, and for that kind of dedication, man, Chris and Brett DESERVE a piece of the action! Without companies like TOP SHELF, PLANET LAR/AiT and IDW there’d be a whole boatful of creators who’d have sunk without trace. Like so many other former self publishing creators (Paul Grist, Robert Kirkman, Tom Scioli), I’ve taken my book (ELEPHANTMEN) to IMAGE where it can enjoy better exposure, better Diamond discounts (and storage!), better credit terms and unit prices with printers, overship opportunities and cross promotion with other titles. Having learned all about the ups and downs of self-publishing, I’m happy to give IMAGE their monthly fees and a cut of trade paperback sales.

    Personally, I’m amazed that Dan Vado has stuck it out for so long — he’s a better man than I am, Gunga Din, and I salute him! Even so, I’m not AT ALL surprised that he’d do things differently now. After just three years publishing other creators’ properties, I’m already doing things differently!


  32. I find it amazing that Vado would shoot himself in the foot this way.

    In the first place, such a public lament that “I’ve wasted 20 years” tends to cast a pall over the company. You just don’t say shit like that until after you’ve quit or retired.

    In the second place, he can reassure his current creators that nothing will change, and they can believe him, but the next batch of undiscovered geniuses are more likely to pass him by now.

  33. “I find it amazing that Vado would shoot himself in the foot this way.”

    Yeah, honesty and forthrightness really is a bad buisness model. As a creator I much prefer to be patted on the head an assured that everything is just swell.

  34. It occurs to me that I’ve posted the wrong thing. What I meant to say was…Thank you. Thank you Dan Vado, and thank you Slave Labor for publishing me back when no one else would. The relationship didn’t last long, but it wasn’t a bad experience.

    Really, I will always be grateful for that.

    I do happen to believe that the copyright is doomed, it was a little experiment that will end up being just a blip in the history of man. It’s already nearly defunct in practice (no one thinks twice of stealing music, for instance) and it’s just a matter of time until the law catches up with the general perception that everything should be shared freely. Which would make the notion of creator ownership or company ownership a complete non-issue.

    (I’m not saying this is right or wrong, just that it’s the direction mankind seems to be headed in.)

  35. If you really want to thank him, you might want to consider occasionally submitting work to him (assuming you haven’t). That’s just my interpretation and I in no way can speak for Dan. Also, I mean no disrespect here as I have no doubt your gratitude is quite sincere, but it seems that one of the major issues is the creative force using companies like SLG as a springboard and never looking back. Only a fool would suggest an exclusive arrangement as it’s simply not economical. But (from my limited perspective) it would make a world of difference if more established and notable creators, like yourself, continued to dip a toe in the SLG pond from time to time.

    As for your interpretation of copyright, that’s as accurate an assessment as they come, from what I can see.

  36. The only reason I ever left Slave Labor & found a new publisher was because Dan told me that he couldn’t continue to publish me anymore, since my first two projects sold so poorly. I bear him no ill will for that.

  37. Maybe that would still be the case with sales now. Perhaps it’s my unfounded optimism for this industry, but it’s hard to imagine that at this time, a book with your name on it would not garner more attention, and therefore some higher performance sales. Adjusted for the lower sales of the entire industry of course, but relatively more than you sold through SLG previously.

    Obviously you have other commitments now. And obviously you would know better what to expect in regards to your sales than I would. Maybe I’m just colored by my enjoyment of Super-F*ckers.