Dan Vado needs a vacation. Strapped to the Commander in Chief seat in the headquarters of his San Jose-based publishing company, Slave Labor Graphics, he’s overseeing a production schedule that includes books from cartooning icons Evan Dorkin, Roman Dirge and Andi Watson while shepherding in a new generation of comics from a diverse range of creators like Steve Emond, James Turner and Sonny Liew. Some days, his schedule sounds like a comic book/pop culture wet dream way to make a living. Check out proofs for the new issue of fan-favorite GARGOYLES, envision bold new venues in which to offer comics, organize the annual kickass SLG Halloween Party – it sounds like a dream gig, sure, but it takes a business savvy, strategically thinking, industry minded publisher to weather the trials, triumphs and tribulations of twenty years of putting out monthly comics to make it work. It takes a man, in short, like High Commander Dan Vado.
The history of Slave Labor Graphics is well-documented and many well-known cartoonists and rising stars have sought to place their creator owned projects in its production schedule, appreciating the creative freedom and quality product Vado and staff have offered now since 1986. Today, after twenty years of Milk, Cheese, Samurais, Ninjas, Angels, Ghouls, Pirates, Sparks, Bears and Homicidal Maniacs, Dan graciously sat with me and answered twenty questions about his company, his legacy and what the future holds.
Who knows, Dan? Maybe one day it will include that vacation.
KLEID: Why in hell did you start a publishing company? Apart from some notable exceptions back in the mid-1980s (Ninja Turtles, mostly), independent comic books were not exactly a safe moneymaking bet. This was right around the beginning of the end for Comico, yes? So why why WHY do it?
VADO: Short answer, I just wanted to see if I could do it. Why do I STILL do it, I’m not really certain, other than I’m not sure I know how to do anything else.
KLEID: The early years: SLG seems like it started off as a place where pals got together and put out books like ” It’s Science with Dr. Radium” and then moved into publishing work by current greats such as Dorkin, Brubaker, Watson and Allred. How did you go about identifying talent and procuring books like “Milk and Cheese”. What was the early process of talent acquisition?
VADO: Yeah, it was kind of a chummy, clubish kind of thing back in the beginning, sort of reflecting the notion that I was not going to do this for so long. I have never really gone about “acquiring” anyone. Everyone we publish is someone who has come to us. You kind of have to want to be here in order to be here. I’m not the kind of guy who is going to walk up to a creator while they are sitting at another publisher’s booth and hand them my card (like certain Vertigo editors like to do). With a couple of exceptions, everything I have decided to publish is something I genuinely liked.
KLEID: Nowadays of course, the SLG Office is an efficient model of the whited out, muted down, pristine corporate American workplace. Back when your hair was longer than your list of titles and it was all about the comics, man, what was the work environment like?
VADO: Really, not a lot has changed. I always took everything I did seriously so there was no real difference in atmosphere between then and now. Not to say that we are a button-down bunch right now–we still have a good deal of fun here–but with changes of staff over time certain things have changed. It was not unusual for me to close the doors around lunchtime and go play some pick-up hockey with my staff a few years back. Once we closed up shop to go capture a six-foot iguana that had wandered into my back yard.
KLEID: Has anyone ever dropped acid in the SLG offices? How about trou?
VADO: No doubt.
KLEID: Explain the SLG logo, if you can… whats with the little globe?
VADO: The original logo was a ball and chain. The logo migrated to the more stylish thing you see today.
KLEID: The entrance of Jhonen Vasquez and Roman Dirge helped SLG make its mark as a unique publisher gearing a section of titles to the goth demographic. What gave you that early inkling that this would be a good market to tap?
VADO: Here is a secret: There is no “goth” market. Sure, it’s easy to look at the people who line up for Jhonen or Roman at a convention or other signings and say “look at all the goths,” but I think people who are saying that are ignoring the fact that a lot of people AREN’T all dressed in black. These guys have lots of fans, most of them teens, most of whom discovered these creator’s comics OUTSIDE of the Direct Market, and to just lump them all together as part of a goth market is a disservice to the creators, to the fans and to me.
Notice that there have been a lot of people who have tried to market comics to this non-existent goth market and have fallen on their faces. Where are they now? More to the point, if you look at the list of the top 100 selling graphic novels every year for the past nearly 10 years you will see that there are only 3-4 titles which pop up on those lists every year; WATCHMAN, DARK KNIGHT and JOHNNY THE HOMICIDAL MANIAC. Jhonen Vasquez, from a popularity perspective, is in a league with Alan Moore and Frank Miller, and yet he as a creator is dismissed as the product of a goth subculture gone wild.
KLEID: Establishing yourself as an independent publisher with a rather unique sensibility, was there an urge to distance yourself from the kind of work coming out from Fantagraphics and other slowly rising indie publishers?
VADO: No. Honestly I don’t give a shit and have never given a shit what anyone else publishes. I don’t even buy or read other people’s comics. If I started basing my decisions on what other people did, even if it was some attempt to distance myself from them, then I would not be following my own instinct and I would be letting someone else dictate what I was doing.
KLEID: There are those that say that comedy comics don’t sell and are a waste of time yet SLG puts out more “funny” books than most with titles that range from “Dork!” to a little book called “Ursa Minors!” Why take a chance on publishing humor books if everyone’s after spandex and art books?
VADO: Like I said above, I publish what I like and I mostly like funny stuff. When people say funny comics don’t sell, they need to finish the sentence by saying “…in the direct market”.
Looking at what people will spend money on at conventions, online, in bookstores (I’m not talking about just our stuff, any stuff), funny comics CAN sell.
KLEID: During the speculator boom, when Wizard Magazine was King and holofoil variant glow in the dark covers lined the walls of the Direct Market, was there ever a moment when things seemed like comics was the way to go or, alternatively, that it was time to get the hell out?
VADO: Comics are something I am stuck with. It’s always seems a good time to get out (never more than now it seems) and I have never thought that I could get rich from it, although it had provided me a reasonably decent living.
KLEID: What’s with all the tiki? Is it true that Dan’s trademark tiki fetish is inspired by a childhood love of after school Hawaiian Punch? I heard it on the internet so it must be true.
KLEID: I was extremely impressed when I learned that SLG would be partnering with Disney to produce comic books based on some of their licenses. How did you score such a huge deal? When will we be seeing the Big Thunder Mountain graphic novel the world has been waiting for?
VADO: The Disney thing is a long story and has been discussed a million places. Suffice it to say, we are not going to really go after new licenses with Disney, although we are planning on expanding on the licenses we currently have. Not that there aren’t a million great ideas for their properties, but the comic world isn’t really ready to embrace what we are doing. Funny thing–in any other industry a Disney license is a license to print money. Only in the Direct Market is Disney a second-rate brand.
KLEID: You’ve got your tried and true titles like JTHM, LENORE and MILK AND CHEESE but every now and then something like STREET ANGEL comes along and wows the critics and fans. What make a sleeper hit, well, hit? And does critical acclaim always translate into solid sales?
VADO: Something cannot be both a sleeper and a hit. A comic or graphic novel either sells or it doesn’t. Critical acclaim does not translate to sales. For all the talk and hype on Street Angel, the comic hovered around 1500 copies sold and never broke out of that. Not enough for a creator with rent to pay to keep the project going. A million blog entries or message board posts mean shit when it comes to actually selling something. For all of the hype or critical acclaim for Street Angel on the Internet, that alone wasn’t enough to help make it a financial success or, for that matter, even get it nominated for a single award in any category. Snakes on a Plane, that movie was in discount houses in a couple of weeks despite all of the viral marketing hype.
And, let me say this about “viral marketing” thing that people can’t shut up about. I think I liked “Viral Marketing” better when it was called “Word-of-Mouth advertising.” You really can’t get better advertising than someone recommending something to someone else, but it needs to be a sincere recommendation from someone who has tried the product. When Hollywood or advertising types start talking about “viral marketing,” they are basically saying that they can invent the virus, plant it in the population, and suddenly everyone is going to jump in and buy their product or go to their movie. Some of these people translate a couple of entries on someone’s blog as millions of impressions and charge accordingly. YOUTUBE.COM is valuing itself at $1.5 BILLION DOLLARS, despite the fact that they have no workable revenue stream, and someone will pay it because they think that it’s this amazing advertising platform. But once people start getting wind of the fact that most of the content you are being directed to are all fake pieces of nonsense designed to dupe you into buying deodorant or watching some crappy TV show they will abandon YOUTUBE in favor of some other thing that will become the Internet’s next big “IT” site.
Same thing with MYSPACE. Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp buys MYSPACE for $500 Million dollars. Then what happens? People discover Myspace and start using it as a marketing platform. The result, Google has now made a deal paying Newscorp almost $900 Million, nearly twice what they paid for Myspace in the first place, to serve ads on Myspace websites. Really, how many text ads on Myspace or Livejournal does someone really click?
If I tried to take credit for creating the word-of-mouth, or the viral marketing, that made Johnny a success I would be lying. I took advantage of it, I was able to capitalize on it, but I was not responsible for it. The reason that book took off the way it did was because all of the word-of-mouth, all of the “viral marketing,” was all sincere efforts on the parts of fans to spread the word to other fans, not because we planted fake messages on message boards or because some made-up hot chick on Youtube was reading Johnny.
KLEID: “Too Stupid to Quit; Too Mean to Die”: SLG’s personal mantra or a perfect summation of the comic book Direct Market?
VADO: Personal thing, but it sums up our marketplace pretty well.
KLEID: The SLG/Hot Topic relationship. Elaborate and expound: Good for comics or bad for comics and why?
VADO: Why would something that created new readers and a new audience for comics be bad? I don’t get it. Why all the hostility towards Jhonen, Roman or their fans? The failure of other Direct Market publishers to capitalize on this audience is the failure to understand that the audience was looking for something different, and still looks for something different. Comics in Hot Topic have helped create a load of new comic readers. Maybe they aren’t buying CIVIL WAR, but they will buy comics.
KLEID: Amaze Ink was originally created as an all ages imprint for titles like SKELETON KEY and THE REPLACEMENT GOD. Is this still in use? Aren’t most titles under the main banner these days? Why, in the PREVIEWS catalog, is the company still called “Amaze Ink”?
VADO: It was never intended to be all ages, it was more along the lines of a genre line. The all ages thing came later. We still do some all ages titles, but there really isn’t a marketplace for them in our market. Our listing in the Previews catalog is a holdover from when the two imprints were listed separately. Guess what, the closer you are to the front of the Previews, the more your stuff gets looked at.
KLEID: What’s the Chain Gang and why should I join up as if my life depended on it?
VADO: You should join because my life depends on it. Actually, just paypal me the $20 and let me keep the shirt.
KLEID: Is there any book you’ve passed on that’s come back to haunt you in your late night regret sessions?
KLEID: Recently, SLG has taken one small step into the future of comics by offering downloadable versions of some of its titles. How’s this been working out for you guys? Pros? Cons?
VADO: We will be rolling out a downloadable comic soon which will not see print in periodical form (editor’s note: The comic, entitled WHISTLES, has debuted since the time of this interview). The series will be serialized digitally and then collected as a graphic novel later. I am not one of these people who think that the market for downloads will replace sales of physical books. However, the sales of comic format product, for us at least, have gotten to the point where it isn’t worth the effort to print this stuff. As the market moves more and more to wanting only graphic novels I think that digital sales will find a place alongside the regular pamphlet comic as a way to build an audience and a body of work.
On the plus side, and really it is too early to tell how this will all work out. The comics that have sold are all things that we have not sold a lot of copies of either through the direct market, on our web store or even at conventions, so people are taking an opportunity to sample and “collect” things that they have never seen before.
Cons, not a lot of money in this. I really think that the price of this stuff needs to be low, less than a music download because people value comics less than they value music, and the cost of processing a small under-a-buck transaction is pretty high, even with Paypal as the processor.
KLEID: From Dan’s bio on the website: “Dan is said to enjoy playing hockey, reminiscing about Silver Age Superman comics and making ‘beer can chicken.’ Beer Can Chicken? Recipe?
VADO: Okay, you start with a whole chicken, a can of beer and some herbs and spices you like. Douse the chicken in a mixture of beer and spices (doesn’t have to be beer, can be wine, can even be soda, whatever you like to make marinades from) and seal it with the liquid in a zip lock bag. No need to drown it, just enough for you to cover the bird. Make sure some gets under the skin.
Let it sit for about an hour, maybe two, then light a fire. Take the beer can, filled about half way with beer or whatever marinade you used and punch some holes in the top of it. Spread the coals to the side of your grill and let them burn down so the fire is maybe medium then take the chicken and shove the can into the chicken’s ass cavity. Position the chicken so that it is standing, the beer can will balance it, and place it on the grill in the middle of the grate, away from the direct heat. Cover and let cook until it reaches an internal temperature of maybe 160. What you end up with is a chicken with a super crisp skin and nice tender and moist meat because the fluid from the can, as it heats and turns to steam, will seep into the meat of the chicken from the inside. If you like, you can toss some wood smoking chips on the fire to get a smoky taste to the bird. Just remember this is real barbecue so cook it LOW (temperature) and cook it SLOW (cooking time).
KLEID: With the comics-related focus shifting to graphic novels and the bookstore market, will SLG’s publishing plans alter at all regarding the kind of product you put out? I know some publishers are moving to all-graphic novel. You?
VADO: I answered that above, We will be moving to serializing comics in digital form as downloads. I think, though, that if everyone starts moving to graphic novels that the resulting glut will take some people out of the game altogether. Anyone hoping that the bookstore market is somehow going to be this place where their books will all instantly sell simply by existing in book form is dead wrong. The returns will kill them, without a doubt. The book market is really now a carbon copy of the Direct Market, with two major players (Viz and Tokyopop) taking up most of the space and making most of the sales. Tough nut to crack, and a risky nut to crack because unlike the Direct Market the publisher ends up paying for his book that does not sell.