The problem with writing an article like this is deciding where to start. Arrow Comics didn't just spring into being fully formed from the chaos one day. It was an outgrowth of a long time love of comics and comic collecting (of course we were collectors, what did you think!?). Not to mention the fact that this oh so strange hobby/industry has an almost mystical charm that makes its fans want to join the ranks of its creators. I mean, I love cars, but I never wanted to build one. I like beer, but I never wanted to brew it. And for the record, I never like cars and beer at the same time! If you are a comic reader, you must have found yourself doodling favorite characters, making up your own stories about them, or even inventing characters of your own. Admit it. Well, I could sum up the creation of Arrow just like that. But seriously, folks, Arrow Comics is a living entity that has grown and evolved since its inception. We just don't know exactly which night it happened. Or who the father was!
I bet it was Ralph, though.
He's the one who came home from the comic shop (BIG BOB's in old Depot Town, Ypsilanti. Alas and alack it is no longer there) with TEENAGE NINJA MUTANT TURTLES #1 amongst the two-foot high stack of comics he bought. "Don't get me wrong, I've been collecting comics since the early seventies, but this was the book that made me think about putting out my own book," said Ralph. "Sure, I'd seen ELFQUEST and CEREBUS, but the production values of Turtles #1 with the odd sized pages and the two color cover, hey, that couldn't be too expensive or too hard to do myself."
At that point there really wasn't an intention to create a comic book company, but the idea brought about a profound change. It was time to make the transition from consumer to producer, from bystander to active participant. Yes, TNMT was the rascally, persistent sperm cell that pierced the fertile egg of Ralph's brain and, in time, caused the birth of Arrow Comics. I wonder if we initiated a paternity suit....nah! At that point, Ralph and I shared an apartment in Ypsilanti (that way, neither of had to drive when we wanted to party together). Other than our nine to fives, we had an abundance of free time and enough money to keep both our bellies and our comic collections fed. So when Ralph showed me this cheap looking rag and told me his idea of following suit, I said, "What the hell! Let's do it." I made a lot of decisions that way when I was 22.
Unfortunately, neither Ralph nor myself could claim to be artists. Sure, we had scored A's in our senior year high school Journalism II class by each doing a monthly one page strip for the school paper. But the statute of limitations is up I think, so I can admit that most of my "Moray, of the Undersea Kingdom" was direct swipes from various Gil Kane books and Prince Namor appearances. At least I didn't trace them, okay!? Ralph's TOILETMAN was much more original and funny, as well as charming in a crude sort of way. Irregardless (my favorite non-word), we weren't up to the task of producing art for an entire comic book. Not that we would actually show anyone anyway. So, if we were to enter the publishing world, we would have to find another vehicle.
That's when Ralph remembered a mimeographed mag that a former high school buddy, Tim Gasco, had put together back in the mid seventies. It was called FANTASTIC FANS' SCENE and had one whole issue out before it folded. I had even written an introductory chapter for a space opera story for Tim. I had forgotten all about it because, well because it was so forgettable. My writing's gotten a lot better since I was sixteen! We had just enough talent to fake a few pages of artwork so we figured a comic book fanzine was the way to go.
Ralph, in one of his recurring strokes of genius, thought to play on the name of Mr. Gasco's production and call our mag FANTASTIC FANZINE. Sounded good to me. It wasn't until several months and a couple of issue's later that we found out about a previous incarnation of FANTASTIC FANZINE published by the guy who was at that time the publisher of THE COMICS JOURNAL. In fact, it turned out that FANTASTIC FAN'S SCENE was a take off on that name. We just reversed the procedure. Oooops!
Luckily, nobody caught our swipe. Or maybe nobody cared by that time.
The name decided and the idea in place, we now had to figure out how the heck we actually do this! Ralph and I had a mutual friend, Rob Knight, who was a bit of a whiz kid. Rob is one of the smartest people I know and had a knack for research. Within days, Rob was a walking dictionary of printing and publishing terms. Without Rob's pseudo-technical know how, there probably wouldn't have been a Fantastic Fanzine, much less an Arrow Comics.
Plunking down $300.00 on a used industrial strength typewriter (this baby had a cast aluminum body and could be used to prop up a car while changing a tire) and a couple of fresh pads of drawing paper, Fantastic Fanzine was in business. We played fanboys doing reviews of our current fave books (I gushed particularly about the just released CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS #1. Anybody remember that series?), made up a Top Twenty current comics list with only Ralph, Rob and my input (it could vary wildly from issue to issue with everything from X-MEN to FLAMING CARROT making it into the top five), and a popular column dealing with the local convention scene and collecting in general called Da Snoop (a McGruff-looking character with little tolerance for price-hikers and a barely readable Brooklyn accent.). Hey, we were having fun. We could have been out drinking and smoking and chasing women...oh, wait a minute. We were doing that too, weren't we?
Fortunately for us and the world in general, Ralph and I got to opt out of the art chores by issue three as we were meeting a number of local artists who were happy to have their work published, even at our lowly level. You might have heard of some of these amateurs; Guy Davis, Vincent Locke, Randy Zimmerman, Susan Van Camp, Mark Bloodworth, Tim Dzon amongst others. Although we couldn't pay them anything, we gave them the opportunity to break out of the catch-22 of comic artists: In order to get published, companies first want to see what you've already had published! So Ralph and I willingly stepped out of the way so Guy could do his STAR CORPS series, Randy a couple of TALES FROM THE ANIVERSE teasers, and Mark (B'Wood as I still call him) began what would become his NIGHTSTREETS work.
At that point, two forces were at work simultaneously. The first was the beginning of the Black and White Explosion that was sparked by TNMT #1 and the hunger for new, previously undiscovered talent (not to mention the next twenty-fold return on some speculator's two buck investment). The second was a bounty of exceptional talent in the Detroit area. The initial idea had been to do comics. Now that dream seemed a genuine possibility. The fact that Preney Print and Litho (where CEREBUS was printed) was right across the river in Windsor helped a great deal. We had a printer who actually understood the peculiarities of comic book printing and distribution less than an hour's drive from our office/apartment. The fates were being nice to us.
We decided to take the plunge. Unfortunately, neither Ralph nor myself were/are business majors and we once again stumbled around a bit trying to get the ball rolling. The Small Business Administration guy we met with wasn't particularly helpful. I guess we were too small. The bank manager loved my business plan, especially the two page state-of-the-comics-marketplace section, but we had no collateral and were asking for too little! We were forced to seek out our neighborhood loan shark and bookie and take out a small loan. He was a bud, so he gave us a decent rate and promised not to break our legs.
In December of 1984, TALES FROM THE ANIVERSE by Randy Zimmerman and Susan Van Camp (if you've seen any Magic: The Gathering cards, you've probably seen some of Sue's work) was born, followed two month's later by Guy Davis' THE REALM. There were. like, four major distributors and a score of smaller ones back then, so we had numerous avenues to sell the books and they did pretty well. Then an ad appeared in CBG that featured amongst other items, the cover of REALM #1 and a buying price of $10.00! That did it. REALM sales and Arrow Comics sales in general increased and suddenly we were a player. We popped out with Vince Locke's DEADWORLD series, Bloodworth's NIGHTSTREETS, and a short-lived superhero book called SYSTEM SEVEN.
In an era when two issues in a series could be six or more months apart and quality levels ranged from breathtaking to sixth grade scribbles, Arrow Comics was a stable and dependable company. We maintained a near perfect production schedule and only put out books we felt had a certain level of quality. It grated on us when vastly and obviously inferior product made it to the retailer's shelves along side our own. These rags were gobbling up retailers and readers dollars because the greed factor was blinding almost everyone to differentiate between legitimate books and just plain crap! In fact, many of these books were earning more than Arrow books because they had a higher cover price! As a company we held our price on a 32 page, black and white book with full color, laser separated covers at $1.75. Other companies were twenty, fifty cents, even a full dollar more expensive. Some only had 24 pages! Yet people were willing to buy them indiscriminately.
Not to say that there were no other good books besides Arrow. There were plenty, but they were often buried on the retailer's shelves and in the distributor's catalogs amongst a whole lot of junk. At one point, Ralph, Randy, Mark Bloodworth and myself sat down and devised a scheme to see just what kind of sales these books were getting. We created a fake company name, Massive Comics (so that it would pop in right after Marvel in the catalogs) and four fake titles, BATTLE BOT (which makes its actual debut in the pages of ARROW ANTHOLOGY), RENEGADE COP, CAPTAIN JUSTICE, and HELLSPAWN NINJA, about a character who inherits a demon that died and went to hell only to be sent back to Earth to be a hero and atone for his sins in his own violent way (Y'know, that reminds me of some other comic character that just had a movie out. Now who could it be?). We made up fake names for the creative teams. Randy and Mark drew up the covers and designed logos, Ralph and I wrote the copy. We spent a couple hundred bucks on a four page flyer, which we sent to distributors. We never wrote a script or started page one of the art.
Lo and behold, six weeks or so later, we had enough orders for all four books to go to press and make a profit. A decent profit. With the tiny amount of information we had offered the distributors and retailers, including the fact that there was no known talent involved in the projects, we still managed to sell them. This was through the direct market, mind you, which meant these books were bought, non-refundable, no matter how crappy they turned out to be.
For about two minutes we actually contemplated rushing four books to completion during the next two weeks (and that meant writing, penciling, inking, lettering, coloring the cover, interior copy, the works! Ralph and I would have had to help out on the art chores!). We just couldn't bring ourselves to do it. Besides, we were too busy already with our respective Arrow projects. And we had gained the knowledge we had set out to discover. The market was willing to absorb anything and everything that came its way.
It was a situation that couldn't exist for long. There wasn't enough money to keep on buying and buying everything that came out. The backlash started at the grass roots level. Readers (and even speculators) slowly became aware that some of the stuff they were buying was trash. They stopped buying it, became more picky. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the direct market, the retailers were committed to orders three months or so in advance. The stuff kept coming in, only now no one was buying it. And it still had to be paid for.
The money crunch hit the retailers first, then backed up to the distributors, some of whom became slow to pay publishers. Not Marvel or DC, of course. No reason to slit your own throat. But the smaller guys, regardless of their quality level, could be bullied, cajoled, scammed, or even blown off. At the peak of the Black and White Collapse (ain't it interesting the way history adds capital letters to events?) many retailers and distributors went belly up, most leaving a mound of unpaid debts behind. And that meant publishers, like Arrow Comics, with a dried up cash flow, printers bills, and creators that were going to have to take jobs at McDonalds is some cash didn't end up in their pockets soon.
The honeymoon was over. Rather than spending my day writing scripts or answering fan mail, I was on the phone trying to scrape up a hundred dollars here, a commitment there, extending credit an extra week here, finding out we'd lost another distributor there. After three months, we'd taken hits totaling $75,000.00! Seventy K of which we'd be lucky to get two or three percent according to our lawyer. Hey, guys, I've got some bad news.
The Arrow crew had spent a few years together, most of them pretty lean, but when the cash flow dried up (and it was down to a trickle by this point), people started getting hungry. Landlords wanted their rent. Bristol board wasn't getting any cheaper. The printing bills on those big print run issues were coming due and sales were down. The situation was grim, folks.
I went back to work as assistant manager of the grocery store so that I wasn't another financial drain on the company. However, that just meant I had very limited time to fulfill my Arrow duties. More work was shifted onto Ralph. We were both stressed out, partly due to the discouraging prospects ahead and partly from hangover. We'd taken a sudden fall from pretty dizzying heights.
One day Ralph and I had a big fight to blow off steam and I stormed out. When I came back I told Ralph I thought we should close the doors. He wasn't ready to let go yet and who's to say we still couldn't have turned it around? Dark Horse went through the same dark times as we had and managed to stay afloat and even reached an enviable level of success. I told him he could keep it all, I just wanted out.
We were still roomies, so I got to see the burdens Ralph was trying to hold up on his own. I continued to script the books I was working on, and we got along all right, but I knew I was the one who had stuck the knife in and given it a twist. After a few months of bravely trudging along, Ralph gave up the ghost. Arrow was parceled away to keep the debtors at bay and a three year high finally came to an end.
Ralph moved out and a year passed before I spoke to him again.
A few years later we were back at it, creating and publishing a zombie book titled THE DEAD and three new issues of FANTASTIC FANZINE. THE DEAD really pushed the envelope on gore and violence, and included nudity and a few scenes of sexual violence (perpetrated against BOTH sexes, mind you). I guess we went a bit too far with it, because many retailers were reluctant to carry it and we couldn't get it shipped across the border. After two issues, we had to shut down again.
Our next foray into the comics' world was OZ, published by Caliber Comics. We had had enough with the business end and just wanted to write. Caliber was, and still is, publishing books based on THE REALM and DEADWORLD, and Ralph and I had a long history of dealing with Gary Reed, Caliber's founder and publisher. In nearly three years we pumped out 25 or so scripts and kept Bill Bryan and a couple of other artists busy. It was a cozy little thing, didn't take up too much time and was a lot of fun. We thought we were content.
That is until Randy Zimmerman gave us a good slap on the face and told us to wake up. It was time to charge the hill once more!
"COMICS IS A HARSH MISTRESS"
By Randy Zimmerman
"Charging the hill once more" isn't quite the way that I see it. It's more like renewing an affair that you regretted quitting in the first place.
My association with Arrow started at a convention, the first King Con I believe it was, where I saw these three guys (Ralph, Stu, and Rob), working to produce and sell their own little fanzine. It looked amateurish and almost silly, in their rush to go to print they had a misunderstanding with their printer and they had printed the whole 'zine under a gray screen. I figured they wouldn't go anywhere.
At the time I had already been printed. Oh sure, it was a small "fanzine" out of Chicago called Just Imagine (which spawned a good number of long running comics careers), but I was still printed, and these guys were just printing a silly looking newspaper kind of "thing". I remember thinking "They'll never amount to much.", as I went back to selling my books and offering to do sketches for folks.
Well, lo and behold, their next book was much better, comic sized and readable. I knew Tim Dzon at the time and he and another buddy or two were helping them out, doing comic strips and stuff for their interior. Suddenly I saw it as another opportunity to be printed, so I offered to help out too.
By this time Rob's work schedule was keeping him out of the fanzine so it had become Ralph 'n' Stu running things and the rest of us trying to do strips that they would print. Soon Ralph was looking to start a publishing company, and was looking for a title to start up with. Especially one that he could test the waters on. Well at the time Susan Van Camp and I had worked up a whole universe full of ideas that we has entitled The Aniverse, one character of which was having a short story printed in another independent book, Journey, published by Aardvark-Vaneheim (the publishers of Cerebus). I believe Ralph saw this story and offered for us to do an entire issue dedicated to that character's universe and Tales From The Aniverse was born.
I remember fondly sitting around (Sue's boyfriend and later to be husband) Mark Harmon's house planning the first issue and coming up with the idea of having "Ralph 'n' Stu" introducing the books. Looking back it was a silly idea, but one that showed the books, and Arrow Comics in general, as being a fun company. I still look at those back issues and smile at the silly rhymes ("We're Ralph 'n' Stu, How do you do"- "We're Ralph 'n' Stu, a cow says "Moo".).
Anyway, Arrow comics was well underway, and by the time the third issue of Tales From The Aniverse came out I was willing ("stupid enough" is probably a better term) to forgo my employment and devote myself full time to comics. Well, that lasted a month maybe, then I had to do something to subsidize my income. Ralph 'n' Stu were looking for help (general grunt type help), and I was soon "hired" to work in the offices answering mail, prepping orders to be mailed, that kind of thing. Those were good times, fun times, despite the lack of riches.
During a trip to the annual Chicago Con I remember Ralph, Stu, Mark Bloodworth (I think), and myself trying to solve a problem with Deadworld. The second issue's cover was a bit too intense for some retailers (we figures it was a cool picture, who knew a zombie with his guts sticking out would be considered "gross"?). By the time we reached Chicago we had all brainstormed the solution. So by the time Deadworld #4 came out (in '86 I think), we offered two covers for the same issue, one "regular" and one "intense". Thus the cover variation was born, not with the thoughts of it raising speculator's demands but to settle the concerns of some retailers who wanted to sell our product out in the open. It took a few more years for "The Big Boys" to take our little idea and turn it into a "gimmick" to sell multiple copies of the same comic. If only we knew...
You can only have so much fun though, without having to meet your bills, and soon reality crept in. Shortly after a year of having all this "fun", and watching the "Black and White Bust" happening, I soon had to quit working for Arrow and begin to try to cover my bills. I began retailing with a local retailer in order to cover my expenses. Arrow Comics by this time was feeling the hard pinch, with distributors starting to belly up, and it soon became obvious that the fun was over. At this time this retailer (whose name is not worth mentioning) suggested that we publish books ourselves and soon the short-lived WeeBee Comics was born.
WeeBee published two issues of The Aniverse, one issue of The Realm, and a collection of the first issues of Deadworld (Both properties were given to their artists Guy Davis and Vince Locke respectively to compensate their loss from Arrow's collapse.). Then the retailer who was funding us sent his personal life into sheer upheaval (some folks just don't know how good they've got things-myself included at least a couple of times-.), and forced WeeBee Comics into extinction. Realm and Deadworld went to the newly created Caliber Comics as I headed into the unemployment line and heavy debt.
While I was still retailing a couple of interesting things happened. Worst of which, I guess, was that I had become homeless. I was "living" in one of the retailer's "back rooms". If I hadn't been lucky enough to meet Monica, my future wife, I'm not sure where I would have ended up. Also, while I was running a comic shop up in Bay City I got to make a good amount of friends, one of which is Scott Moore, Arrow's current publisher. It was a bittersweet tradeoff that seems to have worked out for the best.
The heavy debt continued to the point where I had to pick up a full time job. Luckily I was offered one by a client that I was freelancing with and soon became the art department for a local textile screen-printer; The Great Put On, to name names.
A few years after working at The Put On I was given a chance by my employer to try once again at self-publishing. Using Massive Comics as a group name (kind of an in-joke to all the folks at Arrow, AND because it's a great name for a comic company) I published three more issues of Tales From The Aniverse and an X-rated "funny book" entitled X-capade. Shrinking numbers and shrinking time convinced me to stop self-publishing. I was at a point where I would loose money if I went to print, so I decided to get out. I came out of the experience with the knowledge of just what it takes to do a publishing company, the time, effort, and political give and take needed to actually make a company wasn't something I really wanted to do. I just wanted to create, and do work in comics that I could be proud of.
Shortly after Massive's collapse Ralph got in touch with me again. He was restarting Arrow once again, and of course I had to sign on. It was great to be working once more with the Arrow gang, and it once again drove home the thought of self-publishing. I realized, perhaps too late, that one of the key factors in any self-publishing venture was tenacity, the willingness to fight and stay fighting for what you believe in.
During Arrow's short resurrection, and one thing that Stu didn't mention, was that just as Arrow was dying for a second time Ralph and him were working on OZ. Oz was always meant to be an Arrow title, and would have been if Ralph had been fortunate enough to find proper funding. That was also an important lesson learned from Arrow's second return, if you're going to be a company you better be able to afford being a company right from the start.
After Arrow went down the second time we all went our separate ways once more. Oz went to Caliber, and I went wherever I could. I was working up properties to offer to different companies without too many bites. I did work for Antarctic, Nightwolf Graphics, CFD, and eventually Caliber again. I even tried to start another company, this one called Lazer Comics, which didn't get any farther than a couple of solicitations and promotions. Once again it was funding that stopped us.
The real lesson that I painfully learned from my freelancing was that everyone else seemed to be in control of what you were doing. Antarctic refused to restart Tales From The Aniverse after they had made a verbal commitment to me, Caliber had stalled a superhero team property I had developed solely because their previous attempt at color was botched, Nightwolf Graphics soon folded due to lack of funds, and it just kept coming. My experiences with these other publishers were valuable lessons on keeping commitments, and double- checking yourself and your company. The real straw came with my association with Mythic Comics, a small company out of Toronto. I knew after that that if I was ever to be happy it meant a certain level of control over my product, that meant self-publishing yet again.
A small footnote here. I DID have a favorable experience with a publishing company during this period. It was with Caliber and their publishing the first The War Of The Worlds arc. I honestly feel it was one of the best products that I've been associated with.
So, in order to start self-publishing I knew, from those great past experiences to prepare, prepare and prepare. We couldn't come out again until everything was set, and that meant a good six months worth of preparations.
And now Arrow is off and running again, this time resurrected slowly, but deliberately, and though still not "bump free", we are here and we will be here for the foreseeable future. The only certainty that I can give you is that it's under the skin, like that deep love affair that never seems to die, and that one way or another we'll all still be "in comics" in one form or another. Arrow is eternal.