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Hit and Miss: A Brief History of SGC (Part 1)

February 11, 2006

A brief history of Sleeping Giant Comics: 1996-2006

Of course it didn’t begin a decade ago this month. I mean, it did, but then again, it didn’t. I doubt that anything simply begins. There are always those first baby steps that must be taken before a stumble progresses to a walk and then to a stride.

My dream began in 1977 with the theatrical release of STAR WARS, which lead me to collecting and devouring the STAR WARS comic, which peaked my interest in super-hero comics and a compulsion to work in the comics industry. This dream persisted on-again and off-again, taking plenty of detours along the way.

The first detour occurred when, in my senior year of high school, I enrolled in the Art Institute of Pittsburgh but ultimately altered my post-high school education plans and instead entered the University of Pittsburgh in fall 1982. I wasted considerable time during my first two years and didn’t really embrace higher education until my junior and senior years when I’d committed to pursuing a BA in writing and communications. Still, by this time comics were as much a part of my blood as was plasma. I devoured Alan Moore’s work, most notably SWAMP THING, which I still regard as the best horror comics ever written. Howie Chaykin’s AMERICAN FLAGG!, Mike Grell’s JON SABLE: FREELANCE, Bill Sienkiewicz and Doug Moench’s MOON KNIGHT, and Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s NEW TEEN TITANS were also among my monthly must-read titles. I worked briefly on the college newspaper and created a strip entitled CATERPILLAR, about a secret agent named Kate Pillar. The strip was challenging because, until that time I’d only done pencil art and the strip required inked art to reproduce.

Following graduation from Pitt in 1986, I relocated to northern Virginia and found work with a telecommunications company. I’d stopped buying comics prior to the move but it wasn’t long before I rediscovered them again, this time in the form of Jamie Delano’s HELLBLAZER and Berni Wrightson and Jim Starlin’s BATMAN: THE CULT mini-series. I relocated to Philadelphia a year later and found work as a proofreader at an advertising house. It was a 24-hour shop and I worked 4:00 pm to midnight. A few months into the job, the firm started to undergo a strange transition as a result of the advent of desktop publishing, which was at the time just beginning to replace the linotype machines, paste-up tables, and spec books that were standard gear in a type shop. Suddenly the offices were overflowing with Macintosh computers, HP scanners, and a variety of other electronic equipment. Many of the employees had been with the firm for upward of twenty years; typography was, to them, as oil and canvas are to fine artists. These men had been schooled in traditional mark-up and layout, and computers were as foreign to them as Esperanto is to most of us. There were layoffs as the company’s new CEO (the son of the former CEO) announced that he was taking the firm into the future, which was declared to be desktop publishing.

The problem was that he wasn’t alone. A traditional typesetting job involved a variety of steps. It typically began with a client providing the type-house with a mock-up of their intended advertisement. The mark-up men would log in the job and identify the font before passing it onto a typesetter who would key the material and output it on paper. It was then proofread and passed back to the typesetter for correcting, if necessary. Once approved, the text was output on reproductive paper (which everyone called “repo”) and the galley text was cut and pasted onto layout board. It was a time-consuming, labor-intensive endeavor, with an average job costing upwards of $200 or more. The advent of desktop publishing meant that the same job could suddenly be done by one person for a fraction of the time and money. It doesn’t take a genius to recognize the long-term impact of such competition, and before long the shop was liquidating its linotype machines and cameras, relocating to a smaller office, and laying off a majority of its staff. Needless to say, the CEO’s plans had backfired and the company soon vanished.

Thankfully, I’d gotten out just prior to the firm’s collapse and was working in the production department of one of Philly’s largest textbook and journal publishers. By this time I’d discovered Grant Morrison’s ANIMAL MAN and DOOM PATROL and Ted McKeever’s EDDY CURRENT. Marvel’s Epic line was also producing some of the finest comics of the time including Bill Sienkiewicz and Frank Miller’s ELEKTRA: ASSASSIN, Sienkiewicz’s STRAY TOASTERS, Jon Muth’s MOONSHADOW, and the US translated edition of Otomo’s AKIRA. I was drawing on a regular basis and taking figure drawing and other classes at Philly’s University of the Arts and the Fleisher Art Memorial. Figure drawing was invaluable and I was fortunate to receive instruction from several incredibly talented professors; if you’ve not taken figure drawing, I highly recommend it.

I completed sample pages for DC and Marvel, but was unable to find work. By the early 1990s I’d turned my full attention to working on characters of my own creation. I was still only working in pencil, though, and I realized that if I intended to self-publish I was going to have to learn to handle a pen or brush. I attended conventions regularly and shopped samples around, getting advice from editors including the late Archie Goodwin. Eventually I landed a project with a small-press company named Boneyard Press. Boneyard didn’t publish the type of material I enjoyed or would recommend to comic book fans. Its shtick was rooted in controversy, and its line included titles like DAHMER’S ZOMBIE SQUAD. Nonetheless, I saw it was a chance to break in. I was paired with a young writer and began work on a project involving a reluctant pederast. The story was an interesting psychological character study and a sort of cat and mouse thriller. However, my relationship with Boneyard’s publisher was less than amicable. After completing the first two installments of the project I walked away and didn’t look back. During this time I learned a lot about drawing, inking, and lettering, and a thing or two about the individuals who work in this industry. Mainly, I learned that an inker is only as good as the pens he’s inking with. Initially I was inking with, no joke, office pens. I switched to art pens soon after—one of my smarter decisions in this lifetime.

After developing and abandoning several science-fiction projects (including NSWE and 2016, a project I’d first begun in high school), I refocused and, by 1995, was completing what would become my first self-published comic, DEATH BY CHOCOLATE. At the same time I learned about the Xeric Foundation and submitted DBC for potential sponsorship. Much to my surprise, the Xeric folks awarded me just over $4,000 to publish the comic. Over the next few years I published two more issues of DBC and seven issues of THRESHOLD (aka, THE S.H.O.P.). THRESHOLD was intended as a cross between Marvel’s FANTASTIC FOUR and NBC’s SEINFELD. Ideally, I sought to create a super-hero serious which, at its core, was dramatic but which starred a group of characters that, ultimately, had a considerable amount of free time on their hands and very little idea how to occupy that time. The comics garnered good critical acclaim from industry press including CBG which, in a 1997 article referred to me as the “king of quirky comics,” a title I was happy to have bestowed upon me. Tony Isabella was among the first industry folks to take notice of my work and penned several positive reviews of the DBC and THRESHOLD books. CSN’s Cliff Biggers was another vocal advocate; I was more than a little shocked to find my work being raved about in CSN on an almost regular basis. I received a considerable number of letters and launched WIDE AWAKE, a quarterly newsletter that featured upcoming SGC projects and previously unpublished art.

Of course all things must change. THRESHOLD eventually was renamed when Avatar Press launched an adults-only anthology of the same name. It would have been a costly effort to pursue any sort of legal action, and I felt the name THRESHOLD didn’t quite capture the essence of the series. I brainstormed alternate titles for my team of super-heroes of Philadelphia when, one afternoon, the light bulb in my head switched on. The Super-Heroes of Philadelphia. THE S.H.O.P. It was a no-brainer. However, after seven issues of THRESHOLD I felt I needed a break from the book and its characters. Meanwhile, I completed a few side projects; most notably, providing layouts on the first six issues of Sean McKeever’s THE WAITING PLACE, volume 2. Sean and Mike Norton (the penciller/inker/letterer) allowed me a lot of flexibility and were a lot of fun to work with. I also did a short color piece for Jason Asala’s POE and a 10-page DBC story for the anthology MURDER BY CROWQUIL.

During this time I’d befriended fellow illustrator Lance Hanson, whose self-published comics include GLASS JAW. Lance introduced me to the world of alternative comics, turning me on to the likes of Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Seth. Of these artists, Burns has influenced me artistically, though I regard Seth as the clear innovator of the group. Lance and I drew together quite often at my studio in the late 90s and attended the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD, in 1998.

The fourth DBC installment, THE BROCCOLI AGENDA (November 1999), expanded from its initial 32-pages into a 90-page saga and occupied nearly a year of my creative life. Like the rest of the titles I’d published, THE BROCCOLI AGENDA cast resided in the same “universe” as the cast of THRESHOLD and DBC. The book was followed up by THE S.H.O.P. graphic novel (June 2000), a 64-page tour de force which served as a momentary closing chapter in the lives of the super-heroes of Philly, and a horror anthology, HAUNTED (October 2000), which included several horror tales of my own, as well as adaptations of stories by W.W. Jacobs and Dianne Pearce. THE S.H.O.P. was a vast departure story wise from THRESHOLD. The THRESHOLD stories had always remained somewhat light-hearted, but THE S.H.O.P. assumed a darker tone, though not nearly to the extent that was prevalent in the mainstream super-hero titles being produced at this time. Characterization remained the driving component of the stories, though there was no deficit of action.

In 1999 I was profiled on WPVI’s (Philly’s ABC affiliate) weekend news magazine in a feature that aired a few months later. As the 1990s drew to a close, I began conceptualizing what would become ALTERCATIONS, a full-color graphic novel depiction of the history of super-hero activity in 20th century America.

ALTERCATIONS went into development in early 2001. By this time, the SGC website had been launched; it included WIDE AWAKE, which was initially intended to replace the paper newsletter but which quickly grew into a forum for new fiction, commentary, and reviews. The first entry was logged on July 1, 2000. ALTERCATIONS was to be published as a 2-issue bookshelf series, with each issue containing 64 pages on slick paper. Issue 1 went to press in October 2002 and was the best-selling release in SGC’s history (this despite an $8.95 cover price). Volume 2 was well under way, but everything was about to change.

NEXT: Fiction writing, the evil that (fire) men do, merchandising, retro reviews, bus writing, and a cross-country move.

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