1998 changed my life, but it also made me realize that Innocent Bystander couldn’t survive on its own. Without a well-paying day job to support me, I couldn’t keep pouring money into a self-published comics series that couldn’t sustain itself. In short, minus the gory details, I went into considerable debt financing my so-called comics career. It would take me years to dig myself out of that hole.
Early 1999 found me living in San Diego with no job. I signed up to exhibit at APE, the Alternative Press Expo, a show founded by SLG publisher Dan Vado in 1994, but taken over by Comic-Con—at Dan’s request—the following year. APE in 1999 was still being held in Dan’s home city of San Jose, CA, in something that resembled a high school gym (I think it was a community center that just happened to have a basketball court that doubled as an exhibit hall, since replaced by a convention center). I quickly learned that one of the advantages of living in California was cheap flights on airlines like Southwest, and I booked a table at this event, requesting I be placed next to Rich Koslowski of The 3 Geeks fame.
I first met Rich at Pittsburgh Comicon in (I think) 1995. He had just published How to Pick Up Girls If You’re a Comic Book Geek and I had just published Innocent Bystander #1. He and his wife Sandy had a booth there, as did I. Rich was (and is) a go-getter, that rare combination of comics creator and salesman. That latter quality is sadly missing from a lot of us quiet, introverted, creator types, but Rich—like the late Batton Lash, the creator of Supernatural Law and another born cartoonist/salesman—pretty much made sure you left their booth or table with a comic firmly in hand. We hit it off and four years later in San Jose, we commiserated about how tough it was to self-publish a comic and do all the ancillary things needed to get by. Rich was also at the time inking for Archie Comics, a full-time job. In those years between Pittsburgh Comicon and APE, Rich had managed to successfully publish a dozen issues of The 3 Geeks, plus some collected trade paperbacks.
The covers to Geeksville issues #s 1, 2, and 3 (all self-published) and the first Image Comics issue, #0. I didn’t exactly ingratiate myself with Image—or Rich—when I said his Sky Branovan character’s word balloon should read,”Dude, Image SUCKS!”
It was at APE that year that we decided to form an alliance (in the vernacular of the meme culture of today) and combine our two titles into one. Originally we thought we’d just do a one-issue special, a flip-book with half the book devoted to The 3 Geeks and half to Innocent Bystander, but about a week after APE, Rich called me and said he and Sandy had talked it over and wondered if I would be interested in making it an ongoing series. I immediately said yes. I knew from the start that Rich’s 3 Geeks were the marquee draw (his book was outselling me by about three to one) and that he would “own” the first position and a majority of the pages in the book, due to the fact that he was also incredibly prolific. In addition, Rich would be nominated for three Eisner Awards in 1999, including Best Short Story, Best Humor Publication, and Best Writer/Artist, Humor. Beyond my own Innocent Bystander tales, I also brought my computer skills to the table, doing the cover design and coloring (except when Rich did painted covers), and the interior text pages. The new book was to be called Geeksville and we set out with an ambitious schedule: Believing we needed to publish at least bi-monthly to be successful, we planned to launch our first issue at San Diego Comic-Con in July of 1999, followed by a Halloween issue in October and a Christmas issue in December. Rich also came up with a back-up feature called “True Tales from the Comic Shop,” that was written and drawn by various people (with help from Rich), in the hopes it would appeal to retailers and sell more books for us. (The jury is still out on that one.)
In the meantime, I had gotten two jobs in San Diego. The first was a full-time gig at KUSI-TV, a local independent station. Once again I was working as a news graphic designer. To be honest, I hated this job, hated the management, and hated how I was making $15,000 a year less than what I was making in Pittsburgh for the same job. (There is this thing in San Diego called the “Sunshine Tax,” which means you make less money because of the beautiful weather and scenery. “Well, you can go surfing anytime you want!,” my boss proclaimed. “Yeah … I don’t surf,” was my sullen response.) Also at this time I started freelancing for Comic-Con, working with Jackie Estrada on the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards PowerPoint presentation. From there, I also branched out and took over Comic-Con’s website, albeit with my extremely primitive web design skills, but I also started providing a lot of content for them, something I would continue to do for the next two decades. Rich and I had always planned to have a booth at Comic-Con 1999, but the new job came with a perk: An exhibitor dropped out at the last minute and we were gifted a second booth to our paid first one, thus having what’s known as an “end-cap,” although one in a slightly awkward location in the Exhibit Hall. Either way, it was a boost to us and gave us an additional splashy entree into the world of comics publishing.
The covers for Comics Buyer’s Guide #1341 and Comic Shop News (# unknown).
And people noticed. Comic Shop News cover featured us and also gave us a 10-week slot of full-color Sunday-style comic strips (five by me, five by Rich … I’ll be running the Innocent Bystander ones here on the blog in the coming weeks). The comic book industry’s weekly newspaper, Comics Buyer’s Guide, edited by Maggie Thompson, cover-featured Geeksville in issue #1341 (which I sadly no longer have) and the original art to that cover (seen above on the left) was awarded to a reader. The Comic-Con booth was a big success (although people kept grabbing our first issue off the table and walking away with it; I had to chase after a number of people to tell them that the books were FOR SALE, not free). And lo and behold at the end of the convention we were visited by Jim Valentino and Larry Marder of Image Comics with an invitation to be published by Image. But more on that in a bit.
I loved the first three issues of Geeksville that Rich and I self-published. I felt liberated from the drudge work of dealing with distributors, packing and unpacking boxes, invoicing, etc. Rich and Sandy handled all of that from their home in Wisconsin. In issue #1, I did an eight-page story called “Smoke,” about how both my parents secretly smoked cigarettes when I was a child, trying desperately to keep each other thinking that they had both quit. In issue #2, the Halloween one, I recounted my childhood—and adult—love for the Universal Monsters in a piece called “I Remember Franky.” (I recently wrote about that continuing love here on the blog … click here to read it.) And in issue #3, our Christmas-themed one, the world famous Innocent Bystander cats, Stan and Ollie, were cover-featured with a tale called “Have Yourself A Stan & Ollie Christmas,” a take-off on an old-time TV holiday variety special, featuring musical guests The Bangles, funnyman Henny Youngman, and hosted by Merv Griffen. We ticked all the boxes on our 1999 schedule, including two holiday-themed issues, which, when we solicited them, came with warnings from Diamond that they they had to come out before the actual holidays (nobody wants to read a Christmas story in January).
The splash pages for my Innocent Bystander stories in Geeksville #s 1, 2, and 3.
But back to Comic-Con 1999 and Image. Jim Valentino was taking over as publisher for Image from Larry Marder, and he offered to publish Geeksville. It was a huge plus for us at the time. As Valentino said in Comic Shop News: “I loved The 3 Geeks books by themselves. I loved Innocent Bystander. To have both in the same title and to have Geeksville under the Image “I” is an absolute joy for me. This is the type of comic I, as an unapologetic fanboy geek myself, wants to read. We’re proud to have this great book onboard and hope we can help find it the audience it deserves.”
We started with Image in early 2000 with a “zero issue,” which was all the rage back then. It was basically Geeksville #4, and already in the works before we signed on with the big I, and it contains one of my all-time favorite stories, “Arthur & Elliot: The Incredible Story of Silent Film’s Forgotten Funnymen …” Based on a number of true stories involving movie comedians, I cobbled together this sad story of a duo’s rise and fall. A number of reviewers thought it was a true story, but Arthur & Elliot never existed, except in my mind. I like this story so much, here it is in it’s entirety (click on the images to see them larger on your screen).
“Arthur & Elliot” was the story I had hoped would garner me an Eisner Award nomination, but a funny thing happened before Geeksville #0 debuted from Image Comics …
In 2000, I was hired by Comic-Con International to be their director of programming, a full-time job that started in March of that year, the same month that Geeksville #0 premiered from Image. I plan to write a lot more about my Comic-Con years in the very near future on this blog as the concluding chapters of “My Life in Comics,” but suffice it to say my world changed. I was now involved with a very different aspect of the comics industry. While I continued to do an Innocent Bystander story in the Image issues of Geeksville, my heart—and more importantly, my mind—wasn’t in it. “Arthur & Elliot,” for all intents and purposes, was my last hurrah. I pretty much hated my work in issue #s 1-6 of the Image version of Geeksville, relying for two issues on the childhood tales of a friend which I illustrated (to be honest, she was a far better writer than me, and her childhood was incredibly wonky, to say the least). My comics days were over but my comics industry days were just starting. Rich pulled the plug on Geeksville with #6, the seventh issue from Image, counting the zero issue. While Image did give us some growth in sales, it wasn’t the company then that it is now. I really feel Eric Stephenson taking charge is what turned the corner for that company, taking it from a successful artists’ collective to a publisher of some of the best comics on the market, made by some of the best creators. Back then we were just another Image book, and while it was an incredible compliment to be asked to join them, my interest waned—for a lot of reasons—once we did.
The quintessential Innocent Bystander image, summing up the essence of my comics work.
So, Innocent Bystander died. While I had some plans to do a special on Stan and Ollie, called “Fuzzheads,” and also to try and market a book to a major publisher based on the cats, called “Tales of Two Kitties,” I stopped drawing altogether. Comic-Con started to take up all of my time, what with APE and the soon-to-be-added WonderCon to the family of shows, and of course, the July behemoth that was a runaway freight train, especially in the first decade of the new millennium. And as you’ll see in my future writings on here, Comic-Con was all-consuming for the next twenty years of my life, eventually providing me with the most satisfying creative outlet I ever had.
Join us next time for My Life in Comics Part 9: Comic-Con 1992-1999. (Click the category in the right sidebar to see all installments of “My Life in Comics”.)
The back cover of Geeksville #6, the final Image Comics issue. Bittersweet at best.