FantaCo Chronicles: Webslinger, si; Freak Brothers, No

FantaCo was the comic book store/publisher/mail order center/convention house where I worked from May 1980 to November 1988. It opened August 28, 1978, 30 years ago today. And it closed on August 28, 1998, 10 years ago today.

The Chronicles were comic-book-sized magazines about various comic book characters. I’ve previously talked about the X-Men Chronicles, how much I liked working with Raoul Vezina, but hated having to retrieve the wet cover from Dave Cockrum. I’ve noted how Jim Shooter screamed at us for using the Jack Kirby interview in the Fantastic Four Chronicles. I’ve mentioned how Marvel appropriated parts of the Daredevil Chronicles for its Daredevil Omnibus; I tend to agree with the criticism that it leaned too heavily on Frank Miller’s period, ignoring Wally Wood and other DD history.

Next up, the Avenger Chronicles, edited by Mitch Cohn. I always thought the George Perez cover was a bit lackluster, but it was a decent enough book. It features a lengthy essay by me about the Avengers/Defenders War, detailed nearly as much as one would have described the Peloponnesian War.

Which brings us to the Spider-Man Chronicles. This is my favorite book in the series. I loved the varied layout that I instituted, which I though gave it a clean, modern look. I felt that I had finally developed a good line of contributors I could count on, and I felt for the first time that I really knew what I was doing. My favorite feature might have been humor cartoonist Fred Hembeck interviewing Spidey scribe Roger Stern, complete with illos.

The mag was almost hassle free. Well, except for two little things. One, of course, was the cover; it’s always the cover. I had, or more likely Mitch had contacted Frank Miller about drawing it, as he had done for the Daredevil Chronicles, and he had agreed, but at the last moment, he had to beg off, leaving me very much in the lurch.

I couldn’t use the back cover done by Joe Staton, because it wouldn’t have worked design-wise. Let me mention here Joe was possibly the sweetest man I’ve known in the comic book industry and who I would see from time to time in the store.

So, what to do, what to do. Pretty much in desperation, I called John Byrne, who had done the Fantastic Four cover. He whipped it out so quickly that it did not negatively affect the production schedule we had set with the printer. Say what you will about John Byrne, who apparently has been known to say some controversial things, but he saved my bacon — twice. I will never say anything bad about John Byrne.

The other problem was a drawing that Raoul Vezina had done of Spider-Man upon which he had put on the lyrics of the Spider-Man cartoon show. Rather like this:

We had contacted the copyright holder, seeking their permission to use those lyrics, and waited. And waited. And waited. We were even willing to pay them a reasonable amount of money for the rights. But ultimately, their response at the 11th hour was that we couldn’t use the lyrics at all. Ultimately, Raoul changed the words so it merely said “Spider-Man, Spider-Man, Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man,” which we believed to be a copyright fair-use solution.

After having dealt with Marvel, sometimes with some great difficulty, FantaCo decided to go in a different direction with the series. We put out the Chronicles Annual, an overly broad history of what else was being published at the time, which Mitch and I edited. Then we decided to look to the “independent publishers” and put out Chronicles based on their characters. The first one we were going to do was the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers Chronicles, which Mitch was going to edit. It was announced in our monthly newsletter, Fantaco Nooz, and Mitch reminded me that we even had a Gilbert Shelton cover, which looked a lot like this, obviously later used instead for a Freak Brothers anthology: But for reasons that now escape me, that book never saw the light of day. After that, I was supposed to edit the Kitchen Sink Chronicles, and there was even passing conversation about getting a Will Eisner cover. That too never got off the ground.

Well, *I* forgot the reason those magazines didn’t come out. Fortunately, an THE authority on FantaCo publications remembered. That would be Tom Skulan, founder/owner/big kahuna of FantaCo, who I’ve been in touch with for only a couple weeks after a nine- or ten-year hiatus. He noted that the Freak Brothers was never done because FantaCo did not receive enough material for a full issue; I guess some potential contributors were, like, too laid back. The Kitchen Sink Chronicles was never done because the initial feedback FantaCo got about it indicated that, unfortunately, it would be a very small print run, which broke my heart. Thus, as a magazine series, the Chronicles came to a bittersweet end, though one much later FantaCo BOOK was always thought of as a continuation of the series.

ROG

Chronicles of the Fantastic Four Chronicles


(This conversation will be limited to the Chronicles series. FantaCo had also put out Splatter Movies and Hembeck 6, among other items, in this period.)

The X-Men Chronicles was a hit for FantaCo Enterprises in 1981. We had printed 50,000 copies and had presold at least 35.000 to the distributors. And not only did it also sell as an individual item in the store and in the mail order, we were able to trade some for Marvel, DC and other companies’ product, particularly underground comics from Last Gasp, a company our comics distributor, Seagate, wasn’t dealing with.
So what do we do as a follow-up? We decided to do two books, the Daredevil Chronicles, which Mitch Cohn would edit, and the Fantastic Four Chronicles, which would be my baby. I’m not going to talk much more about the former, except that I thought it was terribly Frank Miller-heavy. One of the Mullaney brothers from Eclipse Comics, Jan or Dean, apparently agreed; he wrote to say he read the book and threw it in the trash. (The letter, I think, appeared in the Spider-Man Chronicles, or maybe the Avengers Chronicles.)

The stuff below in italics is directly from my journal:

September 2, 1981: I call John Byrne, who agreed to write an article and do a centerspread, in addition to the front cover. And I called Jack Kirby, who agreed to fill out a questionnaire about the FF. “What a coup!” I wrote.
October 16: George Perez agrees to do the back cover for the FF book.
October 22: Receive Byrne front cover, centerspread and article.
November 5: Call Jay Zilber re: Wein/Wolfman interview. Then called Jack Kirby re: Q&A – he said he couldn’t answer questions re: FF, Marvel, only re: new projects. I panicked and got upset and angry. By that point, we probably had sent out info on the book to the comic distributors, indicating its content.Mitch calmed me down & said “Why don’t you do interview on Kirby now with a caveat. He [Kirby] agreed to that & also said I could use the rather nasty stuff re: FF 236 & his lack of prior knowledge that it would be used. Typed up new questions.
November 18: Michael Hobson of Marvel called to OK licensing on the FF and DD books, and that the company had “no problem” with the non-licensed X-Men Chronicles.
November 23: Get Kirby response.
December 17: I was going to do some editing (e.g., Joe Fludd’s lengthy piece, Jay Zilber’s just-arrived article), but instead spent most of the day looking unsuccessfully for a letter from Mike Hobson of Marvel giving us permission for licensing, which Tom needs for another bank loan.
O.K., I lied. I AM going to talk a little about Splatter Movies. This was a book written by an author named John McCarty that was really Tom’s baby; Mitch, Raoul and I were all a bit disturbed by it, although I did end up up proofreading it. And it turned out to be the most profitable thing FantaCo published in my tenure there. But at $8.95, it was initially a slow road selling to our distributors, who, after all, were comic book folks. This created a cash flow problem, for which the loan was to address.

January 3, 1982: Type the FF checklist at home while I watch football (Cincinnati beat the Bills, the 49ers beat the Giants; I doubt I was happy about that.)
January 7: I assume we found the Hobson letter eventually because Tom was able to secure $25,000 note from the bank so we’ll be able to pay $8700 printing bill for Splatter Movies.
January: Get various articles and artwork, not including Perez back cover. At some point, I call John Byrne, who allows us to use the front cover as the back cover as well, for free. Byrne was not universally loved, but I always had very good dealings with him; the FFC was not the last time. After the covers go to the printer, Perez cover FINALLY shows up, and I end up replacing content from one of the inside covers. (I’m thinking it was a Joe Fludd piece, because it seemed ironic that such a Perez devotee would be bumped by Perez himself.)
January 26: Tom called accounts (Bud Plant, NMI, Pacific). We now have fewer than 100 out of 50,000 X-Men Chronicles, and anticipate print runs of 70,000 each for FF and DD (the latter, eventually set at 80,000).
March 1: Start shipping out FFC, DDC orders, which takes a week, between the wholesale and retail orders.
March 5: Tom had made up 100 copies each of FFC and DDC in white paper stock, rather than newsprint. Gave 25 each to Mitch and me, 2 each to Rocco and Raoul. Somewhere I still have some of these.
March 15: Returning artwork, paying contributors, sending out review copies.
March 22: For Spider-Man Chronicles, got a Fred Hembeck to interview Roger Stern.
March 26: Mitch called Jim Shooter, who told Mitch in no uncertain terms (“What the f*** were you guys thinking about?”) that they at Marvel were unhappy with the Chronicles series, that there can be no licensing in the future, and that we’d “better be careful” in the future…No [more] Chronicles would be disastrous because another loan was contingent on publishing them…Tom called a patent attorney.
Oddly, a couple months later, there WAS further conversation with Mike Hobson about licensing, but nothing ever came to fruition, and the Avengers and Spider-Man Chronicles came out license-free, with no hassle from Marvel. We DID have another legal tussle, however, but that’s for another day.

In retrospect – let’s hear it for retrospect – I should have either 1) called Marvel about the content of the Kirby interview or 2) pulled the Kirby interview. The former just didn’t cross my mind. The latter did, but I was resistant because it would have meant resoliciting the FFC to the distributors and a costly delay.

I wrote this today for two reasons. One: FantaCo’s birthday was August 28, 1978; the store survived 20 years. The other is that Jack Kirby’s birthday was August 28, 1917, which means he would have been 90 today; he passed on February 6, 1994. Here’s a picture of Jack from the 1982 San Diego comic con, taken by Alan Light.