Running Comics Like a Business: Mark Alessi and Crossgen

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After having a conversation with Mark Alessi, it's not uncommon to come away feeling as though you've just attended a Tony Robbins' seminar. Throughout the halls of CrossGen Comics, everyone--from the receptionist through the top management--exudes a confidence and enthusiasm generally seen in small town crowds after a tent revival or traveling medicine show.

But these aren't yokels, and it's no snake oil salesman's spiel they're buying into. They're veterans of the comic book industry, and what's drawing them into the CrossGen fold is the time-proven business principles for achievement, principles Alessi practices with as much conviction as he preaches them.

Having successfully led his information technology company, Technical Resource Connection, onto the Inc 500 list in 1996, Alessi was able to retire at the age of 43. Soon after, he decided to reenter the working world, this time choosing to joust against the windmill of resuscitating the flailing comics industry. After a little more than a year, Alessi finds himself once again gracing the pages of Inc, their January 2001 issue, as lightning strikes twice for the entrepreneurial spirit.

But is it the long odds of the double lighting strike that account for the success of CrossGen Comics? Or is it, perhaps, a matter of doing things right?

There are a lot of people who've dreamed of doing what you're doing, and have made several attempts at forming their own publishing companies. The bulk of them have failed. With no experience in publishing, how did you convince the huge pool of talent that now works for CrossGen to have faith in your proposal?

Well, to start with, it's not necessarily what I am and what I'm doing, it's what options the industry is offering to other people. If you're in this industry right now, you're looking at an industry that, since the fake pump-up of value in this industry in '94, '95, '96, has been on a down trend. More and more people are working harder and making less money, and few people are doing tremendously well. And you have to make a decision--you're getting older, what do you want to do with your life? Do you want to protect your family? Do you want to have some security? Do you want to work in an environment that looks like it has a chance of making sense?

The reason CrossGen exists is because other people didn't take advantage of the opportunities they have. And the reason people are here is because some of them are waking up and they're realizing that what exists out there might be fun for a while, but if you plan on making a living and a livelihood in the comic book publishing creative industry, your options generally don't look too great in most other places, versus how they might look here.

To quote from your bio at the CrossGen website: "Known as more of an "orchestra leader" than "platoon commander," Mark knows that professionals in any field require both the time and tools to do the kind of consistent quality work necessary for this industry to thrive and grow. Now he is providing it for them!" It sounds like you're quite a proponent of such business philosophies as employee empowerment and TQM.

You know, employee empowerment and TQM are badly misused and frequently misunderstood. Most people, given choice and freedom will do absolutely nothing and collect a paycheck, just like most human beings would eat themselves into sickness if they thought they wouldn't gain weight and still be able to get into their sexy shorts.

Do I believe in empowering people to an extent? Yes. Do we do that here? Yes. Do we do that completely, to the extent that it's been presented? Of course not. Am I only an "orchestra leader"? Nah, sometimes I'm a staff sergeant. The difference between high-end technology businesses that I've worked in the past and the comic book industry--and what we're doing here today-- is, they are similar concepts, but I have a softer implementation here. The people who work in this industry almost have as much to unlearn about business as they do to learn.

You can't take people to the place they need to be where they can be empowered to make the best decisions for the company and themselves immediately. You have to do it gradually over time, and I think we're starting to step into stride now. We're starting to become more effective as an organization, and we're starting to see certain leaders emerge. With all due respect, it doesn't matter who's on the top. Every single company has both named and unnamed floor leaders that make your company work, that make your company better. In this kind of company, we have guys like Ian [Feller] who makes things work for me; we have guys like Bart Sears on the floor who makes things work. We have quiet guys like John Dell, who set a standard on how to work, or Caesar Rodriguez, who defines what ‘work ethic' is. It's not me--it's giving people the opportunity to understand that comic book publishing isn't a game--it's a business. People make their living based on what they do; they feed their children, they pay their mortgages, they make their car payments. And as they get older, they want things for their kids and their family. We're trying to teach them how to make an organization work that gives them long-term stability, flexibility and--quite frankly--hopefully a future.

What's your level of participation in the creative process?

In the beginning, I did an awful lot more than I do now. The original ideas were Gina [Villa]'s and mine. They were actively pummeled by people like Ron Marz, Barbara Kesel, Brandon Peterson, Ian Feller--and we tailored them into a better product. As each team comes in and as each group of creative people come in, they add value to the universe and the ideas. Mark Waid's been here three or four weeks, and we've already made some legitimate, positive adjustments within the constructs for our universe and its continuity.

It's something that, in the beginning, I had a lot of involvement in--I would look through every plot, every script. I'd review all the dialogue. Now I frequently read books at the same time they hit the stands for our fans.

Are the characters creator-owned, or are they developed for CrossGen as work-for-hire?

That's a fallacy that people keep thinking, that the way things should work is [the characters] should be owned by the company or they should be owned by the creators. It doesn't make any sense.

One of the first lessons in making any business work, as I was taught, is how to set up compensation programs that pull people together versus drive them apart. If you set up a compensation program so that a few high-end creative people are "creator/owners", and they get a piece of the action, and the company gets all of the additional ancillary revenues, then you build a program that divides the majority of your workforce away from your senior high-end people and away from having a loyalty base to your company.

What we've done is say "All of the product here is owned by CrossGen, and all of the employees own 25% of CrossGen."

So it makes it easy, because we're all in this together. It doesn't matter whether Mystic does great for Brandon and at the same time, maybe Sigil isn't doing as well: everybody roots for everyone else because everyone owns a piece of the pie.

So, who owns the characters? The characters are owned by the company. Who owns the company? The people who work here own a percentage of the company. It seems to me that this kind of program brings people together instead of driving them apart.

Whenever we hear that another creator has signed on with CrossGen, we also hear that they're moving to Tampa. It looks like you want everyone in the office there together--sort of like the old Marvel Bullpen. What are the advantages you're seeing of this centralized effort toward comic book publishing, versus the decentralized/freelance effort used by the other publishers?

Well, we're a brand new rookie company, right? And we don't really know what we're doing yet, right? Well, 1100 issues missed stated stand delivery date last year. Zero CrossGen issues missed stand date. And we still don't know what we're doing, and we're still learning how to work together effectively.

You can't have quality control unless you have people working together. You can't have growth and consistency unless you have people working together. You can't have synergy in your product and across teams if you don't have people working together. And quite frankly, a big part of the reason for the success of CrossGen is that the people have taken ownership of the product themselves. The people who work on Mystic consider Mystic their book, not CrossGen's.

This isn't like being in a band and doing a gig and doing a country tour, which is how many creators seem to approach the engagements they're on, working on "X" book for twelve months or "Y" book for six months. Here, these people know they are part of the company, they work for the company long term, and the book is theirs. And because they work together, over time they develop that love, that warmth, that affection, and it pours into the product, which is why our books are getting better every single month. Every single time you read a CrossGen product, you're now reading the next-worst product we will ever make, because next month will be better.

And we're not better because of Mark Alessi, we're better because the people here work hard and care about what they're doing. All you have to do is be here on a Saturday or Sunday, and watch people working their eleventh and twelfth hours so they can make deadlines. That's not people on salary, that's people who give a shit.

You've been in operation for close to a year now, right?

Well, I've been in operation for forty-seven years.

(Laughs) I mean, CrossGen has been in operation close to a year.

Ah! Actually, CrossGen has probably been in operation about eighteen months, but we've been publishing for eight.

Do you find that you're more or less on track with your original business plan?

Are you kidding me? No, we're way ahead in certain areas, and a little behind in others. I thought our sales initially would be stronger, and they weren't. I thought we'd have a big drop-off when we got to 4s and 5s, and we didn't. In fact, we now have a fairly sustained steady growth pattern.

I expected there would be some amount of diversity in the sales numbers. If you look at our sales numbers, all of our books sell within like six, seven percent--and I might be a little off--of each other. If you look at the X-books or the Superman books, they sell even farther apart than that. So my initial optimism for numbers was probably not exactly how things worked out, but instead, the drop offs didn't occur the way we expected and the growth has been steady and sustained across the board. So all the people who said you couldn't combine separate genres: Bunk! I have magic and mysticism selling within four percent of sci-fi, which is two percent lower than medieval/technology, which is two percent higher than fantasy. They said we couldn't do these things, and we're not only doing them, we're growing.

So, did it work out the way I'd thought? No. The biggest probable difference was that I thought younger talent that beats the bushes--you know, carrying portfolios from convention to convention--would eagerly embrace this kind of opportunity. Instead, I found that a lot of the younger talent really doesn't understand what it takes to deliver a book every month in this business. And a lot of the older talent that I thought would be, perhaps, slightly frustrated by having to work in a more formalized and professional environment, wouldn't fit in as well, and exactly the opposite occurred! The young people thought it tough to acclimate to discipline and long hours because, while it's cool to see your name on the front cover of a book, you've got to also recognize that you've probably got nine billion man-hours in making it. Whereas the veterans are so pleased with a consistent paycheck and benefits and quality working conditions and people who care about them that they're working their guts out.

A lot of things worked differently, but most of them have worked to our benefit; and the areas that aren't perfect, we're making better.

Some definitions for those without an MBA, please. My work is in electronic data interchange, so a lot of these business terms escape me.

That's all right, I'm an Elizabethan English major, so...

(Laughing) Gee, what kind of a job can you get with that?

Well, you can run a comic book company, or a high-end technology company.

What do you mean by "best practices business principles."

"Best practices" for me are developing working conditions and parameters that are effective for both the people and the type of work you're doing, and a flexible kind of approach to reevaluating those periodically so they can adjust and improve within both working conditions and type of people. So "best practices" is basically like an ongoing effort to protect the people, the working environment, and the management, so they have an effective interchange mechanism, clearly defined goals, and effective communication and understanding between all parties.

"Top shelf environmental design."

When we originally designed this working environment, we gathered up what Disney had done, what other studios did. I talked to people who've worked at Top Cow, people who've worked at Marvel, people who've worked at Disney. We wanted to put together an environment that was as functionally comfortable as it could be, but blended as much state-of-the-art leading technology as humanly possible. Because work that machines can do should be done by machines, and work that people can do should be done by people. We wanted to combine the best possible functional working conditions with the highest end technology.

Any new and exciting things on the horizon readers should be looking for?

Yes there are! There's a new book coming out in April called Crux that's written by Mark Waid and drawn by Steve Epting and inked by Rick Magyar. There's another new book coming out in the July time period called Sojourn that will be written by Ron Marz and drawn by Greg Land and inked by Drew Geraci, that I think is going to be phenomenal. Both of them are pure Sigil-Bearer implementations, which will be new to folks just like The First has been. The work from Scot Eaton and Drew Hennessy is unbelievable, so when people see Sigil #10 come out, I think they're going to be frighteningly impressed. The fact that he isn't a top ten artist today just means no one's paying attention.

We have a book that will be coming out toward the tail-end of the year called The Path, which we will release both in the United States and Japan simultaneously. It's my way of saying to the Japanese, "Thank you very much for manga. We think that the American art form of comic books is still alive and healthy, and we're sending you a product back that we're real proud of, that we think you'll relate to."

We have a couple of high-end hires that have already been completed, but we're not able to announce until MegaCon in early March. There's a couple of real big names out there besides Waid and Perez--who is with us full-time now--who are going to be joining CrossGen, and maybe even a couple more.

We're attacking. There's no backing down, there's no complacency. We have places to go and dreams to fulfill and if you're not going to be with us, get out of our way because we're coming.