Thoughts on James Warren: Empire of Monsters by Bill Schelly
James Warren: Empire of Monsters By Bill Schelly Published by Fantagraphics
This wonderful book was a birthday present given to me at the end of March. I’m a bit of a slow reader, so it took me awhile to pore through it, and a little while longer wrap my head around it all.
The text is written in a way that is both engaging and matter-of-fact, avoiding the typical biographical pitfalls being a too-dry timeline or, on the opposite end, being hyperbolic or sickly nostalgic. Schelly uses both new and old interviews with Warren and the people who helped him create Warren Publishing to great effect, painting portraits of everyone involved with layers of unexpected colors. It’s a book really does justice the subject’s legendary creativity and mercurial personality. Schelly did an Impressive amount of research, the amount of which would be appropriate for an academic effort. You just don’t see that in a lot of pop culture bios.
I particularly liked the focus on the monetary aspects of Warren publishing, including rare info on salaries and page rates. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I think that was a smart focus point. There are a lot of would-be-full-time artists and wannabe publishers struggling to make their efforts “go” and love any historical context they can find. OK… Maybe that last bit is projecting. It’s what I’m hungry for! While I’ve always considered Creepy and Eerie artistic influences, Empire of Monsters really made me look to Warren as a business influence. It certainly wasn’t a conscious thing, but I do see a lot of parallels between what Warren did and what I try to do with Nix Comics.
(Beware... Many numbers below, all adjustments are based on years and amounts given by Schelly and adjusted with the Bureau of Labor Statistics Inflation calculator.)
Warren’s Captain Company catalog mirrors my own mail-order efforts. (Or I guess, more appropriately, I mirror his efforts) About 75% of my “Nix Comics” income comes from selling other stuff. While I don’t know percentages, the Captain’s Company catalog significantly contributed to the ongoing fiscal health of Warren Publishing. According to Schelly’s research in the fall of 1959 ranged between $100 and $400 a week, which would be around $800 to $3500 a week adjusted for inflation. Also according to Schelly’s research, in 1973 Warren stated that the Catalog could make up a $5,000 per issue loss while fending off competition from Marvel Comics by increasing pay rates. That would be about $28K adjusted for inflation, which certainly beats the hell out of the few hundred or so a month I pull in with this site, but I do see it as a parallel.
My favorite side hustle story about Warren comes from the earliest years of Famous Monsters, when they held the Rock N Roll Spooktacular in Philadelphia… Basically Warren and his friend/partner Barton Banks hired on acts like Zacherle, Bobby Darin and Frankie Avalon to put on a series of horror themed shows, capitalizing on both the popularity of local pop artists and the horror movie craze. Apparently they got a great deal for Darin who wasn’t a national star as yet, paying him around $10 a show. No info on what they paid everybody else involved. But Banks claimed that Warren and he pulled in about $800 net on the Spooktacular, which is about $7000 in 2019 money. I keep threatening to put together a Nix Rock N Roll and Comics festival, in part because it would be fun, but also in part because I think I could actually duplicate this kind of success… A little smart planning and bringing on the right partners could definitely result in everybody involved taking home a decent paycheck, I think.
While I make these comparisons between what I do with Nix and Warren, I think it is important to recognize the things that are just plain different. Warren borrowed $2,000 from his friend barton Banks’ family to launch Famous Monsters, which would be about $17,870 now. I started with about $5,000 from selling records on ebay. The Cover price of Famous Monster #1 was 35 cents; equal to approximately $3 today. I currently charge $5 for a copy of Nix Comics Quarterly, and if I was serious about making my money back in a timely fashion would need to double that. The initial print run of Famous Monsters #1 was 150,000, which was low in comparison was the desired 200,000. To date I’ve sold about 500 copies of Nix Comics Quarterly #1 and my agreement with artists is only good for 2000 total before I’m required to pay them additional royalties. The larger scale production of the era makes comparing what I do to what Warren did tricky.
For instance, Warren offered Ackerman $400, a new electric typewriter and 100 copies of issue #1 for copy and photos for Famous Monsters #1. $400 is roughly $3500 adjusted for inflation. Copies of famous Monsters #1 went for 35 cents each, so that was an additional $35 ($310 adjusted) available through hustle. Value those issues however you want: the mag ended up being a fairly valuable collectible, with recent sales on ebay ranging from $40-$55 for mid-grade copies up to $4600 for NM CGI graded copy on ebay. (Who the fuck paid $4 Grand for a magazine they can’t read anymore!) I dunno how much a typewriter cost or how to value that today. Think of it as a free laptop, I guess. For the second issue Ackerman got paid $725 and by issue #5 his rate was $850, or $6400 and $7500 adjusted respectively. To make such an arrangement worthwhile for me, if I were to pay $3500 to a creator for a publication with a $3 price tag, I would need to sell between one and two thousand copies at full retail price just to break even.
I currently pay $300 for covers to Nix publications. The first painted cover for Famous Monsters earned ALbert Nutzell $75, or about $660 adjusted for inflation. Basil Gogos, the most recognized FM cover artist, started at $125 ($1080) per cover and eventually worked that up to $500. (No dates on when the pay increase happened, so no way to adjust for inflation. Presumably, Frazetta earned a similar amount as Gogos for his Warren covers, a significant amount less than the $1,000 to $10,000 he claimed to earn for similar commission work. I have from time to time considered paying extra for my covers to see if it would boost sales to have something by someone with a “name” like William Stout or Michael Allred, but probably won’t take that leap. I just don’t think covers sell books the way they used to.
Between the covers, I generally offer a story rate as opposed to a page rate. In the Quarterly, that is currently $150 for a short (1 to 3 pages) and $400 for a longer feature (4-8 pages). That’s for the whole story, so if there is a writer and artist team involved, they have to tell me how to divvy that rate up. I pretty much take it on the chin with these rates and have yet to break-even on sales of any of the Quarterlies. Warren started Creepy with a rate of $10 per script for writers (Presented in Schelly’s book as a flat rate, as opposed to page rate.) and $35 per page for pencils and inks together. That’s about $80 and $287 respectively in modern money. In their leanest era, Warren’s artist page rates were $40, which was $250 adjusted. In the era that they were luring away Marvel and DC artists, Bernie Wrightson was offered $110 per page, or about $550 adjusted. Again, I think that hiring great artists in the 60s and 70s resulted increased demand, justifying the expense. Today, artists involved aren’t enough of a factor in modern comics customer habits to justify me increasing rates. I mean… I have work by three artists who went on to win Eisners in issue #8, but sales of that book didn’t jump.
One way in which Nix doesn’t resemble Warren publishing is that I do every damn thing myself and Warren was smart enough to have partners and staff. James Warren ended up having a lot of great editorial talent rolling through his publications and he got them on the cheap. He apparently hired Terry Gilliam as an editorial assistant in 1962 for what amounted to about $22,000 a year. In 1974, Louise Jones started in the production department for what was about a $31K salary. She would of course end up editing the entire line in short order, with I hope a pay rate that matched JR Cochran’s reported $48K (adjusted) in 1971. I often wonder if I have a catch 22 situation going on with hiring help… I can’t afford to pay anyone based on current sales, but can’t increase sales without some sort of paid help. Clearly Warren cracked that nut early, perhaps because unlike me, his aspirations to be a publisher weren’t intermingled with artistic inspirations. It just may be too much to hustle on both ends of that dream.