This is the second in our series of interviews with the behind the scenes decision makers at America’s comics publishers.
In 1986, Dan Vado decided to see if he could write and publish his own comic book, so he started a publishing company, SLG, which was then known as Slave Labor Graphics. “Soon I started getting approached by people asking me to publish their work,” Vado said. “Twenty-three years later SLG remains a springboard for new talent.”
As president and publisher, Vado works with SLG editor-in-chief Jennifer de Guzman to select projects and guide them onto the market. Over the years, SLG’s best known titles have included Johnny the Homicidal Maniac. Milk & Cheese, Gargoyles, Tron, and Haunted Mansion.
SLG and its Amaze Ink imprint are responsible for several new titles each year. “We are slowing down a lot these days,” Vado said. “In 2009, we will publish twelve to fifteen graphic novels and maybe three or four comics.”
In addition to considering projects with established creators, SLG accepts and reviews unsolicited submissions. They pay creators royalties only, which are based on a sliding scale percentage of the cover price depending upon the number of copies sold. You can find out more about SLG on its website, and creators should be sure to review the submissions guidelines before contacting the company.
SLG has also launched a series of creator workshops to help guide comics writers and artists on the path toward a professional career. You can find out the latest information about the workshops here.
Comics Career: What’s the most unique or magical aspect of comics as an art form?
Dan Vado: Comics are like making a movie with an unlimited budget, the only limitation being the talent of the artists and the imagination of the writers. I think you have a much greater control over the reader’s experience in comics than in most other storytelling mediums. You can get away with more in comics, and you also have an ability to really study characters.
An example from something we published is Egg Story, which is a graphic novel about eggs. It truly goes to places that you might not try to go if it were a film. Another great example is The War at Ellsmere by Faith Erin Hicks.
Comics Career: Who has had the biggest influence on your professional life, and how has that person affected your career?
Dan Vado: Archie Goodwin would be the biggest influence. I learned a lot just from working with him when he was at DC Comics. It was the first time I had ever worked with an editor, and I really was influenced not so much by his editorial input but by the way he made suggestions and how he handled himself. He was a good man, one of the best editors I have ever come across, and a real innovator. I really think we need a meaningful industry award named after him because he was indeed someone who we all could have learned from and whose example we should try to follow.
Comics Career: What’s the most important thing a creator should know about your company’s approach to new projects or new talent that’s not covered in the submissions guidelines?
Dan Vado: Well, I guess it is that we will consider almost any kind of project, even a superhero project. Our history is that we are sort of all over the map, and very few of the books we do actually relate to each other. Each project is reviewed first on its own merit and then on whether I think we can sell it.
Although I do review and consider superhero books, for example, we have historically had a hard time selling them, so the likelihood of us taking on a superhero project is pretty slim. Likewise something that has a load of back-story and a complex universe is not going to be something I am going to want to do. The ideas presented should be self-contained and present a complete idea or story, and this is true for all genres of comics, not just superheroes.
Your 25-volume graphic novel series may be a little too ambitious, so be prepared to reduce your idea down to something that can be told in a single volume.
Comics Career: What are the main criteria that you use when deciding to accept a new project or work with a creator for the first time?
Dan Vado: Did I like it enough to publish? That’s number one. If I decide to publish something I am committing myself, my employees, and my company to a relationship and responsibility that will last months — if not years — as well as committing thousands of dollars of my money to something. So, I need to like it and not regret doing it later.
Secondly, of course, would be its commercial potential. That is not to say that if something seems noncommercial that I will not publish it, but I have to think it has the potential or that the creator has the potential to break out and be something at some point. When I invest in a project I am really making an investment in the creator or creators. I have a tendency to publish people who are maybe just a little shy of being really ready in the hopes that they will grow into something. At a certain point, a creative person needs to have the experience of being published to get them over that hump and on to the next level, so I am investing in the next level.
Which brings me to point number three, the creator or creators themselves. If I think they are going to be a pain in the ass or difficult to work with, I pass. Seriously, life is too short and, these days especially, money is too tight and the rewards are too minimal for me to have to work with someone I feel is going to give my staff and me a lot of heartburn. I will be honest here that the commercial and sales potential can wash away point number three, but I have yet to meet that person.
I would then come to a place that I would call point three-and-a-half, which is the expectation of the creator. Some people come into comics with huge expectations, which I as a publisher need to dampen down. If the expectation still remains too high, then I will probably stay away from a project, because I am going to get heaped with all the blame for something that does not meet what I might see as a creator’s unrealistic expectation.
Comics Career: What are your expectations of the creators you work with? What do they need to bring to the equation to be a good fit for you and your company?
Dan Vado: They need to work hard and be willing to help promote themselves. They need to understand the limitations of a small company and get in there and do the hard stuff that comes after a book is published. They need to understand that movie producers are not handing out film deals at Comic-con.
Dan Vado: Creatively, very little as we want each project to reflect the creator as an individual. On a functional level, I try to make everyone as familiar with the process of getting their book solicited, published, and distributed and where they fit into each part of that process.
Comics Career: What should a creator never do when pitching a project to you? Or, conversely, what should a creator always do when pitching a project to you?
Dan Vado: Well, first, I hate the word pitch. I don’t like being “pitched” in the traditional sense where someone is going to sit with me in a meeting and go over their ideas and try and get me to like them. Seriously, your work needs to speak for itself. The reader is not going to have the creator hanging over them play-acting their scripts and telling you what to think or feel. So, first and foremost do not pitch me! I do not want to be pitched, especially at a convention where I am usually tired all the time.
What I want you to do is to send me a submission that follows our guidelines. If you want to hand me something at a convention, great, but really don’t spend a lot of time telling me about your project because I am going to want to read it. If you hand me a proposal at a convention, then be prepared to follow up by mailing me a copy later because anything can happen to a proposal at a convention. Usually they get tossed into a box with my name on it and sometimes those boxes don’t always make it home in one piece.
The no pitch thing gets loosened a little as I work and get to know someone, so it is not a hard and fast rule, but if I have not published you, a good thing is do not pitch.
The other thing a creator should not do is bug me about whether I have read their proposal yet. It takes a lot of time to seriously consider something and I have a lot to do in my daily life. SLG is a very small company, so in addition to my publisher duties I am the financial officer, the IT guy, the guy who deals with the plumbing when it goes bad, the purchasing manager, and so on.
You get the idea. So, really, sitting and reading your unsolicited submission is not going to be the most important part of my day.
Another thing, please don’t send me samples which are pixilated and poorly reproduced. I cannot try and draw a conclusion on your work based on something that looks like a printed version of a web image or like it is a twelfth generation photocopy of your original art. And then, to add to that, if you show me that work in person, please don’t tell me how much better the original looks than what I am looking at because that doesn’t do me any good.
Comics Career: What’s the craziest excuse you’ve ever heard a creator give for missing a deadline?
Dan Vado: I’ve heard some doozies, believe me. One person, who was already late with a book and whom I told that if they did not get it done in a certain amount of time I would have to resolicit, told me that he had destroyed all of his pages because I gave him a deadline.
Comics Career: What do you expect the comics industry to be like ten years from now?
Dan Vado: I have no idea; I can’t even tell you what the industry will look like in ten months.
Comics Career: What’s the most important “big idea” that you’ve learned in life – in or out of comics – and why is it important?
Dan Vado: It is not possible to be all things to all people. Seriously you have to be honest about who and what you are and you also have to have the courage of your convictions.
Comics Career: What are the biggest knowledge gaps that you seen in new creators?
Dan Vado: Artists need to take time to become familiar with digital formatting of their work. I think we spend more time trying to explain why an RGB image prints differently than it looks on screen, or why someone who letters digitally should not anti-alias the lettering, or trying to explain what an aspect ratio is. We spend a lot of time and creators waste a lot of time on pages that are submitted to us which are unprintable. If the only version of your comic page is the one that you made for a webcomic, well, we can’t use it and I really should not have to explain that over and over again.
If you are going to work in comics you need to learn about printing, digital production and prepress and how things work. Printing is becoming a digital medium and when you are drawing a comic book page you are actually preparing the page for printing, so you need to know what you are doing before you start.