Black Mask Studios got it’s start in May of 2013 when it put out its first release, Occupy Comics. From there they put out several other books including Twelve Reasons to Die by Ghostface Killah and Liberator by Matt Miner and Javier Aranda. The company released comics with a message and a punk rock do-it-yourself vibe that still remains today. This is in part to Brett Gurewitz, guitarist and song writer for Bad Religion, was part of it’s founding, along with horror writer Steve Niles, and film maker Matt Pizzolo.
It wasn’t until 2015’s We Can Never go Home by Matthew Rosenberg that the company had an “out of the park” home run. Speculators, collectors, and readers grabbed on to everything the company was putting out. Other titles such as Space Riders became secondary market gold. From there, books like X’ed, Disciples, Transference, Clandestino, and Young Terrorists were heavily speculated on as being future hits. However, suddenly it stopped. Not the success of the books, but the books themselves. Issues stopped being published, and in fact, all publication grinded to a halt. Speculators dropped off of the company and readers and collectors were left wondering what had happened.
Sentiment seemed to turn on the company, evident here in the comment section, and people who were buying all of Black Mask’s releases were now skipping over them completely.
I had a chance to talk with Black Mask Studios’ Matt Pizzolo about what had happened.
Anthony- Matt, thanks for taking the time out to speak with me and the readers of Comicsheatingup.net.
Matt Pizzolo- Thanks for talking through this stuff with me, I appreciate the opportunity to talk about what goes on behind the scenes, otherwise everyone has to guess what happened, so it’s best to be transparent.
A- Let’s start out by talking about Black Mask as an organization. You had made mention that it is a fairly small staff, and that you pretty much are the only full time person. About how many people do you guys employee and was this part of the reason for the delay with the books?
MP- Sure. Yeah, we are very tiny. We’re not venture-backed or anything like that, we’re a scrappy startup and day-to-day, yeah, it’s mostly me, but we do have a lot of freelancers who do various support work. There’s no possible way a single person could do this.
I’d say the delays are partly because of the tiny size of the company, but honestly if that were the only cause then all the books would be late. For sure that’s why *my* books are late, haha. Every delay is like a little snowflake that happens for a perfect storm of reasons. No one wants their book to be late.
There’s a lot of autonomy at Black Mask, and that can be a blessing and a curse. The system of creators (often writers specifically but not always) having to run their own creator-owned books didn’t start at Black Mask, but it’s the way most of our books operate and it’s a lot to ask of them. At some other publishers the creators also have to pay the rest of their creative team up front, which isn’t the case at Black Mask but it is still a very self-reliant culture. I’m there for everybody as much as I can be, but there weren’t a ton of guardrails in place in the early days.
I think every publisher of creator-owned comics struggles with that, how much to micromanage each book, what to do when tragedy strikes a creator and their book is due? When their family is going through something really awful? Do you turn the screws on them? Do you blame them? No, you do your best to help them through it and you’re patient with them.
Early on we had a book that I still believe is one of the best books we’ve ever put out. It ran very very late. I was very panicky about it. I felt the lateness would kill the book’s momentum in the marketplace, it would give the company a black eye, and it would be held against other books that had nothing to do with the lateness. And so we came up with contingency plans. We concocted a stopgap issue where a different creative could come in and give some breathing room to the schedule without affecting the plot of the book. And we talked it through and talked it through and talked it through and we were close to pulling the trigger on that and then we realized it was the wrong thing to do. The book was being built as a singular masterpiece, in my humble opinion, and rushing it or throwing in a stopgap issue would be disrespectful to the craftsmanship going into it. And it did lose momentum in the marketplace and it did give the company a black eye and it did adversely affect other books that followed it, but it was still the right thing to do. We’re answerable to everyone: shop owners, readers, collectors, creators… and we try to do right by everyone the best we can, but ultimately our mission is to empower creators and support bold, breathtaking works. So all our decisions ultimately have to answer to that mandate. And I’m very proud of that final collected work and feel privileged to have been a part of it.
That said, we’re business partners with retailers and with our distributor and we’re accountable to collectors and readers so we’re not cavalier about this and we recognize that it’s critical for the books to come out on time.
Again, I think every publisher of creator-owned comics struggles with this. I know there’s a publisher now requiring creators to have three issues done before they’ll solicit, but those are mostly back-end deals, we can’t replicate that because we often pay advances to help creators and the cash flow of paying for three books before even soliciting is just not something we’re in a position to do.
We implemented new rules back in July 2016, and I think if you look at the books since then you’ll note that the release schedules have become far more regular. “Kim & Kim”, “Black”, “The Forevers”, “The Skeptics”, “No Angel”, “The Dregs”, “Quantum Teens Are Go”… all of those have been streeting mostly on time or at least fairly regularly (“The Forevers” was always solicited as bi-monthly). “There’s Nothing There” streets in April and there’s already three issues finished.
So I think we’ve made huge strides toward empowering creators while also putting in place guardrails to keep the books flowing out on time.
A- So, Black Mask had been pressing along nicely and was putting out books that were grabbing everyone’s attention. Then suddenly it seemed like all publication had stopped. Black Mask then put out a press release stating there were legal troubles. Can you touch on this? Was it a Nuisance type law suit or something more of substance ?
MP- Yes, publication literally stopped. There were no new books from… I think like late November 2015 until March 2016. Anyone who knows my work knows I’m a bit of a conspiracy theorist, so of course I get superstitious about things like frivolous nuisance legal issues that attack an upstart company right when it’s making waves. But, who knows, maybe it was all a coincidence. The bottom line is it knocked us out of commission for months, and we fought it and we won and we got back on our feet and our sales in 2016 were more than double our sales in 2015, so we’re very grateful to the market for sticking with us through all that and allowing the books to continue to thrive.
The hard part I think for our friends and supporters was that we were on radio silence for all that time. It was for two reasons: a- we weren’t sure what we could say legally, and b- we honestly didn’t realize it would take so long. As it dragged on, I didn’t want to have a drip-drip-drip of saying it was done and then being wrong about that and repeatedly setting new timelines that we couldn’t hold to, so I just kept my head down and did the work of getting through it. It was a rough time for sure. And it means the world to me that the readers and the market have been really understanding and supportive of all that.
A- The Biggest offender for being late seemed to have been Young Terrorists. An issue came out October 2015 and we didn’t see anything but reprints until October 2016 or so, but a year later. What was going on with that?
MP- Young Terrorists #2 was done before Young Terrorists #1 even came out, so it wasn’t Amancay’s fault or a creative issue really. What happened was I needed to do a polish and change a couple things before it could go to print, but two other of our very beloved books ran very late, like late in the way where the wheels would come off if the problems weren’t solved immediately. So I had to sacrifice Young Terrorists #2 coming out on time to save those books, and I don’t regret it. I cherish the fact that people like a book I wrote, but people love those other books as well and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t rescue books that needed rescuing.
What I didn’t know was that the legal stuff was about to hit us. I thought the sacrifice was that Young Terrorists would run behind schedule, I didn’t realize it would become roadkill. Basically, any of the books that didn’t complete before Thanksgiving 2015 went into limbo for almost a year. That’s why Clandestino, X’ed and Transference all fell off the map (Clandestino eventually got going again and the final issue streets this week, X’ed is now wrapping up, and we’re about to get Transference completed—mind you, these books have been done for a very long time… the lateness is not necessarily because of creative, it’s based on publishing delays stemming from the legal bs). Anything still in the road when the legal stuff came roaring through basically got flattened.
Young Terrorists got further delayed because when we were finally through the legal stuff, I had a major health problem affecting my vision (I’m told it was partly from the stress of the legal stuff but who fucking knows) and I was in recovery from surgery and couldn’t write for months.
Amancay and I agreed that Young Terrorists was so late by that point that we couldn’t put out an issue 2 with any reader having confidence that 3 or 4 would come out anytime soon. So we finished 2, 3, and 4 to wrap the arc and put them out in a single 84-page Part 2 volume, roughly matching the 80-page issue 1. Those books are wall-to-wall story, so it’s the equivalent of almost 8-issues in about a year, which is probably actually the fastest 8-issues we’ve every released.
But yeah the gap was really horrible and Amancay and I feel awful about it. It means so much to us that people stuck with us through it all.
A-The Book went back for a second and then a third reprint, was that something you guys initiated or something Diamond had requested?
MP- #1 went to second print almost immediately after the first print and sold out pretty fast. By the time Part 2 came out, that second print had been sold out for an extremely long time so we were advised to put out a third print so shops could have both parts 1 & 2 available, which makes sense since it had been so long… some shops weren’t even in business when #1 came out and plenty of new readers had come into the market since then. The third print also sold out very quickly and it’s been suggested we put out a fourth print but we’ll see. Part 2 just went to second print, so we’ll wait and judge demand based on that, last I checked it was nearly sold out but reprints have more to do with reorders than just selling out. There’s a metric for how many reorders need to be in place in order to initiate a reprint.
A-I also understand you had some health concerns. How are you doing?
MP-Eh, y’know, it’s up and down but I’m still truckin thanks for asking.
A- Good to hear you are hanging in there. Ok, the variants. It seems that each title has numerous store variants and convention variants. I hear rumblings from fans about the number of covers for each book and how it dilutes the value, yet I have talked to Matthew Rosenberg and know that he helps pay for his convention travel and expenses by selling variants. How do you feel about the number of covers and variants in general?
MP-I see variants as a cool way to include more artists and more shops in the process of making books, so from that point of view it’s a fun collaborative opportunity.
In terms of the secondary market value and all that, we take the lead from the creators and the shops. They have a better sense for demand than I do, so I defer to them. The secondary market is hard for me to figure. The Dregs was an under-ordered book that was met with huge acclaim and sold out before street date. Why was that not fiery on the secondary market but other books were? I’m not a specialist in that market so I don’t try and predict it, I just try to focus on publishing the best books I can.
The con variants I try to leave as much as possible to the creators because those really enable them to be able to afford transportation to shows etc.
The shop variants… for us, the strategy and intent behind that was really specific. We did it because our books were being under-ordered to the point where retailers couldn’t seem to catch up with demand. Every street date, shops would be calling me freaking out that they needed books right away, I was literally driving around Southern California throwing boxes of books out of the back of my truck in front of lines of customers waiting for the books. But that was just the shops who were paying attention and had vocal customers (and were in SoCal, but I fedexed to everybody else). Many shops would order I dunno say 10 copies, sell out of the 10 copies, and assume they ordered correctly. Our point of view was that if there were more on the shelf they would sell more because we knew we were generating a lot of demand. And if #1 stayed on the shelf, then buzz would grow as the later issues came out so long as readers could still get #1.
Also we weren’t on FOC yet, so shops had to place their orders months out from street date before they could judge demand. The shop variants gave them another chance to support a book if they sensed a jump in demand right before we went to print. In some ways it was like a jury-rigged FOC for us.
But the main thing was that shop variants enabled us to provide shops with enough #1s that they could keep it on shelves throughout the series, and in a majority of cases that enabled us to reverse the attrition curve on books throughout the length of the mini-series. We made the minimums as low as we possibly could because we don’t want stores to have more than they need, it’s good for the book to be on shelves if it’s selling but if that book is an eyesore on their shelves and everytime they see it they’re pissed that they ordered so many then that’s bad for everybody. So we set them at break-even for us because in theory it makes those #1s available in shops long enough for us to continue attracting new readers throughout the course of the series. I get that the low minimums also caused a scarcity and thus generated secondary market demand for them and that’s cool, but that doesn’t really have anything to do with us. We don’t make money on the variants—not just in the upsell, but like I said we set the minimums at break-even. We really only do them to give shops and collectors and readers cool stuff and to promote the longevity of the books. We enjoy doing them because they’re fun and cool to make and in terms of promotions they made a lot of sense for the company when shops didn’t know how much demand they could expect for our books. Us generating enthusiasm and demand does nothing if the books aren’t available, but we totally understand shops need to be real cautious in their purchasing. So the variants were a win-win for everybody.
It did get a bit out of control with so many variants, but as far as I can tell we weren’t flooding the market. The shops lead the way, they tell us what they want. We make them aware of what we’re doing but we don’t hard sell them because they know what they need and again we don’t want them sitting on unsold books. If 3 shops want exclusives, cool. If 10 or more want exclusives, it becomes challenging to determine why we say yes to one shop and no to another shop. We have to be fair about it, the shops are our partners. Because of the way we built out our workflow and the way we operate distribution, we developed a system where we’re able to offer pretty much the lowest minimum variant print runs of any publisher, and that made it so any shop could participate without taking on too much risk, we designed it to be egalitarian and not limited to the whales. In our mind it was the best way we could support local comic shops who champion our books, but for sure if collectors want every cover I can see how it starts feeling excessive.
You’ll note we don’t do tons of variants anymore. Everybody and their mom and sister is flooding the world with shop variants at this point, so we don’t want to get lost in all that noise. I still love variants and think they’re a ton of fun, especially because I love seeing various artists’ interpretations of creator-owned comics. I love showing No Angel to Alexis Ziritt and seeing him come back with that insane variant cover he did. We’re just not doing quite so many of them these days. The Dregs had a couple, Quantum Teens had a few, No Angel had a couple. Maybe we’ll do another where it’s crazy but there has to be a reason to do it. Again, this is a really small operation here and making all those variants is a lot of work. The most important thing is for us to be making great books and getting them out on time.
A- Finally, what is the future of Black Mask? Anything new or exciting on the horizon?
MP-Yeah, definitely! I’m really excited for our upcoming slate of books. I think we’ll be launching more brave new voices who will be reshaping the market at large in the years to come and we’re also teaming with more legends telling some of the stories they’re most passionate about. This is an incredible time for all of us to be making comics and reading comics and collecting comics, I feel really lucky to be a part of it.
Thanks to Matt Pizzolo for taking the time out to talk to us. Also, thanks to Mel V. for hooking this up.