The Price to Pay: Small Press, BIG Frustrations
by R.J. Carter
Published: June 29, 2000
In July 1999, Pat Quinn posted a message at Comicon.com and other comic related Internet forums, which would spark a long and angry controversy among comic fans and professionals:
"My name is Pat Quinn. I am a 'starving artist' desperately trying to start a career in the comics field. Recently I have had some trouble with the comic publisher Avatar Press. The trouble being, Avatar Press hasn't paid me for stories that I drew that have been published."
Quinn, who produced artwork for the publisher of such titles as Faust, Pandora, and Lookers, went on to allege that Avatar consistently paid him late for the work for which he was compensated. To support his claims, Quinn quoted in his message nearly nine pages of e-mails and contract excerpts.
The most contentious of Quinn's grievances was a $50 "kill fee" Avatar had paid him for artwork Quinn had produced for Threshold #15. Traditionally, kill fees are paid when a publisher decides against printing work it had contracted from a creator. In this unusual incident, however, the work was actually published.
Quoting a letter from Avatar editor-in-chief William Christensen, Quinn was told the kill fee was awarded in lieu of payment because the artwork was late and "...obviously far below even [Quinn's] abilities and an embarrassment to both [Quinn] and [Avatar Press]."
Almost as soon as Quinn posted his statement, Christensen posted a rebuttal, which included an invitation for Quinn to call Avatar's attorney, telling Quinn, "You've got her number, but of course you'll be hearing from her anyway." In the same post, Christensen cites Avatar's "sterling track record with the dozens of other creators" the publisher does business with, including Tim Vigil, David Finch, Matt Haley, and Mike Wolfer.
In an e-mail interview, Christensen provided his take on the matter.
"This was an instance where Pat and myself--two stubborn, strong-willed people--let a simple situation get blown up into a big deal," says Cristensen. "I regret that. When in the course of our correspondence it became clear that we had a genuine difference of opinion and the discussion was not going anywhere, I suggested he continue it with Avatar's attorney. I was a little angry, which was clearly the intention of some of Pat's actions, and I felt that a fresh point of view might make some progress. I still feel that was absolutely a proper way to attempt to resolve the situation. It was a sincere attempt at resolution. I'm certain we could have reached some agreement."
"But yes, a suit has been prepared based on Pat's threat to take action against Avatar. It has not been filed at this time."
Regarding the kill fee, Christensen goes on to state, "It was paid to terminate the contract, which encompassed several additional stories presumably for the future. Pat was obviously ready to conclude our relationship at that time, and he accepted it."
While the thread contained several expressions of outrage, and even a few apologists, at this writing neither Quinn nor Christensen have posted additional messages to the discussion. Further, no other creators took the opportunity to join in and claim a similar beef with the independent publisher, creating the impression that Quinn was alone, and possibly exaggerating; a disgruntled ex-employee, getting in his digs.
But Quinn was not alone. Since his initial statement, I've encountered other creators, each asserting similar experiences with Avatar Press.
Budd Root is the creator of Basement Comics' popular series, Cavewoman. Over a year ago, Root entered into an agreement with Christensen to license the Cavewoman character to Avatar for the purposes of making an action figure. Root even drew a special 10-page Cavewoman story specifically to promote the figure. As part of the deal, Root's take on the action figure was to be seven percent. Based on the average past performance of the other action figures Avatar distributed, Root calculated that seven percent would equate to around $7,000.
Root never saw the money. Several months after signing the licensing deal with Avatar, Root finally received a call from Christensen. According to Root, Christensen claimed sales of the action figure were poor--so poor that Avatar was going to have to declare bankruptcy on the whole deal. They weren't going to be able to pay him.
Root contacted his attorney, Bud Roberts. In an interview at The Comic Book Store in North Little Rock, Arkansas, Roberts confirmed that he had made a formal request of Christensen back in the summer of 1999, demanding an accounting of the action figure sales.
To date, Roberts has received no reply; neither he nor Root learned how many Cavewoman action figures were sold.
However, a source at Diamond Distribution, the major distributor for direct sales stores, places Diamond's total orders of the figure at around 5,000 pieces, including nearly 2,100 sold as single units, and almost 500 case lots. The net cost to retailers was $8.75 per unit, and the Cavewoman action figures are still offered for sale through Avatar's website.
Christensen says the action figure deal wasn't an Avatar project. "Avatar Press had nothing to do with the Cavewoman action figure license," he says. "We were simply allowing Bolt Entertainment, the licensor, to solicit it in our selection."
It seems that almost since its inception, frustrated creators have taken issue with Avatar's business practices. Richard Pollard came on with Avatar at the ground level in 1996. In addition to his work on the Pandora books, Pollard was the creator of The Furies and designer of the Pandora action figure.
"When I first started working for [Christensen]," Pollard says, "he had sent me a contract, and there was an area of the contract in reference to artwork. I wasn't too happy with the way it stated ownership in the contract."
"So I contacted [Christensen] and said, 'What's this about the artwork? My policy is I get all original artwork back.'"
According to Pollard, the term 'artwork' as explained to him by Christensen, pertained to the printed pages only, and that all originals would be returned. Pollard says it was at that point Christensen offered to purchase the original artwork. Pollard agreed, signed the contract, and began work.
"Periodically I would ask [Christensen] when he would be sending me payment for the artwork," says Pollard, "and he was always too busy to go through it and figure out what he owed me."
Christensen disagrees. "All of [Pollard's] contracts were clear on this issue, and I made no verbal agreements to the contrary. After all the books he did for Avatar (eight, I think), it seems odd that he would expect it since he hadn't gotten any art returns at any time in the past. He also did not mention this to me in the over three years since his last assignment at Avatar."
"It's a shame he feels there was a miscommunication," adds Christensen. "I enjoyed working with Richard."
Near the end of his relationship with Avatar, Pollard says he heard, through another Avatar artist, that Christensen had no intentions of paying for or returning Pollard's original art. When Pollard tried again to contact Christensen about the material, he received a letter from Christensen's attorney, stating there would be no more communication on the subject.
"They felt it would be detrimental to my project," says Pollard. "I was working on the Pandora: Demonography miniseries, and they said that once I finished the miniseries they would talk."
"I went ahead and finished the project. I sent faxes, I made phone calls, and never ever did I get a word back."
"Seeing as how I started working for [Christensen] in June of 1996 and worked until May of 1997--and this is now May 2000--I don't think I'm ever going to see the money that's owed me," says Pollard. "I got nailed for over 200 pages of artwork."
Pollard estimates the amount owed to him by Christensen at around $5,000.
A similar dispute over original artwork occurred with Kevin Sharpe, who provided artwork on the Pandora Special as well as several pin-ups for Avatar.
Around late 1996/early 1997, Sharpe began to have concerns. Many of his original pieces were earmarked for friends or family members. One cover in particular was dedicated to Sharpe's close friend, Richard Pollard.
"In the contract for the Pandora Special," says Sharpe, "there wasn't anything about original artwork. So I brought that up with [Christensen]."
Sharpe says he received verbal reassurances from Christensen that the artwork would be returned, and that returning the creator's original art was a given in the industry.
Christensen holds a different view of that offer. "Kevin Sharpe's deal was that for a higher page rate up front, Avatar got to keep the art," says Christensen. "That was in every contract he ever signed and he has never mentioned the issue to me in the dozen or so times we have chatted over the past few years since he worked for me. This being an issue kind of perplexes me, as he and I were also in constant communication while he was working with us. I spent many, many late nights on the phone talking to Kevin about his work in those days. I also went to great lengths to create work for Kevin when he needed it. We still have unused art in inventory that he did in '97 and '97."
When Sharpe heard of Pollard's problems, he grew apprehensive. After discussing these problems with Pollard, Sharpe said he received an admonishing phone call from Christensen. It seemed there was a clause in Sharpe's contract which forbid his discussing Avatar problems with other professionals in the industry. (Pollard, Quinn and Root confirm they had similar clauses in their contracts.)
"He made it clear taht he wasn't comfortable with me talking to [Pollard] about [Pollard's] problems," says Sharpe.
During that phone conversation, Sharpe says the discussion again turned toward the topic of returning the artwork. According to Sharpe, Christensen stated Avatar had to hold on to the artwork for overseas publishing and reprinting.
"I was suspicious," says Sharpe, "because I know if you scan the artwork onto disks, you have a copy."
Sharpe says Christensen then began making offers to buy the original artwork, which Sharpe declined.
"He had already made that offer to Richard Pollard, and I saw where that got him--he didn't get anything for it," says Sharpe. "That didn't sit well with me, and I didn't like it."
Pollard and Sharpe were later shocked when they visited the Avatar Press website to find the original artwork they were fighting for was being offered for sale to the public.
After hanging up with Christensen, Sharpe initiated a three-way telephone conversation with Pollard and another Avatar artist. Directly after that, Sharpe says Christensen called again, reminding him of the hush clause in his contract.
Such clauses are not uncommon. Many business dealings today--in and out of comics--include statements designed to protect a company's proprietary information.
"Non-disclosure agreements are quite common in all of the entertainment industry," explains Christensen, "and in fact all the business world. They're certainly not unheard of in comics either. I think that most people consider their business, financial, and work arrangements a private matter. All of our contracts are individually negotiated, and I won't discuss any specifically for that reason."
"To my understanding of the clause," says Pollard, "you could talk to no one about any of the projects you were working on or any of the business dealings of Avatar. It seemed... on the edge of paranoia."
At least one comics retailer has ceased selling Avatar Press titles in a public show of support for the artists.
"We have remaindered every copy we pre-ordered from Diamond and have sent them directly back to Avatar," says Jack Venooker of Barre, Vermont's Comics Outpost. "[Warren] Ellis's book [Strange Kiss] has been a complete non-event in the store as a result. No one has really seen his book, and we don't stock or order any Avatar titles to date."
"I will gladly sell their titles when they pay Pat Quinn what they owe him," says Venooker.
If other retailers feel similarly, you couldn't tell it by Avatar's sales.
"Avatar has had some excellent growth recently and 2000 will be our best year by a substantial margin," says Christensen. "More retailers are putting extra Avatar books on the stands and realizing they are selling briskly. Our reorders are up 160% this year, which is a strong indication that the books are moving well for retailers."
"I do regret having some angry exchanges online at the time of the Pat Quinn issue, as it wasn't a constructive way to address what could have been a far less impassioned situation."
We asked Quinn if he felt the situtation with Avatar Press was resolved or ongoing.
"I'm not sure if either term, 'resolved' or 'ongoing', fits here," says Quinn. "I got tired of having this thing hang over my head, so I let it go. I figured that at least I put the word on the street and have hopefully done some good for the industry; and after going public, I knew there was no way Avatar would pay me anyway. I know I'm in the right, not only because I'm telling the truth, but because of events that followed my postings and the responses my postings generated."
"In the end," Quinn says, "they still have my money and finished product, while I have moved on to better use of my time and energy."
Certainly the comic industry--particularly the average independent publisher--is feeling the pinch of market competition, which could explain a late payment to a freelancer.
"The comic business is really tough right now," says Budd Root. "If Avatar is struggling, I can understand that making it hard to pay people. But I've dealt with a lot of people who have to be struggling harder than Christensen, who've made an effort to pay and who really shine. Some people during tough times shine, and some don't."
"I don't think Avatar is really interested in the artist as much," Root surmises. "I know there has to be people they treat well, because Tim Vigil has been with them for a long time. Either that, or he's really hard up to get his stuff published, which I couldn't understand because it's beautiful work. [Avatar has] to be making some money. It would be nice if they'd fulfill their obligations to people that promises were made to. To my knowledge, to this date [Christensen] hasn't declared bankruptcy."
"If we had problems paying creators," counters Christensen, "we wouldn't be publishing Warren Ellis, Tim Vigil, David Quinn, Al Rio, Mike Deodato, Jacen Burows, Mike Wolfer, Sean Shaw, Rick Lyon, etc. We have over 40 freelancers working with us and every one of them is happy. Avatar is paying everyone, and on time."