Comics & Games Retailer
Hearkening back to the VanguardBy Oliver Chin
A few columns ago, I covered how more mainstream book publishers like Waston-Guptill were jumping on the comics bandwagon and producing more titles to appeal to both comics retailers and readers. The same trend is even more evident today, but I've decided to revisit the topic for another reason.
Along the way I got an email from J. David Spurlock, the publisher of Vanguard Publications. He wrote that some books that I assumed were Watson-Guptill's were in fact his, and that Watson-Guptill distributed them on his behalf to trade bookstores. Seeking proper credit, he also wanted a higher profile among comics retailers and therefore drive additional sales through Diamond Distributors.
Never let it be said, that I'm not responsive to feedback and publisher concerns about confusion in the sales channel! So I've decided to take a closer look at another small comics press which is trying to make a name for itself by resurrecting the names of comicdom's leading creators from ages past.
Publishing on the Edge
An illustrator himself, Spurlock has produced dozens of publications over the past decade in relative obscurity from his base in Somerset, New Jersey. Vanguard's comic anthology named Edge exemplifies of the attention Spurlock has paid to historic contributors to the medium. Published intermittently over the years, this magazine has featured the work of Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Bill Sienkiewicz as well as heralded editorial illustrators such as Barron Storey and Marshall Arisman (known for his Time magazine covers in the 1980s).
Along the way Vanguard (http://www.creativemix.com) has produced a range of sketchbooks and collections to card sets and limited-edition prints from pioneering artists like Wally Wood (Mad magazine) and Jim Steranko (Marvel's Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D). Spurlock's intention is to create "books comics fans have waited a lifetime for and we hope that the 'Vanguard treatment' will also help turn non-comics fans on to these all-time great talents. We've recently launched a line of graphic novels, art prints, and look forward to a line of DVDs."
So far his formula of featuring industry legends seems to be working. Vanguard has had healthy growth in initial sales and reorders. According to Spurlock, he sells an average of "6,000 books per title in the year of release. Our more popular titles including Steranko: Graphic Prince of Darkness, Neal Adams: The Sketch Book, Amazing World of Carmine Infantino, Hal Foster: Prince of Illustrators, and Kerry Gammill's Drawing Monsters & Heroes for Film & Comics sold more like 10,000 copies respectively."
Looking Back to the Future
Mining the jewels of the past is one thing. Focusing on the market's future is another. However Vanguard thinks both are linked together to its benefit. "It seems publishers and retailers alike have realized that comics are a core part of the bigger entertainment industry which includes games, toys, and movies," noted Spurlock. "While a balanced diet is healthy, I think it's important to never forget that our cultural roots are comics and the creators that first inspired us."
In 2004, Spurlock toured the usual string of comic conventions with Steranko to promote the Steranko Spirit of America art print featuring a resolute Captain America, whose proceeds funded a scholarship project. Meanwhile, Vanguard produced more titles for its new product line of graphic novels, such as Neal Adam's Monsters, a reprinted retelling of tales of the iconic Werewolf, Frankenstein, and Dracula. The Wizard King trilogy of graphic novels from Wally Wood followed, and, like The Lord of the Rings, dealt with forest elves, wizards, and the medieval struggle between good and evil. Next came RGK: The Art of Roy G. Krenkel, whose works span the 1940s to 60s and covered characters by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Joining the lineup was Space Wars, a "Mars Attacks" science-fiction story penned by Steve Ditko before he co-created Spider-Man. Also hitting the shelves was Grand Master of Adventure Art: The Drawings of J. Allen St. John, an artist who helped bring Tarzan to life in illustrations for pulp magazines. Taking advantage of the privilege and responsibilities of being a publisher, Spurlock edited that title and has written a number of Vanguard's other books. But Vanguard's other unique formula has been to often release two versions of each book to appeal to both collectors and even harder core aficionados: hard-covers usually retail between $30-35, and then the limited-editions with slipcases and additional color pages sell between $40-50.
From printing career retrospectives to how-to drawing series, Vanguard has definitely carved out a niche catering to collectors. Maintaining relatively high price points, the small press is making the point to find enough customers who fondly recall the famous artists of yore.