AP at Akon 2014 via
When I arrive, the office looks abandoned. It’s dark, cluttered, and piles of boxes are stacked along the walls. I’m looking for the indie comic book publisher Antarctic Press (AP). Instead, what I find looks like a storage closet.
Based in San Antonio, AP has been in business for the last 30 years. In 1984, Ben Dunn and Marc Ripley founded the company to break into the comic book industry. It’s a creator-owned company where artists maintain the rights to their comics. It’s also one of the few publishers that survived the comic book crash of 1993.
When I think of an “indie comic book publisher,” I see drafting tables stuffed with gorgeous sketch art, rare action figures displayed on shelves and pop culture curios artfully strewn around a designer space. At AP, empty soda bottles crowd desks, comics spill out of bookshelves, and it looks like no one has cleaned the place since 1984.
AP’s first publication was Mangazine, a compilation of short comic stories. Dunn wrote almost all of the early issues’ stories. Over time, he relied on local talent to help complete each issue, including artists Fred Perry, Joe Wight and Rod Espinoza, whom still publish their books with AP.
In the late '80s and early '90s, AP began publishing new comic books. In 1987, Dunn released Ninja High School. The series focuses on Jeremy Feeple, an unassuming high schooler, who becomes the object of both an alien and a ninja’s affections. In 1991, Perry released Gold Digger, a story about an archaeologist named Gina Babette Diggers and her Indiana Jones-like adventures. These two titles are arguably AP’s biggest successes. As important as comic book creators are, someone needs to run the business side of AP.
When Ripley left the company in 1989, Ben Dunn’s younger brother, Joeming Dunn, took over the business side, then the whole company in 2003. The model of making comics, however, remained unchanged.
From AP's hard boiled series Ghost Cop via
“Antarctic is always a facilitator,” says Joeming Dunn.
In turn, they encourage artists or writers to submit their books and ideas for publication. If accepted, they can expect an advance upfront and a percentage of sales rivaling what is offered by Image, another creator-owned comic book publisher.
We gather in Editor-in-Chief Joe Weltjens’ office for a staff meeting. Most of AP’s talent living in San Antonio have arrived: Joseph Wight (Twlight X), Brian Denham (Iron Man: Hypervelocity, Green Hornet), Fred Perry (Gold Digger, Steam Wars, Diary of a Zombie Kid), and David Hutchison (Dragon Arms, Oz: The Manga). Everybody talks at the same time. Joeming Dunn organizes their upcoming trip to San Diego Comic Con. Weltjens divides work among the artists. The artists discuss their workloads and schedules. People tell stories and talk about what comics they’re reading, all the while making jokes and weaving in and out of simultaneous conversations. I find keeping up with everything difficult, but at the same time, entertaining. Eventually, they finish and with business out of the way, Weltjens opens the floor to new comic book ideas.
By far, this is the most exciting part of the meeting. As Weltjens throws out title names, Wight sketches. Denham chimes in with funny plotlines. Perry throws in a few suggestions. The atmosphere feels so infectious that I get involved and pitch a storyline. Half-joking and half-serious, Weltjens says AP now owns my idea. Naturally, they don’t settle on anything this meeting. It’s a long process to develop an idea into a sellable comic book.
Weltjens and Lee Duhig, creative director at AP, spend much of their time trying to unite the idea with the sale. Though I interview them separately, they both offer similar messages: the comic book business is hard.
In order to compete, they try to understand what’s trendy in the comic world and capitalize on it.
Cover to a new AP book out in September via
“You almost have to be [trendy],” says Duhig. “Because that’s the stuff that sells
you have to have certain things that are going to sell to counterbalance what you plan to nurture and hopefully sell eventually.”
Otherwise, AP titles might get overlooked in Diamond Previews, a catalogue of new titles, which retailers use to choose their stock altogether. “Retailers are the bread-and-butter and always will be to a certain degree,” Duhig goes on, “but their dollar is stretched thin. There are so many comics that come out every month, all they have to do is crack open a Diamond Previews to see the plethora of comics coming out every month.”
Because retailers can’t stock every comic book, some stick with tried-and-true sellers. In turn, many books never even make it into a shop. “Most consumers will walk into the store, see what’s on the shelf, and think that’s it,” says Weltjens. That means AP titles can be overlooked.
With that information in mind, what becomes painfully clear is that AP is a labor of love. Last July, AP racked up a $70,000 debt and had to campaign fans for financial assistance when a distribution deal with Wal-mart went sideways. They work their asses off making and selling comics, but they can’t do it all. Many staffers have second jobs. Denham works with comic book publisher Lion Forge. Weltjens and Duhig are colorists with Marvel, and Joeming Dunn is an M.D. with a private practice in the same building as AP. They would like to add a marketing person to the team, something Weltjens and Duhig both believe would help sell comics tremendously, but AP simply can’t afford it.
After the meeting, I climb over and squeeze by the stacked boxes again. Douglas Dlin, AP’s office manager and Japanese translator, explains that the piles of boxes I saw at the entrance are stock for an upcoming comic convention. To me, they’re an inconvenience; for AP, selling their comic books at conventions is a reliable way to market and sell their comic books directly to fans. While everyone is working together to make and sell their comics, some things have to slide. If that means forgoing a clean workroom, so be it.
Antarctic Press' up-and-coming artist Zechary Grey will be on a panel, Writer's Room, at Wizard World, 11:30 a.m. on Saturday.