Nat Gertler Celebrates About Comics’ 10th Anniversary
Nat Gertler and his About Comics company is celebrating its tenth anniversary this month. Gertler has been an active participant as a fan then publisher, a recognized figure in the community and has helped shine the spotlight on little known talent or forgotten works.
ComicMix: Nat, it’s been ages and ages since we’ve chatted, dating back to the CompuServe days I think. Happy anniversary for About Comics. How are you celebrating?
Nat Gertler: I’m celebrating by chatting with you!
Well, not just that. We’re also having a tenth anniversary contest. After ten years of publishing comics with fascinating content, we’re going the other way — publishing completely blank comics. Blank cardstock covers, 24 pages of blank paper. People can use them to draw their own comics in, or to keep notes that they want to file in their long box, or… well, that’s the contest. We need to know from people what they would do with a blank comic book. There are prizes for the best ideas, and schwag for people who help us promote the contest. Details are up at the AboutComics.com website.
CMix: Any anniversary party?
NG: We were planning to hook up with a local comic shop for an anniversary party… but I’ve backed away from that. Wasn’t confident that people will show up. That’s the result of About’s scattershot line – we certainly have individual projects that have their fans, but because they’re so different, it doesn’t translate to a "cult of personality" for the About Comics imprint.
CMix: Along the way, you’ve discovered the joys of working as an editor. What do you like the most and least about the role?
NG: It’s a real thrill to be able to find some new creator, and while I can’t make someone’s career, I can give them some exposure and help build their confidence. Or to dig up some work that’s existed but been far too hidden, and bring it more to light.
The downsides are hard, however. Editing means telling a lot of people "no". That was particularly true about the 24 Hour Comics Day Highlights books, where I dealt with hundreds of people hoping to get into the collection. Every single story had something going for it, but there ends up being a lot more saying "no" than "yes". Editing those books really ate at me.
And then there’s the frustration of dealing with pros who don’t live up to their responsibilities, don’t complete the promised work. That really drains me.
CMix: Tell me about it…(chuckle)
NG: Folks who don’t get their work in and lie about it, that costs me in time, money, reputation, and sound sleep. As a one-man company it’s hard not to take it personally. And sometimes it’s a tragedy – it’s very talented folks who could be doing great things and serving themselves and the comics community well if they would only follow through.
CMix: One of my favorite parts was discovering new talent and you certainly have some names to your credit. The list includes Faith Erin Hicks, Alexander Grecian, and Adam Rex. Makes you feel like a proud parent, doesn’t it?
NG: Yes, although goodness knows that I can’t take much credit for them. When I found Adam, for example, he was already a working fantasy artist, he just wanted to get into story work. So I grabbed him up for a story I was doing for an anthology, which l reprinted as part the very first About Comics publication, issue 0 of The Factor. Now, he’s a best-selling children’s book author, using the comics form in some of his books. I was just a small stepping-stone along the way for Adam. Would Alex have his comics writing career if I hadn’t been using him as an artist? Prob’ly. Would Faith have sold her graphic novels if I hadn’t chosen her story for 24 Hour Comics Day Highlights 2005? Probably. So I suppose my feeling of triumph is more that of someone who was wise enough to bet on the right horse, rather than of the people who trained or rode the horse.
CMix: What do you look for in evaluating new talent?
NG: Most of my "new talent" sightings have been for one of two things. For the 24 Hour Comics anthologies, it’s less a matter of evaluating a talent and simply evaluating the finished work — is it good, easy to comprehend, bring a clear spirit to the work, and does it show something about what was done on 24 Hour Comics Day that isn’t covered by the other stories in the book.
The other new talent use is for original works that I’m writing, whether it was The Factor, which was the first series I published, or for the recently-trade-paperbacked Licensable BearTM. And in that I’m looking for clarity of storytelling, and for a style that fits a story that I have in mind or that is so special that it inspires me to come up with a story which matches their style. But I also need a sense of responsibility, which is something which cannot be judged from their samples. There are people who want to be comic creators who, when given the opportunity, don’t actually get around to doing the work.
And out of necessity, when doing new material, they have to be willing to accept the low pay rates. I work hard to be up front about that; I don’t promise much, but I pay what I promise.
CMix: And of course, your credits also include older talent such as your work with Charles Schulz. What was that like?
NG: Alas, I didn’t get to work with Mr. Schulz directly. He passed before I started publishing this material. But I’m a big Schulz nut. Obviously, I’m a big fan of comics in general, but Schulz is my one collecting madness. I run a website for Schulz book fans – AAUGH.com ) — which in the front is just sales links for Peanuts books, but if you look around there’s a large collectors’ guide for Peanuts books, as well as the AAUGH Blog, which covers upcoming Peanuts book releases, reviews of new Peanuts books and interesting items I come across. My Schulz collection – the "AAUGH.com reference library" — has around 1000 books in it.
And in all this, there were no reprints of Schulz’s other syndicated newspaper feature, the single-panel sports-and-games gag series It’s Only a Game. None. To the best of my knowledge, not a single panel of it had ever been in any book. And when I talked to the syndicate and to Mrs. Schulz, it became clear that the reason it was never collected was that no one had ever asked. Here he is, the most beloved cartoonist in history, and yes, obviously Peanuts is the major work, but no one even thought about collecting this other body of material? It’s an unknown work by a best-selling author, and at the very least curiosity should drive a reasonable number of sales. So putting that project together was fairly easy, once I asked. And then I followed that up with Schulz’s Youth, collecting his single-panel teenager gags he’d done for church youth magazines; some of that stuff had never been collected, some had but was long out of print. And it’s done well for me. It probably would’ve done better for some big mainstream publisher had they thought to go after it, but they didn’t and I did.
And really, that same descriptor applies to all of my biggest successes. It’s not me being smart, it’s everyone else overlooking the obvious. I think that about Panel One, our first book showcasing comic book scripts by various writers, to show how it’s done. It’s the book that I wanted when I was starting out, and I heard that same thing from just about every writer I approached to include their material. I got tired of waiting for someone else to publish it, so I did. Or that first 24 Hour Comics book. Over the years, tons of people had gone to Scott McCloud and said "some should put out a book of these!" It was obvious to all of those folks. But I was the guy who said "I want to put out a book of these", and thus a hit was born.
Having said that, sometimes you go after something that should be obvious, and you discover that there’s a reason why it hasn’t happened before. Case in point was something I wanted for our first color project. About three decades back, DC published Hot Wheels, based on a TV cartoon based on the toy line.
CMix: I enjoyed that title. Dick Giordano edited it, with great art from Alex Toth and Neal Adams. It had some of Joe Gill’s few scripts for DC but it only last five issues in 1970.
NG: Right. The comic didn’t run very long, because the show got canceled when the feds decided it was a half-hour long ad, but there was about enough material for one good solid book, with work by solid craftsmen of the period, and a stand-out Toth story. It’d sell to both silver age fans, and Hot Wheels collectors, and a book with two audiences is obviously lucrative. Now you’re probably thinking "DC published it, and DC isn’t going to let you reprint it", but DC didn’t hold the trademarks and copyrights. Mattel, of course, held the trademark, and they would have to be negotiated with. The copyrights were in the name of the production house that made the TV series, and they stopped producing anything about the time the show ended. Searching some copyright records showed that the rights to the TV show were claimed by a larger production house, who got eaten by a media conglomerate who merged into a large conglomerate.
So I call the company, got bounced around the various divisions with each person swearing that the next one could answer my question, and it becomes clear that they aren’t 100% certain they own the TV show copyright, and have no clue whether the comic book story copyrights had been transferred along every step of the way. They can’t license it out, but they won’t promise that if I publish it, they won’t sue me.
The cherry on the top of this whole mess is… well, you know how the Siegel’s filed for recapturing the Superman rights? DC does things like that as well. These comics were work-for-hire, with the creators working for DC, and then DC transferring the rights to the TV production house. Which means that legally, DC is the creator of this material, and could reclaim the rights to it. And I’ve found a copyright office filing indicating that they did just that, reclaiming one issue of the run. So even if I cleared up the other rights matters, I’d either have to negotiate with DC or publish a collection which is one issue short of complete. Some "obvious" ideas are just too knotty to bother with.
Tomorrow: Nat talks 24 Hour Comics Day, his own writing and About’s future plans.