Dale Keown: “ASK THE DWO” Answers

Another great question for ASK THE DWO this week, this one focusing on Dale Keown and Aircel Comics.

PATRICK asks:

samurai12

Aircel's SAMURAI #1 (1986)

Dave. I was going through some original artwork and I fell across some original Dragonforce Dale Keown pages, wondered what ever happened to Aircel Comics out of Canada and a wikipedia search or two later and read that Mailibu Comics were gained the Aircel titles through some financial troubles with Barry Blair. What can you tell me about the Aircel books? Dragonforce/Dale Keown (at the time) was one of the main reasons that I wanted to become a comic illustrator. Do you think Samauri or any of those titles will ever see daylight again?

DWO answers:

Early in its history, a year or so before Malibu began publishing, Aircel Comics were doing quite well. The books weren’t exactly my personal cup of tea, but they definitely had some loyal and reasonably numerous fans. If memory serves, the books for the most part were doing respectable numbers, but weren’t really burning up the charts until Warlock 5 grabbed the attention and imagination of the collectors/back issue/price guide buyers that dominated the market at the time. That book succeeded on the strength of the art of Canadian Denis Beauvais. It was really a time in the late 1980s when the tale was wagging the dog in the comic book business.

aliens1Trivia: Based on the success of Warlock 5, Denis Beauvais went on to provide art for the second ALIENS mini-series for Dark Horse Comics in 1989. The first color series produced by Dark Horse.

The two guys behind Aircel Comics were Ken Campbell and Barry Blair. Campbell was the owner of Aircel Insulation who, as you read on the Wikipedia page, turned to comics publishing after losing his government contract for insulation installation. Barry Blair was the editor/writer/artist in charge of making the editorial side of the business work. The financial problems weren’t Barry’s … at least not directly. The company and Ken Campbell were suffering difficulties that came to the attention of Malibu President Scott Rosenberg.

Keown cover for DRAGONFORCE #2

Keown cover for DRAGONFORCE #2

A business deal was worked out that handed the reigns of Aircel over to Malibu, that allowed Barry Blair to remain and produce books for Malibu. I don’t really know much about the books published by Aircel before Barry and Co. arrived. I’m reasonably sure that the rights to those titles remained with the creators, so it would be possible for them to return if the creators/owners wanted to do something. 

The financial problems that faced Campbell/Aircel before Malibu’s intervention continued afterward and all of the original titles died out pretty quickly due to low sales. Much of the sales loss were the result of the shrinking/competition in the market at the time, but another contributing factor was the loss of artists due to decreasing royalty payments and better job offers from other publishers.

MEN IN BLACK #1 (Aircel imprint)

MEN IN BLACK #1 (Aircel imprint)

Ultimately the Aircel Comics imprint changed its identity a number of times while at Malibu, depending on the shifting sands of the comic industry beneath “our” feet. Eventually, it essentially became our “adult” imprint because Barry Blair had moved in that direction chasing sales and we went that direction as well. The money wasn’t great, but it helped to keep the lights on and the rent paid.

Trivia: Malibu’s MEN IN BLACK comic that became the famous movie franchise was originally published under the Aircel imprint.

Keown's Dinos for Hire cover

Keown's Dinos for Hire cover

Arguably the most successful creator to come from the “original” Aircel Comics was artist Dale Keown. Dale did memorable work for Marvel (Hulk) and for Image (Pitt). Back in the day, Dale did a number of guest covers for Malibu, include two very memorable ones for Tom Mason’s Dinosaurs For Hire. He was always absolutely fun and terrific. While I haven’t kept in touch with Dale, the legend from the rumor mill is that Dale used his Hulk/Pitt money to build a high-tech recording studio at his house in Canada, because ultimately no matter how well he drew or how well he got paid for it, his primary interest was playing rock-n-roll guitar.

Dale Keown (1986)

Dale Keown (1986)

Recently, most of Dale’s work can be found with an Image/Top Cow logo on it. But I’m pretty sure I saw a Keown RED HULK cover recently as well.

That’s my version of the story.

– Dave Olbrich (DWO) Fri. Dec. 26, 2008

Another Keown Dinosaurs for Hire cover

Another Keown Dinosaurs for Hire cover

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7 Comments

Filed under Ask The DWO, Behind the Scenes, Point-of-view

7 responses to “Dale Keown: “ASK THE DWO” Answers

  1. Keown’s work on the Darkness is his all-time best, I think.
    And I believe Blair was still dabbling in small press until not too long ago. Maybe still.
    My favorite work from Beauvais, though, was his lush adaptation of Frankenstein in the early 90′s, also from Dark Horse. Where is HE now?

  2. Wow. Pretty in depth, thanks for the detailed response.

    So…whatever became of (the one who I always viewed as the mastermind behind Aircel—for whatever reason—maybe just that he continued the work after Dale and Gang left some of the books I read/collected, or possibly because he was the ‘face’ of the creative side)… Barry Blair?

    What about Ken Campbell?

  3. Thanks again for the response. Very interesting course of events.

    If I recall correctly, around the time of Aircel/Barry Blair and Dale Keown work; books like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were skyrocketing and it was a first in the realm of such independents to do so. Still TMNT in my opinion was one of the great independent comic book success stories yet.

    Caliber, which happened to become a publishing house out of my local comic book store, produced books like the Baker Street, Deadworld, and the Crow which made some cross media grabs later on with the Brandon Lee movie.

    It was definitely a different landscape at the time. I ended up following Dale’s work throughout his career all the way up to the more recent Darkness.

    Looking back on the pages really took me back, maybe I’ll pull out those old Dragonforce books and give them a re-read. I recall a Planet of the Apes title that he did under Aircel, too. But it may have just been the covers. Really great art work at the time for an independent title/company.

  4. HA! I remember digging thru boxes when we closed the Calabassas offices and found “Leather and Lace” and other Blair projects. Bizzare. I met the man a couple of times and thought him to be a nice guy.

    BEST book, though, had to be Gun Fury. It was hysterical.

  5. Dave Olbrich

    Mark –
    Barry Blair was a nice guy and he worked hard. His stuff didn’t really suit my personal taste, but it helped pay the rent and cover payroll.

    And you’re right about Gun Fury. In context, especially at the time, I thought it was very funny. I haven’t gone back to look … who knows if it holds up.

  6. Tom Mason

    Aircel was, I believe, the name of Ken Campbell’s insulation company in Canada and where the bulk of the comic book company’s financing came from. He was the backer of the company and Barry Blair’s studio provided the books.

    There’s a fascinating interview between Pat McEown and Dave Cooper about their days at Aircel in The Comics Journal #245 which is excerpted online at http://www.tcj.com/245/i_cooper.html

    Essentially, Campbell was not that great at running a publishing company – it’s easy to be successful when any black and white comic was selling thousands of copies, and all you have to do is send artwork to the printer and invoice the distributors. But once the bottom fell out of the black and white boom, books were down to just a few thousand copies each, belts needed tightening and strategic planning was called for. Well, that’s a lot harder to do. Campbell wanted out but Barry still wanted to make comics.

    As far as I know, there wasn’t a “sale” of Aircel to Malibu per se. It was pretty much just an acquisition of assets and an assumption of responsibility, in much the same way Malibu acquired Adventure Comics from Steve Milo. Once Malibu had the Aircel imprint, a new deal was struck with Blair because he wanted to move from Canada to New York City. The deal was that Malibu would sponsor him for his immigration stuff and put him on a weekly salary, to give him stability and to prove to immigration authorities that he had steady employment.

    In return, he’d deliver a new book every Tuesday, essentially turnkey: finished pages, lettered and inked and ready to print, including a color cover. They didn’t have to be all by him either – there were mini-series by Dave Cooper, Jim Somerville and a couple of things by Dale Keown and some reprints of earlier pre-Malibu Aircel stuff. That’s a brutal schedule, but he never missed a deadline. Some of the books sold in the 3,000-4,000 copy range but were still hugely profitable because of the volume discount we had with the printer. Others had “adults only” content like “Leather & Lace” and “Sapphire” and sold in the 8,000-11,000 range.

    It ended once Bob Jacob merged his videogame company, Acme Interactive, with Malibu and became Scott Rosenberg’s new partner. Bob wanted to start bringing investors and game tycoons around to show off the new, improved Malibu (“now with more Bob!”) and anything that looked or felt risqué was out the door. Plus, that stuff made Bob feel icky. By that time, too, I think Barry was ready to move on.

  7. Pingback: Malibu Comics Secret Origins (part two) « Funny Book Fanatic

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