Before we get started with this Fanatic installment of the earliest days of Malibu Comics, let me remind everyone reading this that I encourage blog reader participation. Post a comment, start a dialog, ask a question. We even have a special feature to get your questions answered called “Ask The DWO.” My name is David W. Olbrich and so, DWO is both my initials and a nickname that I’ve used since the it was given to me by Tom Heintjes during the time we worked together at Fantagraphics Books. I’ve grown to like it. So ask me any question that you might have. I can’t guarantee the quality of the answer, but I can promise an answer. Just label it “Ask The DWO” in some way and I’ll turn my attention to it … now on with the show.
THE FIRST TENTATIVE STEPS IN THE MALIBU SAND
In previous posts I’ve talked about the state of the comic book industry at the time of the birth of Malibu Comics (click HERE) and I’ve also written about my personal background as I approached walking through the door of opportunity that became Malibu Comics (click HERE). It was late in the fall in 1986 and I’d been working at Sunrise Distribution as a customer service representative since early April.
In the world outside comics in 1986, the country was reeling from the Iran-Contra scandal as Ronald Reagan’s shadow government was selling weapons to Iran and using the money to fund “Contra” rebels in Nicarauga. Criminals Oliver North and Fawn Hall were shredding documents to cover up the president’s illegal and illicit activities.
Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation was completing its purchase of Metromedia in 1986, forming a company structure that would pave the way for Fox Broadcasting. Late in 1986, we mourned the passing of performers Scatman Crothers, Desi Arnaz and Cary Grant.
You could make a case that 1986 was one of the best years to be a comic book fan. DC Comics released both The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen in 1986. Art Spiegelman began publishing Maus. Dark Horse Comics released its first titles, including Dark Horse Presents #1 and Boris The Bear. Marvel Comics launced the New Universe titles. Someone, somewhere on the web posted a long list of reasons that 1986 was cool for comics, but I can’t find it right now … and that’s hardly the point here.
As I’ve also mentioned before, while the editorial output was memorable, the health of the business was not good and getting worse. Stores were quickly finding out that the “black-and-white boom” was over, piles of copies went unsold and comic shops started to close their shutters.
So when I told Scott Rosenberg in the Sunrise Distribution offices that “I’d like to get back into publishing,” I was intentionally swimming up-stream and I also hadn’t really the faintest clue what I was getting myself into. It was probably about a week after my confession about my hopes for a career change that Scott called me into his office and said to me, “If you want to get back into publishing, if you’re really serious, if you’ll run it, I’ll pay for it.”
I was stunned. I couldn’t believe the offer he was putting in front of me. I was anxious to get started. Working two years at Fantagraphics Books had given me a lot of hands-on experience in a ton of different, difficult and practical aspects of running a direct market comic publisher. My time at Sunrise Distribution had given me access to all the correspondence, promotion and marketing efforts of a nearly every direct market publisher. I had ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. In my opinion, the efforts of most of the (mostly) successful small black-and-white and color publishers in my time at Sunrise simply were not doing a very good job. The competition at the time was weak. I was convinced that I could a better job. (If only I knew then what I know now.)
I started to make plans. I started to make lists of things that needed to be done. I did all this preliminary work in my spare time in my “office” at the Sunrise Distribution warehouse. The term “office” is being very generous. The walls were quarter-inch plywood sheets attached to the backs of shelves built to hold overstock comic book boxes. The door … wait … there was no door, only a doorway. There was no ceiling.
But the office had the two pieces of equipment that would make ALL the difference in making Malibu a successful publisher even as the industry was struggling. In my Sunrise office were a Macintosh Plus computer and an Apple Laserwriter. Malibu was built on the increased efficiencies created by the Macintosh and the laser printer. Desktop publishing wasn’t even a term that anyone understood in 1986, but I’m convinced the concept and the associated cost savings made it possible for Malibu to survive its earliest days.
There was one other thing (?) that was in the Sunrise warehouse that was instrumental in the success of Malibu. That was “the game guy” Mr. Chris Ulm. In the Sunrise warehouse, we sold products to comic book retailers, including games of various kinds. I was “the comic guy” and Chris Ulm was responsible for helping comics and other hobby stores when they wanted to buy games. This included war games, RPGs, fantasy games and board games. It did not include collectible card games or figurine games like HeroClix as they hadn’t been invented yet. There were some lead figures for the really hardcore guys, but they fell into two categories: military or fantasy.
In our short time together at Sunrise, Chris and I struck up a friendship that lasts to this day. For those slightly out of the loop, Chris Ulm was to eventually become one of the four operating partners at Malibu Comics serving most of his “sentence” as editor-in-chief.
At this particular stage of Malibu’s infancy, Chris wasn’t directly involved. He was, however, lurking about the Sunrise warehouse, darkening my door-less doorway and generally making himself available to be a thoughtful sounding board for any crazy idea that I might have. Plus he was much better with the subtleties of working the Macintosh Plus than I was.
It wasn’t long (probably just a few days) before Scott Rosenberg was asking me what the heck I was going to call the publishing company. “Got a name yet,” he would say two-to-three times a day. Picking a name for a company is very difficult. Just when you get a good one picked out, you find out someone else already has it and you have to start over (sort of like getting a good domain name these days). With 20/20 hindsight, Malibu Graphics wasn’t the world’s greatest name for a comic company. (It didn’t officially become Malibu “Comics” until years later.)
I was always jealous of Mike Richardson, Dark Horse is a great name for a company, especially for comics and such. I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want something obscure or non-word. Which letters and the number of letters were important. I also didn’t want a company name that made false promises (like Innovation) or invited jokes from reviewers (like First Comics or Hot Comics). Eclipse Comics was a pretty good name. Malibu was a name I picked while commuting to Sunrise one morning as I drove past the Malibu Canyon exit on the 101 Freeway.
The word MALIBU had good letters and alphabetically it would be near Marvel Comics in any publisher list. Everyone knew where Malibu was, so it would help people all over the world know the company was located in Southern California. Malibu was known as a prosperous community, so the name carried connotations of success. And the word itself didn’t make promises the company couldn’t keep and it didn’t (on its own) invite ridicule.
That’s my version of the story.
PART FOUR will introduce Tom Mason into the mix and cover moving into the first office.
— Dave Olbrich (DWO) Wed. Feb. 11, 2009