GROTH: Tundra seemed to attract projects that were just insane. Big Numbers was one. Can you talk a little bit about how Big Numbers evolved? Bill Sienkiewicz did the first two issues, which I think were published. Didn’t Alan publish them himself?
GROTH: And at some point he went to Tundra.
EASTMAN: Yeah. What happened was, or what my understanding of what happened is [Moore’s self-publishing company] Mad Love launched its first project — and I was someone who bought Big Numbers issue #1 and then waited a year for Big Numbers #2, and that caused some problems — I think we all remember there was a long gap there between the two. That really made it difficult for Alan, who really wanted to make a difference and to self-publish, only to watch his premiere book with his new publishing company fade away. Obviously you can’t survive on a book a year. I guess, not privy to anything Bill said to Alan or Alan said to Bill, they had a parting of ways. Bissette was doing some work with Alan on From Hell for Taboo. I said, “Hey, Big Numbers. What’s up with that? I loved the first issue, I loved the second issue. Is there any way we can pull this back together and try to re-launch it?” So, we started working with Alan to clear the deck, so to speak. He had an existing deal with a French publisher, so we paid them off to get all the rights back so Alan could take back full control; then, through Tundra, we’d be able to re-launch it and re-license it to new foreign sub-publishers once it was underway. We started talking with Bill and tried to patch up what had broken down. We tried to be a middleman to get Bill and Alan to agree on working together again, which was difficult because Bill was considered one of the co-creators, but Alan created the concept. So Alan writes a 500-page script, and Bill was co-creator because he created the “look” of all the characters, and the environments. So we’re treading very carefully because we don’t know the ins and outs of their agreement. I said, “Look, let’s try to work this out, as a company we can support its re-launch if you agree to work for a lesser page rate, and share the profits with three partners, including Tundra, we’ll treat it like a very traditional thing. We’ll pay you the money on a per-page basis at your industry rates so you can afford to do it.”
EASTMAN: Bill Sienkiewicz. So we paid Alan to start working on the scripts again, and Bill agreed to do issue #3, and I really hope this is correct because this one is kinda “gray” for me, but I believe Bill did issue #3, and was doing the covers for #3, #4, and #5. So the ball started rolling again. Bill was turning in the work. But he stated, and all agreed, he wasn’t going to continue on with the series after that. So we found Al Columbia, who was Bill’s assistant, and could draw Bill like Bill and would keep the look consistent. We started talking with Al about stepping in and completing the project. We flew Al to meet Alan. And we got Alan’s approval. We got Bill’s approval, and it wasn’t an easy thing, Bill was really uncomfortable with it. Understandably so, it’s like having someone else raise your child, but at the same time, he wasn’t going to do it, and he said, “All right. You know what? Out of respect for Alan, I’ll let Al step in and do this.”
GROTH: Al was Bill’s assistant.
EASTMAN: Al was Bill’s assistant for a period of time. I’m not sure exactly how long. But he had a very similar style to Bill’s. So we started working with Al on issue #4. By this time Alan was up onto issue #5, script-wise, and Bill had completed the
covers for issues #3, #4, and #5, and Al’s working away on issue #4. To make a long, boring story short, Al took a couple months or so extra to finish the work, which was OK until he got up to speed.
GROTH: On #4.
EASTMAN: On #4, and the more it went along, Al became more aggravated and started saying that we didn’t really want Al, we just wanted a Bill clone. Which is the whole point of the whole thing, and I thought was clearly understood. [Groth laughs.] It went all downhill from there, and he kind of got more bizarre towards the end. About the time he turned in all the pages for the work, he was sitting in Paul’s office. Paul Jenkins was the straw boss on it, and [Columbia] said, “I want to take all the art work home and give it the final once-over before we send it off to pre-press.” And then we never saw Al again. I had heard through Marc Arsenault, who was an assistant under Mark Martin in the art department, that he saw Al Columbia tear it up! Then we heard from someone else that Al said he never tore it up, he’s got it somewhere. And I’m like, “Well, fuck it. I want it.”
GROTH: You paid for it.
EASTMAN: [Laughs.] I paid for it. I paid not only to have him do the work, but I also paid to buy the original art. I had already bought a bunch of original art from Al, the same as I was doing with other creators, like Simon Bisley. I was on the one hand, paying them to create stuff for Tundra to publish, and on the other hand, I was buying the artwork from people that I respected to exhibit in the Museum. So I lost on both, page rate and page purchase on that one. [Groth laughs.] I know I told you this story when we were at lunch, but I found one tiny little drawing in the studio we provided Al, above Tundra. For the twenty thousand dollars or more I paid out to Al Columbia on this Big Numbers project, I found one little cut-out drawing of a character that I later glued onto a cover of a twisted little book I did called Infectious. It’s my twenty thousand dollars worth of Big Numbers, tribute!
GROTH: A twenty-thousand-dollar Al Columbia drawing?
EASTMAN: My twenty-thousand-dollar Al Columbia drawing!
GROTH: I think Al told me that Paul Jenkins threatened him with a baseball bat at one point.
EASTMAN: Really? That’s interesting ... but I guess I’m not surprised.
GROTH: Do you know anything about that? [Laughs.]
EASTMAN: Well, if Paul didn’t, I would have. [Groth laughs.] And I better not have a bat close by the next time I see Al, either.
No, only kidding. I’ve forgiven him ... mostly ...
GROTH: So Al just literally vanished with the pages?
EASTMAN: He turned up like three months later working as a hostess —
GROTH: A hostess?
EASTMAN: A host. [Laughter.]
GROTH: That’s a revelation. He went to Sweden, and then he came back a hostess ...
EASTMAN: What do you call somebody that ...
EASTMAN: Maitre’d. Thank you. He used to seat people in a Northampton restaurant called the Brewery. I understand Paul went into it because he heard that Al was working there. He went in and was like, “Where’s the fucking artwork?” I’m sure Paul wanted to kill him. Because Paul really worked very, very hard to make that project work, because he loved Alan as a writer, and he really respected Bill, and Paul is the one that really smoothed everything out and got everybody going on it again.
GROTH: And you never learned, really, why Al did this?
EASTMAN: No. All I can say, towards the end he just used to say, “You want a fucking Sienkiewicz clone, you don’t want Columbia.” And it’s like “Al, this is why you were fucking brought in, and this is why you agreed to the project: because you could do it like Bill. That you could keep it consistent with the first three issues. You were totally into it. It’s not a fantasy we had here. It was you! [Groth laughs.] We paid you, and you accepted the money, and blew it on lingerie to be a hostess.” [Laughter.] No, no, no ... I’m really kidding this time.
GROTH: Let me get this straight: Bill finished the third issue, and that was never published.
EASTMAN: Yes, I believe that’s correct. I still have all the originals.
GROTH: So why wasn’t that published?
EASTMAN: Why? Because. That’s not fair.
GROTH: You forgot, and you’ll publish it tomorrow.
EASTMAN: Oh shit! Bring Tundra back! We didn’t lose enough on that one. Actually, it would have been great to have it see the light of day — maybe in some lifetime ... I purchased from Bill all the original art for #1, #2, and #3. I have it in its entirety. Maybe a museum exhibit could show it.
GROTH: That’s a lot of square footage of art!
EASTMAN: Well, I’d been buying art from Bill for years. I bought all of the Elektra series ... to name only a little.
EASTMAN: Yeah, the entire thing. All eight issues. It’s an absolutely amazing body of work.
GROTH: What do you do with this art? You can’t display it all.
EASTMAN: Not personally. It was bought for the Museum. My collection of artwork, thanks to the Turtles, is probably valued at about $8 million. That’s what’s on permanent loan to the Words and Pictures Museum. I still own it, but it’s considered the Museum’s collection. I’ve never sold a single piece of artwork I’ve ever bought. My thought was that instead of seeing something like Elektra sold off, page by page, and whereas I had the financial ability to purchase such a historical body of work in its entirety, that can be shown the way it was published — as a “whole work of art.” My idea for the museum was to exhibit works, in theory, “as they were intended.” A comic page is just one of a number of comic pages for a whole story and they should be shown “complete” whenever possible. So, instead of seeing Big Numbers piecemealed out to different collectors all over the country, it was an opportunity where I could buy it and keep it together. I did that with as many artists and situations as I could — for example: I have 35 Jack Kirby stories complete. Kamandi stories, Losers stories, Demon stories, Captain America stories, bought only from the Kirbys. I’ve got exhibit possibilities for years to come.
EASTMAN: Julie [Strain]’s and my home in Northampton, is in an old bank building, complete with bank vaults. The art is very well protected and archivally stored, it’s safe and secure, and it’s for the Museum’s use forever.
GROTH: So why didn’t you publish Big Numbers #3? When you had the work and everything? It would have made some money, I think ...
EASTMAN: [Laughs.] Well, how do you put it out and go, “Here’s #3, but we can’t finish the series because Al tore it up, and although we tried to find someone else that would have interest in committing a huge part of their life to complete seven or eight more issues, actually 12 issues total in a similar style, we had no takers. So sorry, readers!”
GROTH: You could have finished the series as a fumetti.
EASTMAN: [Laughter.] You could have. I know a lot of photo reference was used.
GROTH: It would have been a lot easier.
EASTMAN: Or just publish Alan’s scripts. They’re so beautiful.
GROTH: You actually tried to find another artist for the series after your experience with Al?
EASTMAN: Yeah. We still tried. We talked to people like Jon J. Muth and Kent [Williams] and George [Pratt] and some other people to see if they would be interested, but they were doing their own projects that they enjoyed, so we sort of threw up our arms in just ultimate frustration.
I’ll send you some pages from issue #3 and we can put them in the article.
GROTH: That’d be great. That is just one of the great demented stories of our time.
EASTMAN: It’s very sad, and very devastating. I mean, I went in and I think Alan got real excited that this thing was finally going to happen because it was really like completing a dream for him. I felt that it was important for our industry, and I really wanted to see it completed, only to let him down again. You know? Although I don’t feel directly responsible, I was responsible for raising his hopes and then destroying them again. I was right in the middle of it.
GROTH: How did Alan take this setback?
EASTMAN: He just said, “Fuck. Sorry. I know you really tried with this one. And I’m sorry it went this way.”
GROTH: He’s a man of admirable equanimity.
FALL OF CTHULHU
GROTH: Another one of my favorite stories was the Lovecraft project. It appears to be another book that spiraled out of control. Here’s what Bissette says about this: “The Lovecraft project became prohibitively expensive. In the wake of Kevin’s impulsive negotiations with Craig Russell, without much knowledge or regard for my prior conversations with Craig, or what his revised negotiations would mean to the project as a whole. Kevin returned from, I believe, Mid-Ohio Con, having negotiated a page rate that was significantly more expensive than what Russell had previously agreed to. What Kevin had done, then, dramatically inflated the entire book’s budget. Craig’s rate became the new standard. On top of that, Craig’s agent, Mike Friedrich, then negotiated an additional rate for Digital Chameleon’s computer-generated coloring for the story. The page rate attached to Russell’s story became the yardstick for the rest of the contributors of new material, and the budget became simply obscene.”
EASTMAN: You know, that’s entirely possible. I couldn’t say that yes, that’s exactly the way that happened, but you know what? Yes, that’s probably exactly the way it happened. Although Steve was pointing the Lovecraft project and coordinating it and working with the creators, I probably met with Craig and said, “What do you charge, and what have you agreed to with Steve?” Or something in that fashion. And I said, “Fine. Done deal.”
Who’s to say? It’s like I don’t want to get in a pissing contest with Bissette over this one. But the Lovecraft project really is one that embodies the madness of Tundra. It was its own life form that started at 48 [pages], went to 64, then became 128, with no sign of stopping there. I wouldn’t point the finger at Steve here, because around this time we were desperately trying to find a way to get into bookstores and this seemed like a perfect vehicle. Ian Ballantine was doing a lot of free consulting for us. I guess he liked the company, although he probably just thought I was out of my mind, and wanted to be around when I exploded ... or something ...
GROTH: I can’t imagine why. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Me either! So, seriously, we were talking about a guy that changed the face of publishing, you know? With the paperbacks and all that stuff, and he perhaps felt we would, too. I don’t know for sure, but it’s funny because he would roll his eyes when I talked about these creators’ rights, and he would say, “I understand, and I think it’s nice what you’re trying to do for these creators, but you’ve got to run a business.” I didn’t listen to him, either. But we really felt that the Lovecraft project was something that would make that bridge. I thought, this is great, with Ian behind it to shepherd it through the corporate world, it could be something that may open the doors for a relationship with a big brother publisher. A big publisher being like Ballantine/Doubleday /Dell — the big boys who would take some risks because we knew we wanted to be in the bookstore market, but we didn’t want to print 200,000 books to get 190,000 of them back, and eat those costs. You know what I mean?
EASTMAN: Standard bookstore rules, win big or lose big.
So we said, “Well, jeez, we’ll package it, and put it together, and Ian will put us with somebody that will publish this and bridge this gap between our two worlds and two companies.” I know Bissette had some conversations with Ian, but I think about the time I had a series of meetings with Ian on Lovecraft, he was working on another project — James Gurney’s Dinotopia — and was too busy to really help us, although he tried. Regardless, he loved Tundra, and some of our projects. We had a project he was totally into called Gnemo that we wanted to do with a bigger publisher. We had Lovecraft, which he thought was brilliant. We were looking to do a book called The Art of J.K. Potter, which was part of Lovecraft that he thought could be a great stand-alone art book. I hear it has since come out and is beautiful. We thought all of these things might be the thing that would create this great alliance with a publisher like that. Towards the end we couldn’t get a partner, we couldn’t get a commitment. The projects were huge in expense, so no mainstream publisher would touch them. They were too risky even for them so they went on the shelf. I said, “When we get a little more time, when we straighten some things out, we’ll try again and, if at that time, someone takes on a Tundra book and the door gets opened, we’ll offer up these other options as well. And ultimately it just faded away ... these bookstore dreams.
GROTH: What Bissette told me was that the real reason the project died is because you paid the money to an alleged Lovecraft rights holder, but never signed a contract. And then never came up with contracts for the creators. And Bissette told you that you couldn’t publish the book until the contracts with the creators were sent out. And the contracts with the creators were never sent out.
EASTMAN: Well, fortunately for the entire comics world, Bissette can do no wrong; but in this case, I’ll take the full blame ... the legal side of the company was in a terrible state. They couldn’t keep up with the workload that I demanded of them. Obviously. As far as the contracts with creators, that’s probably true. As far as I can remember, and again, you make me almost want to go back and look at the files, or find some minutes from some lost Tundra meeting, because I remember there was some confusion over whether of this person that Steve had made the original deal with had the rights to even enter into a contract on behalf of the Lovecraft estate. You know who we used as an attorney?
EASTMAN: Mitch Berger. And you know ... [laughs] He was Bissette’s attorney at the time. Steve brought Mitch to a couple of meetings, and Mitch was just like, “I am the legal God’s gift to the comics publishing world. I know this stuff inside and out, and I do all Steve’s stuff.” From what I understand, he in fact did kick some ass for a few creators that were up against a wall, so I went for it. I said, “This is the kind of guy we could really use to help straighten out this legal clusterfuck that we have going on here and get on top of all this stuff.” And Steve says, “OK, I’ll step aside. You can have Mitch, and I’ll find another attorney who will work for me so there’s no conflict of interest.” We used Mitch as our in-house attorney. Not in-house, but main counsel, and I unleashed him on my behalf. I don’t want to say anything that would get me sued for slander, but that’s the way it went: some good, some not so good.
I believe, thinking back, we discovered this guy, Scott Cunningham, I think was his name, was representing he had the rights. But there was a question there, because somebody else was saying they had the rights. So, we couldn’t get an answer and didn’t know what to do, the whole while we were spending a shitload of money on the project. I don’t think it was ever signed or ever sorted out, by the time Tundra collapsed.
GROTH: Mentioning Mitch Berger reminds me that Susan Alston told the Journal your hiring practices were not the most scrupulously observed. She said, “Mitch Berger, Steven Wardlaw, Kevin Russell, and Greg Baisden, as far as I know, did not go through any significant interviewing process. They were hired because they were friends and from word of mouth. And I had no idea. And in all the personnel files, I never saw a resume from Wardlaw, Baisden, Russell or Phil Nutman.” Was that another problem: your hiring practices? I was expecting a call when you hired Greg Baisden, just to check his reference.
EASTMAN: Well, out of respect you should have called me and said he was a fucking nutcase. No, no, I’m teasing. Greg was a hard worker. Did he work for you before he worked for us?
EASTMAN: Yeah, that’s right. I remember that now ...
GROTH: I think I learned you hired him after the fact. I remember wondering why someone from Tundra hadn’t called me.
EASTMAN: Again, I made that decision to hire certain people with very little back story, except what they told me, and I trusted them, and this is how it usually happened, I took people at face value — what reason would they have to lie to me? Steve Bissette brought Mitch Berger as his attorney, and I said, “This is the kind of guy we can use.” And Steve said, “Fine, I’ll step away. He can probably help the situation.” So Mitch came through Steve. Phil Nutman came through Steve. Phil Nutman was this guy that had done everything on the whole planet. “I was the PR guy for the BBC.” Ultimately we found out he did work for the BBC, but he was like a lower level office worker. He was a friend of Steve’s, and he came down to Northampton on one of Steve’s many visits. Around the time we needed somebody to help with our PR. We weren’t getting enough press releases and stuff out beyond the direct market. I was like, “Steve, is this guy good? Is he a good guy, reputable guy?” “Yeah.” So I hired him. I took it on Steve’s word. I should have checked it out. I’m not blaming Steve, much as I’d like to. At the end of the day it was totally my call. Kevin Russell worked as a consultant with Kelly Meeks in the computer business up in Maine. He was a sales rep, so he was brought in to help Kelly with marketing and sales, and to work with the distributors. I authorized Kelly to hire Kevin Russell. Kelly hired Steven Wardlaw to run the warehouse. He was hired to fill orders but wanted to learn other parts of the business, and was willing to start at the ground floor. We didn’t have time to put out an ad in the papers and review resumes and do a long interview process. I was throwing bodies at problems, and we tried to make the best call. All in all, I thought I had a pretty great crew, and most of them gave me blood when I asked.
GROTH: One of my favorite stories is the Peter Pan project. Which I don’t know very much about, but my understanding is you spent vast sums of money to get this project underway, and that somehow there were two artists working on it, and the artists had a falling out, and therefore never completed the project even though you spent God knows how much money on it.
EASTMAN: Almost in a nutshell, that’s it. Basically it was at another publisher. There were difficulties there and they had a falling out. They felt they were being mistreated, and underpaid. I want to say that it was for First Comics, because I believe it was intended for a Classic Comics line. I believe we bought the rights, and then did a retroactive page rate for the work completed thus far, about half the book, and then upped the page rate for Craig Hamilton — who’s a brilliant artist — to do the rest. The work is breathtaking. Then we paid some additional money as an advance, so Craig could afford to restart the project. He was very slow and wanted to take his time to make it perfect, which I was totally into.
Then Craig and Rick Bryant — the inker — had a falling out somehow. They wouldn’t work with each other any more. It was between them, so I don’t know what happened but we tried to figure out a way to get it away from Rick — we said, “Look, let’s find another inker, and we’ll give you [Rick] a percentage of the royalties.” He said no, he wanted to be bought out of the project up front, and it just completely broke down from there. It was already too expensive to make the costs back, and now it was too expensive to continue. A total lost cause. So I let it sit on the shelves at Tundra, in hopes that perhaps some day we’d reach an agreement and it could be finished. The last thing I heard about it, and this was around the time that Kitchen came in, was that the art was given back, or Craig Hamilton had somebody that was willing to buy a bunch of pages or something, so stats were made in case it was ever to be completed.
GROTH: Did you feel betrayed in a sense by creators behaving unreasonably or irresponsibly?
EASTMAN: There was a time I was definitely bitter about that kind of thing, especially with Peter Pan. I mean, they have a disagreement, and I’m sorry that happened, but they won’t let their egos get out of the way so it could have a happy ending. I guess in this case, it was very frustrating and it was upsetting that, “Look, I understand. Let’s work it out. I paid a lot of money. And I did it because you sold me on the fact that this was going to be your project of a lifetime. This was going to be the most amazing thing you’ve ever done, and you would have this great feeling of accomplishment for doing that.” Then suddenly it’s like, “Sorry, we were just kidding!” And I would say, “Why? I paid you everything you asked for. I believe in what you said, and now you can’t agree, and at the same time one of you won’t let it go so it could still be completed so at least I could recoup my investment.” You just turn your backs and you say, “Fuck you.” And “So fucking what, you’ve got more money. Too bad.” And it was hurtful. But at the same time, it’s hard for me to turn and say I blame them for that, in that particular instance or any other instance. Because I allowed it to happen. It’s like I chose to bend over and say “line up, guys” so what right would I have to complain of a sore ass the next morning!
GROTH: Did you have a contract with them?
EASTMAN: It was probably another one of those glorious things that money was paid while the contract was in the process of being worked out.
GROTH: I’m surprised you didn’t hold a publisher’s rights summit. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: It probably would have turned into my lynching, with me all the while saying, “What did I do?”
GROTH: Because it looks like you had no rights when it came to artists abusing your generosity.
EASTMAN: Well, it slips into that gray area, you know, where you say, “Well, we had a handshake deal.” But I have a perception of one deal, and they have a perception of another, which is why I guess you ultimately agree in writing, which at least lays out some of those parameters. When a contract wasn’t done quick enough before the relationship broke down, you had two sides pointing the fingers going “It was your fault, your fault, your fault.” And nobody wins.
GROTH: Bissette in his interview described the reorganization attempt on his part. And I don’t want to read you this whole quote, because it’s long and tedious, but basically he said that he and Mark Martin proposed to you that they would have a series of closed-door meetings with every employee at Tundra. And during those meetings, the employees would outline organizational problems they’re having, define their role at Tundra, define their position at Tundra, and then Bissette and Mark Martin would go back to you and tell you what they hammered out in terms of each employee’s position. They said they did that, and that every time they did that, you said, “OK, that’s the employee’s position. This is carved in stone.” He says, there was, however, one serious omission. “One employee, whose job was most elusive, who was related to Kevin, and who did not participate; he was away on business. They then called off business operations for the week following that in order to carve that into stone. During that week, all of it was thrown away. They completely missed all the work that was done, and confusion reigned again. I don’t know what bend in the nature of the people that were in charge of the company at that time that would allow that kind of work to be done, would allow and subsidize that kind of time away from the office, just to dismantle it afterwards.” Which really is a puzzle, if what he’s saying is accurate.
EASTMAN: It is a puzzle. Well, I’ll say that I believe that is accurate. I believe that a number of people really tried hard to fix Tundra. I think that Mark especially, although it’s probably a toss up between Mark and Paul, as to who believed the most, or cared the most. I will say Mark first and foremost was definitely the spine of the company. He was the most stable. None of the books would have come out as good as they did without Mark breaking his back on them.
Probably the biggest crime I ever committed at Tundra was to hire Mark Martin as an art director, instead of hiring Mark Martin to draw all day long and create beautiful stories for us to publish. I know Mark was desperate to create organization and to try and institute policies like more editorial say, more control, more of a focused way of running things through. He and Bissette were close, to the point that I believe that would be something that I would say, “Yes, please. Help with that and organize that.” As far as carving it in stone or its breakdown, I don’t want to sound stupid — which is probably too late for that — but, I can’t say for sure that when they brought it to me, I said, “Yeah, let’s carve it in stone,” and then it broke down that quickly, but, then again, I’m sure I directed its failure. Most likely it was brought to me and then poorly implemented from my chair. Who was strong enough to enforce the structure? Mark tried, and Paul tried, and I think at this time Quentin was ...
GROTH: Quentin wasn’t there at the time.
EASTMAN: Quentin wasn’t there — I had either let him go because I was frustrated with his inability to fix my mess, so that just left me — and we’re all aware at this point in the interview how well I can fuck stuff up — so it died on the vine. If I had a business manager or somebody that would create a structure like that and see that it was enforced, there may have been a chance, although that too is questionable because there was this “president” who knew everything ... me.
GROTH: The way Steve describes it, it was implemented and you actually had to de-implement it.
EASTMAN: I don’t know how it could be implemented and I could de-implement it.
GROTH: Bissette does imply that the relative who was away at the time, and then came back, might have sabotaged the organization.
EASTMAN: It’s possible, but it seems ludicrous — I don’t want to say ludicrous, because nothing is ludicrous if you put in the context of Tundra [Groth laughs], but it was an extremely hectic time as well. What we tried to do was to put Mark Martin, Paul Jenkins, and Kelly Meeks in a position where they would handle and control specific key areas of the company for overall better management and structure. Each one was responsible for the staff underneath them, and was to create a system where they could all three productively, and efficiently, interact. They would have their own meetings and structure-wise smooth out all the bumps, so everything would flow.
GROTH: You actually created department heads.
EASTMAN: Department heads, exactly I’m sure whatever I wanted them to create I also inadvertently derailed. I wouldn’t allow an upper- or middle- class thing at Tundra. I wanted everyone to be equally important, if you will, so if somebody did an end run around a department head, and came to me with a problem, I would be like, “Yeah, yeah. OK. Let’s do that.” And that probably helped destroy the power of the department heads. If their employees could come around them and complain about something that was being done, for whatever good reason that department head was trying to institute a set of rules and parameters and laws, I was breaking it down, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was how that happened. But I don’t think anyone specific destroyed it. I would probably say I did.
GROTH: Kelly Meeks is who Steve I think was hinting at as sabotaging it.
EASTMAN: Ooh. Really? I’m not seeing that at all ...
EASTMAN: No. I’d be surprised. I’d be very surprised. I don’t see why, because Kelly was one of the key advocates to have a structure. I don’t see why he’d act that way and I think Steve is way off on this one.
GROTH: Here’s something Steve said that’s actually less lunatic and more serious. He referred to “Hollywood Bookkeeping” going on at Tundra. He said, “After the fact, when I got all the accounting on Taboo, I was finally allowed to see the books. And then I went in for my meeting with Kevin to pay back what had been invested. I saw things there like ads in Billboard Magazine being charged to the Lovecraft project. Hollywood Accounting was obviously happening at that point.” [Eastman laughs.] “I have no way of verifying this, but the ads in Billboard suggested that losses they had taken in the Tundra music division, they were going to have a record division, were being scattered in the bookkeeping, affixed to projects that had failed or had been abandoned.”
EASTMAN: Absolutely not. I would say one, there wasn’t Hollywood bookkeeping, and two, there wasn’t any cross-collateralization between the ads in Billboard relating to some other company that was now being billed to Steve’s project. What most likely happened in this case that is that Phil Nutman was running all the ads, ad placement and PR-related stuff. There would be instances where, on a specific advertising situation, there may be two or three Tundra projects listed in the same ad. The process was supposed to be this. If there was going to be an ad advertising three different projects going into Billboard, or Cinefantastique or wherever, the creators had to agree that their money would be spent, and they would approve to sharing the cost of a third of that ad. And that “third” share would be billed to their project. We ended up having some difficulty [because] Phil Nutman, for a variety of reasons, was not processing the paperwork through, probably not getting approvals, probably not getting correct documentation, and was piecing it together after the fact. So, we had a rule that if it was questioned, and you could ask a lot of creators, if they questioned certain things, and we couldn’t reach an agreement, it was taken off the account, and Tundra would eat the cost as it was considered Tundra’s fault for not getting proper approval. This type of thing happened several times, which is why Phil eventually was let go. But no, my losses on Tundra U.K., Tundra Studios and Tundra Publishing were kept apart.
GROTH: So how do you account for Steve seeing a Billboard ad assigned to the Lovecraft project?
EASTMAN: Mainly because there was a Lovecraft ad in Billboard. I can show you the ad! Then what I would assume is that John Paresky, who was our key accountant, tracked the projects and assigned costs to them based on what paperwork different departments gave him. Say for example, when ads were done, Phil Nutman would have to pass information back to Paresky, saying, “I got approval from three creators to do this ad for Billboard which then would be divided up among these three projects.” That was handed on a form back to John Paresky, so John Paresky could then attribute that cost to the project. And I would guess either one, it was a misunderstanding, or two, Phil did it without approval, or three, back to one, it was probably a misunderstanding. I wouldn’t do Hollywood Accounting. I had certainly been “there” and I despised it. I could see where selecting that memory and having that perspective I’m sure helps him sleep better. I think at this point, there’s no better explanation and I apologize to Steve. Unless Steve was the accountant and looking over Paresky’s shoulder, that could have been an honest mistake. But all the creators had complete access, as timely as we could get the paperwork from accounting, to look at all of the costs attached to their project at any time. Hell, we were trying to get them to approve costs before hand. We tried to make it 100 percent accessible. I felt I had nothing to hide and we wanted it to be that open. Again when you’ve got 70 projects going through, there could be a few mistakes, right?
GROTH: Yeah, yeah.
EASTMAN: Again, sorry, Steve.
GROTH: I feel like I’m just hammering away at you, but the overriding question in my mind is “How could this happen?” How could this and this and this and this happen and continue to happen?
EASTMAN: It’s a fascinating study in my inability and patheticness. [Laughter.] No. Seriously, this happened because I allowed it to happen. I wish it had turned out differently, but it’s my bed and I’ll sleep in it. And I don’t regret anything. I was bitter for a time, but I’m not [now]. I’m actually glad for what I learned there. I’m proud of a lot of the things we did, book-wise. In hindsight, I think Dave Sim, I actually went to Dave Sim when I was putting together Tundra, and I proposed the idea of Tundra, I was supposed to go stay in Kitchener for a couple of nights to visit and talk and go over some of this brilliant concept I had in mind, a 100 percent creator approved company run by a very successful “one of them.” Ten minutes into my pitch, he said, “You should make your plane arrangements to leave now.” And I think I called him a narrow-minded, something-something or other because I wanted him to believe that Tundra was a good thing and this was something he should support and that it was giving creators’ rights, and it was honest, and it was going to be done under the Bill of Rights and under this noble cause, and he basically said, “You know what? For better or for worse, I’ll give you my blessings, but don’t do it.” He said, “Don’t do it.” If hindsight was 20/20 I wish I had done something like Pete had done, which is the Xeric Foundation. It would have been something that would be still around today. It would be benefiting the struggling creator today.
GROTH: Dave is probably not the best person from whom to seek advice about starting a publishing company. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: No ...
GROTH: He thinks all publishers are evil by definition.
EASTMAN: I think he said, probably, “Look, why don’t you give these guys each a bunch of money and let ’em publish their own book. And if it makes profit, they’ll give you some back.”
GROTH: I’m sure that he would have considered you much more evil if you had succeeded. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Probably. Probably. But perhaps he’s wiser and has been around the block. Maybe he knew it was doomed all along.
GROTH: I want to give you a chance to reply to something else Bissette observed.
EASTMAN: Please. He’s batting pretty good right now.
GROTH: And voluminously.
EASTMAN: It’s a pretty good average right now. He doesn’t sound like he was that fucked up, but that’s a whole other long debate.
GROTH: He said, “Tundra never quite understood what went wrong with Neil Gaiman. A couple of things went wrong. I saw some of what occurred first-hand. One thing is Neil would show up at the office and Kevin wouldn’t be there after arranging a meeting. This is when Neil still lived in England. Here he is, coming in from England, and the person he’s there to meet isn’t there. That’s a problem.” [Laughs.]
EASTMAN: Well, if that’s true and could be verified without having the amazing power to go back in time and see how that exactly played out, I can’t say for sure. It was creators in and out of that building constantly. Steve and Rick were doing stuff there all the time, with all levels of staff and they would bring people in left and right, throughout the whole process. Christ, they knew and seemed to hang out with everyone. If Neil had set up a meeting with me and I blew him off, I don’t recall — if I did, I apologize to Neil. But I really don’t recall that specifically happening. I was very fond of the creators; I was very fond of Neil. He still gives the ol’ bear hug when I see him today. Neil used to come to Northampton because he liked Susan. [Laughs.] That’s not going to surprise anyone who used to work for Tundra in those days, but for Neil’s sake, we better strike that comment!
GROTH: Ah! [Laughs.]
EASTMAN: No, to be honest, I really don’t recall blowing Neil off like that.
GROTH: It probably didn’t really make any difference that you didn’t take the meeting, while Susan was there. [Eastman laughs.]
EASTMAN: Everybody had a crush on Susan.
GROTH: When I dwelled on that passage, I was worried about coming to L.A.
EASTMAN: That I would not be here when you showed up? [Laughs.]
GROTH: It was in the back of my mind.
EASTMAN: Oh, funny, funny. Like I said, I apologize to Neil if that’s in fact what happened.
GROTH: I heard a rumor, years ago, that you were going to start a line of X-rated comics. Is that true?
EASTMAN: That’s absolutely true.
GROTH: Tell me little about that. What prompted that, what was it going to be, and why was it going to be?
EASTMAN: Sex sells, man.
GROTH: Really? [Laughter.] I better look into that.
EASTMAN: Would you? I was thinking of calling the company Eros, and you know ...
GROTH: I could have sold you a profitable porn comics company that you could have turned into an unprofitable one within weeks.
EASTMAN: It was my personal taste in comics coming up through the company. No, I’m kidding. Actually, it started probably similarly perhaps to how — or maybe not — to how Eros may have started. Through my connections with foreign publishers through Heavy Metal, there was the stuff that we couldn’t print, because we “knew our audience”: they wanted stuff that was sexy, but not too explicitly sexy. And then at the same time, marketing and distribution-wise, that ... if there’s too much sex in Heavy Metal, we get put behind the counter at certain places with the sophisticates as “adults only,” and it hurts sales. We also sell a lot of copies of Heavy Metal in Canada, and they have really strict pornography laws, which is weird because you can’t ship them in from the States, but you can buy the same pornography shipped in from other countries. So we didn’t want to taint that audience.
So anyway, through that exposure, I was seeing all this stuff that would appeal to a specific audience that hung on the Heavy Metal fringe. Druuna is brilliant but we had to censor quite a lot and even then we would barely get it through Customs. Manara’s stories we had to censor quite a lot, and there was a lot of other material by very talented artists that I thought was erotica, not porno. And thought it was definitely worth publishing. So I started this sub-line called “Diva.” And we took on a couple things, I’m trying to think what actually came out: Flesh Wounds, a book called Flesh Wounds by Mike Maldonado.
GROTH: I’m not sure I heard of that.
EASTMAN: We had others. Naughty But Nice and Secret Passages were two other hardcover books we came out with, which were basically direct European material. And we had a few other things that we were looking at. Cherry Poptart we looked at and actually did, I think, a couple of Cherry Poptart issues.
GROTH: Right, right. Could’ve saved Tundra. [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: No comment. I don’t know what would have saved Tundra.
HIERARCHIES AND ANARCHY
GROTH: I’m trying to get a sense of just how Tundra functioned structurally and what the hierarchy there was, and what the bureaucracy was like. And one thing that occurred to me when I was reading some of the minutes of the meetings that I have, is that there seemed to be this encroaching fear and desperation on the part of your employees. And this emerges throughout the minutes of the meetings with regards to Tundra’s financial losses.
My inference from reading these things is that no one person was in charge of Tundra’s financial decision-making. But I realize that can’t be true because you were obviously in charge of it.
GROTH: But there’s a sense throughout these meetings because of the comments in them that the company was either a complete anarchy or a communal economy. I can give you a couple of just examples of what I mean. These are quotes taken from minutes of the meetings, which I assume are in turn quotes or paraphrases taken during the meetings’ discussions. One of them is from May 28, 1991, and says, “There was a great deal of discussion of how projects were selected for production. It was proposed to the group that the costs of a particular project should be as equally important as the project’s artistic value in deciding whether to do a project or not.” Another one reads, “It was brought up that it does not make good business sense to keep losing money.” [Laughter.]
EASTMAN: Rocket science there.
GROTH: Yeah. Another one is: “Theoretically, a print run should never be less than a break-even number. It has come to the attention of team members that we have produced books that even if Tundra sold every copy, Tundra would lose money.” Another one is: “It has been brought to the attention of the team, that out of eight books that were printed in 1990, only three of them could possibly make money, and that’s only if all of the copies were sold.” And one last one says, “It was discovered that in certain cases, Tundra was actually losing money on each book we sell.” [Laughs.]
Now, the references are always in the plural — as in “we” and “the team” and “the team members.” If the company wasn’t an employee-owned company — which it wasn’t — I don’t understand why the employees were involved in handwringing over the losses. Wouldn’t it have been your job to fret?
EASTMAN: Yes and no ...
GROTH: So why were they ... ?
EASTMAN: I had a very open door. A very open mind. I felt that if you were me, or if you were somebody that was lugging boxes around the warehouse, you were part of the company, and it was sort of communal in a sense that it’s “all for one, and let’s all work together and do everything we can to make this work.” That kind of team spirit, I guess. It’s not brain surgery to have, say, your straw bosses who are getting print quotes and pre-press quotes, and your PR people, who are getting ad budgets and ad quotes, meshing that all together with the actual orders being received, to not being able to figure out that the book was seriously losing money. I guess I felt that knowledge is power. That I was very open with problems like we weren’t getting enough accurate information assembled prior to agreeing to do a book, of a break-even scenario or a total cost involved in doing a book before agreeing to do it. As I clearly stated earlier, I would see something at a convention, or see something presented to me, or it was pitched by an artist or a creator, and yeah, I really love that, and yes, we’re going to do that. And bring it in house and pass it on and say, “Here, make this happen. And by the way, would you make it sell a hundred thousand copies as well?” When the straw bosses evolved into department heads, I wanted them to have more power in trying to create policies in how something was brought in.
[By this time] things are seriously bleeding and hemorrhaging expenses into year two when we would bring a project in, we’d look at it, I would have Mark Martin or Paul Jenkins or whoever do evaluations of what it would cost to do pre-press, what it would cost to print it in the style and format the creator wanted it to be seen in. We’d put an ad budget on it, and then run some numbers, and say, “These are all the costs that we can come up with attached to this project, and we’d have to sell x-amount of copies to break even and go into profit.” And now we could look at it, and say, “Do we think this book will accomplish that or not?” Half the time, depending on the results, I would then destroy their system by saying, “Well, fuck it.” I see the numbers in front of me, I don’t see this making a profit, but it’s a worthwhile book to do, and really should be done. Let’s do it anyway.” I think the sort of communal aspect that you’re referring to just came out of them really trying to make it work under my dictatorship.
GROTH: Did you continually express your frustration at your economic hemorrhaging?
EASTMAN: Oh, I’m sure.
GROTH: Your employees were well aware ...
EASTMAN: But I think a lot of it was in reference to, it sounds funny [laughs] as I’m saying it ... [laughter] I’m sure you’ve had to deal with this before. But why the fuck didn’t this book sell more copies?
EASTMAN: It’s brilliant! This is something that should have done 20-, 30-, 40,000 copies. I mean, Madman as an example. That was a project that we took on because we loved Mike Allred’s artwork, his story, his premise, his concept this was a winner. A little trivia here, when he brought it to us, it was called The Spook. We took it on for those reasons as well as, equally important, that this is something that is mainstream that’s going to sell a lot of books. This is something that is going to hit the audience that’s reading superheroes, and this is something that’s going to hit the audience that’s not reading superheroes, because they’re going to find the humor and the storytelling here. And the first issue didn’t even break even. And consecutive issues did less.
I don’t think he started doing really well with it until he went to Dark Horse. And then for some reason he started selling a lot more copies.
GROTH: I assumed that you were the only one who could make decisions that would either make things profitable or at least cut losses. And I was surprised ... and of course I don’t know who is being quoted, but I assume it’s production people, and editors ... a variety of people.
EASTMAN: It’s actually what I would call my right-hand people that really believed in Tundra, that really believed it could work, really believed it should work, and despite all my fucking it up, that worked very, very hard to try and make it work. They were raising those issues: people like Mark Martin, Paul Jenkins, and Kelly Meeks. They really put everything they had in it for me. To this day I still got a lot out of them I didn’t deserve, if you catch my drift. They poured into it and not until you can step back and look at it that I wish I had the knowledge I have now then, because it probably could have been a bit different.
GROTH: It sounds to me that you were more distraught over the emotional damage it was inflicting on you than the economic damage.
EASTMAN: I think that’s right, yeah.
GROTH: It sounds like you were emotionally at the end of your rope rather than economically at the end of your rope.
EASTMAN: Yeah, it was definitely that. I learned some painful lessons, ones that surprised me. I just ... they just surprised me: the emotional of side of that. I used to think we were being blackballed by the distributors, that they were purposely, because of me, underordering our books and I’m suffering and the company’s suffering, and all the creators are suffering just because of their association with Tundra. And you had that emotional thing. And then there was ...
GROTH: A little creeping paranoia.
EASTMAN: [Laughs.] I know. And I wasn’t even doing that many drugs, either. [Groth laughs.]
GROTH: Here’s something that again I can’t quite fathom how this could happen or be allowed to happen. In the minutes of a May 21, 1991 meeting, you record the following. “Cages is presently selling at $3.50. It has been determined that Tundra loses five cents on every copy of Cages that it sells. Greg will speak with Dave and let him know that Tundra wants to increase the cover price to $3.95 starting with issue #4.” And then a little later, “It has been brought to the attention of the team, that out of eight books that were printed in 1990, only three of them could possibly make money, and that is only if all the copies were sold. It was discovered that in certain cases, Tundra’s actually losing money on each book we sell.”
GROTH: Now, it just seems the most rudimentary kind of business practice, to determine if the costs are going to exceed the plausible income.
EASTMAN: Sure, for the rest of the world.
GROTH: Who was supposed to do that there? Or why wasn’t it done? Because you worked at Mirage, so you had to know that had to be done.
EASTMAN: Yes, yes. It was — is complicated ...
GROTH: That’s just unfathomable to me.
EASTMAN: It is unfathomable, and I think that ... Jesus, you know, I don’t know if there’s really an explanation beyond the point that it was another fuck-up. [Laughter.] I think that what had happened in an instance of something like that, is that we got, supposedly, all the costs related to a specific project, then we did a “break even” for projects to try and confirm the validity of doing them, but not until the last part of year one. So in the early days the conceptual projections, break-evens vs. actuals were not in-line. We missed things and miscalculated many more. Like for example, say if we got a pre-press quote for a book, it didn’t account for it having to be corrected three times, attaching additional costs to the project. This was an important creator issue for us, and I’m not referring to any specific high-quality book, we sent all of them proof sheets that they pored over and approved. Often times we’d do one set of proofs, which was x-amount of dollars. And they would come back from the creator with corrections. “This is too light, this is too dark. Fix this, change that, so on and so on.” That’s another cost, another separation and more costs. The reality of knowing that if you price the book at $3.50, knowing you’re selling at 50-60 percent off to distributors, and you budgeted and solicited at a competitive market price, but you didn’t account for an approval process that would allow the creator to adjust it multiple times to correct it to his or her standards, as a cost factor. That then piled on cost after cost to the book that you’ve already advertised for at a set price. Also, I think, as well as we could, we would promote a book on an approved budget, but say we budgeted a thousand or fifteen hundred dollars for advertising, but the book sold only 3,000 copies. “All right, let’s bump up the advertising and we’ll eat the additional cost, because one, the creator is not going to approve any more costs related to this project, although they are going to look at us and say, ‘You must have done something wrong, because my book’s not selling right. It’s certainly not me and my book, it’s that you’re not publicizing it in the right way.’” So we’d say, “All right, we’ll eat the costs and put out some additional ads to really bring the right attention to it, and that hopefully will help it make the difference.” So a lot of these actuals that were probably discussed in this meeting were those kinds of additional expenses — ads and what not — that put the project into a losing-money-on-a-per-issue basis situation. We didn’t factor that; and that’s part of the growth, you know? The dreadful learning curve.
GROTH: Well, there are some projects that you actually spent more money promoting than what they grossed.
EASTMAN: Yeah, we were desperate, as in “we’re here, we’re here, we’re here!”
GROTH: A really blatant example is that you actually paid Mike Allred $12,000 as an advance for an issue of Madman.
GROTH: And according to your own figures, which I think are conservative, you would have to sell 20,000 copies to break even. But you only printed 13,000.
EASTMAN: Because that’s what we had orders for —
GROTH: So you couldn’t possibly have broken even on that.
EASTMAN: No. In our evaluations, we tried to estimate what we thought the industry standard for this kind of more mainstream book might be, how many we’d have to print, and how many we’d have to break even. We felt that the book would easily go beyond 20,000 copies and it didn’t. The standard policy that we tried to uphold was that we’d print double the initial orders, assuming that once it went out there that people would fall in love with it, and it would sell out in reorders, and perhaps even go into a second printing. So by the time you commission the work, pay Mike, you’ve done your projections, he’s gotta turn in several issues before you want to solicit for book #1 if you want to keep it on a regular schedule. So we’d already invested fifty thousand dollars. So we bum out over the low initial orders, but it’s a point where we’re like, “Yes, we’ll lose money but, we still love Madman and it will catch on. The world still loves Madman. Madman’s still out there and will be coming soon to a theater near you!” It’s a chance I took on a book that I loved and believed in and wanted to do it in an industry preferred timely fashion. We had to invest what we had to invest, and it lost money.
GROTH: Looking at it from the outside during the time, I heard all the rumors that you were losing money, and I realized just looking at the books you were putting out you had to be losing money, and I just figured that you planned on losing money. In fact, I assumed you had the kind of scenario as was in Citizen Kane, if you remember the famous line in Citizen Kane —
EASTMAN: — haven’t seen that in years —
GROTH: — Welles just bought a newspaper, and the accountant comes up to him and says, “You know, you’re losing a million dollars a year on this newspaper.” And Orson Welles turns to him and says, “Yes, that’s right. We’re losing a million dollars this year, and we’ll lose a million dollars next year. At that rate, I can keep running this newspaper for the next 92 years.” [Eastman laughs.] And the accountant frowns disapprovingly.
EASTMAN: It’s like the “legend” of Howard Hughes in a way ... and you should have seen the look on my accountant’s face through out those years! Horrified!!
GROTH: I figured that’s pretty much what your attitude was, that you planned on losing money, and figured you were going to lose money, but looking through the minutes of these meetings, there seemed to be an increasing panic within the company.
EASTMAN: Well, first off let me say that the intention was that I knew that to start up this company in a first class, all-around way — even under the initial concept and business plan that had been put together of starting slowly, a few projects, so-on and so-on, that there would be definitely a certain amount of investment that would be considered a “capital infusion” into a new corporation. I expected that to become the “asset foundation.” I also expected to invest a definite and sizable amount of recoupable cash to launch a publishing line. I don’t want to say I had an exact figure in mind at that time, but I didn’t think it would be an insane investment: maybe a few million dollars to bring the kind of top-level creators in the business to do projects and to have the capital to do it right. If you’re doing a 12-issue series, you’ll want to have four to six issues in the can before you start soliciting them. So there would have to be a variety of “up-front” investments. Project-wise, the same — there would be a sizable up-front investment that would then be recouped when the books sold, and as well as we would share in the profits of those books to support everything else. But as I said, in year one, I blew the fuck out of that concept when I had already taken on too many projects, and the financial commitments were extensive on all levels to support it. At the same time, the Turtles were still doing financially very, very well. And I said, “You know what? This is within the realm of my financial ability to support this until it takes off.” Again, always hoping and believing that it would take off and be a self-supporting publishing entity. That it would then be able to be supported by the profits of the projects that were produced. At year two, as the investment got bigger, we had to up the staff to support the number of projects, we tried experiments — again, all of which I felt [were] justified, [such as] Tundra U.K., which would help the business grow and become profitable, and the pre-press company would help the business cut its costs. [We were] looking at trying to synergize and link together a number of companies that could ultimately all work together and succeed together. One by one, they broke down, and I’m sure I was panicking as much as anybody else. I think there were people in the company that still believed in the company that were starting to fear for their jobs, and wondering how long can Kevin keep this up at this level of investment. At the same time they’re hearing from me, saying, “Every one of our books is selling one quarter of the projections I thought they would, what the fuck is going on here?” It certainly can’t be me that made all of these bad calls! But it was, and now we’ve got to figure out ways that could work. Or break open a new market, which lead to “what’s the industry looking for” and that’s the direction to take the company in, as opposed to letting creators’ projects direct company. So we looked at more superhero stuff, and other things that were selling. Stuff that was working out there because no one wants what we’re doing and, those projects may be able to offset the losses on some of the artists’ book that we really want to do but can’t afford to do. So, I said, “Well, let’s try to create a scenario where 50 percent of the line would be profitable enough to help support 25 percent of the things we’re doing that would only break even and, perhaps there’d be enough profit left over to support another 25 percent which were done just because, “Goddammit, these books just have to be done even though they will never make money, like Marat — [pause].
EASTMAN: Sade! Thank you, I’m getting tongue-tied. The Marat/Sade Journals was taken on because it was just simply the most beautiful book I’d ever seen. There was no way in hell that book was ever going to make money and I knew it from day one. So I felt, “This seems to be a solid plan, let’s call it ‘law.’” And then, everyone panicked, me including. It was like, “Let’s try to stabilize, let’s try to stop the bleeding now. I know, I know I fucked up, I know that I took too much on or whatever, but let’s try to fix what we’ve got.” It was irreparable at that point, going down for the third time and I ran for a KSP lifeboat.