Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Interview with CB Cebulski@STGCC 2011

CB Cebulski talks fast. He is the Senior Vice-President for Creator & Content Development for Marvel Comics. I only had half an hour with him. But ‘enuff said!

Q: So this is your second trip to STGCC, having recruited Benjamin Ang from Singapore last year. But artists in Southeast Asia continue to stay in their homeland (Tan Eng Huat in Malaysia and Sonny Liew in Singapore) while working for Marvel, without having to resettle to America. Unlike artists like Alfredo Alcala and Alex Nino.

A: This is the globalization of Marvel Comics since the late 1980s. Before Alcala came to America in the 1970s, people were already sending in their resumes in envelopes and enclosing SASE. It was snail mail, then faxes.

Yes, the business changed with the internet. But 2 events happened before that.

One was the end of the Marvel Bullpen. Before, to work for Marvel, you need to be in the office. No more. The Bullpen is still there, but in spirit. It is digital now.
Second, the rise of conventions like San Diego. For the pre-internet generation in the 1990s, you have people like Joe Madureira waiting in line to show their portfolios.

That was how recruitment was done and it’s the same for international artists. You fly in from Brazil or your agents fly in for you. That was in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, the only conventions were in San Diego and Chicago. New York Con only happened the last 5 years, so most foreign artists have never been to NYC. San Diego was the place to get work. (even in the case of Sonny Liew who was introduced to the industry by Chris Claremont)

Today, the internet has revolutionized how communication is handled. The development of social networks, online galleries. Sites like Deviantart and Artists are able to display their work without having to leave home.

Q: How has that changed your work for you? Why are you still traveling?

A: At Marvel, I go out and I recruit. 95% of the artists are found online. I see the artwork, and if I like it, I will develop a line of communication. Let’s say I go to Croatia. There is a population of artists on the internet who are from there, so I go and talk to them.

I find the talent online, but I won’t hire until I see them face to face. With the internet, you don’t know what’s out there. There are a lot of scams and bullshit. So it’s to know their personality, their work ethics, are they able to meet deadlines. It helps me to do my job when I meet them face to face.

So I go to different cities, different conventions. I meet the artists, I meet the people who introduce me to other artists. I consider myself a good judge of character, to find out what kind of person you are, what kind of artist you are.

Q: What is the value proposition of hiring Southeast Asian artists? Why recruit overseas when there are still so many talented artists in America?

A: It is not just us going out to find international talent. They are coming to us because it is their dream to work for Marvel Comics, their dream to draw Spiderman. This happens as the Marvel brand grows globally. (see interview with Ardian Syaf – he doesn’t speak much English but he wants to draw Batman)

This is nothing new. In the 1960s, Stan Lee recruited from Italy, Spain, France, basically Europe. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was South America. In the 2000s, it was Asia. And for these artists like Whilce Portacio, he doesn’t want to be just a Marvel artist, no matter how successful. He wants to mentor other artists from his home country, the Philippines. He wants to give back to his country.

The international market has opened up. Our eyes are opened up to the fact that Marvel’s influence is everywhere. Asia is far away from us, but it is worth our while to meet the people. The level of talent in Asia is high. It is beneficial to us. By recruiting overseas, it promotes the brand globally and increases our talent pool.

Q: Is there a difference in what you pay Southeast Asian artists and what you pay American artists?
(last year, I spoke to an Asian artist at STGCC who revealed that there was still a page rate difference)

A: Not now, not in this day and age. This is not outsourcing to get cheaper rates. Our artists, no matter where they are, are paid industry standard rates. Maybe that was the case 6, 7 years ago, but not now.

There is not much difference in cost for us to pay the Asian artists a lower rate. The only cost difference in the past is the Fedex cost, but with scanning and email, that’s no longer an issue. The only fear about Fedex in the past is the pages getting lost.

There is this famous story of a 22-page John Busema Conan story (for Savage Sword of Conan) that was sent to a Filipino studio to be inked. 1 week passed, then 2 weeks and the third week. The editor Ralph Macchio called the inker to ask if the pages had arrived. The inker said yes. Ralph asked so when can we get it back. The inker replied he hasn’t started on it yet. Ralph asked why not and the answer was “it’s too beautiful!” Ralph said you know I have to fire you, right? The inker said just fire me!

So Ralph had to call John to explain the situation and asked if he could draw those pages again. John said yes, but you got to pay me. And he did. Within a week, he delivered those pages, drawing them from memory and it looked the same. John Busema is a genius.

So getting the pages lost or destroyed when sending them via Fedex, that’s the only cost factor that would have led to a lower page rate for artists in Southeast Asia. But not anymore.

Q: I spoke to some Southeast Asian artists at the con earlier. The feeling is that with the economic downturn (Japan, Europe and America), projects are shrinking or disappearing. With the low exchange rate for USD (as compared to the strong Singapore dollar), artists who are being paid in USD are seeing their earnings reduced.

A: I’m not a bullshitter, so I won’t lie. The US economy is a concern for publishing. The movies and games are doing okay. Comics sales have been stagnating for a long time. Every now and then you get a hit. Then things go back to normal. It’s hard to put a finger at it. Some blame video games, piracy, illegal downloads, parents. It’s a combination of different factors.

But with the current downturn, sales are not suffering yet. We are not in the doldrums, we are not canceling titles yet. But we are seriously looking at what works and what doesn’t. Maybe there is a need to look at the paper quality we are using, the length of stories or what we can do to increase advertising.

The same thing happened to Marvel after the bankruptcy. There was belt tightening. It’s about being smart about what we do with our talent and money.

At Marvel, it’s always about the characters. Content is king. The stories, the art. In the past, we might have gotten a bit greedy in putting out yet another Deadpool book, another Wolverine title. The fans are sick of it. So it’s really listening to what the fans want. It could be something offbeat like Strange Tales.

So it’s the bottom line and the monthly sales, that’s how the industry judges. Not everything is determined by the direct market sales through the comics shops. We need to see the bigger picture of mainstream sales of graphic novels in the bookshops.

Let me give you an example. One of our worst selling books in the direct market is Marvel Adventures. But in terms of subscriptions, it is one of the highest, especially among family with kids. It is also doing very well at Walmart and Target. On the internet, fans poke fun of us for putting out such a book. But it attracts new readers, those in the 5 to 7 year old range. So the book is profitable.

Sonny Liew's pages for his take of Spidey in Marvel Adventures

So often we have fallen victim and listen too much to the noise on the internet. This character is popular, you should put out his own title. But does it sell?

So getting back to your question, we rode out of the economic crunch very well, the mortgage and housing crises. Usually these things hit the entertainment industry a bit later. Yes, people have to make choices. Between paying the rent and buying food, do they need that Marvel comic book? So we have to be smart in what we put out and how we present our titles.

Q: 2 years on since the announcement of Disney buying Marvel at the Toronto Comics Con and almost a year since the signing of the deal on December 31 2010, what is the fallout?

A: None. The relationship is working out so well that it is wonderful. What has happened is that Disney has taken the Marvel brand and brought our products into the Disney store. On the other hand, we are doing their Pixar books and also provided the variant covers for Tron.

We were Disney fans before we were Marvel fans. It’s mutual respect that we have for each other. We are not seeing Spiderman in Disneyland or a sanitized Wolverine. Disney is opened to suggestions. Operations-wise, Avengers and Iron Man 3 will be distributed by Disney, taking the rights back from Paramount.

Q: How come there are fewer writers recruited overseas as compared to artists?

A: They are different, it’s like comparing apples with oranges. Art is a universal language. We can send you the script and you can draw it. But for stories, you need to be able to write fluently. We have hired foreign writers before from Italy, Portugal. They either grew up in the United States or studied there. So the command of the English language is important.

So far, not many have come to us. I know Gerry Alanguilan from the Philippines writes his own stuff. But for writers, we don’t read submissions. We require them to send in published works. We have published samples from Spain and Japan before. They were written in their native language but a translation was provided.

It is not so much cultural as writers can learn about New York City from films, TV. But having said that, we do not just want writers who are influenced by Marvel comics. We want unique stories. We want you to bring a piece of yourselves to the Marvel characters you are writing. Greg Pak is a case in point. He’s from Korea and he writes the Hulk. Marjorie Liu divides her time between Idaho and Beijing and she is providing a different sensibility to the Black Widow.

Stan Lee always says Marvel is the window to world outside. So we want our Asian writers to bring their world to the Marvel universe and to expand it on a global level.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great interview... Oh and if i can maybe recommend some artist for your future interview, it’d be Michelle Jernberg (aka demiveemon on deviantArt):

I really like her style.

Keep up the good work!