Axel-In-Charge: Extending "Secret Wars," Excitement for a "Totally Awesome Hulk"
For this week’s Conversing On Comics, I wanted to introduce one of the big behind-the-scenes players in the industry who works with some of the top artists and has a hand in virtually all of the big new launches and reboots coming out of the Big Two the past few years. But unlike the editors, writers, artists and publishers you see in the credits or in interviews, this comics professional is unknown to virtually all retailers and fans — but is one of the top names in the address books of editors. It’s artist agent David Macho.
Macho has worked for the past 12 years representing artists from his native Spain, and has formalized his stable of talent as “the Spanish Inq.” With 24 artists, Macho’s roster is penciling, inking or coloring a large segment of mainstream American comics, including Uncanny X-Men, The Avengers, X-Men, Action Comics, Birds of Prey, Marvel Universe Ultimate Spider-Man, Marvel Universe Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, Resurrection Man, Legion of Super-Heroes, Smallville, Blackhawks, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, Stormwatch, Red Lanterns, Suicide Squad, Nightwing and The Hypernaturals.
Outside of the office staff of DC Comics and Marvel, I’d argue you can’t find anyone else with as many active connections in the industry. And that puts him in a unique vantage point to see all sides of the industry.
Chris Arrant: Can you describe what you do for our readers, David?
David Macho: Basically, I represent Spanish artists who want to work in the American comic-book industry. I have been doing it for more than a decade, already. (Ugh, how time flies!) First, I try to help artists, whenever they need it, to get to the level required by the publishers to become a professional, and when they get there (in some cases much faster than in others; of course, each artist is an universe on itself) and a publisher shows interest in hiring said artist, I discuss rates, deadlines, contracts, with their respective editors/talent management, translate scripts when needed, etc. etc. etc. That would be a very quick resume of what I do as a rep.
Aside of that, I’m also Barcelona International Comicon’s guest manager, and I do other things here and there that I won’t list or it’d take us forever…
You hail from Spain, but a majority of your work is in relation to the American comic industry. What is the Spanish comic scene like?
Very diverse, in fact. Probably one of the most diverse in the world. Here you have comics from all over the world. Manga is big, American comic-books are very big, but same with European and indie comics from everywhere, and also South American (Argentinian in particular). It’s a really rich market in terms of the content the readers can find, but unfortunately it cannot cannot pay the same rates the French/European or American companies can afford, so a lot of artists have to look for work outside our frontiers. Some people still uses their spare time; Pere Perez, for example, to do some personal projects, but normally they don’t have time for both. The level of craft of artists in this country is truly astounding, though, as it’s always been in painting, architecture, sculpture, and honestly, every art you can imagine, so even with a market that had money enough to pay good rates, I don’t know if the talent could be contained inside Spain! [laughs]
And besides, most artists love American comics, they crave to draw what they’ve read as kids, so … it’s just a natural progression for them, I think, to reach out and become a professional in something you’ve loved as a kid. Not many people can do that. … Of course, the growth of the Internet, FTPs, cloud storing and all that have helped international artists a lot, as you can imagine, too.
How are American comics like the ones you guide talent to portrayed in the marketplace in Spain?
You mean how American comics are received here? Honestly, I think Spain and Italy are the biggest markets, in terms of quantity of titles, sales and diversity, for American comic-books, outside of the United States, that is. People loves comic books here, and mainstream characters like Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Wolverine or Conan are big icons. But not only the superhero comics the artists I rep are big here. People love what you’d call indie creators like Craig Thompson, Joe Sacco, the Hernandez brothers and many others. Those have a big following here, too. And of course, The Walking Dead is huge, as you can imagine, so very happy to say we can access almost every single kind of comics here, which also is, of course, a bounty for artists in terms of influences and knowledge to be obtained from masters working in every corner of the world, from Taniguchi or Urasawa to Jodorowski, Giroud, Uderzo, Manara, Prado, Pellejero, Marini, Liberatore, Breccia (father or son), Fontanarrosa, Pratt …
I can only describe what I do, and I don’t have an agency, employees or anything. I do it all by myself. In my case, I just try to help people in making their dream of becoming an artist for the American industry a reality. Of course, I’m not a charity, and this has to be a mutually beneficial relationship between artist and rep, or we’d be going nowhere with it. But ultimately, agents are there to try and make sure the people who need us gets where they want to be. Some people can do it on their own, and more power to them, some don’t, or they just prefer to focus on the art and to have somebody else taking care of the business side of things, and that’s where we enter the picture.
In terms of how many big agent/agencies there is … honestly, I have no clue. I don’t have time or any wish to check/count them. [laughs]I know some of them, of course, and I have a great personal relationship with most of them and their artists, but I don’t know the number of agencies, big or small, around the world. Some people has told me Spanish Inquisition is the bigger/most successful one, and it’s a nice thing to hear, obviously, but it’s not for me to say if it’s true or not.
How many artists do you represent currently?
Twenty-five, I think. I haven’t added any new artists in the last few years, though. I need/want to have the necessary time for each artist, and going over the top wouldn’t allow me to do that. So as you can imagine, I have to turn down many people, more than I’d like, and I ask for a very high level of craft to even think about adding anybody. Even working 24/7 12 months a year, as I do, I still don’t have the power to stretch/slow time! Damn, I wish I had! [laughs]
Who were your first artists you represented?
That’s an easy one. The first three were “Master” Ramon Bachs (of Civil War: Frontline, Mystery in Space, Red Robin or Star Wars fame), “Messiah” Jesus Saiz (of Birds of Prey, Resurrection Man, Brave & The Bold, Checkmate) and “Erudite” Fernando Blanco (of Max Payne, Marvel Zombies, Red Hulk, Thunderbolts). The rest, via word of mouth, mostly, came after them exactly in the order you can see at our website. Veterans have earned the right to go first! [laughs]
What do you do for artists you represent? Translating, guidance, editing, back-rubs …?
It’s a little bit of everything you mention, sans the back rubs! [laughs]
Sometimes you’re a listener, sometimes a talker, sometimes a calming influence, sometimes a “whip master.” You gotta be able to adapt to every person and personality, to wear a different suit as much as you can, and be able to keep calm and available all the time, 24/7, all year, no vacation package included. [laughs]
Jokes aside, you need to exercise patience, and not only with artists, and of course they also need to have patience with me, since it’s a two-way street, but in general. There’s a lot of days where you just know you are going to explode, but you have to turn it around, and be the one reacting with calm. You never not pick up the phone, or answer an email, or whatever, but you have to be able to ascertain when you have to count until 10, relax, think and then answer. Politics are also a part of the equation, of course, or well, at least they should be. In my case, I have problems sometimes because I am too honest and I always say what I think, as a lot of people in this industry have been witnesses of! [laughs]
The American comics industry has long employed artists from Spain, South America and Asia, but it seems in recent years there’s an even bigger push to get foreign artists with people like Marvel’s C.B. Cebulski actively touring the world looking for them. What do you think is pushing this, and how does it affect you and your stable of artists?
I think it’s the other way around. I think we’ve affected the industry’s perception, and that’s why it’s reacted. Mega-corporations react to the tide, they don’t make the first move, and it’s a logical thing for them, since they know things will come their way anyway!
I’ve been doing this for 12 years, or so, and of course, there were cases here and there of agencies, there were creators like Carlos Pacheco, Salvador Larroca, Pasqual Ferry, etc., entering the industry and succeeding on their own, but with all the people I work with showing their quality and reliability, that made other agencies arise here, and again, it’s just logical, Success calls success, imitation is another word for “you must have done a good job”, and I prefer to use the latter than the former, you know? So again, it’s just a natural process that was probably, in a way, only accelerated by us and other people.
In other countries, I guess the same phenomenon has happened, or something very similar, until the industry finally realized (following your example, with a talent scout as brilliant as C.B. is) the international potential and opened the doors to look all around the world. If you show you’re good and reliable, and 10 more people does the same, it creates a trend, a train of thought, and the other pieces just drop.
About how talent scouts drafting talent around the world affects us …? Well, in a crisis, there is less books around, and every day there is more people being found by scouts, shown around by agents, or people without agents that are good enough to get a job, so of course the playing field is more difficult every day, But hey, you have two choices there, surrender or work harder. I kinda prefer the second one. [laughs]
We’ve gone through better and worse times, but by the end of the day, it’s the art, the discipline, the quality of the artist’s work that sets them apart. Crisis or not, it’s as simple as that.
You’ve been a part of the comics industry long enough to see the rise of exclusive contracts, but recently they’ve tapered off a bit. What’s your vantage point on exclusive contracts and their place in the industry now?
Crisis means less money, less money means less exclusives, less guarantees, less … everything, I guess. There was a time a few years ago when, yeah, exclusives were much more common, but of course, with the current economy, companies are a lot more careful about that and keep exclusives mostly for their main guys, those they know they’re going to have projects for in one-two years. It’s what it is, and when the crisis is over, hopefully, the tide will turn and there will be more work, more contracts, more of everything around, and I’m sure it’ll be sooner than later. Funny thing about exclusives is that, as you know, sometimes they include insurance/health benefits and all, and since we here in Spain have public and free insurance here, we don’t need to be covered by any publisher’s insurance company. Different worlds, I guess ..
How’d you fall into the role of agent of comic artists? Is that someone you always wanted to do, or did you see another role for yourself originally in comics?
By coincidence, nothing else. I never thought about being an agent, AT. ALL. There were no agents in Spain at that time, in comics, I mean, so I was kind of a pioneer. [laughs]
I was just going to attend San Diego Comic-Con like 12-13 years ago, and Bachs, whom I had already met some time before, and Saiz and Blanco, thru a common friend, asked me if I would bring their portfolios to SDCC. I already had some contacts in the U.S. industry because I had been working for some time trying to open a comic shop and to create a comic con in my hometown, but I honestly went there thinking It would get nowhere, but also with a “you know what? trying is free” mentality. So… I got back home from the Con with work for Ramon (a Spyboy story for Motorola commissioned by Dark Horse) which was quickly followed by a Joker Vs Mask miniseries, and a few weeks later Jesus and Fernando got their first work on Dark Horse Presents (Iron Reich 3000!).
Only then I started thinking “you know what? Maybe I can do this after all … and that was the start. And for that, and her help at that time I will never thank former Dark Horse editor and one of the nicest people in this earth Shawna Gore enough! (And of course, also former editors Phil Amara and David Land for giving the guys their first gigs!) [laughs]
More artists asked to be represented after that, I hope because word of mouth was good about the work, and that’s how we arrived to where we are. Again, with some very good friends helping along the way (I’m looking at you, Jimmy Palmiotti, Mark Waid, Bob, Jim Lee, Dan DiDio, Dan Buckley, C.B., etc.) and I’ll stop now or I’ll end up thanking my wife as if I were getting an Oscar! (by the way, hello, Paloma) [laughs]
What are the big changes you’ve noticed since you started 12 years ago?
Of course the market has changed. I think we have a bigger quantity of publishers, so readers have more chances to find something they’re interested on. The graphic novel market has grown immensely, and we’ve also seen the ascension of the digital comics, something that will keep evolving and changing the industry as we know it, but not as fast as I think some people expected.
I still think the industry depends too much on the direct market and superhero comics. I mean, they’re still the bread and butter, in terms of where publishers have their bigger sales, and which books are our top sellers, but I also think more diversity is needed, and we need to reach more readers.
Having your bestsellers with 200,000 units sold in a market as potentially big as the U.S., with more than 300,000,000 people … something is not right, especially when you consider that much smaller countries like France (64,000,000) or Japan (127,450,000) have much stronger sales than the U.S. market, and in some cases, books that sell more than a million copies. So I think (and I know publishers are working on that, too) a bigger variety of selling points, something that allows the readers get the comics they’re craving for but they can’t find, etc. is really needed.
Also, well, I know I’m probably preaching to the choir, but we need books for different audiences as we need manna from heaven. Superhero comics have their audience, and bless them, but where’s the comics for kids? Where’s the comics female readers can be interested on? Let me be clear: I’m not saying Marvel or DC have to do that. They know their readership much better than I do, of course, but somebody has to step up, be it them or somebody else, to get those potential readers into the fold, and of course, with the marketing machine efforts behind it. If they’re born into a vacuum, either they have luck, and amazing word of mouth (or a Hollywood producer) or they die returning to that vacuum very very fast. Then we get the “comics for women don’t sell” or “comics for kids don’t sell” lines that anger me so much. Well, no, they don’t sell to your current readership because maybe it’s not the comics they’re interested on, but they’d sell to the big potential one that is waiting for them. Some of the stuff Image is publishing right now (Saga comes to mind, for example) can be part of a paradigm shift in the industry. I hope it is, and not only because creator’s ownership is an important factor, but also because the more diverse we are, the more respected we’ll be as an art form.
Since you’re the middle man for a number of artists at a number of companies, I imagine you get a pretty good understanding of how things are going months before the public does. What are your feelings on comics today and where it’s headed?
I think we’re headed in the right direction. There will be plenty of hurdles along the way, but I think the DC’s “New 52″ was very good for the market — not just DC , but the entire market. It pushed lapsed readers to come back to comics, and same with new ones. Also, Marvel’s Avengers Vs. X-Men event is also being really big and a great push in terms of sales, and what both companies have in store (as you can imagine, I cannot talk about any of them or I would have to kill you) is something that will surprise a lot of readers in a very positive way. Marvel’s post-AvX ideas, I honestly love, and the way DC keeps tweaking their line of books, I like that and see what they’re trying to do. It’s like TV shows, if they find their readership, they stay, if they don’t, let’s look for something else the readers may like. It’s always sad to see books cancelled, of course, but again, this is not a charity, and if it doesn’t sell, even if the publisher loves the book, sooner or later they’re gonna have to cancel it, especially with this economy …
Also, as I said, we have the ascension of the creator-owned comics from big-name creators like Brian K. Vaughan, Bryan Hitch, Ed Brubaker, Nick Spencer, Jonathan Hickman, of course Mark Millar or Brian Michael Bendis, and very soon Grant Morrison, and many others, telling the stories they’ve always wanted to tell. It’s a breath of fresh air, and again, something we need …
As we need superheroes.
As the movie industry needs blockbusters so there’s other kind of projects and Clint Eastwood needed to do Dirty Harry movies for a while to finance his more personal projects or George Clooney needs to act to be able to direct, Superheroes can be the door for other more personal projects. A little bit of everything, for everybody. Never a bad thing … [laughs]
Come back to Robot 6 next Friday as Conversing On Comics returns to talk to the brashly creative artist Salgood Sam, who started in the ’90s on Marvel’s Epic, Razorline and 2099 lines before going on a sabbatical and redefining himself with more recent work such as Therefore Repent!, his anthology series Revolver and his ongoing webcomic Dream Life.