Dennis Mallonee, the publisher of Heroic Publishing, has been in the publishing industry for almost 30 years. His super hero team, the League of Champions has been in print for more than 24 years. Although time has not made Dennis Mallonee and the Champions a household name, he is one of the pioneers of the early direct market, and the fact that he and the Champions have survived is a testament to his fans and his sheer determination to carve out a nitch for his comics in an ever increasingly completive market.
First Comics News: You first broke into comics working on the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. How did you break into Marvel?
Dennis Mallonee: Wow. That brings back memories. But actually, though uncredited, it was a bit earlier than that. I’d been corresponding with Bill Mantlo, who was trying to come up with some ideas for Daredevil and Power Man stories, but suffering from a bit of writer’s block. So I reminded him that one of the hooks for Daredevil was his heightened senses, and suggested a couple of plot ideas that would allow him to deal with a few aspects of that which had never really been explored. I even wrote up a treatment for a Daredevil vs. Leapfrog story that I was paid for but (as far as I know) never used. As I remember, it would have established the Leapfrog as a Kurdish terrorist, this long, long before Middle Eastern terrorism became a hot news item.
As far as the Handbook goes, that came about in large measure because I was the one who actually developed the format for that type of book. Rick Hoberg and I had been working under license from Marvel to put together an illustrated history of the Marvel Universe (which was much less complex in the late 1970s), but for various reasons that project never came together. Still, the timeline I developed for that project was, for a while, the official Marvel timeline. And when Mark Gruenwald started putting together the Handbook series, which utilized the format I’d developed, he asked me to contribute a few pages to it
All of that, including the several stories I contributed to the Solo Avengers comic, was of course during the old regime. In those days, things were much looser, much more informal. Soon after Jim Shooter was ousted, certain corporate policies changed, and I haven’t worked with Marvel since. The last thing I pitched to them, when Chris Claremont was briefly in charge of new projects, was a revival of Miss America. Unfortunately, after going past Chris, the project mutated beyond recognition and I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.
1st: You licensed, wrote and published Champions through Eclipse, why self publish?
Dennis: I was publishing well before we started doing comic books. Our illustrated fantasy/sf magazine, FANTASY BOOK, began in 1981, four years before the CHAMPIONS project started. The only reason we went with Eclipse in the first place was because, at the time, Cat Yronwode and Dean Mullaney were looking for superhero properties and knew a lot more about the mechanics of getting a new comic book to market than I did. And to start with, they did very well with it. I’m told (though to this day I’ve never seen the actual sales reports) that orders for Champions #1 amounted to some 38,000 copies. There were, unfortunately, problems that eventually led to a mutual decision to separate.
1st: How did you get the name the Champions? Marvel had used the name for a prior team.
Dennis: Simply, Marvel had abandoned the mark. The issue came up when Marvel challenged Hero Games regarding their registration of “Champions” as a trademark for their role-playing game. I researched it, found that Marvel’s registration with the patent office hadn’t been filed until well after they’d ceased publication of their comic book, and provided that results of that research to Hero Games. The upshot of it was that the trademark board agreed that because the mark had been abandoned, the registration was invalid.
So I suppose I’m partly responsible for all those stupid one-shots and mini-series you see coming out featuring all those obscure Marvel and DC characters.
The most curious thing about the entire case was that as far as I understand the regulations, Marvel never really had standing to challenge the Hero Games registration in the first place. Comic books do not occupy the same market segment as games. Ironically, had Marvel left well enough alone, their registration might well have stood.
1st: What happened when Marvel wanted to re-launch a Champions comic?
Dennis: That’s happened three different times, each time due to the arrival of new people at Marvel who were unfamiliar with the relevant legal history. The first time, all it took was a telephone call to straighten things out. The second time, Marvel tried to slip in a new registration, and the trademark board scotched it. The most recent one was a bit more problematic because Marvel’s a much bigger corporate entity than it used to be and doesn’t respond as quickly, but it was eventually resolved in an amicable way. The bottom line is that for comic books CHAMPIONS is a registered trademark of Heroic Publishing Inc.
1st: At any point did you think. Since you were starting a new company you wanted your own characters rather then characters licensed from Hero Games?
Dennis: We never licensed characters from Hero Games. We licensed them from their creators. What needs to be understood is that every character ever featured in a Heroic Publishing title is and (as long as I’m in charge) always will be creator owned. Stacy Thain owns the rights to Flare. Roy and Dann Thomas own the rights to Captain Thunder and Blue Bolt. I own the rights to Chrissie Claus. Our original agreement with Hero Games involved an expectation of cross-promotion. They had a game called Champions. We would produce a comic book called Champions. And we’d cross-promote.
1st: Following that you and Rick Hoberg created Eternity Smith for Renegade Press, why go with Renegade if you were already self publishing?
Dennis: You’ll recall that Rick and I first got together on that Illustrated History of the Marvel Universe project. Even though it never got to the point of publication, we liked working together on it, and did want to find something else we could work on as a team. When Deni Loubert moved to my home town in Long Beach, she let it be known that she was toying with the idea of doing a superhero comic or two, so Rick and I put our heads together and offered her Eternity Smith. I’d had the idea, long before the first Terminator movie, of a hero from our own time pulled first into a war-torn future he’d inadvertently helped create, then (as our series begins) sent back to his own time to recruit his brilliant and beautiful daughter on a mission to prevent that future from ever coming into being. Tentatively, I was calling it ETERNITY JONES. As it turned out, Rick had a project he’d been putting together as a pitch for an animated series involving a group of young spies traveling under cover as a rock band. Rick’s working title for that project was (wait for it) ETERNITY SMITH AND THE CREW. Put the two concepts together, and what you get is action, adventure, and intrigue in a world that just might be on the edge of falling into the abyss.
1st: January 1987 you launched Hero Comics with The Marksman. Why not publish through Eclipse or Renegade?
Dennis: We launched Hero Comics with three titles, Champions, Eternity Smith, and Captain Thunder. The first issue of The Marksman didn’t come until several months later. The way that came about was a convergence of events. Eclipse had contracted to publish a six-issue Champions mini-series, but didn’t actually own the comic book, and decided not to publish beyond those six issues. Then, after publishing five issues of Eternity Smith, Deni decided that superheroes were not her thing (and that color comics were too expensive to produce) and asked to be let out of the contract. Since I’d also been talking to Roy Thomas about doing something, those three things together persuaded me to shift the comics over to our own imprint. And in November of 1986, Heroic Publishing was born.
1st: The name Hero Comics reflects the Champions Role Playing Game, Hero Games. Were they licensor or partners in the original company?
Dennis: Nope. Hero Games never had anything to do with the ownership of Heroic Publishing. The Hero Comics label was adopted as part of the original cross-promotion arrangement, and was abandoned after it became clear that the cross-promotion idea wouldn’t work out.
1st: You were working at Marvel, Renegade, and launching a new company which included both writing and editing. How did you keep up with everything?
Dennis: I was a dynamo of creative energy. And, I suppose, still am. The comic books, by the way, are only a small part of what Heroic Publishing does. The largest part of the company’s income derives not from comic books, but from web-based programming services and the design of database applications for several commercial clients. That’s in large measure why, these days, you don’t see more than one or two (if that) Heroic Publishing titles a month. I just don’t have a lot of free time, and the time I do have I need to spend on things that will bring in enough revenue to pay the mortgage and deal with outstanding debts.
1st: Flare really put you on the map. What made Flare so special?
Dennis: I admit, when it happened, it took me somewhat by surprise. You’ve probably heard the story before. When we started publishing under own imprint, we had three titles on tap. For the sake of symmetry, I wanted a fourth title. And because I’d written several solo adventures that I hadn’t been able to use in the Eclipse mini-series, I wanted it to be a Champions spin-off. So we polled our readers, asking which character they most wanted to see as the star of a solo title. I fully expected to be the Marksman. Macho guys with guns seemed to be popular. So I gave Steve Perrin the gist of an origin story, teamed him up with Pete McDonnell, and gave them the go-ahead to start doing Marksman stories. And, as a back-up feature, since a mix of science and sorcery always seemed cool to me (I loved Strange Tales with Nick Fury and Doctor Strange), I started polishing off a few occult mysteries featuring the Champions’ psychic detective, Rose (aka Psyche).
But then the votes started coming in. Lo! and behold, it wasn’t the Marksman! FLARE was leading the pack, with three times as many votes as anyone else!
Yeah, okay. What we promise, we try very hard to deliver. FLARE became the fifth Heroic Publishing title. And when that double-sized first issue hit the stands, with fabulous artwork by Tim Burgard and Mark Beachum, copies just flew off the stands. It was our first comic to go to a second printing. Yes, there is a subtle difference between the first and the second printing. I know what it is; I’ve never told anyone else.
You ask what makes her so special? I think it has to be the archetype. Flare is the light that comes out of darkness, the good that comes out of evil. She’s the bad girl who tries with all her heart to serve the cause of justice.
Ultimately, the archetype is Biblical. You’ll see Flare in the third verse of Genesis. That’s who she is. That’s not something we’ll ever make explicit in the comics, but it’s always been there in the subtext. The Olympians see it. The Black Enchantress sees it and is frightened by it. Flare is the living embodiment of the light of Creation. And because of that implicit relationship with divinity, her very existence does make some people very, very nervous.
1st: Your first comic beyond the Champions universe was Roy & Dann Thomas’ Captain Thunder & Blue Bolt. How did you and Roy get together to publish his creator owned series?
Dennis: That was pretty simple. I just gave Roy a call and asked him if there were something he’d like to do that he hadn’t been able to do with Marvel or DC. He said yes. He wanted to work with his wife Dann on something they could own together, specifically on “Captain Thunder and Blue Bolt,” an electrically powered father-and-son superhero team on a quest to bring down the bad guys who’d ruined the father’s good name. I got Roy and Dann together with Dell Barras, character designs were developed, and the project came together with the results you see in the comics.
1st: Shortly there after you published Murciélaga, She-Bat. Is she part of the Champions Universe?
Dennis: Yes. Maybe. Sort of. Murciélaga and the other Reiki Warriors are Dærick Gröss’ characters. We’re glad to have them interact with characters related to Flare and the League of Champions, but they really operate in their own world. And that’s as it should be.
1st: What made you decide to publish creator owned characters from Roy & Dann Thomas and Dærick Gröss, Sr. when you were still just beginning to establish your own heroes?
Dennis: At root, Heroic Publishing has never been entirely about establishing our own characters. It’s also been about providing creative people with an opportunity to get good characters and concepts into print. I’ve frankly never had the resources to do that on any large scale, but over the course of the past twenty-five years we have managed to do it in small ways.
1st: Eventually the original creators of the Champions Game took their heroes and left. How did you retain a Champions comic and the name Hero Comics when the creators of the Champions, Hero Games left?
Dennis: Well, no. What happened was a misunderstanding of the terms of the original agreement by a principal of Hero Games who wasn’t party to the original agreement. Ultimately, Hero Games kept what Hero Games owned, Heroic Publishing retained the creator licenses we’d acquired, and we both moved on.
1st: In 1989 you stopped publishing. What happened?
Dennis: Our four original titles hadn’t made us any money. So I decided to get out of the comic book business. But we’d promised fans a comic book featuring their favorite Champion, and I wanted to deliver on that promise. So, by way of something special for the fans who had been buying the comics, we added that first issue of FLARE to the tail end of our publishing schedule. Trouble was, by the time we realized something extraordinary had happened, we’d already wound everything down. Because a good chunk of work had already been done on two more issues of FLARE we were able to get those into print, but that was it. FLARE was great, but as a practical matter it still would have been an uphill battle to crack the stranglehold the Big Boys had on the comic book market, and I didn’t have the resources to pursue it.
It wasn’t until many months later, when Dave Campiti approached us wondering what the heck had happened, that another possibility presented itself. That led to a brief revival in the mid-1990s, first as a joint effort with Innovation Comics, then with a series of black-and-white releases that were paying for themselves until the market for black-and-whites imploded.
1st: In 2004 you rebranded as Heroic Publishing and re-entered the world of comics. What made that the right time for a re-launch?
Dennis: My thinking at the time was that if we didn’t do it then, it would never be done. The plan was (and remains) to produce a small number of comic book titles, principally to keep characters visible and trademarks alive, while exploring new technologies, ancillary markets, and alternate distribution channels. Believe it or not, it costs less to produce a comic book today than it did two decades ago.
1st: What did you do for the decade between 1994-2004?
Dennis: Programming. And I’m very good it at. Among other things, I build database apps for Institutional Risk Analytics. But I love comics. And if I could afford to do it, comics are what I’d be doing full time.
1st: You do a lot with digital comics. Are they the future of comics?
Dennis: I think they’re a large part of the future of comics. I don’t think the print medium will ever disappear, but the trick is to find ways to connect the product to the consumer. And if digital comics do the job, then let digital comics do the job.
1st: Last year Diamond changed the terms of distribution in ways that hurt small press comics. What did Heroic Publishing do in response?
Dennis: We discussed it briefly with Bill Schanes. And let me say here that that on a personal level Bill has always been helpful and supportive. My relationship with him dates back to his Pacific Comics days, when he and Ken Krueger decided yes, they would offer Fantasy Book to the direct sale comic book market. But as things currently stand, Heroic Publishing’s relationship with Diamond is over.
1st: Many publishers moved to Haven Distribution, why did you pick Comics Monkey?
Dennis: Because on a small scale, the economics of print on demand work. And since Comics Monkey is the retail distribution arm of Ka-Blam Digital Printing, which is where we’re getting the books printing, it makes sense to put things under one roof.
1st: Has the move to print on demand been more profitable?
Dennis: Absolutely. Last year, for only the second time in Heroic Publishing’s twenty-four year history, our comic book operation showed a small (one might say minuscule) profit. And that gives us hope. In the event other things work out during the course of the next year or two, there are contingency plans in place that would allow us tend to outstanding debts and come back quickly in a much larger way.
1st: Does it make it harder for retailers and fans to find your comics?
Dennis: Unfortunately, yes. I strongly urge fans to visit the Heroic Publishing website at www.heroicpub.com, the Indy Planet website at www.indyplanet.com, and retailers to visit the Comics Monkey website at www.comicsmonkey.com.
1st: What titles are you currently publishing?
Dennis: Currently, we’re doing quarterly issues of Champions, Flare Adventures, and WitchGirls Inc. We’re doing Liberty Comics and Heroic Spotlight twice a year. And we’re trying to keep to a bimonthly schedule with Murciélaga She-Bat.
1st: What else do you have planned for 2010?
Dennis: We’ve just sent this year’s FLARE ANNUAL to press. As with last year’s annual, we’ll be printing a selection of the Flare Sunday newspaper comic strips we’ve been producing for Creators Syndicate. The curious thing about that is that Creators wanted the strip exclusively for the international market; they don’t even syndicate it in the U.S. So for the American audience, this is the only way to see them.
We’ll also be bringing back the regular FLARE title. Flare Adventures has always been mostly reprint, FLARE contains the new stories. And Sean Harrington, who’s been one of our artists for the newspaper strip, is working on those new FLARE issues. Fans should, by the way, check out Sean’s M-rated webcomic, “Spying With Lana,” at www.spyingwithlana.com. It’s a hoot! And a crossover between Flare and Lana is scheduled for a rare non-reprint issue of Flare Adventures, issue #26, which should be out in July.
Come autumn, we’ll be reprinting, for the first time in color, the complete six-part League of Champions/Southern Knights crossover. That’s scheduled to appear in Champions #47-50, and Flare Adventures #27-28. And that fiftieth issue of Champions will be a super-sized 48-page issue!
Finally, just before Christmas, there will be another issue of The Adventures of Chrissie Claus, starring Santa’s li’l elfin granddaughter.
If all goes well, it will be in late 2010 or early 2011 that things really start popping at Heroic, starting with “The Quest for Lady Arcane,” plus a full-fledged revival of “The League of Champions,” and the debut of “The Sensational G-Girl.”
But we can’t do any of that without the support of our fans!