AC Comics started out as Paragon Publications in 1969, and 2009 marks the 40th anniversary for the independent publisher. Bill Black stopped by First Comics News to chat about his company that has defied all odds and is now one of the elder statesmen among comic publishers.
First Comics News: Bill, at 40 years old AC is one of the oldest publishers in the industry today. How has your company endured the highs and lows of the comic market all these years?
Bill Black: By having a solid fan base who have stuck with us over four decades. Without readers, we wouldn’t be here. Over the years I have seen the missteps of other publishers and endeavor not to make the same mistakes. I am a small publisher and part of my longevity is due to my staying small. I never wanted to be a mega-publisher. I just wanted to make a living doing what I love to do. At that, I have succeeded. I remain a lone wolf, off in the corner doing my own thing… and not interacting with the comic book industry.
1st: You were a working comic professional at Warren when you launched Paragon Illustrated #1. What was the business plan for Paragon, originally? Were you intending to start your own publishing company?
Bill: I first submitted artwork to publishers in 1965 while I was still a student at Florida State University. It’s fortunate that I was not successful because quitting school would have been a big mistake. As it turned out, being at the university was far more exciting than drawing comics, which provides a solitary existence. In school I was always experimenting… trying new things… actually having adventures that took place outside of my room. After graduating in 1966, I was drafted into the Army at the height of the Viet Nam war in April 1967. There I first observed that my life seemed to be channeled by some “strange luck” and I went with the flow.
As a GI Illustrator, I had access to drawing board and supplies and was allowed to draw comics in my off duty hours. Benefiting from that, I created the first issues of Paragon Publications and continued to send submissions to publishers. When I left the Army in 1969 I was hired as a freelance artist by Editor Bill Parente at Warren Publications drawing horror stories for Creepy and Eerie magazines. I also became employed as an illustrator for an Orlando based film production company. I did Paragon on the side. Whereas other fanzine publishers stuck with one title, I opted to create a line of titles. Soon I had Paragon Illustratedparagon Illustrated, Macabre Western, Paragon Super Heroes, Captain Paragon, and the like.
1st: What was the circulation on that first issue?
Bill: Paragon Illustrated #1, by the end of its first year, had sold 365 copies… one a day. These copies were sold one at a time through the mail to individuals who ordered from ads I placed in other magazines. Paragon Publications ran from 1969 through 1982. By the last year, the circulation had increased to over 6000, which encouraged me to expand.
1st: Why did you decide to use a pen name?
Bill: As I started this profession doing horror stories, I considered the name William Black to be fitting.
1st: Speaking of those early comics, how were you able to use a Nick Fury pin-up in Paragon Illustrated?
Bill: Your question prompted me to dig out a copy of Paragon #1 and to re-live memories. The contents of that issue reflect what Bill Black is all about, actually. It shows the love I have for atmospheric horror movies (not the slasher movies that came later but films with actors… great villains like Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing)… my interest in the comic books of my childhood that had ceased publication by 1969 like Captain Marvel Adventures and deep desire to learn about the comics that were published before my time. But you asked about the Nick Fury centerfold… yeah, I like that piece, too. It is obviously inspired by the fantastic artwork of Jim Steranko whose illustrative innovations in the late ’60s set the comics world on its ear. I was terribly impressed with Steranko’s work then. I anxiously awaited every new issue of Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to see what Steranko would come up with next. When he stopped, it was a disappointment. Since then I’ve never been as excited about anything done in comics. How was I able to use Nick Fury? I just did. All fanzines paid homage to the characters of Marvel and DC. Of course, later, this practice was verboten and fan publishers were required to license the likeness of characters they revered.
1st: Moving on through the timeline, what was the inspiration for the Femforce?
Bill: In 1978 I was hired by Roy Thomas to ink some of his books for Marvel. One book was a What If? set in the 1950s that featured Venus and had Jann of the Jungle and Namora in a few panels as well. I suggested to Roy that he might come up with a new group comprised of all female heroines: Miss America, Blonde Phantom, Venus, Jann, Lorna, Namora, Sun Girl … Millie The Model? Roy rejected the concept saying “Female characters don’t sell.” So I adopted my concept for my Paragon Publications and created “Femme Force One… The All-Girl Squad.” I worked with artist Willie Blyberg on that story which, briefly told, had the villain, Gorgana, incapacitate all the male heroes so that the superheroines had to band together to stop her. This team appeared in the Paragon title Femzine #1. I was working up additional heroine stories with artist Mark Heike when the opportunity presented itself to create AC Comics. Later, in 1984, I pulled out those stories from the file cabinet, wrote bridging sequences, and published Femforce Special #1. To my surprise, that book was our best seller for 1984. That success encouraged us to launch Femforce as a color series in 1985. Superheroines have “not been selling” for me for over 25 years now.
Bill: First off let me say that AC will be going in new directions this year. I have formed a new company, Nightveil Media, INC., which will have AC Comics, Smarty Pants Entertainment, and other entities under its umbrella. 2009 will be the biggest Femforce year ever. For several years I have been producing Femforce videos on the side. They will be released this year. Mark Heike is ramrodding the Femforce comic book. AC has hired John Gotschall, who recently designed our new www.accomics.com web site, to create new web sites engineered to premier our new digital Femforce products. These include CGI stories and picto fiction (fumetti) as well as videos. John and I created www.accomics.net which was launched in February. Through this site, we are renewing our efforts to introduce Femforce and other Golden Age characters to a new audience. Many of our early issues are now rare and difficult to find. ACCOMICS.NET provides over 1800 pages of downloadable content from the first 50 issues of Femforce and the Sentinels of Justice, which is an extremely affordable way for new readers to meet our characters and jump in on the ground floor. ACCOMICS.NET also provides an opportunity for us to bring the AC Universe to life through digital media such as downloadable videos and photos, color editions of comics that have previously only been published in black and white, as well as the new Femforce CGI WebComic. It is a pay-for-view download site that is loaded with tons of Femforce material. It features a whopping huge 100+ page picto fiction story starring our lead actress, Maria Paris, reprising her role as The Blue Bulleteer. This section of the site has proven to be very popular with our customers. I did the photography (shot over 600 photographs!) and John wrote the script which has BB molested by the villain, Dr. Fumetti. Switching off, I wrote the story for a CGI comic that John executed. This features Synn, Ms. Victory, Stardust, ProximA, and some surprises. We are pleased with the success of the site and additional sites will be added throughout the year.
1st: What is planned for Femforce #150, and when does it come out?
Bill: We must first get through Femforce #149. That will be released in May and features a plot that has Femforce nemesis, General Gordon, running for President. It guest stars Stormy Tempest, a crime fighter from the future. No. 150 will come out later in the year, probably in August. It will be a jumbo-sized edition featuring an additional 40 pages. Mark Heike will write and edit this and he has many plot lines to wrap up. For many issues, a continuing plotline has revolved around the finding of a mystical artifact so evil that to touch it is to die. Stardust touches it and is destroyed. Nightveil using her own mystic energies discovers microscopic hidden circuitry in the dagger artifact. She learns that this is a tool sent by the Old Dark Ones, omniscient beings currently trapped on a distant planet. For centuries the Old Dark Ones have tried to get free to devour all life on Earth. Now Nightveil decides it is time to take out this evil once and for all. She gathers the most powerful paranormals (The Shade, The Haunter, Synn, Firebeam, and others) and they travel to the planet of evil for a cosmic showdown… and to avenge Stardust. This is the big one! Actually, this storyline goes back to the story I did entitle “Blackjack” featured in Paragon’s Bizarre Thrills #1. Also, I’m toying with writing a story entitled “The Mystery of the Scarlet Scorpion” in which the Paragon version of the Scorpion suddenly replaces the AC version. Femforce members will, in turn, attempt to sort it all out.
Bill: Femforce CGI is a downloadable online publication available through ACCOMICS.NET. We use a variety of computer modeling programs to construct posable, digital 3-D versions of the Femforce, their adversaries, some of my old Paragon creations, and popular Golden Age characters such as the Black Terror, Yankee Girl, etc… Software is then used to position these characters within a computer-generated environment to construct colorful scenes that become the panels of a comic book story. Place the panels on a page, add word balloons and sound effects and the result is a vivid downloadable comic with texture, depth, and full color. It sounds high-tech and fancy, but Femforce CGI is just a new way for us to tell fun stories. These are brand new stories that will appear only at accomics.net and will never be printed in a comic book. I think it’s amazing the depth and reality we can get into these stories. It’s great to be back in color, too. These will be just like the Femforce comic book as far as keeping up the personalities of the characters but now they will have the added dimension of CGI graphics.
1st: Will there be more than one CGI issue?
Bill: Definitely! The groundwork is already in place and the initial reaction to our first “issue” has been very positive. Ms. Victory, Synn, and Stardust get the spotlight in our first installment, but our Golden Age and giantess fans will love the follow-up.
Bill: ACComics.com is the official home page of AC Comics. You’ll find AC’s Online Store where you can purchase just about everything we’ve created over the years, literally almost 1000 items from comics to collectibles to DVD’s. It’s also where you will find the latest news about all of our books and videos and where you can join our newsletter to keep in touch. If you can’t find AC at your local comic shop or in Previews, you can always find us at ACCOMICS.COM.
ACComics.net is a new website launched in 2009 that will be the hub of our digital publishing efforts. This is where you will find 50 issues of downloadable Femforce comics, the Femforce CGI Web Comic, a live-action “photo comic”, pinups and more. Currently, the long-awaited Blue Bulleteer: Captured by the Cloak movie is available for immediate download for a limited time and many more downloadable movies will follow. There are also trailers to up-coming Femforce movies and hundreds of photographs of all the Femforce models.
1st: You wrote, directed, and produced the Nightveil movie. What was that experience like?
Bill: Nightveil: Witchwar was the first of current movies on video that I have produced. Six others will be released in 2009. Prior to Witchwar and dating back to my high school days, I have always made amateur movies. This led to a career in film production during the 1970s and early 1980s. This first Nightveil movie came about through my involvement with Mary Capps who had a spectacular Nightveil costume. Steven Johnson commissioned costumes of the entire Femforce and entered the team into a San Diego Convention costume contest in the early 1990s. They won! Mary then went on to dress as Nightveil at many comic conventions throughout the country. As a tie-in with Superbabes, the Femforce role-playing game, Mary was brought to Florida to appear at a gaming convention. Taking advantage of this I made a film telling the origin story of how the Blue Bulleteer became Nightveil. The entire movie was shot during that long weekend of the gaming show. We had a blast making the movie. Of course, it was an amateur production as Mary and others in the cast were not actors. All involved were real troopers enduring 12-hour shoots in 30 degrees January weather. Years later, when digital video became available, I added much more footage to it and hired real actors. The additional footage extended the length of the movie to around 60 minutes. I will be re-cutting it soon for a download version.
1st: How well did the Nightveil movie do?
Bill: Very well! I believe that it was our best selling product during the year it was released. It still sells. Unlike a comic book which has a 30-day shelf life, a movie sells forever.
1st: Between the movies and the CGI comic are there any plans for an animated feature?
Bill: The great thing about creating the digital assets for Femforce CGI is that those same 3-D models can be imported into animation software and brought to life. They can speak, walk, dance, and fight. The basic technology now exists to create a short animated Femforce adventure from a home computer and we’d love to make it happen, but rendering just a few seconds of animation takes many hours. Creating a satisfying short feature would take months. But it’s definitely something that we want to do and if our other online publishing efforts continue to be successful we might get to see an animated Ms. Victory tossing around a tank or a giant-sized Tara stomping through a CGI city.
1st: For a relatively small company with a small staff, you have some interesting merchandise comic out. You had a Yankee Girl statue and in the works is Miss Masque. Do you actively seek out licensees or do they come to you?
Bill: Yankee Girl has been released and has sold out. This and last year’s Blue Bulleteer statue were produced by Reel Art Studios. Mike Hudson of Reel Arts came to me. I’m thrilled by the quality of these figures and I’m happy with the relationship AC has with Reel Arts. Not so our previous dealings with Randy Bowen. I believe that Mike is planning MISS MASQUE next. I’m sure that it will be fabulous as well. I have no time to seek out licenses but if anyone is interested they should contact Mark Heike at AC Comics. We have already licensed foreign editions of Femforce and Golden-Age reprints.
1st: There has been a lot of interest in the public domain Golden Age heroes like Black Terror, Daredevil, Miss Masque, and Green Lama. They are showing up in comics from Image and Dynamite, yet you have been including them in your comics for more than 20 years.
Bill: AC was the first to do so. Our first use of Black Terror was in a Paragon book nearly four decades ago. Today The Black Terror is paired with Rad, Ms. Victory’s daughter, in Femforce. Miss Masque was in Femforce #147 and both she and Black Terror will appear in our Green Lama series. Plans are in the works for a Miss Masque statue and video as well.
1st: You have a new original Green Lama mini-series coming out now, what type of reaction has that had so far?
Bill: We released two Green Lama comics in 2008. They were very successful. I tapped James Ritchey who revamped the Golden-Age character that I have had running in AC Comics for over two decades to continue is Man of Might storyline. Jim writes and pencils and Mark Stegbauer and Jeff Austin are inking. If the property continues to do well, can a Green Lama video be far behind?
1st: AC does a lot of Golden Age reprints, with superheroes, horror, and jungle girls. How do you decide what to reprint?
Bill: I reprint material that I want to see in print. All of our Golden-Age reprint books are available on our web store at www.accomics.com. There are 78 issues of Men of Mystery which presents a wide cross-section of heroes and heroines. There are 71 issues of Best of the West available. That title has its focus on masked Western characters which, during the 1950s, filled in for the superheroes who had almost become extinct. Crypt of Horror with a variety of pre-code horror comics is our best selling reprint. It’s now published bi-annually and we may move it up to three times a year.
1st: Finally – tell us a little more about the Femforce movies…
Bill: When I was a young man it seemed that I had a choice of future careers: comic books or the movies. I chose comics. Now I have the chance to travel down that other road and I am having a blast. Back in the 1970s, I made a film entitled Astron. It was shot in 16mm sound with a professional crew. It cost $6000.00 for the initial two-day shoot. But finishing it would have cost another $20,000.00. So Astron and so many of my other early film efforts have remained unfinished for decades. Now with digital video and computers, I can at last complete these projects for pennies on the dollar. Digital video is extremely inexpensive.
The second film that I completed and released on DVD was Amazing Colossal Woman. It cost $250.00 to produce, with most of the budget going to my talented star, Brenna Barry. It was released after Nightveil and became AC’s biggest moneymaker the following year. Aha! I discovered that making a Femforce video was far more fun and less costly than making a Femforce comic book. With success to spur me on, I wrote and directed The Sangor Syndrome, a vehicle designed to incorporate an earlier film shot on 16mm, Bloodsuckers From Outer Space, which featured my characters Synn and The Shade. It starred Maria Paris who had impressed me with her performance as villain Alizarin Crimson in the first Nightveil movie. Maria is an actor with several Independent films and many plays and TV commercials in her credits. Maria introduced me to many other actors all of whom have worked with me in the projects that you mentioned.
I also got up with local horror actor Mike Acord who portrayed the deadpan TV anchorman in Amazing Colossal Woman. It had been Mike’s lifelong desire to become a TV horror host and to that end, he had created the character, Lon Midnight. Working together we have completed 20 Lon Madnight segments for our Crypt of Horror series. Mike created and portrays our main video villain, The Cloak, delivering a dead-on Vincent Price impersonation. Special effects have held up Sangor’scompletion so Blue Bulleteer: Captured By The Cloak became my third original video production in release. It is currently available at accomics.net.
Amazing Colossal Woman was designed to be a teaser for a full-length Garganta movie, Ghost Of Garganta. This is my magnum opus… a feature-length giant woman movie. Brenna Barry reprises her Garganta role, Maria Paris is her nemesis and Mike Acord returns as the newscaster. Because of its length and the degree of difficulty bringing it to completion, GOG will not be released for some time. Near completion is Planet Of The Damned, the story of a spaceman who crash lands on a forbidden planet that’s only inhabitant is a giant vampire woman (Amy LoCicero). This will be our next release. Following PoD will be Stormy Tempest: Perils In The Past. This stars Nicola Rae, a beautiful 6-foot tall beauty, as Stormy Tempest, law agent from the future who chases an Alien menace back in time to present-day Earth. We shot this in February, 09. John Gotschall is now helping me with the videos. He wrote the Stormy script and we co-filmed it uses two cameras. John also wrote Nightveil: The Sorcerer’s Eye which we filmed in August-September, 2008. Besides creating our CGI stories and picto fiction adventures, John will be editing Sorcerer’s Eye andStormy while I work on completing Planet Of The Damned, Sangor, and Garganta. In addition, we will launch by this summer, a new website devoted exclusively to our video productions. It will feature re-worked versions of Nightveil: Witch War and Amazing Colossal Woman as well as an extended version of Blue Bulleteer: Captured By The Cloak. Other original videos on this site available for download will be Carnage Of Dracula, Cheeseorama, the above-mentioned Femforce films as they are completed, and many other old Bill Black productions from the forgotten past likeThe Conqueror Worm, Astron, and House At The End Of The World. Whew! Did I mention that I’m excited about all this?