Introduction by Alan David Doane
In 1982, Gates of Eden was ahead of its time, an independent comic that the market didn't quite know what to do with, packed with idiosyncratic contributions from a who's who of talented comic artists, including Steve Leialoha, P. Craig Russell, John Byrne, Fred Hembeck, Michael Kaluta and others. For this edition of Flashmob Fridays, we start with a reminiscence of the title's troubled publishing history from former FantaCo employee Roger Green, and continue on with reviews by the Trouble with Comics writers. Anyone interested in FantaCo's history is invited to browse Roger's blog, as it's a semi-regular topic of discussion there.
Gates of Eden, which came out in the spring of 1982, was a great FantaCo comic book, but a tremendous drain on the company. Gates was very much the brainchild of Mitch Cohn, from the Dylan-inspired title (Mitch was a huge Dylan fan) to the selection of the artists, Gates really represented his sensibilities. Most, though not all, of the artists appeared in the book based on Mitch's urging. I don't know that he knew all the artists going into the project, but he had a Rolodex of potential contributors he had put together from friends and friends of friends.
I suppose Mitch was like a kid in a candy store, putting together his dream book. I recall him on the phone practically gushing to his comic art heroes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of them were not big commercial draws. John Byrne, who had done work for FantaCo's Chronicles series, had a following. So did Fred Hembeck, who FantaCo had published since 1980. But most were popular as "underground" or "ground level" artists. I wasn't directly involved in the structuring of the book, but I always thought editor Mitch was a great advocate for the artists to get as much money as possible, quite likely more than the market would generally bear. Meanwhile, owner/publisher Tom Skulan was more of a bottom-line guy, wanting to put together a package as inexpensively as possible. The one thing that they did share, however, was care for the production values; they both wanted it to look good.
If I had specific numbers, they are lost in the mist. I do know that Gates of Eden #1 was not profitable. Unlike other items were published around that time, such as the Chronicles dedicated to the Avengers and Spider-Man, we were not getting the either the distributor reorders, or the mail order/store sales we wanted/needed. Gates #1 and other situations put FantaCo in a real cash crunch that it took a couple years to get out of.
So when Gates of Eden #2's low preliminary distributor numbers came in, Tom and Mitch, with some input from me, brainstormed about what to do. Lessen the quality of the paper stock was considered, as was raising the cover price from $2.95 to $3.50. Ultimately, though, this would have meant resoliciting the title, and we didn't think that would help. So Tom pulled the plug on Gates #2. From a business point of view, it was probably the correct thing to do, but I'm fairly sure that Mitch felt he had lost face with the people he had contacted to contribute.
Ultimately, the fact that Mitch was both an employee of FantaCo's, and therefore of Tom's, and yet was an independent contractor of sorts putting together this package for FantaCo caused all sorts of muddled lines of communication. And I sometimes got caught in the middle as a sounding board for both sides.
I don't remember much about the whys and wherefores of the release of Gates of Eden; I probably saw an ad in the Comics Journal, which featured that gorgeous Mike Kaluta cover -- and since I was a connoisseur of all things MWK as much in 1983 as I am in 2009, I would have bought it for that if nothing else. Basically a themed one-shot, said theme being a look back at the Sixties, It features a host of contributors, many of which were stalwarts of the Underground scene of that time like Foolbert Sturgeon, Lee Marrs, Kim Deitch, Rick Geary, and Spain. The story which still stands out the most to me is Steve Leialoha's look back at Altamont, the free festival which soon turned into a nightmare as someone was stabbed by a Hell's Angel member during the Rolling Stones' set, the Angels being there to ostensibly provide security at the behest of the Grateful Dead. That show was said to be the death knell for the Hippie Dream. More than anything, I just enjoy seeing Leialoha on full art again -- he's been pretty much inking Mark Buckingham on Fables for years now, and his idiosyncratic style (which was also being brought to bear on Marvel/Epic's Coyote at about the same time) is pretty much subsumed there. Trina Robbins, who was really turning out a lot of work at the time for a number of companies, is also represented with a look at Hippie fashions, right in her wheelhouse -- it even has cutout dolls. Another enjoyable reminiscence was brought to us by Fred Hembeck, who shares a story of longsuffering Mets fandom, which culminated in their 1969 World Series win. Jeff Jones turns in one of his Idyl-style pieces, and Craig Russell also contributes an psychedelic two-page spread. I had forgotten exactly how much was stuffed in this one issue!
Guess it didn't sell all that well, because they didn't do another one to my knowledge. Too bad; there's some fine storytelling and a lot of good art in this collection. It's a look back at a time which gets more and more romanticized, and while there's a fair amount of that going on here, several of the entries also take a more level-headed point of view as well for balance, and all in all, this was a lot better than I remember thinking it was back in 1983 when I first read it.
You know, I actually own a copy of this comic -- a gift from ADD -- but I never read it until now. I have to admit I'm glad he brought it up again. Maybe I needed an audience. Anyway, this comic gave me a warm feeling, in a way, as it reminded me of my dad's side of the family. They were all kind of hippies in the '60s, and my aunt has long had an art supply shop in Haight-Ashbury. The stories in here reminded me of them because of the combination of idealism and creativity. It's one thing to see a documentary about the '60s, but quite another to have a group of cartoonists telling their own personal '60s remembrances. Although some of these guys were maybe somewhat associated with the '60s underground comics scene, none of them are particularly radical. These are not stories that push the boundaries with a lot of sex and drugs. Rather, they're stories of people who were young and trying to find themselves during one of our more turbulent times. a time of great fear and great hope. Steve Leialoha's "Altamont" is a standout. Even though I'd seen the film, Gimme Shelter, and knew the details, Leialoha brought a real artistry. Mick slings his hips just right. The tension builds. There's confusion even amid the clear storytelling. Really excellent work.
We also get a nice piece on the '68 Chicago convention riot, lots on Nixon, LBJ, JFK, communes, fashion, the miracle Mets, and an eye-opening story by Sharon Kahn Rudahl on the difficulties of trying to get an abortion in the '60s. It's almost like publisher Tom Skulan and editor Mitch Cohn made a list of everything important in the '60s and handed it out to all these cartoonists, except that kind of thing wouldn't have really worked. Somehow they just picked the right talent, and the talent knew the right stories to tell. Pretty fantastic.