An unexpected return to comics

“I love coming upstairs to the studio and seeing comics on Dawn's computer screen.” ~ Gary Guzzo
Wed, 09/07/2016 - 7:30am

Comic books. It all started waaaay back in 1842 here in the U.S. with “The Adventures of Mr. Obadiah Oldbuck,” in black and white, and hard cover no less! The first known full color comic book, “The Blackberries,” was printed in 1901 as a 9" x 12" hardcover book.

Through these colorful page turners readers were introduced to America's first ever superhero in 1938 with the tag line, “Faster than a speeding bullet.” Yes, Superman flew onto the comic page via Detective Comics, known as DC — the second largest comic book company in the U.S. In 1941, Timely Comics, which became Marvel Comics, brought Captain America to life, followed by The Fantastic Four in 1961, Spider Man and The Hulk in '62, The X-Men in '63, The Black Panther in '66 ...

Gripping superhero lore right? The comic book industry is hot and the pages upon which they were born are killing it as movies in theaters worldwide. Sounds extremely lucrative. And it is, for the publishing companies that own the rights to all of the work.

It's a different story if you were the creator of one of these super humans and super mutants. See, whether you worked for Marvel Comics or DC, the men who created these beloved characters — along with the team necessary to produce comics from concept to plot creation to script followed by the artists — pencilers, inkers, colorists and letterists — sure they all got paid, as did the creators of these super heroes and mutants. One time. The caped and uncaped crusaders went on fighting evil decade after decade after decade and belonged to the publishing company.

Have you ever wondered what happened to the creators of these comic book/silver screen heroes? In August this year, the founder of Marvel Comics and character creator, Stan Lee (The X-Men, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel (co-created with Gene Colan), Mary Jane Watson (co-created with John Romita Sr., Steve Ditko) and over 20 others, had released his first new comic book in a new series, “The Zodiac Legacy: Tiger Island,” published by Papercutz. Dawn Guzzo of Atomic Studios in Boothbay Harbor was the production and design artist on the project. (www.boothbayregister.com/article/atomic-studios-returns-comics/74254)

But Stan Lee isn't the only classic comic character creator who Dawn, and her husband Gary Guzzo, are in touch with from their years at Marvel Comics. Particularly since a reunion of sorts happened three years ago at Gary's 60th birthday party in New York City. Before the couple moved to Boothbay Harbor, they were both at Marvel Comics; Gary was the head of publicity and marketing, and Dawn, head of the production department. She was the first woman to climb up the ladder at Marvel to become head of production from freelance graphic artist to assistant designer, designer, senior designer to running the then-famous Marvel “Bullpen” for 15 years.

During a conversation Gary had with Don McGregor (creator of the Black Panther and others), at the birthday bash, he learned what dire straits Don and most of the guys now in their 70s to early 90s were in. They were barely eking out an existence scraping up money to get to the ComicCon (comic conventions) hoping to sign books fans would bring to the event. No health insurance.

That conversation, and others, became the impetus for the work Gary is doing since signing over complete ownership of the couple's business Atomic Studios, established here over 20 years ago, to Dawn. Due to injuries from many years ago “that came back with a vengence” it became impossible for Gary to sit in a chair for any significant amount of time, he took over the role of web and marketing consultant to Atomic.

“Being disabled, and having that time, I decided to use it to help my struggling friends, rather than sit around and become depressed,” Gary said. “I was inspired by the words of my dear departed friend, Warren Zevon, who put it perfectly when he said ‘I thought of my friends, And the troubles they've had, To keep me from thinking of mine’  ...  Just because you lose some of your ability to work, you still have the ability to volunteer.

 “The only time Don's expenses were covered was when he was an invited guest or speaker,” explained Gary. “It's tough. People are selling big prints of the work he did for Marvel at these ComicCon events and he's not getting a dime. Don and these guys were broke. That upset me.”

Enter Guzzo Creative Services (GCS). After the birthday bash and a lot of thinking about the plight of many of these classic comic book creators and longtime friends, Gary began negotiating with publishers to come up with a program for classic comic book writers and artists that would permit them to use one copyrighted item/material, by request and permission — such as an illustration that appeared in one of the comics at Marvel or DC, as a premium piece they could take to ComicCon events to sign and sell to their fans. Gary also negotiated a “deal” for artists still drawing for a publisher, allowing them to sketch their trademarked characters for a fee.

“The services I'm offering to classic creators are more on the line of business services,” Gary explained. “Setting up Kickstarter campaigns, aiding creators on legal matters, and working with creators to get their own creator-owned properties published. Since these creators are also writers and artists, we also want to make their creative services — as writers, illustrators and designers — available to non-comics projects like advertising and marketing through Dawn's Atomic Studios. We have a group of close to 100 potential artists, writers and production staff on this end.”

Since creating the website for McGregor, Gary has created a standard template for getting a website up for a client in a couple of days at a low cost.

Helping these classic comic creators get their new stuff published, as well as works by writers of other genres, is another part of the services Atomic Creative Services offers. Whether you write comic books, mysteries or books for kids, trying to get published on your own is tough.

“Comics are such a team effort. It's a great thing — it's what Dawn and I love about it. But on the independent side, one guy trying to get one book published against 300 books being released the big publishers are putting out, they got lost. New creative work was just going nowhere,” Gary said.

Right now Gary has around 24 clients, and many of them have been writing new works. For example, McGregor, who penned a two-book series called, “Detective, Inc.” (drawn by Alex Simmons) in the early 1980s, wrote a new detective graphic novel last winter. With so many self-publishing tools online from Amazon Kindle Direct to Liberio through Google Drive, McGregor tried to self-publish, but without the promotion, marketing, and money, it just wasn't happening.

Gary decided it was time to even the playing field and do for guys like Don McGregor what Atomic Studios did here in Boothbay Harbor: bring well-seasoned, experienced NYC quality design, advertising and website-building to get their work out there.

“We've managed to get these numbers up — and in book stores,” Gary continued. “With comics there is so much incredible artwork — the design of the wrapper/cover is an art in itself. And that's where Dawn comes in. She was the famous designer cover artist at Marvel when she ran the Bullpen.”

Dawn's reputation for excellence in the art of packaging and design is what led Jim Salicrup, editor-in-chief at Papercutz (currently the top publisher of graphic novels in the U.S.) to call her in 2013. Salicrup asked her if she'd be willing to help him out of a jam. He was down a packager for books ready to be put together. Dawn said sure and finished the project in record time. Salicrup asked her to do another and another … Last year, Dawn became the exclusive freelancer for Papercutz.

“Jim's a good friend,” Dawn said. “And he was my Spider-Man editor at Marvel. I never thought I'd be a freelance designer for a comic book company. I did the work so fast it all just snowballed,” Dawn said.

When Stan Lee contacted Salicrup about publishing his new book, and Lee told him he wanted someone “topflight, someone like Dawn Guzzo from the Bullpen,” Salicrup was able to tell him Dawn was working for Papercutz.

“Jim told Stan he had Dawn doing design and packaging and that was all Stan had to hear,” Gary said proudly. “You can't judge a book by its cover, but you can sell it for its cover. They brought her in for the little details she adds to the binding, the end pages, the covers. I love coming up to the office and seeing comic books on her computer screen.”

“They send me everything,” said Dawn, who has been working as a freelance designer for Papercutz since that 2013 call from editor-in-chief Salicrup. On average, she's completing over 50 book-packaging projects a month through files containing all of the graphics, fonts, text, and cover design info and creates the finished project.

And, Dawn is still working with all of Atomic's clients in the Boothbay region, Wiscasset, Damariscotta, and the occasional Portland business that's heard of Atomic through other business owners and wants to work with her.

Dawn is as pleased as she is flattered by how well-received and sought after her talents are by those talented folks she worked with at Marvel.

Dawn may have left Marvel over two decades ago but her drive and passion for the work is ever-present.  While Dawn was the head of production, the Bullpen was producing over 100 titles a month — a lot for the ’80s and ’90s. And it seems, Dawn was a bit of a taskmaster ... someone at the Bullpen drew a caricature  of her dressed as a female superhero, cracking a whip with one hand and brandishing a weapon in the other, shouting “Get to work, slime balls!” She still has the drawing. And it still makes Dawn and Gary break into smiles and laughter whenever they talk about it.

Working for PaperCutz, Dawn has packaged Nancy Drew mysteries, The Hardy Boys, promo covers for Tales From the Crypt, and Disney character books galore — Tinkerbell, (the animated) Planes, Minnie and Daisy; to a WWE comic book, Ninjaggo, Power Rangers, Legos,  Barbie, Jules Verne, the list goes on and on.

And, once Salicrup had Dawn back on board it was time to pull Gary back into the comic and graphic novel world, drawing on Gary's background in publicity marketing. Gary is also called upon to dream up concepts as well as interesting marketing ideas. 

Not a comic book or graphic novelist? Guzzo Creative Services is still a resource for you. The couple is also actively looking for new talent and interesting projects to bring to the publishing world, here in Maine and nationwide. Gary is very interested in getting younger writers on board.

“We will sit with authors and help them find publishing homes for their project and will offer our team of editors and publishers to assist in developing new books, both for the traditional print medium and in the area of e-Book publishing,” Gary said.

It all started with fighting the good fight to help their friends, the classic comic creators, have rights to something they had done to use to support themselves, to helping them get new stories and characters out to their fans without losing the rights to their own work — and offer services affordably. In doing so, Atomic Creative Services is working to preserve the comic book-graphic novel art form while expanding its services to include helping the new, unpublished writers get their work out there to develop their own audience and fan base.

For a complete overview of the services offered by AtomicStudios and Guzzo Creative Services, visit www.atomic-studios.com.