Anyone out there remember Tundra? You might know them as the original publisher of Madman, From Hell and Understanding Comics, or maybe you heard the stories about how it was a giant money pit that cost publisher and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Kevin Eastman millions of dollars. Tundra was also the subject of my very first feature-length magazine article.
With only six installments of “Palmer’s Picks” under my belt by the time Wizard #12 saw print, I was still a little inexperienced to take on a big assignment like this. I made quite a few rookie mistakes here. The article is a bit of a boring info-dump, since it is basically just a run-down of all of Tundra’s comics. I tried my best to make some transitions to tie all of the disparate books together, but maybe breaking the article up with some sub-headings would have worked better. Another misstep: I only spoke to one source, Tundra’s promotions director Ann Eagen. There’s a nice photo of Kevin Eastman that appears on the first page, but I didn’t even bother to get a quote from him. And I didn’t contact any of the artists involved with all of the books I mentioned. Oops!
When I wrote this article, I was already a big fan of Tundra and a lot of the books under its banner. Tundra started in 1990 with a very small roster of projects, but it was still trying to establish a “brand” by the time this profile saw print in ’92. In that small span of time, Tundra had put together an interesting slate of titles like Rick Veitch‘s Bratpack (co-published with Veitch’s King Hell Press) and Dave McKean‘s Cages, but things were a bit all over the place with no focus. Tundra was competing with companies that had a solid core like Dark Horse with its licensed properties (Aliens and Predator) or Valiant and its interconnected superhero universe. What Tundra lacked in focus, it made up with production quality. The printing and design of Tundra’s books were lightyears ahead of what other indy publishers (and even Marvel or DC) were doing at the time: Full-color comics with painted art on slick paper (Jim Woodring‘s Frank In The River), cardstock covers with embossed foil logos (Rick Veitch’s Maximortal), prestige-format two-color comics (Mike Allred‘s Madman), oversized tabloids with neon ink covers (Mark Martin‘s 20 Nude Dancers 20). You can take your shots at the editorial quality of Tundra’s comics, but there was no arguing the fact that they all looked amazing.
Less than a year after I wrote this profile of Tundra, I would be asked to write another article about the company for Wizard #23, right before everything went completely bonkers. By early ’93, it was announced that the company was being bought out by Kitchen Sink Press (KSP), the long-running underground publisher of Robert Crumb and Will Eisner, among others. The deal was a little strange; since Kitchen Sink’s marketshare was dwarfed by Tundra, how could they possibly scrounge up enough cash to buy a larger company that was clearly in a lot of debt? It soon came to light that what was announced as a simple purchase was really a convoluted merger that saw KSP owner Denis Kitchen move his Midwestern operation into Tundra’s offices in Massachusetts and become the head of a “new” Kitchen Sink that was a patchwork amalgamation of the two companies. There were also rumors that Eastman was still involved in this new company, both financially and administratively, even though he claimed he was stepping down from the business side so he could spend more time at the drawing board. Kitchen Sink was now the publisher of a line that cherry-picked the best comics from both companies in an attempt to capitalize on the TV and movie prospects of properties like Cadillacs and Dinosaurs and The Crow. The roster of award-wining titles from Tundra and Kitchen Sink was soon replaced with an endless barrage of merch like R. Crumb red hots and Crow iron-ons. The “new” Kitchen Sink Press would only last a few more years before turning off the lights in 1999.
When you look back at defunct companies like Tundra, and even Kitchen Sink, it’s interesting to look at all of the comics that never appeared or were abandoned halfway through. The most notorious one is Alan Moore and Bill Sienkiewicz‘s Big Numbers, which was gobbled up by Tundra from Moore’s Mad Love imprint and was to be completed by up-and-coming artist Al Columbia after Sienkiewicz dropped out. Columbia completed the fourth issue, but destroyed the artwork before it saw print and the series has remained unfinished. There are even more lost projects from my original article: James O’Barr‘s Chinese Bones, Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli‘s Sweeney Todd from Taboo, the cartoon series based on Michael T. Gilbert‘s Mr. Monster.
As I continue to delve into these old issues of Wizard and “Palmer’s Picks,” I’m going to run into quite a few more unfinished comic stories. For every incomplete series like Hepcats or Tyrant, you can find others that had satisfying conclusions like Sandman or Bone. And there are even more like Maximortal or A Distant Soil that have recently been revived or are still in progress as I write this. In an attempt to make everything easier to track, check out the handy “unfinished stories” and “completed stories” tags. I hope that when I finish this look back at “Palmer’s Picks,” I’ll have assembled an interesting cross section that will shed some light on how the current state of graphic novels evolved from its roots in the ’90s.
The Creator’s Edge
by Tom Palmer Jr.
With most comics companies today taking advantage of their creators and their ideas, Kevin Eastman’s Tundra Publishing Limited stands out as one of the foremost advocates of creator’s rights. Tundra displays this support by giving its artists full control over their projects, from initial budget to the final printed project.
Tundra was founded in July of 1990 by Kevin Eastman, who, along with Peter Laird, created the immensely popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Despite the huge success of the Turtles, Eastman is able to identify with the struggles some creators have in arranging to get their work published. He and Laird self-published the original adventures of the Turtles, which forced them to finance the comic themselves, but allowed them complete control over what happened to their creations. With Tundra, Eastman hopes to eliminate the financial difficulties experienced by comic book creators, while still keeping what Tundra calls “the creator’s edge.”
As comic books are coming more and more into public view, they are becoming more widely accepted by mainstream America as a legitimate means of expression and entertainment. Tundra hopes to continue this acceptance by publishing material from a large and diverse group of creators ranging from comic-book legends Michael Kaluta, Bernie Wrightson, and the late Vaughn Bodé, to the stars of today, such as Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette, and newer names such as James O’Barr, Michael D. Allred, Mark Bodé, Bernie Mireault, and Al Columbia.
By gathering together such a large group of differing artists and writers, Tundra is able to publish a wide range of titles, each furthering a certain aspect or genre of the comic book field. These titles cover just about every category, from humor comics and horror anthologies, to quirky superheroes and down-to-earth personal stories.
When considering the diversity of talent and the vast amount of control given to the creators, a logical question to be asked is, “How can these books be published regularly?” Tundra has solved this problem by not allowing a series to be published until three issues are completed and ready to be printed. However, this rule is stretched when applied to more personal and creator-driven series such as Dave McKean’s Cages or Rain by Rolf Stark, where the amount of time and energy poured into each page does not lend itself to a regimented schedule.
With this guideline firmly in place, Tundra has lined tip some high-quality series and material for the foreseeable future. They have already published a small, yet strong core of humor titles, with more comics on the way. Issues of Wanyo‘s Beer Nutz, Mark Martin’s 20 Nude Dancers 20, and Roy Tompkin‘s Trailer Trash have appeared, but the most successful and eye-catching of Tundra’s humor titles is Frank in The River, the introduction to Martin and Jim Woodring’s Tantalizing Stories. This full-color comic featured Woodring’s bizarre creation, Frank, in a surreal pantomime adventure, as well as a short story featuring Montgomery Wart by Martin. The painted artwork on both of these stories showcased some of the most brilliant and lush color artwork in comics. Unfortunately, when Tantalizing Stories begins in October as a bi-monthly, it will run as a black-and-white comic, but it promises to make up for the loss of color in laughs and entertainment.
Also upcoming on the humorous side is Hyena, a black-and-white humor anthology edited by Mark Martin that will try to fill the gap left by the poor quality of mainstream humor mags and the much lamented demise of Weirdo. According to Tundra’s director of promotions, Ann Eagan, the first two issues of Hyena will have full-color one-page “supplements” for the Lillian Spencer Drake Mail-Order Catalog, the “Whole Earth for the Mentally Deranged.” The catalog will feature such bargains as “The Home Lard Kit,” and a take-off on Robert Crumb’s blues trading cards called “Zeroes of the Blues.”
Tundra also has a strong place in the horror market, with the publication of Taboo, Spiderbaby Grafix‘s popular and critically-acclaimed series. With Tundra’s help, Steve Bissette, founder of Spiderbaby, is now able to bring his black-and-white anthology out on a regular schedule. Along with this steady publishing schedule, Taboo is now able to add some extras, such as a color section and special supplements. One of these extras in Penny Dreadful, a booklet included with the sixth issue of Taboo, which acts as a preview to Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli’s “Sweeny Todd.” This special insert will only be included with pre-ordered copies of Taboo or with reorders placed within 30 days of publication. After that, the remaining copies of Penny Dreadful will be destroyed and it will not be reprinted.
Aside from being a showcase for the works of Gaiman, Zulli, Rick Grimes, S. Clay Wilson, and Rolf Stark, Taboo is also currently the only place where the work of Alan Moore can be seen. Two of his major projects, “Lost Girls” with Melinda Gebbie, and “From Hell,” in collaboration with Eddie Campbell, are being serialized in Taboo. “Lost Girls” is Moore’s examination of erotica, featuring such familiar fictional characters as Wendy from Peter Pan, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and Alice from Through the Looking Glass, and is illustrated with full-color artwork by Gebbie. Moore, along with Campbell, has already produced the first five chapters of “From Hell,” his highly-researched, fictionalized account of the Jack the Ripper murders. With both of these series, after enough material has seen print, Tundra will publish collected editions. Tundra will also provide assistance to Moore’s Mad Love imprint when Big Numbers resumes publication with Al Columbia replacing Bill Sienkiewicz as artist of the series. Columbia, who worked for a time as Sienkiewicz’s assistant, has also completed Doghead for publication by Tundra.
Usually, creator-owned projects are thought of as being as far away from mainstream comics as possible. Surprisingly, Tundra publishes a wide array of superhero comics by a diverse group of creators. However, each of these titles has a peculiar twist that makes them unique. Bernie Mireault’s The Jam, for instance, features the world’s cheapest superhero, who fights crime in a hand-altered jogging suit. Featuring a similarly lighthearted, humorous tone is Michael D. Allred’s Madman, which Ann Eagan describes as a “sensitive superhero.” The title character, “doesn’t really know his own identity, but has the ability to have premonitions and read minds or pick up on other people’s feelings.”
Contrasting these lighthearted series are the titles in Rick Vietch’s
Heroica, which is co-published by Tundra and King Hell Press. Bratpack,
the first of these grim revisionist superhero tales, will be collected
by Tundra in preparation for the second story in the cycle, The Maximortal. This graphic novel will begin serialization in a full-color series starting in August.
Tundra will also publish the adventures of a hero who crosses the boundaries of superhero, horror, and adventure comics, Michael Gilbert’s Mr. Monster. They plan to start in August with a three-issue mini-series containing original material, entitled Mr. Monster Attacks. This will be followed by two more mini-series and reprints of Mr. Monster’s past adventures.
Captain Sternn, Bernie Wrightson’s science-fiction hero, will star in his own five-issue series. Wrightson has completed writing and penciling the series, but wants a different artist to ink and color the comic. Tundra has some big-name possibilities lined-up for the position, but is keeping it a secret until the series is ready to go.
While many of Tundra’s titles are geared for older readers or are strictly for adults, there are plans for more material that is suitable for all ages. One of these is the Galactic Girl Guides, by Elaine Lee and Michael Kaluta, which is described as “mischievous girl scouts in space.”
Tundra also plans to publish material from some of today’s up-and-coming stars. Most of these creators started work at smaller publishers, but were never able to finish the projects because of low distribution or lack of exposure. Mark Bodé, son of the late underground comics pioneer Vaughn Bodé, has been able to complete Cobalt 60, the post-apocalyptic tale begun in 1968 by his father. James O’Barr has been able to finish his tragic, cult-favorite series The Crow and is already at work on Chinese Bones, a cyberpunk tale that has been described as, “The Wizard of Oz meets Blade Runner.”
Tundra has recently branched out in several different directions to ensure that they can gather together top talents from around the world. Kevin Eastman recently purchased Heavy Metal magazine, which already acts as a showcase for some of the top material being published in Europe. Plans are for several graphic novels to be previewed or serialized in Heavy Metal and then collected in hardcover by Tundra as part of their group of high-quality European graphic novels. This line has already started with Margot in Badtown and will continue with further adventures of Margot and the Wind of the Gods series.
To help keep close contact with British creators, Tundra recently opened Tundra UK in London. While the two offices remain separate editorially, they join for the promotion and publishing of series. Some of these titles include Lazarus Churchyard, which originally appeared in Blast magazine, Skin, a controversial graphic novel that was rejected by three different publishers in England, and White Trash, a “road movie” in full color.
With such an eclectic batch of titles, Tundra has tried to place comics into different markets. Their sketchbook series has been successful in art supply stores where young art students can catch a glimpse of works in progress from top artists. Also, ComicsTrips by New York Times cartoonist Peter Kuper has been distributed to bookstores in order to capitalize on the recognition of Kuper’s name outside of the comic book field. Hopefully, Tundra will be able to make comics more visible in other areas by assisting creators in getting their characters licensed for other mediums. Plans are already underway for a Crow movie, as well as a pilot for an animated Mr. Monster series for the Fox network.
By utilizing strong ties with distributors and stores, Tundra is able to help some of the top talent in the field get their work to a larger group of people. In a short span of time, Tundra has assembled an impressive line-up that promises to redefine how comic books are seen by the public while keeping the creators involved every step of the way.