I have had the privilege to speak on a few Indie comics/self-publishing panels at Comic-Con over the years, one question invariably comes up: “What one piece of advice would you offer aspiring comics creators?” The other panelists usually share some very helpful and sage bit of insight on selecting an artist or creating a relatable character, but I always go in a slightly less sexy direction and tell the would-be creators to protect themselves legally. Copyright everything.
Then I tell them my second piece of advice: never, ever use Atlantis Studios to make your comics.
Want to hear my horror story? Sure, you do…
In case you haven’t heard the floor gossip at conventions or seen the threads on Digital Webbing, Atlantis Studios is/was a Georgia-based work-for-hire studio that would help aspiring writers realize their stories in comicbook form. Atlantis would provide pencilers, inkers, colorists, and letterers and would then oversee every step of the production from soup to nuts and hand over print-ready digital files of their completed comic, all for a tidy sum. Atlantis also offered similar services to screenwriters, advertising storyboards, poster and concept art that would help “seal the deal” on any “big-time Hollywood pitch” (FYI, there are going to be a lot of quotation marks in this post, so “deal with it”). Furthermore, Atlantis claimed no ownership or claim to the copyright of the material at all. Seems like a pretty sweet deal, right?
Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Seven years ago, I was an aspiring screen/comic writer, too (still am, I suppose). I had been looking for a way to break into both fields for a while, so imagine my delight when I saw an ad for Atlantis Studios’ custom comicbook services in the back of my Creative Screenwriting magazine. After discussing this opportunity with my wife, I contacted James Watson, the “proprietor” of Atlantis, to get a quote for turning my spec screenplay, Return of the Super Pimps, into a six-issue mini-series. I was able to shave off some of the cost by choosing to write the comics scripts myself (rather than relying on Atlantis to translate my screenplay into pages and panels) and, after some generous investment from my parents, we were off to the races on the first issue of Return of the Super Pimps!
The first sign of a problem emerged when our talented colorist, Jasen Smith, contacted me directly halfway through the production of Super Pimps #1 to tell me that he hadn’t yet been paid for his work thus far. This admission was surprising to me on two fronts: 1) all communications between myself and the art team were always funneled through James and Atlantis – I guess to keep me from giving them too much annoying direction or to poach the talent away from Atlantis, and 2) James Watson always seemed like such an upstanding guy – he had a link to the Church of Latter Day Saints on the Atlantis website (when Atlantis had a website), and we spent some time together at signings at Comic-Con and a Screenwriting Expo in Los Angeles. He even showed me pictures of his wife and kids (at least, I think they were his wife and kids…).
But Jasen seemed genuine in his concern, so I agreed to look into the situation for him. I e-mail James and, to his credit, he responded immediately that this non-payment was an oversight and that Jasen would be compensated right away (which he was). So, problem solved on issue #1. The print-ready files were delivered to me on the Friday before Comic-Con, I had them printed locally in Chino, CA, and then picked up the finished books on the Tuesday before Preview Night. Just in time – whew!
It wasn’t until we were midway through issue #2 that my shyster-sense really started going off. This time, it was James Watson who contacted me. Our penciler, Ulises Carpintero, had stopped turning in pages about two weeks earlier, and now James said that Ulises demanded more money than our agreed-upon page rate before completing the balance of the book. According to James, Ulises was holding the back-half “hostage.” I gave James a flat-out “no,” and he said he would go back to Ulises and try to smooth things over. Lo and behold, Ulises turned in the rest of the book as if nothing had ever happened. Weird.
At the same time, I had heard rumblings from friends and colleagues at shows like Wizard World LA that the word on the street was Atlantis had cash-flow troubles and was not paying its artists. I put two and two together (keen detective that I am) and realized Ulises had never demanded more money. It was, in fact, James who fabricated the entire story to get more money out of me.
We were about six pages into Super Pimps #3 (which was waaay behind schedule – at this point, Super Pimps was being solicited through Diamond, so we were working against hard deadlines), when I confronted James Watson about everything I heard. James confessed that, yes, Atlantis was strapped for cash and, yes, he had not paid the artists in some time (even though he had cashed all of my checks, including a deposit for Super Pimps #4).
Summoning all of the legalese that I had gleamed from working summers in my Mom’s law office, I demanded that Atlantis cease all production on my books immediately, refund my money for the second-half of issue #3 and deposit of issue #4, put every layered page, file, and scrap of art related to Super Pimps onto a disc, and give everything to me within two weeks’ time or I would pursue legal action. Again, to his credit, James did all of the above, although he had the temerity to say that he hoped we could “work together again in the future.”
Fortunately for me, James had screwed up more than just his bank accounts. On a quick e-mail to me during the production of issue #1, he accidentally copied Ulises on the message, so I now had Ulises’ private e-mail address. I contacted Ulises, who lives in Argentina, explained to him that I discovered what was going on at Atlantis and had ended business with them. I then asked Ulises if he would consider working directly for me to complete the Super Pimps saga. Thankfully, he said “yes” and took on ALL art duties – pencils, inks, and colors – and my friend and mentor, Robert Roach, came on to letter the book and get it ready for pre-press. After much starting and stopping, Super Pimps was finally and entirely under my control (although our final issue didn’t come out until 2008 – but, hey, at least we did it).
In retrospect, I found out what happened to Atlantis. James Watson came from the corporate world and wanted to be a filmmaker. He had a property called Paula Peril (I won’t link to it, because I don’t want to support his practices, but it’s basically a knock-off of Hanna-Barbera’s “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop”) that he wanted to turn into a film series. This was meant to be a proof-of-concept piece for what would have been “Phase Two” of Atlantis Studios (making custom movies in addition to comics for aspiring screenwriters). But it was also a way for James to finally wear the director’s cap, so he sank everything Atlantis had (including my Super Pimps deposits) into Paula Peril, only to never see a return on that illicit investment. I’ll leave it to you to Google the shorts and judge the quality for yourself but, suffice it to say, I think many potential customers quickly realized that they could make their own films for less cost and with greater resources right here in good ol’ LA.
Look, I’m not normally one to tell tales out of school, but Ulises Carpintero is now my friend, and James Watson still owes him upwards of $2,000 US. Ulises is a struggling artist and the single father so, when James finally pays Ulises for his services rendered, I will have Dale delete this post. Although it doesn’t look like I was the only one who had trouble with Atlantis Studios…
All in all, I am grateful for the experience with Atlantis as it led to me self-publishing my first comics, introduced me to great talents like Ulises and Jasen, and hopefully made me a better judge of character when it comes to business. As Robert Roach later pointed out to me, the lettering in those first two issues of Super Pimps was atrocious, but the art and colors themselves were everything I hoped they would be, and then some.
Well, there’s my horror story, although I think I made out okay in the end. If there are any victims here, it’s guys like Ulises and countless other artists who work for an agreed upon rate, but are never compensated for their time or effort. So caveat emptor and, if you ever see James Watson, remind him that he owes Ulises Carpintero $2000 and one hell of an apology…
Richard A. Hamilton is a Los Angeles resident for 12 years running and the writer/publisher of Return of the Super Pimps and Miserable Dastards. On his free time, he seeks out new Indie comics, local beers, and –on good days — both.