Tuesday, April 2, 2019

My friend Mark Alessi

Mark was a guy who liked having the last word. But that’s the nature of a eulogy, a remembrance. The subject doesn’t get the last word. Sorry, man. 

Mark Alessi was a complicated guy. He could be pushy, abrasive and painfully blunt. He spoke scatology as a second language. He could make longshoremen leave the room and a Marine gunny get out his thesaurus. He had a pit bull personality that served him well as master salesmen and CEO. A tough guy who’d run to a fight. And he ran to lots of them in his life.

But that exterior hid a kind soul and a caring heart. A THICK exterior, to be sure. Boy, he could be prickly on a bad day until I got a laugh out of him. 

What drove Mark was a burning desire to succeed and bring all those loyal to him along for the ride.

And loyalty was a big part of the guy. Being Mark’s friend was like taking a Viking oath. You swore yourself to him but he returned that loyalty 100%. And, as cynical a demeanor as he tried to present, he often misplaced that loyalty. But that never stopped him giving everyone he met the benefit of the doubt.

His was an always-active mind seeking out problems to solve. Too often, he was way ahead of his time. He told me once of how he designed the business model for a streaming service back in the late 80s when bandwidth speed was decades from making it workable. He was also responsible for other tech innovations while with IBM and at his own companies that, frankly, I’m not techno-geek enough to understand. Experienced IT guys assure me that they were major accomplishments. 

Though I fully understand what he did for comics. 

There’s a clearly discernible line between what comics looked like pre-CrossGen and post-CrossGen. Mark, and the talent he hired, raised the bar way high for production values, color, trade dress and even lettering. CrossGen comics simply looked better and the rest of the publishers rushed to improve themselves in the wake.

CrossGen, as directed by Mark, was ahead of its time in other areas. He was a decade in front of digital comics with a user-friendly program that has still not been surpassed anywhere in the world. And CrossGen’s  promising ties to movie and television productions was years before what would be a boom for comics-related material on the big and small screen. The square-bound compendiums and digests we offered as periodicals rather than trades are still an idea waiting to happen in mainstream comics publishing.

One innovation that, sadly, was not replicated beyond CrossGen was the company’s treatment of comics creators. We had regular pay, reasonable schedules, profit-sharing, full medical benefits, a really cool studio facility to work in and countless other perks and benefits. Except for administration like payroll and bookkeeping, the creators ran the company. There was no hierarchy of editors or managers or other various gatekeepers lording over us.

If we wanted to do something, create something, we only had to convince Mark that it was a good idea. Or, as I often did, do an end-run around the man. But he forgave me for those moments because, lucky for me, they all worked out. If they hadn’t, he would have enjoyed weaponizing them for his second-favorite pastime, ball-busting.

Though it failed spectacularly and painfully, CrossGen improved the lives of all who participated in it. After a period of dislocation for all, and financial loss for some, the folks who came there re-entered the freelance talent pool with a legacy; a “greatest hits” file for their resumes. Whole new careers were created for newcomers who made their bones there. Other careers were re-born as seasoned pros, who had been either neglected or under-employed at the major publishers, used the opportunity offered to create the best work of their lives to date. Today, comics are still populated by CrossGen veterans in places at the very top of the medium, their lives changed by their experience down here in Tampa.

So, come to think of it, I guess Mark did get the last word.

Thanks for everything.

Godspeed, brother.

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