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In the last published issue of Way of the Rat, there’s a storyline in which the comic book’s thieving heroes — Boon Sai Hong and his talking monkey, Po Po — are trapped in a cave of treasures. There’s no way out, no food or water, only piles and piles of gold taunting them as they slowly starve to death.
As a metaphor for CrossGen Comics — the maverick comic book company that published Way of the Rat and a slew of other titles during the early 2000s and briefly became one of Hollywood’s hottest property generators before flaming out in a spectacular bankruptcy — one could do a lot worse. There aren’t talking monkeys in this short, tragic business fable, but there is a kind-of evil genie (Steven Spielberg), a type of fire-breathing dragon (Ross Perot) and a sort-of white knight (Disney). And, of course, there are piles and piles of just-out-of-reach riches.
“Like Camelot, it was brilliant and then disappeared,” says producer Michael Uslan, who helped CrossGen set up a slew of movie and TV projects during its brief heyday. “It could have been glorious had the roof not caved in.”
The tale begins in Florida in 1999, when former computer whiz kid Mark Alessi cashed in from the tech boom to pursue his dream of launching a cutting-edge comic book brand. He sold his successful consulting firm, The Technical Resource Connection, for $44 million in stock to Perot Systems — the energy corporation headed by Perot, a rambunctious Texan who made a significant independent run for president in 1992 — and used the windfall to rent office space outside Tampa and hire a staff of writers and artists.
“I wanted a company that could take advantage of what was coming,” recalls Alessi, now 62. “I saw how the internet was developing, how graphic systems were developing, how video games were developing. I felt the comic book world was missing something.”
His abrasive management style left something to be desired — “He’s a prick,” says one former employee — but in some ways Alessi was a progressive boss: He had pencillers, inkers, colorists and letterers working side by side, as opposed to the industry norm of having creators email work from all over. Even more unorthodox, he paid his workers a salary and offered health benefits and a pension plan, then unheard of in the comics business.
An adaptation of ‘Route 666’ was briefly considered by Zemeckis.
Whatever he was doing, it worked: The company’s first titles, such as Scion and Meridian, began hitting stands in early 2000 and made a big splash, nabbing a combined 15 Harvey Award nominations (the Golden Globes for comic books). “CrossGen was ahead of its time,” says former comics editor Stephen Christy, now a producer at Boom! Studios. “It led the way in having comics on the web before anyone else — it changed the industry.” Hollywood took notice, and CrossGen began setting up projects all over with the likes of Robert Zemeckis, Lawrence Kasanoff and Lorenzo di Bonaventura (who had his eye on one comic, Sojourn, for Jennifer Lopez).
But just as CrossGen was taking off there was a string of tragic setbacks, beginning with Alessi’s wife dying suddenly of a heart attack, leaving him to care for their 13-year-old daughter. Around that time the Perot money suddenly evaporated: Perot Systems was implicated in an energy manipulation scheme, and its stock tanked. Alessi, whose stock was locked in Perot’s company, lost nearly all of the dollars he had been counting on to bankroll his comics startup. He took extraordinary measures — selling his copy of Fantastic Four No. 1 and other gems from his private collection — to keep the cash flowing, but it didn’t take long for stories to begin circulating that artists at CrossGen weren’t getting paid.
Alessi scrambled to seal a deal with a Chinese company to bring CrossGen’s comics into Asian markets, a move he hoped would “bring the company back from the brink.” When that didn’t materialize, he was left with one last hope: Way of the Rat. Of all the projects he had set up in Hollywood, this comic about a martial arts adventurer in a vaguely Asian medieval alternate universe seemed the one with the most traction. It had been optioned by DreamWorks, had a big director attached (Chuck Russell, who had helmed The Mask and The Scorpion King) and had taken on a big-deal producer (The Shawshank Redemption scribe Frank Darabont). Everyone at DreamWorks was gung-ho on the project — the only green light outstanding was Spielberg’s. For some reason, though — perhaps he was too busy making DreamWorks‘ The Terminal — Spielberg kept putting off reading the script. Months passed. A green light never came.
“It was all ruined by Spielberg,” says Alessi, still bitter. “I wouldn’t spit on Steven to put out a fire.” (Spielberg declined comment.)
In June 2004, Alessi called a meeting of his dwindling staff and announced CrossGen was shutting down. Disney (which had flirted with doing a movie based on the company’s Ruse) ended up scooping up its IP rights during the bankruptcy, paying $1 million — about 4,000 times less than it would pay for Marvel five years later — for all of CrossGen’s titles (none has made it to the screen). “It was sad,” says Alessi. “A lot of good people stood by me, even though they weren’t getting paid.”
Some not-so-good ones, too: Shortly after announcing the bankruptcy, Alessi received a black wreath from a former employee. “Wouldn’t your dead wife be proud of you now,” read the enclosed note.
But as Boom and Po Po didn’t perish in that final issue of Way of the Rat, Alessi isn’t entirely whipped yet. He has retreated to the tech world, starting a company that makes legal software. Over time he has learned to be philosophical. “We never got to prove we were better than Marvel,” he says. “We never got to finish the big story we were telling. And for that, I’m truly sorry.”
One of CrossGen’s first titles, ‘Scion’ was an early hit.
This story first appeared in the Aug. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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