Paul Burke: “Getting a group of artists together was like having a party”

For the sole and inevitable purpose that their work sees the light, artists / authors often have to deal with unscrupulous executives or businessmen whose little knowledge and interest in art is inversely proportional to what they have for the constant increase in their profits. This does not happen when the person in charge is an entrepreneur with a passion for art and popular culture. This is the case of editor Paul Burke, who for more than forty years has not only continued to prioritize quality over quantity, but has also always sought to transfer the playful side of art to his own work.
In the 1980s, as founder and president of Stabur Graphics, a company specialized in the publication of limited edition prints by leading illustrators and cartoonists such as Will Elder, Kelly Freas and Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Burke vigorously promoted the art/pop culture binomial. His persistent determination led him to devise a project that became a milestone in graphic art: “Voice for Children” (1986), a collaborative work involving some of the most relevant artists of the time. Important creators such as Charles M. Schulz (“Snoopy”), Stan Lee («Spider-Man»), Walter Lantz («The Crazy”), Hank Ketcham («Daniel the Mischievous»), Jim Davis («Garfield”), and Sergio Aragonés (“Mad”), among many others, contributed with their most iconic characters. The end result was a drawn orchestra, which then marketed as art print with the purpose of raising funds for the Child Welfare League of America (Child Welfare League of America). The work devised by Burke might as well have held a place in the «Guinness Book of Records» as it was the largest collaboration between artists from the comic world, it included the first appearance together of both Walt Disney characters (drawn by Jack Hannah) and Walter Lantz’s. Its realization required an unusual number of licenses, however, the definitive consolidation during the first stage of his career came a year later when he gave life to his publishing company Stabur Press, responsible for launching books by prominent North American artists such as Jack Davis’ “Some of My Good Stuff”, “The King of Pin-Up Art” by Earl MacPherson, or those dedicated to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” by Sal Piro (Burke was even involved in organizing the film’s anniversary parties). In the early 1990s, with the incorporation of Stabur Corporation into the home video business, the busy publisher produced the documentary series «The Comic Book Greats» (1991), conceived by his friend Stan Lee, who in each episode commissioned to interview the greatest cartoonists of the moment. Among them, Todd McFarlane (creator of “Spawn”), with whom Burke started a new professional relationship, as co-founder and CEO of McFarlane Toys, the company that stirred up the action figure market. At the same time, he put a new spin on his old Stabur publisher, merging it with Caliber Comics, a leading one in its field, which belonged to writer Gary Reed. Together they also decided to explore a new market by creating in 2014, Deadworld Zombie Soda, a premium beverage line inspired by the 80s comic that Reed had written for. The innovative advertising campaigns with actors characterized as living dead and hiding in stores, provided the necessary amount of entertainment to the project.
After a period on which he successfully continued to conquer new creative horizons (he co- founded an automotive design and fabrication company), in 2017 he returned to his former role as a book and art print publisher, thanks to his new venture, Asylum Publications.
For a man who has dedicated his life to pleasing artists, collectors and fans of graphic art around the world, it is not surprising that the first releases of his most recent publishing company, are books dedicated to tell the story (through photographs and testimonials) of his former companies. For some it could be a well-deserved self-tribute, although it is rather the proof of a job well done. For others, this can then be seen as the logical coda of his career. But the truth is that as long as his work remains the subject of celebration, there is no reason to change its host.

What can you tell me about your early involvement in the music business?

In 1979 I sold a stage production to Bill Aucoin, the manager of Kiss. I then went to work for Aucoin in New York for approximately 2 months and left to work with Arnie Silver and John Apostle in the management of Gary US Bonds and a few other major groups. At the same time, I formed the Stabur Corporation (Stabur Music) with Rick Stawinski in Detroit producing industrial soundtracks and developing artists. While the two companies were separate, they worked together and developed quite a few artists and executive produced, with Rick Kerr, the title song to the Animal House sequel, “Class Reunion”.
During the period from 1981 to 1985, Stabur worked with Joe Gibson of Nationwide Sound Distributors (NSD) in Nashville forming the Can-Am Music Corporation in Toronto, developing our foreign publishing subsidiaries. Can-Am also performed music publishing administration for a small group of music publishers and composers with a specialty of extracting payments from networks for broadcast and theatrical performances. The “Evil Dead” feature films are some of the films we represented.

You founded some important publishing companies. What qualities an author must have to be published?

I primarily worked and still do, with well-known artists in popular culture. My definition of “popular culture” is a group of fans primarily interested in a subject, whether it’s Disney, humor, zombies, etc. I then create a product(s) or the artist creates a book(s) based upon the single popular culture item. The strength of the artist and/or the popularity of the product / book and promotion drive the sales. There are hundreds of great artists / authors that go unnoticed and I wish I had the expertise and specialty market knowledge to work with them.
When I worked with my late partner, Gary Reed, he had the knowledge to enter many of the markets I didn’t know.

How was the creative process behind the limited-edition art print “Voice for Children”? What was the biggest difficulty in getting so many famous artists together?

A few years into my print publishing business (Stabur Graphics) I was approached by the Child Welfare League about marketing their print. Stabur Graphics was a leader in “cartoon fine art”. I felt their print was depressing and had no market. I volunteered to produce an original artwork for them. I worked with approximately fifty of the top syndicate cartoonists (Mort Walker, Charles Schultz, Johnny Hart, etc.), the founders of MAD Magazine (Harvey Kurtzman, Jack Davis, Will Elder, etc.) and a few other artists from science fiction, National Lampoon (BK Taylor) and others (Walter Lantz). Bruce Hamilton of Another Rainbow Publishing came in with the Disney artists. I had no idea what to expect in a finished piece of art, but I asked for and received sponsorship from Federal Express and Whatman Paper and permission from the syndicates and copyright holders.
Once I had permission I sent a single sheet of art paper to each artist, one at a time and they drew their characters on the original playing off the other characters on the art. The original made about 40 flights covering approximately 170,000 miles. When all of the 69 artists had completed their drawings. I asked Jack Davis if he could tie the characters together and create a theme. Jack created the band / stage theme. It wasn’t difficult to get the artists involved, they were a close group of creators and supported the project in any form they could. We then imported the paper from Whatman and printed limited edition prints with the signatures and without the signatures. I then started shipping the unsigned prints to a few artists to sign, this proved awkward and slow. I then arranged to make a few trips across the country, driving artist to artist or a group of artists, bringing the prints for them to sign. It was time consuming, but I traveled with my family and friends and we had a series of extended vacations. Getting a group of artists together was like having (and frequently was) a party.
FYI… I had to speak at a dinner to 150+ Senators and Congressmen in Washington, DC about the project and the artist Mort Drucker asked why I didn’t publish books for everyone. I said I couldn’t afford it and Walter Oltersdorf offered to finance the book publishing company (Stabur Press).

What is your new project “Creatures for a Cure” about? How did you choose the artists?

“Creatures for a Cure” is a much smaller artist jam original using most of the artists who were involved with creating labels and art for the Dead World Zombie Soda brand. This art features 20 of the top Midwest horror artists and celebrities and was created to bring awareness to Children’s Cystic Fibrosis. I produced 95 limited edition hand-signed prints.

What was it like to work with Stan Lee? How do you think the documentary series “The Comic Book Greats” contributed to his legacy?

Stan Lee was an ideal partner and personal friend. I learned a lot about television production when we produced “The Comic Book Great” series, that was successful and led to other opportunities. I don’t think its impact could add to Stan’s legacy, as a comic book character creator, Stan stands alone. However, the series is an example of his charm and intelligence regarding fellow creators and his knowledge of the industry.

The Comic Book Greats (1992)

When do you think a pop culture item can be considered an artwork?

That’s a difficult question to answer. Any artwork based on a popular theme can be considered themed. It’s the perspective of the artwork that makes it acceptable to collectors. Not all popular culture artwork is illustrated art. McFarlane Toys and others produce action figures that were so detailed they are considered art.
When Ken Grant and I had the automotive design company, Blue Fusion / Blue Dot Design (a Ford Motor Tier One company) in 2001 /2003, we created a Ford Expedition for Shaquille O’Neil, the LA Lakers basketball player. We customized the vehicle by producing different body and interior parts and called it the Shaqmobile. When we were finished, Shaq was impressed and wanted to have a press conference when we delivered it in LA. Ford and many other company executives came out for the event to see the vehicle. At the end of the day, Nestle had obtained the Shaqmobile to give away on a 10 million Nestle Crunch candy bar promotion and Ford received 10 million product impressions.

Why did you choose to write a book about your experiences in McFarlane Toys?

I retired the first time in 2000 because of a serious illness and couldn’t travel or perform as I needed. In 2018, one of my partners who ran Japan marketing texted to catch up on events and thought I was ill again and wrote to all of my associates, team members and partners telling them I was sick again. I wasn’t ill, nevertheless, people started sending me photos of funny toys we custom made, events, showrooms and places around the world we visited. What started as a plan to publish a small book on the funny toys became a much larger book as more photographs and stories came in. It captures the sequence of startup events in the company and more as the toy lines grew over the years. It’s actually the efforts of a lot of former McFarlane executives, and we brought Steve Gouge, a major Spawn collector on board to coordinate and layout the book.

How did you get the idea of creating Dead World Zombie Soda? What do you think has been the most effective marketing strategy to promote it?

In 2014, I was advising for a social media company and various financial institutions. One day I was asked to visit a soda pop bottling company to evaluate “how they functioned”. Bill Martin, the retired President of McFarlane Toys was in town so I asked him to come with me and we would get lunch after and he could return to Florida. As we went through the bottling plant with the owner, Bill mentioned… “If you knew how this operated, you would have made and sold a million bottles of Spawn soda”. We had lunch and Bill left for Florida. I was speaking with my long-time business partner, Gary Reed and mentioned what Bill said and Gary said we had “Dead World”, one of the first (1980’s) classic zombie comic books and we should produce a line of Dead World Zombie Soda because we had not physically made any products in 15 years and it would be fun.
I arranged a partnership that included the bottler I visited and a distributor to take 300 cases of 12 flavors. Gary arranged to have 40 artists design labels and promotion material and we spent a year developing the flavors and labels, four packs, crowns (bottle caps) collector materials and promotion.
When we finally bottled the soda, we had 768 variations to the different sodas. We then decided to have a release event at a resort and invited all of the artists, their families, friends and the press to give the artists soda with their labels on the bottles. The event was attended by over 100 individuals. We had approximately 50 extra cases of soda pop so we opened the doors to the public and the soda went over great with everyone. My daughter, Janelle Powers, told Gary and I we hadn’t had a company in years that made products, she would quit her job to run the business. We decided to create Caprice Brands (Dead World Zombie Soda).
The company was very successful the next few years thanks to Janelle and Eric Reichert. Our initial distribution sale fell through so we started selling store by store and then to distributors around the world. We promoted by having local haunted houses promote the beverages and our in-store promotions featured zombies doing the samplings.

How is Asylum different from your old publishing company Starbur?

Stabur Press and its sister companies Caliber Comics, Penthouse Books and Laughter Publications (magazines) were traditional publishers. We had print runs between 5,000 and 100,000 books and used traditional book distributors and retailers to sell them.
Asylum Publications was created to publish and market specialty books based upon the companies I co-founded over the years to document my life with photographs. The Dead World Zombie Soda book was published mainly to thank the hundreds of character actors worldwide who played zombies for us, the bands that promoted us, the retailers that sold our products, etc. The McFarlane Toy was created to document how the company started. The great creativity Todd and the team achieved in creating a new high standard in action figures, the van tours, the films, and the travels. Mainly, it was for the team. All of the employees around the world made this one of the most exciting companies to be a part of and contributed seamlessly every day to achieve new goals. They made me look good.
Once two books came out, former associates came out of nowhere with new book ideas and I decided to assist them and various artists to publish more books and prints. I regressed back to the 80’s in simplicity. I discovered that the retail market is flat with high returns, the e-book market is not acceptable for art books, the print on demand books are valuable for foreign sales (free shipping) but sub-standard paper quality for art books.
I leveraged Asylum book publishing to sell primarily direct to consumers at high quality, low cover price and share the rewards with the authors / artists. I won’t hit the New York Times Best Seller list, but I won’t have thousands of books returned damaged from distributors.

Bob Guccione and Paul Burke

What was the most important thing you learned from working with such important and different figures such as the artist Jack Faragasso, the cartoonist Jack Davies and the photographer and founder of Penthouse, Bob Guccione?

What I learned from the numerous mentors and partners I’ve had over the last 40 years is to have integrity. Business is good 99% of the time, the other 1% can be extremely frustrating. Your integrity permits others to assist you through tough times and often leads to new opportunities.
Quality is another very important part of the businesses. Bob Guccione requested I publish Penthouse Books because of the quality Bruce Hamilton achieved with Another Rainbow Publishing.
The quality of our aftermarket car parts designed by Ken Grant earned us Tier One status with Ford Motor Company. McFarlane Toys was created to produce the finest action figures in the marketplace and we achieved that status.
Lou Adler (Rocky Horror) taught me to pay attention to the smallest details and pay attention to the consumer demands. The artists taught me that art is subjective. Some people like the artwork of certain artists and some don’t. They simply drew for their fans. If you supported them, they went out of their way to support you. These were friendships that lasted years, even when I left the business.