Legendary creator Eric Powell made waves this past week with a rather untoward personal manifesto on the state of independent comic books. Don’t go looking for it though, as fan and creator response to the video resulted in Powell (quite uncharacteristically, in my opinion) taking the video down rather hastily. Finding it after the fact has proven to be a bit of a chore, but the questions he attempted to raise, however viciously, are still clear: are super hero comic books hurting the industry and making it harder for creators to tell different stories within the medium? This isn’t the first time this question has been raised, but its definitely one worth investigating.
Check behind the cut for my thoughts on the matter.
As an opening note, I am at BEST an aspiring comic writer. My interactions with the industry have been from a strictly journalistic perspective, so I can’t really claim to speak from the perspective of an established comic creator. However, as a neophyte writer as well as a fan and researcher of the medium, I HAVE noticed certain trends within the community on this subject over the years. The opinions I make in this piece are still from a strictly observational standpoint.
Now that my personal mumbo jumbo is out of the way, lets look at some of Mr. Powell’s more direct tweets on the matter (big props to iFanboy for fishing these out):
Comics can be anything we want them to be. To have one genre dominate the art form is just sad. Too much originality & talent out there.
Why are comic sales always declining? Well, if ya hated country music but you only got country stations, I’d turn off the fucking radio.
Some of the best new work out there gets ignored while Marvel can sell a shit ton of books just by making a character red.
Big change at Marvel?! Ya mean they are gonna act like a real publisher and do diversified new content instead of whoring 50 yr old ideas?!
Avid comic news buffs may recognize some of these ideas. Namely from…
Now that “Exhibit A” and “Exhibit B” are in place, the 2008 “Kirkmanifesto” and this week’s NC17 showing from Powell have several key differences (namely that children can watch the Kirkman version), but their point remains the same: an industry monopolized by super heroes (moreover, super heroes controlled by only two companies) is a universally bad thing for comics on the whole. Now, admittedly Powell has a much more violent slant against super heroics in general than Kirkman does (especially given the fact that Kirkman writes what might be the best super hero comic in the history of comics), who opts to instead support entirely independent (as in, of the big two) comics on the whole. Powell, almost as a default, does this as well.
Thus begins the interactive portion of this article:
Indie or Die
Now that you’ve thought about this a bit, lets explore what it actually means to publish comics independently. To use an analogy from a similar industry, Marvel and DC are kind of like the “major labels” of the comic book industry: the big dogs who have the power to actively dictate the flow of the entire medium within a given geographic area (namely, the western world.) This power was granted to them in two distinct ways: one, simply by being around as long as they have (mostly due to the really great creative forces they had under their belts in the 50s and 60s and their willingness to abide the Comics Code during those early years)and two, because they are financially backed by two of the biggest media conglomerates in the world (Disney and Warner Brothers, respectively.) Simply put: more money equals more advertising, larger print runs, and bigger salaries for those they employ. Now, before we deviate from our brief jaunt into Economics 101, I have to mention that all this money and all these resources come with one pretty large expectation: comics need to make money. Ergo, the following logic can be employed:Continued below
Super Heroes = Money, therefore Super Heroes = Comics = Money.
It’s a hard case example of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” logic on the part of the Big Two. Does this mean that the creators writing the stories receive less creative control? Not necessarily – or at least, not inherently. Regardless of how tight the editorial leash happens to be on any given super hero book, they still have 50+ years of the character that need to be, if not taken into account, at least respected, which IS inherently limiting. Another factor to consider is that, when working on an established character for the Big Two, you do not own your stories. Much like other jobs, mainstream comics creators are hired to complete the task of writing or drawing a book until someone else is given the task. They are paid a salary or a some kind of work-for-hire fee to do it, of course, but there is no real sense of ownership there for the creator. Therefore, if you are a creator that wants to work unhindered by decades of story and would like to actually OWN the work you are doing, you need to strike out on your own. Now, granted, doing this is nowhere near as perilous as it was before the 90s.
While there are countless independent comic publishers out there that allow their writers to think for themselves and give them ownership of their works, I am going to use Image Comics as my example right now. Image was founded in 1992 by several high profile creators at the time as a haven for writers to work on original works and maintain the copyright on them. Nearly 20 years later, and the company is responsible for some of the most highly recognizable characters and stories seen over that time, be it Spawn, Savage Dragon or The Walking Dead. And the best part is that they still hold to their original mandate of supporting new creators and new types of stories and, indeed, have become almost the minor leagues, to use a completely different analogy, to Marvel and DC’s majors with many new writers getting their start on Image and moving on to high profile gigs at Marvel or DC (Nick Spencer and Kieron Gillen, to name two recent success stories.) The rub, however, is this: often times (in fact, I’m prepared to say almost always), independent creators receive NO money up front for a book they publish. The companies just do not have the capital to do that. In the case of Image, they will sink money into printing and promoting a book, but ultimately the creator will not make a dime unless the damn thing sells. No salaries, no work-for-hire fees – just straight profit divided between the publisher and the creator. In a lot of ways, this method makes a decent amount of sense, but like always things get to be a little murky when money becomes involved (more on this below).
What Kirkman and, albeit indirectly, Powell are saying is that the buck needs to stop in the independent realm. Creators constantly jumping ship over to the Big Two, he claims, drives money away from the independent comics companies and, thus, causes them to lose exposure and their books to fall under the radar. Essentially, my read of it is this: by only writing independent comics up until you receive a “major label” contract, you subsequently devalue the very idea of independent comics, making them a means to an end, as opposed to an end in and of itself and driving profit shares into the Big Two as opposed to an independent publisher, making it harder for independent writers to make a living, ESPECIALLY given the overwhelming ability the Big Two has to promote its books. When phrased that way (rape free), the argument starts making some more sense. But again, what does this have to do with super heroes?
In a lot of ways, the argument here isn’t REALLY writing super heroics or not, it’s who you happen to be writing them for. Now, I know what you might be thinking: “can’t a creator dip into both pools and write for the Big Two AND work on their own book?” The answer isn’t really as black and white as some may want it: simply put, time is very much money. As most creators will admit, when you get a gig with Marvel or DC, no matter the gig, that automatically takes priority since you are guaranteed to be paid for it. There’s no guess work involved: if one of the Big Two hires you, you are getting paid. No waiting for returns or splitting profits. Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am. Now, assuming that Big Two work will continuously get the nod over independent work… Well, humans are still human. Getting paid more doesn’t automatically mean a writer can write faster or an illustrator can draw faster. Priorities usually mean something gets left behind, and it’s usually the books that don’t produce guaranteed returns. Now, of course, you have the Brian Bendis and Matt Fraction and Mark Millar types that have been doing this comic thing long enough to have created a creative and financial cushion for themselves and have, effectively, created more time by not having to worry about certain things, but those examples are as few and very far between as the Kirkmanesque independent success stories. At the end of the day, while there will always be new writers coming into the game through independent publishers (we hope), them jumping ship to pen the capes and tights of the Big Two DOES have a very real impact on independently published comics. But does this mean, again, that there is no value to super hero comic books, as Powell suggests, despite this threat?Continued below
MORE FUN TIME INTERACTIVITY!!
Do YOU Cape?
Now, Kirkman’s argument is slightly more moderate than Powell’s. He is simply of the mind that a creator’s time can be much better used writing independently, thus raising the cultural market share of independent books, then by working on a story they don’t own and don’t have universal control over. Powell, on the other hand, brings out some very colorful language to turn his sights on super hero comics (and thus, the Big Two who promote and propagate them), taking the Moore-ian stance that books that continue ideas and characters from 50 years ago are somehow not worth reading. Now, Powell has since amended his position, claiming that what he meant was that more people need to read non-super hero books IN ADDITION to reading super hero books so that a more even balance can be struck between the two. Regardless of the phrasing, both stances look pretty harshly at the idea of writing characters and continuing (often retreading) stories told countless times over the last half of a century. Super heroes are the face of comic books, and like it not that is not going to change. Are there a lot of crap stories featuring super heroes? Yup. Are there crap stories featuring regular old people and/or non-super heroic beings? Yup. Ultimately, its not really the genre or the type of character (or the publisher or how much money is put into the making of a book) that makes the story better or worse than it is; a good story is a good story and it’s sad that there have become more factors brought into the game than that. Frankly, as a journalist and a fan of both independently published new stories AND the ever-ongoing struggles of my favorite capes, its not really my place to rank one way over another. However, it really is a compelling argument for Powell, Kirkman or anyone else to make, especially since we have proven just how much there stands to gain for a creator to work for the Big Two.
To cape, or not to cape? It’s a question most up and coming creators will deal with sooner rather than later, and its not one that brings any tangible answers. Yes, there is certainly more money in super heroes than in any other genre, but is that worth sacrificing original storytelling? There is absolutely value to continuing stories that have lasted this long and have touched so many people (and still have the potential to do so), but an industry-wide creative monopoly is not the answer. On the other side, there is just as much value in fostering creativity and genuinely NEW stories created by lesser known creators, however lambasting other types of stories or companies is ultimately no better of a tactic than a creative monopoly, despite one’s underdog status. Some, like Eric Powell and Robert Kirkman, may think they have the answer, but as someone that thinks about this kind of thing a lot, I’m going to paint a giant swath of gray all over it.
Is Diversity Your Friend?
(WRITER’S NOTE: these polls weren’t just a way to fill space in this article, as a journalist I live and die by the opinions of my readers, so if any bit of this piece has made you think, then by all means PLEASE vocalize yourselves below!)