Words: Evan Dorkin; Art: Stephen Destefano; (c) DC Comics
Yesterday, there was quite a flurry across the internet regarding some rather bold and decisive statements being made about creator-owned comics. First Steve Niles posted an excellent follow-up to his previous essay about a shift in his own thinking: that he was going to first promote quality creator-owned comics that might not being given the same push without a big publishing monolith backing them. It's a fair idea, and one that many of us, including myself, don't often think about. As much as we may have enjoyed the latest Uncanny X-Men, that comic doesn't really have a problem getting attention. On the other hand, no one is giving all that much play to the fact that Ted McKeever is doing serialized comics again, even though there are already four issues of Meta 4. Or maybe pushing something like the hardcover collection of Sarah Oleksyk's Ivy, the culmination of years of work on her part, would be a better use of our energy than wringing our hands over the amount of miniseries being put out alongside the latest big DC crossover.
Sounds fair enough, right?
On the heels of Steve's editorial came Eric Powell's very funny and provocative video. Watch it for yourself (though, note, there is some humor that is not entirely safe for all audiences; send your grandmother out of the room unless she likes a ribald joke):
I don't know about you, but I laughed. Eric is being extreme, sure, but that's why we love him and The Goon. And there is something to be said for pushing buttons in this manner; as Steve pointed out, his quiet and reasoned statements didn't get people riled up enough to really spread the gospel. Within hours, Eric's video was everywhere.
The reaction was mixed, to say the least, but again, that's to be expected. Yet, I think Steve was right again in that there is a dismissive attitude that many are bringing to the debate. It is easier to throw away the points being made by twisting everything in an anti-superhero or anti-DC/Marvel axe grind, when no one is really saying that. There's always been this misconception that people have to be either/or, when most people I know in comics read all kinds of comics, we don't limit ourselves to one type of material any more than we limit ourselves to one type of movie. Life gets pretty dull if you only watch subtitled foreign films, and so too would I get bored if I read diary comics all day. If you look at my early Previews order for April, I am adding books to my buy pile from DC, Dynamite, Marvel, and Top Shelf. You'd have to really strain your argument to claim that any of them are from the same genre. They go in order: horror, sword & sorcery, superheroes, and the Top Shelf book is Liar's Kiss, a crime comic by Erik Skillman and Jhomar Soriano [information here].
And you see what I did there? The one I told you about was the creator-owned book. Doesn't mean I won't tell you about the others eventually, but I'm following Niles' Law: I'm lending support to the book that may need the boost.
It's not as simple as saying, "Buy good comics, and they will survive," either. That's being considered the "reasonable response," and it's a right-on philosophy, that's to be sure. I can't stand when I hear of someone who keeps buying an ongoing title only because he or she has been buying that title since childhood and refuses to give up on the run, despite not having enjoyed it for a long time.
Free market capitalism is currently its own hot topic of debate in all corners of economics, and that's what the "buy good comics" defense reminds me of. I'd be more than happy to see a level playing field where we can all battle it out on our merits, but an underlying point of both Eric's and Steve's is that it's not level ground, the opportunities aren't the same. Thus, we need to rally like-minded individuals in all aspects of the field to give that extra push. There doesn't need to be a sacrifice of one thing for another, but at the same time, if we want all aspects of the industry to thrive, we need to start shifting the weight. Right now, everything is lop-sided toward one facet of the U.S. comic book business.
Or, at least, it's lopsided on the promotion and distribution levels. It's not creatively lopsided. I am with the people who believe comics have never been more diverse and exciting, and I say that as someone who grew up reading comics in the 1980s, when independents and creator-ownership came up from the underground and joined the mainstream. My first comic book store made no distinction between DC, Comico, Marvel, First, or Eclipse. They stocked it all, and it never seemed strange that I might buy an issue of Alpha Flight and then move my hand one slot over and buy American Flagg! As a reader back then, I could have it all, and I think as a creator today, you can do the same. Who doesn't want a world where Matt Fraction can write both Invincible Iron Man and Casanova? Even better, Matt does both because he wants to.
What I have seen in the last two decades, though, is a shift in attitude. I think there is a fan perception that values a comic book creator doing work-for-hire over the stuff they own themselves. It used to be that you had to earn your way through the work-for-hire system and get big enough to maybe get a shot at doing your creator-owned project. Look at all the different books Mike Mignola worked on before he got the opportunity to do Hellboy. In the long run, Hellboy is not only his most remembered and best-loved work, but it's the work that paid off the most for him. Why? Because he owns it!
On the other hand, if you were a guy like Matt Wagner or Steve Rude who got your start doing indies, it was a coup when the larger company got you to work on their properties. DC earned the prestige by getting Matt Wagner to create a miniseries starring Kirby's Demon, it wasn't that Matt Wagner was being validated by being "called up to the majors."
Which is how too many people look at it these days--including many creators. Indie comics is a place where they slum it to earn their shot writing one of the big corporate characters. I don't begrudge anyone wanting to try on the capes and tights. Make no mistake, I want to try it myself one of these days and have made and will continue to make active efforts to do so. (Hell, I'm working on pitches right now.) If that's your goal, then go for it. But don't denigrate or abuse the honest work other people are doing by treating the other side of the industry as a means to an end. Creator-owned and indie comics are only a means to an end unto themselves, they aren't your stepping stone or training ground. Make no mistake, I don't work in the minor leagues.
Evan Dorkin summed it up best in a series of tweets:
Just remember, kids -- comics isn't a second-rate medium. It's a second-rate industry. Maybe even third-rate. Anyway, don't confuse the two. Telling a comics creator they should work on Batman or Spider-Man is like telling a musician they should cover Green Day. Who does that? Yes, it can be fun to play in the Marvel/DC/whatever sandbox, but it's an insult to imply a creator needs to do that to really be something.
We have diversity in comics. More so now than ever before. What we don't have is meaningful support of diversity. Or a means to develop it.
Evan Dorkin spot illo for Mad Magazine.
I see this kind of thing all the time. For instance, Mike Allred's fans regularly play a game of, "Hey, Mike, wouldn't it be great if you did this character...?" In their case, it's always well meaning, they want to see what Mike would do with these toys, and they are fans of Madman; however, there seems to be a disconnect, they don't consider if Mike was doing all these projects, it would be at the expense of Madman or iZombie, his own creations.
In a way, I think it's because there isn't a lot of thought given to what ownership means, of why it's important to an artist. Hell, there is an insidious undertone to a lot of the objections to discussions like this that suggests that it shouldn't even be brought up, that we should sit down and shut up and get back to work, how dare we taint the funnybook waters. It's practically a class issue at this point: artists and writers should accept their place as servants. We are laborers and should not have a piece of the pie. Thankfully, I don't think this is a majority opinion, but it's there.
Don't think of creator-ownership in abstract terms. Think of it in the concrete. It's the difference of being your own boss and taking orders from someone else. If we were chefs, would you begrudge us leaving a popular restaurant to start our own? Or think of it in terms of shelter: I can keep renting my home, or I can go and not just buy my own place, but I can build my dream house from scratch. Even better, I can live there forever and if I take care of it, the value of it will only go up.
I also want to be clear: I don't think there is anything evil about work-for-hire. If you don't like the terms of a contract, don't sign a contract, but I don't begrudge a company for saying "This is how we do things, and this is what you have to do to get paid." I do work-for-hire all the time, and I will do it again, and when I do, I do it to the best of my abilities. (And, I might add, done for its own sake, not as a means to another end.)There is nothing wrong with that side of business. I don't think you should have to give up your Batman or Spider-Man comics so I can read The Killer or The Sixth Gun, and I doubt that will happen any time soon. But as shelf space in this industry becomes all the more scarce, even as we explore new models for delivery, the reverse could be true, and you may not be able to find the new self-published Michael Deforge comic because your local decided to order the latest movie tie-in instead. And that's a very sad thing.
No one's asking you to change your buying habits. No one is criticizing your reading choices. We're just suggesting that, as a whole, we all change how we think and how we talk about comics. That's all. If that leads you to broaden your reading horizons, great! It's one big leaky boat we're in, and we hope by identifying and plugging the holes, we can actually get to the other side together.
All art copyright the respective artists, unless otherwise indicated. Used with respect but mostly without permission. Please buy all of their books!
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All text (c) 2011 Jamie S. Rich, excepting quotes from other sources.