Comic Book Market Farces, by John Ostrander

John Ostrander

John Ostrander started his career as a professional writer as a playwright. His best known effort, Bloody Bess, was directed by Stuart Gordon, and starred Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, William J. Norris, Meshach Taylor and Joe Mantegna. He has written some of the most important influential comic books of the past 25 years, including Batman, The Spectre, Manhunter, Firestorm, Hawkman, Suicide Squad, Wasteland, X-Men, and The Punisher, as well as Star Wars comics for Dark Horse. New episodes of his creator-owned series, GrimJack, which was first published by First Comics in the 1980s, appear every week on ComicMix.

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13 Responses

  1. Lord Snooty says:

    "The key in both cases is that you get together all editors and talent and you figure out" ….. IF the talent understands the word "DEADLINE" and the editors know how to edit to STOP any continuity problems from happening !! ;)

  2. Russ Rogers says:

    OK. You can't establish a NEW Universe where "dead is dead" on the bones of an old universe that you just killed in a blaze of glory. That's an oxymoron at best. Probably just a lie at worst. It just doesn't work.Here's the deal. The first DC Crisis was like hitting the reset switch on your computer. Turning it off and on again. The Universe had become constipated with a BUNCH of extra universes and outdated continuity, so … RESET/REBOOT, we hit the switch and started from a new Ground Zero. And, for a time it worked. We were able to hit reset on a couple of individual characters too. Superman got revamped and reworked. Flash died, long live NEW Flash! It was a breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, the DC Universe was like an old computer with an old operating system. It needed to get reset more and more frequently. Zero Hour. Infinite Crisis. Final Crisis. The Infinite Zero Crisis Hour. Year ONE. Year Zero. Not to mention mini-resets, offshoot systems, Elseworlds and Future Worlds and Kingdoms to Come. Is Vertigo inside or outside of DC continuity?You can't hit the RESET switch on any of the established Universes "just ONE last time." Because if it WORKS, if it generates interest and sales, it WILL happen again. One MORE LAST time. And if it fails, you have killed the cash cow, which might not be producing the sweet cream it used to, but we can still get something out of her, especially if we start taking the meat at the same time as the milk. Canabalizing the beast, make it eat itself by selling and reselling the same stories, the same issues with different covers, rehash the same concepts again and again. JLApe >> Marvel ApesMonkey see, Monkey do.It won't work. It just doesn't work.I don't think you can kill the universe and start from scratch. I think you have to just start from scratch. And let the established characters and universes come join the party when the get around to it. Because if it's a success they WILL join the party. Monkey see, monkey do.New Universe! Oops, can't use that name. That was already used in one of the many Mini-resets and reboots. But you want something with Impact. Comics Greatest World. Something that will take us like a Wild Storm into the new Millennium.Here's my suggestion. No owners. No rules. Total anarchy. Just like the Internet. Let creators write the stories and crossover with what ever characters they want that will make the story better. OK, you have to get permission from whoever owns the other character, that will be easier if both characters are owned by the same company. It will be a headache. And lawyers will want to get involved. Lawyers always make the story better. Yes?But establish a method for there to be a Universal Open Source Multi-verse. A way for ALL the realities to come together without any ONE author or company owning the highway or the meeting ground. I suggest Cynosure. The NEXUS of all realities. A place where time lines cross and different universes commingle. A land where finding something as simple as a "left handed door" can take you into another reality. We all KNOW that there is a place like this. It's been written about by MANY authors. You get there by going over the rainbow, down a rabbit hole, through a mirror, into a wardrobe, through the locked door that should lead to a brick wall, into the vacant lot with a single perfect rose. It's all the same place people. It's the dream time. And nobody owns it.Establish some conventions (not rules) about how crossovers can happen and how the multi-verse works. And make continuity less important, a little more malleable.The "Thieves World" (it was a braided reality edited by Robert Asprin) had the convention that any author could borrow any other authors character as long as the borrowed character was left fundamentally unchanged by the end of the story. You couldn't kill or cripple someone else's baby.I suggest the convention that characters age one year in story time for every five to ten years in real time. If Superman began his career in 1938 at age 25, that would make him 39 now, by the 5 year convention, only 32 by the 10 year convention. Let characters interact with current events but not tie characters time lines down with current events. Let's not have to put Captain America on Ice, just because he was closely associated with WWII. Let characters age and mature. But let it happen like fine wine, slowly. If Robin/Dick Grayson was 12 in 1940, he's about 26 by the 5 year convention. He would have been about 21 when he become Nightwing in 1984.Let's see, Kitty Pryde was 13 or 14 in 1980. That makes her 19 or 20 now, by the five year convention. Not bad.Let the Open Source Multi-verse work like the Internet or Wikipedia. Anybody can contribute. But there is some kind of benevolent governance, some guide lines, some established conventions for how things should work. "What does DEAD mean?" "How much time passes?" "What are the laws of magic or physics in various universes and how are we allowed to bend them?"It would be nice if there were Open Source Conventions (something not without a copyright, but something that could be copy-lefted) on how characters can crossover and interact. There needs to be a universal meeting ground, like Cynosure. Open Source Software does not give up the copyrights. It establishes the software as FREE, available to anyone to use, but that people who use it or build on it have to credit the source and keep the original kernel free. I don't fully understand it, but it's system that copy-lefts!How do we start it? I suggest that some Panel be arranged at some comics convention. Have it hosted by Scott McCloud or Denny O'Neil. Some big time comics creator AND philosopher. Knock about what the Rules and Conventions of the Anarchy that an Open Source Multi-verse would mean. McCloud is good at making lists. Let there be an Open Source Multi-verse Bill of Rights and Wrongs.Create a Wiki-site. A database of characters, universes, and doorways between universes. A list of the Rights and Wrongs. The rules, conventions and courtesies that should be followed when playing in the Open Source Multi-Verse. The OSMV? We need a cooler name for this!Let people come and play. Establish the conventions, the courtesies of fair play, the social taboos. We need guide lines. "No pushing on the slides." "No more than two at a time on the monkey bars." Follow the golden rule, do unto the other person's character what you would want done with your own.Start the crossing over. Today. On ComicMix. I want to see a Lone Justice/Prowler crossover. I want to see a Ms. Tree/Maze Agency crossover. I want to see a Robin Hood/GrimJack/Simone and Ajax crossover! Let the Worlds of Tellos and Black Ice meet in the dream time. I want a Sabre/Scout crossover. Put the Badger in EVERYTHING, he's a crossover whore. Where is Aztec Ace?I recently ranted about the magic and the power of the crossover here on ComicMix. I need to go collect that rant along with this one and put it on my blog. This is a good idea and I don't want to forget it.

    • Alan Coil says:

      ((If I knew how to put a 'wink' in here I would))Jeez, Russ, why don't you get your own column?((Again, a 'wink'))

    • John Ostrander says:

      That's all fine for creating NEW stuff, Russ, but not for dealing what's existing and that's where the market is right now. The problem, for me, with the Wiki-type creations is who owns the copyright and trademark? Why? Because that's where the other rights are — or movies, merchandising, and so on. Those rights have to be pretty spelled out to get movie companies interested in a property because they're going to want to control most of that. As a creator, do I want that? Oh yes. I want a GJ movie. I want the financial security it can bring me. You'd better believe I want that.CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS was followed up by LEGENDS. The latter didn't re-make the DCU; it had a more limited intention which it achieved at the time. Okay, I grant crossover are never going to completely go away but having one every sixty seconds is counterproductive as well.Anyway, as I pointed out in the article, it doesn't matter anyway because the Big 2 aren't going to do it anyway. I simply was pointing out that they NEED to do it or something like it. The books are not terribly accessible to new readers; they're all aimed at the existing market and that market is shrinking and its going to KEEP shrinking.At some point — I'm betting this year — prices on monthly comics are going to HAVE to rise. We all know how the cost of fuel has jumped and that has influenced the cost of everything else, such as food. Comics are no different; the cost of paper will rise because the cost of MAKING paper uses gas and oil. The cost of transportation is skyrocketing. Any company that is currently printing overseas has GOT to see a rise in those costs. Maybe they can absorb some but they can't absorb it all. That cost has to be absorbed somewhere and it will be with the retailer and/or reader, with smaller profit margins being allowed for the shops and/or a higher sticker price on the comics themselves. There is the cost of gas in GOING to the comic shop. Peoples' budgets can only stretch so far and comics are NOT a necessity (heretical as it is to say). If the PRICE of comics goes UP, the SALES of comics will go DOWN. The break-even point for an individual series will be higher and will result, eventually, in more cancellations. Marvel, with its profits on the movies thus far this year, can possibly hold the line for awhile. Depending on how THE DARK KNIGHT does, DC could as well. Only, however, by eating into their own profits and i can't see them doing that for long.The other solution, frankly, is the economic model on view here at COMIC.MIX. Publish online for free (or by low-priced monthly subscription) which makes an end run around printing, transportation, and distributor/retailer costs, and then gather the books as TPBs which can be printed and then kept in stock (unlike the monthly comic).OR stage an event large enough to get real attention. These other "events" are so commonplace that they're no longer "events". Pull more readers into the stores and increase volume. THAT, however, is a lot more risky than going electronic. My final argument, however, is that I don't think the industry can just keep doing "business as usual". That way lies extinction, to my mind.

      • Russ Rogers says:

        I'm not suggesting that creators give up their rights to license their characters. Look, I'm a singer. If I want to record an album filled with cover songs, I can do that. I don't have to negotiate the rights to each individual song. I just pick the songs and pay the licensing fees. The songwriters get some control over who gets to record their song FIRST, but beyond that, it's controlled anarchy. ASCAP or BMI take care of most of the royalty concerns for most songs.Why isn't there an ASCAP for fictional characters, for comic book characters? That's what I'm advocating here! Why not create a set of cross-platform, cross-company rules for how much it costs to use another person's character in your comic? Make the payments based on how many pages the character appears in the story and how many issues of the story are printed.Writers would find paying mechanical fees to license a character less econonmically sound than trying to come up with characters of their own. It's cheaper to record an album of original tunes than an album of cover songs.Again, have a database of available characters, with detailed biographies. Artists or companies could decided to opt in or out of the system. But if you use the system to license a character, it should be assumed that you are open to having your characters licensed by the system.If you want, make a pecking order of characters. You are only allowed to license a character that you regularly outsell or have comparable sales! That makes minor characters more easily licensed and used than major characters. And people who have characters that don't sell as well will enjoy the added revenue and added exposure their character gets in a better selling book. Or make a tiered system of characters, based on past total sales. The more a character has sold, the more expensive they become to license.I understand that this opens up characters to crappy interpretations. Just like I could record an off-key, Polka version of "Like a Virgin." But there is no incentive for people to license a character and intentionally try to mess them up. The incentive is still to sell lots of comics and eventually get noticed by somebody bigger (like Marvel or DC or the movie studios) so that you can do bigger and better stuff. That won't happen if you turn out crap.I'm just saying that a Crossover Platform can be created that can (in theory) tie ALL stories together into ONE Multi-verse. There should be a crossroads, I'm suggesting that crossroads be Cynosure. If Cynosure is unavailable, another crossroads can be invented. A system should be created that can mechanically handle the licensing headaches of the crossover. I don't think by allowing your character to be mechanically licensed in crossover comics you would give up your rights to license your character for movies, merchandising or advertising. Those are entirely separate cans of worms.There should be a set of rules, guide lines, conventions, courtesies and taboos on how you deal with other people's characters in your stories. Continuity will suffer a bit. You will get people who will say, "How can GrimJack be in an Alien Detention cell when Alan Moore put GJ on a Nebraska farm published at the same time?" And you can reply, "Who cares! It's not cannon. They are both good stories. Continuity be damned!" But the possibility for great stories will increase, the possibilities open up and become near limitless.

        • John Ostrander says:

          Different mediums, Russ, and I don't think the two are quite comparable. Fist of all, getting DC and Marvel to agree to it is real unlikley. They can't agree on intercompany crossovers. Secondly, what would such a set-up gain Marvel or DC? A few bucks here and there maybe. They aren't looking to save the rest of the comic industry — look at their track record. They regulalry try to flood the market with product in order to keep smaller companies out. Thirdly — they give up control over how their characters are presented? Risk them being shown badly? No way in the world.To be frank, I myself am not keen on sharing GrimJack with anybody. We open up Munden's Bar to other writers on a regular basis but GJ himself? That's happened very VERY rarely. I intend to keep it that way.It's not that's it's an interesting idea. I just don't see any likelihood it would ever happen.

          • Russ Rogers says:

            I agree. Not likely. But … you've hit the nail right on the head. What keeps Munden's SO exciting a concept? It's a place. a format, a forum where it's possible to see ANY character, by ANY creator, in ANY style! There's everything from satire, horror and adventure to psychedelic absurdism! It's a non-concept idea that's almost redundantly bristling with potential potentials. ANYTHING can happen and usually does in Munden's Bar!You are right. The current Marvel and DC continuities are constipated with continuity. Spider-man had to literally make a deal with the DEVIL to reset his continuity to better match with the Spider-man movies (and unmarry Mary Jane and resurrect Harry). I didn't read this plot line. I've only read about it. So I'm still stunned and confused by how incredibly LAME this continuity reset seems. Maybe this was SO cleverly written, that style won over substance. That's what happened with Grant Morrison's reset of Animalman. What might have been a lame concept ("Animalman meets and argues with his writer, begging for a continuity reset.") was so cleverly written. so inexorably well set up that you just had to pick your jaw up off the table and applaud the audacity that story embodied.You are right. The current market trends of lower and lower sales with higher and higher costs leads to a situation where comics just become conceptual loss leaders for the trade editions, merchandising and movies, where your real money is made.The fact that children can't afford comics anymore encourages a trend where comics become even more hyper-violent and hyper-sexualized. The image of Sin City's Ninja Whores, throwing razor sharp swastikas has become a cliché.Comics culture is eating itself and regurgitating crap! Does that sum up the problem? Fewer original ideas are being marketed to a dwindling fanbase. Comics are in desperate need of a new marketing strategy, a paradigm shift in creation and publication. Enter ComicMix.Creator controlled. Low cost. Possibly enormous audience. Bristling with potential potentials. Wow!There is one problem with ComicMix. DC and Marvel have broken continuities: lame, hobbling multi-verses. But they HAVE continuity. There is a structure for crossover of characters and events. The current structures are broken. They need fixing or replacing. The attempts at repair have been as subtle as Bobby Ewing's dream.There is value in a shared multi-verse. There is a synergy in creation, unparalleled by any other medium, brought on by crossovers in comics. There is a vast, untapped potential in creating the structure of the NEW multi-verse. The questions remain, what is the structure, who makes the rules, and who has control of the next big multi-verse?

  3. Anonymous says:

    Marvel has done this is a roundabout way with the Ultimate Universe. They started at ground zero again with their franchsie players (Spider-Man and X-Men) and have slowing re-introduced the other heroes.The only possible problem that has appeared is "the fans" clamouring for re-imaging of the "classic" stories or villians which Marvel has been too happy to oblige.

    • Alan Coil says:

      Reportedly…there is an Ultimates Universe crossover series coming that will end the Ultimate Universe.

      • Russ Rogers says:

        It is confusing. It waters down the brand. So what. Let's be joyfully confused. And if it sells comics, Marvel will crush MC2 next. And if that sells, they will recreate the Ultimates Universe and MC2 and crush them again. I just found an amazing resource at that tries to list EVERY alternate Reality and Universe in both DC and Marvel publishing. It's mind boggling.

  4. Samuel Keith Larkin says:

    One of the keys to rejuvenating the Marvel and DC Universe is to allow new characters be owned by their creators. One of the reasons you see characters continually ressurected and the same villains constantly escaping from prison over and over again, is because writers and artists know that if they create a smash hit for Marvel or DC, the creators won't see any benefit from the following merchandise revenues. Just look at comic book creators such as Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger, who were cheated out of their creations and fortunes.

  5. Anonymous says:

    IMO, DC had its big chance after COIE. But, instead of starting from scratch, new character origins were staggered over months. As far a "wide-sweeping changes"? All they amounted to was rehashing Pre-COIE characters. Same names, different costumes, sometimes new origins, sometimes not.Remember the purpose of COIE? To get rid of the multiverse because all those earths confused the readers. What a crock. More likely it was that it caused the editors and creators to be sloppy. Oh, the colorist drew Superman with a yellow "s" on a red shield. Heck, no error, that story took place on Earth-478. Cover copy: "Superman and Lois *really* get married! Not hoax. Not a dream. Not an imaginary story!!!!" Only to find out it's set on E2. Readers were more sophistcated than they were given credit for. Including 10 year olds, that mythical class of comic readers. The old saying that "every comic is someone's first comic" is simplistic. Flip side being that "every comic book is also someone's last comic book."