Framing The Question, by John Ostrander
There’s a lot of buzz on the Internet this last week stemming from new Image partner Robert Kirkman’s video-taped manifesto calling for … well, I’m not exactly certain what he called for. A subsequent article/interview on Newsarama said it was “a call to arms for fellow creators to focus solely on their original stories, instead of the licensed work from the big two comic book companies, Marvel and DC.” Although he is also quoted later in the article as saying, “I want everyone to understand, I’m not saying no one should aspire to write for Marvel and DC characters … I’m just saying that it shouldn’t be the pinnacle of a comic book career.”
The article adds: “While Kirkman sees contemporary creators who try to do both creator owned works, and books for the big two, he believes they’re hurting their opportunity to succeed with their original stories.” It then quotes Kirkman further: “You can’t put your feet on both sides of the fence you have to take that plunge … if I’m doing Invincible and I’m also writing Spider-Man, and I’m giving fans a choice to try my unknown book, or Spider-Man who they know, they’re going to choose Spider-Man.”
OR … maybe some of those fans try Invincible because they really like what the writer is doing on Spider-Man. The savvy ones follow the talent – whether it’s the writer or the artist. The majority, however, are reading Spider-Man because it’s Spider-Man and it doesn’t matter if a hundred monkeys are typing it – unless the monkeys do something really dumb with it like use a Mephisto ex machina to get rid of a pesky marriage or bring out a clone or something. Stoopid monkey!
The point is … more readers get exposed to the writer as a result of his work on Spider-Man. A fair question to ask is – did the sales go up on Kirkman’s own creator owned books after he started writing the webby wallcrawler at Marvel? If not, then he had no benefit from doing it. If they have gone up, however, then at least part of the reason will be his stint at Marvel.
As I understand it, Kirkman wants to re-energize/save the comics’ industry. If all the established talent left DC and Marvel, he thinks the two companies would have to “re-focus the majority of their titles to the teen audience.” The established creators would then work on creator owned books, revitalizing the industry.
Here’s what would really happen. DC and Marvel would get in a new generation of artists and writers, both homegrown and from around the world. The two majors learned long ago not to sell a given creator but to sell the characters – they don’t own the creators (usually) but they sure do own the creations. They wouldn’t otherwise change a thing. They have a market that they’re trying to sell to and it is the same market that Image and Mr. Kirkman are going to be selling to. It’s the same market that all the independent comics and creators are trying to sell to and therein resides the real problem.
The current market is not where the future of comics lies.
The current market looks like this: the Big Two, the independents, and all the other companies produce monthly books that then are distributed into the retail shops where they compete for space and attention. Some of these books are then gathered together into the trade paperback format and are sold again, via distribution agents, to the retailers. The difference between steps one and two is that more venues open up for the TPB. The trade paperback is also a perennial product which is kept on sale so long as there is a demand for it. Witness the fact that DC is printing up almost a million copies of Watchmen in advance and in conjunction with the movie coming out early next year (unless the studio decides to do what has just been done with the next Harry Potterfilm and hold it over for next summer).
Orders are placed for the monthly books and the TPBs through Diamond Previews and placement is very important in that catalog. Smaller publishers can and do get lost in the shuffle. There are x amount of direct only comic book retailers and that group is getting smaller. There is x amount of readers of comics within this given market and they have only so much money to spend. As the economy worsens, this amount of money will also get smaller. Comics, despite what some of us try to tell ourselves or our spouses, are not a necessity.
Thus, it doesn’t matter if the established creative talent abandons DC and Marvel to go independent with their own creations. Not so long as the market remains what it is. You won’t get more teens buying Spider-Man or Invincible if they haven’t already gotten into comics as kids – a share of the market long neglected and all but abandoned. They have gone elsewhere – to video games, to the Internet.
If you want to see where the future of comics lies, look at this year’s San Diego Comic Con and look at places on the Internet such as we have here atComicMix.
This year’s SDCC was all about the influx and domination of Hollywood, of movies, of television, and of video games at the Con, to the point that some publishers like IDW and some retailers are questioning whether they should even bother showing up again next year. It could be argued that the movies this year told a better Iron Man story than Marvel has done or a better Batman story than DC has done. There are writers in comics who spend as much time writing for Hollywood as they do for comics; perhaps more.
Remember that upsurge in Watchmen TPBs being printed and ordered mentioned a few paragraphs back? It can be traced back solely to the preview of next year’s film that appeared before this summer’s biggest hit, The Dark Knight. That’s the power of Hollywood right there.
Worldwide, movies based on comic books are going to gross well over One Billion dollars this summer. That’s B for billion. If there’s one thing Hollywood knows how to do, it’s follow the money. Follow the genre until it runs dry and then squeeze out two or three more films just to make sure the genre really is dead.
There are good reasons for Hollywood’s fascination with comics. I’m not talking just about this year’s holy quintet of Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Wanted, Hellboy II, and The Dark Knight. Years past have also shown such major films spawned by graphic fiction as … well … Spawn, The Road to Perdition and A Brief History of Violence. Comics lessens Hollywood’s risk. They develop concept, characters, storyline for a lot less money than even a draft of a script might cost. It’s a way of testing material to see if it has any audience at all before you invest a couple million dollars in it. Plus, if the book simply breaks even in its initial run or as a TPB, they’ve lost nothing. And the developers have something to show producers/money men/the studio cat or whoever makes the decision of what gets made into a film and what does not. The decision makers don’t even have to read it; just look at the purty pictures since any competent comic book artist should be able to tell the story via the pictures.
In short, comic books become the farm league. It’s becomes a rung on the movie making process. Heck, go read EZ Street and do it quick before it gets made into a movie.
The other face of comics’ future? You’re looking at it. It’s here on the Internet, at ComicMix and other locations that feature graphic literature. Go look at The Perry Bible Fellowship or my buddy Ed Dunfey’s Lab Bratz or any of a number of other strips and comics made expressly for the Internet. There’s no printing costs, no shipping costs, no cuts to the distributor or the retailer, nothing – including ancillary rights – going to a publisher when a feature appears on the internet. That only happens when the Internet strip goes to print and some of these guys are printing the collections themselves and selling only from their websites.
The important aspect of the Internet, to me, is that it is capable of delivering more eyeballs. I’m not dissing the comic book fan; I love ‘em. They’ve enabled me to make a living for many many years. Just about every comic geek I know, however, also has a computer, so they’re already here. Putting comics on the ‘Net, however, gives us a chance to reach a lot more people than our current, steadily shrinking market can. I don’t think the importance of that can be overemphasized.
The Big Two and other existing comic book companies aren’t blind to the Internet; they all have some kind of ‘Net presence but it’s always subsidiary – an adjunct – to the comic book market place as it exists. It’s as if they think of the Internet as this set of tubes … For a growing number of creators, the Internet isthe comic book market place. This is where their audience lives. Given its untapped potential, this is where I think the future of the industry lies as well.
I don’t think that Bob Kirkman is all wrong. He notes: “Everyone who only does Marvel and DC books gets ushered out of this business eventually…There’s no retirement plan in comics … you write your Marvel or DC books and you’re hot until you’re not and then it’s ‘thanks for time, bye.’” Kirkman’s dead on with that one. I know that from personal experience.
I simply think he has phrased the central question wrong. If the issue is revitalizing the comic book industry, then we’re talking about it’s future and that future will not and cannot be the same market as it exists now. We need more readers and the place to find them in on the Internet. The Big Two have a vested interest in doing things just as they’re currently doing them. The books, the characters, the concepts, are all intellectual properties owned by the corporation that must make money for its investors. That means movies and all the attendant ancillary rights that movies help generate – the Happy Meals, the Underoos, the toys, and the videogames (with the exception of The Dark Knight because somebody inserted their head up their butt). The comic bookwill never generate that kind of cash and so the comic book market can only be, ultimately, of secondary interest. It produces only chump change in comparison to the movies. Like it or hate it, the Ghost Rider movie produced more real revenue for Marvel that the comic ever will. The real innovation, the real growth, the real change, in the comics industry will come here on the ‘Net.
As another innovator used to say, “Face front, true believer – because that’s where the future lies!”
John Ostrander writes all kinds of stuff for all kinds of publishers, including Dark Horse, DC, and ComicMix.