John Ostrander: Getting Old in the Comic Industry
On his blog last week, Jerry Ordway wrote bravely and feelingly about being a pro in comics when your age is over 50. Here’s a man who has been a comic book star of long standing and now finds it hard to get any work. His skill, ability, and desire haven’t diminished; he’s just older (and more experienced) than he was back then. He had an exclusive contract with DC and, in its final year, the company treated him deplorably, not giving him any work but not letting him get any work elsewhere.
I completely sympathize with him and can echo many of his statements. Is there ageism in comics? Demonstrably, at least for talent. On The Other Hand… some of the top editors at both Marvel and DC are around our ages. If the theory is that the talent needs to be younger in order to “get” or appeal to the younger reader, why are the editors immune? I sometimes feel like I’m in the “Bring Out Your Dead” segment from Monty Python And The Holy Grail.
Me to editor: “I’m feeling better!”
Editor to me: “You’re not fooling anyone, you know!”
I can’t claim that it’s universal. Dark Horse has been very good in giving me work and, in turn, I think I’ve given them good work in return. But I don’t seem to get any replies to e-mails that I send to the Big Two. OTOH, there are writers my age (or thereabouts) who do get work. Often they’re good friends with the given editor or Editor-In-Chief. I can’t complain about that, either; it’s worked in my favor in the past and can still work for me. Randy Stradley over at Dark Horse has been a friend as well as an editor and I get work from him.
Editors are also under far more pressure these days to produce higher sales. I and others used to nervously kid that, even with companies that were large conglomerates, comics were relatively free to do what they wanted because the money their sales brought in were chump change to Corporate Masters. That’s changed; superhero movies and games and TV shows are all big business and rake in tons of money and with that comes greater corporate oversight. With that comes the desire for more sales (How do you determine if you’re successful in corporate America? If you sell more of whatever you make than you did before and/or more than the competition). With that comes other problems.
The comic book market has a finite number of buyers with a finite amount of money to spend on the product. Digital sales might change that and expand the market base but I don’t know if the figures are in on that yet. So – how do you increase sales in a finite market?
One of the truisms of Hollywood is that “Nobody Knows Nuthin’.” Often, the folks in charge don’t really know what sells or why. Oh, they have theories but most often they look at what’s sold and try to do more of that or see who sells and try to hire them. You might think, if that held true in comics as well, that guys like Jerry Ordway would get more work.
Ah, but in comics, they believe the fans have short attention spans and what works in “new.” Not new characters or concepts but new variations on what you have, i.e. Superman minus red swimming trunks on his costume. That’s new, right?
I’m not dissing the notion. Fans, especially male fans, get bored after a few issues. They want something they haven’t seen before. That’s where folks like Jerry and myself run into problems; it’s assumed by editors and perhaps by fans that they’ve seen all we have to offer. Doing something well is not the point; giving the fans something new with which to get excited is the point.
OTOH, the fan base is the fan base. It’s getting older as well and, from what I’ve seen, it’s not growing. Isn’t it reasonable to assume that they would want to see an old favorite like Jerry Ordway? The object of the game is to get the reader to part with their hard earned money to buy a given book; Jerry’s done that. Combine him with a writer like Gail Simone or Geoff Johns and you think that wouldn’t sell? He knows how to do the work and how to please the fans.
Part of the problem also is, to get more sales, you need either a) for the fans to have more disposable income to spend on comics and/or b) bring in more new readers, preferably younger readers. On the latter, I’m not so sure that ship hasn’t sailed. The time to bring in new readers is about when they’re ten. Comics didn’t do that; they didn’t produce kid friendly comics (they still don’t) and would-be readers got lost to the video game market.
And don’t get me started on how they’ve ignored female readers. That’s a column right there and Mindy and Martha write about more knowledgably than I. That doesn’t mean I won’t add my two cents as well at some point.
In fact, this whole topic needs everyone’s two cents. I picked this topic up because I think it needs to be pursued. If you want folks like Jerry (or, yes, me) to get more work, say so in letters, in blogs, in other columns. If you think that comics are stories, not just product, and who does them are not just widgets, say something. If the conversation dies, if no one cares, then there’s no reason for the companies to care, either.
Keep the discussion going.
MONDAY MORNING: Mindy Newell
TUESDAY MORNING: Emily S. Whitten