Dennis O’Neil: Profit!

lumiere1If I ever get around to actually writing The Tao of Funnybooks, which at the moment exists as an ill-defined notion that occasionally sidles into my awareness, it will probably have a chapter (if it has chapters) devoted to money. Or at least partly devoted to the filthy lucre.

Did I just lose my hippie cred?

Let me, briefly, elaborate.

Technology always precedes art, with the possible exception of oral storytelling.

Somebody who lives in your cave discovers that a pointed rock will make marks on the wall and pretty soon you have pictures. Ol’ Johnny Gutenberg invents moveable type and pretty soon somebody is using it to tell stories and then, some five centuries later, somebody else invents a steam driven rotary version of Gutenberg’s brainstorm and we have novels intended for a large readership and, about a century further on, we have superhero comic books.

And meanwhile…

In 1895, a Frenchman named Louis Lumiere invents a portable motion picture camera and – yep – along comes the storytellers who use Lumiere’s gadget to do their jobs.

Motion pictures and mass market printing both evolve pretty quickly, each exerting some influence on the other. Eventually motion picture technology develops techniques to tell, and do justice to, the kind of fiction that had been appearing mostly in comic books because motion pictures were limited by technology and comics were limited only by what an artist could draw. And then – it all changed. Movies had gotten themselves a huge bag of tricks and realized that superhero stories were a great source for the kind of colorful, spectacular narrative they could achieve with their new toys.

Profits ensued. Big, big profits.

And in our world, really rich guys are seldom disrespected. Grumbled about, despised, even hated. But quietly. When something is valued by its profitability – and some of our brethren do engage in such valuation – whatever generates the profits is looked kindly upon. Simple progression: you value the rich guy because he’s rich and by extension, you value what made him rich.

Well now, from here on, it gets kind of complicated and maybe a little muddled, and anyway, do I look like a friggin’ philosopher to you? But can we agree, we noon-philosophizing simpletons, that comics’s welcome into establishment respectability paralleled film’s turning costumed vigilantes into profit centers?  Surely no coincidence.

Alas, to the best of my knowledge, not a lot of the movie money has filtered down into the print realm, though today’s Yahoo news informs us that Action Comics #1, featuring the debut of Superman, has just sold for a cool – no, an icy – three point two mil. Let me give you that in numbers: $2,300,000. Nice return on a ten cent investment. So maybe that figure was influenced by the money making movies and, if that’s true, movie profits have filtered down to print. But only to print that’s 76 years old, and very scarce.