on the comics industry

Backstory: Rivkah went to WizardWorld Chicago, and was depressed by the work-for-hire mentality of the artists working for hire.

“Do you ever draw anything for yourself?”

The reaction I got to that querry both confused and inspired me. One guy . . . I can’t remember his name but apparently he’s incredibly popular for his catwoman covers or something . . . said outright, “No.” And he gave me this look of confusion that said, “Why the hell would I do that?” Like I was *nuts*.

…apparently those who work for Marvel, those who work for DC, those who work for the companies that have premade-characters fashioned out of plastic molds and branded with the seal of corporate approval…

Understandable scorn from somebody coming entirely from the creator-owned world. But some traditional comics fans respond:

: While I can see how someone who creates their own stuff could think this way, I think it’s actually as much of a talent to continue the stories about these characters. I can see how much it would suck to be stuck writing or drawing a crappy “just draw her from angles where you can see her ass a lot” character, but there are characters out there who have such a rich and complicated history that it is possible to take risks and do new things with them. If someone told me I could draw and write wolverine for the rest of my life I would poop myself. There is just so much history there to play with, and I think the challenge of staying within the character while still making it interesting would be worth the boundaries.

: i’d feel the same way if someone told me i could do that with spider-man or batman

Rivkah compares such work to fanfiction, which she could never really get into. I think the comparison is apt.

: look at it like this i guess. anybody can take a picture of a sunset or a person. but it’s the way you do it, using a combination of personal style and technique that makes it yours. (even if it’s for a little while)

: I think that may actually be a good analogy. I know that it’s tremendously exciting to go to some famous beach and take a photo (that you took yourself!) of that gorgeous sunset, or a picture of you in front of the Eiffel Tower.

…But how many people around the world are going to want to look at pictures of you in front of the Eiffel Tower?

For people that have never seen the tower (or a sunset) before, it’s great for them to see it through photos, but great photos have been taken of it already, probably better than you or I will ever do. Nobody wants to see a hundred different versions of this.

Same with comics. Lots of kids love superheroes, but there’s a huge archive of pre-existing superhero comics that are better than almost anything coming out today! Why continue to flog a dead horse! Celebrate the masters of the past, but the best way to honor them is to use your own creativity, not suck money out of their ideas.

: y’know, that occured to me too after i made the analogy and sent it. very good point.

but i always tend to think of something i read stan lee saying one time. (paraphrashing of course) “everyone has a first comic.” meaning that, even if you’ve seen a million pictures of the eiffel tower or a sunset, it doesn’t mean everyone else has

so, that’s why i don’t think it’s always flogging a dead horse or sucking money out of past ideas. all stories have been told before, in one form or the other, but it’s the way you tell it that makes it unique.

in the end, every storyteller should set out to tell good stories. wether it’s company owned or your personal creation. (cause i don’t think you should only write one kind over the other. i think one should do both.)

My response:

“everyone has a first comic.”

I hear what you’re saying. If comics were never reprinted, if they were truly as ephemeral as some people seem to think they are – basically, if comics were like radio (heard once and it’s gone) – I would agree with you. There’s a reason radio stations play the same songs over and over again – because people are constantly tuning in for the first time, and probably missed it the last time it was broadcast.

But comics aren’t ephemeral. Not in today’s industry. Archival editions (DC and Marvel, not to mention publishers like Checker and Fantagraphics) and continuously-in-print trade paperbacks are swiftly becoming the rule, not the exception. Creators (of mainstream comics, even!) are starting to create with an eye towards the final product, for aesthetic and economic reasons (Bone is still paying the bills for Jeff Smith, and Sandman will buy groceries for Neil Gaiman the rest of his life). The industry definitely hasn’t progressed as far on this issue as I’d like (i want cheap, high-quality paperbacks of everything ever published!), but progress is being made, and the ephemerality of the medium is no longer a valid excuse for unoriginality. Comics aren’t like radio any more, but we haven’t made it to the permanence of film/DVDs yet either… we’re more like television – almost every popular show nowadays gets quickly committed to DVD, and studios are starting more and more to release older shows in high-quality editions.

in the end, every storyteller should set out to tell good stories. wether it’s company owned or your personal creation. (cause i don’t think you should only write one kind over the other. i think one should do both.)

This is where i really disagree with you. Would you insist that every film director shoot a James Bond movie every once in a while? Bond movies can be fun, and some of them are genuine classics, but I’m not about to tell Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson, and Wes Anderson (or Darren Aronofsky!) that they should stop making only “one kind” of movie and spend some time with laser ballpoint pens and exploding aircraft carriers.

Did John Steinbeck’s editor tell him “this Grapes of Wrath stuff is great, John, but what we really want to see from you is a Tom Sawyer / Huck Finn story”? Should James Joyce have written the continuing adventures of David Copperfield? Of course not. We don’t need Steinbeck to tell us how the Tom/Huck story goes: Twain’s stories still exist, and we can read them in any bookstore or library in the world. The comics industry is almost to the point where I can say the equivalent about the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four.

In a respectable artistic medium, creators tell the stories they want to tell – their own stories. They don’t exploit other people’s creations for profit, or out of twisted “tribute.” Fanfiction is well and good: for all I know, Stephen King secretly writes Harry Potter stories in his spare time, but he doesn’t try to sell them for God’s sake. Rowling would sue the pants off him, and rightfully so.


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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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