on lime green jello

I guess I should offer some kind of response to Robert Kirkman’s green-screen video manifesto beyond my twitticism:

http://tinyurl.com/5rl9ua is the new http://tinyurl.com/5h65md

Which I’m still kinda proud of.

All kidding aside, I do agree with Kirkman’s thesis (maybe not with all the side rants and theories). I applaud him for saying it, as I applauded Brian K Vaughan for saying it in this January interview:

And to be crass, the comic [Y: The Last Man] also bought my house. That’s just the comic, not optioning the movie rights or anything. And I know that makes me sound like a douche, but I only brag in the hopes of inspiring some of my colleagues who think that the only way to provide for their families is through corporate-owned superheroes.

I love those characters, and would never begrudge anyone who wants to write or draw them, but I’m always shocked by my fellow creators who are reluctant to make their own characters solely because they don’t think that creator-owned books can be profitable.

I was paid very handsomely to write Top 10 books like Buffy or Ultimate X-Men, more money than anyone deserves to be paid for work that fun, but it was definitely a pay-cut compared to what my artistic collaborators and I make over the long run for relatively lower selling work that we own, which will be taking care of us in various forms for years to come.

Plus, what’s more fun than making something new?

Certainly, there’s no guarantee of success with starting a creator-owned book in this marketplace, but I’d venture to guess that established creators like Robert Kirkman and Brian Bendis and Mark Millar are probably making more from the books that they co-own with their artists than they are for the excellent work-for-hire stuff they do for companies like Marvel and DC.

So if you’re even a somewhat successful mainstream writer or artist who’s looking to “sell out,” it’s time to create something of your own! I don’t think Y was an anomaly. You can do this, too.

It’s an important message to spread, with a host of caveats. We don’t need another early-90s Dave Sim, hyping the limitless riches available to creators if only they would start self-publishing (with his own ostentatious self as proof), only for the bottom to drop out on everyone (especially those who weren’t as lucky or as business-oriented as Sim). There are apparently still quite a few people from that period who feel taken advantage of. Any kind of magic-bullet “it worked for me; it’ll work for you too” needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

But Kirkman isn’t proposing anything as insane as expecting a bunch of artists to also be savvy businesspeople. I think most people realize that making a comic and running a publishing company are demanding jobs that require different skill sets. In fact, my limited understanding of the restructuring of Image is that doing a book with Image is going to become less like self-publishing than it used to be during the hands-off “Image Central” Valentino years.

No, Kirkman seems to have two goals here:

  • Using his financial success from creator-owned comics to encourage work-for-hire creators to do more creator-owned work, and
  • Using his high profile among superhero fans to encourage them to accept and purchase creator-owned comics.

Maybe I spent too much time on Warren Ellis’s Engine messageboard during my formative years, but I’m not sure point #1 is news to any creator. Are there that many starry-eyed writers and artists who see Batman as the pinnacle of their dream career? …Okay, don’t answer that. But how many of them would really produce something worthwhile if they dedicated themselves to a creator-owned comic? Setting aesthetic considerations aside, how many of them would be able to create a book that sells at the level of Kirkman’s Walking Dead or Vaughan’s Y?

It just seems like this message is already out there. Mark Millar’s regular announcements of his enormous financial success are hard to miss. Ellis has made a career out of cursing the backwards thinking of the American comics market and (rightly) insisting on the moral superiority of creator-owned work. It kind of seems like at this point, people have made their decisions. Most creators who are interested in this sort of thing are already in the trenches trying to make it work; I suspect their answer to Kirkman’s question of “why aren’t there more Hellboys and Walking Deads?” is “I would very much like for my book to be a Hellboy or Walking Dead, thanks for asking.”

Unless Kirkman and Image are actually changing the game. If they’ve got a new deal that would somehow allow Jamie McKelvie or Matt Fraction (or Kagan McLeod) to drop everything and do their own comics full-time, then by all means let’s have it. But it’s not going to happen overnight.

Which brings us to point 2: Kirkman’s efforts to develop a larger audience for creator-owned work. While there will always be some fans who need something like this to awaken them to the economic realities of publishing (I certainly did), this strikes me as something of a futile effort. Remember the shitstorm that erupted when Paul O’Brien announced he was “bored” with comics? It turned out that Paul, like many people, doesn’t want anything more from his comics than to see a good X-Men story. Or the infamous angry reaction from Newsarama readers when Jerry Siegel’s family attempted to squeeze some justice out of comics’ original sin (aka beads for Manhattan). Is it possible to turn every X-Men fan into a Casanova fan? Is it possible to make fanboys care about the creative independence or long-term financial stability of comic creators? Will they take this message more seriously when it comes from the author of Marvel Zombies rather than a pretentious hipster or a condescending Englishman?

Maybe so. I didn’t think of comics as a business until I started reading Paul O’Brien’s reviews, actually, when I was around 18.

Can I put myself back in the fanboy mindset? I started reading comics in the early 90s, just after the Image launch; I didn’t like any of their books. I loved Joe Madureira on Uncanny X-Men but when he quit to launch Battle Chasers it didn’t occur to me to follow him. Fabian Nicieza was my favorite comics writer, but when he left Marvel in 1995 I barely noticed. I just now found out that he went to Acclaim Comics to be their editor-in-chief. Things are surely different now in terms of news getting around (if it wasn’t mentioned in a Marvel house ad or Wizard, I didn’t know about it), but… how different?

If, hypothetically, two of my favorite creators back then had followed Kirkman’s advice and launched a new creator-owned project that they could really put their heart and soul into, would I have followed them there? Well, they did, and it was called Steampunk by Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo. My brother brought a bunch of the issues home and it confused the hell out of me. I retreated back to my safe and comprehensible Marvel Universe.

Bad example. Steampunk was sort of legendarily incoherent. But I guess it does underscore that whatever plans Image is concocting, hopefully they involve a degree of editorial guidance?

I dunno. Maybe this is a message that just needs to get re-announced every year or so. Maybe my perspective has changed too much from being inside the industry and I can’t see the hordes of fans who need to hear exactly this message. On the flip side, maybe I’m not close enough to the Marvel and DC circles to hear the grumbling pros who have great ideas for creator-owned books but are reluctant to give it a shot. If so, here’s hoping Kirkman makes an impact.

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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).

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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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