Greg Burgas has an interesting take on Darwyn Cooke‘s new series Will Eisner’s The Spirit. The comment section includes this idea from David Wynne:
“If DC really wanted to honor Will Eisner, they’d start some sort of graphic novel imprint in his name and use it to showcase books like Fun Home. The new Spirit book strikes me as a blatant example of milking Eisner’s most famous property for a few more bucks … especially since as far as I know, the last thing Eisner himself was interested in doing was reviving the Spirit.”
I think David is right on the money here, actually. Warren Ellis, Paul O’Brien and others have been pointing out for years that because Marvel and DC cannot own creators — they can only own characters — they approach everything from the perspective of character.
From the CEO’s chair, the big money comes from movies and toys and underpants featuring the characters, and publishing comics allows them to keep those characters alive. Here’s Marvel in 2000: “The Company’s strategy is to increase the media exposure of the Marvel characters through its media and promotional licensing activities, which it believes will create revenue opportunities for the Company through sales of toys and other licensed merchandise. In particular, the Company plans to focus its future toy business on marketing and distributing toys based on the Marvel characters, which provide the Company with higher margins because no license fees are required to be paid to third parties and, because of media exposure, require less promotion and advertising support than the Company’s other toy categories. The Company intends to use comic book publishing to support consumer awareness of the Marvel characters and to develop new characters and storylines.”
A rung down on the corporate ladder, the perspective is different, but conveniently works toward the same end. At the editorial level, it’s an affection for the characters that drives every decision. Decades ago, Marvel and DC encouraged a fanbase to think about comic books in a character-based model, and the fans swallowed it. And then those fans grew up to be editors. So now the comic book company (a small subsidiary of a larger entertainment/media corporation, remember) is run by people like Quesada and DiDio who honestly believe they are undertaking a sacred trust — to do their duty to Spider-Man and Green Lantern. They owe it to these characters to ensure that they are featured in cool and popular stories.
And the vast majority of the remaining readers feel the same way (because everyone who does not feel this way has been DRIVEN OUT). The “shared universe” concept — the promise that all of these characters live in the same world and interact with each other — is a brilliant strategy for encouraging character-based (and company-based) thinking. According to this concept, every comic book is an artifact from another world, depicting events that actually happened in that world. Everything that has ever been depicted in a Spider-Man comic book has actually happened to Spider-Man.
- The remaining fanbase is extremely emotionally invested in the characters. If you put out a Batman comic book I don’t like, you are insulting my friend Batman. If you write a comic book in which Sue Dibny is raped, then you have caused my friend Sue Dibny (or worse, my reader-avatar Sue Dibny) to be raped, and I am understandably hurt and furious.
- Creators’ rights are never a priority. Who the hell cares how you treat Bill Finger? What’s important is how you treat Batman. Who created this story? Who cares? It’s a “Marvel legend.”
- Non-fans are never welcome. Sorry, kid, Green Lantern and I have been friends for twenty years, and you can’t just expect to barge in here and become a part of the relationship that we share.
- The stories must be “realistic.” I must take pains to carefully sort each story as “canonical” or “noncanonical” — and which “universe” it belongs to — and maintain an exact chronology of how all the stories interlock with each other.
- Thanks to inept emulation of Watchmen and Dark Knight, “realistic” now also means “cynical,” or possibly “miserable.” Getting a reputation as a “fun” comic book will hurt your sales. No. Seriously.
- Story ideas that contradict the established facts or tone of the Universe are rejected as impossible.
- Story ideas that do not take place within the Universe are rejected as irrelevant.
- The incredible schizophrenia which characterizes the modern superhero concept. 50 million people saw the first Spider-Man movie in US theaters, and millions more beyond that — the concept is obviously tremendously popular. Millions of kids have the toothbrushes and the T-shirts and watch the TV shows. But the Spider-Man comics, none of which sell more than 50,000 issues, are full of juvenile attempts at “sophistication” and radical changes which are inevitably reset to the status quo within 6 months. Devin Grayson complains that she can’t do anything interesting with Batman because at the end of the day Batman has to appear on Underoos, but nobody under the age of 16 is reading the fucking comics.
Oddly enough, the experience is remarkably similar when you try to read the Bible with the assumption that its separate parts cohere into a perfectly unified and consistent truth.
Anyway, I need to contextualize all this:
- DC is more than just the backwards-looking nostalgia-rape cesspool called the “DC Universe.” Thankfully, it has other branches: the theoretically-interesting but currently-lost “alt-superhero” line Wildstorm, the excellent and undercapitalized “nonsuperhero comics for grownups” line Vertigo, the very promising but not-linked-from-the-main-site teen-chick-lit line Minx, the screwed-up-once-but-came-back-better manga line CMX, and the I’m-told-they-exist-but-I’ve-never-seen-them DC Kids or possibly Johnny DC, it’s unclear. Marvel, meanwhile, maintains a kids’ line, Marvel Adventures, and the bizarre little imprint Icon, which you can only get into if Joe Quesada wants to make you happy — i.e. you are a topselling creator on Marvel’s superhero books or you have known Joe since old times.
- Superheroes, while an appealing concept, are so poorly executed these days that I generally avoid focusing attention on them. The best superhero comic coming out today is Robert Kirkman’s Invincible.
- The comic industry is much, much bigger than just these two irritating companies, and they’re probably going to be increasingly marginalized as the industry continues to evolve. I guess I’m just trying to more fully lay out what’s so irritating about them, and why they are this way.
- There are bigger concerns facing the industry, largely concerning distribution. The mechanisms aren’t in place to get comics in front of people in a location and format that suits them. The infrastructure isn’t in place to support creators while they create. There aren’t enough comic stores in place that don’t suck, and there are hardly any stores with enough cash to buck trends. There aren’t enouch publishers who understand how to deal with bookstores. And so on, ad infinitum.
- As always, Warren and Dirk have already said it.
Also, here are some Grant Morrison quotes, because it pleases me to quote them. I don’t actually like many of his comics, but he sure as hell knows how to work a sound byte:
“My ideal comic is the one which perfectly expresses its moment and makes you want to dance like your favourite records do. The ideal comic is a holographic condensation out of pure zeitgeist. Pop is my god and goddess, Warren, and I believe comics should strive to be popper yet than Pop itself. I particularly despise the cynically perfect, utterly barren, ultimately charmless retro-pastiche of OTHER PEOPLE’S IDEAS which has come to characterize so much of the output of tired creators who should have had the dignity to move on when they ran out of words of their own.”
“I’m doing MARVEL BOY and whatever else in a Utopian 21st century spirit – I’ll aim the comics at a wide, media-literate mainstream audience and slowly but surely help generate that audience, just like you. I’ll continue to act as if being a comic book writer is the same as being a pop star. I’ll continue to learn from stuff I think breaks new ground. If at the moment I think comics aren’t being sexy enough or FuturePop enough or incendiary enough, I’ll attempt to fill the gap with the sort of thing I want to read. Whatever happens, I know I’ll sell more comics than the crawling half-men who believe we’re all doomed in a ‘shrinking market’. Look out of the window at the planet you live on, morons! There are billions of those bipeds and they keep making more of them! How much bigger does the market have to get before we’re eating Soylent fucking Green? Get out and sell comics to these people!”