I turned 45 years old this weekend, and I must admit that I’m a little worried about it. Not because I’m afraid of growing old or anything; that happens to the best of us. It’s just… Well… DC Comics publisher Dan Didio says that they publish comics for 45-year-olds, and I don’t look forward to my taste deteriorating that badly…
If you don’t keep up with funnybook industry gossip, what I’m talking about here is a conversation cartoonist Paul Pope reported having with Didio a few years ago, when he pitched a Kamandi strip. Pope wanted to do the book as a kids’ comic (much like Jack Kirby’s original), and Didio told him that DC only published comics for 45-year-old men. If Pope wanted to do a kids’ comic, Didio said, he could offer the artist some work on Scooby Doo.
Well, okay… I doubt Didio was that flippant about it, and I’m sure he meant no offense. He was just illustrating his point, and what he saw as the reality of his company’s publishing niche. Of course, that’s the interesting thing here: the attitude on display. I’ve heard this sort of thing about the company before, this sort of cynical fatalism they have toward their own output, and their potential audience. They know who reads their stuff, sales figures tell them what those people want, and they focus on that kind of material with laser-beam intensity. But they’ve given up on trying to expand their audience, and that’s sad.
They’re not alone in this, of course; very few comics publishers shoot for anyone outside the aging fanboy demographic unless they’re licensing a successful movie or television series.
And they stick with the same old thing because the direct market (which is to say, your friendly neighborhood comic shop) doesn’t support anything else. So I understand the frustration and disappointment of trying new things in that environment, and the cynicism that might develop because of it. But still. I look at the things that have succeeded outside the direct market, and wonder why there hasn’t been a more concerted effort to repeat them.
Take DC’s own Vertigo line, for example. In the 1990s, Vertigo scored a number of hits in the straight book market by appealing to genre fans of both sexes who weren’t life-long comics readers. Sandman and Fables are the perennial best-sellers, of course, but Preacher, Transmetropolitan, Invisibles… Hell, most of the line, sold so respectably in book form that the monthly comics only had to break even to be considered a success. Of course, that was in the 90s. While Fables is still an on-going hit, 100 Bullets was probably the last Vertigo success story, and even that wrapped up a few years ago now. So what went wrong? Well…
DC got greedy. The Vertigo contracts signed in the 90s were much like contracts with real publishers of real books, and as such were a little too favorable to the creators for DC’s taste. They wanted a bigger share of the rights and the money, and started offering less and less favorable deals. Deals that the better and more established talent wasn’t interested in signing. And when the talent dried up, so did the sales. That the lesson learned here was not “Quality Sells,” but “We Only Publish Comics for 45-Year-Olds” should surprise exactly no one. This is, after all, the industry that repeatedly swindled Jack Kirby and drove Superman’s creators into poverty.
So “talent” is apparently a concept they’re only tangentially familiar with. But the comics industry has proven strangely unable to copy good marketing ideas, too. Moving away from the “comics for grown-ups” end of things and back toward the kids’ comics that sparked my current ruminations, I’d like to direct your attention to Jeff Smith’s Bone.
Another big hit of the 1990s, Bone is a whimsical fantasy adventure comic that somehow merges the sensibilities of Walt Kelly’s Pogo with JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The series was self-published by Smith for the direct market, where it did well … for a black-and-white indie comic with a small print run. But when Smith cut a deal with Scholastic Books, Bone reached thousands more of the young readers it was intended for than it ever could have in the comics market alone.
Now, this is at least partially another example of Quality Sells: Bone is an exceptional comic, written and drawn by a very talented cartoonist. And Scholastic is a major publisher of children’s books, with more clout and expertise than any comics publisher has in the straight book market. But even putting all that aside, Scholastic did one thing with their Bone volumes that I’m a little stunned we haven’t seen more of: they published them at a size that allowed them to be shelved with other books.
Now, I’m a fan of big, beautiful funnybook art as much as anyone. My Wally Wood Artist’s Edition sits proudly in my library. Or rather, it stands. Leaning against the wall. In the sturdy cardboard box it came in. Because that thing is so huge that it won’t fit on any of my many bookshelves.
This is the same problem comics face in mainstream bookstores. Their shelves are made to fit books of the standard sizes used by prose publishers, and anything that won’t fit on those shelves gets cordoned off in its own section, where it’s apt to only be seen by people specifically seeking it out. Which is what leads to the funnybook ghetto you see at most Barnes & Nobles, where works of serious drama like Maus often have to duke it out for shelf space with a couple-dozen volumes of the interchangeable adventures of Wolverine.
But the Scholastic Bone volumes fit nicely in the kids’ section, right alongside Harry Potter and the real king-daddy of comics for the grade school set: Diary of a Wimpy Kid.
So I dunno. I’m anything but a funnybook industry insider, so maybe there are very good reasons stuff that’s worked for one book (or… one decade’s worth… of books…) won’t work for others. Maybe it’s because the comics publishers want EVERYthing in their catalog to sell, not just the good stuff. Maybe it’s because the industry leaders are more copyright custodians than serious publishers interested in putting out stuff that sells to more than one ever-shrinking fanbase, even if they don’t get to keep all the money.
And now I’m being cynical. But as a fan and serious reader of the comics medium, I find the attitudes of the industry’s biggest publishers frustrating. I’d like to see comics grow and take their place among the other popular storytelling mediums as something that’s read and enjoyed by anyone and everyone.
I know one Paul Pope Kamandi comic isn’t going to make that happen, of course. And you know… It might just be that Dan Didio’s done us all a favor on that front. Because if Pope’s Kamandi had been greenlit, the artist says that he probably wouldn’t have ever done this:
What’s Battling Boy, you ask? Oh, just… Pope’s new comic for kids. It’s about a young god sent to Earth to battle a plague of monsters as his right of godly passage, armed only with an indestructible cape and a satchel full of magic t-shirts that give him the powers of any one of twelve totem animals. It’s not due out til this fall, but I’ve had the pleasure to read a preview copy, and it’s absolutely awesome. Wildly creative, fast-paced, messy, silly, fun, cool, and deadly serious all at once. One hundred percent pure Pope.
So thank you, Dan Didio, for driving one of this generation’s premiere cartoonists away from your work-for-hire gristmill. Because I’d far rather have Paul Pope doing a comic only he could do than to see him trying (and, inevitably, failing) to beat Jack Kirby at his own game.
Huh. Maybe, if I feel that way, everything’s gonna be okay. Maybe my taste in funnybooks won’t slip into the crapper just ’cause I turned 45, after all. But just in case… If you hear me singing the praises of Jim Lee and Geoff Johns at any point in the next year… Do me a favor: just feed me to the monsters…