Okay, so last week I intended to play catch-up on my funnybook reviews, but got side-tracked discussing the apparent failure of the DCYou publishing initiative. This week, though… This week, I’m focused and on-track, and– Oooo, what’s this shiny thing…?
Why, it’s the All-New, All-Different Marvel! A publishing initiative at least (at least!) as worthy of mockery as DCYou. Even if the comics are likely to be a little bit better. But why do I care enough about it to write a whole column on it? Well… I don’t, really. But it’s a great jumping-off point for what I do want to talk about. To whit: after I posted my DC piece last week, I got into some interesting discussions on social media about the state of mainstream comics in general. So I thought I’d spin those conversations off into another column, this one looking across the aisle at Marvel, but also at why both of the biggest publishers in comics are experiencing what I consider to be a bit of a creative slump, while the industry as a whole is in one of the most fertile creative booms I’ve seen in 40 years of reading comics.
Maybe the biggest reason for that slump, I think, is also the oldest reason in the world: money. While the Big Two pay well, established writers and artists stand to make more working in the riskier world of creator-owned comics. The comics alone pay better for some. But the real money comes when and if your stuff gets optioned by Hollywood. Because then you get it all, as opposed to whatever back-end royalty deal your work for hire publisher might offer.
Hell, even those royalty deals don’t seem all that reliable (see the recent kerfuffle over “derivative copyright” on the Killer Frost character as she’s being used on the Flash TV show). And then there’s the whole deal with Alan Moore and Watchmen. Now, I’ve bitched about that enough over the years, so I won’t go into it again. But I’ve got to think that, if you’re a comics freelancer, and you see the greatest comics writer of your generation getting dicked over by a major publisher on the greatest super hero story ever written…
…you’d really have to think twice about your profession. Why on Earth would you sell your best ideas for page rate, when you can take a little more risk, and keep all the money for yourself?
This is a problem for the work for hire publishers on two levels. First, nobody’s creating great new characters for the Big Two anymore. And even when they do, those “new” ideas are often remixes of old ones.
This is not to knock Spider-Gwen, I hasten to add. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t say if it’s any good or not. It IS very beautiful, I’ll give it that. But, quality considerations aside, it’s a book about Spider-Man’s dead girlfriend getting Spider-Man powers. Not exactly a shockingly original new character concept from the House of Ideas. The new Ms Marvel is better in that regard: she really is a brand new character, with what looks like a cool weird power set. And the book, though it’s not really my cup of tea, is quite well-done. But she’s still “Ms Marvel.” A name first trademarked almost 40 years ago. So even then, there’s limits to how new she really is. And that’s a problem. How many times can you reinvent older characters for new generations before they turn into bad Xerox copies of themselves?
That lack of originality is becoming even more of a problem now, though, because we’re also at a point where the best writers in mainstream comics aren’t working for the Big Two at all. Ed Brubaker, Matt Fraction, and Greg Rucka have all moved on. Mark Millar, the guy who wrote the comics the Avengers movie franchise is largely based on, hasn’t done work for hire in years. Warren Ellis (the guy from whom Millar cribbed most of his ideas for those comics) still pops in for six issues here or there, but that’s all. And now Jonathan Hickman’s in the process of leaving, too, with Secret Wars being his work for hire swan song.
Not that those guys created many great new characters, either. But at least they produced comics that were a notch above. Now they’re gone, and I’m not seeing much new blood coming in that’s of the same caliber (Jason Aaron being a rare exception). That’s a serious brain drain.
Now, you’ll notice that I’m primarily talking about writers who’ve worked at Marvel here. And there’s a reason for that: DC ran the best talent off years ago. They spent the 80s and 90s attracting it, with better contracts and unprecedented (for mainstream comics) creative freedom. This century has seen that erode, however, first with less attractive contracts for their Vertigo line, and in recent years with an editorial regime that at times actually sounds hostile toward creators. Tales abound of stories being changed by editorial fiat at the 12th hour, necessitating hasty rewrites, pages of story and art being done over in a weekend, without compensation.
In the face of that, it’s been extremely difficult for DC to hold on to anyone of great talent. Grant Morrison has stuck it out, most likely due to editorial letting him do pretty much whatever he wants.
But even he’s exploring other publishing options now. And that pretty much leaves them with Geoff Johns (who’s been given executive power), Scott Snyder (whose Batman work sells well enough for him to be left alone), and Gail Simone (who’s been treated well in comparison to some, but who’s also expressed frustrations). And honestly… I don’t consider any of them top-notch writing talent. I mean, sure, they sell well, but…
I suppose my fiction snob is showing here. I look for writing with layers. With complex plots and characters that aren’t explained to me every few pages. I want themes to chew on, things to figure out on my own, maybe a little metaphor here and there. I want something that makes me work as a reader or, failing that, something that wows me. Work so batshit crazy, so powered by incredible ideas, that I’m dazzled. Distracted by the grandeur to the point that I don’t care if the story’s maybe a little dumb. The very best comics offer all that, of course, but I don’t demand the full package. And that’s good. Because work for hire comics aren’t offering much of any of that stuff right now.
To be fair, they seldom have. It generally takes periods of great upheaval, of desperation in the face of declining sales, to force editors to go for such a shocking idea as to offer really good comics. That’s what spurred Marvel’s creative renaissance in the Noughts, and it’s what inspired DCYou, at least in part. But I see the former starting to fade, and the latter… Well, I dissected that in detail last week.
It’s not all dismal, though. There’s lots of cool ideas out there these days, and that makes me happy. Marvel’s been quietly doing what DC attempted with DCYou for a while now, and doing it better. Call it the “Hawkeyeing” of Marvel, if you will. They’re placing a lot of their second-tier characters in new and interesting situations, in comics with approaches outside the usual men’s/boy’s adventure stuff. Dan Slott and Mike Allred’s Silver Surfer (while I’m not a huge fan) is maybe the best of that lot, with Chip Zdarsky’s Howard the Duck (which I do like) a very close second. Then there’s Spider-Gwen, Ms Marvel, a new Spiderwoman comic, a series starring MODOK…
A lot of it doesn’t appeal to me, and I think a lot more of it suffers from the same mediocrity that plagues the DCYou stuff (though Marvel is generally, as I said, doing it better). But I’m glad to see the Big Two taking chances and doing something new and different. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I want comics for young people, comics for old people, comics for men, comics for women, comics for you, comics for me, comics for everybody. And while I wish more of them were really good, at least they’re trying to have a broader appeal. And that’s got to be a good thing.