So I’ve been a gloomy bastard of late. Discussing the failure of bold publishing plans on the one hand, and a fading funnybook Camelot on the other. I’ve been talking crap, in other words. And while that’s easy (oh, so easy!) I don’t like doing it. It’s not good for the soul. Also, a friend of mine actually told me that last week’s Marvel piece made him sad. And that’s no good. I don’t want to make my friends sad.
The solution, obviously, is to talk about what I think is going right in the funnybook business. Which is good, because I think there’s an awful lot going right in the funnybook business these days. As I believe I’ve said before, it’s a great time to be a comics fan, maybe the best since the late 80s. You have to look beyond the Big Two to see it, but there’s an explosion of creativity out there in the comics mainstream.
Which… That last statement maybe begs a bit of discussion. In comics, the term “mainstream” is often used only to refer to super hero titles. Sometimes, it’s even used exclusively in reference to the stuff Marvel and DC are putting out. The waters get muddied a bit when you’re dealing with huge licensed series like Star Wars, which are hard not to call mainstream, because holy crap you don’t get much more mainstream than Star Wars. But for the most part, “mainstream” in comics means corporate spandex. I’m using the term here in a far broader way, though, to refer to all the wide range of genre fiction being done out there that has an appeal to the average reader. Sci-fi, fantasy, crime, spy, detective… There’s a ton of this stuff, and to call it anything but mainstream just seems dumb to me.
Of course, in the wider world of fiction publishing, “mainstream” refers mostly to realistic drama, and genre is relegated to its own special (if large and lucrative) ghetto. But in comics, that’s crazy talk. So I’m not taking the argument that far. Baby steps. Baby steps…
Anyway. Semantics aside, there’s a ton of great mainstream genre comics out there, and most of them are coming from what have traditionally been called indie publishers. But these days, the line between the indies and the major labels can be pretty thin. Image Comics, for instance, is widely recognized as the biggest and best indie publisher out there, and they’re knocking on DC’s door in terms of market share.
The difference in how Image and the Big Two conduct business, however, is huge. Image offers (and I’m probably over-simplifying here) just publishing services, with maybe a little marketing tossed in. The creative teams behind the books work as (or employ) their own editors, ad-men, and whatever else comics publishing demands. That means there’s also more risk involved: if your book doesn’t sell, you don’t get paid. The trade-off for that risk is that the creators retain ownership of their work, and they also get to keep the bulk of the money.
Other indie publishers work on more traditional publishing deals, with full editorial and advertising support. The risks are less, as are the pay-outs. But some excellent comics are coming out under those deals, as well. As regular readers know, I’m awfully fond of Matt Kindt’s strange and excellent Mind MGMT, a multi-layered story of psychic spies. And, of course, Alan Moore’s been working under those kinds of deals for ages now. His most recent work of that kind is the Lovecraft pastiche Providence, which is thus far one of my favorite comics of the year.
But whoever’s doing it, and under whatever circumstances, the basic impetus for working with those publishers is the same: ownership, and a greater share of the money than you’d see with the Big Two. This is, as I said last week, why we’ve seen such a big writing brain drain at Marvel: the top talent’s leaving for greener pastures. What lead to this exodus? A lot of things: the success of peers on the independent scene, frustrations working in corporate comics, a desire to tell their own stories… But some people think it might also have had something to do with this:
That’s The Kirkman Manifesto, an open statement to the comics industry from writer Robert Kirkman. After his massive success with The Walking Dead (an excellent comic that I just happen not to like very much), he challenged other top names in mainstream comics to, essentially, follow him out of the work for hire ghetto and into the light of a new day.
He also showed a bit more tact than I just did. What he actually said was that the comics industry is backwards. Nobody gets into filmmaking, he said, with their end-goal being to make Pulp Fiction 2. But in comics, that’s exactly what happens: young writers start out with the goal of writing characters they don’t own, created by other people, often before they were born. In part, that’s because they grew up as fans of those characters. But it’s also because, traditionally, that’s where the money was. I won’t go into the history of funnybook publishing here, but to say it’s a business that seldom worked in the best interests of the people who actually made the comics is something of an understatement.
So what Kirkman was really suggesting was a system that works more like novel publishing, where original stories and ideas are the norm. Or at least the prestigious, big-money deal. It’s far from a perfect system, but it’s at least one that treats the individual creators better than the comics industry historically has. As someone who dabbles in creative writing himself (shameless plug), I can only see that as a very good thing indeed.
Other people did not agree. The Kirkman Manifesto caused a bit of a stir in fan circles at the time. I remember some particularly bitter comments coming from the hardcore super hero fanboy set, who seemed almost threatened by the idea. Kirkman’s additional suggestion that super heroes should be written more for an all-ages audience might have something to do with that, too. Really, though, I got the sense they were just afraid that someone was going to stop them from getting their monthly dose of men in tights.
But there goes my funnybook snob gettin’ all uppity again. For the record, I’ve got nothing against men in tights fiction. My library’s full of the stuff, and I still read a bit of it when it’s well-done. But in the face of this particular brand of Fanboy Rage…
…it’s hard for me to not be more harsh than Kirkman was when he got so many panties in a bunch with this Manifesto of his. Because fuck those guys. If you want good comics, support the people who write and draw them. Not the companies that exploit their copyrights.
In contrast to their readers, the guys who were actually working under those Big Two contracts mostly kept quiet after the Kirkman Manifesto hit. But one by one, as their contracts expired, they didn’t re-up. And one by one, they started putting out new material through Image. Ed Brubaker was maybe the first, taking his noir series Criminal to Image from Marvel’s pidgen-Image Icon imprint, and following it up with an array of top-notch pulp, horror, and spy material.
And now we’ve got a cornucopia of great funnybooks out there, everything from the glossy meditation on celebrity and death that is Gillen & McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine to the gritty near-future sci-fi realism of Rucka and Lark’s Lazarus. And all of them (or the best of them, anyway) are stories unique to their creators. Stories they really couldn’t tell at the Big Two, and that are often, frankly, better than anything they could have turned out under the restrictions of corporate spandex.
Just look at Jonathan Hickman, for example. In the work for hire world, he’s known as a deep plot man. He plans his runs out far in advance, planting seeds and clues in his earliest issues that bear fruit somewhere two or three years down the line. Hell, Secret Wars makes it look for all the world like he planned out his entire Marvel Comics tenure. It’s kind of brilliant. But the consistent criticism I see leveled against him is that his work is too clinical. Too cold. That he doesn’t deal enough in character drama.
In his indie titles, though, that’s not really the case. While he avoids soap opera dramatics, I certainly wouldn’t call this stuff “clinical.” His apocalypse western East of West, for example, features a number of characters who feel well-rounded and warm. Or, if not “warm” exactly (it’s not that kind of book), they at least feel real. Flesh and blood. And that’s not something I can say about many of his work for hire jobs. Even in the alternate history farce Manhattan Projects, there’s a visceral quality to the cast, and even a depth that’s not always easy to pull off in comedy.
But it’s Matt Fraction who’s probably the best example of a writer who’s blossomed in the indies. Even on his work for hire stuff, he was always best on second-tier books where he could be left alone to write what he wanted: Iron Fist, Hawkeye, his criminally-under-rated Defenders… All great comics, and far better than his more high-profile runs on Iron Man and Thor. But it’s on his creator-owned stuff that he really shines. Sex Criminals, with artist Chip Zdarsky, is his breakaway success, and rightly so. It’s funny, honest, and profane, dealing with a subject that’s too often either avoided, or sensationalized into meaninglessness.
The equally profane Satellite Sam, with Howard Chaykin, hasn’t made as big a splash, but it’s a minor masterpiece of ensemble period drama, weaving multiple disparate storylines around a tight group of themes, and writing a cracker of a mystery besides. And I’ve loved his reality-hopping spy-fi series Casanova since before he became a big deal at Marvel. The second series still stands as one of my favorite comics of all time.
It’s also a sign of the changing times: the first two volumes barely sold well enough for Fraction to pay his artists (Brazilian twins Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon). That kind of indie comics failure is what lead a number of big-time writers back to the safer territory of the Big Two. Warren Ellis and Ben Templesmith’s Fell, a weird crime series, failed around the same time as Casanova, which broke my heart a little. In retrospect, that was the last really good work I read from Ellis before his current return to form with Trees and Injection. So maybe it broke his heart, as well. Hmm. Regardless, both Ellis and Casanova are back now, and (by all reports) doing pretty well.
So it looks like Kirkman was right: indie comics can sell, and once you get enough big-name creators doing them, you hit critical mass. They become an accepted norm, sales rise for everyone, and we get better funnybooks. Everybody wins!
Well… Except the major super hero publishers, of course. They’re stuck with young up-and-comers and people who can’t make the indies for work them. But I’m kinda okay with that. They’ve had the pick of the litter long enough.