SDCC '08 - EW's Comic Book Visionaries Panel

As the movie industry continues to mine comic books for their next big film project, the question of whether or not Hollywood’s interest is affecting comic creators and their content was raised at several panels during Comic-Con International last weekend. Panels as diverse as AiT’s “So you want to do a graphic novel” panel to the Grant Morrison and Gerard Way “lo-fi weirdness panel,” and even Frank Miller’s Eisner Awards keynote touched on the topic of creating comics for the sake of creating comics, not a film deal.

To end his speech, Miller said: “If you’re setting out to do comic books, forget the movies, forget the games, don’t try to do three things at once. Do me a really damn good comic book, and then in time who knows what could happen? But that’s the only way to do it.”

So is Hollywood influencing the content of comic books? Seven comic book “visionaries” came together for a panel moderated by Entertainment Weekly’s Nisha Gopalan last Thursday to discuss that topic and many others affecting the comic book industry and their craft.

“I think Hollywood is coming to us because of our content,” said Robert Kirkman, writer of Invincible and The Walking Dead for Image, “so we’d do well not to change it.”

Morrison said the problem he had was that many creators were trying to write comics that they’re hoping will be turned into films. “I don’t think we should do that anymore,” he said. “I think we should do comic books that are much more like comic books.”

He later added that movies are very formulaic and have a lot of rules in terms of structure. “Comics can actually break all those rules, and I think we need to break those rules,” Morrison said.

Hellboy creator Mike Mignola said he agreed with Morrison, but noted there was a positive aspect to publishers seeking out potential movie properties.

“The plus side is that I think some things are being published that might not otherwise be published, because clearly they aren’t going to make any money as a comic, but somebody sees the potential in them somewhere else,” Mignola said. “And it’s sad that someone’s gonna published something because they think it might be a movie, but if a guy’s got an independent comic that he can’t find a publisher for, at least it gets published.”

Mignola added that there’s nothing worse than just giving an idea to Hollywood. “At least if it’s published in comics or as a novel or whatever, you’ve had the chance to do your real version of it before Hollywood does whatever it’s going to do,” he said.

Mignola, whose Hellboy comic has been adapted into two films, was later asked by a fan about the differences in the stories as portrayed in the comics and the movies. “You make your peace with it,” he said. While Mignola was involved in the films, he said he also wanted Guillermo Del Toro to have the freedom to make the movie he wanted to make.

“I got fortunate in that the character in the film is true to the spirit of the character in the comic, but I can spend the rest of my life correcting people -- even people who read the comic – no, the gun doesn’t have a name, and no he doesn’t have a girlfriend,” Mignola said, “but you just tell yourself it’s a different thing, and it’s a very good commercial for the comic.”

Wildstorm founder and All-Star Batman and Robin artist Jim Lee said that he’s also seen the reverse, that comic are affecting TV shows like Lost or Heroes, which rely on continuity and other comic book storytelling techniques. “I don’t always see that Hollywood is just coming in and changing our content,” he said. “I definitely see us changing the way they’re telling their stories.”

But even though Hollywood may be interested in comic book stories, Morrison said they aren’t quite as interested in comic book creators telling those stories. The All-Star Superman writer told a fan he hasn’t had luck pitching Superman. “They're probably going to go with the Oscar winner rather than with me,” he said.

Gopalan also asked the panelists if the web is the future of comics and if they’re prepared for it.

“As long as there’s the printed word, comics aren’t going away,” said Matt Fraction, writer of Casanova and Invincible Iron Man. “I think it’s another venue, it doesn’t replace it.”

He said as long as magazines and books are still printed, comics would hang around. “We’re a cheap, easy, nasty, swarthy little medium and we’ll hold on,” he said. “We’ll be the last to go, because it’s so inexpensive, and it’s so limitless in possibility. I have yet to see an iPhone that can beat a comic book.”

Astonishing X-Men artist John Cassaday agreed. “I think there’s something deep in us as human beings where we want to hold it, we want something physical in our hands and we like the feel of paper,” he said, adding that he prints out comic scripts when working because he can’t stare at computer screen that long.

Morrison added that “you can’t take your computer into the bath,” which Kirkman jokingly disagreed with. “This guy knows better than me,” Morrison joked, but said he takes his comics into the bath and reads them until they are “destroyed.”

“Do you mean the bathroom or the actual bath?” Kirkman asked.

“The actual bath,” Morrison said, noting he read them while in the water bathing.

“Is that where you write Seaguy?” Kirkman asked.

“We sure sound like visionaries, don’t we?” Mignola deadpanned.

To get the panel back on track, Gopalan noted Morrison’s recent comments about working on Final Crisis in a Newsarama interview. “Do you think the concept of the superhero is currently in a healthy state? Is it perhaps too postmodern or too repetitious?” she asked.

Morrison said superheroes are more relevant now than ever before.

“I think in the West, particularly in the condition of war we’re in, I think superheroes have become this desperate attempt to imagine a future for ourselves,” he said. “So you’ve got things like superheroes and Star Trek, which are the only things left that actually have a future for humanity.”

Whether humanity can get there or not is another question. “We may never become it, because we have a lot of good bombs,” Morrison said. “The idea that we’re at least trying to project this image of a potential future for ourselves is interesting.”

Lee said he felt one of the problems with modern comics was too much emphasis on continuity. “I just want to sit down and read a good story,” he said. He noted that The Dark Knight Returns, which took place out of continuity, was one of his favorite books.

“If we’re really thinking about producing stories that can stand the test of time and can be read at anytime, you can’t be so focused on continuity, and I think that’s something that’s really holding back a lot of the cool stories we can tell,” Lee said.

Cassaday added that “it shouldn’t take a Frank Miller to have the leverage to make a story that way.”

Noting that many of the panelists had worked on independent comics, Gopalan asked what the got out of “indie work” that they didn’t get out of working with Marvel or DC.

“Copyright and trademark,” said Colleen Doran, creator of A Distant Soil.

Doran said she started working in comics as a teenager, drawing whatever she wanted to draw and writing whatever she wanted to write. She took her work to a publisher at a convention, and they said they’d publish it.

“It didn’t mean going through a long, drawn-out process of approval; they just published it as it was,” she said. “I don’t think you’re going to find a lot of that at DC or Marvel. You’re not going to get this ‘outsider art’ kind of vision that you get in a lot of the independent comics. There’s an incredible amount of quirky, amazing stuff. You couldn’t have gotten DC or Marvel to publish Bone, and of course now they’re looking at it like, ‘Mmm, yummy!’ But when that came out, no friggin’ way. That kind of stuff is pure, very very pure.”

Fraction, who has “toes dipped in both waters,” said he started his career in animation. He and some friends created a company “with the mission to trick very big companies into giving us a lot of money. And it worked.”

He said they’d make commercials for Coca-Cola, and then take the profits and use them to make independent films. He noted that a lot of independent comics “don’t pay the bills; it doesn’t even buy lunch. But that’s ok. You write the X-Men, you can relax; the bills are paid. You can do your work, your passion work, that lets you get every creative urge and impulse out of your system.”

Mignola said that’s the advice he gives to creators. “Find some time in between commercial projects and try something,” Mignola said. “I fully believed after I did Hellboy that I was going to go back and do a Batman book. But if you didn’t try it, you’d never know if maybe you’d have a career doing it.”

He also said many independent creators think of their books as a stepping stone to getting into mainstream superhero comics, so they create their own version of those characters. “When you’re going to do an independent book, make sure it is true independent, make sure it’s really want you want to do, so if it is successful you’re stuck doing your dream job,” Mignola said.

“Too many people treat their entire project like an audition for something else they’d rather be doing,” Doran said. “I don’t have any interest in that.”

Gopalan then asked Lee and Kirkman, who was recently named an Image partner, if they thought about leaving their “desk jobs” behind to just focus on their craft.

“I’ve probably fantasized about that, but the reality of it is I’d probably find it too confining,” Lee said, adding that he draws at night and focuses on his editorial work and the DC Universe Online game during the day. “Once you’ve done all that kind of stuff, it’s hard to just let it go and then just go back to sitting at a table drawing.”

He said he enjoys working on other projects that explore the way a story is a told, such as animation or video games. "I'm still in comics because I get to do these other projects,” Lee said. “It takes away time, but it's what interests me."

Kirkman said one of the reasons he took an executive position at Image was because he was hoping to focus more on his creator-owned comics. “I’m ceasing all my Marvel work, so it seems like I’m going to have more time to focus on my creator-owned stuff,” he said, noting that he still has several books he’s completed for Marvel that haven’t come out yet, like The Destroyer, Killraven and some other unannounced projects.

“For me, the corporate job is actually allowing me to do more work,” Kirkman said. “That’s the way I’m looking at it now. In a couple of months I might be like, ‘Wow, this was a bad idea,’ but we’ll see.”

Other questions asked by fans at the panel included:

• Will Mignola be doing any artwork for his books in the future? Mignola replied that he had finished penciling a comic a couple of days before. While he said he has to keep the Hellboy franchise up and running, he said the more contact he had with Hollywood “the more I want to stay in my studio by myself and write comics.” He added, “You’ll be seeing more comics from me.”

• Can Cassaday draw every X-Men comic ever? “Probably not,” the artist said.

• What is it about telling stories that makes you want to do this? Morrison said everyone on the panel was probably just driven to talk about the world through comics. Doran said she couldn’t imagine doing anything else, and related a story about trying to volunteer with the USO by selling hot dogs for them and couldn’t do it. Kirkman said he does it so his wife doesn’t think he’s a failure, and Cassaday said he’s always told stories, and remembers coming home from seeing Star Wars as a kid and drawing it out as a comic. Lee said if he ever went to prison, he could be the “big guy’s art bitch.”

• Will we be seeing Hellboy reunite with the B.P.R.D.? “I don’t see it happening, really, sort of,” Mignola said, cryptically. “But there’s some weird shit coming up.”

• Is All Star Batman & Robin a miniseries or an ongoing series? Lee said it’s a “comes out once a year” series, blaming himself for the delays. He added that it’s going to be about 20 issues, and was “still coming out more frequently than Wildcats.”

• When asked to name up-and-coming creators they admire, Doran said Stagger Lee’s Derek McCulloch. Fraction named Scalped writer Jason Aaron. Kirkman mentioned Jonathan Hickman of Nightly News fame, as well as the Luna Brothers.

• Someone who said he came to Comic-Con for the films and wasn’t a comic fan told Kirkman he “picked up one comic I can’t stop reading, and that’s Walking Dead.” He then asked the panel about how they felt about killing off their characters. Kirkman said if he thought about it, he probably wouldn’t do it. “I’ll just be writing an issue and I’m like, yeah this guy, totally gonna die now,” Kirkman said.

• What comic creator do you put on a pedestal? The answer was unanimous – Jack Kirby. Morrison then added Brendan McCarthy.

• When asked to pick one comic they wanted to be remembered for, Kirkman said his Jubilee mini-series. “Cyborgs, gangsters, I was really proud of it,” he said. “Don’t laugh, screw you.”

• What inspired you to start working in comics? Mignola said he liked monsters. Doran said she had a crush on Aquaman. Kirkman said reading comics made him want to write them. “Monsters, too. And Aquaman,” he joked. He said when he needs a break, he’ll dig out old comics he read as a kid, which helps motivate him to start writing again. Cassaday said he grew up on farm in the middle of nowhere and “had to make my own fun.” So he would draw.

• Any update on when the last Planetary coming out? “Are we done?” Cassaday asked.

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