The Q: Responding to Robert Kirkman

The Q: Responding to Robert Kirkman

If it accomplished nothing else, it sure has gotten people talking. The online comics community has been buzzing about the bold statements earlier this week from newly named Image Comics partner Robert Kirkman, who called upon writers and artists to join him in saving the comic book industry by only creating their own original characters and stories.

For this month's The Q, we gave creators the opportunity to respond to Kirkman by asking the question:

- As the potential for Hollywood options makes creator-owned comics more financially viable, and with Robert Kirkman calling upon his fellow creators to help "save the industry" by concentrating on self-owned material, what do you think? Are the new ideas in creator-owned comics the path to saving the industry, and where do big-publisher comics fit into it all?

Chuck Dixon (The Vanishers, Storming Paradise, The Simpsons): I don't worry about the "future of the industry." There will always be comics. They're cheaper to produce now than they've ever been and relatively easy to make compared to other media. With the consumption of comics growing exponentially (thanks to strong sales to bookstores and libraries), for the first time in 15 years, I don't think we need to worry about the survival of comics.

I do worry about my own future and leaving a legacy for my kids. Creator-owned properties are a hedge for any comic talent against the day when the Big Two decide that you're over and shove you out the door. There are no comebacks in comics. Well, maybe Don Perlin. Comic fans are fickle and the publishers even more so. What other medium has a charity to take care of its cast-aside talent?

On the creative side, there's nothing better than making something from nothing and bringing your ideas to life without the interference of someone else's continuity.

The big companies could do their part by re-creating an Epic-style line of creator-owned titles. But I don't see them being interested in this because of the rivers of cash now flowing through both companies from ancillary deals like toys, movies and games. They may make a few sweetheart deals for top creators they wish to keep but nothing like a line of creator-owned material.

B. Clay Moore (Hawaiian Dick, '76, Billy Smoke): I do think new ideas in creator-owned (or, as Ed Brubaker puts it, "original concept") comics would help bolster the industry. While it's true that some guys are best suited to licensed properties, I think any chance for creators to explore their creativity without limitation is a good thing. The more "big names" we have doing original work, the easier it might be to convince readers that they don't have to tie ALL of their comic book reading into the tried and true.

I wouldn't go so far as to call for a max exodus, though. There's still plenty of room at big publishers to explore new nooks and crannies, and to keep feeding so many fans what they really seem to want, but I don't think anyone could argue that diversifying the material and introducing new ideas would be a BAD thing for the industry. For one thing, it might give people who "outgrow" superhero books an easy transition into fresher material.

I've said it before, but I think Warren Ellis provides the near perfect model, succeeding in both licensed comics and creator-owned work, and appealing to fans of both.

C.B. Cebulski (X-Men: Infernus, Wonderlost, Drain): Robert makes a lot of good points, and I find myself agreeing with so much of what he's saying here. However, there is one place where I strongly disagree with him, and that's where he says "take the plunge and only do creator-owned work. If you give people the option of Spider-Man or your creator-owned book... they'll choose Spider-Man, that's something time-tested versus something new. New has to be the only option."

Creator-owned in no way has to be the only option. It should not be the only option. Today's comic industry is not the same place it was all those years ago when the top-tier creators left Marvel and formed Image, and people should not be led to believe so. The financial realities almost make it next to impossible in this day and age, especially for today's artists.

Instead, there's a balance that each creator can find and maintain between work-for-hire and creator-owned comics in today's market place. There are any number of creators who are currently successfully doing it (I love working for both Image and Marvel and wouldn't want to sacrifice my love for either!) and many more creators who should be doing it. Robert is totally right in that regard; we need more big-name writers and artists doing creator-owned comics, and I would love for them to join us at Image! But I also think that any creator who chooses to do so also needs to be openly and honestly informed about not just the benefits (higher royalties, merchandising, movie deals), but also the risks that are involved in creator-owned publishing (no upfront page rates, lower sales, decreased original art values). Not everyone makes money right off the bat from creator-owned books, especially the artists. And especially when original art sales have come to factor so heavily into the family incomes of comic book artists these days. But I'm just rambling now, so let me wrap this up...

All I'm saying is that we no longer live in a comic book world where creators need to chose. They shouldn't have to. There's no questioning the fact that today's market is driven by the creators, and they indeed have the power to do whatever they want to, but it also gives them the ability to play in both the work-for-hire and creator-owned arenas.

Lastly, let me repost a reply I made to an earlier discussion of this nature:

"The thing that so many creators don't realize is that they don't need to chose or move, they can have the best of both worlds. Most exclusive contracts, say for DC or Marvel, are for work-for-hire in the U.S. only. This does not preclude creators from doing creator-owned work for Image or in Europe, for example. There's a happy medium that can be reached where a creator can do both. As long as they meet the commitments of the exclusive arrangement they have with their publisher, most are free to do their own projects on the side with who they please. All they have to do is ask. This way, they get paid a regular page rate to support themselves while also scratching their creative itch. Granted, it's a lot easier for writers, but pencilers can also accomplish this on a slowburn basis. Look at John Romita Jr. doing Grey Area and now Kick Ass, or Tony Harris doing not only Ex Machina and Spider-Man, but also War Heroes. I for one do hope that more people realize this and take advantage of the opportunity. I would love to see more of my favorite creators doing not only superhero comics for Marvel and DC, but also more new creator-owned properties."

David Hine (Spawn, Poison Candy, Joker's Asylum: Two-Face): Writing company-owned characters is always frustrating for all kinds of reasons, notably the vexed question of continuity and, of course, the annoying interference from those damned editors. Real creativity and originality is often stifled, and that inevitably transmits to the readers. Isn’t everyone getting a little fed-up with the endless recycling of tired old ideas and characters? There’s a reluctance to create any new characters at the Big Two companies, and realistically, if you have a really good idea, why give it to Marvel or DC when you can take it to Image or any other independent publisher and retain ownership?

There are a lot of amazing books coming from the indies right now and also from book publishers like First Second. That’s where the fresh ideas are springing up, and it’s already a growing market, especially among a public that wants something other than superheroes. It does take a big investment of time and energy from the creators, with little immediate financial return, unless you’re a "Big Name" (Mark Millar, Frank Miller, Robert Kirkman, Mike Mignola, et. al.), but in the long term, you can end up making more money than you would writing X-Men or Batman. Studios are hungry for movie properties and willing to pay. Foreign rights and sales of trades mean that over time you can make a very decent living.

I’m not sure that the industry needs saving. I’d say it’s in a very healthy state right now – more diverse than at any time in its history. I think we’ll see the big publishers cutting more deals to allow at least part-ownership. They’ll have to if they don’t want to see a mass exodus of their top creators. It has happened before…

Jonathan Luna (The Sword): First, I don't believe that Hollywood options makes creator-owned comics more financially viable. Not that many creators are making a living (or supplementing their living) from Hollywood deals. It's a rarity, considering the large number of creators out there. Also, if creators are making comics just to make money from turning them into movies or TV shows, I find that saddening. It would be great if comics were made just for the sake of making comics.

Second, I think that mainstream creators making their own material is a great idea -- a good step in a better direction. However, as we've said before, I think it can go deeper than that. Let's make more stories with a wider variety of genres. Let's look at all the genres that you find in film, television, and literature. Let's apply that to comics.

Beau Smith (Cobb, Wynonna Earp, Lost & Found): History. Just because some of us are no longer in school doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep studying what has come before. Case in point, Jack Kirby, Siegel and Shuster, Steve Ditko, Stan Lee, Joe Simon as well as a list of many other icons of creativity. All of these men created some of the greatest and biggest money making characters in comic books as well as pop culture. Sadly enough, most of these same men created these wonderful characters under a “work for hire” contract, meaning that they didn’t “own” the characters. That’s a broad stroke, I know, but my point is, like Robert Kirkman stated, you need to own characters that you create.

In a perfect world that would be great, but it’s not perfect and we know that. There will be times, like Robert mentioned, where we’ll work for Marvel or DC Comics on their characters that they own. If you know this going in, then you should have no problem. I think it would behoove the said publishers if there were a deal where you as a creator could own equity in any new characters you created. (They do have deals like this in some cases.) I think it’s something that should be more common because it’s a win/win situation for both parties. The creators will be more motivated to not side-pocket their better ideas, and the publishers will get the best in creativity as well as new character-building blocks for their older foundation.

Robert Kirkman was pretty dead-on with how the food chain works. You do a self-published/indy book to get your foot in the door and hone your skills, and it may lead to regular, high exposure at Marvel or DC Comics. You develop a reader base and “brand” for your name and work. You then have a fortified ammo belt to create new and more self-owned properties. It doesn’t always work that way, but it’s a great guideline to aspire to and follow.

Sometimes you don’t have to leave one of the larger publishers to do this. Mark Millar is just one example with his Wanted property. In the past 20 years, I have told many of my writer and artist friends that work regularly for Marvel and DC to make sure at some point to create something they will own. Robert Kirkman is right that it will help strengthen and create longevity for the comic book business as a whole. Television is a good example. When I was young there were only three networks: ABC, CBS and NBC. Your choices were limited. Today we have hundreds of channels, many networks to choose from. In the last decade many of these “new” networks have changed the face of television (HBO, FX) to enhance not only cable, but major network programming as well. Creator-owned comic books can do the same. There needs to be more. It’s the big picture for the comic book industry. It’s the long haul. The foundation has been built, but we need to start building more floors.

More creator-owned comic books are no guarantee to “save” comic books. There are no sure things. If there were, we’d all be rich and hard to live with, but it is the way to sew a stronger thread in the fabric of comics to make sure the seams stay strong and the material doesn’t fade. The saving of comics goes far beyond just creator-owned comics. There are other sections that need to be strengthened and reinforced as well -- a mesh of direct and mass market distribution; discount and returnable systems that adapt and work better to lessen high risk from both retail and distribution; better plans to equate comic book related films, TV and video games into an even larger readership; and to have every publisher, no matter how many books they publish, market and promote each single book like it was the only one they produced.

I’m very pleased to see the internet being used for something positive in this case. With Robert Kirkman’s video statement, it gives hope that the internet can be used for more than just rehashed press releases, snarky, frat-boy comments and interviews that tout the next endless “event” or what color the Hulk will be this year. Technology is a great tool in the hands of folks that really want to build as well as fix things. I look at it as the power-steering for a car. Having the right people behind the wheel will keep comic books from becoming Death Race.

I thank Robert Kirkman for his statement and his passion. I’m sure he‘s going to find out that this road will have lots of speed bumps and potholes. There will be a few flat tires as well, but as long as we all change the oil, rotate the tires and keep our eyes on the road, we’ll reach our destination and maybe a little bit further.

Steve Niles (Batman: Gotham After Midnight, Simon Dark, Dead She Said): I agree that creators should write more creator-owned stuff. I've been saying that for years. It's one simple thing: The majors can't afford to stray from their superheroes. Only the independents are getting out there and trying to put out Westerns and other things. They're doing more to expand and diversify. I don't think it's the only way to save the industry. I think Robert's being a little dramatic, for good reason. But it sure as hell can't hurt, because diversity is what we need.

We need new readers. Most people have already made their decision about superheroes. And if they're not going to care about superheroes today, they're not going to tomorrow. We've just got to get that through our thick skulls and give them the diversity that's going to get them to become readers.

Keith Giffen (Ambush Bug, Reign in Hell, Dreamwar): I remember Frank Miller making this call way back, saying "don't go to DC; don't go to Marvel; do your own book!" And I was thinking, that's really easy to say if you have Daredevil and Dark Knight Returns under your belt. That's a smooth runway. But I get the feeling Kirkman's not really going in that direction. I think he's saying, save comics by doing different stuff. Well, been there; done that. And I think something that people have to keep in mind is when you first start off doing your own stuff, your income's going to take a blow. A lot of the independents, if they're going to put up any front money, it's not going to be that much, and you're really gambling on your book going through the roof and the company you're with promoting it strongly enough.

You ask where the big publishers fit in, and I think there's a place for everybody in this industry. If I was to do a creator-owned project again, I would have to supplement it with work from the majors to make sure I can still feed my family and put a roof over my head. We're a business. We're an industry. We're not the starving artists somewhere hoping their painting sells so they can feed the kids. So while it's a very noble thing he's suggesting, and definitely something that a lot of people want to consider, I think a lot of people should also consider what goes into it, and the pitfalls, and that you'd better have a nice cushion to fall back on on the offset that it doesn't go anywhere or it disappears in the middle of a Previews catalog and nobody even knows it's there. Or it's delayed and takes longer than you thought, but you've still got to pay those bills. There's more to it than just calling people out and telling them to do creator-owned projects. And with most companies, it's just partially creator-owned, because they've got to take a percentage of this and a percentage of that.

My take on "let's save the comic book industry" is this: Let's start telling accessible stories. I've written inaccessible stories -- I know that -- so before people start it, I know! But it's as simple as... let's get the books in on time, tell good stories, make the books more accessible, and feed the communal pot. And if you want to dabble in either self-publishing or creator-owned comics, by all means do so. It can be extraordinarily rewarding; it can also be extraordinarily frustrating. But to the exclusion of DC and Marvel? Nah. I don't think that's a smart idea. Those books like Spider-Man have a runway. They give people a chance to build up a financial base so they can strike out on their own and do all these creator-owned comics.

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