In what host C.B. Cebulski called "the Premier Event" of the Baltimore Comic Con, Brian Michael Bendis and Robert Kirkman went head-to-head in a discussion of Kirkman's much-publicized "call to action," where he encouraged well-known creators at Marvel and DC to start making money through creator-owned comics instead of working for someone else.
When the two were introduced by Cebulski, there were cheers from the crowded room of people, which was so full that dozens of people were standing against the back wall because of a lack of seats.
"We've all seen the now infamous green screen manifesto online," Cebulski said after the two creators took their seats at the panel table. "Many creators have spoken up, and Brian was one of the most vocal in his response to it. It opened up the debate and that's why we're here today."
The two were asked to begin the debate, but instead of starting out with a discussion, Kirkman turned and asked if there were any children in the crowd. When the audience indicated there weren't any, Kirkman turned to Bendis, who was sitting next to him, and said, "F*&# you Brian Bendis."
The crowd exploded in laughter. Bendis sat and smiled, then as the crowd quieted, he held up his finger daintily, pointed at Kirkman and said in a very formal voice, "F*&# YOU."
There was a pause as the crowd continued to laugh.
"F*&# you," Kirkman said.
"F*&# you," Bendis replied.
"F*&# YOU," Kirkman said.
"That's a good point," Bendis said to more laughs, than after noise from the audience died down, Bendis turned to everyone and said, "Thank you for coming."
Kirkman and Bendis admitted they'd set up the whole introduction, then Kirkman explained that he's actually good friends with Bendis and would even take a bullet for the guy.
"Oh, you wouldn't take a bullet for me," Bendis quipped.
"Oh, it's just something you say," Kirkman admitted. "I would probably hide behind you if there was a bullet."
Kirkman said he first wanted to explain the "call to action" that got them talking about creator-owned comics in the first place. The two creators joked that he should have a green screen behind him and corny banjo music.
Bendis said Kirkman would also need to wear the serial killer face.
"Serial killer?" Kirkman asked, surprised that someone would think he looked like a serial killer in the video.
"It was a little serial killer," Bendis said to laughs.
Kirkman explained that he did the video in kind of a hurry because he "had just come back from San Diego, so I was really excited about comics." He then explained the reason behind his "mission statement," saying that he knew there were a lot of creators at Marvel and DC who would like to do creator-owned books but were afraid to leave behind their paychecks from the big publishers. He just wanted to let them know that it could actually be more lucrative to do creator-owned comics, especially if they'd already made a name for themselves and could attract their readers to different types of stories.
He said after "thinking about it, and just running through" it, he realized it was something that could benefit the industry as a whole if it would encourage Marvel and DC to gear their comics toward a younger audience because creators were doing adult-themed comics on their own.
"I think bigger companies like Image and Dark Horse are catering to a locked-in fan base that has dwindled," Kirkman explained, saying that he wants to see kids loving comics again, and he thinks the familiar superheroes that kids already love would be a great place for them to start.
Kirkman said that's what made him want to do the video, and the best thing is that "it got some discussion going and I think that's a good thing."
Bendis agreed that it was good to get the discussion going, and said that he agrees that any writer or creator should try out creator-owned comics "to produce something whole that did not exist as a whole." He said he had enjoyed doing that in his career and continues to enjoy it.
But Bendis, who had originally publicly responded to Kirkman on both his message board and extensively on the Wordballoon podcast, said he just wanted to point out that there is a risk to doing creator-owned comics.
"You were using yourself as an example, and..." Bendis started.
"Is this the rarified air thing?" Kirkman said, rolling his eyes to laughs.
"There are certain creators who are able to do both. You and I and Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar," Bendis said, going through a list of comic book creators who work at both Marvel and also do creator-owned comics. "It would be ridiculous not to recognize that we are breathing a little rarified air."
The "rarified air" became a bit of a running joke, as the term was used many times throughout the panel as Bendis and Kirkman just went back and forth, almost arguing their points and at times seemingly unaware that the audience was there.
At one point, Kirkman even quipped, "This rarified air that is so delicious that we all get to enjoy together. Smells delicious."
"It smells like Quesada," Bendis joked.
"I'm glad that it actually doesn't," Kirkman said with a smile.
"I was worried that what you were expressing wasn't accurate. That truthfully most creator-owned books are going to fail. Should you not make them because they're going to fail? No," Bendis continued. But he emphasized that many of them do fail, and it's not as easy for creators as it might seem upon hearing Kirkman's "call to action."
"Though I'm Debbie Downer, I thought it was very clear," Bendis said of his "rarified air" comment. "The life you're leading is rare. You're not going to be Robert Kirkman."
Bendis said he hopes "everyone in this room sits down and tries to make a comic. That would be amazing. But know that there's an opportunity for it not to be seen." He said that Torso, his early creator-owned work, never sold more than 2,200 copies, "which meant it sold 100 copies more than it needed to make a profit. Thankfully years later, the book has found an audience. But it didn't look like it was ever going to find an audience."
The writer said it's a huge struggle to try to do creator-owned comics. "I just eeked out a living. And I just don't care because I have mental problems," he said to laughs.
"You can't live on it at all. I lived as a character artist," he said, emphasizing that even when he thought he'd made it, he still needed another job. "I remember very, very clearly winning an Eisner and leaving San Diego that night because I had to get to a gig doing a Bat Mitzvah that night."
Kirkman said he had "those exact same days on Battle Pope and Tech Jacket and all those gems that are now collected at Image Comics." But he said he was directing his comments toward those people who had already made it in comics and could bring their audience with them to creator-owned material so that readers would be exposed to other genres and universes than just the ones at DC and Marvel.
They addressed the question of a "cycle," because Kirkman had pointed out a trend of creators starting in creator-owned comics but then going to Marvel or DC right when they start to get noticed.
"You can't generalize like that," Bendis said. "That's not everybody's cycle."
"What I would say is that I was speaking to specific creators," Kirkman said. "The problem that I see is there are a lot of creators out there that stay on corporate books when they don't want to."
Kirkman said there are guys out there that "just want to do Marvel and DC work, who just want to do that Green Arrow series, and that's fine." But he said some of them want to do something else, and he was encouraging them to go for it. And he thought in the end, it could help the industry.
The two creators ended up using the "guy doing Green Arrow" as a running example, with Kirkman wanting to encourage the creator to stop doing it if he didn't love it anymore and try something of his own. Bendis stuck to his argument that it's possible to do both Green Arrow and a creator-owned comic because you still
Bendis then pointed out there are also tons of creators that have absolutely no interest in superhero comics. "Some of these guys, in my hoity-toityness at Marvel, I've actually called them," he said. "But even in mainstream comics, there are examples that go all over the place."
"My stance is talking to the guy doing Green Arrow because he needs that paycheck," Kirkman said. "And Green Arrow is selling because of him."
Kirkman said these people do exist who want to do creator-owned comics but are afraid. Bendis wanted to know who they were.
"Name names. Come on," Bendis said with a smile.
"There would be too many names to mention," Kirkman said.
"Are they in the room?" Bendis joked.
Kirkman paused. "Anyway...."
Kirkman said he was just wanting to promote alternatives, to the creators and ultimately for the readers. "If you're there and you're unhappy and you don't think you have options, you should be aware that you do have options," Kirkman said.
Bendis said, "Grant Morrison made this point and I've said it too: Who among us is unaware of the creator-owned market?"
The two then argued about how many creators could make it in the world of creator-owned comics, with Bendis claiming there are only maybe four creators who'd succeed.
"There are more than four guys who can do this," Kirkman said.
"At the level you're talking about? There's like five," Bendis said. "We have peers...."
"Is this the rarified air again?" Kirkman said to laughs.
"No," Bendis said, continuing his argument that it's not that easy to find an audience for creator-owned work big enough to support you unless you have a huge following already.
"The Luna Brothers make a fantastic living," Kirkman said.
"Let's ask them how much money they're making," Bendis replied.
"They're obviously making enough."
"But I don't know what they do for a living outside of that," Bendis countered.
"They don't do anything!" Kirkman said.
Bendis then said nobody can know that for sure and joked that maybe they prostitute themselves or sell themselves at the airport to make enough money to just do creator-owned comics.
"We can insinuate...." Kirkman tried to continue.
"I just insinuated they're doing hand jobs at the airport," Bendis said to laughs.
Kirkman said there are plenty of examples of creators who make good livings doing creator-owned books. Bendis countered that most Marvel or DC creators would be lucky if they sold 5,000 copies.
"These guys are not going to sell 5,000. That's a falsehood that you're trying to perpetuate," Kirkman said. He again used an example of how he had talked to creators who were surprised, for example, about how much Charlie Adlard makes on The Walking Dead.
Bendis interrupted and said that not everyone is going to hit the jackpot like The Walking Dead. He told Kirkman to stop referring all the time to The Walking Dead.
"But it rules!" a fan yelled from the audience to laughs.
Kirkman admitted that his argument can be dismissed by many people because they'll assume he's just saying it from the point of view of being an Image partner. "But your argument can be dismissed just as easily because you're a Marvel guy," Kirkman said.
"I actually don't want anybody there but me," Bendis said to laughs.
"Then we should talk," Kirkman joked.
Bendis said, "For a lot of books, and I'd hate to do this but I'm going to include the Luna Brothers in this -- it takes a long time before the money really starts coming in," he said, explaining that creators have to wait for the trade to sell and word of mouth to really make a difference. And that's only if the book even survives long enough to make it that far. "I don't care who you are. I don't care what book you're on. It's always a bummer.
"Make a comic because you want to," Bendis said. "But I'm talking about, if you're planning on quitting your job? Not a good idea."
Kirkman, looking frustrated, said he was talking to creators who could bring an audience with them.
Bendis again asked what creators would not realize they can leave Marvel and DC and do creator-owned comics for a living.
Kirkman pointed at Bendis. "You've been dabbling for a long time," Kirkman said to laughs, then added in a little voice: "I do Powers and then I do 10 Avengers titles."
"You bring up a good point, because writers can do a lot more in a month, but artists can't," he said. I talked about how Koi Pham had to keep his "day job" working at a law firm because he wasn't sure if he'd be able to make enough money in comics.
And he said he thinks it's been beneficial to him as a writer to do both the work at Marvel and the creator-owned comics, because being in your own universe where you can do whatever you want can make you "fat and bloated and lazy." He said he liked the fact that in Ultimate Spider-Man, there are rules and limits placed on him, so he's forced to find creative ways to write the story well but still stay within those limits. "I told Mark Millar from the day I met him to do both. They really compliment each other... They do rub off on each other and for awhile, YOU enjoyed that."
Kirkman quipped, "I do enjoy rubbing off" as the audience again broke out in laugher.
Kirkman said there are limits while doing creator-owned comics that will still be challenges. He said a creator still has to do a story that is "bankable." He then made a joke to point out that not everything at Marvel or DC is a new challenge, saying in a mocking tone: "Did you announce Dark Avengers? That is amazing! A new AVENGERS book! Who would have thought? And they're dark? It's gonna be dark! I can SO give that to my kid."
Bendis held up his middle finger and scratched his nose to laughs from the audience.
"Creators," Bendis said, "you should invest in yourself. Whether you can afford to spend two days a week investing in yourself, that's fine."
"And continue to perpetuate the Marvel system," Kirkman snapped back.
"No. The important thing is just that you don't stop your own work," Bendis said in defense. "The one thing that is so unsexy and annoys people when they ask you for advice," is that doing creator-owned work means you also have to run a business. He said his wife had to set up his corporation and keep track of all the money and everything, and it's not as easy as you would think. "My friends literally go sit at my wife's feet now.
"I think the Image founders show that to be true," he said, pointing out that they had to start a business. "Some were even better business people than creators."
"Do you think the Image Comics founders were worrying about selling 3,000 copies?" Kirkman asked.
"They were smart. They did commercial stuff," Bendis said, pointing out that Todd McFarlane did a cross between Batman and Spider-Man, adding to laughs that the Image founders "didn't do Joe Mad masturbating in a cup. They were doing commercial work that was geared right at their Marvel audience."
"And it seemed to work out," Kirkman said.
Cebulski asked how long it took Kirkman to sustain himself on his creator-owned comics.
Kirkman admitted it wasn't easy at first. "It didn't take me nearly as long as him," he said, as the audience laughed.
"Well you live in Kentucky, so you can sustain yourself on much less," Bendis said to more laughs.
Kirkman then addressed something Bendis said on his message board and on the Wordballoon podcast about how Walking Dead would not be doing as well if Kirkman hadn't been successful on Marvel Zombies.
Bendis interrupted. "That's not what I said, and I knew you'd misquote it," he said, explaining that there are many reasons that a comic like The Walking Dead is successful, and one of them is that the more mainstream comic is Marvel Zombies, and that audience went looking for other zombie stuff and found The Walking Dead. "The same thing happened to me on Powers. It's not the only reason Powers is successful, but I'm very aware that the showcase for me at Marvel" helps sell Powers.
Kirkman said he wanted to prove that Bendis was wrong. So he pulled up a slide of a line graph that impressed the audience.
"You made a graph??" Bendis said in amazement.
"I have a lot of free time now," Kirkman joked.
The graph showed a red line slowly climbing toward the right and a blue line making a similar climb. The graph indicated this was sales on The Walking Dead and Invincible. Another line showed the timing and sales on Marvel Zombies.
According to the chart, there was no significant change in sales of Kirkman's creator-owned work either during or after Marvel Zombies.
"That is the consistent rise that The Walking Dead experienced. It's been there since before I was at Marvel," Kirkman said. He said that he decided that instead of just arguing that Bendis would wrong, he'd share the numbers and prove "the graph shows something different."
Kirkman pointed out that sales are even starting to go up "now that I've left Marvel."
Bendis then pointed out that the graph didn't include trades. "It's wrong to not include trade paperback sales, to pretend that's not part of the equation," he said.
The Marvel-exclusive creator then pointed out the huge dip in sales after Issue #1. "Most people can't survive the three-issue dip," Bendis said.
"I think 'most people' not being able to survive that is a broad generalization," Kirkman countered.
"It's very soul-crushing. It hurts man. When you put out a book and the world goes -- don't care!" Bendis said.
Kirkman continued with graphs showing how the sales on Bendis' creator-owned comic, Powers, wasn't affected at all by his debut on his Avengers titles.
Bendis continued to maintain it didn't take into account the trades, so it wasn't accurate.
Kirkman said he also didn't include trades because he doesn't have access to the trade sales figures for all of Bendis' creator-owned comics, so he had to use internet numbers.
"Oh! These are internet numbers?" Bendis yelled, obviously finding another way to attack the charts.
Bendis started to rant about how internet numbers are all over the place compared to actual numbers, waving his arms in the air to emphasize the difference between the two.
Kirkman just smiled.
"Bring 'em up," he said to the person controlling the slide show.
The next slide said, "Internet Numbers vs. Actual Numbers" and the crowd just exploded in laughter. In actuality, the internet numbers for his Ultimate X-Men series followed almost exactly the same rise as the actual numbers, with lines that were almost parallel.
"Online numbers CAN be used to tabulate dips in sales because, while they are wrong, they're consistently wrong and you can make a judgment based on the correlation between those numbers," Kirkman said. "The point I'm trying to make is that online numbers are off, but they are off in relation to each other."
Bendis again maintained that the charts were meaningless because they didn't take into account trade sales.
At that point, Image's new publisher, Eric Stephenson, began to talk from the audience, so Bendis and Kirkman invited him up to the podium.
"The trade numbers weren't included because they actually make his point even better," Stephenson said, indicating that the absolute worst case scenario was the one being seen on the slides.
Bendis asked Stephenson point blank if he really doesn't believe Kirkman's Marvel audience helps the sales of his Image books.
"I actually think the Marvel audience hurts," Stephenson said.
"If you can buy seven New Avengers books and they're all really awesome, why would you buy Powers?" Kirkman said.
"First of all, Mr. Numbers, I do two Avengers books," Bendis said to more laughs, then maintained that it's his belief the trades would make the numbers look different.
Nick Barrucci of Dynamite Entertainment then joined the discussion, suggesting that there should also be a chart for everybody who is interested in creator-owned comics, showing them just how much money a creator can make from a comic that doesn't sell that much. He said creators and fans don't understand that something can sell much less as a creator-owned comic but still make the creator just as much money as they would make with a hugely-selling comic at Marvel or DC.
Finally, the discussion wrapped up as the panelists were told they were running out of time because there was a Superman panel about to begin. A fan asked what happens now.
“Now at least one of you, hopefully more than one, but at least one, is going to go back to your hotel room and write the best damn thing because you’re so excited or so nervous by what we’ve talked about,” Bendis said. “And that’s what I’m hoping for — that any one of you will create something spectacular.”