First and foremost, allow me to make a quick quasi-plug here:
I’ll be doing a ”Write or Wrong: Live!” Panel at C2E2 in Chicago on Friday, March 18th at 3:30 PM to kick off a weekend of comic-related shenanigans… so if you’re going to be attending the show plan on swinging by and attending the panel for an hour. After a short pre-planned opening salvo I plan on it being largely audience-question based… so consider this a golden opportunity to pick my brain about all things involved in writing and making comics.
After that I’ll be spending the weekend (and, if last year is any indication, too much money) at the show with my frequent collaborator and pal Seth Damoose as we split our time between an Artists Alley table and kickin’ it with our friends at the Comics Pipeline table. (In case you missed the news, ComicsPipeline is currently hosting two full-length comics from me – including one by me and Seth).
My evenings will then be spent kickin’ it with friends old and new alike… so if you’re going to the show drop me a line at Facebook and we can plan on meeting at the show, ya’ hear?
That aside… man… I gotta tell ya’… I’m loving all of the online the discussions concerning the importance of supporting creator owned books lately.
First, fellow horror writer (and all-around swell fellow) Steve Niles posted a rather nifty blog entry about the importance of supporting creator-owned books that’s well worth reading.
Then a short-time later my other fellow horror-writer (are you sensing a pattern here yet?) Eric Powell posted a rather hilarious and salacious video (which he later removed from YouTube after deciding it was too alienating and divisive) to announce his new campaign to help promote/advocate the importance of creator owned comics named The Front for Diversity in Comics.
As long-time readers of this column know, I’m a staunch advocate of supporting both diversity in comics and creator-owned books, because, in my opinion, it’s through creator-owned comics that we get the most diverse and interesting comics since in creator-owned comics the creator’s can basically do whatever they want.
Furthermore, it’s also the most direct way to support the creators you like, of course.
Those points aside, as Powell mentioned in his video, it’s also quickly getting to the point where creator-owned books are becoming the only ways to find comics about non-corporately owned (and usually spandex-clad) superheroes.
(Yes, I’m aware that there are exceptions… but, honestly, there aren’t a lot of them, are there? Seriously… go ahead and take a moment to count f you don’t believe me. I’ll wait.)
Mind you, though, I’m not trying to bash superheroes or people who like them… something that, sadly, happens all too often in these types of discussions.
Books about corporately-owned superheroes are popular in part due to the fact that these are characters we’ve had the privilege of knowing for years, and on top of that many of the better-known (and better-selling) corporately-owned superheroes are in fact archetypes that speak to many of us about the human condition.
The nerd who secretly has a lot more to offer than most people will ever know.
The strong, sexy, and independent woman.
The outsider who has to pretend to be someone else to blend-in.
The seemingly small or weak guy who’s really a hella-strong and tough if he gets mad enough.
Etc, etc, etc.
Furthermore… there’s something to be said for being able to read about such characters month after month in new installments of their stories… or every six months (or so) in graphic novel/trade paperback collections.
Heck, oftentimes a deciding factor in me picking-up a new book is whether or not there’s going to be more of it. After all, why would I want to pick-up, say, the adventures of “Awesomeman” or “The Navel-Gazer” only to love it… and find that it’s been abandoned by its creator for any number of reasons?
No… as a guy who loves long-form fiction – both in prose and in comics – I want something I can really sink my teeth into and enjoy for the long haul… and I suspect there are a lot of other readers out there who feel the same way, hence the appreciation of corporately-owned superhero books.
After all, readers who enjoy reading about the adventures of Spider-Man or Superman know that the characters aren’t going anywhere and that they’ll be able to continue reading about them for as long as they wish.
There’s a flip-side, of course, as many people attack the merits and/or quality of corporately-owned superhero comics, citing the unoriginality of the characters and stories, the repetitiveness of themes and tropes they explore and/or the fact that – when all is said and done – nothing really changes in these stories.
While there are certainly arguments for and against each of these claims (and countless examples to prove or disprove each one), I think we can agree that the reason the debate exists in the first place is because books containing corporately-owned superheroes are the biggest game in town.
After all, Marvel and DC, both of whose catalogs are predominantly made-up of corporately-owned superhero books, dominate the current American comic market with an overwhelming supermajority of 70% of sales between the two of them… and the king (or kings) of the hill are the ones targeted the most for attack and/or backlash.
While both Marvel and (moreso) DC do occasionally produce NON-corporately-owned superhero books, this is far-more the exception than the rule… and even then these titles usually only sell a fraction of what the corporately-owned superhero books do.
What this means to creators, of course, and what Eric Powell seemed to take the most umbrage with in his video manifesto, is that they can get the greatest exposure for themselves (or, harkening back to the last column, their “name brand”) by doing work-for-hire gigs on corporately-owned superhero books for Marvel or DC… which in turn takes away from their ability to create their own, non-corporately-owned superhero books.
After all, we all only have so many hours in the day – and so much energy – we can dedicate to creating comics, you know?
At this point you’re probably wondering why this relates to you, as an aspiring creator, to the point where I’m taking-up valuable column space (not to mention my own writing time) to discuss it.
I’ll get to that in a moment… but first, in regards to Marvel and DC and their stance on creator-owned books, let me tell all of you aspiring creators out there something that you should know, as there are a few great logical fallacies I hear a lot of up-and-coming writers discuss time and time again.
FALLACY #1: Marvel or DC is not going to pick-up your creator-owned book.
It always disheartens me to talk to aspiring creators who are telling me about putting all of this work into creating their own comics… only to then hear them say, in the same breath, that they’re going to pitch it to Marvel or DC.
Folks, Marvel and DC are both put-out some great books and do a lot to employ some great creators… but they are not going to publish your creator-owned book.
Marvel is owned by Disney and they’re in the business of putting out comics (etc) about their own incredibly vast array of pre-existing, corporately-owned characters. Until you get hired in under a “work-for-hire” contract at Marvel and then put in a good ten years with them while helping them grow and reinvigorate the entire franchise in the process (a la Brian Bendis), it won’t happen. Sorry.
DC is owned by Warner Brothers and they’re in the business of putting out comics (etc) about their own incredibly vast array of corporately-owned characters. Unless you’re Neil Gaiman (who’s list of credentials is too long to list here), they probably won’t pick-up your creator-owned book either. No, not even at Vertigo, as most of those books aren’t “creator-owned” anymore either. Seriously. Look in the indicia of them if you don’t believe me.
FALLACY #2: Avatar probably won’t publish your creator-owned book. No, not even if it’s a horror title.
Although Avatar certainly has its fair share of detractors given some of the more… uncompromising… books they release, they really does publish some good stuff, especially if you’re a fan of the select group of writers they work with. The Courtyard adaption of the story by Alan Moore was especially strong, as was Crossed and 303 by Garth Ennis as well as Black Summer by Warren Ellis – among several other titles.
Now… considering the fact that Avatar is working with guys like Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, David Lapham and Brian Pulido, publishing the stories that (presumably) Marvel (who, remember, is now owned by Disney) and/or DC (who, remember, is owned by Warner Brothers) cannot or will not publish… well… no offense, why the heck would they work with you? Regardless of how good your book it?
Or, to be more direct, why would they NEED to? They’re a smaller publisher and it’s unlikely that you, as a relative newcomer, will convince them to pull their resources away from their established talent to work with you.
Mind you, that’s not an attack on your ability or the quality of you work… and maybe you are as good as those guys… but what you won’t have (for a while, at least) is the name-brand recognition that they seem to be looking for in the vast majority of books they publish.
God… am I being a wet towel here or what? Rest assured…there *IS* hope… but let’s shoo this last elephant out of the room, first.
In terms of creator-owned books, Dark Horse is currently working with guys like Eric Powell and Mike Mignola – who between the two of them have won something like a trillion Eisners and are all but universally acclaimed as two of the most talented creators currently doing creator-owned work. That’s not to say that Dark Horse won’t publish your creator-owned book, though, because they do publish creator-owned books regularly alongside their licensed-property comics (such as the work of Mignola and Powell)… but it’s going to have to be top-notch stuff that’s on the level of the other creator-owned stuff they already publish. As with any publisher you’re looking to pitch to, use the creator-owned stuff they’re already publishing as a measuring stick by which to HONESTLY gauge your own potential submissions to them, lest you be laughed out of the room.
The same is also true of working with Image Comics. Remember, this is the company that publishes work by guys like Robert Kirkman and Nick Spencer (and, admittedly, ME – but don’t hold that against them) on a regular basis. These are guys – myself included – that have proven that they can and will sell books because they make good comics… and in tough economic times that’s oftentimes sometimes a deciding factor: “Will it sell?”
Of all the publishers I’ve mentioned, I think Image is without a doubt the most accessible big publisher for new creators, as they make no secret of the fact that they can and will publish creator-owned books that are top-notch in terms of art and writing even if you’re a “new guy”… as that’s one of the principles the company was founded on.
However, to get to the point that Image is going to publish your book you’re going to most likely have to spend years honing your craft, creating dozens of finished comics that – for one reason or another – may not immediately land themselves at big publishers.
(Remember: I more-or-less self-published NIGHTMARE WORLD for SIX YEARS, building a solid following for the series through that whole time, before Jim Valentino and Kris Simon picked it up at the for the Shadowline Webcomics Hub... and even then it was a year later before the first of the two Image Comics/Shadowline two NIGHTMARE WORLD graphic novel collections were published.)
So… I’m not trying to poop on anyone’s cornflakes here, because it IS entirely possible to hone your craft and make it to the “big leagues”. I mean, heck, my long journey to this point in my career is proof of that, and I remain convinced that anyone who has the right mix of talent and dedication can get there.
That being said, though, you’ll have to be realistic about where to focus your efforts.
Despite how good your creator-owned book is, it’s not going to be picked-up by Marvel or DC – the two companies who make-up 7/10ths of the current marketplace – so abolish that thought from your mind for the time being… because if that’s your goal, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Rather, you should strive to create your own books that are “good enough” to be picked-up by Image and/or Dark Horse – if you want to get to the front of the PREVIEWS catalog for a month or so, anyway.
However, even if you make ot to that point, keep in mind that at this point you’ll be competing against all of the other creator-owned and small-press books in the catalog for a crumb of the 30% of the marketplace that’s left.
Think about that for a moment.
This means that seventy cents out of every dollar being spent on comics in America is being spent of corporately-owned superheroes comics published by Marvel and/or DC.
Not creator-owned books.
Not small press books.
Not self-published books.
Corporately-owned superheroes comics.
Specifically, corporately-owned superheroes comics written by creators who are usually picked-up by editors only after they’ve proven their chops by creating quality creator-owned comics and getting them published on the web, via Image or Dark Horse or through another smaller publisher.
But again… how does this relate to you as an aspiring creator? And why should you care about any of this?
This is why:
If you’re hoping to one day “break into the comic industry”… should 7 out of every 10 books you buy be the ones written by creators who struggled and ultimately persevered in their quest to make their own books… only for you to only reward their efforts by buying the books about corporately-owned superheroes that they’re writing on a “work-for-hire” basis?
Keep in mind, “work-for-hire” gigs are just what they sound like. The creator is hired to write for a certain title… while retaining none of the future creative rights to that book. In other words, if I was tapped to write a Midnight Sons mini-series for Marvel tomorrow, and upon publication of the comic I wrote the scripts for the plot was optioned as part of a movie… I probably won’t get any residuals, to speak of.
Because, you know, it was “work-for-hire,” meaning I would go into the gig knowing that they were paying for my work (in this case, the story I wrote for them featuring their corporately-owned superheroes) and it was then theirs to do with whatever they saw fit… including make it into a multi-million dollar movie.
Of which I would not see millions of dollars.
Because I was paid to write the script under “work-for-hire” arrangements.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you that “work-for-hire” isn’t a fair system, though… because it is.
I mean, hey, if I wanted someone to write a story based on some of my characters, I wouldn’t in turn give them even a portion of the rights to the work as a whole. Rather, I’d pay them a certain, set amount of money to do so, in essence “buying” the work from them. Maybe I’d even give them a percentage of the profit for a limited time.
So, no, contrary to what Alan Moore (a writer whose work I greatly admire) sometimes carries-on about, I do not believe the system is corrupt in that sense.
I do believe, though, that it’s pretty sad that 70% of the sales in America are supporting corporately-owned superheroes, though, when there’s so much more that so many creators can offer readers.
Because diversity in comics is a good thing, and because, on top of that, I think it’s well-past time that books that aren’t about corporately-owned superheroes started getting a little more notice in the marketplace.
Books like Chew, The Goon, B.P.R.D., Infinite Vacation (which blew my mind after the first issue alone), Invincible and even online comics such as Axe-Cop and The Dreamland Chronicles and Farseeker.
The bottom line, folks, is this: If you want to sustain the longevity of this industry and create a future where you can support yourself in comics without having to spend your time doing work-for-hire books about corporately-owned superheroes, you need to start looking past just corporately-owned superhero books.
Again, I’m not telling you what to like and what not to like… and I’m certainly not calling for a mutiny or boycott of the books of Marvel or DC, as both companies put out great books by some great creators.
Besides, if you think, say, Geoff Johns is going an amazing job on Green Lantern and the book provides you with $3 worth of entertainment every month, by all means, spend your money that way… and feel free to tell your friends how much you’re enjoying it, too.
However… it wouldn’t hurt any of us to re-examine our buying and reading habits a bit, either, in order to see what else is out there – and worth supporting – beyond corporately-owned superhero books…
And there’s an easy way to do it… and I’ll be talking about that in the next column.
In the meantime, if you’re on Facebook I encourage you to consider “Liking”
The Front For Diversity in Comics, since it seems like it’s shaping-up to be a nice resource for learning about good online comics and NON-corporately-owned superheroes. Then, if you’re so inclined, feel free to shoot me a “Friend Request” on my Facebook page as well so we can keep this conversation going. (Just make sure to include a note so I know you’re not a Spam-bot or “Friend Collector,” please.)
Remember… this is NOT about attacking corporately-owned superhero books, nor is it about tearing other companies, creators or characters down in order to make others look better.
Rather, it’s about exploring the incredible diversity that this medium currently offers, trying to make it so that future creators have the option of financing themselves via creating their own stories with their own characters and, lastly, being honest with ourselves about where and how we should be spending our money.
In the next installment of this column I’m going to talk to you about a complete reinvention of my own reading and buying habits and how, in only six months, I became a happier and more well-rounded reader because of it… and how by doing so you could be paving the way towards a better future for yourself as an aspiring comic book creator.
Next Time: How you can make the comics industry a more friendly place for creator-owned books (in only six easy months)!
Dirk Manning is the writer/creator of NIGHTMARE WORLD a web-to-print comic now being loudly and proudly published by Image Comics/Shadowline and FARSEEKER, a fantasy series with artists Len O’Grady updated every Friday at ACT-I-VATE. He is also a longtime contributing columnist for Newsarama and a staunch advocate for comic creators everywhere. He lives on the Internet and can usually be found lurking around Facebook and Twitter on a fairly regular basis… when he’s not busy writing or creating comics, of course.
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