At the Albany Comic Con on Sunday, writer Ron Marz and artist Lee Moder discussed not just their upcoming Image property Shinku, but took the time to discuss the evolution of the comics industry's hiring process, as well as to talk about the challenges of promoting new genres and new creator-owned work.
"In the '80s, the traditional method was that you broke in at Marvel or DC and you built your name up and you ended up getting enough cache to your name that you could do a creator-owned book and sell it on the strength of your name -- Hellboy, Next Men, American Flagg," Marz said. "Now it works the opposite way. You go through Image, a back-end deal, and you collect the profits at the end -- if there are any."
Citing writers such as Matt Fraction and Jonathan Hickman, Marz said that "those books end up as a gateway to Marvel and DC. It's almost a Marvel-DC farm team now. Marvel and DC snap up guys -- mostly writers, but sometimes artists -- who cut their teeth at Image."
Marz, however, questioned that model, having broken in himself in 1990 with the Silver Surfer. Describing today's model of starting at Image and moving to Marvel and DC as "on-the-job training," Marz said that "to me, it's a little weird that you do your own thing and the reward is a bunch of work for hire -- where in the past you started on work-for-hire, learned your stuff, and got to do your own creator-owned stuff."
That's when Moder jumped in, discussing how creator-owned material was extremely freeing. His big break was with Wonder Woman in 1993. "I'm really happy to be doing the creator-owned stuff -- to be able to plunk it down and say "it's mine," and nobody can tell us what to do with it," he said. Recalling an incident where he had to correct an entire Batman Elseworlds story, "how many different pieces have been taken out of us doing work-for-hire -- my God, Batman's belt buckle!"
"It's nice not have to worry about tiny little details like that," Moder continued. "When you come up with an idea for how you like something to go, it's only one guy I have to talk to -- and typically we come to the same conclusion. Otherwise it'd have to go up this ladder and maybe you'll get an answer in a week, or a month. More likely we wouldn't get an answer at all."
For example, Moder used the choice of inker and colorist on Shinku -- Matthew Waite and Mike Atiyeh -- as an example. Praising the look of the book, particularly its "cool marker-esque color technique," Moder said "I wouldn't have the luxury of that doing strictly work-for-hire -- you can supply them with four or five names of inkers or colorists, but oftentimes you get neither. You eat it and smile."
Marz jumped in to give his thoughts on working on work-for-hire. "Doing work for hire -- look its a great job. Playing with Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Witchblade is a great job. It's a lot better than having to work for a living. But once you've tasted the fruit of doing a creator-owned book, there's nothing like it."
Still, "the creator-owned experience is that much sweeter if you know what your'e doing," Marz continued. "The ironic thing is a lot of guys who are starting out are doing creator-owned material because that's what they can get. You don't know what your'e doing the first few years of your career -- and by the time you figure it out, you're working on work-for-hire and working on somebody else's toys."
"The cool thing for me and for Lee right now is we've been doing this long enough that we know what the hell we're doing, and the process is much smoother," Marz said. "Lee and I are, after dinner tonight, are going to knock out the next batch of pages. He's going to draw out some thumbnails -- I won't write a script, we'll just go back and forth and it'll get done."
Marz and Moder then discussed the history of their collaborations, going all the way back to Green Lantern Secret Files in 2007. They also did work together at Crossgen, and Moder teamed up with Marz when he was looking for a new artist to take over his "maybe not kid-oriented, but kid-friendly" series Dragon Prince. In the ensuing time, Marz and Moder began to develop other concepts -- which is where Shinku was born.
"Shinku is set in modern Japan, story about a lone descendant of a samurai clan who is at war wit ha vampire samurai clan," Marz explained, recalling that when people like Bela Legosi or Christopher Lee were vampires, you most definitely were not rooting for them. "It's definitely not a kids story -- there's nudity and violence and swearing. All those things you expect in vampire stories -- there's no sparkling, there's no cuddling."
The team expects to at least produce the first five issues, which will then go into a trade paperback. If the project succeeds, Marz and Moder will take a break to catch up and then continue with the next round of issues.
But with the freedom of a creator-owned project like Shinku, there are also some risks. "Image's deal is they don't pay you a page-rate, but they don't own anything, either," Marz said. "Lee and I own Shinku, 50-50. That includes movie option. That's ours. Image takes their publishing fee off the profits, and everything else is ours. So you kind of put your ass on the line. We've worked on Shinku for months now and nobody's gotten paid yet."
For a book like this, Marz said, early orders were crucial. "You can't eat good reviews," he said. Saying that book sales decline no matter what the book is, a retailer's best guess is what creators depend on. "When the book is being solicited now … what's happening right now really determines whether the book lives or dies."
In today's comics industry, Marz and Moder discussed that because there is only a finite amount of retailer dollars and reader interest, creator-owned books have to get all the support they can get. "A retailer is more likely to get a reprint of Batman than a book like Shinku or Morning Glories or Green Wake," Marz said. "It's so important to tell your retailer to say please order this, I will buy it."
For Moder, Shinku is even more important, as an artist spends most or all of his focus on just one book. "Shinku is my main focus right now -- in my spare time, I'm doing a western for Ron called Deadlands," he said. "I'm kinda dumb -- I do things that interest me rather than things that'll pay well. That's how I do westerns and more kid-friendly books."
Marz said that that was the sort of question many in the comics industry faced -- do you follow your muse and do things that appeal to you creatively, or do you side with the more secure realm of work-for-hire superheroes?
"The sales charts of monthly books, of single issue comics, reflect the Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, X-Men, that's what people go into the store to buy every week," Marz said. "But if you look at the graphic novel sales, its dominated by stuff like Walking Dead and Scott Pilgrim. They're completely creator-owned books. Thank God that Robert Kirkman decided that Invincible was his idea and that he wasn't going to release it through Marvel -- and 70-something issues later, he's still going strong."
Marz said that the latest project that he's editing -- a comic for the role-playing "weird western" game Deadlands -- is one of those kinds of projects that had a lot of potential for solid storytelling. The four issues will feature High Moon's David Gallaher and Steve Ellis, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Moder, Marz and Bart Sears, and Steve Niles and Francesco Francavilla. "40 years ago, half the books the publishers did were westerns. But I'm still a sucker for it. "
Returning to the question of expanding interest in genres outside of superheroes, Moder said "the publisher doesn't take any risks. Right now, the retailer takes all the risk, so the retailer is cautious about what they order."
"The retailer says, 'I sold out of 10 copies in June -- next month I'll go crazy and order 12,'" Moder said. "That's why sales tend to trend downwards -- if those books sell by Friday, the retailer says "whew, I didn't lose any money on these". Selling all the copies on the rack within two or three days is the best people can hope for. "
Marz added that to him, digital was the future. "There's no publisher risk that way, there's no retailer involved except for whatever group you're getting it from -- but unfortunately I think the Direct Market is going to take a huge hit in the next five years," he said. "I think we've built the Direct Market system to fail. .. You can't build your market selling the same thing to the same crowd. We'll be much more of a trade-oriented market."
Yet there's a reason why publishers are hesitant to move in that direction, Marz said: "Publishers need that money from Diamond every month to put back into creative costs to get out the next issue," he explained. "Most publishers can't afford to pay six months of creative costs without being able to make some sort of money off of it. We're so attached to that monthly format while the readership is moving further and further away from that format."
When asked by an audience member about the economics of a back-end deal such as with Image, Marz said that a work-for-hire job had specific page rates. But for Image, while many of their books do sell out during their first run, those books typically sell between 4,000 and 5,000 copies. Between Image's $2,500 publishing fee, Diamond's percentage and the retailer, Marz estimated that "each copy produces about $1.17. … If your book sold 5,000 copies -- that's a little over $6K profit. Image takes their cut -- your'e already down to $3,500. $3,500 to split among three guys, that's not much -- that's not a living wage."
The Holy Grail for these creators is less the single issue profits, as much as the trade paperback formats. He cited Tony Moore as the "exception to the rule," saying that even though he had a falling out with Robert Kirkman and no longer draws The Walking Dead, "the sales for the first trade paperback are strong enough that [Moore] makes a pretty decent living getting royalty checks from that first trade."
Books such as The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen are similar, Marz said, who cited them as evergreen stories with a beginning, middle and end, and doesn't require any other series to get set-up or resolution. "Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons never have to work a day in their lives because of a book they did 25 years ago -- that's the golden calf," Marz said. "That's not going to be the case for most everybody. But to have a chance, you have to sit at the table to have a chance to pick up that hand at poker. And for me and Lee, Shinku is our chance for sitting at that table."