WORKING FOR THE MAN
Last week was the latest Marvel Comics creative summit, which is where Marvel brings a group of their writers to New York and we all sit in a room with a whole bunch of editors and assorted company execs and talk comics for three or four days.
It’s an experience that is, by equal turns, exhausting and exhilarating.
I’ve been to a few of these things now, and I always leave tired, but anxious to get home and get back to work. This one was no different.
It is still a bit of an alien experience, though. Writing, for me, has always been such a quiet and solitary experience. I sit alone at my desk and work in dead silence. You rarely find that type of quiet in a room filled with twenty or more writers and editors. People toss out ideas, shoot down others, build off each other, shout over each other — it’s something to behold. I tend to be a pretty quiet guy, but I’ve learned you have to just dive in and make yourself heard at these things. Marvel doesn’t fly me all the way to New York just so I can sit there and listen. They wanna hear what I have to say.
I like being a part of these things. I like getting to play with Marvel’s biggest toys. I like having a voice in the creative direction of the company. And I like working for a company that wants a diversity of voices in that room and that wants to empower its creators to tell exactly the kinds of stories they want to tell.
In other words, I’m very happy where I’m at in my career right now, as a cog in Marvel’s machine.
Basically, I guess, I’ve found I rather like being a company man.
Round about the same time this summit was going on, the big topic of discussion among comic book folk became Eric Powell’s “creator-owned call-to-arms” video, which seemed to portray comic creators working for Marvel and DC as having sold their souls for money to evil corporations who at the end of the day care nothing about comics but instead just want to rape the creators and the industry for all its worth.
So here I was being raped, and I didn’t even know it.
Look, I understand Powell’s frustration and I agree with what I think was the sentiment behind the whole thing, in terms of a call-to-arms for more of a diversity of genres in the industry. But playing the whole “Fuck the Man!” card is the easiest thing in the world to do, and ultimately for me, it just rings hollow.
Now, some may simply call me a corporate shill for defending Marvel or DC, which I can live with. If my teenage self could only see me now, being labeled a corporate whore, I think he’d laugh. “So being a corporate whore means I get to write comic books for a living and tell whatever sorts of stories I want to tell? In that case, sign me the fuck up.”
We’re an industry of outsiders. It’s a part of our DNA. We’re the kids who read comics all through school and dreamed of someday making our own, not of going to business school and becoming a CEO. I never wanted to be that guy. I grew up with that same “Fuck the Man!” mentality. Before comics, I floundered in the corporate world. I hated it. I sucked at it. I didn’t function well within it.
So again, I get the frustration. If you’re working your ass off on your creator-owned comics and struggling to make your voice heard in the industry but always feel like you’re just being drowned out by the overwhelming den of mainstream superhero comics, I’m sure it’s easy to lose heart and vilify the folks at Marvel and DC.
But I was just sitting in that room at Marvel Comic headquarters, where we were charting the creative direction of the company, and I can assure you, the people there care about comics just as much as you do.
Are there bean-counters on the payroll? Are there people there whose job it is to focus more on numbers than the creative side? Of course. It’s a business. But to label mainstream superhero comics as being directed by heartless execs who care nothing about the health of the industry or the quality of their books is just juvenile and completely off-base.
But enough with me being the money-grubbing corporate shill who loves being ass-raped.
As I said, I agree with the sentiment behind Powell’s call-to-arms. We need more diversity in comics. Our industry shouldn’t be dominated by one genre. Superheroes alone cannot sustain us. I say that about mainstream comics as well as creator-owned ones, as there are obviously plenty of creator-owned superhero books out there too.
We’ve lost a big chunk of our audience over the years. We ran folks off in the ’90s with books designed more to take advantage of a frenzied speculators market than they were to tell good stories. And we’ve run folks off more recently with insular storylines and escalating prices. No superhero story, no matter how exciting, is ever going to bring them all back. Or more importantly, attract new readers who’ve never even checked us out before.
We need a rich diversity of ideas. We need quality books of all different genres. We do, indeed, need a creator-owned revolution.
I obviously make the majority of my living off mainstream superhero work, and as I’ve said, I’m having a blast doing so. I love working with Marvel and I’m proud of the work I’ve done there. But as long as I’m working in comics, I want to always be doing more than just superheroes. My crime series, “Scalped,” is still roaring along at Vertigo, and after that’s done, there’ll be other creator-owned works by me that will hopefully explore a whole range of genres.
The problem isn’t a lack of desire among creators to tell different types of stories. Pretty much every creator I know has ideas for their own creator-owned books. And the problem isn’t that mainstream companies have some sort of nefarious interest in restricting things to superheroes. I mean, look back over the history of comics. Marvel and DC both used to publish loads of non-superhero books, from war comics and westerns, to sci fi and romance.
The problem is just getting people to buy them.
Marvel and DC stopped publishing those other genres because they stopped selling.
Superhero comics now dominate our industry because that is, for the most part, what readers want.
The only real call-to-arms for creator-owned comics should be to turn readers on to all the great non-superhero books out there that they’re missing.
Next week, I’ll do my part and talk up some of my favorite creator-owned works of the last few years. Until then, I better get back to the corporate whoring and whatnot.
Jason Aaron is an Eisner and Harvey Award nominated comic book writer whose current work includes the critically-acclaimed crime series “Scalped” for DC/Vertigo and “Wolverine,” “Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine” and “PunisherMAX” for Marvel. He was born in Alabama but currently resides in Kansas City. You can follow him on Twitter (@jasonaaron) or his blog. His beard is bigger than yours.