It was late in the afternoon this Saturday when fans packed into room 307 “The OA Room” of the Baltimore Comic-Con to see Brian Bendis and Robert Kirkman debate the future of creator-owned work. The conversation was the live, in person continuation of a back and forth discussion begun over a month ago when Kirkman posted his “mission statement” online here at Comic Book Resources and has since continued in the form of multiple rebuttals from each side, podcasts and thousands of conversations among fans at message boards
Perhaps the one thing both creators agreed on right off the bat was how great it was that this had generated so much discussion on every level about the concept of creator-owned work. It should be emphasized again that this was likely the only thing they agreed on. The event kicked off almost immediately with disagreement on almost every level about the potential viability of creator-owned work, the promises inherent in it and the possibility for security it may or may not provide to would-be creators.
The conversation was loose and often Bendis and Kirkman seemed to forget the audience was there at all, speaking fast, interrupting each other and not always speaking into the microphones. Bendis began by arguing that Kirkman was making “false promises” to creators, making the point that it’s not easy to make an independent book commercially successful and “The Walking Dead” was more the exception than the rule. “‘Torso’ never sold more than 2200 copies…I just eeked out a living,” said Bendis. “And I just don’t care because I have mental problems, which is fine.”
Bendis explained that for near a decade he was making comics with little to no financial reward, working jobs as a caricature artist just to pay the bills. Even when Bendis “succeeded” in comics, it was far from over night and it wasn’t exactly what he expected. “I won an Eisner and I had to leave early to go to a Bat Mitzvah that night,” he said.
There was a lot of chiding, gentle and not so gentle on both sides. Kirkman seized on Bendis’ frequent use of the phrase “rarified air” to describe his and Kirkman’s position in the industry. Kirkman said, “This rarified air that is so delicious that we all get to enjoy together,” there’s a pause as his comment draws laughs. “Smells delicious.”
“Smells like Quesada,” Bendis quipped.
“I’m really glad it doesn’t, actually,” Kirkman answered.
There was a lot of accusations of generalizing on both sides because any debate about comic creators’ careers will of course be anecdotal. Kirkman emphasized that there is a cycle that creators go through, beginning with independent work, making a name for themselves, moving to Marvel when they’re at their peak and then eventually wearing out their popularity with no plan for their future. “You can’t generalize like that,” Bendis said. “That’s not everybody’s cycle.”
“I wasn’t speaking to all creators. I was speaking to specific creators,” Kirkman answered. Bendis was quick to point out that there are many creators who make a living at comics and never have any interest in doing superheroes for a living.
Kirkman pointed out the opposite, that there are plenty of creators whose only goal is to do work for “The Big Two.” “There are guys who only want to do Marvel and DC,” he said. “But I don’t think you could make the argument that they’re gonna keep doing ‘Green Arrow’ until they die.”
“Green Arrow” became an extended metaphor at this point, Bendis pointing out that if there’s someone who wants to do “Green Arrow” more than anything in the world, that’s the guy you want doing “Green Arrow.” “That’s perfect on an individual level, I agree, everyone benefits,” Kirkman said. “But what about when it’s industry wide?”
Kirkman was clear that his “mission statement,” above all, was about promoting alternatives. “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,” he said.
“Who are we talking about here?” Bendis answered. “Grant Morrison made this point. Who is not aware that they can be doing creator-owned work who could be?”
This led to the two disagreeing about how many creators in comics could make the leap to creator-owned work successfully. Bendis claimed that for Kirkman’s examples, there are maybe four guys capable of making that kind of living in creator-owned comics.
“There are more than four guys who can do this,” Kirkman said, incredulously.
“At the level you’re talking about? There’s like five,” Bendis answered.
Kirkman argued that it’s not a matter of creators not being aware of creator-owned work, but them not being aware of just how profitable it can be for them. “There are creators who are not aware that they can make quite a bit more selling a fraction of what they sell at Marvel with creator-owned work,” Kirkman said. “They are shocked. They had no idea Charlie Adlard makes that much.” There are also examples of creators who make good, mid-level livings doing creator-owned books, Kirkman argues, citing the Luna Bros. as an example.
Bendis again disagreed that this was the norm, arguing most guys making the jump to creator-owned work would be lucky if they sold 5,000 copies.
“These guys are not going to sell 5,000. That is a falsehood that you’re trying to perpetrate.” Kirkman said. Bendis again cited his own example struggling to sell enough of creator-owned properties to even justify the publishers continuing with them. “A lot of independent books do go away by issue #3,” Bendis said. “Most books don’t make it. But let’s say you’re insane like me and you keep at it. It’s hard. Which is why what you were selling to me sounded almost irresponsible. Because it’s the best possible outcome. To pretend that for sure you are going to sell this, it’s just wrong.”
Even for creators who do make a living, Bendis argues, it’s far from easy. “For a lot of books and I’d hate to do this but I’m gonna include the Luna Brothers in this — it takes a long time before the money really starts coming in. You’ve got to wait until the trades, until word of mouth spreads and then you make it off the back end hopefully.” In a market when new independent books have little chance of surviving their initial three issue sales dip, Bendis argues that’s a danger that you can’t gloss over. “I don’t care who you are — I don’t care what book you’re on — it’s always a bummer.”
Bendis again asked who wasn’t doing creator-owned work who should be, among high-profile writers and Kirkman was quick to point the finger back toward him. “You’ve been dabbling for a long time,” he said.
“I do ‘Powers’ and then I do nine ‘Avengers’ titles!”
“You bring up a good point because writers can do a lot more in the month and artists can’t,” Bendis pointed out. He even cited the example of a successful artist like Koi Pham who until recently was still working in a law firm because his art still wasn’t enough to pay the bills. Bendis also responded to the idea that he does less creator-owned work than corporate work. “It doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels like I do a lot of work on that stuff, some of which hasn’t come out yet because I’m not ready to show it.”
Bendis also made the point that in his mind, it can be very healthy to do both. “I told Mark Millar from the day I met him — do both. They really compliment each other,” he said turning to Kirkman. “They do rub off on each other and for a while, you enjoyed that.”
“I do enjoy rubbing off,” Kirkman answered to laughs. Kirkman was hesitant to accept the idea that doing corporate comics along with creator-owned work benefits you either commercially or creatively. “Did you announce Dark Avengers?” He asked, mockingly. “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 ignored the jokes and went right back to his point. “Creators,” he 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 answered.
“No. The important thing is just that you don’t stop your own work,” Bendis answered. “One of the things I tell people is — not only do you have to be the artist and writer and letterer, but you also have to be the president of your company. I didn’t know half this shit before my wife. I wouldn’t be half as successful now. My friends literally go and sit at my wife’s feet now.” Bendis cited the Image founders as a good example. “Some even were better business people than creators,” he said.
“Do you think the Image creators were worried about selling 3,000 copies?” Kirkman asked.
“I think they hedged their bets. Todd did a cross between Batman and Spider-Man,” Bendis answered. Kirkman agreed that they did work that was commercial, but that was besides the point. At this point, Kirkman broke out a slide show graphing sales of “The Walking Dead” and “Invincible” during his work at Marvel. But like a good political debate, both sides saw very different things in the numbers Kirkman showed.
“What it shows is that during the shipping of ‘Marvel Zombies,’ ‘Walking Dead’ leveled off for the first time,” Kirkman stated. Bendis argued that the rise of “Walking Dead” nto the twenty thousand range was likely resultant from Kirkman’s work on “Marvel Zombies.” “I saw the same thing with ‘Powers.’ It’s like — you like zombies man? There’s more zombies over here and they’re even more hardcore,” Bendis said.
“That is the consistent rise that has been in ‘Walking Dead’ since I started the book. Which is another graph I’ll show,” Kirkman said, changing the slide. The two continued to discuss Kirkman’s numbers, Bendis arguing that in fact his Marvel work did help.
“Look, I’m not gonna sit here and argue that doing Marvel work doesn’t help you, but…” Kirkman began.
“But you made a graph!” Bendis responded. “You know, if you stayed at Marvel… you wouldn’t have time to do this.”
Bendis also pointed out the early dip in sales after the first issue of both “Invincible” and “The Walking Dead.” “Most people can’t survive the three issue dip,” he re-iterated.
“Most people is a broad generalization,” Kirkman replied.
“It’s very soul-crushing. It hurts man. When you put out a book and the world goes — don’t care!” Bendis said.
The upset moment came when Bendis took Kirkman’s bait and claimed that the numbers weren’t valid because they were quote “internet numbers.”
“THESE ARE INTERNET NUMBERS?” Bendis said incredulously. Kirkman just smiled. “Bring ‘em up,” he said.
Another slide was shown, graphing “Internet Numbers Vs. Actual Numbers” and the results were surprising. “Online numbers can be used to tabulate dips in sales because while they’re wrong, they’re consistently wrong and you can make a judgment based on the correlations between those numbers,” Kirkman explained.
Finally, the heated conversation wound down. “What happens now?” a fan asked. This time Bendis had the answer. “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.”