SHOULD WRITERS AND ARTISTS CARRY AN EXPIRY DATE?
I keep trying to reach the cinema to see Gangs of New York and weird things keep stopping me. Our most recent attempt just a few nights ago was thwarted too and we ended up catching the (pretty cool) Spielberg flick Catch Me If You Can. Don’t ask me why, but my previous two attempts ended with me sitting through the agonising Republican Hick-flick Sweet Home Alabama and, just last week, the fucking Banger Sisters. Quite annoyingly, all my friends have now seen Gangs of New York and have systematically dissected it without me. MORE disturbingly, the verdicts range from crap to disappointing and many are saying that Scorcese has completely lost the plot. It’s fair to say that he hasn’t really scored a bulls-eye since Goodfellas in 1990 and this has me wondering: Is there a time or an age when even the best creative people just stop being good at what they do?
Obviously, this is something I can’t help applying to comics. I’m probably the only guy on the planet who lies awake at night thinking about these trends, but it’s interesting to me because comics is not only a medium I’ve always loved, but it also happens to be how I make my living. I’m lucky enough to be regarded as a Hot Creator at the moment, but a flick through any old copy of Wizard shows a very different top ten list and it becomes immediately apparent how transient our moment really is in a pop-medium aimed specifically at young people. Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Vaughan, Devin Grayson, Alex Ross, Bryan Hitch and I are all around the same age (a couple of years over or under thirty), but it’s ridiculous to assume that you’re going to stay part of the new wave for the rest of your lives. After all, there’s only so many years they can call you a bright, young thing, right?
I’ve spoken to quite a few older creators about this recently and their frustration is that, after a certain number of years, the assignments just start to become as thin as their greying hair. The pattern here is really quite consistent; a nice run on Superman or Batman or Spider-Man being replaced by the offer of a second-tier character or, worse still, a number of special projects as you’re slow-motion fired to make way for new blood. What’s interesting is that the new blood isn’t necessarily better in terms of dialogue, draughtsmanship or story-structure. What’s important to the editors and publishers is that there’s a new name in Previews and, perhaps, a new hook to snare the casual readers who might not be picking up that title in such large numbers anymore. Over the last year I’ve met half a dozen huge names from the seventies and eighties, guys I grew up reading and admiring, who probably couldn’t get a book launched at Marvel and DC at the moment and I found this disturbing. It seems, no matter how good you are or were, there simply comes a point when you just can’t get regular mainstream work in the field of comics anymore.
I’m not convinced that this is simply an age-thing. Living, breathing proof of this fact is that Hulk-writer Bruce Jones is old enough to be my father (and might well be, considering we both share the same rugged good-looks) and he’s written one of the most successful and fastest-growing titles of the last twelve months. I actually think the main factor to consider here is that we come with a predetermined time-limit in the business and that The Hulk, believe it or not, is really Bruce’s first regular mainstream assignment. Regardless of what age we are when we appear, we have an approximately twenty year expiry-date in mainstream comics and the clock starts ticking the second we start working for the Big Two. For writers, that most hidden of professions, I think we start small, peak and decline over twenty years in a near-perfect parabolic curve. More visible creators, like movie directors and artists, are slightly different. Their careers tend to split into two halves, the first half almost always being their flashy debut and first few hits, their cosy second halves being, well, the comic-book equivalent of the Star Wars prequels. The pattern with writers is that we start small and build up to a peak usually ten years into our mainstream career and then it’s a slow, very gradual decline for the next decade, dropping back outside the Top 100 until we’re working full-time either outside the most successful comic-book companies or outside comics altogether.
There are, of course, a few exceptions to the director rule (Spielberg comes to mind, but I really think he’s just SLICKER than he used to be and by no means more interesting), but the number of creators who have managed to escape my mainstream comic-book theory is really very, very small. Even Alan Moore, my generation’s favourite writer and the guy we all grew up reading, is selling 20,000 units at the moment and his work from over a decade ago is consistently outselling his current work in the bookstore graphic novel charts by quite a considerable margin. Like I said, this doesn’t mean Alan is less of a writer than he was ten years ago, but our fickle public have perhaps just started taking his name for granted., that best-writer award he took home for so many years eventually going to Neil then to Garth then to Warren and now sitting in the hairy hands of Mister Brian Michael Bendis.
Our name is all we really have in this business because our name is our reputation and our reputation is what sells comics. Depending on where we are in the parabolic curve of our mainstream career depends exactly how much our names can influence the sales of a particular title. Assign me to a comic-book now and I might be able to increase your sales by sixty per cent because all my books are consistent top ten sellers. Assign me to a book ten years from now, even if I’m more accomplished as a writer and coasting on a successful body of work, that spike in sales might only be thirty per cent. Guys like Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger are perfect examples of this. They might be more technically proficient with their guitars, have a wider experience of the industry, have massive mainstream name recognition with the general public and a license to write and produce any kind of music that they want, but the work they do now just doesn’t sell. In fact, Jagger’s new album a year or two ago sold so badly (just a few hundred copies across the whole country in a single week) that the story made the evening news over here.
The truth is that the chance of writing or drawing a top ten book after fifteen or twenty years as a full-time mainstream comic-book creator is almost negligible and it’s a genuine testament to Chris Claremont that he’s managed to do this in a very public career stretching back to the 1970s. I don’t say this as someone who grew up reading the X-Men because I didn’t. In fact, I read my first X-Men comic just a couple of years ago and can therefore look with quite a detached eye and see how the work he did in conjunction with Byrne in particular redefined the medium and influenced all the people who influenced me. Like Stan and Jack, I think Chris and John are currently working full-time in their fourth decade in the business because their impact on the mainstream was so gigantic and unique that they’re probably set-up in comics for life in much the same way Alfred Hitchcock was set-up in movies until the day he joined the Choir Invisible. The rest of us probably won’t get that lucky, but the trick is to just enjoy the ride while it lasts and do what we can to dazzle people while they’re still shining that spotlight on us.
So here I am typing this up on a Friday morning and hoping that, before the pub tonight, I can get to the cinema and finally see Gangs of New York three or four weeks after it opened in the UK much like I didn’t mind waiting three or four weeks for (the brilliant) Dark Knight 2 to appear in my monthly complimentary box . What’s interesting, however, is that I couldn’t wait for the final Transmetropolitan in that comp box. I couldn’t wait for John Cassaday’s first Captain America or the latest issue of Pete and Mike’s X-Statix either. Is this why I still haven’t seen Gangs of New York after almost an entire month, but will see the next Fincher or Mendes or latest hot director’s flick right there on the opening night?