While it may be the perception of many people outside of the comic book fan community that comic books are about either a) Archie & friends or b) superheroes, the truth is that the medium covers a wide array of subjects and one such area covered is the real world. Though it’s true that the superhero genre seemingly dominates the comic book industry, there is a quite vocal and strong fan base for more grounded, “real world” comic books and with this in mind, CBR News spoke with three of the most popular writers in that field: Andi Watson (“Slow News Day”), Chuck Austen (“The Call Of Duty”) and Terry Moore (“Strangers in Paradise“). All three men were more than happy to discuss their attraction to writing non-superhero comics, their perspective on the health of that genre and their perspective on the future of the genre in an industry where so many fans seem to only want action packed slugfests.
“I live in the real world. It’s easier to draw from life than to make things up out of whole cloth,” explains Austen of his reason for enjoying writing “real world” comics. “It also makes it easier for people to relate to the situations. We are all more closely related than we might like to think, in our ideas and experiences, so when we create from our own experiences, we immediately reach people with similar sensibilities and life experience on a deeper level. And who doesn’t want to relate to their readers on as deep a level as possible?”
Watson also says that the genre appeals to him for very similar reasons and explains that there’s an increased relevancy for that reason. “Obviously you’re engaging more directly with the world around you. You really don’t realize how people dress or what the houses in your neighborhood look like until you’ve scrutinized them for a story. In a way it’s easier to write dramatic real world stories because there are consequences. Real people are fallible and have much to lose, a job, a lover etc., etc. Superman gets hit by bullets, big deal, they bounce off. Also, I think it’s to do with the fundamental reasons for communicating through the comics medium: talk about things that are relevant to the lives of a wide variety of readers.”
While Moore concurs with both men, he says that another part of the appeal is being able to communicate with the readers on a deeper level. “The readers and I can both spend time with characters we can relate to. I like the idea of going back over real life moments, recreating them and exploring the possibilities. When Freddie breaks up with Francine [two characters in ‘Strangers in Paradise’], they’re reenacting a moment virtually everybody over the age of 16 has experienced. If two people began to break up loudly on the bus next to you, who can keep from watching them? The same appeal is in real life stories and comics.”
This connection between readers and the characters within, because of the universal nature of the situations, is something that Watson believes makes “real world” comics so different from superhero or fantasy comics. “As I said before, there are consequences for characters in the ‘real’ world,” explains Watson. “For me it’s studying the smaller things in life that have a deeper importance to us, in ‘Dumped’ it was possessions, in ‘Breakfast After Noon’ work. The everyday that we overlook or take for granted. Comics, historically, have been about broad brushstrokes, the grand gesture, saving the universe etc. The old chestnut about comics having no ‘budget.’ I think the ‘big’ things in life are right under our noses but we rarely stop to consider them.”
According to Austen, another big reason that “real” comics are so much of a challenge and therefore so different from their fantastic counterparts, is simply because the events inside are so mundane. “The main difference between ‘real world’ comics and superhero comics, or fantasy oriented comics, is you have to make the story really interesting in real world stuff. You don’t have the flash and fantasy to fall back on when the story starts to drag. You don’t have years of continuity to rest on as a crutch. The story can never drag. Comics are a medium that excels at fantasy, and most of the fans are familiar and comfortable with fantasy. They’re comics readers because they’re mostly bored with real world stuff, they get that all the time in TV and movies. So for a real world comic to work, it means the story has to be killer. Bendis is a great example with ‘Torso’ and ‘Goldfish’ and all the other more indie stuff he does.”
And as one might imagine, Austen isn’t too kind to fans whose main criticisms of non-superhero comics is that they’re boring because all they do is remind people of what goes on in their lives daily. “My response to this comment is, comics fans are a minority in the real world. We’re talking, maybe, 100,000 people, tops, that think the real world is boring or depressing and only want more fantasy superhero stuff. There are over a million people every week who watch ‘The West Wing’ who find the real world fascinating and engaging. So would you say comics fans are right? Maybe as far as the comic market is concerned, yes, but overall, not in the least.
“This is a good question, and a hilariously ironic one, when you think about it. It goes back to the fantasy-oriented marketplace we’re stuck with. The inevitable conclusion to the changes in the marketplace, focusing on the direct market, losing impulse buys and new, young readers in 7-11’s and drugstores across the country, is that the only readers we have left are die-hard fantasy superhero fans who will go to whatever lengths they feel they have to in order to get their superhero books. Many travel long distances to get to the one place that carries comic books near them.
“We largely keep spiraling inward and downward toward the more hard-core versions of those fans, the fans who continue to buy out of habit and complete collections or because they’re wannabe’s who still hold out hope of one day writing the ‘X-Men,’ and don’t stop buying no matter how bad the books get, as far as entertainment value is concerned.
“These same fans, as they continue to get older, want more grim and gritty, realistic, ‘Dark Knight’/’Watchmen’ stories. Depressing, even. ‘Watchmen’ certainly wasn’t a hopeful tale. Neither is ‘Dark Knight.’ These fans want mature stories with spandex characters that add legitimacy to their addiction. Which is fine. I certainly fall into that category. Having those fans say that real world stories are grim or depressing is ridiculous. They’re grim and depressing to them, and that’s not even a fair argument. ‘Dark Knight,’ ‘Watchmen’ and the abysmal piece of amateur storytelling and writing that was ‘DK2’ are some of the most grim and depressing stories I’ve ever seen in comics.
“And they sell. Better than anything else.
“To say that real world comics are boring? Well, maybe. Depends on the writer and artist, or cartoonist,” continued Austen. “But you can’t dismiss them out of hand with a sweeping statement like that. Anyone who does hasn’t read the good ones. Like Andi and Terry’s stuff. Like the Bros Hernandez. Like Bendis non-mainstream stuff.
“But you have to keep it in perspective. These are the remaining fans of a once thriving, immense industry that would cancel a book that fell below 250,000. Now a number one hit is 120,000. The readers that are left are not necessarily the people ‘real world’ stories sell to. So us complaining about it is a waste of everyone’s time. It’s like walking into the Playboy mansion and complaining about the naked girls. Where do you think you are?”
While Moore’s sentiments are similar to Austen’s, his way of phrasing them is much more…succinct. “I know what is meant by the statement, referring to the school of alternative comics specializing in drab, dark lives, but that’s only a small, smelly part of the genre that I don’t read and I don’t write,” says the creator sternly.
The idea that the daily routine of life is any less exciting than another crossover or “can’t miss” battle between two superheroes is a bit perplexing to Watson. “Comics are an artistic medium and so should tackle every aspect of our lives and experience,” explains the writer of “Dumped.” “Novels do it, movies do it, why shouldn’t comics? There are plenty of boring and depressing passages in our lives and comics should include them along with the leaping over tall buildings stuff. I, personally, enjoy seeing feelings and experiences from my own life somehow reflected in narrative. I’m bored and depressed by yet another superhero crossover or re-launch.”
It’s obvious that all three creators believe in the “real world” comic book genre, but it’s interesting to note that when asked if they felt the industry needed the genre to be successful, each person had quite different responses. “Partly true,” replied Moore. “It really needs successful comics of all types. I wish ‘Spawn’ sold 1.5 million copies again, and I wish it was outsold by Bone and SIP. There’s more to comics than any one genre, that’s the only reason the industry has made it this far.”
“It depends what you mean by successful,” contends Watson. “If you mean selling shed loads of copies in the direct market then it’d help pay our rent, sure. I think it’s more important that the work itself be successful on its own terms, is it an interesting, insightful, thoughtful, satisfying read? Once the stuff is in a trade it’ll be available for years to come. A successful book is one that holds up for future readers. I don’t care what’s currently in the top 100 comics, it’s like the pop charts, ephemeral. ‘Maus’ will continue to be read in another decade and longer, long after the Ultimates line has been and gone. I think it’s vital to separate the industry from the medium, they’re two very different things. If the direct market continues to contract and eventually implodes the medium will live on. Ironically the medium has thrived despite the speculator boom and all the other short term gimmicks that continue to blight the industry.”
But when it comes down to Chuck Austen’s opinion on the issue, he believes that in no uncertain terms, non-fantasy comics are needed to get people interested in comic books. “Because there are people in the real world, people who don’t go into comics shops, who don’t like fantasy, but enjoy real world stuff. Fantasy and science fiction are still considered fringe markets in most ‘real world’ places like bookstores and video/DVD stores. If we ever want more than our insular industry, we need to nourish those creators who are willing to do something different, something ‘real.’ If fantasy were the be-all and end-all, it’s all we’d see on television. But with ‘Friends’ as the number one show, and ‘ER’ and ‘West Wing’ in the Top Ten, and ‘Star Trek’ somewhere down around 100th in the ratings, you have to know that outside of comics shops, fantasy isn’t the last word in creativity. Reality is.
“The problem isn’t the content. Well, maybe it’s a little bit the content. But mostly, it’s the distribution.
“Here’s what it takes to sell a comic. Real or otherwise.
“Creativity. Talent. Skill. Resources. Distribution. Readers.
“Creativity? Without this, whatever you embark on is just another same-old, same-old. Most people think they have it. All creators do, to some degree or other. To be successful, you need more than less. Or a ton of luck.
“Talent? That indefinable ‘IT.’ That thing that separates the interested from the capable. That immeasurable quality that everyone responds to. Who knows? Some have it, some don’t.
“Skill? Many don’t, but it doesn’t stop them, and often they acquire skill along the way. Others never do, but you need it at some point, just to survive.
“Resources? If you don’t have them, find a publisher who does.
“Distribution. At this time, whatever you do, your distribution is limited. This is the thing that trips all us real world creators up. Bendis writing on ‘Powers’ is no better or worse than his writing on ‘Ultimate Spiderman.’ Some would argue one way or the other, but it’s just argument. Bendis is Bendis. But ‘Powers’ sells one tenth of what ‘Ultimate Spiderman’ does. Why? Purely the market to which it is being distributed. Fans want characters they recognize. Without that, many are just not interested. If this were a “real world” marketplace, Bendis would sell Bendis numbers across the board, as long as it’s similar in theme. ‘Christine’ didn’t sell any better or worse for Stephen King than ‘Cujo.’ One’s about a rabid dog, and one’s about a possessed car. Neither are about characters anyone recognizes.
“That’s the real world. Our world, our superhero/fantasy world is: ‘Ultimates’ sells number 1 for Marvel. ‘Authority’ sells number forty for DC. Same creators, different result. Only in comics.”
One question that is often asked of superhero comic book writers is that of topical diversity and so CBR News posed a similar question to these creators- is there enough diversity in “real world” comics?
“No, but it’s doing okay considering the tiny amount of people working within it,” admits Watson. “The ideal would be like walking into a book shop and having that kind of diversity of material to choose from. More people working within the medium would help, I don’t think money is the issue, who becomes a novelist to get rich (besides Tom Clancy or someone)? Most people are passionate about telling stories and have a need to communicate. We need more of them willing to tough out the learning curve in comics. It takes years to get a handle on the medium and it’s easy to get discouraged.”
It’s the opinion of Terry Moore that even with more people working in the “real world” genre or the industry itself, there wouldn’t be enough diversity- simply because such a thing doesn’t exist! “No such thing as sufficient diversity,” he explains. “There should be as many different types of comics as there are people and styles. Endless.”
The opinion of Chuck Austen is that there isn’t enough diversity, but he also believes that a bigger problem is that the market itself isn’t reaching out to the real world. “No. Not at all. But there never will be in the existing market. Not enough payday in it. Currently, with distribution the way it is, nothing can be done to alter the diversity of real world comics. In order to make people want to enter this industry and create more and better real-world comics, we need to pay them a living wage, or better yet, pay them like Rock Stars and Major League baseball players, and make it so people have heard of them. We need to make it exciting for them to be here. Otherwise, there are better places to go. Who would want to work in a field that’s nothing but heartache and an uphill struggle? What are we, Sisyphus? Pushing that rock gets old, man. But hey, if I take that same energy and enthusiasm and apply it to animation or film, I get respect and money?! Baby, sign me up!
“If ‘real world’ creators in comics got the attention that strip cartoonists like Charles Shultz and Bill Watterson and Gary Larsen used to get, then you’d see no end to those kinds of people tripping over themselves to get into comics. Watch the talent flock in if that ever happens. But with the market the way it stands, they’ll never earn even just a living wage. So incredibly talented people will go elsewhere, like movies and animation. Which is our loss and those other field’s gain.
“Until this market is stronger, and reaches beyond fan adulation, and becomes accessible to people other than die-hard superhero fans, until we reach beyond people who already go into comics shops regularly, into comics shops that are hard to find and inaccessible, we will never grow large enough to make it worthwhile for ‘real-world’ creators. We will never become strong enough and profitable enough to draw in the talent pool we need to become big with real world people. It’s a Catch-22. You need a stronger market to get real world people to work here, and you need real world insertion to sell real world comics. But until you get real world comics, you won’t get the insertion, and without the insertion …
“‘Archie’ comics at one time sold huge numbers. Bigger than Marvel and DC on newsstands and in the ID market. Girls bought them. Westerns were big. Horror comics. There are still girls out there who love to read. I have two of them. Why are they not reading comics? Because they can’t get them without going to ‘Creepy Sal’s Comics and Tits’ in the crappy part of town.
“Superheroes are now like the franchise ‘Star Trek.’ Anything Star Trek will sell a minimum amount to all the die-hard fans out there. But without good stories, interesting characters and compelling, “real-world” draw, real world people won’t watch and don’t care. Consequently you get ‘Enterprise’ stagnating in the ratings when once, ‘Next Generation’ was challenging the major networks. Why? Because the stories SUCK! The Enterprise stories are old retreads of crappy stories we’ve seen a million times. So die hard fans still watch it every week (even dwindling away themselves, eventually), complaining about how good the franchise used to be, and ‘real-world'” people turn it off! They’re watching ‘West Wing!’ They’re watching something else that’s good!
“The superhero market is like that. Fans buying and complaining about how good the old Kirby/Lee and Ditko days were, how great Jim Lee was, how much they miss Frank Miller’s ‘Daredevil,’ but they’re still buying the damn things! In the meantime, the ‘real-world’ has turned us off! People have gotten sick of the crappy superheroes and moved on to something better. 120,000 copies is a hit!? What does that tell you?
“We’ve been turned off by the real world, and it’s going to take some doing to get them back. It won’t be just ‘that one golden project’ everyone’s always waiting for, either. It won’t be ‘that one superhero movie’ everyone knows will make real world people into Marvel Zombies.
|“The Call of Duty: The Brotherhood” #5|
“I had tremendous air-play and press-time with the ‘Call.’ I was on CNN. Joe Quesada was on Good Morning America. Bill Jemas was on Fox News. Sales flew to the top 30. Those people came into the store, once. Now the ‘Call’ books are back down to 90 on the top 100. A few came back, but most forgot about us. Some of them may think once in a while, ‘hey, I liked that fireman comic. Remember that? Where did we go to get that? What’s for lunch?’ And it’s over. If it were in the impulse rack next to the cash register at Safeway, they might keep picking it up. But to have to go across town to some obscure comic shop that has naked stand-ups of Julie Strain in the corner, and some surly guy playing Heroclix behind the counter? Forget it.
“Without better distribution, real world comics will be the ugly stepchild of the industry. Forgive my rant.”
It’s also Austen’s belief that most of the major comic book companies aren’t receptive to “real world” comic book pitches, something he finds very discouraging and potentially disastrous for the industry. “They don’t sell for all the reasons I just gave. They only want what they think is commercial, and all that’s commercial is something the ‘fans’ want. Good retreads of old superhero concepts. ‘Ultimates’ sells because it’s a new take on The Avengers. Not to take anything away from Bryan Hitch and Mark Millar, but, hey, come on. It’s a new ‘Avengers.’ If they were doing another ‘Authority,’ do you think they’d have the number 1 spot? Hell no. If they were doing Blue Beetle’s triumphant return, do you think they’d sell 120,000 copies every other month? Please.
“And to be honest, Marvel and DC can’t afford to take chances on anything that isn’t guaranteed to sell right now. It’s bad business to try, and they’re in a business, not a charity event for ‘people who want to read real-world comics.’ The market has shrunk so much that valuable resources are lost when time is wasted on a low-selling book. And anything real-world is going to be low-selling, no two ways around it.. Hell, anything that’s not one of the top recognized names in the industry is going to sell terribly. ‘Iron Man?’ Where do I sign up? ‘Jack Frost?’ ‘Prez?’ ‘Firestorm?’ Are you taking bets?”
“No. They’re not into the medium: they’re into maintaining franchises, increasing market share, doing media deals, keeping share holders happy,” says Watson of the major comic book companies in regards to listening to “real world” comic book pitches. “Ironically they’re the ones who could help get appropriate material to a wider audience. With the backing of their parent companies they could invest in the long term future of the medium with trades and marketing within bookstores, instead of chasing an ever diminishing direct market. But, hey, it’s an industry built on short-termism. The idea of investing in the future, but losing money in the short term doesn’t make sense to them. Having said that, I have and will do work-for-hire for them if it funds my own work, there’s no where else to go.”
|“Strangers in Paradise”|
But it’s Terry Moore whose opinion is quite different from the other two and who seems to be a bit more optimistic about the chances of seeing a broader palette of comics appearing at the big companies. “More so now than before, as editors who survived the 90’s assume jobs with the big two publishers. Both DC and Marvel are integrating contemporary realism into their line these days, each in their own way.”
All of this might make one wonder how one could possibly hope to market reality-based comic books to fans, when creators are seemingly facing an uphill battle marketing them to companies. Each of the three creators has different answers, but they agree on one thing: it isn’t easy. “We’re caught between a rock and a hard place,” explains Andi Watson. “The direct market isn’t interested and you face the prejudice of ‘comics are for kids’ when you’re in bookshops. It doesn’t make sense to rack Jimmy Corrigan next to the Dungeon Masters Guide.”
For Moore, the best way to explain the difficulty of marketing “real world” comics, is to draw an analogy to his problems with marketing his famous creator-owned series “Strangers in Paradise.” “The hardest part of marketing ‘SIP’ is answering the question ‘What’s it about?’ I’ve never come up with a good answer for that. I’m open to suggestions. But that may be the reason it’s survived (I keep using that word survival, don’t I? It’s the only way to describe the last 9 years).”
Austen says that non-fantasy comics are really only a problem to market for those who don’t know how to market to the mainstream, which unfortunately tends to be a lot of the comic book stores. “They’re only hard to market in comics shops,” contends the writer/artist. “They’re easy to market in bookstores, where they handle “real world” material all the time. If you can get to the trade, you’re golden. Bookstores know how to handle trade paperbacks, and they get a good return on investment for the shelf-space invested. Of course, comic shops can market trades better than they can comics, too. The trade is the target. Trades sell to infrequent customers who are looking for a good read in one, long sitting. Often the people who buy and read trades are more open-minded about content.”
When it comes to reality-based comics, explains Moore, you don’t need to worry about a point of relation or bringing it to terms people understand- it’s a universal genre. “Fantasy is harder to sell because any fantasy is a niche, only a limited number of people will be attracted to any one fantasy. Every fantasy has a limited market. Reality is something everybody on the planet understands.”
But that doesn’t always translate into high sales, contends Watson. “If you mean selling a lot of copies, it’s tough going in the direct market because retailers order the books and retailers are mostly long term fans of superhero material. Also, their customers are mostly long-term superhero fans, so that’s where the money is for retailers. It’s chicken and egg. If indie publishers had the resources to market to a different, wider, new audience it would help. But smaller publishers are stretched enough with the economics. If you mean is it hard to create a good ‘real world’ comic then no. Any type of book can contain good work, it depends on the creator.”
Austen has similar thoughts when asked about the chances of being financially successful as a creator of exclusively reality-based comics. “Absolutely it’s hard. Id’ say damn near impossible. Unless you get lucky, and then all everyone wants is for you to leave that little indie thing that made you famous and go write ‘Iron Man,’ because they want your work, but they want it at Marvel. With a better, fan-favorite artist.
“Look, I worked in independent press, off and on, for almost fifteen years. We tried everything. You name it. Posters, dumps, full-page ads in ‘Previews.’ Give-aways. Stunt artists, cover quotes, multiple covers, convention appearances, mail-order, internet, digital comics, and on and on, and on … It’s like trying to sell a naked man to Hugh Hefner, to revisit the Playboy analogy. He may be one hot looking naked man, but Playboy is about naked women. Get out of here!”
Having been involved with “real world” comics for such a long time, Austen has been able to observe the market closely and admits to having seen some growth in the market. “It’s evolved, I think, better than I ever expected, but as little as I expected. There are some great people, but not enough of them. The market began with people like Robert Crumb, Undergrounds, Harvey Pekar and those that followed. That stuff sold to a specific market, and had a great form of distribution through the head shops. Then the heads shops were closed, and that avenue went, largely, away. Not that it sold that great to begin with, but it sold.
“But underground material was inaccessible to a mainstream market. In fact, I despise a lot of their work. Crumb is a creative genius, and I can appreciate that, but he’s a wack-job and I don’t enjoy his stuff at all. Harvey Pekar is not what I would call someone I aspire to being, and reading about his life is uncomfortable. Reading about the lives of most underground creators is not any more pleasant, or more interesting than watching a traffic accident on the freeway. You might be compelled for a while, but really, you just want to get around it and be on your way.
“I could never show that stuff to my wife and expect her to enjoy it. But Andi Watson, Los Bros Hernandez, and Terry do stuff that my wife would actually like, that I actually like and relate to. The problem is: comics attract, generally, fringe people who need to be creative or they’d commit suicide. They’re doing stories that are true to their life, but man, who wants to read about someone who beats his girlfriend and can’t understand why he can’t get love? Not me! I used to be really into that stuff. Chester Brown was my God! But I came to the point where I said, ‘this guy’s brilliant, but I can’t relate to him. It’s ‘real-world’ but not my real-world.'”
|“Slow News Day”|
It’s Watson’s belief that any growth or evolution in the reality based comic book market has come as the result of the death of underground comics. “There’s been something of a renaissance over the last couple of decades,” he explains. “The punk thing, zines, the D.I.Y. ethic, small press all kick started things after the undergrounds had died. That’s where I felt the energy came from anyway, not from the mainstream. There’s great work out there, long may it continue.”
However, Moore feels that “real world” comics aren’t doing any better than their spandex clad counterparts- it’s all heading down the same path. “The market hasn’t evolved, it isn’t getting better and more refined- just like all the other structures in America, business and social, it’s slowly falling apart,” says the acclaimed creator with conviction.
Also mirroring the superhero comic book world, Watson believes that some people don’t take reality-based comics seriously unless the lead characters are dysfunctional or extremely dark personalities. “I think there is an audience for misanthropic books,” contends Watson. “Which is fine, but I sometimes feel unless the characters are alcoholics or something then it’s not considered a ‘serious’ story. You can deal with interesting themes without the characters being hateful.”
Moore believes that there are fans of both the “light” and “dark” comics and that all you need to do is create a story and an audience will be out there somewhere for it. “There are readers for both styles. In fact, you can write just about anything and find a readership for it.”
It is Austen who laughs when asked about comic book fans’ affinity towards gritty, cynical stories and believes that the majority of fans just like that kind of material because of their personalities. “Well, in general, comics fans tend to be extremely humorless, so darkness seems to appeal to them, more. I think it’s part of the spiral inward and downward I referred to. With Frank Miller we began to appeal to those who wanted more darkness, and the people who wanted more light went away.”
In order to bring back the people who would want to read “real world” comics and to show more people the strength of these comics, Terry Moore says it’s a no brainer: show people that the comics exist. “Advertising,” says Moore of the key to making reality-based comics a sales juggernaut. “‘Real World’ comics are usually made by creators without any means of advertising- their books survive through word of mouth. There are millions of people who would love ‘Jar Of Fools,’ but will never know about it. If we could spend $35 million to advertise it, Jason Lutes would be a household name.”
Austen’s thinking is along similar lines and adds, “If they got out of comics shops and into supermarkets and book stores and drug stores and places where real people go, then they’d have more success.”
It is Watson’s contention that while ordering is a problem, it is also the quantity that retailers order that proves to be a problem: there simply need to be copies of a comic for customers to purchase. “I think they’d sell better, even in the direct market, if they were ordered,” says Watson. “No ones gonna give a book a shot if it’s not on the shelves. Say two copies are ordered, one goes right into a pre-ordered box and the other is picked off the shelves almost immediately and then there’s no re-ordering. I always tell people who can’t get their retailer to stock my books to shop at another store, go mail order or go online, direct to the publisher or Amazon or whatever. Give the money to the people who deserve it! It’s not like buying a burger, getting hold of an indie title, you have to search them out, so support the people who support the medium. There’s a minority of comic stores who do great work and are enthusiastic and evangelical about the medium but as for the rest…”
Even with all this pontification and hypothesizing, the truth is that the majority of these three creators don’t see reality-based comics becoming mainstream with major changes, except for Moore, whose opinion is quite different from the other two creators. “Okay, stop the brainwashing machine,” says Moore. “The truth is stories about real people are considered mainstream. Real world comics are mainstream. Hero comics, on the other hand, are a niche product sold to a market designated specifically for that purpose. The weird syndrome of real life comics feeling out of place in the direct market is like the ‘Twilight Zone’ episode about the pretty woman being an outcast on the ugly planet. We all know better, but real life comics are summarily defined by the world we live in- the direct market.”
The perspective of Watson is that comics will never be mainstream again, so the idea of “real world” comics somehow making it big seems like a dream. “I think comics as a whole will never be a mass medium again. Mostly because it involves reading, but also because there’s a deep cultural prejudice against comics, they’re for kids or stupid people. The subject matter is mainstream, in that they’re about what is important to a lot of people but the odds are stacked against huge success in the direct market as it stands.”
Chuck Austen’s point of view is somewhere in the middle of the other two creators, but he does call for some major changes in order to allow for “real world” comics to have a chance to penetrate the mass market. “Only with different distribution. The inescapable fact is that they are mainstream. Superheroes are fringe. We’re just not reaching mainstream readers.”
One way of reaching mainstream readers is through a more popular medium like films and 2002 has seen the success of “real world” comic to film adaptations such as “Road to Perdition” and “Ghost World,” which some has said could signal the beginning of a wider acceptance of comic books. “Movie success doesn’t help comics at all,” argues Moore. “You don’t get rich by hanging out with rich people. Those two movies were made because somebody with the means to get them made believed in their marketability. Hundreds of comics would be marketable to the masses in other mediums, but they won’t get made unless somebody outside of comics is willing to take the risk. It takes a special type of producer/entrepreneur to do that, and they are few and far between. Very few people will read a book because they liked the movie. If anything, it’s the other way around.”
The same argument is shared by Watson, who feels that there is a lack of promotion by the people associated with these films to tie the films with comics, and that is what makes them so ineffective in promoting the comic book medium. “There will be an effect on comics, especially as DC is owned by AOL TimeWarner, the biggest media conglomerate out there. It confuses the issue to compare the success of movies and comics. They share the same core audience, teenagers, which explains why there are so many dumb comics and movies out there. Also, Sam Mendes did everything he could to distance himself from the phrase comic books. But, if it brings people into the medium and sparks an enthusiasm it can only be good. I’d like see people pick up a copy of ‘Ghost World’ from Tower and put a few bucks into Dan Clowes’ pocket on the back of the movie.”
While Austen believes the success of “Ghost World” and “Road to Perdition” are important, he points to an even bigger comic book movie as representing how comic books can translate into an effective mass market film. “Well, ‘Ghost World’ falls into that ‘real, but fringe’ category. It’s not like it was a top ten grossing movie for the year. It did well with the art house crowd and some people who wanted to play ‘arty’ for a few hours. ‘Road to Perdition’ is probably a better example, more of a signal, yes.
“But what was the top grossing movie of the summer? ‘Spider-Man.’ People who go see movies are more interested in fantasy, too. Just not necessarily Superheroes. But it has to be well-executed fantasy. The ‘Spider-Man’ movie was the best Spider-Man story that’s been told in a long time, sexier and more fun than anything I’ve read for quite a while. Bendis has done a wonderful job on ‘Ultimate,’ and JMS, on ‘Amazing,’ but nothing compares to Pete finding Uncle Ben dying in the street. To the upside down kiss. To Pete in the cage match. To learning his wall-crawling abilities. To controlling his web for the first time, to finding his body transformed in the morning after being bitten. Just wonderful, wonderful stuff.
“I love Spider-Man. I have since I was a kid. I collect the toys and Spider-Man ‘junk’ and have tons of it around. My daughters buy me stuff for holidays, but never understood my fascination. I saw that movie with my girls, and they, for the first time, understood my interest in Spider-Man. They were swept up in that movie, in the power and romance of it, and wanted to buy the DVD as soon as it was over. Seeing the joy on their faces after that film, watching them run around the house yelling ‘GO WEB!,’ I realized that I don’t care what ‘mainstream’ means, what ‘real-world’ comics mean, what we can do to fix the market, or distribution, or creativity in the industry.”
All three of these creators have a lot of projects coming up and admit to needing time to finish their upcoming work, but before concluding the interview, have some parting words for fans:
“I just want to work and hope that someday, something I create moves people on the level that ‘Spider-Man’ moved my wife and two girls, whether it’s the actual comic, or something derived from it, whether it’s ‘real world’ or fantasy. All I can do is my best, whatever I create.
“‘Real’ is as real as we want it to be. Superheroes can move people as much as ‘Ghost World.’ We should stop categorizing and all just do the best job we can at whatever we choose to do. Fuck the labels.”
“If you like a book hand it over to friends/relatives/partners to read. It’s the grass roots way to overcome preconceptions about the medium. Don’t expect casual readers to go into comic shops, it’s not gonna happen.”
“I’m glad you’re out there.”
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