An aspiring publisher called the other day to ask if I have any "ideas" for new comics series.
I've had enough of these conversations over the years - how many years have I been doing this now? 30? Probably not something to brag about... - that I used to be disgusted, but now I'm trying to be amused. And you never know; there was a time when publishers did look for actual "ideas," because they didn't know what they might sell. It crops up again, from time to time. But not often.
For awhile there it was even considered a bit jejune. Everyone spoke of "concepts": a superhero "concept," an action-adventure "concept," a western "concept," a horror "concept." Etc. Not really sure why; I think the idea - there's that damn word again - was to suggest something grander, and nobler, than a mere "idea," something with scope that encompassed worlds of ideas, and practically an infinity of potential stories. That's basically the same as saying there is no core idea, since any idea by nature imposes limiting factors on any story, but that's why most comics stories don't bother with ideas. Long before I went pro, I told a friend, who had a few mild comics obsessions but didn't read most of them, that I was trying to come up with a series idea that would allow me to do any story that came to mind, and he said:
"Isn't that all of them?"
Thet thar's the legacy of superhero comics, anyway; sure, why wouldn't a piece of kryptonite slip through a time warp and end up as the false tooth on Cleopatra's asp? Why wouldn't a random gorilla dress in a fedora and pinstripe suit? This is the sort of "wild idea" frequently lionized by "fun comics" mavens and now often shotgunned out as decoration for stories, but decoration was all such "ideas" ever really were, a springboard to wrap eight or ten or 22 pages of dream logic around. That was their appeal for a lot of people, and not something comics would ever consider marketing in any significant way (though Grant Morrison and Alan Moore teased the notion with such things as THE INVISIBLES and SWAMP THING): they functioned in pretty much the same way as hallucinogenic drugs. I suspect it's no coincidence that comics readership declined rapidly in the late '60s and further in the early '70s - especially at DC, where the "dream logic" story was far more enshrined than at Marvel, and other publishers doing slow or fast fadeouts, like Charlton and American - as the young audiences that comics traditionally fed off became increasingly acquainted with pot, hashish & LSD. (If those didn't make comics seem ridiculously antiquated, underground comics put the nail in the coffin, even if the zombie subsequently kept crawling out of the grave.)
The heyday of "ideas" in comics was really the 1950s, when everything was in chaotic flux. Nobody had a clue what to do, they did whatever they could think of, within what distributors would tolerate. It's largely viewed as an empty hellhole (superhero fans of the '60s made sure that was the official perception) but some fantastic, crazy stuff was published then. Same thing kind of happened in the '80s as the burgeoning direct market created a vacuum around Marvel's superhero empire; since (at least until Image) nobody could touch Marvel on superheroes, at least in sales, so everyone started scrambling for other niches to fill and other audiences to lure. Despite a puritanical streak in the direct market (which expressed itself, as Puritanism usually does, in turpitude as well as the puritanical; at any rate, many publishers, retailers and talent alike refused to accept the direct market presented a completely new situation) there was a small flood of oddball ideas in '80s comics, but the '90s choked most of those out. If the '90s represented anything, it was a return to "commercialism," i.e. surrender to the past regardless of how much genuine facts there were to support such a stance, and the grip of that mentality hasn't loosened much on the business since, despite some pretty drastic changes in other areas. In fact, where those changes supported such an attitude, the grip tightened. Where those changes contradicted such an attitude, the grip tightened, because the market really didn't know of any other response.
Of course, there are ideas in most comics, superheroes or otherwise. But they're rarely developed, their ramifications aren't played out on an open field. This is the big problem with genre fiction of any kind, that regardless of how interesting an idea may be it's always forced into service of the genre's special requirements, and in comics, by and large, "genre" has been refined further into even more basic and less flexible motifs, on the presumption that's what the audience "wants." In that atmosphere, ideas are reduced to little more than window dressing for a particular style. I'm not speaking of just superhero comics, or even what's generally considered "genre" comics. Even if you go to a talent like the widely acclaimed Jason, reading one of his comics is like watching a Ric Flair match; you're always going to get basically the same thing. Whether the subject matter covers Lost Generation writers as failed cartoonists robbing banks in 1920s Paris, lovers traveling through time to kill Hitler, or an immortal Musketeer stopping an invasion from Mars, his characters are basically indistinguishable, their mannerisms and psychology are exactly the same, and the underlying structure and development are the same.
I'm not suggesting Jason's untalented (he's clearly talented) or that his work deserves scorn (I like his work) or that his accolades are misguided. I'm just saying he has one idea. There's nothing wrong with exploring one idea thoroughly, if it's your idea. (There's nothing wrong with exploring one idea thoroughly if it isn't, but the feat is considerably less impressive.) However else Jason's work might be, one original idea is one more than the vast sea of material the medium produces has. Despite the constant talk of "ideas" in comics, new ideas, even if only new to the medium, have rarely been held in high regard. People are always asking where talent, especially writers, get their "ideas" (though getting "ideas," such as they are in this business, is only the tiniest fraction of the job) and the answer in most instances is: they pilfer them.
Frequently they're the first to admit it and almost as frequently they don't realize what they're admitting to. Theft, petty and otherwise, is a fact of life in all walks of the writing profession, especially in media writing, but in comics especially there's the odd sensibility of some mystical fraternity of talent that leaves anyone's ideas, from comics and elsewhere, open game for anyone else to "emulate" like it's the most acceptable thing in the world. And in most areas, not only acceptable but preferred. Even if there's no corporation involve, no transfer of copyrights. I can't tell you how many writers I know who thought, oh, SPAWN was the greatest comic ever and cooked up "their version" of it. (Don't even get me started on artists.) Call it homage, tribute, emulation, whatever you want; we love to steal. It's so much in the air in comics that a lot of people don't even question that it's perfectly valid and normal behavior. Most publishers don't, even as they become increasingly twitchy about Internetters and others stepping on their intellectual property rights.
Publishers love it. Publishers are always looking for "their version" of this or that, whatever they personally loved or whatever's selling for someone else. It's one of the reasons they love new talent, especially the ones who don't know or don't care they're just tromping over already well-trod ground, the ones intent on making it "their own." (Shows like AMERICAN IDOL always crack me up when they constantly exhort singers to make a song their "own." But it isn't theirs, is it?) They're the ones who have the fewest misgivings about doing "their version" of someone else's work, and from there four career paths generally follow: they love being torch-bearers and go on and on until eventually cycled out; they get antsier about not following their own muse and a) try to get their own creations published and sold, or b) continue being torch-bearers and become increasingly detached purveyors of "graphic stories" they couldn't care less about (if this were a flow chart, one prong coming off a) would lead back to b), and that's the fate of most established talent who pursue their own creations); they quit and find another line of work.
But one of the great things about being a writer in comics is there are so many people willing to tell you what to write. Publishers. Editors. Agents. Managers. Readers. Matter of fact, it's becoming increasingly difficult to have a editorial conversation where the editor doesn't tell you the story you're going to do; I've had pitch meetings where the publisher had already decided, without mentioning it to me, exactly what he wanted me to pitch, then wasted fifteen or twenty minutes waiting for me to pitch it while I ran through other projects I was eager to do. In virtually all cases where "ideas" are "suggested," they fit into existing genre specifications (and if you think "literary works" isn't just another genre with increasingly restrictive parameters like science fiction or romance, I'll let Michael Chabon disabuse you of that notion) and fill pre-existant commercial considerations. A lot of them think in terms of "innovation," but "innovation" has become a standard euphemism for "tweaking an idea someone else had."
Thing is, even genres don't need to be slaves to the parameters erected around them. The recent spate of film westerns like THE PROPOSITION, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES and APPALOOSA prove that. All westerns, sure, though THE PROPOSITION's set in Australia, but the West for all that, and all have elements in common. Their stories and themes couldn't be more different. Their characters couldn't be more different. None are much like anything that came before them, though you could tie JESSE JAMES to predecessors like Samuel Fuller's I SHOT JESSE JAMES. But for all of them the western is a setting, not a prison and not a crutch. Throw in a modern day western like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and you have a strong argument that genre need not be a restriction to anything or any idea. When the known audience for a genre - those who'll scarf up every iteration of it - becomes small enough, genre becomes nothing more than just another tool.
But here we are, still being asked to produce genre fiction to specifications that lost their hold on any audience ages ago. Funny thing is that a lot of publishers now do this in the belief that this will help sell their books to Hollywood, always these days Hollywood, as if that's the only possible market left, when virtually all my conversations with Hollywood these days involve trying to escape genre restrictions while keeping the elements that make any genre interesting. (Hollywood seems moving into a new love affair with genre, as "adult," which is to say "literary" or "women's," films take a beating at the box office.)
In comics, generally, when we say "ideas" we mean "genre," complete with restrictions. We mean "novelty." ("Say! What if Spider-Man grew three extra toes and started dating Lockjaw?") We might even mean saturation bombing via throwaway notion, peppering stories with crazed details that could springboard whole stories of their own but most likely won't. What we rarely mean is theme, though theme is where the real ideas of most stories lie, and we rarely mean new ideas because no audience ever knows if they want to hear a new idea before they've heard it. In comics we hate unknowns, always have, and there's no unknown more unknown than a new idea.
So, anyway, an aspiring publisher calls up to ask if I have any "ideas" for new comics series. Of course I do. Like most writers, I have notebooks full of ideas I've never had anywhere to place. So we chat for five, ten minutes, I outline some things I'm interested in pursuing. Then he says:
"You don't have any... superhero ideas? Something like Batman?"
I said I hadn't been thinking much in those directions lately.
He shrugged it off. "Any good zombie ideas?" Of course I don't. Nobody does. If even Warren Ellis with BLACKGAS and Garth Ennis with CROSSED couldn't come up with new ideas for the zombie genre, I don't see much point in even trying.
We chat pleasantly for a few more minutes - no, I don't have any FLASH GORDON-type space operas; no, I don't have any amnesiac spy characters tracking down their pasts like Jason Bourne - then say our pleasantries and hang up. Thing is, every time I have one of those conversations, I start wondering about the ideas I do have, and start dissecting them and working them over to see if there's anything genuinely original in there anywhere, and wondering if they're bad or good.
That's the thing about ideas: even an original one can suck. Even after coming up with ideas good and bad for years, telling the difference between them is hard. There are so many bad habits we pick up, so many shortcuts and repetitions that become unquestioned, usually not even recognized, second nature, and we're all so eager to believe all of our ideas are good, and original...
Unfortunately, in today's market there's a quick and easy shorthand for separating the wheat from the chaff:
If a publisher wants your idea, it's probably not your best.
Speaking of the oddly goofy stories of the '60s, here's a wacky "horror" story from American Comics c. 1959, with art by the great John Buscema. I know it's fudging the date a bit, but, aside from about-to-be-born Marvel, pretty much everything any company would be in the '60s was already in place by 1959. And dig those crazy jodhpurs, cat.