To Brand or Not To Brand, That is the Question

One of my favorite prose authors is a guy named Dan Simmons. Terrific writer. Maybe you've read something of his, or at least heard of him, but I'm guessing his name is unfamiliar to a lot of you.

He's written in a plethora of genres: horror, science fiction, historical fiction, thriller, hardboiled detective, apocalyptic. Damn near everything except self-help. He can do it all, and do all of it well. Plenty of awards: Hugo, Locus, Bram Stoker and more. But Dan Simmons is nowhere near as widely read or successful as someone like, say, Dean Koontz, whom I consider to be something of a one-trick pony churning out pedestrian thrillers.

Why is that?

Obviously there's a multitude of factors that play into the scenario. But I've always thought that one of the reasons Dan Simmons has not received acclaim commensurate with the level of his work is that he's not easily pigeonholed. He's not the Horror Guy, or the Legal Thriller Guy, or the Urban Fantasy Guy. Simmons plies his trade in diverse genres. You literally don't know what his next book might be about. Is his ability to tell different kinds of stories well actually hurting him in the marketplace?

In the past few days, I came across two pieces of writing that really inspired this column. The first was in Augie De Blieck's most recent Pipeline column right here on CBR. Terrific column, I thought, tabbing 2012 as the Year of the Creator, and creator-owned comics in particular. Augie touched upon a lot of cogent points. But one that jumped out at me was this:

"Creators who specialize are more likely to see a return on their investment than those who try to be all things to all people. You need to pick your niche, market to it, and provide it with ample material. If you're doing horror comics, kids comics, and superhero comics at the same time, you'll provide no clear identity to readers in three different niches, confusing them all and limiting your marketability. Define who you are by what you do."

A day later, I came across the excellent "5 Year Plan" that Sean Gordon Murphy posted on his Deviant Art page. Sean is one of the best new artists working in the industry, though "new" is a relative term, as he's been around for a while now, producing great art even if not that many people were picking up on it. Thankfully, after "Joe the Barbarian" and his "American Vampire" mini, more and more people are noticing.

In addition to being a hell of an artist, Sean is also a very smart guy. If you're an aspiring pro, or even a current pro, you should absolutely read his piece, because he hits a lot of nails right on the head. The part I sparked to is about "branding." With Sean's permission, I'm quoting here:

"I'll use my friend Scott Snyder as an example here (and I'm about to repeat his name a lot). Scott's first hit was on 'American Vampire' with Stephen King. Immediately, Scott is labeled as a horror writer because that's what Stephen is. As 'Vampire' continued without Stephen (it's Scott's book, after all), Scott's branding went from 'working with King' to 'Scott is a horror writer in his own right.' Aware of his branding, Scott has been careful to select projects that fit his brand. 'Swamp Thing,' 'Severed,' and 'Batman' are all books with a horror twist. It's easier for him to get these books because DC and Scott know what Scott's brand is. His brand is so clear, in fact, that he has to be careful of what he works on in the future. Skipping around without regard to what books suit him would hurt Scott. I suppose Scott could write 'Spider-Man' one day (Scott can do anything well), and if it ever comes time for him to tackle the web-slinger, I think Scott knows that he has to approach it very carefully because Spidey's not known as a horror book. Scott isn't doing well because he's lucky -- Scott also pays attention.

"As artists, we still have a brand. And even though we all need to pay bills, we shouldn't say yes to everything. Your brand is built by the titles you produce, the characters you've drawn, the writers you're associated with, the vibe of your art, and by your blogs and tweets. Figure out what your brand is and use that to dictate your decisions."

Here's the thing: I think Augie and Sean are right about specializing and branding. But I wish they weren't.

To me, comics are about unfettered, unlimited imagination. If you can imagine it, you can put it on the page. But branding, or specializing, or however you want to describe it, feels like a limit. It feels like setting mostly commercial parameters on a mostly creative pursuit.

I look back over my career and count the labels I've worn. I started out as the Cosmic Guy, thanks to my association with Jim Starlin and my run on "Silver Surfer. It's a big part of why I was offered "Green Lantern." That label stuck with me for years, despite "cosmic" not being at the top of my personal preference list.

After that? Probably Fantasy Guy when I was at CrossGen, and writing books like "Scion" and "Sojourn." And then Samurai Guy, thanks to "The Path" and "Samurai: Heaven and Earth" and later "Shinku." Now, I guess it's the Female Lead Guy, thanks to "Shinku" and "Magdalena," as well as "Witchblade" and "Voodoo" until recently.

Obviously those labels have been useful at times in my career. So maybe the lesson is that you need to brand yourself before someone else does it for you. But I'm still like that steer who has a cowboy walking toward him with a hot iron -- I'm not sure I want to be branded.

For some creators, it's not much of an issue. There are those who ultimately want to do one thing, whether it's superheroes or guys in trenchcoats or whatever. More power to them. My buddy Steve Niles, for instance, loves horror in all its shapes and sizes. It's what he wants to write, and he's damn good at it. If there's a horror story to be told in comics, Steve is one of the first guys you think of. He's the Horror Guy. And that's great.

Brian Truitt was kind enough to deem me Best Genre-Jumping Writer in USA Today's year-end wrap. And even though I'm not one to put much stock in awards and lists and the like, that particular recognition actually pleased me quite a bit. I'm interested in writing varied stories in various genres in a diversity of formats, if for no other reason than to keep myself interested and excited. I see my job as being a storyteller, not a teller of a particular kind of stories other than, hopefully, good ones. But I also understand that stance makes it harder to brand myself as a commodity.

A few years ago Lee Moder and I did the "Dragon Prince" mini-series together, which is an all-ages, kid-friendly story with a strong fantasy element. Hopefully there's a collected edition in the future, preferably at the relative size of a color "Bone" volume, so it's more enticing to a younger audience.

But if someone buys that (theoretical) volume and wants more by me and Lee? Well, that would be "Shinku," a Mature-rated action-horror story featuring graphic violence, full-frontal nudity and all sorts of naughty words. Definitely not for kids.

I get it. I understand the wisdom of presenting yourself to the audience, as well as to publishers and editors, as an easily-graspable, known commodity. But for me, at least, it doesn't feel right. I want to be able to do a bloody, sexy issue of "Shinku" on Tuesday, and write a children's picture book on Wednesday. I've got a stack of creator-owned concepts I want to bring to life, each one different from the other: a 1930s noir-mystery, a contemporary espionage thriller, a World War II adventure, and yes, even a couple superhero-esque concepts. If that makes me less of a commodity, I guess I'll have to live with it. I'd rather be Dan Simmons than Dean Koontz any day.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com

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