Brooklyn Book Festival: Spotlight on Comics

Comic book luminaries from the past 40-plus years of comics gathered at the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York last week to discuss the state of the industry and the craft of making comics. Foremost on everyone's minds were the recent shakeups in the industry, with Disney buying Marvel and DC publisher/president Paul Levitz stepping down to be replaced by Diane Nelson.

Danny Fingeroth, author and former editor at Marvel, moderated a panel that included veterans Denny O'Neil (former writer/editor for Marvel and DC) and Tom DeFalco (writer and former editor at Marvel), plus longtime inker Scott Hanna and penciler Tom Raney "Dark Reign: Hawkeye"].

Fingeroth gave brief introductions before jumping into the fray. DeFalco has over 30 books in print, including "Spider-Man: The Ultimate Guide," which an audience member held up when mentioned. He has also worked on the longest running female superhero series in Marvel history, "Spider-Girl." O'Neil, who garnered a loud round of applause, is best known for his work on "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" and "Batman" for DC and being the editor on memorable runs of both "Daredevil" and "Batman." He is currently teaching a course on comics writing at NYU. Hanna has inked comics for over 20 years, including Spider-Man, Batman, the X-Men and Iron Man. Raney has drawn everything from X-Men to Stormwatch to Outsiders and most recently "Dark Reign: Hawkeye" for Marvel.

Fingeroth immediately brought up "the 800-pound gorilla in comics" right now - the aforementioned shakeups at both Marvel and DC, asking the panelists, "What does it all mean?"

DeFalco said, "The only way either change can have any real effect is . . . to change the nature of the comic books being created today. You guys are the target audience for the comic books being produced today. You are the wrong audience."

The industry's growth and survival, he said, depends on targeting teenagers in the 13-16 year old age range, "because they have an unlimited source of income . . . their parents." He also hinted that comics are not new-reader friendly, hoping that Disney would change that by making it where "anybody can pick up any issue of any comic and understand what they're reading."

O'Neil plugged his charity, The Hero Initiative, "which provides a safety net for comic book professionals who have come on hard times." It pays medical or living expenses for established comics pros in need, something that he pointed out was not unrelated to the topic at hand.

"What I hope happens with the changes at Marvel and Disney, is that finally the freelancers will finally get an even break," said O'Neil.

When he started in comics, they had to sign "those cursed work-for-hire contracts," joking that his first-born son was now "a property of Marvel Comics." The only reason he has health insurance is through his wife, a teacher, and his retirement came from being an editor for 23 years.

"Comics are in one of those periodic states of flux, and none of us can predict where it's gonna go, but I could hope that if Starbuck's could figure out a way to get health insurance for it's part-time employees, that the comic book company can figure out a way to do the right thing for the people who have actually created these . . . and who are the most vital part of the process of creating the comic book that you have in your hands. I ain't holding my breath," said O'Neil, to raucous applause.

Hanna was a little more optimistic about the possibilities involved with Disney taking over Marvel. "If you go on Disney XD [their cable channel], you can see "Spectacular Spider-Man" or "Wolverine and the X-Men." Marvel has already gotten involved with the franchise to that extent. And I'd like to see Pixar comics come out through Marvel, stuff like that, so we can reach out to a broader audience and give more people work; and Disney has been very good at treating their artists and creative talent well for a long time, so I'm actually looking forward to it," said Hanna.

Raney added, "All of us could use a little more back-end security, as far as health benefits, and retirement, which we don't get."

Fingeroth then asked how they got started in comics and how is it different today.Hanna said, "One big difference from when I started was, you didn't want to break in as an artist unless you could do a monthly title. That was the biggest restriction. One of the reasons I became an inker instead of a penciler, is because I was trying to pencil and ink a lot and really wasn't fast enough to do that. In today's world, that would not be an obstacle whatsoever, because they've reformatted things, format more for the graphic novel or story art, where you have one team work for three or four issues and then somebody else will takeover. So, there's no prohibition against a slower artist getting in the door. If I was trying to get in today, I probably would be a penciler/inker, instead of just an inker."

Hannah, whose past projects included a five-year stint on "Detective Comics" and almost fourteen years on Spider-Man then added "You're lucky if you do five or six issues now, before you have to find another project."

O'Neil agreed, "Yeah, I don't know if I would get into comics today. It has become a lot like television. That means it's partly about networking, and partly about selling yourself. I'm abysmally bad at both of those."

The only reason he even got into comics, he said, was when Roy Thomas suggested he take the writer's test for Marvel, as Stan Lee was looking for a second assistant. He had written a newspaper article about Thomas making the transition from high school teacher to "a comic book guy."

"We were about a half step above pornographers, because it was the most disreputable thing you could do, short of writing dirty books or making dirty pictures. My first mother-in-law wouldn't tell people what I did," said O'Neil.

Referring to the documentary by producer Michael Uslan, "The Legends Behind the Comic Books," he said that even Lee admitted he would tell people at cocktail parties that he was in publishing or magazines, because if he mentioned comic books, "whoever I was talking to would walk away."

"We are now respectable. Several people on this stage teach at respectable universities. The New York Times regularly covers us," said O'Neil.

Ten years ago, he said, the New York Times wouldn't touch a story about comics."While my back was turned, while I was being a hippy peacenik, what I was doing became respectable, but it also became my choice. I'll write for television, when the jobs kinda swim on by and I can kinda pluck 'em out of the water . . . but today, I probably would have remained a small town journalist," said O'Neil.

Raney said, "When I came in, basically, if you could hold a pencil, you could get a job. The comic industry had kinda just broken open and they needed a lot of people. If I had seen my work back then, I wouldn't hire me. You had the opportunity to kinda learn on your feet and get better working on the job. It was kind of a national job, but you definitely had an edge if you lived near the city and could go into the office and actually talk to people. Now, it's an international job. Anybody can get a webpage for free and put up all the artwork you want to, and you have to be pretty much fully formed and it's a lot more competitive."

While in college, DeFalco said he began writing short stories and even sold them "to my utter amazement." He also started working for a newspaper and a PR firm, but upon graduation, sent out a bunch of resumes and was hired by Archie Comics.

"I don't think that technique would work today, because I don't think anybody in the comic industry actually looks at resumes anymore. To be honest, the way I think you break in today, is to publish some kind of independent comic, get some good reviews, and the next thing you know, you're writing four X-Men titles," said DeFalco.

"Is it that easy?" joked Fingeroth.

Fingeroth described two models for breaking into comics. One was "the old school" method employed by all of the panelists present, where there is a team of people including "a writer, a penciler, an inker, a colorist, a letterer, and maybe even an editor."

The other was "the romantic image of the single practitioner" who does it all; writes, pencils and inks or photocopies their work or "gets it done by some small press." He asked, how you think this came about and the benefits of either approach?

"When people think of the writer/artist, the one guy who did it all, everybody thinks of Will Eisner. And I hope you all know who Will Eisner is. Most people forget that Will Eisner, during "The Spirit" years, was actually twenty-seven people. One of the things I love about comics is that it really is a team sport. I get to talk to a penciler, and I'm old school, so anytime I work on a regular thing with a regular penciler, I spend hours and hours on the phone with him, so the story flows the way it should. I just love that it's a real collaborative effort between the words and the pictures. It's a whole different experience from writing prose, where you're essentially locked up in a room and every once in a while, the editor will call you up and threaten you . . . or TV, where everybody in creation seems to know how to do your job better than you do and they're all much younger," said DeFalco.

O'Neil said, "Comics are now a fine art, and like fine arts, traditionally they are done by a guy with a vision who makes whatever sacrifices are necessary to realize the creation, presumably not thinking about commercial considerations, but I have my doubts about that . . . I've always thought that at the very best, this might rise to the level of art, but I'm not gonna pretend that's what I'm doing."

Shooting for a certain level of professionalism, he said, gives you a lot of practice artistically. The first comics he ever worked on at Marvel were "Millie the Model," "Modeling with Millie," and "Patsy and Hedy: Girls on the Go-Go."

"I was a renegade hippie writing about fashionistas . . . that couldn't have been further from my own sensibility, but I learned the ABCs. Nobody paid any attention to Millie, including Stan Lee. It was a place to be bad, while getting paid for it. I'm very grateful for that, all the westerns, all of that stuff I did for a couple of years, because I learned the trade," said O'Neil.

When he had moved on to DC and Green Lantern/Green Arrow, his writing tools were sharpened, he said.

"My first job was to imitate Stan Lee. Normally, I don't think that's such a great idea, but in that case, Stan Lee was Marvel Comics. His attitude, his technique, his approach was revolutionary, so you were judged by how indistinguishable your scripts were from Stan," said O'Neil.

As for the two separate camps of comics creators, he said, some people like David Mazzuchelli work in both.

"There's the guy who . . . spent four years writing an absolutely brilliant graphic novel, but paid the dues that fine artists pay, making no money, living bare subsistence until he got it done. At the end of the day, there's room for both, for people to work in both camps," said O'Neil.

Hanna said he went to college with many artists who wanted to do it all themselves, but he's always preferred collaboration because as a team "you push each other to do better."

"I like working with talented people that I can learn from and get better from, and as a team we can hopefully produce something that individually we were not able to do. I usually liken it to a rock group. Yeah, sure, there are some musicians who can write, play an instrument, and do everything, but if you get him up on stage, it's not gonna sound as good if it's just one guy. If you've got a great drummer, a great lead guitarist, a great singer all combined; sometimes they produce this magic that none of them could do individually. I think that's the way that a lot of the comics that I get to work on are done, that you get to push each other and go beyond your own limitations," said Hanna.

Fingeroth asked the panel how the internet has affected comics promotion and the craft of making comics.

Raney said, that on the art side it has helped with reference, because you can jump on the internet and find your reference (a specific car or whatever) easily, instead of spending days at the library to find what you're looking for. On the other hand, the internet can be a distraction and waste all the valuable time you just saved, like seeing negative reviews of your work.

"It's too easy to see the negative aspects. It doesn't do you any good . . . even if they know what they're doing, it's just going to slow you down," said Raney.

DeFalco added, "In general, people praise you for the wrong things and they also condemn you for the wrong things. A lot of the times, they're condemning you for things that you go, "that's not really part of the craft." They're praising you for things that are the basics of the craft. You can't really pay too much attention to that."

Fingeroth pointed out that DeFalco seemed pretty internet savvy, drawing for Marvel's webcomics and even posting on his message boards.

"I love the internet in that . . . I work for three publishers in Europe. I get to work with producers on the West Coast . . . On the other hand, you've lost that, 'oh, the script is in the mail. I don't know what's holding it up. [laughter] It was sent out days ago,'" said DeFalco.

"'My internet connection is down' is the new version of that," joked Fingeroth. "I am a luddite. Give me a wooden shoe and I'll throw it at a piece of machinery. A television is an alien presence in my living room, so a computer is a really alien presence, which we keep locked in the basement," said O'Neil.

Fingeroth then opened up the discussion to questions from the audience, the first of which regarded the potential of Marvel producing comics with licensed Disney characters.

"I'm a goofball and I love the medium and I love the opportunity to play with all aspects of the medium . . . I'm gonna do a comic for Archie Comics, and I haven't worked for them in about 35 years. They called and asked me if I wanted to do a story and I thought, 'Cool, I get to play with those characters.' Any kind of characters that kinda float around . . . I mean, Disney has some of the classic characters, who wouldn't want to play with some of those characters? I think it would be terrific," said DeFalco.

Hanna said, "For me, I look at Warners Bros and their collaboration with DC. I get a kick out of . . . if I watch Duck Dodgers dress up as Green Lantern, I think that's great. If Disney can do that with Marvel, fantastic. We'll have to wait and see, because it's gonna take awhile to iron everything out, but I think it would be great if we could crossover, have Spider-Man guest with Donald Duck, who knows?"

DeFalco let out a "what?" in disbelief, amidst laughter from the audience.

"Weirder things have happened," said Hanna.

Another questioner wanted to know how O'Neil feels seeing his characters in film or on TV, particularly the John Stewart Green Lantern in the "Justice League" animated series.

"Unrepentant luddite that I am, I really don't watch that. I don't even read my own published work. I will see what's wrong with it, and that will wipe out with one stroke, everything that's good about it . . . it'll jump off the page or off the screen and poke me in the eye and I won't see anything else. I'm not joking . . . I thought that the use of Ra's al Ghul in the earlier Batman movie ['Batman Begins'] . . . I think they did a better job than I did getting to the essence of that character . . . Sam Hamm, who wrote the first of the Tim Burton Batman movies once told me, 'you have the right and the privilege to be the first person to tell the story, that's yours and yours alone. After that, it has nothing to do with you.' Whether it turns out to be "Citizen Kane" or "Howard the Duck," a masterpiece or an unfortunate mistake, it has nothing to do with you. Yes, if it's for film or TV, it will go through a jillion rewrites . . . As an editor, one of the things I had to hear people say, 'this is not Batman,' which they mean, 'this is not the Batman I knew when I was fifteen years old and living in a trailer park and Batman was the only bright spot in my life.' And they were right, it was not their Batman. It was that character evolved into something acceptable for a contemporary audience . . . Generally, I don't like looking at my stuff in print or on the screen," said O'Neil.

The next question regarded the difficulty of introducing new characters into the superhero universe, particularly as the lead character of a solo series.

"Most of the classic characters that we look at are archetypes. It's hard to create new archetypes. New characters are appearing on a regular basis. Some of these characters last two or three years, four or five years. On television, that's considered a major success. In comic books, unless it's been around for fifty years, we think it's a failure," said DeFalco.

Hanna added, "Some of these characters have been around for over 75 years and you have to compete with those archetypes, and other characters have been around for over 40 or 50 years . . . people love Spider-Man that have never read a Spider-Man comic book. And people love Batman that have never read a Batman comic book. When you're introducing a new character, you have to get past the advantage that all these other characters already have. That's not always easy to do. And people like Stan Lee don't come around every year. It took him years to introduce all of these new characters that we now think of as the new archetypes. That was 40 years ago. And it took 30 or 40 years after the creation of Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman for Stan Lee to create his stuff. Maybe we're gonna need another . . . well, around now [laughter] . . . Also, the internet is giving people the opportunity to create their own new characters and raise fan awareness on the internet or in other areas . . . there usually has to be some change to happen, for something new to stand on its own legs."

Fingeroth said that comic creators nowadays fear selling their creations, presumably because of lack of creative control or wanting to profit from it themselves. Their character may be the next big thing, but it's stuck in limbo, because "they don't have the big, widespread platform that the big corporate publisher and media company has."

Another question concerning the Disney/Marvel deal and whether it was "the wave of the future" for publishing, since that industry is in such "a perilous state," and how would it affect smaller publishers?

Hanna discussed the positive effect of graphic novels on the comic book market and how this might've attracted Disney to Marvel in the first place, looking to "get a piece of that publishing arm."

He added, "As far as independent comics being creative . . . the internet is allowing more and more independent self-publishing than ever before in the entire history of publishing. The cost is nil. Even back in our day, when you had to Xerox your own books and send 'em out to comic book publishers . . . you don't have to do that anymore. You can put it on the internet and reach thousands of people without any problem, so as far as prohibiting new people or independent creators, not at all."

"I don't think the Disney/Marvel deal has anything to do with publishing. I think it's all about movies and video games. I actually don't like the idea of major corporations buying up publishing, because I think that a lot of corporations have bought newspapers and book companies and are just looking at the bottom line, and tend to forget why we have newspapers or why we have books. I get nervous every time I see a corporation buy a newspaper, because I think they're buying it because they want the real estate. I don't know if you guys remember, but a bunch of years ago, when the Daily News was for sale, one of the buyers came out and said, they wanted to buy the Daily News and were gonna basically stop the paper, but they wanted it for the real estate, because it was prime real estate. I think it'll take Disney a couple of years to notice that Marvel is still publishing comics [laughter from the audience] and . . ." said DeFalco.

"We can only hope," said O'Neil.

". . . and when they do, there'll be some major changes there. I'm not really sure what those changes are gonna be and lucky I'm not going to have to be fighting them," said DeFalco.

O'Neil added, "It's my understanding that, for a number of years, as far as the mighty AOL/Time Warner is concerned, DC was regarded as an R&D firm. I don't think publishing . . . it varies from year to year, but it is seldom self-sustaining anymore. There are a number of reasons for that. One, I think it's impossible for new readers to find their way into a twenty-seven part story. That's another soapbox for another time. But, Tom was absolutely right. For both Time Warner/AOL and Disney, it's not about the publishing; it's about the next fiscal quarter."

"I think today, conventional wisdom is you cannot make money from publishing . . . for people who have come up with that conventional wisdom, they don't know what the hell they're talking about, because obviously you can make money from publishing. Marvel did for many years, when it was the only thing holding the company together. I look back on the day when, routinely, our lowest-selling title sold over 100,000 copies. Today, maybe five titles sell over 100,000 copies. And I know the world has changed, but I think if the industry had changed with it, we'd still be in better shape. I find it a very fascinating thing these days . . . Comic books are popular thanks to the movies and television and merchandising; they're popular in every medium except the actual comic books," said DeFalco.

Fingeroth asked DeFalco how he would see the medium change.

"The problem with comic-book publishing and publishing in general is that if you're thinking two years ahead, you're still not thinking ahead of the curve. In publishing . . . you really have to think five years ahead, which is difficult, because when you're owned by a corporation, most of the time all anyone ever thinks about is the next quarter. And if you're thinking from quarter to quarter, you're dead," said DeFalco.

O'Neil said, "William Goldman, who was a brilliant novelist and screenwriter, said, 'The secret of Hollywood is no one knows anything.' If I'm Mr. Studio Exec and I greenlight a movie today, it won't get on the screen for three years. I'm guessing as to the state of the culture two to three years from now and I'm betting $200 million on the guess, which is one of the reasons that it is a revolving-door position."

O'Neil then prompted DeFalco to tell a story about being hired to do a single-issue story.

When talking with the person who hired him to do the story, DeFalco said that the guy told him there was a problem, and the exchange went something like this:

'Okay, what's the problem?' asked DeFalco.'It has to all be in this one issue.''Okay, I don't understand, what's the problem?''It can't be continued [laughter], all the subplots have to be concluded.''I'm just not understanding.''There can't be a part two.'

"We actually went around for about ten minutes on this, until I finally realized that this guy had never seen an entire story in a single issue . . . and I apologized to him because I realized I was being stupid. I didn't realize he had no experience in this," said DeFalco.

The guy asked, "Well, how many pages can you do a complete story in?" DeFalco replied, "I don't think I've ever done one in less than one page."

"And so we asked before, what in comics has changed? When we all started, one-issue stories was what you did, because conventional wisdom was that newsstand distribution was so erratic that, just because you were able to get 'Detective Comics' #46 didn't mean you were going to get #47. Stan Lee changed that rule by ignoring it. But, as to why comics publishing doesn't find an audience, it is because it is easier to read "Finnegan's Wake" than it is the average superhero comic, because the books are done with the assumption that you know the backstory, that you have read the last three hundred issues. So, yeah, things like that are now necessary. I think right now, DC is sinning against that a little more than Marvel. Marvel seems to at least be aware of the problem. It's that they are not [new] reader-friendly, and they could be. It is no great feat of comic book craftsmanship to revise the exposition a little to let the reader know that the current comic is part of an ongoing story. It takes little effort, but it can be done, and we used to do it every week," said O'Neil.

DeFalco finished with, "Denny just used a word that's very important, and that's the word 'craft.' This is an actual craft, with guidelines . . . you build a story like you build a house . . . there is a craft to this industry and if you want to work in this industry, then you owe it to yourself and the readers, to learn the craft. And luckily, you have two guys right here who are teaching courses and will teach you how to learn that craft."

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