Custom Comics - Creativity for Commercial Consumption

Last month, the stalwart superheroes of the League of Valor saved the world from the nefarious machinations of Doctor Analog, with an assist from their resident IT specialist. And they did it for free. Or at least you can read it for free.

The League of Valor features six characters cut from traditional heroic cloth: Leander, the super-strong and near invulnerable team leader; Airfox, a "normal" man armed with great gadgets and an indomitable will; Siddharasa, an Indian genius in a high-tech suit of armor; a feral fighter called Badgr; Katsuko, a Japanese warrior wielding an enchanted sword; and the creature of living rock known as Lith. The League is aided by bespectacled IT guru Kevin Massing, who somehow always manages to save the day.

The League of Valor's heroic deeds don't appear in any of the usual superhero venues, or embedded in the traditional universes. They appear in the comic "Unbreakable Valor," as part of Panasonic's online presence, promoting devices from the Toughpad line of products. A Toughpad product plays a role in each of the stories.

I helped create the League of Valor for Cohn & Wolfe, the public relations firm working with Panasonic on the Toughpad initiative. We've released two issues thus far, with "X-Men" and "Nightwing" artist Rick Leonardi drawing the first issue and "Wonder Woman" and "Shinku" artist Lee Moder drawing the second, with inks by Mark Pennington, colors by Mike Atiyeh, letters by Troy Peteri and design by Phil Smith, with additional material by Bart Sears. The "Unbreakable Valor" comics can be viewed for free here:

A limited run of "Unbreakable Valor" print comics were produced as promotional items (and I have to say, the print quality and production are superb). They're not offered for sale, but catch me at a convention or signing and you might be able to get your hands on a copy.

I'm happy to say two more issues of "Unbreakable Valor" will appear this year. We've had a grand time putting the issues together. It's been fun, and I hope that comes through in the comics. Where else are you going to find an electricity-based villain named Electricindy? Our contacts at Cohn & Wolfe have been hugely supportive in giving us what we need, but also in stepping back and letting us do our jobs creating the comic. The process has been, and continues to be, a pleasure. And to be perfectly honest, the gig has paid well too.

The "Unbreakable Valor" issues are custom comics, a blanket term that encompasses comics created for a specific client and purpose, most often promotional. Custom comics have always been as aspect of the industry; those Hostess one-page strips that appeared in Marvel and DC issues years ago are custom comics. Most publishers, including Marvel and DC, produce custom comics for clients from fast food restaurants to cereal companies to sports ventures. It can be a lucrative market, especially now, as comics are more a part of the mainstream zeitgeist than ever before. There's an increasing realization that customs comics actually need to be good, not just something cranked out quickly by whatever talent happens to be available.

In the last year or so, in addition to "Unbreakable Valor," I wrote a Gatorade-branded Eli Manning comic for online distribution, produced by DC Comics. For a diehard New York Giants fan like me, it was an assignment I couldn't refuse. The Eli comic, as well as comics featuring NFL stars Peyton Manning, J.J. Watt, Cam Newton and Robert Griffin III, can all be seen here.

Also via DC, artist Stjepan Sejic and I created a "Gauntlet" comic in conjunction with the release of the updated, downloadable version of the classic arcade game. The dungeon crawl was a pretty good fit for me and Stjepan, and even under a tight deadline turnaround, the gig was a fun one.

Probably the most high-profile custom comic last year was Warren Ellis and Mike Allred's "The Spirit of Bacardi" for Bacardi Rum, recounting the tale of Emilio Bacardi son of Bacardi founder Don Facundo. That's a pretty top-shelf custom comic any way you look at it... no pun intended.

Comics-friendly brewery Arcade Brewery took the alcohol and comics connection one step further with Festus Rotgut Back Wheat Ale. Each bottle label features panels from a "Festus Rotgut: Zombie Cowboy" comic, written by Jason Aaron and illustrated by Tony Moore.

I've cringed time after time when I see ham-fisted comics used for promotional or educational purposes out in the real world. It's troubling because so many people are exposed to those amateur-looking efforts, and come away thinking that's what comics are like. It's doubly troubling when you realize that advertising budgets are much greater than budgets in comics. In other words, somebody got paid an awful lot of money to produce such an awful end result. But hopefully that's changing.

Yes, custom comics are often an exercise in product placement, or at least product awareness. For the Eli Manning story, I needed to work Gatorade into a few panels. For "Unbreakable Valor," the Toughpad is a fairly integral part of the story, though at every turn, we were reminded that the story came first.

I honestly don't find working on custom comics to be that different from a lot of work-for-hire assignments. In both cases, the creative team is given parameters to work within, and expected to execute the story within those guidelines. Being part of a universe-spanning crossover, or finding a way for a Toughpad to show off its capabilities, are both ultimately storytelling problems to be solved.

The one caveat with custom comics is that you're often creating content for a client that knows virtually nothing about comics... especially how comics are created. There can be myriad approval hoops to jump through, and multiple cooks in the kitchen. On one custom job a number of years ago, I wrote an outline for the story that covered all the client's objectives. But it was turned down in favor of a storyline the client devised, one which I was almost certain wouldn't work as a comic. The client insisted, so we went with it. After a complete script draft, and then a revision of that draft, the client came to the conclusion that the story wasn't going to work. The client then suggested another direction... which was almost exactly my original outline. That's the story we ended up telling.

There's an apocryphal tale (at least I hope it's apocryphal) about a custom-comics client asking for "reshoots" after looking at the pages of their comic project. It was gently explained that comic pages weren't "shot," they were drawn by hand, and redrawing them would be a time-consuming process. It was a revelation for the client. That story is a reminder that for the vast majority of the public, what comic creators do is still akin to alchemy, a secret science understood by few.

Years ago, I wrote a "Turok: Dinosaur Hunter" comic as part of Disney's planned futuristic reboot of the game. Ben Templesmith completed all the art, making for a gorgeous book. But for reasons that are still unclear to me, the entire finished book was shelved, never to be released. I don't even have a copy of it.

So, yes, working on custom comics can sometimes be a frustrating experience. But those frustrations should also be expected. Creators going in to a custom job know -- or should know -- that inevitably there will revisions. There will be multiple cooks in the kitchen, most of whom want to add something to the broth. However, custom jobs often offer a higher page rate for just that reason.

Just like work-for-hire and creator-owned gigs, custom comics are another piece to a creator's portfolio. It's all telling stories with words and pictures. Still the best job I can think of.

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Witchblade" and the graphic novel series "Ravine" for Top Cow, "Skylanders" for IDW, "John Carter: Warlord of Mars" for Dynamite, "The Protectors" for Athlitacomics, and Sunday-style strips "The Mucker" and "Korak" for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.

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