I received, the other day, a request for a future column. The writer likes my work, he says, but what he really loves is the famous long-time corporate-owned characters, like Superman and The Batman. He requested that I write a piece on how we might save those "icons", and how we might bring new readers and quality to the mainstream books of this type.
And I'm sorry, but the answer is: fuck 'em.
Letters like this - and I get an awful lot of them, I'm not singling anyone out here - presume that all the new characters and stories myself and my peers create from nothing but the world around us and the filters and notions peculiar to our own minds mean exactly nothing. They presume that the only characters worth telling stories about were invented in a previous century and we should stick to them or go away.
Am I the only one who finds that a little odd?
Think about that in terms of literature. Tell Nick Hornsby, Toni Morrison, Iain Sinclair or Maxine Hong Kingston that this new idea of theirs is pretty good, but what the medium really needs is more Fu Manchu novels. Tell Neal Stephenson he can fuck off until he decides to behave himself and write the Hercule Poirot novel the prose business needs to bring new readers back.
Fuck the old corporate-owned characters. They can look after themselves. They are artificially supported by the corporations during periods where no-one is buying them. You think they're all doing that for the creator-owned works that are building the medium's future? Marvel would keep their core characters in print even if the sales were so low that it'd be cheaper to phone the audience to tell them what happens in each issue, but they shot Epic dead without blinking.
We don't owe these old characters a living. They are not the infrastructure without which the Western medium would collapse. If you subtracted the Superman comics from DC's schedule tomorrow, about fifty thousand people would notice. (If that.) And the Superman apparel and merchandising machine - which is where the actual money in the Superman trademark is generated -- would roll on without noticing. Hell, the WB Stores don't even sell Superman comics.
So why does it matter if we put quality creators on these books or not? They'll still be published anyway. SUPERMAN editor Eddie Berganza could fire all his artists tomorrow, dig up Don Heck, fill him with reconditioned old Disney animatronics, and have him draw all the books. And they'd still be published. They ain't cancelling the Superman books. In real, corporate terms, no-one gives a shit if Joe Kelly and Jeph Loeb are writing them, or if Mark Waid and Grant Morrison are writing them, or me and my dad are writing them. Same with The Batman. And Spider-Man. And all those other old comics characters that we're supposed to be beholden to.
Frankly, the creative community is not a slave race designed solely to service old copyrights. And I'm getting a little sick of people assuming otherwise.
Revisiting company-owned concepts because you've got that story in your head and you can't get rid of it any other way is fine. Frank Miller going back to The Batman because he wants to and because he thinks it will be fun is something I have no problem with (and I'm sure he's breathing a sigh of relief right now, that someone he's never heard of thinks it's okay for him to do whatever he wants). But there is a core assumption in the remaining audience that That Is Where We're Supposed To Be, and that pursuing original creator-owned projects is either an indulgence for prima donnas or biting the hand that feeds us.
Let's get one thing very clear; this business is not going to be "saved" by everyone putting their combined weight and creativity behind concepts and characters owned by corporations. Because corporations aren't in it to save comics. They're in it to save themselves.
In which regard: I've also had a lot of mail asking me to express my opinion of the new Ultimate books forthcoming from Marvel. For those who've missed this news, Marvel are launching a line of comics featuring rebooted, cut-down versions of their core characters, stripped down and remodelled for a modern mass audience. These books will evidently be aimed outside the core market, at people who don't ordinarily read comics. The first two projects will be ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and ULTIMATE X-MEN. The writers assigned to these books are hugely talented and treasured acquaintances of mine, Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar. Presumably I would have been phoned if I'd changed my name to Elvis Ellis or Stanley Josef Stalin. Which I have considered from time to time.
Mark - who is, make no mistake, a very intelligent man who's been working in and studying this business for a very long time - is convinced that the Ultimate line will "save comics." That they will capture a whole new audience whose purchasing power will trickle down from the Ultimate books into the medium as a whole. That they will entice, train and addict a brand new market to supplement (and probably eventually replace) the old. These are books designed to supply the distilled essence of these old concepts, not the old, stale tangle of forty years of subplots and backtracks and re-sets. Readers, says the plan, will be able to come to the work with innocent minds and clean hands and be able to understand and get a complete experience from these books from the very start.
Understand, I'm aware of my stance here. I'm the bad old man. I'm old Miseryguts standing in the corner muttering "It'll never work, you mark my words, it'll all come to no good in the end, just you wait and see" and pissing sourly over myself. I'm the horrible doomsaying old git whom nobody likes.
The Ultimate books will not save the comics industry. They will be excellently written. And while I'm not overly fond of ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN artist Mark Bagley's work, ULTIMATE X-MEN artist Adam Kubert is a terrific action illustrator. They will be good superhero comics.
And there's the problem.
The new brooms at Marvel are doing a good thing. Their good intentions are, it must be remembered, more corporate than philanthropic (and last time Marvel tried a big power-concentrating exercise, remember, it crippled them and poisoned their name and made Diamond the biggest power in comics) - but they're making this move for the right reasons. We need to go out and find a new audience and drag them into specialty comics stores (in the near term).
But - and this is a big but - this all assumes that a mass market wants to read superhero comics. And if that were true then millions of people would have poured out of the cinema after BATMAN into the nearest comics dealership and bought the shop. If this were true, in fact, then the industry slump would never have happened, because there would be lots of people brought in by movies and breakthrough books like DARK KNIGHT and WATCHMEN who were still reading superhero comics.
Addressing this problem by amassing the resources to do really good superhero comics doesn't seem to me to be a solid solution.
It's true that 99% of the audience for THE MATRIX really didn't know that what they were seeing was at the root of the superhero genre. And that film showed that the tropes of the superhero genre can be made accessible to a mass audience. But dressing the X-Men in MATRIX-y black leather is a long way from delivering the same kind of accessible experience. (And, apropos of nothing, I've read what I believe to be the final draft of the X-Men film script before they took it on the floor, and while the first half rolls along pleasantly if unchallengingly, the second half is frankly buggered.) Superheroes are ultimately difficult to take seriously. And a mass audience wants, on some level, to take its mass-market violent action entertainment with a degree of seriousness.
And what we're talking about here is a virgin who can run up walls after being bitten by a nuked spider and a bald rich single old man who lives in a big remote house with his leather-clad "students."
No, I'm not playing fair. Neither does anyone else in the real world.
I hope the Ultimate line is a big success. I hope it makes my friends very rich, so that I can beg change from them once me and my family have been put on the street by my shortsightedness. I personally look forward to reading my friends' work on them. I hope it brings a ton of new readers into the Western medium, eager to explore all it has to offer.
But no. A Marvel comic is not going to "save comics."
I can be contacted by email about this column at email@example.com. My voluptuous website, just updated with a new front-page essay, pretty new pictures and containing an online store (carrying most things listed in INSTRUCTIONS) and a 24-hour rolling news service, is http://www.warrenellis.com.
BAD WORLD, a series of occasional articles by myself, is at http://www.themestream.com/gspd_browse/browse/
Today's recommended graphic novel is PREACHER: GONE TO TEXAS by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon with Matt Hollingsworth (DC Vertigo, 1995).