Around ten years ago, I told Frank Miller the day would come in comics where talent would hire publishers, not the other way around. Turns out I was right, but not the way I thought.
This was in the boom years, just after Image was founded. Traditionally, talent abandoned Marvel and DC in search of greater creative freedom courtesy of smaller companies (or they were purged by the Big Two and didn't have a choice of where they landed), and a handful took up self-publishing. True, everyone wanted money, at least enough to earn a good living, but the spoken (and often most heartfelt) reason was almost always to pursue their personal muse. Image looked at first to be a self-publishing collective; who knew they'd follow the Disney model? The story goes that Walt Disney, toiling as a contractor for then-cartoon king Walter Lantz on OSWALD THE RABBIT cartoons, took exception to business practices that cut him out of the profits, and split off – to become, in effect, the new Walter Lantz. Image wasn't so much founded for pursuit of the muse as for pursuit of empire and it briefly made enough headway to scare the NYC publishers half to death.
Image also briefly turned the cult of superstar talent in comics into a phenomenon. Spawned in the 60s in the first wave of Marvel (who was more ubiquitous, The Fantastic Four or Stan Lee and Jack Kirby), the superstar cults kicked into high gear in the early '70s as new talent like Barry (soon to be Windsor-)Smith and Steve Englehart cracked the paper ceiling and began to bring new sensibilities to the medium. The cycle petered out until the early 80s, when the rising comics shops gave people like Frank Miller and John Byrne special attention, and the cult of superstar talent firmly took hold of the market. With the drastic expansion of character rosters and constant shifting of talent from one company to another throughout that decade, for the first time talent became more important to marketing than the characters they were working on. All companies gleefully embraced this; following the financial debacle of the 70s (Marvel cut their story page length to 17 pages then to save money, while DC seriously discussed canceling their signature title DETECTIVE COMICS and most of the Superman-related books, including the then-longest lived comic in existence, ADVENTURE COMICS, were purged) everyone was thrilled to have something – anything! – to market.
The direct sales market also conjured new publishing possibilities. Upstart publishers like First and Eclipse took baby steps away from the output of the Big Two. Little self-publishing operations sprang up. Companies like Fantagraphics, publishers of corporate comics bashers The Comics Journal and champions of artistic independence, put their money where their mouths were. As all this was going on, publishers tried pushing their own talent to superstar status – some made it, some didn't – largely resulting in raids by Marvel and especially DC for cult talent to add to their roster and give their comics a hip veneer for a credibility wedge against longtime rival and industry powerhouse Marvel. (Not that DC was alone; everyone wanted that hip veneer. But DC in particular had profited from the cult of stardom, scoring the first big success that nudged them back from the brink when Marv Wolfman and George Perez jumped from Marvel to turn the throwaway and bafflingly retro 60s concept TEEN TITANS into a fan favorite, then lured UNCANNY X-MEN wunderkind Byrne and DAREDEVIL impresario Miller over to revitalize Superman and Batman, respectively, so they embraced the cult of the superstar wholesale.)
The cult of the superstar, fed by a stream of growing royalty payments, prompted many talents to at least consider the possibility of owning their own show themselves, and this was where the trouble began. In America, we pay a lot of lip service to people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and all that downhome cornpone malarkey, and it's a recurring dream of every free man (hey, I'm using Revolutionary War lingo here; the gender wars came later) to own his own business, but in the age of Big Business we also consider it vaguely sinister if not outright Communistic for the workers to seize the means of production.
Bob Schreck, back in his Dark Horse days, rightly pointed out that most promising self-publishing operations collapse because there's just so damn much unexpected work to putting out a comic book: marketing, bookkeeping, schedule coordination, negotiating with printers, debt collection, etc. Even freelancers who can get behind writing, drawing, lettering and coloring comics at their own risk (or hiring/wheedling their pals to pick up some of the slack) crash on the shoals of all that work. Most of us became freelancers because we don't want to be enslaved to any one company, not even our own. Bob's view (at the time; given his history since, I don't know if he still holds it) was that by letting a company handle all that the talent can reap the benefits and profits of self-publishing while applying his time and efforts to the fun part: producing the work. (Though we all know the fun part is coming up with the stories. Why else do so many artists become writer-artists only to become writers with other artists drawing their stories? A: Because the stories are the fun part, and drawing is too much like work.)
Which brings us to the concept of hiring a publisher. It seemed to me, as the cult of the superstar overwhelmed the business, that the day wasn't too far off when publishers would work for the talent and not the other way around. The job of talent would be to generate, own and manage properties, with full creative control, the job of publishers to front the operating capital, produce and market the artifacts, with talent holding the veto. In the era of the superstar, this seemed a natural progression, and some companies even approached it. Smart publishers know how to invest to turn a lot of bucks later, and in the evolution of the comics market the smart publishers would adapt to and profit from the new order while publishers that couldn't make the transition would fall away.
When Marx formulated communism, he envisioned stages of economic development a society would have to go through to get there. He saw communism not so much as an opponent to capitalism but the ultimate outgrowth of capitalism in an industrial society. From Marx's point of view, there was no way communism wouldn't arise in England or the United States. Any major industrialized capitalist society. He was wrong, of course. He didn't see an economy that greatly raised the standard of living for a majority, even of workers (though he did see the capitalist cycles of rise and decline that profited the wealthy few and kept the masses ever on the edge of collapse, which really hasn't changed) and he didn't understand how strong the opposition of established forces to such developments would be, both in terms of physical and political opposition (the redbaiting and redbashing of the 20s, 30s and 50s, in particular) and in terms of a mass media that could consolidate and to some extent manipulate broad public opinion. Whatever basis in reality Marx's philosophy had was completely gutted by Lenin, who set the standard for "practical" communism by imposing it on an agrarian economy, which was pretty much the only thing Marx specifically said not to do.
Likewise, my own little Brave New World was predicated on the continuing extension of the cult of the superstar. In a comics culture where talent names are more marketable than the specific properties (Frank Miller made SIN CITY, not the other way around; Frank can leave SIN CITY without being diminished but SIN CITY without Frank is pointless) hiring publishers would have been a logical evolution.
Now here we are in the year of blood.
To some extent the cult of the superstar still exists – Alan Moore can launch a whole line on the basis of his name, while Joe Quesada can issue press releases saying things like "For the first time Marvel is actively recruiting the industry's number one creators for our number one characters" – but Image was a big wake-up call for companies. If your superstars can up and leave to become dangerous competition, marketing talent names courts suicide. So it's not surprising that comics companies reacted by scaling back emphasis on talent and pushing the properties hard instead. As a marketing strategy, it makes a certain amount of sense (from a corporate comics standpoint). As an editorial policy, that's suicide. The inescapable fact is that characters (also known as "properties") are only as good as the talent producing them. I just read a message elsewhere from someone citing Kirby's run on FANTASTIC FOUR and THOR as evidence Marvel has the ability to make memorable comics. But Marvel didn't make those comics. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby made those comics. All Marvel ever had was the ability to publish memorable comics, but every publisher's got that. The rapid decline of comics in the late '90s corresponded to the de-emphasis of talent as an important element of the books. Did it cause the decline? Too many factors caused the decline, but the homogenization of talent couldn't have helped. It also paralleled the rise of story micromanagement as editorial policy.
All companies have been hurt badly by the last six years. According to some reports, they're still hurting, and the wounds are becoming gangrenous. Amid a constant barrage of press releases about happy days being here again and all the cool storylines being generated for upcoming releases, an independent report came a couple weeks ago indicating sales on all the top comics had now sunk below 100,000, suggesting the market is the worst it has ever been. While this has been hotly debated and to some extent debunked, it underscores warning signs that the cheeriest press release can't dismiss. One writer on the Comicon message boards suggested the data's drawn only from pre-orders, while dealers now increasingly depend on later orders. But Diamond this week announced they would no longer handle reorders. As with Marvel's recent decision not to go back to press on successful books, this seems to be an attempt to force retailers to make large orders early or be left out, but if retail now runs on later orders, if late orderers are told they have to order earlier or be left out, will they order earlier or walk? For reasons I sure have to do with economic expediency (in Diamond's case it limits their exposure; in Marvel's, as well as forcing dealers to allocate more of their budgets to Marvel purchases it theoretically creates a waiting market for the company's new fast and furious reprints in trade paperback) half the industry seems hellbent on driving potential readers away.
I keep hearing the "cyclical sales" theory these days. This theory states that comics sell in cycles, and we're now at the tale end of the down cycle. The Kali Yuga, I think Hindus call it. The theory's thruline implies another boom period is on the horizon, and all we have to do is be there to greet it. It's Zen economics, basically an excuse for changing nothing.
Except it's wrong. The history of comics doesn't break down to up and down cycles. It breaks down to a devolving spiral. Sure, there have been periods where sales were good and sales were bad, but every time sales dropped precipitously (1946-1960; most of the 70s; most of the 90s) the next upswing never matched the sales of the previous upswing. (Except, with a few books, in the boomtown of the early '90s, when comics and merchandising finally collided like feuding tectonic plates: major upheaval and excitement, followed by rubble.) Factor in the changing economics of comics – as I've said before, the standard comics package just doesn't represent value for money anymore now that $2.50 is the going price, and it doesn't matter that movie tickets cost $10 in NYC, any price for the standard package over $1.99 psychologically translates to "not worth it," something TV GUIDE also discovered when it tried to raise its price earlier this year – as the vast array of competing entertainment possibilities and our situation just isn't like any situation faced before in the history of comics. To sit by and wait for the pendulum to swing back – that's no pendulum, boys, that's a hammer swinging. The problem with the Kali Yuga is that you have to go through the end of the world to get to the next cycle.
And in this climate, my theory has become reality. Image instituted a "hire the publisher" policy. Of sorts. For talent, it's completely on the cuff; any money's on the back end. In 1992, when sales were hot, that would actually have been a reasonably good deal, if your book was any good at all. Now, with sales flatlined and royalties largely an exotic fantasy, it's pretty much the same as saying you're doing your book gratis. I don't know if there are still publishing fees involved (Image used to "lease" their logo for two grand to suitable applicants, with the money covering some of the publishing costs, but that may have gone by the wayside now) The publisher still holds right of refusal; not everyone can go to Image, pay the right price, and get their book published there. In the book trade, this sort of thing is called vanity press. Except the right to pick and choose essentially makes the deal a creator subsidy of the company, which, like all other companies, promotes its own image on the basis of the books it publishers. I haven't seen an Image contract so I don't know what the rights situation amounts to – I'm assuming Image doesn't claim any ancillary rights – but comics companies are more and more demanding big pieces of rights equity in creator-owned works.
Image isn't the only company out there doing the new "hire a publisher" model. I know of at least two others, and, in a market where companies are doing anything to survive, I expect many more will be doing it soon. I understand why they're doing it. It's not a good thing for the industry. It forces talent that, oh, likes to pay their bills on time out. It officially turns independent comics into the farm teams for Marvel and DC we've always known they really were; the idea seems to be now, ala Brian Bendis (I'm not complaining about Bendis's work or choices – the former is fine, the latter is his business – but he makes a good example), to make a name for yourself toiling in the "creator-owned sweatshops" then cash in by jumping to paying gigs at Marvel and DC. All this does is reinforces the monolithic stature of the Big Two in the still dwindling marketplace, and puts all the risk on the shoulders of the talent. I'm not suggesting people who want to work with Image shouldn't – more power to them – but is there anyone in America who still thinks the Image rubric on their book means anything special anymore? I know there's a theory gaining ground among publishers that anyone who doesn't have enough confidence in their ideas to do them without front money doesn't deserve to be published, but it's not their ideas they might not have confidence in. They might not have confidence in a publisher's ability to sell their work that they're getting no advance on, esp. since publishers can't seem to figure out how to sell their own books. Comics take a long time to produce, and it takes most artists longer than most writers; perhaps they don't have confidence in their creditors' willingness to wait until the money comes in before attaching their computers and cars and houses to pay for back debts. Perhaps they don't have confidence in Diamond's ability to not bury all their work in a blur of copy in the midst of 200 pages of blurs of copy each month.
So, sure, you can hire a publisher. But Schreck's theorum no longer holds: if you're doing all the work for no money and you have to handle all your own promotion as well, why not self-publish and control your own destiny? You won't be any worse off.
In the guise of preserving them through extraordinary measures, the industry has in fact declared war on creator-owned books, and declared an end to their viability. Which means there's a huge opportunity out there for some entrepreneur, if someone wants to jump in.
I've just been notified that Diamond has not dropped reorders. I was misinformed. My apologies to Diamond. - 3-14-00 12:00 PM
I make it a habit not to discuss my private life publicly, but today's my 20th wedding anniversary and 20 years is too much of a milestone to ignore, so I'll make an exception. If there's one thing I get down on my knees and thank Marvel for every day, it's giving me the chance to meet my wife, who was then Jim Shooter's secretary and later Tom DeFalco and Denny O'Neil's assistant editor. She's more beautiful now than the day I met her. (I know that's a cliché but I'm deadly serious; she looks like she's still in her 20s.) Being married to a freelancer is a rough life and being married to a cranky loudmouth like me makes it especially rough, and I know what I've got. So thanks, Linda. Happy Anniversary. (I'll save the really mushy stuff for home, if the rest of you don't mind.) (By the way, while marriage has turned out great for me, I wouldn't necessarily recommend it. Don't get inspired or anything like that. But if you do get married, the Ides of March are an auspicious time.)
Next week is the final X-MAN, from Marvel. Scorched earth, baby. I'm in the midst of several graphic novels, including WHISPER for PlanetLar Books and a project I can't talk about for Platinum (hi, Lee; almost done!), and a western I'm writing with no artist or publisher attached, just because I need to. So if I'm absent from the stands for a few months after next Wednesday, it's not because I'm not doing things...
Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: A follow-up to last week's question. What's the least sexy comic book you've ever read, and why? Explain. As before, you may interpret sexy any way you choose. (Last week most people interpreted it as having erotic content, though sexy and erotic aren't really the same thing. Go figure.)
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.