Year In Review: The Kirkman Manifesto

Better than that big ball dropping in New York, it's time for CBR's year-end round-up. For those readers who are new to this annual phenomenon, it's an opportunity for several of our news staffers to get together and gab about the events or trends they witnessed over the past 365 days in the comic book industry - and in their positions, they see a lot.

Like anybody, our contributors have opinions. Good or bad, logical or semi-coherent, this round-up gives our writers an opportunity to share their points of view - and occasionally vent - on what they've seen during 2008. Joining us for this year's escapade are Timothy Callahan, Kiel Phegley, Dave Richards, and George Tramountanas.

It seems that 2008 gave CBR's writers much to talk about, beginning with...


One of the biggest stories of the year was Robert Kirkman becoming a partner at Image Comics. The company hadn't expanded its leadership base since 1992, when it was founded by seven of the industry's highest-profile illustrators - some of whom have left since that time. Kirkman's ascension is also noteworthy because he is the first writer to join Image's partnership ranks.

A short time after Kirkman was made partner, he went online with a plan and later with video mission statement... and all hell broke loose. Kirkman's "manifesto" implored creators to largely abandon work-for-hire publishers in favor of creator-owned work. The video inspired many a spirited discussion across the internet, and the chat amongst CBR's own news staff proved no different.

Timothy Callahan: I have seen the Kirkman Manifesto and listened to the Word Balloon follow-up, and I'm still not sure I understand the logic of Kirkman's argument.  I get that he thinks creators at the height of their popularity could benefit by leaving Marvel and DC behind and doing only creator-owned stuff, just like the first batch of Image guys did as well as Mike Mignola and Frank Miller at Dark Horse.  However, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense because those guys were all artists, and what artist working in mainstream comics is as popular as Liefeld, Lee, or McFarlane were in 1991? What Marvel or DC artists today are as great as Mignola and Miller? 

I don't see any, even though the general level of talent in mainstream comics now is higher than it has ever been.  Maybe that's why we don't see the breakout artistic stars, because there are so many doing excellent work.  Mignola and Miller stood out because they were head and shoulders above the Ed Hannigans and Alex Saviuks of their day.

And though Kirkman gives the artists as examples for his Manifesto, he seems to be targeting writers.  I guess he's saying that Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Brian Michael Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Matt Fraction should leave the Big Two and do only creator-owned work.  But I don't see why they should, unless they want to.  And they don't particularly seem to want to.

The notion that if top-notch creators leave, Marvel and DC will somehow have to adjust by reverting to making comics primarily for kids again?  That's just silly.  Marvel and DC would just end up with a bunch of current Image and Dark Horse writers - writers who have been waiting for their chance at the Big Two.  Writers who want to finally get paid for their comics.  The cycle would continue.  Would better comics come out of it?  Maybe.  Maybe not.

Dave Richards:  Kirkman made some valid points, but overall I was a little underwhelmed by the Manifesto. And some of his ideas just seemed creatively stifling or simplistic.  Like Tim said, why should the big names leave the Big Two if they don't want to? And who's to say they can't do both creator-owned and company-owned work? Also, I agree with a lot of the criticisms people like Brian Bendis have made about the Manifesto and certain creators breathing a "rarified air."

Kiel Phegley: Good for Kirkman for doing what he wants and making enough money at it; however, I think his whole speech is more of a promotional gimmick for his newly achieved Image partner status and a call to convince mainstream guys to do more projects at Image than it is an impassioned plea for the future survival of the industry. And I thought Mark Waid's comment on this in a recent COMICS SHOULD BE GOOD chat was pretty priceless as far as these things go:

"I thought Kirkman's Manifesto was just ADORABLE. It was so cute. I remember when I had MY first beer."

George Tramountanas:  Wow!  I wasn't expecting to be the lone voice in praising Kirkman's speech, but it seems I am.  Did I agree with everything he said?  Of course not, but he said many things that needed saying and started a conversation that was long overdue.

To begin with, I do agree that the Manifesto was a bit of a "promotional gimmick" (as per Kiel's comment), but I also felt that Kirkman believed every word that he said.  He is a creator who loves the industry and wants to see it thrive - whether or not Image benefits in the process.

I don't believe that creators need to exclusively work on creator-owned content, but I do believe they should make some indie work.  Over the past few years, several of the industry's great ones have passed on, and many of them did so without the money they needed for medical treatments in the end.  They helped build our industry, and didn't have much to show for it except a table at a con that most younger fans pass by without a second look.  Indie books are the lotto tickets/pension plans of creators.

Creator-owned books are lotto tickets in the sense that even an unpopular comic can go on and make a lot of money as a movie or TV show.  How many of us actually read "Men in Black?" Yet this movie went on and made great money for its publisher (and hopefully its creators).  And as far as pension plans go, while I don't know how much money Jeff Smith has made from his "Bone" omnibus and trades, I would think it provides him with some source of regular income.

What I've said probably goes under the "obvious" column as a benefit of creator-owned work, but there was so much more to Kirkman's speech.  He discussed the need to do indie work to keep our industry alive, and he was 100% correct.  What we've seen this year in comic sales should give us pause.  Sales were up, but only for the Big Two - and for one month, Marvel had an astounding 50% share of the sales.

While they deserve a pat on the back for this, it scares the heck out of me, as it did for Marvel Executive Editor Tom Brevoort.  The sign of a healthy industry is not when one or two companies "rule the roost" - in fact, it's the opposite.  A healthy industry is one where many companies can compete, survive, and thrive.  The fact that we can't imagine a day where a publisher other than Marvel or DC owns the top spot in sales is cause for concern.

The last thing I want to point out about the Kirkman Manifesto - and thank Robert Kirkman for - is that it stimulated an outpouring of information for "wannabe" creators.  The debate he and Brian Bendis had about his Manifesto was very illuminating.  Struggling creators learned about reported sales versus actual sales, and we also got a sense of what it takes to "make it" courtesy of outside analyses such as this one from Publishers Weekly.

Despite any heat or flak he's gotten for his video, I for one want to thank Robert Kirkman for stimulating a conversation that we won't soon forget.

For more from our panel of staffers and their look back at 2008, come back to CBR tomorrow for the guys' discussion of EVENT COMICS: THE NEVER ENDING SECRET CRISIS!

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