Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Comics Part 2: The Tyranny of Talent

These days, breaking into mainstream comics is practically impossible.

            The market for comics is tiny and is shrinking every year. There are only so many titles being published to supply artists and writers with work.

Because a few very popular artists got a lot of press and made vast sums of money in the early 1990’s, the number of people wanting to break into the comics business rose to incredible heights. Since then, a few independently published books have hit the Hollywood lottery, further muddying the waters. The idea that comics are a “rock star” profession that can create great fame and fortune in relatively short order still lingers, but this vision is far from the truth.

In fact, very few people make a reasonable living in the comics industry.

There are probably less than two thousand individuals in North America that are actually gainfully employed in the comics business without having to supplement their income with other work. (There might be twice that number working partly in the business along with other jobs, or making part of their income from self-publishing or web publishing.)

A quick count of the number of people lugging around portfolios or hawking short-run books at any major comics convention quickly highlights the rather skewed relationship between supply and demand in the industry. Most of these people will never work for any of the four major companies, Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse. No other companies are capable of paying a living wage to its writers and artists. There simply aren’t enough people out there buying comics to make it happen. Smaller companies with lower sales figures may sometimes make a go of it, but it’s done on the backs of their creative talent. Payment to their artists and writers is woefully inadequate as a living wage, unless you are an artist-machine who can turn out 4 or 5 exceptional pages of art a day.

Sadly there are few of those.

It’s even worse for writers. Comic samples can be assessed visually in mere moments, whereas an editor or publisher has to take the time to actually read writing samples. This is something the average editor really hates bothering with. That’s because it’s easier to simply hire someone who’s already a pro with a recognizable CV. Or, worse yet, some television or film writer who’s got a little free time to slum in comics between real jobs.

It’s the skewed supply and demand that fosters laziness in the editorial class.
            Yes, I said laziness, and I stand by that.

Thirty-five years ago, when I started collecting comics and first began to dream of working in the industry, things were different. The number of people working professionally in comics was probably half what it is today, but the number of wannabees trying to break in was practically non-existent. At that time, at any given comic convention, you might see four or five guys showing around a portfolio. Today, someone looking over samples at a convention might have literally dozens of would be artists vying for a small number of portfolio review spots. I have seen stacks of sample books piled 60 deep on the tables of publisher kiosks. With so many to choose from, the editor begins to feel his power. Yes… POWER! Because there are so many clamoring for the few spots available in the industry editors can wait, patiently, blithely passing up some pretty talented people, until they see that one portfolio out of a thousand where the work is truly exceptional.

Only a few years ago, an editor looking over my samples tossed out this little bon mot: “Hey, this stuff is actually pretty good. But, you know, good isn’t really good enough any more.”


It doesn’t help that the entertainment conglomerates that currently own the big comics companies, don’t give a damn about their editors, their creative employees, or even the comics themselves. Today’s editors really have almost no say in what they do, and much of what happens in the comics is cynically decided by committee in an attempt to create media buzz. And, many of the people working as editors also never worked as artists or writers. They graduate from business schools, become production assistants, then assistant editors and then editors. I’m not saying they’re all bad, but their appreciation for the jobs creative people do is limited.

Back in the seventies, this wasn’t the case. The comic companies actually made their money from selling comics. The editor in chief was usually someone who started as a writer or artist and understood the craft. So were the other editors. And, since there were fewer budding artists and writers to choose from, the editor would have to sometimes pick a candidate who merely showed some potential. Many of the great artists of that period started off a bit anemically, but were nurtured by their editors. They were encouraged, corrected, brought along.

Here are a few examples from some of the guys who later became my favorite artists of the period.

This early page by Barry Windsor Smith seems barely printable. The anatomy is very weak, and the storytelling is clunky and scattershot. But it has something, doesn’t it? A certain energy, and a nascent sense of design which promises better work to come? As seen in this later page, Barry’s energy and sense of design eventually emerged with a vengeance.

Bernie Wrightson’s early work was mediocre, offbeat and idiosyncratic. 

But it has a definite sense of mood and style, which would blossom magnificently as his drawing skills improved. Compare this page with an exceptional page from Swamp Thing only a few years later. Hard to believe it’s the same guy.

If they showed their early work to an editor today, I sincerely doubt either of these guys would secure work at the mainstream companies. In fact, they would probably get a very negative review. But, this begs the question: How many truly great talents are being overlooked because they don’t immediately dazzle? Developing your work on the job, with a paycheck, editorial guidance and constant drawing improves the work quickly. Developing your skills at night after a long day in a crappy job with minimal critical input and encouragement is slow, frustrating work.

Look at the work of Frank Miller. Whatever your opinion of his current work, it is impossible to escape the fact that, for more than a decade, Frank expanded and invigorated the comics medium in a way not seen since the 60’s.

This sample of his early work is the very definition of pedestrian. Serviceable storytelling, decent anatomy, a workable sense of page design, but, well, pretty boring. Based on this lackluster example, who could foresee the kind of graphic, dramatic pages Frank would be creating a few years later on Daredevil. And, would he ever have gained the opportunity to write as well as draw? I suspect that a Frank Miller attempting to break into comics today would be rebuffed with extreme prejudice. He’d either end up working in the movie business or selling insurance somewhere.

For artists today, there seems to be only two routes for breaking into the business. You either have to be a truly exceptional draughtsman or you have to have a friend or relative in the business. I’m certainly not suggesting the exceptional don’t deserve to work, but I sometimes think that the stuff these guys do, while amazing in it’s own way, is a little cold. To capture the attention of the editorial class their work must be honed to perfection in a manner that can foster a certain sterility.

They are, unquestionably, very talented artists. But their work is heavily photo referenced, the rendering is diabolically tight and often full of unnecessary detail, and each page, even in the quiet moments, is an epic production. To me at least, this work comes off as detached, and often poorly paced.

It lacks the human quality.

I believe it’s because they had to etch and silver-plate their pages just to get noticed.

I fear that those with the potential to balance ability with verve, and perhaps stretch the boundaries of the form may be passed over rather than embraced and developed.

There are still some warmer talents out there, to be sure. Steve Epting, has an uncanny sense of storytelling, action and graphic design. Mike Deodato manages to achieve both intriguing continuity and a sizzling dynamism in his work. Butch Guice has quite successfully married old-school techniques with the modern sensibility. These are the guys who are pushing the envelope. But still, even they had to knock someone’s socks off to get the gig.

So, I urge the editors, look more carefully. Consider the potential under the inexperience. Take a chance, take someone under your wing, bring someone along.

Never know, they might just be the next Frank Miller.

The Comics Part 1: Dancing Toward Oblivion

It’s clear to anyone who follows my blogs, (Hello? Hello? Is there anybody out there?), that one of my favorite things in the world is comic books. At this point in the history of the art form this is a deeply challenging love.

There’s no denying that the comics biz has taken its lumps in the last three decades.

The business is in trouble.

I don’t want to waste too much time on the many reasons this is so, but a few salient points of information are required for the uninitiated.

1)    Direct Distribution

How it happened:
In the late seventies and early eighties, as comic shops became more prevalent, distributors began to shift their attention from the traditional newsstand, and drug store markets and into the comics shops. Eventually, this became the only real target market. On the up side, more adult content was developed to interest the aging customer base, but unfortunately, the simpler, more kid-friendly comics content began to disappear.

Why it’s bad:
No new, young buyers. As the comics fans of the era began to age, no new generation of comics fans was being wooed to the form. If they didn’t go into a comics shop for some reason, they just never discovered the medium. While the emergence of more adult content was a good thing in some ways, it was a double-edged sword. Some content was genuinely more sophisticated, but some was simply prurient “adult” material designed to make a quick sale. Direct distribution also eventually led to the major comics distributors merging into one big, monopolistic company.

2)    Image Comics: Style Over Substance

How it happened:
As the nineties rolled around, comics experienced a temporary boom in sales. (Mostly due to the falsely inflated “collectors market”, as discussed below.) At that time, some of the major illustrators working at Marvel comics did a little math and realized that their “work for hire” page-rate contracts were unconscionably shabby and that their financial benefit to the company was substantial. They demanded a piece of the profits and ownership of their work. Marvel balked. In response the artists formed their own company, Image Comics.

Why it’s bad:
They made bad comics. (And some bad business decisions) These talented illustrators made the very strange choice to write their own comics. Unfortunately, as writers, they made very good illustrators. At the time they split from Marvel, there was a great deal of buzz about how this might be a real game changer, but ultimately, after an initial year of incredible sales the image of Image began to tarnish.
Most of the books were so badly written they were barely readable. Effective page design and storytelling were sacrificed to slick, vacuous, pin-up style artwork, and regular publishing schedules gave way to increasingly inconsistent production. Hey, I get it, they were young guys, they were suddenly making hundreds of thousands of dollars, they goofed off. (Most of them, anyway.) But, it was a bad choice. Eventually many of the titles at Image were being farmed out as piece work, just like at any other company.
Marvel and DC both responded with equally weak, vacuous comics, bad promotional gimmicks like embossed covers, multiple covers and other sales-grabbing techniques. It was a very bad scene. It nearly led to the death of Marvel Comics, which filed for bankruptcy protection in 1996. It did, however lead to better profit sharing contracts and creator owned imprints at the major companies.
You can read more about this stuff here:
And here:

3)    The Collectors Market

How it happened:
Right around the time the Image guys were doing their thing, comics sales were at their highest point in years. This was due to a unique phenomenon called the “collector’s market”. What happened was, word got out that people with basements full of old comics from the 40’s a 50’s were discovering there was a lucrative market for these aging magazines. A large group of people started buying up multiple copies of new comics as a form of financial speculation.

Why it’s bad:
The thinking was: “I’ll buy these up and in 20 years they’ll be worth a fortune. Of course it doesn’t work that way. The comics of the 40’s and 50’s were considered throwaway items, and were printed on cheap, acidic paper. Therefore, very few survived, and even fewer survived in good condition.
A few hundred copies and a high demand equals a high price, thousands of copies and low demand means not worth a plugged nickel. After a while it became clear that no one was going to make a lot of money from these comics, and the speculators simply stopped buying them.
Read more on this here:

4)    Digital Media / Superhero Movies

How it happened:
The personal computer became ubiquitous in Western society, and digital effects technology became highly sophisticated. The big comics companies began actively marketing their properties to Hollywood, which could now convincingly present the mighty feats of these larger-than-life characters through digital effects.

Why it’s bad:
It’s an issue of competition from other media. Specifically, digital video games, internet social media like Facebook and Twitter along with internet delivery of TV, movies, and the sort of homemade videos one finds on YouTube. These distractions are a lot more accessible and more insidiously addictive than comics ever were.
Yes, there are comics on the web, but digital delivery is a poor fit for the form. The shape isn’t right, you can’t easily flip between pages, and it doesn’t move. Scott McCloud’s blue-sky theories aside, (http://scottmccloud.com/) I personally don’t believe comics have a big future on the web. Some would argue there are a few dedicated people out there making profitable web-comics, but they generally have a very different definition of “profitable” than I have. I hope I’m wrong though, because we do need a new delivery system.
As for the movies, there are many reasons I think they are bad for the humble comics that spawned them, but I’ll just mention two. First, they are big, loud, pretty, and they move. (And have enormous budgets for promotion, which comic books don’t.) Also, Hollywood has no real respect for these iconic characters and they’re happy to water down the fundamental strengths of the characters for short term ”coolness”.

5)    Huge Entertainment Conglomerates

How it happened:
Same as what happened with all sorts of companies. They want to establish a worldwide presence, become large and powerful on the world stage and get ALL the money.

Why it’s bad:
It’s bad because the actual money made by comic book companies is insignificant in comparison to the money made by movies, television and video games. Also, the licensing and marketing of the comics properties is more profitable than the comics themselves.

The Terrible Unspoken Truth is that the big comics companies don’t really care that much about their comics being of high quality or creatively fruitful. They don’t care if they protect the integrity of the characters, or even if the comics are fundamentally profitable, because they make most of their money from licensing T-shirts and coffee mugs and making movies.

There are myriad other problems of course, and some bright spots, but the bottom line is, the comics are in trouble. 

Is there a solution?

I honestly don’t know.

There’s a lot of buzz about a “Creator’s Revolution’ on the web right now. A lot of talk about diversity, and opportunity and the future of the industry, some of which was touched off by a controversial video created by cartoonist Eric Powell. Eric has since removed the video and you can read about his reasons here:

Illustrator Michael Netzer has started a petition, and even filed a complaint against Marvel and DC with the Federal Trade Commission. You can read about that, here:

I’m reading the debates with interest, and I’m trying to weed out the possible solutions from all the bluster.

However, in the next few installments I’m going to offer a few thoughts of my own from the perspectives of both devoted fan and interested professional.