So on Monday what began as a brief commentary on Tim Marchman’s piece about comics from The Wall Street Journal (which can be read here in case you need reminding) rapidly turned into something much more in depth, enough so that I chose to break it into 2 separate parts. In the first part I discussed how I felt about Marchman’s criticisms of superhero fans & superhero comics as a genre. In this part I will discuss Marchman’s opinions on the creators of superhero books.
Marchman goes on to talk about “how the industry’s attitude toward artists and writers through most of its history led to its current woes”. Using the 3 most well known examples of creator rights (Siegel & Schuster, Jack Kirby & Alan Moore), Marchman gives a depiction of the Big Two that is as flawed as it is grandiose, describing them as petty & looking to the past for ideas rather than having to pay creators for new ones.
No one can deny that the Big Two still have a lot of work to do when it comes to working out a fair and equitable method for creator’s rights & some people have been dealt an unfair hand because of it. But back when the industry was in its infancy nobody could see that these works would become the powerhouses they are today. These characters have existed for longer than most the fans that read about them & as a result the legal complexities they are tied up in are as intricate & convoluted as the histories of the characters themselves. If the Big Two are as concerned with money as Marchman would have us believe then they will change because the only alternative is that the characters would disappear & not make any money at all. Surely if the Big Two were as corrupt as Marchman makes out nobody would work for them in the first place, but a great many creators have happily worked for the Big Two for years & surely not without some form of security. To assume otherwise makes creators out to be timid little Lambs who go misty eyed at the thought of men in tights & wouldn’t say boo to a goose unless the fanboys were there to fight their corner.
On the other side of the street though at “Influential Boutique House” Image Comics, things are different. Creators are free to create as God intended & what’s more they get to keep all of the money they make. Marchman highlights Robert Kirkman, creator of The Walking Dead as a creator who has had huge success & sells books to people who “don’t normally read comics at all”. It seems odd then that Marchman fails to mention any of the times Image were taken to court by creators over unpaid royalties. The most recent example of which is an as yet unresolved case against Robert Kirkman by his co-creator on The Walking Dead, artist Tony Moore. Marchman also fails to make any mention of Kirkman’s other big title for Image Comics: Invincible, which is, as any comic book fan will tell you, a superhero book.
Marchman seems content to paint a picture that contains some very broad strokes but lacks detail. He makes no mention of the fact that DC has their own creator owned imprint in Vertigo, as do Marvel with Icon. Granted the Big Two were very late to the party in terms of creator owned books but the fact that they have turned up shows that they acknowledge the changes occurring within the industry. What’s more Marchman gives the impression that all creator owned books are made by writers who have become disgruntled with the Big Two & left. He makes no mention of the fact that creators such as Scott Snyder, Matt Fraction & Jonathan Hickman, amongst others, have all written creator owned books before going on to work for Marvel or DC.
But it is Marchman’s views on some creators that work for Marvel & DC which irks me most of all. They are as insulting & ill judged as his views of their fans, conjuring up images of a top secret Cabal plotting world domination that borders on parody – causing his “review” to lurch wildly from journalism into outright trolling. Marchman trots out the names of the “industry powers” he holds responsible for the failure of superhero comics in a verdict that sounds as damning as it is deluded: Grant Morrison, Joe Quesada, Brian Michael Bendis & Dan Didio are all subject to his ire while he goes on to describe the writers of super hero books as: “pretentious autodidacts” & “failed cult leaders“. I can understand that Marchman may not be a fan of their work, to describe those named in such crass terms is hugely unprofessional. But it is J. Michael Straczynski that comes off the worst with Marchman describing him as “Z list”. Strac’s work may have it’s fair share of detractors, myself included, but calling him Z list is wholly inaccurate & a shot so cheap even Greece could afford it. In turn Marchman describes the creators who own their properties as “normal” & “thoughtful” as if working in super hero comics is the lab accident that somehow turns its creators into money hungry super villains.
However if, as Marchman believes the sales figures tell us, superhero comics have failed why are comic sales down all round? After all 20 years ago comics sold in their millions, now comics are lucky to shift over a hundred thousand units. While his point seems sound at first consider also that the collector’s market of the early 90’s was based on speculation. People expected their issue 1’s & their foil variants to be the things that would put their kids through college. The problem was there were so many of these books many that store owners couldn’t shift them if they tried. As a result the market & the industry near as dammit collapsed a few years later. This is a lesson that the industry, & in particular the Big Two, learnt the hard way, but it was a lesson it learnt nonetheless. What’s more it is learning now, & will continue to do so, regarding creators rights & digital delivery.
Marchman quotes Chris Ware in the conclusion to his article saying that cartooning “has something fundamental to do with a constant sort of revision of ourselves and our lives, the same sort of resorting and refiling that goes on when we’re dreaming”. It is that revision, not just of its characters, but also of its practices that has kept the industry alive thus far despite the opinions of people like Marchman to the contrary.