Response to Eric Stephenson on Comics As Movie Pitch

Eric Stephenson, like many of the key players over at Image, is often outspoken and interesting. Image have long been champions of creator rights, and have recently placed themselves as de facto protectors of the realm in that regard by producing a hell of a lot of really great creator-owned comics, and as a collective of individuals sounding off about anything they see as an affront to that. Literally anything.

Over on his blog, Stephenson responds – in the post A Good Idea, which you should read now before coming back here – to the unreasonably general fandom bleating…

“A lot of these creator owned indy books are little more than story boards for a movie pitch IMO.”

…and he does it defensively, taking in some familiar scenery along the way…

And have we seriously arrived at a place where it’s okay to cheer corporations on as their comic book properties are adapted for film and television, but any and all attempts by individuals to do something similar is scoffed at?

Because here’s the thing: Disney and Warner Bros. do not put money into Marvel and DC because they want to make a bunch of great comics for the fans. They do it because they want more Bat Man movies, more Iron Man movies, more Avengers. They do it because they want more cartoons, more video games and more toys. They do it because it’s easier to sift through the decades worth of creativity in Marvel and DC’s back catalogues than figuring out how to come up with something new.

One of my favourite bits:

I don’t think John Layman would disagree that it takes more courage to bring something like Chew into the world than it does to write a Godzilla miniseries.

…because people habitually disagree with versions of reality that paint them in a heroic light.

NB: Layman courageously took that book to DC’s Vertigo imprint as well, and bravely attacked craven corporate lackey Matt Wagner for ripping off his book in an incidental story in Vertigo’s Madame Xanadu.

(The latest Godzilla series over at IDW is fucking awesome, by the way. Simon Gane’s art is amazing, and a really risky creative choice in such a beloved franchise)

Does Stephenson make some useful, well-informed points? Probably.

Does he have to willfully change the nature of the snark he’s arguing against to do it? Definitely. Otherwise there’s no straight line to get from the complaint he’s starting from to this:

Is wanting to expand the audience for your creative endeavors beyond the relatively limited horizons of the comics market really a bad thing?

Does it become a counter-productive piece of ranting, further pitting mainstream against indy and creator against audience? Maybe.

Whether or not it’s fair to make the blanket complaint – a behaviour which areas of fandom are too good at – that creator-owned indy books are little more than movie pitches is a worthwhile debate. (I happen to think it isn’t fair. But then, I haven’t specifically heard that version of the complaint before. I hear it levelled at Mark Millar books a lot, but half of them aren’t actually “independent” books.)

But the core of the complaint when it is used isn’t – I think – anything to do with who has the rights to exploit the further merchandising or media rights to a work, rather than a reaction to what’s perceived as the corporatisation of even indie art, and it’s either reductive or out and out disingenuous to attack it as such.

It’s about being sold a dud – the same way people don’t like a trailer that suggests a movie has more to it than it eventually does – and it’s perfectly natural to not like it. If you consume a piece of work – film, novel or comic – and it’s unsatisfying or thin, and there’s a strong possibility that it’s that way because it’s basically a shell designed to sell something else, or because it was obviously meant to be something else and it seems like instead of adequately adapting to the medium the creators have just settled, you’ve a right to feel something negative about it. It’s dismissive by default to the medium it’s happening in.

And it’s about credibility and authenticity. We’re quick, as a media, to be suspicious of celebrities or novelists who think they can just charge in and write for comics for similar reasons.

I think most readers understand that there’s a desire on the part of the creators to see a property take off. But most of us would rather not feel that pragmatism in the actual work itself.

The complaint seems to get levelled at the indy publishers doing solid creator-owned work a lot at the moment, and Image are the most visual of those, so I guess they’re taking a lot of flack for this, and butt-hurt on the part of Stephenson is understandable. And I’m trying to think whether it’s a reasonable response to any of the books they’re publishing that I’ve read recently, and I don’t think so – certainly books like Near Death and Undying Love seem perfectly designed for further media exploitation, but the books themselves deliver just swell in the comic medium.

Finally:

If you look outside comics, there is original new fiction of all stripes – and novels are adapted into films and television shows even more frequently than comics – but are the writers behind those books being accused of generating new ideas simply to pitch to other media?

Yes. When it’s really obvious, they are. It’s not exactly the same, because the process of writing a novel and getting to publication doesn’t precisely map to getting together a pitch for a movie or comic in terms of how labour intensive and self-driven it is and how much faith you have to have in it, but the tension between making art and making translatable IP, and how satisfying the end result is, gets criticised wherever it’s felt by the audience.

Do films get attacked when people perceive them as a good pitch for creating a lucrative franchise and little else? Every. Other. Day. I shouldn’t even need to give examples for this one.

Are novelists above criticism? Nope. Thomas Harris’s Hannibal got criticised at publication, and rightly so, because it reads like a movie treatment, and that’s basically what it was. Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s novel The Strain is basically a decent movie/TV treatment that’s very poorly served as a novel, and people do notice.
Maybe not all the people. Maybe not as large or vocal a percentage of the audience for disposable genre novels feels the need to comment on them as we have in comics.

The natural default setting for comic fandom is entitlement and butt-hurt, and damn sure those are negative and divisive character traits, but maybe they’re not just present in the audience. Sometimes it seems pretty obvious they’re just part of comic culture.