Writer, Editor, Author

Month: February 2012

Breaking a 26-year weekly comics buying habit

It’s now been six weeks — or maybe eight; I don’t remember — since I last walked into a comics shop and bought a stack of new comics. And it may be a long time, if not ever, before I do so again. If it sticks, it would mark the end of a 26-year habit that has brought me tremendous joy but whose time may have finally passed on.

I could trot out a bunch of reasons for this change that have nothing to do with the comics themselves — namely, that there’s precious little time for me to read comics and the money spent on them is better used elsewhere with a 10-month-old in the house.

But the real reason is that comics — by which I mean mostly mainstream, superhero comics — have over time gotten so, well, small, that I have finally lost interest.

But let’s back up for a second.

I began buying and reading comics because I loved the cool stories they told. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, there was nowhere near enough sci-fi, fantasy and superhero material around to satisfy my appetite for it. I had loved animated superhero cartoons as a kid, graduating to stuff like Star Trek, Space: 1999 and, of course, Star Wars, which arrived when I was the perfect age — 7 going on 8 — to love it completely. And I wanted more. By the time I was a teenager, the sci-fi and superhero content boom inspired largely by the success of Star Wars had begun to fade out. There was almost no sci-fi on TV, and the few attempts that were made in the genre like V or the imported Max Headroom were short-lived or terrible or both. Star Wars was, apparently, done after about 1986, with the Marvel comic canceled and no other new content to come for about the next five years. Star Trek was still around with a new movie every other year, but that just wasn’t enough; The Next Generation was still a couple years way. I liked science-fiction novels like the Dune series and Childhood’s End, but comics’ visual nature and the shared universes they offered were much more interesting. 

And I ate it up, which was easy to do because comics were cheap. Taking $20 into the comics shop meant you could walk out with 10 new issues and maybe eight recent back issues. The collecting aspect was part of the fun — every new store might have the issues you’re looking for at the price you can afford — as was the simple pleasure of looking at art. Classic comic book art is a wonderful thing to look at and admire, and the old-style work that was done with traditional pencils and ink had a lot of personality. An easy way to start an argument at the comics shop was to ask people who was the better artist: John Byrne or George Perez. It was the same with writers — you could after a while tell who wrote what without looking at the credits. And there was plenty of new material to explore, beyond just Marvel or DC. When you got bored with The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League, there was American Flagg! or Watchmen or Jon Sable: Freelance or The Adventures of Luther Arkwright or Concrete or Love and Rockets to move on to.

All of which made comics seem like an evolving and innovative art form that was vastly underappreciated by larger culture. In a word, comics were big — they were immersive, delivered old fashioned action thrills and were often much smarter than anything on TV or playing at the local cineplex. Comics felt like they were ahead of the curve — that everyone would find this stuff as great and fascinating as we readers did if only they gave it a chance. I think fans’ desire to see their favorite comics on the big screen came from a real need to prove that comics were worthy of attention, that they were ahead of the curve.

Comics kind of got that wish with the speculator boom. The 1990s really were the best of times and the worst of times. There were a lot of astonishingly bad comics that sold zillions of copies, but also some of the very best comics ever came along during that decade. Even the increasingly cynicism of Marvel and DC was masked by the fact that there still was some spark in their characters and in their books — something that excited readers whether they were kids who got turned on to the medium by the X-Men cartoon series or longtime collectors.

The industry of comics has, like every other aspect of showbiz and publishing, had to struggle with the changing landscape of making it work in the 21st century. If you had told me 20 years ago how easy it was to publish, promote and distribute comics in the digital age, I would have expected the doors of creativity to swing wide open and deliver a new Golden Age of super cool stuff. But instead, we have come to an industry that’s dominated by monopolies or near-monopolies. Its increasingly corporate nature has slowly but surely wrung the innovation and fun out of mainstream comics almost entirely. Even more sad is the creative decay, the decline in quality of comics and their near-universal slavish devotion to imitating other media or less-interesting elements of comics’ own past. I swear, I hope to never again read another superhero comic that uses first-person narration in captions. It was different when Claremont did it back in that 1982 Wolverine series, but it’s been run into the ground so much since then that by now it’s gone all the way through the planet and is halfway to Mars.

Marvel and DC were always conservative, always very corporate on the business end of things. But the last successful new character (i.e., one proven capable of headlining a solo series and not being derived from another character) created at either company that I can recall in the last 20 or so years is Deadpool. The only breakout characters — ones known to some degree in the greater population — from the entire industry are indie creations like Hellboy, Bone and Spawn.

The Big Two are not alone. The overall trend in entertainment has increasingly been over the past 20 years in general and the past 10 in particular toward exploiting established properties over any kind of investment in the new. It’s telling to look at such companies as Warner Bros. Animation and Hasbro Studios and seeing them admit they have no interest in creating new properties because it’s much easier and more reliable from a business standpoint to continually exploit and re-exploit the library.

The same must be true at DC and Marvel, though they avoid saying it. Given both companies’ history with creators from Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to Jack Kirby, no experienced comics creator with a great idea is going to give it to either company under traditional work for hire terms. And even if there is some kind of co-ownership agreement worked out where the creator gets a share or say in the use of their creation, it’s never going to be worth a corporation’s time or money to deal with the restrictions such a relationship would impose on them when they have so many other properties they own outright and can do with whatever they choose whenever they choose to do so.

The same issue has plagued pretty much all of entertainment, except maybe for TV, where the demand for content is high enough that new ideas can still get a shot. But look at the big studios’ biggest releases, the ones they pour tons of money into in the hopes that the payoff will be flush enough to keep everything going. They’re all mined from other sources — adapted or recycled from elsewhere. Even book publishing has gotten in on the act with silly ideas like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I find it fascinating that so many properties are tied up now that public domain titles have become popular fodder, like the upcoming John Carter movie and competing feature projects based on Snow White and Frank L. Baum’s Oz books.

The problem with this approach is that universes that do not grow are by definition stagnating. Adding new characters, new stories, new series is essential to maintaining healthy long-term interest, and that simply does not happen anymore at either publisher. When you think back to the most interesting eras for either publisher, it was when they were doing new things. When Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko and others were creating the Marvel Universe, each new series was a major event. Each new storyline promised the potential of a new character as cool as Silver Surfer or Darkseid. It’s true for other publishers, like Valiant Comics, which for me evoked similar excitement during its earliest days when Jim Shooter was writing everything and sometimes even drawing the books. It was a cohesive universe that was growing organically and it was exciting to watch — until Shooter was forced out and a more conventional, short-term vision rather quickly began to unravel what had been done to that point.

On the indie side of comics, there are some bright spots. I still think some of the most exciting books of the 1980s and 1990s to discover were unique indie books, like Bone, Strangers in Paradise, Cerebus, From Hell and Stray Bullets. Dark Horse remains what it was back then — a unique mix of decent licensed comics and some really cool, high-quality creator owned comics like Concrete, Hellboy, Sin City and John Byrne’s Next Men. Dark Horse has always taken chances, and I continue to appreciate that, even though a lot of the newer original content they’ve come up with leaves me a bit cold. Image still publishes some of the coolest comics these days and are welcome as one of the few places left that is open to creator-owned comics.

The biggest problem with most indie comics — and with creators new to the comics field — is they seem to consider comics like a first draft of a movie proposal more than a medium of its own. When I was on staff at Variety, I got tons of horrible comics published by wannabe filmmakers who thought that, since comics were hot, all it took to get their script bought and made was to turn it into a comic first. There also were established filmmakers who sought to forestall studio intervention on the creative front by establishing their stories as comics that studios could not change without risking a Comic-Con backlash. In short, with a few exceptions, I haven’t found too many indie books that deliver the kinds of thrills and alternative takes on adventure stories, superheroes, whatever that rivals the best indie work of the past. Add to that the inability of most of today’s creators to get a book out on a regular schedule, with consistent writing and artwork, and even the most promising series can arrive stillborn (I’m looking at you, Nate Simpson’s Nonplayer).

So it is that the comics business has dwindled to a de facto single distributor in Diamond, a near duopoly on the publisher’s end with Marvel and DC splitting more than three-quarters of direct market sales between them, and a stagnant creative field that seems happier treading water and imitating sub-par movies or TV shows than coming up with anything really new. And the constant reboots and alternate universes, from Ultimates to All-Star to the New 52 just became wearying. Why can’t we move past origin stories anymore?

And it finally got to me.

After more than a quarter century, I found reading the last big stack of Marvel and DC books I brought home at tremendous expense to be the last thing I wanted to do. Trying to read the last few of them was incredibly difficult — the art was detailed but unclear, the scripting was clever but not informative, and the stories inched along at so slow a pace, with so little happening on any given page or in any given issue, that nothing registered as being remotely interesting. Six weeks later, or however long it’s been, I not only do not miss my weekly comics shop visit but I feel somewhat relieved. I no longer have to keep track of what I have and don’t have, what the big crossover of the moment is, or how much it’s going to cost and whether I can still afford it.

None of which means I stopped reading comics or have no more interest in comics. I’ve been focusing on artwork of late, and have found myself interested in the recent bounty of classic comic strip reprints. I’m well into the first volume of IDW’s The Complete Terry and the Pirates, by Milton Caniff, and digging the hell out of it. I also have a bunch of vintage graphic novels I plan to catch up on, including digging into the rest of Alan Moore’s run on Swamp Thing and an Al Williamson Flash Gordon volume I picked up a while back but never got around to reading. I also want to dig into the Williamson and Archie Goodwin strip Secret Agent X-9, and I  still have a few holes in my run of 1960s X-Men comics to fill.

There’s a lot today’s comics could learn from guys like Caniff and how well he used the weekly and daily formats. In many ways, the classic comic strip could foretell the way forward for comics, as all media have been moving toward shorter, more intense bursts of content. As we’ve gone from newspapers to magazines to web home pages to blogs to Facebook and now to the 140-character limit of Twitter, short and sweet chunks of story seems like the natural way for comics to go. A comic book series used to deliver 12 stories a year; and even when there was a multipart story, each part was still complete enough in itself to be interesting. Now, with four-, five- and six-part stories the norm, you get only maybe three complete stories a year. I think is part of the reason the established comics franchises are split into so many books — you need four or five series at that storytelling pace to keep up. I would love for decompression to be declared officially over and for comics to go back to being, well, comics.

If they do that, I might at some point come back. That could happen next week, next month, next year or never. But until then, I’ll be taking my comics interest into a past that’s largely new to me and promises to be a lot more fun.

‘Before Watchmen’ is like gambling and smoking: Legal, but probably not a good idea

It’s time to revisit the saga of Alan Moore and Watchmen.

In case you missed it, DC Comics made public its long-rumored plans to publish this summer a series of Watchmen prequel miniseries using a variety of the industry’s top talents. The plans call for more than 30 issues in the project, with one arriving each week. Covers for a lot of the first issues have been released and the press release included a supportive quote from original Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons.

As soon as the news hit, the debate and bitching began over whether this was appropriate to do given the long-standing dispute between DC Comics and Alan Moore, with many fans and more than a few professionals showing the same kind of moral cowardice seen in the Superman copyright dispute and cheering on DC and calling Alan Moore a dick for not going along with the idea.

Among the rationales used to justify the “Moore is a jerk” arguments are:

  • Moore had discussed at the time Watchmen came out the possibility of doing some prequel stories himself. 
  • Moore has used other authors’ characters in his own work, most notably in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, even encountering a small bit of copyright controversy for Peter Pan in the U.K. 
  • Moore, like everyone else in comics, has used and built upon characters others created to advance their career with the understanding that others will do the same with their characters. For example, Moore got his big break in American comics writing Swamp Thing, which was created by Len Wein and Berni Wrightson. 
  • Allowing creators to make their stories and characters off limits would be the equivalent of saying Superman should have ended after Siegel and Shuster stopped doing it, and that would be terrible! 
  • There’s also the argument that he signed the contract he signed and can’t complain about it now. If he really wanted to retain all the rights, he and Gibbons could have self-published Watchmen

All of which are poor arguments, in my opinion.

It always helps to go back to the facts and look at how we got to the place we’re at. Before that, an aside: Most of my books and magazines about comics were put in storage in the garage to make room for my daughter, meaning the many Moore interviews from years past I planned to cite in this post are not available to cite in the kind of detail I would like. I will try to approximate with online sources where possible. If I get the specifics wrong, let me know; I’m pretty confident having read up on this for many years that I’ve got it straight.

Most folks know Moore, who had become a writer of note in British comics, came to DC Comics in the early 1980s to write Saga of the Swamp Thing. The book had been slumping in sales and a new approach in Moore was needed to keep it going. Moore understood the job quite well: This was a mainstream American comic book that was distributed on newsstands with the Comics Code Authority seal, so there were limitations already in place on the types of stories that were going to be acceptable in a horror-tinged but still all-ages title. Moore succeeded rather well in reviving interest in Swamp Thing, and sales began to rise. The book was acclaimed in the fan market and began to draw the attention of the mainstream press, which was where the problems started. The shadow of the anti-comics crusade still lingered in the early 1980s and some of the powers that be at DC or over DC became concerned that a sophisticated title like Swamp Thing, even operating within the restrictions of the Comics Code, could attract unwanted attention to DC and the entire industry. 

For those who don’t remember, one of the less-savory aspects of the Reagan revolution was a censorious impulse that lead to Attorney General Edwin Meese conducting a major investigation into the evils of pornography with an eye on restricting access to that kind of material even for adults. This also was the time when parents’ reaction to PG-rated movies like like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which features a beating heart being pulled from a man’s chest, put enough pressure on the movie industry to create the PG-13 rating. It also was the era when Tipper Gore, wife of then-Senator Al Gore, lead a charge to restrict sexually suggestive lyrics in rock and pop music. So DC was not too far off base to worry about some of that energy could be turned comics’ way, because it already had with a number of conservative law enforcement officials prosecuting comics shop owners for selling objectionable material to minors.

The result was that DC made Swamp Thing one of its first titles to carry the label “Suggested for Mature Readers.” Many fans expected this would have been perfect for Moore, who obviously could take it darker. But the real result of such a label was to reduce quite significantly the distribution of the comic. Without the Comics Code seal, there was no newsstand distribution, and even local comics shops would cut back their orders of the title and be wary about who they sold it to for fear of being prosecuting. That fear was strong enough for many to simply not bother to carry such a title.

For Moore, this effectively means that DC was rewarding him for successfully reviving Swamp Thing under the restrictions placed on it by reducing his potential audience to a fraction of its previous size. I don’t know if Swamp Thing sold well enough for Moore and his collaborators to earn sales incentives, but it doesn’t take a math wizard to see what the distribution change would mean for that income. To Moore, his success was punished and not rewarded — a recurring theme for many top creators in the history of comic book publishing.

Still, Moore continued to work for DC, eventually signing contracts to allow DC to publish what would become Watchmen and for V for Vendetta. These contracts are the meat of his disputes with DC. At the time, DC was not allowed by its ownership to publish material to which others held the copyright. On V for Vendetta, Moore and artist David Lloyd had begun the strip in Warrior magazine in the U.K., but the publisher folded before the story was completed. Moore and Lloyd held all rights to the material, and DC wanted to re-publish the completed parts of the story in color and have Moore and Lloyd complete the tale.

I’m sure at first the idea of the temporary copyright transfer seemed like a great solution. At the time, the American comics market was almost exclusively periodicals, with only a handful of graphic novels and trade paperbacks having even been tried. Those, too, rarely stayed in print long. DC at the time likely had no trade paperback collections or plans in place to create the kind of book backstock they are now well known for. With no precedent, there was no reason to assume that the series would be printed as a series of comics and then essentially go out of print with the rights reverting to Moore and Lloyd after a short time.

Taking a bit of speculation on my part here: this arrangement must have seemed quite radical and forward thinking at the time. Getting DC to put in a contract a copyright reversion clause for a comic’s creators must have seemed like an incredible and hopeful breakthrough for those interested in creator rights. Moore must have felt like he had helped make progress that all creators could benefit from and that he had avoided with his own creation the traps that befell the likes of Siegel and Shuster and Jack Kirby.

The same deal was struck for Watchmen. A lot has been made in the past week that the original idea for Watchmen was to use the Charlton Comics characters. The argument is being made that Moore should not complain about the copyright dispute over Watchmen, since it was originally going to use characters owned by DC Comics and the versions that ended up in the final story are inspired, based on or ripped off, depending on your perspective, from those same characters.

And that’s an interesting argument but ultimately is one that fails to hold water. There are similarities, but there also are enough differences to make the characters distinctly different, especially in a legal sense. Fans who make this argument seem to overlook its implications for all kinds of comics characters. Following it could open up arguments that the Fantastic Four is ripped off from Challengers of the Unknown, X-Men from Doom Patrol, Man-Thing and Swamp Thing from The Heap, Hawkeye from Green Arrow, and on and on. That DC Comics needed a contract with Moore and Gibbons that transferred the copyright to the publisher is all the proof you need to show that even DC at the time thought they were distinct enough to need to clear the rights.

Most fans know what happened from here on out: Watchmen and V for Vendetta were published as a series of comic books and then collected into book editions that have remained in print and strong sellers ever since, preventing the copyright reversion from kicking in.

For the most part, I think DC was simply lucky in this deal. They realized they had a cash cow and have milked it for all its worth for the past 25 years. Yes, they stuck to the letter of a deal that benefits them tremendously, and from that perspective Moore et. al are just plain out of luck. But DC is violating the spirit of the deal, as the terms of the contract were drafted to make the copyright transfer temporary, and that’s where Moore is correct and DC is in the wrong.

Yes, the contract has always entitled Moore and his collaborators to royalties from sales of Watchmen. It’s clear, however, that the money is less important to Moore than ownership and control of his work, and he has given away his share of such proceeds to his collaborators. I think this is the one point that really puzzles some people. In the Superman copyright case, it’s all about money at this point. The Siegels have no interest in making new Superman comics, they want the money they are due from having recovered their share of the copyright to the character as of 1999. Same with the Kirby family claims — it’s about getting a piece of the very large pie Kirby helped create. And in America, where getting rich or dreaming about getting rich is the real national pastime, a lot of folks don’t understand how Moore can complain about all this when he is still getting paid. Obviously, the principle of the matter is what’s important to Moore, and he has the courage to call out the industry for its abuses and to walk away from it.

DC Comics’ decision to now create Watchmen derivative works after 25 years, against the wishes of Moore in particular, violates the spirit of the deal even more. That a lot of professionals are chiming in with the sentiment that Moore should just get over it and let others play with his work kind of amazes me. Watchmen is not in the same work-for-hire category as Fantastic Four or Green Lantern, which were created to be ongoing series. It was created to be a stand-alone, independent, creator-owned work and its creator feels — rightly, I think — that DC Comics is exploiting a loophole in the deal that allows them to hang on to a property they had originally only borrowed and intended to return to its creators.

I’ll briefly discuss some of the criticisms of Moore’s position that I listed earlier but have not yet addressed:

  • Yes, Moore had discussed doing prequels himself. But to say Moore’s plans to write prequels to a project he expected to own means that others can do it without his permission for the publisher that failed to return it is ridiculous. 
  • Yes, Moore has used other authors’ characters in his work. Those works are, however, now in the public domain and can be used by anyone. The copyright, which was originally held by the authors themselves, has expired on them and the authors themselves are long gone. 
  • Had Siegel and Shuster had control over Superman, then it’s possible they might have retired the character. He surely would be very different from the Superman we know today. That would have been a more human outcome for Jerry and Joe and their families — as for the rest, I don’t think it really matters. The world at large and comics would have gotten along just fine without Superman. 

If you have read through all of this, you surely have realized I will not be buying or reading any of the Before Watchmen comics. In many ways, it’s yet another sign of mainstream comics’ slow creative and commercial decline. DC and Marvel have such a stranglehold on the market and have become in the past two years in particular even more corporate minded and creatively bankrupt that it’s hard to find any fresh air left in this medium. Independent comics have so slim a share of an already slim market that it seems there’s no place for talent to develop and, as soon as it does, it’s sucked up by the DC and Marvel machines, which are, unfortunately, about the only ones left who can offer creators enough work and compensation for them to make a living at comics.

It would seem I have more to say about the current state of comics, so I’ll save that for my next and possibly last post.

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