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Why I Want to Pour Gasoline on Corporate Comics

A column article, Comics Bulletin Soapbox by: Keith Silva, David Fairbanks

 

Keith Silva: If you're not interested in a discussion about the alienation and failure of corporate comics (again!), blame this tweet:

 

 

David's tweet scratched an itch that crops up with me every so often: why doesn't everyone like the same stuff I like? Now(!) is a good a time as any – in another six months we can have this same discussion again, these things are cyclical – to take corporate comics to task for the marketing of mediocrity like costume changes (Iron Man NOW! with a new hat or armor or whatever), team recombobulations (new Cyclops versus newer older Cyclops), and hacky hyperbole (this changes everything (NOW!) and forever, again). The last time I had enough of this racket, I wrote about nipple clamps on Batman and how it wasn't for me. The immovable-object-ness of such a strident vow, even one written on a blog, only works until it bumps up against the unstoppable force. For me, the unstoppable force arrived as Becky Cloonan.

 

 

The absolute second I saw Cloonan's pencils and inks for Abby Arcane, a voice in my head said: “so much, for not buying a DC comic, huh, big guy.” I was in Montreal to interview Cloonan's fiancĂ©, Andy Belanger, for an article that ran in Comics Bulletin. At the time, Cloonan was working on the Swamp Thing annual. Once I learned Belanger was contributing pencils to the issue as well, it was a done deal. I was going to break a promise, one I made only to myself, to buy only creator-owned comics. I guess you could say I earned my six month chip. I could have gone six years or six-hundred-and-sixty-six years.

Opinion pieces like this always come with caveats, apologies and disclaimers. The word “snob” gets tossed around. So, here goes: don't bullshit a bullshitter. Corporate comics (Marvel and DC) sustain the comic book industry; no superheroes means no comic books, simple as that. Cue the comic book cool kids that say, “I follow creators, not characters.”

Okay, I get that. To me, that's no different than buying Goddess in the Doorway when what you really want is a new Rolling Stones record as good as Sticky Fingers or going to see Graveyard Shift because you're thirteen and you think Stephen King walks on water – circular arguments never got anyone anywhere. Idiosyncrasy makes for a poor yardstick.

I follow creators too, so why is it that when I'm at the LCS I see people buying a thick knot of every Avengers title on the shelf and not a stack of Brian Wood, David Hine, or Justin Jordan comics?

Superheroes are the gateway drug for 99% of comic book readers. As a “barefoot boy with cheek of tan” reading The New Mutants, The Dark Knight Returns, and G.I. Joe, I didn't think about brands or properties or which old white men owned the rights to what – I wanted to read comics and to draw the characters I read about. Now, I'm outside the garden, aware of naked cash grabs, properties desperate for flogging, and the need to refresh the brand from time to time with the blood of nerds and lawyers.

When I went all Martin Luther on corporate comics with my pledge of fealty to creator-owned work, it came from superhero fatigue and the regret one feels when “it just ain't workin' anymore.” As the philosopher, David Lee Roth says, “that's life.”

None of this may get at the failures David sees in “corporate comics” or what he's got against Chris Ware (which I was told in subsequent tweets is a much longer story). Since I took the lead on this thing let me now cede to someone who is a lot better at math than me. Even though we both know that this whole business of corporate comics doesn't add up. David, the floor is yours.

 

David Fairbanks: You know, I am pretty good at math, but I've never particularly liked it all that much. Anyway, like you said, pieces like this come with disclaimers, so let's get mine out of the way: I still read corporate comics.

In fact, Marvel's ''We Need Your Cash NOW! but this has nothing to do with what DC did last year, no sir'' endeavor actually has me reading more of their books, but it's not really out of anything they're doing. Rather, it's because I am curious what someone like Matt Fraction will do with Marvel's first family and I read everything Jonathan Hickman and Jeff Lemire do right now.

Although I quickly learned that Hickman's Fantastic Four and FF were mostly Manhattan Projects lite, that didn't keep me away from them, because goddamn what I wouldn't give for two more issues a month of Manhattan Projects, you know?

Like you said, I follow creators, but even then, not exclusively (Waid's Daredevil was a no-brainer, despite not liking his last two creator-owned books, and the verdict is out on whether I care enough about the Hulk to pick that up). The creator gets me in the door, generally, but as of right now, I'm reading something like 8 corporate comics? Maybe a couple more?

Most fans that say ''I follow a creator'' mean ''I follow them from Marvel to DC and back. Sometimes Image.'' If that's your bag, well, you're missing out on some really amazing comics, but that's all I'll say about it for now.

If Jeff Lemire went nuts and started doing screen-printed comics in a shack in the Canadian wilderness, I would line up outside to buy them, but I think most of these folks would just stop reading his comics.

As long as a creator knows exactly what they are getting into, and these folks do, I don't have a problem reading their work on corporate-owned characters. Could Morrison have done Action Comics #9 with a Superman analog? Sure. Would it have been the same? Not really, no, and it wouldn't have reached the same audience either (which I'd argue is pretty important for that particular comic).

 

 

Corporate comics have their place, functioning not only as a way to prop up comic shops that would lose a ton of business if Marvel and DC only produced things that they should be proud of, but also as one of the easiest ways for a creator to get their name out there and make some cash they probably wouldn't have access to otherwise.

Unlike you and David Brothers, who both made concerted efforts to ditch the corporate comics, I slowly started trimming my subscriptions under the premise that I was just flat out tired of reading comics I didn't think were at least good. And then I looked at books that were only good and asked how much I wanted to keep 'em.

When I read Brothers' work on why he was leaving corporate comics behind, though, believe me when I say I considered it. The way I'm looking at it now is as an inevitability, as I am, generally, reading fewer and fewer comics from DC/Marvel.

Okay, so, now that the skeletons are out, why do I want to burn the established system to the ground?

 

 

Because what is currently being produced by Image, Oni, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, Top Shelf, Archaia, and more is almost always consistently better than whatever comes from Marvel and DC. And I don't mean this in some snobby way, either. I will be one of the first people to extoll the virtues of superheroes, pointing to All Star Superman, Flex Mentallo, Waid and Hickman's times on Fantastic Four, and more as examples of what they are good for.

Superheroes are great and amazing, and god dammit, Marvel and DC are making too many of them, flooding the market with bullshit that they know people are going to buy because it's part of the Bat Step Family or whatever.

 

 

When you add into it that their best writers are not idiots, it means that Marvel and DC do not get the great ideas that folks like Hickman and Fraction are saving for their indie books. Ideas that could kickstart a handful of new issues or characters, ideas that could actually breathe new life into the dying beast of corporate comics. Instead, it's the table scraps or the stories that they cannot easily do elsewhere (like Action Comics #9, Multiversity, etc).

What this means is that you get stagnation across 95% of mainstream comics (don't believe me? Re-read Civil War and think about how much it shares with AvX. No, they aren't the same, because writer's aren't that foolish, but don't kid yourself on the similarities either).

Stagnation is a beautiful reason to burn the established paradigm to the ground.

Now, that original tweet, well, that came from a few different places really, but my feelings on Ware are a different story for a different day. Because you asked, here's a pithy tweet (because is there any other kind?) from Brandon Graham that pretty much sums up my thoughts, which I will presumably piece together sometime after I've made my way through Building Stories.

 

 

Keith: I recommend scotch, single-malt, for when you're feeling blue … then again, alcohol is a depressant. ANYWAY. If stagnation is the kindling of corporate comics than they should come with warning labels: caution flammable. Allow me a bit of name dropping (and backsliding) before I go too far. I subbed Matt Fraction and Mike and Laura Allred's FF months ago and I can't wait to read it.

Does that make me a hypocrite? Yes. No. Who the fuck cares? Ah, the vagaries of the human heart. In fact, so “unbridled” is my enthusiasm for this comic that I'm working with Comics Bulletin badass Jamil Scalese on a review (now posted for your reading pleasure). Here's what I hope for FF: I hope it's good, my fingers are crossed for Casanova cool and bug-fuck crazy. You know the uzh.

 

 

I don't think we are having this discussion if we thought caring was creepy or that corporate comics can be dismissed with a snotty: “sucks.” I like what you said about tromping out into the Canadian hinterlands to get Jeff Lemire comics, wild bears, neck deep snows and depravations be damned. That's commitment, my friend. It's the kind of commitment – dare I say, love? – that kindles these kinds of thoughts.

For me it comes down to this: I want “corporate comics” to take more risks. Get rid of the continuity foofaraw (Superman … Wonder Woman … K-I-S-S-I-N-G!). Here's a pitch for a possible What If?: what if Matt Kindt's Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E had looked like and (read like) Matt Kindt's Mind MGMT?

Or what if Justice League Dark reflected more of the creator-owned work by its writers, Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes? Would JLD readers lose their rhetorical shit (would DC?) if JLD looked like Fawkes's One Soul? I'm not suggesting that the nine panel grid is the gateway to salvation or that a specific technique can be (or should be) hammered into another context for the sake of a stunt. All I'm asking of these corporate overlords is to make a good faith effort, shake it up and try something new. What if. What if?

As my father would say, you can wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up first. Corporations don't take risks. Corporations maximize profits, promote synergy and leverage. If the consumer likes one kind of cookie, or shaving cream or Green Lantern comic, sure as shit they'll like 30 of 'em. America invented marketing and branding, and you know what? People bought it.

There's a line about advertising in David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest that is apropos – a French adjective on top of a DFW reference, God help us! – for our little invective. To provide a bit of context, Wallace is writing about a television ad campaign so disgusting and so abhorrent TV stations are forced to run it because most of their viewership only watches programming on-demand and commercial-free (sound familiar?) and broadcasters, rabid for revenue, are going bankrupt. Wallace writes, ''V&V's NoCoat campaign was a case-study in the eschatology of emotional appeals … It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.''

Reading David Foster Wallace requires some tough sledding, I admit. For me, the quote brings up this thought experiment: if a “family” of titles or a brand uses different adjectives (some of them a play-on-words using the letter “X”) does that increase one's anxiety relievable by purchase? Are we such sheep or zombies or zombie-sheep, so in thrall to having to wait a month for a particular title that having a diluted version of same satiates us? Does having the words “Migthy,” “Dark,” “Secret,” or “Uncanny” before the word “Avengers” (to use a copy of copy) really satisfy? How about if the words “Arena,” “Assemble,” or “Academy” appear afterward, does that help staunch the wait? The thing is I could go on. I could use colors or the word “league.” Hell, these things are “legion,” literally.

 

 

Sadly, I can't take part in your Chris Ware pity party because I've never read Ware. I own that. I can say this, Ware and his navel-gazing avengers (oooh, good title that) represent diversity in the medium and (for better or for worse) they are often called forth as exemplars of the trite and groan-inducing phrase, “comics aren't just for kids.” Talk about played-out. It's the medium that matters not the message and not the brand. Comic books are a big tent. So, why do we put up with so much homogenization? Nostalgia? Familiarity? Habit?

And yet, I come back to the same question that began this discussion: “why doesn't everyone like the same stuff I like?” Why isn't Brandon Graham required reading? Why don't more people see the genius in David Hine and Jamie S. Rich? Why isn't Sean Murphy's Punk Rock Jesus the number one selling comic? Why aren't more artists with singular styles like Cloonan or Belanger or Shaky Kane or Tradd Moore more mainstream? Now who's getting anxious? Creators create. Readers read. So, David, [he says as he loads the question] what NOW?

 

David: What now? Obviously burning to the ground everything that's been set up with regard to corporate comics over the last 70+ years isn't something doable. I wouldn't even say it's advisable, no matter how desirable trying to start fresh would be.

When you and I discussed all of this before, we originally thought we'd come up with a handful of ideas for how to improve corporate comics, but most of the ones I've thought of tend to be on the marketing or business end of things. They're generally pretty boring, except for one.

I think you really hit the nail on the head with what needs to be done: comics need to take more risks.

As you rightfully point out, corporations don't take risks, not generally. At the same time, whether it's in comics or technology, the biggest, most successful, most memorable things very often come from those ideas that sound completely ridiculous. I still remember techies losing their shit when the iPod was announced, predicting it to be the doom of Apple, and look at it now. It is the definitive MP3 player.

Similarly, if you want to list off the pillars of modern comics, the ones people are buying literally decades after they were originally published and are pointed to as gateways into the medium, I guarantee you they are going to be things that run, if not completely perpendicular to the status quo, certainly askew from it. Dark Knight Returns, Watchmen, Sandman, Doom Patrol, etc.

High risk often warrants high reward.

 

 

Marvel was in the right head space when they did Strange Tales, but to borrow a phrase from Brandon Graham, they need to be allowed to expand beyond that indie creator's ghetto for anything truly interesting to happen.

We have seen the extent that editorial influence occurs at DC, and while rumors indicate they are a bit more lax at Marvel, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if they had their own Stephanie Brown horror stories. They need to let creators create and then let editors edit, rather than dictate.

Now, hesitation on the part of big corporations (owned by even larger corporations) is pretty understandable; they have conditioned a fan base where the most vocal part of it is so horribly resistant to change that the corporations think they will lose readers if something is done that deviates too far from the norm.

And they might.

Giving Superman over to Anders Nilsen or Jeffrey Brown could result in some truly amazing, unusual stories. There will almost certainly be readers lost. But you can also hit a demographic that doesn't read superhero comics and pull them in. While he's a cape and tights veteran, Kurt Busiek's Secret Identity is pretty far from a traditional Superman story, and it's the thing that got me believing that good stories can actually be told with the character rather than just dismissing him as boring (which he is in the hands of a poor creative team).

 

 

Now, you ask why “we” put up with so much homogenization; the thing is, I think it's pretty clear that you and I don't, from what we've said. In fact, most comics readers seem to be getting tired of it, considering that sales have been on a downward slope for practically as long as I've been alive, with sharp peaks tying directly to ridiculous marketing ideas like the New 52 or Marvel NOW!

I'm sure we're going to hit a minimum number of readers at some point, and that's when DC and Marvel are going to have to make some tough decisions in order to actually have their comics survive. If they are unwilling to take risks, to do something like print James Stokoe's batshit Spider-Nam for example, they will die a slow, boring, quiet death that will CHANGE THINGS FOREVER.

Except that it actually will change things forever, and unlike their characters, they won't be coming back.

 

Keith:

David Fairbanks has left the building.

I'm afraid I don't have any answers for you David; only more questions. As you point out, Brandon Graham is right – as usual. We need to flip the ghetto. Who's afraid of the conditioned, calcified (and very vocal) big bad fan base? Marvel and DC? Diamond? LCS managers and shop owners? All of the above? Rhetorical questions aren't going to get us anywhere. It's a simple fact, the LCS doesn't stock nor will it take a chance on a title it doesn't think it can sell. Can you blame them?

Yeah, a “Top 5 Ways to Change Corporate Comics” by Keith/David is a moot point even if we had Keith David deliver it in his “Big Tim” voice from Requiem for a Dream. [shudder]

Your “pillars of modern comics” is a great discussion point. One would think Marvel and DC would like more of the same, yes? It reminds me of Paul Pope's notion that “everyone has a Batman story in them.”

 

 

What would happen if Pope's theory got put to the test with some of the creators we've discussed? Franchises are (nearly) critic-proof, so what's the harm? I can see why a corporation wouldn't want to take a chance by putting an “out-of-left-field” creator on an A-list franchise. And if it's a C-list or D-list character being paired with a firebrand writer or singular artist there's no guarantee there either, in fact, it's (probably) even riskier for the character, creator, and corporation. Here's the other thing to consider: would these creators even want to take a shot at a franchise and why?

So, instead of chasing our tails or knocking back a couple of drinks and kvetching about “what a tough racket it is to be a fan of comics,” I offer this unsolicited advice: pre-order, pre-order, and pre-order. Once those solicits for creator-owned work hit, tell your local comic's pusher to order it and get it on your pull list, and then tell a friend or the world. And if you get that old itch to know what's going on in the DCU or the 616, no worries, those comics will still be on the shelf… or (fingers crossed) not.

 

David:

I'm coming back for one thing here. We had written and finalized this piece not even a full day before Karen Berger announced that she was stepping down form her role at Vertigo, and it feels as if DC comics somehow anticipated this article that presumably none of their staff will read, because Berger's departure is possibly the exact opposite of what needs to happen to corporate comics.

We don't know why she is leaving or where she is headed now, but with the slow, steady breakdown of a division between the DCU and Vertigo, it feels like the decision has been made that those kind of critically acclaimed books, the ones that people like Karen Berger took risks on, are not of much interest to DC Comics.



Keith Silva will buy any comic Becky Cloonan and Andy Belanger put their names on, especially the ones they sell on their websites. Follow @keithpmsilva on Twitter and visit his blog Interested in Sophisticated Fun? where he has a picture of Matt Murdock in a puffy coat, so, he’s a hypocrite, I guess?


David Fairbanks doesn't get many things right the first time. Mostly self-indulgent ramblings can be found at @bairfanx.

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