Darwinism in Comics

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Joe Quesada, Editor In Chief at Marvel Comics, recently made certain remarks about Darwinism in the comics industry, and following are his introductory passages to that thought:

“I know that there will come a day for me, and for every creator, where people lose interest in your work. You lose your voice, whatever that may be. It happens to everybody. It will happen to me, it will happen to the best of us. Essentially, it’s Darwinism. It happens, and you just have to move on. If the comic book industry has passed you by, it has passed you by. We need to rely on new, young voices. If we’re not hiring people, it’s because, traditionally, their styles are not going to sell.”

First off, I want to explain that I do not feel that any of the following issues (relating to what Quesada said) apply to me, professionally. I have no personal grievances on this topic toward Marvel, DC, or Mr. Quesada. I’m speaking on behalf of numerous creators, with whom I have daily conversations...and a true love of the comics medium...and continued sadness at the aesthetic and commercial disintegration of the medium. Now to the task at hand...

Comics aren’t the first industry to promote this theory of Darwinism—or social Darwinism, which is a more accurate term for what Quesada is intending—and comics won’t be the last.

Asking Jason Brice, Editor in Chief of Silver Bullet Comics, for his definition of social Darwinism, he replied: “Social Darwinism is the application of pseudo-scientific jargon that seeks to justify the inhumane treatment of workers by employers (in this case), recognizing the worth of individuals purely in terms of what an organization can get out of them in the short term.”

He continued: “Social Darwinism is a throwback to enlightenment era thinking, where all thought had to be framed in scientific terms to hold any validity. It’s about 100 years out of date as a mode of thinking, but it was the sort of thing that became popular again with Reagan-era economic policy.”

Well, those are certainly two sides of the same coin, but the real problem is not so simple, nor are its solutions, as Quesada would have us think.

There was truth in Quesada’s remark...just enough, I suspect, to pull the wool over many people’s eyes.

Do creators lose whatever it is that appealed to their audience? Yep, sure. So what? That doesn’t mean they can no longer write, draw, ink, letter, or color. It means that Quesada is saying he can’t sell their work.

Saying he can’t sell their work doesn’t make it so, except as a self-fulfilling prophecy, but is this really why Marvel isn’t interested in hiring older talent? (BTW, they do hire some, but I’m addressing Quesada’s “rule,” not his exceptions).

Quesada’s a talented artist, with some responsibility for reinvigorating Marvel’s line…but it wasn’t the talented artist’s or visionary’s hat he was wearing when he offered his Darwinism in comics perspective. That was the hat of a corporate executive, and his statement was pure politics. Not good politics, but politics none the less.

He blamed the talent, washing his and Marvel’s hands of the responsibility.

What responsibility?

I’m referring to the dual responsibility to make the best books possible...and to behave with some measure of appreciation for the past successes of the company and the industry. In short, to show some measure of loyalty to creators, and not just his friends and discoveries. To quote the opening line of Miller’s Crossing: “It’s a question of ethics.”

So, if it’s not entirely the talent’s fault...then whose fault is it?

Fault is a tough designation, because it isn’t so simplistic.

Let’s say there are multiple issues...that Marvel is not prepared or equipped to deal with. Some of them are:

1) Most comics editors don’t have the craft of comics and/or a competent editing standard (beyond their fan-based story judgement) to properly direct and oversee a book. This is such a monstrously complicated topic on its own, which I could write about for hours, but rather than argue my specific points, let the proof be in the pudding. Read a month’s worth of Marvel Comics and tell me the visual and dramatic storytelling is top notch. If it isn’t, the captain of the ship is responsible for its sinking...and that’s the editor. Apply that standard, and look at how many editors should go down with their ships.

I will clarify that if editors did have a real craft of comics and an understanding of what it really means to be an editor, then they should be able to direct the new and the mature creator to achieve a desired result.

How do I know this? Take a look at the brilliantly written Jimi Hendrix graphic novel that came out some years ago...written by somebody I never heard of, and illustrated by Bill Sienkiewicz. I understood how it achieved such a level of creative maturity, once I discovered that Will Eisner backseat-edited that job. I understand the writer went through several drafts of what was likely Comics 101.

I know that Dick Giordano worked extensively with Frank Miller on multiple script drafts of The Dark Knight Returns.

How many drafts does an editor require today...and, when they want more than one, are they focusing on what helps the project achieve its initial goal? Or are they requiring the change because “they would have written it differently”?

2) Age-ism does exist...and be suspect of anybody’s motives who tells you it doesn’t. Young editors don’t hire their fathers or mothers...not unless they’re confident in their own skill (for which you should refer back to #1).

To put this another way, editors hire people they relate to, people they understand, people they can feel a measure of trust towards; in short, people they feel comfort with. Also, young editors have young taste, a fairly narrow scope in itself. Not all editors, just the ones who don’t really know what they’re doing. Mike Carlin at DC—about whom I have many personal and professional issues, so you know this compliment isn’t coming from any feelings of love or mutual respect—hires and works with many long-time professionals...because he understands the craft of comics and knows when, where and how to dip into that pool of talent...

...a pool Quesada appears to not realize exists, even though it’s sitting in his own backyard.

3) Out with the old, in with the new. There are two reasons this occurs.

One: Regardless of a creator’s skills, editors respond to sales and trends to help sell books, and, within the scope of that very narrow statement, it’s important for a publisher/producer of any type of material to respond to these trends.

Quesada stated: “I understand that there’s talent that’s out of work, but I don’t understand why that has to prohibit us from finding new voices.”

This is different than editorial ageism. This one’s a market perception, and, whether he knows it or not, Quesada’s throwing the baby out with the bath water.

It suggests that comics readers only want the next new thing...and yes, I’m exaggerating, but I’m doing it to make a point.

The new hot creators will likely develop a maturity of their craft...and be replaced by the next new thing...and find themselves scrambling for work and wondering why editors can’t see how much they’ve improved.

Quesada is a terrific artist. Someday, as he’s matured nicely—and I suspect he will—he’s going to find it difficult to find work he prefers. Will he think he’s lost it, that he’s a victim of social Darwinism? No. He’ll know to be true what I’m saying now:

Editors (like him now) can’t see the forest for the trees.

In his position at Marvel, he has a wealth of talent at his disposal, but he either doesn’t have the tools (editors) or personal vision to use that talent.

Two: Another way “out with the old, in with the new” applies is when an editor decides to take a book or a line in a new direction.

An editor at DC once decided to change the direction of his books. Everybody was fired off their books...by a faxed letter. I’m not saying that there were creative differences, and the editor went elsewhere. There was a change of editorial vision...and firing everybody was perceived as an easier way to get a fresh perspective...as though creators don’t have the ability or shouldn’t be given the opportunity to change course.

Apparently, the accepted method for a captain to turn a ship is to throw the crew over board, then bring in a new crew before ordering the ship’s wheel to be turned. Even in the British navy, guilty of so many brutalities to its sailors in the 18th and 19th centuries, that would have been absurd treatment…but the cultures at the offices of DC and Marvel embrace it.

4) Professional peer pressure. If you’re going to work at DC or Marvel, you have to get along to go along…or you’re out.

When an editor inherits an existing title with non-influential creators attached, there is a culture in the hallowed halls of DC and Marvel that says, “You are a weak editor if you don’t get rid of the old talent to make your mark on the book.”

This means the quality of the work being produced by writers and artists is completely irrelevant to the goals of an editor who’s more concerned with advancing his or her career than the quality of a book.

It’s the rare editor that bucks this aspect of the culture, and survives.

So you see, it’s all about the captain, except when it’s time for somebody to pay for running the ship aground.

5) Cronyism. This is a relative to #2, but I believe it’s different enough to merit discussion. To some degree, I embrace this. Paul Levitz once said to me that the most valuable thing an editor brings with him is his Rolodex. I would say the most valuable thing an editor brings with him/her is #1 above, but the Rolodex is a close second.

However, when cronyism or the Rolodex outweighs an acceptable level of craft in the finished product, that’s where I part ways from #5.

What this means is that, all too often, a new editor comes in to a new book and fires the previous talent…fulfilling the cultural requirement of being perceived as a strong editor, as described in #4 above, but with a different goal. He or she wants to work with his or her pals.

This, to me, is the worst sin imaginable, short of producing crap.

There is a very well-known editor at DC, who used to have a pretty good reputation, certainly for the books he produced, who’s now the worst of the worst...reputation-wise...because he has unnecessarily destroyed lives. He has done it, not to make his books better, but simply to surround himself with talent he trusts and/or has a previous relationship with. That is the growing inside/outside industry perception of him...and his reputation is justifiably sinking fast.

Again, referring back to #1 above, it’s too far beyond this editor’s skills to gain trust from the talent he inherited. Instead, he trusts his Rolodex, and soon, all he will have is that Rolodex.

There are editors reading this last point who likely feel that it is their prerogative to hire and fire, for whatever reason they decide...but that is simply the result of the cultures within the DC and Marvel offices, cultures that must change. The culture is a sickness that’s rooted in misplaced empowerment...and it’s killing the body that’s called comics. Again, I quote: “It’s a question of ethics.”

It’s a little off the topic, but the cultures in these companies are one the biggest impediments to real creative growth. I believe every editor must be held responsible for every hire and fire they make...and before firing somebody off a book, they must be able to explain why that writer or artist didn’t work out. If this was done, and editors were forced by Executive Editors, Editors-In-Chief, or Publishers to a higher level of comics and editorial craft, the industry might stop stinking from the head down.

Extending that concept to far beyond the comics industry, I also believe that when a company fails to perform, management should be held responsible, not the tens, hundreds, or thousands of workers who are likely doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. Why? Because they’re the true captains of the ship, and if anybody goes down with it, it should be the one most responsible for the ship hitting an iceberg.

Regardless of many of the criticisms leveled against Paul Levitz—a man who once fired me, and a man who I like and respect—DC continues to weather the storm of the industry’s downturn by not resorting to layoffs. He gets far too little praise for this effort, both inside and outside of the company.

And DC continues to experiment with titles, in an attempt to expand the core market.

But what’s Marvel doing in this area?

Quesada said: “Quite frankly, the reason why a lot of the talent finds themselves out of work is basically because of the implosion of the industry. Books went by the wayside. Marvel used to publish over 100 titles. We’re down to thirty-five or forty. Somebody is going to be out of work. But for the future of the industry, we have to look forward—we can’t look back. That’s why Marvel is looking for fresh young voices.”

Do you see what he’s saying?

The implosion of the industry made him do it…even though the downturn occurred with books approved by publishers and shepherded by editors. Let’s not forget that the industry imploded because publishers strip-mined it with so many variations of overpriced collector editions that could never be collectible.

But it’s the talent that takes the hit…for not being commercial.

Quesada’s right that new talent must find its way…but shouldn’t the “not-so-good,” make way for the “good,” as opposed to the “old” making way for the “new”?

As Quesada points out, if the industry was booming, many of these people would be employed, so that has certainly contributed to the problem...maybe the biggest contribution, since the decline of the industry followed a monstrous expansion...which brought an incredible number of new talents into its ranks.

To sum up, for every talented creator out there who isn’t working, some combination of what I’ve written above is the likely reason they’re not currently employed...or only getting by...and barely.

I almost started listing the number of truly talented people out there that are having trouble paying their bills...but what’s the point? We know who they are.

But...what if comics were being produced by the best talent available?

What if editors were held to a higher standard of professionalism than is evident?

Would comics be better...and more accessible?

Would comics sell better?

In the long run, I think so, though those of you who’ve read my previous thoughts on the future of comics distribution on Steven Grant’s Graphic Violence web site, know that this is only one small step that I believe is required to bring about a more healthy industry.

As I said initially, there are no pat answers.

Just don’t buy Quesada’s pat Darwinism excuse. He’s really saying, “Ignore that executive behind the curtain.”

He is, for now, just another in a long line of folks filling the shoes of The Great and Powerful Oz.

Lee Nordling is Executive Editor of the Platinum Studios Comic Book Department, Editor of the internationally syndicated “Rugrats” comic strip, and author of “Your Career in the Comics.”

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