Guest contributor Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, begins a new series of essays looking at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
I’ve spent most of my professional life working on the business side of things. There’s plenty of “conventional wisdom” you will find repeated. One of the biggest refrains you will hear is “stick to what works” along with the time-honored “go for the lowest hanging fruit” admonition, which in some ways seems kinda, I don’t know – dirty? When you look at the comic book market in the United States of America today, you can be sure these same sorts of creeds echo wildly within the vaunted halls of the two corporations which control 70% of the market. Marvel and DC surely have been practicing this sort of stalwart capitalism approach to their respective properties long before Time Warner or Disney entered the scene. It’s been known for a long time that using the go-to legacy characters to frontline your product armadas is the surest way to keep the lights on. But what’s funny is that were it not for risk and a trust of the artist rather than fallback to formula, neither Superman nor Spider-Man would even be with us right now.
The well-known back stories for many of the greatest superhero characters is often the same. You had a flailing company or a starving artist simply FORCED into innovation by intense need. You can see the creators of old gumshoeing their way from meeting to meeting in New York, overstuffed portfolios in hand (loose pages bursting out the sides), wondering if they’ll have to paint a barn next week just to make rent. Or you could take the legendary image of the furniture being repossessed from the publisher’s office as a handful of geniuses tap the inner depths of their creative spirit and issue forth entire mythologies to be as enduring as Aphrodite and Gilgamesh, saving the company from ruin in the same stroke. The bean-counters could never have made any of these true-life tales happen: a trust of the artist to really innovate was necessary.
Sure, in the scenarios above, there’s this element of desperation, of necessity being the mother of inspiration. But funny enough, one of the most successful purveyors of modern mythology actually used success to fuel an ever-evolving artistry – and his most important role wasn’t as an artist. Walt Disney was far more the manager behind the scenes than an animator. And he had true vision. Rather than make every single movie after Steamboat Willie about Mickey Mouse and his little gang of friends, he always was sure to promote new properties, worked on by new artists who would take his company to the next level. That tradition has largely stayed alive to this day in the company. Of course, Mickey still makes the company a lot of money. But every couple of years, we have whole new worlds introduced to us, be it Peter Pan or Dumbo during Disney’s lifetime, or Beauty and the Beast or Toy Story in the more modern era. I doubt that Disney could have grown significantly had it stayed perched in one little pantheon of never-ending and continuous characters, relegated to one genre, targeting just one audience group. Such a business model would even contradict “conventional wisdom” – don’t ya think?
Well, by now you know my punch line – this is PRECISELY how Marvel and DC do most of their business. The scheme is simple: keep pimping the capes to the same aging comics fans and call that an industry. I guess it works in terms of market share. But it’s a losing game in the long term, as seen by the ever-declining readership much lamented these past 15 or so years. Not that they need to worry much. I mean, are Marvel and DC really comic book companies any more? One may not be blamed for pondering that perhaps now, they are more brand managers for licensing carefully crafted empires based on the iconic rosters of the beloved in their respective stables. All the continuity and/or reboots are meant to keep the base calm while experimenting with how to manage which character’s evolution to ensure the greatest market share possible. As such, we face another often-lamented paradox, Marvel and DC are what’s keeping the comics business alive, even while they sort of ensure a decline due to inbreeding. After all, Superman, Phoenix, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America and so on can really only “die” so many times before anybody even paying a little attention realizes, this industry has been reduced to running on transparent gimmickry, offering less and less as time goes on by way of a compelling story or revolutionary art. In the long run, this will turn into a huge net loss of readers, if not an overall decline of the industry itself.
Rather than seem pessimistic about the future of American comics, I would make the simple suggestion that all of you who are either long-time comic book fans losing interest in the stuff coming out, or those of you interested in comics but can’t cut through the impenetrable pitfalls of pointless universe continuity, try to find comics ELSEWHERE. There are plenty of them. There are so many great creators out there working hard, I blush in the embarrassment of riches we have at hand. There is a whole world out there of fantastic stories and art just bursting to be noticed and superheroes are just the beginning. There is horror, drama, humor, history. There is high art, surrealism, crime thrillers, and political commentary. Comics are just like the movies and literature and TV and music – there’s ALL SORTS of different types of stuff out there. There are artists who belong on museum walls next to Van Gough, Picasso and Rembrandt. There are entire publishing companies dedicated to giving singular artists the opportunity to realize unique visions, banking on the creative drive, rather than simply handing out operating manuals for 70-year old characters. Innovation is not dead, and it doesn’t need to rely upon – nor be deterred by – economic considerations.
So what’s my point? Well, I wanted to expose a problem, the decline of comics readership in America, and towards fixing that problem, I have a set of requests.
First, I would ask all my fellow long-time comics fans to leave their comfort zones and support alternative comics companies, artists, writers, and especially GENRES. It’s so odd: a film buff is likely to see all sorts of movies, yet the comics fan by and large sticks to just one paradigm – guys in tights beating each other up. When you go to the movies, you are as likely to watch The Lord of the Rings, Harold and Kumar, and Inglorious Basterds as you are to see Thor, Green Lantern, and Iron Man. So start small – check out some other fantasy books, some humor comics, maybe even a war story. Move that loyal weekly dollar from demanding the same crap over and over to a fresh surprise every Wednesday. I’ve been doing it for years, and it’s been richly rewarding. And yes, I still buy superhero comics from time to time, so I am not saying go cold turkey, just cut back and try some spinach for once, humans cannot live on Twinkies alone.
Second, I would ask anyone remotely interested in giving comic books a try, but are turned off by the likes of Wolverine and The Dark Knight to seek out alternative comics. Where to find them? Well, that’s easy if you know where to look. Starting small, I would visit the websites of comics publishers that aren’t Marvel and DC. Don’t know any? Here’s a small sampler to start with: Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, Dark Horse, Image, IDW, Top Shelf, First Second, NBM, Archaia, BOOM!, PictureBox and Gestalt all come immediately to mind. Just looking at the list now, I see human drama, history, vampires, alternate superheroes, kids comics, true crime and even licensed material from the worlds of TV, film and literature. You could also try your local comic book store – but try and find the largest, best serviced one in your area (most “regular” shops won’t even carry a lot of this stuff, just the supes). Also, if you like what you see on the publisher’s websites, you can use Amazon’s suggestion generator to find comics you may also like.
My last request is to Marvel and DC. For god’s sake, would you just make comic books again? Would you let more new artists create more new worlds and use your considerable resources to reach out to more new readers? Would you please end the superhero fan regime? Yes, there are exceptions to your practices. DC’s Vertigo line has offered a plethora of non-superhero works by some terrific artists. And Marvel’s Icon line has allowed some established artists to really strut their stuff unconstrained by the machinations of the superhero continuity. But great works like Jeff Lamire’s Sweet Tooth and Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’s Criminal aren’t exactly selling like hot cakes. Yet they should. Fostering works like these will manifest an image of a company to be trusted with the innovative choices it makes, just as a major studio can be a seal of quality come Oscar time. Take some chances, ladies and gentlemen of that world – act like the superheroes whose temple you worship upon. Cultivating an environment of inspiration is not just a great thing to do for the world of art, it will also turn out to be good business.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read Miguel’s comic book recommendations.
Tags: Archaia, Batman, Boom! Studios, Captain America, Criminal, Dark Horse, DC Comics, Dig Comics, Disney, Drawn and Quarterly, Ed Brubaker, Fantagraphics, First Second Books, Gestalt Publishing, Icon, IDW Publishing, Image Comics, Jeff Lemire, Marvel Comics, Miguel Cima, NBM Publishing, Phoenix, Picturebox, Sean Phillips, Spider-Man, Superman, Sweet Tooth, Time Warner, Top Shelf, Vertigo, Walt Disney
You’d think that with their over $4 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment a year ago this week, the Burbank-based Walt Disney Company would have brought things in-house for comics featuring Disney characters. Instead, Disney has licensed a small but highly acclaimed line of comics to Los Angeles comics publisher Boom! Studios over the last year plus. And with their Boom! Kids line, Boom! has helped resurrect the all-ages corner of the comic book industry, something that many feared was a lost cause. Not only is this good news for increasing variety, but it’s absolutely crucial in making sure that another generation doesn’t slip by without learning and internalizing the language of comics. Read the rest of this entry →
Posted in News and Analysis
Tags: Boom!, Boom! Kids, Boom! Studios, Cars, Chip 'n' Dale's Rescue Rangers, Darkwing Duck, Digicomics, Disney, Disney Digicomics, Don Rosa, Donald Duck, Donald Duck and Friends, Duck Tales, DuckTales, Finding Neemo, Floyd Gottfredson, Jim Henson, Kable Distribution Services, Mark Waid, Matt Gagnon, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse and Friends, Monsters Inc., Pixar, Roger Langridge, Ross Richie, The Incredibles, The Muppet Show, The Muppet Show Comic Book, Toy Story, Uncle Scrooge, Wall-E, Walt Disney, Walt Disney's Stories and Comics, Year In Review
As a preview to their upcoming Comic Book Comics #5 by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey, Evil Twin Comics has posted a 6-page excerpt titled “The Grabbers”. It does an excellent job encapsulating and presenting copyright law and how it has effected the history of comic books. The piece focuses on Superman, so this is a great prequel to that BBC Superman documentary where we see Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster a few years after the events depicted at the end of this comic.
The comic also covers the legal shenanigans involving Bob Kane (Batman co-creator), Bill Finger (Batman, Robin and Joker co-creator), Jerry Robinson (Robin and Joker co-creator), Joe Simon (Captain America co-creator), and Jack Kirby (co-creator of Captain America and half of the rest of the Marvel Comics superhero universe).
What’s amazing (and kind of sad) is that a lot of these legal battles are still being fought.
Posted in Spotlight
Tags: Alfred Zugsmith, Batman, Berne Convention, Bill Finger, Bob Kane, Captain America, Comic Book Comics, Copyright Act of 1909, copyright law, Copyright Term Extension Act, copyrights, DC Comics, Disney, Evil Twin Comics, Fantastic Four, Fred Van Lente, Hulk, Iron Man, Jack Kirby, Jack Liebowitz, Jeffrey Trexler, Jerry Robinson, Jerry Siegel, Joe Shuster, Joe Simon, Joker, Martin Goodman, Marvel Comics, Mickey Mouse, Mickey Mouse Protection Act, Neal Adams, Robin, Ryan Dunlavey, Sonny Bono, Superboy, Superman, Superman: The Movie, The Adventures of Superman, The Grabbers, Thor, uncivilsociety.org, United States Constitution, Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, X-Men, Zuggy