The ambition of most comic creators is to write supermen and mutants. The only way to make a living in comics is to write supermen and mutants. If these two things are true, says Alasdair Watson, then the industry has reached a dead end.
09 April 2004

Jamie Rich, outgoing editor in chief at Oni Press, wrote a column a couple of weeks back wherein he observed the phenomenon of "The Call", where aspiring creators work on their own material at one of the smaller publishers, until Marvel or DC invite them to go and play in their sandbox. Jamie makes the trenchant observation that this is a reversal of the phenomenon of ten to twenty years ago, where creators would work at the 'Big Two' in order to earn the right/cash to sod off and do their own thing with smaller publishers.

Warren Ellis, talking about the article on his Bad Signal mailing list later that day, suggested that, "Jamie doesn't want to admit that it's Game Over for a diverse Direct Market". He may or may not be right about that - I know there are plenty of people out there who haven't yet given up all hope, but given that Ellis seems to have returned, at least for the time being, to more mainstream comics, I'm not wildly surprised to see that he's tacitly endorsing more mainstream work again.

But, as I'm sure will be no surprise to anyone who has read any of my more hate-filled columns about superheroes over the last few years it's "The Call" that bugs the fuck out of me. I have nothing at all against anyone who chooses to go over to Marvel and DC and make decent money working for them, but it's not something I can understand on anything other than a purely mercenary level.

'There are people out there who haven't yet given up all hope.' Of course, that's the sad reality of life in comics - for 90% of the people working full-time in comics, if you want anything that might pass for financial security, you've got to work for the big kids. And the remaining 10% have to work that much harder to generate the same level of security.

Beyond the financial aspect, I just don't understand what the reward is in working on SUPERMAN, or X-MEN, or any of these other properties. And it's not because I hate them (I don't), or because I think they're for kids (I do), or because I'm a snob (I may well be, but it's not really relevant). I just plain don't see the point in working creatively for someone else. I don't see the point in working creatively in a situation where the aspiration is commercial success, rather than the freedom to say what you think, (other than, I guess, the ability to have a lifestyle that allows you to set your own hours, and spend a lot of time inside your own head).

This things aren't mutually exclusive, but nor is either generally conducive to the other. If someone has the talent to say what they want in a commercially friendly manner, then I applaud them, but judging from the lack of success that some of my unspeakably talented friends have met with, it requires more than just being able to say what you want in a commercially friendly manner. As Ellis and Rich both observe, the direct market simply won't support the range of genres, topics or voices that are required to allow new writers to break in.

What worries me more than the usual "the direct market is a stranglehold around comics" stuff, is that I can see a day where the only people who aspire to make their living out of writing comics are people who genuinely want to write superhero comics.

'I just plain don't see the point in working creatively for someone else.' This frightens the hell out of me. I forget who it was who, when asked why they thought that the "British Invasion" of the 80s produced so many successful comics that were doing new and different things, said that the difference between American comic book writers and British comic book writers was that American writers grew up reading comic books, and British writers grew up reading everything, but whoever it was may well have been onto something.

Most of the "British Invasion" brought with them a slew of influences from outside comics that were new to the medium, and made their work seem much fresher than their American counterparts. There was a sense that these people had in interest in comics as a form, rather then being interested in the superhero genre.

I worry, though, about an industry in which the only easy way to make a living wage is to write superhero comics, because the only aspiring talent it'll attract are people who have grown up reading and loving superheroes.

I'd like to believe that they'll have been reading other stuff as well, but given that half the superhero audience don't even seem to want to pick up non-superhero comics, I'm forced to wonder about that. Especially given that so many young creators these days seem so happy to get 'The Call' and rush off to do superhero comics at the Big Two, like they were fulfilling some kind of ambition. It looks very much to me like Jamie Rich is right, and we're devolving back to the late 70s/early 80s. Which will lead to further creative stagnation, which will drive the audiences away, etc etc.

I had my ability to look on the bright side surgically removed some time ago, you understand.

'The only aspiring talent will be people who grew up loving superheroes.' So the question is, as always, what's to be done about all this? And the answer remains the same, too: vote with your wallets. Buy something new and different. But you're all sick of hearing people like me say things like that.

I'm sick of saying it, too. So, here's a different answer. Don't buy anything if you're not really interested. Because anything else smacks of "support your scene"-ism. It's one of those things common to fans of alternative music, the notion that you have to support a local scene or you'll see it die. People can get quite worked up about the need to support local bands, or independent shops, or small festivals, that sort of thing. And the usual cries for people to 'save' comics is exactly the same sort of thing.

And if I'm willing (and I am) to dismiss it as toss in other scenes, other media, then I should be willing to do it comics as well. In my experience, if a scene is strong, it'll survive. If it's full of wankers, it'll implode, good riddance. And if it needs artificial support from people who are only doing it out of a sense of duty, or because other people are forever on at them to "support their scene", then it's probably full of wankers, and deserves to implode.

And if you haven't got the idea by now that the direct market, the dominance of the superhero genre, and all the other ills of the industry are creating a climate that goes out of its way to choke new talent, and smother growth and experimentation, then you've been missing the fact that comics have been imploding for a decade and more now.

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