6.11.2012

2012: The Year Creator-Owned Comics Won


“Kirby cooked up some tasty comics. Should we keep warming up his leftovers, or get in the kitchen and start cooking?”
-Kody Chamberlain, Twitter, April 2012
There’s an early episode in the second season of Game of Thrones that opens with young Arya Stark squatting to take a piss near a stream right before the Gold Cloaks from the City Watch at King’s Landing come to serve a warrant for her friend Gendry, the bastard son of the late King, Robert Baratheon. Now, the only relevant part of that sentence is that this little girl is taking a piss. It’s just this small touch of realism. There’s an uncomfortable impermanence to real things. Real things piss, shit, fuck, tarnish, lie, and even die. You won’t see anything like that in Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Sam trek to Mordor to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom for something like six months. In that entire trilogy, you never once see them go to the damn bathroom. Game of Thrones doesn’t trade in that type of illusion. The needs of story authenticity trump the needs of everything else; it’s gritty in a way that mainstream work can never be. It’s because HBO operates with a sort of creator-owned carte blanche, if you will. NBC, ABC, and CBS were once thought of as “The Big Three” networks. In the wake of FOX coming along to disrupt the status quo, we witnessed the rise of original programming on networks like HBO, Showtime, AMC, and FX. Before that analogy gets away from me, I’ll bring this back around to comics…
The criteria I use to buy monthly comics have changed a lot over the 30+ years I’ve been doing so. I’m sure I could dive into all the byzantine personal criteria about what type of writing and art I’m drawn to, but I’ll save you most of that convoluted agony. Most people think I only like dystopian style writing (which isn’t entirely true), and since I grew up on stuff like Dave Gibbons art on Green Lantern and George Perez on New Teen Titans, it’s easy to see how that’s informed my interest in the clean austere styles of artists like John Cassaday or Jamie McKelvie. But, it’s actually a lot simpler than all that.
When I was a kid, I was limited to however many books I could get with about $5 a week, sometimes less, depending on the odd jobs I picked up around the neighborhood and whether or not I wanted to have anything left over for a movie that weekend. This was when new comics came out on Fridays, and it was a glorious time. Even though $5 went pretty far back when floppies were 75 cents a pop, there were always more that I wanted. I could never get my fill.
So when I got older and started earning the type of discretionary income that allowed me to throw it at any passing interest, I just bought everything I liked. Period. It was a simple method. It also required a lot of money. While it made me pretty well-versed in comic book lore and canonical creative teams, it was also nothing more than a gigantic revolving door policy. There was lots coming in, and lots going out, with precious little actually being retained long term.
After some time, it became buy only what you love. This was a little more stringent. It required really paying attention to what I was truly enjoying and consciously avoiding purchases made out of sheer inertia. I had to love both the writing and the art, one never guaranteeing a purchase based solely on its own merit. About this time, I also made the mental decision to follow creators over characters or companies. And that felt good, like a step in the right direction. Yet even with this more focused practice, some chaff still managed to find its way into the wheat. I’m a pretty adventurous consumer. I like to try new things. I was still buying quite a bit, but retaining only a small percentage of the overall haul long term. In fact, a recent look at metrics revealed that I only continued to support 17 titles out of 91 new #1 issues that I tried during a one year period.
One day it became – and this is basically where I’m at today – continue supporting only what you love so much that you’d actually be willing to pay for it again in a collected edition. It wasn’t as elegant a sound byte, but it made sense to me. In short, if it wasn’t good enough to go on my bookshelf one day, then why even bother? Wasteland by Antony Johnston, Chris Mitten, and Justin Greenwood (published by Oni Press) is an excellent example of this practice. I buy the single issues. I then upgrade to the trades, while passing on runs of singles to people in an effort to hook them. Later, I buy the oversized hardcover Apocalyptic Editions when they come out. Can you hear me in the back? I buy this book three times. That’s true love. That’s voting with your wallet. That’s taking a stand.
But, something’s still been bugging me about my comic book purchasing habits in the last couple of years, and I could never quite articulate what it was. I was getting bored, or frustrated, or something, by some specific part of the holistic experience. There was something cyclical and predictable about it. I enjoyed supporting the select cadre of creator-owned titles I was loyal to, loved turning people on to lesser known work, and didn’t have moral or ethical beef with any of the creators I supported. But, occasionally I’d still get hooked into some dumb crossover event or some new rebooted #1 issue from Marvel or DC in their tired vain attempts to further recapture the junkie high with THE GREAT ILLUSION OF CHANGE surrounding a company-owned property. I mean, really, how good can a new Moon Knight or Mister Terrific series really be? I needed to look at the approach I’d been taking to my buying habits in a different way. I needed some new mechanism of delineation.
Part of what I was feeling was that I’d already seen the best of what corporate superhero properties had to offer. I’ve seen the pinnacle of what Superman can be with Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All Star Superman. Sorry, but unless you can do better than that, I’m not interested. I’ve already seen the best Batman stories too. I’m skeptical that anyone can further the enduring mythos of the character better than Paul Pope’s Batman: Year 100. I’ve seen the strong women of Greg Rucka and the inventive art of JH Williams III on Batwoman. Topping that is harder than bottling farts in the wind. I mean, DC can’t even get their act together enough to continue it, let alone surpass it. I’ve enjoyed the DC history lesson depicted in the quintessential liminal state between Golden Age and Silver Age in Darwyn Cooke’s The New Frontier. The thought of diluting that magical Absolute Edition with some dopey Earth 2 book from the so-called “DCnU” is horrifying. Tell me, is that book better or worse than the aborted First Wave line? Barf. Can I interest you in a can of lukewarm New Coke? Over at Marvel, is it reasonable to expect that a better looking X-Men book than Joss Whedon and John Cassaday’s Astonishing X-Men will ever come about? Will the raison d’etre of an amoral covert mutant hit squad ever be more carefully considered or lushly rendered than the Rick Remender, Jerome Opena, and Dean White issues of Uncanny X-Force? Can anyone deliver better flash fiction renditions of Iron Man than the fertile minds of Warren Ellis and Matt Fraction? I doubt it. Yeah, I can still quote lines from the old Kurt Busiek and George Perez Avengers run: “Ultron… we would have words with thee.” To me, that run will forever be what the Avengers are supposed to be. These are all good books. I like them. I own them. I also feel as if forthcoming creative teams will forever be chasing their magic. It’s what Kody Chamberlain was talking about in that tweet. They’ll just be reheating leftovers ad infinitum, ad nauseum. There’s a glass ceiling on how special you can make something simply by retooling what’s come before at the hands of others, without offering up some original part of yourself in the process. I’m hungry for something new.
Those comics I mentioned have capped the properties in such a way that I feel like I never have to return to that particular well. What’s the artistic objective of going back to extremely well-tread ground? I’m burned out, because they’re played out. My intention here is not to sound like an elitist snob by proclaiming I’m done with Corporate Cape Comics. But, the game’s changed. So has this player. People change. People move on. The industry evolves. Genres, characters, properties, the thing is that their creative paths can mature to the point of conclusion. It’s possible to achieve a state of creative bankruptcy. Besides, given the choice between any of those great takes on company-owned properties I mentioned above, I’d actually prefer the creator-owned vision of Planetary, Heavy Liquid, Desolation Jones, Queen & Country, Battle Hymn, Automatic Kafka, Arrowsmith, I Am Legion, Danger Club, Prophet, The Massive, or 20th Century Boys. Amid all the controversy surrounding Before Watchmen, I’d strongly prefer to see pitches from those same writers and artists for original creator-owned series of their own. I’d buy some of those instead. That’s what’s going to keep the future of the industry vibrant. Creativity lies ahead. Looking back is fleeting.
It’s impossible to talk about this stuff and not acknowledge the work of a few people that acted as some sort of thought-catalyst for me. There was the tipping point of Chris Roberson essentially being fired from DC Comics because he spoke out on the creator rights issue and ethical concerns about their practices, as well as Roger Langridge quitting Marvel and DC work over the same concerns. I was also inspired in part by David Brothers’ public cold turkey “quit” of all Marvel and DC books, but want to differentiate that what I’m doing is different, and for different reasons. Bloggin’ buddy Keith Silva’s swearing off of Marvel and DC material in favor of creator-owned comics led to some healthy exchanges between us. I started asking myself questions. Could I do that? Would I be able to give up Marvel and DC books? Yeah, no problem with the mainline universe titles. I mean, I’d woken up one day and the Marvel U and DCU had suddenly become “616” and “DCnU” or some fucking thing. No sweat ditching that mess. The gray area became imprint books at places like Vertigo or ICON. Those were creator-owned after all. Would I be willing to drop books like Scalped or Casanova? Well, no. That’s not what I wanted to do. Not exactly. My main objective wasn’t to shun Marvel and DC in their entirety for unethical business practices associated with Before Watchmen or the Avengers movie. That’s a good fight, but what I wanted to do was slightly different. After verbally water-boarding me like I’d been deemed an unlawful combatant at Gitmo, Keith cornered me with a phrase that stopped me dead in my tracks: “So… you’re saying you only want to do creator-owned, then?” The words still ring in my ears like truth. That was it. I wanted to support creator-owned titles, exclusively.
In less than sound journalistic fashion, I always tend to bury my lead. So, yeah, here’s the news: I’m no longer buying Marvel or DC books unless they’re creator-owned. But this has less to do with being a punitive move against Marvel and DC than it does with me just really wanting to support creator-owned titles exclusively. There will be one exception. If you’re reading this, it’s probably no surprise that I’m something of a Brian Wood completist. He’s a creator I’m loyal to, and I’ll ride with him to whatever end, be it creator-owned, company-owned, or licensed work. I’m planning on buying X-Men and Ultimate Comics: X-Men when he jumps on with their next issues. That’s just the way it is. It’s non-negotiable. I’ve spent a considerable amount of time writing about his work and the arc of his career. I absolutely plan to continue examining his books as long as he keeps writing them. I realize I don’t really need to seek anyone’s approval other than my own about what monthly floppies I buy, but y’know, transparency and all.
Honestly, it didn’t take much effort to make this deliberate shift. I was actually already leaning into this position through natural attrition, but this stance is now by design. In terms of what I’m buying today, here are the substantive changes, which will be put into effect immediately. I wasn’t actually buying a single Marvel book regularly, so that’s easy. The closest thing I have in the line-up is Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba’s Casanova, and since it’s technically creator-owned under the ICON imprint, it gets a pass. On the DC side, the titles on the chopping block are Batman, Batwoman, and Worlds’ Finest. Who doesn’t love George Perez art? I’ll miss that about Worlds’ Finest. But you know what I don’t really care about? Power Girl and Huntress. I love Greg Rucka and JH Williams III’s Batwoman run that originally aired in Detective Comics, and I’ll keep that Elegy hardcover on my bookshelf, but this new run has degenerated from that rapidly. I don’t mind giving this up since I was already considering it. Batman is a book I enjoy reading for straight-up mainstream done right. But, I also came to the realization it’s a sad commentary that this above-average effort is basically the best thing DC could muster from the flaccid New 52 initiative. It should actually be the bare minimum level of quality allowed, yet the cold hard truth is that this is actually the best book in the line. That’s ridiculous to me. So, farewell Batman. It’s like Michael Corleone said when he wanted to off Captain McCluskey and “The Turk:” “It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.” No hard feelings, I hope. Next time Scott Snyder and/or Greg Capullo launch a creator-owned book, I’ll check it out. As far as DC imprints go, my only other books at the moment are actually Scalped and Saucer Country. Scalped has only two issues left, so that will soon be a moot point. I’m enjoying Saucer Country, but who knows how long that will hold. So, it’s kind of interesting that even including imprints (which get passes for being creator-owned anyway), that’s just two books I’m currently supporting through Marvel and DC. Essentially, everything else in my current line up, or on the horizon, is from Dark Horse, Image Comics, and Oni Press, with a whole slew of self-published mini-comics and small-press boutique publishers.
This is something that I already decided to do a while back, but I want to reiterate it and maybe encourage others to do the same(?). I’m no longer using the verbiage “The Big Two” to refer to Marvel and DC. Words are powerful. I just think it’s unduly empowering. It’s become this weird default nickname. I think people use the term a lot without even thinking about what it means. They don’t consider if that’s truly what they intended to say. They don’t consciously acknowledge the embedded messaging the phrase contains: That there is a hierarchy. That they dominate. That there can only be two. That everyone else is small by comparison, and thus, of lesser inherent value. It’s artificial segregation. It’s a closed paradigm, and I don’t like that. Maybe it’s not even accurate in some circumstances. I mean, when I ran my own personal metrics on the last year of purchases (I track everything), I found that in a statistical heads-up comparison, I was buying 64% more Dark Horse and Image Comics alone than Marvel and DC. If you factor in Oni Press and a few others, the numbers get even more compellingly lopsided. With the creative push that Image Comics alone is on this year, I only anticipate that rift widening. As it stands today, Image Comics and Dark Horse are basically my “Big Two” in terms of actual financial market-share. Should Dark Horse and Image Comics be called “The New Big Two?” Should I refer to them as “The Twins?” (yes, another Game of Thrones reference). With Oni Press, are they “The Medium Three?” Somebody invent a term for this that I can use. Nah, I’m just playin’. Inventing new language like that to label these publishers would only further marginalize their status and reinforce the practices of a flawed system.
Seriously, I’d rather just say this: “I only buy creator-owned comics.”

11 Comments:

At 8:54 AM, Blogger Keith Philip Silva said...

Justin,

Thanks for the shout out and I was greatly humbled to read that a question I asked only to keep pace with your rapid-fire style (man you think and type quick) got you to stop (that there's got to be good for something) and evaluate. Excellent and honest writing and I'm glad to have played a part however small (and apparently influential). Welcome aboard!

 
At 9:01 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Yes. IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT. Haha! Seriously, thanks for stopping by and being such a good sounding board during this process, helping me clarify my own nuanced position.

 
At 12:02 PM, Blogger Josh Blair said...

I used to think people who said "I only read indie comics" were being pretentious. But now I completely understand. Although I always qualify it with "and Jack Kirby comics."

 
At 12:10 PM, Blogger Justin said...

That's a great observation, Josh. I used to hear it years and years ago too and I always thought they were being hipster doofuses. I think it's one of those things you have to come to on your own terms, nobody can impose it without you feeling it in your heart at the right time.

And I think it's fair for everyone to have that one special exception!

 
At 5:50 AM, Blogger Matt C said...

While I admire your decision, Justin, I can't say I'd ever follow suit. The icons from the Big Two (and they'll always be the Big Two to me, from a historical perspective at least!) are kind of ingrained in my DNA now and turning away from them completely is inconceivable!

Having said that, I have scaled back my purchases from Marvel and DC a hell of a lot recently, and creator-owned output has become a significantly larger part of my pull-list (and I can see that increasing the way things are going).

There's always something that surprises from Marvel and DC. Your example of Uncanny X-Force was only published last year, so surely your not suggesting that 2012 is where the creative bankruptcy irreversibly set in? Also I'd contend that Batman is currently far better than average - there's not much else at DC that comes close, but that's not Synder and Capullo's responsibility. I have been largely left disillusioned with the New 52, but set editorial policy aside, the story is what I come for, and if the combination of writing and art works then that's what's most important to me.

I always the blockbuster analogy - a low budget indie flick may be more rich and rewarding but I'm just as easily taken with huge explosions and situations that require heavy suspension of disbelief. You're more likely to find something more memorable in the indie scene than the summer blockbuster season, but all it takes is for one such movie to tickle me in the right way, and that to me justifies everything else.

Basically I guess I'm saying there's always a very real possibility of something astonishing appearing from Marvel or DC and I could never close myself off to that.

Creator-owned stuff is indeed where it's at right now, but I always have my eye on Marvel and DC - they've rustled up masterpieces before, there's no reason the won't do again.

 
At 8:55 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Matt,

Thanks for chiming in, you bring up some salient points.

Let me caveat this whole thing by saying that DC was very much ingrained in my DNA as well. (Can't say the same for Marvel), but I grew up a DC kid, my first comic, ever, was an issue of World's Finest with Superman, Batman, Robin, and Elongated Man. Dick Grayson was, is, and shall always be, my favorite mainstream character. I mean, you don't drop $1,400 on a piece of Paul Pope original art from the Eisner Award Winning "Teenage Sidekick" in his Solo one-shot featuring the original Robin otherwise! That said, the last time I enjoyed an ongoing book featuring Grayson was Chuck Dixon and Scott McDaniel's Nightwing run that began in 1996.

I appreciate you challenging the notion that 2012 is where creative bankruptcy set in. I'm not suggesting that (it probably happened sooner!), but am suggesting that for me personally, this is where the scales merely tipped. I reached a point where I've scaled back my DC and Marvel consumption so much that their mere presence in my pull became anomalous, the sub-set of books I actually enjoyed became even more rare. I mean, statistically, it took, what? 20 years of reading X-Men books for 2 decent ones to come about? AXM under Whedon & Cassaday and UXF under Remender and Opena. I'm just no longer willing to play those odds. The risk/reward proposition doesn't make sense to me.

On the movie analogy, yeah, I understand what you're saying, but I'd actually argue the reverse, just for me personally. My interest in the summer blockbusters has wained significantly. Speaking as a former movie critic, I'm finding in my old cranky age that I just don't enjoy stuff like Avengers or Prometheus or Super 8 or whatever like I used to. And while I do enjoy the occasional gem like JJ's Star Trek, I'm actually happier consuming something like (*looks at Neflix history really fast*) 2010's "The Rabbit Hole" with Kidman and Eckhart. Honestly just pulled that at random and I'd absolutely take it over Avengers. BLASPHEMY! Haha! I'd rather support the indie flicks and chat them up to my friends. There's a greater chance they'll surprise me and show me something new.

Also, and this might be a technicality, but what I'm discussing here is largely ongoing financial support of new monthly floppies. There's no reason, in my mind at least, by the "rules" I've established, that I can't pick up a 50% off trade at a con. If you, as a critic I trust, tell me that UXF is amazing again, I can always discount trade-wait. As a fan, as a critic, I'll always have an interest in seeing what's out there if it's the creme de la creme. But it's the difference between being there on opening night to boost the gross and drag my friends along vs. catching the latest big studio masterpiece on Netflix a year later. Now that I've absolutely massacred your analogy, I'll sign off. ;-)

Thanks again,

J

 
At 12:14 PM, Blogger Matt C said...

Damn! I wrote a response and it seems to have disappeared! I'll hold out hope for its miraculous reappearance or otherwise I'll have to try and remember what I wrote!

 
At 12:20 PM, Blogger Justin said...

Matt,

Hey, it must be a glitch in Blogger. I actually saw and read your lengthier comment in my email feed, but it doesn't seem to show here.

No worries, I think we're agreed that everyone has to find their own path as they sort out the "junk" from the "gems" and the risk/reward proposition has different thresholds for everyone. There really isn't a "right" way to read comics, as long as you're reading them!

J

 
At 2:06 PM, Blogger Matt C said...

If it had completely disappeared I was going to say it was the most amazing thing I've written, but seeing as how you've seen it perhaps I'll refrain. ;)

 
At 9:27 AM, Blogger Ryan Claytor said...

Justin,

Lots of food for thought in this post (and after-post comments). I read it through the day it posted, but "The Year of the Wedding" has been wiping the floor with me. Ha-ha! Just got back from a weekend in Cally @ my buddy's wedding and I'll be flying out again in a couple weeks for ours. ANY-how, back to comics...

Your thoughts on eliminating "The Big Two" term has really got me thinking. I use it occasionally and off-handedly in conversation, but I'm starting to convert my speech after mulling this over for the past few days. Aside from current dominant market share, why should we give Marvel and DC any additional clout with names like that. Thanks for making this astute observation and phrasing it far more eloquently.

Matt C brought up another point which was bouncing around in my brain-case as I initially read through this post; what about projects like UXF? That's a really recent series that you were selling to your readers BIG TIME! What if your creator-owned mandate had been put into place just a year earlier? You would have never had the pleasure of discovering that gem, you would have never had the opportunity to spread the word about that title, and we never would have interviewed one of the best new coloring talents, Dean White!

I guess I'm just playing devil's advocate on this post because I like the life philosophy, "Nothing in excess." I'm hard pressed to think of a regular title I consistently purchase from Marvel or DC, but I'm happy to pick up the periodic trial issue. After reading through some of your clarification posts, it sounds like you'll get around this absolute at the discount trade bins. Makes sense, putting your financial backing behind something you believe in, but at the same time still being able to follow (albeit a bit late) well-crafted assembly-line comics.

P.S. I always kinda wondered how much you dropped on the Pope artwork, but was afraid to ask. :) Glad that's been cleared up.

P.P.S. In a really tangential way, your mention of indie films reminded me of a great one Candace and I watched recently. It was one of those I had written off as a dumb, predictable, love story that I was going to watch with her as a favor. It turned out to be a lot more than I expected. Here's the website for HappyThankYouMorePlease.

Word,
Ryan Claytor
Elephant Eater Comics
www.ElephantEater.com

 
At 9:03 AM, Blogger Justin said...

Hi Ryan,

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. UXF is truly terrific, but it's an absolute anomaly. It's the exception that proves the rule. You're singling out 1 book amid, 70, 80, 100? that was actually good and doesn't conform to my sweeping generalization. Like I said, two X-franchise books I like in 20 years?! That's horrible odds. I'd rather just leave myself an "out" on the discount trade end and not go through the charade on all the rest.

Pope art: Obviously an extravagant purchase that the timing was just right on and could probably never be duplicated again. I had just left my last job after 11 years, cashed out my PTO, sold all of my stock options, decided I'd earned a little gift for myself to commemorate that era. I probably wouldn't have just bought it cold from his dealer, but buying it directly from him was a rare treat, especially when it'd just won the Eisner the night before!

J

 

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