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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:



I have seen the future. There are no jet-packs, no personal submarines or hovercraft. We’re not living on the planet Mars in transparisteel domes to keep the good microbes in and the bad microbes out, whilst sipping vitamin cocktails in our unisex togs, resplendent in the salmon of the Martian sunset. That’s kind of a bummer, really. But then the future isn’t what it used to be.

Nor is the future of the superhero universes owned wholly or partially by the Big Two. There was a time where new characters and teams were invented willy-nilly, to populate an already absurdly populated series of rogues galleries or substitute heroes. Now, most of these characters can’t really stand on their own two legs, mostly they’re foils. But at least it’s evidence of a living, breathing, expanding universe. (And some of those characters, I’ll add, sorta kinda resent being written out of play, as the recent and entertaining ARCHITECTURE AND MORTALITY reveals—not unlike Azzarello and Chiang redoing SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR, only with Z-grade characters. But it’s not a read for the un-initiated.) What we’re looking at now is not an expansion in the known universe, but a radical contraction and refiguring. We’re looking at the limits of imagination; all that remains is to shift the pieces around and make some of them darker and less compelling.

Why, you ask? Oh, that’s easy. The Big Two don’t want new ideas or new characters. No, seriously, they don’t. They’re too much trouble. Too much hassle, and oh yes, they cost too much money. Mostly that too much money costing thing. See, we live in an age of creators’ rights. This is a good thing, though not without some unforeseen complications. It used to be that creators created and collected a monthly or weekly or whateverly check and whatever they created was owned by the publishing company that put out the books in the first place. Sure, Spider-Man was created by Steve Ditko and Stan Lee (and as the argument goes, Jack Kirby), but Marvel owns him. Movie? Marvel owns the money from that. Toys? Ditto. ‘Jamas? You know the answer to this one already. I’m fairly sure that nominal credit is given to the creators now, and maybe a little money along with it, but zero control or anything resembling actual royalties or licensing/use fees.

Anyways, the thing is that as creators became more and more cognizant of the potential rewards that they were missing out on, the less creating was actually done (for the big two). I’m not criticizing this phenomena, simply observing it. As a creator-guy myself, I think that the creators who come up with the concept ought to see some kind of reward out of it when Stupendous Man gets put on lunchboxes or on a movie screen. And yes, the publisher, as the entity that helped get that character exposure, is entitled to a slice of that pie as well. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with the publisher taking an ownership stake or shutting the creators out of the equation altogether. Fair is fair, right?

So, we’re looking at a place where creators aren’t going to be rewarded for going all out and coming up with new characters, new places, new things. Add to that a generation or more of creators who are perfectly fine with this. Hell, they’re more than fine, because all they want to do is play with the toys already in the toybox. Those were the characters and villains that they loved as kids and they really haven’t grown out of that phase. Well, they have, kinda, because they like to see superguys ripping limbs off each other and the like. But some writers would be perfectly happy if all we ever got was Batman and the Joker over and over amen. Not to mention some of the fans.

We’ve got two essentially conservative forces combining now. On one side are the publishers who don’t want to cede control of their ideas/intellectual property (not really theirs, mind you, but they control them) and a host of writers who are fine with a limited universe and a set collection of pieces to move around the board. Now, this isn’t to say that you can’t tell great stories given this situation. You can. People still pull it off, but a lot of this stuff ends up reading like franchise maintenance or placeholding. Hell, even the giant universe-changing crossovers on the DC side are nothing more than filing the serial numbers off of CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS and putting new ones on. They’re ultimately static and boring, both of which are death to superheroes.

Characters are getting rewritten all the time, you say. Oh, that’s right. Captain America isn’t Steve Rogers anymore. I hear they’re gonna kill Batman, too. No, really, they are. Says right here. And he’s gonna stay good and dead this time. Oh yes, and let’s not forget The Ultimate Universe, which is really nothing like the Marvel Universe, only it has exactly the same characters with minor tweaks. Why is it again that readers should be excited that the Black Cat appears in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN? Oh, that’s right, because they know what to expect because it’s the Black Cat we’re talking about here. Franchise polishing. The Marvel Adventures books, as much as I love them and would pass them to my kids without hesitation, are franchise polishing. We won’t see new major characters, but we’ll get things mixed up real good (The FF versus The Hellfire Club with Ben Grimm forced to wear purple tails and a powdered wig? Yeah, already written, so don’t even think about it.)

Publishers don’t want new characters. They want a universe with known boundaries that they can quantify and license. And if Rich’s column this week is anything close to accurate, imprints of the Big Two that were once regarded as more commercially free are being tightened up. I haven’t had an opportunity to look over contracts myself, but the story feels right. And if that’s the case, then what is the incentive to come to an imprint of the Big Two at all when you could take it to Image and keep the rights? Granted, you’re going to have to work a hell of a lot harder to differentiate yourself when you’re at Image (or any self-publishing operation), but at least you’re working primarily for yourself.

Consequently, there’s a lot more engaging stuff coming out of the smaller press these days. Hell, the previews that Image put up of one of their upcoming anthology stories had twenty times the excitement and charm of what I’d seen coming out of Marvel or DC lately. But this isn’t really news to anyone who’s been looking at independent comics (though there was a time when the imagination/novelty level of the majors and the indies was closer together – now it’s nowhere close.)

Oh, and here’s a tip. When you sell a book to a publisher, my understanding (and I’m sure it’s not all-encompassing) is that it’s basically rights to reproduction for a set amount of time. They don’t own the ideas. They don’t own the creations. Unless, of course, you sign a contract that you shouldn’t have signed in the first place. Write a book and get a movie made? The movie money that you can wrangle is yours (and your agent’s and their assistant’s). I would suspect this will ultimately change, but for now, it’s a striking difference between “real” publishing and comics. And it’s not the only one.

So, we know how big the stone is now. Trick is, how much blood is gonna get squeezed from it before folks start heading elsewhere. We’ve determined where the bottom of the barrel is, so start scraping. Or look for another barrel.

Matt Maxwell

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