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The Indisputable Matt Maxwell Presents:





Like Agent Mulder, I want to believe. Really, I do.

Robert Kirkman, he of THE WALKING DEAD and INVINCIBLE, got some tongues wagging recently. What’d he do? Something pretty much unthinkable. He suggested that comic creators spend some of their energy working on their own creations, their own titles, and not spending all their time on work for hire.

Now, this is an idea I can get behind. Obviously. My own work stands as an example of that belief. I’m not writing SPIDER-MAN, mostly because I can’t get arrested in this town. But I’m not writing a SPIDER-MAN knock off in hopes of being picked up for the real thing, either. STRANGEWAYS is my own creation, well, along with the artists who visualize my impressively sparse scripts (which are still oddly long, given their sparseness, probably still putting too many panels on a page). I’m not particularly interested in handing the concept (such as it is) over to a publisher.

On the other hand, getting paid wouldn’t suck. Assuming that in doing so, I’m not coughing up the rights to whatever it is I’ve created. Not that I’m particularly averse to work for hire, as in theory, I’m not. However, if I come up with something and prod it along to fruition, I’m damn well going to hold onto the rights should other people be interested in bringing it to other media. And if I create something and just get paid a flat fee for it, no royalties, no nothing, then what’s the point?

Aside from a simple paycheck, that is. Which is why I hear about some deals and I just have to scratch my head as to why anyone would take them. Okay, there’s desperation, sure. But why not channel that desperation into Xeroxing minicomics at Kinko’s and selling them at shows instead (worked for Becky Cloonan, who made some compelling work that way, as exhibited in her MINIS collection from a little while back.) Why hand your work over to another party who stands more to benefit from it than you do? Equitable sharing, sure. That’s fine. Definitions of “equitable” are malleable, though.

So, back to the video. I’m 100% behind Mr. Kirkman here. If people are coming up with new ideas and concepts, they should be doing all they can to complete them (not half-finish or outline, but complete), and perhaps even more importantly, build an audience for them. There might be some contention as to whether or not Image is the best place to do it, though. Mr. Kirkman has done very well with Image. WALKING DEAD is exemplary in taking an independent book and building an audience with it. INVINCIBLE too, though my understanding is that WALKING DEAD sells better and is likely cheaper to produce (black and white being substantially less expensive than color.)

Not only are they exemplary, but they’re perhaps singular.

This is why there’s some eye-rolling when Mr. Kirkman exhorts viewers of the video to follow his example. It’s easy to say “just do what I did” when one’s a success. It’s harder to get to the position where you can build a career out of it. Of course, I saw Mr. Kirkman working SDCC for several years with BATTLE POPE long before most folks had even heard of him or any of his books. I seem to recall when Marvel picked him up, there was a lot of “who is this guy?” and “overnight success” thrown around. There ain’t no such thing as an overnight success. But as far as mainstream comics were concerned, there was. Just like a lot of people didn’t know who Matt Fraction or Jeff Parker or Mitch Breitweiser were a couple years ago. But they were all working in comics long before they’d turned in a job for Marvel or DC in recent years.

It’s like they didn’t exist for a lot of readers before working for the Big Two, because they effectively didn’t. But then the general feeling seems to be that characters and not creators are the primary sales force behind a book. I’d argue that there’s a lot of fan inertia driving sales of Batman books, but it’s also clear that someone like Ed Brubaker can reinvigorate lagging sales on a title like CAPTAIN AMERICA. So it’s tough for me to completely buy into the belief that characters are the prime motivator for sales. But for a creator to drive sales, they’ve got to start somewhere. Feeding into a Big Two-driven audience can get some exposure for creators.

But then you have to build on that. There’s been a number of creators to come along in the time since Mr. Kirkman, do independent books and then move to more mainstream material (we can argue about the usefulness of the term “mainstream” later; I’m too tired to do that now) and not turn that exposure into big numbers on their indie books. I can’t really speculate as to why. However, love or hate his work, Robert Kirkman has kept an audience, even when he’s gone back to Image full-time and isn’t in the Marvel spotlight (did he write anything for DC? I’m thinking that he didn’t.) He’s done it. He’s built himself a solid audience.

This is not an easy task. Believe me, I know. I’ve got a core audience of maybe seven, eight people tops (hi, mom!) Of course, I’ve only got one book out there (and it’s got a relatively steep price tag, though not if you price it for what the singles would’ve cost you). I gave up a monthly presence in singles, whereas I’m sure that Mr. Kirkman’s projects earn out just fine in singles and the trades move just fine too, thanks. So again, it’s easy to level the fait accompli counter-argument on Mr. Kirkman’s assertions. And maybe that’s deserved.

This doesn’t, however, change my agreement with what he’s encouraging with his video. When he says that well-established creators should work on their own projects, I have to agree. Yes, it’s presumptuous. Let’s get that out of the way. People have to make their own decisions. I loved NEW FRONTIER as much as the next guy, and I loved it when Darwyn Cooke revisited a chapter of his vision of the JLA for that one-shot. But I’d have been much more interested in seeing what Mr. Cooke has to say with his own creations, his own visions.

In that regard, Mr. Kirkman is right. Comics would be better served by more diversity, assuming we could build an audience to pick up on this new material. For a variety of reasons, I’m not highly encouraged about this possibility. Take SEAGUY for instance. Grant Morrison, at the time, was a well-regarded writer (still is) who’d just returned to DC from a stint at Marvel (where he did pretty damn well in terms of sales). Comparing SEAGUY sales to NEW X-MEN sales, though, is an exercise in eye-clawing frustration. Yes, to be fair, it’s like comparing apples to wiggling crustaceans, but NEW X-MEN sold more copies than Morrison’s other, more personal (and more outright weird) creation. Honestly, I don’t think SEAGUY could have even been promoted to the point where its sales would have gotten to even half of the Merry Mutants, even if you’d strapped it to a rocket with Jim Lee art on the nose-cone.

But, that’s perhaps an unfair example. Look at Ed Brubaker’s work on CRIMINAL versus CAPTAIN AMERICA. No, they’re not the same kind of book on their faces. One’s crime fiction and the other is DVD-age superheroics. The audiences in the Direct Market for these two books will not be the same. Last I checked (and I’m too lazy to do it again), CAPTAIN AMERICA sells three times more copies than CRIMINAL. Mr. Brubaker does a lot to sell CRIMINAL in the DM, and he doesn’t have to do as much to sell CAPTAIN AMERICA and see greater returns. So perhaps my earlier judgment about characters not totally driving book sales might need re-examination. Or I’m choosing my cases poorly again.

That said, I’m firmly of the opinion that comics as a whole needs more books like CRIMINAL, more personal and working in different genres/modes. It still kills me to hear that people think of comics as a genre in and of themselves, and that really it’s all about superheroics. I do what I can to educate and show folks what comics really have to offer, but still, there’s pockets of ignorance.

Wow. Getting far afield here.

There’s other points in the video that I have to agree with as well, namely Mr. Kirkman’s desire to get more comics for kids out there. Of course, we have to get kids into the DM stores to buy those comics or they won’t get ordered for kids to read them in the first place. That’s the trick, isn’t it? However, I have to disagree pretty strongly with his belief that the Marvel Adventures aren’t a good entry point for kids and that they dumb down the material or talk down to their audience. There’s more wry humor in a lot of those than in entire runs of Deadly Serious Superhero comics.

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be challenging material for older kids. There should. But you need to start readers somewhere. And have I told you this story? I’ll throw a copy of the CRIMINAL trade at my dad for him to read long before I throw him a CAPTAIN AMERICA (though if he let himself get into that, he’d probably enjoy it, too.)

Mr. Kirkman’s heart (like my own) is in the right place. I’m not sure his video will have the impact that he wants it to (in truth, he’s largely preaching to the choir). Many of his observations aren’t substantially different than much of the comics blogosphere, though he certainly enjoys a privileged position from which to speak (and he’ll be attacked on that basis). As a manifesto, though, it’s a bit on the rambly side (as opposed to my razor-sharp and incisive posting here, heh). It wanders and he asks the impossible (like a summit between the two leaders of the US comic industry to address structural issues), and is very optimistic at its core. Which is why it draws ire (such as my initial critique of “easy for you to say, bud”). This address won’t be the platform upon which major change is built, but it is a reminder that there are issues which need to be addressed if the industry is to grow in a sustainable fashion and not depend on outside trends.

Getting nearly a million copies of WATCHMEN out to readers is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Let’s hope they actually read it and hope that it doesn’t become a GUB (great unread bestseller, as THE NAME OF THE ROSE, for instance, was dubbed). But this phenomena is up for examination at a different time.

In the meantime, I sincerely wish Mr. Kirkman the best of fortune if he really intends another surge in the ongoing independent revolution in comics. If Image can become synonymous with “creator-owned” then more power to them. If they can steer readers to books and expand the marketplace as a whole, even better.

Matt Maxwell

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