Master Of The Obvious: Issue #18

Wed, December 1st, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

A friend, out of comics for several years but now with some money and a little free time on his hands, asked this morning, "Does it make any sense to self-publish a new B/W comic in this market, other than for personal gratification?"

It's the wrong question. While currently about the best you can hope for from self-publication is personal gratification, traditionally it's been all you could hope for. In other publishing arenas, it's called vanity press, but, as a publishing expert who'd spent his career working in books and magazines noted when I brought him in on a project c. 1990, very little in comics bears any relation to "real" publishing.

"...very little in comics bears any relation to "real" publishing."

But self-publishing's still a relatively new concept in comics, having only gained any ground in the mid-80s, and we still don't have any systems set up to support it. The patron saint of comics self-publishing is Gil Kane, whose 1968 magazine-format HIS NAME IS… SAVAGE, a spy adventure that would easily pass for a graphic novel today, set the "new tradition" (as stated on its cover): with only 10% of its 200,000 copy print run ever distributed, it never saw a second issue. Self-publishing's godfather (discounting Jack Chick, whose ultrarightist, vehemently anti-Catholic religious pamphlets in comics form read like mutant Tijuana bibles) is Dave Sim. His CEREBUS, begun in the mid-70s and still marching toward a long-planned conclusion, broke all kinds of rules. With its eponymous funny animal barbarian hero, it ran roughshod over genre distinctions, and Sim was one of the first to carve a niche without servitude to a New York publisher. He has also relentlessly proselytized for the self-publishing cause, often downplaying the serious pitfalls.

The 80s rush to self-publishing was triggered by the unexpected success of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, long before it became a widespread cultural phenomenon. The rise of the direct market saw a corresponding rise in small comics companies to take advantage of the new distribution system, but most were conceived along traditional lines; publishers were less concerned with self-expression than with creating empires. Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman only wanted their comic published, and ended up (briefly) with an empire. Small publishers and self-publishers rushed to imitate the Turtles, starting a craze for black and white comics that ruinously collapsed some months later, and distributors, actively encouraging the flurry in hopes that lightning would strike twice, missed the point: despite obvious influences (TMNT nicked Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL the way CEREBUS originally nicked Barry Smith's CONAN), Eastman & Laird worked from inspiration and generated something that hadn't quite been seen before.

Image, of course, is the story of the 90s. It looked like self-publishing for a time, from the point they tore away from Malibu, but, as pointed out elsewhere, Image was about seizing the reins of marketing, not about allowing the creators to express themselves unfettered; the Image branches were conceived as media companies, not comics companies. Too quickly they were expressing themselves only via business decisions, as they mostly converted to a Marvelesque structure of editorial offices producing books on a work-for-hire basis. As TMNT triggered a kneejerk rush of profiteering imitators, Image got the same result, with everyone imitating the Image style and focus: licensing and merchandise ber alles. (The rule of thumb of the comics business: nothing exceeds like success.) Crushed in the onslaught was anything different, anything that didn't fit the short-lived weltenschauung, including most self-publishers.

This isn't Image's fault, but the result of the "hot" mindset that plagued the industry (and continues to plague it, despite nothing currently being particularly hot). Where the few marginally successful self-published comics exist in the 90s, many migrate to "real" companies, like Dark Horse or Homage or the reconstituted Image, which, as its branches fall away, has rebuilt as functionally a vanity press. While once competing distributors gave self-publishers some leverage, the collapse to a single distributor has had repercussions. While Diamond isn't openly hostile to self-publishing, its promotional tools and retailer discounts strongly favor large companies, and barely a month goes by without word of one self-publisher or another being dumped by the distributor. (Not that this is either criminal or unexpected. It makes fiscal sense for Diamond. What would you rather deal with, given manpower and time necessities: a single large account or a thousand small ones? Diamond, like most businesses, is in business to earn a profit. And that's the problem.)

"We're a very schizoid industry when it comes to self-publishing."

We're a very schizoid industry when it comes to self-publishing. On the one hand, we do everything we can to discourage self-publishing. On the other, self-publishers are frequently lauded as the true heroes and true artists of the industry, doggedly pursuing their unique vision against all odds. Which is a very romantic view, but in practice it doesn't break down so neatly.

Among the cherished myths of our culture is that "independent" somehow equates to "inspired" or "artistically superior to mass market productions." This is a spin-off of the romantic myth of the artist creating masterpieces in a drafty garret with empty cupboards and coldwater plumbing, suffering for his art, the passion for excellence driving him above all else. I've noticed it's rarely artists who cherish this myth.

A couple of months back, I started getting digital cable service, with hundreds more channels than I had before. Two attractions of the service were the Independent Film Channel and the Sundance Channel, both focusing on independent cinema. What two months' viewing has taught me is that most independent films are just as bad as most "system" films. It's the same with most independent/self-published comics - puff about "artistic freedom" aside, most aren't noticeably better than the average Marvel or DC comic. Many are openly derivative of big company product, their most noteworthy feature being the absence of enough quality to interest the majors.

That's not an argument for the majors. As Hollywood now keeps an eye on independent filmmakers, watching for successes to lure into the fold, the majors also watch independent comics, hoping to score The Next Big Thing. Marvel even touts independent and self-published comics as a way to catch their attention. (Prior to the 80s, this was the function of many fanzines: a place to hone talent in hopes of reaching The Show.) This inverts the 70s concept of self-publishing as an arena for talent to develop their own ideas unfettered; it reduces it to a feeder system for work-for-hire.

There are plenty of reasons to create on a work-for-hire basis, but ultimately they come down to money and publicity. (There used to be a level of job security as well, but that's all shot to hell now.) While many initially want to work for Marvel or DC (or Archie, or whoever) because of an attraction to company-owned characters, this appeal doesn't last long for many. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with work-for-hire - it has its place in the food chain - but the history of comics is littered with talented creators who spent their careers living hand to mouth and ending up with nothing while publishers endlessly capitalize on their creations. (If Jerry Siegel's heirs are correct, copyright laws may yet give creators - their beneficiaries, at least - the last laugh, but that's still uncertain.) To free talent from work-for-hire was the ostensible promise of the independents pre-Image, but many of the contracts were disguised work-for-hire deals, giving talent ownership in name only, and placing creative and marketing control firmly in the hands of the publisher, with prohibitive reversion clauses. As Image became the sales center of the business, most publishers dropped even the pretense of publishing creator-owned comics. When Dark Horse, one of the last great bastions of creator-owned comics, which had built itself as the place where talent can come publish what they really want to do and own it too, which once was able to credibly argue that working with them was like self-publishing without having to deal with the hassles of publishing because they were there to do it for you, threw its energies into a company-owned line and shifted focus to marketing to Hollywood instead of the comics market, you could pretty much kiss off independent comics as a creative outlet.

That's why self-publishing remains the promised land to many in the comics business, a place where talent can create, own and control their work theoretically unhindered. It's hardly surprising that publishers don't encourage this. Publishers maintain a love-hate relationship with talent as it is, always worried that talent becoming stars on their watch will leave at the crest of their popularity and profit someone else instead. (The major companies go through cycles of first courting talent, then ostracizing it, terrified the talent might become more important commodities than the properties they're working on. More often than not driving them to other companies right at the height of their popularity. The company view of talent isn't exactly paranoid; many talents do approach working for Marvel or DC as a means to gain notice, a springboard toward their own situation where they call the shots.) Why would they welcome the prospect of talent becoming direct competitors, when they're still stinging from the disruptions Image caused? Companies have their own agendas. Sometimes broader creative freedom fits the agenda, sometimes it doesn't.

"...nowadays it's not uncommon for the talent to cradle their best ideas until better times and only put as much as necessary into work-for-hire projects."

Which is fine. No one's got a right to tell DC or Marvel they should be publishing more than superheroes. It's their business, and they live or die by their decisions. When you take work from Marvel or DC, you can't say you don't know the deal going in. Work-for-hire has its place, and that place is commonly to put food on the table and make sure the mortgage is paid. But past a certain point, and often from the beginning, most talent becomes loathe to trade away their birthrights for a bowlful of beans; nowadays it's not uncommon for the talent to cradle their best ideas until better times and only put as much as necessary into work-for-hire projects. (Which isn't to say they're doing intentionally second-rate work on work-for-hire, but that they're reserving to themselves the ideas that strike them as most potentially profitable.) No one wants to give companies licenses for free anymore. Or, rather, for the stipend most companies pay for secondary uses of the properties. Face it, it's painful to watch companies making small fortunes off your ideas when only a fraction of it comes back to you.

But the business needs new ideas, as many and as good as it can handle. We've suffered through close to a decade of comics spawned by editorial fiat, and if that's the future it's a dead end. This is why self-publishing remains an important concept. If you want control over your own creative and financial destiny, it's the only way left to go. In theory.

The problem is in the structure of the comics business right now. Money's a huge obstacle - while far cheaper than producing a movie, publishing a comic book still doesn't fall under the heading of cheap, even if all the talent costs are paid off the back end - but promotion is a bigger stumbling block. Sure, you can self-publish, but who's going to see it? How do you let people know it exists? Again, the only marketing and promotion venue left in comics is Diamond, which is geared toward the major publishers. Anything else gets lost in the swamp of titles. Many titles from the majors get lost in the swamp of titles. If many dealers don't even know BIRDS OF PREY is still being published, what hope does a black and white comic from a tiny company that produces a single title have? There's no book so good it won't be cancelled if no one knows about it.

Black and white is also a stumbling block. Color is a major expense, but there's a widespread audience perception (or a dealer perception; there's no real mechanism for discerning the two anymore, as the advance ordering system forces dealers to order by assumption, not actual demand) that black and white means a substandard product, material that wasn't good enough to be published in black and white. Some books like SIN CITY or special projects like BATMAN BLACK AND WHITE dodge this bullet, but most black and white books die without ever having a chance.

What's needed is some kind of support structure for self-published creator-owned comics: some mechanism to facilitate publishing, promoting and distributing them, to make it easy (or, rather, easier) for talent to produce them. We can't expect major companies to provide it. We can't expect Diamond to. It isn't in their interests, at least not in the short run, and that's as far as anyone seems able to focus anymore. The web offers a possible alternative, though "web comics" quickly seem to be veering toward sub-cartoons, not really comics at all; its true potential may lie in marketing and distribution of physical, not virtual, comic books. It might be a useful educational tool as well, to wean audiences off crippling preconceptions like the bias against black and white. Maybe.

Again, content will ultimately be the most important factor. Many current self-published comics are less than, um, inspiring because they're either produced by people incapable of measuring up to the steadily declining standards of the rest of the business, or the creators feel compelled to make the work "salable," by ignoring their creative impulses to do material they think an audience will be more comfortable with. Self-publishing is such a daunting prospect at the moment that, despite the desire of many writers and artists to self-publish, it has become the last resort of people with no other options. Solving every other problem won't mean a thing if the material produced is badly (or derivatively) conceived, written or drawn. But without a solution to those problems, content will remain irrelevant as well. Most publishers have steered, intentionally or inadvertently, toward being license generators rather than comics publishers - comics are their means, but that's their end - and self-published comics may be the last, best creative hope for the industry. But right now the comics industry resembles the decadent, decaying future envisioned in H.G. Wells' THE TIME MACHINE, with self-published comics as the Eloi, the beautiful but ultimately impotent waifs whose only real role is to be preyed upon by the Morlocks.


Speaking of black and white comics, OUT FOR BLOOD #3 should be out now from Dark Horse. Cool art by Gary Erskine.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.

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