Come In Alone: Issue #52

Fri, December 29th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT

Shut up. I'm talking.

Fifty two weeks of comics company employees thinking that I'm specifically targeting and undermining them, and where are we? Does the land look any different than it did when I started these columns, a little over a year ago?

Well, yes. Most writers of my generation have gone to Marvel to write superhero comics. Most of them are maintaining a slim schedule of creator-owned output, but there'll definitely be more slambang underpants-outside-trousers action than there will be work attempting to consolidate the strength of publishing genres outside the superhero. On the other hand, it'll make lots of my good friends lots of money. It's just mildly disturbing, dragging my carcass one way and watching everyone else dash the other way. I have, by and large, done my time as a servicer of other peoples' trademarks. (Yes, I still owe Joey Cavalieri at DC a project. I'm kind of hoping he'll die of old age before I get around to it. Otherwise, I have one final probable-superhero job to do, and I should probably do that this coming year, doubtless to the jeering and jabbering of scum who don't believe in keeping promises.)

[Ministry of Space]
[Ministry of Space]
Click above to see a larger view of the above scene from Ministry of Space, coming in 2001.
It's the belief of several of my peers that the way forward, to attach the potential (as opposed to the actual present-day) audience for comics, is to do superheroes really well for a major corporation who can force them into the cultural spotlight and into new sales venues. They cite things like THE MATRIX and UNBREAKABLE as evidence that the superhero sub genre is ready to surge into public prominence, creating a new boom in the comics business. Understand: these are not stupid people who are saying this. These are smart people who have nothing but the best intentions for the medium as a whole. They will also produce some excellent superhero comics.

(And it will add to the other three or four hundred superhero comics published each month in the English language. No doubt exciting some copycat superhero work out of other publishers (Remember Dark Horse's superhero line?). Pretty much guaranteeing that anyone walking into a comics store will be greeted by nothing but a wall of superhero comics. All waiting to sell to no-one at all, just like last time. Crowding the creator-owned work by those same creators off the stands.)

They will not own that work they do. At one major company they will not be paid royalties, but "incentives", for the word "royalty" implies that they may have some claim to be author of the work in question. Nor will they be paid foreign reprint fees or royalties. They may never be told when and where their work is being reprinted. If they are servicing company-owned concepts, then they will receive no money from other-media use of their ideas. Their work will be largely printed to order, and it remains to be seen (at this date) if any of the major companies will follow through in getting that work to venues other than the direct-market comics store.

There's no excuse, these days, for not knowing what you're getting into when you work on company-owned properties. I serviced trademarks for a handful of years because I needed to build an audience for the sort of work I was doing when I started out - work in the mode of TRANSMETROPOLITAN. I traded off ownership of the majority (but certainly not all) of the work I was doing during that period (which included creator-owned work at Epic and Caliber) knowing that I'd be able to bring a larger audience over with me to the longform non-superhero work I had planned.

"There's no excuse, these days, for not knowing what you're getting into when you work on company-owned properties."

At this point, everything I'm doing is either creator-owned or "creator-participation" - which means I and my collaborators get more control and a much bigger slice of the revenue pie than a regular company-owned project (like the 15% of the development option fee paid to DC/Wildstorm by Warner Brothers to consider PLANETARY for television that I just received, moo hoo ha ha). This would seem to me to be close to an ideal situation - owning and controlling my own work, working in tandem with publishers to ensure the work is done properly and gets seen in the right places and makes us all some money. That I can achieve this while not exactly burning up the Diamond sales charts is indicative only of the fact that any bastard can do it if they put their mind to it and they're prepared to take the long view. I'm far from the cleverest writer in the business, but I'm damn sure that when I'm forty-five I won't be producing fifty pages a month that I'll never see a penny off again. Superheroes are a young person's game in more ways than one. Making comics is an art, but being in comics is a business. And anyone who tells you otherwise is setting themselves up for an appalling shock somewhere down the road. Just ask all those people who were producing work during the boom who are now nowhere to be seen. The company doesn't give a fuck about you. It will always find other people to service the trademark. If you don't have original work in you AND the drive to see it produced - bye. You're of no use to anyone, least of all yourself.

[Morning Dragons]
Click above to see a larger view of the above scene from Morning Dragons, coming in 2001.
In the meantime, the superb JIMMY CORRIGAN collection and SAFE AREA GORAZDE are getting sparkling press everywhere but comics. TIME's website even offered up a top ten graphic novels of the year. An imprompu poll on my message forum showed that most respondents' comics shops didn't have even half of the listed books in stock.

Are these books selling well? Who knows? Diamond don't release tracked month-to-month sales of graphic novels and trade paperbacks to the public. Neither do the other comics distributors, to my knowledge. God only knows how you'd go about getting numbers from the book distributors handling OGNs and TPBs. The paper trail on books like these is a staggering mess. The order numbers that comics people find so sexy - whoo, you got 100,000 of these ordered, but they'll only be on sale for seven days? Be still my beating heart. - are intangible in these instances. I've shifted tens of thousands of copies of trade paperbacks this year, but who the hell knows?

This has been a year like no other for comics and comics people getting press outside the culture. Phil Jiminez got profiled on salon.com just the other week. Not only are we getting featured in mainstream magazines, but in one instance I found myself being interviewed, by a magazine that had already done a feature on me, for a quote about Brian Bendis. Which seemed refreshingly normal.

When MAUS and WATCHMEN drew attention from the greater culture, there was little or nothing to sell on to people who'd made these their first experience of a graphic novel. Now there is. It would be nice to see comics shops benefiting from this. Hell, it'd be nice to have comics stores still around five years from now. I still believe that it would be better to shore up the system we already have while looking for alternative ways of bringing comics to people, than to let the entire system collapse and start from scratch once the dust has settled (God knows how many years from now). I still think we have something worth saving.

And that's why I've been shouting at you and showing you things for fifty-two almost-consecutive weeks. I still believe we have something worth saving.

But we still need to clear away the majority of the 80 to 90% of all monthly comics publications that are in the superhero genre. Otherwise we'll never see what we've really got. I've said before that the superhero's cultural and economic dominance of the medium is the same as walking into a bookstore to see nothing but novels about nurses as far as the eye can see. I don't doubt that there are excellent nurse novels in there. But the fact that in our nightmare bookstore, 90% of all books published everywhere are about nurses tends to choke off all other genres and a literary mainstream. That's the corner that books like BERLIN and MIRROR, WINDOW are backed into.

"...the superhero's cultural and economic dominance of the medium is the same as walking into a bookstore to see nothing but novels about nurses as far as the eye can see."

But you know what? If you really want nothing but superhero comics in your store, relax. If you really are just waiting for them to bring the fucking Micronauts back, then everything is fine. No need to feel threatened by me - as I know many of you superhero fans have been, by the mail you've sent me. No need to worry. If you really want a medium that is dedicated to keeping company-owned concepts on life-support, continually presenting the superhero as the very identifying image of this entire artform, a symbol built on the back of the corporate appropriation of intellectual property - then sit back.

All you need to do is sit back and do nothing.

Read ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN but tell me you'll never bother cracking the covers on JINX or TORSO. Read PUNISHER but dismiss PREACHER as that weird Vertigo shit. Tell me how "cool" it is that Morrison's doing X-MEN because his other stuff is too freaky. Tell me - as you do, online, in letters, in person - how you don't actually like most of the superhero comics you buy, but you always buy them through completism or inertia or some misguided belief that they'll get good once the next slave is hired on to write or draw them.

And soon, things will go quiet again. There'll be no-one to bug you with all these disturbing ideas, and the nasty media won't disrespect the superhero by doing pieces on cranky old guys and arty comics any more.

And you know what? Eventually, one day, when you come to your local comics store, regular as clockwork on delivery day, to pick up your pile of cheap superhero comics that you really don't read any more anyway, that really don't change anything, that only ever get good for a little while and never ever end?

You'll come in alone.

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