One Fan's Opinion: Issue #25

Thu, February 2nd, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Erik Larsen, Columnist

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There was a time in comics when people used to say that in order to "make it in comics" you needed to possess two of the following qualities:

You had to be really good.

You had to be really fast.

You had to be really nice.

Which explains how really good, but ponderously slow artists kept getting assignments and how really fast but really crappy guys got work and how total assholes kept busy. As long as you possessed two of the qualities, you pretty much had it made.

Being an artist in comics required a certain discipline. When I broke in these comics had to be out on the week they were supposed to be out come hell or high water.. There were no alternatives. A few years earlier the powers that be would plop in a reprint if creators missed their deadlines. A few years later editors would have, often crudely executed, inventory stories languishing in their flat files "just in case." I knew of one editor that kept an especially rotten one on hand that he used to threaten his ever-popular, but always-pushing-his-deadlines, writer with. Said writer had an impressive run going. He's been on his popular book for years and was riding high. One slip up and that lousy inventory story would end that streak.

There was a need for guys that could crank stuff out. And comics were (compared to now) dirt-cheap so they really didn't have to be all that good for a reader to feel as though they got their money's worth. At $3 a pop, we really don't have that luxury.

In the '70s, few people had access to video games and DVD players were years off. There were fewer distractions and the pay was miserable. In order to make a living you'd damned well better shake those tail feathers. It wasn't uncommon to hear a freelancer say, "I'll get it right tomorrow" as he hastily batted out today's pages at a record pace. And there's a certain spontaneity that results from drawing a book at a blinding speed. You learn to take shortcuts. You figure out what works and what doesn't. The work is more fluid and impressionistic. There isn't time to noodle unnecessarily. And comic book creators are paid by the page, not the line, after all. You got paid the same whether it took you ten minutes to do a page or ten days. The only incentives to do good work were personal pride and the hope of getting more work. If sales of a book you were on went up because of your efforts-you might get to stick around that much longer. And steady work meant a steady paycheck.

A "hack" was anybody that drew faster than you. A "deadline nightmare" was anybody that drew slower than you.

There were no royalties. You got on a book because you liked that book, but there was no real incentive to go to another book, really. It wasn't as though you'd get a better paycheck drawing Batman than you would for drawing Green Arrow or Aquaman.

Why move on? Especially once you'd settled into a comfortable rut and knew how to draw the supporting cast without having to grab some reference material. You'd get on a book and stick it out for as long as you could.

There were great guys cranking out great material at an unbelievable pace. And lousy guys doing the same. There were creators that bribed editors for work-- supplying, booze, broads or kickbacks. You get your editor laid and you'd get yourself on the "nice guy" list in jig time.

And so it went for years.

For decades.

You had to be really good or you had to be really fast or you had to be really nice.

You had to be two of the above.

But times change.

Kind of.

These days you can add a forth category:

Really connected.

And really connected guys are one of the fastest growing segments of the industry-- industry pros that are shameless self-promoters and can get the press to jump all over them and get their pictures in the comic book magazines.

And I'm not saying that that makes these folks bad guys or untalented guys, but it's certainly helped explain the meteoric rise (and often meteoric falls) of certain creators.

And, like editors of old, the press can be bribed with booze, broads and kickbacks. But it's just as easy to take out an ad or two or send a mess of signed swag to the overgrown fanboys that make the call as to what gets covered and what doesn't.

These days, there's no real incentive to stay on a job. Doing an 80 issue run on a book isn't a news story. Moving from one book to another and skipping back and forth from one company to another is a news story. A new artist on Spider-Man or X-Men or Batman is news. Nobody cares if you're not making changes.

So these days, artists stick around for a six-issue run (or however many fit neatly into a trade paperback) and then jump on to another book to grab a new headline. And editors and Editors-in-Chief encourage this kind of thing. There are editors that don't want a creative team on a book any longer than a year. They'll say they want to keep a book "fresh" and shuffle in the next team of guys.

Had this happened during the formation of the Marvel universe, just imagine the results. Creators would have left books before they'd even begun to hit their stride! Hell, most major villains in Thor, Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four were introduced well after the one-year mark. We'd have been spared the Inhumans, Silver Surfer, Galactus and a few hundred others!

Imagine kicking Frank Miller off Daredevil-- "I don't care if you're about to introduce some character called Elektra-- you've had your stint-- time to mix things up."

The comics press want news. Doing another issue of your ongoing book is not news. Change is news. The status quo isn't.

And so it is that we are where we are. Creators jockeying for position and firing out press releases whenever they make a bowel movement.

And unless readers start responding otherwise, that will stay the same. Readers get all fired up! Jim Lee is doing X-Men! Now Jim Lee is doing WildC.A.T.S.! No, Jim Lee is doing Deathblow! Now Divine Right! Now Batman! Now Superman! Now it's Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder and not two issues into that he's already talking about his return to Wildcats!

And you guys eat it up.

There were more articles about Quesada and Palmiotti's "Ash" than there were issues of Quesada and Palmiotti's "Ash."

Artists and writer that don't grab the headlines soon find themselves shuffled over to books that "don't matter" and eventually they're shuffled toward the door.

Books are delayed for weeks, months-- sometimes years. Editors wait. The collection-- the trade paperback that collects the finished work-- is worth the wait. You wouldn't want a fill in on "Dark Knight" or "Watchmen" or "Camelot 3000," would you? Why should there be fill-ins on "Iron Man" or "Green Lantern" or the "Ultimates?" Books are late, but late books are news, right? The next issue becomes an event if readers care enough and tongues wag enough.

Bendis and Bagley are doing an impressive run on "Ultimate Spider-Man," but how often does that book make the news these days? It's monthly, consistent and entertaining, but how is that "news?" What's newsworthy about another issue of "Ultimate Spider-Man" by Bendis and Bagley?

Or another issue of "Usagi Yojimbo" by Stan Sakai or "Groo" by Mark Evanier and Sergio Aragones or "Savage Dragon" by Erik Larsen?

It's not enough to be consistent or innovative or entertaining. You become taken for granted as readers clamor for the next fascinating new thing-- the next shiny new object.

But what can you do?

Years ago there was no press. Years ago, the only information you had about the next issue of your favorite book was the next issue blurb that ran on the last page of the current issue ("'The Tower That Tore the Sky' what the hell is that going to be about?"). There were no previews. You couldn't even see the cover until it was staring you in the face on the newsstand.

Times change, and it's not always for the better.

But there were good comics to read then and there are good comics to read now. So, I can't bitch too much.

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