Permanent Damage

Wed, August 20th, 2008 at 4:18pm PDT | Updated: August 20th, 2008 at 4:18pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Due to my renewed acquaintance with it thanks to the Encore Western channel, I've been reading up a little on the history of the MAVERICK TV show, and ran across an interesting nugget:

The second episode aired was creator Roy Huggins Jr.'s pilot for the show. Producers Warner Brothers Studios, however, insisted the first aired episode be "War Of The Silver Kings," based on a story they owned (it was fairly common practice in the '50s for studios to buy short stories then adapt them into series TV episodes), so that they could claim the show was based on pre-existing material and deny Huggins creator credit. (They eventually granted it on the 1993 MAVERICK movie, almost 40 years after the fact.)

So comics isn't the only entertainment medium where, traditionally, the company screws the creator, which should hardly be news to anyone but it's still nice (in a manner of speaking) to have it verified once in awhile. Creator rights have always been an issue, at least for creators. To many in the general public, however, it's just so much crybaby whining, and we certainly hear that said when the subject comes up in comics. The recent TV writers' strike drove home the point, with many people taking the stance that those guys are all rich Hollywood bastards already who already have better jobs than anyone else, so what gives them the right to screw up my favorite TV shows anyway? The fact is that writing TV or movies or even comics probably is better than your job. But just because the most publicized people in any field are making money doesn't mean many of the rest of them aren't struggling just like everyone else. In theory the Great American Dream is still to profit and prosper on the fruits of your labors, not to watch other people pick over the fruits then toss you the rinds and stems.

And it's a bit appalling to see so many Americans so eagerly (or maybe bitterly) embracing that this is a right and proper situation, and those caught in it should just shut the hell up and enjoy what they've got. It's like everyone has swallowed the Golden Rule: the man with the gold makes the rules. It's an interesting cultural phenomenon, basically an embracing of a stratified class structure where there are moneyed classes and the rest of the population are serfs at their beck and call, living off their scraps.

So it's interesting to see Robert Kirkman, creator/author of Image's THE WALKING DEAD and INVINCIBLE, issue a video (complete with background music straight out of an Errol Morris documentary, a nice touch) declaring his desire to "save the entire comics book industry," proselytizing for creator-owned comics and calling on fellow comics talent to get into the parade.

If you haven't seen the video, click here. Me being a jaded old fart, I found myself more amused than anything, though I do have to admire Kirkman's chutzpah (though I do find myself wondering, when he talks about his thousand other reasons besides the cause of creator-owned comics he had for "leaving Marvel," how much work Marvel was actually currently offering him, since that does play into things at a certain level), but younger comics talents of my acquaintance appear to have been suitably impressed.

But like most manifestos " let's face it, that's what it is " it's inspiring in principle and potentially a huge problem for anyone who abandons themselves to it. And I do agree with Kirkman, in principle. We should all be working on creator-owned comics, preferably exclusively. But every course of action is replete with trapdoors, and it's worth discussing a few of them, not to scare anyone off from following Kirkman's example, but just to make sure everyone knows what they're getting themselves into.

Kirkman begins with a pretty accurate assessment of the current state of the aspirations of many upcoming and wannabe creators in comics: they're going at it ass-backwards. I wouldn't say nobody tries to get into film to do the next Indiana Jones film or into novels dreaming only of writing a sequel to MOBY DICK - I've known a few just like that, or TV writers who became TV writers specifically to wrangle a gig on some STAR TREK show " but in general he's right. Most writers in other media write to create.

And he's right that way too many young writers come into creator-owned comics with their eyes on another prize: using it as a stepping stone to write for Marvel or DC, or, worse, toward writing Spider-Man or Teen Titans or whatever. And that's their consummation most devoutly to be wished.

But it's not unreasonable that anyone should think that way, for a couple reasons that feed off each other in chicken-and-egg fashion. Part of it's the direct market; rightly or wrongly, and I'm not questioning the business wisdom of it, the vast majority of comics shops have always promoted Marvel and DC, Marvel especially, uber alles. Even the Portland area's Thing From Another Planet, a comics chain owned by Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson, prominently featured Marvel comics before all else the few times I was in one of the shops. (Not that I have anything against the shops, I just don't get to Portland that often.) Back in the '90s, Tekno Comics even broke ranks with the direct market and tried to forge their own destinies with a chain of sales kiosks in shopping mall, which is still a relatively interesting idea. The one time I saw one, in Mall Of America on my way to a wedding in Wausau, the kiosk was fully stocked " with Marvel comics. Tekno comics were nondescriptly strewn among them like needles in a haystack " and that was when Tekno was in its heyday, or as much of a heyday as they had.

Not that Tekno ever had anything to do with creator-owned comics, and I don't blame retailers for a Marvel first (and often a Marvel first DC second) approach since that's obviously the direct market's profit base and has been for a long time, but the principle still applies: market Marvel over everything else in a store and it doesn't take long for your customers to accept that Marvel is more important than anything else. Likewise, it's been my experience that more people want to get into writing comics more to write comics for the " hah! " fame and glory of it than because they have something new or interesting or even important to say. Both Marvel and DC have started viewing that last condition as something of a necessity, but it's not broadly enforced and for a long, long time both companies were more fixated on repackaging old content in hip, sexy new clothing and neither is spent of that yet across the board. So a psychotic urge to write The Avengers or Omega Men above all else has hardly been an obstacle to working at either company, but since the breaking in process is increasingly difficult, it makes perfect sense that wannabe writers demonstrate their abilities by creating their own comics, and I do, in fact, recommend it if that's what they want.

I just don't recommend that's what they want.

Kirkman is also dead right that however hot a talent you might be, if when corporate comics decide they don't want you anymore " and it could be something as petty as the editor you work with leaving and the new one wanting to make his own mark by bringing in all his own people, something in times past new editors were encouraged to do " then if you're working exclusively for one company unless your books really sold or you were really a critical darling you're very likely to suddenly find yourself bottom-runging it again, and suddenly trying to support a two-or-three book per month lifestyle on no books per month, something that can quickly lead to all sorts of entertaining adventures, like divorce and bankruptcy. It's kind of like being out of the dating pool for a long time with a steady relationship, then finding yourself single again and unsure of where and how to get dates. Lots of phone calls, rejection and stress.

Which is what freelancing's all about. Freelancing isn't just a way for companies to avoid paying taxes and benefits " its main attraction to publishers " it's a way of hedging your bets while building your career. It's why you don't focus all your energy on getting interested in that SUPERBOY revival project that has haunted your dreams since you were first captivated by Karl Kesel's take on Kamandi. Because if you only have one idea and that idea falls through, you're screwed. No assignment, no career, no nothing. There's a certain amount of self-denial in freelancing, sure " usually a sizable part of it is working on projects you don't have any inherent interest in " but you do it for the experience, for the mortgage payment, for the chance to hone your skills in areas you may not have previously considered. The romantic delusion of the writer's life is feverishly working on that one great idea, that Great American Novel, that once completed will catapult you to fame, fortune, movie deals, an endless stream of sexual encounters and cocktail parties etc. But while people do occasionally pull it off, only an idiot would expect The Life to work that way. Mostly it's work, and getting paid for it, because it's not about how much money you can earn, it's about living to write another day.

Or, if I may once again quote my favorite Machiavellism: in order to exact revenge, one must first win.

On your end, two things are absolutely necessary if you ever hope to succeed as a writer:

1. You must write.

2. You must survive.

So you write to survive, and you survive to write. It's really that simple, and those are the two things that you can control.

Most of what's beyond that is out of your hands, most of the time. The more control you have the better but, as most people learn pretty quickly, control isn't all that easy to wrest from those who hold it. But more about that in a minute.

Kirkman makes a curiously daft statement early on in his manifesto: "It's been proven that when you do creator-owned work your life in the industry is a little longer."

Proven? By whom? A handful of talents making a decent living off creator-owned material doesn't equate to a industry capable of it. Kirkman is fortunate (though let's not forget his obvious talent as a factor, though talent alone is rarely a formula for success) to number among that elite group with two of the very few independent titles of the last ten years to make it to #50. That didn't happen by accident. It happened because he had luck and backing and, maybe most importantly, produced those books on a very steady and regular basis, as though it were a real job. The number of potentially great independent and creator-owned series comics that die because they weren't produced on a regular enough basis to build and hold a fanbase since the 1980s are legion. Like talent, regularity of publication and evenness of quality in themselves isn't enough to create a fanbase " there are numerous factors involved " but building one without them is next to impossible. They're key ingredients that Kirkman has been fortunate and determined enough to have.

Kirkman proposes an interesting formula for comics talent, which has its appeal: break in via independent or creator-owned comics and essentially gain critical approval and cult status, start working for Marvel or DC to garner a much wider audience, then abandon that ship and flip that audience back to your creator-owned work. Which, because you own it, you can theoretically profit from, in various formats and media, long after you're dead.

It sounds good on paper, but there are a few problems that anyone trying it should know about in advance.

Kirkman's underlying thesis " that Marvel and DC are producing books solely for an audience crawling toward the grave, and insufficient new readers are coming in " is partly right and partly one huge error. Yes, comic books aren't attracting huge new audiences, though the idea they're attracting none is wrong and what's really at issue is both Marvel and DC's faith in their ability to attract new readers; they really have none and love to hedge their bets. But " and I really hate to have to repeat it - trade paperback collections are the preferred medium for new readers. That's how Kirkman himself can keep making what he calls a good living off INVINCIBLE and WALKING DEAD trades. Those are what a general audience wants to read when they read comics. I know this usually invokes "death of the pamphlet" discussions, but as long as there's an audience just big enough to support the standard comics form it's likely publishers will continue to publish them, but trades are where the money is now. And where any real hope of a general audience is.

His other underlying thesis is that readers follow creators.

To some extent, this is true, especially if you're Neil Gaiman. To a large extent it isn't. Warren Ellis is arguably the comics writer currently most successful at marketing himself as a brand name, and one thing that he has mentioned time and time again is that, per the theory that you write for Marvel or DC on a high circulation book to build a broad-based audience so that you can attract that audience to your creator-owned work, a ploy he has attempted, only a small fraction of the audience that will read your Marvel or DC books will follow you to independent books. Various reasons for that, probably: some don't know the creator-owned books exist, some have retailers who don't order them, some are only interested in either specific characters or type of material (there's little point in working on superhero books to build an audience for creator-owned war or western comics, for instance) or, pretty unique to this business, that particular publisher. Overcoming that is a chore in itself. Warren mainly did it by marketing the hell out of himself via the web, and still his creator-owned comics sales, even at Avatar, for which he has become something of a highly profitable (at least on their scale; Kirkman does correctly state that small publishers " at least the smart ones " can be pretty profitable on their scale with sales much lower than anything Marvel or DC could tolerate), draw nowhere near the audience his Marvel comics do. I'm not saying there aren't good reasons for that, or that it's an unjust situation, I'm just saying Kirkman's math doesn't add up on this one, except under special circumstances, and its foolhardy to pitch anyone the idea that special circumstances are going to apply to them.

I'm also not saying that if Warren Ellis can't do it you certainly can't. That may not be true at all.

I'm saying this is a business where there are no real rules.

I don't really understand the argument that Marvel and DC should be selling comics to children and Dark Horse, Image, etc. should be feeding the fanboys, or that the companies should all get together and " well, I'm not sure. Open a dialogue? About what? We work in the Wild West, Robert, and I don't know of any comics publisher that's willingly going to restrict itself to publishing just one thing or one kind of thing for one audience unless that's the business plan it's based on. If, say, everyone goes on the cruise you propose and all the companies except Image vote that only Marvel and DC-published comics and subsidiary lines can publish superhero comics, would you really expect Image to drop INVINCIBLE and SAVAGE DRAGON and SPAWN just like that? And where's the fine line between cooperation and collusion? The last time comics companies got together to decide what's best for the comics industry we ended up with the Comics Code?

We're better off with the Wild West.

If you're really serious about doing creator-owned comics, using Marvel or DC as a stepping stone is just wasting time. Do creator-owned comics. There are publishers out there who do publish them, Image chief among them. Just be ready to put in a lot of time and effort and hard work beyond the creative work for little to no money for possibly a very long time, because for most people involved in creator-owned comics that's life. It's not that there's no payoff, just that under most circumstances that payoff will be some distance down the line. Be prepared to go over any contracts offered you with a fine toothed comb, because there are a lot of publishers who say they're giving you a "creator-owned" contract but then load it down with semi-incomprehensible clauses and codicils that translate into them having near infinite control over the property and ending up with the lion's share of the profit.

(If you don't think you can afford a lawyer, I recommend this little trick for contracts: read them very carefully. If there's anything in there that sounds questionable, ask what it means. If they give you an explanation that sounds good, say "Then rewrite it so that it says what you just said, in that language." Lawyers don't always put confusing clauses into contracts to trick you (though it happens); often those clauses are written like that because lawyers are so used to speaking lawyerese they forget that non-lawyers can't tell what the hell they're talking about. If they aren't willing to rewrite it to match what they said, that's a huge red flag. And if there's anything in a contract you don't like that the publisher insists must be there, walk. Because once you sign you're bound to that, and your only leverage, especially if you're a newcomer, is your willingness to walk. If you're not willing to walk, they will know it, and they will use it against you. Don't accept a crappy deal just to get into print. It's not worth it. If they want your book badly enough, they'll change the deal for you. If your book's good enough, somebody will be willing to give you a deal you can live with. Got it? The biggest thing crap publishers depend on is your eagerness to be published. If you're that eager, do yourself a huge favor and just give your book to the next Nigerian asking you via email to help him get millions out of his country. A good entertainment lawyer, if you can afford one, is still your best option, though. But make sure you have an entertainment lawyer. The guy who wrote your will is more than likely not going to know what he's doing.)

On the other hand, if you really want to write for DC and Marvel, go write for Marvel and DC. If you really want to, say, parlay a career writing FANTASTIC FOUR into creator-owned titles, Marvel's got the system now with their Icon line " but that's basically a "gift" line for who they consider their top talents, and, again, the marketing work is mostly up to you, what profits there may be are on the backend, etc. But at least you end up in the Marvel section of the catalog and Marvel readers are theoretically a little likelier to follow you "next door" rather than "across the street."

But that's the big boobytrap of creator-owned books, especially in the indie market: your biggest obstacles to success will be promotion and distribution, because Marvel and DC dominate the distribution food chain and no smaller company has a particularly good promotional apparatus, if they have any at all. Which means your promotion will largely be up to you, and what meager orders the direct market doles your way will likely hinge on the effectiveness of that promotion at making your book look salable. For many small companies, only a few thousand copies sold is easily enough to turn a small profit but most small companies can't even sell a few thousand copies each of their books.

I suspect a lot of indie talent wants to go to Marvel or DC not because they're dying to work on a WARLOCK revival but because they're tired of either having to do their comics work on top of an eight-hour-per-day job or salvaging Coke cans from garbage pails to recycle into enough cash to buy dinner off Burger King's 99¢ menu. I know an awful lot of disgruntled creator-owned comics creators struggling along and wondering when their book's going to finally hit, and the odds are staggeringly good that it never will. A lot of Marvel and DC books never hit either.

But the bottom line is that Kirkman's career schemata is dead wrong, and there's no either/or. Writing or drawing for Marvel or DC doesn't mean you don't do creator-owned comics. Kirkman didn't stop doing his Image books; Matt Fraction, now writing half of Marvel's line, didn't stop doing CASANOVA; Brian Bendis keeps sporadically producing POWERS. Just like writing comics doesn't mean you don't write movies, or TV, or books or plays or ad copy or online columns or whatever, except insofar as time is an issue. In fact, it's pretty stupid to decide to earn a living off your creative work then limit yourself to just one area, or, as Kirkman seems to suggest, one segment of one area. As I mentioned above, a freelancer's life is perilous; just like an accountant will tell you about investing money, diversification is self-defense. Whether Kirkman abandoned Marvel or was abandoned by him, he didn't weave INVINCIBLE into his safety net after the fact. It was there waiting for him because he's being building it for years. The advice he should have given isn't to go to Marvel to build an audience that can be transported later to creator-owned indie books, but to create and build an audience for creator-owned indie books while you're working for "the big boys." Because doing it after your "big boy" work dries up is starting over, and starting over takes a hell of a lot more work.

But, yeah, hooray for creator-owned comics. Let's see lots of them now. Just leave the romantic notions behind and dive in forewarned.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Quiet week this week, as everything's about the Olympics (eh; let me know when the archery competition is airing...), Russia invading Georgia (not that I think they should be there, but their slender rationale of invading to prevent genocide in Georgian breakaway regions is no worse than our slender rationale for invading Iraq, so how come they're imperialists now and we're not?), and this weekend's upcoming Democratic National Convention, which I shall likewise ignore, as I do most political conventions.

As I mentioned, ODYSSEUS THE REBEL, with art by Scott Bieser, is now running as a webcomic at Big Head Press...

... while Boom Studios! is now "reprinting" 2 GUNS (soon to be a major motion picture starring... well, that would be telling, wouldn't it?) on their website, with the entire first issue already available. (For those who prefer their comics on paper, the trade paperback is still widely available, so don't be shy about pestering your retailer for it.)

While you're at it, don't forget THE SAFEST PLACE graphic novel, co-written with Victor Riches and drawn by Tom Mandrake, is now out from Image.

And I got an email this morning saying Marvel is soliciting a November release of COUNTER X VOL. 3: X-MAN, reprinting the first eight issues of the X-Man revamp I did with Warren Ellis and Ariel Olivetti back around the turn of the century. I hope if there's a second volume they include the X-Man short Charlie Adlard and I did in X-MEN UNLIMITED. Anyway, order this book. It's insane.

Speaking of Marvel, I'm not sure why fans have been razzing the weekly AMAZING SPIDER-MAN since they rebooted Peter Parker's life. (I can understand why they might think the Mephisto bit was inane, but making Spider-Man single, for reasons I've discussed in the column before that I've got no problem with.) I've been reading them and they all seem like perfectly acceptable Spider-Man stories, and one or two, like that humorous issue fighting the Enforcers in the amusement park, have been standouts. The one question I do have: is it some sort of theme now that he's no longer able to end any battle decisively and virtually every single villain he fights must get away? I know he's not a cop and it's not his purpose to put everyone behind bars, but the bit's hitting overkill now...

On a completely different note: thanks, Travis! I appreciate it!

Seems among the contestants on the next edition of CBS' AMAZING RACE, set to debut on Sept. 28, is Mark Yturralde, CFO of what's now apparently widely known as simply "Comic-Con." Finally, someone to root for. Go, Mark, and never ever forget the honor of the whole global comic book industry is riding on your shoulders! (Wouldn't you love to see Joe Quesada and Dan Didio team up on a season?)

Interesting little piece in Variety about potentially increased cooperation between DC and Warners in creating new films based on DC properties. I guess it finally dawned on Warners that Marvel properties where the publisher oversaw the making of the films, like IRON MAN, are turning out better results than, oh, CATWOMAN or SUPERMAN RETURNS...

Any King Crimson fans out there? The lads seem to have recently become obsessed with the comics format, fumetti style, here and here. Does this officially make comics art rock?

Wired also seems to be increasingly obsessed with webcomics...

Seems now Toshiba, having lost the HD-DVD/Blu-Ray wars, will unveil a new Blu-Ray killer (not that it would likely take all that much since, despite the format's "victory," the general market isn't exactly flocking to Blu-Ray): a DVD player that reads and re-encodes any DVD for the highest definition output currently available. I guess they're betting that consumers would rather spend a couple hundred bucks for and leave their exposure at that than spend a few hundred bucks for a player and lord knows how many thousands more to replace their existing DVD collections.

And if you ever wanted to become a computer operating system billionaire, looks like your chance is on the horizon: Microsoft, in their infinite wisdom, is reportedly planning to get out of the Windows business after the next iteration, and replace venerable if frequently vilified OS with... well, it's kind of unclear. Some sort of online-based OS, from the sound of it, currently code-named Midori, which they must have been drinking a lot of up in Redmond to come up with this scheme. MS has traditionally used its marketing clout with computer manufacturers to push its new OS versions, but even that didn't help Vista's marketing much " people and companies simply didn't upgrade. The problem with remote services is who wants to trust their important data, not to mention their existence, to them? And who wants to do that while paying a usage fee, which is something MS has abortively angled toward more than once? If Microsoft genuinely gets out of the Windows business, they're opening a huge hole for someone with a new OS that can handle Windows programs can leap into, whether that's some variation on Mac's OS, IBM's OS#, new versions of BeOS or Linux or something altogether new, so if you've got an idea for one, theoretically you've got five or six years to prep it so start now. It seems to me that, futurist visions aside, it's suicidally arrogant of MS to assume that when they jump systems everyone's going to fall into lockstep behind them, especially since that didn't exactly work with Vista, and I hope they wise up and figure out futurism as much as they just want an OS that works well (and please don't drop me any sermons about Mac's OS or Linux, because I already know) because I have friends who work there and I'd like to see them maintain long and happy careers. And, as Live demonstrated, the days when everyone leaps onto some new product just because Microsoft says it's the hottest, hippest thing going are long dead...

This is weird: their Satanic majesties over at Proctor & Gamble are starting a new record company in conjunction with Def Jam " as a means of promoting Tag Body Spray. (Hence Tag Records.) Red Bull may be starting their own label. Isn't this how commercial TV began?

Do as I say, not as I do Dept: Seems an internal ABC TV memo has surfaced suggesting that ABC "develop" new shows by looking at shows done in other parts of the world then ripping them off so no license fees will be necessary. I guess that summer Japanese game show show must've been a bigger bargain for the network than I suspected. Bear in mind ABC is the TV face of the Disney, which loves their little contracts specifying that they own everything done for them forever and ever in whatever new media may arise throughout the whole of creation. ABC isn't commenting on the memo...

Congratulations to Vinnie Bartilucci, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "spices" or "seasonings." (For the many who couldn't figure it out, CADILLACS AND DINOSAURS has "dill" in the title.) Vinnie wishes to point your attention to The International Norbert Conspiracy. Why he wouldn't reveal but it appears to be a critical national security issue. Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme " it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a hidden clue cleverly planted somewhere in the column. Good luck.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

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I'm reviewing comics sent to me " I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them " at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

TAGS:  robert kirkman, comics industry

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