2012: THE RISE OF THE CREATOR?
Some thoughts on the year ahead in comics for creators:
- This will be the year when comic book creators start acting more like freelancers do in other creative worlds.
- This includes multiple revenue streams, beyond just "draw this comic this month," "sell the original art next month" and "do commissions at conventions." There are other things artists do today (training DVDs, sketch books, etc.), but I think we're due to see a lot more of it in the year ahead as more people get more ambitious about establishing something greater than just a comic book.
- The concept of "Personal Brand" will hit comics this year, as it has in other industries. This is different from "Cult of Personality," though some might mistake one for the other and wind up on the short end of the stick. Some creators will be forced to learn to be more social in order to gather and mobilize their troops, and it'll be interesting to see the missteps and the successes from those experiments.
- The big story of the year won't necessarily be digital comics, but rather what that tool opens up to a new generation of comic creator: Independence. Bryan Hitch started the year by announcing his departure from Marvel for creator-owned work. Mark Millar has more or less been doing the same for a couple of years now and is bringing along a number of friends. Mark Bagley is doing a creator-owned book now with Brian Michael Bendis, and I can't think of another creator with his popularity and longevity who hasn't tried something creator-owned. Bagley was the ultimate company man. Now he's testing waters. Is the writing on the wall for more such creators?
- The industry is overdue for another Image-level exodus event. Marvel and DC have plenty of people to replace such creators (most of whom would be cheaper, making corporate parents happy), but the industry would seem to better facilitate such a move now.
- One of the revenue streams comics creators need to look into are passive ones. That is, how can they make more money by doing no work? Or, perhaps more accurately, how can the work they do today pay off tomorrow? Sure, we can milk a single comic into a softcover and hardcover book, but what else? The answer lies in creator-owned comics. Digital comics can continue to sell until the end of time, for starters. That's a dribble of income that can add up as more digital works appear and time marches on.
- The Comic Publisher of the Year for 2012 will be Image Comics. Not only has the overall quality of what they publish increased in the last couple of years, but they're bringing in more big names to do more titles. They're also uniquely positioned to help more of those bigger name creators break out.
- We could see a whole new side industry of people setting up to help creators realize these dreams. Freelance editors, book packagers, those with Hollywood experience and contacts, marketing folks, etc. will be helpful to people who "just want to draw" for a living.
- 2012 will be the year creators go indy. 2013 will be the year they return to Marvel and DC when the Hollywood cash doesn't immediately flow in. Unfortunately, these are not short term solutions. The best way to make more money is to do more work, and that takes time. That "personal brand" effect won't kick in until a reader likes a creator's new project and can go spend money on the back list of previous works.
- Parallel: This is something that's been seen in the iTunes App Store. If an iPhone user likes Company X's new game, they're likely to go seek out that company's previous games, too. If nobody buys that first game and the creator isn't persistent, they just go back to doing contract work for bigger corporations for guaranteed paychecks and lesser risk. Sound familiar, superhero comic fans?
- Creators who specialize are more likely to see a return on their investment than those who try to be all things to all people. You need to pick your niche, market to it, and provide it with ample material. If you're doing horror comics, kids comics, and superhero comics at the same time, you'll provide no clear identity to readers in three different niches, confusing them all and limiting your marketability. Define who you are by what you do.
- This will pay off double in Hollywood. If your ultra-violent futuristic robot soldiers at war movie sells big to a studio and they ask what else you have, you don't want to be handing them your "My Little Pony Meets the Pretty Princesses" pitch.
- The new Image Comics ad campaign is the best ad campaign I've ever seen attempted in comics. I hope it can reach out beyond the back pages of the Image publications and find greater recognition. Image doesn't really have the money to fund an ad buy in WIRED, for example, but how perfect an audience would that be for some of those creator-centric ads?
As excited as I was in 2011 about digital comics, I'm just as excited this year to see what might be possible for comic creators striking out on their own, and how the industry might reshape itself to accommodate it. As exclusive deals wither away and creators are forced to strike out on their own, it's a trend that can only accelerate.
That said, digital comics aren't done evolving. We still have a way to go before that market shakes out, particularly in price points and DRM. 2012 will be the year we see some corporate changes, too. There are too many digital distributors. There are bound to be mergers or bankruptcies from companies who can't find additional funding. It'll be interesting to see where all the chips land at the end of the year.
And then there's the stuff that will strike out of left field that we never saw coming that'll break the internet in half and trend on Twitter. I can't wait!
ROCKETEER BLASTS ON
December saw the publication of "Rocketeer Adventures," a hardcover compilation of the 2011 four issue miniseries by IDW that brought together a number of great modern creators to tell short stories in the Rocketeer universe. It's great to see Dave Stevens' creations live on, and their world expand, particularly since the creators didn't take great liberties with the concept, instead delivering stories in the same mold as Stevens so memorably did. That's all the Rocketeer needed.
I hope IDW has more anthologies devoted to the character on its drawing board. While I enjoyed some stories more than others, I can't say that there's a clunker in the batch. That's a rare thing to say for an anthology. Under the Alex Ross cover, you get great work from the likes of Kurt Busiek, Mark Waid, Scott Hampton, Darwyn Cooke, Michael Allred, Ryan Sook and others.
It's been a while since I read the original series, but it seems like the creators mostly avoided the trap of filling in the blanks of the old stories to create tales that relied on your knowledge of continuity. They went off in their own directions, crafting adventurous one-offs that have the proper mix of timeliness, adventure, action and humor. Best of all, each story is packed into a mere eight pages. In a day and age where 22 page complete stories are a rarity, it's nice to see writers and artists showing off what they can do in a more concentrated space.
I think Darwyn Cooke did the best job, mixing in the Rocketeer's influences with the character to create a story that had the humor, the adventure, and the style down pat. It starts as a newsreel to recap what you missed in the imagined previous installment, before leaping into Cooke's structured four tier grid storytelling. It reads like a storyboard, with pitch perfect storytelling as Betty and Cliff get flung through the skies and across the ground. It's perfectly focused in its Toth-ness to draw your eye where Cooke wants it to go. He's a master storyteller. (It also made me happy to have ordered up the "Parker: Martini Edition" collection recently. I'm doubly excited to read that next now.)
And, besides Mike Allred, Cooke is the only one to hand letter his story. Cooke's is a perfect example of how hand lettering can contribute to the overall look of a story and fit in so much better than the more sterile perfection of computer lettering.
Cooke isn't the only one to jumpstart his story with a neat piece of expository dialogue. John Cassaday's story starts with a short, three-sentence summary of the story so far that, basically, sets up the action set piece he wanted to draw. Skip the pages of escalating tension and go straight to the pay-off! It's not something that would work in a longer book where it might feel hollow, but in an anthology, it's a powerful storytelling device. Cassaday does it with style, culminating in a memorable rocket blast that's a lot of over-the-top fun, and his art is as good as ever, beautifully accompanied by Laura Martin's colors.
Mark Waid takes a comic book angle to the Rocketeer, as Cliff has to save a wannabe superhero from himself, all the while making commentary on artists being taken advantage of by publishers. Cliff Weston's art sells the story, choosing just the right angle to pull off the final twists in the story.
Ryan Sook writes and draws a story putting Betty in danger at a movie premiere. Cliff's lateness allows him to save the night, though it still doesn't help his relationship. This is the story with Betty at her most glamorous, as a successful Hollywood starlet. Other stories put her on the casting couch (and fighting her way off it, of course), or as a struggling actress. It's also the one in the book with the somber ending, like all is not so easily resolved.
There's a production problem of some sort with the story. The lettering and a lot of the black line work looks pixellated. Maybe I'm the only one to see it, but the overall impression is a little less-refined, like Sook drew the story with a shaky hand on purpose. I don't know if this is a scanning issue, or a bad dots-per-inch selection, or a goof in production, but once you see it you'll never not notice it again.
Kurt Busiek's story is set during the second World War, postulating a world in which the Rocketeer travels the globe fighting with Allied troops. The whole thing is there to set up the final page, which is a wonderful homage to a classic piece of War-time imagery. Michael Wm. Kaluta handles the art duties here, perfectly capturing the era with his thin lines, solid structure, and precise layout. While you know the drama is being trumped up a bit in the story -- we know it won't be a sad ending -- Kaluta sells every bit of it.
Brendan McCarthy draws a story written by John Arcudi in which the Rocketeer gets to fight his Nazi equivalent. It's a well told tale, though the colors (by Jamie Grant) are a bit distracting, with bright yellows and greens sticking out.
I loved Scott Hampton's art on Dave Gibbons' story. Hampton goes with black line art, which he then colors himself in a very painterly way. The final effect feels more natural than typical bold comic book coloring. There are nice textures at play to ground everything in the period.
Gene Ha draws a story from Lowell Francis that's the biggest disappointment in the book for me. Francis' story is great, putting the Rocketeer in an aerial fight sequence while paralleling it to a boxing match, but Ha's art looks off to me somehow. Maybe I appreciated the more cartoony work he did on "Top Ten" when it was being laid out by someone else first, but this story looks a little stiff and overly simplified, often lacking backgrounds or removing them by choosing awkward angles.
There's a lot more, including a Joe Lansdale prose story with illustrations from Bruce Timm, a Jonathan Ross/Tommy Lee Edwards story that's a bit too formulaic, and a Tony Harris tale with a strong graphic design assist from the panel borders..
It's a nice book design, too. The dust jacket is logo free, but the book covers have all the type treatment on them. The back cover lists the full lineup of creators and the usual review quotes and teaser text. Stories inside are separated by title pages, Dave Stevens' sketches and pin-ups are interspersed and a dedicated pin-up section in the back has an amazing Geoff Darrow double-page spread, ruined only by the Rocketeer getting lost in the fold between pages.
For $25, I think you'll get your money's worth. It may only collect a four issue miniseries, but there's something to be said about getting value for your money. The all-star cast of creators on this book justifies a more premium price.
AND IN CONCLUSION
I'm ahead on my reading, for a change, so I'm pretty confident that I can say next week's Pipeline will feature a review of a book most of you sadly never heard about, "Screamland." It's a gem that I can't wait to talk about.
In the meantime, here's where I am on the web this week: