Today there is perhaps no more vital, no more important discussion happening in the comics industry than the rebirth of creator-owned comics.
From "The Walking Dead" to "Saga" and from "Hellboy" to "Cassanova," the comics put out each month by artists and writers who own their own material rival anything put out by any publisher. And even though issues of creator's rights still deeply impact and even divide creators, readers and publisher's today, the positive talk associated with the biggest successes in the marketplace carries with it a silver lining to an industry long built on the exploitation of the workers.
To dig deeper into this phenomenon, CBR News is proud to present CREATORS ON CREATOR-OWNED – a new ongoing series of roundtable interviews with some of the biggest names in creator-owned comics on the issues that impact their world creatively, financially and socially. We start with a trio of perhaps the most outspoken and most successful serial comics makers of the past decade: "The Walking Dead's" Robert Kirkman, "Kick-Ass" writer Mark Millar and "30 Days of Night" mastermind Steve Niles.
Each of these writers and their collaborators (Tony Moore, Charlie Adlard, John Romita, Jr. and Ben Templesmith just to name a few) have found great success in comic sales and in media adaptations beyond anything past generations of comic makers could have imagined. Below, the trio recount their own history with creator-owned comics, their view on the perils and rewards of both creator-owned and work-for-hire comics and the future of the work they have invested their lives in.
CBR News: All three of you all strike me as having come up through traditional comics fandom – reading superhero books as a kid. What's your first memory of being introduced to "creator-owned" comics either in terms of the concept or just a creator-owned series that turned you onto the idea?
Robert Kirkman: For me, I started reading comics in maybe late in 1989, early in 1990. So the comics I started reading were the books you could get at Wal-Mart, which then were the Marvel Comics done by the Image founders. I was reading Jim Lee's "X-Men" and Todd McFarlane's "Spider-Man" and then Erik Larsen's "Spider-Man" and Rob Liefeld's "X-Force" and so on. So my first experience with creator-owned comics was when I heard that those guys were leaving those books to create their own stuff. I definitely followed to go with them. Since that was my experience in reading comics, what I came up on was a lot of talk of creator's rights and the different pitfalls of just working on company-owned characters. It's something I was very aware of at that time.
So I kind of got into the comics industry [as a creator] with the mindset of "Working at Marvel sure would be neat, but doing it for any length of time on its own is not something that'll be fulfilling or rewarding. What the name of the game is is getting to do creator-owned work and sustain yourself on it." That's always been my goal. So I definitely came into the comics industry saying, "If I ever get the chance to work at Marvel or DC, it'll be a limited time thing."
Steve Niles: I started reading comics between 1975 and 1980, so when I started wanting to do comics, there was already a mini creator-owned explosion from company's like Eclipse that I started reading stuff from. It took me a while to figure out that I was reading Alan Moore and Frank Miller, but I was also reading Mike Grell's "Starslayer" or "Grimjack" or things like that. And I had come up in the [Washington] D.C. music scene where it was a total D.I.Y. scene. Everybody put out their own records and booked their own tours and did things themselves. When I decided I wanted to do comics at around 19 or 20, Marvel and DC were kind of out of reach. I didn't even think about them. This was the beginning of the Direct Market too where we had about 12 or 13 distributors, so I immediately jumped into this world, and it wasn't until much, much later that I even thought about doing stuff for Marvel or whoever. It was always about creating your own stuff, putting it out there and controlling your own rights.
Mark Millar: You know, it's interesting because I've never been asked this question! The first creator-owned comic I got was the kind of thing where when you're a kid, you see a comic that doesn't have Superman or Spider-Man on it, and it seems less valuable than the ones that do because it doesn't have the character you already like. So as a kid, I stayed away from anything that was independent because it felt kind of cheap. But I remember in school I had this really cool English teacher called Kevin O'Brien, and when I was 12 or 13, I told him I read comics, and I said, "I don't read anything except Batman." So he brought in some comics for me and my friends to secretly read through in class when we should have been reading Shakespeare or something. [Laughter] And he threw in a couple of those Marvel Epic Comics titles from the early '80s. One of them was written by this guy named Steve Perry, and it was ["Timespirits"] about these Native American shamans and rock music! It was this absolutely mad independent book, and I remember looking at it and being slightly baffled, though there was something really, really cool about it.
And then I met Alan Moore when I was 13. It was around the same time, and there was a small comic convention in Glasgow where Alan showed up. He was still a new superstar then. He hadn't really made his name in American comics except for a couple of issues of "Swamp Thing." So he introduced me to "Warrior" where his early worked appeared. I'd never heard of him, but he was a really nice man and stood with me for an hour, which must have been torture for him, but for me it was fascinating because I got to talk to a comic book writer. And Alan was explaining to me about "Marvelman" and "V For Vendetta" and that he was starting on "Swamp Thing." I remember I didn't have enough money on me, so he bought me an issue of "Swamp Thing" and one of "Warrior," which was the British independent comic that made me realize there was more going on beyond Superman and Batman. I was was soon really impressed with the American indie scene and started buying books from Eclipse Comics and Pacific Comics and so on. I started getting into Steve Rude's "Nexus" and once Marvel's Epic line really got going, there was even more. I was always more of a mainstream guy, but I became a creator-owned guy by my 20s.
Obviously, the market goes through times where there is more market support for non mainstream companies and times when there are less. Do you feel like it's tougher today or easier to get going on your own?
Niles: It's always easy if you do it yourself. That's what I've spent a lot of time telling people. You don't always have to wait for somebody. You don't have to wait for DC or Marvel or even Dark Horse or Image to go out there and prove yourself – see what it's like to make a book, sell it and tour behind it all on your own. Once you go through all that on your own, you're going to be in much better shape to deal with publishers.
Kirkman: I would say it's almost easier now because of the existence of the internet and the fact that you can pretty much I did starting out where I started a publishing company and put out "Battle Pope" and figured out how to make a comic while putting one out – you can do all of that without the cost I had to deal with. I had to pay for printing and all this other nonsense that you can do virtually now for free. Really the only cost you have is your hard work, and you can get an even bigger audience. I think it would be easier for someone to create their own concept and get eyeballs. All you're trying to do then is get people to read your work and find out who you art. With the internet, that's a pretty easy thing to do.
Millar: From my point of view, I do think it's quite smart to work for DC or Marvel first and then move into creator-owned. My first creator-owned book was "Wanted," and before the comic came out, we'd already sold a movie deal, and the first issue sold like 80,000 copies. But I'm under no illusion that if I hadn't first done "The Ultimates," then nobody would have bought that book. I would have sold maybe 2,000 copies. So in career terms, it can be smart to work at Marvel and DC, build your audience and then take them with you.
I read this brilliant book that Charles Brownstein put together of Will Eisner and Frank Miller just having conversations ["Eisner/Miller"], and in there Miller says that sometimes you've got to use Marvel and DC. For some people, it's a lifetime ambition to work for these companies, but if you plan on doing creator-owned work, that audience is going to be the greatest asset you have. The people who bought "Kick-Ass" 18 months before were buying "Civil War," and the people that bought "Nemesis" would recognize Steve and I from "Old Man Logan" shortly before that. So it can be smart.
I also think it can be smart to occasionally dip into Marvel and DC too. It doesn't just satisfy you creatively to write characters you loved as a kid, but I think it's good because the audience they have of guys reading "Spider-Man" and "Avengers" now might not have read the "Ultimates" work I did ten years ago.
I wanted to talk about the idea of "Why now for this movement?" Robert has been talking about this for a few years, as has Steve, but the discussions around this and people making the change seem to be growing every day. Recently Ed Brubaker was the latest big comics name to declare he was setting aside work-for-hire to do mostly creator-owned, and everyone seemed just fine with that while a few years ago Robert put out a video saying the same thing, and folks reacted like a bomb went off. [Kirkman Laughs] What's changed about the industry or the discussion around these issues to make this more acceptable?
Niles: There's so many different sides to this. But for me, the biggest problem with the comic market has obviously been that it's shrinking. DC and Marvel basically only do one thing. They do the superhero stuff, and they perpetuate it. I'm glad we've reached this point because it's been 70 years of people using this form for one genre! For the medium to survive, we've just got to expand out. Robert and I have had this success because we've been doing horror. And that's something that's particularly hard to do in the mainstream when you have to jam it into one of their superhero groups. If we're going to expand this market, we've got to find a way to do other kinds of books. We have to do mystery and romance and horror and all sorts of things. I've been saying this for years, and really creator-owned is the only place to do this kind of thing.
So I feel like what's happening in the comics industry right now is that the industry is growing up a little bit. People are realizing that readers are going into book stores and they want more than one section of books. It's just that simple.
Kirkman: I agree with that! But I do think there's one thing that people haven't been talking about, and that's that when I came into the industry, it was rare to find a creator-owned title that came out regularly and shipped on a continuous monthly basis. Now I think you can walk into a comic store and find 50 of those! And I also think that the Direct Market comic book reader actually prefers what you get out of a creator-owned book these days. They want consistency and continuity and to know that book is going to be there month in, month out. What they're getting now from bigger companies is exactly the opposite. If you're reading a regular monthly series, the creative team can change at any moment. The entire narrative can change. The entire universe can change! And then all of the sudden, there's a bunch of new #1 issues the next week. That can be a fun, exciting kind of thing, or it can have the opposite effect. There's no stability at the Big Two right now, and I think Direct Market readers are realizing that there's a tremendous amount of stability in something like "Chew." It comes out monthly. It's always by the same creative team. If you've read issue #1, you know that that stuff is going to play out in issue #30, and a lot of thought has been put into that. So you're reading a continuing narrative experience, which people want out of comics.
Aside from all the things that are going on in movies and television with creator-owned comics and the various things going on with creator's rights that are driving people to creator-owned comics, I think it's the stability of creator-owned comics which is really new. I remember waiting on issues of...well, I don't want to call anybody out. [Laughs] But you know there have been books in the past that you can't count on coming out monthly. I think creators have done a lot to change that over recent years, and that's really something fans can support.
Millar: I think it's entirely cyclical, like everything in pop culture in any industry. If you use the '80s as an example, you had a lot of well known writers and artists emerge at Marvel and DC – some genuine superstars – who went off to start Image or Legend Comics with Frank Miller, Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld all moving in to creator-owned work. It was just them having told the stories they wanted to tell with the Marvel and DC characters and that it would be better to not be continually working for someone else and giving them your characters. Then a new group of guys come in. It takes a few years to replace the big guns, but guys like the Brian Bendis' and Bryan Hitch's came in to tell the stories they wanted to do, and now they're moving on to creatively make something different happen. I think it's entirely down to that, and the audience follows their favorite artists and writers. I truly think that if all those creators decided to do "Superman" and "Spider-Man," then the focus would be on those books. Like in the late '80s and early '90s, the readers today are quite creator-saavy, and they follow the creators more than the characters. And I think we'll have a few years of this too, and then towards the end of the decade, there will be a new wave or writers and artists who come up at Marvel and DC to become superstars, and we'll have a massive shift back to those books.
And just like the rise of the Direct Market in the '80s helped make Image Comics such a success, I think the movies and TV shows today are driving a lot of the interest to creator-owned. It's such a booming market where "Walking Dead" and "Kick-Ass" sell way more than you'd maybe expect, but we have the advantage of multi-million dollar companies advertising our books for us.
But we are on a different side of things both for creators and fans in the market. I think some of this might just be how we've all talked about "event fatigue" and different Big Two criticisms out there that burn people out, and also stories in the news like Steve speaking out for Gary Friedrich on down the line to Jack Kirby and Alan Moore. Did something click over in a definitive way, or has it been a slow boil over five years that we're on the other side of?
Niles: I think it's a lot of what Robert said. It took a while for creator-owned to get its legs, but now with books coming out, why are you going to spend money on an event you're not necessarily excited about that's "This guy versus that guy" or whatever? Especially when you can instead pick up and issue of "Saga" that's as good as it gets, and it's coming out steadily. In a lot of ways, what Marvel and DC have done is just tired people out. I've been reading Marvel stuff since the '70s, and I'm a big fan. But I read this stuff today, and I have no idea what's going on. They lost me. You blink and the continuity goes off the rails.
Meanwhile, I can go over to Image and there's a ton of books coming out on a consistent basis that are top quality and a great value. I just honestly think it's a more pleasant experience now to look at creator-owned books.
Millar: I think that helps. There are loads of books coming out every month, and that's helped "Walking Dead" a lot. Though with "Kick-Ass 2," we had months between when the last issues came out, and they did very well. So I think part of this is people just following creators. But the reason the creators have left the big companies is that they've done those stories. Readers feel they've read enough stories about Superman fighting Lex Luthor. They want something new and different now. And in a few years time, I think they'll get into the same mode of nostalgia like the late '90s had when people were doing brilliant versions of their favorite characters. That was a relief after what happened to Image by the end of the '90s. Image started as this amazing thing, and by the end of the decade, it felt a little dull. The innovation wasn't coming from there.
Right now we're lucky that there aren't a ton of people doing these books, because people can't keep tabs on too much. Right now, I read the Brian K Vaughan stuff and the Bryan Hitch stuff and some of the others, but in ten years time, there might be so much creator-owned stuff that it'll be hard to find the good stuff amongst the bad. But for now, creator-owned is where the most interesting creators are, and that's where I want to be.
Each of you have had a lot of success in creator-owned comics but also in getting successful film adaptations of your work out there. In the wake of something like "30 Days of Night," there were waves of companies who started up only to try and replicate that model on a corporate level or with "celebrity" authors or what have you, and very few of them have succeeded. Does the interest that came from your success mean that the market is crowded with this kind of stuff, or do you think that it doesn't matter so much?
Niles: I think content wins out in the end. In the end, you can sniff out those companies and those comics. You can tell when a comic is just a movie pitch or when it's made with a genuine love of the medium. And I've been accused myself of just doing stuff to make movies, but everything I've done at its core is about loving comics and putting out good comics. There's always that pile on where if something good happens for comics, EVERYBODY starts trying to do it, but we're starting to see a lot of those companies that you're referring to...well, I haven't heard from a lot of them in a while. So I think the good stuff is floating to the top now.
Kirkman: I think it took some movie producers and Hollywood executives a small amount of time to realize that there's a lot of actual work that goes into producing a comic, and the idea of producing a comic soullessly just to get the proof of concept out there isn't something that's easy to do or even financially beneficial to the project as it's getting off the ground. People can recognize whether or not there's actual love going into a project, and like Steve, I've been accused of doing this just to make movies, and it makes me laugh. Really? I'm going to do all of the work that goes into a creator-owned book just to sell it as a TV show? I don't think people saying that realize how much work goes into it.
One of the standards for why to do creator-owned comics is the upside in creative freedom devoid of that spooky term "Editorial Interference." What are the real specific benefits of that idea for you guys, and are there downsides to going creator-owned that people maybe don't immediately identify?
Kirkman: It really is comics without a safety net, which I find exciting and exhilarating. I love the fact that there's not anybody looking over my shoulder, and there's a purity to creator-owned books where you know whether you love it or hate it, at least that's the creator's vision on the page. That's what I think makes creator-owned comics very special. When you're reading corporate-owned or corporate-controlled comics, there are so many different factors that go into making that, you can't say "The writer did a good job" or "the writer did a bad job." You don't know what went into that comic to make the final product.
And creator-wise, you can do things like say, "That character was popular, but I'm killing them anyway and not bringing them back." Or you can say, "This may make my lead unlikable, but whatever." Being able to make those choices on your own is extremely rewarding, and having the luxury of being able to fall flat on your face and knowing it was just you that got you there – that's fun to me. I don't know. I like the amount of freedom that come from that, and I think it shows through in the final product.
And if you look at something like "Saga," which I think is the best book out there right now, I can't imagine him turning that book into a publisher and not hearing, "Brian, really? People with TVs for heads? I don't think I can let that through." There are definitely aspects of that comic that are so bizarre that nobody would let it through, but Brian Vaughan does it, and he and Fiona Staples work together to make that world a different thing. It's wildly unique and very entertaining, and I think it's a testament to what you can do in creator-owned.
Niles: Robert just mentioned this, but we've both benefitted from it a lot: in creator-owned, nobody is safe. If you do a Batman book, you can do everything in your power to make that sense of danger be in there that something horrible is going to happen, but at the end of the day, you know he's coming back. But I see Robert in his books all the time going into places with your favorite characters where like life, like any good storytelling, it's not guaranteed that your cast is going to be around next month. That's a huge storytelling tool right there, to write without that safety net that comes with corporate-controlled characters.
Millar: From that creative point of view, it's wonderful. I don't have to read 200 comics to understand a comic and what's come before. Creator-owned is a great entry point for new readers who don't want to follow 400 issues of "Thor."
The other side of this is the money. People are coming to creator-owned because they want to have something long term to retire on versus a solid page rate each month. Comics have never had pension, but a monthly check is a good thing to have as an artist in any economic times. Isn't that argument always going to be hard to overcome for some people?
Niles: Yeah. Some people are always going to want that job security. God knows I've wanted it at some points. [Laughter] But it's good, honest work. I feel like I work for every paycheck, and at the end of the day, it's a bonus that I own and control everything I create. That's no small thing. For the amount of work I see creators putting into corporate characters, it's just a shame at the end of the day that they don't have a larger stake in that. At the end of the day, all they have is that paycheck or maybe that royalty check. It just feels a lot better.
On top of the fact that you're not told what to do – which is amazing since every time I've done DC and Marvel stuff, the things I've been criticized for are the things I was pushed into doing – I am totally ready to get shredded for anything I chose to do in a creator-owned book. I can take that criticism. But when you do something with a character that's against your better judgement because it's the order, that's not very smart publishing – to hire a creator because you think they're talented and then you don't allow them to do what they want to do.
Millar: Oh my God, yeah. Legally, there's nothing to stop Marvel or DC adapting a book you've done with one of their characters scene-for-scene into a movie and then making toys of it and everything, and you wouldn't be paid one cent. And that's almost happened. The movies are based on the comic work, and the people who worked on those comics don't get any money. And that's fine. That's the deal. You're paid to do the comic side of it but not the movie side.
But then people see things like "Kick-Ass" and "Hellboy" which take the same amount of time to do as a Spider-Man or a Batman book, but you can be set up for life with a movie made off of your stuff. I think you can say that comics are the only industry with a charity set up to help guys who used to work in the industry – and some of them major, major names. Comics has never been kind to the older guys when they reach their 50s and over. They tend to get less work than guys 40 and under. So I think that if Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were working today, the last thing they'd be doing is working on other people's characters. They'd create new stuff they could own.
Kirkman: To compare this to the restaurant business, you can get a job at Applebee's, and you can work there long enough that you're a good worker and you deserve a raise. But at the end of the day, the food tastes exactly the same as it's tasted for decades, and you're put into a box where you have to perform. There is a guy who is paying you a regular wage, and it does appear to be somewhat stable, but I'd argue that if there's a person above you that can decide whether you continue to work and that they can fire you, I think that's an illusion of stability. To continue this metaphor, if someone were to leave Applebee's and start their own restaurant, it may fail. It may not last very long. But there's always the chance that they can start the next Applebee's, which is something to be proud of because Applebee's is fantastic. [Laughter] It's a risk and reward kind of thing. I've had creator-owned books that have failed miserably and have been a struggle to get though, and I've had hard times. But when it works, it really works. Having that chance, that prospect of a surviving creator-owned book to me is absolutely worth any risk.
Millar: There are advantages [to work-for-hire] as well, though. I won't say that I'll never do company-owned again, even though I make more money from my creator-owned work. The best payday I think anyone has had from corporate comics for the past ten years was "Civil War." Steve [McNiven] and I made a lot of money on that, but what Leinil Yu and I made from "Superior" was more. It's financially so much smarter to do creator-owned, but sometimes it's just fun to write those classic characters. Sometimes you write something not for money but just because you love it. So I don't view this as a kind of "them versus us." I have a much more holistic approach to it, and right now, I'm doing work where I just want to do creator-owned stuff, and for the next year at least I'll be doing that. But I won't rule out more company-owned stuff in the future. I loved writing "Ultimates" and "Civil War" and "Old Man Logan." There's a buzz to it.
I like the Marvel and DC guys, so I don't want to do any name calling. But I don't like them so much that I'd create a character for them. [Laughter] I wouldn't give them a free concept, but they're fun to work with.
The follow up here is that when you do get a book or a franchise that's so successful, you're put in the position where you hire guys in to work on books for you where they don't own it like you do. How does your experience going from work-for-hire to creator-owned impact at all how you hire and work with folks yourselves?
Kirkman: I'll dive into that. I've always been frustrated by some of the comments online where people say, "Todd McFarlane left Marvel and became exactly what he hated because he hired people to do 'Spawn' instead of doing it himself. Now he's work-for-hire, and he's what's wrong with Marvel." That's missing the point. If Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko owned Marvel and were still running it today, that would be fine. If they wanted to hire people to keep doing Spider-Man, hey...they're the creators of those characters. They can do what they want. If I wanted to write Spider-Man and Stan and Steve said, "We don't want to do that with Doctor Octopus. We want to do this" and they were profiting off my work, that would make sense to me. And that would be a cool thing. Work-for-hire itself isn't an inherent evil. It's a necessary part of a creator's journey, I think, and it's fun to play with other characters, and having that stable paycheck is fun for a little while.
It's just that for my career, I don't want to do that forever. And I don't expect anyone who's working for me to be doing work-for-hire forever. I'm always encouraging them to take the time afforded to them by work-for-hire to go and do their own things. Creator-owned is creator-owned, and even if you're paying people to do things for you that doesn't make it less creator-owned to do that. I've always felt that was kind of a bizarre comment.
If you get to a level where you can employ other people, I think that's awesome. And from my experience, there are things I strive to do to make the work better than working at one of the larger companies.
Niles: "30 Days" is probably the one thing I do where other people have worked on it, and I give them a very small set of rules. There are certain rules these vampires live by, and beyond that I feel that one of the things I can offer since it is work-for-hire is to give them a certain amount of freedom along with a decent page rate. And I think the best example of this is Mike Mignola where he's created an entire universe that employs a bunch of writers and artists on "B.P.R.D." and "Hellboy." And it is work-for-hire, and they don't get a piece of the rights. But it is a good paycheck and another way up the ladder. And just like Robert said, I expect everyone that works for me to go on and do something else of their own. I think these guys see the possibilities in what me and Robert and Mark and Mignola do, and they take that and go on to do their own thing.
Millar: I think as long as you're straight with people, you're fine. I knew when I was writing "The Ultimates" that I wasn't going to own those characters, so I never got upset when someone else wrote them later. Similarly, I don't think that every single person who ever draws a Millarworld book is going to be the creator. For example, if Frank Quitely got hit by a bus before we finished "Jupiter's Children" – which I hope never happens! – we'd bring someone to finish it. The same thing is true for the books I'm doing with Leinil or whoever. Life sometimes does get in the way. So we absolutely want to keep the original artists on things, but sometimes there's a moral dilemma for the creators and what they want to do.
Or sometimes what happens is that you do a spinoff book. If "Jupiter's Children" is massively successful, there more ideas I can do with these characters, and we'd likely hire someone else to draw that. But they're not the creator of that book. Frank and I are. So we just make sure they get a handsome royalty – more than they'd get at Marvel or DC. So it becomes quite complex because when you do creator-owned it's like being a publisher. You have the responsibility to put your books out there. It's not just like you're a writer and artist who can do a book whenever you feel like it. You first responsibility is to the readers and the retailers.
To wrap up, what are some creator-owned comics you're digging that you're not working on at all?
Niles: "Saga" is #1 for me. I love Fiona's work and what Brian is doing. I wrote Brian a note the other night where I said, "It's almost like you're showing off." [Laughter] It makes me want to go back and rewrite everything I've written in the last six months. But then I'm a big fan of Mike Mignola and Eric Powell and "The Walking Dead." There's so much out there that I'm pretty much exclusively reading creator-owned now. I'm loving what's happening. It's like a focused free-for-all, and I'm having a great time with it.
Kirkman: "The Strange Talent of Luthor Strode" is something I thought was shockingly good, which was from new creators no one has ever heard of. And all of Jonathan Hickman's creator-owned books are great. They're easy to find, and they all have almost entirely white covers. Check out "Manhattan Projects" and everything he's done. Brubaker and Phillips are kicking ass on "Fatale" – it's an exciting book to watch unfold. There's a lot of great stuff out there, and I think anyone who wants to try a creator-owned book, they're going to love what they find.
Millar: Yeah, I think it just has to be "Saga." That's the most beautiful-looking book, and there's a part of me that's so happy to see Brian K. Vaughan back doing comics. Fiona Staples was someone I was unaware of before this, so to suddenly find two people who weren't doing comics as far as I knew last year to now be doing my favorite book – that's amazing!
The other side of that coin is that for your own work, what's the story that you have to tell now? What's the thing you can't wait to get out of you?
Niles: I'm actually doing two things. One is a crossover with two of my creations in "30 Days of Night/Cal MacDonald" where I can do anything I want. The other is a book I'm doing for Image with Tony Harris called "Chin Music," and that's...there's no simple way to put it: it's everything I tried to pitch to the Big Two for years and finally gave up on. I had all these character ideas and things I wanted to do, and I was beating my head against the wall trying to pitch them as corporate-owned characters. Finally, I had to grab myself by the collar and say, "What are you doing?" I put all my favorite ideas into "Chin Music." We're working on the first issue now, and for the first time since "30 Days of Night," I can't wait to get to the last issue. That's where the big surprise comes in, and that's the best moment – when you're excited to get one story out there you know people will flip for. Lastly, I've got to say I'm proud of doing "Creator-Owned Heroes" with Jimmy Palmiotti, and we're getting a really positive response to that double feature book with interviews and like "Fatale," features in the back to give people a lot of bang for their buck. I'm 100% creator-owned again now and loving.
Kirkman: I'm writing issues past "Walking Dead" #100 now, which is insane to me. And I love everything going on with "Invincible" and all my books, so it's hard to pick one. But I will just say that I just got the new issue of "Super Dinosaur" in this morning, and that comic is mind-blowing! I'm writing that thing, and I can still say that. That comic has so much crazy stuff in it, and Jason [Howard] is designing space suits and armor for the dinosaur. So much new stuff is going into that that it's blowing my mind when Jason turns the ideas in my head into these amazing visuals.
Millar: For me, it's "Jupiter's Children." I'm on issue #3 right now, and it's the most exciting thing I've ever worked on because I've never created a world before. I've done things like "Ultimates" and "Wanted" which have their own rules or "Kick-Ass" which is a strand away from our world. But to create an actual universe of characters – I've created over 100 for this book – means that my study just looks like Sherlock Holmes' study. There's bits of string and paper and post-it notes everywhere. It's just a wreck, and I love it. I feel like there's a whole thread to this that I've never touched on before. I'm going to be sad when it ends because these 12 issues may be the strongest stuff I've ever done. I'm very proud of it, and I'm excited to work with Frank Quitely again, which I haven't done in eleven years.
We've spoken so much about the positive end of creator-owned comics, but there's also been a lot of news lately around the worst outcomes of work-for-hire and how creators have been exploited in this business. Do you feel like we're beyond that era of comics as a business, or is there still work to be done with today's creator's to protect them on that front?
Niles: Just the fact that young creators are coming up knowing they have options is great. Basically what is happening now is that Marvel and DC aren't getting people A Game anymore because people are striving to do their own characters and use their great ideas on their own. The fact that that hope exists is huge, because that didn't necessarily exist even ten or 15 years ago.
Kirkman: I think we've seen the last Elektra or Wolverine or Deadpool – the last great characters to come along in a company-owned universe and take people by storm. When you start to realize how old the "newer" characters are in those universes, you can see how people have come to grips with the fact that anything you do there will be owned by somebody else. I think it would be a tragedy to see Hellboy running around in the DC Universe. I'm sure there's a parallel dimension where that's happening right now, and even that's terrible. There's a lot more opportunity out there now, though, and there are places to go with creator-owned stuff. And people are aware of all that. So hopefully we've seen the last of people getting bamboozled out of their creations without their knowledge.
Millar: I think people are more savvy today. You see 20-year-olds with agents and the like. But at the same time, people are always going to get screwed. I've talked to Hollywood superstars who have been screwed. As smart as you are, there's always someone wilier. And if you're doing work-for-hire, it's impossible to write a comic ever month and not create a new concept. You just can't. In a lot of that, you're recycling old characters and ideas, but you're going to end up creating something new in it. The perfect example is "Marvel Zombies." I was doing "Ultimate Fantastic Four," and there was only supposed to be zombies for one story, but it's been spun off into I don't know how many mini series – at least six – and a whole toy line and everything. I of course saw no money from that, but I don't mind because when you do work-for-hire, you've got to be aware that your ideas are marketable.
I try not to create new characters for Marvel or DC. I try to just do spins on their existing characters so they can't make a movie based on something I've created, but you just can't help it. It's going to happen forever, and it's part of the learning process. But you always have to remember to make time for your own stuff. That's your pension plan. 20 years from now, when we're old and bald – though most comic creators are bald anyway – it'll be nice to have a library of characters that we own because we have the most unique opportunities now. Really, the creation of Image changed everything. It's a crime to go into comics now and not create a few things that you keep for yourself and your family for after you're gone.
Stay tuned to CBR News for future installments of CREATORS ON CREATOR-OWNED with the industry's top talents!