This weekend past, one of comics longest-running awards ceremonies settled into its permanent home at the Baltimore Comic-Con as the 2012 Harvey Awards ceremony highlighted everything from "Daredevil" to "Hark! A Vagrant" and from "A Tale of Sand" to "Cul De Sac." The event also spotlighted some of the comics industry's personality, with former "Green Lantern" voice actor Phil Lamar playing MC while the likes of the late Joe Kubert and the great John Romita, Jr. received special honors.
Holding down the job of Harvey keynote speaker -- a task that's been used as equal parts soapbox and pulpit in the past by the likes of Frank Miller and Mark Waid -- was BOOM! Studios Founder and CEO Ross Richie. In his speech, Richie focused on comics tradition as a forgotten step-sister of an artform and what the industry can do to embrace a new future for itself. And for those who didn't make it to Baltimore, he provided the entire speech to CBR so you can read it below.
If I could go back in a time machine and tell 10 year old Ross Richie that he would be standing at one of the nation's premiere comic book conventions giving the keynote speech at one of the industry's most sacred and important award ceremonies to one of the greatest gatherings of comic book professionals in the world he would drop his Micronauts comic books in his Cap'N Crunch as his head exploded with excitement and fear. It is truly an honor and a privilege to be asked to stand behind a microphone and speak to so many of my heroes tonight. Don't pinch me, I don't want to wake up.
But before we move forward, I just want to take a moment as a tribute to a luminous light that we lost this year, originally a guest of Baltimore Comic Con 2012 that was never able to complete the journey: Joe Kubert. Everyone here knows his work, so I won't do it the disservice of trying to explain it in the span of a few sentences. Suffice it to say, his contribution to what we do for a living is vast and deep. The comic book publishing world will never be the same and our debt to his creative innovation will never be paid. And now let me quote one of the most life-affirming and soulful phrases that our beloved comic book medium ever gave us through the amazing Joe Kubert that I hope our nation and world will take to heart: "Make war no more."
With the passing of Joe, we all know we lost a great voice in the medium of comic books, but it wasn't heralded on the evening news, it wasn't featured as the top of the Huffington Post. We're used to losing great creatives in our medium and no one in our culture noticing. And in that, there's something familiar to us about disappointment. We've found ourselves so often on the outside of our culture looking in that the cold familiarity of icy rejection feels like home.
But I'm here to say tonight: the creative community of comic books has changed the world.
The people in this room, they have changed the world.
The United States is a recent civilization, a child of only 200 years on the world's stage. Comparatively, the Middle East invented written language five thousand years ago. The Greeks gave us democracy. China invented ink. The English gave us the light bulb and the steam engine. In 1884 the Germans invented television.
But what have we done? What have we given a world that has given us so much?
We've produced two artforms, both of which are historically loved by the world at large and rejected in their homeland: jazz and comic books.
Want a Sisyphean task? Try to get a free, ad-supported jazz radio station onto the air.
But this isn't a jazz convention and we're not here tonight to talk about music.
With the publication of The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck in 1842 -- now identified as the "Platinum Age" of comic books -- we invented an artform. We gave something back to the world that it had never seen or experienced before.
And the concept caught fire. Today, it's routine to sell over a million copies of a regular graphic novel in France, a nation that's the size of the state of Texas. Post-WWII G.I.s brought comic books to Japan kickstarting a manga revolution there. One in three books sold in Japan, as a result, was a comic book.
The French codified it well: they call it "The Ninth Art." The first is architecture, the second sculpture. The third painting, the fourth dance, then there's music, poetry, cinema, and television. And ninth is comic books.
As a kid falling in love with this medium I did it against the advice of my culture. Against the advice of my society. If I had never read another comic book, it would have been too soon for my father. None of my teachers wanted me to read comic books. And for heaven's sake, if my coaches had known I read comic books, well, it would have all been over. My uncle used to say to me, "Comic books will turn your brain to jelly." No one ever told me that their mother threw away their science text books or came home to discover that their family tossed their Hemingway novels and Shakespearian plays in the dust bin.
I'd love to say that I didn't care that the adults in my life didn't support my interest in this medium. But that wouldn't be true -- I was a sensitive introvert who cared very deeply what his authority figures said. I wanted to make my dad proud. But the truth of the matter is that as a kid growing up in suburban Texas I was far more interested in reading the adventures of the Fantastic Four and going to the Negative Zone than deer hunting and NCAA football.
As a teenager I became interested in art. I was that kid in your high school class that you thought was going to go on to a career in painting or drawing, architecture or commercial art. But in every art class that I drew a comic book-styled illustration my instructors discouraged it and dismissed it. They tried to steer me away from that towards Jackson Pollack or Picasso. You know, "real artists."
If you were a comic book fan you pursued your interest in this medium, in this original art form, against all odds. Against society. I have certainly never thought of myself as a rebel, heaven knows I am far too square and practical. But we are rebels, all of us. We all gave our lives to a medium and an artform that was dismissed and put aside by the very culture that birthed it.
You can't find a single person who hasn't seen a movie or doesn't like movies. You can't find a single person who hasn't seen a TV show or read a novel, or doesn't like TV shows or doesn't like books. But you can find people who haven't read a comic book or don't like comic books.
Like Clark Kent, we had a secret. And if society knew about our secret it would brand us as different, as bizarre aliens from an unknown world. But our secret was what made us special. Our secret made us incredible.
The people in this room didn't just manifest an interest in an outsider culture of imagination that the rest of society dismissed. The people in this room dedicated the rest of their lives to it and ultimately shaped and changed it. And you are still shaping and changing it today.
This year's Baltimore Comic Con's Guest of Honor Stan Lee hid his real name, Stanley Martin Leiber, from the world at large adopting a pen name so that he could preserve a future for himself as a writer and not be judged too harshly for having written "funny books." You know, so he could be a "real writer."
By committing his talent and career to this medium and never abandoning it to become America's next great novelist Stan became great. He reinvented himself like Billy Batson becoming Captain Marvel. With a metaphorical "Shazam" Stanley Leiber became Stan Lee, and in so doing, found what is no doubt one of the great cultural voices of the 20th century.
Stan represents all of us. We have all given our talents, energies, focus, and future to a medium that our culture has had a hard time reconciling. We are outsiders, you and I. We love something that is frankly tough at times to love.
Back in 1954, back when Timely Comics changed its name to "Atlas" and nearly a decade before it would transform into Marvel Comics, Stan Lee wrote a story for the science fiction and horror anthology "Menace" in issue #7 called "Flesh Out of Flesh." The story explored a future where mankind invented artificial intelligence in the form of androids. With these robots walking amongst us, we lost the ability to identify which ones were androids and which ones were humans. Our story follows a detective searching to identify and take down androids. The twist at the end is he learns he is an android himself. When I told Stan about this story he wrote so long ago, he looked at me quizzically and said, "That sounds like Bladerunner." I looked back at Stan and said, "I thought so, too!"
With this story written 14 years before Philip K. Dick's novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP it certainly could have served as inspiration for what would become the movie BLADERUNNER. Having worked with Philip K Dick's estate in my capacity as Founder and CEO of BOOM!, I can tell you that Dick certainly read comic books. Or it could be another example of great minds thinking alike.
But I think Mark Waid said it best: "We are the smartest, most creative medium in America... There are more ideas in one Wednesday in one comic shop than in three years of Hollywood... we are unmatched for creativity and inventiveness..."
There's never been a more exciting time to be shopping in a comic book store. It is an embarrassment of riches. Economically, comic book publishing is up as store owners are having a banner year and there's never been more creative, exciting, expressive, and thought-provoking works on the rack.
When I posted a lament about the loss of Joe Kubert to my Facebook page, I expected "amens" from other comic book fans. To my surprise, comment after comment came from my circle of friends who didn't know anything about comic books talking about how beautiful his work was and what a tragic loss it had been. What I saw unfolding in real time before my eyes were friends who didn't know comic books discovering them and embracing them.
It made me realize: they're interested now in our artform. We're not some isolated little weird thing on the margins anymore. They see us. They might not fully understand just yet. But they're not pointing and laughing anymore. Flash Thompson wants to be one of the gang.
We're no longer isolated. Comic book convention attendance is booming again this year, just like it boomed last year, and the year before that, and the year before that, as more and more casual comic book fans are attracted to our world.
I remember standing at the great Harvey and Eisner Award-winning artist Dave Johnson's artist alley space in San Diego in 2001. As the convention wrapped up on a Sunday and Dave worked to pack up his stuff, we both looked at each other in shock. "Dude, the girls showed up this year."
We all used to do it. We all used to stand around and say, "I don't understand why women don't read comic books." Well, they are now. "If we don't recruit the next generation of comic book readers, we'll die out." Well, kids are showing up at comic book conventions and All-Ages publishing is one of the thriving segments of the market. "If we don't develop more mature themes in our art form, we'll be dismissed as a trash medium." Well, we won the Pulitzer Prize nearly 25 years ago with Art Spiegleman's Maus. Seven years ago Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME was recognized as Time Magazine's book of the year. Book of the year, not comic book of the year... "Why don't video game companies see the rich potential of the comic book audience?" Last year's best-reviewed video game was Batman: Arkham City. "Why don't the television companies see what a treasure trove of creativity comic books are?" Now The Walking Dead is one of the biggest hits on TV. "These comic books read like movies. Why don't they make one into a movie?" Now Hollywood's economy is entirely driven by comic book movies.
It's not a trick. It's not a hoax. It's not an imaginary issue. We're not living on Earth Pipe Dream. Mainstream acceptance is here. After 1.4 billion dollars in box office receipts for the Avengers, how could we question it? When the biggest entertainment event of the year wasn't just the tremendous commercial success of the Marvel Studios franchise, it was the release of the conclusion of Christopher Nolan's soulful and intellectual meditation on the Batman franchise.
Peter Parker is branded as an outsider, misunderstood by the world that he tries to save and brow-beaten by newspapers that try to teach his community that he's a freak. Batman is hunted by the police he works so hard to help. We love these heroes because they represent us. Batman's grim determination echoes how we embrace our status as outsiders to the culture. How much we're not joiners. How much we go our own way. We're the weirdos that didn't sit with the cool kids at lunch.
What are we going to do now that we might become the cool kids?
We're heading down a different path than our heroes. The Amazing Spider-Man doesn't become embraced by New York City ever -- it's just the pause before the storm of a whole new round of complications, misunderstandings, and pained accusations. Superman isn't going to join the city council at Metropolis anytime soon and sit down with the mayor for lunch to talk about the recurring threat of all these aliens arriving and wrecking everything.
At the end of the comic book, our heroes move on to the next adventure like a cowboy riding off into the sunset. They never settle down. They never find acceptance from the world that birthed them.
The next question for the next stage of our artistic development as a medium is this: will we be able to settle down? Will we be able to buy a house in the mainstream culture? Stop being ostracized and find a cute wife, have a few kids, and pass what we've learned onto the next generation, who will no doubt throw it all out and reinvent it into something new? Will we learn to enjoy the life of a successful painter who can be the toast of the town in New York City at a gallery reception? Can we do a talk show like a successful novelist and settle into our culture's embrace?
I don't know that I have any answers. But watching the questions form and seeing outsider comic book culture turn into the central driving force of mainstream culture has been something that most of us has been asking for and longing for for decades.
I'm looking forward to seeing how it develops and buying next month's issue. I have no doubt this new leg of our journey is just beginning and the caption box that will invariably close the final page will say: "To be continued..."
We changed the world. I can't wait to see what happens next.