The Comics Writer and the Fall of the Superpowers

by Sean Bell

14 September 2011

Alan Moore (photographer unknown) 

The Ninth Art is Dead / Long Live the Ninth Art

The outcry quickly triggered a PR crisis for DC which threatened to overshadow its prized September reboot; in other words, it threatened the money. The response was an unprecedented press release aimed directly at DC’s fans, signed by DiDio and his fellow co-publisher Jim Lee, and headlined ‘WE HEAR YOU’. Promising to improve its record on women,  the release stated: “We want you to know, first and foremost, that we hear you and take your concerns very seriously.”

In all, it seemed to be a good start, and a happy ending to a minor controversy. It’s difficult to think of such a dramatic show of mea culpa coming from a record label or movie studio, despite sexism arguably being similarly prevalent in the worlds of film and music. And it gave at least the illusion of power to a fanbase that felt disenfranchised and disconnected. Ultimately, I was not truly among them—I have difficulty getting worked up about comics I have neither read yet nor have reason to care about, and regard the bargain between creators and readers to be profoundly uncomplicated: produce good work that entertains and innovates, and we have no problem.

“They are always wrong. You are always right. Because you are the writer.”

Yet the comics industry, in general, needs new and imaginative voices, just like the music industry, and the film industry, and indeed any creative medium that can only be sustained by captivating an audience; in particular, it needs more diverse voices to attraction a more diverse readership, because the one it has at the moment is ageing, dwindling and prone to petulance and entitlement.

In the end, there was no denying that the appalling ratio of women writers and artists on DC—and in comics in general—borders on the offensive, so after DC’s pantomime of humility, some things still rankled. Firstly, why had such valid and obvious concerns emerged from fans, and not creators? Almost any kind of writer I can think of—comic writer, screenwriter, playwright, journalist, poet—will be a hundred times more acutely aware of this difficulties of their profession than the average punter (old joke: Put a group of writers in a room together and what will they talk about? Money). So why did DC’s writers seem distinctly nervous about voicing their own opinions—any opinion—that was not slavishly uncritical, until the fans had already done it for them?

There’s no great mystery to it: you don’t bite the hand that feeds you, and in the world of comics, that’s the Big Two, Marvel and DC. Trying to make a career in comics without interacting with them is brave, and hard, and often without reward, and perhaps it would be overly harsh to criticise writers for not risking their careers to mouth off. But keeping quiet seemed to be only part of the obligations of the writer within the corporate structure of modern comic books. To play in the big leagues, they are expected to do more than just write. They protect the franchise. They deflect attention. And sometimes, they take bullets for the company.

Chief among DC’s human shields was Gail Simone, a writer who has made undergone great pains to stay in touch with her fans, and who first garnered notice with Women In Refrigerators, a website detailing, in punishing detail, superhero comics’ bloody record when it came to the murder, rape and general abuse of its female characters. For someone who has vociferously denied being an apologist for the company, Simone has spent an awful lot of time apologising recently, denying DC had ever been as guilty as it appeared to be admitting, writing that the company “DC is not made up of supervillains.”

The shoddiness of writers’ treatment in general, their lack of authority and influence on their own work, is a well-established cliché. But watching it all play out, I wondered if this was the Faustian bargain most aspiring comic book writers eventually have to strike. Is a sustainable career in modern comics only possible at the expense of becoming a reliable company dupe? When does writing become secondary to pushing the brand?

Then I was reminded of an old truth: Alan Moore knows the score.

“I despise the comic industry, but I will always love the comic medium.”
  —Alan Moore

While DC prostrated itself, the other big noise in comics over the past month was the publication of the latest volume of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and a reminder of that rarest of possibilities: the comics writer as an independent operator. It was also a reminder of everything that the comics industry, and DC in particular, has done to the man many people regard as one of the most vivid and rewarding imaginations of the past 30 years.

If you know comics, you know Moore, the best and brightest light of the so-called “British Invasion” of the mid-‘80s that saw a wealth of talent from the UK revitalise a moribund comics scene, and ultimately convinced ‘mainstream’ critics of what the French had long accepted and understood: that the medium they call ‘the ninth art’ was as capable as any other of achieving artistic and literary worth.

And quite a while ago, after the very last of a series of last straws, Moore decided to cease playing games with the comics industry. After many frustrations, he no longer does any work for the Big Two. He does not write any stories but his own. He tries to collaborate with artists he trusts, and publishes with anyone who practices non-interference in his work. In other words, he conducts himself like any writer with dignity would want to.

Much attention has been paid to the various film adaptations of Moore’s work, all of which he has been furiously opposed to; as stories written to work specifically in the medium of comics, utilising devices impossible in any form but sequential art, they are not ‘cinematic’, and could only become so by heavy, mutilating alteration. It was DC’s actions over Watchmen (which DC still controls the rights to) that led to Moore’s most savage appraisal of what the industry had become.

Already angry at the company which Moore felt had threatened emotional blackmail by implying it would refrain from employing Steve Moore (no relation), a friend of Moore’s whose brother suffers from Motor Neuron Disease, if he did not authorise spin-offs from his earlier work, he was not enthused after being assured that any such projects would be taken on by the industry’s ‘top-flight industry creators.’ “At the end of the day,” Moore decided, “if they haven’t got any properties that are valuable enough, but they have got these ‘top-flight industry creators’ that are ready to produce these prequels and sequels… well this is probably a radical idea, but could they not get one of the ‘top-flight industry creators’ to come up with an idea of their own? Why are DC Comics trying to exploit a comic book that I wrote 25 years ago if they have got anything? Surely they ought to have had an equivalent idea since?”

Unsurprisingly, Moore caught some flack for this remark, much of it from industry professionals uncomfortable with the fact that Moore had, perhaps ungraciously, highlighted the lack of much, if any work that measured up to what Moore produced in the early days of his career. Even Comics Alliance, usually a safe haven for sober reflection and good humour, ran a headline that Moore had gone “Beyond Paranoia in His Latest Crazy Old Man Rant”.

Sure, Moore’s statements were undiplomatic; entertainingly so, in fact. His willingness to tell truth to power is one of the many things that sets him apart from the rest of the comics industry, and the more that industry descends into stunts and events and ‘reboots’ that feel evermore homogenised and familiar, aren’t Moore’s comments—the kind of comments that should be come from an idealistic young iconoclast, as opposed to a grey-bearded ‘crazy old man’—exactly what the industry needs to hear?

More than anything else, the DC reboot highlighted how mainstream comics in the modern era have become evermore concerned with the retelling of old stories (and no necessarily in new ways), intoxicated by nostalgia. Nothing inherently wrong with that, but still: why not simply tell new stories? Completely new—new characters, new style, new ideas, new everything. Would anything do more to attract new readers than that?

But the truth seems to be that new ideas come most from new writers, and the best of them come from people who, like Moore, are fundamentally and unarguably free in their own imagination. In an industry with disgustingly few mechanisms for defending the rights of the writer or artist—less, if it can be believed, than Hollywood—and few guarantees of job security, financial security, or the rights to your own work, this is about as much freedom as any writer can hope for. And the comics industry has gone out of its way to make sure that loud, hairy, independently-minded creators like Moore do not easily emerge, and certainly do not thrive. Asked in a recent Guardian interview if he missed anything about working for the Big Two, Moore did not hesitate:

“It has abused and mistreated creative people for decades. It has never treated people fairly. And there is something a bit odd about people who spend their every working hour depicting the exploits of superheroes – of people who always stand up for the underdog and fight against the oppressor, the tyrant, the supervillain – and who have never once when the artists and writers that they professed to admire are taken out and put to the wall. This is an industry where if you mention the idea of, say, forming a union, you’ll just get shrill nervous laughter in reply.” “Alan Moore: an extraordinary gentleman – Q&A”, by Subhajit Banerjee, The Guardian, 25 July 2011)

Eventually though, the laughter, and the self-regarding controversies, die out. And if the comics industry cannot cease to treat its most valuable assets as pawns, it may do the same.

“And remember; they are always wrong. You are always right. Because you are the writer.”
  —Warren Ellis.

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