US: Jun 2003
According to Diamond Comic Distributors, the primary distributor of comic books, Marvel and DC Comics together account for over 70% of both dollar and unit market share in the comics industry. Lump in the market share of the three largest “minor” publishers (Dark Horse, CrossGen, and Image), and there is less than 15% of the already small comics market left to be divided up between dozens of tiny, independent publishers. Each of these publishers produces dozens of ongoing, monthly comics. Competition is rough for the consumer’s dollar: only seven comics sold over 100,000 issues in June, and number 25 on the best-sellers list was sub-50,000.
In such a tight market, that’s only getting tighter, why would anyone even bother trying to break in as an independent writer?
Geoffrey Hawley would probably answer, “Because you’ve got a great story to tell.”
Hawley is the writer, artist, and storyteller behind Spleenland Productions. Perhaps he isn’t the most astute businessman, starting a comic company in one of the industry’s roughest periods. Time will tell. But certainly, he’s a talented storyteller.
Nepotism is the title of Spleenland’s debut comic, featuring three short tales by Hawley and various artistic collaborators. The stories, titled “The Question”, “Fought Over”, and “The Birthday Boy”, vary widely in their tone and style.
Unlike Marvel and DC, Hawley’s comics have no franchise characters. These aren’t the kind of stories from which one builds a monthly series or wrangles a big movie deal. In Spider-Man’s monthly adventures, the reader knows for the most part that despite the direst circumstances, that the webcrawler will emerge relatively unscathed. Even the most traumatic events in a monthly title can be “retconned” by future writers. Spider-Man will always be Spider-Man, and readers can always rely on that.
So, if readers can’t keep coming back to read about their favorite hero’s adventures, what does Hawley have to draw the readers in? Well, within a few pages, Hawley’s comics are able to capture powerful universal human experiences, the kinds of experiences that are crucial moments in people’s lives.
In “The Question”, an amorphous, cuddly puffball creature searches for meaning in a surreal world. In “Fought Over”, a primeval battle over mating turns into a post-colonial conflict over land rights. And in “The Birthday Boy”, a neglected child crosses over into a nightmare-world that reveals the emotional trauma and angst of childhood.
Certainly all of us have at times felt like the world around was alien and bizarre, and that meaning and purpose in our lives seemed out of reach, unattainable, and a mystery. Conflict sometimes seems like it is the only constant in our lives, and we constantly struggle with our boss, our spouse, our family, arguing over every little, unimportant thing. And everyone has felt those truly deep, painful moments in childhood where we feel truly alone and empty. You may try to deny it as an adult, but those moments of heartache are as real as any suffering later in life.
Geoffrey Hawley is banking that readers don’t need flashy costumes, out-of-this-world adventures, and recurring villains. He’s banking that simple stories, stories about emotional truths and about characters first, are what people want to read. It’s a tough market, and for the last 50 years, the superhero has reigned supreme. Is there room for someone who just wants to tell a good story? I hope so.