The Comics Writer and the Fall of the Superpowers

[14 September 2011]

By Sean Bell

“There hasn’t been enough change in comics to suit me. I don’t know exactly why.”
—Harvey Pekar.

The story has been told countless times, yet I always think it’s worth telling once more. Herman J. Mankiewicz, the infamously unrewarded co-writer of Citizen Kane and one of Prohibition’s more legendary boozers, sent a telegram to his friend Ben Hecht in 1926, shortly after setting up shop as a Hollywood screenwriter. “Will you accept 300 a week to work for Paramount Pictures? 300 is peanuts. Millions to be grabbed out here and the only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

It’s one of those defiant anecdotes struggling writers use to warm themselves when the world seems cold and work is scarce. Eighty-odd years after the fact, there are plenty of writers who would consider $300 a week a good deal more than peanuts. In an economy that feels like it should have Tom Waits crooning mournfully in the background while the empty bottles are cleared away, the idea of millions being grabbed anywhere seems worthy of a bitter laugh.

And as for the competition? Well… opinions vary.

Of course, it’s difficult to imagine anything similar to Mankiewicz’s missive in the modern era, and should we consider the mercurial, schizophrenic comic book industry—where the curious and often unenviable position of its creative professionals has been indirectly highlighted in recent weeks—it becomes downright fanciful. Mark Waid, the author of Superman: Birthright and one of the current leading creative forces behind DC Comics, once observed that “breaking into comics is like breaking out of jail. Once someone finds a way, that way is forever blocked.” As for the few who have broken in? Mention the term ‘page-rates’ to a comics professional and watch them dissolve into sobbing.

This is nothing new, of course. Every creative industry, however much it may praise—and, in reality, desperately need—fresh talent, has progressively fortified its ramparts against interlopers over the past few decades, so when new faces are cautiously ferried inside, it’s strictly on the industry’s terms. In the world of comics, the newer slow-burning nightmare for any aspiring writer storming the barricades is that the industry behind them is, creatively and financially, starving to death.

Professional practitioners of escapism now face some grimly pragmatic questions: Can careers continue to be found and sustained within the comics industry? If so, how many? Under what conditions? Where is the money coming from, and ultimately, is it worth it?

To the casual observer, it seems counter-intuitive to think of comics as an industry deep in crisis. Each summer, our multiplexes are reliably choked with superhero movies with budgets that could relieve the foreign debt of certain small nations, their financial dominance (if not their quality) virtually assured. Meanwhile, comic books and their tangential multimedia offspring exert more influence over popular culture and the public consciousness than any time in living memory. Which is all to the nervous relief of the industry itself, since it hides—but does not negate—the fact that people aren’t buying comics like they used during the last mid-‘90s heyday. The comic book industry is bleeding out.

Even Grant Morrison, the writer whose career is exceptional in almost every sense and whose position as one of the most dazzling of stars in the comics firmament was cemented by the newly published Supergods: Our World in the Age of the Superhero, recognised the stagnant, funereal landscape of the medium in a recent Rolling Stone interview: “Comics sales are so low, people are willing to try anything these days. There’s a real feeling of things just going off the rails, to be honest. Superhero comics… The concept is quite a ruthless concept, and it’s moved on, and it’s kind of abandoned, the first-stage rocket… and moving on to movies.”
(“Grant Morrison on the Death of Comics”, by Brian Hiatt, Rolling Stone, 22 August, 2011)

It’s ironic that, long since the popular perception of comics was supposedly revolutionised in the ‘80s by comics that bucked the stereotype of superpowered, four-colour pulp—the stylised magical realism of the Hernandez brothers, the multilayered psychedelia of Brendan McCarthy, the intensely personal tragicomic missives from inside the mind of Harvey Pekar, to name just some worthy independent voices—and struggled to survive through devoted cult audiences, it’s now the superhero genre that finds itself with no clear road for the future, and no-one is quite sure how a comics industry without superheroes to prop it up—to draw in readers, to provide the bulk of the work, to earn money that can be dispensed to untested writers and less commercially-minded projects—would actually work.

Hysteria is commonplace in an industry that sustains itself on hyperbole; the whisper echoing through dank corners of the internet is ‘the death of the comic book’. So let’s be clear: The existence of comics as a medium is not really threatened, in the same way that of poetry and opera and sculpture will never truly die; as long as committed and creative enthusiasts and those who appreciate them emerge with each new generation, whose love for sequential art trumps all other concerns, then it will persevere in some form. The kind of manic discipline and untameable imagination that helped everyone from Robert Crumb to Jhonen Vasquez to Chris Onstad to carve careers out of an unwilling economy’s bloody entrails cannot be defeated.

Yet the industry as we know it now, and have known, more or less, since our parents and grandparents perused The Mighty Thor on the local newstand, may not be so indefatigable. Dan DiDio, DC Comics co-publisher and amongst the highest of comic book honchos, admitted as much recently when he explained several recent dramatic shake-ups within the company: “The truth is people are leaving [superhero comics] anyway, they’re just doing it quietly, and we have been papering it over with increased prices. We didn’t want to wake up one day and find we had a bunch of $20 books that 10,000 people are buying.”

Part of me—a fairly large part, if I’m honest—is cynical, and unapologetically so: businessmen like DiDio not only look at the revenues from comics, but from trade paperbacks, movie adaptations, toys, t-shirts, children’s cartoons—in short, the mini-empires that serve to remind us just how widespread, and profitable, the influence of the superhero really is—and, upon seeing them shudder or dwindle, imagine those revenues evaporating all together, without the faintest idea of what may one day replace them. Such people are not interested in comics surviving as an artistic medium, only a moneymaking bonanza. I know well there are some rather exhausted arguments about the link between art and commerce to be rehearsed here, so when I say I care about comics and not capitalism, it’s not like I—and many others—don’t see the connection. It’s money, as Randy Newman knew, that matters.

Over the past months, the visibilty of such concerns has been acute. July saw the coming and going of San Diego Comic Con, the biggest event of its kind, where all industries concerned with the Geek Dollar hype their wares for the coming year with varying degrees of shamelessness, and a vast phalanx of hardcore fandom pays for the privilege of being pandered to.

For DC Comics, the story wasn’t even the one they had in mind. In September, the ‘DC Universe’—the shared, interlocking macrocosm that encompasses all of the company’s creations, from globally-recognised brands such as Batman to eccentric obscurities like the Color Kid and Detective Chimp—is to be ‘rebooted’, stripping their characters to the bare bones and freeing creative teams from decades of labyrinthine continuity for the benefit of new readers - the golden idol for an increasingly desperate comics industry—who may not know, or care, what happened in the past eight hundred-plus issues of Detective Comics . My bet is that if the result of the reboot is less readers instead of more, we’ll see more frantic backpedalling than a unicyclist confronted by a pack of ravenous hyenas, but we’ll see.

This was the narrative DC had in mind: one where they would roll out the big guns to convince a deeply cynical fanbase that they were not being abandoned in the cause of reaching new markets; that this was, in the words of Gail Simone, whose own acclaimed DC series Secret Six was cancelled to make way for the reboot, “nothing DC has ever done compares in scope to this. It’s a big idea, scary and exciting. It makes us explorers again, writer and reader both. And that is what comics are all about.”

The tempest in a teacup that actually transpired broke with the near-Dadaist spectacle of a young woman dressed as Batgirl repeatedly confronting the top brass of DC at Q&A functions about their lamentable record of female representation. The world of comics—industry and fandom alike—often prefers concerning itself with insular and, often, ultimately ephemeral arguments, recent absurdist blow-ups over the inclusion of a black actor in Thor , or the lack of ‘real’ Nazis in Captain America being two prime examples of the past year.

Yet the fact that the amount of women writers on DC titles would, post-reboot, be reduced from 12 percent (hardly a number to crow about to begin with) to an abysmal one percent seemed to shake many out of their self-involvement, particularly after Dan DiDio finally flipped his gourd over the issue during a Q&A badgering. Asking what DC could do to make fans feel better about the reboot, a fan cried out from the crowd: “Hire women!” Following up, DiDio was faced with answering why the ratio went from 12 percent to one percent.

“What do those numbers mean to you?” DiDio snarled with unexpected ferocity. “What do they mean to you? Who should we be hiring? Tell me right now. Who should we be hiring right now?”

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.

Sean Bell is a Scots-Irish-Armenian writer based in Edinburgh. His journalism has been published in the Glasgow Herald, the Sunday Herald, the Evening Times, the Scottish Review of Books and Death Ray magazine. He can be followed at www.twitter.com/SeanCMBell


Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/146865-the-comics-writer-and-the-fall-of-the-superpowers/