The Comics Writer and the Fall of the Superpowers

Alan Moore (photographer unknown)

We often think of comic books as the height of escapism, but recent events point to an industry in a death spiral, due in no small part to how badly it mistreats the writers on which it depends.

"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?"

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