Finally, something I feel remotely qualified to talk about!
Over at the Comic Book Bin, Hervé St-Louis has exposed a cancer that’s been eating away at the comic book industry: creators who think more highly of themselves than St-Louis believes they should.
Says St-Louis: “In response to my last articles … a smart commenter responded to my article saying, essentially, that because he owned his comic book … it would not be stale but a fresh alternative to material owned by large corporations like DC and Marvel Comics. His comment is typical cult of the creator attitude where it’s assumed that ownership leads to better comic books. Of course, this writer thinks that this is bullshit.”
This writer agrees that the assumption that ownership leads to better comic books is bullshit. This writer also thinks the notion of the cult of the creator is bullshit.
In a previous article, St-Louis describes the ‘cult of the comic creator’ as “ a faction within the comic book industry, that shares a perspective whereby the creator of a comic book as a social construct, is more important than the creation itself.”
There is such a faction, but I don’t call it a cult. I call it ‘comics creators.’ I’m nominally a member of that group, so take that into account when I say the following:
There is no cult of the creator.
Far from it. Unlike those whose publishers automatically get their work the attention of Marvel Zombies and the citizenry of the DC Nation, creators working on their own material have to struggle to find any sort of useful support, from anyone, be it distributors, retailers, publishers or that holiest of grails, the potential readership. That’s because nobody other than the creators themselves has much reason to give a shit about what they’re doing, even if it is a fresh alternative to material owned by large corporations.1
Nobody I know of automatically assumes creator ownership leads to better comics, not even comic creators. Talent and skill lead to better comics, and that’s pretty much it. The question this so-called cult has isn’t whether creator ownership leads to better comic books; it’s whether corporate ownership of creators’ work tends to lead to worse comic books, and whether loss of ownership benefits creators enough to be worth giving up their property anyway.
Without taking a definitive stance on the former–which is an apples to hand grenades comparison anyway unless the creator-owner has access to resources at least in the same ballpark as the Big Two–I’d say that if2 corporate ownership led to worse comics, it would hardly be a surprise, considering the conditions under which those comics are created. Making the creative process conform to a factory assembly line model that churns out x number of pages a month come hell or high water isn’t a scenario that lends itself to the creation of great works (though as a creator I like to think talent and skill will out and greatness can be achieved under almost any deadline.)
In regards to the latter, well, that’s really up to the individual creators to decide.3
“This assumption that comic books owned by their creators are better started first with the likes of Dave Sim in the 1980s…”
Really, Mr. St-Louis? Are you sure it didn’t start with someone setting up a straw man argument against the rights of creators…?
I dunno. Maybe it’s true, maybe someone does assume creator-owned books are superior to corporate-owned ones simply because they’re creator-owned and not because they’re, well, actually better. But I don’t think that person is Dave Sim. As I recall from the Cerebus Guide to Self-Publishing4, he was fairly blunt in stating that his self-publishing crusade led to a lot of crap being produced and that he was aware of that going in. I believe some creators even expressed feelings of betrayal by his casual dismissal of the difficulties they encountered in part because they followed his advice.
“Those libertarian ideas, which of course Sim believes in, dictates to him that he should be his own man, his own master his own slave and that none of the work he does, should benefit a system or in the case of comic books a corporation.”
I feel a little weird speaking on Dave Sim’s behalf–it’s not like he’s got a problem speaking for himself–but the evidence available doesn’t support St-Louis’ statement. As far as I can tell, Sim doesn’t believe a corporation shouldn’t benefit from his work, so much as corporations don’t believe he should benefit from his work to the degree he feels he deserves. It wasn’t so long ago that Sim was negotiating with DC to do some work on a Fables-related project. The two parties couldn’t come to a mutually-acceptable agreement, but that Sim would make the effort at all indicates to me that he’s not averse to working with a corporation.
I can see why a corporation would be averse to working with him, though.
“This reactionary attitude is of course an after effect of the dubious treatment of comic book artists in the 1970s…”
…and the 1960s. And the 1950s. And the 1940s. And the late 1930s…
“As soon as a comic book creator went too far off the edge, his editors would rein him in because of the potential to damage the licensing appeal of the comic book property owned by the publisher and its parent company.”
His editors would also rein a creator in if he demanded more compensation than the company wished to pay; if the creator wished to violate an arbitrary set of guidelines put in place during the ‘50s; if the editor thought the creator needed to be shown who was boss; if the editor was having a bad day…
“It was easy for artists to feel alienated and restricted creatively.”
Feelings of alienation and creative restriction are surprisingly widespread among those who are being alienated and creatively restricted.
“This writer argues that in order to alleviate the risk of their self publishing venture, the original founders at Image engineered a public relations’ story about how it was important for them to own their creations and be their own masters. They argued that with total creative control over their creations, that they could finally publish contents that would not be edited and allow them to reach their creative limits.”
(Insert joke about those creative limits being more limited than might have been hoped here.)
“But in order to make a successful jump on their own, the Image Comics’ founders needed the public to believe that their intentions were good and for the benefit of readers. They had to carve a marketshare on the shelf in the minds of readers to have them develop the habit that as well as buying Superman and Spider-man every month, that they also had to buy Spawn and Pitt. Buying Spawn and Pitt was not just buying a regular comic book; it was being part of a comic book revolution and changing the rules of the games.”
All of which is different from Stan Lee’s pitching Marvel as ‘must reading’ how? Other than the creators of Image’s initial publishing line benefited from the continued exploitation of their work, unlike Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, I mean.
“Or so they said. In hindsight, the campaign to generate legitimacy to Image Comics, in its initial years worked well enough that many of the original founders succeed well financially.”
Generate legitimacy? What? I mean … what? In a post-Cerebus/TMNT world, how the fuck does a group of comics creators self-publishing–the biggest creators in the North American comics mainstream at the time no less–need to generate ‘legitimacy’?
“Creatively, the level of success is another matter.
“Just like Sim who had relied of artist Gerhard in the past to complete his work, so did many of the Image Comics founders rely on popular artists and writers to help their creations reach new creative heights. Many Image Comics’ creators set up studios where they engaged in work for hire practices that were relatively similar to those practiced by publishers such as DC and Marvel Comics.”
Is this just an accident of two sentences being in unfortunately close proximity or is St-Louis trying to imply Gerhard worked on Cerebus on a work-for-hire basis? Because that’s not my understanding of Sim and Gerhard’s arrangement…
“But because the comic books were owned by their original creators, comic book readers were continually told that the books were better and more genuine than anything published by DC and Marvel Comics.”
Comics creators and publishers engaging in hyperbole to try and sell their product? I’m shocked, shocked, I say! How dare they use the techniques that worked for their former employers for decades for their own benefit!
“Of the Image Comics’ crowd, this writer would argue that very few really had the ideals of self publishing as a way to create better comic books and as a venue for self expression at heart.”
Creating better comics and a venue for self-expression are admirable ideals, but this writer would argue that they aren’t the ideals of self-publishing. Controlling the fruits of one’s labours is.
“Jim Valentino and Erik Larsen are the two Image Comics founders who have been the most dedicated to their creations and are the romantic ideal of the self publisher.”
Good for them. Romantic ideals are the best ideals of all, more people should try to live up to them. Mind you, Image Comics is a business, like Marvel and DC. It’s just one that offers creators a vastly different deal from Marvel and DC. And as a business, it’s got to deal in reality if it’s going to stay afloat.
“Looking at the output of comic books from the founders of Image Comics, the quality of the books is not uniform and thus does not prove that self publishers produce better comic books than creators working on licensed properties owned by corporations.”
Nope. It just proves that popular creators can produce work at roughly the same level as the material they did on a work-for-hire basis and reap the potentially massive long-term benefits of owning their creations rather than the short-term benefit of a page rate.
“The problem this writer has with the cult of the comic book creator, as romanticized by Image Comics, is that a whole generation of creator believes that the ultimate way to reach ultimate self expression is through self publishing.”
The problem this writer has with the other writer’s position is that the other writer seems to believe creators believing something that’s basically true is a problem.
“However, self publishing is a business venture and business is not artistry.”
Uh, yeah, so that’s not true.
Self-publishing is what the individual self-publisher says it is.
There’s a whole shelving unit at my local comic shop filled with the work of local comics creators. Most self-published that work in a variety of formats, from hundred+ page trade paperbacks to small print-run pamphlets to minicomics. The vast majority of those self-publishers didn’t make their work available for business reasons, and it’s a good thing too, because most of them will never make the money they invested in printing back, much less turn a profit. They did it because they wanted to use the comics medium to express themselves. And the only way they were going to be able to do that was by doing it themselves.
St-Louis finishes his article by promising a part two. I look forward to it with the same mixture of dread and car-crash fascination I felt reading part the first.
- It often isn’t–an awful lot of creators also hold as their most cherished dream the opportunity to have their work be owned wholly by a major publisher’s parent company. [↩]
- IF [↩]
- Even if the individual creators are wrong, wrong, WRONG, as is frequently the case. I speak from personal experience, here, and believe me, I wish I didn’t. [↩]
- or whatever his self-publishing book was called [↩]