The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 189 | Whose line is it, anyway? (Or, on Paul Jenkins’ open letter to the comics community)

Leaving Proof 189 | Whose line is it, anyway? (Or, on Paul Jenkins’ open letter to the comics community)
Published on Friday, June 7, 2013 by
Who’s really writing your favorite DC and Marvel comics? Does it matter? An open letter posted by industry veteran Paul Jenkins has us asking questions about what we really want from the medium we love.
Paul Jenkins at a 2006 convention (image credit: Piguino)

Paul Jenkins, known for his work on DC/Vertigo’s Hellblazer and Marvel’s Sentry, among other titles. at a 2006 convention (image credit: Pinguino)

If you’ve been following the talk in the Internet comics-sphere at all the past few days, you’ll know that one of the biggest stories making rounds is writer Paul Jenkins’ open letter explaining why he won’t be working for DC or Marvel for the foreseeable future—he’s working exclusively on creator-owned books published by BOOM! Studios for now—and his subsequent interview with Bleeding Cool‘s Rich Johnston, where he provides an insider’s look at how comics are being written right now at the Big Two. His account of the time spent working on Batman: The Dark Knight provides a particularly damning indictment of DC’s project management practices and jibes with many of the issues raised by industry veterans like George Pérez, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Andy Diggle, and Rob Liefeld as they left “New 52″ books they’d been contracted to write and/or illustrate, although some have been more tactful and temperate in voicing their concerns than others (we’re looking at you, Rob!).

For those of you who missed out on reading Jenkins’ letter (although you really should, it’s not that long), here are the juicy bits (emphasis our own):

… I love to write comics. I have always been captivated by the potential of the medium. Comic book creators enjoy a tremendous advantage in the way we can tell a story, with our wonderfully collaborative interaction between artist and writer. Over the course of my career in this industry I have had the opportunity to work on all of the major characters at Marvel and DC, and for much of that time it has been a lot of fun. But honestly, the entire medium deserves more than we are currently giving it. So do the fans, the people who currently shell out four dollars for each comic that they buy. We have taken away the consequences of the stories we present to them, and I feel the mainstream product is becoming a homogenized puddle of ‘meh.’ I have no desire to appeal to a reader’s indifference, nor be involved in a final product that I do not fully support.

… I am immensely frustrated by the fact that we have come full circle, back to the days of simply managing characters. I am even more frustrated that my name is attached to a creative product that I did not fully create…

… In recent years, I have watched, helpless, as editors made pointless and destructive changes to scripts and artwork that they had previously left alone. It bugs me that the creators were a primary focus when the mainstream publishers needed them, and now that the corporations are driving the boat, creative decisions are being made once again by shareholders. I want to create comics the way we are supposed to.

Similarly, if you haven’t read Jenkins’ interview with everybody’s favorite comics muckraker Rich Johnston, go forth and do so, but if you just can’t be arsed, here are the parts relevant to our discussion today (emphasis our own):

I will never forget what [former Marvel President] Bill Jemas once said during an early editorial meeting (Joe [Quesada]’s first, actually): he told the editors to make great books, and that the marketing department’s job would be to promote and sell those books. He told his staff to have courage, to believe in the quality of the work. He made it crystal clear that the marketing of the books would not trump the creative decisions.  Well, that was all fine back in those heady days but I noticed a very obvious shift a number of years ago. And that shift, I can now see, coincided with Marvel’s negotiations with Disney. So it really became about events and crossovers, and I am probably not their guy at that point. I have never been very interested in (not very good at) continuity laden crossovers. I find the self referential books to be dull. They are written into a corner, where the only payoff for the fans seems to be the setup for the next event. I don’t want to do that kind of book. And I am pretty sure Marvel didn’t want me to do that kind of book either.

… Why am I willing to describe certain specific events during my brief encounter with [DC] for the New 52? Because I am appalled at the way in which creators are being bullied, and somewhat freaked out at the things I saw in my own time there…

… When I started putting together books for the New 52 I was completely left alone on the Deadman series, and I enjoyed a great collaborative relationship with my editor. Perhaps Deadman was ‘under the radar,’ so to speak, but we did what we were asked, and it was a neat little book that provided the publisher with what they had requested.  Contrast that to the manipulative behavior demonstrated by the people behind the Dark Knight book, and it leaves one rather puzzled: why would one series be untouched and another be micro-managed with absolutely no creative direction whatsoever?  I think there are some obvious answers but I would prefer people draw their own conclusions. Suffice it to say that the fans are not getting the creators in these books—they are getting an unpalatable product, which is destroyed by editorial interference perpetrated by unqualified project managers.

Jenkins isn’t the first high-profile, mainstream comics pro to be critical of DC and Marvel’s current, crossover/event-centric comics and editorial mismanagement, although he might have written the most detailed imputation by an industry professional of DC’s “New 52″ working environment to date. Joe Casey’s 2011 essay For Which It Stands gave comics readers part of the behind-the-scenes picture at the Big Two and just last week, former DC/Vertigo Comics executive editor Karen Berger was quoted in a New York Times piece describing Marvel and DC as “superhero companies owned by movie studios.” Mark Waid candidly spoke to Ain’t It Cool News in 2009 about the troubles he encountered with editorial meddling in his time writing DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes:

While we were busting our asses to rebuild the franchise (and getting periodic fan notes from Paul Levitz, which were gold to me), a whole different editorial office was allowing [novelist] Brad Meltzer to undo absolutely all our hard work for one of his JLA stories, which (he’d been told) could star the 1980s Legion, as if ours never existed. I don’t blame Brad at all, but boy, was that mismanaged on all levels—because it was deliberately kept secret from us until it was on the verge of being printed.

In 2008, The Walking Dead and Invincible creator Robert Kirkman released to the public a video manifesto where, like Jenkins five years later, he outlined his reasons for devoting his career exclusively to working on creator-owned comics despite his success working with Marvel.

These are just a few of the many recent instances of some of comics’ most successful and bankable talent publicly decrying the state of work-for-hire affairs at Marvel and DC (although much of it seems to be focused on the latter’s practices of late).

To anyone that started reading comics within the past decade, it all seems like a bad time for comics creators working for The Big Two who just want to write original stories with the minimum amount of creative interference from editorial and corporate. But is this really a new development? As Jenkins noted in his interview, a lot of the problems plaguing the relationship between editors and creators at DC today bear similarities to the issues Marvel faced during its earliest struggles to climb out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the late 1990s. Looking back even further, writers on some of Marvel’s most successful X-titles during the early 1990s were already giving voice to complaints about then-editor Bob Harras (who is, interestingly enough, DC’s current Editor-in-Chief) and his staff that pre-date by twenty years the ones Jenkins is making now. Chris Claremont elaborated on his reasons for leaving X-Men in 1991 in an interview published in Wizard: The Guide to Comics #22 (cover-dated June 1993):

What you have now are editors, in a lot of cases, who do not view themselves as facilitators but who view themselves as active participants in the production process. They say, ‘I am going to tell you what the story is. I am going to decide the direction of the book. You will help enable us to get there’—rather than the writer coming in and saying, ‘This is where I want to go’ and the editor saying, ‘Okay,’ or not. If you want to hire a writer to write the book, let him write it. If you want to write the book yourself, do that.

wiz22cover… The perception may be that, in a time when you cannot guarantee the quality of the writers, when you have to hold together a vastly expanding, convoluted, Gordian knot, cats cradle of continuity—maybe this is the only way they figure they can do it. I think it’s wrong. I think you end up with a lot of second-rate work. By the same token, none of the people involved—save perhaps the editorial staff—have any long-term vested interest in what they’re doing…

You may goose in some stuff around the edges, you may throw in a line or a character that speaks to you, but these are grace notes on a symphony that’s being written, fundamentally, by someone else. Why should I—or anybody worth the name—waste their talent executing someone else’s vision, especially when you get into the moral question of why the person whose vision you’re executing doesn’t go write his or her own stuff?

Here’s Peter David, fresh off quitting X-Factor, expressing similar sentiments in an interview published in Wizard: The Guide to Comics #24 (cover-dated August 1993):

WizardTheGuideToComics24When you’re doing comics in that kind of an environment, where everything is being coordinated and there’s a great deal of gang mentality—’This must be done in this book, this must be done in this book’—and you start to reach a point where you realize, ‘I’m just too old for this crap,’ it can go a long way toward killing the spontaneity. To my mind, it was no longer an environment I could work in consistently. Certainly other people can. Fabian Nicieza and Scott Lobdell have no trouble with it. God bless ‘em. I wish them the best of luck. Marc DeMatteis is going to be dialoguing X-Factor—great. It’s not something that everybody can do. It’s a question of what you are individually capable of handling, and I just couldn’t handle this anymore.

… If I had continued writing X-Factor, the story would have lacked—I think—whatever that ineffable quality called enthusiasm might be.

Former Uncanny X-Men editor as well as X-Factor and New Mutants writer Louise Simonson also talked candidly about editor-writer friction on the X-Men titles in an interview/article that appeared in 1993’s Wizard: X-Men Turn Thirty Collector’s Edition:

wizardxmenturn30My problems [as a writer on New Mutants and X-Factor] were really with the editor, who was not handling things well at all…

… what [the editor] did to me, to Chris Claremont, to Peter David, and to Jo Duffy was to nickel-and-dime us to death. He would change plots and blame it on the artists. He would change dialogue, and then say ‘I’m sorry but I tried to call you and you weren’t home’ or ‘I’ll be sure to tell you next time.’ He would change some of the dialogue but not the other parts, so the things people said wouldn’t make sense.

Talking to the Comixverse about his stint writing Wolverine during the 1990s, Larry Hama had this to say:

After a while, I really didn’t have any control of the storyline in Wolverine since it was dependent on the overall overlapping arcs of all the X-Men titles. All the writers of the X-books would have to go on a retreat every year and spend three days in some secluded hotel or spa, hammering out the continuity for the coming year so that everything meshed together. It was akin to what I suspect it’s like putting together a bill in Congress.

Even current DC Entertainment co-publisher Jim Lee at one time felt that editors held too much sway over the creative direction of the books he was working on, and that the focus on character management over creative flexibility was one of the reasons that motivated his departure from Marvel Comics and his co-founding of Image Comics.

Oh, the irony: A caricature version of Jim Lee (in blue skintight suit) and his fellow Image Comics co-founders boldly assert that comics creators are more important than characters and editors. (page detail from Splitting Image #1, cover-dated March 1993, a publication self-parodying the foundation of Image Comics)

Oh, the irony of it all: Caricature versions of Jim Lee (in skin-tight blue spandex costume) and his fellow Image Comics co-founders boldly assert to “Marginal Comics” management that comics creators are more important than characters and editors. Page detail from Image Comics’ Splitting Image #1 (cover-dated March 1993), a deliberate self-satire of the publishing company’s origins. Dialogue and art by Don Simpson.

Talk to any freelancer or staff writer who worked for Marvel back in the 1980s and you’ll probably hear at least one horror story about then-Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter’s occasional micromanagement of books. Dig all the way back to the 1950s and 1960s and there are all sorts of stories about how the late Adventure Comics and Superman editor Mort Weisinger bullied the writers (including a teenaged Jim Shooter!), artists, and assistant editors who worked on the titles he oversaw and—more germane to the topic at hand—how he would substitute his own plots for those of the writers. A lot of the stuff Jenkins and Casey and others have been complaining about has been going on mostly behind the scenes for a long time in the Marvel and DC offices, and I suppose we have the Internet to thank for these issues finally being brought to light where they can be discussed in a wider context.

This is all quite problematic for the writers and the artists who work on the comics, for various reasons, not the least of which are the brazen unprofessionalism of an editor re-writing a solicited plot or script without the writer’s knowledge or assent and the messy, messy dilemma of attribution with these hodge-podge, assembly-line, written-by-committee, mainstream superhero comics. Getting down to brass tacks however, how does this affect the reader/consumer? The ethics of false advertising/product mislabeling aside, is this alleged trend of writers and artists being tasked by DC and Marvel to be little more than interchangeable caretakers of superhero IPs, instead of active sources of original storytelling content, really something worth getting bent out of shape over for your average comic book reader?

It all depends on the reader’s reason for following a certain comic book, I suppose.

I suspect many regular DC and Marvel readers buy the superhero comics that they do out of force of habit, or out of brand loyalty, or they base their buying decisions largely on character/IP familiarity. A number of these readers probably wouldn’t care one way or another who actually writes or draws the comic in their pullboxes, whether it was actually the person credited on the cover or if it was some editor or a sub-contracted ghost writer/ghost artist or a moonlighting Kim Jong-un for that matter. These readers treat the monthly comic book or the biannual trade paperback similar to how most viewers treat a long-running weekly network TV show. It isn’t about who the writers are or who the director is. It’s not even so much about the actual content as it is about the routine of getting “comfort entertainment” on a regular basis, where the leisurely quality of familiarity itself is a sufficient distraction and commodity on its own.

And that’s perfectly fine.

We all have different, equally valid reasons for reading comics; the same person might even have different reasons for reading different comics: Maybe a guy reads Wolverine because he likes the character and he would buy Wolverine regardless of who’s writing or drawing the comic, and contrastingly, maybe he sticks with his Batgirl subscription, not because he’s particularly invested in the eponymous character, but because he’s a fan of Gail Simone’s writing. Alternatively, maybe he picks up something like The Manhattan Projects because he’s taken by the genre and the book’s premise or he reads the occasional issue of Transformers because he likes the toys they’re based on. These and many others are all perfectly reasonable grounds for reading and enjoying a comic book that need no further justification on the reader’s part.

Jenkins claims that DC practically rewrote his script for Batman: The Dark Knight #5 (the result of which he describes as "a turd"), but credited him for it just the same.

Jenkins makes the claim in his Bleeding Cool interview that DC editors rewrote his script for Batman: The Dark Knight #5 (the result of which he describes as “a turd”), but credited him for it just the same.

It’s for the readers who buy and read comics because they follow specific comics creators that Jenkins’ criticisms of the Big Two should be especially troublesome, however. When somebody buys a comic book expressly because, say, Andy Diggle is credited as the writer on it, they’re buying it based on the assumption that Diggle is the one largely responsible for crafting the plot and the dialogue, and that it’s his creative vision, maybe tempered by editorial suggestions and guidance here and there, that ultimately makes it on the page, not a story and a script mostly dictated by marketing/licensing concerns or an editorial committee’s edicts. Of course, it could happen that a given writer’s storytelling and creative goals and the editorial/marketing goals neatly align and complement each other. But what happens when they don’t? Is it up to us readers, then, to adjust our expectations and make room for the possibility that when we are reading a popular Marvel or DC comic book, what we are actually reading is a story sculpted at different points by various hands, guided by an organizational, marketing-based precept and not by the writer’s own creative drive and storytelling intuition?

Even as Jenkins’ open letter shined a light on an aspect of mainstream superhero comics creation rarely discussed outside of professional circles and the comics insider circuit, it also raised an even bigger and fundamentally more important question: Are the comics written via this veiled—and sometimes coerced—collaborative effort appreciably worse in quality than the comics written primarily by a single writer or a designated writing team? Jenkins believes so. Casey and Kirkman think so, too. So do Mark Waid, Karen Berger, George Pérez, Andy Diggle, Joshua Hale Fialkov, Rob Liefeld, Chris Claremont, Peter David, Louise Simonson, and Larry Hama. Not too long ago, DC Entertainment co-publisher Jim Lee would have passionately agreed with them. Many writers, artists, and yes, even editors have expressed similar opinions as well over the past months and years. A lot of readers on message boards and blogs and social media outlets seem to be of the same mindset on this issue as well. But I’ll bet you that for every industry professional or reader who thinks that the way DC and Marvel approach comics-writing now is a bad thing and has a list of examples to prove his or her point, you’ll find one who genuinely and honestly thinks otherwise and who has a similarly long list of counter-examples. We can look at year-on-year sales numbers of certain marker titles, but the relationship between commercial success and qualitative merit, however one chooses to define it, is tenuous and ill-defined at best and comics sales volumes can and do fluctuate for reasons independent of arbitrary judgments of quality and entertainment value.

Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos' Fairy Quest recently set the Kickstarter funding record for a comics project. BOOM! Studios recently acquired the publishing rights to the book.

Paul Jenkins and Humberto Ramos’ Fairy Quest recently set the Kickstarter funding record for a comics project. BOOM! Studios is currently publishing a serialized version of the book.

There are no simple and clear-cut answers to these questions, but what I do know is that there are many options, perhaps more than ever, for Jenkins, Casey, and other like-minded comics creators to—as today’s kids say—sack up and bring it. Image Comics, Dark Horse Comics, BOOM! Studios, IDW Publishing, Oni Press, and other smaller outfits all offer viable publishing alternatives for comics creators to get their work out there. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo provide a means for comics creators to directly solicit fans and supporters for financial patronage. Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin have shown that a third-party crowdfunding partner can even be bypassed successfully with their recent launch of The Private Eye. Mark Waid and Greg Rucka are two multiple Eisner Award-winning print comics creators venturing into the world of free webcomics and exploring alternative methods of monetization. Many of today’s top comics creators—Waid, Rucka, Mark Millar, Brian Wood, Garth Ennis, Jonathan Hickman, Matt Fraction, Antony Johnston, Jimmy Palmiotti, Jason Aaron, Rick Remender, and Becky Cloonan among them—have even been able to balance high-profile work-for-hire DC or Marvel assignments and licensed comics work alongside significant creator-owned projects.

Maybe Jenkins is right. Maybe DC and Marvel are content to produce “a homogenized puddle of ‘meh'” as long as they can keep making blockbuster movie money off of their IPs and get enough people to buy into their line relaunches and their “one-crossover-leading-into-the-next-crossover” strategy. But whether or not his read on the state of the industry is accurate or fair, the multiplicity and diversity of creator-owned comics publishing and distribution options for today’s comics writers and artists means that readers have a wealth of reading options available to them, too. And that still makes me reasonably optimistic about the creative prospects for the industry as a whole.

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