The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 204 | Robert Kirkman: Mission Accomplished?

Leaving Proof 204 | Robert Kirkman: Mission Accomplished?
Published on Thursday, October 17, 2013 by
In 2008, Robert Kirkman declared that he was on a mission “to save the entire comic book industry.” Five years on, has he actually succeeded? ALSO: Quick thoughts on Justin Aclin and Nicolas Selma’s S.H.O.O.T. First #1 and other stuff.

With the close of the New York Comic Con (NYCC) last Sunday came the end of the major comic book convention season. Oh, there are still some fairly big two- and three-day comics shows remaining on the calendar—there are a couple of Wizard World shows (Nashville this weekend and Austin next month), as well as Stan Lee’s Comikaze Expo in Los Angeles and the UK’s Thought Bubble Festival in November—but by and large, NYCC was the last event where we expected to hear major announcements from publishers about new titles, contracts, storylines, and IP acquisitions until perhaps January 2014’s Wizard World Portland or March 2014’s Emerald City Comicon.

Even then, there weren’t that many big stories coming out of NYCC—most publishers had already blown through their wad of major project reveals at the San Diego Comic-Con or in the case of Image Comics, at its own, internally-managed press event. If anything, NYCC is really about looking back on the successes and failures of the previous nine months. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any significant announcements, though. Marvel and Dark Horse, perhaps sensing that the competition would be more focused on reiterating the messages of previous conventions, came out with a late barrage of new series announcements that dominated much of the blog-o-sphere coverage. And fans attending the “Archie Comics: Zombies, Heroes, Cartoons, Movies and more!” panel were left genuinely stunned by Michael Uslan’s announcement of the “Farewell, Betty and Veronica” storyline.

The most interesting NYCC narrative to me however, was seeing Robert Kirkman rightfully assume his place as the undisputed conquering hero of creator-owned comics. It was a little more than five years ago when Kirkman released his by now (in)famous mission statement, a rambling and impassioned rallying cry for established comics creators to wean themselves off of their dependence on work-for-hire contracts from Marvel and DC and focus their creative energies on cultivating and developing their own IPs.

[Trouble playing the embedded clip? The YouTube version of the video can be seen here]

WalkingDead1I thought that Kirkman raised many excellent points then, and I still do. But like many observers at the time, I also thought, “Easy for him to tell his peers to shun Marvel and DC, he’s got the reliable revenue stream of The Walking Dead to fall back on.” It’s worth noting however, that at the time Kirkman released the video announcing his departure from Marvel Comics so that he could work exclusively on creator-owned material, The Walking Dead was generating net income primarily from the sales of the trade paperback collections, and not from the sales of individual issues, a precarious situation given that America’s number one chain bookstore at the time, the now-liquidated Borders group of stores, was teetering on bankruptcy. Indeed, Borders’ closures drastically reduced trade paperback sales volumes—it certainly played a large role in the relative decline of the North American manga tankōbon import/reprint industry—so as much as Kirkman going all-in with The Walking Dead seems like a no-brainer in retrospect, it’s not as if the decision to go creator-owned full-time in 2008 didn’t carry with it some significant risk.

walkingdead115

Last week’s The Walking Dead #115 is poised to be the direct market’s best-selling single issue of 2013 with 352,000 issues sold to date and a second print run on the way.

Here’s the thing: Kirkman could have just remained content with maintaining The Walking Dead as one of the few creator-owned titles that could go toe-to-toe sales-wise with Marvel and DC’s biggest superhero titles, and we would still be talking about him as a notably successful purveyor of creator-owned comics. But he kept growing The Walking Dead. Going into Friday’s “The Walking Dead 10th Anniversary” panel, word had just come in that this month’s The Walking Dead #115 registered the highest direct market sales numbers of 2013 at 352,000 copies sold (a number unlikely to be topped this late in the year), marking the second year in a row that an issue of The Walking Dead has held the top annual single-issue sales spot in the direct market. This past Sunday, the Season 4 premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead (where Kirkman serves as executive producer and writer) broke the cable TV record for most-watched show, a record that the show already held previously. Telltale Games’ episodic video game adaptation of Kirkman’s zombie comic has won universal acclaim in the gaming press, earning 2012 “Game of the Year” plaudits from USA Today, Wired, Complex, GamesRadar, Destructoid, Digital Trends, the Spike Video Game Awards, and Official Xbox Magazine and perhaps most important with regards to the comics source material, it won the “Outstanding Achievement in Story” award at the 2013 D.I.C.E. Interactive Achievement Awards and the “Best Narrative” award at the 2013 Game Developers’ Choice Awards.

In his 2008 manifesto, Kirkman made the bold claim that he left Marvel Comics “to save the entire comic book industry,” to the snickers of some industry insiders and members of the peanut gallery, no doubt. And yet, here we are: The Walking Dead has achieved unprecedented cross-media critical and commercial success in comics, TV, and video games. The comic has become argument #1 in debunking the popular notion that North American readers are only interested in Marvel and DC’s superhero comics. Looking back, Kirkman’s audacious 2008 video can be considered the first of many recent statements by prominent, relevant, and commercially successful comics creators who have seen fit to give voice to their dissatisfaction with the creative and commercial state of affairs of Marvel/DC work-for-hire: Joe Casey (in his essay “For Which It Stands”), Paul Jenkins (in his letter to Comic Book Resources), and Mark Waid (most recently in his “open letter to young freelancers”) have publicly echoed sentiments similar to Kirkman’s in the months and years since. It’s not for me to say if he’s “saved” the comics industry. (Saved it from what, exactly, I don’t know: Irrelevance? Creative bankruptcy? Commercial ruin?) But what I can say is that he’s left an indelible mark on it, and that his success should be an inspiration for every comics creator looking to carve out a sustainable, comfortable, and creatively rewarding living making original comics.

Everything old is “All-New” again

In his video manifesto, Kirkman likened the comics creation process at Marvel to a filmmaker stuck in the task of forever making “Pulp Fiction 2” or a novelist churning out nothing but sequels to Moby Dick. Note, for example, how similar the description of the January 2014 crossover between the All-New X-Men and Guardians of the Galaxy, “The Trial of Jean Grey,” is to Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s 1980 storyline classic, “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” Here’s the description of the former from our article covering the announcement:

[“The Trial of Jean Grey” is] a six-part story arc about what happens when the universe’s authorities mount an expedition to Earth to capture the new Jean Grey to take her to stand trial for her crimes as the Phoenix and the All-New X-Men and the Guardians of the Galaxy band together to rescue her from their clutches.

Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, it’s probably because you haven’t read or have forgotten about “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” the nine-issue storyline that ran through The Uncanny X-Men #129–138 and established Claremont and Byrne as the premier superhero comics creator duo of the early 1980s. Here’s a portion of the plot summary from Wikipedia (33 year-old spoiler warning!):

The Shi’ar abduct the X-Men, tell them of Dark Phoenix’s casual genocide, and declare that she must be put to death. Xavier challenges Lilandra to Arin’n Haelar, a Shi’ar duel of honor that cannot be refused. After conferring with the Kree and Skrull, Lilandra cedes to Xavier’s demand.

TrialofJeanGreyThere is a practical wisdom in trying to capitalize on past successes, of course, and it’s not as if Marvel is the only publisher that can be accused of recycling old story concepts and dressing up old fare in new garb. But there is also probably something deadening to the creative sensibilities when one is perpetually and deliberately rehashing and refreshing old storylines. Going through the list of new title launches and extended story arcs has me asking what exactly is “new” about the “All-New Marvel NOW!” campaign. It looks to me like pretty much the same old characters doing the same old things, but with a contemporized spin.

In looking at all the “new” Avengers, X-Men, and Spider-Man titles and crossovers and events slated for next year, not to mention DC’s announcements of a new weekly Batman title and Superboy’s impending death in some event or other, I am reminded of something Preacher and Punisher writer Garth Ennis said last year in an interview with Sci-Fi Now:

I find most superhero stories completely meaningless, which is not to say I don’t think there’s potential for the genre—Alan Moore and Warren Ellis have both done interesting work with the notion of what it might be like to be and think beyond human, see Miracleman, Watchmen and Supergod. But so long as the industry is geared towards fulfilling audience demand—i.e., for the same brightly colored characters doing the same thing forever—you’re never going to see any real growth. The stories can’t end, so they’ll never mean anything.

Simpsons'_Watchmen_Babies

The Simpsons writers had no idea how prophetic this scene from 2007’s “Husbands and Knives” episode would turn out to be five years later.

Granted, something like “The Trial of Jean Grey” or “All-New Ghost Rider” is still a big step up in terms of innovation and originality compared to the plague of remakes infecting Hollywood. I do wonder how long it will be until comics from the Big Two become stuck in the same creative holding pattern as many of the major film studios, mining and cannibalizing its past for ideas as today’s top creators—people like Kirkman, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Mike Mignola, Jonathan Hickman, Matt Fraction, Brian Wood, Brian K. Vaughan, to name a few who have either gone exclusively with creator-owned work in past years or entered into contracts with Marvel or DC that allow them to do creator-owned work for other publishers—keep their freshest and most promising ideas for themselves for use in creator-owned work. There’s no doubt in my mind that today’s top comics creators have learned from the mistakes made by Siegel and ShusterJack Kirby, Gary Friedrich, Alan Moore, and so many others in dealing with the Big Two. Nobody wants to be the sap who makes a Marvel or DC comic that earns Disney or Warner Bros. hundreds of millions, or even billions of dollars in related merchandise and film/TV revenue while he or she receives a relative pittance in return, not when more creator-friendly publishers like Image Comics, Dark Horse, and BOOM! Studios exist that allow for more equitable profit-sharing.

I’m not saying that Rucka, Waid, Hickman, Fraction, Wood et al are willfully putting a cap on the quality of their work-for-hire output, mind you. Rucka’s Punisher, Waid’s Daredevil, Hickman’s Avengers, Wood’s X-Men, and Fraction’s Hawkeye are all entertaining reads and I’m confident in saying that they’re doing the best that they reasonably can on those titles given the circumstances of work-for-hire arrangements and their own creative and career priorities. But as freelancers, nobody is going to look out for these guys but themselves, and it’s in their best long-term interest to ensure that their creative energies and most original ideas are reserved for work that, at the end of the day, they fully own and get to profit directly from as far as royalties, licensing, merchandising, and film rights are concerned. As Image Comics president Eric Stephenson was quoted saying in a recent Multiversity feature:

Success begets success, and when people look at things like ‘Saga’ and ‘The Walking Dead,’ or books like ‘Chew’ and ‘The Manhattan Projects,’ and ‘Fatale,’ they realize it isn’t just one guy catching lightning in a bottle. They realize that if they’ve built up an audience for their work, they can stand on their own and be successful with material that they create, own, and control, and they can do it without being bullied or lied to by people whose sole motivation is making sure the numbers add up for everybody other than the creator.

Hellboy_Seed_of_Destruction_1It’s not that I think work-for-hire comics outfits have become irrelevant in this unprecendented era of multiple, unmitigated creator-owned commercial successes like Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Mignola’s Hellboy as well as webcomics phenomena like Aaron Diaz’ Dresden Codak and Michelle Czajkowski’s Ava’s Demon. What I think is happening is that the publishing hierarchy, as far as the ladder that creators had to climb in order to achieve the highest levels of critical validation and commercial returns, has changed.

It used to be that a stable, multi-year work-for-hire stint on a top-selling Marvel or DC title was the apex of what the North American comics freelancer could realistically aspire to as far as earning a living wage making comics and cultivating as large a following as possible. These days, the motivated, ambitious, and sufficiently talented and lucky comics professional can look at a gig working for one of the Big Two’s superhero comics not as the ultimate career goal, but as a means to a more lucrative and creatively-fulfilling end producing creator-owned material.

Odds and sods

  • AvengersEW_coverI’m not one to compare my reviews of comics to that of others—it’s not like I have a lot of time to spare to check out what everybody else thinks—but given the hype surrounding it, I was interested in what other commenters had to say about Marvel’s Avengers: Endless Wartime (my review of the Warren Ellis-penned graphic novel can be read here). There’s the expected, barely coherent gushing from the usual suspects that I won’t link to here, but a comics commenter and journalist whose work I read now and again and whose opinions I respect (if not always agree with) when it comes to superhero comics, the A.V. Club‘s Oliver Sava, had many of the same negative impressions of the book that I had. Even the charitable denizens of Amazon.com haven’t been too kind to the book: Reactions range from “not Ellis’ best work” to “dreadful on all counts” to “meh” to “Ellis is going through the motions.” (It’s currently sitting at a 2.5 out of 5 Amazon rating.) I can’t think of any other “name” writer out there besides Warren Ellis with such a wide perceived gulf between the quality of his best creator-owned material and his doing-it-to-pay-for-the-new-kitchen-addition work-for-hire stuff. On one end, you’ve got mind-blowing comics like Transmetropolitan and Global Frequency and on the other, there’s competent but utterly unremarkable superhero pap like Avengers: Endless Wartime and The Ultimate Galactus trilogy and his snooze-inducing, plot hole-riddled screenplay for the well-animated but poorly-written and paced G.I. Joe: Resolute.

 

  • shoot1I’ve recently finished reading the digital review copy Dark Horse Comics provided of S.H.O.O.T. First #1, which is “about how we deal with the loss of faith, plus it’s got crazy sci-fi action and a robot arm-wrestling a demon” according to writer and creator Justin Aclin. It’s an interesting read that tackles a pretty touchy topic—atheism—from a viewpoint that I am sympathetic to given certain factors related to my upbringing as well as my educational background. At the same time, I’m a little wary of the possibility that the satirical bent of the writing might undermine for certain readers the scientific skepticism that I think to be the heart of Aclin’s story. I’m also curious as to whether Aclin will explore in future issues how developments in theoretical physics affect what we consider to be observed evidence and if this impacts in any way the concepts of “faith” and “empirical truth.” (Margaret Wertheim, author of Physics on the Fringe and director of the Institute of Figuring, has written an excellent article discussing how quantum mechanics is changing the very basis of how we view the world.) Anyway, look out for our October First Impressions article, due at the end of the month, for my full review of S.H.O.O.T. First #1.

 

  • merrellbareaccess2Long-time Leaving Proof readers will know of what is now my 18 month-long ongoing “experiment of one”  in minimalist running and how I’ve gone from running with conventional running shoes to training with less-structured, “zero-drop” footwear like the Merrell Trail Glove and the Skechers GoBionic. (I also picked up a heavily discounted pair of True Gloves a few months back but running in them resulted in a mess of bloody ankles that had me off my feet for a few days. I used to wonder why the model was so quickly discontinued after its release—now I know. “Caveat emptor” and all that.) Anyway, I picked up a steeply discounted pair of Merrell Bare Access 2 running shoes over the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend and while I haven’t been able to get in a run with them yet, I think the fit is fine. It definitely feels like a more cushioned version of the Trail Gloves, which is exactly what I’m looking for. The Trail Gloves are great on the trails and forest paths near where I live, but I figure I need something with a little more cushioning as fall turns to winter and my running routes will largely be restricted to urban asphalt and concrete surfaces. I do have some slight concern about the loss in flexibility and ground-feel, but they don’t actually feel significantly thicker or stiffer underfoot than the GoBionic despite the full-length Vibram rubber outsole on top of the 8mm of what I’m assuming is EVA cushioning.
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4 Responses
    • I have a hard time listening to anyone that does the “creator-owned is the only way to go” when they got their start, and made their name, doing Work-For-Hire. Granted, Kirkman was never as big a WFH name as Waid/Jenkins/Casey, but he still cut his teeth there before moving on to doing creator-owned. When he did his Manifesto and “quit” WFH (not that anyone was really beating down his door to hire him) he had The Walking Dead, Invincible (and it’s associated spin-offs) so wasn’t that risky. (Also, for all his pro-creator-owned speak, Kirkman still has people doing work-for-hire on his properties)

      The reason that creators still want to work for the Big Two (and they know the “risks” and hurdles) is the name recognition as well as just the ability to writer characters that they grew up reading.

      There’s a happy medium and guys like Hickman, Fraction are finding it. There is no just creator-owned or WFH, nothing prevents people from doing both. Creator-owned is more creative freedom, that’s obvious, but there can still be fun (success) and new things to discover/play with in the Big Two (as Mark Waid knows and is showing with Daredevil).

      I don’t think “saving comics” has anything to do with creator-owned vs work-for-hire. It’s more about creative freedom work-for-hire vs editorial/marketing driven work-for-hire.

      DC is a creative pit because it’s editor driven. Marvel has some titles like that, but then you have the epics that Jonathan Hickman has created with Fantastic Four and Avengers.

      What’s kind of interesting is that the opposite of what Kirkman said (leave the Big Two and go creator-owned) is happening. Guys that started in the creator-owned arena (Matt Kindt, Nathan Edmondson, Nick Spencer, Ales Kot, Justin Jordan) are working on work-for-hire books at the Big Two (and elsewhere).

      It just proves that you can have your cake (creator owned) and eat it (work for hire).

      • The thing about this all, in my opinion, is that to get that “happy medium” you talk about of guys like Hickman, Fraction, Waid, Rucka, etc. doing creator-owned stuff alongside work-for-hire, the industry needs single-minded creator-owned comics evangelists and idealists like Kirkman, Erik Larsen, Eric Stephenson, etc. to show that it is possible to succeed doing solely creator-owned work after having established oneself with work-for-hire credentials. You can’t have a middle ground when only one side (Marvel/DC) is proven to be the viable alternative. (Also, from my viewing of it, Kirkman never said in his manifesto that creators should bypass DC/Marvel work-for-hire full-stop, only that they can use work-for-hire as a springboard to promote their creator-owned work.)

        I think a publisher like Dark Horse, with its mixed stable of books based on creator-owned, publisher-owned, and licensed IPs, understands this balance better than most. Dark Horse E-i-C Scott Allie, I think, explained it best in talking to Multiversity’s Matthew Meylikhov: “I know a lot of readers pledge their allegiance to creator-ownership, and I appreciate that, since the Mignola books have been such a huge part of my life, But I don’t think most readers are concerned with who owns the material they’re reading, they care about how good a read it is. And I’m not saying I don’t care. I wish to $%&# Joss owned Buffy. But whether we’re doing a creator-owned book like ‘Hellboy’ or a company-owned book like ‘The Occultist’ or a licensed book like ‘Serenity’, we’re trying to bring the same things to it, as much as we can.”

    • […] Leaving Proof 204 | Robert Kirkman: Mission Accomplished? October 17, 2013 […]

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