The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 211 | Is Marvel “destroying the comic book industry?”

Leaving Proof 211 | Is Marvel “destroying the comic book industry?”
Published on Wednesday, January 15, 2014 by
It’s a rhetorical question, of course, one that doesn’t merit an actual answer, but still, Robert Kirkman’s comments during last week’s Image Expo has us thinking about Marvel’s history and the challenges posed by comics’ current symbiosis with films and television.
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Kirkman cut professional ties with Marvel in 2008.

Leave it to the comics industry’s favorite muckraker Rich Johnston to shine the spotlight on a throwaway comment from Robert Kirkman’s Image Expo panel discussion and blow it up beyond all proportion. Asked by a fan about his relationship with Marvel Comics, the creator of The Walking Dead and Invincible replied that “[he doesn’t] have bad blood with Marvel per se, aside from the fact that [he thinks] they’re a poorly run company that is partially destroying the comic book industry.” Strong words from the writer who has worked on such Marvel titles as The Irredeemable Ant-Man and Ultimate X-Men, although Kirkman did temper his statement by subsequently saying that he’s a big fan of Marvel’s comics, and whatever criticisms he lobs at the publisher come not from a place of malice, but from the desire to see the company and its titles become better.

Is he right, though? Is Marvel “partially destroying the comic book industry” in any sense that can be rationally articulated?

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Even Stan Lee has had his share of legal disputes with Marvel Entertainment over issues of payment and profit-sharing.

Any attempt at parsing a creator’s criticisms of Marvel is inevitably complicated by the company’s sometimes contentious relationships with its best and brightest contracted talent. The list of artists and writers who have, at one time or another, had disputes with the publisher, its parent companies, and its editors over matters of IP ownership, payment and royalties, attribution, or creative conflict is long and distinguished. Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, John Buscema, Alfredo Alcala, Steve Englehart, Gary Friedrich, Steve Gerber, Len Wein, Elaine Lee, Mike Kaluta, Jim Starlin, Marv Wolfman, Bob Layton, Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Peter David, Alan Moore, Louise Simonson, the “Image Seven” (Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Todd McFarlane, Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, Whilce Portacio, and Rob Liefeld), among so many others, have all had their problems with working for Marvel or collaborating with its editors at various times and for various reasons, with the very worst cases leading to litigation and occasionally, a complete and permanent severance of longstanding personal and professional relationships. Even Stan Lee, the human face of the company if there ever was one, had to resort to suing Marvel Entertainment just so he could receive his share of the monies from 2002’s Spider-Man and 2004’s Spider-Man 2, as per the terms of a previously negotiated profit-sharing deal.

Indeed, while Marvel and its editorial braintrust dive into 2014 with a public image of a creatively bold work-for-hire environment that is open to creator idiosyncracies and stylistic diversity, its less-than-sterling record when it comes to the past treatment of freelancers and employees still casts a long shadow in the minds of many readers, industry observers, and comics professionals.

Comics and the demands of marketing, licensing, and multimedia adaptation

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Acclaimed artist and writer George Pérez on one of the concerns that influenced his decision to sign a partially-exclusive contract with BOOM! Studios in 2013: “Many of the [DC and Marvel] characters I grew up with were turning into strangers whose adventures were determined by factors that had less and less to do with what made a good comic story and more to do with how these properties can be exploited for other purposes. There’s nothing wrong with that, I guess, but [it’s] not something that I felt was particularly satisfying for me as a storyteller.”

I do think that Marvel’s history informs Kirkman’s criticism of the publisher as much as his own experiences working with the the company. But look past the Joe Quesada-style public tweaking of a professional rival (which is rather quite ironic, really) and it’s clear in the broadsides Kirkman aims at Marvel (and occasionally DC) that he is repeating many of the same legitimate concerns less hyperbole-prone and more politic industry veterans like Joe CaseyPaul JenkinsMark WaidGeorge Pérez, and former DC executive and Vertigo Comics editor Karen Berger have brought up about where they think Marvel and crosstown rival DC appear to be headed. We’re looking at a disconcerting working situation where comics, in lieu of being created organically from the bottom-up by writers, artists, and yes, editors trying to make the best comics they can following the principles of proper writing, visual storytelling, and worldbuilding, are instead being increasingly dictated from the top-down by the demands of marketing and licensing bullet points, never mind that marketability and licensing potential mean dick-all if the actual comic is poorly executed and nobody can stand to read it.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with publishers and editors enjoining comics creators to cater to the requirements of the bottom line. Comics that don’t sell, regardless of their subjective merits as sequential art, hurt creators’ ability to make a living. But we should also be wary of the possibility that comics companies’ attempts to gain the widest readerships might lead to a stultifying, institutionalized creative orthodoxy, comics’ version of “aesthetic bankruptcy”—that phenomenon media scholar Charles Acland describes as the deliberate dulling of a film’s artistic vision in order to make it fit the mold of lowest common denominator, crowd-pleasing blockbuster fluff that neither does anything new nor takes creative risks—especially now that major studios are more interested than ever in exploiting comic books as ready source material for their summer-release tentpole movies.

It’s not just a Marvel problem

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for comics material being funneled into TV and film adaptations, because such an ecosystem can only bolster comics’ continued relevance in the New Media age and provide additional means for comics professionals to profit from their work in all manner of ways, assuming that equitable deals are in place for them to do so and their droits moraux are upheld and respected. But I do think it is problematic in terms of the stylistic and thematic diversity of comics (and the medium’s long-term viability) if comics creators start overwhelmingly tuning their work to fit film and TV executives’ preconceived notions of what makes for a hit property.

This is an issue that isn’t exclusive to Marvel or even work-for-hire comics in general: While I like most of what I’ve read of Steven Grant’s comics work, I have to admit that I felt a little twinge of disappointment when I saw the solicitation text and cover art of his new comic Deceivers (published by BOOM! Studios), which seemingly reiterates many of the surface features of his work on 2 Guns (the recent film adaptation of which did reasonably well at the box-office) and its sequel comics miniseries 3 Guns (a film adaptation of which is looking likely).

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While they’re all different implementations of the process of visual storytelling, the features that make for a good comic may not necessarily translate into a good film or TV show and conversely, there are things that work in film and TV that just can’t be as easily applied in comics. In his 2010 Harvey Awards keynote address, Mark Waid stated that “there are more ideas in one Wednesday in one comic shop than in three years of Hollywood.” It shouldn’t be up to comics creators to go out of their way to accommodate the creative and practical limitations of film and television production. Rather, it is incumbent upon film and television to meet comics’ standards for creativity and novelty.

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