The GeeksverseThe Roundtable | On Eric Stephenson’s ComicsPRO speech

The Roundtable | On Eric Stephenson’s ComicsPRO speech
Published on Tuesday, March 4, 2014 by
Troy and Zedric discuss Image Comics president Eric Stephenson’s provocative ComicsPRO speech.

Bet you didn’t know this is what the ComicsPRO logo looks like before today.

The annual meeting of the Comics Professional Retail Organization (ComicsPRO), the North American trade organization for direct market comic book retailers (i.e., comic book specialty shops) isn’t normally the type of event that generates headlines and inspires fierce and passionate social media rejoinders from creators, comics press, fans, bloggers, and industry bigwigs. But leave it to Image Comics president Eric Stephenson to arouse all manner of reactions with the speech he gave at the 2014 ComicsPRO Appreciation Awards ceremony. The full text of Stephenson’s speech can be read/downloaded in PDF format by clicking on this link, and it’s really worth reading.

Maybe your Monday morning water cooler discussion was dominated by the Oscar Awards results. Here at the Comixverse’s transcontinental virtual office, however, Editor-in-Chief Troy Osgood and editor Zedric Dimalanta spent most of the morning batting e-mails back-and-forth talking about Stephenson’s points and the tenor of the immediate community response to it. Below is an edited, reformatted, partial transcript of that e-mail exchange:

Troy Osgood (5:12 AM PST): Going to try to write something on Stephenson’s ComicPRO address.

Zedric Dimalanta (10:30 AM PST): Stephenson’s negative opinion of licensed comics isn’t a new one, unfortunately. I’ve written about some of the reasons why some people still think licensed comics are an inherently inferior type of sequential art in the second section of this article.

Anyway, I think the bulk of my opinions on Stephenson’s speech are reflected in Dark Horse president Mike Richardson’s response. I agree with many of Richardson’s counterpoints.


Eric Stephenson in 2013.

At the same time, I can’t really come down too hard on Stephenson for his somewhat rant-y speech—especially since I’ve shared many of the same sentiments in a number of my recent opinion pieces (this one in particular).

Beyond that, the comics industry needs guys like Stephenson and The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman who constantly push buttons and ruffle feathers, because no one else is going to advocate for independent comics creators and original creator-owned IPs, at least no one with their far-reaching commercial clout.

I mean sure, Fantagraphics Books’ Gary Groth has been saying pretty much the same thing for the last 35 years, but really, I think everybody’s tuned him out by now or never bothered to listen in the first place. And yes, Mark Waid has been saying similar things on his Thrillbent blog (albeit in a more measured manner and from a less extreme ideological position, given that he still works with the Big Two and licensed properties), but as popular as Waid is, his attempts to provoke discussions like the ones Stephenson’s speech has inspired never really seem to move the needle beyond getting bloggers talking on social media for a few days. I can’t recall publishing company heads directly and publicly responding to Waid’s blog posts with the same vigor as Stephenson’s speech (although this media hubbub does remind me of the industry reaction to Mark Waid’s 2010 Harvey Awards keynote address). If it takes Stephenson and Kirkman pissing comics industry people off every few months with their inflammatory comments to stimulate real discussion about how the industry needs more original ideas and lower comics prices, I’m all for it.

One drawback of Stephenson’s deliberate attempts to provoke strong responses with his words is that a lot of the important points he raised in his speech will probably be overlooked in favor of the more controversial comments. (Bleeding Cool’s Rich Johnston is, true to muckraker form, driving the “he said, she said” sensationalism train instead of enjoining the community to engage in a broader analysis of Stephenson’s comments.)

Here’s a number of excellent points Stephenson made that will probably be forgotten in all the chin-wagging over his casual denigration of Star Wars, G.I. Joe, and Transformers comics:

  • There are only two kinds of comics that matter: Good comics and bad comics.
  • Weekly and bi-weekly comics series will push customers to the brink of what they’re willing to pay for their regular comics.
  • Comics need to be cheaper.
  • Variant covers and gimmick covers will probably hurt the industry more than help it in the long run.
  • For the comics industry to flourish, it has to educate the public that comics are more than just Marvel and DC superheroes.
  • The industry needs to do more to encourage girls and women to read comics.

Troy (10:57 AM PST): I don’t agree with Richardson’s response to Stephenson’s comments on cover variants. Stephenson said that everybody complains about variants flooding the market, but ultimately. it’s the demand from comics retailers that drive publishers to produce variants, not publisher policy.

Richardson remarks that he finds Stephenson’s comment disingenuous but I think he’s missing Stephenson’s point: He’s simply stating that in the case of variants, publishers are giving what the retailers are asking for, they’re not “forcing” variants onto the market.

The original Bleeding Cool article’s headline was stupid. It just read “Stephenson says Star Wars is not a Real Thing” or something like that. Completely focusing on one sentence from the long speech and reworking it for maximum sensationalism.

I tend to agree with Stephenson.

I don’t see the licensed comics as “real,” in the sense that I think Stephenson meant it: They don’t and can’t really exist independently of the primary source material (whether they’re toys or films or whatever). The licensor can decide to rewrite and discard their canonical status at  any time, and forces and pressures beyond the comics industry directly control their fate.

WalkingDead1They can be used as gateways into comics, sure (I got into comics through Marvel’s licensed 1980s G.I. Joe comic myself) and while there can be some pretty awesome stories, they don’t seem to matter in the long haul, at least in terms of their canonicity in relation to the primary source material. All of Dark Horse’s Expanded Universe Star Wars stuff is getting eliminated from canon as Disney plans to streamline Star Wars continuity and focus on the movie timeline and fiction, for example.

The Walking Dead started as a comic and as long as Kirkman owns the property, the comic will always be the primary creative driving force behind multimedia spin-offs and that, I think, is what Stephenson meant when he said that The Walking Dead is a more “real” comic than, say, Dark Horse’s (and soon-to-be Marvel’s) Star Wars and IDW’s G.I.Joe.

I think Stephenson meant that the licensed comics aren’t “real” in that they aren’t comic book industry-focused and they’re not the first things that fans of the IP think of when related media is mentioned. Licensed comics may convert some fans of the IP to fans of the comics medium, true, but it’s not the primary means by which publishers should be sustaining the industry.

Zedric (11:23 AM PST): Yeah, I agree with you in that I think the point Stephenson wanted to make as far as his slagging licensed comics as “not real” is that they may not be creating new comic book fans… they’re just getting existing fans of the IPs to buy the licensed comics, and there’s no reason to believe that these fans will actually stick around and become fans of the larger artform and the medium of comics.

Hellboy_Seed_of_Destruction_1By a somewhat similar token, I do think that the multimedia crossover success of IPs that originated in comics like, say, Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, is, in a certain way, a better indicator of overall comics industry health and the commercial and cultural relevance of the comics medium than the vigorous sales of licensed Adventure Time and My Little Pony comics.

That being said, I do know a number of people who, like you, became comics fans after sampling, say, the 1980s Marvel G.I. Joe stuff, and kept reading comics long after their interest in G.I. Joe faded, but they could be the minority for all I know. It’s certainly very possible that the vast majority of kids who were buying and reading G.I. Joe comics in the 1980s never bought any other comics besides G.I. Joe and related offshoot titles, and that they quit reading comics altogether once they lost interest in Hasbro’s toy soldier or the original Marvel G.I. Joe comics ceased publication.

Personally, I think the most important point Stephenson made is that all that really matters, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, is the quality of the comics. I guess where I sort of disagree with him is his implied contention that a good licensed comic can never be as good as a good “original” comic. I think the former will face more challenges from a creative standpoint, just because creators have to appease marketing/licensing flacks who may know nothing about comics, but apart from that, I don’t think there’s any real barrier preventing licensed comics from being as good as original comics, at least from the perspective of technical execution (as opposed to the more nebulous standard of “realness”).

Is Disney/Marvel really discarding all the Dark Horse Expanded Universe Star Wars stuff when it gets the license next year? Wouldn’t it make more sense for them to keep that stuff in play, and make money off of the reprint rights to the Dark Horse Star Wars stuff?

Troy (11:26 AM PST): From what I understand the entire Expanded Universe (comics, novels, etc..) is being discarded in favor of a streamlined canon based on events seen in the six Star Wars movies, the Clone Wars cartoon, Rebels (the new cartoon), and everything that will flow out of the new Disney movies and the new Disney movies themselves, of course.

Zedric (11:34 AM PST): Ah. I guess that makes sense. Sort of.

Seems like a huge waste of a back-catalogue of material for trade/hardcover reprints, though. I think a deluxe hardcover collected edition of Dark Horse’s The Star Wars (the miniseries based on the original Lucas screenplay) would absolutely kill it on the bookstore market. Then again, it’s a non-continuity/non-Expanded Universe title, so maybe Marvel will eventually reprint that.

Troy (11:38 AM PST): And I think that just reinforces Stephenson’s statement of licensed comics not being “real.” Disney is basically waving its magic wand (or rather, pulling a Jedi Mind Trick) and saying that the last 22 years of Star Wars comics stories published by Dark Horse never happened (not that the movies “really happened” of course, but you know what I mean).

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