I think I may have outgrown comics - Part 3 - Retreading old stories and Neutering good creators

Article / 24 February 2020


Having an unusually easy day today, so let's keep this ball rolling shall we? If you haven't read the previous pieces, please understand, I still love comics, just not the industry. For a more complete understanding of how my ramble started, feel free to check out the first article in this series, which you can find here: https://mgagnon81.artstation.com/blog/VNEN/i-think-i-may-have-outgrown-comics 

If you have followed my previous works, or the blog I used to do for Medium (let's face it, you didn't) I have touched on some of this subject before. You can get some of that here: https://medium.com/comicbookindustry/comic-book-industry-podcast-august-2018-1c58a7dc481e 

So, let's start with the biggest picture. The major publishers of the comics industry are all owned by Multi-Media conglomerates. This was not always the case. These monopolies bought these companies, not because they know or care about comics, but because they see the profit potential of owning the intellectual property for producing media spin-offs and licensing. 

In the old days people cared about the characters and everyone involved in making the books also cared about the characters. Even if that meant telling stories that put the characters in uncomfortable situations, they did it, not because they wanted to hurt the character, but because that is good comics. Good comics is good storytelling. Good movies are good storytelling, good video games are good story telling. You get the idea. 

So in the old days we had heroes addicted to heroine, heroes in unconventional relationships, all kinds of things that were very ahead of their time. Not the facade we have today, but I digress.

I was writing articles about the mainstream needing to make changes in comics decades ago. Needing to have more characters of different ethnicity, genders and sexual orientations. Not to be a "social justice warrior" or to push a "PC Agenda", but to reflect reality. If you want your comic world to have continuity and be set in a world that readers can accept as real, you need to reflect reality by having characters from all walks of life, not just over-muscled white dudes dominating every book with a handful of big-titted white women and a token black character. Real diversity. Written in a genuine nature by writers who care and aren't being mandated from above. What's passing for diversity of characters in comics right now is a facade. It's someone taking a cursory glance of a segment of the population and shoe-horning it into an old concept and re-packaging your own culture and selling it back to you. It's sad because it could be done in a much more genuine and honest way.

And tied together with something else I've always pushed. Aging of characters. Characters should age, even at the same speed as real life, get older, deal with life issues, have kids, families, protege's etc. Even superheroes. All flagship characters should be legacy characters. One of the themes comics has revisited over and over again is that a hero is a symbol and an ideal that is more powerful and bigger than any one person. We seem to make exception for the secret identity of a hero though. Batman is a timeless symbol who has the flexibility of telling a million potential stories. I don't think I can buy many more stories of playboy Bruce Wayne having to maintain his heroic identity, be essentially a one-man super-spy organization, a ninja and also keep the schedule of a Gotham socialite in order to maintain his secret. Batman can be anyone who has the right motivation. So can any super hero. True, some heroes have tried to pass on their mantle in the past, Batman included, but those stories were often done as a gimmick to increase sales or even just poorly executed and poorly received, but rarely have they ever tried to create a genuine succession over time that makes sense and is believable because of the history of the character. In the rare instance that much care and attention has been used, it worked,; like when Wally West transitioned from being Kid-Flash to the Flash, replacing his dead mentor. Of course, falling comic sales would push DC to cash in on a gimmick and undo that later, justifying the temporary jump in sales as a good excuse for ruining the work of many writers over decades, but that's the way of the world when money takes precedence. 

I'll steer myself back on track here to my original point, which was corporate oversight. The cost of mainstream acceptance of comics has been increased profitability, thus increased attention from the media conglomerates that have bought them as a prized asset. And those conglomerates do not want some lowly writer or artist to damage the value of their intellectual (intangible) property. They don't really see the publishers and editors (who used to be the top of the heap) much better either. They hand their decree to the editorial and publishing team and then they forward that to the lowly creators. They may decide it would be good for profits to include a new ethnic twist on a character, change genders, or flirt with questions of sexual orientation, but above all and definitely more important than those things, the standing order is: "DO NOT DEVALUE THIS PROPERTY". No bad press. No drastic or unpopular changes. It's a really lame status quo with the occasional veneer of ethnic or gender progress, always temporary and usually to distract from the fact that nothing significant ever drastically changes for good with a major character. Because that's what these media giants know. They don't know the 80 years of Batman or Superman stories. They know Superman is Clark Kent, he can fly, has a red cape and an S on his chest and forever it shall be. They don't know or see the potential of the ideas they own, they see a static one dimensional property that should never be changed for fear of lowering profits. And so, today's comic creators for the major publishers are hamstrung as never before, transcribing mandated stories more than being given the freedom to write their own. The decree comes from on high and trickles down to those who execute the work. Nothing too controversial. Nothing too risky. We don't want to ruin the profits for the next movie. The work that I've done for major publishers in the last 5 years has been the most creatively restrictive work I've ever done, even with me constantly pushing in every direction. Even being lucky enough to sneak some work in that wouldn't have been allowed, if I hadn't purposely turned it in too close to deadline for changes, for that exact reason. But they still weren't the stories I would have told with those characters if I'd been given the freedom too. An empty accomplishment that looks good on a CV.

I've done that song and dance and I'd rather just write my own stories and publish them with new formats and distribution channels that don't gouge the fans and readers unnecessarily for their hard earned money.

When it comes down to it, the industry as we know it is already living on borrowed time.

If you read the link above (let's face it, you didn't), Marvel has already been licensing the comic book rights of top tier characters to smaller publishers like IDW. It's only a matter of time before these media moguls figure out that they can make more money and reduce expenses by shutting down comic publishing and licensing the comic book characters to smaller publishers. Profits are in movies, media and merchandise. At this point the comics are about six feet away from being ads for the movies. The stories and likenesses of the characters are slowly being changed to match the Hollywood adaptations and it won't be long until the stories featured in the comics are inspired by the movies and not the other way around. Ad sales in the comics already generate more revenue than the actual print sales of the comics. Any media conglomerate has one goal in the world: increase profits, reduce expenses. It's all gravy and profits if they just license the rights to other publishers, instantly removing all of the expenses related to producing the comics. I don't think it's far off to say that within a decade of this writing the world of publishing superhero comics will be drastically different, and that firms like Marvel and DC will be more devoted to overseeing brands, licensing, film and media adaptations, than producing comics. It only makes sense for Disney or AT&T to cut their loses, reduce expenses and increase profits by focusing on the film and media spin-offs. Media adaptations are actually profitable and they will let the smaller publishers who license the comic book rights figure out how to make money with them after paying licensing, printing and production expenses. It does not bode well for the page rates of comic book professionals. 

In a pie in the sky world it would be great to see these media companies return the rights to the characters, that they paid millions for, to the original creators, or even let characters like Superman and Batman enter the public domain, but we know that's not going to happen. As mentioned before, corporate interest is based on increasing profit and reducing expense, not in good-hearted deeds or doing what is right.