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The Cult of the Comic Book Creator Part One


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By Hervé St-Louis
Oct 3, 2009 - 10:17

In response to my last articles on copyrights and comic book creators, where I explained the concept of the cult of the creator, a smart commenter responded to my article saying, essentially, that because he owned his comic book, which I suppose is a Web comics, that it would not be stale but a fresh alternative to material owned by large corporations like DC and Marvel Comics. His comment is typical cult of the creator attitude where it’s assumed that ownership leads to better comic books. Of course, this writer thinks that this is bullshit.

This assumption that comic books owned by their creators are better started first with the likes of Dave Sim in the 1980s, where he preached for creators to own their creations and not let them go to publishers. Dave Sim is the Canadian cartoonist better known for publishing Cerebus, a 300 issue comic book that started as a Conan the Barbarian spoof and went further into political study of anarchism and realism. I would argue that Sim’s Cerebus profess to be inspired by Thomas Hobbes, and some libertarian ideas. Those libertarian ideas, which of course Sim believes in, dictates to him that he should be his own man, his own master his own slave and that none of the work he does, should benefit a system or in the case of comic books a corporation.

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This reactionary attitude is of course an after effect of the dubious treatment of comic book artists in the 1970s and the liberalization of themes in North American comic books by independent artists that large publishers at the time, like DC and Marvel Comics would not publish because of the adult topics they covered in their material. As soon as a comic book creator went too far off the edge, his editors would rein him in because of the potential to damage the licensing appeal of the comic book property owned by the publisher and its parent company. It was easy for artists to feel alienated and restricted creatively. Combined with bad labour conditions for comic book artists, who failed to organize into collective organizations, the previous decade, the situation for creative individuals in the comic book industry was dire and not attractive professionally.

The best solution for budding creators, at the time, such as Dave Sim was to self publish their own comic books. What was once a market reaction to industry condition and an exploration of business opportunities became for Sim, a mantra that became more important that the contents in the comic book series he published. The very act of self publishing became a symbol rather than what was published. Many entrepreneurs start their businesses as an attempt to go against the system and improve it while serving their customers.  To be fair to self publishing pioneers like Dave Sim, self publishing in the 1970s was a tough endeavour, as the direct market in North America was just taking form and a dedicated audience for comic books past the youth segment was emerging.

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In the early 1990s, several popular comic book creators that worked with Marvel Comics decided to attempt to create their own comic book properties, faced with restrictions on some characters they had contributed and a feeling of not being justly compensated for the popularity and income their work did to generate revenue for Marvel Comics. At first, Canadian Todd McFarlane announced that he would publish his own comic book through Malibu Comics, a small publisher. He would keep his rights and just work on a mini-series. Before long, he had inspired other colleagues to jump ship from Marvel Comics. They banded and created an imprint called Image Comics. The tone against Marvel Comics grew angrier and the collective soon departed their Marvel Comic’s positions to dedicate their full effort to their new ventures. Marketing wise, leaving a secured job for a self publishing gig was a risk.

This writer argues that in order to alleviate the risk of their self publishing venture, the original founders at Image engineered a public relations’ story about how it was important for them to own their creations and be their own masters. They argued that with total creative control over their creations, that they could finally publish contents that would not be edited and allow them to reach their creative limits. But in order to make a successful jump on their own, the Image Comics’ founders needed the public to believe that their intentions were good and for the benefit of readers. They had to carve a marketshare on the shelf in the minds of readers to have them develop the habit that as well as buying Superman and Spider-man every month, that they also had to buy Spawn and Pitt. Buying Spawn and Pitt was not just buying a regular comic book; it was being part of a comic book revolution and changing the rules of the games.

Or so they said. In hindsight, the campaign to generate legitimacy to Image Comics, in its initial years worked well enough that many of the original founders succeed well financially. Creatively, the level of success is another matter. Just like Sim who had relied of artist Gerhard in the past to complete his work, so did many of the Image Comics founders rely on popular artists and writers to help their creations reach new creative heights. Many Image Comics’ creators set up studios where they engaged in work for hire practices that were relatively similar to those practiced by publishers such as DC and Marvel Comics. But because the comic books were owned by their original creators, comic book readers were continually told that the books were better and more genuine than anything published by DC and Marvel Comics.

The Image Comics endeavour was widely supported by old stalwarts like Dave Sim and seen as a confirmation that Mirage Studios’ model in developing Teenage Mutants Ninja Turtles, where creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird managed the property and delegated all creative tasks to other artists was viable. Of the Image Comics’ crowd, this writer would argue that very few really had the ideals of self publishing as a way to create better comic books and as a venue for self expression at heart. Jim Valentino and Erik Larsen are the two Image Comics founders who have been the most dedicated to their creations and are the romantic ideal of the self publisher. Todd McFarlane, in opposition looks like he engineered the whole Image Comics endeavour but needed the support of other artists to not fall by the way side like Neal Adams’ Continuity Comics a decade earlier. Other artists, like Whilce Portacio seem to have been swept by the enthusiasm of the Image Comics ideal without having thought through the entire consequences and thus were ill-prepared to become self publishers.

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Looking at the output of comic books from the founders of Image Comics, the quality of the books is not uniform and thus does not prove that self publishers produce better comic books than creators working on licensed properties owned by corporations.

The problem this writer has with the cult of the comic book creator, as romanticized by Image Comics, is that a whole generation of creator believes that the ultimate way to reach ultimate self expression is through self publishing. However, self publishing is a business venture and business is not artistry. It takes a different set of skills to be a comic book publisher and a comic book creator. But the cult of the comic book creator has led many talented creators to get burn by an industry ill-prepared to support them. An alternative offered to comic book creators who want to keep the ownership of their properties, is to work with an established publisher. However, here again, the cult of the comic book creator has twisted reality and makes it more difficult for creators to serve their public. I’ll go into that in Part Two of the Cult of the Comic Book Creator.


Last Updated: Nov 2, 2014 - 13:24
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Point of clarification
For the record: Dave Sim walks the walk as well as talks the talk when it comes to creators rights.

Gerhard (the background artist of Cerebus,) owned a share of Aardvark-Vanaheim (until he left the company, at which time he started to be paid for his share of the company,) and still retains the full rights to reprint his work on Cerebus.

No artist at either Marvel or DC has that right. Or owns a share of the company.

Yes, your point about some of the Image studios being not really different than Marvel or DC is a good one.

But Aardvark-Vanaheim IS fundamentally different than Marvel or DC, or Image.
#1 - Matt Dow - 10/05/2009 - 17:35
Hi Matt. Thanks for informing us on that important point. I wasn't aware of that at all. I think it's cool that Sim gives Gerhard his share. That would be what a normal writer/artist would do normally. I understand of course that the task assignment was not a clearcut writer artist model though.

More power to Sim.
#2 - Herve St-Louis - 10/05/2009 - 18:20
You make several good points, but I'd argue that your fundamental thesis--"self publishing doesn't lead to better comics" is a bit of a straw man. I don't think many people are arguing that self-publishing automatically leads to BETTER comics, just that it allows writers and artists to better reap the rewards of their work. The big comic book companies do have an awful history of exploiting their employees, and aside from your views on copyright (with which I essentially agree) it's undeniable that Kirby was unfairly treated by Marvel and denied the full profits that he earned by creating most of that company's stable of characters, as well as establishing the house style, helping to form the company's basic philosophy, etc. etc. There clearly would be no Marvel without Kirby.

For this reason I find it a bit odd that you're referring to "the Cult of the Creator", as if comic books and the characters that star in them came drifting down out of thin air, and corporations harvested them like fruit. In no other medium are the artists and storytellers who actually produce the work treated as interchangeable the way they are in comics. THIS is the bizarre, atypical attitude, yet apparently arguing that comic creators should be treated the same as those in other media comprises a "cult".
#3 - The Prankster - 10/07/2009 - 09:59
I'm not against creators, as was reported elsewhere. I'm not even against copyrights as was again reported elsewhere, but I do find that there is an emphasis on creators these days which is similar to a star system, but does not address the fundamental issue that the comics are not being read by a wide audience. That wide audience couldn't care less about the comic book industry's star system. Obviously, I haven't completed all I had to say on that topic, so it may seem like I'm not covering a bigger scope while such wording would lead one to believe there is more to the story - there is.

When I'm freed up a bit from work and thesis research (like never), I'll try to write the missing piece.

cheers
#4 - Herve St-Louis - 10/07/2009 - 23:37
Yeah, but Herve, that doesn't really address my point, which is that it's bizarre to call it "the cult of the creator", as if it's unnatural somehow to follow certain artists and writers because you like their work. The larger audience may not care about the comics "star system", but that's because they may only be casually interested in comics to begin with. Assuming said theoretical reader picks up a comic and enjoys it enough to start getting into comics in a serious way, it's hardly unlikely they're going to start tracking down the work of a specific writer or artist they like.

If these were standard-issue books we were talking about, this would be self-evident. If someone reads, say, their first Stephen King novel, and enjoys it, they're probably far less likely to say "Hey, I think I like horror novels" than they are to say "Hey, I think I like Stephen King novels". They could, of course, say both, but if they then set out to read other books by King, would they have fallen prey to "the cult of the author"? I hardly think so.

Refering to it as a "cult" sounds flip and contemptuous, when, again, it seems not only logical and natural but--to get a little more controversial--possibly healthier than choosing what books to read based on other criteria, such as the character featured or the company that produces it.

There's nothing odd about wanting to read books about, say, Batman. I like Batman. I will always gladly read a Batman comic if it's recommended to me. But I don't make it a goal to read everything featuring Batman--I don't know if that's even possible at this point. The fact of the matter is, even with a character I enjoy, like Batman, there's no guarantee that the story he's in will be any good; certainly it doesn't seem worth buying every Batman comic just on the chance it might be great.

On the other hand, I greatly enjoy Grant Morrison's work, so I made it a point to pick up his current run on Batman. At the same time, I'd gladly pick up a Morrison comic that didn't feature Batman, because I'm a fan of his writing.

To expect a creator who's done good work in the past to continue to do good work seems eminently logical to me, even if it means forming an emotional attachment to the crator (what good are comics if we can't form an emotional attachment?) To further assume that this creator might be happier and more motivated if he was earning more and had more control over his work likewise seems logical. Of course dashed-off, work-for-hire stuff from a great creator is still likely to be better than the heartfelt, self-published work of a hack, but surely having control over one's work might be a factor leading to better comics?
#5 - Prankster - 10/08/2009 - 16:24
Hi. I'm not saying it's wrong or even unhealthy to follow a particular artist. To each his own.

What I'm saying is that the way comic books are marketed these days put way more emphasis on the creator than warranted.

It is a cult (figuratively) because people that are involved in cults always deny that they are part of a cult - a group mind attitude that there is one way to perceive and appreciate comic books. This is what the article is denouncing, because as I've mentioned, it's hurting a lot of people that think they can also be super star comic book creators and that this is the way it should be. I want more emphasis on customer service from the comic book industry.
#6 - Herve St-Louis - 10/08/2009 - 22:44
"What I'm saying is that the way comic books are marketed these days put way more emphasis on the creator than warranted."

How? Why is it not warranted? Can you give examples of a comic that's been marketed with too much emphasis on its creator, to its detriment? Because it seems to me the only alternative is to market a comic based on the character or property it showcases, and if anything I'd say comics are, and have always been, way too reliant on these "franchises" rather than the writers and artists who create them. If you want to talk about not putting an emphasis on customer service, I'd say expecting people to keep mindlessly buying a superhero book, regardless of the creative team, has done far more damage to the comic industry, and for far longer, than Image ever did.

I certainly acknowledge that it is possible to view comics through other lenses than "who's actually producing the work"--postmodernism, death of the author, and all that--but I find it baffling that you're arguing against the validity of creator control and the acknowledgment of individual effort in a medium that has always been weighted heavily against this, and is clearly suffering because of it.

You complain about "rock star creators", even though, again, every other medium produces creative types who are feted for their accomplishments, and very few of those media are suffering for it. Your assumption seems to be that somehow this produces "a low level of customer service"--but if the artists and writers aren't looking out for the audience, who is? The big companies who publish the comics? I hardly think so. Big-name creators with control over their own work sometimes produce crap; faceless hacks who crank out product under strict limitations from a corporate overlord NEVER rise above mediocrity.

If your idea of "customer service" means "keep producing my Spiderman comics on-model, and I don't care how good they are", then yeah, I guess having individual artists who bring their own sensibilities to their work has the potential to interfere with that. I, personally, see "customer service" as "making good comics that surprise and challenge as well as entertain me", which I don't get from corporate franchises. I get them from individual authors and artists.

Herve, how do you feel about Stan Lee and Jack Kirby? For that matter, how do you feel about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster? Do you really feel that the way they were treated by the comics companies--which is pretty much the antithesis of elevating them to "rock star" status, aside from the recognition Kirby got late in his life--helped either their work or the comics industry as a whole? Because I sure don't.
#7 - Prankster - 10/10/2009 - 11:27
Adam, what you're trying to do is argue me to death until I agree with you. Won't happen. Not sure I need to answer your questions as they are all answered in the article, and the one that came just before that about copyrights.

While you and others in that industry continue to fight an old battle about creator rights, you're missing the bigger picture about how this industry is about to change fundamentally, like every other creative industry.

Just a few points.

1-There is a part two to this article. I don't intend on spilling the beans on that article here in replying to you message after message. It's kind of pointless. You've got half of my thesis here. Can you wait for me to deliver the rest? Grad school crunch right now. Can't help it.

2-You and many others don't like what I have to say about creators and their roles in the comic book industry. It seems that it's a problem when someone dares say that the way the chairs are assembled around the table may not be the only way they are assembled. Unfortunately that always lead people to accuses me of being a company man and all kinds of stupid crap "if you're not with us, you're against us."

I call it a cult because people are tangled in a web of interpretation about the comic book industry and can't pause and think through issues, the way I'm trying to do here. The moment I started contesting a bunch of accepted ideas, I was deemed a wakadoo to quote a popular blogger. I'm asking you and any one else to stop being defensive about the things I'm writing here. Stop saying I'm wrong, when you don't even pay attention to what I'm saying. Instead of just holding on to one or two sentences in this whole article, go back and re-read several times. Think about it. I'm not asking you to agree with me. I'm asking you to think about it.

It's not an easy read. It wasn't easy to write. This is stuff I've been thinking about for years. It's not something I just made up one morning. It shouldn't take you just one reading to understand, because I have to re-read it too and I wrote the thing.

Then, ask me the right questions, not those that assume I'm going one direction when a careful reading would indicate I am not or left a topic unaddressed.

Key points to remember when you read my articles.

1-The customer is always the most important.
2-I don't care about traditions and past debates. I'm focusing on the future of comic books and trying to philosophy about them. I'm acutely concerned about their future.
3-If I didn't care about comics, and a lot of what they stand for, I wouldn't bother writing this.

This is not intended as a personal insult to you Adam. I'm not saying you can't read. But a lot of people, you include debate me about things that are not in the article, and that is annoying.

Some of it will be in the next, some won't. Meanwhile, read all that I've written on business plans and copyrights on this site. That will help you get where I'm going with this and in the case of the business plan stuff, might help you in your own projects.

cheers
#8 - Herve St-Louis - 10/10/2009 - 21:21

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