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.
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.
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.
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.