Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Change in Comics from the Sixties to the Present Day - Part 03...

A look at the content, the creators and the marketplace…
Hi Guys,

Today I am going to conclude this series with a final look at the major changes between the sixties and the present day starting from where we left the last Blog with Image Comics in the USA back in the early nineties.

With the young artists being denied any further page rate, or royalty increases from Marvel comics and feeling that Marvel believed they were not as important as the characters upon which they worked they decided to cut their losses and work for themselves by setting up the new comic publishing imprint.

The early success of the company lay in their ability to continue giving the fans what they wanted through a variety of new characters and teams in much the same vein as those they had worked at Marvel. For the most part they were cloned versions of the characters they had been working on at Marvel.

In their actions they proved that they were equally as important as the characters themselves, at least for a time.

Early sales rocketed their incomes to new heights and a glut of new product aligned the shelves of the direct sales shops, in defiance of Marvel, showing them they didn’t need the company, just their abilities as creatives.

There were problems though with their product that without any real kind of editorial direction, or input the titles were soon found to be lacking in the script department, except for one title Spawn, created, written and drawn initially by Todd McFarlane, who has since moved on to become the most successful of the group, with real entrepreneurial skills, with a comic company, toy company, animation company, and a travelling baseball museum amongst other things, to his credit.

Script wise this one stood out from the others. There were other things which the fans soon found lacking with the conic range, as more and more artists began to emulate the original artists to leave Marvel and the house style became a watered down version of itself. One artist in particular, Rob Liefeld, whose drawing style had already discarded all remnants of realistic anatomy, was being badly copied and this made matters worse as the comics took on the appearance of splash pages with large panels dominating each page surrounded by tiny panels. This meant that these pages were more likely to sell to collectors, as traditionally panelled pages never sold as well, or for as much money, as covers and splash pages, but in real terms this new style of layout created a glut of bad storytelling.

Here in the UK Marvel was beginning to become the dominant comics publisher and it began to move into US format Superhero sagas. This was where I had my second bite of the Marvel cherry as the comics saw a similar growth in titles per month on the shelves.

By this time most of the UK competition had folded and the only remaining comics were 2000AD, licensed titles and the nursery titles, most of which were being produced by Marvel UK anyhow.

This period for me was my busiest yet and saw me working in the UK for 2000AD, Marvel UK and DC comics and Defiant comics in the US all simultaneously.

The second brain drain happened and I found myself a part of this movement to the States and in my case as you may have read previously here in my Blog I literally lived there, working in New York for Jim Shooter’s Defiant comics.

On both sides of the Atlantic it seemed that things were just getting better and better, as more publishers opened their doors in the US and also, to a smaller degree, in the UK. Suddenly we had more work than ever before and everything looked rosy.

The American comic book industry saw large numbers of new companies start up creating cloned copies of already existing characters in the superhero genre and also saw almost every conceivable name for a character, or team used and trademarked during this period. The trouble was most of it was just generic material and a poor version, or rather watered down version of other stuff already on the market.

I may be biased in my assumption, but for me the only really new approach to US comics came in the form of Defiant, who were forced out of the running by the corporate machinations of Marvel comics who saw Jim Shooter’s new company as a direct threat to themselves, as he had already had enormous impact over at Valiant, his first company since being forced out of his position of editor-in-chief at Marvel.

Marvel and DC expanded their lines further once more in yet another bid to force out the other publishers with masses of product, but this time it was harder to do, as the speculator bought everything in his path, insatiably. Things just continued to expand and the shelves in the direct sales comic shops sagged under the burgeoning weight of the excess material from all the publishing houses. As the publishers produced more, the retailers bought more and in some cases began to horde new books, and the collector/speculator also bought more and in many cases also horded them.

That was until 1994 and the dreaded “Comics Implosion”.

The impact of this had major repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic. In the States the main publishers cut back on their product, most new publishers shut their doors, as quickly as they had opened them. In the UK Marvel shut its doors forever, selling out to Italian company Panini, originally a sticker book/part works specialist publisher. 2000AD saw its spin offs decline and suddenly creators were either out of work, or worried they would be next to be so.

I was one of the lucky ones and although my American work dried up, for a short while, I found myself inundated with work here in the UK until I decided I could no longer just pump out work like a machine and needed to change direction creatively.

At the time of my leaving I remember I was producing the design layouts, pencils and inks for a 32-page book, layouts on two, or three others for other artists to work from, and colour mark-ups on two, or three books a month for Newsstand publications. That was on top of other comics I pencilled and/or inked along the way for other American smaller publishers, like Tekno, Caliber and Antarctic Press, etc and a number of children’s book companies.

As I mentioned last Blog Alan Moore was instrumental in giving comics a different viewpoint, that of what would it be like if the superheroes actually did exist?

With that premise we began to see first here in the UK with Captain Britain and Marvel Man a proliferation of scenes showing superheroes in everyday situations, like getting up in the morning after a bad night previously, hair and night clothes akimbo.

This in fact though impressed the next generation of writers so much that they adopted what the press saw as flowery writing and what were actually misinterpretations of the direction Alan himself had taken with the genre. He had merely sought to give an alternative to the “normal” superheroics, not a general direction to be adhered to as the Gospel of comic book writing. It began with the next generation of comics writers from the UK and then spread to American writers following suit.

When Alan left these shores figuratively speaking to work for the US market it left a void behind here in the UK for that kind of story. 2000AD was the last remaining bastion where this kind of story could reside, once the implosion had taken both its place in time and its victims.

The common denominator here is the continued so called “maturing” of storylines of the comics in question with the age of the reader, reading them. As this continued to be the case, suddenly the children’s entertainment medium called comics turned its back on that part of the arena in an attempt by certain creators and certainly the majority of the fans to become respectable in the eyes of the general public and not just seen as a visual book, for kids and folks of sub-literate reading skills at best.

The stories were becoming more like soap operas unfolding slowly month by month and seeing ever-increasing casts of unwieldy characters with characterisations that took pages to pore through, before getting anywhere with the characters, or indeed the story.

The single story had long since disappeared too by this time as we saw an ever-continuing time line with a perpetual storyline that was as infinitely long drawn out, as it was full of subplots and subtexts. With no jumping on point for new readers in the form of both children, or the casual reader, no longer were these two sections of the reading public being enticed to read comics at all.

Here in the UK any last vestige of adventure comic was now long lost to the annals of time, as all but 2000AD remained and it too had by this time succumbed to losing its original teens/kids core group of readers to the far fewer adult reader.

This period and indeed the period from the early eighties saw a gradual change, which then gained momentum in the form of a shift in storytelling styles from different approaches to the single decompressed technique too. Much like the Spaghetti Western approach of showing a single action over several minutes the fast draw scene which takes five minutes to get to as we see the camera switch angles continuously between the eyes, mouths, twitching fingers and feet of the antagonists and also in Japanese Manga and Anime where the creators take an inordinate amount to time to tell nothing of a story this new approach to comic storytelling slows down the action to the point of needing to buy the soft backed, or hard backed collection.

Reading these story arcs, as they are now known, on a monthly basis where nothing really happens until the fourth, or fifth, or sixth, or worse, final part of a single story arc has driven the kids and a lot of older readers away from comics. It’s not the only reason but it is a major contributing one.

There has also been the systematic breaking down of the ideology, ethics and morality of what makes a hero too, first with DC’s “so-called” mature reader imprint Vertigo, then DC itself and nowadays even Marvel, as the generation of writers since Alan Moore first became their god continued to write in this manner, irrespective of whether any great numbers were reading it, or not…with not being the operative word, as fans continued to disappear off the map in ever-increasing droves.

Here in the UK we saw 2000AD with its sealed up, top-shelf, adults only, “sex edition” get moved from its position next to the normal children’s comics and forever make its stand in its attempt to become respectable enough to be read by adults, as if that would be the case.

For a return of the great sales of the yesteryear of the eighties, when it was selling 120,000 copies a week, it had gone the wrong way and as a result laid its bed in the camp, just like the American counterparts, without a care for the inclusion of children.

From the early days of Action comics and then Judge Dredd from 2000AD and his ilk here in the UK and with the ever increasingly violent Punisher, Batman and Wolverine characters in the US the age of the anti-hero was here to stay.

With their by now convoluted continuities within the US comic books and the addition of the new decompressed and morbid angst ridden storylines now pandering to the Geek element within comics both pro and fan alike, the sales figures continually dwindling and the loss of children reading them, comics looked like they were dying, yet again.

When this subtotal is added to the massive increase in costs when purchasing comics from 1960 to the present day and the fall in male readers disillusioned in the state of comics in the UK and USA, it seems more than a little strange that the biggest growth market for comics in recent years has been in the rise of the female fan and Manga.

Marvel et al have even looked to Manga to save the day thinking that by adopting the drawing style and size of the Manga books they would increase their sales.

This just shows how out of touch the publishers really are nowadays. Sure Manga looks different in both style and size, but it is the actual story content that inspires and attracts young female readers to them. Putting Spider-Man, et al in them, alienates the male reader and does nothing to entice more than a few female readers to read them.

There are more female readers of Manga here in the west than male. This is one of the things Marvel was trying to address, without actually seeing the reasons why this was so.

The growth of the graphic novel has taken the world of comics in another direction again altogether and may be the saving grace for the medium, albeit in another form, but the biggest events have yet to happen in my honest opinion.

The kind of storytelling we now see in US comics is certainly not conducive to selling to children. The dialogue is often full of four letter expletives, which is obviously thought to be both clever writing and also suitable for adults by the writers, the editors and publishers too. The content is certainly not suitable to be read by children and a lot of adults may find it unsuitable reading material for themselves also. Now I am no prude, but surely one can surmise from the actual sales figures of any given comic’s given issues and can see that alienating the kids like this does nothing for sales.

The obvious argument here is always the same, as I have said before, oh they no longer read them, they have…video games, now computer games, video, now DVD, animated TV shows and movies, wonderful toys…whatever excuse can be used to explain things, when in actual fact these are not the real reasons at all.

The publishers have allowed editors to hire writers to create comics of a kind, which exclude children and in fact are not even inclusive of the casual reader. Add to that the fact comics are really only accessible through shops, which in many cases are also not conducive to selling to kids and in some cases the kids themselves are not welcome in this collector/fanboy oriented scenario and suddenly we see a gaping hole, a potential goldmine of sales being squandered, because the guys running the show seem to be really ashamed of what they do and have no desire to produce all-ages comics.

Here in the UK the remaining children’s comics, forced by the market forces of the supermarkets to sport cover mounted gifts, which when on the stands twist and bend this way and that making it almost impossible for prospective buyers to check them out before making a purchase. These publications fill the shelves to bursting and to the general public appear to be comics – when in actual fact they contain little, or more often than not, no comic material what so ever.

These gifts are meant to legitimise the high costs on the covers too, as the supermarkets and wholesale retailers make better mark up from the higher priced products thus making a high cost comic stand more chance of being stocked.

It is also of note that the publisher at the front of the retailer’s shelf will have to pay a higher amount for that privilege and means that in real terms, in comics publishing today it is a case of survival of the richest!

Paper stock costs have often been used to explain the rising costs of comics. The replacement of newsprint with glossy stock as the excuse is, however, a fallacy, for in actual fact newsprint is in fact up to 100% pure wood pulp and is very expensive, especially in the case of the papers using mostly pure wood pulp, whilst the glossy stock can be actually made from up to 90% recycled plastic and is much cheaper to use.

On both sides of the Atlantic the soaring costs are mainly due to the rising costs of distribution – that part of the businesses, which the big comics companies who ran their own distribution originally gave over to others to distribute for them – and who now have a stranglehold/ monopoly along with the retail giants who stock them due to the downfall of the newsstands.

Okay in the grander scheme of things these three Blogs only take a quick overview of the industry and it’s failings with the aspect of the children and the casual reader, but these points are some of the main ones, which seriously need addressing if the comics industry is to survive for much longer in the USA and UK, in the form of originated work coming from the indigenous creatives living there.

The trouble is that unlike Europe and other countries outside of the US and UK where the comics are still being produced inside of the countries in question the US and UK are heading for a time where they reprint more work than they produce themselves and this is certainly true of the UK even now.

As I said a few Blogs back, there are an increasing number of disillusioned creators producing their own brand new projects and an increasing number of fans of the medium looking for something new.

When these two factions connect at last watch out for the sparks.

The world of comic books is indeed vast, as are the stories that abound within them and, although this series of Blogs has really only dealt with the issues concerning the US and UK comics industries, the rest of the world continues to create stories outside the superhero genre and also for all ages, something we seriously need to address and soon.

The growth of the Internet – which could be the saviour for the future for this kind of storytelling, may hold some of the answers for giving children and new readers access to the new work.

But we have to beware also, because Internet Piracy – the new threat and scourge to publishing is on the increase, so we have to find a way to stop people from using them and instead looking at the legitimate copies.

The early nineteen-sixties saw a movement in the USA, which saved comics over there and although the production values here in the UK were far superior at the time, the new dynamic and “believably realistic” content was something that fans on both sides of the Atlantic needed and indeed got.

It was this fundamental understanding of storytelling at its best, which much like the old folklore tales and mythological epics before them, sought to inspire and educate, which worked back then and it will work again, I am sure.

The world is set to see a new change and a return to the old values of storytelling at its best and also a much-needed return to the inspiring of and giving of dynamic excitement to the fan-base we call children.

We need to make comics, which are affordable and accessible to everyone including the children.

This is the future, which has to happen if the medium of comics is to survive at all.

I am optimistic that those days are just around the corner.

Until next time have fun!

Tim Perkins…

February 27th 2010


Peter Gray said...

I agree comics have gone too adult in the adventure comics and also the storylines are too long and heavy going..

Bring back the short story..
also the fun needs to be put back in comics..

Tim Perkins said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for dropping by.

I think there is a place for all kinds of stories and genres, including the ones in this series of Blogs, which I cite as being none-kid friendly.

I see a time just around the corner when this will all be addressed.


Peter Richardson said...

Sobering reading Tim and a well reasoned call for a re-assesment of just where the future of comics lies.

I think reading between the lines, like me you're a short term pessimist and a long term optimist.

I'm sure thing will improve but there's going to have to be some serious changes made and the new technology which is developing faster than people's perceptions on how best to harness it for the benefit of publishing in general and comics in particular provides the best hope for the future.

Tim Perkins said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks for your kind words.

Yes, as you rightly say, although I always assess things through the worse case scenario (that way one tries to learn from the information and try to avoid pitfalls), but overall I try to see the good out of all things.

We really do need to re-assess the current situation, but, as I have mentioned a few times lately here on my Blog, I feel there is already a movement towards new avenues, first with a handful of and now growing number of creators wanting to do their own thing(s) and have fun again and more recently with an ever-increasing number of fans/collectors/parents, who really want the same things.

New technology has helped creative folks to take control of the product and maybe it will be similar advances in technology, which help the growth of the medium and a return to seeing kids reading our work again.

I really am sure it is only a matter of time now, before we see something happen for the greater good.

Best Wishes,

Simon said...

Hi Tim,

Thanks for another entertaining, informative and inspiring read.

Keep looking around that corner, I'll bring my periscope!



Tim Perkins said...

Hi Simon,

Thanks, I'm glad you think so.

I really do think that things are about to make a change for the better, where we see room made for all kinds of stories and genres and acceptance of child readers.

Keep a hold on that periscope, mate.


jon haward said...

really good three part focus on comics tim, food for thought i hope some editors and publishers read it .
very interesting read and a good reminder whats been going on over the years thanks for posting i mentioned this on my twitter page.

Tim Perkins said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for the kind words.

Glad you enjoyed the series.

I also hope that editors, publishers and some creators too read them and look at what has happened.

We are already seeing the start of a backlash against the negative side of the "grim and gritty - no fun" comics syndrome, thank goodness.

I noticed you had mentioned and linked to the series on your Twitter page, thanks a lot for that.

Looks like the crusade for bringing fun back into comics is starting to bear some fruit though, so I am hopeful for the future.

As I have said there is a place for many different kinds of comics, but we need a big return to having fun with them too.

I have more comics based Blogs in the pipeline, but with Worlds End taking a big part of my working day now, along with other commercial projects like children's books, they are having to take more of a back seat for a short while.