Saturday, February 27, 2010
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!
February 27th 2010
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Today I am going to continue to look at the major changes between the sixties and the present day with the shift in content, approaches in storytelling and the breaking down of the old vision of the hero.
The need for a new look and inventive way to attract new readers to a dying industry in the US gave the creative inventiveness of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, followed by others like Steve Ditko, and the rest of the Merry Marvel Bullpen the opportunity to try anything and everything in an attempt to stop the doors finally closing on the comics publishing enterprise that was Timely then Marvel Comics.
So it was that a new direction was created, which was to form the basis of comics in the US for the next twenty, or thirty years, or so.
Here in the UK, quite the opposite was happening as we continued to see comics printed in photogravure, using fully painted art techniques to realise the stories, alongside the more common black and white/ dual colour comics, being produced in plenty at the time.
So it was that on both sides of the Atlantic children were being given lots of variety, of content, genre and styles of execution.
The creative forces on both sides of the Pond looked to each other for inspiration and there are some obvious nods of the head to both from both too. Nothing seemed to be unapproachable, as far as the content seemed concerned. Every genre, here in the UK was being utilised and given to the children. In the USA, however the predominant genre of the period was and, as a result, still is the Superheroes story.
The main adjective to use to describe the content of the comics back then would be FUN! That is something I would like you to bear in mind for future reference in this series of Blogs.
Back in the sixties the stories at Marvel, the USA’s main comic company nowadays, but back then a struggling number two, at best, had Stan Lee (writer/editor in chief) and Jack Kirby (artist/writer/storyteller) as the main driving force.
There was a cross-over period from the late fifties when Marvel were producing “B” Movie Monster stories alongside Cowboys and Jack Kirby was the key artist on these. Sales on even these titles were waning as the comic buyer became disenchanted with the genres. It was during the early sixties when Stan Lee was given the okay to start a new last ditch effort comic to see if it was as successful as the Justice League of America was over at their competitors DC, then National Publications. He called Jack in to try and come up with something to help them keep their jobs…that title was the Fantastic Four.
The stories ranged from the normal (if you can call super-heroics normal) to the cosmic, mainly due to Kirby’s love of the concept of gods and the wonderful pantheons from within various mythologies throughout man’s history.
Over here in the UK we still had the Eagle comic, although many cite this period as the beginning of the downfall of the once-great UK comic following the take over by Odhams Press. Alongside it were countless black and white, or dual colour humour comics and adventure comics and full colour ones too, like TV 21 and Lady Penelope, both licensed from the Gerry Anderson TV puppet series.
The artwork on both sides of the Atlantic was both dynamic and full of edge of your seats stuff, at least as far as Marvel were concerned and pretty soon DC comics found themselves having to compete with all that. In the States the development of the working relationship of the art team began with teams of pencillers, working with teams of inkers, colourists and letterers with Stan Lee at the helm writing the dialogue and the captions from the artwork provided by the artists. These stories were sometimes plotted between Lee and the penciller over the phone, or during a visit to the Marvel offices, or else the penciller would just provide the artwork with dialogue and comments in the gutters, for Lee to interpret it and “rewrite” it, something often disputed by both parties.
Here in the UK artists such as Don Lawrence, Ronald Embleton and the like were producing mini cinemascope epics in full colour on a regular weekly basis. Their fully painted vistas were spectacles every bit as exciting, dynamic and colourful, as any big screen production at the cinema. The paper was becoming glossier here, emulating the imported US comics’ covers.
When Stan Lee began working with the artists at Marvel there was a new approach adopted with the stories. Whereas DC and the other US publishers tended towards the fantasy “what if” storylines, Marvel adopted a more realistic approach with illness striking at heroes like Spiderman with his colds and arguments between loved ones, as in the Fantastic Four and X-Men.
In the UK the stories remained more about the big picture rather than lots of characterisation, although each character was usually written in such a way as to be distinguishable from the rest.
The one thing both sides of the pond agreed on was that there was an absolute distinction between hero and villain. There was no blurring of the two…the good guy was the hero and the bad guy was the villain…always.
The stories were nearly always self-contained in the US, with only the occasional two-parter, which may take place over two comics if say the Hulk and Fantastic Four were involved. So the first part of the story may take place in Hulk and the second part in the Fantastic Four, or vice versa.
In the UK most stories were again self-contained and shorter in length, compared to the larger page count of their American counterparts, but some did have cliffhanger endings to be continued the following week.
As the comics in the USA were finding themselves being reinvented due to the impact Marvel’s “New look and approach” was having on the, market the content was shifting and searching for a new identity and was all completely new with anything goes types of stories, as it had no previous continuity before it.
As the new look comics found themselves on the newsstand, the fans insatiable appetite for more and more of the same grew and as it did, so did the number of readers, but a change was taking place within the readership too, as kids got older, but continued to read them in larger numbers than before and sales grew as a consequence.
Stan Lee was often seen on College Campuses up and down the USA giving talks and interviews with the students and later on TV, as the readership became something other than just kids.
Here in the UK the same was true, but without a Lee figure to guide that growth the public still looked on the comics (a visual feast – at times worthy of inclusion in any illustrated book for adults) as the domain of children.
In the USA fan clubs sprouted up, up and down the land and conventions took place with guest writers and artists furthering the work of Stan Lee and his college visits.
Here in the UK there was a much slower start to the age of the convention, but smaller events did start to appear.
Another phenomenon was in the process of being created too, the Geek element began to show itself, both in the US and UK. That collector, whose collection and knowledge of everything comics is obsessive to say the least. Spotted a mile off at conventions the Geek is usually clad in a jacket, regardless of the weather, sports a rucksack, for carrying his supplies of comics, has long hair, glasses and roughly hewed beard, regardless of fashion, smells rather rancid, has never had a girlfriend and will argue with even the creator of a comic about its worth, or a supposed spotted glitch. He will regale rather loudly (read bore) all and sundry with his knowledge of comics and their continuity and is heard to scream loudly like a girl upon finding that one comic needed to bring a collection up to date, or complete.
The above is meant to be a humorous cliché and overstated, but nevertheless they actually do really exist…en masse too.
With this new creation problems were being created for the now, or the future, as it was back then.
Back in the sixties both sets of creators here and in the US were working in a creative field as writers and illustrators, but it was essentially a professional job. There were no people before them, except for the newspaper strip creators to follow, so they were first generation comic creators.
By the time the late sixties and early seventies came about we were about to see the second generation of creators let loose upon the world in the US and to a lesser degree here in the UK that is until later in the decade.
This new generation of comics creators were fans, first and creatives, second. This meant that in the main these guys were interested more about producing the greatest comics ever created at the expense of money, which was a luxury the original mainstays, who needed to earn money for their families, did not have, which caused unrest in the halls of Marvel, DC and every other company hiring these new guys.
Here in the UK that was not really the case although it would be around the mid to late seventies with the new comics such as, Action, 2000AD and Starlord, et al.
By the late sixties Marvel’s original creators, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko disillusioned with the corporate repression of the new owners of Marvel comics and lack of any formal rights to any of their creations, despite making the company and Stan Lee very rich, decided to jump ship and moved to DC comics where they thought they would have more autonomy, something, which proved to be wrong, after the fact. The deed was done however and amidst an immense industry-wide furore the camps were switched and for a short while creative juices were overflowing with greatness.
Here in the UK by the start of the seventies a new TV and Gerry Anderson related adventure comic, Countdown, was to replace TV 21, although it would run for some time alongside it. There were also more humour and adventure comics created during this time, but really creating yet further cloned copies of already existing characters.
By the mid seventies, in the USA, the Kirby-style comic story had been used by all and sundry, with creators like Jim Starlin adopting the subject matter and telling stories of far off worlds at cosmic war. It was at this time that Kirby, realising his work at DC was no better thought of and in a worse position as far as publicity was concerned, left DC comics to work once more for Marvel. Marvel was king and DC were now definitely second fiddle.
Here in the UK Action comic was created, a violent over-the-top comic with pastiches of Dirty Harry, Jaws and Roller ball, amongst others, contained in its blood soaked pages. It did not last long, as opposition to the content meant it was quickly cancelled, not down to sales, they were good, but the pressure put onto the publisher of children’s comics by Mary Whitehouse a woman who was a British campaigner for what she perceived to be values of morality and decency derived from her Christian beliefs.
The next UK comic release and successor of Action was the Sci Fi classic, still published today, 2000AD. It managed to carry on with the violent action concept of the earlier Action comic, through stories such as Flesh, Shako a new Dan Dare and Judge Dredd, but in a Sci Fi setting it seemed to pass by the eyes of the opposition, plus with the success of Star Wars it seemed everyone was ready for this new comic, including the older reader. A pattern was beginning here in the UK, mimicking the one already active in the USA.
As the seventies began to wane and Punk Rock blasted the airwaves, there was a creator movement on the shores of the USA, which was being closely watched by those creators here in the UK and that was a backlash against the corporate oppressive treatment of the writers and artists paying their wages and a need to form an association for Creators rights.
This was not to find a solution overnight and was to be a long and protracted argument, hinging on the work of Jack (King) Kirby for the most part.
The new decade saw the demise of the newsstand and its means of distribution, as it was replaced by the Direct Market shops, which were cited as the collector/fans ultimate dream with their availability of back issues for missing issues of any given title and a plethora of new product and merchandise to match. This was something that for the casual sale would have a devastating effect on the numbers of comics sold – especially to younger children.
This complacent and shortsighted view by the main publishers in the US meant that it now left that side of the market wide open for distributors and retail giants to cripple the publishers. As more and more distributors were bought out, so too the smaller publishers disappeared, helped, it has to be said during the black and white independents glut of the early and mid eighties when Marvel and DC did what they do best against the competition…flood the market with product.
This was the end for many smaller publishers like First and Pacific and also saw the end of the smaller distributors as one by one they were taken over until only one US comics distributor was left, Diamond. They pretty much had, and still do today, a total control over the industries products.
A similar thing has been allowed to happen here in the UK with the strengthening of the position of the supermarkets and wholesale retail giants, who hold sawy over UK comics publishing.
This period also saw a growth here and in the USA of the comics convention, whereby retailers, publishers, writers and artists could get together to meet the fans.
The early/mid eighties had seen a brain drain of talent from the UK to the US, mainly to DC and then some to Marvel. These consisted of the second half of the seventies generation of comic professionals, such as John Ridgway, Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd, Ian Gibson, Alan Moore, Alan Davis, and Paul Neary, amongst others.
This huge loss of talent meant that the way was paved for others to follow in their footsteps. For me it was a personal opening of doors and a way into the comics industry here in the UK.
Marvel UK was growing and producing more and more homespun licensed product, so there was a sudden need for a new influx of new, although untested in most cases, talent. Suddenly there were new kids on the block and our sales were damaging the already floundering UK comics scene, which had not moved forward, except for the advent of the 2000AD comic for a decade, or more.
In the UK comics were stagnating, as they were in mainly black and white format on newsprint and the new Marvel UK comics in full colour and on glossy stock began to outshine them, as Marvel’s sister company increasingly looked more like their American counter parts.
The UK market had deteriorated considerably even before this with only a small handful of the original humour comics, which were mainly reprint and a couple of adventure comics, with some reprint material in them, alongside the sparse originated work.
The success of 2000AD and then Transformers enabled more originated licensed comics to come from new smaller UK publishers, who in some cases lasted weeks, and spin offs for the continually older readers of 2000AD, in the form of comics/magazines such as Wildcats, Crisis, Toxic and Strip from Marvel UK, which had reprints of some European comics in it.
The old publishers had not moved with the times and as a consequence the next few years would see all of their titles cease to be.
Towards the end of the decade the US comics industry saw the legal ramifications of Marvel’s attempt to hold the artwork of Jack Kirby, as a means to blackmail him into signing a contract unlike any sent to other creators to sign, squashed by the courts and they were ordered to send back all the artwork in their possession. Creators such as Neal Adams had been very proactive in bringing this case to trial and a successful outcome.
Jack never saw all his 8,000 + pages returned, but the fact he got any at all is testament to the rigorous attempts to overthrow the corporate machinations of the biggest publisher of comics in America, that sought, quite unjustly to not only have their artist sign away his ideas through the work-for-hire contracts, but also claim the artwork too. All the writers and artists working in American comics worked under (and still do) the “work-for-hire” contract, but Jack Kirby, as one of, if not THE, most prolific ideas man there, had done more to make Marvel the company it had become and whilst Stan Lee became a rich man and made millions, sadly, Jack did not and made page rate.
Artwork in the States had been used to give away to fans and collectors, by all companies, as well as to mop up floods and now at last it was to return to the creators giving them a new option to make some extra money from the sale of such artwork.
The knock on effect here in the UK was slow at first and personally for me saw me lose the mass majority of my artwork prior to the mid-nineties to the publishers, but eventually we began to see some changes implemented here too.
Nowadays with the advent of the digital age we no longer even need to think of sending artwork (if it truly exists in some cases as real tangible artwork) to the publishers, as it can be put onto discs, or sent down the line.
It was during the late nineties that there was also a new shift away from fun, light-hearted stories to grim, gritty, depressing ones with a supposedly more mature and realistic sound and look to them. This started here in the UK with Alan Moore’s excellent Captain Britain, followed by his Marvel/Miracle Man stories and later in the USA when he took over the writing chores on the New Saga of the Swamp Thing.
In the intervening years more and more writers have adopted this approach and in a writer and editorially controlled environment (something I find strange in a visual medium) more and more comics began being produced in this way. The saddest thing for me about all this is the attitude of the writers in question, many whom are quoted in their own comics dialogue and/or in interviews as hating the genre and those who work in it and the fans. My answer to that is one of either of these:
- If you are doing this to make yourselves look like you are not working in an industry, which you are ashamed of and yet in actual fact are without admitting to it then stop and/or leave it to those who do not.
- If you really hate it that much then leave the US superhero comics alone before you destroy them completely.
You can read more on this at my Blog mate, Matt Weiringo’s Blog Ad Nauseum, which speaks further on this matter. Matt is the brother of the late US comic artist Mike Wieringo, who was for me one of the main leading lights in US comics as far as keeping them fun to read and enjoy. Some of the language is a little choice, or at least implied, so please beware if you are going to let any youngsters read it.
Back in the nineties, however in the USA, comics sales suddenly saw huge new numbers as the US and UK media told everyone that comics had come of age. The readers had supposedly matured along with the content of the comics themselves. What no one had seen was the media had been quick to tell the general public, just how valuable the old back issues of comics were, especially the number one of any particular comic, especially Superman (Action Comics #1), Batman (Detective Comics #27), Spider-Man (Amazing Fantasy #15 & Spider-Man #1) and Fantastic Four #1. With that in mind a new reader, or rather collector appeared again on both sides of the Atlantic. The new collector was to become known, after the fact, as the speculator.
What happened next helped a small number of young individual artists at Marvel to earn astronomical sums for their work, in the form of royalties. This they did through Marvel revamping and re-issuing titles with new numbering starting again from number one. The speculator then set about ordering boxes of issue ones of all and ever title being released, vastly inflating the numbers of comics being sold.
The A-list Marvel artists earned so much so that when they approached Marvel for a bigger and better cut due to them because of sales and Marvel told them to take a hike, which they did, along with all the monies made from their latest work at Marvel.
With it they formed and set up the collective known as Image comics.
Sales of comics had skyrocketed as sales on issue ones, in particular, Spider-Man, X-Men and other top titles, since Marvel had been re-issuing them, went through the roof and the comics fraternity thought that at last the comics really had come of age and large numbers of new readers had emerged from the adult reading public to begin collecting them, en masse, or so they thought.
For a few years in America this new Image comics imprint was to have a profound effect on American comic books and sales on their books were very good, which seemed to prove the young artists correct in their assumptions that they were as equally as important as the characters on, which they worked, or so they thought.
Over here the formation of this new imprint and the speculator market was having an equally profound effect on comic book production in the UK too, especially with the UK arm of Marvel comics.
I’ll leave the rest of the tale of “what happens next?” for the next Blog, although there are a couple of clues at least in the last few paragraphs here.
Until next time have fun!
February 24th 2010
Thursday, February 18, 2010
When I first decided to write this particular series of three Blogs, I was thinking of various conversations I have had in the past thirty years, during which time the situation has seen an ongoing growth in the ever increasing divide between the visual and narrative content, in both qualitative and quantitive terms, with both my fellow professionals, editors, publishers, students and fans.
- The systematic dumbing down of content here in the UK, both in the visual and the narrative
- The growing of the content with the age of the readership in the US comics and 2000AD here in the UK
- The shift from fun light-hearted stories to grim, gritty, depressing ones
- The shift in storytelling styles from different approaches to the single decompressed technique
- The systematic breaking down of the ideology, ethics and morality of what makes a hero
- The advent of the anti-hero
- The convoluted continuities within the US comic books
- The Geek element within comics both pro and fan alike
- The creation of creators rights in the USA, due to pros like Jack Kirby, Neal Adams and Steve Gerber
- The massive increase in costs when purchasing comics
- The fall in the number of male readers
- The growth of Manga
- The growth of the female reader due to Manga
- The Death of the Newsstand
- The Birth of the Direct Market
- Comics Conventions
- The growth of the Internet – which could be the saviour for the future for this kind of storytelling
- Internet Piracy – the new threat and scourge to publishing
And this, which is to me the worst change we have seen:
- The loss of children from comics reading and collecting due to the lack of vision and thus content from the publishers
I plan on looking at all the many positives, as well as all the many negatives and look forward to hearing what your views are towards the situation we find ourselves now in.
The Blogs may not follow the exact order of the list here and will at times meander backwards and forwards and revisit themes from time to time, but rest assured I intend to try to cover all the bases as in depth as I can.
I have decided to run with the loss of children, dumbing down of content and growth of the content in line with the readership age aspects with this first one.
When one looks at material produced here in the UK in the nineteen-fifties for an audience, whose visual stimulus came from the visual content of comic books, children’s books and for adults magazines, alongside none CGI made films and for the lucky few TV programmes then one is forced to wonder why on earth we have seen such a decline in the quality and content of the products the publishers put to market.
This is in no way a slur on the creatives involved, as I myself have been made to work in this way in the past, and is one of the reasons I left comics for a few years, back in 1999 – not the deciding one, but one, which greatly contributed to the fact.
With that in mind in regards the visual aspect of comics inspiring the imaginations of the children back on the 50’s and the use of their own imaginations, in lieu of today’s wonderful array of toys, games, video games, computers, DVD’s, animated feature films and TV programmes, then I have a couple of questions to put forward.
In today’s mass market, full of short-lived licensed IPs, produced by a repetitive and ill-thought-out ideology, why would the children of today with their world full of the wonderful technology and a great visual sense, expecting the same monumental epic spectacle they see on the TV each day, or on their computers, or games consoles, or in the magnificently detailed toys on their shelves, look to comic fare that is in no way comparable with that produced in the 50’s?
Also why have the publishers suddenly taken it upon themselves to treat children as though they are sub-normal beings, with little or no capacity to learn? We expect them to perform wonders in schools with SAT tests and the like, from a very early age and yet talk down to them in the comics they are given and truth told here in the UK there are only a few publications with any comic section in them, as they all take on the mantle of magazines, much like young copies of the adult world of celebrity magazines.
With these two things in mind we have to suppose that the children of the 50’s without the wonders we shower today’s children’s senses with had vastly superior product thrust into their eager hands each week with fully rendered paint jobs on the comics, which back then were throw away and cheap for the consumer and their visual sense was inspired by and nurtured by the work inside their pages.
The stories were not just fantasy stories and touched on many different subjects, a lot of, which was educational in as far as they were based on factual accounts, or at least none fictional, like biographies and the like – and these were for children without the visual sense of those young folks of today and who did not have the knowledge base of today’s Internet.
Yet today’s children, and this has been the case for certainly the last 20 – 30 years, have been systematically force fed, increasingly dumbed down and inadequate content to both keep their attention spans and to inspire them in the least.
Parents are continually complaining about the type of content when they look to buy a comic for their children, the lack of content of any worth inside of them, the lack of originality and then to add insult to their injury, the over inflated cost of doing so.
Nowadays the US comics, which are being re-printed over here often contain content in them that is not suitable for younger children, as the content, as we know, has been growing with the age of the average reader for years, so that puts sales of those away from the children. Add to that the content, or rather lack of anything of worth, in the eyes of many parents, on most of them and it is hardly surprising that the publishers find themselves with a dwindling market, when for whatever reason they continue to arrogantly ignore the needs of the children and their parents.
I remember years ago a UK children’s programme being taken off air as it was considered both out of date and containing content, which caused children to develop late learning problems, especially with speech, due to the way the characters spoke, or rather communicated with each other – that programme was Bill and Ben.
Consider today’s market where the children are bombarded with grunts and squeaks and high-pitched squeals from programmes such as Telly Tubbies and Pocoyo, Igglepiggle, Makka Pakka and their ilk. Now personally I don’t see anything wrong with these programmes, except in the context of this Blog.
It seems to me that the more advanced we become, as a society, the more dumbed down the content becomes for children. This is certainly the case for children’s publishing, in both comics and books in the UK.
Whether it is some surreptitious PC movement pandered to by those in whose thrall they exist, or a complete and utter misunderstanding of the needs of children, or indeed what they actually are, which is small versions of us with a great capacity to soak up and learn information on a par with the best computer systems around, is up for the vote.
The main problem is however that publishers have not sought to keep up with the children and have been quite content to leave the kids behind in this foolhardy quest to have comics, to quote the media and those creatives amongst us that agree with the philosophy, “Come of Age”. In their aim to make them respectable to the mass market of the adult reading public they have committed a grievous mistake and forgotten about the kids seeing their continued involvement in the worlds of comics as an unnecessary hindrance to the telling of great literary pieces.
The trouble with that ideology is that unfortunately, despite what some creators think…the man in the street, Joe Public, DOES NOT READ COMICS, certainly not regularly and for the mass majority of people on this planet NEVER read comics and in a great many cases have never, ever even read a single one.
Now this may sound like sacrilege to the fanboys and many creators out there that think differently, but please explain to me, if this is not a truth, why there are not better sales on ALL comics.
Sure the biggest growing sector of publishing in recent years is in graphic novels, but it would be interesting to see how big even this sector is without the collected together trade paperbacks and hardbacks of the back reprint/back issue replacing and also the latest current superhero genre. The last few years have thankfully seen a rise in graphic novels with different kinds of genres in them to the superheroes. I feel that these different kinds of story are going to continue to outgrow that jaded and overdone genre. The beauty and advantage of the album/graphic novel, over the comic book is it stays on the shelf indefinitely as opposed to the comic book.
This still does not address the inclusion of children in the equation though and we are still left with a growing void and a potential set of reasons for why there are such huge literacy problems in the UK, at least in part as a contributory factor.
The bottom line is whilst the current publishers like US comics publishers Marvel, DC, and 2000AD here in the UK are proud of the fact that their audience has grown older with their comics becoming more adult-oriented over the past 50 years in the US and the past 30+ here in the UK, the addition of new readers, in quantitative terms, has not grown at all and has in fact shrunk, as fewer children read them.
Another problem with losing children as comics readers is that instead of looking seriously at the roots of the problem we have been given every excuse under the sun, rather than admit the failings of the publishers to address the situation with the loss of the child reader.
We have been regaled with long missives about how the advent of first the video game took away readers, with expensive game consoles and their equally expensive games replacing the far cheaper comics.
We were then told it was children watching the new videos, later to become DVDs to replace that argument.
Next it was the computers, which stole away the attention of the kids.
When all along it was the publishers themselves who allowed the children to drift away in droves and they patted themselves on the back as the readership “matured” and the “comics came of age.”
I have heard countless comics creators spout this same rhetoric time and time again, rather than admit the failings of the publishers. There is a sector of creators even that will not even accept that it is the advent of this new kind of mentality within comics publishing that is creating the ever-widening void between children and comics.
There are some creators and publishers, I feel, that are ashamed to admit that comics are, in the eyes of the general public, the reading material of children and those that have continued to read them. There are a lot of folks out there in real land that even support the idea that comics are for the semi-literate at best, which is totally untrue, but that mindset does exist and to deny it helps the demise of the readership foundation base.
To me comics are comics and there is a place for all kinds, but as I have said often here on my Blog, not just one and not one which contains the material of today’s fare. The market is expanding away from the superiority of the superhero genre and the graphic novel is helping in that respect, but we still have a long way to go even there.
The trouble even with the mass majority of graphic novels, as opposed to the European albums is we still alienate the children and continue to publish, in the main a continuation of the same old super-heroics, or stories aimed in no way at the children’s market, almost as though the books only have acceptability and respectability in the real world if children are excluded and the story is of an “adult” nature.
I would rather this was looked on as “adolescent” in content and delivery and add that acceptability and respectability comes from the actual content and how well the story is both told and shown, not from gratuitous violence, swearing, or dark storylines, which often depict and sicken with their use of overtones of psychotic rhetoric amongst the so-called superheroes.
Children, just like adults, in fact more so, as they find it hard to lie, see though the smoke and mirrors tactics employed by those wishing to exclude them, or talk down to them and will not read garbage.
Going full circle for this Blog until Part 02, children will read comics and still continue to be blown away by them, when we visit the primary and secondary schools, but they have to be wowed. They do not want to see talking heads, with people standing around talking. They do not want masses of characterisation, or overwritten prose, please if you want to do this write a novel guys they want action as well. Like we did as kids they want to see epic, spectacle, huge things and small things, action, suspense, things that make them step back mouths wide open and to be left speechless.
Is that so different from what we as adults want, escapism from the everyday realities of life in the real world? I think not and imagine the confined imaginations of a child, unfettered by the cynicism of adulthood, without an adequate escape route.
The comics are a vastly underrated teaching aid and a much-missed source of reading material for children. Children need to be stimulated and excited and to express themselves – with comics we can give them all that – if only we did.
There is an almost underground movement at the moment, which I predicted would happen years ago now, but it fell on deaf ears for a while whilst the world caught up. Not only are there creative folks wanting to leave behind the depressing daily trappings of the new type adventure comic, now there are readers who want those halcyon days of comics back again, theirs to enjoy once more and when this happens, then, maybe, just maybe the children will become involved once more not just because they can finally see them again, but because what they see inspires them to read more again.
Of course there are many other reasons they no longer read them in large numbers, but like the other items on my list at the beginning of this Blog those I will leave for a future post here.
Until next time have fun!
Thursday 18th 2010
Sunday, February 14, 2010
I hope you will indulge me here on my Blog, if I take time out to wish a Very Happy Valentines to my wonderful wife, Margaret.
They say behind every successful man is a woman, well she is my rock and I have to admit I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.
I love you more than ever love.
Thanks and xxx
Until next time have fun!
February 2nd 2010
Tuesday, February 02, 2010
I had planned on publishing this Blog last week, on Friday, but I found myself paying a visit to the doctors again, this time for a really awful food poisoning problem, caused probably from one of two places, I ate at whilst travelling with work last Thursday. I feel a little better now, not firing on all cylinders and feeling more than a little sore all over, but it has set me back a bit for the moment.
This last two weeks has been extremely busy for me, as I worked on more pages of Worlds End and then helped out on a friend’s children’s book, by painting some of them over his pencils.
I have a queue of commissioned work now, which needs completing before I can get back onto Worlds End, so Blogging will continue to be light from me for a while, whilst I get straight, so priority one can remain with the graphic novel.
Almost two weeks ago now I went along with my wife, Margaret, daughter, Joanne and her fiancé, Toby to see the much-lauded film by James Cameron. Now I had seen many reviews and it seemed to me that people either loved it, or hated it.
I had seen the trailer and was blown away initially, but a little worried on the small screen of the computer about the quality of the CGI characters, or at least their flesh textures, as they seemed a little smooth in such small format.
I have to say I was really excited about going along and have to admit all the hype was well founded and certainly had me smiling all throughout.
For the benefit of all the nay sayers that have said it wasn’t a good film – all I can say is they must have forgotten what it is like to have fun!!!
Looking again at all the negative press, it showed to me the same kind of mind set I spoke about in my last Blog about the geekish attitude of the comics fans. Maybe it was the fact many of his fans from his earlier days producing classics like, Terminator and Aliens still have not forgiven him for the massively expensive departure of those earlier storylines, to produce Titanic, or maybe just like many of the comics fans, they really have forgotten what it is like to have fun, in line with what, just like in comics has become the normal fare in movies…mega violence, ultra swearing and the like. Nothing wrong with that, but, as I said last Blog, there is more than one way to tell a story.
The storyline, without giving anything away was your basic good guys versus bad guys and was full of the typical gung-ho American Marine character types, but worked perfectly in contrast to the native Na’vi who live on the planet Pandora. The basic premise is typical of the human race, as a collective whole…whereby we seek to take whatever resources from where ever we please, with a total disregard for the consequences.
As far as being a unique storyline, I really think this is an almost impossible thing to do now with centuries of repeated patterns, but it is, after all, how you piece all of the parts together to get the final script that is important and for my money, James Cameron, has got it right.
The characters may not be any more deeper than normal, but this is an adventure film and a long one at that, any more characterisation and it would have had to be six hours long, or negate the ability to show the spectacle, so again for me, it was the right mix. I have recently seen Blogs reporting of similar storylines existing in comics and books, reports, which imply James Cameron ripped off the concepts, but I guess time will tell, how much influence any of these had on his story, if at all there were any.
The film boasts a great cast too, with Sam Worthington as Jake Scully,
Zoe Saldana as Neytiri, Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine and Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch', to name but four.
On a personal note watching the epic spectacle of the incredible vistas all along the way, throughout the entire movie, with its planets subdued in the skies, its floating islands, it lush vegetation, its indigenous inhabitants and alien otherworldliness, I have to admit to feeling more than a little emotional at times, as for all the world, it looked as though James Cameron had seen inside my head and created the CGI version of my own Worlds End.
The incredible amounts of miniscule minutia and the attention to that detail were breathtaking. Looking around the world of Pandora, you never for one second think to yourself this is CGI, due to the incredible talents of those at Weta Digital, who created the visual feast of effects.
Maybe I can get Mr. Cameron to look at Worlds End as a CGI movie for me…hey stranger things have happened. Now then where is my phone book…
Until next time have fun!
February 2nd 2010