Home > CR Interviews
CR Holiday Interview #12 -- David Brothers
posted January 10, 2011
is the third of this year's interviews with younger writers about comics to see publication. Unlike Matt Seneca
, a devoted critic, and Kiel Phegley
, whose day-job is covering comics as a reporter, David Brothers is that wonderful, increasingly-common hybrid that does a little bit of everything. Actually, scratch "little bit." Like many of the younger writers, Brothers writes a lot
, for a variety of publications, at a degree of output that matches his variety of interests and entry points. (In contrast, a decade and a half ago one could become a writer about comics that was known within the field simply by penning nine 600-word columns a year for The Comics Journal
.) He is in no way a writer about comics in the old-fashioned sense of someone focused on comics that may take the occasional sideways journey into another art form or industry: his interest in a variety of pop culture expressions is present at all times, including
when he turns his attention to comics. Brothers' range hasn't kept him from putting his comics time in: there have to be a dozen, maybe two dozen issues on which Brothers wrote lengthy essays this year. I enjoy the way his mind moves to the facts at hand as much as it does to an expressive, thoughtful point of view, something you'll see in the back and forth below. I'm grateful for his taking the time to talk to me this holiday season. -- Tom Spurgeon
TOM SPURGEON: David, you seem to me to be way in the upper percentiles when it comes to active, prolific writers about comics. Can you break down in explicit fashion for those folks that aren't familiar with your work how much you're writing about comics in an average week, or even a month if that's a better vehicle for understanding what you do?
At the moment, I regularly produce content for three different sites. On my own site, 4thletter!
, I try to do a minimum of three substantive posts a week, with maybe one or two goofy or low content posts thrown into the mix if the mood strikes me. For ComicsAlliance
, I'm working on a pretty good schedule of three to five posts a week. Finally, for MovieFone
, I do a single post a month as a columnist, for lack of a better word. It tends to work out to, on average, 20-25 posts a month.
The posts on each site are a little different. MovieFone
is by far the most commercial, with lots of lists and mainstream appeal, while ComicsAlliance
is geared more toward analysis and critique. On 4thletter!
, however, anything goes, from meandering think pieces that probably don't have a real point beyond thinking out loud to the punchy and mean type of writing I do sometimes.
SPURGEON: How are you oriented towards this writing in terms of your overall work, whatever else it is you might do? Is your writing about comics the bulk and brunt of what you do, do you see it as something you wish to do more of, something that's a diversion, something that is a sideline? Do you have goals -- say writing comics -- the reaching of which would probably see your writing about comics decline?
Writing about comics is more or less a night job for me. My day job is -- boiled down -- video game consulting, which generally means a lot of technical writing, evaluating games and essentially doing detailed reports on them, and behind the scenes marketing-type work.
I'd love to do more, and the only thing really holding me back is time. I've gone daily on 4thletter!
before, usually during February for Black History Month or as part of a series of posts that share a theme. I have a text document that I keep ideas for posts, lines of dialogue, or half-thought out theses in and I add to it or pull a post from it often.
As is, this is a fun hobby for me, something that lets me flex something like a creative muscle when the day job comes up short in that regard. I'm not sure what would make me stop writing about comics, other than a catastrophic drop in the quality of comics. I've been trying to get into the habit of writing fiction on a regular basis, with an eye toward writing a full novel at some point, but even that can easily be balanced with writing about comics.
I briefly thought about writing comics a few years back. I hooked up with a writer's group here in San Francisco, Writers Old Fashioned
, and hammered out a couple of scripts. I realized fairly quickly that the part of comics I enjoyed the most was the reading and analyzing, rather than the creating. I ended up getting a lot of nice advice and a few compliments, and it sort of adjusted the way I approach talking about comics, so it was also a great learning experience for the kind of writing about comics I've been doing. But as far as writing about comics for fun or for pay--right now, no thanks.
SPURGEON: I'm usually able to pick this up from the writing itself, but I have to admit I can't from your work: is your interest in comics a lifelong interest? Or is it something that came along at a very specific time in your life, or even something that developed concurrently with another interest? Can you map your relationship to comics over the last dozen years? Would the David Brothers of five, six, seven years ago be surprised by the role comics plays in 2010-2011 David Brothers' life?
It isn't lifelong, exactly, but off and on over a long period of time. I was always much more into video games than comics, but that's because games tended to be more rewarding in the long run than books were. Of course, I owned more comics than video games, simply due to price, so maybe it was about even.
I don't remember exactly when I started reading comics, other than that it was somewhere between 1989 and 1991. It's fair to say that it started early in my elementary school career -- kindergarten or first grade for sure. My first two books, thanks to my uncle, were a couple of David Michelinie
/Todd McFarlane Amazing Spider-Man
back issues, #s 316
. I never had a pull list as a kid, or a subscription to any book, and actually going to a comic store involved a lot of negotiation with my mom, so my collection was spotty.
I know that I bought X-Men #1
, with the full gatefold, and X-Force #1
, which came with a Cable trading card, but the majority of my collection was due to the fact that I used to trade comics as a kid. I stayed in comics for a while, up until around 1996, when the one-two punch of Onslaught
and The Clone Saga
derailed my two favorite franchises and made them massively unpleasant to read. I would've been around 13 or so there.
That put me off new comics entirely, barring things like flipping through something I recognized at the grocery store or idly wandering into a comic shop because I happened to be nearby. I kept what I had, but wasn't paying attention to anything new until I moved to Spain in 2000 and picked up Frank Miller
's 300 in hardcover format
. It was on sale at a grocery store that had a surprisingly robust books section. It was in Spanish, but I recognized Miller's name from an issue of Sin City
I must've read hundreds of times as a kid (Big Fat Kill #5
), so I picked it up and used it to practice learning Spanish on. It didn't reignite my lust for comics, but I did end up remembering that they exist, for lack of a kinder phrase.
When I came back to the States a couple years later, I tripped over the graphic novels section in a Books-A-Million
and found the Daredevil Visionaries
that Marvel put out collecting Miller's run on the title. I picked those up, and that was the point when the floodgates opened. They kept the comics and manga in the same place, so pretty much every time I got a paycheck, or some student loan money, I went and bought an armful of whatever looked nice.
I think the David Brothers of seven years ago would definitely be surprised. I was just getting back into comics then, and had predictably awful taste. Several of my loves and hates from that period have completely switched positions. The David of five years ago would've found it surprising, but not odd. At that point, my site was just a way for me to talk to my friends in public without the hassle of a message board. I read this site
, and The Beat
regularly in an attempt to keep up, but I never thought it'd be more than yet another hobby. I was doing video game journalism at that point, hence the fact that it wouldn't have been odd to me to make money off something I enjoyed, but I didn't even know that you could make money writing about comics.
SPURGEON: I'm going to ask you about some of your specific articles, but first I hope you don't mind if I take advantage of having access to the variety of perspectives your coverage has allowed you to ask you the impossibly broad question, "What do you think is particularly memorable about 2010?" How might we look back on this year going forward? What stands out to you, and is there something you feel wasn't played up -- a creator, a format, a news story -- that's going to have a bigger than conventional wisdom suggests impact in the years ahead?
I think we're going to look back on this year as the year that digital comics became a reality, rather than a pipe dream. Two major players, Graphic.ly
, came onto the field in a big way, and Marvel
both hopped on board the train. Since 2010 was the year that we, meaning the press, played cheerleader for digital comics and helped raise awareness, 2011 is the year that we need to start aggressively questioning publishers about their digital comics practices.
Regarding something I feel that wasn't played up... that one's tough. There are a number of censorship stories (Christopher Handley
, Tokyo's anti-lolicon bill
, California's war on video games
) that I wish we could have covered more thoroughly and clearly. I'm good at solving puzzles, but not so great at judging laws or figuring out how Tokyo's ban on certain content will even be enforced. Another story is that Marvel and DC both changed last year in terms of ownership or, for lack of a better word, scope, and have changed since last year. I want to know how they have changed, in terms of both content and organization. I think that that could end up being a very big deal.
You've stumped me. There are several things I wish the press had covered better or more thoroughly, myself absolutely included, but as far as things that will have some kind of impact in the long term, I've got nothing. I'm sure I'll remember something really obvious once this goes live, but nothing is leaping out at me right now.
SPURGEON: You've written about digital comics initiative, particularly recently, noting in one
CA article the breadth of issues left to be resolved. You seem alternately pessimistic and optimistic about how comics moves more fully into that arenas. One thing that hampers the discussion is its wide-open nature, so I wondered if you'd let me put some severe parameters on this speculative correction If you were the czar of comics, what concrete moves by what actors would you want to see by summer 2011 that would help ensure the most positive outcome for comics' digital future? Are there program that you would like to see initiated, scuttled, specific price points or packages you'd want to see hit, certain decisions you think comics should make before it's made for them?
This may be minor, but I'd like it if release dates were a little more transparent in digital books. Either a note at the end of the book ("Pick up the next issue on ____!") or anything even resembling a schedule on the purchase page would be great. Right now, if you pick up a digital book that isn't complete, you don't know when the next issue will be out.
On a major note, I'd scuttle DRM
right off the bat. I understand its appeal for publishers, but I don't trust them with it at all. My suspicion was proven earlier this year when Marvel and comiXology mistakenly sold Ultimate Thor #2 a week early
. Rather than just pulling the comic from sale and taking their lumps, they deactivated the comic on the devices of people who bought it. I consider that the first and last strike as far as DRM for comics goes. It doesn't matter if it's one person or one hundred thousand. If you bought it, it should be yours. If the publisher makes a mistake and later removes it from sale, that's fine, but actually deactivating the comic is absurd and shows how easy it is for publishers to behave poorly with regard to consumers.
Two dollars is a pretty reasonable price point for digital books, and I'd cap the equivalent of your average floppy at that price. Two dollars is easy to justify and makes the average six issue arc of mainstream comics twelve bucks, roughly on par with the price of a trade on Amazon. Bundles of books should be offered at a discount. OGNs shouldn't cost more than eight to ten dollars, depending on length and release date.
Classic books, like Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four
or Levitz-era Legion of Superheroes
should, at this point, really be offered for cover price, or maybe 50 cents. Marvel and DC have made their money off these comics thousands of time over at this point, so taking a hit on price here would lead to a boost in good will. Not to mention the fact that scarcity is irrelevant in the realm of digital comics.
I'd also push Marvel and DC in particular to be very aggressive in their day and date publishing programs. Marvel's still dipping its toes in the water, but DC has been simultaneously publishing one of their tent-pole books, Justice League: Generation Lost
, in print and digitally over the past few months. One book at a time isn't good enough. If they want to roll it out slowly, they could take it line by line, or perhaps push their mid-tier books into simultaneous release before moving onto the big guns, but pussyfooting around is no good.
Marvel and DC get a lot of attention for digital books, but they're the ones we need to watch and analyze the most. Dark Horse
clearly has their head on straight, with what seems like the strongest ideas in terms of digital distribution, and there are dozens of indie publishers who are already doing the right thing, whether Red 5 with Atomic Robo
or Evil Twin with Comic Book Comics
, to name a couple random examples.
The crux of the issue with Marvel and DC is that, without the recognizability that they'll bring by simply being present, digital comics may not have the legitimacy in the mind of the mainstream consumer to be worth it. I think that what'll be crucial in terms of making digital comics a success will be getting Marvel and DC to shift gears. They're big companies, and set in their ways in a way that indies or smaller companies aren't. At the same time, they have the clout and the ability to open certain doors that a lot of other publishers don't. If we can get the Big Two to break away from certain negative practices and sign onto to positive ones, I think we'll be in business in a big way.
SPURGEON: How sympathetic are to the notion that one thing that's forced comics companies to drag their feet is that their current model seems to be put into risk by just about any formulation of how digital comics are going to behave, and that they don't want to risk killing this magnificently fatted calf for uncertain future reward? What is it about comics that it's been able to delay these moves where other media haven't -- is it the nature of the transfer into digital, the price of doing so?
I think the delay has been due mostly to the technology simply not being there. The rise in use of digital music and movies were both greatly aided by the parallel rise of something to play it on. While mp3s were cool on computers, being able to play them on the go is what made them a household name. Digital movies required a certain level of bandwidth and accessibility before they took off. I remember downloading fansubbed anime
in '99/2000 -- it sucked and was in RealPlayer
format. But no, once Netflix
hit home video game consoles, and then set-top boxes marketed to the general public. Now I watch television, play video games, and rent movies all from the same place.
Comics needed an iPad
. The fits and starts that came before were just testing the water. Motion comics aren't a new thing. Malibu
was doing CD-ROMIX in the '90s with 256 colors and voice acting. When I was getting back into comics, Marvel and Crossgen
were both producing more or less the same product on DVDs. With an iPad, though, you could finally read comics where you wanted and at the pace you wanted, with only a little bit of adjusting. It's the closest thing we've got to an iPod for comics.
In addition to that, though, comics companies have managed to ignore the transition due in part to how the comics industry is structured. The Big Two, who are generally who I mean when I speak of "dragging their feet" or "pussyfooting," have what amounts to a captive audience. They've trained this audience to like a few specific types of book, to purchase according to in-universe importance, and most of all, to vastly prefer their work over anyone else's. That may not be the goose that laid the golden egg, but it's almost certainly the next best thing.
That's a big thing to have to give up. Doubly so, with the news that the demographic for digital comics doesn't line up 1:1 with print books. I've done a few interviews with publishers over the past couple weeks, and I've found that most of them say that their non-Direct Market digital books, the game or novel tie-ins that nobody in "comics" seems to like or purchase, do very well. It's entirely possible that digital comics will go mainstream and Marvel and DC sharing 90% or more of the market may not even happen.
Case in point: comiXology just announced that issues 12
of John Layman and Rob Guillory's Chew are the top in-app sales for this week in comics
. While this is entirely possible in a Direct Market shop, userbase and hand-selling depending, comiXology is seen as the
digital market, for the most part, and that makes Chew's success worth paying attention to. Is it a brief fad or does the digital market want something other than capes?
I'm sympathetic to the notion that the rise of digital comics might visit every retailer in the country like the tenth plague of Egypt... but I think it's more likely that digital will end up serving a different audience, with a certain measure of overlap between the two. I don't want to call the slow digital switchover cowardly... but it is definitely over-cautious.
SPURGEON: Let me jump back to something you mentioned earlier. What are you seeing on the stands or through their statements that makes you suspect that DC and Marvel might have changed along with their change in scope and ownership? One thing I find remarkably odd is that neither company seems to have changed much, at least not yet, and I thought the change in ownership would bring more aggressive approaches to the comics market just in terms of general energy if nothing else. Do you see signs of change? The comics looks much the same to me, David.
There's definitely something going on. DC's begun clearing out old inventory stories at a rapid pace. Batman Orphans
(cover created in 2002!), Hellblazer: City of Demons
is nearly two years old according to Sean Murphy, Teen Titans Cold Case
is a tie-in to DC continuity from three or four years ago, and Warren Ellis's banned Hellblazer
tale about school shootings finally made it into print. There's been a strong push to put this material in print over the past few months, and it's been tied in with what they're calling DC Comics Presents, where they collect out of print or fan-favorite material in 100 page mini-trades.
Why the sudden push? I'm not going to complain about getting to see Bernie Wrightson inked by Kevin Nowlan, but is there really a demand for Green Lantern
stories from the '90s or a reprint of Warren Ellis and Gary Erskine's Jack Cross
? That's weird to me, if only because DC is a company that is strikingly conservative with their choice of what to release in collections. Clearing out old inventory stories, no matter their quality, and reprinting tales with presumably small commercial viability is something DC didn't do a year ago.
It makes me feel like something has changed behind the scenes, in terms of both personnel and publishing philosophy. Maybe it's because I can't quite make sense of the choice to present this material again. It's easy to make sense of publishing Teen Titans
, which has been thoroughly awful for several years at this point, simply due to the fact that people will buy it.
Marvel hasn't changed much, but I think that even that is notable. You get bought out by one of the biggest corporations on the planet and nothing changes? Not even a little? I'm with you on that point: What's the story there? There's no way that Marvel was a little perfect diamond that Disney
wanted to add to the collection sight unseen. What do they get out of it?
The content of the comics at both companies hasn't changed much at all, but I don't really expect it to. I did (do?) expect a change in the way they do business and present themselves to potential audiences. More books for more markets, quicker floppy to trade paperback turnaround, better PR outreach to enthusiast and mainstream press, and things like that, rather than a more mainstream take on Batman
. Has Joe Quesada
been having meetings where people say things like "toyetic" with a straight face? Is Dan DiDio
having to explain to suits that no one actually wants another Swamp Thing movie
A really thorough and frank state of the union from both companies would be fascinating, no matter how unlikely that is to happen. I wish I had a relationship with either company that could support that, because I'd do it in a hot minute.
SPURGEON: David, you wrote a compelling piece early in December about piracy as a commercial force, as a way of loosening up and enacting policy on behalf what are very conservative companies. What I thought was interesting about it is that you concentrated not on the virtues or demerits of the piracy itself but the positives of the reaction to piracy. How much do you feel that what we're going to get in terms of digital policy is a reaction to outside forces, and how comfortable are you that this will result in positive digital policies for these companies? Because I'm pretty chicken; I tend to think someone that's shoved shoves back and eventually I'm going to fall down and it will hurt.
We have companies that are already pushing positive digital policies. The indies seem to understand how this new world is going to work. I thought this essay
from Brian Clevinger was particularly right-headed. The only problems in my eyes are Marvel and, to a lesser extent right now, DC. We need those two to behave just so that they don't set idiotic precedents that we'll then be stuck with, like region locked DVDs, unskippable piracy warnings, and exploitative business practices.
Marvel in particular is extraordinarily willing to behave poorly with regards to digital comics. I did an interview with them where they essentially confirmed that the Marvel Vault
, where they lock away digital comics for however long to goose sales, is a sales ploy. It's exactly what I thought it would be, but it's still incredibly disappointing that Marvel has misread the appeal of digital books to that extent.
It's like they don't understand what it is they're fighting against. If I wake up one morning in a cold sweat and realize that I haven't read everything Gene Colan
did at Marvel in the '70s, I can have significant chunk of it after maybe half an hour's sustained effort.
The policies of the current digital landscape is a result of the (absolutely valid) reaction to widespread comics piracy and a hope to maintain their old media relationships. "Our works are being violated, so before we step into this new arena, let's bring some protection. Also let's not piss off our retail friends." That protective stance runs counter to the appeal of digital comics ("I can have everything? Without leaving my couch?!"), and it will hurt them in the long run. It won't even protect their books from being pirated. People pirate print books, not digital comics.
We're stuck with licensing agreements, and that's fine, as long as the terms are more or less fair. But, the problem is that the protective stance (manifested through DRM, exclusivity, sometimes absurd pricing, etc.) is an old media idea that has no place in this new world. They have to loosen up, perhaps sacrifice a few points in favor of greater market penetration and goodwill, and then leverage that toward making money. I hope that the market will show them that this is true, but I'm not too hopeful on that point. But right now, a company reacting to piracy, rather than consumer demand, is absolutely the wrong way to go.
The thing about shoving is that, at some point, we don't have to be the ones who fall. Apple didn't introduce DRM-free tracks because they wanted to. They did it because there was a clear demand for them. Comics just needs the same kind of push, and maybe someone to crouch down behind the comics companies to be sure that the push is properly felt, schoolyard recess-style.
SPURGEON: One of the things that comes in your writing every so often that I enjoy is your attention to design and, maybe as a subset to design, fashion. Can you talk about how you look at some of the visuals that way? Do you think it's an under-appreciated aspect to comics? Writing about comics has a history of focusing on story as if the visuals themselves don't matter. Do you think it explains why certain kind of comics that some feel are baffling -- certain kind of manga, the Image revolution -- get over?
I'm going to break this one into two separate, but related, answers, if that's okay.
There's probably no way to say this without denigrating the appeal of the writing in comics, but I'm gonna give it a try and trust that people know I love both halves of the comics equation. The appeal of comics for me are, right now at least, 60% art and 40% writing. They both have to work in concert, and if one is awful, it brings the other down, but the visuals are extremely important in creating a good comic book. I quit reading JLA
when it was being written by Dwayne McDuffie
, one of my most favorite writers ever and probably a huge influence on how I think about certain things, because Ed Benes
' art was beyond subpar.
The attention paid to fashion is both a side effect of trying to pay more attention to the art in comics and a result of paying attention to fashion in real life. I follow a fistful of fashion blogs (mostly sneaker blogs, to be fair) and have a few friends who try to pay attention to what they wear. I try to keep up, if only because part of being an adult is wearing a shirt that has buttons on it every once and a while.
The lack of attention paid to fashion in comics is baffling to me. We all pay a certain amount of attention, time, and money on what we wear, but you wouldn't know it when you look at mainstream comics. Guys still wear Solid Colored T-Shirt and Latex Tight Jeans, with maybe a loose, formless leather jacket on top. Women wear Solid Colored Belly Shirt/Baby-T, Low Rise Jeans, and Visible Thong Straps. Belts, jackets, suspenders, and even something as simple as logos tends to be almost nonexistent, barring the relatively few artists who take the time to do it right.
The art in comics is meant to create a world that we believe to be real, if only for the run time of the comic itself. It doesn't have to be realistic, exactly, but it has to create a world that we believe in. It all comes back to verisimilitude, really. The more you see that reflects life, the more likely you are to believe the tale. Seeing characters who only ever wear clothes that you can find in the one dollar bin at a grocery store harms the believability of that world, whether subconsciously or consciously. It's like having a book where characters go hundreds of issues without eating or sleeping.
On your last point... discussing comics without discussing the art is incredibly shortsighted, and I generally don't read people who do that. The writing and art have to work together to create a good comic book story, and looking at one without the other is limiting the validity of your criticism. In fact, critics who never bother to discuss the art beyond "it's pretty" or "it sucks" probably aren't critics worth reading. That's like discussing a movie only in terms of acting and not the score or screenplay. I've been making a concerted effort to get better at it, and I found that it was best to focus on the small things. Every artist can pump out splash pages like nobody's business, but the ones that can take one panel out of a nine panel grid and make you believe in it are the ones we should be paying attention to.
The thing with mainstream comics is that the stories have been, and were, primary for years. It's what happens to Batman that matters, not how well it was drawn. Image fought back against that trend, though tilting entirely too far in the other direction. They made comics that looked exciting and had everything you could want out of an action scene, but often read like reheated mush. Subplots were excuses to get to the next splash page and action scenes read like an unofficial game of "Can you top this?"
I'm 100% not sure here, since I can only speak to my personal experiences, but the rise of Image introduced a new kind of visual storytelling to American audiences. The weird/awful anatomy of early Image books and the story playing second fiddle, at best, probably caused people to not get on the train. My reaction to Image at the time was probably joy at getting books that were done by Jim Lee and Todd McFarlane and were a little edgy.
More to your point, though, with that first run of Image books and a lot of books in the manga boom, you couldn't possibly ignore, or perhaps passively accept, the art. The art was undeniable in a way that it wasn't with most mainstream books. I didn't really care what happened with Spawn and Grifter. I just wanted to see them do cool things. Image made artists matter again.
Manga is a little different, as it was both the way it was pitched as exotic and authentic and being something new to a certain market that helped it sell. But the storytelling and art was new, due to having to produce 15-20 weekly pages and being from an entirely different country. This is a generalization, of course, but manga can be just as talky and recap-heavy as the worst of Chris Claremont
's excesses, but the action scenes tend to have more room to breathe than they would in American books. That room to breathe made it over here as decompression, and it really changes the impact of a fight scene, or even basic dialogue.
Manga was seeded in America long before the manga boom thanks to people like Frank Miller and Adam Warren
, and the Image style owes a whole lot to Art Adams
and probably John Byrne
, but when those two actually hit in a fully-realized form, certain people latched on in a big way. They were fresh in a way normal comics weren't, and the way the visuals and writing worked together was different.
Both of them had to happen to America before comics could get better. They filled a gap or stopped a trend. I think where we are right now is a nice mix, though that doesn't stop DC from putting crappy fill-in artists on major books. There's an issue of Cry for Justice
that looks like MC Escher
threw up on it in his sleep.
SPURGEON: [laughs] Hey, there was a publishing news story to which you contributed a great piece: the writer J. Michael Straczynski leaving two high-profile serial comics assignments to write original graphic novels. You tied the move into a long history of that writer being late and not finishing assignments. What do you say to the criticism that fans and industry journalists make too big a deal of this kind of thing, that artists should be free to do what they want whether they're doing an underground comic or serving one of these humongous properties, without being criticized for it? For that matter, do you think this kind of indulgent practices at the talent level are a bigger issue for the industry when looked at in terms of the overall picture?
There's definitely some merit to the idea that the behind the scenes machinations are none of our business. We don't have a stake in the profits and I don't think fans should be one of the cooks involved in the kitchen of making comics. Artists should definitely be free to do as they wish, because that's the only way that we're going to get good stories.
At the same time, there's an implicit contract between reader and publisher when you purchase a book that they have advertised in a certain way. If Marvel tells me that The Twelve
is going to ship monthly, with words from JMS and art from Chris Weston
, then it should. When DC says that JMS has a huge arc planned for Superman
and Wonder Woman
, shipping monthly and dealing with X, Y, and Z, then it should.
Late comics are one thing. I recognize that quality takes time, and I'm more than willing to wait. I was a huge fan of Frank Miller and Jim Lee
's All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder
, and that's shipped less than a year's worth of issues since 2006. But, Jim Lee manned up and said something to the effect of, "I've got scripts, I want to get it done, but I just have to find some time in between doing all of the other media stuff I need to get done." Okay, that's not the best case, but cool, I understand.
If companies are honest and just say, "Hey, we screwed up and plans have changed," I'm okay with it. That's treating your consumers like adults. But DC's version of events is deceptive spin, and hidden spin, at that. It was buried in a press release and pitched as JMS letting some up and comers have some fun because he was just too busy, rather than Yet Another Late JMS Comic.
On the talent level, hey, do what you have to do to do the best job you can. The problem actually sits with the publisher. Publishers should sit between talent and consumer and direct traffic, so to speak, to be sure that everything is running in tiptop shape. This means that they should know what their talent is capable of, how likely it is that they'll walk off in a huff when they get bored, how much stories tend to be altered between planning and the actual creation of it... all of that is the job of the publisher, and generally delegated down to the editor and marketer. Basically, if your guy has a history of not finishing work, don't let him do interviews announcing his grand plan for an epic story.
DC's reaction reveals... not contempt, because that sounds entirely too melodramatic, but a willingness to deceive that I'm not at all comfortable with seeing in a company that wants my money. It's such a stupid thing to try and spin, too. People know about late comics. Kevin Smith
is such a punchline and poster boy for late books that I once got a PR email about how he'd shipped several issues of Green Hornet comics
on-time over the past X months, something that would've been impressive if someone else wasn't doing the actual writing of the books. Comic fans know and accept late books. Why create a fairy tale for what is quite possibly the most boring type of news in the comics industry? Do you really think that your customers are that stupid and their memories that short?
So, yeah, it definitely bodes ill for the industry. I expect a certain amount of Us vs Them in how companies operate. They need to make money, I want to save money, and those two goals are pretty incompatible. But this situation just grosses me out. It proves that the idea of Team Comics, where we're all in it together, is a lie, which I'm okay with, but it does it by treating the consumer like they're idiots. Not cool.
SPURGEON: I enjoyed a piece that you wrote back in June on trends at DC in terms of diversity. Why do you think this specific issue remains a problem with the big companies? If I'm reading you correctly, do you think there's something to the way the mainstream companies process criticism that might be an impediment to their improving certain practices?
It's still a problem because of inertia.
But first, two statements that are true and relevant here. 1) Comics companies want to please as many people as possible. 2) Comics companies need to piss us, in terms of in-universe developments, off every once and a while to goose sales. Controversy sells, but sometimes that controversy explodes out into another thing entirely. Moving on --
Black characters are stuck in the back seat (or the back of the bus? ho ho ho) in an industry that prizes "iconic" (a term that has been made completely meaningless these days) characters. There aren't enough of them and they haven't been high profile enough to really "matter," in terms of continuity, and that makes them b-list. The b-list, of course, is the only tier of characters that you can actually alter in any meaningful way in mainstream comics. I mean, Spider-Man got de-married
and fans threw up a huge outcry... but the stories after that were pretty standard Spider-Man
stories, although much better written than the past, say, 15 or 20 years of tales. He was the same Spider-Man before and after One More Day
. But if you want to kill Night Thrasher
or Black Goliath
? Go for it. When you need some cheap heat in a crossover, some bodies to hit the floor to make the story count for the Kontinuity Kops, you look to the b-list.
Due to being b-list, black characters are almost entirely expendable, with maybe four exceptions across the Big Two (Storm
, Black Panther
, Luke Cage
, and, inexplicably, Cyborg
). At the same time, there aren't a lot of black characters to go around. DC is actually pretty awful at creating and pushing compelling black characters, and Marvel has had a pretty respectable measure of success since the '60s, but both companies could use a bit of work.
(I'm circling back around to the point any minute now.)
When you combine that with the conservative streak in comics fans in the modern era, where fans want known quantities doing things that matter first and good stories second, you've got a situation where black characters cannot, and will not, get any traction. If nobody wanted to read about Ronnie Raymond
, you can be sure that no one wants to read about Jason Rusch
, his newer, blacker replacement.
And I mean, if Marvel put out a book next month with Luke Cage, Misty Knight
, Black Panther, Night Thrasher, 3-D Man
, and I dunno, Gabriel Jones
, produced by a reliable creative team, it'd be considered a "black book" and ordered and criticized accordingly. But group together a random assortment of white characters (maybe Ed Brubaker and Mike Deodato's Secret Avengers
, which includes a goddess and a Russian spy) and it's just business as usual. That's real life.
The black legacy characters are forever viewed as knockoffs (see also: the sheer number of idiot fans who screamed "Blaqualad!" to the heavens when the new Aqualad was announced
) and original black characters don't have the juice to be main characters. They're stuck between in the worst possible position for comics characters -- loved by a few and expendable. DC has a big Superman event coming up that begins with Steel fighting Doomsday
. Pretty much everyone has their money on Steel
dying. He's marginal in terms of continuity impact, every event needs a death, and he's not headlining much of anything these days. Everyone thinking that he's going to die isn't a coincidence.
And look at Marvel's upcoming Iron Man 2.0
. The cover artist, title, and logo are all intended to make it look like it's part of Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's successful run on Iron Man
. The twist? It stars James Rhodes as War Machine
. The same James Rhodes who was just in a series a year ago that bit the dust with issue #12. How is that anything but a vote of no-confidence for black characters in comics? Congrats, Rhodey! You're a major co-star in a big Hollywood blockbuster and Marvel knows that the current comics audience won't even look at you without someone else's logo on the cover.
Wrapping back around... it's a problem because it's always been a problem, but we're past the point where the problem can be reliably fixed. Comics fans generally don't want new any more, and since the old is almost entirely white guy-oriented, comics fans therefore don't want black. When things like Thor: The Mighty Avenger
or Captain Britain & MI-13
get canceled, everyone wishes for a resurrection, but the fact remains that no one bought it in the first place.
Can you fix it? I don't think you can. Not without changing how comics are ordered, consumed, and created.
Comics companies process criticism much like people do. Rather than looking at the source of the criticism, their first instinct is, "Oh crap! Fix it! In the quickest and cheapest manner possible!" Marvel recently did this with the Tea Party issue of Captain America
by throwing their letterer under the bus with a "We didn't mean it!" That sort of response doesn't really work in the long term. That's treating the symptom, not the disease. "Look! We're not racist! Here's proof!" And then, a few years down the line, whoops, that guy's dead.
That short-sightedness, which is a direct result of the first true and relevant statement up top, results in company reps coming off fairly tone deaf. Ian Sattler pulling out
the "green and pink skins" line when he works at DC Comics, home of the panel that defined '70s social activism comics, is astounding. That's like Dan Quayle becoming a spokesman for Ore-Idea potatoes or something
. That's unbelievably tone deaf and the result of not really understanding what people are complaining about. It's a band-aid on a gunshot wound.
It's not that a specific character died. It's that a specific type of character keeps dying, generally for the greater glory of another type of character. Maybe they'll get it at some point. Honestly though? I'll believe it when I see it. Inertia is hard to stop.
I mean, we just got a story where a European dictator took over an African country, murdered a few hundred of its inhabitants, including members of the royal family, and then the king was like, "Wow, you're right! We are weak and useless and lazy! I better forever cripple my country and take away the only thing that kept us free from European colonialism all these centuries!" and no one thought to go, "Hey, wait, are we sending a message we don't mean to, here?"
It's funny you asked me this now. I'm starting to plan what I want to do for Black History Month 2011, and at the moment, I feel like if I spend another minute writing about Storm or Cyborg, I'll scream until my head explodes. Times change and at some point soon, my patience will be completely out. I'm learning to look elsewhere.
SPURGEON: One of the more intriguing elements of your critical writing is that on a lot of works you seem to be personally engaged, particularly in terms of character. I get the sense that you feel certain characters work in a certain way, and when a writer goes a different direction, or does something that you clearly feel doesn't work, you have no problem calling them out on this. Is that a fair assessment? What intrigues me about this is that when I read, say, your recent series of posts on
King City, you have a really broad appreciation of what Brandon Graham is doing, you're not just a critic that focuses on specific things as a substitute for engaging a work as a whole. So is it that you just feel like certain characterization issues are a big deal for certain kinds of comics. Where does your confidence in excoriating creators for certain choices come from, do you think?
First and foremost, that confidence comes from basic fan entitlement. It's really just that thing fans have where fans think they know better than IP owners.
But second to that, though... a huge part of the appeal of superheroes are the characters, and the weight behind those characters. There's 70 years of Superman to draw on. Fifty-something of Black Panther, right? These characters have a ton of history, and through that history, the characters have been pretty clearly defined. There's plenty of wiggle room, of course, but when you say, "How do you define Spider-Man?" to a room of 100 people, you're going to get 100 answers that are more similar than different. Spider-Man is a specific thing.
I think most of my excoriation has been about the portrayals of Ann Nocenti
's Typhoid Mary
, Grant Morrison
and JG Jones
, and recently a bit about the modern day Black Panther. Those first two characters were extremely well-defined when they appeared, and they both had gimmicks that kept them from being just your bog-standard new superheroes.
Typhoid Mary was so far ahead of her time it isn't even funny. As a kid, she was a lot scary and creepy. As an adult, I see that she's an amalgam of several different things all wrapped up in one woman. Domestic abuse, rape, violence, sex, sexism, harassment, vengeance, how you cope with life, how sometimes pain is the only thing you can latch onto, abandonment, the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, feminism, the lies we tell ourselves, and good old fashioned "feminine wiles," among others. And all of this was from a Daredevil
comic! There's a ton of amazingly fertile storytelling ground there.
(As an aside, the Ann Nocenti/John Van Fleet Typhoid series from the '90s
desperately needs a reprint. It's one of the meanest, saddest, most emotionally interesting comics I've ever read, maybe peaking when Mary puts a gun in her mouth while thinking "Guns are lighter without bullets. Humans are lighter without brains. Here's to lightening the load.")
Noh-Varr is a similar situation. He was created to be the avatar of a new era of hero, but without all of the forced cool of Kyle Rayner
. He was Superboy crossed with Dane McGowan from The Invisibles
, an avatar of Horus who was going to take us to heaven whether we wanted to go or not. It was an interesting twist on the typically fascist superhero, or maybe not even a twist at all so much as a logical next step. Morrison and Jones' Marvel Boy
was a whirlwind of destruction and action, but also the origin story of a new type of messiah figure in comics.
There's definitely a personal connection there. Both of these characters hit me at different times (Mary as a kid when I couldn't tell why I was so drawn to her and then later on when I finally "got" her, and Noh-Varr in my early '20s when I was both high off The Invisibles
and not in a good place mentally), and that's absolutely where some of that freedom to excoriate comes from. At the same time, though, I don't think that I'm digging too deep at all. There's something there, right? There's a wealth of stories just waiting.
And these days, Mary is Sexy Crazy Chick and Noh-Varr is Space Captain Naiveté. Why would you jettison all of this fertile ground for more boring archetypes? Don't we have enough of both of those? Why not create a new character to fill that role, if you aren't going to actually engage these characters as they were created? That's like a Spider-Man story that has no guilt or responsibility, or a Superman story where he fails to do his job in the end.
That's just boring. Give me hellaciously bad comics before you give me boring ones.
Superhero comics need to be about working with the past to create something new. Whenever I'm critiquing something from a character aspect, rather than craft/context, I try to make sure that it's not just from a place of fan entitlement. There has to be some kind of merit to what I'm saying. Once I convince myself of this merit, and maybe run it past a couple of other friends/writers, I'm okay with going all-in. I try to keep it clean, but you know, if someone does something dumb... it's dumb. I shouldn't have to not call it dumb to be nice.
SPURGEON: To return to
King City, you told me that's one of your books of the year. I think your recent posts have been great about pointing at all the smaller virtues of the work, but if you'd indulge me with your critic's hat on in a more comprehensive way, what is it about that work that you recommend it as a book of the year? What about
King City makes it a book of right now, of 2010?
It's a book of 2010 because Brandon Graham is a creator that I think is going to be emblematic of the modern era. I tend to think of comics art (meaning both writing and art) in terms of waves, with each wave being identifiable via time period, styles, influences, and things like that. Graham is part of a wave that has had unprecedented access to all kinds of comics, from Moebius
to Miller to whoever, and you can see it in how he makes his comics. It's a new way of thinking, and is striking in a modern comics industry that's still paying a lot of homage to one specific type of comic.
I've been reading a lot of Akira Toriyama
recently. The original Dragon Ball
is one of my favorite comics, and I'm just now finally reading through Dragon Ball Z
. I've also been reading Dr. Slump
, his earlier gag manga. Dr. Slump
isn't so much "gag-a-day" as "gag-a-panel." Every single panel has some dumb joke or pun or reference. The establishing shots even have brief little bits of weird dialogue or absurd animals living in trees (like a triceratops). It's packed with content, and sometimes, stories just straight up end mid-punchline, like a '70s kung fu film that fades to black as soon as the main bad guy is kicked in the face. It's like Sergio Aragones
' margin doodles were turned into 15-page tales with their attention span halved.
If you've ever read King City
, you know that pretty much everything I just said about Dr. Slump
applies to that series, too. And more than that -- there's definitely some Moebius in his cityscapes. His action scenes don't read like traditional comics action scenes. The issues feel like significant chunks of content, but the action scenes are breezy, with more beginning and end than middle. There are jokes about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
, rap, rock, and certain types of action movie cliches. It's compressed and decompressed simultaneously.
Basically, Graham is part of a generation that is synthesizing global pop culture, rather than absorbing Neal Adams
or Masamune Shirow or Robert Crumb
one at a time. It's all in there, and it's due to globalization. More than that, the disparate influences filtered through one mind result in something fresh. What do you get when you add Gene Colan to Jean-Luc Godard
to Junji Ito to Los Bros
? I don't know, but I bet there's somebody out there right now who is going to show us. This wave is everything that ever was turned into something new.
Graham isn't the only guy working as part of this new wave. James Stokoe
and Corey Lewis
are another. My friends Ron (Sentences) Wimberly
and Julian (ANTS) Lytle
are a couple more. Paul Pope
. Afua Richardson
. Jim Rugg
. Kate Beaton
. There are undoubtedly others that I'm forgetting, but the best known is definitely Bryan Lee O'Malley
, whose Scott Pilgrim
is as much Sailor Moon
and a very specific generation of Nintendo (or Sega, which theoretically does what Nintendon't) as it is Chris Claremont's X-Men
. They've all got this mix of Japanese, European, and American comics influences, but on top of that, there's other media, whether video games or movies or spy novels or folklore, sitting in there, too. It's all about ninjas who wear name-brand sneakers, mafia bosses who break the laws of physics as well as the land, and knights who use lasers. It's everything, all sitting in one giant melting pot. Nothing is forbidden, everything is permitted. Dig in, America.
And for the most part, you won't see this at the Big Two. There are a few artists who a part of this wave. Sara Pichelli
probably has the highest profile at the moment, as she's working on Ultimate Spider-Man
, but I don't think she's had a change to really go wild yet. But mostly, the art at the Big Two is from a certain wave. Post-Image, post-manga, definitely, but not quite to the extent that Graham and his kind are. They aren't the hardcore cultural fusion that you find in King City
and Scott Pilgrim
But to pull it back down to being specifically about King City
-- it's a love story. There is plenty of action, a ton of jokes, and some fantastic art, but at its heart, it's about a guy getting over, or not getting over, a girl. Behind all of the wild, out-there stuff that goes on in that book and the metric ton of puns that coat each page is one of a story that's one of the easiest to relate to in human history. There was love, and it was bright and vibrant, until one day it wasn't.
Those two points are the biggest reasons why King City
is such a good comic, and why I think that it's a book that could only exist right now, in 2010. The way that it makes good on the promise of globalization and creates one small bit culture out of many and how, deep inside, it's a story that we all understand. The combination of those two, the new and the old sitting side by side, is what comics are about. It works.
SPURGEON: You also explore older books as part of your ongoing critical writing -- you did a series of posts on various Frank Miller comics as I recall last Spring and you also did some work with the old Jungle Action serial Panther's Rage. How much of your interest in comics exists on a continuum with past works, do those works come alive for you in the same way newer ones do, or is there a bit of historical contextual discovery there for you. As far as Panther's Rage goes, I always thought that was a super-emblematic comic of its time. How do you look at it in the context of comics being done now?
Up until fairly recently, I was very crap at comics history. I'm still crap now, but I know a little bit more about where things sit on the timeline. It's important to know where things came from, too, because that can lead to a deeper understanding of things today. I liked late-era Frank Miller and Ed McGuinness
a whole lot more once I really dug into Kirby
, you know?
When I read Panther's Rage
, I didn't know its place in history or what people thought of it. I knew that the art was great and that Dwayne McDuffie praised it, but he was the only person I'd ever seen mention it. I read it, and while it is very dated in parts, it's very forward-looking in others. The art and design still stand up very well, and there's a title page in there that would be striking even today.
I enjoyed the story, but you're right in that there's quite a bit of contextual discovery there. The prevailing meme online is that everything in the '90s sucked and everything before 1986 was wacky Silver Age funtime adventures. I like picking a series and digging into it in part because it proves that meme to be incredibly reductive and a lie. I knew Jim Starlin
from the '90s Warlock
-related comics, but going back and taking a couple weeks to read through the entire body of work he did related to Adam Warlock a couple years ago was eye-opening.
Reading something old and finding something new in the text, whether new to me or new period, is fantastic, and makes me feel really good about comics. All I did for about the two weeks up to and during Booze, Broads, and Bullets Week was read Frank Miller comics back to back to back. When you drown in someone's work like that, you pick up on things you normally wouldn't have. The age of the book stops mattering and you're just left with the story itself. Elektra: Assassin
is what, 25 years old next year? I can still lose myself in that book.
wasn't revelatory in the way that The Outfit
were revelatory, but it was in a historical sense. The craft in that work is very, very strong. If it were published today, and adjusted a little, it'd stand up as the best Black Panther
story since [Christopher] Priest
left the book. It really should've been published as a fat softcover instead of being relegated to the Marvel Masterworks ghetto for just that reason. It has legs, and evergreen ones, at that, to mix a couple of journalism metaphors.
SPURGEON: You wrote about
Panther's Rage with Tucker Stone; many of your on-line outlets are shared by other writers. Do you have a special appreciation for working with other writers, either directly or just in the same general vicinity? I think a lot of us think of you as being part of the
ComicsAlliance group -- what has working with that group of writers been like for you?
I like working in groups a lot. Working around other people lets me see things from angles I hadn't expected and be interested in things I never would've even looked at if you paid me. I'm a very specific type of writer. I don't do mainstream link-bait stuff well because I'm just not wired for it. But, if you give me a situation, plot, or work and tell me to put it together like a puzzle or take it apart like an autopsy? I can do that in my sleep.
is a group of three, and very consciously so. Gavin
do things I can't do. Gavin Jasper is the funniest guy I know, and has been for the past eight or nine years I've known him. Esther Inglis-Arkell approaches comics from an angle that I can't/don't and writes from that position. Being around both of them forces me to learn and break out of my comfort zone a little, even if it isn't immediately obvious in my writing.
Something else that probably doesn't come through is how incredibly competitive I can get. I'm in competition with myself first and foremost. I stress myself out horribly every February because I need each Black History Month to be twice as good as the last one. I mean, it's December and I've been thinking about 2011's for a couple weeks now. That's absurd, but hey, that's how I work.
After that, though, I measure myself against other outlets and writers, for better or for worse. I try not to do it publicly, if only because that just causes headaches down the line, but it definitely happens. I remember when a joke (or was it?!) on Twitter around a year ago about the quality of 4l!
vs the quality of Newsarama
pissed a couple people off up there, perhaps forever!
Anyway, being in a group of writers keeps that competition close. There aren't any writers I want to write like, exactly, but there are people who make me want to step my game up in a big way. Chris Arrant
and Vaneta Rogers
have interview skills that I'd kill for. Everybody says that Jog
is the best because he's got amazing all-around skills. Seneca keeps introducing me to new comics and reintroducing me to ones I loved for completely different reasons than he does. Kate Dacey
writes about manga like it was the easiest thing in the world. Jason Wood at iFanboy
does killer business analysis. Tucker can slice right through a comic and show you its guts, whether it's good or bad. Graeme [McMillan]
is a workhorse. [Sean] Witzke
has a point of view on the relationship between comics, movies, and stories that I don't think anyone else can match. Chris Eckert
is a historian and has clued me in on a ton of comics history. Jamaal Thomas
doesn't write about comics often, but he's fantastic at reasoning and digging into what works or doesn't. I may not want to do interviews or comics history pieces, but there's something for me to learn from in all of their approaches, not to mention the pleasure to be found in good writing in and of itself.
I don't consciously sit down and go, "Okay, now I want this interview with whoever to be better than Chris Arrant's interview with Stan Sakai
." or anything like that, but every time I see his "What are you working on today?" question, I try to think of a way to steal that for my own work because it's so good. Competition makes me better.
It counts as a kind of cooperation, too. There are a lot of writers I talk to regularly via email, Twitter, whatever. The most common are probably Tucker and Witzke, the other members of the Joe Casey Fan Club. We run text by each other, shoot over single line emails like "Hey, read this Elmore Leonard novel; he wrote it for you," and generally just talk about stuff that's worth talking about. That's made me better, too, knowing that I have a couple people sitting there who'll support me, but also be like, "Really, David? REALLY?" when I slip. The Panther's Rage conversation and Booze, Broads, and Bullets Week were in part excuses to work with these guys in an increasingly high stakes game of "Can you top this blog post?"
It's funny you say that about ComicsAlliance
. I was joking around with Laura
earlier this year that CA
had somehow turned into "Laura Hudson's ComicsAlliance
, featuring David Brothers and several of his friends." I've known Laura for a couple years now. We probably spoke briefly when we were both at PopCultureShock
, and but we really clicked when we shared a panel about Comics Journalism hosted by Douglas Wolk at San Diego
one year. When you add in Davids Uzumeri
and Esther, a significant portion of CA
's content comes from people I knew before I signed on there. And this year has seen Chris Eckert, Matt Seneca, and Tucker Stone chip in on the site, too. I think Graeme McMillan posted on there once after he left io9
. It's like someone pulled all my favorite names from my address book. All we need is Sean Witzke and Jog and the sheer creative weight of my talented friends will make CA
collapse into a black hole.
SPURGEON: I wanted to ask you about a few general industry stories before we broke this up. This was a huge year for conventions. Do you think San Diego made the right decision? To what do we owe this huge surge -- a surge even ahead of the general commercial interest in comics -- in comics conventions. Do we all just like conventions now?
I think we all like comic book movies and video games now, and conventions are like a big ol' party you go to that has both of them.
I think that San Diego is an incredibly unpleasant con at this point. It's overcrowded, loud, and awful. I kept finding myself outside on one of the decks, sitting in the sun, watching the boats, and reading books instead of doing actual shopping or working. They need to do something about the crowds. If that means moving to LA, I'm for that. Since they didn't, though, I hope that they have expansions planned that can empty out the hall some. Rent out hotels for panels, annex some land, just do something to make it work. I'm skeptical that staying in San Diego was the right decision, but I'm even less of a con organizer than I am a comics editor, so I just have to kinda hope that they made the right choice. Seven months from now, if I'm working SDCC again, I'll probably have a different answer. Maybe one with more four letter words.
I do like cons as a concept, though, with Wondercon
(which I can walk to from work) and New York Comic-Con
topping the list. What I find at both of those cons is that the crowd doesn't match what you tend of think of as the Wednesday comics crowd. There are a ton of kids, for one thing, and an even mix of men and women. There are families, even. They aren't there specifically for the comics. They're there because they like comics movies or video games or Twilight
and the cons are just another way to experience all of that.
I don't have any hard data, obviously, but that's the feeling I get from watching people and having those short-term friendships you make at conventions. People just like seeing new stuff, and if the price is cheap enough, or the new stuff exciting enough, they'll brave the crowds, fork over some cash, get a chance to wear their Iron Man shirt for the weekend, and keep the kids entertained. It's the new county fair, only it smells slightly less like horse poop.
SPURGEON: This year was the 20th anniversary of The Creator's Bill of Rights. You are way younger than me. Do you have a sense how this emerging generation of professional looks at creator's rights issue, or if they do at all? How important do you feel it is to look at ethical company practices? This was a year when a few smaller companies were accused of having retrograde practices, and that we had two ongoing lawsuits driven by long-ago mistreatment, at least from the point of view of those creators' families. What's your assessment of where comics is as a place for creators to work and be treated fairly?
I came into actually paying attention to creator's rights after this battle had already been fought, so it's almost a given in my mind. In fact, when I hear about artists being screwed, I'm always kind of surprised. "That still happens? Really?"
I'm not a creator, but if I had to guess, just based on interactions I've had with people around my age... it's not even a question any more. Everyone I know is doing, and wants to do, their own thing, and they know the pros and cons of servicing trademarks for a corporate juggernaut. If you create something, you should be credited and paid accordingly. If you aren't being credited, you need to be handsomely rewarded for your anonymity. Contracts should be clear as day and exploitative practices need to be pointed out and punished. Comics are nothing with creators.
Treat your creators like kings or be put to the sword, basically. This sort of, "Work for us for the publicity!" is something that should only fool high schoolers, and high schoolers these days are craftier and meaner than ever, so good luck there. If you're rich enough to give them publicity, and they're good enough for you to want to give them publicity, they should be paid. End of story. This goes for everything, by the way, from comics journalism to digging ditches. If you do the work, you get to cash a check. If you're working for free on anything but maybe a local, hyper-indie scale, you're getting screwed.
It's important to support companies who do right and shun those who do wrong. It's like Bluewater Productions
. Johanna Draper-Carlson made a public statement
that she wouldn't be supporting their books because of their borderline exploitative business practices. Things like that have to come to light. It's 2010 and we should be long past the stage where we, as consumers, are complicit in screwing people over. Let those companies die on the vine.
The fact that the ongoing Siegel & Shuster
and Kirby family
lawsuits exist is shameful. I understand why DC and Marvel have to fight them, but you know know what? These guys made your companies. They made the comics industry. Superheroes, romance comics, whatever -- they wouldn't be here without those guys. None of it.
So, call the families and work something out. Back a dump truck full of cash up to their door, negotiate a contract that gives the families what they deserve but doesn't cripple your business, and make up for past sins. Just do the right thing, because fighting these lawsuits makes the Big Two look like complete douchebags from here on my uninformed mountaintop. Take one for the team in the name of doing the right thing. You'll survive. You've got Disney and Time Warner backing you up. And if not, well... sometimes people have to pay for their sins.
SPURGEON: How worried are you about the state of the Direct Market heading into 2011? We've had a few stores closed or come near to closure, and things are tough generally. Do you feel the industry supports its Direct Market avenues to the extent they should? If you could reign as czar of comics, what concrete changes might you make in the way we're oriented towards our comics shops?
This one is tough for me. I'm not quite a traditional Direct Market shopper, so I'm not really in the target demo for most stores. I do think that this is a crap time to be a retailer. The economy's crap, print sucks, and the Big Two are flooding the market with a lot of marginal work as prep for movies or just because. But let me put my thinking cap on here...
I think that for the Direct Market to become more healthy, retailers and publishers need to both improve. We're at a huge turning point for comics right now, with digital getting ready to jump into the game of double dutch that is selling comics, floppies floundering, and graphic novel sales skyrocketing. Retailers need to be able to take advantage of that, and that means moving away from the comic shop paradigm we've had for the past however many years. Digital isn't going to replace print, but in three or four years once it's really established, it's going to chew up floppy sales, probably to a large extent.
My platonic ideal of a comic shop is more like an independent bookstore with a wide variety of stock. Capes, weepy autobio, manga, whatever the general market wants in a long-lasting format. That means trades. Hardcore comics fans buy trades. Casual fans buy trades. The in-between fans buys trades. My mom buys trades. If you can serve both me, who would buy crime and war comics all day if he could, and my mother, who still talks about how she doesn't even like comic books while asking me when the new Fables
or Queen & Country
is coming out and when am I buying it for her, and the guy who demands comics that "matter," then you have a model that has cross-demographic appeal. And that's going to be crucial to survive. You don't have to desert your current model, but you do have to update it. For some stores, that means toys. For the type I'd shop at, that means more books.
Publishers need to start thinking long-term. Marvel publishes too many comics. DC publishes too many comics. At one point this year there was what, 19 separate Batman-related titles? How many series are out right now that star Thor? I would slash and burn their lines. The major-major series, the ones that have lasted 500 or more issues, those series can stick around. Keep Amazing Spider-Man
, Action Comics
, Captain America
, Detective Comics
, Wonder Woman
, and Superman
on the shelf. Maybe one or two others, but those have proven their longevity, so keep them around for historical purposes. Ship them biweekly and put top-flight creative teams on them, rather than people who will just get the work done.
Everything else? Cancel it and hijack the Hellboy/BPRD model
. Do a series of ongoing miniseries, each written to stand on its own but lock into a larger story if you want to continue. And again, top-flight teams only, and make them stories that have a reason to exist, not just, "We have a new Spider-Man costume we think looks cool." Make them unavoidably compelling. Each of these books should be an event. Not in terms of "WHOA LOOK AT ALL THIS ACTION!" It should be an event in terms of it being a book that people will talk about for weeks or months. They should add to the canon without being beholden to it. Black costume Spider-Man for one story? Sure, why not? Just make sure that the story is good.
Only two of these should be going on at any one point in time. If you want to read a story about Spider-Man, you can grab Amazing Spider-Man
, Spider-Man Miniseries
#1, or Spider-Man Miniseries
#2, which should each represent a different type of story (traditional, horror, kids, whatever) and be clearly marketed as such. Companies get one "event" comic per year, which will be an original graphic novel released at some point when business is traditionally low to goose sales and when business is traditionally high to provide an incentive for newbies to come in. January for DC, say, and Marvel six months later, and they can switch positions every year.
Trade paperbacks? Put them out two weeks after the floppies ship, minimum. People who want the floppies will buy them. The people who want the trades and want to keep up can keep up. Casual readers can pick them up and feel like they're in the know. No more of this floppy to premiere hardcover to trade paperback to over-sized hardcover. You get a trade or a deluxe hardcover. The omnibus can come down the line, but should be a special occasion. Secret Wars II? Not a special occasion.
Does Comic Book Guy work in your store? Cool. Fire him, and write a letter of apology to all of your customers for hiring him. Comic Book Guy exists and he is a poison on the comics industry.
Everybody but Marvel and DC: make better comics. If you already make consistently good comics... thumbs up.
I don't know if this would help or doom the DM. Probably a bit of both. But I think that moving toward a more bookstore-style model, but with the boutique and friendly feel of a good comic shop, is key. You have to sell an experience, not just books. Nobody goes to Borders to chitchat about the new James Patterson. But comic shops? If you make them nice? People will hang out and shop there. It forms a small community.
I dunno. That's how I'd do it, if only because that's what I want out of the DM.
SPURGEON: So what does 2011 and the next few years beyond that hold for you in terms of comics, David? Do you think your interest is going to stay the same? Is there a career or a type of writing that you'd like to do that you haven't done yet. What ideally might you be doing a half-decade from now? And if I saw you then, what kind of comics might you be reading?
As far as 4thletter!
goes, it's definitely going to end up more general media than exclusively comics. I consume music at a rate that puts my comics reading habits to shame, and I'm trying to teach myself how to talk about it. My taste in comics, though. I think that my level of interest in comics will stay the same, but shift in focus. As long as I can learn new things and read new stories, whether those stories were made in 1942 or 2012, I'm in.
I mean, it's 2010 and I basically just discovered Los Bros Hernandez via Love & Rockets New Stories #3
and Chris Ware via Acme Novelty Library #20
. I still need to figure out what people love about Paul Gulacy
's '70s work, dig into John Buscema
's body of work, and figure out Wally Wood
beyond "Wow, pretty girls!" I don't know anything about The Comics Journal
and the one issue I bought because it had a Trevor von Eeden interview I needed
to prep for Black History Month. I need to fill that gap. There's a ton left for me to learn, and I plan to learn as much of it as I can.
When I started out writing about comics, all I really cared about was Frank Miller, capes, and maybe a little Vertigo
. Now, I am much pickier when it comes to cape comics, enjoy a mix of dumb shonen manga and gritty seinen, love war comics to death, and am filled with a need to know more about Johnny Ryan. I've got a small (but growing) collection of untranslated manga I buy from Kinokuniya because I like the art.
I honestly can't tell where my tastes will fall five years from now. If books like Ax from Top Shelf
and Viz's SIGIKKI line
take off, then I'll be reading a lot more manga. If Marvel and DC start doing creator-centric OGNs, then I'll end up running back into their arms to some extent. I just like comics. It's one of the best ways to convey information on the planet, and I love that we're at a point where every year kicks the pants off the previous year in terms of quality. At least once a month this year there was a comic or graphic novel that blew my mind. If we can get that up to weekly or bi-weekly by 2015, then comics will never be rid of me.
There's one thing I'd love to have done that I can't possibly do now. All-Negro Comics #1
is my last comic book holy grail. I only discovered it recently, but the very concept of it has changed how I look at the comics industry in terms of race. If we could produce a comic in the 40s that showed black people in a realistic light, meaning treated them as actual people, then things like Ebony White and all the dumb racism that litters the industry is even more inexcusable. "It was of the time?" Please. That doesn't cut it any more.
#1 goes for like eight grand on eBay, and if I had the cash, I'd go for it in a hot minute. I just want to read it. More than that, though, my kind of quiet dream is to buy the All-Negro Comics
name and IP (though it might be public domain now) and create a new All-Negro Comics
anthology. I wouldn't want to write stories in it so much as edit and curate. It'd give me an excuse to showcase work from creators I like, bring back some old characters with fantastic names (Ace Harlem!), and sort of showcase black voices in comics. It's a total vanity project, and would totally going to drive me into bankruptcy, but I'd totally do it if I could. That's as close as I want to come to actually being "in" the comics industry.
* David Brothers' Twitter
* David Brothers At 4thletter!
* Comics Alliance
* David Brothers at Comics Alliance
* photos of the writer provided by the writer
* two comics Brothers read early on
* Ultimate Thor
* from Atomic Robo
* a best-selling Chew
* from the suddenly-reappearing Jack Cross
* something Gene Colan drew in the '70s
* Ed Benes draws the Justice League
* from JMS' brief run on Wonder Woman
* from ASBARTBW
; Lee Admits They're Late
* Black Goliath? Yeah, He Can Die
* Iron Man 2.0
* the Tea Bag panel from Captain America
* Typhoid and Noh-Varr
* from King City
* from Dr. Slump
* Corey Lewis
* two from Panther's Rage
* a series of panels from Elektra: Assassin
* the ComicsAlliance
* the crowds of Comic-Con
* Joe Shuster draws Superman
, a comic Brothers' mom likes
* high-numbers for Action
* the BPRD
successive mini-series model
* the enduring mystery of Wally Wood
* All-Negro Comics
* one more King City