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Sean Kleefeld On It Being About The Product, Not About Art
posted February 13, 2012

I just read through your "Twenty-One Not Exactly Original Notes On More Watchmen, Written At A Slight Remove". As usual, you bring up a lot of excellent points. However, I might quibble with your last one a bit about how "it's product, not art." I don't disagree with that sentiment, but when has comics as a whole EVER been about art? There are certainly examples of art within comics -- whether you're looking at something more popular like Watchmen or revolutionary pieces like Zap Comix. But, by and large, the industry has been one of getting a mass produced product to as many people as possible.

What happened after folks realized Action Comics #1 was a hit? There were a dozen Superman clones and a flood of Superman-licensed product.

Will Eisner was an unquestionable genius when it came to making comics, but what were his biggest innovations? Assembly line production and holding on the rights of The Spirit.

What about Martin Goodman? His modus operandi, for decades, was "take what's popular, copy it, repeat ad nauseum."

Vinnie Colletta is often maligned for taking shortcuts when inking Jack Kirby's pencils. So why did he keep getting work? Because he was giving Stan Lee a product in a expedient manner.

How many comic book titles have the words "X-Men" in them somewhere?

Do I even need to remind you of the foil-stamped, die-cut, embossed comic covers of the 1990s? Or cover variants that continue to this day?

None of this is to say that comic creators don't try very hard to make an enjoyable work that has as much artistic merit as possible. But the artistic integrity of an Alan Moore is rare, indeed. I think that, at some level, most creators recognize they're producing a product, not a work of art. Otherwise, why bother with deadlines? Or editors? Why go through a large publisher when self-publishing and online options are cheaper and more plentiful today?

Honestly, I'm more amazed that DC hasn't done more than it has to build a Watchmen franchise over the years. I think the Moore/Gibbons original is a work of art and should indeed be held in high regard, and anything built off of those ideas will be inherently derivative. But those derivations only water down the Watchmen brand, not the original Watchmen story. And that's DC's choice to do that. Because what they've done -- what they've always done -- is create a mass media product for broad consumption.

It's never about the art; it's always about the product. That art comes into the equation at all is more an accidental by-product as far as the publishers are concerned.

Tom Spurgeon Replies: I couldn't disagree more strongly, and find your sentiments repugnant and wholly ignorant in some of the details of the hows and why of publishing. I do appreciate your sending them along, and wish you all the best.