Friday, November 07, 2008

Comics Out November 5, 2008 (A Rant About The Comic Book Industry)

I got the Bachalo Spiderman book I missed last week, and I really like Bachalo and it was pretty good but that is not what I want to talk about this week. I want to talk about the fact that I did not pick anything up this week, and about the state of the comic book industry generally. This is based off of a talk I had with Brad last night.

With All Star Superman and Casanova on hiatus I do not have any books to really GET EXCITED ABOUT except for All Star Batman which comes out too infrequently. Not that there are not good books being published, especially by Fraction, but there is nothing coming out now that I await with breathless anticipation, as in the past I waited for The Authority, certain arcs of New X-Men, Planetary, and Dark Knight Strikes Again, and recently Fraction's Iron Fist - perfect meetings of concept and art and writer.

Someone asked Joss Whedon is he would continue to write comics or go back to TV and he said something like "I want to feed my children solid food." I do not know what the pay rate is in the comic book world -- does anyone know what comic book writers bring in on an annual basis -- but it does not seem to be enough. So you get talented guys like Bendis, who was a writer I was once very excited about what with Powers and Fortune and Glory, spreading themselves thin writing six books a month with minimal content. I do not think Bendis is untalented, or greedy: I think he has bills to pay and and I can respect that, though I dropped his books a long time ago. I think the smart move for guys like Bendis is to isolate a portion of their genius in books like Powers, so that they are consistently (if infrequently) making something perfect, make their other books to pay their bills, and look to smart fans to see the difference between the two. I lost interest in Powers in part because I think Bendis did -- he took imaginative energy away from that book and spread it thin and I stopped following him. Warren Ellis did the same thing with Planetary -- it was clear that he had lost a lot of interest in that book, especially in issue 26, but he never focused his powers in quite the same way again: it is not that Ellis is a bad writer, but again, he has spread himself thin. I can see the brilliance in lines and pages and issues, but never in whole runs after Planetary 14.

Then there is the movie industry, which has turned comic books stepping stone rather than an endpoint. Mark Millar whose work I quite liked for a long time, especially Ultimate X-Men, now writes movie scripts in comic book form (Kick Ass) when his writing does not just totally dip into mean, abject unpleasantness (Kick Ass again), and occasional total boredom (Fantastic Four). Frank Miller now splits him time between comic books and film.

Alan Moore retired, though before he did he struck the right balance between works of total genius (The first two League books, Promethea) and additional, forgettable stuff (Tomorrow Stories, much of Tom Strong). Over and over again he would return to stuff dripping in nostalgia -- like his thousandth painstakingly perfect rendition of some silver age tone and form -- but this never interfered with he best works (except maybe in the last volume of the League, but that may be a special case).

Grant Morrison is planning on retiring from superhero stuff except for Batman. I do not know if he is serious about that, or what his independent post-Final Crisis books will look like (they may be brilliant, as We3 was). But for now a b-list story from his JLA run has been elevated into some kind of major crossover event (because again, that is how you pay bills), which was not a complete disaster until it turned out the book needs fill in artists well below the caliber of JG Jones, including a fill in for the entire last issue. As we discovered in Final Crisis four J.G. Jones is doing a LOT to keep this book afloat, and when he leaves the story -- already maybe wonk-y --just sinks. And then you get stuff like Final Crisis: Submit which can serve no purpose other than to just add a little money to his pocket: the story is not bad necessarily but it is completely uninspired and unnecessary, especially as part of a book that prides itself on jumping past major moments in a maybe interesting way (jury is still out on that). His Batman RIP story is similarly maybe pretty good, except that it can be hard to tell behind the pencils of Tony Daniels. I once felt bad for Morrison and his trouble with artists, but now I think that often outside of Quitely he considers himself done when he finishes a script. The industry has been working out how to get the most out of Event Crossovers (Spin Offs? A 12 part story that runs through four books over three months?), but Seven Soldiers got closest to something really great. Seven Soldiers had a lot of potential -- though it tanked the ending -- but the format was exactly right: you get seven guys putting four books out in whatever time period (I forget how long Seven Soldiers lasted), and because the books have an odd relationship, the different styles become an asset rather than a detriment, and in any case can have a kind of internal consistency in their own titles (disregarding Mr. Miracle). Matt Fraction et al. did something similar for a while on Iron Fist where the brilliant David Aja was allowed to handle the main story, but a monthly schedule was kept up because of isolated flashbacks drawn by other artists so Aja might only be drawing 16 pages a moth or something.

Meanwhile guys like Bachalo and Ashley Wood languish without a writer to match their talents; Mignola does not even draw Hellboy anymore (though at least he found a suitable replacement). Brad told me that a lot of the best "comic book artists" do not even draw comics: story-boarding in Hollywood pays so much more.

I have no idea if this is practical -- and even if it was my voice is hardly going to make it happen -- but I want to see writers and artists who can recognize in their own writing the difference between works of genius and stuff to pay bills; I want that distinction subtly communicated to discerning fans like myself through a lack of fill-in artists and a willingness to let the book come out rarely as long as it is just right; and I want the film industry and the comics industry to get some kind of symbiosis going, rather than the film industry interfering with comics and comic book writers when certain trends strike Hollywood; and I want comic book writers to be paid more. Hell, double the price of Casanova and All Star Superman and All Star Batman. I will pay it just to keep those books just the way they are, and I will buy any books a writer puts out as long as that writer has one work of absolute greatness coming out on some kind of regular basis.

I am not asking any writer or artist to do a better job than they are doing right now; I just want to see what we have redistributed differently. The comic book industry has a lot of talent, and someone needs to be making sure a handful of books are perfect 10s, while the rest of the books are 4s. Because right now I am seeing too many 6s, and it is leaving me unsatisfied.


Geoff Klock said...

Now that this is up, I wonder if my desire to post something that was not a guest post made me publish something before I was done fully thinking about it. I suppose you guys can all take me to school and I can repost it with your revisions.

Patrick said...

I think part of the problem with comics now is that there's this divergent need to simultaneously put out a book every month and keep the buzz and momentum up, and the desire to wait three or four months between an issue and put out something perfect. Final Crisis could have been a much delayed series that would eventually come out in an all JGJ TPB, or it could come out as a monthly serial that had people eager for the next issue. I think they've unfortunately found the worst middle ground and killed all the momentum of the series, while also messing with the art for the eventual TPB.

Books that wait for the artist to finish and come out once every three or four months invariably lose a lot of their momentum, and lose that buzz, no matter how good they are. Planetary was a huge deal when it was first coming out, but I think Ellis lost interest in it, and the audience lost interest because of the absurdly long delays. All Star Superman was the greatest Superman story ever told, but I don't think it quite had the buzz that it should have, simply because it took forever to come out. It made more sense to wait for the trade, but waiting for the trade, you lose that singular cultural moment when everyone is talking about the book.

But, I'd definitely agree that it seems more and more difficult for people to make a living off comics, and we're moving to the point where seven or eight people are writing all the books at the big two. I love Bendis's early stuff, but around the time he took on Avengers, I just gave up. He was churning stuff out, but none of it felt important or emotionally meaningful. Same with Ellis, when he's throwing out so much shit, you forget about which books he really cares about. In Ellis's case, his constant complaining about writing for the big two, prior to deciding to write for them again, makes it easy to skip his "corporate whore" comics.

brad said...

It's easier not to care when new Lost and Battlestar episodes are coming out. But we're coming up on the end of those two series as well.

Geoff Klock said...

More and more I feel like Fraction has the right idea in Casanova and most of Iron Fist: either make comic books 16 pages, or make 16 pages with your "A" team and have flashbacks covered by a decent fill in -- but done in such a way that you could skip reading the flashbacks if you wanted to. And now I am back to my point from the beginning of the week -- fan edits.

Jason said...

Note: Tom Strong did that trick too -- 24 pages divvied up 16/8, with the main art team handling 16 and another artist handling the other 8, which comprised either a flashback or a different story entirely.

Of course, the book still came out intermittently, so I don't know if that was as much a deadline thing as just a way of getting lots of different artists on the comic. (The first time Moore did it in Tom Strong -- the fourth issue -- the "8" artist was Art Adams, one of the most notoriously slow artists in the industry...)

Joe Gualtieri said...

Geoff, I agree with a lot of what you're saying. Morrison is slugging home run after homerun in my view, and I'm enjoying a few regular "7-8s" right now (Johns on nearly everything and Shooter's Legion), but nearly every other monthly comic is leaving me unsatisfied right now. My Previews form is due tomorrow and I don't think I've ever been more tempted not to bother.

I'm not sure there's a solution though, as Morrison aside, comics seem bereft of writing talent. It's full of the guys who were up-and-coming at the beginning of the decade- Millar, Bendis (seemed to be back when he was initially tying his Avengers run together at the start of Secret Invasion), etc. and then there's the current crop, who've failed to impress me- Fraction (OK, Casanova wasn't bad, but it doesn't off-set the awful Last of the Independents) and Jason Aaron (Scalped v1 was snooze inducing).

Brubaker is probably close to your model of producing "10s" and lesser work come to think of it. Criminal is beyond awesome, but his post-Gotham Central superhero work has been increasingly poor.

Rucka, just to complete the list of "hot" writers from earlier this decade seems to have become a pure crapshot. The Crime Bible was awful, yet his continuation of it under the Final Crisis Umbrella has been great thus far, channeling Ostrander's Spectre much as his Checkmate series managed to do an update of Suicide Squad.

A few things about Morrison's recent work though:
JG Jones is doing nothing for Final Crisis at all. Oh, the "director's cut" (why are they called that seriously?) of #1 showed that he isn't the #1 problem with the art on the book, as the colourist is ruining his decent pencils, but his art is still so error-ridden he practically makes Tony Daniel look good. Then there's the slowness.

Submit isn't there purely as a cash grab, rather it was supposed to be published during the gap between FC #3 and 4, a gap put in there to account for Jones's lack of speed, yet he was so bad to that point, the idea of giving him an extra month in the schedule proved meaningless.

Moving onto Seven Soldiers, it wasn't supposed to be published over whatever time period; the order in the trade collections was supposed to be the publication order. The series wasn't published in that order mainly due to Marvel poaching Pasquel Ferry after Mr. Miracle #1 (followed by further art publems on that title), Manhke IIRC took longer than expected on Frankenstein, and then the finale had to be extensively rewritten, as Morrison's original draft was something like 100 pages. If you feel the ending was blown, that its supercondensed is probably why (persoanlly though, I though Morrison nailed it).

Timothy Callahan said...

I don't see how you can ignore Scalped and even Ghost Rider each month. Jason Aaron is making the kind of comics that I can't wait to read each month.

Fnord Serious said...

I can't say that there is anything being published monthly that is setting my brain on fire. The 8 to 10 Marvel books I read in periodical format are solid books, but nothing that blows my socks off. The stuff that I really dig on, like Scalped, Ex Machina, etc, I buy in trades. Lots of good older stuff to be found as well. I just got the two volumes of Luther Arkwight by Brian Talbot and I'm looking forward to diving into those.

scott91777 said...

I wonder if the low pay in comics is an extension of that ever-present 'low self-esteem' that has long plagued comics creators. There's still this sense, even among creators, as being part of a lesser art-form... something you start out in before moving on to something bigger and better.

I think, especially within mainstream comics, something needs to be done about this... if you think about it, more and more is being made off of these properties and reprints in trade editions is far more common than it was ten-years ago (so I'm assuming companies are making even more money off of the work of these writers as there are folks, like me, who really only 'wait for the trades' who, 10 years ago, would not have been buying the stories period). I mean, look at comic-con... It is now one of the entertainment industries biggest events/testing grounds.

I also lament Frank Miller's recent preference to movies since, from what I've read of him in interviews, he seems to truly love THE FORM of comics and wants to see that progress. Then again, maybe he's just doing the movies to make assloads of money, so that he can spend the rest of his career making the comics he wants.

Scott McCloud is a great example. This is a guy who truly loves the form and doesn't seem interested in working in another medium. I'm reading the Complete Zot now and that seems to really shine through in his work. However, it is completely understandable that, even those who love their work, have to pay the bills. As an adjunct, you have no idea how much I understand this...

Joe Gualtieri said...

Well, Geoff, as I said, I found volume one of Scalped boring. It comes off as a poor attempt to do an HBO series in comic form. The only thing novel was the setting, the rest was cliche. Does it severely pick up from there? The series is beloved on the internet, but there seesm to be no discourse about it beyond "Scalped is awesome, go buy it."

As for Ghost Rider, it's Ghost Rider. If Aaron had blown me away with Scalped, I may have tried it, but the character has had less than zero appeal to me outside of the early 90s reprints of DeMatteis's run (which I loved at 11, but doubt they hold up).

Triumph of the Underdog said...

Again, it's these stupid event comics. It's forcing the few good creators to team-up to beat one guy's only semi-good-to-begin-with idea ABSOLUTELY to death.

Most of the time I like the central conceits of these big events - Hulk vs. Earth, Super Heroes must Register, Pre-Crisis Comes Back, Evil Wins - but any potential that was there is COMPLETELY deflated by having it happen linewide six times a week. I mean, No Country for Old Men was a great movie, but what if it crossed over and spread it's story across every other movie or TV Show you watched the week you saw it? I am increasingly of the opinion that these "events" should be 80 or 90 page one-shots. Have Final Crisis happen in one long issue, have it be the ONLY thing that comes out from DC that week Everything else can resume the next week with the new status quo. That way you won't have to worry about artists or holding up schedules. Charge five, even ten dollars for the thing and it'll sell in the skajillions.

Anyway, there's my rant about it.

Christian said...

Man, I really hope Casanova comes back soon. Or just a second album.

And I'm constantly amazed that the only people putting out real one-shot stories etc. are the smaller indie guys like Bryan Lee O'Malley, Seth or Jeffrey Brown.

This is wishful thinking, because I doubt the bigger companies, aside from Image, would be willing to put money upfront for complete stories in a larger format.

And yeah, guys, I somewhat agree with a lot of the sentiments around here, but I do get the feeling, you're not really trying to get beyond your basic assumption. When was the last time you bought something new by a writer you're not greatly familiar with?

And Jason Aaron is awesome. I really disliked Scalped's first arc, but it's been aces afterwards and his Grindhouse/horror setting for Ghost Rider is amazing. And the art is beautiful. It's early in the morning and I'm hungover from my birthday, but the art in Ghost Rider strikes me as a more organic and fluent version of Richard Case's Doom Patrol work. It's wild and imaginative, interesting and different to look at.

Gordon Harries said...

Hi all,

First time caller ---

Man, this reminds me of an old Warren Ellis Forum conversation (except that it’s about superheroes. Which definatley wouldn’t have been encouraged by the WEF’s host!)

On the subject of lateness, what I struggle to fathom is this: if you’re going to put notably slow artists on books (whether it be J.G Jones, Steve McNiven or Frank Quintley) why in god’s name would you not give them an appropriate run up to the initial publication date? Seriously, comics is the only commercial art business I know where publishers routinely do not have anything in the can six months prior to publication.

(although having thought that through for half a second, one could also argue magazine content too.)

I think a lot of the problem with these ’events’ is pacing. Imagine if ’Secret Invasion’ had come out over eight weeks, rather than eight months. You’d have a short (okay, short-ish) sharp shock that ’redefined’ the Marvel Universe and it wouldn’t have to suck in every book Marvel publishes for the better part of a year.

It would also make sense because, in many cases, Marvel is now working to a TV model and the reality is that I either watch TV weekly (usually something I’m not going to bother with on DVD, such as ’Heroes’) or I buy the Boxset/Trade (’The Wire’)

CHRISTIAN: the last I heard, Cassanova wasn’t coming back for a while (I don’t think a specific time frame was mentioned, but I got the impression that ’we’ were looking at 12-18 months) but Fraction does apparently have an Icon book incoming.


Geoff Klock said...

I forgot to mention, in the paragraph on Hollywood, Joph Loeb on Heroes (fired now I think) and BKV on LOST.

Gordon Harries said...

Yeah, both Jeph Loeb and Jesse Alexander have been let go from Heroes (am I right in thinking the latter has done some comics work? I want to say the Ultimate Wolverine Vs. Hulk mini-series, but aren’t convinced I’m correct.)

And apparently BKV is one of the head boys over at LOST these days, with his comics output ’dwindling’ to Ex Machina.

Personally, I’m excited about 100 Bullets finally wrapping up. I think it might be my favorite comics series of all time, at this point.

James said...

Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk was Lost's co-show-runner, Damon Lindelof. And bloody good those 2 issues were, too.

Streebo said...

Did anyone else pick up the new Sandman story by Gaiman this week?

And I just wanted to mention that I posted a link to a trailer for a fan edit of Batman vs Superman on the Less is More post from the beginning of the week. It's worth a couple minutes to watch.

scott91777 said...

Actually, it's not a new Sandman story... it's an old prose story (it was illustrated) from about 10 years ago that is being adapted by P. Craig Russel.

Jason said...

I skimmed a Fraction issue of Uncanny today. I liked it!