Fight the Comic Aristocracy (Part One)

My latest graphic book with author Thom Hartmann, We the People, focuses on the pervasive influence that mega-corporations have on American government, and now I would like to look at a similar situation in comics.

Aristocracy pervades the comic industry, and hierarchies exist where a select few preside higher than, and dictate the fate of, the majority. Quite the opposite, a democratic structure would be available to everyone, allowing all participants an equal footing. While my earlier article discussed practical solutions for expansion and change in the comic industry, the first part of this piece will discuss how these aristocratic structures permeate the comic industry, as well as illuminating potential democratic movements in contrast in part two.


Aristocracy: Economics

The most obvious aristocracy lies in the economic structure of the industry. Between sixty to seventy percent of the market share is held in dominion by two companies: Marvel and DC. Following this, several other publishers each vie to stake out as much of the industry as is leftover.

The difference between the two dominating companies and the smaller publishers should be fairly clear. The Big Two are corporations. Marvel Enterprises, Inc. is actually an integrated division of the toy company that used to be called Toy Biz. Meanwhile, DC is a tiny faction of the media giant Time Warner.

The corporate nature of the Big Two shows in their products. They manufacture company-owned properties (i.e., characters) only for the purpose of turning a profit for the company stockholders. This is why Todd McFarlane in an oft-told story called them "plantations." They are not publishers; they are companies, who employ workers to make money for the broader corporation. As Warren Ellis put it in a past column for Comic Book Resources, "it doesn’t matter who creates [the comic], it’ll come out next month anyway." Usually the smaller businesses in the industry function in at least some capacity as real publishers, by distributing and marketing works owned by creators to the financial benefits of both author and publisher.

The bottom-line is one of the reasons that pamphlet style comics far outstrip square-bound collections and graphic novels in the industry at large — lengthy single book works do not generate consistent and repeated sales. Since they are pushing corporate properties, the major businesses want consumers to have a regular "fix" of whatever property they’re hooked on, with constant exposure of that property to the public. No doubt, this practice has antecedents in newspaper strips, and is very different from standard book publishing, where an author produces their books independently of the intents of the company, which then markets and distributes it.

In many ways, the formation of Image Comics in the early nineties symbolized a rebellion against the established hierarchy. While independent publishers had always existed, the breaking away of the Image creators proved that popular artists were a bigger draw than the properties they worked on. For instance, the staggering amount of copies sold of the first issues of Spawn and Youngblood and Rob Liefeld’s star-status elevation in the early nineties (to the point of jean advertisements) had nothing to do with the characters they were creating for their fledgling company, but with their status as popular creators. While the collectors market no doubt inflated these sales numbers, their popularity still revolved around the individuals making them — with that popularity then bleeding out to all within their creative sphere — no matter what characters they drew or wrote (or, arguably, the quality of those books).

Despite this revolutionary promise, many of the Image partners did little to break the mold, and many wound up merely imitating the manufacturing methods they left behind, only with themselves at the top. The difference was that they were now able to turn their own creations into licensable franchises. For example, Spawn, WildCATs, and The Savage Dragon all expanded to multiple licensing venues such as cartoons and the ever-lucrative toy market. In the case of Spawn, which also begat a movie, McFarlane began the comic series doing most all the graphic and writing chores himself, though he has occupied only a co-writer status for over 60 issues while employing others to do the rest of the work.

Perhaps the Big Two learned their lesson from this experience as well, as many of the Image founders have in some way been wooed back to work on corporate properties, such as the Heroes Reborn revamps done by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld for Marvel, Erik Larsen’s prodigious work-for-hire projects in addition to his own The Savage Dragon, and the recent Lee Batman and Superman runs which spiked recent sales for DC (which bought Lee’s Wildstorm Studios). Marvel, recognizing the importance of creator’s voices even went so far as to hire Joe Quesada, who had his own creator owned title Ash, as its presiding editor-in-chief.

Indeed, comics are not even the most lucrative market for the Big Two, as licensing makes up the majority of their revenues. This can be seen at any major comic convention with the growing percentage of floor space dedicated to things other than actual comic books. Indeed, without such major licensing, both companies would most likely have dropped their comic lines by the early 1970s. In fact, one could say that comics for these companies serve merely as cheap promotional tools used to develop and sustain their properties. Ellis reinforced this in another column by showing documentation from Marvel that essentially describes the role of comics publishing as providing a library and development program for the toy division. With regard to actual comic sales, he states also that "In 1999, …Marvel made as much money out of its internal ads [within comics] as it did out of newsstands, convenience stores, drug stores, supermarkets, mass merchandise and national bookstore chains" combined (emphasis in original).

Using comics in such a way highlights why so many start-up comic companies (Tekno, Malibu’s Ultraverse, CrossGen, etc.) have folded by imitating this model. They are not publishing comics as a means to connect writer to audience (and thus creating quality reading material), but with the primary hope that they can create marketable properties to sell off to other lucrative licensing deals such as toys, movies, etc. This is most evident in that these companies work to create characters, as opposed to develop or seek out stories. Most likely, because they do not command the same level of product familiarity, they struggle both to secure a solid base of readership and interest as well as demanding high advertising rates. In a market that often banks on nostalgia and familiarity, establishing new properties with hopes that they will consistently flourish without the pull of creators working on them is an extremely hard sell.

Granted, popular licensing emerges from book publishers’ works as well. However, for example, Harry Potter was first intended only for exposure as a book, and then spread to other forms as determined by the author — who owns at least some share of the rights and produces the original stories — not by a publisher dictating both.


Aristocracy: Creative Content

This leads to another aristocratic system: the domination of the market’s genres by superheroes. While some other themes have been emerging strongly in recent years, the American comic industry is still very clearly centered on the superhero genre — as is the public’s perception of it. And, even when genre changes, the same basic formula of adolescent power fantasies prevails.
Because of their positions in the industry, the largest companies do not seek a vast diversification of genre outside the established industry. They conservatively hold onto their seat of power without needing to expand in meaningful ways, perhaps in fear that it could disrupt their advantageous positions. Since the bottom line always rules for the Big Two, they will even saturate the market with low quality books just to maintain a higher percentage of industry share. Many of these books are taken at a loss to profit, in hopes that one might end up a big winner.

Making forays into untested waters is not a standard practice among these businesses because they rely on the use of established properties (such as superheroes) to reliably create revenue. As a result, the broader comics community suffers because the most powerful voices in the industry stymie the possibility of associating "comics" beyond their cultural stereotype — which is based largely around the properties of those major companies. And, it is of far greater risk for the smaller companies to venture out of the mold, because more of their revenue (and success as a company) is determined by the sales of every book, and, again, they cannot demand high prices for ad rates.


Aristocracy: Production

An aristocracy also extends into the methods by which comics are made. The "shop style" of comic manufacturing was designed with productivity in mind, breaking up the workload into manageable portions in an assembly-line division of labor, which is also hierarchically organized top-down, with a controlling editor at the helm. A comic editor is more of a “manager” with creative input throughout the entire process. The editor presides over the whole process, first with a writer and penciler who perform the craftwork of primary "creative" significance, after which inkers, letterers, and colorists clean and finish the work. Most often, the writer holds the second most primary role, as their script is the first level of creation, though the penciler might take liberties in their visual translation of the writer’s work (all of which might be changed by the editor). Authority runs top-down, with the overall aim to finish the product so that the paying public can consume it at a timely and regular frequency.

While these might seem good qualities for a business set up, the authoritarian editor model is in great contrast to that of authorship where an individual strives to express their own creative vision based on their own ideas. In fact, the editor is also a subordinate too, since legally the corporation is the author of the work. This factory-like set up came in the mid-1930s, with companies transitioning from reprinting collections of newspaper comic strips into producing new material expressly for comic books. It is somewhat ironic that Will Eisner, one of the paradigm examples of individual artistry, is also credited as one of the strongest forces in bringing the assembly-line to comics, which in its era was a widespread innovation for manufacturing of all types.

Despite these elitist structures, several democratizing forces can and do work in contrast to them. This will be the focus of part two of this piece.


Click here for part two of this essay.

Neil Cohn