Open Mike Night: State of the Comic Industry 1/18/13

Maillaro: So, havy, we have a bit of a problem this week. Well two problems really, but they are sort of connected…

Weaver: Well, I know one of them…there’s nothing that struck us as particularly worth discussing on this week’s pull list. Which isn’t to say that there’s not plenty of fine comics there, but there just wasn’t anything that caught our eye as good fodder for conversation. However, both of us are talkers, so I’m sure we can find something to talk about. What’s the other problem?

Maillaro: The other problem is that people will have to read whatever crazy ramblings we decide to fill this space with instead of the fine quality reviews they are used to finding here!

Actually, I do have quite a bit to talk about. Over the last week or so, a lot of information has been leaking out from DC about them firing creators off books. Sometimes this happened even before the creators had a chance to debut. Gail Simone was dumped from Batgirl…until the fans raised a stink and DC said “the new writer on Batgirl will be Gail Simone.”

On top of that, a lot of creators have just left DC for vague reasons. Rob Liefeld quit the company entirely. Judd Winick left Batwing literally in the middle of an arc. I don’t have a complete list, but I am certain far more than half of the New 52 books have different writers and/or artists from when they started only 15 months ago. I know comics tend to have a huge turnaround, but this seems to be a sign that the New 52…or more likely DC editorial is having some massive problems.

Nick Spencer on twitter a few days ago commented, “Seeing lots of “that’s how it is in this business,” stuff in regards to the day’s news…It really isn’t, and it certainly shouldn’t be…To be a little more direct: the way DC treats a lot of their freelancers is absolutely abhorrent…When it happened to me on SUPERGIRL, I didn’t say much, because I didn’t want to dwell on the negative…But when you see it happen to so many good people, and the damage it does to their careers, their incomes, etc… it’s just not okay…I don’t understand the need for it, & I wish it were otherwise…I love DC, love the characters, & I know I did some of my best work…And I’m VERY happy for my friends who have been successful there…But I would tell any creator– especially newer, younger ones– to be extremely careful in doing business there.”

Weaver: Well, before I say anything about the actual job losses here, let me say that I always thought the New 52 was a flawed idea in a lot of ways. Don’t get me wrong, it was a really good idea, but locking yourself into printing x number of titles each month gets rid of a lot of the flexibility that a dynamic market like comics needs. It felt to me like there were maybe 30, 35 comics in that list that you could say, “Okay, we absolutely need to put this out.” And then about 10 or so more that you could say, “Let’s give this a chance, we have a strong pitch and creative team.” And then…stuff that got canceled and replaced very quickly. Even there, I question the wisdom of replacing them. Didn’t they learn anything from the uneven launch?

DC could publish 20 books or 60 books, it doesn’t matter a lot as long as all of them have enough going for them to attract buyers. It’s not the number so much as locking themselves into that number. It really seems to me like they are focused on a lot of the wrong things. I know we both agree that Rob Liefeld is not the joke that the internet makes him out to be…while he is not the best artist ever, he loves his job and he loves comics and you can see that from talking to him very easily, one of the most approachable creators ever. If Rob Liefeld is quitting without a Plan B already in place, you know there’s a problem. My thought is that DC put the cart in front of the horse and is now punishing the horse for being unable to push it.

Maillaro: I never really thought of it that way, but yeah, the concept of a set in stone number of titles is pretty odd. It really should depend on the market and interest, not just some talismanic number like 52. DC’s obsession with that number is starting to border on the psychotic.

Weaver: I really wonder if this has to do with deliverables that DC promised their stakeholders. I mean, I’m going to talk a little here about business as I know it, based on experience working for a few large corporations in my day. So a business unit of a larger conglomerate, like say DC Comics, is beholden to the larger conglomerate and has to put out a plan to the larger group about what they’re going to do with an emphasis on how it’s going to make money. Because if it doesn’t make dollars, it doesn’t make sense.

Right now, the money being made on comics is very much on the movie and licensing end, and right now, Marvel absolutely has more market penetration in both. Avengers, including the related franchises, has been box office gold. The reimagined Batman has been losing steam, and neither Superman nor Green Lantern did what was expected of them. Thus, I imagine the suits looking down at DC and saying, “We need something from you guys.” And I imagine them leaning hard to make sure something happens.

But you can’t force creativity, unless you’re whatever group is now responsible for giving Tony Stark a box of scraps and telling him to make them a weapon. DC likely is locked into a plan that requires a 52 issue a month deliverable, and they’re as clueless about how to make that happen as you or I would be. They’re also likely locked into sales benchmarks and royalty benchmarks and deadline benchmarks. Don’t get me wrong, comics need a solid business plan. It’s too niche of a market to succeed without some planning. Now, and this is pure speculation, it feels like they’re in too tight of planning, likely because of the recent success of Marvel’s movies and licensing.

Maillaro: Makes sense, once the new car smell wore off the New 52, DC sort of fell back to being second fiddle to Marvel. One thing Marvel has done far better than DC, pretty much as long as I’ve read comics now, is to be able to draw attention to their books. People complain about Marvel leaking stories like Human Torch’s death to the press, but in terms of Marvel figures, it has definitely paid off.

And like you said, the success of the movies has definitely been a huge boon for Marvel. Even before the “Avengers-Verse” Marvel was doing really well with the Blade, Spider-Man, and X-Men franchises. It has seemed insane to me that despite the fact Warner Brothers is basically the sole license holder, they can’t get their shit together when it comes to movies, other than a handful of successes, pretty much all of them staring Batman, who let’s face it, is an easy sell. People love revenge fantasies, and a normal guy being able to hang with the big guns has always appealed to comic readers.

Marvel has had their licenses all over the place, and while some of their movies have flopped either critically or financially, for the most part, they have done a good job of keeping them true to the characters and showing the full potential of these characters to the market. An outside studio messing up Electra seems inevitable, but has been rare for Marvel. An internal studio messing up Catwoman seems absurd, but it keeps happening time and time again for DC’s movies.

No surprise at all that Disney stepped in to buy Marvel. I wonder if Warner Brothers would still would be stepping in to buy DC if they hadn’t bought them years ago…

Weaver: To be fair, there’s a number of Marvel movies that weren’t exactly critical darlings…Fantastic Four, Daredevil, and Ghost Rider all had mixed to poor reviews. But Ghost Rider, as one example, is a movie that you kick out without the expectation that it’s going to win a bunch of Oscars and break box office records. And you talk about Batman being an easy sell, but they even managed to mess that up once. Granted, on the other side of things, it really does seem like three in-sequence movies is about all you can expect from a comic book.

One of my favorite pieces of comic trivia is that DC tried to offload its roster on Marvel in the 70’s before Superman: The Movie came out. At a pretty low price, too. I actually think that an offer like that might happen again, now that Disney owns Marvel. That would be one crazy business deal.

Maillaro: But even Daredevil, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider are were fairly true to the character. Full disclosure, I liked all three of them. But I also liked Green Lantern too, so maybe I am part of the problem.

I would be very surprised if Warner Brothers would be willing to sell off Superman or Batman. Both just have too much marketing potential. I remember hearing a while back that Superman’s logo is the most recognized logo worldwide, with Batman and Mickey Mouse being the other two.

I do think that it might be possible for them to sell off some of their other properties to Disney/Marvel, which could be kind of nuts. Richard Rider – Green Lantern! Quicksilver – Master of the Speed Force. Green Arrow and Hawkeye teaming up! Yeah, I know, it sounds crazy, but I would totally read those books!

Weaver: I actually liked them all too. Yes, even Green Lantern. I was even not wholly against Elektra (although it made a convincing argument for being awful).

You know, that reminds me of one of my all-time favorite things…any time DC and Marvel crossed over. There really needs to be another crossover, but it will never happen. JLA/Avengers is still one of my favorite limited series.

Maillaro: There are very few cross company crossovers I didn’t enjoy. I used to have tons of them ranging from Batman Vs Predator (3 volumes of that) to Spawn Vs Batman to Deathmate.

You’d think comic companies would learn some lessons during their intracompany crossovers. Have fun with the books, don’t obsess with continuity and horrible things happening to fourth-string characters. JLA/Avengers was great, and I even liked Marvel Vs DC, even if the voting made for some strained storytelling. Sadly because of rights issues, there aren’t a lot of the crosscompany crossovers available digitally.

Weaver: But who’s to blame there, really? I know the early creators didn’t care at all about continuity until it was more or less forced on them. Granted, once continuity hit comics it allowed for some great stories, but I think there’s a lot of pros and cons to continuity. I don’t know. The build up to the events with, say, Yellowjacket couldn’t have happened quicker, and then you have things like Starman that reveled in even the silly bits of DC continuity in Times Past and such. Continuity makes for some beautiful stories.

But I think there’s a danger of being too obsessed with it. I’ll admit that I have my moments. I still get vaguely annoyed by whatever the heck Polaris’ backstory morphs into. I’ve never dropped a book over it or even written an angry letter, but I admit that it annoys me.

Maillaro: There are some writers who are good with continuity, Waid, Robinson, and Busiek come to mind. But they didn’t linger about continuity, they took the random strands of it and reworked it into a coherant story. Starman and Avengers Forever felt free to pick and choose the stories they were playing with, and both ended up brilliant.

But for the most part, it annoys me when random character from 20 years ago shows up as a major villain in a companywide crossover story. DC has been god awful at this lately. Does anyone really care about Golden Age Superman or Antimonitor anymore? Personally, I just wanna read a good story. I don’t worry too much about dwelling on the past, as long as the “new” story is enjoyable.

Weaver: I think the major comic companies, both of them, just hate letting characters go. But there’s a reason some characters were let go. DC especially feels the sting on Captain Marvel constantly and doesn’t wish to ever get in that situation again.

Sometimes going through the dumpster for old characters can be a good thing. I was recently talking to a guy who was a fan when he was growing up but hasn’t read comics in a long time, he was pretty shocked that Power Man and Iron Fist were having a renaissance of sorts. Those characters and Jessica Drew owe a lot to Bendis being a huge fan of them. I’m kind of torn about people writing characters that they have huge attachments to…obviously, you want the writer to like his characters. But you don’t want him to like them so much that it borders on obsession. I feel that at certain points in New Avengers and Alias we got railroaded with “I like Luke Cage so much.” The flip side is how Claremont used to railroad us with “I hate Iceman so much.” There comes times when you feel that a professional should be able to just leave those things on the table. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to see Luke Cage back being relevant, but I think there’s a limit to how much a writer should kowtow to his inner fanboy.

Maillaro: Yeah, I think there are definitely pros and cons to having a fan of the character write the book. That said, I would totally be willing to write a comic starring Impulse for free, so who am I to talk.

Just kind to building on the themes we’re talking about. What is your take on reboots? DC seems to love them, and for the most part, Marvel’s continuity has been fairly linear. Sure some things got ret conned out (sometimes in dumb ways like Peter and MJ). I can see both sides here. It is nice to have a fresh start, especially if you are trying to build up a new reader base…but at the same time, I jumped in reading comics when I was ten years, and never felt all that overwhelmed by the years of history that came before.

Weaver: Heh, I’m old enough that Crisis on Infinite Earths was a serious detriment to my DC enjoyment. I think the best way to do a reboot is what Marvel did with Ultimate. Or at least, what they did in the beginning of Ultimate. Make a new reader friendly line with very light continuity. The problem then became that the writers wanted to retell all the 616 stories, so the continuity went right back to being a mess.

Earth-2 is another book that’s doing this kind of reboot in a good way. I dislike cutting everything down and throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I think starting a new book with the stripped down continuity while keeping the old one is the right way.

Maillaro: DC seems to have played some with their own “ultimate” universes with Earth One Superman, Earth One Batman and the All-Star books. I actually think even worse than the throwing the baby out with the bathwater is where they try to have the best of both worlds. New 52 is a total reboot…except for where it’s not. Green Lantern and Batman continuity in particular as now an absolute mess, and DC just seems to hand wave that. Have the courage to do it entirely or not at all.

I think the Marvel NOW! approach has been more sensible. New creative teams, new directions, but these directions aren’t at the expense of the history that came before it. I actually think that Marvel NOW! will probably have more legs than New 52 for that reason. And for the most part, Marvel has only relaunched books that are basically proven winners except for a very few exceptions like Morbius.

Weaver: Time will prove Morbius to be a winner! This goes back to my previous statement on 52…you have the books that you know you need to put out, your Batmans and Supermans…and then you have a few things with solid teams and solid pitches that you’re willing to experiment on. Morbius definitely fits the latter category. Comic companies always need to have a few of these up their sleeves, because that’s where you find the next X-Men or Sandman.

I think part of DC’s problem is that they want to be the goliath dating back to the early days of comics, but they also want to be hip and fresh. You can’t have it both ways, it’s impossible. Marvel was always about being the hip and fresh company, and so cleaning a few things up on the downlow and moving forward works out for them. DC also has so many characters that people enjoy on some level…so many properties that someone out there loves. I think they need to be more cautious about when and how they bring those people back. Look at, for instance, Bucky. Marvel waited until they had exactly the right story before they brought him back. DC likes to give you these cameo shots of “This is what all those ancient people that haven’t shown up that most of you don’t know are doing!” and that’s cool for a panel or two, but they try to make them part of the story.

You know how I prefer those sorts of cameos? In their own book, like a Spotlight or Feature book. But those tend not to sell well. Nor does the “popular hero and one scrub” style of, say, Marvel Team-Up or Brave and the Bold, two comics that I have a huge fondness for.

Maillaro: I actually am a huge fan of anthology books like DC Showcase, DCU Presents, Marvel Comics Presents, etc. They never sell well, and too often Marvel and DC try to use them to springboard other series that just have no chance in hell of succeeding. But I think they should just use them as loss leaders.

Actually these days, you could get away with doing them as cheap little 99 cents series online. I would definitely buy a weekly series that features the more obscure corners of the Marvel or DC universe. It could also be a great way to showcase new talent….for DC to exploit!

Weaver: Remember when DC tried doing that thing where they’d do back-ups written and drawn by…I believe they called them “Young Guns”? I knew a guy who contributed and felt very exploited by that. But he felt very exploited by the sun rising in the east and setting in the west so I didn’t pay him much mind. Anyway, I think that doing little five and ten page stories of obscure characters and handing them out for cheap or even free could build affection, and while I totally agree that most of these guys should NOT springboard to series, it would enable them to have them fill out video game or action figure rosters without anyone complaining.

Maillaro: I think Young Guns was one of Marvel’s marketing the Architects. But the idea still stands. Comics are definitely a tough business to get in to. I always say it would be fun to write for Marvel or DC, but it doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Wow, even without any comics to review, we definitely found a lot to say today! Anything else you wanna talk about?

Weaver: What I always hear is that if you want to write comics, learn how to draw.

Nope, nothing more from me. Thanks for the chat, as always!

Maillaro: Next week there are actually two books I really want to talk about, Young Avengers and Star Trek: Countdown to Darkness, so we should be a little less rambling I think.

Weaver: Actually, if anything, I think we’re less rambling when there isn’t a real subject. Which is a scary thought.

Maillaro: Hmm…good point. And on that note, we are out!

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