Creator owned comics are dead. Literally. But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe no one wants to buy anything new anymore and with that reality the industry dies a little more. New characters have always had a hard time finding an audience. Everyone wants a new #1, but no one wants to buy a comic about someone they don’t already know. On top of that, the recent trends within mainstream comics has moved towards stifling creative endeavors in favor of proven successes. All this is leading comic book creators to shy away from creating new concepts for mainstream comics, but their independent creative owned books never find the sales for success. In essence we’re being robbed of so much potential.
The sudden cancellation of a comic book NAMED Creator-Owned Heroes tells a lot about what comic book fans are looking for. A book starring characters created by the likes of Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Steve Niles, Phil Noto, Darwyn Cooke and others is a big deal, and yet people weren’t buying it. Sales were in the 5,000 range and they were asking for only a little bit more than that. Palmiotti and Gray have a loyal following from writing Jonah Hex and now All-Star Western, Steve Niles created 30 Days of Night and so many other things, Phil Noto is a popular cover artist at Marvel and DC, and Darwyn Cooke is the type of creator that you follow religiously. It was thought that all these creators’ fans would come together in order to support the book. Apparently not. Creator-owned concepts don’t always make it at Image Comics, but what about Marvel or DC, the companies that everyone wants to read and make the most money.
Johnnie Simpson, Co-Founder of this blog, once asked me “when was the last time Marvel or DC created a new character that has had a continuing, decent run? I mean a new hero created in an entirely original way?” I had no answer for him. I mean, sure, there are plenty of examples of new characters in mainstream comics. Jamie Reyes and Miles Morales come to mind, but both of them were developed from previous DC and Marvel characters (Blue Beetle and Spider-Man). The biggest success from the post silver age era might be Wolverine and maybe the two most influential characters to come out of the ’90s were Cable and Deadpool. Then in the 2000‘s there was…Sentry? DC has been pretty stagnant since the ’80s.
The way the industry is run now, on a purely business side, makes it impossible for creators to create. No one wants to admit it, and people demand new, original characters, but no one wants to pay for them. The nature of current contracts have completely shut off the creative possibilities in Marvel/DC continuity. No one wants to hand over the rights to their creations. You’ll never see a brand new character started from scratch running around on equal ground with the likes of Batman or Captain America.
In light of numerous historical examples, contractual realities, and the shelf life of creators, is it really in a creator’s best interest to be making brand new IP for the big companies on the cheap? I mean, we still do it sometimes, because, frankly, we can’t not…it’s in our DNA as storytellers and problem solvers — but is it the ‘right’ thing to do? Would it be right for people to ‘expect me’ to do that? I don’t think so. But that’s just one example — There are others (some even more negative, plenty positive). - Jonathan Hickman
Creators don’t want to put their best ideas into something they have no control over, and can you really blame them? In a post-Superman lawsuit world, the industry is more wary of the power of legal rights and who deserves credit for what. DC now owns 50% of all media rights to Vertigo creator-owned comics. Meaning now they get a bigger cut, even though the creator still ‘owns’ the content. Creators can choose to give up more rights for more money or try it their own way. Many creators have shied away from them in order to retain more freedom.
That was exactly how Image Comics started. Creators were pissed off at Marvel for giving them no credit, so they came together to create a company that allowed them to do what they wanted and get all the money. The problem with things like that is that they have very little continuity between books. Continuity sells nowadays, and Image has had to really push up the quality of their books in the last few years in order for anyone to actually notice them and not consider them dinosaurs from the ’90s. They’re actually using their freedom as a strength for once and allowing great creators to do whatever they want. Marvel/DC is not run that way. It’s all editorial oversight, building up products and properties and cutting off creativity in order to protect the business.
However, at the end of the day comic book writers don’t make all that much money from their books. As Jim Zub, creator of Skullkickers, breaks down for us, the actual creative team makes very little money from the sale of a comic. That $3-4 you spend on a book gets divided between the retailer, the distributer and the publisher and the publisher breaks it down even further and sometimes creators don’t even get money back for their efforts if the book doesn’t make enough money. It’s very rare that royalties make a person rich. The Walking Dead is the exception, not the rule. Creators that make their own original content don’t make the money that Robert Kirkman does.
The Walking Dead placed in the top 50 of sales in October. The only other creator-owned comic to place in the top 100 was Happy, by Grant Morrison. From there it’s Nick Spencer’s Bedlam at 110, Fatale by Brian Michael Bendis and Sean Phillips at 122 and 129, Fairest at 134, Spawn at 138, Robert Kirkman again at 144 with Thief of Thieves, Vertigo’s anthology title Ghosts at 145, and Bill Willingham’s Fables at 146 to round out the top 150. It’s only after the top 200 do you start seeing such ‘loved’ titles like Sweet Tooth, The Unwritten and Morning Glories. You have to dig even deeper towards the top 400 to find the almost unanimously praised surprise ‘hit’ The Sixth Gun. That title sold just over 3,000 copies and that’s deemed successful. It’s well praised, but still no one is buying it. People are vocal about creator-owned comics and ‘indie’ comics, but no one buys them because they’re unfamiliar.
It’s easy to overlook these comics when you have to buy twice as much from Marvel or DC to get a full storyline and by that point your wallet is empty. I would love to be able to buy every book in my comic book store, but it’s simply not a reality and you have to make cuts. Indie comics are the first to get cut and with it go a lot of creator-owned comics.
Probably the nail in the creator-owned coffin, at least for the moment, is Before Watchmen. What is Before Watchmen? It is the death of creator owned comics. Watchmen is a weird example of creator owned. DC owns everything, but there is a provision that states if Watchmen ever goes out of print, the rights to the story, characters and book itself fall back to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The deal seemed fair in theory, but Watchmen proved to be so popular that DC Comics has kept the book in print for nearly thirty years and they don’t seem to have plans to stop any time soon. Now that a movie was finally made, DC needed another way to make a profit off the moneymaker that is Watchmen, so they opted for a series of prequel mini-series that follow the main characters from before the events of the seminal story.
Obviously it’s made a huge amount of money, but do the people involved realize what they have done? Do the readers see that they have proved with their wallet that mining old familiar concepts is that much better than creating new work? Do the creators realize they’re hurting their own kind and their own future endeavors? How would J. Michael Straczynski feel if Warner Brothers decided to make a new Babylon 5 show without his input or approval? Len Wein created Wolverine and Swamp Thing, and still he was left with nothing when a fire destroyed his house. He isn’t making money off of Wolverine and Alan Moore isn’t making money off Before Watchmen. (It’s a good thing his wife won $60,000 on Jeopardy!) I guess creators do what they have to do to survive and DC probably paid them top dollar for their Before Watchmen titles.
Many creators actually use their mainstream work to fund their creator-owned work. Jeff Lemire, known for his Essex County trilogy and other indie work, has made a huge splash at DC Comics with Animal Man, Justice League Dark, and Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. Yet he still writes stuff like Sweet Tooth and his upcoming Trillium at Vertigo. He doesn’t have to write that stuff, the DC work is what pays, as a creator he does it because he wants to. He has ideas and he offers them to us, but we’re too busy reading what Batman is doing to notice.
So we’re stuck in this vicious back and forth. I would say cycle, but that would mean that this is a cyclical process and I don’t think it is. Writers don’t want their creative rights being infringed on and readers don’t support that part of the industry. Wallets are tightening up and creators are stuck. I could say you should ‘buy local,’ but who am I kidding, it won’t make a difference and just because it’s creator owned doesn’t make it better. What I will say, which is something that could have saved Creator-Owned Heroes, is that sometimes you should just take a chance.