Comic Industry Celebrates Partisans Ta-Nehisi Coates & Rachel Maddow

I’d provided a link in an earlier post to an earlier item about Image’s chief executive, Eric Stephenson, and what he says about where the medium appears to be going. Now, here’s Newsarama’s fuller interview where we can highlight more of what he had to tell them. For example, he mentions a certain ideologue who doesn’t belong:

 

 

Newsarama: Eric, what gets you excited about comics right now? This can be comics themselves, the industry, distribution, anything.

Eric Stephenson: More than anything, I would have to say our potential, and I mean that both as a medium and as an industry.

I look at things like Marjorie Liu sharing a stage with authors like Malcom Galdwell, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Karin Slaughter on a Book Expo America panel moderated by a major media figure like Rachel Maddow, and not only is it exciting to see comics taken seriously, but becoming a bigger part of our culture.

 

 

So when somebody like Coates, who exploits comics like Black Panther and Captain America to push his far-left positions, gets so much coverage, and a leftist reporter like Maddow turns up, that’s an achievement? Sorry, but I think not. The only real interest such awful people like Maddow could have in comicdom is political opportunities, such as Coates has demonstrated. That’s the only reason they’re supposedly becoming part of culture, yet the industry continues to implode even as we speak. Stephenson later goes on cite Portland, Oregon and the direct sales market:

 

 

I’m not going to rattle off every single store, but Portland really is a great city for comics, and visiting these stores, as well as others around the Pacific Northwest, has been a great reminder of how lucky we are to have the Direct Market. I go to a store pretty much every week, sometimes more often than that, and it’s a lot of fun.

I think the Direct Market is still a vital part of our business and more than that, I think it still has a tremendous amount of potential. Getting comics into other marketplaces is important, and I think doing that is actually to the benefit of the comics specialty market, long-term, but there’s really no substitute for having an entire marketplace to ourselves.

 

 

Portland, from what I know, is part of the problem regarding creativity and whom to hire. You have all these faux-auteurs like Greg Rucka spending time in Oregon, and they seem to be the ones who’ve reduced the major publishers to a situation where you’ll only get hired if you’ve made a name for yourself in the creator-owned market.

 

 

And as for the direct market, if there’s only one distributor, Diamond, working on much of what’s turned out, how can you possibly expect to make a really big impression anywhere? It certainly isn’t working to say that there’s no substitute when the narrow options jeopardize the ability to market the products wide. If there’s only one marketplace for comics, it suggests they see it as the perfect way to monopolize the business to the disadvantage of others. He goes on to talk about new places to sell comics:

 

 

Nrama: “New sales channels.” I can’t leave that hanging – what are you thinking of when you say that?

Stephenson: Places that aren’t currently selling comics, or places that aren’t selling comics in significant numbers.

I know there was some hue and cry over DC’s 100-Page Giant comics recently, but I admire the goal behind that program, which was to get comics into stores that weren’t carrying comics and hopefully create some new readers in the process. I think there’s a way to do that without excluding the Direct Market, but I think it has to be done.

Like I was just saying, I think comic book stores are amazing. I’m a big supporter of the Direct Market, and I think anyone deeply invested in the comics experience is going to get a lot out of visiting their local comic shop, but generally speaking, someone has to already be invested in that experience for that shop to be a destination. Someone has to want to read comics to visit a comic book store, and to my mind, it’s difficult to get people interested in something without exposing it to them.

The more we can expose people to comics outside comics book stores, the better chance we have of getting them into comic book stores. Is that going to happen 100% of the time? Well, no, it’s not. Sometimes people are going to do what I was doing for a while – they’re going to go their bookstore and buy trades and OGNs there. That may not directly benefit comic book stores, the same as kids getting their books directly from Scholastic may not directly benefit comic book stores, but going back to what we were talking about at the start of this interview, comics becoming more commonplace within our culture overall is a good thing.

 

 

Well good luck with that. But the way everything’s been handled by the Big Two, I don’t have much faith in Stephenson to do better if he does believe in maintaining a poor business model. If Image is moving away from the monthly pamphlet format, that’s one positive. But I realize a lot of graphic novels may not be printed in massive numbers – like pamphlets, only a few thousand – and if in the end, they’re not in high demand that would call for publishing more copies en masse for millions of people, then Image will fail if they go the same route.

 

If he’s alluding to the embarrassment and double-standards DC went by in their 100-page giant specials – Tom King’s use of jarring violence in a Superman story involving Lois Lane, while women’s rear sides were censored in reprints of the 2004 Jeph Loeb/Michael Turner story with Supergirl – that’s a perfect reason why the specials don’t deserve any success they either do or don’t have. Some of the most offensive hypocrisy to come out of their offices of late. Stephenson even says the following about what Image stands for:

 

 

Nrama: This is Scott Snyder’s first new creator-owned book in a while, and what Scott tells me is the first of many. He hasn’t announced who his other projects are with, but I wanted to ask about Image’s fostering of creators and relationships. You have some like Mark Millar who have their own line, and others like Kieron Gillen who do creator-owned books through Image, but also other publishers. What are you and Image doing to better your relationship with creators?

Stephenson: Image’s entire business model is based on supporting creators and allowing them to manage their careers in whatever way suits them best as individuals. That’s why Mark Millar has his deal with Netflix, or why Brian K. Vaughan has his deal with Legendary, as opposed to Image setting up some kind of overall deal that puts the company first ahead of the talent.

I’ve said in the past that Image isn’t a one-size-fits-all publisher, and that’s how the company’s founders set things up. If you look at all of them – none of them do things the same way, and they recognized early on that every creator has a different outlook and different needs. Would we like every creator we work with to do every project here? Sure, that would be great – for us – but it’s not necessarily what every creator wants. The goal is to work together in a manner that’s mutually beneficial.

 

I would like to know if Image would be willing to hire and distribute comics coming from right-wing sources? If partisan politics is how they operate, with Erik Larsen being one of the most notable leftists on their staff, then they’re running an awfully small tent, much like the sales chart numbers for their pamphlets.

 

 

Nrama: You recently took part in a signing with all the current Image partners. How has the overall dynamic at Image changed, in what the original seven founders set out to do compared to what the company is now?

Stephenson: The content has changed over time, the type of comics Image publishes, but their original intent regarding how the company should function on behalf of both themselves and other creators is very much the same as it ever was.

Something that impressed me about Image from the moment I first heard about it, when Jim Valentino called me up in late 1991 and told me what he Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, Jim Le, Erik, Marc Silvestri, and Whilce Portacio were doing, is that instead of setting the company up as a way to exploit other creators, they created something that allows everyone involved to enjoy the maximum benefits of their individual success.

Rob had Extreme, Jim Lee Homage Studios, which later became WildStorm, Marc was building Top Cow, and Valentino eventually started Shadowline while Todd built his toy company – Image easily could have existed solely as a clearinghouse for their individual creations, but instead they opened it up to other creators. Whereas other creator-owned ventures had offered better royalties than Marvel or DC, the founders agreed on a deal where Image took a low flat fee per issue on comic books – and by “low” I mean “low four figures” – and zero percent on top of that.

Years later, when trade paperbacks became a bigger part of the business, they adjusted the deal so that Image earned a small percentage on trade sales – with the creator retaining more than four fifths of their books’ profits.

These were guys who were selling comics in the millions and based on the royalties they were getting from Marvel, could calculate out how much the company was earning off things like Spider-Man #1 or X-Force #1 or X-Men #1, so really, it would have been entirely feasible for them to say, “If Marvel and DC are keeping 95%, all we have to offer creators is another 5 or 10% and we’ll be heroes,” but they treated the creators they invited to join Image the way they wanted to be treated themselves.

And I think that is something that doesn’t get emphasized enough, because going all the way back to the beginning, the Image founders were criticized for starting the company to as an act of ego, when really, they just wanted to be treated more fairly and have a bigger say in what was happening with their work.

It’s almost 20 years now, so the significance of this is probably lost on a lot of people today, but Marvel was producing merchandise using their artwork and forget compensation or approval, they weren’t even giving them so much as a single piece of the merch. Not a t-shirt, not a toy – nothing. The creator’s work – not just Rob or Todd or Jim or whoever – but every creator’s work was exploited for the benefit of the company without so much as a “thanks, here are a couple of these t-shirts.” The royalties on the books- and the three books I just listed all sold in excess of a million copies – were doled out in single digit percentages.

Image was set up to be the exact opposite of that, and to this day, that is how Image operates.

When something like The Walking Dead or Saga or Monstress or Deadly Class becomes a huge hit, it is the creator that benefits. Image benefits from creators’ success, but I’ll tell you what, Image has not seen one cent from from a single television or film project. Not Spawn back in the ‘90s, not The Walking Dead, not Happy!, not Deadly Class – all of that goes to the creators. Whatever movie or TV projects based off comics or graphic novels Image publishes may happen in the future – that’s always going to be the case, and that’s something we are all very proud of, so in terms of what the founders set out to do and what the company is now, that’s an incredible achievement.

Someone described the founders to me recently as “advocates for creator’s rights,” and I don’t think that goes far enough. They’re champions. They’re champions for creator’s rights.

 

Okay, I do agree he’s got a point about Marvel screwing over some of the creators when they used their illustrations for promoting merchandise. And I think the first issue of the sans-adjective Spider-Man from 1990 did sell a million, but it was for the premiere issue, if anything, and most issues to follow didn’t come close. So what was the achievement? I do know if Marvel used Liefeld’s artwork to promote some of their merchandise, that was a big goof if they really believed in quality at the time.

 

 

Nrama: The ‘big idea’ of creator-ownership and fair contracts has come up again with the success of HBO’s Watchmen, inspired by the comic book series by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins. Do you have thoughts on this here now in 2020?

Stephenson: Back when DC was doing Before Watchmen I wrote about this extensively on my (now defunct) blog. That was, what? Seven years ago? It’s frustrating that people still don’t seem to get it. When Alan Moore created Watchmen for DC, it was with the understanding that the rights would be returned to him and Dave once it went out of print. That’s not something Alan assumed or my own personal take on the situation – it was public knowledge. DC actually made a big deal out of this. Watchmen was supposed to be a bold step for creator’s rights, and DC was applauded for taking that stance. Then they collected the series and it sold so well they decided to keep it in print forever.

So Alan has every right to be upset, and I’m not sure why everyone has such a hard time understanding that. HBO’s Watchmen is a hit and people seem to like it, so I guess it’s a case of the audience just not wanting it on their conscience while they’re consuming their entertainment. The truth of the matter is, though, is that poor treatment of creators has been part and parcel of the comics industry since the beginning. On one hand, someone today can argue that things were done differently in the past, or that creators knew what they were getting into, but that’s not a viable excuse when in this particular instance the creators were told this deal was going to be different and this would be an improvement on how creators were treated in the past.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: Do you want to be treated like that?

If not, then maybe give some consideration to the perspective of someone – and really, not just someone, but one of the greatest and most influential talents to ever work in this business who was treated that way.

 

Coming as Watchmen was on the heels of Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, I figure that was one of the reasons it sold as well as it did, though the main problem is DC became so alarmingly obsessed with the dark angle, they turned Watchmen into as much a bad influence as DRK was primarily for Batman. And since the influence obviously – and tragically – still remains today, that’s one more reason why superhero comics will continue to suffer, even if it’s not the entire populace who’re actually buying foolishly into such an ill-advised approach that’s ruined creativity. By contrast, Marvel didn’t make Miller’s vision for Daredevil the numero uno influence for their universe, by contrast. Those titles they published that were built more noticeably on darkness just spoke for themselves, and Marvel never tried to make Miller’s vision represent their line in its entire or deny Matt Murdock moments to be seen smiling and laughing, at least not until the turn of the century when Joe Quesada took over. I’ve read several stories from DD – Miller’s included – where a sense of humor turned up, and have to wonder why DC by contrast seems to consider comedy a problem.

And it’s funny Moore would create Watchmen for DC rather than through a clear agreement he would be the owner, first and foremost. His mistake was probably the same case with Miller’s Ronin from 1983 too. The subject of creators getting cheated goes back to Siegel/Shuster, but the difference is they succeeded in speaking about their credit for Superman to the wider press, leading to an agreement at DC to give them credit in the issues since the mid-70s. I suspect they wouldn’t be so lucky today.

 

 

Nrama: I wanted to ask you about the price of comics—$3.99 has become the new standard, with the march to $4.99 going on now. Most of Image’s regular-sized titles are $3.99, but then you have Spawn still holding at $2.99 – and Saga at $2.99. I imagine in some respects price point is set by owners of the book, but what are your thoughts on the price of comics?

Stephenson: Overall, I think the majority of comics being published today cost too much, especially if you stop to consider what we’re selling.

And I don’t say that to denigrate the format at all – I think monthly comics can be a great way to experience comics – but I also think readers need to be given something more than a piece of a story or one link in a chain of events when they buy a comic book, and that’s kind of the way things have been going for a while now.

By and large, monthly comics are written with eventual collection in mind, and I think that underserves the format while also shortchanging the reader. Why buy a book every month if you know it’s going to be collected in a few months’ time, especially if you’re going to be paying four or five bucks an issue? We’re forcing people to make a choice, and I think they’re always going to go for the more economical option.

To put it another way, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that sales on monthly comics drop as prices go up. I’ve heard comments from various people within the industry that dedicated fans will pay whatever the price is, but in addition to being a fairly privileged point of view, I think it fails to consider the fact that only selling to those dedicated fans is ultimately a losing proposition.

 

Of course. The failure to advertise outside the specialty press is another serious error, and I get the feeling DC’s supposed attempts to do that in the past decade petered out quietly and quickly. A difference I’ve noticed in prices for pamphlets and trades is that the former can cost more when you buy all parts of a story, but the trade collection can cost less, certainly if it’s a paperback. So why is the industry still wasting money on a format that’s no longer proving viable when they can just make a shift to GN-only formats and save a lot more money that way? It wouldn’t make it impossible to maintain a universe that’s both shared yet each title can be self-contained, and a lot more people would be encouraged to purchase them. I sadly suspect the answer is the corporate greed that’s holding till today, and that’s why the company wide crossovers are still coming out, since the upper echelons so desperately and cynically want to milk the dwindling audience for all their wallet’s worth. And speaking of corporate greed, that could surely explain the following:

 

 

Nrama: You say comics cost too much – you’ve been in the room, and been the decider, as the average price of comics has risen since the 1990s. Why do you think comics cost what they do now, and why do you think they’re going up?

Stephenson: There’s a great book that I can’t recommend highly enough to anyone interested in how the industry got where it is right now, called Comic Book Wars. It’s about Marvel in the mid-1990s, how they got into financial trouble, how they got out of it, and how corporate greed almost destroyed not just the company, but the comics industry. That’s not the whole story in terms of why comics cost what they cost, but it provides some valuable context, because in many ways, the problems started with the preparations for Marvel’s sale to New World in 1986.

Over the course of a relatively short period, Marvel’s title count increased and the cover prices on those titles increased, all with an eye toward fattening the company up for sale. By the time New World in turn sold Marvel to Ron Perelman in 1989, the price of their comics had gone from 60¢ to $1, and then Perelman pressured Marvel to add more titles and further increase prices. By the time Image started in 1992, comics were $1.25. That doesn’t sound like a lot now, but again – comics were only 60¢ just six years earlier.

Which is really just a long way of saying that much of what we’re dealing with now is the result of decisions made in the past. I’m not saying comics would still be 60¢ today, or even $1, but it’s likely comics would be less expensive now had things gone differently back then. It’s unfortunate to be looking at all this through the prism of hindsight.

 

Yep, it looks like corporate greed reached such startling heights, it must’ve led to the launching of the sans-adjective X-Men series, not because the waters had been tested successfully for audience reception or purchase, but rather, so they could flood the market in hopes addicts and speculators would buy left and right, and they wouldn’t have to rely on merit-based marketing at all. Company wide crossovers were clearly another result of this type of conglomerate thinking. And that’s why I’ve come to find corporations so insufferable, because they buy into all these mediums yet don’t actually love them if they won’t oversee each one and ensure it retains good caretakers. Stephenson later continues to address the format I feel it best to shift over to:

 

 

Nrama: Format is also a question – from oversized issues, but also to OGNs. Over the past two years, a number of Image titles have announced plans to segue from single issue releases to OGNs. What are your thoughts on that – and what can you tell creators who are thinking about that decision?

Stephenson: Off the top of my head, I can only think of two books we’ve published that switched from monthly comics to OGNs: Motor Crush and Moonstruck. In both those instances, I think everyone involved agreed the monthly comics weren’t reaching the audience we wanted to reach, but the trades were doing well – and in the case of Moonstruck, markedly better in bookstores – so it seemed like the most logical step forward.

I don’t think that’s going to be the case for every title, but it worked for those books. If it makes sense for other books in the future, then great, but generally speaking, I don’t think comics and graphic novels should be treated as interchangeable. Comics should be written as comics, and graphic novels should be written as graphic novels.

Comics and graphic novels are as separate as television and film. Same medium, different kinds of storytelling. One doesn’t cancel the other out – they both have their pros and cons. Serialized stories can be really engaging entertainment, but not every story benefits from that approach, and vice versa. It all depends on the story and what the talent involved is trying to do with it, what they want to say and how they want to say it. Imposing limitations on the medium and saying, “Well, because we do this, we shouldn’t do that,” seems pretty arbitrary to me.

For a long time, actors valued film work over television work. Going from movies to TV was regarded as a step down, despite the fact the fact that both film and television can yield equal measures of quality and crap. Right now, I feel like that’s something we’re grappling with in comics – that the monthly comic book is somehow inherently inferior to the graphic novel – and I’m not sure limiting our format options or storytelling approaches is in the creative community’s or the industry’s best interests.

 

Look, I realize pamphlets once worked well enough, but today, they’ve become a liability, and given many individual series in the past 50 years never sold over a million despite what they’d have you believe, it honestly should’ve happened much sooner, but nobody in comicdom’s ever shown the leadership required to make challenging decisions.

 

 

Nrama: From your perspective, are OGNs received better by the booktrade, libraries, and digitally than a collection of serialized comic books?

Stephenson: It all depends on the book, really. Saga does very well for us in bookstores and libraries, and that’s a collection of serialized comic books. Watchmen remains one of the best selling books of all time. Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s Dark Phoenix story seems to be printed over and over again, and is readily available outside comic book stores.

There are plenty of examples of comic books being collected into books that have a pretty far reach outside the Direct Market. Does that mean all trade paperback collections are big sellers outside the comics market? Not at all. Stores pick and choose what they’ll sell, and readers pick and choose what they like. Same goes for OGNs. It’s less about the format and more about the story.

 

Personally, I wonder why a tale like Dark Phoenix is considered such a big deal. It’s not all that different from Miller’s DKR, if you ask me, and may be overlooked as a trend setter in the medium, from at least 6 years prior. Chilling. As for story, even if the pamphlets were to make way for OGNs, it wouldn’t undermine the story a bit, so long as it’s stand-alone in its structure.

 

 

Nrama: Eric, let’s talk digital comics – both digital sales of comics, and comics originating digitally. You have access to the numbers – are there differences in you see with digital sales compared to print sales?

Stephenson: It depends on the series, but there have been instances where things that do well in print don’t have the same impact digitally. There are also instances when a series does unusually well in digital but print sales don’t match – this happens with some of our older backlist where it might be harder for readers to find print copies – but more commonly, it seems like there are times something will generate a lot of interest in print sales, but the same kind of buzz doesn’t translate to the digital edition.

Say, since they speak of numbers, how come no sales figures come up here for digital? Do they really think we’re that ignorant? This comparison and contrast of how 2 formats sell is no excuse for lack of a vital element for evaluation. Now, here’s something one of the earlier items I linked to was alluding:

 

 

Nrama: And hand-in-hand with digital is comics piracy. It was thought for awhile that once buying comics digitally became more accessible, piracy would diminish – but from what I see, it hasn’t. What do you see?

Stephenson: Well, I’ll say it again: Comics are too expensive. Print comics are too expensive, and digital comics are too expensive. Looking at what the people who admit to stealing comics content are saying online, it seems pretty obvious that there are more comics coming out than the average person can afford to buy. Are there some people out there who just hoard digital comics, downloading full runs of things just for the satisfaction of having them? Sure, but there are also people who just want to read the comics they like without going broke. Comics used to be cheap entertainment. That’s no longer the case. I’ve literally talked to people who say they’ve always been interested in reading comics, but that it’s too expensive. With digital comics priced the same as print comics, it just becomes part of the same overall problem.

Well like he said, Image has at least 2 publications that went GN-only, so maybe it’s about time they got around to making the big decision on where to go next? There’s no need to be hesitant. And what an eye-opener about the cost of digital. It’s the same as the printed items!

 

 

Nrama: From looking inward to looking outward, how do you feel about the health of the comic industry?

Stephenson: Well, like I said when we first started talking, I think we have a lot of potential, but you know, the marketplace has been in decline since the ‘90s. We could talk for hours about exactly why that is, but the bottom line is that the comics industry is in roughly the same state of flux it has been since Diamond became the primary distributor for our marketplace back in 1997. There have been ups and downs since then – but the industry is doing more or less the same things, for better or for worse.

Back in 1997, the top selling comic almost every month was Uncanny X-Men, and around that time, it would have been selling around 160,000 copies or so. Today, House of X #1 was a big launch for Marvel with 185,000 copies sold in the first month – but the difference is that whatever issue of Uncanny X-Men came out in 1997 had one cover. House of X #1 had how many? 30 something? I don’t think we know the actual number there in terms of “real” sales to individual readers, and I worry that if we did, the truth would be shock all of us.

Just like I’m sure Image’s digital numbers would! Is that why we weren’t presented with any? At least he gets to a point on the matter – too many variant covers that could be avoided, and specialty artists had better acknowledge this.

 

 

Nrama: Do you think the industry could come together as a whole and fix some of these overall problems?

Stephenson: I hope so.

There’s been talk recently of putting together some kind of advisory board for the industry, and I think that’s greatly needed at this point. I think coming together as a group and talking about the challenges we all face would be helpful.

Back when Joe Quesada was Editor-In-Chief at Marvel, he frequently said “a rising tide lifts all ships” in reference to how he saw Marvel’s role as an industry leader. Another way he put it, I think, was that a strong industry was dependent on a strong Marvel. Some may criticize those statements as self-serving, but the truth of the matter is that we’re all in this together. It’s a competitive marketplace, so there are going to be winners and losers, but we all lose if the marketplace itself fades away.

Of course Quesada was self-serving, and considering all the harm he did that resulted in an extremely weakened Marvel, it’s regrettable Stephenson wouldn’t take issue with that. I just hope he realizes you can’t rely solely on Marvel to set an example for the industry, and has ideas of his own how to improve it. All Stephenson has to do is say they’d like to do their best to present an inspiring example that others can learn from, which, if successful, would make Image an industry leader.

And if they’re willing to take the challenge of switching to OGNs only, that could certainly be a good start and confirm they’re doing something worthy. They’d better get rid of too many leftist political vehicles, though, because if they want anybody to feel encouraged to try their stuff, they need to avoid specializing in stuff that can bring about a divisive atmosphere.

 

 

Originally published here.

Avi Green

Avi Green

Avi Green was born in Pennsylvania in 1974, and moved to Israel in 1983. He enjoyed reading comics when he was young, the first being Fantastic Four. He maintains a strong belief in the public's right to knowledge and accuracy of facts. He considers himself a conservative-style version of Clark Kent. Follow him on his blog at Four Color Media Monitor or on Twitter at @avigreen1

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