That’s a tough question. But first:
A BRIEF RECAP:
Many of us who call ourselves comic fans start with the superheroes – Superman, Wolverine, Wonder Woman, the Fantastic Four – these characters we are already familiar with, whether through movies, cartoons, lunchboxes, or Halloween costumes. And during that introductory period, we are blinded by these spandex-clad uber-men (a combination of their newness and the more widespread availability of comics from the big two publishers, DC and Marvel), and we latch onto new characters on an almost weekly basis.
But at some point, we come to realize there are men and women behind the creation of these stories. And we start to recognize certain art styles and the fact that particular writers seem to create tales that speak more to us than others. We begin to follow these creators to different books, even if they are working with characters with which we might not have much interest. Our collecting shifts – at least for most of those who follow through with comic buying after middle school – and titles we bought religiously at age thirteen gather dust in the back of a longbox as we turn twenty-five and thirty.
And, if you read message boards dedicated to comics, it might seem there are only two types of readers – those who follow characters and those who follow creators. I expect the reality is that most readers who have been with this hobby as long as I have are hybrids of these two, but that doesn’t make for an interesting discussion. So let’s hold to this dichotomy and see which is better, to follow the character or the creator?
When people think of the Fantastic Four or Green Lantern or the Flash or the X-Men, the characters may be the first images they see, but the creator most associated (in their minds) with those heroes is often the second thing that comes to the fore.
Walt Simonson’s Thor
Wolfman & Pérez on New Teen Titans
Chris Claremont on X-Men
Curt Swan drawing Superman
Norm Breyfogle on Batman
J.M. DeMatteis on Captain America
Todd McFarlane on Spider-Man
Moore/Bissette/Totleben on Swamp Thing
Frank Miller on Daredevil
Jim Aparo on the Phantom Stranger
Barry Windsor-Smith on Conan
These creators had seminal runs on these characters’ titles. They not only raised their own profile with their work on these books, they also raised the profile of these heroes. Frank Miller saved Daredevil, which was running bi-monthly when he came onto it. Moore saved Swamp Thing and made it a top-selling book. Claremont and Byrne ignited the juggernaut that became the X-Men, a title that, at one point, stopped publishing new work and only reprinted older stories, despite creators such as Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Neal Adams having worked on the book. These writers and artists are linked with these characters, for better or worse, and not because the characters were compelling characters, but because these creators made the characters compelling.
Dark Phoenix Saga
The Judas Contract
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
The Trial of Galactus
Daredevil: Born Again
Batman: Year One
These are the stories that get talked about, that are remembered by fans, and are reprinted in multiple editions, because fans still want to be able to read them. They are the backbone - the core - of many of these four-color heroes.
And someone had to write them. And someone had to draw them.
And yet, the practice at DC and Marvel for so long, was to put the character above the creator. They had little interest in creators’ rights, and felt writers and artists were interchangeable.
And certainly, it can be argued that the publication of these characters’ books can weather a change in artist or writer with relative ease. There’s so much ancillary merchandise out there – not only keeping these heroes fresh in the minds of the general populace and, more importantly, in the faces of children, but also providing larger revenue streams than the comics ever could – that the publishing arms of these corporations are often little more than a minor note on the board of directors’ final tally sheet, there only to keep the copyright and trademark alive so that more shrinky dinks and plastic tumblers can be pumped out for the kids to buy.
For decades, these publishers continued to commit the same mistake, believing the creators to be disposable, when it was really their product that was disposable. The companies did not want to pay more for artists they deemed a dime a dozen. And creators left and went to work for the competition, which often meant the “other” of the Big Two since the options were few and far between when it came to creating comics through the first fifty years or so of the medium. Jack Kirby famously left Marvel in 1970 to work for DC. Neal Adams did the same. Barry Smith, Steve Ditko - the same.
Only in recent decades have there been so many more options for these writers and artists. Alan Moore launched his own publishing imprint and eventually moved to Top Shelf. Neil Gaiman has moved on to book publishing and movies, while Howard Chaykin and Gerry Conway have only recently – relatively speaking – returned to comics after lengthy tenures in Hollywood.
Creators want to be respected. They want to be paid fairly, to have their work and contributions acknowledged, and - though I am dubious of this ever coming about - to own the work they create. They want to be compensated for reprints and for the use of their characters. In short, they wish to be treated like adults.