WHAT HAS COME BEFORE:
THE SPIRIT OF ARTISTIC INTEGRITY:
Through much of the history of the comics medium in North America, superheroes have been the dominant characters on the 4-color pages. From Superman in Action Comics #1 to Jonathan Hickman’s FF, it has been the genre that has defined the medium, and comics have tended to be the one medium where superheroes work best. It’s a rare, if not unique, confluence of medium and genre, and one that helped to stall the evolution of the form on this continent for too many years. The comics medium need not be confined to just this single story type. And, to be fair, for much of its history there has been a variety of stories being told through comics; it’s just that those lacking spandex and superpowers have been more difficult to find.
Today, many artists are following their own path, expanding the horizons of the medium as best they can, and doing it outside the confines of the “Big Two” publishers. Certainly, this isn’t new ground. Will Eisner, in 1940, managed to get it written into his contract for the Spirit that, although the character was copyrighted by Everett Arnold’s Quality Comics, it was Eisner’s property and would revert to him immediately upon any dissolution of their partnership. With that, the Spirit was born and made his way into the households of millions of readers in the Sunday sections of major newspapers of the forties and fifties. It was a shrewd business decision by Eisner that paid dividends for him for years to come.
Conversely, Gil Kane notably tried to break away from the large publishing houses by creating his own original works – His Name is Savage and Blackmark – two books that did not get the distribution that might have allowed Kane to branch out on his own. Imagine what might have happened if Kane had found the success that Eisner did, and done it on the newsstand beside the comics branded with the DC and Marvel logos. Things could have been far different.
Of course, these setbacks by artists such as Kane doubtless empowered the publishers even more. If an artist with the renown and talent of Kane needed to come back to DC and Marvel with head bowed, why would any others believe they would fare better? I am sure it had a chilling effect on artists seeking to champion creators’ rights while also firmly entrenching them within the bullpens of Marvel and DC.
AT A CROSSROADS:
The advent of the direct market, which began in the early 1970s but really came into its own around 1980, brought more publishing options to comic artists and writers – Pacific Comics, Fantagraphics, First Comics, Dark Horse, Eclipse, Valiant, Top Shelf, and, of course, Image. With these new publishing avenues, many creators set out to do their own work, to create stories they owned, to follow in the footsteps of Eisner and Kane and others. It was as much an artistic decision as an economic one.
There was an energy evident in the new titles that came from this shift – ones that could most likely be characterized as dream projects for the creators involved. Mike Grell did Jon Sable Freelance, John Ostrander and Tim Truman created Grimjack, two New Englanders – Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman – came up with a parody that would define a movement, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Alan Moore started his magnum opus, From Hell. All of these books began in the eighties, and all of these books were published by companies other than Marvel or DC, and sometimes that publisher was the creator himself.
It was an exciting time for readers, as highly regarded creators jumped ship for projects they found more fulfilling. The list of artists and writers at First Comics is still impressive – Mike Grell, Marc Hempel, John Ostrander, Tim Truman, Jim Starlin, Howard Chaykin, Alan Moore, Mike Baron, Steve Rude, Goseki Kojima, Kazuo Koike, and others. Comics being published through First included Badger, Nexus, Mars, and Lone Wolf & Cub, with stories running the gamut from space fantasy to historical Japanese drama to superheroes with a twist. And, since the creators owned these characters, they could take them in whatever direction they wished. There was real tension in these stories, because anything could happen.
The opportunity afforded these writers and artists through publishing avenues that were not available prior to the direct market gave us readers a wealth of fabulous new characters to enjoy, and, more importantly, gave us a chance to enjoy the work of quality storytellers unfettered and unrestricted. The stories were exciting, the artwork breathtaking, and often adventurous. Chaykin’s design sense in American Flagg and Mike Grell’s lush linework in Jon Sable was amazing to behold, and these stories still hold up today.
Many of today’s comic creators hold these books up as examples of what can be done with the medium. These are the comics that made them want to be comic writers and artists. These are the books that cemented the reputations of many of their creators. These are seminal works, and they are ones the creators own. And the fact that these artists and writers had a vested interest in these books shines through.
Despite what Marvel and DC might think, creators owning their work is a good thing.