We’ve all heard that old Hollywood adage.
Not the one where Michael Bay only experiences the love of his father every time an explosion is featured in his movies.
No, the one that goes, “One for you, one for me.” Which means that if Creator A wants to make their thoughtful, artsy film, they first have to make Fast and Furious in Deep Space. That actually holds true beyond the movie biz; musicians, TV producers, and even authors have engaged in this practice. But there’s one industry that’s found their own work-around: comics.
Like few other creative industries/endeavors, writers and artists have taken to platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon to create their own projects and series. Yes, there’s clearly more than comic books being funded on these platforms, but when you have huge creators like Scott Snyder, Saladin Ahmed, and Donny Cates going their own way, it’s clear that comics as a whole understands that it can but more like “One for you but I’m also doing 11 other things on my own.” (To clarify, Cates released a new series via Panel Syndicate, and while that’s a totally different model, the same basic idea remains: creators going it their own, delivering books sans a middle man. Ya know, crowdfunding.)
The proliferation of such comics-centric campaigns raises an important issue: is the “one for you, one for me” model actually a bad thing? You could argue either way, really. On the one hand, we shouldn’t be separating “successful” content (i.e., reaches a large audience, makes money for all involved, maintains essential growth, etc.) with art that is “good” (i.e., is done well, pushes new ideas and existing boundaries, makes consumers reevaluate their life/ideals, etc.) They can be one and the same, and so very often are — I’m sure we all have 20 examples of our own without much thinking. At the same time, there’s no denying that this distinction has value to both the respective industry and its creators. It’s a way to diminish the impact of commerce on art and allow artists to create without the thought of will this sell or how can this be merchandised. If that art is successful, great; if not, then what we have left (a good movie, book, comic, etc.) has value in and of itself.
What the Kickstarter-esque renaissance in comics does is show that creators and industry folk fully recognize the much larger value of this distinction: some art belongs in one category versus the other. That’s not to say that comics from DC, Marvel, Image, BOOM!, etc. aren’t breaking new grounds or can’t be deemed as “true” art; rather, there’s a reason that creators may want a platform like Kickstarter or Panel Syndicate or Patreon. It could be that they want greater control over the creation and dissemination of their work. Or, they deemed (for whatever myriad of reason) that these ideas and the end product would be better served beyond the “traditional” comics business/distribution model.
Regardless, I think the distinction is very important, and I hope more creators use these and other platforms to share their art and tell their stories. If there’s any “good” or “bad” to this new-ish approach, it’s based solely on the perception of the creators and their audience. Not every project needs this approach — just like we can’t forget that “mainstream” comics outlets don’t push boundaries. It’s a complicated and nuanced issue, and there are plenty of considerations when creators decide to strike out on their own in just such a unqiue way.
All of this leads me to a much larger point: there’s a kind of bifurcation happening. By that I mean, we’re clearly starting to distinguish what stories go with a mainstream publisher and what’s better left being sold on Kickstarter, and while there’s no wrong way in the ultimate sense, the biggest impact of this new age is that it’s going to inevitably define what stories we think go where. And that, folks, is going to forever alter our perceptions of publishers as well as the efforts of some of our most favorite creators.
For example, let’s take Ahmed’s recently funded campaign for Dragon, a story of “story of horror and faith” in which a “fallen Muslim knight” and a “zealous young nun” combine forces to battle Dracula. People clearly wanted the story — it garnered $144,656 out of a $40,000 goal, like, immediately— and I think Ahmed’s the kind of writer that could have easily sold such a unique and seemingly compelling story to almost any publisher. (His series Abbott, about a black female journalist in the ’70s fighting supernatural foes, seems to be doing fairly well with BOOM!) Yet Ahmed and co-creator/artist Dave Acosta decided Kickstarter was the best way to go forward. Could it have to do with the subject matter, which might upset some less progressive comics trolls (and rightfully so)? Maybe. It may have also just been a smart business choice (clearly), but I think the point is that regardless of the reasons, it still fosters a certain idea about what stories we can tell and where. Is that ultimately a problem for the big guns of the industry if creators may have to go elsewhere? For sure, and while that resulting conversation is nonetheless very good, it still impacts publishers.
Or, take the case of Cates and his new project The One You Feed, a tale of an Earth plunged into creepy darkness where a young price fights evil monsters and demons with a mega-sword called Attum. You can’t tell me that wouldn’t be a big hit anywhere — mostly cause Cates’ excellent God Country, another epic with a massive sword, was a hit with Image Comics. But Cates and company chose to go with Panel Syndicate, where people can choose their own price. I’m not Cates’ manager, or even a mind reader, but that seems like a creator trying to deal with the larger economic issues that have often plagued modern comics, and provide greater accessibility to more readers. Again, it’s another case where the lasting message that’s likely to be perceived — comics aren’t accessible enough — creates a lasting image in the minds of fans and consumers. Whether the creators mean to say anything or not, these approaches are fostering results far beyond any one book. They’re reshaping the hearts and minds of readers in important but hugely subtle ways.
So, again, I raise the question of whether this is good or bad. Once more, it’s often a little bit of both. On the one hand, for reasons I’ve already mentioned, it’s forcing comics creators and publishers to have really important discussions about things like accessibility, inclusion, etc. Yet it goes deeper still, and I think what we’re doing is something I mentioned earlier: stratifying the layers of comic book publishers. For whatever reasons, good, bad, or otherwise, a Marvel or DC might not want something like a Dragon. Or, there’s a belief these outlets aren’t the best fit. These stories should still clearly exist, and we must support them as we can, and it lets big-time publishers off the hook (to an extent) to help them further reinforce the kinds of stories they do tell. Does that mean diversity is no longer an issue? No way, but it does mean that creators have a channel for ideas that don’t fit in these huge, corporate structures.
The Marvels and DCs of the world deserve a space to figure out what kinds of stories and messages they want to share, and by limiting that to things that seem most applicable for what they are (read: big ol’ conglomerates), they have the space to tell different stories (by more women and POC) that still maintain some level of identity and the corporate responsibility that make these publishers effective in the first place. We’re reinforcing this massive brand without maintaining the industry standard of stifling great ideas because they don’t fit certain ideals or “molds.” I think that’s the way we get better books from these publishers — tell them they don’t have to tell every story, but they can tell better, more inclusive tales their own way. Because in the end, creators won’t need them to thrive or provide a space for essential stories/ideas.
On the flipside, there’s no denying that if I’m right — and invite the notion that I’m dead wrong or overlooked something crucial or over-simplified a massive issue — there’s going to be some downsides for the comic industry at large. Again, I mentioned earlier that idea about why we need to have this “split” in the first place, and how good stories have power regardless of how and by whom they’re published. This also goes deeper still, and it’s that the Kickstarter-centric model isn’t always going to be sustainable. The Cates and Ahmeds of the world already have huge fanbases attached to their names, and when they launch a campaign they have a certain level of assuredness that things will be funded (and often over-funded). That’s not always true of smaller creators, and often they need to grind out work with a DC or Marvel before they could ever hope of going their own. Does that mean doing somethings that might not be 100% creatively fulfilling until they get their own book? Yeah, that’s just the way it is in comics: you’ve got to write a lot of two-page stories before you get your run on Batman.
Whether that’s good or not is somewhat less important; there’s clearly a level of connection and reciprocity between big-name publishers and self-promoting/funded books: they feed one another in really important but also subtle ways. One needs the other to stand out and draw certain kinds of readers. Even still, that’s not the biggest concern; what I dread the most isn’t that we can’t have conversations about inclusion but that these discussions would feel stunted if there’s a clear cut division between publishing approaches and not enough connective material. By that I mean, we could be on the verge of creating a model within a model, and that’s inevitably going to impact publishers, creators, and fans.
I could very easily see where people’s loyalties are split. Why read these indie darling books when DC has that story about Superman fighting Ben Shapiro in a volcano? Or, why read Marvel when this Kickstarter book is by an unsung creator and I’ll receive 100 different rewards and incentives. I get that your average reader is far more sophisticated than this, and readily consumes books across the board. Still, there are just enough readers who tend to take loyalty to the extreme; take the supposed “war” between DC and Marvel that’s reached laughably dumb levels. Give most folks the opportunity, and they’re happy to choose a side with sheer gusto. I’d hate to see a world where we’re further splitting fans based on arbitrary things like price or how they accessed a book and when. That could lead to something like the so-called “split fanbases” in video games. Not only do these rifts possibly diminish sales (though they can help, too), they potentially tarnish the fandom itself and impact a lot of the potential of where titles can go creatively.
Ultimately, I think all of this is little more than a great thought experiment; we’re not in any real danger, and fans are lucky to have their cake and eat it, too. (Unless that cake is another run of Jeff Lemire on Animal Man.) I do think, however, it’s something to be cognizant of in the near future. The campaigns of Cates, Snyder, and Ahmed clearly prove that comics and crowdsourcing go together brilliantly given the structures of both, and that means the way we purchase, read, and support comics will continue to evolve in recent years. How that all plays out depends solely on how engaged fans remain in the process. We vote with our money and our time, and each of us has a real say about the books that are released and what shape those stories take from a several key standpoints.
If we want things to get better (cheaper books, more inclusive storytellers, different storylines, etc.), we need only act in a way that informs that future. However, we could just as easily misuse something like Kickstarter, which could have its own unintended consequences. (For instance, Kickstarter isn’t actually its own marketplace, and an overreliance or spammy campaigns could impact is power/influence.) That ultimately comes down to one thing: never relinquishing the power we have as fans/consumers, and expressing it whenever possible. I could quote a famous deceased comic book uncle right now, but I’d rather leave it with another point. The comics industry will continue to evolve while maintaining elements essential to its existence and bottom line. However, if you don’t pay attention, you can’t understand the issues and have a meaningful say, and that’s where the real danger lies for publishers, fans, and creators. To continue the whole Hollywood motif, we could doom ourselves to go the way of silent movies.
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