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Me vs. The Angry Mob: Comics and Morality

Do you think that I'm funny?

A billion dollars.

At my current rate of financial success, I will see my bank account filled with a billion dollars in roughly the same amount of years. Part of this absolutely comes down to a lack of very specific drive. After all, I am chasing success, and I’m always attempting to get better at the things that I love to do. The comic shop is having its best year ever, the site is going over fairly well, and my personal life is coming together little by little. Which is great. But in the grand scheme of things, I’m driving towards things that make me happy – and those do not necessarily correlate with things that make money.

Coming back to the billion dollars thing – as many of you probably already know, over the course of this weekend, Marvel’s The Avengers hit the billion dollar mark, in terms of cash dollars made from ticket sales. In ways, this is not entirely surprising. Sequels tend to track higher than what a movie’s first offering will makes – and The Avengers has the force of three strong franchises and a momentum unlike anything else in the movie industry. That culmination of audiences, combined with the very deliberately placed cycle of movies that pushed forward, one after another for several years couldn’t help but build into something enormous. But then, there’s another side to the Avengers coin – the side from which the billion dollar idea sprung from fully formed.

According to best estimates, the comic book industry as a whole saw roughly $660-690 million worth of comic product sell in 2011. That includes comics sold from newsstands and collected editions and graphic novels sold in book stores. So that means, from the companies like Marvel and DC all the through their editorial staff, their marketing directors, their writers, their artists – all the way to the distributors and outwards to the comic book retailers and newsstands… the whole entire industry subsided off a number that pales in comparison to what one movie generated for revenue.

And yes, there are probably similar structures within Hollywood, and that the money for the movie probably gets divvied up between an equally stunning amount of people. But I can pretty much guarantee that the highest ranking member of the comic book community, whoever they might be, is not bringing in a fraction of the money the higher ranking folks in the movie industry are making. I would probably argue that average “dollars per person” ratio of Hollywood would be quite a sight higher than what those make in the comic book business. Regardless, there’s quite a disparity between these two mediums. The money flows quite differently in both. As an indirect result, I will probably never see a billion dollars. Hell, I probably won’t even manage to grab a cool million. I don’t have the proper drive or ambition to be the kind of person who goes out and does that either.

In terms of life, I am quite happy with what I do and where I do it. I am the manager of quite a successful comic store. In my spare time, I write about comics, which has afforded me the opportunity to come into contact with some of my favourite creators. Life seems to be treating me very well, and I am happy.

But the fact remains: I am the kind of person who is content with where I am and what I do. And I should be. In terms of what I’ve accomplished, I am quite reasonably compensated. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a very rich man, nor will I be in the near future. Right now, I am a comfortable man, who will get by well enough as life continues on. I am getting what I deserve. That said, there remains the question: what about the people who built the industry? What about the folks that made comic books what they are today? Considering my stance on life, matching a persons means to their bits of success and ambition, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the giants get what they are owed? And moreover, when their creations become fodder for an industry where the money is all the greater, shouldn’t they get to share in the fruits of their labours?

Me vs. The Angry Mob:

Comics and Morality

(or) A Complex Issue

Discussed Briefly,

Solving Nothing

The air in the comic book industry is thick with unspoken tension. Taking a quick look around the internet, and you probably wouldn’t think that to be true. In every corner, you’ll be able to find someone harping on and on about one kind of doom or another. Comics aren’t selling what they used to. The industry is in a weird mid-ground between physical and digital copies, and if the resolution doesn’t come at just the right time, the whole thing could be destroyed. And then there’s the accusations of moral and creative bankruptcy. But to hear many creators and members of the editorial staff talk, you might not know about any supposed lurking dangers. Justifiably so, I might add. On the one hand, the internet is completely unreliable when it comes to the truth of things. The simple fact that things like Community aren’t shattering ratings records will tell you that the internet, is at best a bit of a wish engine, one that churns on what you wish to be real, rather than what actually is. Which is not to say the industry doesn’t have problems. It does. There is a readership problem, and the digital growing pains are still far too painful (although the worst of it seems to be ebbing more and more as time passes). And yes, there are a few ethical and creative things that could still be addressed. But if you honestly expect anyone involved in such things to come right out and say the sky is falling, you are a special kind of delusional. Come what may, the people working for Marvel and DC will happily do so and smile until the time comes where they do not personally feel they can do so. For each person, this threshold is different. For instance, for years I worked for a chain of Canadian book stores – an ideal job for a person who loves books as much as I do. I worked their quite contently for a long, long time, even after I was getting full time at the comic book store, because… well, because it was fun. Again, it was never a job that was going to get me rich – I just liked the proximity to books, and the money made me comfortable.

But then there came the time when the dollar shifted quite violently. So suddenly, that the prices on the backs of all of our books looked ridiculous – especially when everyone knew the Canadian dollar was finally worth the roughly the same amount of an American one. This in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad had the company decided to continue selling books at the Canadian cover price listed on the back of the books, instead of the American price. To make matters a little bit worse, this change happened around Christmas time, when every retail shop worth their salt gets crazy-balls busy. Having worked the Christmas season for years I was used to the volume – but this particular year, we were getting streams of complaints due to the pricing we set for our books. This was quite frustrating, of course, but I always managed to swallow the frustration, and produce the words that the company had told us to say in regards to everyone’s complaints.

“Unfortunately, book prices are set when the publisher buys the book from the author, months and months before publication – which means these books still cost us the same to bring in now as they did then. We’re sorry. Would you like an extra 10% off?”

This became my mantra for quite some time. We powered through the holiday season (which was, usurprisingly, not our best) and made it to the other side, when books that were purchased during the window where the Canadian dollar was great were supposed to come out. And they did. But in the meantime, the dollar had gone back down – and our company, in response to that, had started stickering the price of the books up, in direct contradiction to what was promised all through the holiday season. Needless to say, I was not pleased by this development. Whether it was greed back then or greed now, the company had pushed me to a point where I could no longer stand to work for them any longer. I was also in a position comfortable enough to make such a move. And so I did – and in doing so, I also stopped patronizing their stores as often as I did.

Now I definitely didn’t have the balls to go cold turkey completely. While the bulk of my book buying money started to go towards supporting independent book stores (that didn’t seem to have as big of a problem with the changing dollar as the larger corporation), I still went to the big company when I absolutely needed to. When they provided me with the outlet for things that I couldn’t quite get, for the prices that couldn’t quite be matched, by the smaller shops.

Lately, people have been having similar experiences, in terms of their dealings with Marvel and DC. From fans and commentators like David Brothers, to creators such as Chris Roberson and Roger Langridge, many have drawn their line in the sand, and have stated that they will no longer support, nor work for Marvel or DC, due to the way they have and continue to treat the creators who work for them. To them, I tip my cap. While I don’t quite have the gumption nor the desire to make such a solid stand myself, I see it as principled, and foresee them having no regrets in that regard. If I have a problem with the principled stand movement, it would be similar to one that I have in other corners of my life – the whole, “you either agree with me and take my exact stance, or you’re a terrible human being” thing. As was inevitable (because people are involved), the discussion about Marvel and DC’s treatment of creators has taken a really sharp, “you’re not buying Marvel and DC books, or you are defecating on past creators” turn – and I think that is bullshit.

For starters, I think we can all agree that Jack Kirby got a raw deal, as have countless others within the comic book industry. I don’t think that there’s a person in the industry that will tell you otherwise. They might choose not to comment on the matter for various personal and legal reasons, but I’m pretty sure you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t think Jack Kirby got a raw deal. The closest you’ll probably find is Stan Lee, who often seems genuinely perplexed as to why Jack should get a credit. Occasionally, he’ll make a comment about how he’s not a guy that decides the whole “credit” thing in terms of other media, and to be fair to The Man, he’s not. But not only should people not be asking Lee why Kirby isn’t getting similar credit for things, they should also put less stock into the answers that Stan gives the press. Far too many people see Lee’s shrugging at Kirby’s lack of credit as a slight to his one-time partner, but it’s not. He’s just reacting to the facts as he knows them. There wasn’t a time in his life when Kirby could get himself a better deal – and again, that is not cool. But when The Man tells people that, and attempts to leave it at that, he’s not doing it because he doesn’t respect Kirby. He’s doing it because he’s an 89 year old man, and he doesn’t know any other way. It’s like when my grandparents say the words “you people” and get confused when I try to explain why that is still kinda’ racist. Stan understands the words that are coming at him, but his brain doesn’t quite grasp the modern context of it all. He’s stuck in a time where you were forced to sign cheques that terminated your rights to characters and situations you created. He’s your unintentionally racist grandparent and he doesn’t understand why saying “Jack Kirby didn’t have a good contract” is a thing that reflects poorly on him. And really, can you lighten up on the guy? He’s old as shit.

Anyway, no matter which way you slice it, no one is going to argue with the fact that Jack didn’t get a raw deal – and the same people who can’t or won’t comment on the matter? You can be sure that if you instead asked them about what they thought of Kirby’s various contributions to the medium, you would get a glowing response. After all, how can you work in this industry and not have a glowing love for Kirby and all that his mind has wrought? It’s impossible. His fingerprints are everywhere and his influence is undeniable, and he’s definitely one of the main reasons the industry has been financially viable for so long. He was a man with such big ideas, they call him King. Do you think guys like Tom Brevoort don’t know this? Guys like Matt Fraction? Like Jonathan Hickman? Like Axel Alonso, or anyone working at Marvel? They absolutely know about the debt they owe Kirby. They feel his influence every day. But can they really be expected to draw a line in the sand? Can they honestly be expected to leave Marvel because of the company’s treatment of Jack Kirby? I don’t think it would be a fair thing to ask of them.

There’s a very fine line between being principled and stupid. The difference between the two comes down to circumstance, and opportunity. You can be willing to die for a cause, but if you’re stupid about it and don’t wait for the right circumstances or opportunity, the only thing you’re going to accomplish is making your life a little shorter than it needed to be as you die unremembered. A bit of an extreme example, I’ll admit, but the idea is sound. For folks like Chris Roberson and David Brothers, the decision to be principled is sound. Roberson’s talent and work has allowed him to be self sustaining away from both Marvel and DC. And David Brothers? Well, he’s an internet commentator – one that admittedly wasn’t too big on the superhero books to begin with. His decision to cut ties with reading or writing books from Marvel and DC comes at a cheaper price than, say, someone like Fraction. And I don’t mean that in a back handed way – I’m just saying that Brothers and Roberson are on the right side of circumstance and opportunity. Many of us aren’t.

For instance, if I walked into work tomorrow, and decided to stop selling items from both Marvel and DC, I would probably be fired. More than that, I would be fired with a whimper, as a footnote. And who would I be helping then? Honestly, who would I be helping?

Let’s take this a little further. Let’s say the owner of the comic shop decided to stop selling Marvel and DC books. Let’s say that was his decision, and I wouldn’t get fired for tamping the flow of comics. I wouldn’t lose my job immediately, no. But I certainly would eventually when money at the store dried up. Again, out with a footnote.

For most of the industry, there is very little opportunity to make a statement, and the circumstances sure aren’t helping. Biting the hand that feeds you would at best get you fired and at worst, make it so you wouldn’t be able to work in the medium you loved ever again. But putting down your foot and thumbing your nose at the man isn’t the only way to try and make a change in this industry – and more and more you’re starting to see creators wise up to the ways of industry, and use the system to their benefit.

More than anything else, the people who are vehemently crying for Kirby’s cause are concerned about the rights of the creators – and the fact is, there will never be much in the way of creator’s rights at the big comic book publishers. While creation will always be king, the industry and the audience for it was built around a business – and so that king will always serve another monarch. To draw the crowds, you have to be willing to play the game – but once you’ve played, you can certainly change it.

You can look around the industry right now and see people doing just that. Folks like Mark Millar and Ed Brubaker and Jonathan Hickman and Grant Morrison and Brian K. Vaughan cashing in on the high profiles they got from working for the business and working for themselves, in a fashion. They’re all producing work that they own and in turn, they are changing their circumstance.

And this… this should be applauded, in equal measure to those who refuse to take a pay cheque. One can feed the other. The industry can use a person for their own gains, but the person can always in turn use the industry for theirs. But to do that, they have to be smart. They have to be in the right position, and make sure the move is right for them. It can be done – and thankfully (and unfortunately) its people like Kirby who have taught them this lesson.

Does it suck to be the guy that got screwed over? Does it hurt to be the cautionary tale? Shit yeah it does – and if Kirby were still alive today, you can bet your ass everyone would be working their ass off to make sure that guy would be getting all the credit he deserves. And no, the fact that he’s dead doesn’t mean we can all just shrug our shoulders and move along. But at this point in time, at this juncture, is it really helpful to dwell? Or is it better to show some respect for the man and learn. To be creative and be constructive. To make some fucking comics.

I absolutely believe that Kirby is revered – that Kirby is respected. I believe that people who refuse to buy books built upon his shoulders, and those that still do because of him are both in the right, and I believe that those who would try and push this industry to be better, and those that would use it to be better are equally valid. We can do this shit together, you guys, and nobody needs to starve. Just enjoy comics however you want and do whatever it is you do to make yourself feel good. If you can’t find a way to enjoy your comics, then you are definitely doing it wrong – after all, their might not be a whole lot of money in this industry… but there is a whole lot of love.

 

3 Comments

  1. In the quote below, for the love of the gods, you meant to say subsisted, SUBSISTED! Not subsided. I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!

    the whole entire industry subsided off a number that pales in comparison to what one movie generated for revenue.

    AAAHHHH!!!

    Have a nice day.

    • Replying to myself here, got a little hot at the howler, sorry.Loved the article, this is my favourite feature of the site. Keep up the good ideas and the, you know, typing of them.

  2. Loved the article though, keep up the great ideas. This is my favourite feature of the site. Jack got screwed but he got to make a living doing something he loved so he was also blessed in a lot of ways. For the chance to write comics and pay the bills doing so, I’d probably sign the same contract myself. Right now.

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