So anyway, the Kirkman/Bendis debate thingie. Perhaps it was just because everyone was still amped about the previous night’s Obama/McCain matchup, but everyone came expecting a real debate. What they got was Bendis and Kirkman sticking to their talking points. ComicMix has a near transcript, but Vaneta Rogers’s report at Newsarama has a more accurate take on the vibe of the room. While this particular exchange may not have reached soaring rhetorical heights, it was still a high-profile airing of the central matter of the creator’s life: making a living from your work. Via Rogers:
Bendis said he hopes “everyone in this room sits down and tries to make a comic. That would be amazing. But know that there’s an opportunity for it not to be seen.” He said that Torso, his early creator-owned work, never sold more than 2,200 copies, “which meant it sold 100 copies more than it needed to make a profit. Thankfully years later, the book has found an audience. But it didn’t look like it was ever going to find an audience.”
The writer said it’s a huge struggle to try to do creator-owned comics. “I just eeked out a living. And I just don’t care because I have mental problems,” he said to laughs. “You can’t live on it at all. I lived as a character artist,” he said, emphasizing that even when he thought he’d made it, he still needed another job.
“I remember very, very clearly winning an Eisner and leaving San Diego that night because I had to get to a gig doing a Bat Mitzvah that night.”
It’s hard not to sympathize with Bendis’s view here. As he’s said in interviews, when he wrote and drew his own comics, he struggled like this constantly; as a writer, he’s feted from coast to coast.
I’m naturally more sympathetic to Kirkman’s view, however; his appeal to creator ownership is aimed more at specifically bringing folks to Image Comics as opposed to the larger view of how bringing the publishing industry’s “partnership” model of royalties and copyrights into the picture is affecting creators.
About 2/3 of the way through, Kirkman brought out a series of slides. I asked if The Beat could get a copy to post, but in the meantime, I took some pictures. Unfortunately, we missed the one that graphed WALKING DEAD sales against MARVEL ZOMBIES sales. Here’s one comparing WALKING DEAD and INVINCIBLE.
And one graphing POWERS against Bendis’s Marvel work.
And the one that caused the most stir, a chart comparing Kirkman’s ACTUAL sales to the online numbers:
As you can see, the lines are very parallel. Bendis was adamant that the online numbers were wrong, while Kirkman argued that the trends were accurate. I think you can gauge that for yourselves. Where Bendis got a bit wonky was in stating that the trade numbers need to be added in to get an accurate picture. He’s halfway right, but trade sales have nothing to do with periodical sales, and have to be judged on a different scale. One would have to be a fool not to see that both Bendis and Kirkman can significantly add to their savings from the sales of trades — whether it’s royalties from MARVEL ZOMBIES and SECRET INVASION or profits from POWERS and WALKING DEAD. It will be interesting to see how POWERS sales are impacted by the upcoming TV show.
After the debate, I had a chance to talk to Bendis and at least point out that I never say anyone should take the numbers as accurate — rather, it’s the trends that can be analyzed. Bendis acknowledged that I was being responsible in my own comments, but as he’s posted many times at his own board, I don’t think he’s a fan of any of the sales chart obsessions out there.
While it’s hard not to argue that for top-level creators — Jeff Smith, Mike Mignola, Jim Davis — owning and promoting your creations is ultimately the way to build an empire, small or large, it’s not an easy road. That’s the “rarefied air” everyone was talking about. In a thread discussing the debate at the Bendis board Tom Beland (TRUE STORY SWEAR TO GOD) makes this poignantly clear:
Now, having said that, I have to say THIS. I work a LOT on my book. It takes me forever to get the thing the way I want it to be. And after all those months and days and hours I pour into TSSTG… I’ve yet to be able to pay a bill from it.
That’s where Marvel saves me. They’ll contact me and ask me if I want to write a Spidey book about Valentine’s Day or a Fantastic Four book about family. I’ll work at it and, since it’s super-heroes and nothing based in reality and they’re not my characters, I can just chill for a couple of days and write a script that’s fun and I’ll get a check for three grand. Three grand to hand to my wife and pay bills with.
Which brings me to another point. As much as I love doing TSSTG, as an independent creator, I pay for everything. I pay for the printing, the pre-press, the shipping, the storage, I even pay for that great ad placement. Image doesn’t do it for free. So when I make a book, there’s that much pressure to make it as good as the last issue. Six Eisner nominations haven’t yet allowed me to cash-in on TSSTG, although that was never my goal.
There’s much more in Beland’s post worth reading.
Is Image the way? It’s one way, and with the new realignment at Image — Kirkman as partner and Eric Stephenson as publisher — there’s definitely a move underway to make Image even more vital to the industry than it is now. The panel ended with Bendis urging creators to go to their rooms and make comics. While he’s grimly aware of how hard that road is to travel along, no one is saying it isn’t a road more people need to take.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.