Kirkman and Bendis battle for the very soul of comics

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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.

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And one graphing POWERS against Bendis’s Marvel work.

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And the one that caused the most stir, a chart comparing Kirkman’s ACTUAL sales to the online numbers:

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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.

Comments

  1. says

    The underlying result should be: make good comics. Tom Beland knocked my socks off with the first volume of “True Story Swear to God”. Then I read “Web of Romance”, and he entered the pantheon of writers of which I will read ANYTHING they write (Gaiman, Dorkin, Moore…) That Spider-Man story is one of the best, perhaps second in heartfelt emotion to “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man”.

  2. says

    I haven’t read the transcript yet but it seems to me something being left out of the discussion, although it’s been touched on around the edges, is, well, what do comics _readers_ care about?

    I almost typed “buyers” above instead of readers, because back in the heyday of independent comics, there was a co-hort of “investors” who would buy up copies of every indie comic out there, regardless of quality, hoping to pick up on the next TMNT phenomenon. Those people have mostly exited the scene now — there are likely still a small number of them around, but nowadays I think the overwhelming majority of the people who buy comics are those who read them or at least care about them as something more than or in addition to their collectability.

    And as has been pointed out before, readers care a great deal more about their favorite characters than they do about the writers and artists who make them real. Yes, there are fan-favorites, but a Warren Ellis X-MEN book sells a lot more than a Warren Ellis ANNA MERCURY or FELL.

    The big publishers, with their ownership of these characters, have an effective lock on the loyalty of current readers. And I don’t see how this can be changed.

    If there’s a hope for creators wanting to own their works, it must be in expanding the market and bringing in a new cohort of readers, who will see comics as literature rather than as a window to their favorite imaginary friends of childhood.

    And how to accomplish _that_ is the $64,000 question.

  3. Mark Coale says

    Whenever I read now about how “vehement” Kirkman seems to be about this subject, it makes me wonder what kind of falling-out (if any) he had with Marvel to become so zealous about creator-owned stuff.

    I’ve always subscribed to the theory that if work-for-hire helps a creator pay the bills and afford the ability to creator-ownded stuff, that’s the best possible scenario.

  4. michael says

    Good, entertaining debate. Now let’s get out there and buy some comics! ;)

  5. jimmy palmiotti says

    I think indy comics need to cross many lines and do what mainstream comics cant.

  6. ejulp says

    Bendis was right about the trade sales being an issue, when Kirkman argued that his Walking Dead numbers went down a little when Marvel Zombies came out. Most people, when coming to the attention of Kirkman through Marvel work, wouldn’t start out on the series on issue 32 or whatever, but would go to the trades first, untill they caught up to the monthlies through the trades (I did this, as well as several friends who I didn’t even know read MZ, that is untill I got bored with both Walking Dead and MZ2).

    The point is, to prove that Marvel Zombies didn’t help Walking Dead, you’d have to argue against the WD periodicals NOT having a delayed sales increase. I believe the interested-new readers would catch up to the monthly, but first through the trades.

  7. says

    In principle that’s right, ejulp, but as I understood the panel reports, Kirkman DID make that argument, and Image publisher Eric Stephenson popped up to confirm that the trade paperback sales would not have altered the pattern.

    This all seems pretty plausible to me; history shows that the mainstream superhero audience tends not to follow favourite creators to self-published or creator-owned work in other genres, even when the book in question is a reasonably well-publicised new launch. Some of them do, of course, but the conversion rate isn’t great. So it would make sense that readers would be even less inclined to follow Kirkman to a series already in progress.

  8. says

    One way for creators to make a living with their creator-owned work is to not set the comic book audiece as their primary market. Because, as was mentioned by the others, the comic buying audience isn’t generally swayed by creators, but by properties.

    Let’s make graphic novels, but let’s not pitch to comic book companies which are property-driven.

  9. Steven R. Stahl says

    How many self-published comics, I wonder, are done by people who are writer-artists? If someone has writing skills and decides he wants to write original fiction, his first thought, I wouldn’t think, would be to script a comic. Whether he tried to write the “Great American Novel,” a less ambitious novel, a novella, a novelette, or a short story — most would-be professional fiction writers, I’d think, would try writing prose first.

    There’s also the matter of having a story to tell. If he’s been inspired by stories about superheroes, he’d naturally want to write about them, and would naturally be attracted to existing characters.

    If someone wants to make money off his writing skills, work for hire seems to be a much more sensible route to take than self-publishing would be, just as most prose writers submit material to commercial publishers instead of trying to publish books themselves.

    I suppose that there are writer-artist teams who have self-published, but I’d guess that there are few of them.

    I digress, for one paragraph: And Bendis? He’s both an animated ad for work for hire, and an ongoing example of people being attracted to characters involved in a “big” story, rather than the quality of the story. The plot material in “Secret Invasion” is so fragmentary, contradictory, and incoherent that it doesn’t even amount to an outline. It looks like the personnel involved decided to go with sleeper agents in the storyline, a la “Captain Marvel,” then abandoned that approach when they realized that they couldn’t do the background tie-in issues using sleepers. And they should have known that DNA wasn’t discovered a few years ago.

    There seems to be a respectability to self-publishing comics that isn’t attached to self-publishing prose. Would that be because attractive art, in and of itself, deserves to be complimented? Unless a prose self-publisher is remarkably successful, the endeavor is generally regarded as a waste of time and money.

    SRS

  10. says

    Just a trivial point here: The phrase “character artist” stuck out, I wondered what exactly that meant. then I realized when he was working a Bat Mitzvah later that night, what he probably actually said was he was a “caricature artist”. (I was credited as a “Big Background Artist” at one point, so always on the lookout for other odd aratist titles.)

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