State of the Industry - Part II

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In this two-part discussion, Dave Lewis and I discuss the state of the comic book industry and comic book culture in the US today from a somewhat academic perspective.

To what extent is comic book's Golden Age heritage still relevant today? Is there any difference between mainstream and indie fans? And, most importantly, where will the industry be in ten years?

Part I

BROKEN FRONTIER: Since you brought up the Escapist, the way Michael Chabon created him was very reminiscent of how many of these other Golden Age characters were conceived. To what extent is the Golden Age heritage still effective today?

A. DAVID LEWIS: I think readers and the industry are finally past the late-80s through mid-90s reflex of “if it's old, toss it.” and which saw characters like Dr. Fate, Wildcat, Spider-Man, Captain America and Green Lantern be replaced. While this was not a ploy that was inherently wrong, few good stories came of it—and, in turn, little additional revenue was generated.

The companies learned that their classics are valuable, even if they seem “old.” In fact, DC seemed to stumble upon that notion fiscally when their hardcover Archive editions of Golden Age comics sold so well. Therefore, the Golden Age is not nearly as overlooked or scoffed today as it once was. In particular, in the wake of the Superman movie fiasco with the Siegel estate and other copyright battles since, the treatment of Golden Age creators by the industry as improved. But, as charity organisations such as A Commitment To Our Roots (ACTOR) continually reminds us, they may have improved, but they are not solved.

BF: What about other aspects of the Golden Age heritage, like the Jewishness of the creators? Do many of today's creators have Jewish roots?

ADL: It is an interesting question, as the connection between superhero comics and Judaism keeps coming up more and more. Writer Danny Fingeroth, I believe, is currently at work on a book dealing with the very subject. However, while it can be said that a large number of the iconic superheroes had Jewish creators—Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster for Superman, Bob Kane & Bill Finger for Batman, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby for Spider-Man, Hulk, the Avengers, etcetera, and even William Moulston Marston, I believe, for Wonder Woman—I am not sure it can be said that the characters, per se, or the comics themselves have Jewish roots. Keep in mind that many of these writers worked at a time when anti-Semitism was rampant, and some, like Lee and Kirby, even changed their names, perhaps in order to fend off persecution. Assimilation may have been the name of the game.

So, while I do not want to chalk it up to solely geographical happenstance, I am wary of creating an across-the-board connection for superheroes and Judaism. It definitely works in the individual cases, of course, but citing “Jewish roots” for the industry as a whole seems problematic.

BF: The diversity of the output would indeed suggest that comics have moved on from the early days where the superhero was the saviour of mankind and someone who could stand up for minorities like the Jews.

ADL: That is very true; the superhero comic was indeed probably most attractive to the downtrodden or oppressed. That, in time, also extended to the more general working class and the soldier in the field. So, yes, given the greater persecution of Jews during that time—as were other minorities like the Blacks, Latinos, homosexuals—there was probably a greater appeal in the characters defence for the otherwise defenceless.

BF: Since we have touched upon the issue of comic Ages, is it safe to say that the Silver Age is most influential for the way comics are created today? Or has the landscape changed so dramatically over the past few years—through movies and the internet and its web comics—that 'Ages' no longer can be called defining or truly defining?

ADL: I think this goes back to the issue of characters being fresh, personally. That is, we have held for quite a while now that the modern superhero character has a closer tie to the Silver Age of comics due to the sudden importance of humanity during that time; the heroes suddenly had feet of clay, so to speak. Many characters originating in that time—Spider-Man, Hulk, the X-Men, the new Flash and the new Green Lantern all come to mind—had conflicts and problems like ordinary people along with their extraordinary powers. Several of them were even teenagers, like their core reading audience, and if not, they often had sidekicks of that age. Therefore, the push for “fresh” and contemporary-feeling characters largely comes as an innovation of the Silver Age. However, if that innovation is either no longer relevant (which is somewhat ironic), pertinent, or possible, then the influence of the Silver Age may be sliding away. All that is not to say, though, that the Ages no longer matter; perhaps the new thrust in comics may be the legacy of the Bronze Age with innovative storytelling, narrative devices, and social relevance, rather than character-centred relevance.

BF: In his book Comic Book Culture, Matthew J. Putz mentions that there is a clear distinction between the mainstream and small press fan following. As a small press creator yourself, can you pinpoint some of these differences?

ADL: First, Comic Book Culture is an excellent book, and I cite Putz often. However, it has suffered a little bit with age. That is, as I mentioned before, mainstream companies and writers are getting a little more hip to the small press and independent scene—they seem to know that this is the field from which their next generation of talent may be grown. So, from one perspective, the divide between the two sects—the “clear distinction”—is diminishing somewhat, at least on the part of the mainstream.

However, some small press creators remain doggedly independent, unwilling to compromise one element of their work for anyone other than, possibly, their audience. While it is generally a much more uncensored and highly passionate group, it can also be somewhat “navel-gazing” and insular, if not outright elitist. Except here, that elitism can be reversed; the less professional and slick one's work looks, the more highly regarded it can be.

There is something of a backlash against the mainstream sometimes found in the small press, either because the mainstream is seen as more of a corporate machine, because it deals in far greater finances, or because it tends to poach the best of the small press talent. Furthermore, it could simply be because some people revel in their marginalization, enjoying their own small clique and its own “true believers.”

BF: When Putz discusses the fanboy phenomenon, he also points to the “fanboy craze” in the early Nineties. Even though the strong focus on the collectability of comics hurt the industry for years, recently, organisations such as the CGC (Comics Guaranty, LLC) are making it “fashionable” again by professionally grading comics. Is that recent development a positive, or should the industry be watchful that history does not repeat itself?

ADL: I do not think that the industry can repeat itself, honestly. That is, comic books becoming collectible items has long existed; what happened in the ‘90s is that speculators— people who are good at looking for collectible items—seized on comic books as their latest battlefield. When the companies caught wise to this, they threw fuel on the fire, and fanboys followed suit, that is to say those who were not already part of the speculation market with action figures, posters, and so on.

All this is to say that it can only be fabricated to a certain degree within the comic book world. When the speculators felt that the comic book field was oversaturated, they left, and the bubble burst. Therefore, companies like the CGC really only serve the remaining population of collectors that are already there, I feel, as well as those few curiosity-seekers. Right now, the only similar trend of which the industry may suffer repeating a similar cycle is preparing and selling properties to Hollywood.

BF: Based on both your knowledge of the history of the comic book medium and your awareness of recent trends such as realistic storytelling, creating comics with an eye on selling the movie rights etcetera, where do you think the industry will be in five to ten years?

ADL: I think that the pamphlet comic will either become the vinyl record of the industry—still made, but really only being purchased by a select, steadfast few—or the testing-ground/preview of the collected trade paperback/graphic novel. No one ever said that a comic book has to come with staples, has to have floppy covers, or has to have a certain number of pages. So, unless there is a major backlash in the next decade, the trend of bookstores carrying trade paperback collections—especially of those titles that are geared for book-length story arcs—will continue to grow. New small press creators may pick up the fallen banner of the pamphlet to produce their own work, but I also think that they will take to the internet to distribute their works until a critical mass of it has built up, necessitating a trade paperback printing.

BF: Do you think comics may ever evolve to the European format? I mean, a reason some might give for American comics not having achieved the same status as they have in Europe is that they contain advertisements, are mostly produced monthly, are printed in a smaller format, and hence, are much more commercial.

ADL: I think that in appearance, the American comic may grow to look more like the European format comic, but it will not be executed the same way. More often than not, the European comic has a singular artistic goal—or a shared goal of a small team—rather than the assembly-line, decision-by-committee construction of the American book. So, even if it looks and sounds like a duck, it may not be a duck.

- Frederik Hautain

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