The Greatest Battle in Comics isn’t Fought by Superheroes, but by its Art
Comics as a form of art has always struggled in terms of its identity.
It’s always tough to identify when a piece of art is at its most pure form of expression, but we could perhaps look at the origin of the modern era of comics, its humble beginnings in simple sequential strip form, and utilize this as our baseline. Taking the earliest days of newspaper funnies and the birth of capes and tights, there was always a delicate balance native to comics between what was done for some form of commercialization and what was done as an expression of the creators inner-most dreams. Books like Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God” set a good precedent, but as something produced nearly 30 years after something like the war-era “The Spirit” it’s tough to draw a singular definitive line between “for the artist” and “for the audience.” A statement like that is not meant to denigrate either endeavor; rather to simply set a tone towards what we’re going to explore nearly 75 years after some of the most iconic medium-defining books, characters and elements were first introduced.
As we look at comic’s origins and how far the medium and its industry have come today, one of the biggest recurring debates in today’s climate surrounds ownership as it pertains to the split between for hire and self-produced work in comics. Put simply: which is “better”, creator-owned or company-owned intellectual property?
The two sides of the table seem locked in a non-compromising debate comprised of both the fans and the creators. One side argues that characters which stand the test of time and allows for multiple voices to add new spins to old favorites is that which has more value to a long-term readership; the other argues that stories which retains rights to the original creators hold more artistic and personal value despite a different or inconsistent / limited readership. The world of the creator-owned seems to want to align towards a future vision, whereas the company-owned is more about the effect that can be had on the here and now — and those that try to straddle both arenas often seem forced to compromise their principals, regardless of ideals they may have once had or arguments they would’ve made before the opportunity came to be truly successful in either arena. Ultimately neither argument seem right, as we’ve seen creator-owned activists excitedly toss their independent work aside in favor of publisher exclusivity and adding to the legacy of shared universes, and we’ve seen those who established their voice in the company-owned world jump ship, bad mouth their former employers and refuse to make anything they don’t own anymore. Fans are left to wonder how much any of their favorite creators holds onto principal by circumstance.
However, throughout out all of these arguments and discussions, the role of the art that defines a comic book’s existence as a comic book often is either willfully dismissed or purposefully ignored, replaced by arguments around ownership. Yet to me, debating the merits of property in comics over that which is supposed to be a form of artistic expression, regardless of where the art is produced, seems futile — or at the very least, insulting. If the purpose of art is to have an effect on the person who beholds the art, and if this can be accomplished through any / either form of artistic expression, then does it not stand to reason that both options are valuable? Or, in a situation where a key part of the discussion utilizes the word “property”, is it a moot point to even take the time? Can you even have an honest discussion about art if a part of the discussion is “which is better”?
I’m framing the question deliberately narrow here, ignoring any inherent nuances, simply to allow for a potentially controversial point: if everything previously stated be the case, then perhaps comics are not an art form. Yes, there is actual art in the books, but we don’t treat it or the people who produce them with respect. At a corporate level this is seemingly more of a commodity to the overall product, and at a creator level it seems almost undefinable yet consistently under appreciated in joint ventures; writers sign exclusive publishing deals, work for television networks and don’t turn their scripts for one book in on time because they’re too busy with another, while artists supplement income with prints or sketches at cons, cover work and variants, pin-ups and work through all kinds of different venues that just allow an artist in comics to survive. In doing so, we’ve collectively transformed the work in such a way that, to be honest, the debate seems to be more about the value of commercial or pop art against that of noncommercial or self-valued art.
So with this in mind, I’d propose that the question surrounding comics becomes: which is more valuable? Not monetarily, but intrinsically. What defines that value? Is it the content itself, the expressive artwork and storytelling? Is it the characters that stand the test of time through an ongoing never ending drama? Are the one-off stories that can be told in 80–100 sequentially planned pages more important than the ones that need several volumes and don’t know how to stop? Or is it something else? Something much more capitalist? These questions have no current answer because the truth is either nobody knows or nobody wants to talk about it, but they are important questions to be aware of. Both sides of the discussion have seemingly drowned themselves out in such a cacophony of pseudo self-righteousness that it’s improbable to create anything beyond a personal definition, and thus we find ourselves in a precarious position as an industry and a medium.
Because, as problematic as it is, when it comes down to it comics today invite themselves to be highly disposable. As physical artifacts comics struggle to balance the intrinsic value of the art contained within against the mechanism through which it is delivered: a floppy, 3 dollar magazine that is often put inside a bag which is buried in a box full of its brethren. Longboxes become graveyards for stories after a time, yet often without the headstones that allow you to revisit; as morbid as the metaphor seems, after a while buying comics seems like collecting bodies that you get to bury. Compound this against the fact that these 3 dollar magazines need to be pre-ordered months in advance in order to justify their cost of production in a world of limited / confused marketing and resell, and the continued publishing of these items sometimes seem like an ongoing effort in futility — all of which in turn devalues the notion that this is an art form, but rather an opportunity for commercial success or failure. If your book can’t even cut it in the market for the chance to be shoved away in a longbox, then is it of value? Or even worse, if it makes it into the market only to be shoved in a longbox, then what value did it ever have?
What’s potentially even worse is that the comics that truly define the art form, the ones that stand the test of time, seem to simply open themselves up to ongoing merchandising opportunities more than anything else. If you look at similar forms of artistic expression and entertainment, the notion of having a novel (for example) go through multiple printings or designs is not unheard of; where the difference lies is that I don’t believe we’ll ever see “The Count of Monte Cristo: Deluxe Edition (Feat. Initial Concept Notes and More!)” for twice the price of the original edition in a hardcover volume (beyond niche market resellers). Add into that statues, toys, plushes, t-shirts, and other forms of marked-up collectible fetishizing, and it seems that the art that matters the most to us in comics only survives through hyperbolic adjectives that pretend to add value through ancillary content, where the art itself slowly transforms into filler content of old sketches that were probably never intended to be truly shared or design work for someone else to hyper-realize.
Where this becomes even more concerning, and where I’ve been slowly leading to so far, is when we look at what ostensibly creates the most popular comics: film, television and any opportunity to translate our art form into another, sans art.
Defining our art and its value becomes murky and fairly difficult as we watch the ever-blossoming relationship between comics and film. Comics and film have certainly always shared a rather complicated relationship, with early television adaptations or films, serials and more that took the comics out of comics and gave them to new audiences and generations, but in the modern era this seems to have been elevated to new extremes. Our art form has become chum to the feeding frenzy of Hollywood sharks with money to burn, who in turn produce Deadline headlines and clickbait articles about on-set shots that become fodder / excuses for the worst in online comments. These adaptations turn an art form already struggling with its own disposable inner-politics and amplify that to an extreme, re-coloring our discussion as we change how we view or talk about our art and what it means to us as its conceptual popularity increases — all without seemingly flowing back into the originating medium outside of commercially timed ebbs and flows.
The dialogue this is creating, and one I’ve participated in myself, is maddening, spiral-bound and insulting. I’ll give you a very specific example: the debate around how close an adaptation should be to its original content. There’s several schools of thought; some believe that if you have an established beginning, middle and end to a published story, then you essentially have storyboards to produce, while others believe that its the right of the new creators to reproduce the story of the original, a tradition inherently as old as storytelling itself when we compare the superheroes of today with the gods of Greek or Roman mythology. There’s also certainly a question mark when discussed in relationship to company-owned characters vs. creator-owned; if a company-owned character can have infinite stories told about them in the comic book medium, certainly new adventures could be had on the big screen, whereas a creator-owned character deserves different treatment at the wishes of the creator, no?
Put simply: we already have the book produced in the creators vision. Why do we need the movie? No matter the good intentions it will always be a watered-down imitation of that which made the original special; at what point did comics get so entrenched in these crude imitations?
Yet this is often not the case. It brings us back to the earlier question around value of art against the value of property. We have to look at adaptations as an exercise in control; is it okay to give up control of what was once yours to someone who might have a new vision for it, or does that devalue your process? Or is too much control exerted over an idea simply an opportunity to smother and strangle the idea to death, which in turn devalues the notion of even having an expressive idea? If the previous discussion that was intrinsic to comics was itself a catch-22, I’m not sure what that turns the discussion into when it becomes about more extrinsic elements. It seems we have to narrow our thoughts to simply begin to take a stand, where we approach success not from its defined definition but rather our own internal opinions on where we want or how we expect to gain success, and what the art we put into the world means to us.
This element, though, despite seemingly being born from ostensibly disparate directions, becomes inherently problematic because this now feeds back into comics. We’ve collectively transformed comics from an art form into a business, where art seemingly goes to die. Looking at the “mainstream” of comics, their editorial directions seem to be in consistent chokeholds they’re unwilling to tap out of, catering their content and bowing towards the upcoming films that feature related concepts or characters. Rather than simply relying on their authors to push their content forward in different directions for a new era, you’ll see “Event Title II” appear at just the same time as a film of the same name arrives in theaters, alongside a handful of shallow interviews full of staged remarks and “No, honestly, we’ve been planning this for a long time!” platitudes that attempt to justify why an otherwise vapid comic needs to exist right now. Both major publishers now also publicly have taken two large steps backward and one small step forward, using concepts of rebirth and legacy to try and bring something old back in the disguised as something new, seemingly because trying to only do something as interesting and pioneering in the vein of what birthed the superhero genre has resulted in failure and struggle on both sides — something exacerbated by the fact that their past content is so in-fashion because of the machinations of their non-comics based endeavors with their properties.
Meanwhile, the independent market now seems to hail empty successes. Entertainment sites are full of “Comic Title Optioned for Film / TV Show!” titles, most of which have yet to see any kind of fruition. I’m actually unsure when the last great indie comic success was, because off-hand I’m not sure there has been one since 2012. Success has become more about the acquiring of ideas, buying and selling concepts that can be taken out of a back pocket at a later date when we’ve run out of laugh tracks and bazingas; a comic receiving an option, if anything, now feels like a merit badge that’ll serve someone’s career in life just as much as the Boy and Girl Scout badges we earned selling candy, because our content has become as disposable as the wrappers. But it’s not like we don’t inherently deserve it: some of the most successful comic creators (success having an odd, non-dictionary based definition, of course) gain options for their content before even putting out the comic, quite literally undermining the purpose of the medium; others bring things that work in concept in a studio to comic books, which result in a bunch of lower-tier titles coasting in the market due to high-profile names still somehow attached on the cover while the creators themselves continue to lean on the one hit comic they have left — a comic which itself rides the coat tails of a television franchise sharing the same name and characters.
Our former bastions and champions drift away from the independence they once celebrated, giving comics celebrities as uninspired as their Hollywood counterparts. In turn, the more creative souls and less successful among us hold their lack of films or mainstream work to their chest as a badge of honor — but as film makes the comic world more relevant and competitive, turning a stream of creators struggling to be heard into a sea of voices screaming in unison, I wonder how much of that is left in us before we just implode under the weight of cross-media promotion, film deals and lucrative franchises.
So how do we discuss an art form where the biggest success we see today come from when our art is translated into another medium entirely? What does it say about how we value our art if its creators are so willing to sell it away, to have someone else take their vision and make it more palatable to an audience who often can’t or won’t appreciate its origins, or the nuances contained within its initial conception and presentation? Perhaps at this point our art exists as nothing more than this capitalist opportunity; something for men in dark suits to bastardize and homogenize against some paid-for vision of a world we’re being sold exists rather than the one that does. Perhaps entertainment is simply another iteration of the fast food industry, with comics and movies et al simply being different brands selling us the same abused meat topped with a crown under golden arches; something for us to devour and consume, to grow fat and complacent on.
Or maybe art is here for us to destroy. Comics are similar to the ouroboros in that we’re a snake that loves to eat its own tail, but in this metaphor it’s because we kill our darlings and devour our young. Fans turn on creators over insignificant story changes, creators turn on fans for not purchasing their books, the industry turns on both at the drop of a penny or when it is most / least profitable to. That which supposedly should unite us — our love of art and storytelling — becomes that which divides us the most. Whether this comes from our own insecurities or something else, I’m not quite sure; the only thing I could say with any sense of authority is that it’s tough to watch comics turn into an unattainable chimera, replacing the dream of finding pride in artistic expression with Blu-ray with special features. None of this is to say that the art form never had its own internal struggles or that there isn’t a strong balance that can be maintained between two mediums and opposing points of view, but rather this is more of a reflection on a seemingly abusive relationship that most fans, critics, creators and more seem complacent to let dictate the future of comics.
But, I don’t think that has to be the case.
Art is not just about consumption. Art is about saying something, evoking emotions in others and saving us wretched fools from the hollow emptiness of our own lives. It’s an escape, put together by those with enough vision and clarity to do just a little bit of magic; it’s something that allows us to transport to a different time or place, or live a different life for a little while. It’s this important and meaningful escapism that makes any medium knee-deep in the general entertainment waters powerful and long-lasting, because as the song goes, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.” Our insight is so limited, but every action’s an act of creation: we constantly discuss a certain famous hero with a red cape and his underwear on the outside, but he survives not just because of alien-based regeneration pods; he survives because his impact and meaning is long-lasting for those that enjoy his stories and the talent of the storytellers who keep breathing new life into him. And he will continue to inspire, and be recreated, and transformed, and reborn over and over and over — and his different incarnations will mean something to someone, somewhere.
It’s a hard truth to swallow, but at the end of the day the location of where the art resides should not matter, nor is it something we should judge or declare importance around. While I can understand where the discussions and arguments around ownership come from, the lens of its place in creator-owned or corporate environments shouldn’t matter as its a circular, pointless debate. Comics are having a hard enough time fighting for their existence, and the art inside them is struggling more against the very human natures of their creators.
But comics are supposed to be art, and what matters to me does not have to matter to you — at least not when it comes to art. That is ultimately what makes art so powerful, both from the perspective of the creator and their audience. We’ll never always know when a singular piece of art inspires a thoughtful debate. We’ll never always know when art helps someone to feel more comfortable or accepted within a community. We’ll never always know when art saves a life.
But it does, and it will, and that is OK. If we can move past our squabbles and celebrate the impact that this has on our lives, both the positive and the negative, we can move forward and heal. We don’t always need to have our horns locked in battle, or be unappreciative of how art evolves outside of ourselves.
We’re better than that. Our art needs us to be.