DEAR WARREN ELLIS…
Just for laughs, here is an open letter I wrote to Warren Ellis a bunch of years back on the evolution of the comics industry. Let’s see if my opinion then holds up to what the industry is like today…
Hey, Warren (and anyone else reading this).
Just finished a couple of your essay books, namely COME IN ALONE and FROM THE DESK. Brilliant stuff, and I agree with nearly all of it. I love reading up on creator’s opinions on the industry and on the craft. As an aspiring writer and lover of comics myself, I always gain new insights from what you all have to say, whether I agree with it or not. Comics were the reason I started writing and drawing, and it led me to a Graphic Design degree and three finished novels I’m seeking publication for (Okay, one was already published, but by a vanity house. I got suckered into thinking they were legit, so that doesn’t count).
Like I said, I agree a lot with what you say about diversifying the comics market past the superhero, and I think the industry takes stabs at it periodically, with mixed results. I remember the brief time that fantasy comics like Tellos and Battle Chasers were all the rage, and that was followed by the boom of crime comics such as 100 Bullets, Powers and Losers. And then there were the 80’s licensed comics, which were big for a little bit (actually they DID bring back the Micronauts like a lot of these geex were begging for, but ironically, nobody bought it). And now Marvel’s trying on the sneak to bring back romance comics (at least, it seems that way to me).
I try when I can to support new comics ideas and independent publishers. If the premise on a book is intriguing enough, or if the buzz on a book is big enough, and I can afford it, then I’ll add a non-Marvel/DC/Image/DHP book to my usual pulls (currently Fred Perry’s GoldDigger, New Avengers, Joesph Linsner’s Dawn and The Green Lantern Corps). I want to be one of the geex telling the world “I told you so” when the next Ninja Turtles or The Crow or Road To Perdition becomes a worldwide phenomenon. I loved telling the movie geex drooling over Frank’s awesome SIN CITY flick that “the books were better.”
I am blessed to have also dealt with comics shops that heavily support books that are alternatives to the superhero, also (too bad the majority of them are out of business now). The one I currently get my books from is big into that. They display their independent stuff right next to their mainstream stuff, and the staff talks with the customers and encourages them often to try some of the non Marvel/DC stuff. Also, when people come in and request specific books they often order a few copies for others to try out, too. They were big supporters of Alias (that umbrella publisher of various indie studios) and a lot of people who frequent that store gave Alias a chance. Ditto with Antarctic, Crossgen (RIP), Devil’s Due and Dreamwave (also RIP). I do wish they’d carry more Oni, but I’m splitting hairs.
I think the industry has taken a shift towards some of the things you’ve been preaching about. Publishers are now expanding their book marketing way beyond the comic store crowd, and I’m seeing Marvel comics in supermarkets next to the magazines. The Graphic novels section in the bookstores is constantly growing, and there’s been a big push to get readers buying commix in new and unique ways. The cross pollination of commix into other media (Video Games and Movies, most notably) hasn’t hurt. Publishers are now also realizing the selling power a well-known or highly reputed creator has. I think that’s part of why Bendis and Millar write 75% of the Marvel Universe (with Claremont getting the other 25%), why Johns writes roughly 75% of the DCU, and why Jim Lee draws damn near every cover for DC. I think it’s only a matter of time before we get that Powerpuff Girls book written by Johns and illustrated by Lee, BTW.
In my hometown, surprisingly enough, the biggest and best place for quality comix has been the library, with its ever-increasing collection of graphic novels and TPBs. It’s the latest trend in libraries, apparently. They stockpile these things and hope it draws in more young readers (or in my town’s case, it gets the all the brats hanging out at the library after school waiting for the bus or surfing blackplanet.com on the library’s computers to actually pick up a book while they’re there). And only half of the books they get are of the Superhero, Marvel/DC variety. True, a bunch of it is manga, but I’ve also used the library to pick up lots of great Graphic Novels and trade paperbacks I wouldn’t been able to afford by myself – stuff like Little White Mouse, Blankets and Persepolis. I recommend stuff to them all of the time, and they go out and get it. One time, they even had all of their American Splendor Books on display next to the DVD of the movie!
That all being said, I still love the Marvel/DC superheroes and make no apologies for it. At their best they are iconic, excellently designed characters who use their unique abilities to solve unique problems, mostly in spectacular and creative ways. To me, superheroes speak to the ability in everyone to find a way, to overcome and to make things happen. It’s great to see these heroes put to the ultimate test in so many different ways, to see them pushed to their breaking point and beyond, to see how they make it through and whether or not they compromise their principles in the process. These guys are metaphors of aspects of the human condition, the everyday trials and tribulations we all go through except with the volume turned up 100-fold, the stakes incredibly higher and the clothes tighter and stretchier (unless you’re Brittney Spears or Lil Kim, in which case that last point is debatable). It’s great entertainment, when handled with intelligence, creativity and integrity. In my opinion, the principles in superhero stories are prevalent in all great stories. James Bond is a superhero. Hari Seldon from the Foundation series is a superhero. La Femme Nikita is a Superhero. Stone Cold Steve Austin is a superhero. The CSI guys are portrayed in a superheroic light, as has been George W. Bush at times. In fact, I even believe that King David and Jesus Christ are superheroes! No one can tell me that the feats of the great people in the Bible aren’t comparable to today’s superhero stories (I’m also unapologetically Christian).
I agree that it’s ridiculous how superheroes dominate the industry, but I still believe there is a place for good superhero stories. I’ll read a good Green Lantern comic (the Kyle Rayner one) just as quickly as I’ll read an issue of Scud the Disposable Assassin. I love the vast ensemble cast of GoldDigger as much as I love watching how the disparate personalities in New Avengers try to coexist. I enjoy the epic, widespread, unpredictable mayhem in Infinite Crisis as much as I enjoy the terse, understated, controlled action in Usagi Yojimbo. I respect Bone as much as I respect Astro City. I just wish I was filthy stinking rich, so I could buy every single book that I want to read and support. I also wish I was rich so I could pay these ridiculous gas prices, but that’s another rant altogether.
But don’t mind me. I’m just a ranting and raving comic book geek who’s only real wish is to see more well-written, quality black characters in comic books. (God bless Grant for putting two of us in 7 Soldiers. How much you want to bet he kills one of them off?) Hopefully someday you’ll be mentioning me in one of your essays in the same breath as your other writing buddies like Grant, Mark Waid and Garth Ennis.
Take care, and keep writing the cutting edge stuff.