Creator Owned Comics vs. The Big Two

There was a very insightful post on Deviantart not long ago called Creator Owned Comics, written by David Elliot. I hope you all had a chance to check it out. For those of you who love comics, and the movies and memories it creates, it’s very important. The article talks about the state of crisis in the comic book industry, from the degradation of the distribution system to the rise in cover price.

The most important subject is the lack of new characters. Growing up, I certainly could relate to this. I had no desire to jump into Batman number 167 or Spider-Man number 983. I wanted to read new stories, with new characters, which is probably why I almost exclusively bought Dark Horse titles (and a few Image titles, but hey, I was a teenager).

As a creator now myself, I love creating new characters and new worlds. And I like that I can surprise my readers at every turn. Comic book movies are at their height right now, but I feel that we could be heading for market-oversaturation. How many comic book based movies and TV shows can we handle? And, if the comic book industry is in a state of crisis, where will we get fresh new stories (and new villains) to fuel the desire for content?

The article poses three questions:

1. If you had to choose, would you stay with the current crop of Marvel and DC superhero characters or would you be willing to have them take more risks and to do lots of new characters and ideas?
2. With all the superhero movies from Marvel and DC do you really think we need so many comics of the characters to still be published?
3. Do you support independent creators and their characters and if so, which ones are your favorites?

Below, I’ll post some of the best responses to the article. Note that these are posts by other people, NOT BY ME, until the end where I put my thoughts. Putting all the best comments in one place makes for a good read!

Aetheldod Apr 30, 2015   General Artist
1. I would prefer new characters and ideas , and thats the problem with the big 2 , they just rehash the same old same old and never finish the stories , for example the death of superman only to bring him back … lame. And the only super hero comic I ever collected was Spawn and it was supposed to be different but when #100 came out and the story kept going I lost all interest.
2.No and not even the films , heck how many spiderman films are there?  It has rebooted at least 2 times already and I have no interest in more avengers , Hulks etc.
MREcartoonist Edited Apr 30, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
I’ve tried many time before to get into “American” style comics, and it always leads to me giving up. Too many crossovers, alternate universes, what-if scenarios. I get over whelmed and simply conclude that I’d have to spend a ridiculous amount of money to follow just a couple of characters I like.
My brother loves Batman, and I’ve been trying to get him some comics for a few years now, but it isn’t working. I get to the shelf and there is sooooo much Batman this, Batman that, Batman and Robin, The Joker etc etc, that I just go buy him something else. I don’t know where to start, what is considered more of the main plot verses alternate universes? Like honestly, it should NOT be this hard to find comic books.
BMacSmith Edited Apr 30, 2015  Professional Digital Artist
I got into comics specifically because they had complex, ongoing stories with rich history. Before that I thought comics were just dumb little one off stories (and they often were). So I couldn’t disagree more. That said, it has gotten ridiculous at this point. The biggest problem I’ve seen lately is that the publishers have tried to have their cake and eat it too. They constantly relaunch/reboot entire universes, but only do it halfheartedly, mixing and matching what they want from decades of continuity, completely defeating the purpose of relaunching. At this point I’d be in favour of ending those stories completely, and starting over fresh, in modern day, with new and established characters.
gear-rules6 Apr 30, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
The comic shop owners I hang out weekly continue to assure me the Big 2 (Marvel/DC) are putting out great product. I’d agree with them – IF I WAS 12 YEARS OLD. IDW, Image and Dark Horse are just a few of what could be considered indy publishers pumping out gritty, mature stories coupled with amazing art – all without convoluted continuity.
Ptrope Apr 30, 2015  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Much of this explains why I buy so few comics these days. Starting in the ’70s, I spent plenty going to the local comic shop every week, and most of that got spent on Marvel books – I liked the artists I found there, I liked the page layouts, and I frankly liked the characters better – they were fresher, more human. As an artist myself, I wanted to draw like John Byrne, or Howard Chaykin, or Walt Simonson. But then “Secret Wars” happened, and “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” and the comic publishers discovered the scourge of comics: the crossover. And it’s only gotten worse – now, at any given time, it seems most comics have a second logo on the cover, promoting whichever massive crossover I have to buy just to read one damn story, and I have HAD ENOUGH. I wouldn’t normally buy most of the books in that cluster – I sure as heck don’t want to feel like I have to, so I end up barely buying the books I was interested in to begin with. And my interest is still in the art, and frankly, I’m really unimpressed by the majority of comic artists now filling the shelves.
I ditched Marvel and DC superhero comics ages ago.  I burned out on them when I was fifteen.  Superheroes are boring.  You know what they’re gonna do, how they are going to act, and that they’ll neatly win in the end.  It makes for a boring story.  The most interest I ever had in my Spiderman comics is when Peter Parker had to work with Norman Osborne, each making nice when they know their mortal enemy is standing across from them in an office building hallway.  A superhero who can’t punch his way out of a situation makes for a good story.
The stories are stagnant, the arcs are like endless, complicated fanservice, and the characters are horribly predictable.
It’s just not good story writing.  Bad, long arcs, and no nice one-shots to read either.
Meh.
Rongal May 1, 2015  Hobbyist Writer
I believe a middle ground would fit in better: yeah, I wanna see new characters just for the heck of it even (and by “new” I mean not a redo of one that already exists), but the flagship characters of both industries have become flagship for a reason; I, for one, cannot imagine Marvel universe without Spiderman or DC lacking Batman or Superman.
Which, however, doesn’t mean I like the notion that Batman himself spams 6 titles simultaneously x_x I mean yaeh, Batman is one of the most iconic comicbook character and he IS cool, but for God’s sake – he’s supposed to fight Joker, Scarecrow, Poison Ivy, Mr Freeze AND Killer Croc at the same time, while each of them are using different plots, and STILL be an active help to Justice League and many other teams in DC? That is just tiring and ridiculous.
I don’t mind crossovers or special events, but there’s a limit for everything – if, for example, Wolverine guest stars in a Hulk title, that’s fine, but if I’m not a fan of Wolverine, I REALLY don’t want to buy a Wolverine title, just to learn how Hulk’s ordeal ended; I’m interested in Hulk, not the Adamantium wonder.
That’s what is preventing me to actually go into American comics, because you  nearly only have superheroes stuffes, while in Europe, we have everything you can find in all genres of movies and books, but in comics. If I go with Belgium for example, it goes from : a journalist as a hero (Tintin), some comedic westerns/cow-boys (Lucky Luke), detectives (Blake and Mortimer), some village inhabited by little blue beings (les Schtroumpfs, known internationally as the Smurfs), some adventurer living in the context of Scandinavian mythology (Thorgal).
While USA : superheroes, and that’s it. It will be quite hard to find something else, which make the industry very poor. There are some exceptions, but they aren’t the most popular, nor the most easy to find. Alan Moore made really clever and not cliché comics, but, he is from UK, not USA. The Walking Dead is as well, better than the mass of other superheroes’ American comics, but it’s a bit an exception proving the rule.
cj-deva May 1, 2015  New Deviant
1. I’m old enough to remember the very first “Secret Wars”, and as a young comic book reader, I was completely turned off by what was (to my eyes) a transparent ploy at marketing and merchandising.  Soured me on the Big Two from that point on.  Milking the franchise or setting up the movie deal may be a risk financially, but not creatively.
In my opinion, Marvel and DC make some very paradoxical choices: using movies to popularize the characters and comic genre, but not creating an easy way for the neophyte to access the source material.
I believe that comics need to try and return to their simplier roots. Seems like every month some new world ending story arc (Or god forbid Universal ending) is popping up to get all the heroes together and increase their sales with this grand team ups. But here’s the thing though, now a days it’s all gotten almost routine. Bad thing happens, Good guys can’t figure it out, another bad thing happens, good guys call in everyone who can do so much as extend their fingernails at will and beat the bad guy up till the main focus characters of the arc are left in the end. Yeah the first few times seeing all the heroes together was awesome but now when every major threat is world ending what’s the point?
nhoinla Edited May 3, 2015  Professional Traditional Artist
I have a different point of view.  The comic book industry is thriving.  It’s not dying.  It doesn’t need saving.  There are lots of different kinds of comics out there.  Some you like and some you don’t.  Some are from big publishers but indie titles are more abundant now than ever before thanks to the internet and the increasing ease of self publishing.  There are tons of non super hero comics now.  The industry was dying at the turn of the century until Hollywood rejuvenated it.  The real problem is that there is a large and growing amount of audience who is only into comics in the form of film.  When that audience actually purchases comics, they buy popular serialized comics from the big publishers.  Big companies have the power of marketing and distribution.  If the new comic audience who hopped on the wagon from film inspiration wanted original and new characters and story ideas, they need to do some research which most people are too lazy to do.  Independent publishers have to be able to get their attention.  The Walking Dead is a great example of that.  I think film and TV production studios should consider turning more indie titles into films and TV shows.  This will make the general audience realize that indie comics are just as good and at many times are better than mainstream titles.  If that miracle could happen, then the new audience will be more willing and motivated to buy indie books from small press publishers.

Right now, that isn’t happening.  Hollywood is making good money and they don’t want to change that formula because they consider it a financial risk, which is understandable.  Mainstream books already have created a household name so people want to buy something they are somewhat familiar with as opposed to something they’ve never heard of.  My main point is that the audience has to change in order for the industry to improve and grow.  Film and TV studios could help.  It would even be nice if an indie comic book became a good video game.  Video games are starting to have good stories now.  It could very possible.  The general audience are very ready to watch films, TV shows, and even play video games, but most of those people aren’t willing to buy comics.  That change isn’t an easy one for them.  When it comes to entertainment, people want the easy way to get it.  If it involves research or learning?  It’s probably not very likely going to happen.  On a very small scale, a regular comic book reader could help by encouraging and recommending to their friends who want to get into comics towards small press books.  But that also takes a lot of effort.

I remember what got me to stop reading the new 52 Teen Titans series. I was less than 10 issues in and there was a multi-part tie in with Legion Lost, Superboy, and an annual issue. Mind you, I thought Superboy was a tool and I couldn’t care less about Legion Lost. I still think that actually; but I had to buy 4 comics to understand what amounted to some poorly written deus ex machina to toss these three titles together and one big fight scene. It didn’t get me interested in Superboy or Legion Lost- it turned me off to all three and an issue later I stopped reading.

There are some REAL gems on the indie scene and publishers like Image, Dark Horse, and Top Cow have proven that creator owned comics can be done to fantastic effect. However, there is a reason Marvel and DC are number 1 & 2. They test and test and test new concepts before adopting them. They are reliance on name recognition, market saturation, and nostalgia (I mean… you know who batman is right?). Any time you see an elseworlds comic, a “what if” series, an alternate universe, or whatever they come up with to give you a new take on the character- they are testing new grounds (I mean they basically made some version of the Dark Knight returns canon at this point). See, ironically comic companies doesn’t make all or even most of their money on comic sales. No, they make it on licensing. They make deals with movie studios, toy companies, video game developers, cartoon channels (etc). This isn’t a bad thing.
Mistarooni May 4, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
What I don’t undetstand is that why do mainstrem American comics /have/ to be superheroes?
In my opinion, the genre variety in American comics are the most anemic I’ve seen in any entertainment medium. even among creator owned comics.
Honestly there’s nothing wrong with play safe, but if you don’t take risk, you’ll never know if your ideas are good or bad, is truth in Japan there a lot of people in the manga industry all of the with their own ideas and characters and there’s always the risk of failure, but instant of worried about fail people should be focus in succeed.
For me there are three main aspects when it comes to comics 1) status quo 2) inter-connectivity of the universe 3) long stories over single issue stories.

1) At first I wanted a progressing story instead of a never changing status quo, like some of Image comic’s releases, although after years of reading Marvel comics I changed my mind. I admit that this way you get better stories, but the idea of Spider-man as a symbol and not a story fits better with me. Any time you pick an issue, Spiderman is Spiderman. The character is mostly set in stone, while his circumstances might changes. This is the way Disney has done with their characters like Donald and Mickey etc. To have a progressing storyline in a superhero comic book defeats the purpose of the core idea of the genre. Spider-man is not DMZ or Saga. It should have different themes and different story design. Sure the story doesn’t go anywhere really, but it doesn’t need to. It is a matter of different design. Just as you can tell a great story in “Fables”, so you can in Spider-man (if you take advantage of the different styles).
2) Inter connectivity of stories is another core concept. The idea of a shared universe is cool. It is attractive because, in the case you really like it, you can sink in the universe and explore it. You can create a imaginary history from pieces scattered around. That’s why Avengers the movie became so popular and why “Events” sell much more than normal comics.
3) This demands balance. If you have an only single issue story comic, you turn into an Archie, Tin-Tin or Donald. If you keep making long stories you get something like Berserk or most of Marvel comics of the past decade, overly long, complicated and unsatisfying.

I think it is worth considering that the comics industry cannot be what it was in earlier years. With the advent and development of new technologies, any sort of physical print media is becoming more and more of a niche market. The people that want to read comics on their tablets or computers is increasing, and the number of people that pirate to do so has to also be affecting the bottom line of the big companies and the independent publishers alike.
Making comics ‘more accessible’ doesn’t necessarily mean putting them back in supermarkets and doctor’s offices, it means making them accessible for an audience that is increasingly doing all of their reading digitally. The people that continue to buy physical in-print comics are not always, but more likely to be collector types. It is also more common now for collectors and comics readers to not buy individual issues but rather to wait until the trade paperback is released and read it all at once.
I’d argue that Marvel is doing a better job of making their comics accessible than DC, and I haven’t seen much from independent publishers in that vein. What we might see is the reverse – more webcomic artists getting their work published in print. Some of our future comics artists and writers today are already making fabulous work online for free, the problem for them is advertising and distribution.

1. Neither. Both Marvel and DC have characters that are still worth writing and reading about, and in a lot of cases, legacy characters can be as interesting as the original characters they were based off of. A lot of people only buy what is familiar, and aren’t willing to take a chance on a new character or concept, especially if the art isn’t immediately eye-catching or in colour (All those people who took a chance on a black and white comic about zombies when the Walking Dead first came out are laughing now as their issues accrue in value). For every successful title, there are a number of new titles that get released and cancelled within six months because of low readership. I’d say the real test of time is actually how well it is written – whether it is a new character or an old character, good writing and interesting story lines stand out over time.

2. I don’t think that we need the same number of titles that we do right now. Marvel could cut down on their number of Avengers and X-Men titles for sure, but the big culprit is the miniseries, one shots, and major crossover storylines. It used to be that a major crossover would happen once every few years, now it happens once every six months and frankly a number of comics customers just sit those out and wait for their regular issues to resume. My husband runs a comic store and we are getting hit hard on the sales of DC Convergence titles, and not very many people are interested in Secret Wars so soon after the last major Marvel event.
I don’t think the movies have anything to do with this. Their continuity is different, does not replace the stories going on in print, and storytelling in comics is not the same as it is in movies. I view it as primarily cross-promotion. I’d also say that Marvel is doing a better job with their movie continuity than DC, who fails to hit the mark on tone and writing almost every time for me. The exception would be the DC animated films, which I think are very well done and usually provide a concise telling of a storyline in the comics almost as-is. It would be interesting food for thought to consider a system where major crossovers were handled in that way instead. I’d also like to add that there is something to be said for using comics as a way to make reading more accessible to youth – something you lose if you rely on movies to do all of your storytelling.

3. I love a good story, so it doesn’t matter who is publishing it to me specifically. I like to look at some of the independent publishers (image admittedly is a good one to keep an eye on because so many of them are creator-driven projects) to see what new ideas are coming up and I will occasionally take a chance on one of them. I’ve loved Saga (but I admit I buy it in trades because I didn’t get in on the first issues), I enjoyed Rat Queens and will usually jump at the chance to own a physical copy of something I’ve enjoyed reading online, and anything drawn by the Sejics, amazing artists and writers both. I’m also looking forward to reading the upcoming We Stand on Guard title.

Another final comment I’d like to make is that while changing artists and writers in books can be jarring in many cases – there is something to be said for the role collaboration between artists and writers, or multiples of the same, plays in the comics industry. Sometimes it creates problems, others it creates unique opportunities for something to be created.

Well, speaking personally, three factors that finally put this former big-time comics fan off of buying comics, were:

1)  As the article points out, the expansive, impenetrable storylines, dragging out over years, reaching such convoluted levels of complexity you practically need a scorecard & program-book to keep track of them.  It’s like trying to follow a soap-opera.  Unless you’ve got the time or money to go search down 2+ years’ worth of issues just to try to figure out what’s going on, who’s gonna bother?  Speaking personally, I just say, ‘Psh…screw it…  It’s too much trouble to wrap my head around & I’ve got better things to do…”

2)  Entirely-subjective, totally-personal opinion:  Most comics published today are so damned DEPRESSING!!  They’re so grim, fatalistic, often nihilistic and depressing that they’re a chore to get through.  What’s the point of creating a world of make-believe that’s worse than real life?  Geez, I can remember a time (and it wasn’t that long ago) when comics were FUN!  Who cared if they were “realistic” or not?  Who cared whether Superman or Wonder Woman or whomever addressed the “serious issues” of the time?  I didn’t, and consequently, I got a lot more enjoyment out of them back when than I ever would today.  If I were a kid today & this was the best I had to look forward to, I’d probably be turned off of the comics too…  The writers/artists/publishers are so obsessed with trying to prove to everyone that “comics can be for adults too” that they entirely overlooked and forgot about where the next generation of comics-readers are going to come from…

3)  Could we all please agree:  ENOUGH already with the endless “Zombie/Walking Dead” rip-offs?  I for one am SO, SO, SO, SO, SO SICK & TIRED of seeing stupid “zombie” crap everywhere!  Enough is enough!

AX3LF May 5, 2015  Student General Artist
As much as I love these characters and would not mind seeing them around, it would be nice for a change of scenery. No I don’t mean rip offs, or copy and paste characters, I mean like legit new characters. New perspectives on life or something like that. Like I’ve been reading Wayward, by Jim Zub, and I love it! It’s new, and very interesting style of story.
realitysquared May 5, 2015  Hobbyist General Artist
I used to collect a series of comics, both Marvel and DC,  a few decades ago in the ’80s through the ’90s and  I don’t collect a single comic any longer.

The reason I stopped is outlined right in this very article. At the time when I was most interested in the comic lines I followed in Marvel I wanted to follow the entire story which meant I was loathe to miss an issue. Marvel began to weave the story line trough other issues- it didn’t happen often at first and if I occasionally didn’t pick up that particular crossover issue I didn’t miss much and hen I did I was often disappointed that the character I wanted to follow was a minor player in the other line’s story.

As time went on, it became obvious to me that Marvel was deliberately concocting “events” in the 90’s where a story line would run through many, many other product lines. At that point I started getting frustrated that I needed to purchase books with styles of art and writing that I didn’t necessarily want to purchase and I saw the treatment of the character I wanted to follow and story as a whole decline due to chunks of the story being written and illustrated by different people.

I finally dropped all of the titles involved in this practice because I saw it for what it was; a marketing ploy to get devoted readers to spend more money and to boost sales of lagging lines. Once I left Marvel behind I found it impossible to return to them years later because the characters were stunningly different and it was difficult to get a handle on the events which I had missed so I never really tried.

Nihongineer May 9, 2015  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
It’s not just a matter of the stories and characters feeling inaccessible.  There’s also the problem with retcons and reboots to keep any potential buyers at bay.  Who wants to dump a few months of reading into unraveling the rats nest of a plot line that connects a particular character knowing that every few years that character’s “canon” is going to be wiped out by a new writer splitting the universe or the production house deciding to collapse all the different worlds back into one?

Here is my response to the article:

A lot of the business model that Marvel and DC moved over to is because of the collapse of the comic book distribution system. Let’s look at that business model again really quick. David Elliotis spot on – comic book companies started making spin-offs, so that instead of one Spider-Man comic on the shelves each week, there were ten, and ten different X-Men comics, an ten different Avengers etc. The business model was this – as the comic book distribution system started to collapse and sales went down, they had the option to 1) get new readers by expanding the numbers of distribution points, or 2) make more comics with the same characters, and make the existing customers simply buy more comics. DC and Marvel chose option 2. That’s a horrible option, but it was out of necessity. Why is it a bad model? Well, comics and newspapers and magazines are impulse buys that people will buy as they walk past, either walking past a newsstand or checking out of a grocery store. They money comes from the ad revenues. The more you sell, the more you can sell the add space for. So when you make X-Men and Uncanny X-Men, you cut the sales of X-Men in half, and thus cut the ad revenues. Its a downward spiral for anything that relies on high distribution like comics and newspapers. So as the circulation drops, the ad revenue goes down and the cover price goes up. And wham, all the more reason to make more X-Men titles to sell to those  fans who are already buying X-Men and will buy all the other X-Men titles as well.

This all happened when the newsstand circulation market collapsed, from what I’ve read online. And DC and Marvel chose option 2 because they had no choice. But comic books are a strange beast in that the companies that MAKE the comics don’t actually SELL the comics. Very strange, but true. I’ll explain. Comic book companies let other companies sell their product. Unlike Coke and Pepsi, comics are at the whim of the comic book shops and newsstands. And when the newsstand business collapsed, the comic book companies were out of options. DC and Marvel don’t have comic book shops of their own (they COULD, but that’s a different story) so they rely on the comic book shops, which are mostly small, privately owned shops. DC and Marvel aren’t out there trying to open new shops or get their product into new outlets. The don’t have agents or reps who drive around and try to convince stores to carry a rack of comics. Other companies have whole divisions devoted to expanding the market, or at least reps who take commissions for sales. Not comics. Even the distributors of comics, (Diamond) doesn’t do much to promote comics, new shops, or sales. I was shocked to see Diamond at the Middle East Comic Con in Dubai. They wanted to bring comics to the Middle East, which will result in a few more outlets. But I don’t see them trying to help comic book shops develop new readership, or help franchises open new comic shops or anything. The fate of the comic book industry is in the hands of about 2,000 small businesses. If these businesses are run by creative, business savvy entrepreneurs, they could draw in new readers, open new distribution points, and help revive the business. I haven’t seen many shops that are so aggressive however (a notable exception would be Game On! Comics in Vienna, which opened a comic book cart in a mall in Virginia. They should open up 10 more!).

So if comic book stores aren’t expanding readership, and the distributor is not promoting new locations, and comic book companies aren’t pushing to open new shops, what can be done? ComiXology and other digital formats are a good start. But nothing beats a printed book that you can hand to a friend. The other option would be for the comic book companies to take their comic books back. What I mean is that Marvel is actually Disney, and DC is Warner Brothers. Disney and WB both have stores, right?  Why not sell Marvel comics in the Disney store? The Disney stores already sell all sorts of Marvel stuff, but no comic books. Doesn’t that strike you as funny? You might say that the Disney stores don’t have enough shelf space. And that’s precisely right, they don’t have space for all the different variations of X-Men, Avengers, Spider-Man, and all the spin-offs. So if the Disney stores decided to sell comics, it would FORCE Marvel Entertainment/Disney to pair down their titles. And poof, you are back to the environment before the collapse of the newsstand market that the author was talking about – 1 character, 1 book, short arcs, no spin-offs. Good stories. If Marvel threw all their creative power at just a short selection of comics, you’d have continuity, great stories, good editing, and the creative teams would get high salaries due to the higher circulation and greater add revenue. And if you have a small selection of Marvel titles, you can then put this rack in other locations (all created by sales reps who work on commission). So now you have sales reps going around and getting businesses to put this small rack of select titles in gas stations, grocery stores, bowling alleys, Chucky Cheese – and pow, you now have 20,000 distribution points instead of 2,000. And the circulation goes up, and the ad revenues go up. And the cover price might then go down to $.99!

Comics depend on distribution. You need to sell in volume to discrete people, not in mass to the same readers. I’ve written primarily about DC and Marvel, but if I were the small presses, I’d band together, get 10-20 hot titles, and start a mirror company that promotes comic sales through sales reps. Sure, people want the big names, but again, newspapers, magazines and comics are impulse buys. If there’s a rack in front of you with nice covers and a low sticker price, chances are you can sell something. Location is everything.

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