Wednesday, September 7, 2005

Mainstream drying up


There's an interesting interview here with Devin Grayson about the mainstream comics industry. It's a solid run-down of what toiling in the trenches is like. In other words, horrifying. Control over your story is, of course, impossible. Basic rights given to writers in all other fields are routinely denied comics writers (even the right to pull your name from a script you didn't write is taken away from you).

But what's really interesting about the piece, to me, is the way it calls up memories of debates from the late 80s. The way I recall it, there used to be an argument that the mainstream comics companies — Marvel and DC — could be 'reformed', with respect to their publishing practices, and become viable venues for a wide range of artistically-ambitious material. The more extreme versions of this theory held that the super-hero genre would evolve to accomodate this sort of work, but most sane thinkers felt that the companies could or would move away from a strict super-hero focus, branch out into other genres, and perhaps even begin publishing 'literary' fiction on the order of Maus or Love & Rockets. All of this, of course, could only happen when creators in the mainstream won greater rights from the big publishers. A Creator's Bill of Rights was drafted. Work-for-hire was denounced.

As I recall, and I may only be projecting my perceptions of the time on to the comics field in general, 1986 and the years after were key. Maus showed the sophistication comics were capable of, not only in technique, but in intellectual approach. Watchmen showed that even a superhero comic was capable of great structural complexity and formal daring. But: did it represent a new way forward, or the far limit of what could be done? Alan Moore left DC not long afterwards, faced with the same creative restriction Grayson lists. Other creators, like Frank Miller, went as well.

But a new wave of writers, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison prominent among them, created a range of titles which ultimately went on to be grouped in its own imprint, Vertigo, distantly related to the mainstream DC universe yet tengential to it; it was where the superhero books went to grow up. People tend to forget now that many of the original Vertigo books were based on old DC concepts — Doom Patrol, Kid Eternity, Shade the Changing Man, even Sandman started out as a reworking of the DC character and featured other DC heroes and villains in its first issues. Some of these creators became highly acclaimed, leading to them winning new rights from DC. The fights for creators' rights that Moore and Miller could resolve only be leaving what they felt to be a corrupt system looked like it might be winnable after all.

Now, what happened to change all this, in my view, was the rise of star artists at Marvel which in turn led to the phenomenon of the early Image Comics. Art was all. Stories became simplistic. The ideal of more complex stories told within the mainstream began to dwindle, as Vertigo moved further away from what was considered 'mainstream', and got lost in the collectors' frenzy. Speculation led to an emphasis on the comic as consumer item: on the simple, the easily graspable. This book was worth money because of x artist working on y character.

The mainstream, in other words, gave up the ghost. Rather than reform itself, the mainstream industry took the easy way out — as it usually does. Creators' rights in the mainstream industry faded as a topic for general debate, and never quite returned. There have been some flash-point incidents in the years since, but no movement, no general call for the formation of a union. There have been fine comics coming out of the mainstream — 1994's Marvels being a case in point — but none have had the artistic cachet or daring of Watchmen or even Sandman. Vertigo has had its horizons narrowed; it published sf, crime fiction, fantasy, decent genre stuff but nothing earthbreaking even in these fields. Alternative comics ended up carrying the banner for what comics could be, and so the graphic novels making it into libraries and the New York Times book reviews are all published by Fantagraphics, Drawn & Quarterly, and the usual suspects. In retrospect it all seems inevitable.

But I sometimes wonder ...

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