The comics market is changing. That’s not news, it’s always changing and adapting. However what is perhaps news to some and is becoming more and more obvious to me, is that the Big2 publishers, Marvel and DC, are no longer the Final Destination for creators, probably writers more so than artists.
For years, breaking in (in my mind at least) meant doing some indy work, self publishing, doing enough work of some sort to get noticed so that someone further up the food chain said hey, let’s give this guy a one shot on Spider-Man Team Up, and see how he does on a Batman tie-in book. If it flies and sell well, then they give the writer or artist a bit more work until they develop into a named Talent. People start referring to the book as Johnny NewGuy’s Spider-Man or NewGuy’s Batman. At which point they’ve made it. Roll credits.
In the last, probably ten years or so, there’s been a shift. Talent, to one degree or another, has always done creator owned work alongside their work for hire gigs. Exclusive contracts used to be par for the course, now they’re rare. Working for one of the Big2 doesn’t guarantee X number of books per month anymore and therefore a steady income. Creators write for 3 or 4 or even 5 different publishers each month, to create a steady income which enables them to write comics full time.
A few years ago (before the Walking Dead was THE WALKING DEAD) and long before Robert Kirkman was known well outside the comics industry, he tried to inspire other comic creators to follow in his wake with a video, where his call to arms was mostly mocked or ignored. He tried to explain that the industry was changing, and that if you worked for the Big2 for the rest of your life, at the end of the day you’d be left with nothing. No creator rights to the characters, because it’s work for hire, so no pension of any kind and there’s no union for creators. No payouts if anyone adapts your character for another medium, which was also on the rise at the time.
He suggested that while you are in the spotlight and you do have an enthusiastic fan base and are a known named Talent, create something original that you will own 100%. Some in the industry listened, some said we’re already doing it, some just couldn’t take the risk of stepping away from a regular monthly salary to jump into the abyss and hope that the idea of a bungee cord became a reality before they hit the financial rock bottom. People have to pay the bills, put food on the table so there’s no blame being thrown around.
Another shift came, maybe five years ago, whereby the number of well known Talent, doing creator owned work alongside their Big2 was steadily increasing. For many reasons I don’t know, and a few that were discussed at length in public, several well known creators walked away from the Big2. Some went into other industries, some self published, some produced comics via Kickstarter and creator owned books with other publishers, some worked for smaller publishers and the scales started to tip.
If they don’t already, then in a couple of months Image comics will have 10% of the monthly comics market. A few years ago, that 10% comprised of all of the independent comic book companies. In ten years I wonder what the landscape will look like and right now I suspect the split will be much more even three ways between the Big2 and all of the other publishers combined.
Now, more and more of these known creators, the Talent, with loyal fans are producing some of the most innovative and interesting comics in the industry. There are no IP rights to exploit, no shareholders to pacify, no limits. Now while the monthly sales figures for most of these creator owned titles are nowhere near those of the Big2, that is changing too. Saga was just outside of the top 20 sales figures for August 2013, and The Walking Dead was at number 12. However, the money the creators are receiving is still very healthy, because their slice of the pie is much bigger and there are fewer mouths to feed.
Just to clarify, the Big2 are not evil corporations. They’re not destroying the comics industry. They’re businesses with well known icons and IP, and they want to make money and tell stories. They want to promote their brands to as many people as they can across as many mediums as they can, be it TV, film, animation, merchandise or comics. Working for them is not working for the Dark Side, but now it’s not the end of the story, it’s just another step on the road. Creators who do work for them should be totally aware that anything they create does not belong to them. So if they want something that is completely their own, there are many opportunities and different avenues out there. You can have your cake and eat it. In fact, now is exactly the right time to do that.
New York Comic Con is running as we speak, and while the Big2 are coming out with lots of announcements, I’ve found I’m actually more interested in the creator owned series and independent work from the well known Talent because I have no idea of what they might do and where they might go. The deck is definitely shifting beneath my feet.