Jun 6, 2013

Paul on Paul: Jenkins’ Letterbomb to Mainstream Comics

By Paul Krueger

Photo Credit: Vice
Last week, writer Paul Jenkins publicly broke up with the Big Two comics publishers, citing a creatively unhealthy work environment. In an open letter published on ComicBookResources.com, he dredges up the age-old conflict between art and the Benjamins. When times were bad, Jenkins argues, companies gave creators the leeway and trust they needed to make good art.  Now that things have turned around, maintenance has become the industry watchword rather than storytelling.  And for that reason, he’s decided to head for the greener pastures of Boom! Studios, and all the creative freedom that comes with that territory.

I’ve already touched on this issue a bit before.  From an ideological standpoint, I agree with the stand Jenkins takes: artists deserve respect.  Artists deserve respect, and if they’re going to put out a product that has their name on it, it should be a product with which they feel comfortable.  It’s not really that different from any of the non-creative products that businesses put out every day, a similarity that The Man has yet to understand.

So why won’t Paul Jenkins’ stand change anything?

The obvious answer, of course, is that the comics world is a small one and it has far more people trying to break into it than are there already.  That means that for every creator like Mr. Jenkins that decides to stand up to perceived injustices, there are literally hundreds of people that will say, “Yeah, whatever,” and then happily attempt to do his job for free.  It provides zero incentive for companies to learn their lesson about mistreating their creators.  As far as talent goes, it’s a buyer’s market and it pretty much always will be.

While the market theoretically cares about quality, in practice people will buy anything with Batman’s name on it, even if only to bitch about it on the internet after they’re done reading it (or perhaps before).  Especially since movies based on these properties are being released with increasing regularity, tie-in issues and incessant rebranding will keep sales up regardless of quality.  So that leaves us with problems on the supply side and problems on the consumer side.  And that conclusion leaves us with a question: is there any room for art in mainstream comics anymore?

Yes.

Well, sort of.

If Joss Whedon wanted to wade back into comics writing, I’ve no doubt editors would throw themselves out of his way while he did whatever he wanted to the principal cast of the Marvel universe.  Down the line after he’d left, they might try to retcon things back to normal, but for at least that shining moment his stories would exist: ones with, presumably, real stakes and consequences.  And the same could be said if the writer in question were Stephen King, or Neil Gaiman, or Russell T. Davies.

But for writers and artists whose own personal brand doesn’t automatically eclipse whatever they’re working on at the moment, the prognosis is bleak for the time being.  Paul Jenkins is a solid writer and a long-standing member of the comics community, but he’s no superstar.  The same can be said of most of his fellow writers and artists who turn out great work every month.  Unless they enact some kind of mass revolt, which we all know ain’t gonna happen, then their employers are never going to get the message.

And the crazy thing is, this has all happened before.

Back in the 90’s, comic speculation was huge and sales were through the roof.  When it led to unfair treatment of artists, a cadre of them left and formed Image Comics--now either the third or fourth-biggest comics company, depending on the year.  When that speculation bubble inevitably burst, sales plummeted.  Marvel even had to declare bankruptcy.  And it was in the past decade, as the industry picked itself up again, that creators had the freedom to tell daring stories that offered high stakes and social commentary.  And it was those stories, in part, that attracted the attention of Hollywood, which gave mainstream comics an infusion of money it desperately needed.

Which leads us straight back to now.  Comic book movies are the new form of speculation.  I love them, I buy my tickets to see them as close to opening day as possible, and I even get the DVDs.  But while they’ve made a lot of these characters palatable for society at large, we’ve paid for it in story.  Some of it’s in relatively little details, like Hawkeye losing his iconic costume to gain a look that matches his movie persona.  And others are larger, like how the Marvel universe bent over backwards to give us a Samuel L. Jackson version of Nick Fury when the character, who’s been around since the 60’s, looks like this.

(No, seriously.  Suddenly Nick Fury has a black son he never knew about who was raised under the name Marcus Johnson, and when said son discovers the truth, he decides to start calling himself Nick Fury and join SHIELD.  Oh, and then white Nick Fury retires, leaving this one as the only one around.  And they both have eyepatches.  It’s the ol’ Fit Tony gambit!)


I hope Paul Jenkins does well with Boom! Studios.  He’s already got established properties over there, and the man seems happy.  But while Boom! has been the answer for him, I look at the recent history of the companies he left behind, and I’ve begun to wonder if the right course of action for them is “bust.”

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