Fight the Comic Aristocracy

A few years ago I worked on a graphic book with author Thom Hartmann, titled We the People, that focuses on the pervasive influence that mega-corporations have on American government. While drawing it, I began to see how certain similar “political” structures operated in comics.

What I will call aristocracypervades the comic industry, and hierarchies exist where a select few preside higher than, and dictate the fate of, the majority. Quite the opposite, a democratic structure would be available to everyone, allowing all participants an equal footing. While my earlier article discussed practical solutions for expansion and change in the comic industry, the first part of this piece will discuss how these aristocratic structures permeate the comic industry, as well as illuminating potential democratic movements in contrast.

Aristocracy: Economics

The most obvious aristocracy lies in the economic structure of the industry. Between 60 to 70% of the market share is held in dominion by two companies: Marvel and DC. Following this, several other publishers each vie to stake out as much of the industry as is leftover.

The difference between the two dominating companies and the smaller publishers should be fairly clear. The Big Two are corporations: Marvel Enterprises, Inc. is actually an integrated division of the toy company that used to be called Toy Biz. Meanwhile, DC is a tiny faction of the media giant AOL Time Warner.

The corporate nature of the Big Two shows in their products. They manufacture company-owned properties (i.e. characters) only for the purpose of turning a profit for the company stockholders. This is why Todd McFarlane in an oft-told story called them “plantations.” They are not publishers; they are companies, who employ workers to make money for the broader corporation. As Warren Ellis put it in a past column for Comic Book Resources, “it doesn’t matter who creates [the comic], it’ll come out next month anyway.” Usually the smaller businesses in the industry function in at least some capacityas real publishers, by distributing and marketing works owned by creators to the financial benefits of both author and publisher.

The bottom-line is one of the reasons that pamphlet style comics far outstrip squarebound collections and graphic novels in the industry at large — lengthy single book works do not generate consistent and repeated sales. Since they are pushing corporate properties, the major businesses want consumers to have a regular “fix” of whatever property they’re hooked on, with constant exposure of that property to the public. No doubt, this practice has antecedents in newspaper strips, and is very different from standard book publishing, where an author produces their books independently of the intents of the company, which then markets and distributes it.

In many ways, the formation of Image Comics in the early nineties symbolized a rebellion against the established hierarchy. While independent publishers had always existed, the breaking away of the Image creators proved that popular artists were a bigger draw than the properties they worked on. For instance, the staggering amount of copies sold of the first issues of Spawn and Youngblood and Rob Liefeld’s star-status elevation in the early nineties (to the point of jean advertisements) had nothing to do with the characters they were creating for their fledgling company, but with their status as popular creators. While the collectors market no doubt inflated these sales numbers, their popularity still revolved around the individuals making them — with that popularity then bleeding out to all within their creative sphere — no matter what characters they drew or wrote (or, arguably, the quality of those books).

Despite this revolutionary promise, many of the Image partners did little to break the mold, and many wound up merely imitating the manufacturing methods they left behind, only with themselves at the top. The difference was that they were now able to turn their own creations into licensable franchises. For example, Spawn, WildCATs, and The Savage Dragon allexpanded to multiple licensing venues such as cartoons and the ever-lucrative toy market. In the case of Spawn, which also begat a movie, McFarlane began the comic series doing most all the graphic and writing chores himself, though he has occupied only a co-writer status for over 60 issues while employing others to do the rest of the work.

Perhaps the Big Two learned their lesson from this experience as well, as many of the Image founders have in some way been wooed back to work on corporate properties, such as the Heroes Reborn revamps done by Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld for Marvel, Erik Larsen’s prodigious work-for-hire projects in addition to his own The Savage Dragon, and the recent Lee Batman and Superman runs which spiked recent sales for DC (which bought Lee’s Wildstorm Studios). Marvel, recognizing the importance of creators’ voices even went so far as to hire Joe Quesada, who had his own creator owned title Ash, as its presiding editor-in-chief.

Indeed, comics are not even the most lucrative market for the Big Two, as licensing makes up the majority of their revenues. This can be seen at any major comic convention with the growing percentage of floor space dedicated to things other than actual comic books. Indeed, without such major licensing, both companies would most likely have dropped their comic lines by the early 1970s. In fact, one could say that comics for these companies serve merely as cheap promotional tools used to develop and sustain their properties. Ellis reinforced this in another column by showing documentation from Marvel that essentially describes the role of comics publishing as providing a library and development program for the toy division. With regard to actual comic sales, he states also that “In 1999, …Marvel made as much money out of its internal ads [within comics] as it did out of newsstands, convenience stores, drug stores, supermarkets, mass merchandise and national bookstore chains” combined (emphasis in original).

Using comics in such a way highlights why so many start-up comic companies (Tekno, Malibu’s Ultraverse, CrossGen, etc.) have folded by imitating this model. They are not publishing comics as a means to connect writer to audience (and thus creating quality reading material), but with the primary hope that they can create marketable properties to sell off to other lucrative licensing deals such as toys, movies, etc. This is most evident in that these companies work to create characters, as opposed to develop or seek out stories. Most likely, because they do not command the same level of product familiarity, they struggle both to secure a solid base of readership and interest as well as demanding high advertising rates. In a market that often banks on nostalgia and familiarity, establishing new properties with hopes that they will consistently flourish without the pull of creators working on them is an extremely hard sell.

Granted, popular licensing emerges from book publishers’ works as well. However, for example, Harry Potter was first intended only for exposure as a book, and then spread to other forms as determined by the author — who owns at least some share of the rights and produces the original stories — not by a publisher dictating both.

Aristocracy: Creative Content

This leads to another aristocratic system: the domination of the market’s genres by superheroes. While some other themes have been emerging strongly in recent years, the American comic industry is still very clearly centered on the superhero genre — as is the public’s perception of it. And, even when genre changes, the same basic formula of adolescent power fantasies prevails.

Because of their positions in the industry, the largest companies do not seek a vast diversification of genre outside the established industry. They conservatively hold onto their seat of power without needing to expand in meaningful ways, perhaps in fear that it could disrupt their advantageous positions. Since the bottom line always rules for the Big Two, they will even saturate the market with low quality books just to maintain a higher percentage of industry share. Many of these books are taken at a loss to profit, in hopes that one might end up a big winner.

Making forays into untested waters is not a standard practice among these businesses because they rely on the use of established properties (such as superheroes) to reliably create revenue. As a result, the broader comics community suffers because the most powerful voices in the industry stymie the possibility of associating “comics” beyond their cultural stereotype — which is based largely around the properties of those major companies. And, it is of far greater risk for the smaller companies to venture out of the mold, because more of their revenue (and success as a company) is determined by the sales of every book, and, again, they cannot demand high prices for ad rates.

Aristocracy: Production

An aristocracy also extends into the methods by which comics are made. The “shop style” of comic manufacturing was designed with productivity in mind, breaking up the workload into manageable portions in an assembly-line division of labor, which is also hierarchically organized top-down, with a controlling editor at the helm. A comic editor is more of a “manager” with creative input throughout the entire process. The editor presides over the whole process, first with a writer and penciler who perform the craftwork of primary “creative” significance, after which inkers, letterers, and colorists clean and finish the work. Most often, the writer holds the second most primary role, as their script is the first level of creation, though the penciler might take liberties in their visual translation of the writer’s work (all of which might be changed by the editor). Authority runs top-down, with the overall aim to finish the product so that the paying public can consume it at a timely and regular frequency.

While these might seem good qualities for a business set up, the authoritarian editor model is in great contrast to that of authorship where an individual strives to express their own creative vision based on their own ideas. In fact, the editor is also a subordinate too, since legally the corporation is the author of the work. This factory-like set up came in the mid-1930s, with companies transitioning from reprinting collections of newspaper comic strips into producing new material expressly for comic books. It is somewhat ironic that Will Eisner, one of the paradigm examples of individual artistry, is also credited as one of the strongest forces in bringing the assembly-line to comics, which in its era was a widespread innovation for manufacturing of all types.

Democratization: Economy

On the economic front, the Internet provides the most democratic structure in contrast to the aristocracy of the print industry. By and large, everyone on the Internet has a fair shot at success. Granted, audiences still need to find authors’ sites in the vast digital sea of material, but there are no measures preventing this such as they exist in print, like 1) the necessity of a publisher and distributor (even if its one’s self), 2) printing costs, 3) a limited distribution system, 4) a limited network of available outlets (i.e. comic and book stores), 5) marketing costs, etc.

Innovative creative possibilities aside, this is the real power of the Internet: a level playing field for distribution and exposure, accessible to any person bold enough to post their work online for public consumption. Start-up costs for web-publication are miniscule in comparison to print, even including the cost of a computer. This is also the enticing promise of micropayments — it allows democratic distribution the capacity for a democratic system of financial reward. If it can fulfill this promise (and this is a big “if”), the Internet does not have to serve as a vast promotional tool for the licensing of physical properties (or advertising) when it can produce revenue by its own creative content.

However, this is not ground for giving up on the print industry. While it might not be to the same degree as the web, a democratization of the print genre is still possible, though significantly more difficult to implement. It requires a greater shift toward the establishment of real publishers as opposed to corporate plantations, where the company serves to unite an author to their audience as opposed to manufacturing corporate products. While publishers such as Top Shelf and Fantagraphics have been more prominent in the last few years, a complete restructuring of the print genre might not be able to happen in an industry structured the way that it currently is. Hope for the print industry can also come in the form of established book publishers making forays into the market, especially evident nowadays with the push in the graphic novel market. Again though, this sidesteps the “comic industry” proper, expanding into a separate market through different channels which are still controlled by “gatekeepers” of some sort.

Furthermore, prices of comics must become affordable on a mass scale. Over the last twenty years, costs have risen so much that it is hardly economical for a consumer to buy many comics. In contrast, manga in Japan are printed in black and white on lower quality paper with vastly higher page counts. The average monthly American comic costs somewhere around three dollars at 30 pages, while weekly manga compilations sell at roughly three American dollars for often over 200 pages! This same price gap runs true of textual paperback books in America opposed to graphic novels. By and large, graphic novels cost significantly more than the standard book of the same genre and page length. Meanwhile, the Japanese paperback collections that are published after the story’s initial run in weekly anthologies remains far more affordable at around six dollars for over 200 pages. Across the board, manga cost a miniscule amount in comparison to American comics, and they sell significantly higher numbers — in the millions rather than the thousands.

This price comparison could stem from treating the medium as an Art rather than a Language. With higher quality paper and coloring, emphasis gets placed on the images (and the print object) to be appreciated aesthetically, as opposed to stressing the communicative capacity of the medium as a language to convey the ideas of the author to the reader.

The issue of paper quality might also run deeper, to factors of accessibility versus durability. In Japan, after each week’s worth of reading, stacks of manga compilations will end up curbside ready for recycling, as opposed to American comics which are kept for preservation, no doubt sponsored by a collector’s market. Indeed, the perception of comics tied to collecting inherently stresses the economic value of the object, rather than the communicative value of the insides.

If prices of comics were lower, it would allow more people to become casual buyers, without the need to make a major investment. However, this relies on two other major factors: reading content and distribution.

To expand readership, comics must cater to tastes beyond the scant topics prevalently written about, and must reach people in places other than the inclusive sphere of comic shops. Keeping the product in limited locations promotes an elitist distribution that excludes those “outside the club” without incentive to enter it. Nor should they want to, especiallyif the content being written about does not cater to their tastes or interests. Not everybody does or should want to read superhero, science fiction, fantasy, or the other minimal genres dominating comics. People have diverse interests and tastes, all of which can be fair game for comics. New readers should not be expected to be brought in to the club of comics membership. The product must be brought to them, in places that they go, with content that will suit their interests. I won’t belabor this point here though, as I talk elsewhere about how democratization across these fields could occur.

It is telling that amongst the whole “manga craze” of the last few years, that the major companies have not done the sensible thing and mimic the manga business model, but instead have treated it as they would any other fad: by creating hollow imitations of it. So, rather than diversifying genre and expanding distribution, they have instead opted to create “American manga” by aping the stereotypic style and themes of Japanese comics. Of course, this should be expected, since the major companies’ assets are in corporately owned properties, which cannot necessarily expand to other genres, but can be given a “manga makeover.”

Democratizing comics economically means making the topics in them appeal to a wide range of people, making them available for purchase in easy and accessible ways and places, with affordable costs that place the focus on communicative content rather than investment or object durability. Such a status would sponsor the language of comics to reach its potential as a human communicative ability across a diverse populace, rather than pigeonholed to an entertainment genre driven by economic gain.

Democratization: Perception

Truly, accepting the notion of the “comic medium” as a visual language is an equally democratizing force with regard to many aspects of comics. To briefly rehash this definition, sequential images (as in the “comic medium”) are actually a visual language (VL), which co-mingles with textual language in the social objects of comics. “Comics” is not a medium, but refers to the socio-cultural artifacts and broader culture associated with this visual language, not to the structure of the “medium” itself.

The notion of visual language is foremost a democratizing force because Language is automatically assumed to emerge from an individual source. Though it has the potential to be tempered by several people (as in a true editing process), language is produced from the mind of an individual person, which is in stark contrast to the assembly-line methods of “creative teams.” Individual creators of this type have been evident throughout the history of comics, in what are now oppressively named “writer-artists.” Such a term treats authors as if they are somehow exceptions to the “normal” practice of the “shop style,” because they write both words and images. Indeed, creators who take on both roles should not be considered abnormal at all, as it is natural for humans to communicate in more than one “modality” at once.

Heightening the awareness of the medium as a language will elevate the status of the individual creator. Thus, it democratizes the potential for creativity amongst “speakers” of the language, and away from company executives and so-called “editors” who might not have any real productive fluency in VL at all. It comes as no surprise that so many independently published creators work autonomously, either in print or on the web, rather than as “creative teams.”

Most likely, hierarchic assembly-line creation has been accepted because of the cultural perception of the “comic medium” as an Art rather than as a Language. Culturally, Art empowers a select few with “skill” while others must suffer at being “unskilled” in their craft — with learning based largely on practice modified by some sort of innate “talent.” Language on the other hand is biologically imbued in everybody, only requiring the nourishment of being exposed to an external language to bring it out. Granted, the inherency of language to humans says nothing about craftsmanship — being a “good” or “bad” image or words-smith — which only has to do with how those abilities are used. However, the cultural conceptions we hold towards image-making begin with our considerations of their creation first. If a democratic perspective is gained with regard to creation, a democratic usage can arise from it.

In addition to the individualistic role that language plays, it also binds members of a community together through its shared use. By and large, users of language are expected to be both producers and receivers. In a print culture such as comics, promoting such a perspective would encourage everyone not only to be readers of works, but also be able to create their own works, which they could share. Creating mass fluency in this way would also lend towards a broader base of creativity, most likely leading to a larger quantity of higher quality works. (Hypothetically, if 10% of the population creates high quality work, then when population increases, the number of quality creators rises as well.)

With the power of web distribution, such mass usage is readily a possibility. Part of the usefulness of a publishing venue without the restrictions of companies is the lack of constraints on quality. Indeed, by and large, the quality of webcomics is much lower than in print, simply because there are no limits put on who can post their work online. While some may view this disparagingly by taking an aristocratic perspective of Art or publishing, viewing it in terms of VL acknowledges that quality of “artistry” should not matter so long as people are employing the language en masse.

However, though the Internet does not place restrictions on distribution and economics, web publishing still does not equate to the usage of the medium as a language. In a past column, John Barber stated that the Internet allows for comics to break free of their “ivory tower” and become “a true form of communication.” Here, Barber is commingling the web’s distributive power with the social factors of democratization. Though the web allows for the employment of the medium to enter a level playing field of distribution, the Internet does not determine how people use that language. That is, the Internet does not free visual language from “comic culture” itself. Truly, a socially prevalent use of VL would not restrict it to the inclusive comic industry.

Indeed, the most powerful democratizing force that visual language offers is in its potential against the notion of “comics” themselves. “Comics” can also be considered an aristocratic institution with regard to its relationship to visual language, because “comics” is a small culture, which (partially because of the economic hierarchy) dominates the usage, perception, and exposure of the language associated to it.

There is no a priori reason why VL should be associated only with the production of entertainment and the genres enclosed within a single pop-cultural identity of comics. If VL is truly to be treated as a language, then usage of it can occur in any place language can — which is just about in any print material. And, nothing restricts visual language to just narrative purposes, as it can be successfully used for non-fiction exposition as well (examples of my own can be found here and here).

In order for the medium — visual language — to become democratized, it must leave behind the constrictions of limited “comics” usage. To truly become a “form of communication,” visual language must be free for employment in ways outside the culture with which it is stereotyped.

Widespread usage of visual language would render the sports page with articles written in visual/textual language that actually show the game as its discussed, or textbooks that integrate image and word more than a distant figure vaguely referred to in the text. Real usage of VL as a language would have no boundaries of use, not just the status quo confined to the limited avenues of comics culture. As I discussed in my past article, in order to truly allow the medium to expand successfully, the social notion of comics must be allowed to dissolve into a broader usage, rather than trying to pull outside readership or genres into the already stereotyped “comics culture.”

Freeing visual language from the hegemony of “comics” cannot come simply from some technological revolution. The democratization of visual language is a battle for minds that must come from education and a widespread usage that breaks the stereotypes placed on VL by the notions that “comics” has perpetuated.

Similar to any meaningful political change, resistance against the aristocratic institutions of comics must come from bottom-up. We cannot expect real change to occur top-down from the large comic corporations to the benefit of the average reader/creator. Individuals can actively make the choice not to buy or support corporate owned products, urging them to produce diversified content catering to more markets. If the voice of the pocket-book is the only one these companies responds to, speak out with it loud and clear. Bookstores and libraries are already expanding their graphic novel collections, and people can lobby their local stores to carry more titles that cater to interests beyond the pigeonholed “comic” market.

Moreover, with the Internet, anyone can begin posting their work online, with both stereotypic and non-standard content. Visual language does not have to only be used online for writing short humor strips and creative fiction. Creative and talented individuals can join together to publish compilations of their works united by topic, both online and in print, networking and advertising across lines of common interest outside of the inclusive comics community. For instance, if someone works on a liberal political themed comic (which doesn’t have to be satire or humor, by the way), they can join the many others who write on this topic to publish collections of their works. Such a collection can occur in print, or people can share a portal website that runs all newly updated works while linking back to individuals’ homepages. They can link to each other’s websites and seek advertising on the myriad of politically oriented media, websites, or publications, which range from radio stations (both webradio and not) to Internet news sites to blogs and more. Strength can be found in numbers, and in the diversity itself — not in spite of it. Indeed, many comics collectives have already been growing to prominence through these very strategies.

Inherent in this though, is the importance to stress that any non-standard usage of the medium is not a novel exception to the rule, but is the expected way in which visual language should be put to use. This lends to the larger fight against the stereotypes perpetuating negative perceptions of the medium. People can publicly reinforce that visual language is not tied to any specific type of content by speaking out when people insinuate otherwise, by blogging, writing letters-to-the-editor in newspapers to oppose the coverage given to books, and generally working to break down the stereotypes that perpetuate the aristocracies relegating this language to minority status. However, as always, the best way to prove this is through action and not words.

Active change can come from a myriad of different sources, but it relies on people demanding that it happen, not just sitting and waiting for someone to do it for them. Promoting the power of the web and visual language is a choice for individual voices against creative teams, personal visions versus corporate properties, economic opportunity for anyone rather than a select few, and the expanded usage for the medium beyond limited genres and a constrained comics culture. The option is for democracy rather than elitism, and the choice is ours.

This is a slightly revised version of two articles that originally appeared at in October 2004.

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Neil Cohn has written extensively about the structure of the medium of comics in various articles and essays, as well as his book Early Writings on Visual Language. His graphic novel with Thom Hartmann, We the People: A Call to Take Back America, addresses the influence of corporations on American government, and his book Mediations collects his early artistic experimentation with sequential art.

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