Monday, January 12, 2009

ARTICLE #4: The Creator Revolution

The pen may be mightier than the sword, but most stories and artwork accessible to today's consumers are presented by media conglomerates and their CEO‘s... And the person holding the pen makes all the difference in the world. Genuine individual voices have managed to break through the shroud now and again, but never before have creators and readers had the chance to mandate the overall content of an entire entertainment industry for themselves...

Until now.

I have a very bright vision of the future for the comic industry - and I don't even use hallucinogens! Now, if you had a chance to read my last article about the business end of comics, you may question my enthusiastic outlook. After all, the entire purpose of the piece was to highlight a creativity-crushing fiscally hostile monopoly, and its utter dead-end consolidation of the Direct Market for comics. Considering that I'm an underfinanced creator on the outside of that citadel, what could my justification for a cheery disposition possibly be?

...Moon colonizing? What are you talking about? Stop being goofy.

I’m happy because there is unprecedented opportunity latent in the current state of affairs. With any extraordinarily bad situation comes equal potential for positive change, as I keep telling Michael Jackson. And in the comic industry, creativity has been crushed to the absolute rock-bottom for so long, that natural balance is just straining for a chance to bring things rocketing back to the surface. And the beautiful part is, the established dead - weight monopoly can’t take advantage of the resurgence - but independent creators can!
Before you peg my enthusiasm as being based on empty semantics or something undiagnosed, allow me to explain further.
When I say that the established companies are incapable of catching the imminent resurgence in comic readership, I really mean that - they literally cannot take advantage of new readers. In fact, they’re actually the reason there ARE so many new, available readers.
As highlighted in past articles, a (once) very big industry has done a very simple thing. The established companies, working together in a monopolized market, pushed out divergent, creative, and new competing ideas. And, long term, that’s the same thing as pushing out all the emerging, new readers. So the Direct Market for comics is now abandoned by readers - there’s nothing there for them to buy! The only fans left that patronize comic shops - Both Clark AND Stanley - are trained and conditioned to buy only the same heroes and same titles they’ve seen in the past. The audience for the Direct Market has, over decades of monotony, become irreversibly insular.
Even if the big comic companies tried to sell something new and creative, their sole surviving consumers in the Direct Market wouldn’t bite.
“It's because Direct Market customers are collectively uninterested in anything that isn't published by Marvel or DC that other comics publishers are in flight from the Direct Market” (Dirk Deppey)
If you want proof that there are masses of readers interested in comics that the Direct Market can’t reach, just look to the explosion of manga. Manga caters to millions of readers in the United States; readers that haven‘t, and have no desire to, set foot in a comic shop. In fact, estimates of manga sales in the US place about 97% of those sales OUTSIDE comic shops - outside the direct market, and away from the merry little monopoly which controls it. That means, effectively, that 97 percent of readers who would be interested in buying some kind of graphic book are staying out of comic shops - the very stores that are supposed to specialize in graphic-based books! What the HELL?! That would be like if 97% of people shopping for groceries never went into grocery stores!
“This is an insane state of affairs. The Direct Market's collective refusal to embrace manga in particular puts the current situation in such sharp relief that I'm simply amazed by the blinders needed to ignore it.” (Dirk Deppey)

The manga phenomenon proves two things -

One: There are tons of potential readers out there, just waiting to see some fun new graphic stuff to buy. Even if they can only get it black and white, small, backwards, and printed in a foreign language - they’re desperate for ANYTHING. Well, with some standards…
Two: ‘Anything’ does not include the stuff in comic shops, and the Big 4 monopoly’s tired product line. Sorry, Savage Dragon... Ant-Woman... But it's time to start having a serious conversation about retirement with a qualified agent.

It’s a fact. (I wrote it, after all - no need to question!) The Direct Market looks doomed. Through their own selfish actions, they’ve marginalized themselves - and the entire medium of comics - into obscurity. As a result, there’s a cultural vacuum to fill... And as experienced readers know, there's nothing quite like picking up a good comic book.

Their loss is anyone’s gain. The Japanese were able to strike it huge with manga in the United States - what's stopping us, the actual United States-ians?

Now, some people may think that only manga could be successful in comic form. I think that’s just a silly idea. I condemn those people to the 'Mojoverse', where they may join their ilk. Manga was a new flavor - the ONLY new flavor. Readers out there are hungry - it’s the perfect time for creators with fresh ideas to step forward. And don’t forget - manga is no longer the hot new thing. It’s beginning to show it’s age, and the early symptoms of HPCP... And Inu-Yasha. I rest my case.

Another success example proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that readers out there are really desperate for something new, manga or not - the success of ‘Bone’. The simple cartoonish adventures, initially rejected (of course) by the Big 4 monopoly system, went on to find a readership in the millions! Have you ever read ‘Bone‘!? Keeping in mind it’s endless awards and international medals and multi-million readership? It’s like watching a drag race, but the quadriplegic in the wheelchair wins! The cars are broken, folks! It’s time to get in the running! (Not that Bone isn’t good - but, I mean, geez - if Bone can do it!? Let’s go!)
There is serious potential out there for young creators willing to put forth the talent and perseverance. Just imagine, if someone could ignite the same level of interest as the Bone series - but instead of using their success as an opportunity to sell out and join the Diamond monopoly, they forged ahead independently, blazing the trail for the next generation of creators.

Just imagine what it would be like if the comic industry returned - monopoly free, and controlled only by the appetites of readers and the talent of creators! Change is in the air. To accomplish definitive change, however, a clear and vivid vision to strive towards is necessary. Although our reach may be confined by limitations within the real world, let it not be confined first by a paucity or timidity of imagination. I ask for some tolerance then, while I share my ideal for what could be…

Imagine if independent publishers and creators began to flourish in comics, outside of the monopoly. No licensing-oriented editors nuking original submissions, no impenetrable distribution system shunning smaller publishers, no business interests shielding the marketplace from ideas beyond their own stagnant offerings. What if the middlemen weren’t around to dictate the public’s taste?
Imagine if readers were the ones deciding whether a book is worth buying or not. Imagine, for a moment, what kinds of comics would fill the shelves if nobody were forcing the creators into a dysfunctional mold. What if artistic quality, originality, story, and personal enterprise were the only deciding factors in the success of a series? What kind of books would we see then? A market where the content is decided solely by readers, and creators - the storytellers, and their audience. A market where anyone can make a contribution.
Now, imagine if this revitalized comic market regained it’s position as a component of mainstream culture. Valid, individual creators, standing side by side in the same spotlight as Time Warner, Universal, Disney... Real people - with a voice that no board room could censor, because these would be creators who are not owned.
Originating with the birth of industrial America, comics became the voice for those who had no voice - the haven of expression for the unwanted, the first popular counter-culture media of the country. A frantic nation silenced those voices with the oppressive Comics Code, and the medium has never since fully recovered... Stan Lee, when moving forward under the code with Marvel, stated 'We're not trying to change the world.' Pity - because for a long time, the Diamond monopoly has ensured that nobody else will, either.
Today, comic books have the potential to become the ONLY modern entertainment industry free of control from corporate business interests, the only industry where the artists and writers call the shots. Comics can be created by anyone, read by anyone, and say anything. Imagine the relevence that comics could have in our society! What if - just what if - we could build a new, free market for comics, where the only price of admission is a pencil and some imagination?

If this sounds crazy to you, read some history books - crazier things have happened. Why not this? Why not try? And while we’re in Unicornia, here’s some more things to add to the shopping cart;

* The ability to teleport at will.
* Real Unmeltable ice-cream. (Dippin' Dots do not count)
* A health care system where the bottom line is caring for people's health.
* Blue dogs.

Now, realizing such an ambitious goal will be no picnic. It won't be easy, and it won't happen overnight. There will be hurdles, points of failure, opportunities for quitting... But if we remain steadfast, there are some elements to this equation that stand in our favor. Here are the 3 main reasons that the creator revolution can and will happen for comics:

Reason for success #1: Entry cost. In comic books, the overhead cost for creating a finished product is lower than in any other form of entertainment, aside from watching kids cry at the zoo. Think about it - how much does it cost to produce a quality film? The equipment alone is steep - lighting rigs, cameras, actors, sets, costuming, just to scratch the surface. In music there is recording equipment, musical instruments, rented studio time… In comic books, you just need some basic art supplies, a decent computer, and there. You’ve got everything you need. Anyone with a few bucks, a computer, and the gusto is ready to start creating. In fact, for those on a truly tight budget, a copy machine and a stapler could remove even the need for a computer workstation.

Reason for success #2: Industry competition. ...There isn't any. Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image, the Diamond Big Boys have no hold on the vast majority of potential readers, as mentioned above. Just think if you decided to produce a creator owned action movie - you would be directly competing with Hollywood. You wouldn't have their distribution connections, their access to resources and acting talent, or their business hookups. Even if you finished your action movie and somehow released it, guess what? About 3 major studios are releasing big-budget action films the same month, with millions in marketing dollars behind them. There is no reason for the public to take an interest in your unheard of film over the other, better marketed, more professionally produced options.
On the other hand... With comics, who are you trying to surpass? What is the standard of quality to compete with, the other title vying for modern readers? She-Hulk! Do you even know anyone who spends money on She-Hulk? How many normal kids in high school right now would ignore a new comic idea because they just can’t wait for the latest She-Hulk to hit shelves? You’re starting to get the picture here?

Reason for success #3: Advancing technology. Technology is on our side. What are the normal costs associated with publishing books or comics? Well, printing the actual books off, and secondly finding some way to market or promote those books to readers. Ten years ago, you’d have a tough time with all of this, unless you had deep pockets. Today? You’re pretty much set! Rather than be forced into printing thousands of copies of your book on a slim hope, at high cost, you can go to any Print-On-Demand service online, submit your files, and buy however many books you can afford - even just one! At a consistent and even cost per book, no matter how few you order. There’s a lot of these services - Lulu, ComiXpress, and Ka-Blam just to name a few.
And as for promoting your book at low cost - well, where exactly are you reading this article? How much do you think it cost me to post this up? How much does it cost to set up some art accounts to promote your work, join a few forums, a few online comic communities? It’s the Digital Age, you don’t have to cough up cash for expensive magazine ads or costly retail placement. All it takes now is effort and a little thought. The tools we have now would make previous generations livid with envy. With all this emerging power at our disposal, how could we not succeed!?

In fact, to be perfectly frank, the creator revolution is already well underway. It just hasn’t been formally recognized yet! The insanely rapid proliferation and universal acceptance of web-comics has already far exceeded the Big-4 comic dinosaurs in terms of audience and cultural relevance. And among the web-comics, while many are primitive and cursory attempts, there are fantastic, hilarious, colorful, stunning examples of fun and innovative creativity! And, tellingly, virtually nothing that faithfully mimics the ‘mainstream’ superhero genre… Yet readers are surging online in ever-greater numbers to devour this new wave of graphic literature.
Art accounts are thriving with amazingly talented artists and creators, many of whom have their own web-comics, or even more ambitious ventures.
Young creators are finding their own online, and readers are likewise discovering this haven of uncontrolled art and fun. The only thin barrier standing between the growing community of creators and their own successful entertainment industry is public awareness and profitable distribution. Once those hurdles are surpassed, a gold-rush renaissance of art will be at hand! Attempting this revolution will be uphill and unguaranteed - but why live life without striving for something bold and vivid?

Oh, sex and drugs, well... You know, I meant besides that. Please, there could be kids reading this.

A Creator Revolution is happening right now. I think it's time to take it public - and start turning the dreams of today's independent artists into careers. I see better work online than in comic shops and book stores; It's time to make a market where we can show the world what we can do - and maybe even get paid to do it. It's time to get organized, come together, and start making some plans. Although I've started my own small publishing company with 'Vivid Publishing,' the creator revolution is something much, much bigger than myself, and will have to include the efforts of greater minds than my own.

In my next article, I'll draft a proposal on how to go about building this new market of comic creators. I'll share some brainstorms on how to effectively bring together disparate independent artists under one beneficial movement, and throw out concepts for building a new kind of comic book market - one that works... And one that we are a part of.