Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Brief History of American Comics

Jim Shooter, former Marvel editor (and apparently an arch-villain to many in the comic-book field... I dunno--never heard about the controversy before; I was always more of a newspaper strip guy than a comic-book insider) has an amazing blog in which he gives his opinions on various things related to comics, but, more interestingly, gives the inside scoop on the daily drama and goings-on at Marvel in the ’70s and ’80s. (There is a Mad Men-type show in there somewhere, I'm telling you.)

But he just posted an entry called "The $10 million Comic Book" that includes, in my opinion, one of the best encapsulations of the history of American Comic Books. So here, in five paragraphs, is why American Comic Books are where they are today:

The American comic book industry started out as a way to reprint syndicated strips and milk extra cash out of existing material. That worked, but comic book publishers quickly used up all the strips available. To keep the ball rolling, publishers commissioned new material, but they didn't want to pay more than they did for reprint rights, so new material was made for low pay under confiscatory rights conditions. No artist or writer wanted to be a comic book creator -- everyone wanted a syndicated strip, where the big money was. Therefore, comic books wound up with second-rate creators who couldn't make it in the big leagues, hacks, the rare significant talent who passed through on his or her way to greater things (Jules Feiffer comes to mind) and the occasional solid craftsman or even genius who arrived in the comic book biz for whatever reason and stuck with it.

Back in the early, big circulation days, publishers got lucky a few times with great properties created despite the lousy compensation and working conditions, creations that struck a chord -- Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel and others. Mostly super heroes. Comic books had a great advantage with super heroes back when film special effects were limited, and low-res, limited budget TV was best suited to talking heads.

Later, a few more successes came along, also created under adverse conditions for the talent. Spider-Man, the Hulk, Wolverine...you know.

The comic book industry, by and large, from its beginnings has had a schlock mentality, a quick buck mentality. Most publishers thought comic books were a fad that would run its course (Martin Goodman comes to mind). Many were surprised to find themselves still in business years later.

The quickest, easiest way to make a buck in this business since the early days has pretty much always been to stick with the heaviest hitters of the past. But decades of schlock thinking at the top, decades of unguided, misguided or just plain bad creative work has desecrated and distorted some of those characters almost to the point that they are unrecognizable (the current Wonder Woman comes to mind. And did someone say the new Superboy is a robot? What?). Their equity has eroded.
It's amazing how the initial conditions affected things for decades to come, and explains some weird quirks of the industry—such as the insanely low pay and completely strange ownership/royalty setup (i.e., unlike traditional publishing, most comics creators don't get royalties if their works get reprinted; they get "bonuses" that are not in any way equal to traditional publishing royalties), which developed because the comic book publishers were used to getting content basically for free; also, the weird thing Stan Lee apparently had about caring far more about having a syndicated newspaper feature than creating all those comic books (because comic books were the shlock ghetto for creators, and people who "made it" were in the newspapers).
As I believe I’ve said earlier in this blog, Stan had a special reverence for syndicated strips. And “real” magazines. Not that he didn’t love the comic books, it’s just that when he was a kid, the strips were huge and prestigious while the comic book business was where one scratched out a living until his or her strip got picked up by a syndicate. Anyone who aspired to becoming a syndicated strip creator changed his or her name for work in lowly comic books, hence, Stanley Leiber became Stan Lee. Same logic applied if one hoped to publish a “real” magazine or write the Great American Novel. Never mind that comic books had made Stan a cultural icon, and he had brought comics to unprecedented status in the New Cultural Order. He never lost his veneration of syndicated strips. 

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