Tuesday, January 01, 2008

YOU on Old Age! An Insider's View On Ageism

I had always intended on starting 2008 exactly where I left 2007, with further discussions on the topic of ageism in comic books. My good pal Steven Bove beat me to the punch though and sent through this essay with the view of it being posted here. Steven might not be a household name in the comic book industry, but he does have the credentials to be heard on almost any topic related to comic books, he's been there and he's done it. And to add to this, if anyone else out there has something they want to get off their chest about this topic that might not fit into the comments section then drop me a line and I'll see what I can do. Without further commentary from me I'll hand this post over to Steven Bove!

YOU on Old Age!
By Steven Bove

I’m old. I didn’t mean to be but there you have it. I don’t particularly feel old and I haven’t started listing to Barbara Streisand or playing slots but there’s some gray in my hair and I’m none too fond of the direction much of the entertainment industry has taken in the last 20 years.

I left comics back in the 90s because I saw the inevitable need to learn computer graphics and the comic company I worked for was too slow to respond. That was the primary reason. But even before I left I could see the books mutating into something very unattractive and the stories I had heard in the last few years of cutbacks and layoffs never ceased (even in the profitable years). I also had a boss that once a week made sure that I knew I was expendable.

There’s been talk of a blacklist in the industry and I can say I’ve never seen or heard of one. I have seen lists generated by editors proclaiming that certain artists were always late with their work and that any editor who sought their work should know it. Lateness, then and now, is always the topic of choice in the industry.

Ageism strikes every major facet of the entertainment world and because of our insatiable need to have a camera on every incident that occurs we’re often drawn to celebrities that are young, uneducated and inexperienced. They too possess that indestructible confidence that only youth can exhibit. When their fifteen minutes are up there will be a new batch of young things ready to embarrass themselves. Much of the world relishes this kind of gossip and obsessive tendency for young glamorous programming that rules every form of mass communication. I wonder when someone will put a camera in front of Angel Tompkins or Jean Hale. You don’t remember them? That’s okay; they’re over 50 so no one cares.

There are exceptions to the rule, in music Led Zeppelin just proved it. Their December 10th reunion concert in London was a success despite their ages. The downside is that they’re simply reliving former glories. The plus side is they can certainly make a boatload of money on it and that’s only because they own the rights to the recorded material. Ownership is everything. If you look at a recent copy of Rolling Stone (December, 13 2007) the top 10 albums are by a fairly diverse group of artists:
1) Alicia Keys
2) Josh Groban
3) Celine Dion
4) Now 26
5) Garth Brooks
6) Eagles
7) Led Zeppelin
8) Jay-Z
9) Carrie Underwood
10) Chris Brown
It’s still about the music even though it may favor the young. But acts like Jessica Simpson, Justin Timberlake and Fergie are temporary figures when compared to Led Zeppelin, U2 or Janis Joplin.

In fashion it’s always about the next young anorexic dying to walk the runway. Models will literally stave and mutilate themselves to stay young and beautiful. But unlike many other industries of entertainment the fashion industry is very honest about its preferences and let’s any aspiring model know it! And magazines flaunt it and people keep buying it. You don’t hear much complaining in that industry because all parties concerned know when their time is up.

But we really what to focus on comics so let’s have a very abbreviated look at where we’re at.

If there’s still a person in the comics’ industry out there who hasn’t read Gerard Jones’ ‘Men of Tomorrow’, then shame on you. This one book will explain much of what you are now feeling. What many writers and artists must suffer through is just part of a cycle that began long before the idea of monthly comics took shape in America. It’s a cycle much like a cancer that, even in the new millennium, we have failed to exercise.

And unfortunately we writers and artists are to blame.

Michael Netzer has expressed an idea of party unity that has its appeal but would never work in the current model. We have to remember that we are not talking about characters but licensed property. The 80s made sure of this difference the day Robin was killed off by fandom’s unanimous vote! Licensed property can never truly belong to anyone who writes or draws it for want of a paycheck. It doesn’t matter how brilliant they are as creators, the reality is the property belongs to the corporation and the creative team are simply guns-for-hire. No one is immune to this practice. It all comes down to the deal YOU make with the publisher. If we, as a body of creators, were to unite there would always be some young inexperienced schmuck that would cross the party lines to sell their soul to the corporation to draw Batman or Spider-Man. That’s the reality of it and it’s ugly.

Forget the fan base because their needs are to acquire the product produced and more often than not put it into a plastic bag and then into a box. Or even worse, put it into a hard plastic shell never be read! I’ll also take this one step further, the day the fan base started to create their own comics they began to move away from the corporate licensed property. And they proved to be the smart ones. By creating their own concepts and characters the fan base realized that they too could have something that could one day be absorbed by a corporation and make them celebrities on the comic convention circuit. Of course being a comics’ celebrity is like being the top fish in an aquarium but it’s far better than being a fan. Not all of the work is good (most of the time it’s dreadful and there are boxes of it for sale, usually 25¢ a book, at every convention) but it does show the true entrepreneurial spirit and you have to admire that.

The future for comics’ creators is in the creation of new characters. Owned exclusively by and managed by the creators. That was partially what Image Comics was about and before them, First Comics and Pacific Comics and way before that Star*Reach. It’s important to know the history of this medium and the results are being felt now with Comicmix.com, and only time will tell how Zuda.com will evolve. In the case of Comicmix.com it was started by some of the young upstarts of the eighties who later left the industry and have now returned to it with an emphasis on using new forms of communication to reach a new audience of potential readers. It’s a strong beginning by many familiar names and just might hold a shred of hope for the future of comics.

It isn’t a matter of ageism so much as it’s a matter of acceptance (not enough material to go around) of the limitations (low sales and poor distribution) of the current form and moving beyond it.

When the 2nd generation of comics creators emerged in the late 60s they held their heroes from the 40s and 50s in high regard. So any new talent walking in had to meet and exceed those standards. And exceed they did with more personalized storytelling and explosive graphics. Comics were also picking up on trends (as they always had) and trying to utilize everything from art, literature and movies to create different forms of storytelling. Jim Steranko would affect the later James Bond series of films as The Rocket Man serials would affect Dave Stevens. Andy Warhol borrowed and cut up comic art and created pieces that sold for thousands! Everyone borrowed from everyone. By the 70s newer talent emerged on the scene bringing their own unique personalities into the industry. For example Jim Starlin brought madness and Howard Chaykin brought old Hollywood style. And then the 80s happened. As comics segregated themselves into comic shops it was a free-for-all as styles converged and exploded. Suddenly there was a range of writing and artist expression that hadn’t really been experienced in comics before. The ideas of a ‘house-style’ were thrown out for something close to originality. The Brits came in and became the celebrities of the medium (much to the annoyance of many American artists).

Comics changed even as the numbers of books decreased going to print and being sold. Much of this period almost went by unseen (by a mass audience) and that was tragic. Anyone remember ‘The American’ from Dark Horse? The 90s became the era of special effects and elaborate packaging with very little concern for content. The bubble burst in the late 90s and the comics’ recession began. Older and more expensive talent was let go in favor of some kid-editor’s best friend or worse some editor’s girlfriend (with NO comics’ experience) was suddenly in the drivers seat! The 21st century gave birth to super-heroes as movie stars and the elaborate repackaging of classic books from both DC and Marvel appeared in bookstores. Many of the creators of these classics watched from the outside and saw not one dime from it all. There are stories many could tell and I still can’t figure out why more creators haven’t stepped forward to express them. Some of these stories would make a great novel. Of course I do know why some of these stories have not seen print. It’s that eternal hope that the phone will ring one day. Many great creators have died waiting for the phone to ring.

I’ve heard it said from several creators that the editors at the companies often made promises to take care of their talent. The frustration of these promises being broken often speaks volumes. Spend a year or two in corporate America and that concept becomes a joke. No corporation will ever look out for talent. Talent is expendable and easily replaced. It doesn’t matter if the newer talent is any good because they too are temporary. Talent must take care of itself and that begins by assuming responsibility for ones work and taking ownership.

Let me remind you that these are all universal concepts in the world of entertainment, out with the old and in with the new. Followed by that nostalgic need to bring back the old. But when it comes to talent, that’s very rare in comics. The answer to why was made earlier on; its licensed property and anyone can be hired to do it. The objective will always be to stay relevant and appear in touch with youth culture. It’s a painful truth but a 13 year old knows more about being 13 than a 50 year old does. And don’t believe that crap about ‘kids are all the same’ they’re not. This new generation is full of information that previous generations never had the opportunity or the means to assimilate (Internet, cell phone, etc.). They are a new breed of consumer and targeting them means staying current…if you want to survive. Someone recently reminded me of an old marketing adage that I’ve always known, “The product isn’t being aimed at you”. That’s code for “you’re old.”

I have no regrets about doing my own strips and having them fail. They’re mine and that’s something I can pass on to my child to do with as they wish. My current strip Rock Opera addresses my own advancing age and in many ways shows how ageless the idea of comics really is. That’s another part of the problem; many people view comics as an antiqued art form.

I should mention the deadly game of samples. Here’s how EVERY artist should approach it and I wrote about it in my 2005 book, ‘The Comic Cartoonist’s Workbook’. Never do samples unless there is some form of monetary exchange. If a company calls to inquire about your availability on a project your portfolio should be varied and professional enough to get you the job. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a web presence. Talk with Daniel Best to learn more about that! Sure a job will come along where you might decide to do the odd sample for free but that depends on the relationship you have with the company. For writers I would shy away from it altogether. A good story is worth it’s weight in gold and even a rejected idea will usually spark something and before you know it you’re wondering why a recently published story reads a bit familiar.

Much of what I‘ve written is really old news and the truth of it all is that a change in how comics are sold and distributed must take place first before the needs of the talent can be addressed. Beyond everything else we have to bring comics OUT of their segregated world and into the public domain so real people can experience them. The idea of bringing people IN simply isn’t working. If that means a new form then that’s what must be embraced. We’re talking about advertising and marketing concerns and that is the working basis of every corporation.

It’s just business and creators have to accept it as gospel. Of course it doesn’t have to remain this way…
Steven Bove

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