Monday, February 14, 2011

Michael Netzer wants to Save The Comics!

Michael Netzer, as is his way, has again stirred up a massive hornets nest with this recent petition and FTC complaint against Marvel and DC and I can’t say that I don’t agree with it all, in fact, I do agree. I’ve even signed the petition. As I don’t work for either company, nor am I likely to, I have absolutely nothing to lose, unlike some, so I can understand the lack of big names on the petition as a whole – it’d be paramount to political suicide to sign such a document in this day and age as freedoms aren’t what they used to be. Gone is the era when a person could critic the way a comic book company was working - witness the Jack Kirby art petition. And therein lies the truth to what Michael is saying, times have changed and, sadly, not for the better.

Back in the mid 1980s when the Kirby petition circulated there were a lot of options for comic book artists, writers, editors and the like. Alongside Marvel and DC were other, smaller, companies, such as Pacific, Innovation, Eclipse, Dark Horse and a host of other, smaller publishers. Distribution was handled by at least two major companies, Diamond and Capitol City. Competition was healthy enough for a book to be cancelled at Marvel (Ghost Rider) for only selling 100,000 issues per month. Today 100,000 issues per month would be classed as a blockbuster beyond compare. Today the world has changed, and not entirely for the better.

Michael Netzer's complaint to the FTC
Small publishers come and go and more often than not they pay as little as possible. I know of one artist, famous for his unique art at DC on major titles, who was recently offered a story at a small publisher. The artist accepted and then they got down to page rate. For $75 per page the publisher expected full pencils, inks, letters and colours. And this was for an artist who has been working in the industry since the late 1970s. Artists will tell you, in private, what a publisher such as Dynamite will pay per page – it’s insulting to say the least. Yet another artist I know worked for Dynamite for a page rate that was one quarter what I was paying for commissions. When I asked why he kept working his response was all too familiar – “I need the money and I need the exposure. People need to know that I’m still there and capable of drawing an entire book.” I can understand that, I don’t condone it and I certainly don’t like it. However it does illustrate the restricted field that is comic books today. Competition is still there, but it is anything but healthy. And don’t think I’m picking on Dynamite here, there are several small press publishers who routinely ask artists and writers to work for nothing at all, such is the desire for exposure.

Over the years several companies have come and gone. Eclipse and Innovation folded years ago. Malibu was bought by Marvel who shelved the characters and refuses to publish them. Dark Horse is still hanging in there, albeit on a limited basis. Image was hailed as the saviour of the comic book world, but they too aren’t what they once were. In a move reminiscent of Marvel/Malibu, DC Comics bought the crown jewel of Image, Jim Lee’s Wildstorm, and in doing so hobbled the competition to the point where they’re not the force they once were. It’s ironic to think that Lee joined Image because he wanted creative freedom and was tired of the ‘plantation’ that Marvel had become, now heads up DC Comics, a plantation in it’s own right. Wildstorm is all but gone now. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Where did it all go wrong? Everyone has a theory, mine is a simple one – things began to go wrong when Capitol City folded and Diamond emerged as the sole distributor for comic books and comic book related items. People will argue that there are ways to get your books into stores without Diamond, and indeed there are, but those methods have limited success, if any success at all. Ordering is done via Diamond, shipping is done via Diamond. If you want your book to be seen, ordered, read and bought, then you need to go via Diamond or you might as well forget about it. Diamond, with their monopoly, dictate the rules. If they want they’ll simply shut a publisher down, as they did Claypool Comics a few years ago, by refusing to carry their books and citing poor sales. Who wins with Diamond? Marvel and DC – they have the biggest ads, they have the most space and they strangle smaller publishers into oblivion. Diamond is only too happy to assist with this by bringing in unrealistic cut off limits and refusing to carry smaller publishers and magazines. In almost any other field no one company could establish and maintain such a monopoly without being reported or investigated, but Diamond are allowed to do this. As to why they are, well your guess is as good as mine.

The other main issue with comic books today is that, well, they’re no longer comic books. Each time I pick a title up and browse I can almost see the panels being used as storyboards for the next movie featuring the characters. Designs, plots, dialogue and visuals are taken from the books and used wholesale, generally with the original creator not being compensated for their work. The concept of comic books in 2011 is one of a farm, they exist to feed ideas into movies to make money for the studios, for Marvel and DC and for the producers – in fact they make money for virtually everyone barring those who come up with the ideas in the first place. The comic book industry truly is a plantation now, and those who would argue otherwise are those who are profiting from the ideas, concepts and visuals of others.

So, is Michael Netzer right?  Is his current approach justified? In my eyes there's no question: of course he is right, and of course it is justified. It’s not a popular view, but then nobody ever said it would be, but I take my hat off to Michael for daring to fight the fight that many people want, but few are able, or brave enough, to do. Win or lose, and in the long run Michael might lose in that I doubt he’ll be hired by Marvel or DC again in a hurry, Michael has shown that strength comes from within, and being able to back your courage with conviction. I can understand someone from Marvel or DC, or a freelancer dependant upon work from the Big Two not wanting to sign that petition, but I can’t understand why everyone else wouldn’t.   Will the FTC actually do anything?  Possibly not, but then again if enough people get behind this then anything can happen, and that's a great thing indeed.  As we've seen in Egypt recently, people power can still have an effect...let's see what kind of an effect it can this time around.

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