The Rise and Fall and Rise of Creator-Owned Comic Books

*The following is a piece I wrote for a non-comic reader audience of a university publication.*

How great was the Watchmen film, right? The combination of noir-ish investigation, sexy visuals, and a naked, omnipotent blue guy really made for something special. It’s definitely in my top ten somewhere. Above Tron: Legacy (I’ll fight you), belowThe Big Lebowski. Probably.

Now, as many of you will be aware, Watchmen was adapted from Alan Moore’s seminal twelve-issue comic book series of the same name, whose collected edition was the only graphic novel to appear on TIME’s 2005 list of the greatest 100 novels of all time. As a big fan of comics in general, it’s pretty cool to see a comic brought to the same level as great works of literature like Infinite Jest and Catch-22.

Alan Moore proposed the idea of Watchmen to DC in 1985, and it was promptly snapped up by the industry giant. However, Moore wasn’t interested in working for-hire, which was generally what creators would do after having their ideas picked up by a big publisher. Working for-hire meant that DC would own everything that Moore produced, so, in wanting to retain the rights to his idea, he and artist Dave Gibbons negotiated a very special kind of contract, which worked as follows: for as long asWatchmen was in print, DC would own the rights to the story and characters, and Moore and Gibbons would receive eight percent of the series’ earnings. WhenWatchmen went out of print, as most comics eventually do, ownership would revert to Moore and Gibbons, allowing them to reuse the characters or continue the story independently.

It sounds like a great deal, but, unfortunately for Moore, the book never went out of print. So, in 1989, upon realising that the Watchmen train wasn’t ever going to stop, and that DC had free reign to exploit it for piles of cashola however and whenever they wanted (by, like, I don’t know, making a movie or something), he severed his ties with the company. Moore would later tell The New York Times that DC had “managed to successfully swindle me.”

In 2009, the Watchmen film was released. In 2012, Before Watchmen, a collection of seven mini-series’ precluding the events of the original series, began. Moore heavily opposed both projects, and had no creative input on either, even though he had a contractual right to contribute.

Now, one could really take either side here. Moore signed a pretty bad contract, and DC acted like a spoiled five-year-old who didn’t want to give up its favourite toy. But that’s not the point, really. The point is that the Moore/DC fiasco showed potential creators how careful they needed to be when dealing with big publishers.

In the late-eighties and early-nineties, Marvel and DC were pretty much the Galactic Empire of the comic book industry. For Marvel, the X-Men rose to huge critical and commercial success after the introduction of a bunch of spin-off “X-books” including New Mutants, X-Factor, and Wolverine, all of which participated in big crossover stories on a regular basis. DC were also rolling in it thanks to the success of Crisis on Infinite Earths (a continuity-simplifying godsend (The Flash dies, too)), Batman: Year One, and The Dark Knight Returns.

Three of the most popular figures during this period were Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld, and Todd McFarlane, all of which were Marvel properties – Lee on X-Men, Liefeld onNew Mutants and X-Force and McFarlane on Spider-Man. Spurred on by issues concerning comic book rights ownership – including Moore/DC – together, in 1992, along with five other Marvel artists, they founded Image Comics, a company dedicated to publishing creator-owned books.

Given that the Image artists were all fairly high-profile, Marvel’s stock price dipped, and the curious fans followed. Among the company’s first productions were Jim Lee’s WildC.A.T.s., Marc Silvestri’s Witchblade, and perhaps the most recognisable, Todd Macfarlane’s Spawn.

For a time, it was good. Spawn and WildC.A.T.s. managed to regularly challenge Marvel and DC in the sales charts, and by the beginning of 1993, Image held ten percent of the industry market share, which, for a while, put them ahead of DC. Not wishing to be undone, DC developed a new imprint called Vertigo, which would publish, among other things, creator-owned titles. If only Alan Moore had savedWatchmen for that.

But it wasn’t to be. Marvel’s behemoth X-Men universe continued to dominate, and DC managed to return to prominence with The Death of Superman and Batman’sKnightSaga, and finally, in the mid-nineties, the comic book industry as a whole took a dive (Marvel went bankrupt, but would soon recover), and clashes between the Image partners led to a partial break-up of the company.

And so, Marvel and DC remained on top. Image got back to its feet but could no longer contend with the big two, and was instead forced to duke it out with other smaller publishers such as Dark Horse (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hellboy) and IDW (30 Days of Night, Doctor Who), in order to hang on to its meagre market share.

Then, in 2003, Robert Kirkman happened. Kirkman was the first artist to be brought into the Image Comics cabal as a partner since the company’s founding, and is the creator of the Image-published Invincible and – you may recognise this one – The Walking Dead. Although sales of his comics don’t rival The Amazing Spider-Man orGreen Lantern, the recent resurgence of Image can certainly be attributed to his series’ popularity. In 2004, Image’s market share sat at just under four percent. At the end of last year, it was almost at five-and-a-half, which put the company in third place behind guess-who for the first time in nearly ten years.

Image kept up the pace throughout the last decade, pumping out huge critical successes such as The Nightly News, Morning Glories, Fell, and Powers. Existing publishers started to put more focus on creator-owned stuff – IDW’s Locke & Keyis great and you should read the crap out of it – and new publishers such as MonkeyBrain and Archaia sprung up. And in a move which echoed DC’s creation of Vertigo ten years previous, Marvel set up their own creator-owned imprint called Icon, which is specifically designed to (I shit you not) keep their own artists and writers from taking their own work to Image, etc. And it’s worked. Icon has published successful titles such as Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass and Matt Fraction’sCasanova, and managed to nick Brian Michael Bendis’ Powers from Image, meaning that those artists can remain at Marvel to work on superhero crap, such as the absolute train-wreck that is Avengers vs X-Men. Seriously, it doesn’t even make sense. Like, why would Cyclops whip out the eye-lasers on Captain Americain the first issue? There’s hardly any build-up in the rushed dialogue, and it’s atwelve-part series, so why-

But I digress.

So the question is, why now? What happened in the middle of the last decade to make creator-owned comics cool again? Mark Millar has a theory. In an interview with Comic Book Resources dot com a few weeks back, he said that the popularity of creator-owned stuff is cyclical – in the early nineties, fans followed Lee, Liefeld, McFarlane and co., whilst Marvel and DC had to cultivate new talent to keep up. Those new talents – like Bendis and Bryan Hitch – rose to stardom, and the Image guys were forgotten. Now, according to Millar, things are just repeating themselves. Breakout stars like Robert Kirkman have made creator-owned comics cool again, and we’re just on the bandwagon. For now.

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