Fan Comics and Horses

hulk-webcomic-01-061_REVIThe comic book business superficially reminds me of horse racing. There are favorites to bet on, pre-race positioning, big business and talents that explode out of nowhere. But comicdom goes a step further and historically wants to keep the fans from trying to race. Really, though, supers comics are getting stagnant with only a few exceptions. How may times does [insert major comic character] have to die or whole universes be in dire jeopardy in order to get readers to buy comics? Maybe it’s time for that to change by making a better product.

I’ve got a lot of gall, don’t I? Tom Spurgeon just said in an interview that “Whenever I hear someone say with such great, shaken-fist certainty that “Marvel needs to do this right now,” I think of how much money the people at Marvel have made in recent years up to and including this Disney deal and it occurs to me the sound of their solid gold shoes clanking around is going to drown out any vocal criticism.

So me demanding that Marvel, for example, create a better product may seem foolish. They are the professionals, after all. So using my inside voice, I just want to ask where Marvel would be without the paneled basis of its gold shoe empire? With all respect, won’t a great product sell better than a simply good enough product? How can the fans be provided with the best of comics?

The answer is in the fans. “Woah, there” I can hear you saying, “You’re saying the answer is in webcomics, aren’t you?” Webcomics stand to benefit as much as everyone else, though some vehemently say that webcomics (or any comics without editors) are lacking – to put it mildly. While editors can be invaluable, can you look me in the eye and tell me that you agree with every editor approved villain or hero? But let’s not flog a dead horse because it’s not just the editors that are responsible – creators and fans have some culpability, too.

You know how the Zuda competition calls for original intellectual comic property and the winners may get printed? I happen to think Zuda’s audience-peer voting system is a good way to find out what readers think is good. In this case, of course, the audience is primarily restricted to online readers and those who are aware of Zuda – but the principle stands. And this principle of drawing on fan creations is something that has been around for a long time. Every once in a while, Marvel or DC will have some kind of fan creation contest and the winner gets a toe hold into the industry.

I have this theory that Marvel and DC could get some very strong comics if they embraced fan contributions. Now, I realize that readers glom onto particular names that rise periodically in the comics world and flock to those people. I also realize that these people’s reputations are promoted and hyped in order to maximize the sales of books. Even if the big two go down this path I’m on about, I don’t see the creator glamorizing ever stopping. But ride on with me a little ways more.

This fan contribution approach would have Marvel and DC seeking out the best of the best of the best work that is being done. More often than you would think, there is a more interesting slant given to a character or property than came from the original canon.

But what is canon for a given hero anyway? Here’s a fabulous quote from a comment on a Beat article by Dave Roman about canon in today’s superhero books…
I’ve been thinking a lot about how franchises like Spider-Man, Batman and X-Men have been written by so many different people and re-imagined “officially” in countless ways with “elseworlds” and “ultimate versions” and “brand new days” not to mention kids versions of superheroes vs. their less all-ages counterparts. Which is the REAL version?” Who gets to hold the reins?

And don’t get any comic fan going on the difference between comic canon and the comic movies that are based on them. Pick any comic movie and there was furor over some mistreatment of it, right? Now imagine that they were going to make a Sandman & the Endless movie… the complaining would fill the internet no matter what the movie ended up looking like.

And I ask you what is the real difference between actual comic pages, fan drawings, con sketches of corporate characters, unfinished fan sequentials, sample comic pages, fanzines, fanfiction and fan comics like this one? Or this one or this one? Or let’s blur the lines a little further and move away from the standard comic look. Is there a difference between all of these works because of their creator’s status or perhaps only the con sketches involve money changing hands? That’s untrue and deceptive to say the least. Money changes hands using these valuable comic properties all the time. So why give fan works the snub?

I don’t like to raise an objection without offering some positive solution. I know that Marvel has gone partway into this direction while DC has come at it from the other. Is it so inconceivable that Zuda opens up another category of fan comics and has a separate competition for a different DC character each month? The best/most-popular could be bundled as an anthology by year or by character over several years. Something similar was done with some success for Marvel’s Strange Tales #1 and even Wednesday Comics to a lesser extent. Now let’s see interesting creators working on regular books, not just one shots or a short series.

This even solves the biggest valid problem, which is protecting the ownership of the property. If you provided an approved place for comic creators to post the work, they might just do it where you can profit from it too. Shocking thought, huh? It also focuses the eager talent available on the internet and potentially creates great product. Some comics already have ‘caption-this’ contests which shows it works on a smaller scale.

It doesn’t stop there, either. Let me throw in a quote from Torsten Adair’s comment on the previously linked Beat article…”Anyway… the future is wide open. Imagine what happens when Print On Demand technology intersects with comics. Imagine a motion comic (animatic?) that teaches you to cook, or change the oil in your car, or to learn Japanese. Imagine an AI hooked up to a Spider-Man comic, where you decide the style of drawing, the locale, the villains, and then post it on Marvel.com. (Like Machinima, but with comics.) Imagine DC creating a property which uses a Creative Commons license. Imagine…

See? We don’t need to live in 20 odd pages that only consist of certain kinds of stories told only by certain people. You could look at the available media soup that we have and easily conclude that once the right mix of handheld services comes together on the right portable gadget, we’ll be watching videos/tv/movies, reading books/comics and playing games on it. We’ll also soon be remixing all of these things together. There won’t be different media types, just content available on various media.

Maybe I’m crazy but doesn’t it seem like a good idea for comic companies and creators to stop trying to corral fan works by ignoring them at best or prosecuting them at worst? Why not provide a new trail we can travel together as businesses, creators and fans?

Special thanks to El Santo from the Webcomic Overlook and Ben Gordon of The Floating Lightbulb for their contributions and suggestions.

ArtPatient

19 Comments

  1. John

    I agree that comics are stagnant. I have been reading some ultimate xman compilations from the library. It’s wild to see how distorted the characters have become. Like in that world, Peter is gay, Kitty pride is dating Spiderman and so on.
    I liked the Babylon 5 world. There was 5 year arc and the story is over. I wished they could do that to the Superheroes. Tell their story and be done with them. Make new characters.

    The webcomics seem to be a release value, where you can get stories that are not standard superhero drek, but the quality and frequency suffer. And of course, it’s hard to get paid.

  2. John

    “Now imagine that they were going to make a Sandman & the Endless movie… the complaining would fill the internet” – True, but that’s because they would cast Keanu Reeves as the Sandman.

    Do you think we can have endless soap operas with ANY character and not have it descend into drek? Was Sandman great because it ended and didn’t get told and retold for 20 years? How many ways can you talk about Superman before it feels like it’s all one big retread? The whole superhero Genre is starting to feel that way, but I’m over 40. I don’t have fresh eyes.

  3. No, no, no, no… Listening to the fans is what got them in the mess called “the 90s”. Rob Liefeld didn’t hack into the matrix and make himself the biggest star in comics. That was the fans.

    And the fanboys are writing the comics already. That’s why Marvel and DC are producing so much myopic, continuity porn.

    You the good superhero comics? Ignore the fans, and get back to focusing on what regular people like.

  4. @John – The never ending soap opera continuity treadmill is awful. I’d prefer self contained story arcs with endings as the normal way to do things; maybe two or three arcs per year. That might let there be some authorial consistency and still have a chance for decent variety.

    @George – That’s a good thought. I’d have to agree that the hardcore fans would not always be the best creators for what I proposed. Perhaps that’s another facet of why supers comics turn out like they do.

    But then it occurs to me that they make comics like this because that’s what they see that sells the best. We like Clark Kent’s situation and seeing him solve problems in his two identities. Perhaps then, the problem may lie in the standard focus of supers storylines as opposed to what the heroes actual do (beat up crooks, save innocents, etc.)

  5. Pingback: THE BEAT » Blog Archive » Kibbles ‘n’ Bits, 10/9/09

  6. K-Box

    This is an interesting idea, and there’s a lot to recommend it, but the problem is that you’re ignoring that the supposed “diversity” of versions of these characters that are sanctioned by each company are all exercises in top-down control. We already have comic book publishers and creators complaining about “fan entitlement” – which is amusing, imasuch as very few of them actually created the characters they deign to tell stories about, which basically makes them “fans” with licenses and paychecks – so what do you think will happen to “fan entitlement” when what amounts to non-editorially-vetted fan fiction is officially sanctioned?

    It’s not just about FINANCIAL control, but CREATIVE control as well. Before “One More Day,” almost every other version of Spider-Man published by Marvel WASN’T married, but that wasn’t good enough for them – they HAD to have nearly ALL versions of the character unmarried. For publishers like Marvel, it’s not about giving fans of each version of the character their own voice – rather, it’s about DENYING voices to anyone whose interpretations differ from the editorial mandates. What you’re suggesting here runs directly COUNTER to that.

  7. Good thoughts, K-Box. Yes, I am suggesting that they loosen up on the editorial control just a smidge. I think almost everyone finds their editorial mandates a little heavy and repetitive and yes, this goes counter to what they prefer to do.

    Even though I didn’t mention it specifically, I am not suggesting that they abandon (for example) Spider-Man to anyone who cares to write Spider stories. The editors would need to be open to different takes on characters while still working to strengthen the stories.

    Plus, I doubt they could publish everything that was potentially submitted to them in a given year, so some culling would have to be done. Something like what Zuda is doing where there is some process to make sure stronger and more polished stories are what gets published, maybe.

  8. John

    “The stuff that Marvel and DC is printing are getting stagnant. ”
    I agree but….
    – Maybe it’s selling enough that the companies see it as a successful formula and will not risk changing that.
    – Maybe it’s not stagnant to new readers, it may be perfectly good to a 14 year old, and who doesn’t know or care about the history. It’s new and relevant to them. If you read the first FF and compare them to some current stories, the art and story are often WAY more sophisticated.

  9. John

    “I have this theory that Marvel and DC could get some very strong comics if they embraced fan contributions.”
    Yes but 95% of the fan/non professional work is not good enough. Usually the strongest stories come from a single person with a strong point of view and a strong ability to write and/or draw, with a strong editor to keep them grounded. Check out drunkduck, a web comic hosting site. Most of that stuff is awful, some is good or have potential, a few are great! Would you have DC set up a fan content hosting site, where anyone could post a batman or sandman story, so long as it followed some minimal editorial standards? No batman and robin in love stories, etc.
    Does it ruin DC’s brand if they have a website of 95% crappy drawings and stories about superman?

  10. John

    Can Marvel be sued for stealing ideas if an element from a fan work off the hypothetical Marvel fan site appears in a paid print story? The fan story casts Hulk in Shakespeare’s taming of the Shrew storyline and if a year later, that same concept appears in print for money, does the fan have cause to claim Marvel used his idea for profit? A fan posts a drawing of Ironman with a cool sword and when a similar sword gets incorporated into Iron Mans costume, does he have cause to sue?

    Would that kill the concept of an official fan site?
    Isn’t that why studios don’t read unrequested movie scripts?

  11. Thanks for chiming in, John. Let’s assume that even in my wild-eyed enthusiasm for getting better stories from fans that I am also willing to be practical.

    Sales – I’m sure you’re right about sales. Comics of the current kind probably outperform other kinds significantly. However, I’m not sure who the target market for today’s comics are. It seems to me, young teens are as likely to pick up a comic as throw one away but not spend much money on them, with rare exception. I like to think of comics as being something that should be targeted at all aged groups – maybe that’s impractical.

    99% Crap: Yes, there would need to be some editorial overview of submissions – but – the best would find its way to the top. I daresay that many of the comics I see on the racks do not contain especially good stories, either. My general rule of thumb is that the ratio of garbage to treasure for any creative endeavor ranges between 100:1 and 1000:1. I don’t see this matter as being any different.

    Legal – I didn’t describe this in the post but when I wrote about these stories getting printed, I imagined that the writer would be compensated for their work being used (and probably now owned by the company.)

  12. John

    “the target market for today’s comics?”
    Before video games, comics were on of the best ways to escape, to be the hero, to beat up bad guys, to be the bad guy, etc.
    Now with video games, kids have something much more visceral to escape into. Comics cannot compete. I think that’s a big reason they are losing market share. Kids have some thing better, and adults are bored.

    So I think comics have to accept a smaller market share, and that they need to write better comics that appeal to older people.

    I don’t know if opening the franchise to Fan art will get us there.

  13. Oh, opening things up to fan contributions will mainly stop the immediate bleeding of some current comic fans. It also would probably have positive impact on making comics that appeal across age groups too.

    Comics are viewed as kids stuff, which would likely require a bigger fix than using fan works. Well done superhero movies make casual audiences see the story instead of the capes, which helps.

  14. …rather, it’s about DENYING voices to anyone whose interpretations differ from the editorial mandates

    Well, yeah. They own it. They get the right to say what’s what about the characters. It’s their job.

    The fans DON’T and NEVER HAD the right to do so. The fans only have the right to buy or not buy. And for some, mysterious reason that ultimate power isn’t enough… well, it’s not mysterious: It’s that fan entitlement you dismissed.

    You wanna write Spider-Man? Get a job at Marvel.

    Don’t like what the guys there are doing with the property, stop buying. Because that’s all they respond to.

    Cuz it’s their job.

  15. John

    George, you are very blunt and very conservative in your idea. You may be right, but that doesn’t make it right. I do get where you are coming from. “I created a comic, I don’t want some else to mess with my creation.” How dare some snot nosed fanboy wannabe from Boise think they can write a story or do art that would be as entertaining as the work of the paid professionals at Marvel? How could any fan top the wedding of Spiderman? That’s like saying the local theater troupe of volunteers could not hold a candle to, or be as entertaining as professional Broadway show.

    It’s rigid dismissive attitudes like that, in part, why comics are loosing ground to more flexible media like video games. In the games, the players and readers can shape the story, help control it, make it their own. In your view of comics, that’s not allowed. Fans are locked out of any involvement with the characters and stories they enjoy, other than buy or don’t buy what ever the comic. The comic can push what ever crap on the readers and they have a choice of just accepting it or rejecting it, and that’s all they have. If the comic makes a profit, that’s all that matters. In your view, there is no conversation, no give and take. That worked 20 years ago. It’s not going to stay working. Paramount helped kill the interest in Star Trek when they gutted all the fan sites glorifing it, because they were not “Approved.” We criticized Ford and GM for not listening to what the consumer wanted, and we applaud Honda for listened and adapting to customer input.

    I read newspapers on line, and gravitate to the ones with comments, because I can read the article, and then the discussion of the story.
    I read webcomics, and gravitate to the ones with comments, because I can the story, and then the conversation about the story.

    It’s not that readers have a right to mess with the characters, it’s that the comic companies should be listening and having a conversation, and allowing the fans to create content now that the internet and many to many conversations is possible.

    I didn’t get ArtPatient about fan content when I started reading this column, I’m starting to understand his point more and more.

  16. This is not about gaining feedback and adjusting a business policy to better suit the audience’s need. Claiming it to be so is a falsehood.

    Our discussion topic is a case of fans feeling entitled to an idea… NOT THEIR OWN… to the point that they believe that, should the creators not be providing specific content to the fan, the fan has the right to take and use the idea for themselves.

    This is incorrect.

    As pointed out above, it has been generally shown that them giving Spider-Man over to hardcore fans is why Spider-Man is a piece of shit right now. The argument that the fans can save something the fans are responsible for ruining in the first place is pretty nonsensical.

    When we also take into consideration that “fan-loved” comics such as, say, Agents of Atlas, fail to sell, it makes no sense for any comic business to want to listening to fans who are not supporting them financially.

    And the ability to give feedback is there. It always has been. But what you want is the ability to get what you demand, like a three year old child screaming at his mother to buy him ice cream.

    You want the ability to change the creative decisions: You use the ONLY right right you have as a consumer and not buy the comic you think are shit, and buy the comics you think aren’t.

  17. John

    This is fun.

    I understand your point, that was the way it always WAS done, but why do does it have to stay that way?

    Why are you so adamant that the process cannot be improved?

    Are you a creator who felt someone did something bad with your creations?

    I as a reader, do have the right to question, the storytelling of the creators. I don’t have to buy their crap. And with the internet, with it’s low barrier to entry, allows us to create the stories by people who don’t agree with the offical version, and feel it could be done better or was better before. What’s wrong with that? How does our forking of the continuity, ruin the offical continuity. The comic company can keep chugging along, of the official path they were going, and I don’t have to follow. Maybe I like Spiderman married, and the Legion before the Reboots and Pa Kent alive.
    This like the idea that gay marriage is going ruin the concept of marriage. No, it just extends it, and makes it better for everyone.

    Take D&D. They created the world, the game system and the rules. They publish some games. Then they let the users take their game system and adapt and change their world and go do with it what they will. They don’t say, you cannot make games that we don’t approve of. They do say you cannot publish games we don’t approve of, but you are allowed to make and share your own games. There are die hard players who won’t touch d&d 4.0 and will play 3.5 till they die.

    Why can’t you have the official comic continuity, of say, what ever more horrible remake they have made of the Legion or the Xmen this iteration, and a fan driven alternative where in one section, Element Lad is still gay, and Tyroc is president, and Shrinking Violet and Light Lass are a couple and Colossas is not gay and in love with Kitty Pride? It’s no different than the people who keep D&D 3.5 alive.

    I don’t buy the comics that I think are terrible, I don’t buy many comics because of it. Comic book companies are not getting my money, because of that.
    Comic companies have only limited resources, they cannot print stories about all three reboots of the legion. But on the web, it only cost electrons and time. I bet they could find a way to have all three version of the legion, with their various fans, and monetize it, so they are getting some small income off their old content, instead of the nothing they are getting right now.

  18. This is a complicated issue to consider making a change in. There are intellectual property rights, corporations, creators and money to balance out. I feel that at a certain level of important cultural impact, something changes. I struggle to find the words to precisely describe this so I’ll use an example.

    At some point the Mouse is more important than Disney. Now, Disney technically owns Mickey yet also has to accept that it’s not about just intellectual property and dollars anymore. The dollars come from the audience who want to share in the Mouse’s world.

    At the same time, consumers have to respect Disney and accept that they aren’t entitled to create their own House of Mouse books – even though they take characters into their lives in surprisingly deep and unpredictable ways.

    It’s a partnership or maybe it could be called mutual respect. As William rightly points out, no fans equals no comic. The comic therefore has to meet the fans’ changing wants, even if they don’t own it. The best companies take this into account and work with it instead of against it. Why not get the creative input of those who have an interest and spend the dollars?

    We’ve seen what the comic owners want to accomplish so I say let’s give fans a place to contribute too.

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