The Real Thing

This article was originally published at The Nerd Cave on March 7, 2014.

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Eric Stephenson delivered a speech at the ComicsPRO annual meeting that has received a lot of attention. He emphasized throughout the speech that direct market growth would stem from good comics. This is an opinion that should please a lot of comics readers and is backed up by Image’s incredible growth over the last few years. Some of his points were less popular, however.

Stephenson made a point of calling out trends he perceived as being bad for the industry. Some of these are ideas that have been lambasted for years. Crossovers, weekly comics, increased prices, and event-style books were all mentioned. These issues focus on the largest publishers of comics, Marvel and DC Comics, whose reliance on the superhero genre has not seen any real market growth in decades. Stephenson raised a more controversial point that took aim of more diverse publishers like IDW and Dark Horse.

“TRANSFORMERS comics… GI JOE comics… STAR WARS comics will never be the real thing.

Those comics are for fans that love the real thing so much, they want more – but there’s the important thing to understand:

They don’t want more comics – they just want more of the thing they love.”

– Eric Stephenson, Publisher of Image Comics

IDW has received a great deal of critical acclaim for its work with established properties like Transformers, G.I. Joe, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Dark Horse’s largest money making property for the past decade has been its work on the Star Wars franchise. Mike Richardson and Ted Adams, publishers of Dark Horse and IDW, respectively, responded negatively to Stephenson’s comments. They each released statements criticizing the entire speech.

“It’s nonsense to say a particular title is not “real” comics simply because it didn’t start out as a comic book.”

– Mike Richardson, Publisher of Dark Horse Comics

This is to be expected though from those under attack. Writers and editors at both Marvel and DC Comics responded similarly, yet their constant reboots price bumps are hardly defensible (these same practices almost ended the industry in the early 90’s). So does Stephenson have a point when he refers to “real comics”?

Objectively, all comics are comics, whatever they may be written about. Even the instructions in a Lego manual qualify. Stephenson doesn’t mean to say that comics about established properties aren’t comics though. His idea of the “real thing” is something more abstruse. His entire speech centers on the concept of there only being two types of comics, good comics and bad comics, it’s likely that the “real thing” is synonymous with good comics. Good comics being creative works who expand the audience. Stephenson continuously emphasizes that “ANYONE who isn’t currently buying comics” ought to be the target market and that “new creativity that is going to pave the way”.

Stephenson believes that Star Wars and G.I. Joe comics don’t reflect this definition of good comics, of the real thing. They were ideas that began as films and toy franchises and were only adapted to comics later. He believes that people are only attracted to these franchise comics, because they want more of the franchise and do not really care about comics as a medium.

Being based upon a previously established work of fiction doesn’t make a work non-creative or uninteresting though. One of Alan Moore’s most critically and commercially successful comics, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (drawn by Kevin O’Neill), is entirely based on existing characters from prose works. Despite featuring a cast of characters almost a century old, all created by writers of English literature, the comic succeeds in telling a wholly original story. It serves as a commentary on late 19th Century England and, in later volumes, on the modern state of popular literature. No one would think to accuse The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen of not being the real thing.

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There are many other examples of excellent comics being created from pre-existing franchises, even those that Stephenson calls out in his speech. Larry Hama’s G.I. Joe is a fondly remembered comic, and for good reason. Hama created much of the mythology behind the toys in his comic. The popular data cards associated with each character are based on the notes that Hama kept to recall pertinent details. His art was strongly influenced by the works of Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko. An underwater COBRA fortress in G.I. Joe #8, strongly resembles a creation from Steranko’s SHIELD. Hama’s G.I. Joe is responsible for interesting a new generation of fans in the fantastical world of comics.

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One issue is especially worthy of consideration, G.I. Joe #21. Famous for being the silent issue of the series, it portrays Snake Eye’s rescuing Scarlett from Storm Shadow. It’s a simple concept, but brilliantly executed. Action sequences play without a single word being spoken, emphasizing Snake Eye’s inability to communicate with the world. His language is entirely visual, spoken with actions. Every panel follows naturally from the other, telling a story with clear characterizations and tense fight sequences. It’s a great comic, no matter what it is based on.

There has been a massive resurgence of interest in the character of Sherlock Holmes in the last ten years due to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and the BBC series’ Sherlock. Yet the majority of the fanbase for these productions are not fans of the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. There is a massive contingent of young women who adore Sherlock, and have only begun to read the classic stories as a result of Sherlock.

There is no reason the same cannot be true of comics. Fans of the Star Wars and Transformers film franchises may seek out the comics as an accessory. But new readers may discover those same franchises as a comic and seek out more comics because of what they find.

It’s unfair to define a comic as the real thing based purely on its origins. Whether a story is wholly original or derived from works in other mediums doesn’t speak to its quality as a comic. There are certainly plenty of bad comics based on film or television franchises, but there are plenty of original comics that are even worse. Just look at Shia LaBeouf’s self-published comics. Origin doesn’t matter. Quality does.

Stephenson may be wrong on this point, but the spirit of his speech remains true. Retailers, publishers, and fans all have a real interest in growing the comics market. More readers will help to ensure the medium thrives. The best way to grow the medium is with good comics, with the real thing. Stephenson’s central point is true: “There are only two kinds of comics that matter: good comics and bad comics. Everything else should be irrelevant.”

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About chasemagnett

Chase is a mild-mannered finance guy by day and a raving comics fan by night. He has been reading comics for more than half of his life (all 23 years of it). After graduating from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln with degrees in Economics and English, he has continued to research comics while writing articles and reviews online. His favorite superhero is Superman and he'll accept no other answers. Don't ask about his favorite comic unless you're ready to spend a day discussing dozens of different titles.
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