Leading Questions: Comics and the Anti-Social Contract

This article was originally published at Comics Bulletin on June 16, 2016. 

Green Lantern John Stewart

Every two weeks in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Mark Stack will ask Comics Bulletin’s very own Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.

So without any further ado…

What is the key difference between the creator/reader contract from the Big Two and indie publishers?

I think this is another one of those questions where we have to define what we’re talking about before we can cut into the meat of the matter. You’re getting at some concepts and separations that could easily be quibbled over for hours. Rather than let the comments fill up with nit picking that I’ll never read, I’d rather try to clearly establish what I think you’re asking me and what I’m responding to. So let’s break out some appetizers!

You separate the comics industry into two categories here: those with a gun and those who dig. Also referred to as the Big Two and everyone else. From the get go, I think it’s clear we’re talking about American comics publishers, bringing in the European and Japanese scene (and any of the other smaller industries throughout the world) would make this question considerably more complicated and place me considerably outside my own depth. I also think that breaking the industry into these two halves is an easy and familiar way of establishing another distinction altogether.

The only real difference between the Big Two and everyone else is their share of the market in units and dollars. It’s also a distinction that publishers like Image Comics are slowly chipping away at in regards to the once Distinguished Competition of the other member of this illustrious club. But when you mention the Big Two, the first thing you think of is the content farm they function as. They are guardians of very valuable intellectual property and are concerned with stewardship of these corporately owned characters and concepts before all else. Creators are hired to help manage their stories, but they ultimately don’t own or control the stories they are telling.

This group is not exclusive to the Big Two though. Boom! Studios and IDW Publishing both produce a lot of comics owned by larger corporations like the former’s popular Power Rangers series and the latter’s highly-acclaimed revivals of both Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While something like Tom Scioli’s Transformers Vs G.I. Joe may give the impression that creators are given carte blanche, that is not the case. Even a publisher renowned for its wide-array of creator-owned comics like Image produces some comics that are ultimately being created for an owner who is not a creator. Robert Kirkman has a writer and artist working on Demonic a series he owns, turning the Kirkman creator-owned brand into an IP farm as well.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

In any event, I think the real divide you’re getting at here is between comics owned and controlled by an outside entity versus those controlled and, at least partially, owned by their creators. That impacts the concept of a creator-reader contract in a much more significant way than whatever Diamond is reporting as the total sales of comics in a given month. Because those numbers are soooooo useful and indicative of overall readership. Totally.

But before we dive in, I think there’s one more thing to address and that’s the concept of a creator-reader contract (or a writer-reader contract as it has been defined primarily in the study of literature). The creator-reader contract is the concept that there is an implicit agreement between whoever composes a piece of art and whoever receives it.

This is something I want to define in as broad of terms as possible. I’m not interested in talking about the promise of a cover or solicit. Let’s please not talk about the vague, pandering promises of DC Rebirth. What I think you’re interested in is the concept that when a reader picks up a comic, there is an existing bond between them and whoever created the story within.

That scenario presents a wide range of scenarios and the entire continuum of every comic, creator, and reader to ever exist. The subsequent contract should be suitably broad and I believe it can be boiled down to three points:

  1. Honesty: A creator should create their truth. Whatever they put down on a comics page ought to be something they are willing to put their name to at that moment. It is a reflection of an idea, aesthetic, or pursuit with which they are genuinely engaged.
  2. Quality: A creator should strive to create work of quality. While quality is a subjective term, what is being created ought to be seen by the person creating it as having some value. They should strive to do “good” work however they define it.
  3.  Value: A creator should intend for their work to mean something. This could be as simple as drawing images that please their own eyes or as complex as constructing a criticism of modern political structures. Whatever they create ought to have some meaning in their own eyes though.

Looking at these three criteria, it’s pretty easy for a creator to fulfill this definition of a creator-reader contract. You can look at your own work in comics or any other creative venture you’ve given to someone else to read, listen to, or otherwise engage with. Did you tell some sort of truth? Did you put effort into the work? Did the work contain some intentional value? Then you’ve fulfilled that contract.

Just consider a comic we’ve both derided quite a bit: Savage Dragon. It is both owned and created by Erik Larsen. While we may find some of the gender and racial politics atrocious, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Larsen has fulfilled his end of the creator-reader contract. After decades of producing the comic, it’s clear the series adheres to Larsen’s view of the world and his own goals. He’s making honest work. Whatever you make of his artwork (I find it fascinating), it’s clear that he is putting effort into it. Just take a look at the letters columns and the constant new challenges Larsen sets for himself. He is doing his best to make quality comics. Finally, agree of disagree, Savage Dragon definitely has something to say. It touches on a lot of topics in blunt fashion and with brute force. Larsen’s comics present values to their readers.

Larsen is a founder of the heart of modern creator-owned comics in America: Image Comics. He ran the company for many years before current publisher Eric Stephenson stepped in. Larsen is as well suited as anyone to exemplify the creator-reader contract in comics, and I think he succeeds in doing so admirably. Say what you will about the work itself, but Savage Dragon and Erik Larsen will never betray this implicit contract with you.

I think it’s considerably easier to keep this contract in the realm of creator-owned comics too. You never have to take no as an answer when the story you are telling really belongs to you. It’s possible a publisher will drop you or not enough people will read your comic, but you can still make the choices by which that comic will thrive or die (more often the latter than the former).

It’s actually quite a challenge to create something that breaks this contract. To do that would mean throwing out any concern for honesty, quality, or values in favor of pursuing something different, likely the almighty dollar. Mercenary motive is the most likely thing to lead to this break, but I can’t think of many great examples off the top of my head.

One might throw out the name Mark Millar, but I’d think that one would be wrong. Millar’s Millarworld imprint has become one hell of an IP farm for Hollywood and he has acknowledged that his new properties are often developed with an eye towards cinematic adaptation. Yet I don’t think Millar’s prowess in business undercuts the creator-reader contract between him and those who reads the comics he writes. Whether you’re talking about the raw nastiness of a comic like Nemesis or the frenetic hope of the new volume of Jupiter’s Legacy, you can see Millar’s DNA and beliefs all over these comics. When you read them chronologically his career path becomes very apparent as does his approach to storytelling. Cynicism is itself a value after all, and the drives to make art and make money are not mutually exclusive.

Satisfying those two desires become a lot more difficult in the world of “Big Two Comics” as you framed it though. When you’re telling a story that’s owned by someone else, there’s a literal contract that will supersede anything we’re talking about here in a court of law. If you’re creating a Batman or a Power Rangers or a Transformers comic, there is someone who can tell a creator how to do their job. When they do that, it will often become a question of choosing between some mix of honesty, quality, and values and being able to pay your bills and eat. That’s not a choice I envy anyone, but the people signing these contracts know exactly what sorts of deals they’re making.

It’s hard to bring up examples of this sort of choice being made without betraying some level of trust. Comics is a small house and words gets around fast. It means that there’s not a lot of work to be had in the first place and if you’re disagreeable about doing the work, then there’s a good chance you won’t find much more. There are plenty of compromises made in the creation of a comic owned by an outside entity. Some of these compromises come from the very nature of collaboration and reflect real artistic intent, sometimes improving the comic itself. Other times they are driven by fiat, one that is driven by interests running contrary to that of the creator and that must be accepted or rejected.

When a creator accedes to this sort of demand, that’s when the creator-reader contract. That’s when they stop telling the truth or discard their concern for quality or lose their own values. It happens and many times isn’t noticed by many readers, but that doesn’t mean that the contract isn’t broken. If anything, it means the system through which we engage with these creators is.

You can’t share stories of when people did something they hated in order to earn their paycheck or get another job, at least no recent ones. However, there is one great example of a creator refusing to sell out their own values and break the contract between themselves and their readers. And it happened at DC Comics.

A few years ago writer Joshua Hale Fialkov vacated his position as the writer of Green Lantern Corps. and Red Lanterns before his first issue on either series was published. It was a big opportunity considering the Green Lantern franchise was still riding high on Geoff John’s momentum. This job signalled big things for Fialkov in the future of DC Comics, so to walk away from both was a big deal.

Fialkov acknowledged he departed the comics over creative differences with DC editorial in a very polite statement. But later it was leaked what that difference was. Fialkov has been asked to kill off beloved character and rare superhero of color John Stewart in the pages of Green Lantern Corps. This was a story Fialkov did not believe in and did not want to tell. I can only speculate as to his exact reasons, but suspect that not wanting to remove the most visible person of color in the entire DC universe (thanks to the cartoon Justice League) played a central role.

Whatever the case, Fialkov chose to leave the comic rather than tell a story he didn’t believe in. I can’t tell you what kind of money he may have lost because of this. I can’t tell you what future jobs he may have missed out on. I can’t tell you what kind of stories he would have rather told.

But what I can guarantee you is this: Joshua Hale Fialkov won’t lie to you.

None of this is to say that you can’t enjoy a comic that breaks the creator-reader contract or that you must enjoy one that maintains it. Taste is intensely personal and we all enjoy what we enjoy. That doesn’t mean this conceptual contract doesn’t hold some sort of value though. When we engage with art, we believe that we are engaging with the work of another individual. We get a look inside of their craft, beliefs, and ideas. That’s why we become fans of creators because we feel a connection.

When creators keep the contract, they ensure that this connection is honest. That when someone speaks to their love of Erik Larsen because of his work on Savage Dragon, they are genuinely responding to this man. When someone breaks the contract though, they are lying to those fans. They are choosing to present something that isn’t part of themselves, whether it comes in the form of their personal truths, the quality of work they believe in, or values they want to present. They’re selling a false bill of goods. Enjoy it or not, you’ve still been lied to.

So when a creator chooses to walk away from work rather than lie to their readership, that shows an immense regard for this contract and their fans and readers, in turn. It means they are placing the connection between themselves and those that choose to seek out their art above a rent payment or meal.

You have to respect that.


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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