The Inversion of Ambition: Creativity, Comics & Careers
In the middle of the night I woke up in a panicked terror, I assume I’d been having a nightmare. This is not significant or related information.
The next morning I came downstairs to find my shiny new copy of Phonogram: The Singles Club had arrived. Not shiny and new by dint of being published recently admittedly, but still both shiny and new. For those of you who don’t know, Phonogram: The Singles Club is a sequel series to Phonogram: Rue Britannia and it’s brilliant. Phonogram takes the idea that music is magic and uses it to explore issues of individual and shared identity and the subjectivity of experience and how music can inform, shape and create all of them. And it’s brilliant. But this is not a review of Phonogram: The Singles Club, or indeed an exercise in seeing how many times I can cram the words Phonogram: The Singles Club into a single post. It was, originally, intended to be just that, but despite its aforementioned brilliance as I read Phonogram: The Singles Club a feeling of great sadness settled heavy on my shoulders. This miserable malaise, this gloom, was partly because there won’t be any more Phonogram, or for that matter, any more of Pax Romana or any new Nightly News-esque series by Jonathan Hickman, or any more comics of ideas by the more talented end of the current crop of writers. So what foul plague has killed off this nascent comics revolution?
Sadly, it’s the comics industry itself which seems to have done the deed, its hands bloody and unable to be cleansed… For Keiron Gillen, the former writer of Phonogram and his colleague Jonathan Hickman, unrelated projects, are now the current scribes on Uncanny X-Men and FF (formerly the Fantastic Four) respectively. This was the source of my upset. Where TV and film generally follow the pattern of bringing people in on minor roles and having them work up to being experienced and well-known enough to pitch and make their own original ideas comics walks an inverse path; create something interesting and unique and eventually, and with a bit of luck, they’ll let you write Amazing Spider-Man… It’s an oversimplification, of course, but despite the ever-dwindling pool of readers who buy comics in the direct market, or have any interest in the various shared universe projects of the big publishers the new writer, the golden goose, is not cast as creating interesting literature, merely crapping out something to revive the flagging world of capes and cowls. Preferably something than can be licensed into a trilogy of films…
Part of the problem, I fear, is that the relatively narrow scope of mainstream North American comics publishing, which informs the rest of the English-speaking market, means that the new wave of creators were raised on the artificially limited and self-stymieing ideas of what a comic can be. They grew up as fans of the same superheroes people have been reading about for as long as seventy years, which then become the dream project, the prestige assignment. Other writers, such as DC’s Geoff Johns, are unabashed fan-creators and to some degree or other seem more interested in recreating their recollection of the comics they read whilst growing up than in creating anything remotely their own. The early stages of a writer’s career can therefore be seen as the dues-paying period, the years of toiling for little appreciation with rough hewn tools before they are able to make a proper living and use the grown-up bandsaw. This, of course, leads to the self-perpetuating cycle of such material being under-promoted and under-appreciated, to the detriment of a market which seems increasingly insular, especially compared to something like manga, where the medium is not so wholly and crippling dominated by a small number of niche genres.
There are, of course, valid reasons for wanting to tell stories with established characters. The weight of who they are and what they symbolise, their histories and iconographies, can be used as a shorthand or shortcut into more complicated stories or, as is the case in Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader? or Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman, this can be the very idea that the comics are attempting to explore. Nonetheless it seems bizarre that the promise offered to prospective writers, that eventually they’ll be able to tell stories with characters that they have no stake in within a much tighter set of restrictions, should be enticing enough that the whole industry is based on it. There’s no doubt that the superhero comics of Gillen, Hickman et al. are better than the vast majority of fan-service books with journeyman writers and artists, the current direction of books such as Generation Hope and FF are more interesting and engaging than their analogous books have been in years, but I’d rather have a passable Fantastic Four comic by someone else (or none at all) and another series of Pax Romana instead.
Another of the reasons for this model is the narrow margins of economic viability in comics publishing. Phonogram and many books of its ilk (for which, to be clear, I’m indicating original creator-owned concepts which don’t play to the usual superhero and pulp-derivative genres) just don’t sell enough copies in single issues to support their creators, and the collections are too infrequent. Perhaps one of the numerous crowd-sourcing finance systems, like Pledge Music or Rocket Hub would allow talented writers to tap into the anticipation built up by their earlier work? Perhaps, as I suggested earlier, the entire market needs to be refocused. Comics like Phonogram: The Singles Club and The Nightly News are exceptional in their marriage of content to form, narrative to design, and could not be realised in another creative medium with recourse to significant alterations of both details and broad strokes, but the market through which they are sold has petrified into a shadow of both what it was and what it might one day be.
There are the occasional books, usually calling themselves graphic novels, which traverse the divide and are sometimes even considered “proper” literature, but with a heavy focus on the (auto)biographical, even these don’t approach the limits of what can be done with the form, especially since these crossover books are often appropriated by the types of readers who’d balk at the idea of there being any quality intrinsic to the medium. Both the industry and market that controls them as well as the common cultural conception of comics need to be shaken up so that the comics can be allowed to reach their greater potential. There is a very simple truth, aphorised by Harvey Pekar, which tells us why comics are worth our time: “Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.”
So buy Phonogram: Rue Britannia and its sequel, buy The Nightly News and Pax Romana, buy We3 and buy Asterios Polyp, buy Logicomix and Action Philosophers, hell if you want a man in tights there’s plenty of fantastic work amongst all the self-important dreck, but show them that you want great stories, well told, and that the medium is better than they let it be.