Blah Blah Blog – Nobody is Owed Work

An entry from my used-to-be Marvel.com blog, discussing one of the unfortunate-but-true aspects of the comic bok business.

Thursday, 9:17

April 28, 2007 | 1:00 AM | By Tom_Brevoort | In General

Let’s talk about another uncomfortable reality about the comic book business for a while: nobody is owed work.

This is an entertainment business, a very Darwinist system. It doesn’t matter what you did a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, it only matters whether people want to read your stuff now. And by “people”, I mean the majority of readers–every creator has a small following of devotees.

Just like movies, just like television, comics tend to be a young man’s game. You can be cruising along, doing your thing and thinking everything’s fine, and then suddenly, tastes change and you find yourself by the side of the road. And given history, it’s likely to happen. It’s very rare that any creator stays on the top of the heap for very many years. The ones that do have this type of cache tend to be the ones who leave the industry at the height of their career, and then pop back in every now and again in the years thereafter. Folks like Frank Miller and Alan Moore.

Writers tend to be more vulnerable to this effect than artists. Chris Claremont is the only writer of his generation still getting steady work–everybody else who was writing comics at the time he started is pretty much done and gone, save for an occasional project here or there. That’s a testament to the strength of Chris’s work. And this isn’t meant as a condemnation of any of those other writers–this is simply a process that happens more often than not. Like the music business, you maybe come in as a hot young star, your career builds up to some crescendo, then suddenly you’re not the center of attention anymore as the spotlight shifts to the next new guy, your career starts to settle, and eventually you’re either out of the business doing other things or still doing your thing, but for a smaller and more dedicated audience if you can manage it.

There are many more people who want to be working in the field than there are jobs available, so you’re always, always, always competing against everybody else, not only those within the industry, but those people on the outside with the drive to try to break in. You can’t ever rest on your laurels for too long–the world will pass you by if you do.

And it’s HARD to do this. Making comics seems very simple and enjoyable from the outside, but it’s a difficult business. You’re holed up, largely by yourself, for hours every day, trying to find the inspiration and idea and visuals to turn into stories that the readership will relate to. And it’s a grind, thirty days an issue, twelve issues a year (if not more!) It’s no wonder that people burn out, work their way through the bucket of good ideas they walked in the door with, grow weary. Almost every reader thinks that they could write comics “if only I had the time to do it.” But they’re wrong–and some of the samples you see from prospective writers bear that out. The same thing is true to a lesser degree with artists. This job is difficult.

That’s why I love guys like George Perez. George is keenly aware that he’s in constant competition with everybody else at all times, and so he attacks each assignment with everything he’s got–motivated in part, I expect, by those days when his reputation for productivity wasn’t the best, and he had to rehabilitate himself. But this doesn’t mean that even George is bulletproof–if, for example, he developed arthritis, and it affected how he holds his pencil, this might impact on his physical ability to do the work. Or if he started playing around with his sense of page design, trying to adopt some of the tricks that the younger generation of artists are using, and he wound up breaking the strength of his compositional style. Or whatever.

This isn’t ageism we’re talking about, it’s performance-ism. Every creator needs to be able to convince those in a position to hire them that they’re the best person for the job–and then deliver the goods in terms of reader response and sales. If you can do that, then you’ve got a shot at maintaining a career in this business long term. If you can’t, then it really doesn’t matter how many comics you used to sell a decade or two ago.

Nobody is owed work.

More later.

Tom B

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3 thoughts on “Blah Blah Blog – Nobody is Owed Work

  1. A lot of those factors for declining careers ring very true. But I think there are more of them besides what Tom’s mentioned. Some writers and artists CAN adapt to modern sensibilities, or at least do away with the constraints, the simplicities of the early days. But newer editors might not give them the opportunity to prove it. I also think it might be harder for artists to fundamentally change their style, if their style lacks too many fundamentals of drawing.

    The artists that can really draw keep coming back, if they’re health allows it. Lee Weeks is a great example of an artist who masters his craft, and is still in demand by readers and editors alike (not to mention writers who’d love to work with him). Art Adams still pops up. Gary Frank has been around at least since the 90s, and like Weeks, his art seems even better than when he started. Bill Sienkewicz (revolutionized comics during the Bronze Age and influenced a lot of artists after him who are still working) just inked Denys Cowan again for the Milestone heroes relaunch. I doubt Marvel or DC would say know to Bill if he was looking to some work from them.

    Grant Morrisson still did mind bending work on the now released “Superman & the Authority” (his swan song, for now, by his own decision). Again, he knows his craft. Other good writers might not have had the huge success of others, maybe because they didn’t play to the dominant trends of the day, but their work holds up better than their contemporaries who blew up large before their moment passed. One of my fave comics writers is Kelley Puckett, And maybe they just got other more lucrative work outside comics. D. (Dan) Curtis Johnson worked for a big computer software company. Marks Verheiden and Guggenheim write for television (as is Morrisson, Johns, and others). Or they just don’t feel like working for Marvel & DC all the time (Greg Rucka, Garth Ennis, and others keep getting work outside the Big 2).

    Many of the writers in the 70s and 80s were writing for a younger audience. And some could only emulate or imitate what others were doing. Sometimes stagnation was the fault of editors who wanted to prolong the status quo (if it ain’t broke…). Some creatives were just ahead of their time. And many artists back then seemed to learn to draw from copying other comics, instead of life drawing. Which may be why they work pales next to amazing work by the likes of Stuart Imonen, Olivier Coipel, Steve McNiven, Clay Mann, Jorge Jiminez, Javier Fernandez, Dan Mora, and others.

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    1. 14 years later, comics as a “young man’s game” seems to be in transition. There are several creative & editorial positions held by people who don’t ID as men.

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  2. I do wonder if the great burnout of the older boomers is a universal feature of the game, or something specific to that generation, most of whom broke through extremely young (Gerry Conway started writing Spider-Man when he was 19!).

    14 years later, a lot of writers who are around the same age today that Claremont was in 2007 seem to still be working regularly. Bendis and Slott only three years younger than Claremont was in 2007, and still writing as much as ever. Waid, Busiek, and Priest are a couple years older, and Peter David a few years older still. They’re all still working fairly regularly, I think? It seems like there may have been a generational discontinuity in the mid-late 90s more than the job is inherently one that burns people out when they hit 50.

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