Do Comics Publishers Need Readers Anymore? Part Two

If you look at the copyright indicia notices typically printed on the inside front covers of most nominally “independent” comics, you’ll find that the trademarks for the book in question — as well those for all its characters, their distinct likenesses, and what have you — are jointly held by the principal members of that comic’s so-called “creative team.” Generally that means the writer and the artist, unless the comic was made by a real CARTOONIST who does everything themselves, but I’ve seen select instances where the colorist and even the letterer are in on a piece of the action, as well. This is the good side of creator ownership, with everything working as it should. But there is, increasingly, a darker side that is seeing a lot of people getting screwed out of their fair share —

For instance, when you look at the copyright indicia in most comics published by Aftershock, Avatar, and Boom! Studios, what you’ll see about eight times out of ten is that the trademarks to the characters and concepts are jointly held by the WRITER and the PUBLISHER, with the artist left out in the cold despite spending more time working on the book than anybody else. That’s because Aftershock, Avatar, and Boom! — and even, increasingly, Dark Horse — take their so-called “pitches” directly from writers, and then hire out a jobbing penciller, inker, or penciller/inker to draw the series that they “green light” on a work-made-for-hire basis. In other words, these poor schmucks are getting the same raw deal they would be getting at Marvel or DC — only probably even worse, because the page rates at these second-and third-tier publishing houses are for shit.

Of course, economically speaking, these publishers have a built-in excuse as to why they don’t pay their talent a decent wage : none of their comics sell.  Curiously, though, that doesn’t seem to stop them from making more of them. Consider : Aftershock can’t be said to have published a legitimate “hit” series at any point in its near-ten-year history, and a quick glance at the monthly sales figures shows most of their product charting in the 5,000-6,000 copies sold range — if it even charts in the first place. Many of their titles don’t make the minimum threshold to be ranked at all. Ditto for Avatar, which hasn’t had a real hit outside Crossed and its Alan Moore-scripted series like Neonomicon and Providence. Or how about Boom!, which has somehow survived for well over a decade despite NEVER having a real sales success (not endorsed by Keanu Reeves, that is) until Something Is Killing The Children and its spin-off series, House Of Slaughter, turned up in the last year or two?

Speaking of, the copyrights on those two books are even MORE confusing : writer James Tynion IV and artist Werther Dell’Edera are BOTH credited as the series’ CREATORS, but the books are OWNED by Tynion and Boom!, with Dell’Edera stuck on the outside looking in of his own co-creation. Over at Aftershock, though, things are getting even more ridiculous : their recent series Nuclear Family, written by Stephanie Phillips and drawn by Tony Shasteen, isn’t the property of EITHER creator — it’s the property of the publisher and a Hollywood guy named Eric Bromberg, who “pitched” the project to Aftershock but apparently didn’t feel like actually WORKING on it himself. I was able to confirm that “business model” also applies to Aftershock comics Pestilence and Red Atlantis, and if I had a couple more hours to devote to legwork on this column, I’m sure that I could find more.

But we’re not finished with the absurdity yet, friends. Newer publishers TKO Studios and AWA/Upshot both showed up talking a big game about how “creator-friendly” they were, but ALL of their books are corporate-owned, and the two guys running the show at AWA, Bill Jemas and Axel Alonso. are former Marvel suits. If they wanted to keep sticking it to the talent like this, you have to wonder why they didn’t just stay at their old gigs — oh, that’s right, they were fired.

Both TKO and AWA are still patiently waiting for their fist popular series to come along, as well, but their overall publishing outputs are remaining fairly consistent — hell, AWA seems to be cranking out more and more titles every month. Yet NONE of them sell. How is it, then, that supposedly “indie” publishers find themselves getting more and more stingy in terms of offering REAL creator ownership, even as their books gather dust on the shelves?  I mean, why would a publisher even CARE about screwing over one or more of the creators of a series almost no one reads? Why would they accept proposals from Hollywood screenwriters for projects those guys don’t want to put any effort into themselves and that are more or less guaranteed to find their way into dollar bins within a few months?

The answer, of course, is pretty simple : these publishers aren’t looking to have a wide range of successful titles, they’re looking to stumble into a Willy Wonka-esque golden ticket. If just ONE of their comics gets optioned for development by a TV or movie studio, they figure that will make up for all the losses on all this other crap. And if one of those options makes it out of development hell and onto the big or small screen? They’re REALLY swimming in gravy then. These companies aren’t even “comic book publishers” per se — they’re in the business of publishing movie and TV treatments that have the added “plus” of being storyboarded entirely in advance.  I assure you I’m not at all exaggerating when I say that sooner rather than later at least one of these mid-level “independents” is going to drop all the pretense, forego distributing their product to comic shops, and just ship it to studio execs and producers off a mailing list.

To return to our original question, then, these comics publishers absolutely DON’T need readers — note the plural. What they need is just ONE random reader, with deep pockets and Tinseltown connections, to look at one of their comics and figure it has the makings of a hit in other media. That’s enough to keep the lights on in the short term. Ultimately, though, what they would REALLY like is the kind of deal Boom! recently got where 20th Century Fox bought a sizable stake in the company and moved their offices right onto the studio lot. Or the deal Dark Horse got, where they sold the company lock, stock, and barrel to a multinational video game giant.  The AWAs, Aftershocks, TKOs, and even the Avatars of the world keep plugging away, losses be damned, in hopes of that one MONSTER payday down the line.


Like everything else I’m running this week, this essay originally appeared on my Patreon site, where you get three similar helpings to thoughts straight from yours truly’s id every week. You can subscribe for as little as a dollar a month, and while I’m admittedly biased, I daresay that’s one of the better values going in the entire Patreon racket these days. So come on over, we’re friendly, I promise.

Oh, and I suppose a link would help. Here you go :

A Very Personal Masterpiece : Julie Doucet’s “Time Zone J”

As art, as narrative, as formalist exercise, and as graphic literature, there’s no way to describe Julie Doucet’s long-awaited return to the medium she helped revolutionize, the recently-published Time Zone J, as anything other than a triumph. And quite likely a staggering one at that. But that doesn’t mean that getting through it isn’t a fair amount of work.

As with all labors, though, what matters here is how ENJOYABLE the expenditure of energy (in this case MENTAL energy) involved is, and how much VALUE one derives from it.  On that score, we as readers needn’t fear, as we’re in the best possible hands, but as a CRITIC, this is a book that puts me in a bit of a tricky wicket because I feel the need to write a “how-to” guide every bit as much as a review. Perhaps I just need to learn to compromise and write something that’s a bit of both?

To begin with, then, Doucet drew — and politely admonishes us to read — each of these pages in “reverse,” bottom-top-top order, but that’s often FAR easier said than done. Drawing on her experience with collage, what Doucet has created here is the nearest thing to its comics equivalent : a miasmic, oftentimes dizzying array of tightly-placed images (usually faces, sometimes animals and objects and buildings, more rarely full-figure drawings) with no artificially-constructed “borders” between them. In purely practical terms, this means that not only are there no “panels” per se, but that each image flows and/or butts up against the next, and that each “side” of each folded page continues onto and into the one next to it. Yes, it’s confusing, but so is life, and you DO get used to it — again, like life. But there ARE numerous occasions where word balloons and the like have to be sort of intuitively organized because there’s no clear visual “running order” provided. 

Strangely, though, this doesn’t feel like just haphazard methodology on Doucet’s part : again, I invoke the term “intuited” because it absolutely applies. And it applies to the STORY “structure,” as well, bobbing and weaving as it does between past and present, between Doucet as she is and as she was, and of course part of the fun here is teasing out both the differences and similarities (not only in terms of physical characteristics, but also in terms of outlook, mindset, and personality) between both “versions” of our author/protagonist. There IS a focal point to the narrative — that being the recounting of a painful, abusive, and ultimately doomed relationship between Doucet and a late-1980s/early-1990s paramour she refers to as “The Hussar” — but the circuitous route she travels getting to this series of  recollections, as well as the various tributaries that emerge from them, are truthfully every bit as fascinating and involving as is the “meat” of the “plot” itself. Again, the obliteration of any and all demarcation between events and chronologies and their physical representations is absolutely crucial here : this isn’t about how things “begin” or “end,” it’s about showing AND telling that they all blend together, even (perhaps especially?) when said blending is far from seamless.

Viewed from that perspective, it’s no exaggeration to say that Time Zone J is one of the most conceptually and aesthetically HONEST comics you’re ever likely to read, even if the mileage individual readers get from it is BOUND to vary due to its absolutely unique construction.  We’re all familiar with the idea that certain works are, as the cliche goes, “easier to respect than they are to like,” but Doucet ups the ante on that considerably here, crafting something that is downright IMPOSSIBLE not to respect REGARDLESS of how much one likes it.

Which sounds, I suppose, as though I might be damning Time Zone J with faint praise, but I assure you nothing could be further from the truth : I LOVED this book and consider it to be the crown jewel in Doucet’s stellar career — yes, I think I like it even more than Dirty Plotte. But it did have to grow on me as I went along — or, perhaps more accurately, I had to grow into it, as it’s something that offers no option apart from meeting it ENTIRELY on its own terms. To my mind, though, that is PRECISELY what an “auteur” work is, and if ever there was a book that lived and breathed an artistic philosophy of uncompromising singularity, it’s this one. Time will tell if it proves to be the year’s BEST comic, of course, but I’d be absolutely flabbergasted if, by calendar’s turn, it stands as anything less than the most IMPORTANT and GROUNDBREKING one.


By way of full disclosure, this review originally ran on my Patreon site and is presented here as part of a devious week-long scheme to entice more people to subscribe to said site.

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