The Problem With Eric Stephenson, Bill Watterson’s 1989 Speech, and the Future of Comics!

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Two things happened recently that set me on the path to writing this post. The first was Eric Stephenson’s speech at ComicsPRO 2014, the second was getting to see Dear Mr. Watterson recently, and learning about Watterson’s equally inflammatory speech from 1989 at the Festival of Cartoon Art. Yes, that second one is almost as old as I am, and yes Watterson and Stephenson have little in common beyond essentially working in the same industry. However, both speeches in their way highlight what is needed for the art form to continue growing – regardless of how much I may disagree with some of Stephenson’s finer points – and that is new content.

First of all, while I do agree with Stephenson’s greater point, I disagree with some of the finer points, and specifically how he goes about making these points. It’s worth remembering that his stake is not that of a creator, but rather that he is the Publisher of Image Comics. In case you’re wondering what that means it’s answered in the Image Comics FAQ:

“Publisher Eric Stephenson personally reviews every proposal. When he finds one he likes, it is passed around to the office staff for their input. The proposal is then reviewed at [their] weekly staff meeting.”

In short it’s his job to decide what Image will publish, but also (I’m sure) select those things that will make money – lest we forget, they are a business. So that’s the rub isn’t it? As much as he can attack other publishers for abusing cheap tricks to make money, his end goal is ultimately the same. Good intentions don’t put food on the table. So, while he may want to sport the mantle of savior, of someone speaking the good word of new content, he is in fact primarily trying to make Image the number one comic-book publisher. Any other seemingly altruistic intentions aside, the core is fairly pragmatic.

On the other hand, more than two decades ago Bill Watterson hit the same nail on the head, did so better, and with less ulterior motives. His concern was just that of an artist and storyteller seeking to retain control over his creations. It wasn’t to promote himself by taking shots at the competition. He only sought to motivate other creators to do their best work, and thus improve the whole art form.

Reductio ad absurdum

So what’s the problem with Stephenson? Well, for one he’s willing to make some pretty bold statements without truly considering their implications. For instance, he loudly declared that licensed content could never be the real deal.

“Simply reframing work from other media as comic books is the absolute worst representation of comics.

We can invite readers to innovate with us, but repurposing someone else’s ideas as comic books isn’t innovation – at best, it’s imitation, and we are all so much better than that.”

And you know what, I actually agree, at least up to a point (but did he have to be so insulting about it?). I don’t think that licensed material should be demonized, or that we are that much better than it. I happen to like my Buffy comics quite a bit, and the same goes for Conan. But nonetheless, you’re never going to sustain and build the market solely on licensed properties. At most it’s a necessary prop. The titles that I like best are all creator-owned and trying something different or new, but there’s still something to be said for superhero fare and licensed properties.

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You cannot discount that someone who grew up on Samurai Jack might walk into a comic store looking for the comic, and then maybe walk out of there with something else in hand – in turn making them into a lifelong comic-book fan. Or that the iconic status of Spider-Man or Superman will draw people into stores who wouldn’t otherwise consider it. So, yeah, from a business stand point, where you want to cover all your bases, you cannot discount this one. Also, as a retailer you cannot be any less passionate about this than anything else – fans can tell, trust me. So while people might have made up their mind about established superheroes, it doesn’t change the fact that they may want more of the same, and that by having stores carry both there’s a chance they’ll pick up something new.

(And look, I realize that Stephenson is advocating for exactly this sort of thing, but the way he diminishes these other properties, it just makes it seem like you’d be a loser to even consider reading them.)

Is this sort of licensing creatively bankrupt? Well it’s not ideal, and it’s definitely not where I’d like creators to spend most of their time. After all we do need to worry about the next batch of iconic stories, and we do need those. But, hey, creators need to put food on the table too, you know. And who’s to say that bringing these licensed properties to comics won’t open up other avenues for expression. That you cannot explore new and different storytelling within the medium. That some very talented creators can’t bring the best of comics to another property, and actually make it more interesting in the process. The extended Star Wars universe is a perfect example of this. The depth that’s been added by Dark Horse is actually to be applauded. Sure it may not be the original films, but they’ve managed to add something to the myth that the movies never could. Plus more than one creator has bankrolled their true creative endeavors through this kind of work, which is something worth remembering.

And hey! Speaking of Dark Horse… Aren’t they publishing this comic-book called Grindhouse: Doors Open at Midnight? Doesn’t it have some top notch creators making new content? Hmm… I seem to recall Stephenson mentioning this other comic-book that people are really excited for that Image will publish soon-ish called Bitch Planetwhich sounds kinda similar… Now I think both of these comics can coexist and be really happy, but if Stephenson wants to take shots at the competition, well… it’s worth pointing out.

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Anyway, yes! We “have trained the world to think of comics as “Marvel and DC superheroes[,” and yes we] need to fix that,” but you’re not going to change anyone’s mind by simply shouting new content at everyone all of a sudden. We need a mix of recognizable and new content. Stephenson made a big point of highlighting The Walking Dead‘s success, and that its transformation into a TV show opened up all kinds of avenues. But, by his own logic, should TV audiences even have bothered with the show? It’s a licensed property? Should we even bother with HBO’s excellent Game of Thrones? Which arguably does some things better than the books. Doesn’t the same logic apply to other mediums? Should TV audiences even bother with any comic-book interpretations, they’re not the real deal after all? And, jeez, just forget about those summer blockbusters! (Never mind that they might bring people into stores)

Do you see how that doesn’t make any sense? Interpretations can actually be quite good, and through the strength of the chosen medium can bring something interesting, or new to the table. They can create fans, and in the case of The Walking Dead it can shine a much needed spotlight. Can you imagine comics today without The Walking Dead? Forget the New 52! The success of Kirkman’s comic has allowed Image to take a chance on a ton of new material, which is why we’re even having this conversation in the first place. That new content is moving the conversation away from superheroes, and giving new creators a chance. But we wouldn’t be having it in the first place if another medium hadn’t licensed The Walking Dead. So yeah! Image you’re doing some good work, but don’t bite the hand that feeds! That’s messed up.

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All those variant covers are indeed rubbish. Sure they look great, but ultimately they just reinforce the notion of comics as a collectible, and not art. I don’t think anyone really disagrees with that. Nor, really would anyone disagree that good new content will make the industry stronger. The real issue is that Stephenson took a my-way-or-the-highway approach that ultimately undermined his greater point and made him seem like he was trying to push his product down everyone’s throat. Especially since from a business standpoint it doesn’t make much sense for stores to take the extreme measure he seemed to suggest. The bottom line is that there are stores that carry DC and Marvel comics to the detriment of anything else, and this needs to change! But the endpoint is more of a balanced approach that caters to most tastes, and maximizes exposure.

The Real Deal!

So all this talking about the real deal, does raise some questions, like what is the real deal? And the answer my friends is Bill (freakin’) Watterson. Here is a creator that has stuck to his guns. That has made some amazing new content. That has not been afraid to speak his mind. Here is someone who spoke sense without ulterior motives.

Back in 1989, when newspaper strips were still going relatively strong, but the decline was also evident. When the size of newspapers was shrinking, and the comics in them slowly heading towards oblivion. This guy, Bill Watterson, the creator of that beloved strip, Calvin and Hobbes, decided to speak out – to point out that the shrewd practices of the syndicates were killing the industry by drying up new content, and that creators should not go along with it. He pointed out that endless licensing material ultimately diluted and destroyed good content. That ultimately only new properties, new ideas, could sustain the comics market and sustain interest. Sound familiar?

In many ways he advocated for something exactly like Image [and please note the obvious, and accurate, jab at the comic-book industry]:

“Consider for a moment that there may well be a market for comic books that has never been tapped simply because comic books have traditionally been an even sloppier; dumber, and more exploitative market than newspaper comics. But suppose someone published a quality cartoon magazine. Imagine full-color, big comics in a lush, glossy format. Why not? Just because cartoons have always been treated as schlock doesn’t mean that sleazy packaging, cheap paper, poor color; bad writing, and crude art are what comics are all about. Imagine a publisher who recognizes that the way to attract readers is to give them quality cartoons… and that the way to get quality cartoons is to offer artists a quality format and artistic freedom. Is it inconceivable such a venture would work?”

Why, yes, such a venture could work! Look at Image, and look at pretty much every other comic-book publisher, other than DC or Marvel who are content to strip pages from their comics and rely on gimmicks. Hey, I didn’t say Stephenson was wrong, just maybe that he’s more interest in promoting Image, instead of the whole medium. Let’s keep in mind that Boom, IDW, Dark Horse, Oni Press, Avatar, and many other publishers are also a great avenue to new creator-owned content.

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So what was Watterson’s solution? For him it’s always come down to control, after all look at the iron fist with which he has retained all control over Calvin and Hobbes.

“[B]usiness and art almost always have a rocky marriage, and in comic strips today the interests of business are undermining the concerns of the art. […] Without creator control over the work, the comics remain a product to be exploited, not an art. […] Simply put, the syndicates offer virtually the only shot for an unknown cartoonist to break into the daily newspaper market. The syndicates therefore use their position of power to extort rights they do not deserve. […] If a cartoonist isn’t good enough to make it on his own work, he has no business being in the newspaper.”

And that hits the nail on the head. He might have been talking about syndicates and newspaper, but his words apply just as well to Marvel and DC these days. It’s true that we’re moving much closer to a world where creators can indeed pursue their own creations, and it turn control this pursuit. But! We’re not quite there. It’s still not entirely economically viable, and part of the fault comes down on retailers and fans that refuse to consider anything other than superheroes. That reach needs to extend – again no disagreement with Stephenson on this point.

There’s really two concerns here. One is business, at the end of the day there are commercial concerns that have to be addressed. The second, and the most important is the art, which is what makes for good and innovative content. However, it is a marriage we’re talking about. Comics need to find an audience and sell, otherwise everything falls apart. The point, however, is that good art will sell – and that in the long term it’s good business to make good art.

It’s worth remembering that Watterson was primarily talking to creators, and emboldening them to seek other venues, and to create original material, rather than going along with the syndicates and plugging themselves into a machine content with creating the same thing over and over again. A message that is just as relevant today. By contrast, Stephenson is a publisher talking to retailers – and that makes for some different, if not entirely mutually exclusive, concerns.

It does behoove retailers to ultimately push new material and point readers in the direction of creators ultimately doing what Stephenson and (primarily) Watterson are talking about, but they cannot do so to the detriment of everything else. The truth is that readers can have some pretty fixed ideas, and starting them off on familiar ground is sometimes necessary, before challenging them with something new. Nonetheless, there is a responsibility that falls upon retailers, and to a large extent critics and news outlets, to educate readers and point them towards good comics – instead of serving the corporate needs of the big two.

Ultimately what makes me suspicious of Stephenson espousing these ideas is that he represents a very specific interest – that of a publisher, and not that of a creator, a retailer, or even a fan. He wants Image to do well, when really we need the whole industry to do well, and that requires a somewhat more balanced approach. Although, who knows, maybe we wouldn’t be having this conversation if he hand’t ruffled so many feathers.

TL;DR – Eric Stephenson’s interest is primarily that of a publisher, and while this may intersect with that of creators to a point, he’ll ultimately be looking out of Image Comics. On the other hand, Bill Watterson, being a creator, is primarily concerned with the generation of solid content, and so outlined a better blueprint decades before Stephenson. Either way, it all comes down to a balanced approach that permits good business, but that foremost allows for solid new content to be created.

About: Alex

Alex is the guy that runs and edits this blog. He’s been reading comics for as long as he’s been able to read, and somewhere along the way started forming opinions that extended beyond just Batman is cool, or Spider-Man is awesome, and more importantly decided to share these. Lately, he’s been getting a little burned out on mainstream comics, but has found solace in the indie world. There’s also his inhuman love of heavy metal, but we do not speak of that.

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