Coloring books, Paul Jenkins and the Big Two

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If you look in the “category” drop down in our footer, you’ll see one called 10 Days That Shook The World. This refers to the week in 2009 when, within a a few days, Disney bought Marvel, and DC announced the departure of Paul Levitz as publisher. The formation of DC Entertainment would be announced a few months later, signaling a greater participation by Warner Bros. in the affairs of DC Comics, a development Levitz had long sought to avoid, but the success of the Nolan Batman movies probably made inevitable.

In the days, weeks and months that followed every person who had skin in the BIg Two game speculated what this would all mean and how things would play out. Now I’m not going to say that the situation outlined by writer Paul Jenkins in this interview is exactly what I envisioned, but it doesn’t surprise me in the least. In a piece that is one long pull quote, this is the one that stands out for me:

The culprit, in my opinion, is the culture of the comic industry over the two and a half decades I have worked in it. When things are going poorly, the creators are most valuable. They are needed, so that they can pull the publishers arses out of the fire when creative bankruptcy sets in. When the business is doing well (and let’s face it, the Avengers just made 1.4 billion dollars) then the creators are disposable. Frankly, why on Earth would Disney have a care about a small industry like comics when their core product is the film and merchandising? They would naturally be most concerned with character maintenance


“Character maintenance” is definitely the direction that I envisioned Disney and WB taking their superheroes; I’ve since refined this into the “coloring book theory” which I laid out in my interview with Tom Spurgeon:

My metaphor for corporate comics throughout the year goes back to my days working at Disney in the '90s. I remember some of my friends working on a lot of branded books for Aladdin or Pocahontas or Mickey or whatever like kids picture books and audio books and coloring books… the gigs usually paid very well, but it wasn't like they went in to the editors' office and said "I have an idea for a Mickey Mouse Audio Book that's going to change Mickey's world forever." They just got a call from an editor and went in and pitched "Mickey Mouse is trying to mow the lawn" and a book got written. There was no ego involved. It's pretty clear that corporate comics are going in that direction. You get the call to write Firestorm or Firestar and the cheat sheet with the event of the quarter and that's it.


I would suggest that my mistake in the above is that in the current Big Two editorial climate, the freelancer doesn’t come up with the lawn mowing scenario, but rather the editors come up with a bunch of scenarios for Mickey. Kind of like this:
201306061108 Coloring books, Paul Jenkins and the Big Two
[via Kate Willaert]

Although I foresaw the corporate mandate of character maintenance becoming the #1 priority at the Big Two, I didn’t foresee quite how it would play out at DC. Graeme McMillan labeled the Jenkins interview “brutal” and here’s why it’s the Red Wedding of interviews:

DC is in the toilet right now. It reminds me of the way Marvel was just before we did Marvel Knights. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about the similarities and connections. Suffice it to say they have created a culture of dishonesty that affects too many creators. And the worst part of all is that they bully their creators. They tried to bully me, and I told them to go to Hell. The horror stories are many and varied. I have a few of my own, and I have heard way too many of them from various creators who are being beaten into submission with the threat of losing their jobs if they do not play ball. DC seem to have developed a culture where they think “professionalism” is screwing a creator in some fashion, and then pretending to be friendly at a convention. Professionalism is about handing in quality work on time, or about being friendly to fans at conventions, or about working towards a mutually beneficial goal. Professionalism is about dedication to your craft, not about running around the offices like a demented gerbil telling everyone how busy you are – so busy, in fact, that you forget to do any actual work. Here’s what pisses me off about this situation: it does not take a rocket scientist to see that there are a lot of very unhappy creators at DC lately. Well, can you imagine how many more are unhappy that we don’t know about because they feel if they speak out they will be blacklisted? Can you imagine the miserable conditions some of these creators are subjected to? (Disclaimer: not all creators, I am sure. Some are perfectly happy. Just not me.) The point is that DC has begun to act like a bully, to subject people to shitty working conditions as if it is doing them a favor. If I have seen good comics come from the creator/publisher collaboration, why the hell would I allow myself to be subjected to that nonsense at this stage of my career? I have numerous other interests, including film and video game work and my first novel.


While you can suggest that Jenkins is an out-of-favor has been creator—and I’m sure many are doing that today—you can also remember that this is a guy who wrote a pretty good Hellblazer and some of Marvel’s best selling limited series and graphic novels in the Aughts. So he’s been there and back, and knows about the varying levels of professional treatment you get in comics. I remember interviewing Jenkins for The Pulse many years ago (an interview no longer on line alas so I’m paraphrasing from my notes) and he summed up how it isn’t the magnitude of the stakes but the magnitude of what the stakes mean to a character that makes a great story:

I remember the time I took over Spider-man. I remember it very very clearly. There’s nothing you can do with Spider-Man; you can’t possibly write a Spider-Man story that hasn’t been written. If you looked at the context of the times, his wife had been blown up by a plane. I remember explaining to someone that if Stan Lee had written a story in the 60s in which Spider-Man was trying to get home with a pie for Aunt May, and he has a fight and has to balance the pie, you would care about him getting home with the pie. Nt now, who do you care more about, the pie or his wife?


Even if you think Jenkins isn’t in the mix, JH Williams, one of the best artists working in the biz today, was also irked this week over not having his villain story for Batwoman used:


Of course there will always be potholes in any creative relationship, but a little team spirit can add to the whole on any project. Jenkins pegs Marvel’s atmosphere as less chaotic but still not for him:

I have had a long relationship with them but I rather think we are simply growing apart. I think they have a certain publishing plan that suits them well for this moment in time, and who am I to argue against it? They are having a lot of success, and more power to them. I am not particularly a crossover guy, and I am not fully versed in what is happening in each issue of the various series. I have a particular style that I feel works for me, and it probably doesn’t fit Marvel right now.


As others have pointed out, there are times when Big Two comics are artist driven and others when they are writer driven. Right now they are editor-driven, and I don’t suspect that will change any time in the future. It’s here to stay.

It’s a model and it can work. But both Marvel and DC are in a bind because of that “standard attrition” and their need to stay profitable or (in Marvel’s case) show growth. As we know, every month retailers order less of even the most successful comics titles. In order to keep the bottom line even or rising, the Big Two must constantly reboot and relaunch. Marvel has a longer creative leash but a shorter fiscal one: cutting staff and boosting output has been their model for raising profits for a while now.

With Villain Month, DC is flirting with double shipping by boosting the number of titles coming out in each family. I don’t mean to belittle the yeoman service of the professional writer, but some of the people doing villain month have written actual kids chapter books, and these folks are probably way happier at DC than were the more colorful recent departures. I suspect that in the future, feeling that writing superheroes is just another gig and not a means of personal creative expression will be the rule rather than the exception, and everyone will be happier.

Comments

  1. I’d like to sympathise with Paul Jenkins about his problems, but after he’s done wailing about how terribly his previous publishers treated creators, by which he means *him*, Rich asks him about the known cases of his current publisher screwing over other creators, and his response is to wave it away because if it’s not happening to him it’s not his problem, so FUCK him.

    Also, if he wants to get sympathy from comics fandom about heavy handed editorial treatment, telling his big two ideas they wouldn’t let him do were “The Flashes leg gets blown off” and “Lex Luthor caps Ma and Pa Kent gangland stylee” is NOT going to work.

  2. If there were more editors like Stephen Wacker, I wouldn’t be so fearful of editor-driven comics. Could it just be his radical practice of hiring the best people that’s resulting in such high quality..?

  3. Joe S. Walker says:

    “Years ago at San Diego comic convention, Eddie Berganza tried to gauge my interest in writing the Superman title. I told him he would be unlikely to let me do what I thought had to be done: Lex Luthor holds a gun to Ma and Pa Kent’s heads, asks Superman if he is “faster than a speeding bullet,” and then blows their brains out. The idea being that the only way to get this untouchable, invincible character is to drive him crazy. Eddie blanched, of course, and said no.”

    I don’t think we’re poorer for that one never having seen the light of day.

  4. Synsidar says:

    If there were more editors like Stephen Wacker, I wouldn’t be so fearful of editor-driven comics.

    The superhero comics aren’t editor-driven, so much as they’re character-driven, and that isn’t going to change as long as series are based on corporate-owned characters and aren’t marketed to the general public. Compare Jenkins’s situation to a writer complaining about how hard it is to write good stories for soap opera characters. They don’t have enough screen time to do anything but have sex, plot against each other, and have breakdowns. If soap opera storylines are, in fact, terrible compared to genre fiction storylines, what realistic options are there for improving them? Or should a writer who wants to write good stories just get out of the soap opera business?

    DC’s situation is different from Marvel’s, perhaps because DC Editorial is under more pressure to produce profits, so editors feel more pressure to justify their existence and do things just for the sake of doing them.

    One important point is that the corporate-owned characters remain static, not because they’re such terrific characters and changing (e.g., aging) them would ruin them, but because there’s enough of an audience for those static characters that series can be published profitably without marketing expenses. If Marvel and DC were to try to market the comics to the general public, they’d probably be rejected like soap operas have been rejected, and money would be lost.

    People associated with Marvel’s Avengers are citing the success of the movie as proof of the wonderfulness of the characters, but I’d argue that the success of THE AVENGERS movie proves nothing about the comics. Aiming the storyline at the general public, making it video entertainment, and Whedon,et al. producing the movie skillfully are more responsible for the movie’s success than the characters. Crediting the characters for AVENGERS’ success is like giving Ian Fleming primary credit for the success of SKYFALL.

    SRS

  5. You’d think, rather than complain, you people would be congratulating Kate Willaert for streamlining this whole process.

  6. Johnny Memeonic says:

    Seems to me you can do almost anything at Marvel so long as you’re in the inner circle (i.e. your name was on the writing credits for Avengers vs X-men). And DC is disorganized and editorally driven like Marvel was in the 90s and for the same reasons.

    But hey, look on the bright side, if Amazon can somehow make profiting on fanfiction legal maybe Paul Jenkins will finally get to write that Superman magnum opus where Luthor shoots Ma Kent while holding his gun sideways.

  7. bad wolf says:

    Wow i guess you were all pretty impressed by that Superman proposal.

  8. In my experience (sorry!), the audience is really pretty good about catching sincerity (NOTE: this is DIFFERENT than “quality”), and books that are “coloring books” generally don’t have all that much sincerity.

    This is why, say, in the last comparison here on the Beat, DC’s SUPERMAN is down 26.5% at the one-year mark (from #7 to #18) while AQUAMAN is only down 14.5% in that same time period — one has a creative team that would appear to just be hired by Editorial in order to fill a slot, while the other has a creative team that has some actual passion for the work/character.

    In the long run, as a pure publishing concern, customers desire explicit passion, and there’s really only so long you can coast on “good will”/external-marketing-driven circulation stunts.

    -B

  9. One other point: “Standard attrition” is NOT (*N*O*T*) a function of “retailers ordering less” in the manner in which you imply — it is a function of our guesses about the consumer behavior. The Diamond order numbers are reflective of WHAT HAD HAPPENED MONTHS BEFORE.

    What I order of (let’s stay with SUPERMAN)#18 is “How many of #16 did I sell, plus or minus what I perceive the TREND to be” I actually think it’s pretty easy to parse out what sell-through was on any comic (typically after #4) by simply looking at what the next order is.

    Here’s the data collected by Marc-Oliver from that report:

    03/2012: Superman #7 — 66,588 (- 4.4%)
    04/2012: Superman #8 — 64,486 (- 3.2%)
    05/2012: Superman #9 — 62,232 (- 3.5%)
    06/2012: Superman #10 — 59,081 (- 5.1%)
    07/2012: Superman #11 — 56,066 (- 5.1%)
    08/2012: Superman #12 — 53,326 (- 4.9%)
    09/2012: Superman #0 — 60,493 (+ 13.4%)
    10/2012: Superman #13 — 52,155 (- 13.8%)
    11/2012: Superman #14 — 52,572 (+ 0.8%)
    12/2012: Superman #15 — 51,225 (- 2.6%)
    01/2013: Superman #16 — 50,621 (- 1.2%)
    02/2013: —
    03/2013: Superman #17 — 49,666 (- 1.9%)
    03/2013: Superman #18 — 48,236 (- 2.9%)

    See it? Everything that’s outside of ACTUAL “standard attrition” (1%-ish) is reactive to the issues before. DC gets that HUGE spike on the #0 because that’s SPECULATIVE — it’s *actually* “what we really sold of #11, plus 10% or so” of us HOPING that people might jump back on, but #13 warps immediately back to the level that #12 *sold*, since that was the most recent data point. The next little boost? #14, which is reflective of how consumers *actually* BOUGHT #0 — it worked a LITTLE, but not as much as WE were hoping.

    By #16 & 17 there you’re seeing that, for the most part, we all guessed correctly on #13 & 14 (They are in “SA” range), but that the audience didn’t much like #16 (a middle point in the Superman “Family” x-over), because #18 takes a too large jump downwards. And so on.

    If you’re seeing 3%+ drops on books on comics past issue (say) #6, that’s a fairly clear sign that the audience is not responding to the work. If MOST retailers are getting MOST titles MOSTLY right MOST of the time, they’re not going to be able to stay in business. The math is just too brutal otherwise for the (let’s call it) 6-700 SKUs that the “Premier” publishers flood the market with every month.

    To paraphrase Mr. Miller, I’d say “There’s nothing that can’t be fixed in the comics publishing industry that can’t be fixed. With my fists.” — EVERY problem that (Premier) publishers have in selling comics comes down to their own behavior.

    (Non-“Premier” publishers have a different set of challenges, but that’s a different essay)

    -B

  10. ” If MOST retailers are getting MOST titles MOSTLY right MOST of the time, they’re not going to be able to stay in business.”

    (should be: “…. are NOT….”)

    -B

  11. Synsidar says:

    Wow i guess you were all pretty impressed by that Superman proposal.

    What new things would you have Superman do, or is the attitude among his fans that Lois Lane is the only woman he can really love, he’s Earth’s protector forever and ever, and there’s no reason to deviate from that? If someone wrote a story that, say, had Superman discover that a planet on the other side of the galaxy had genetically compatible humanoids, he left Earth for that planet, and then discovered years later that Earth had been destroyed, would Superman’s fans think he’d been written as a traitor, or as someone acting in his best interests?

    AVENGERS ARENA has gotten some positive press, but I regard it as an example of pure manipulation, disposable characters (since AVENGERS ACADEMY was canceled) being used to manipulate their fans into worrying about them being killed. If that’s the only reason for the project, then whether the characters live or die doesn’t matter. The storyline is devoid of any point. If someone writes a murder mystery in which a group of characters is killed off one by one, the storyline will have various points in its favor, simply because it’s a mystery and a standalone work.

    SRS

  12. hsssh says:

    Now i like his work but those Flash and Superman examples make me happy that editors blocked him.

    Its also a bit worrying that he doesn’t seem to care about other creators being screwed by Boom! as long as he is fine.

  13. Nate A. says:

    The Superman quote is definitely cringe worthy, but it’s not like Jenkins is the only creator expressing frustration with editorial at DC. To suggest his entire argument is bunk because of an anecdote about a convention chat in which he pitched an idea he was already doing at Marvel anyway is a bit silly. Frankly, his description of the workings at both companies is basically a confirmation of every rumor we’ve hear about how DC and Marvel deal with their creators. Having said that, his demurral on the Boom stuff rankles.

  14. I’ve been free-lance illustrating since 1986, in all possible print venues including comix. One thing I’ve learned: the more potential a project has for making serious money, the worse the artist is usually treated.

    I’ve been broke pretty much nonstop since 1986 but I’ve had a pretty good time of it so far. Soyez zen …

  15. Shawn Kane says:

    If Paul Jenkins thinks that Superman fans want to see Ma and Pa get their brains blown out and Flash fans want to see him get his legs blown off and how he reacts to it, he must have realized that he thrilled all of those Rogue fans when he decided that she had some sort of physical relationship with Sentry. If he’s not interested in respecting the characters so that he can tell “his story” then he needs to work elsewhere.

  16. bad wolf says:

    Synsidar–I’m mostly in agreement with Nate A here; i think the original point The Beat was making about the industry turning slowly into a character delivery system with a few original OGNs around was important, and was just a little surprised that most comments were directed at a con pitch about a Superman proposal. Sure, not the best one i’ve heard, but i’ve heard some doozies, even from the Pros.

    I can’t tell if the readers have missed the forest for the trees, or are simply happy with the evident direction of the DM. Or both?

  17. Pepe LePew says:

    It’s sad that instead of discussing the actual message that Jenkins tried to pass, people prefer to discuss some quick ideas about the characters he had.

    You are the problem. You care more about the Superman’s wellbeing, or Flash, instead of writers and artists. You don’t want anything outside the comfort zone. Go eat fast-food and be happy.

  18. Noel Savory says:

    You people really are silly.
    Luthor killing the Kents is just an idea for a story.
    As a result, the writer gets to look at Superman in a different light in the aftermath of the idea.
    The same as the Superman Eath One book.
    What are you going to do? The character is 75 years old.
    What do you think The Dark Knight Returns is?

    Try something new.
    Try something different.
    If it doesn’t work?
    Fine.
    The character is robust, he can take it.

    Marvel was never more interesting since the Kirby/Lee days than when they were trying anything during their bancruptcy.

    Letting the writers and artists get behind stories that they are at least passionate about is something that should always at least be considered, and its clear that Jenkins was making a point at why he should not be writing these characters, because thats the kind of stuff he’d come up with.

    But the status quo leads to inevitable stagnation and entropy, and eternal constant change leads to instability.

    Which is what we have now.

  19. Shawn Kane says:

    And nothing is stopping Paul Jenkins from starting a comic called Really Fast Guy and having his legs blown off in the first issue. Then he can navel gaze for six issues and the Flash still has his legs and the status quo shaker uppers have a comic book they can read.

  20. Noel Savory says:

    True.

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  2. […] of this ties into the “Coloring Book Culture” of the Big Two that I talked about a while ago. But there’s also the very real decline in […]

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