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So last week Robert Kirkman made a statement that got some folks kind of riled up. Kevin already quoted the relevant bits, so I’ll just try to paraphrase it the way I understand it. Everyone remembers Kirkman’s controversial plea from a couple of years ago when he asked “top creators” to give up doing corporate-owned comics and concentrate on their own stuff, claiming that’s what it’ll take to save the comics industry.
At the time, I could sort of see what he was getting at, but disagreed with how he was getting there. If I understood him correctly, what he meant by “top creators” was older writers who are producing overly complex, dark stories that kids can’t connect to. The implication was that these top creators needed to move on to their own material and make room at Marvel and DC for new blood that – Kirkman assumes – will be better able to write the kinds of corporate-owned stories that kids want.
The problem with this was that he was dismissing the efforts that Marvel and DC were already making in that direction. He briefly mentioned Marvel Adventures – a much bigger endeavor in 2008 than it is in 2010, as was Johnny DC – and immediately blew it off it as an imprint that “talks down to kids” and said that “that’s not what kids want.” As a grown-up who loves Marvel and DC’s kids comics and the parent of a kid who loves them just as much, I beg to differ. And from all the stories I’ve heard from other comics-loving families, my son and I aren’t alone. I question if Kirkman had ever read a Marvel Adventures comic when he made that statement.
Guys like Jeff Parker, Paul Tobin, and Fred Van Lente were killing on those series two years ago and – no coincidence – they’re still killing on the “regular” series they’re currently writing for Marvel. The issue isn’t the age of the writers or whether they’re a “top creator;” it’s the kind of stories they’re telling. There’s a lot more causing the failure of Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC to thrive in the Direct Market than just “kids don’t like them.” In fact, since I know that kids do like them, I’m pretty sure we can eliminate that as a cause altogether. Far more relevant to the discussion is whether or not parents are willing to buy them for their kids, and there are all sorts of pieces we need to look at in preparation for that discussion. My point is that it’s going to take a lot more than new blood at Marvel and DC to fix what’s wrong with their comics. Which brings us to Kirkman’s comments this week.
After the break: Image vs. Marvel over who gets to keep the kids grown-ups.
While asking Kirkman about his old comments, the GQ interviewer turns the discussion to “the aging of [Marvel and DC’s superhero comics] audience, and by extension the cultural irrelevance of comics in general.” We’ll set aside that Marvel and DC’s superhero comics are not the same as “comics in general.” Let’s pretend they are for the sake of argument. Or we can at least acknowledge that that’s what GQ and Kirkman are talking about when they say “comics.” Kirkman’s argument is that particular writers like writing these dark, complex stories. I’ll argue with him about whether these guys are “top” or old or whatever, but not that they exist. No one’s denying that this kind of storytelling exists in mainstream superhero comics. And fewer and fewer are suggesting that it’s not hurting those companies in some way.
Where I part ways with Kirkman again is his assertion that if you want to tell “mature” superhero stories, then the only place for that is a creator-owned book. It’s okay in Invincible, but not in Spider-Man. As Tom Brevoort pointed out, that’s a double standard. The question is: should that be okay?
I’m all for double standards. They’re just another way of saying that life’s not fair, a lesson I learned a long, long time ago. I get to do things that my son doesn’t get to do because he’s eight and I’m not. I have friends who are richer than me and they get to have boats and Lexuses and gigantic RVs when I don’t. I don’t have to like it any more than my son has to like waiting until he’s older to watch Predator, but I’m not about to use the “that’s not fair” argument.
So, sure, it’s okay to have a double standard here if it’s warranted. Whether or not it’s warranted is the real question. Some comments in the Brevoort post suggested that it’s all about the licensing. If we’re going to sell bedsheets and action figures to the kids, then we need to make sure that the comics are appropriate for them as well. But is that really the issue? Yes, I think we should have some comics appropriate for the kids if we’re going to ask them to buy merchandise, but why do all of them have to be that way?
Look, I’m writing this as a guy who loves fun, kid-friendly adventure comics. That’s what this column is all about. In fact, my strongest disagreement with Kirkman is when he says “it’s cool to see superheroes rip people in half.” Personally, I don’t think it’s cool at all. But if you like that kind of thing, I’m not going to tell you that you shouldn’t be able to read it. Or that Marvel shouldn’t publish it. As poorly as he worded it, I’m with Brevoort on that one.
I want Marvel and DC to figure out a way to make Marvel Adventures and Johnny DC profitable. If single issues in the Direct Market aren’t the answer, find another way, because I know there’s an audience for it.
But I also want them to figure out a way to identify their grown-up books better. Just throwing a “mature readers” warning on them isn’t the answer. Besides their being easy to miss, I don’t like the stigma attached to those warnings or the constant arguing about whether or not the books are actually “mature.” We can do better than that. What I’d love to see is a full-blown superhero imprint for grown-ups – like Marvel has with MAX – that’s easily identified with complex, darker stories. Vertigo isn’t it for DC; that’s its own thing. Let the creators who want go as wild as they want within those imprints, but maintain strict guidelines for what is and isn’t appropriate in the core line.
This lets everyone win. Big name creators get to keep writing the books that they want, even if someone else owns them. Everyone gets to read the books they want and thanks to the imprints’ trade dressing, those books are easy to identify. Where’s the hole in my thinking on this?