Move on … or don’t: a response to the Tokyopop dilemma
Chuck Austen’s advice to creators of lost OEL manga at the sorta-defunct Tokyopop is sound: Keep creating something new. That’s really a great rule for everyone of every profession. The other aspect of his advice was to abandon what was created and lost to Tokyopop. Heidi MacDonald endorsed the approach, observing, “If you can only create one successful property in 40 years, maybe this wasn’t the job choice for you.” While I appreciate the tough love, I don’t think that is necessarily a realistic position to take or a one-size-fits-all solution.
I prefer seeing new ideas, new concepts and new worlds from my favorite creators. However, I don’t think the quality of a creator, or the validity of his comics career, should be judged on the quantity, but rather on the quality.
The creative mind manifests itself in endless ways. Some creative people are restless, constantly searching for a new story to tell. Some have a dedicated, obsessive drive to explore one thing, one world, for as long as there’s something there that interests them. If publishers can crank out the same comics with the same characters year after year, why can’t creators do likewise if they want? Erik Larsen has been putting out crazy Savage Dragon comics for years. Sure, he’s done other stuff but at this point that will go down as his most significant work, and I don’t think that makes him any less of a creator. Is Dave Sim any less of a brilliant cartoonist for not having created something for the history books after Cerebus? Are Charles Schulz and Bill Watterson sub-par for each only creating one significant comic strip?
If any one of these guys found themselves in a similar position as Austen and his Boys of Summer, would they have been able to create something else equal to or greater than what they lost? Or would they create something like it and continue on as though it’s the same thing? Early comics innovator Rudolph Dirks did that when he lost The Katzenjammer Kids to William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, but it doesn’t take away from his legacy.
The all-or-nothing approach of “move on” is also forgetting that it’s possible to create something new and continue to fight for what was lost. That doesn’t guarantee what was lost will be retrieved, but if it’s something a creator really feels strongly about sharing with the world and they have the financial ability to do so, why not? A lot of creative types produce material that has varying degrees of significance to them. For some, never getting to publish the last book of their manga series is no big loss. For others, there is a greater personal or emotional connection to that material, and it’s worth the effort. Of course, eggs should be generously distributed across numerous baskets whenever possible, which comes back to working on other stories with great personal and emotional connections in the event the battle is lost.
Really, the minimum decent thing that Tokyopop’s Stu Levy could do is allow those creators to buy back majority control over publishing rights. He could even keep a percentage or keep the majority of movie adaptation rights (although the right of first refusal as director is pretty bogus), so he can still get money back from his original investment. At this point, anything would be an improvement over stagnant limbo hanging on the hopes of some non-specific good fortune. Such gracious business dealings aren’t likely to happen, so back to those new things Austen suggested.
The major recommendation was to write novels and release them as e-books through the Kindle, Nook and Print On Demand (POD). It’s awesome that this worked for Austen, and I love he shares the secret to his success. Again, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. I don’t think he was proposing that it is, but it’s important to point out that this isn’t instant money in the bank. G.I. Joe mastermind Larry Hama recently wrote how his e-book trilogy The Stranger, which he considers the best thing he’s ever written, only had about 50 purchases after being available on the Kindle for six months. G.I. Joe has a huge following, and Hama is worshipped within that fandom for his decades of contributions. On top of that, there are those closet Bucky O’Hare fans and Nth Man fans. Why haven’t they followed him to his novel? Hopefully, more of them have since found his book. And the good thing about an e-book or any digital product is that it will sit there waiting for more people to find it without the concern and costs of keeping it in-print (unless the service goes down). Austen didn’t mention how long it took for his novel to pay back in such great dividends, but the book linked to in his essay was released in 2008. Patience and a healthy savings account (or something akin to a producer job on a television series) may be required.
Austen is right to encourage creators to create more, own it completely, and use the digital space. I heartily agree with him. But his advice to move on is only one option. Not everyone is in the same financial or emotional space to be able to do that, or want to do that, because every creative person operates differently and is looking for something different from the work they do. I encourage them to explore their options.