ANDREW WHEELER: Five years ago we started this awful nonsensical drivel by talking about how we started reading comics. Five years later, are we all thinking about how we finished reading comics? What do we think of the last five years in comics?
ALASDAIR WATSON: I now go in to the comic shop once, maybe twice a month, when I'm passing. It's not that I don't care about comics; I still love the art form. But I have no interest in the industry anymore. It's the same constant cycle of hype and mediocre work, with everyone ignoring the stuff that is genuinely good.
WHEELER: So what happened over the last few years? Did comics change, or did you?
ANTONY JOHNSTON: I was going to ask that very question. Is this because you're not as close to the sub-culture of the industry?
WATSON: I got sick of the sub-culture. I got sick of it. I got fed up of watching the really good series - QUEEN & COUNTRY, PROMETHEA, the series that I think were genuinely impressive feats of narrative or art - watching them sit there at position 70 to 130 on the charts, selling tiny fractions of what the top-selling books were selling. I got fed up with it. I got fed up with this culture of 'no change, just the illusion of change' in these big mainstream titles.
JOHNSTON: You became disillusioned?
WATSON: Five years ago I felt like things might change. That was probably just the naiveté of youth.
JOHNSTON: But that's interesting, because I was going to say that I think things have changed. I think that change that we were all expecting around 1999 to 2000 is taking place, it's just taking a lot longer, and isn't playing out how we imagined it would.
WHEELER: What change?
JOHNSTON: The change towards a more diverse medium; diversity of genre, and the viability of that diversity, and an increasingly diverse readership, fanbase, whatever you want to call it. I think it is happening, but it's happening slowly, and it's happening in ways that nobody really could quite have anticipated. Like with the manga explosion. It was very much a cult phenomenon, and now it's... well, an incredibly popular cult phenomenon.
WHEELER: But manga is an example of a revolution that everyone thought was going to change the face of comics, and it actually created a parallel market and left the comic industry as we know it largely untouched. We've been left with a continuing march of mediocrity at the big publishers, which I think is crushing small publishers. Marvel is trying to take everyone's money, and it's still imploding, and it's killing the industry.
WATSON: Sales are still going down.
JOHNSTON: They are, but sales are always going down.
WATSON: At what point do admit that this means the industry is dying?
WHEELER: You can't keep serving the same fans, because they will give up.
JOHNSTON: I agree entirely, but the question is, is the direct market the industry?
WHEELER: No. But it's all we've got for now, for most publishers. If it dies, they die. There will be other comics to take their place, there will be other publishers to take their place, but it seems we'd be wasting an awful lot of talent.
JOHNSTON: I don't disagree, but if we can be non-partisan about it - I hate that phrase, I'm sorry - and step back; if we're not so concerned about the welfare of publishers that we like, or creators that we like, I think we'd see that it's actually not that bad. If the direct market implodes, on an artistic level it really wouldn't be that much of a disaster, because those other works, those 'non-mainstream' works, have found an audience, and that audience is growing. I was talking to people today who are involved in prose publishing, and they are all getting into comics, and finally discovering them.
WHEELER: What comics are they getting into?
JOHNSTON: Well, certainly not SPIDER-MAN. They're reading things like PERSEPOLIS and Joe Sacco and Dan Clowes, and they are finally taking the medium seriously.
WHEELER: I worry that this sense of getting into comics is no different than 'getting into architecture'. You'll buy three books for your coffee table. While that's commendable and lovely and terribly middle class, I would like people to be reading comics for entertainment as well. I want there to be exciting, lively, sexy, glorious, beautiful, colourful comics.
JOHNSTON: I can only speak for the people that I was talking to today, but they are definitely reading for entertainment value, not because it's a fad. They are discovering that there is this breadth of material that is entertaining that they had no idea existed before. It just seems on that level the audience seems to be growing and growing, as everyone hoped it would in the 80s - but back then it imploded because there wasn't enough good material.
WHEELER: Is there now?
JOHNSTON: I think there is. And I think there's more good material being published more often, to maintain that interest. How regularly now do we see something like a BLANKETS or a PERSEPOLIS? Or an EIGHTBALL? Or a BLACK HOLE? Or an IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS? How often do these books come out? A lot more frequently than twenty years ago. That alone is, I think, a massive improvement, that there is a market for ten or twelve of those books to be published every year. It's miniscule compared to great novels that are published every year, but it is a massive increase.
WHEELER: And will that interest lead to an interest in a Scott Morse book, or a Manu Larcenet book, or a Kurt Busiek book?
JOHNSTON: It might. But that's when you start to evangelise certain books or creators you like over whether or not people are consuming the art form. There's nothing wrong with that, in the same way that if you're the fan of a particular director you would want people to watch those films. And they are watching films, they're just not necessarily watching the films you might want them to watch. That's not a bad thing. Unless everyone's watching middle-of-the-road fare.
WHEELER: But if no-one's going to be making ORDINARY VICTORIES or BAREFOOT SERPENT or ARROWSMITH because there's only room for the books that get featured in the Guardian, there's only room for black and white autobio 'I was in Iran/Uzbekistan/name-your-hellhole' comics...
JOHNSTON: Then you have to rebuild the market. Much like novels, there are only so many 'worthy' books that you can bear to read before you think, you know what, I just want to read a Patricia Cornwell thriller.
WATSON: That's marvellous, but you're talking about all the books that people are finding. They're not finding the ones that are just entertaining, that are good, light entertainment.
JOHNSTON: There are only so many worthy books that someone can read before they think, you know what, actually I just want a bit of escapism.
WATSON: And I'd like them to come to comics for intelligent escapism, for mature escapism, rather than just for 'pick-your-hellhole' comics.
JOHNSTON: Is it so bad if people come for the cream first, then read other comics as a result?
WATSON: They'll find 'the cream' in comics, and then they'll think 'now I want something relaxing', and they'll go and read a Christopher Brookmyre novel. They won't go and look for a comic. I want them to see the same breadth in the medium that I see, not just find the stuff that suits their prejudices of what good comics are.
JOHNSTON: I agree, and laud that, but it takes time. It is happening, but I think it's happening a lot more slowly than many of us hoped it would.
''People are discovering a breadth of material that they had no idea existed.'' WATSON: And that comes back to why I'm jaundiced about it now. I'm not saying it won't improve, but I spent years waiting for this industry that was for the most part ignoring any changes for the positive. IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS - how many people do you know who also read X-MEN, who have read that? It bothers me that great works are being published in a medium that people profess to love, and people who call themselves fans of comics aren't reading them.
WHEELER: They're not saying they're fans of comics, they're saying, 'I love comics', because they love the comics they read. OK, in many cases they should be slapped for doing so, because Joss Whedon's ASTONISHING X-MEN is astonishing garbage, but they're really not saying that they want to read a comic about a woman in a burkha, or weird claustrophobic black-and-white horror.
WATSON: I know they're not claiming that, but I don't understand why they're not.
JOHNSTON: Surely that's the mirror image of what I was saying; you can apply exactly the same feelings to people who read IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS but have no interest in something like ARROWSMITH.
WATSON: Absolutely. I want this breadth of medium I love, and I know it's happening slowly, and it's not that the strides are being made too slowly, it's that there are still these mouth-breathing inbreds who don't pay attention. I stopped writing columns for Ninth Art because I got sick of it. That's it.
JOHNSTON: Andrew, what about you?
WHEELER: What? What are you asking me?
JOHNSTON: You never answered your own question.
WHEELER: I can't remember it. It was ages ago. What was the question?
WATSON: What have you been doing for five years?
WHEELER: I've been editing Ninth Art! Leave me alone.
WATSON: How are you not sick of all this?
WHEELER: That's why we're stopping! No, I didn't say that. Five years! Comics! I really do love comics, in all their forms, from the top to the bottom. In the same way that I love film - I love my 1940s noir, and I love my big explosive nonsense, and I love small, intelligent, well-structured films. And I'm like that about comics, and I'm genuinely passionate and... Why can't everyone be more like me?
JOHNSTON: Now we come to the root of the issue!
WATSON: Oh God. What have I just said?
WHEELER: It is perplexing to me that people are so ignorant about it, because you can love PERSEPOLIS - and I do - and you can love something pulpy and gorgeous like ARROWSMITH, all you have to do is be open to all of it, and not shy of any of it, and not mired in the stupidness of the fan culture. And the fan culture is a huge problem; Marvel and DC are embarrassing themselves with what they're putting out these days.
WATSON: And the thing is, two, three years back it looked so promising.
WHEELER: Yes. Who thought we'd ever be saying, Bill Jemas, we miss you? But that's what it amounts to.
JOHNSTON: You'd be amazed how many people in the industry I've heard say that over the last year. It's quite shocking.
WHEELER: Joe Quesada needs to go.
JOHNSTON: Do you think this general feeling of malaise is possibly because we set ourselves up as evangelists?
WHEELER: We said, when we started Ninth Art, that we wanted to talk intelligently about the art and industry of comics. And in having that conversation we've realised that we're using too heavy a brush; there are too many parallel strands to be able to talk about comics as if it were one cohesive thing, but everyone thinks of it that way. And I think we've come to the point where we really have to start picking out the threads. Well, we don't because we're going.
WHEELER: But someone else can. Manga is it's own creature, and Marvel is its own creature, and Fantagraphics is its own creature, and we've got to stop talking about comics as if it was all heading in one direction, because it's not.
JOHNSTON: I would agree with that, very strongly. And it's interesting, because when you mentioned how the major companies have flooded the market to the extent that they're destroying the independents... It's a contentious issue, to say the least. An awful lot of people - retailers, publishers, even critics - will tell you that it's nonsense, and indie books are not selling any less than they were before, because the sort of person who buys BAREFOOT SERPENT or Joe Sacco books doesn't care what Marvel or DC are doing, and they will buy those books regardless.
WHEELER: But what about the sort of person that buys Slave Labor or Oni or Image?
JOHNSTON: That is murky ground. I'm not necessarily saying that this is what I believe, but there's a very strong argument being put forward by a lot of people that one does not affect the other. And I think that ties in very much with what you're saying about how they are their own creatures. They effectively have their own separate markets. There's not much crossover at those extremes. But there is crossover, as you say, when you get to a companies like Image and Oni and Slave Labor.
WHEELER: I'll tell you where the crossover is; it's not in the audience, necessarily; it's in the creators. That's where Marvel and DC are killing the industry. Because they are signing up promising creators and great artistic talents to exclusive deals where they throw money at them, and none of these guys are pursuing their own work anymore. You can see where all these potentially or formerly very talented people are wasting the best years of their creative lives producing stuff that's just not the work that would help lift the market.
JOHNSTON: So you think the indies are suffering because their best and brightest aren't producing the sort of work that brings people to that area of the market?
WHEELER: Yeah. I'm not saying that Brian Bendis is going to produce the best indie books, but he's going to produce ones that will sell. OK, these people owe no responsibility to comics, but they should love them a little more. I think they're shaming themselves and hurting the industry.
WATSON: What's worse is that, a generation on, there will be people thinking this is what you do; you do a couple of well received indie books, then you go off and get the really big cheque and you have a nice easy career.
JOHNSTON: To be fair, isn't that exactly what people now are probably thinking about how things worked ten, fifteen, twenty years ago? When you had people like Alan Moore, who did a few little indie works, did MIRACLEMAN, then went to the States and became famous. Or you have Neil Gaiman, doing his little indie books and then suddenly he does SANDMAN. Warren Ellis does a few low key, low profile books, and then suddenly...
WATSON: But all the creators you've mentioned there, they've all kept on doing their own thing. They are doing their own damn thing, they are writing their own artistic vision.
WHEELER: It makes absolute perfect sense, having made your name on a small book, to go and do something big, to build your brand, because that gets people back reading the other works.
JOHNSTON: Assuming that does work, and that in itself is debatable.
WHEELER: But it's the thing to try; one for yourself and one for the studio.
JOHNSTON: The George Clooney/Gary Oldman method, yes.
WHEELER: It's the ethical way to do business.
''Talented people are wasting the best years of their creative lives.'' JOHNSTON: Ethics? Ethics? In Comics? With great power comes great big cheques.
WHEELER: It would be nice if a few people would pay attention to the moral. OK, so, we're going away. What's going to happen in the next five years? Without us here to guide the comic industry...
JOHNSTON: I think I can confidently predict that there won't be a rash of sites inspired by Ninth Art suddenly springing up in our wake to fill the void.
WATSON: Believe me, folks, if you're considering it, just don't do it.
JOHNSTON: Not unless you're still in your teens and have the energy.
WHEELER: And are independently wealthy.
JOHNSTON: And have a Batcave.
WHEELER: Well, if you have a Batcave, do anything you like.
JOHNSTON: I think manga is here to stay. Manga will continue to get bigger and bigger. There will be some terrible commercial disasters along the way, because everyone will continue to bandwagon jump, but at the end of it I think it will shake out to be a legitimate, very commercial, very successful branch of the industry. I think online comics will continue to evolve, but I wouldn't like to try and predict exactly how, because I would look very foolish in five years time.
WATSON: Or six months. If you'd asked me five years ago where things would be, I certainly wouldn't have predicted where they are today. I don't like predicting things and getting them wrong.
WHEELER: All right; in five years' time, you tell me what happened and I'll edit it back into this article.
WATSON: That works. Come back in five years, kids, and you can see the next update! I really think we're just going to see more slow implosion, because it's all we've seen for the last five years. Your arguments about bookstores and manga notwithstanding, the market that I came out of, fell in love with, was enthusiastic about five years ago will just continue to implode. I think Marvel and DC, one or the other will eventually collapse. One will end up buying the other. Either that or Marvel will get bought by Sony or some other big entertainment company.
JOHNSTON: It has been rumoured many, many times. Let's not forget that DC are owned by Warner Brothers. It wouldn't lead to the death of Marvel, necessarily.
WHEELER: I don't think it could do Marvel any more damage than they've done to themselves already. It might be a very good thing for them. It's interesting to think that after years of just wanting to whack Paul Levitz upside the head with a spade, he now actually seems to be taking a couple more risks with his line. Some of the things they've got in the works are not completely conservative. They're introducing some diversity to their line.
JOHNSTON: Let's not forget things like the Humanoids experiment and DC's CMX manga stuff. They may be slightly half-hearted attempts, and the Humanoids deal failed for a number of reasons, but at least they tried.
WHEELER: At least DC are trying to reboot books in a way that's new audience friendly, in spite of their ridiculous carbuncle crossovers. They're putting people like Grant Morrison in a position to try to re-energise their universe. They're trying to use what talent they have intelligently, in a way that Marvel was doing a couple of years ago and failed to follow through on. I always thought that Levitz was a coward, but I think he's getting bolder. I don't think we're going to see that at Marvel under the current regime, because they're so scared, so terrified of Wal-Mart.
WATSON: What you're describing sounds like the same thing that's always happened; when DC are on top of their game, Marvel look rubbish. When Marvel are falling apart, DC look good. But DC are only ever measured in comparison to Marvel.
JOHNSTON: I actually think that Levitz has changed less than you think. I've always had slightly more regard for Levitz than you. I've read quite a few interviews with him over the years, and he's always come across to me as a corporate businessman, with all the pros and cons that implies, but he is very much all about the health of DC as a business. I never got the impression that he is against experimenting or taking risks, but he is a businessman first and foremost, and he is very, very good at it. I think DC have had enough successes over the last two years that some of the things he wouldn't have risked for financial reasons before, they're now in a position to do. Horribly boring answer, I know, but that's the way I perceive it. Marvel, I don't know. They're much harder for me to pin down.
WHEELER: Marvel have become a conservative, reactionary company because they are all about not offending Hollywood, not offending Wal-Mart, and making sure they appeal to the safest middle-of-America audience.
JOHNSTON: An accusation that's often levelled is that it's the hare and the tortoise - DC are very slow and think very long term, and can possibly do this because they're under the wing of Warner Bros, and Marvel are all about the quick cash grab, and don't really plan for the long term.
WHEELER: I think at the moment Marvel are trying to be slow and cautious, but they're really fucking themselves for the future. They are telling stories for the quick crash grab, thinking they're being brilliantly strategic when they're actually going to find in a year's time, two, three years' time, that they've become a barren universe, that they've tied themselves in so many 'cool' ideas that they have no intelligent stories left to tell, and they've got the same tired marauding team of miserable fratboy hacks churning out turgid bullshit stories.
WATSON: Sorry, wasn't that my line?
WHEELER: Oh, sorry, I'm reading your script.
JOHNSTON: By the nature of the mainstream market, though, doesn't that mean in three years' time some enfant terrible will come along and do an INFINITE CRISIS and completely re-energise and reinvigorate Marvel?
WHEELER: Yes. Someone will. Joe Quesada will fuck up, and he'll be gone, and someone else will come along and get the gig.
JOHNSTON: I didn't necessarily mean the editor-in-chief. I meant maybe a creator.
WHEELER: No, but it will be. Joe Quesada can't last forever. So long as the job doesn't go to Brian Bendis, it'll be fine.
JOHNSTON: I don't think Bendis would want it, would he?
WHEELER: No, I don't think so.
WATSON: Who would you like to see taking that job?
WHEELER: Someone from the old guard. Someone who understands the Marvel Universe.
WATSON: Is that what's required?
JOHNSTON: If the universe becomes barren in the next three years, as you've predicted, does it really matter?
WHEELER: Marvel lives and dies by its universe. If Marvel is going to survive as a company it's going to need someone who understands its universe to run it.
WATSON: But what reinvigorated them briefly was when Bill Jemas came in, who didn't understand the universe, who said, fuck it, we're going to change this and this and this, and we're going to blow this bit up...
WHEELER: No, I think that's what's happening now. Marvel's fans care about the characters. The writers on there now don't seem to really care. They only care about their own legacy and their cult of personality. Marvel, if you accept it for what it is, needs an editor-in-chief whose first responsibility is to respect the fans.
WATSON: I've never liked the idea of responsibility to the fans. Surely the only job is to tell the best story they can?
WHEELER: And in the Marvel universe, that means telling the Marvel universe story. They're not going to tell a Joe Sacco story.
WATSON: I'm not looking for that. But I'm looking for them to say, fuck it, Spider-Man's done, let's kill him and leave him dead.
JOHNSTON: Like they did with Bucky?
WHEELER: There's no point killing Spider-Man. There's no reason for it.
''The market that I came out of, fell in love with, will continue to implode.'' WATSON: I'm taking an extreme example. I'm saying, let's make a serious change to the universe. Let's actually change things. [Note: This conversation was recorded before the decision to unmask Spider-Man was revealed.]
WHEELER: But five years ago, this is where we were, we were saying wouldn't it be great if something changed everything. But it's not needed.
WATSON: My one thesis for how to do a good job as a creator is 'do something new every time'. That's it.
JOHNSTON: Regardless of whether or not it works?
WATSON: You're going to fall on your face half the time.
WHEELER: You can tell new stories, but where that principle of 'something new every time' manifests itself in the Marvel universe at the moment is in desperation; they put Spider-Man in an iron armoured costume. That's what happens. They decide to wipe out the mutant population, because it's 'something new'. But good storytelling is what you need, not novelty for novelty's sake.
JOHNSTON: Can I just say, having thought about it while you two were ranting about Marvel; Dan DiDio.
WHEELER: Dan DiDio? As the new Marvel EiC?
JOHNSTON: Wouldn't it at least be interesting?
WHEELER: It would be very interesting, but I don't think he likes Marvel.
JOHNSTON: Well, I don't care!
WHEELER: I don't mean the company, I mean the universe. These people are fanatical. I've spoken to Marvel writers who do not want to write DC characters because they think they're imperious and boring. I've spoken to DC writers who don't want to write Marvel characters because they're whiny and small. Dan DiDio is a DC man.
JOHNSTON: Was he a DC man before he went to work for DC?
WHEELER: I think so. I think he had opinions on Hal Jordan.
JOHNSTON: Card-carrying member?
JOHNSTON: I just think it would be interesting, after being responsible for one of the biggest shake-ups in the history of the DC universe, if DiDio took over from Quesada.
WHEELER: It would be very interesting, but hell, let's put Tom Spurgeon in charge of the Marvel universe if you're going to go for the long shot. All right, so in five years' time; manga will still be here, and still big. Marvel and DC will still be churning through the same tired pattern of peaks and troughs. The independent market; publishers will still be going through a cycle of bust and hope...
JOHNSTON: I think so. I don't think you'll ever kill the independent market.
WHEELER: But you'll keep killing individual publishers. Not you personally. Well, possibly.
JOHNSTON: Is there money in it?
WHEELER: The bookstore market; here to stay?
JOHNSTON: Here to stay. It'll probably go through a boom/bust, then stabilise. I don't think it's stabilised yet. It's still booming, and busts follow a boom, but it will stabilise. I think this time enough has been done to make it stick.
WHEELER: The Hollywood market?
WATSON: Please, let it end!
WHEELER: I don't think it's going away. I've been saying for years on Ninth Art that it's not going anywhere. Everyone else was saying it would die, but I was right.
JOHNSTON: It may diminish in volume, but I don't think it will ever die off now, because they've just become the same as novels, they're just another source of stories to adapt.
WHEELER: And the highbrow art book market?
JOHNSTON: I think that'll expand. I think in five years' time it'll be bigger than it is now. Just because more and more people seem to be getting in to that area.
WHEELER: And webcomics?
WATSON: There are still so many things I'd love to see in webcomics that are technically possible. There are so many webcomics I love, but I haven't seen anyone get stuck in to the technical side of it.
WHEELER: I think the internet will create a big change in the comics market in another way. We've been saying for years that it's going to become a major point of distribution for comics, and I still think that's going to happen. I think the single issue on the web followed by a printed trade approach is going to happen, like Carla Speed McNeil is doing with FINDER. I think the increase in comics piracy is going to force people to distribute comics online, because if you're a Marvel zombie and you're only reading for continuity, and you can read a shitty Marvel comic for free, then there's a good chance you will. Not that I'm encouraging piracy, because that would be wrong.
JOHNSTON: There's a suggestion that's been made by many people over the years, which may finally have come to fruition, of 'iPanels', or 'Comics Tivo', or an iTunes-style store for comics. I think that's going to happen.
WATSON: Yeah, I think there's going to be a rise in increasingly portable devices, your better internet phones, wi-fi networks; suddenly it's going to be practical to carry a digital comic in your hand. My PDA is of the standard where I could read a reasonably well-designed comic. It wouldn't have to be just a couple of panels to a page.
WHEELER: And finally, what about audiences? Will there be such a thing as the comics audience in five years' time? We don't talk about 'the film audience' or 'the book audience'. In five years, will there still be a 'comics audience'?
JOHNSTON: I don't think there is now, and I think it will become increasingly fragmented, and I don't think that's a bad thing.
WHEELER: And does that mean the death of the comics community?
WATSON: Please, please, please.
JOHNSTON: No. Because the comics community is pretty much by definition hardcore anyway. In just the same way that there is a community of film buffs or crime novel readers, there is always a hardcore of people interested in their particular area of a medium, and I don't think that will change in comics. That hardcore in comics will not go away.
WHEELER: Will they diminish?
JOHNSTON: I don't think so, but everything else will grow around them.
WHEELER: The revolution of the discerning reader!
WATSON: And we can come back again in five years and have a bigger audience!
WHEELER: I'm not doing this again in five years. You've had your lot. We're finished. Go read Newsarama.
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