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>> Letter from the Editors

The best of times, the worst of times. Is the comic industry on the verge of greatness, and if so, what are the signs? The Ninth Art editorial board convenes around the drinks cabinet to consider the state of the industry.
25 August 2003

ANDREW WHEELER: Neil Gaiman said at the Eisner Awards that comics are on the cusp of a Golden Age, because there's greater diversity, because there's a greater recognition of the history of the form, because there are more women both reading and creating comics than before, because comics is being taken more seriously as an art and a form of entertainment, and because there are simply more adult and intelligent books available in a collected form. These were his pointers. These are the things he wanted the industry to achieve. But, as readers, do we feel we're on the cusp of, or in the midst of, the best of times?

ALASDAIR WATSON: No. I'm bored. I cannot find much to excite me about comics. The creators I have liked over the decade or so that I've been reading comics are - I don't want to say they're doing the same old thing, because that's not entirely fair to them, but when I got into comics ten years ago, there were creators who made me go, "Fucking hell, that's so bloody cool". I haven't had that feeling from a comic in so bloody long. I've had feelings of, "That's really good, I really enjoyed that", admiration and respect for the craft and all the rest of it, but I've not had that sense of, "Fuck me, that's clever".

ANTONY JOHNSTON: Isn't the greater worry that it's the same creators as well? Your favourite creators now are the same ones you had ten years ago when you first started reading comics. I presume you're talking about people like Ennis, Morrison, Ellis.

WHEELER: I think it's true of writers. The writers I'm reading now are the same favourite writers I've been reading for... probably not ten years, but for the past five years at least. But the artists are new. The artists that excite me are new. That turns around.

JOHNSTON: There does seem to be a greater turnaround of artists than writers, and I think there always has. Artists seem to come and go.

WATSON: There have been a few writers who have been added to the canon, whose work I will buy because their name is on it, but not many, and actually, they're not doing much that's radically different.

WHEELER: So you don't think there's been anyone, since you were 16, who is doing anything fresh?

WATSON: There are maybe a couple.

JOHNSTON: Gaiman said we're on the cusp of a Golden Age, right? That much I might agree with. I can't help thinking that something's going to break soon, and we're just around the corner from a Golden Age. I think the problem we've got is, yes, there's a massive amount of diversity out there, yes, there are great comics, and some of them better than ever before, but they're not getting enough exposure, a lot of them. There's so much grandstanding going on by the larger companies, trying to keep their own dominance over some of the new stuff that's coming up. A lot of it's getting overshadowed, and there just aren't enough people reading stuff like VOX or INFINITE KUNG-FU or QUEEN & COUNTRY to actually merit it being heralded as a Golden Age. There is this diversity of material, but a lot of people aren't aware of it. I keep thinking in six months or twelve months time that will change and suddenly everyone will know about these fantastic comics.

WATSON: But that's been the case for the past ten years.

WHEELER: Everyone's thinking that one day the sky's going to open and a great light will shine down. I don't think we're on the cusp of a Golden Age. I think you can tick all the boxes that Gaiman said; more women, more diversity, more recognition of history, more intelligence in storytelling, themes and subject matter, you can tick all those boxes and still not be in a Golden Age, because the industry itself isn't the art.

JOHNSTON: I tend to think the only thing that's missing is the commercial aspect, and I know that shouldn't have anything to do with the Golden Age. Yes, we do have all those things, which is wonderful, but what we still don't have is a viable commerciality.

WATSON: Big sackloads of cash.

WHEELER: I don't think comics will ever have big sackloads of cash.

JOHNSTON: But don't you think there should come a point when people like Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes should be able to support themselves making comics? Right now, they can't, they're taking on illustration work and what have you. And they have to do that. Certainly, before the GHOST WORLD movie, considering how long he'd been working before the movie came out, Clowes couldn't support himself on the sales of DAVID BORING, or whatever.

WHEELER: While I concede that Dan Clowes has never had a commercial sensibility - it's not like he's ever been in it for the money - I find myself not caring. Yes, it would be lovely if people could pursue their art and make their money from it, but by God Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life.

WATSON: That doesn't make it any better.

JOHNSTON: I don't want to get caught up in the commercial aspect, because you're right, it shouldn't be about the money, regardless of business realities...

WHEELER: I don't make any money out of comics, therefore I can afford to be very cavalier about artistic sensibilities.

JOHNSTON: But I think it's the one thing missing from this supposed Golden Age. I also think that what we're in now is a very much a diversification that is not settled, but is settling in to genre work. And I think we're going to need another two years, three years of real, solid, not exceptional, but good genre work. Real mainstream genres, as opposed to superhero stuff, like crime and spy and family drama and romance. And after we've established that the industry can do those, and it's not a freak occurrence, then, maybe, people will start branching out, and we'll go through a period of real genius.

WATSON: But I don't think we have established the industry can do those, and I don't think in two or three years we'll have established it, because I don't think the sales will have gone up.

JOHNSTON: I don't think it's linked to sales.

WATSON: It is if you're a publisher. A publisher's going to be looking at this stuff and saying, "That kind of thing sells well, that kind of thing doesn't, we'll do more of that".

'I'm bored. I cannot find much to excite me about comics.' JOHNSTON: That's not true of every publisher. That's certainly not true of a lot of the medium sized publishers, such as Alternative or Fantagraphics.

WHEELER: Do you think those publishers are the ones who'll break it?

JOHNSTON: I think it would be naïve to look to Marvel or DC, or Image or Dark Horse.

WHEELER: Wouldn't it be equally naïve to suggest that Fantagraphics or Alternative is going to make the big push?

JOHNSTON: I don't think they're going to make the big push - I don't think anybody can make a concerted push, you can't force people into liking something.

WHEELER: But the breakthrough is going to come from them?

JOHNSTON: Yeah, I just don't think it'll be a forced breakthrough.

WHEELER: You think people will stumble upon Fantagraphics?

JOHNSTON: I think they'd have to.

WHEELER: I think they already have stumbled upon it. I think we've already seen the big media acceptance of comics, this cycle around. We've seen Chris Ware win an award for his book, we've seen newspapers covering PALESTINE and PERSEPOLIS.

JOHNSTON: But it's still treated as a novelty.

WHEELER: It is a novelty. It will only ever be a novelty, because it's comics.

JOHNSTON: That's precisely my point. If we can get past the point where it's a novelty.

WATSON: But how can we?

JOHNSTON: France has!

WHEELER: France did it a hundred years ago!

JOHNSTON: I know! Exactly! The point is, it can be done!

WATSON: If someone picks up a French comic and think, that was interesting, and walks into a French comic shop - or 'supermarket', as we like to think of them - they'll see a great preponderance of other works that have the same diversity that you'd get in a book shop. They see the work as one of many different types. If someone buys Chris Ware's book and wanders into a comic shop, fuck me, it's BATMAN everywhere.

JOHNSTON: But that's exactly the point...

WATSON: But it will still be BATMAN everywhere, because until you get the smaller publishers actually getting the same amount of clout in a comic shop - the same amount of space in a comic shop - it will still look like it's fucking BATMAN everywhere.

WHEELER: I think it's part of Gaiman's point that you can walk into a comic shop now and you can see - in a good, well stocked comic shop or book shop - incredible diversity. But then you look at the publication date on those books and you realise, that's twenty years worth of books that's been made into a collage of respectability. It doesn't represent the market.

JOHNSTON: I think it is down to the retailers, whether they stock their shelves entirely with BATMAN and superhero stuff.

WATSON: And they will. Because they're bastards. We all know the good retailers...

JOHNSTON: They are in the minority, there's no doubt about that, but that doesn't mean that might not change.

WHEELER: There's a lot of 'might's and 'what if's in your thesis for the Golden Age. You're saying, "if this happens in the next two years", and you'd have said that same thing two years ago. "If this happens in the next two years...". How many "two years" have to pass before you give up?

JOHNSTON: I certainly feel more confident now about it happening in the next two years than I did two years ago.

WHEELER: So do you think, in two years, that there will be a diversity of genres?

JOHNSTON: I honestly don't know, but I'm honestly more confident about it happening in the near future than I was two years ago. I don't think the situation is in any way worse than it was two years ago. Two years ago I think comics were pretty much in the doldrums.

WHEELER: I'm terrified of the complacency that being on the cusp of a Golden Age suggests. I think it inspires people not to try harder.

JOHNSTON: But didn't Gaiman, in that very speech, end with a plea for people not to rest on their laurels?

WHEELER: He did. And what message do you think people will take away from that? Do you think they'll take 'try harder', or do you think they'll take 'isn't it lovely'? They'll hear what they want to hear, is my fear. You can call me a negative nabob, if you wish.

WATSON: A what?

WHEELER: A nabob of negativism.

JOHNSTON: It could be because I read the transcript rather than attended the speech, but I actually came away with more of a sense of 'must try harder'. Because I felt that way about comics for an awfully long time, and it's nice to hear someone with a bit of clout actually saying it. I'm sure Gaiman's been saying it for a while as well, but it's nice to hear him publicly and forcefully saying it to a large group of influential people.

WHEELER: Well... it wasn't that large.

WATSON: They'll have been too drunk at the time anyway and wouldn't have remembered it.

WHEELER: No, it was the keynote, people would have been sober when they went in. Well... a large portion of the comics creators would have been sober when they went in. Maybe five or six of them would have been sober when they went in.

WATSON: It's not the creators that you have to convince. It's never been the creators. It's always been the retailers.

JOHNSTON: No, I think it is the creators, because regardless of how much cheap labour Marvel can pull in - as goes the common conspiracy theory at the moment - to replace the creators who are fucking off somewhere else or are getting too expensive, if every creator in comics suddenly turned around and said I'm not going to write this pedestrian stuff anymore, I'm going to strive not just to do my best, but to go one step further and do even better than that, the publishers wouldn't really have much choice but to accept it.

'I think the commercial aspect is the one thing missing from this supposed Golden Age.' WATSON: Yes they would. They'd go, "you, you and you off the internet, come and write these books, you're cheaper and you'll do what we tell you".

JOHNSTON: Industry-wide? There aren't enough people out there.

WATSON: Yes there are.

WHEELER: You think they'd willingly fill the entire industry with ringers?

JOHNSTON: Just because the creators said, 'Well actually, we want to do better'?

WATSON: Just because the creators said we're not going to do your superbooks.

JOHNSTON: I'm not talking about them saying, "I'm not going to do BATMAN anymore". I'm talking about if they reapplied themselves and strived to do better than before, rather than doing something that's simply acceptable.

WATSON: The notion that there are people out there doing only what they think is acceptable fills me with disgust. I know there are these swine out there, but they should be strung up by their testicles and horsewhipped.

JOHNSTON: They're not swine, they're people paying the rent. It happens in every medium, and it happens a lot.

WATSON: If you can't pay your rent with your best work, and you're having to go with the acceptable, what the company will deal with, then you shouldn't be working in the fucking medium.

WHEELER: Comics is not and never will be predominantly occupied by artists. I mean in terms of people who are in it for art. It's never going to happen.

WATSON: And that's why I don't think we're on the cusp of the Golden Age, because for me the Golden Age is the point where the industry is stuffed with artistes and still making the money.

JOHNSTON: That's a fool's dream, in a commercial age.

WHEELER: The concept of a Golden Age, surely, is a fool's dream?

WATSON: It's the end of the rainbow that you have to keep chasing, otherwise you're not doing anything worthwhile.

JOHNSTON: Yes, but you still have to be realistic and know you're not going to achieve it. Which shouldn't stop you striving for it.

WATSON: But as soon as you say you're not going to achieve it, then it becomes acceptable to say, "Well, I'm not going to achieve it today, so I might as well do this to pay the bills and I'll get back to achieving it tomorrow".

JOHNSTON: Do you not think it's possible to be both realistic enough to say, well, it's probably never going to happen, but to also have enough optimism to say, but that's not going to stop me from trying.

WATSON: I think it is, and for some people they do keep doing it. But Chuck Austen still has a career.

JOHNSTON: Wouldn't it be better if everyone had that attitude?

WATSON: It would be, yeah. If you could get rid of the people who weren't doing it, that would be fine.

WHEELER: But you won't get rid of them.

WATSON: Because they'll always be there. Because at the end of the day, it's difficult and expensive for a publisher to deal with someone who will keep chasing the best they can do, because the best they can do is something that hasn't been done before, is not comfortable, and is not guaranteed to sell well. And therefore the publisher will go, 'We're not sure about that', and all they have to do is get someone new in. And they can.

JOHNSTON: It's less difficult and expensive than getting someone new in. And less risky.

WATSON: X-MEN will sell as well as it does whoever writes it. When Grant Morrison leaves X-MEN you might see a small sales dip. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised to see a spike as the traditionalists return.

JOHNSTON: I think the sales have settled down to what they were before he took over.

WATSON: Precisely. That's my point. It makes not one jot of difference who writes it.

JOHNSTON: But surely that's only true of a very few titles? You can't apply that even to every superhero comic.

WATSON: I think you can apply it to an enormous number of them.

JOHNSTON: If that were true, Peter David wouldn't be famous, because HULK would still have been selling fuck all when he took it over. It ended up selling twenty or thirty times as much. He took it from being the comic that nobody wanted to write to the comic that everyone was vying to write - and he got pushed off. Are we saying that once a book's been good, it will always sell as well, regardless of whether it gets shit?

WHEELER: It will coast for a good while.

JOHNSTON: And it will increase if it gets better?

WATSON: No. Sales go down. That's what they do. You trend it over time, they go down.

WHEELER: That is a fact of life. You have to find a sales plateau. Because from where you start, sales will go down.

JOHNSTON: What's your point?

WHEELER: I'm just explicating. I'm not agreeing with him.

WATSON: You're all against me!

WHEELER: I'm not agreeing with him either. I have this feeling that the Golden Age that Neil Gaiman speaks of, and what people hear when he says it, what it would be if it were to ever happen, would be this wonderful age in which everyone publishes their comics on a Xerox machine and sees it on sale in Barnes & Noble. The idea that everyone is the master of their own destiny, everyone is a creative dynamo, and everything is seen by everyone. Well, that just sounds like the internet democratisation of comics, and that's not the Golden Age. But that's what people are hinting at; diversity and availability and distribution are the touchstones of this Golden Age. What you boil this down to is, everyone's self-publishing crap on the internet.

JOHNSTON: Why does self-publishing on the internet follow?

WHEELER: Because not everyone can get distribution. If you make a mini-comic, you don't get distribution. Where can you distribute? On the internet.

JOHNSTON: Why does it have to be mini-comics? Why can't it come from people working in professional environments?

WHEELER: Because no-one looks at the Golden Age and thinks of the great bulwarks of the industry, the big publishing houses.

JOHNSTON: But that's why I'm talking about the medium sized publishers, who do have the clout to be carried in bookstores, but aren't one person sitting in their bedroom photocopying sheets of A5.

WHEELER: So then the whole industry becomes that middle area? The Golden Age is where everyone is Fantagraphics?

JOHNSTON: That's terribly exclusionary. While it's tempting to say yes, I'm not sure whether I actually...

WHEELER: So what is the Golden Age?

'Surely the concept of a Golden Age is a fool's dream?' JOHNSTON: It's where everybody is... no, I'm not sure. I won't say where everyone is the same size, because that's impossible and ludicrous, but it's where there are a greater number of medium-to-large publishers who don't have to rely on gimmicks and cash cows to stay in business. And that certainly hasn't happened yet, and is something that, if it does happen, is a good few years off.

WHEELER: But you think it's achievable?

JOHNSTON: I do think it's achievable, yeah. I have to.

WHEELER: What's your Golden Age?

WATSON: I haven't a clue. Something where there's a reason to be excited about comics.

WHEELER: Are we going to get the patented Alasdair Watson Nebulous Answer?

JOHNSTON: The Alasdair Watson trademark remark.

WATSON: Just because I'm not afraid to say 'I don't know', you bastards. Something that's creatively better than it is now, and economically better than it is now. Something where sales go up. There you go.

WHEELER: Sales is the most important thing?

WATSON: No, but if you've got the creativity there, and the marketing push there, sales will go up. I can't believe that if you tell the public, look at this, it's really cool, and it actually is cool, that they won't go and have a look at it, and pay money. Something where there is the creative push supported by the business to actually cause sales to go up.

WHEELER: Where it's in their commercial interests to be creative?

WATSON: Yes. Creative and different and actually showing off what comics can do.

JOHNSTON: I agree entirely. That is the Golden Age, where you can be creative and still make money, but that's what you were arguing was a folly.

WHEELER: And I do think it's a folly. I don't believe in a Golden Age.

WATSON: I don't think it's achievable either.

JOHNSTON: But earlier you were saying you don't think you can have full creative freedom and still be commercially viable.

WATSON: I think there's a danger that a lot of creators will vanish up their own arses.

WHEELER: I don't think you can have full creative freedom and be commercially viable if you don't have an editorial infrastructure. You impose infrastructure, you impose an organisation, you create the situation we have today. You create the CrossGens and the Dark Horses and the Images. That becomes the status quo. And I think there will be no Golden Age because there is this status quo. There will be ups and downs, but things won't get better, they'll just change. There is no bright, golden future. Comics just have to get better at what they do now. There is no 'better'.

JOHNSTON: Is there a 'worse'?


JOHNSTON: You seem to be implying that the status quo cannot change. If it can get worse, it can get better.

WHEELER: One publisher goes down and another comes up, and that way the status quo remains more or less the same. Sales overall may go up or down, but in my lifetime they're never going to go back to the stage where you're selling a million copies of a superhero book. But I think you have to work with the infrastructure that's in place today. I don't think you can pine away for this brighter future. Everything is not going to change.

JOHNSTON: I remain optimistic. It's not true that I'm considering my position.

WATSON: I'm depressed.

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