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>> Letter from the Editors

Some comic creators like to market themselves as personalities, while others steer clear of the spotlight. Why did Grant Morrison go one way and Peter Milligan the other? The Ninth Art editorial board considers the question of image building.
22 September 2003

ANTONY JOHNSTON: Grant Morrison has yet again reinvented himself, this time as the saviour of DC, whereas two or three years ago it was as the saviour of Marvel because DC had done him wrong. Grant is undoubtedly one of the best people in comics at reinventing himself.

ANDREW WHEELER: He's the Madonna of comics. Maurice Horn compared Rob Liefeld to Madonna, but in terms of reinventing oneself every cultural cycle, Grant Morrison is the closest comics have to someone like that. He's fairly notorious for his 'public masks'. He's even admitted as much, that he lies in interviews...

JOHNSTON: Which is a grand old tradition. Morrison's hardly the first entertainment artist to lie blatantly in interviews just to take the piss out of readers and interviewers alike.

WHEELER: But it's not just to take the piss, it's to create an image. He doesn't want to sell who Grant Morrison is, because he probably thinks that Grant Morrison is some suburban, dull character, because that's what we all ultimately fear we must be.

ALASDAIR WATSON: I'm fabulous!

WHEELER: In Alasdair's case, it's more that everyone else thinks he's dull and suburban. Grant Morrison is far from alone. Warren Ellis immediately springs to mind as a creator who has branded himself.

JOHNSTON: I find it interesting that Ellis has done it so blatantly, because when he was doing his column on Comic Book Resources, one of his columns was about how Neil Gaiman has made himself into a brand. And Ellis seems to have followed that path very deliberately.

WATSON: But in a very different way.

JOHNSTON: But not any less successfully. He's got to the point where everyone knows his name, which is half the battle.

WHEELER: And where his name is enough to sell a comic.

WATSON: Noticeably, he's also significant enough outside of comics that when he attended that recent flashmob event in London, the BBC featured him as part of that story and linked to his site.

JOHNSTON: I think that's probably because he was one of the only people there with a public profile, but yes, at least they recognised that he had a public profile.

WHEELER: It's come to the point with Warren Ellis's work where I literally could not tell you what any of his recent series have been about - RED, RELOAD, et cetera - because it's not being sold to me on the concept, it's being sold to me on the name. And, OK, I didn't pick up these series, so it wasn't successful for me in that regard, but I wonder if it's working for other readers.

WATSON: I didn't pick up RELOAD, but I'm picking up RED and TOKYO STORM WARNING.

JOHNSTON: But you're already 'in', so far as you will at least give a look to anything that Ellis does.

WATSON: True, I will go and find out what it is just because his name's on it.

WHEELER: You and I, Alasdair, we remember Ellis from when he was the writer on EXCALIBUR. That's how we first encountered him, and he made a point of coming on to Usenet back in the day and building his brand there. That was the first sign of his brand building. He established himself as a writer outside the brand of the book, which is what made us decide to follow him off the book.

WATSON: As he said when he was talking about Neil Gaiman, the way Gaiman did it was to tour constantly. He still does it. If you're looking for a comic book rock star, it's Neil Gaiman; he spends half his life on the road. Ellis thought, hang on; I don't have to do this. I've got the internet. The entire world's on the other end of a modem.

JOHNSTON: What I find interesting about Gaiman signing and touring is that it's essentially what most prose novelists do, and I don't know whether that's deliberate on Gaiman's part because he's trying to emulate those guys, or just because he thought it was the right thing to do.

WATSON: Well, he started out in journalism interviewing a lot of novelists; he was a friend of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett - Pratchett is another one who spends half his time on the road. Any time he has a book out he does a signing tour at least of Britain. He's been doing it for years.

JOHNSTON: Let's get back to Grant Morrison for a minute. Morrison is very much in the vein of rock star-brand personalities, even down to the whole wearing different costumes for photo shoots, contradicting himself, deliberately misleading people...

WHEELER: Is it something rock stars consciously do, or is it just too many drugs?

WATSON: Does it make a difference, when we're talking about Morrison?

JOHNSTON: I think most of them consciously do it. I know of several of my own favourite rocksters who quite deliberately mislead the media and lie in interviews because it's funny, and because they want to create this mystique and enigma. Mick Jagger used to do it all the time.

WHEELER: Are you saying there's a formula?

JOHNSTON: Not a formula, so much. It's just a tradition. The Rolling Stones, REM, The Who, Black Sabbath. Lots of successful rock stars have followed that route. If you want to be seen as a bad boy of something, it's really difficult to do that in comics, because you don't tour, you don't do gigs; who's going to care if a comic creator trashes his hotel room? He's probably only there with his girlfriend anyway.

WHEELER: Presumably Morrison has built up a profile as high as he can in comics. So why is he still doing it?

WATSON: Because if he doesn't, he'll lose it, because there's ten thousand other people shouting 'look at me'.

JOHNSTON: I think that almost happened with Morrison, towards the end of his tenure on JLA. It was around the time that I got back into reading comics. The only thing I knew him for was INVISIBLES, which I'd encountered him on years before when it first started. Up until he reinvented himself again, he was starting to fade away.

WATSON: See, I think he took JLA to increase his profile, and I think it probably did. He was doing all right on DOOM PATROL, then he did INVISIBLES, and then he got sick, and that killed things for him.

JOHNSTON: But if he'd carried on with JLA and hadn't gone on to do the other wacky stuff back when he did, don't you think that he actually might have become entrenched? I think it was a smart move, dropping JLA when he did. Much in the same way that moving from Marvel back to DC amidst much hullabaloo is a very smart PR move. OK, who else has a brand? Peter David?

WHEELER: You think so?

JOHNSTON: I think Peter David has a brand. I've never read a Peter David book in my life, but I know who he is, I know his thoughts on matters, I know what he's writing. Much like John Byrne, he's got that solid, stoic fanbase.

WATSON: That's a damning indictment of someone's work if there fanbase has to be stoic.

JOHNSTON: Well, maybe not Peter David's, but I don't think you could deny that John Byrne's fanbase is stoic.

WHEELER: Peter David and John Byrne did not build their reputations in the way that Morrison or Ellis did. So how did they do it?

WATSON: David was online, he had his column. He basically gobbed off.

WHEELER: He had a reputation before the Internet.

'Morrison is very much in the vein of rock star-brand personalities.' JOHNSTON: Yes, he did. I think he caught a wave. He became popular because of his writing, and I think he seized on that and ran with it.

WHEELER: I think he really knew how to corner the geek market. He's been a STAR TREK novelist, he's written episodes of BABYLON 5. He wrote very fanboy-pleasing comics, and even now, with CAPTAIN MARVEL - I read it and enjoy it a great deal, but I know that it's talking to the fanboy in me. And that's what he does, he engages directly with that audience.

JOHNSTON: The inner geek.

WHEELER: Yes. It seems to me he doesn't look to find new readers at all. He's very happy serving the established audience, the audience that's growing old with him, the audience that has the same receding hairline as him. It's like he's fanboy's choice.

JOHNSTON: Do you not think that he has a brand?

WHEELER: No, I think he does have a brand, but I think he's done it by being very single-minded in his audience dealings. He pitches himself to the audience in a certain way.

JOHNSTON: As one of them?

WHEELER: Yes, as one of them. He says to the audience, 'I'm going to give you what you ask for'.

JOHNSTON: Because deep down inside, I'm just like you. Or you're just like me. Could you say the same about Kurt Busiek, who appeals to the same audience? Busiek, I feel, has got a brand - I know who he is, I know what he does, but I've never read a Busiek comic in my life. But he's even less publicly forthcoming than David is.

WHEELER: He does go online a lot, but I don't think he has the same sort of persona.

JOHNSTON: From what little I've seen of him online he doesn't shy away from it, but he doesn't seem to actively court his audience in the public arena.

WHEELER: I don't see Busiek as a brand, to be honest. I see him as a stalwart.

JOHNSTON: More like Chuck Dixon?

WHEELER: More like Mark Waid.

JOHNSTON: I was going to mention Waid, in that he doesn't seem to have a brand.

WHEELER: Well, that's it, I don't think Busiek has a brand either. If you go into the supermarket and buy the generic products, the own-brand products, that's Waid and Busiek. That sounds so utterly damning, but I don't mean it to be quite that severe. Although they've done creator-owned and creator-originated stuff, if they're working at Marvel they're Marvel own-brand, and if they're working at DC, they're DC own-brand.

JOHNSTON: So they modify their work according to who they're working for?

WHEELER: No, I just think their work fits so perfectly with the companies' brands. So they don't have brands, they have followings, and that's a different thing, and the followings won't necessarily stick with them outside of, say, the Marvel brand.

JOHNSTON: So people who love Busiek's AVENGERS aren't necessarily going to read SUPERSTAR?

WHEELER: Yeah, because they only want to see him write AVENGERS. They like his writing, but they've only got so much interest to go around, only so much money to splash around, so they'll read AVENGERS first. They'll sit there reading Geoff Johns' AVENGERS or Chuck Austen's AVENGERS, wishing it was Kurt Busiek.

JOHNSTON: Who else?

WHEELER: Brian Michael Bendis. He prides himself on having the last letters column in comics. He doesn't have the last letters column in comics, but he brands it as that, and he gets e-mails from people all the time saying things like, "Bendis, you cocksucker, you mother-fucker", because he's cultivated that personality through his letter columns since his Caliber days. That's not who he is. It's a glorious act.

JOHNSTON: And they seem to love him for it.

WHEELER: They come back for more and more.

JOHNSTON: It's the oldest trick in the book, really. Abuse your audience.

WHEELER: Bendis built up a reputation in his early days that helped push him to the attention of publishers.

JOHNSTON: You said Busiek and Waid have a following but not a brand. Does Bendis have a brand, but not a following?

WHEELER: I think he has a dual following. He has the people who have been following him since JINX, who will read everything he writes, and then he has his ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN following, people who say, "Yeah, Bendis is the shit", but don't necessarily pick up POWERS.

JOHNSTON: This is the thing. Do you think it translates the other way? Are the people who read ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN going out and reading JINX?

WATSON: Manifestly not, otherwise POWERS would be selling as well as ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN.

JOHNSTON: Whereas people who buy POWERS, a high proportion of them are probably also reading ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN.

WHEELER: But then, if everyone who reads NEW X-MEN isn't reading THE FILTH. It never goes the other way. That's the market, not a failing of the brand.

WATSON: Are there any artists with a cult of personality?

WHEELER: It's much harder to have a voice if you're an artist.

JOHNSTON: You don't generally do things like letters columns. There aren't many artists who go online and court the audience. Except John Byrne.

WHEELER: But John Byrne writes.

WATSON: Well...

WHEELER: No, he does, I swear.

JOHNSTON: He's probably the most prominent branded artist that you can think of. The Kuberts have a brand, but it's all based around how they draw, not what sort of people they are.

WHEELER: But their dad is literally a trademark.

WATSON: I can think of artists who are regarded as having a brand in conjunction with a writer.

WHEELER: But that's being part of a brand.

WATSON: But should we not be considering the team as brand, and what you do to build a team brand?

JOHNSTON: Do many teams actually work actively to promote themselves as a brand? I can't think of any.

WHEELER: Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon happened because they worked together a lot and were successful.

JOHNSTON: Ennis will always tell you that Dillon is a great mate and a great artist, but that's really the extent of it. He doesn't go online to promote 'Garth & Steve: The Next Book'.

WATSON: He doesn't have to, because it's Garth and Steve's next book, therefore everyone who bought PREACHER will buy it.

JOHNSTON: But Bendis doesn't need to keep insulting people to sell POWERS. Morrison doesn't need to keep putting on silly clothes and posing in Union Jack jockstraps...

WHEELER: But if you stop doing it, you do get forgotten.

WATSON: Does Chynna Clugston Major have a brand?

JOHNSTON: She has a brand based on her style. She's not massively publicly interactive.

WATSON: No, but would you deny that Alan Moore has a brand? And if you're going to find someone less publicly interactive...

JOHNSTON: I'm not sure if Moore does have a brand.

WATSON: He's a gigantic scary beardy man who writes about esoterica, and you're telling me that's not a brand?

WHEELER: I don't see it as a brand. I have to say, I'm with Antony on this one.

WATSON: He's practically got a logo! He's a big pile of hair!

WHEELER: He's easily abstracted, that doesn't make him a brand.

JOHNSTON: As with so many other things, I think Moore is the great big honking exception. Everybody knows that Moore will do whatever he wants, and can do whatever he wants. It's a bit like Frank Miller. Frank Miller doesn't really have a brand beyond 'gritty'.

WHEELER: He's iconic in his style, but it's not the same thing.

JOHNSTON: And I think it's the same with Moore. He's the eight hundred pound gorilla. That's beyond being a brand.

WATSON: Are you saying Coke doesn't have a brand because everyone knows about it?

WHEELER: Coke does market itself with an abstract image, whereas Alan Moore, you talk about being able to abstract Alan Moore, but he doesn't sell himself. Yes, he poses for photos that way...

WATSON: I think he has a brand even if he didn't set out to create it.

WHEELER: I think there's a difference between being a brand and being a 'name'.

WATSON: I think we're drawing too many very fine distinctions on what a brand is and isn't.

WHEELER: Maybe. I know it all makes sense in my head.

WATSON: I think if I was going to pick the a creator who developed a brand by very aggressively not seeking out a brand and doing his own damn thing, it's Alan Moore.

JOHNSTON: But doesn't this get back to what we were saying about creators consciously developing a brand, like Morrison and Ellis?

WATSON: I think Morrison and Ellis and Gaiman set out to do it consciously, yes, but that doesn't mean Moore hasn't accreted one. He didn't set out to have a brand, but he had one thrust upon him.

JOHNSTON: Some are born with brands, some have brands thrust upon them.

WATSON: Happens to cows all the time.

WHEELER: Cows aren't born with brands!

WATSON: No, they have them thrust upon them.

'I think Moore has a brand even if he didn't set out to create it.' WHEELER: OK, so Moore didn't set out to have one, and debatably has one. And debatably doesn't.

JOHNSTON: That's what debatably means. But he's had one thrust upon him.

WHEELER: Possibly. Debatably. I'm not conceding this point.

WATSON: How can you not? He's got a logo!

WHEELER: He does not have a logo!

WATSON: He has a handful of rings, it's the same thing!

WHEELER: That's not a logo! BA Baracus does not have a logo!

JOHNSTON: What a fantastic image. "I ain't getting on no higher plane, fool."

WATSON: Grant Morrison and Alan Moore are the two most visually identifiable creators in comics, one because he has no hair and the other because he has three people's hair.

WHEELER: OK, Moore did not set out to get a brand, and debatably may have one...

WATSON: Concede, damn you!

WHEELER: No, because I disagree! However. Which creators haven't set out to create a brand and really don't have one? There are people who avoid it.

JOHNSTON: Pete Milligan.

WATSON: Greg Rucka.

WHEELER: I'd agree with both of those. Explain your choices, gentlemen.

JOHNSTON: Well, Milligan just didn't, for as far back as I can remember. I've been reading Pete Milligan's stories for many, many years, and I think I saw a grand total of one interview with him before he started writing X-FORCE, now X-STATIX. That's not to say that he didn't do them, but he didn't aggressively promote himself in any way.

WHEELER: Interesting, because he's writing a comic about branding and playing the media game.

JOHNSTON: Well, even his earlier writings are very media savvy. He's clearly a man who understands the meda.

WHEELER: And yet he refuses to play the game. Why?

JOHNSTON: I really wouldn't like to guess, because I don't feel I have any sense of what sort of person Pete Milligan is from reading his stuff. Whereas, rightly or wrongly, you do get that with people like Morrison and Ellis, and even Moore to a certain extent. But I've never had that with Milligan, other than the impression that he's obviously an intelligent man.

WHEELER: I'm a fan of Pete Milligan, but I can't say I'm a fan of a Pete Milligan brand. I'm a fan of his work. And I think that's what he wanted. I imagine he knows that it's a harder sell to be judged purely on the merits of your work.

'Milligan is writing a comic about the media game, yet he refuses to play.' JOHNSTON: But ultimately, is it a longer lived one? Because as we've said, Morrison needs to keep reinventing himself every two or three years.

WHEELER: Morrison needs to keep reinventing himself to stay at the level he's at. The level he's at is higher than where Pete Milligan is at. If Grant Morrison were to stop selling himself, he wouldn't drop lower than Pete Milligan's following or sales. So Pete Milligan probably could sell himself harder, but he doesn't want to. Why doesn't he want to? Possibly he doesn't want to invite the intrusion into his life. Possibly it is that pure artist ethic; that he wants to be judged on the work alone. Maybe he wants to be elusive. Maybe he wants people to be able to read the work without thinking about the creator's voice, although you do begin to develop a sense of voice even if you don't have a sense of the person.

JOHNSTON: Or maybe he's just lost all his hair and is really embarrassed. He used to have a really big Morrissey-esque quiff.

WHEELER: The other one we mentioned was Greg Rucka.

WATSON: Who doesn't like doing interviews because it takes time away from writing, I believe.

WHEELER: I think he also finds most interviewers to be idiots. And I speak as someone who has interviewed him.

WATSON: Maybe it's misanthropy.

JOHNSTON: Was he the same in regards to his novels, in terms of not projecting himself?

WATSON: He does do signings.

JOHNSTON: That's not the same as actively pushing yourself. By no means. Especially at a comic convention.

WHEELER: He doesn't do a lot of signings, does he? He doesn't tour very much. Rucka will sell books above and beyond most other creators. He's in the Wizard Top Ten, for whatever that's worth. But he doesn't draw readers to him at a convention the way Brian Michael Bendis does - who, talent-wise, he is the equal of - because he doesn't sell himself the same way. And I think it is because he doesn't want to.

JOHNSTON: As with Milligan, do you think it's because he wants to be judged by the work?

WATSON: Yes, probably.

WHEELER: He wants to stand or fall by the book.

WATSON: He's a fairly private individual. Morrison and Ellis, they like this clowning and waving.

JOHNSTON: But Morrison is still a fairly private guy, because how much do you know about him behind his masks?

WATSON: However much he puts on masks, some of him shows through consistently.

JOHNSTON: Like what? He holidays regularly in India, he has a girlfriend called Kristen, and he lives in Glasgow?

WHEELER: Stalker.

JOHNSTON: Beyond that, how much does anybody honestly know?

WATSON: You can see that he's a very reflective person.

JOHNSTON: Well, he's a writer. Scratch any writer and I think you'll find a person who spends a lot of time navel gazing. Even Chuck Dixon.

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