When an industry's in decline, isn't that a good time to take risks? There are talented writers out there with great stories to tell, according to Alasdair Watson, who will never get the chance if publishers continue to chase the same shrinking audiences.
05 December 2003

In my last column, I admitted that frankly, I've been having trouble finding things to write about for the last while. I was talking about this with a friend the other day, and he commented that I write best when I'm good and pissed off about something. Not news to me, but I've been trying to avoid being negative about comics. It's too easy, and we've all heard it all before.

But I'm desperate, so bollocks to it. I'm going to tell you a story. Names have been omitted to protect the innocent, and the only slightly less innocent.

So, there is a comics writer of my acquaintance, who is just breaking in to the business - the friend I mentioned above. He has a writing CV in other media - not, perhaps, an extensive one, but an impressive one. Sadly, it's fuck all good to him, because most of the Americans who run the business have no easy frame of reference for the sort of work he's done, and y'know, it's not like he can say, "Actually, this is really bloody impressive, you know. Most of the writers you're happy to hire couldn't do it", because he's a very nice chap, and not given to acts of gross immodesty.

'The publishers assume conservatism on the part of the audience.' But still, after some effort, he's getting a few things published through smaller publishers, and they're good stuff. Now, from time to time we chat about the things he's doing, and some year or so back, he happened to mention an idea he'd been working on for a short story he'd been asked to do, and my response was something along the lines of; "That's not a short story. The idea's too strong, and there's room for at least a mini-series in that." Only I probably swore a lot more, because the idea was good, and I was jealous. I wasn't alone in that opinion, as it turned out, and there were some pretty seasoned comics pros telling my friend the same thing. So he did the sensible thing, listened to us all, and wrote up a proposal for a mini-series.

And here the story really begins.

Now, as I recall, the first place he sent it to, it got rejected. The editor just didn't like the idea. Crazy, but comprehensible, I guess. But the second place he tried said yeah, we like it.

So where do I get pissed off at all this?

Well, the project spent a while "in development". Changes, edits, alterations, and they'd just about got all their ducks in a row, when things went wrong from a business perspective, and suddenly, no, it wasn't happening.

That has me a bit irked, but I could name dozens of people, with much bigger names, who've had that sort of thing happen to them. So yeah, it's bastard rotten that businesses will string people along, proceeding on one basis, and then change their mind. I am pissed off about it. But no more than my usual level of sickness and disgust for the business of comics, and you've all heard it before.

So, my friend took his pitch back on the road. And he pitched, and he pitched, and he pitched. And he's not done yet. But everywhere he's been, the response has been the same: "I really like this book. I think it's great stuff, and I can't wait to read it. But I'm not going to be the one that puts it out. It just doesn't fit in the line we've got here."

'The only comics that stand a chance are the ones that don't fit in.' Now, this is where I get pissed off. Not just for my friend, but for the other people out there who I'm sure are getting the same response, and for the rest of us who aren't going to get to read their work. Before I get stuck in, I'd like to make it clear that every last editor in the comics industry I've met has been a marvellous human being (or at least, has been capable of pretending to be - I've been quite lucky). These people are only doing their jobs, and they're dependent on their publishers for the money to publish their comics, and indeed, their very jobs. So I bear these people no ill will - they're only going along with the perceived biases of their employer.

But the publishers? They're the people who teach their editors to bring them more of the same, rather than look for anything new. The publishers assume conservatism on the part of the audience. And it pisses me off because it's gutless. Because it's depriving me of god only knows how many interesting and different comics, every year. Because with the market the way it is, the only comics that stand a fucking chance past the next ten years are exactly the ones that don't bloody fit in. The ones that are different and crazy, and, by god, fun.

And yeah, the argument is, of course, that they can get exciting new material from the people who already write comics, rather than take a risk on something completely new. And, to an extent, they can. The serious talents out there can produce something a bit different, when given half the chance, but most of them have to fight to be allowed to do so.

However interesting Grant Morrison's new slate sounds, the fact is, he likes to write a certain kind of comic, and while he'll look for new stories to tell, new thoughts to investigate, he still has his own style. And yeah, I like to read that kind of comic, and I like his style. But I like other kinds of comic, other sorts of thinking, other styles, and just getting Grant to produce another foray into psychedelia and calling it a fresh new alternative thing isn't going to deliver that.

'I don't get the thinking that says, 'It doesn't fit in with our line'.' I am reminded of a line from Alan Moore, arguably the industry's best exponent of 'doing something that just doesn't bloody fit in anywhere'. Talking about his school days, he notes, "The real curriculum is obedience, and the acceptance of monotony". I can only assume that the publishers at the companies my friend has been pitching to paid more attention in school than I did, and it does rather reinforce my notion that a six year old child could do the job of most comic book publishers - at least you can be sure that it's only the real mutants among six year olds that are paying attention in school. Y'know; the ones that are going to grow up to be comic publishers.

I really don't get the thinking that says, "It doesn't fit in with our line". I don't get the thinking that assumes that the audience your line already has isn't interested in trying something different, and I don't get the thinking that says a publisher shouldn't be interested in taking a crack at expanding its audience by trying something new. Because the fact is, month on month, comics sell less. There is no comics sales graph that goes up - they may start high, they may get boosts along the way, but they trend downwards. Always.

Faced with that, I cannot imagine how a comics publisher can't be trying everything it possibly can to find a new audience. How it can not be willing to say, "This is like nothing we currently do, and it sounds good - Let's do it!" I try very hard not to be rude about people I don't know, and whose jobs I've never done. For all I know, I'd do exactly the same thing in their place. But I'd like to think that were I in their place, faced with an industry where a great success simply represents a slowing of the inevitable decline, mandate number one would be to try things I've never tried before, be it avenues for publishing or creative teams.

I'm sure there are a bunch of people out there who might dismiss this whole line of thought as sour grapes on behalf of my friend. Fuck 'em. I'm sick to death of comics, and the ones I hear about that really excite me, that actually sound like something bloody new at long last, they're the ones that no-one will sodding publish - my friend's story isn't even close to the only one like it that I've heard about. If that's not a sign that there's something worth getting pissed off about here, I don't know what is.

Enjoy your holidays. I'll see you next year, when I will be full of joy and optimism for 2004. Or maybe I'll just be drunk. The effect will be more or less the same.

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