LIFE ON THE ISLAND
Having attended the London 'Winterfest' comics carnival extravaganza this year - or however organiser Kev Sutherland is deciding to market it - I was struck by a couple of things. Firstly, how vibrant and well supported the UK minicomics scene is at present, with surprisingly professional and glossy product, and secondly, and rather more perturbingly, how barren the upper echelons of the UK comic industry are these days.
If one is being unkind about the UK comics industry, one could dismiss it as comprising nothing more than 2000AD and THE BEANO. Trouble is, it would seem that of late this really is the extent of UK comics.
This has a twofold effect on those that are involved with comics in the UK - budding creators must either do the penance of writing 2000AD's Future Shocks, six-page stories with a twist at the end that have been penned in the past by the likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, or they must produce work that fits in nicely with the ossified house style of children's humour weekly THE BEANO.
The other effect is that the likes of 2000AD editor Matt Smith (or Tharg, if you will) have to sit through piss-poor pitchfests every time they go to a convention, and face a towering slush-pile of largely crap unsolicited submissions that threaten to engulf them.
'The upper echelons of the UK comic industry seem barren these days.' Now, I know a fair few young creators with varying styles and interests, and only a few of them are at all suited to churning out turgid and dull sci-fi shorts in order to move on to churning out slightly longer turgid and dull sci-fi tales and servicing the monolithic Brit comics standards of Dredd, Johnny Alpha, Rogue Trooper and so forth.
So these creators have had to seek a different path in order to get their stuff into print. If the main problem in being a comics creator in the UK is a dearth of places to get one's work published, then surely the obvious answer is to look beyond our shores. And sure enough, this is what more than a few have done.
For example, Roger Mason has turned to the enormous and vibrant French market, providing art for some absolutely beautiful francophone graphic novels. He created one Future Shock for 2000AD, but as progress on that comic is like a treacle glacier, he decided that an industry that wasn't quite so moribund would be the better path to follow. Similarly, Jamie McKelvie has entirely circumvented the UK scene by fostering strong contacts with the US indy comics publishers, and Oni Press in particular. His latest work is in the FOUR LETTER WORLDS anthology with BUFFY actress and author Amber Benson.
Another alternative is to say bollocks to the whole corporate comics thing, and stop waiting for a proverbial bus that will take an age to arrive, if it ever will. Inevitably, many young British creators have decided to go it alone and try self-publishing. Andy Winter and Natalie Sandells produced two lovely-looking volumes of DEVILCHILD completely independently. Sean Azzopardi, Ali Pulling, Bevis Musson, the Rubens sisters; all are producing their own small press stuff to sell at the festivals. It doesn't put them in anywhere near the league of 2000AD's sales figures, but they can at least keep the profits and control the work.
'There's a dearth of places for UK creators to get their work published.' In this global age, looking for work outside Britain is not the big a deal it might once have been, and maybe therein lies a whole different problem - people are less likely to become proactive and start their own niche-filling enterprises, because if Parochial Comics Ltd isn't interested, they can submit their stuff to Global Corporate Comics Inc and have a whole new, larger brick wall to beat their heads against.
However, if one is of an enterprising disposition and one does decide to start up a comic or company, there's precious little opportunity out there. Paradoxically, the lack of comics in the UK means that there's actually less room for newcomers than if there were a vibrant market. There are a relative few comics readers in the UK who can and do visit a specialist comics retailer with any regularity, or who are comfortable with America's direct market. Everyone else in the nation might at best occasionally pick up a single issue of 2000AD, VIZ, or an out-of-date Panini reprint of a Marvel book from a newsagent or from national retailer WH Smith.
But even this market is withering; WH Smiths provides for a significant portion of comics sales in the UK, but the chain is in dire financial trouble, and is to cease carrying any periodicals that don't sell in sufficiently high numbers, possibly including 2000AD. Comics are thus even further marginalized in Britain, creating even less opportunity for publishers and creators alike. Without a publisher with real ambition and a smart business plan, the British comic industry will continue to wither on the vine.
It seems that Marvel is suing both South Korea-based NCSoft Corp and San Jose-based Cryptic Studios Inc, the parties responsible for the popular massively-multiplayer online superhero game CITY OF HEROES. Apparently the game has instructions that will allow players to create characters that are very thinly veiled analogues of Marvel characters, including the Hulk and Wolverine. Marvel claims this an infringement of its trademarks, and because NCSoft and Cryptic are allowing this to occur on their servers, Marvel argues that they are responsible.
It is understandable that Marvel would do this, given that their characters are their key asset. It's rumoured that the company is looking to create a very similar game, so it's certainly in their interest to restrict usage of Marvel characters or their spitting images.
However, the suit could backfire spectacularly on Marvel. CITY OF HEROES is a huge success, and has brought a whole new audience to the superhero genre who are happy to spend loads of money on monthly subscriptions to the game. Whether they could be converted into comics readers is another question, but it certainly doesn't seem to be in Marvel's interests to alienate a massive potential audience by forcing CITY OF HEROES to remove everything that could be a Marvel concept. Even if Marvel brings out its own game, vast sections of the gaming public may already be soured on it after having the characters they've already spent time and money on effectively neutered.
I suspect this is going to be a fairly tricky case for Marvel to win. NCSoft state in their Terms Of Service that anyone using copyrighted character names will have those names removed. NCSoft can also argue that it has not participated in any actual infringements, the argument being that their service is comparable to that of photocopy chain Kinko's. People can use their facilities to rip off copyrighted materials, and there may well be infringements going on, but is the provider of the service actually liable?
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