Ninth Art - For the Discerning Reader -

Editorial: Face It, Tiger - Walking With Dinosaurs

Whatever happened to those revolutionary talents of the 70s? The answer is, they became the tired old conservatives of the 21st century. Andrew Wheeler wonders if these old pros will ever go out to pasture.
19 March 2004

The movie dollar has been a dominant theme in comics for the past couple of years. The will is there at the major studios (and at some of the independents), and the trend for comic adaptations isn't likely to be derailed by the occasional turkey or skin-of-its-teeth success, any more than GIGLI was the death knell of the romantic comedy. (Of course, it helps that the technology is just about able to make audiences believe a man can fly, rather than believe that he's lying in front of a blue screen and getting buffeted by fans. It still can't come up with a convincing CGI character, but give it time.)

As more characters make the transition to the screen, so a few creators look to follow suit, with Hollywood showing an increased interest in buying up any comics property that shows a little promise. This has led to a suspicion in some quarters, not least right here in this column, that some creators are more interested in writing for the movie adaptation than they are in writing comics.

This is an approach that doesn't serve the comics medium or the comics audience particularly well, but from a pragmatic standpoint it makes a lot of sense. There's a lot more money to throw around at Warner Bros than there is at its little sister company DC, and in this capitalist utopia we live in, everyone has a right to try to make a living. There's not many folk working in comics who can claim to have made their fortune from comics. Though I don't have access to their private accounts, I'm prepared to hazard a guess that Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman all drew their biggest cheques in other media.

Though my delicate reader's constitution balks at it, I have to admit that it's ultimately a very good idea for creators to give themselves an escape route from the industry, or a financial safety net, because the alternative is too terrible a notion, and one that offends my constitution all the more. The alternative is that they'll just keep writing comics forever.

Now, in this age where state pensions are guttering down the drain to the point where retirees can only look forward to collecting buttons and fluff from the treasury, the prospect of having to work right into the grave is something we may all have to face, but hopefully it'll be survivable for those of us with vaguely mapped career paths, transferable skills, and continually evolving levels of computer literacy.

Pity the poor comic creators, who spend their working prime doing a job that leaves them largely unfit to do anything else. If they can't sign up for the Hollywood pension plan, they have no choice but to keep toiling away in the comics gutters, at the whim of a succession of ever-changing editors. At worst, they'll fade into obscurity and be left scraping a living doing... well, whatever it is Howard Mackie does now, I suppose.

At best, they'll become John Byrne.

You see why I said it was too terrible a notion?

The audience for comics is young. When I say 'young', I am for once referring not to the much-desired teen and tween market, but to everyone in the 18-35 age bracket. Even adult-oriented books like PERSEPOLIS, JIMMY CORRIGAN and the collected KRAZY AND IGNATZ seem unlikely to sell much to the 40+ crowd. Comic readers in middle age or older must be presumed to be a slim minority. If you discount casual readers and look to serious devotees, the number will thin out still further.

John Byrne crossed his half-century at the turn of the millennium. He's still going. He isn't the artist he once was, but he is still going.

Byrne hasn't parlayed his success as a comic creator into success in other media. He hasn't retired on his royalties because, well, it's comics, so he doesn't have any. So he's using his reputation and his ever-dwindling band of loyal readers to leverage a continued career in comics.

Now, I don't mean to be ageist. There's no reason he shouldn't still keep going if he's still got what it takes. And indeed, he can still draw better than many other artists out there, even if he is a shade of his former self. It's not his linework that marks him out as a dinosaur, but his attitude. Byrne today is more notable as an outspoken and trenchant crank than as a creator. His recent works suggest that he's increasingly out of touch with his audience and has nothing left to say beyond, "I remember when all this was pre-Crisis", yet he insists on writing his own stories with gleeful disregard for the works of others and little appreciation for his substantial shortcomings as a writer, and nothing he does can justify his arrogance.

Where Byrne goes, so Claremont follows. They were one of the greatest creative teams of the 70s, and they're coming back to disappoint readers everywhere with their forthcoming run on JLA.

Like Byrne, Chris Claremont is a creator who rightly deserves his place in the hall of comics greats for his past accomplishments, but also like Byrne, he not only measures up badly against his own back catalogue, he also seems out of his depth when compared to his new contemporaries. I don't just mean that Claremont and Byrne are no match for the likes of Grant Morrison and Bryan Hitch. I mean that their styles, stories and preoccupations are anachronistic and embarrassing even when pitted against newer talents like Brian Vaughan and Ethan Van Sciver.

There is a place for anachronistic creators in comics, of course. Writers like Kurt Busiek and Mark Waid are renowned for targeting the comics nostalgia market, but they've done so without getting stuck in a rut or diluting their talents. With recent works of such high calibre as EMPIRE and ARROWSMITH, both writers have proved that they're far from irrelevant.

That's not to say that they too shouldn't be keeping an eye on their retirement funds, mind you. For every fiftysomething writing a BATMAN book, there's an up-and-coming thirtysomething stuck on a SPAWN book, and while most of them are comics-illiterate morons, there are a few 'new' guys out there who have both something relevant to say to their audience, and an understanding of how comics allows them to say it.

Comic creating is demonstrably not a young man's game, given how long some creators have been plying their trade, but for the sake of the audience, it really should be. The comics mainstream is still stagnant despite the best efforts of a few of the more far-sighted editors, and the tenacity of the dinosaurs - and their fans - has to take a large share of the blame for that conservative streak. These proprietary elder statesmen deserve their retirement now, for their sake and for ours.

Our best hope is that Hollywood decides to option SOVEREIGN 7. Or LAB RATS.

Andrew Wheeler is a London-based entertainment journalist.

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