Marvel hosted its annual Retailer Summit this week, and reports coming out of the caucus have generated strong reaction from the comics industry. ICv2, the industry news site, released three articles about the Retailer Summit, including many pull quotes from Axel Alonso – Marvel Editor-in-Chief and David Gabriel – SVP of Sales and Marketing. I commend you to read all three articles yourself:
- Marvel Retailer Summit, Part I
- Marvel Retailer Summit, Part II
- David Gabriel Elaborates on the “Market Shift”
Today, I want to unpack comments made by Alonso, as it relates to the commercial appeal of modern comic book artists. If you follow comic creators on social media, in particular Twitter, you know firsthand that his comments have, frankly, pissed a lot of creators off. As someone fortunate enough to know many creators personally, I can also say that I’ve been bombarded with off-the-record frustration nonstop since the news broke.
The Infamous Quote:
There are fewer artists that impact sales than there are writers, Alonso said, and they’re harder to promote. “It’s harder to pop artists these days,” he said. “There is no apparatus out there. There is no Wizard Magazine out there that told you who the hot top 10 were. We don’t have that anymore. We can hype our artists all we want, but I don’t know if we know how many artists, besides maybe [Steve] McNiven and [Olivier] Coipel, absolutely move the needle on anything to be drawn.
Observation 1: Alonso chose his words poorly
It’s ironic that an editor-in-chief of a publishing company would be so flippant with his use of the English language, but that’s exactly what transpired here. In the context of the conversation (a discussion of a difficult period for the business) and given the audience (retailers directly feeling the pain of lower sales), I think Alonso was attempting to rationalize lower sales. Yet, in doing so he offers up a shockingly reductive set of supporting points. Far more importantly, whether he intended to or not, he just told more than 50% of the people that work for him that they’re not important in the grand scheme of things.
Observation 2: Where is the evidence that fewer artists impact sales than writers?
I’m struggling to find the evidence to support Alonso’s claim that writers have more impact on sales than artists. Does he mean in the aggregate? If so, it’s a poor comparison because it’s possible for a writer to script multiple books in a monthly publishing cycle, whereas even the fastest artist can only draw one book per month. When you factor in double shipping, a full-time writer could have 10-12 books on the stands in a month. By definition, someone with 3x, 5x, 10x the product on the shelves is going to “have a bigger impact on sales.” But on an issue by issue comparison? For every Jason Aaron or Brian Michael Bendis, there is a Chris Bachalo or Chris Samnee.
Observation 3: Wizard Magazine is to blame? Hey Axel, 1992 called and wants its logic back
The most incredulous part of Alonso’s statement was attributing the lack of a “Wizard Magazine” to tell us who the hot top 10 artists are anymore. WOW. This almost belies analysis. Are we REALLY suggesting that the Wizard Top 10 in the 90s was the driver of artists’ success? That’s the very definition of the tail wagging the dog. If you lived through that period of comics – as I did – you know that the Wizard Top 10 was a joke. It was a tool created by Gareb Shamus to promote speculation and unsustainable pumping of books. And by the way, Wizard had a TOP TEN WRITERS LIST, TOO!
We live in a world where people create internet videos and become millionaires on YouTube through nothing more than viral marketing. We live in a world where bands make more releasing albums online and touring than they ever did signing with a major label. We live in a world where one coder can whip up a mobile app that goes viral and generates millions of dollars with little more than word of mouth and social media hype. If one of the largest entertainment companies in the world can’t figure out how to promote its talent, that’s a Disney/Marvel problem, not a creator problem.
Observation 4: If you want artists’ profiles to rise, be the engine for it!
The industry can’t lament an inability to promote artists as money makers when they go out of their way to impede that process. The current state of affairs and Marvel (and DC) puts the power into the hands of the editors first, and the writers second.
- It’s cheaper to promote a writer – from a pure dollars and cents standpoint, it’s much easier for a publisher to push a writer. Why push for promotional junkets for six different art teams when you can just arrange interviews for the one writer who scripts six books?
- Dual shipping – shipping twice monthly ensures that an artist can’t make their mark as the consistent visual voice
- Erratic scheduling – it’s not uncommon for a writer to have a multi-year run on a title, as long as he/she is meeting deadlines. Yet, it’s become the rare exception to see the same art team on a book for more than an arc or two. That’s why we have “Hickman’s Avengers” or “Bendis’ Guardians of the Galaxy”…because editorially they are the only part of the creative process that is allowed to be present for any length of time
- Press and media “understand” writers better than artists – the blame isn’t solely on the publishers for this imbalance, it’s also the fault of the media. Writers are asked to do interviews on podcasts and websites infinitely more than the other creators. Why is that the case? For one, it’s easier to talk to writers about plot, whereas many interviewers feel ill-equipped to bring intelligent discourse to the visual part of the process. Baffling? Yes. But true nonetheless.
Observation 5: Marvel doesn’t really want its artists OR writers to be the stars, but writers have more optionality
Don’t kid yourself, Marvel is not in the business of making stars out of creators. They accept it as a byproduct of the creative process, but if they had their druthers, writers and artists would be as commercially interchangeable as Lego pieces. Marvel (and DC) want the CHARACTERS and STORIES to be the stars. They are giant IP (intellectual property) engines. Sure, ultimately it’s in the company’s best interest to put out entertaining stories because it will, theoretically, leads to better sales. But, the creators are cogs in the IP engine, at least in the minds of the senior executives. As profit-seeking corporations, that’s not an indefensible position to have, but it also leads to conflicting business practices. “Star” creators can demand higher pay, and have more optionality.
So why is Alonso publicly dropping the hammer on artists but not belittling writers? Again, it’s because of optionality. For example, let’s say a long-time Marvel penciler that has consistently been involved with top-selling titles is approached to do a creator-owned book. For that penciler it’s an all-or-nothing choice. Taking the creator-owned job means walking COMPLETELY away from the comforts of being under contract with Marvel (or DC) and having a guaranteed paycheck. The rewards for a major Image hit are massive (e.g., Nick Dragotta has said he makes significantly more drawing East of West than he ever did at Marvel), but the risks are also immense. If an Image book flops, the artist faces the unenviable task of going back and asking for his/her job back, from the same editors who feel spurned by their departure. Writers have a completely different paradigm. Rick Remender left Marvel to do his own work, but he worked at Marvel while he did creator-owned for years. Jonathan Hickman was in the same boat. Jeff Lemire is the most recent Marvel writer to go “all in” on creator-owned works. Charles Soule – a writer Marvel is trying very hard to make into the “next big thing” – put out a creator-owned book, Curse Words, this year. Soule didn’t leave Marvel to writer Curse Words. So if it’s not a massive financial success, he didn’t burn bridges at Marvel. He’s still “on the inside.”
In Conclusion: It’s hard to fathom an editor-in-chief being so cavalier with his statements. Even if he 100% believes in what he said, there has to be a consideration for how that would play with all the hard-working, talented artists involved in the process. No employee wants to feel marginalized by their boss, regardless of the industry. I don’t know many comic-book creators – writers, pencilers, inkers, colorists, letterers – who joined the industry for fame and riches. They create because they’re passionate and want to express themselves. If they can earn a living doing something they love, it’s a dream come true. However, for Alonso to act as though artists have somehow lost their ability to boost sales is neither accurate nor fair. The industry has SO MANY CHALLENGES, many of which were also addressed in the same Retailer Summit, that taking a shot at artists’ commercial appeal was at best foolish, and at worst negligent.