Beyond superheroes: how creators can own comics

Laura Sneddon talks to Tim Seeley, David Hine, David Mack, and David Lloyd about the possibilities steering clear of Marvel and DC affords.

“This is a really exciting time for comics,” – a phrase increasingly heard in the last couple of years as big budget superhero films rake in the dollars while critically acclaimed graphic novels pick up literary awards and column inches respectively. The sheer breadth of the comics medium almost guarantees that many are overlooked, and yet one area does seem a little more unloved than others – even as it provides some of the greatest success stories.

“Creator owned” comics, a term at once both useful and cringe-inducing for newly labeling an old tradition, are where everyone wants to be. The Walking Dead in particular has sold the idea that it is possible to make money in comics as a creator, building on the success of its equally excellent predecessors by making the jump to the small screen. The names Tim Seeley, David Hine, David Mack, and David Lloyd should be familiar to all, but the mainstream spotlight seems shy when dealing with successful creators that are not writing Batman.

Thankfully we have comic conventions that bring together artists from across the medium, from DC and Marvel creators, to small indie comic artists, to creator owned maestros. And often there are creators who are all three. The London Super Comic Convention is rapidly approaching this month, with a spectacular guest list, and a celebration of all corners of the comics world. I spoke with Seeley, Hine, Mack and Lloyd about their various involvements with the world of creator owned comics, ahead of their upcoming appearances at the LSCC.

David Hine has been working in British comics since the 1980s, with a huge backlist of work across 2000 AD and Marvel UK, and with US superheroes including the X-Men, Daredevil, Spider-Man, and Batman. He is perhaps best known for his groundbreaking The Bulletproof Coffin series, which had the comic critics falling over themselves to lavish praise at the feet of Hine and artist Shaky Kane. The plot of the book – a very successful and experimental meta comic within a comic – is itself a biting commentary on the superhero industry.

The Bulletproof Coffin was a concept that artist Shaky Kane had come up with, involving bizarre comic-book characters and a giant armoured coffin on wheels,” Hine explains. “The plot that I developed came out of the love/hate relationship I have with mainstream American comics. I gave up reading superhero comics when I was 16, largely because they were little more than juvenile male power fantasies, and then somehow I ended up writing them for a living as an adult. That’s behind me now.

“When I was working for Marvel and DC I was constantly trying to subvert the stories I was writing into other genres, so that Daredevil: Redemption was a courtroom drama, District X a police procedural, Spider-Man Noir was a pulp-noir with political overtones, and the Batman stories were either horror or absurdist/nihilist psychodrama.

“It became increasingly obvious to me that I was always going to be a square peg resisting being hammered into a circular hole, so I have gradually eased away into more marginal areas of comics. It has certainly become a lot easier to do that in recent years, notably with the rise and rise of Image Comics – a publisher that has become the home of original creator-owned comics of all styles and genres.”

That surge of success at Image Comics has been attributed in part to certain famous zombies, but an ever increasing number of titles are being showered with praise, and a recent movement of creators away from DC and Marvel and into the Image stable has drawn extra attention. With Image, the creators retain the rights to their work, albeit sacrificing the big budget PR that comes with instantly recognisable characters. Publishing here requires funds of your own up front, but editorial input is minimal, which is a huge attraction.

The Bulletproof Coffin allowed Shaky Kane and myself to let off steam, explore all the more extreme, surreal and ridiculous elements of the comic book form and to do it a way that was both serious art and a lot of fun,” says Hine. “Creatively it’s the most successful thing I’ve worked on and it was only possible because of a complete absence of editorial control or interference. “

David Lloyd has been working in comics since the 1970s, from Doctor Who to Hellblazer, and is widely known as the artist and co-creator of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. First printed in Warrior, a British comics anthology, the comic drew the attention of larger publishers.

V For Vendetta was a strange animal that I'm convinced would not have been green-lit by a big publisher on its first incarnation in the early 80's,” Lloyd states, “but it was by a small publisher who gave me the desired freedom to do what I wanted. A big publisher was happy later to publish it when it had proved its economic value to them.”

Similarly, Hine was first offered high-profile work with Marvel after the editor-in-chief read and loved Strange Embrace, the writer’s early independent graphic novel. The challenge of moving from creator owned to more commercial titles is something many artists grapple with, though some choose to keep a foot in both worlds long-term.

David Mack is one of the most unique artists working in mainstream comics today, with his stunning painted covers making titles really leap from the shelves. Currently writing Daredevil alongside Brian Michael Bendis, the American creator is perhaps best known for his own series, Kabuki.

“[Kabuki]'s completely my own book that I create usually from beginning to end,” he explains, “That kind of project is very satisfying because it’s a title and characters that I created completely and the readership is there because they connect to the story and characters, and that is very rewarding… it’s an opportunity to create stories that are very personally generated with no walls or boundaries. And the readers that connect to it, and make it viable for me to continue to create my own stories, are there because they find something personal to connect to from those stories.

“When I was asked to write Daredevil it was a very different challenge. Any other time that I wrote a character it was a character that I created personally. With Daredevil, the character had a very rich history and mythology that I wanted to be respectful of. The challenge was to A: Be true to the character and what the incredible creators before me had given to the character... and B: While doing that, also bring something brand new to the character, connect to the character in a personal way, and find a way to write something very personal to the characters in the story that I only I would be able to. Otherwise... no point in doing it, if I can't do both of those things.

“I very much look at working for Marvel through the lens of the spirit of collaboration. Collaborating with the characters themselves, that were there before I was born, collaborating with the history that other creators have brought to those characters, and also, collaborating with the other artists that are drawing the stories that I'm writing with those characters… I like the diversity of working on a purely self-generated project and then also working on characters with the history of Daredevil for instance.”

It’s clear that Mack adores working with Daredevil as well as his own original works, and I’m curious to know whether the former gives a sales boost to the latter.

“Yes, it does very much,” Mack replies. “With Kabuki, I was very happy with the readership that I had cultivated over the years and seven volumes of story. I knew that it had die-hard readers and that it was perhaps not to the taste of others and I was fine with that. But I figured that with as many years that I had been doing it, that people were aware of it and were either enjoying it or had decided that it was not their cup of tea, but I figured that people were at least aware of it and the diversity of story and art work that I had put into each volume.

“But then when I wrote Daredevil, it was like I suddenly existed to brand new readers over night. I saw a huge jump in readership, in that the readers of my Daredevil stories were now finding my Kabuki stories and enjoying those as well. “

David Hine is in agreement with this point, saying that “working for the Big 2 did become increasingly frustrating for me from a creative point of view but there’s no doubt that the exposure was invaluable, and made it easier to find a market for the more radical independent work.”

One American creator who has steered clear of the Big 2 (DC and Marvel) altogether is Tim Seeley, writer of the highly acclaimed Revival and the great Hack/Slash series, both from Image and both insanely popular. Surely a sign then that these publishers are making it easier to launch original comics now?

“Yeah, absolutely,” Seeley agrees. “Part of it is more willingness on the part of the readers to try new things, and part of it is companies realizing that they get the best content when they give the creator a higher stakes in its creation. I think it also has a lot to do with the expansion of digital comics, which is getting a new kind of reader... people that aren't ONLY interested in superhero stories. And, maybe the biggest factor is the humongous success of The Walking Dead, so, y'know, thanks Robert.”

One very noticeable difference between Seeley’s work and an average superhero comic is the focus on strong women characters, who possess their own agency and stories. Perhaps creator owned comics have it easier when it comes to starring women as main characters.

“Well, perhaps not specifically ‘creator owned comics,’ but it is easier to have success with female leads in non-superhero comics,” Seeley agrees. “Superhero comics were originally designed to appeal to pre-pubescent boys. That's an absolute truth. Over the ages, the characters and ideas have managed to move beyond that narrow focus, but those roots are still there.

“I think DC and Marvel tend to find that no matter how hard they try, their female leads sell less than their male counterparts, and that's because a bigger percentage of their audience, is still at heart, a pre-pubescent boy, even if they're 35-40 years old. Creator-owned comic creators tend to, by desire or by necessity, reach beyond the superhero genre, and can appeal to other audiences that aren't first and foremost about testosterone and balls. I think more and more women who are interested in the medium of comics will find their way to Dark Horse, Image, etc. It's gonna be awesome.”

Hine is particularly enthusiastic about Image, where he is currently publishing his latest series, Storm Dogs, with artist and co-creater Doug Braithwaite.

“The great thing is that sense of being able to work to your own goals and standards,” says Hine. “No one is looking over your shoulder at Image. That means a lot of freedom and also a greater degree of responsibility. Getting a comic into print on a regular basis is a tough job, as any editor will tell you. Doing the creative work as well as being largely responsible for the production is hard work, but it’s worth it.

“I’d like to see independent publishers like Image establishing a new standard for mainstream comics that doesn’t depend on the tired old tropes of the superhero genre. What Doug and I are trying to do with Storm Dogs is to show that it is possible to create a comic with a very broad commercial appeal, while applying the highest standards of craft and creativity.”

But of course it’s not all about Image, as Hine’s current projects show. The writer is currently adapting Victor Hugo’s novel, The Man Who Laughs, with artist Mark Stafford for SelfMadeHero, a small graphic novel publisher that is currently producing some of the most interesting work in British comics.

“SelfMadeHero is a very different kind of publisher, working more closely to the traditional book-publishing model, but they share Image’s emphasis on creative freedom and innovation,” Hine says. “Again Mark and I have been given almost unlimited creative freedom. It’s hugely rewarding to know that a publisher has enough confidence in you to let you follow your own path and after all the restrictions of working on corporate-owned characters, it’s like being released from a strait-jacket.”

Last September David Lloyd launched Aces Weekly, a new digital comic art magazine, that saw Lloyd make the move from comics creator to comics publisher.

“For a while I’d been attracted to the idea of putting an anthology together for web publication because it’s so easy to do,” Lloyd explains, “– get a bunch of folks who’d like to do their own thing instead of what the business presses on them, to form a kind of collective to produce an online product that avoids the costs in print publishing: printing, distribution, wholesale, retail – go straight from the creator to the buyer with nothing in between and split the income between us. Then at a certain point in the Fall of 2011, I thought, well, I’ll do it. I enlisted the great help of a friend and ex-MarvelUK editor [Bambos Georgiou] to collaborate on it and be the managing editor of the project, and off we went.

“The central thing Aces Weekly offers creators is the freedom to do almost anything they like… we just give our contributors space and say fill it. It’s a risk to do that, but if you ask good people you know who can entertain readers, and who want to entertain readers, to entertain readers, then often as not you end up with things that entertain readers! And even our less-conventional submissions – an expected outcome of freeing creative minds, of course – are terrific entertainment!”

For the readers, this makes for really fresh comics to enjoy, and Aces Weekly also sees the return of that rare beast, the weekly serial strip magazine, reminiscent of the golden age of comics and the large Sunday pages in the US newspapers.

“But it’s not an exercise in nostalgia – it’s as fresh as a daisy,” Lloyd is keen to stress. “And because we have no massively weighty costs to bear as a print magazine does, we can offer it at a great price – in English currency (we have no border restrictions on the net so we sell it anywhere it can be accessed) at just one pound a week. And that’s for up to 30 pages including extras like sketches and such from some of the finest talent on the globe!”

It’s perhaps no surprise that Hine is also on board at Aces Weekly, with the creative freedom on offer. He explains that 100 per cent of the rights remains with the creators, and that the weekly title features seven strips by different creators, with each story complete in seven weeks.

“The physical format is very different too,” says Hine. “The shape of the page is landscape design to fit the computer or tablet screen while the weekly serialization and made-for-download nature of the work demands a completely different story-telling approach. I’m working with Shaky Kane again, on a story called Cowboys and Insects, set in a parallel universe where giant insects are ranched as food. Once again it’s a genre-busting concept that we hope will expand people’s notion of what the comics art form can achieve.”

Lloyd agrees that it is now easier to be original in theme and subject matter in the mainstream market, because publishers have cottoned on to the demand for that variety, but is less impressed with other advances.

“The usual product of the big companies still governs the core comics market to the same degree that it always did in print publishing and retail, which I regret,” he explains. “But things are better on the whole. Creator rights have improved dramatically since the 70's of course. We didn't have royalties then, couldn't make special deals, [you] couldn't even get your artwork back from publishers then. You still need a reputation and a name to get a good deal or demand ownership of something you may decide you'd like to do for a big publisher, but it's a world away from the 70's when a page rate was all you could expect.

“Yes, lots of things have improved, but the thing I hoped for back then hasn't – that the continuing progress of the 'original' and it's penetration into a wider market and range of reader through the emergence of the 'graphic novel' and its acceptance into what we could call the establishment, would lead to an expansion of the market across the board through all kinds of outlets, and also create an expansion of the perception of what 'comics' are amongst the general public here in the US and UK. That hasn't happened yet but it might someday.”

All creators interviewed in this article are appearing at the London Super Comic Con on the 23rd and 24th of February, and will be happy to chat with fans. Tickets are still available if you hurry!

A detail from "Kabuki" by David Mack.

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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