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

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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