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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge