Friday, 18 January 2013
A Serious Person
I'm reading Christopher Hitchens' fifth collection of essays, Arguably.
I expect it'll take some time to read them all as his work often inspires long periods of reflection. Even this bit quoted from the introduction has set off an avalanche of ideas in areas largely unrelated to his work.
". . . I annexed a thought of Nadine Gordimer's, to the effect that a serious person should try and write posthumously. By that I took her to mean that one should compose as if the usual constraints -- of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, public and perhaps especially intellectual opinion -- did not operate."
I'm now thinking of the very important distinction in the difference priorities in creating something to have immediate success and those for long term success -- or even worth. I found myself thinking how this applies to the current state of the comics industry, largely because this is where my thoughts are most often drawn recently. What follows could be said about every creative field driven by financial concerns, really, but I'll limit myself to comics for this.
We have creators and even a major publishing company entirely driven driven by the need for immediate success over any other consideration. Matters of creativity, quality, respect, consistency, and even simple order are all secondary to achieving immediate success measured primarily in sales. Quality is measured by place on the monthly sales charts, as such, if it sells it must be good even if the work is arguably bad from any critical standpoint. The aesthetics of the company or artist shift under this consideration. This can have little effect on the scale of an individual creator, sales might spike or perhaps not. It might make it harder for their publisher to market their book, if publishers actually marketed books these days, but the only dynamic at play is the relationship between the work and the creator's audience; if the audience likes the changes or not, grows or diminishes determines the success of such an approach.
On the scale of a major publisher, such an approach can have a much greater impact on their product and the creators hired to create it. I'm specifically talking about DC and the way they've been operating for the last few years, but most specifically since the beginning of the New 52. Writers were working books without being told they were actually pitching to get the jobs until after editorial decided on another writer. Artists being told they would be removed from books if they weren't three issues ahead of publication of their first issues while still awaiting their first scripts. Creatives given the direction to write as exploitative as possible with an eye to create sales through shock. Writers being pulled after getting the assignment, writers being told to rewrite portions of a comic already completely drawn. Plots being accepted, altered, altered again, altered yet again, then rejected. Creatives being fired by e-mail, if they were told at all. The Before Watchmen project that no one wanted. Long-term successes such as Vertigo being gutted of content and staff to prop up the super hero line. People hired to write or draw a book, then pulled before the work is solicited. E-mails demanding creators keep their mouths shut about being fired or risk never getting work from DC again. Articles in other places go into much more detail than I want to here, but the point should be clear; DC is doing everything to dominate the market NOW, even at the expense of its own future.
It's a desperate and scary thing to watch. DC used to be the tortoise to Marvel's hare, never winning the monthly sales battles, but continually putting out quality projects that would sell for years and even decades after the people stopped caring about the latest X-Men event. Marvel looks stable by comparison, with its group of writers called "architects' and planning the future of their complex universe. Work on Marvel's next big event started as far back at 2011, making Marvel seem akin to pyramid builders to DC's current crop manufacturers of prefab box stores. It creates a glowing picture of Marvel at first, before you realise they're still the same old hare they've always been, but they're just as interested and focused on the now as DC, but much more experienced at servicing the market for it. Marvel isn't in the panic DC is, or, if they are, they're doing a fantastic job of hiding it behind the near-effortless manner they jump from sales event to sales event with their current push even called Marvel NOW.
We have both major publishers and a significant number of creators all focused on what they need to do now to have success now. I would be lying if this wasn't as often true among the smaller publishers as well. Many are desperately hanging on to any ground they've taken in this shrinking market with their bloody, clawed hands while snatching at anything that looks to extend their subsistence in the direct market. This usually takes the shape of a significant bite of any TV or film options; the brass ring of small comics publishing. It's another form of publishing for the now as it increasingly warps what these publishers are looking for in new projects as they're thinking "can this be sold as a film" when looking at the proposals.
The smart creator, knowing the layout of the land, will shift their approach to their work with an eye to appealing to Marvel or DC or a smaller company to best get a similar immediate return. This makes the creative position no different than any other skilled trade. The writer or artist as plumber or electrician. There's nothing wrong in that, just as there's nothing wrong with honest work for an honest salary. However, I really don't think many people chose to work in comics for the paycheck as there are a number of better paying fields utilizing the same skill sets.
What all this means is we have the vast majority of the people functioning in this industry working under the constraints of fashion, commerce, self-censorship, and public opinion.
Very few people are trying to create work that will matter once they're gone.
Put that bluntly will likely upset more than a few people; no one want to be forgotten, but few seem eager to do what it takes to be remembered. Would a serious person work for less in a field showing such little respect for its artists knowing their work was especially disposable? Forgettable? I don't think I could return to work for hire jobs as an easily replaceable cog, I have little interest in it.
For myself, I know my motivation to do comics isn't some lingering childhood desire to draw Batman or Spider-Man, but to tell stories that will entertain and hold an audience long after the work was first published, hopefully long after I'm gone.
When it comes to the comics I'm doing, I'm doing my best to be a serious person.
(the sketch above is based on Christian Witkin's photograph)