Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Comics - Creator v. Character pt. 8

Here's the penultimate installment of my series on whether we should follow the creator or the character when buying and reading comics. This initially ran over at the In the Mouth of Dorkness blog, a blog worth checking out if you're into movies, gaming, comics, or anything else genre-based (read: geek chic). Check it out.
And, enjoy part 8 of Comics - Creator v. Character

Comics – Creator or Character Part VIII: Conclusion, part the 1st


In the late 80s, Marvel had a stable of superstar artists who were not only selling books, but also selling blue jeans with Spike Lee. It was a heady time for comic fans, feeling as if some “mainstream legitimacy” was finally transferring to our niche medium. (Yes, there was certainly the critical acclaim of Watchmen, Dark Knight, and Maus from 1986, but this was ON TELEVISION not just in the newspapers). Artists like Jim Lee, Todd McFarlane, Whilce Portacio, and Rob Liefeld received plum assignments, working on Spider-Man and the X-Men books, and even got the chance to write and draw their own books with the likes of Spider-Man and X-Force.

But, soon after they were given the keys to the kingdom, these artists, along with Marc Silvestri, Jim Valentino, and Erik Larsen, left Marvel to form their own comic company – one where they not only had the ability to draw and write the stories they wanted, but they would also own these new characters. It was a natural next step – one that Gil Kane took in 1968 with His Name is Savage and that Jack Kirby took in 1983 with Star Slayer through Pacific Comics. But, unlike these earlier attempts by mainstream comic artists to branch out into doing their own comics, the Image experiment was a success, and it ushered in a new age for comics publishing.


Malibu comics distributed the Image books for the first year they were in business, affording the creators to learn the ropes of publishing with a bit of a safety net. But, once able, Image became its own entity, which left Malibu comics with a large hole to fill in their publication schedule. Malibu chose to try something similar to what Image did, and created their Ultraverse imprint with top-name creators such as Steve Gerber, Gerard Jones, and Steve Englehart, all of whom were notable for being writers, going against the template laid out by Image where, other than Valentino, the founding fathers were known mainly for being artists (thus, the company’s title).

There were other notable companies and imprints that flourished in the wake of Image comics – Valiant from Jim Shooter and Bob Layton, Milestone at DC from Dwayne McDuffie, Denys Cowan, et al., and Comics Greatest World from Dark Horse. To differing degrees, all of these imprints relied upon the creators involved as marketing tools and sales barometers. Certainly, Valiant’s elevator pitch would be the revival of the Gold Key heroes of decades past, but the line really thrived under Jim Shooter’s guidance and seemed to go off the rails when he was forced out. The Milestone imprint had characters who were direct reflections of their creators – minority characters (far too often overlooked or only played as cliched, wrong-headed stereotypes) created by minority creators. Without the guiding forces behind these books’ creations, they floundered, if they continued at all once the creators left or the imprints were shut down.


One of the more successful imprints from the day – despite the fact that the imprint folded – was the Legend imprint from Dark Horse comics. This was a loosely-based conglomeration of hugely talented and revered comic creators. Members included Frank Miller, John Byrne, Mike Mignola, Art Adams, Walt Simonson, Geof Darrow, and Mike Allred. It was truly a “heavy hitters” list of talent.

This imprint involved no shared-universe, and, with possibly few exceptions, did not have characters from one book guest starring in other books. Legend was really an umbrella publishing venture that signfied the high-quality stories and art consumers could expect when seeing that image on the cover. Sin City, Next Men, Hellboy, Star Slammers, and others were published through Dark Horse under the Legend imprint.

A number of these books are still being published today, if not under the Legend imprint. What was unique about this imprint was that, at any time, the creators – who owned their work – could conceivably take their titles and publish them elsewhere. It truly was a place where creators held the power and could do whatever they wished, however they desired.

It was a culmination, artistically speaking, of the promise shown by Will Eisner’s the Spirit and the steps taken by legends such as Kane and Kirby, when they worked to branch out on their own.

Next: the Finale

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