Monday, November 28, 2005

How to Run a Comic Book Company

I was at a question and answer session with Steve Englehart over the weekend. He was one of the new generation of writers who entered the field in the early 1970s. He is best remembered for his run on Batman but he started at Marvel and wrote a lot of their titles at one time or another. A quick list includes, Captain America, the Avengers, the West Coast Avengers, the Vision and the Scarlet Witch, the Hulk, Master of Kung Fu, Captain Marvel, Hero for Hire, the Silver Surfer and the Fantastic Four.

I remember him as a good writer who was at his best writing individuals and his worst writing teams. He also pushed the envelope in story telling. I think that he was the first to write an issue where the characters did nothing but talk (his last Avengers) and one where the title character never appeared in costume (one of his Batman issues).

He had a few clinkers, too. Rumor is that he overused Kang the Conqueror so much that Stan Lee himself ordered Englehart to kill the character. He took Captain America's partner the Falcon and changed him from nice-guy Sam Wilson into petty crook "Snap" Wilson.

In the Q&A session, Englehart stressed how much things have changed since he entered the field. He was given Captain America with no other instructions than to keep it creative and to sell at least 300,000 copies a month.

Now a writer has to come up with a proposal which works its way up and back down the editorial ladder before he can write anything and an issue that sells 20,000 copies is considered a success.

So, were things better back then? The fact that they could sell so many more comics implies that they were but it gets more complicated.

The distribution channels have changed completely. Up through the 1960s comics were sold at news stands, drug stores, and grocery stores. News stands don't exist any longer. Drug stores no longer carry comic books and few grocery stores do. Most comics are sold through specialty stores that grew up since the early 1970s. The target audience is now much older with a large percentage being adult.

There is also a lot more competition than there used to be. Video games are a big factor. No one in the mid-1970s thought of Pong as a replacement for a comic book but many current games feature really great animated versions of superheroes. Why read static comics when you can actually control characters?

So the comics have consolidated and editors have been put in charge of protecting the franchise. Has this improved comics? Probably not.

Englehart gave the example of Batman. For the last five years or so he has been over the edge crazy. When Englehart did his Dark Knight limited series, DC made some projection on how it would sell. The actual numbers were 2.5 times projections. What was different? Bruce Wayne was back and got a girl friend. Batman was no longer crazy, just driven. DC pulled the entire Batman line and gave it to a different editor to establish a new direction based on Englehart.

Ok, so an editor's direction can hurt a title, but surely he can save it from some of the cliffs that writers went off in the 1970s. One of the best (worst) examples of a writer going off on a dumb plotline was Gerry Conway's Spider-Man clone. It started when Spider-Man's girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, came back from the grave. She turned out to be a clone grown by his biology professor who had also grown a Peter Parker clone. It was dumb.

So what did Marvel do in the late 1990s? They brought back the clone along with a clone army grown by the biology professor's clone. They even told us that the clone was the "real" Spider-Man and the two switched rolls for a year. Of course, it was all part of a formula. You set it up so that the hero was dead or powerless and ran stories about how difficult it was for his replacement to take over. Then the hero would return. It already happened in Iron Man, Green Lantern, Thor, Superman, Batman, and Captain America.

So, keeping tight editorial control doesn't keep bad plotlines from happening.

I'll have more to say about Englehart's talk in future posts.

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