The comic book industry has had a longstanding tumultuous relationship with its creators. When characters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man are worth $494 million, $277 million and a staggering $1.4 billion dollars respectively, it’s no surprise that there is much stifling between creators and the publishers over accreditation, money and creative freedom.
One of the most notable feuds came in the early 1970s between Jack Kirby and Marvel Comics. Kirby was arguably the biggest influence in the rise of Marvel Comics, co-creating and penciling Fantastic Four, most of the original Avengers and even the X-Men. Kirby left Marvel in 1970, dissatisfied with his treatment by the publisher and took his talents to DC Comics.
20 years later, similar issues would come to light at Marvel, this time with artists Todd McFarlane, Rob Liefeld and Jim Lee. These three creators consecutively broke the sales record for a single issue with Spider-Man, X-Force and X-Men — Lee holds the record at 8.1 million — and helped shaped the style of comic books in the '90s. However, McFarlane, Liefeld and Lee felt they were not being compensated fairly and didn’t have the ability to tell their stories without overhead meddling.
Striking out on their own, they banded together with other artists and writers — Whilce Portacio, Marc Silvestri, Erik Larsen, Jim Valentino — and formed their own imprint, Image Comics. By stepping back and allowing creators to retain the rights and profits of their titles, Image took a stand against the “Big 2,” Marvel and DC, and it paid off handsomely. Todd McFarlane’s Spawn remains the highest selling independent single issue of all time at 1.7 million copies sold.
However, for close to two decades after the rise of Image, creator-owned comics did not all share similar successes. Sales of single issues were paltry, and most creative teams could barely stay afloat. In 2012, Publisher’s Weekly delved into the numbers behind the cost of publishing a single issue and the creators' paychecks. In order to break even, on average a title would have to sell over 3,000 copies (another insider estimated 15k copies was the minimum).
Robert Kirkman, creator/writer of The Walking Dead and now Chief Operations Officer at Image, took another stand against the Big 2, leaving them behind and encouraging other writers to make only creator-owned titles. Brian Michael Bendis, creator of Ultimate Spider-Man and writer who cut his teeth in creator-owned comics, rebutted that Kirkman’s success was not typical and these titles do not always connect with audiences. The accepted idea was that creator-owned comics got you into the Big 2, not the other way around.
Almost 10 years have passed since the fires were stoked on that debate, and if you were to look at the most popular comics on the shelves, it’s undoubted more independent than ever before. Titles like Saga, Sex Criminals, The Wicked and The Divine are among the best-sellers month after month. It’s easy to see that while Bendis offered sensible advice from his experience, Kirkman’s vision of the creator-owned industry came true, much in part to his own hard work. So, what changed?
Jim Zub (Skullkickers, Thunderbolts), names a handful of factors for his own success in creator-owned, but much of it applies to the industry as a whole — namely, improved visibility and the success and growth of Image Comics. Zub wrote:
Comics sales are growing in print and online, graphic novels are the buzz-worthy darlings of the book market, and comic-related movie and TV shows are more mainstream than ever. The ripple effect of that is a greater acceptance of comics from the general public and a more diverse fanbase looking for new stories.
Much in the way that Netflix has given TV creators a chance to find an audience (Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan posits that the show would never have survived without Netflix), sites like Comixology offer readers an opportunity to find titles they might never see in a brick-and-mortar retailer. Retailers have seemingly found more confidence in comics and graphic novels recently, even Walmart is trying to get a piece of the action.
In an interview with Paste Magazine, Ed Brubaker (Captain America, Catwoman) said:
“I think the biggest difference in the last few years is that it feels like more stores are starting to take Image and other non-Marvel and DC publishers a lot more seriously, and give them a lot more shelf-space. I think some of that is probably because they have a lot of readers looking for new comics outside superheroes, and now Image is publishing a lot of books by bigger name writers and artists. But it’s nice to see retailers supporting more mainstream genre works. I think that’s a good path to a wider audience.”
What's clear is that readers are growing with the genre. Superhero titles and the "comic book movie renaissance" are bringing readers to the front door of comics, but now thanks to the expanded umbrella of what's getting published, those readers are able to find writers they love and follow their work across multiple books.
Brian K. Vaughn is a critically-acclaimed writer who has penned for Marvel and DC for over 20 years, with a collection of Eisner and Hugo awards to prove it. Vaughn is one of the many who have felt the creator-owned wave of success from his ongoing series Saga. Saga is a prime example of the advantage of name recognition and forming a following of fans (Saga #1 sold out before it ever even hit shelves). He maintains that while he's always been well paid at the Big 2, he's seen the light in creator-owned success and creators investing in themselves.
“I loved working for my friends at Marvel and DC, and I was always compensated with a very generous upfront page rate, but by betting on myself (and Fiona!) and waiting for money on the back end with 'Saga,' I’m already making way, way, WAY more than what I made on comparably selling books that I wrote for other companies."
The tides have definitely turned in the "status quo" of what's possible for comic book writers and artists. Image Comics will celebrate it's 25th anniversary this year, and with it comes 25 years of publishers and creators alike betting on themselves and their talent. Year after year, the success for creator-owned has grown, showing no sign of slowing down. Vaughn offers one last bit of sage advice for blossoming creators:
"Look, it’s definitely a gamble, and there are probably many more creator-owned books that don’t turn a profit than ones that do, but when the rewards are potentially so large, why not roll the dice on a project you’re passionate about? There are a ton of readers out there who are desperate for something new, and thanks to advances like digital distribution, it’s easier than ever to get your work into their hands. I think the market is primed for hungry new creators to make a big splash if they’ve got a great original story in them.”
What are your favorite creator-owned comics? Sound off in the comments below!