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Diversity is Great…But What About MY Superhero Book?

| February 14, 2011 | 11 Comments

(Heading image by Dave Ryan from War of the Independents.)

The comics internet has been buzzing lately with well-publicized calls for more diversity in comics, and for increased support for creator-owned titles.  There’s been Eric Powell‘s controversial YouTube video (now taken down) and his less controversial “Front for Diversity in Comics,”  Steve Niles recent push for a greater spotlight on creator-owned work, and the “$2 Digital” self-publishing trend publicized recently by Skottie Young and others.  (Check out “The Illustrated Section” for a cool new site built around this “movement.”) [6-27-14 Update…actually, The Illustrated Section closed after about a year and a half, due to lack of sales traction.]

These issues have been debated by fans and pros throughout the Twitterverse and comics blogosphere all month.  At times the debate has been heated, as Powell’s comments were viewed by some as an attack on the Big Two, their creators and (God forbid) superhero books in general.  There have been some great pieces generated from this debate, including Andy Schmidt‘s wonderful explanation of how it came to be that superhero comics dominate the marketplace.  (Read Part 1 and Part 2 when you get a chance.)

If you’re an independent comic creator, chances are, you support increased attention on creator-owned books. (You know, like YOURS perhaps?) But with the call for diversity and the desire to reduce the dominance of superhero books in the marketplace, in the back of your mind you might be thinking, “Sure, diversity is a good thing.  But what about MY superhero book?”

Be honest for a minute.  Half of your ideas for comics involve superheroes.  For some of you it’s closer to 90%.  The rest?  Zombies, of course! (I kid.  Not really.)  But hey, it’s not your fault.  As the Schmidt article above highlights, for the past 50 years comics have been practically synonymous with capes. It’s the culture you’ve grown up in.  Sure, you respect plenty of non-superhero books.  But in your heart of hearts, you won’t consider yourself a “success” until you’ve established yourself as a guy or gal who can tell a good superhero story, if not for the Big Two, then at least for yourself.

So, if this push for more non-superhero comics takes off, what exactly does that mean for your indy super hero books?

Well, regarding that question, I have two pieces of advice:

1.)  Forget all about your indy superhero book, because it’s probably going to fail.

2.) Screw anyone who tries to tell you what kind of comics you should or shouldn’t make.

Heh.

Okay, regarding that first piece of advice, I want to debunk a few myths.

Myth:  Because most comics readers are superhero fans, your superhero book will be easier to sell than other genres.

A kid walks into a comic book shop.  (Ha!  Like that would happen!)  Take two. A 30-something dude walks into a comic book shop.  He’s surfing the racks with twenty dollars in his pocket, which in this day and age might get him 6 books if he’s lucky.  He’s your “average” comics fan.  He has a few books from the Big Two he follows religiously, he’ll pick up the big events if he likes the creative team, he has a couple of non-supes books from Image he likes, and he’s open to checking out a new title from the second-tier companies if the premise intrigues him enough.  This guy is going to be a really tough sell for you.  Sure, he might buy a new cape book by a known entity like Mark Waid or Mark Millar.  But why is he gonna bother with YOUR book?  So much of the appeal of superhero books is the long history and familiarity readers have with the characters and the universes.  This guy’s precious indy dollars are more than likely going to go to a book like Chew or Locke & Key.

Myth:  If you want to get work from the Big Two, you’ve got to show them you know how to write or draw superheroes.

Wrong.  Just take a look at the hottest writers that have broke into comics over the past decade or so?  Look at the books that were their biggest success prior to Big Two gigs:

Jason Aaron:  The Other Side, Scalped
Jonathon Hickman:  Pax Roman, Nightly News
Nick Spencer: Forgetless, Shuddertown, Morning Glories
Scott Snyder: Voodoo Heart (a short story collection), American Vampire

What this tells me is that you need to show the Big Two you can write, you can build an audience, and you can sell some books.  They don’t need to be superhero books, however.  In fact, they probably shouldn’t be.

CC Cebulski has tweeted that you don’t “break in” at Marvel or DC.  First, you break in at the other publishers.  Well, look at the books that other publishers like Dark Horse, Image, IDW and Boom! put out.  About half of it is licensed stuff.  And of the creator owned stuff, 90% of it is NOT superhero books.  Unless you’re Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis, most publishers aren’t interested in your superhero books.  So, if your goal is to someday write capes for the Big Two, and to do that you first must be published by the smaller publishers, and the smaller publishers don’t want your superhero book…well, I think you can do the math.

Myth: You’ve got an awesome, original take on the superhero genre.

Sorry.

You don’t.

It’s all been done before.

“No, really, I’ve got an fresh spin on-”

Stop.  You don’t.

Look at it this way.  Every month, the Big Two put out between 50-100 superhero comics.  And they’ve been doing this for decades.  Do you really think there is ground on which they haven’t tread?  It’s all been covered in the superhero genre:  all-ages, mature, golden age, dark and gritty.  There have been superhero murder mysteries, love stories, heroes journeys, and anti-heroes journeys.  It’s ALL been done before.

No, your superhero idea isn’t original. Or at least it’s not THAT original.  Not enough to make that 30-something put down his Spider-man and pick up your book.

I know. It’s a hard pill to swallow.  I’m pretty much a jerk for saying it.  But, now that it’s been said…

Aww, #$@! it.

If you want to make a superhero book, make a damn superhero book.

Who am I to tell you what kind of books to make?  At the end of the day, we make comics because we love them. So do what you love.  The most important thing, especially when you’re just getting started, is to FINISH A BOOK.  Get it out of your head and into the world.  Stop talking about, writing about, podcasting about, and thinking about making comics, and just make one.  No, there’s not a strong market out there for indy superhero books.  Truthfully, there’s not a strong market out there for ANY indy comic books.  But the only way to guarantee your book will fail is not to make it in the first place. If the only thing you can get excited about working on is a super hero book, then rock it out. Because you’re going to need to be excited about what you’re doing.  It’s that excitement and passion that will help you fight through all the many barriers that stand in the way of completing your book.

You might think I think I’m somehow immune to the forces aligned against the indy superhero book from my comments above.  But I know I’m not.  Hell, I’ve done superhero books before and am working on a couple right now.  My team is currently hard at work on EPIC, a superhero book I’m co-creating with Matt Zolman.  Matt and I have no illusions about this project.  We know the odds are stacked against us. But the thing is, we LOVE what we’re doing. We’re working on a book WE’d like to see on the shelves. Matt works full time as a talented graphic designer, so to put in even more time drawing comics, he’s got to love it.  And what Matt likes drawing more than anything else are people in costumes punching each other.  And you know what?  There’s nothing wrong with that!

And this applies to all the oversaturated genres out there.  Should you do a zombie book, or a vampire book, or even zombie- vampire book?   Of course not.  There are WAY too many on the shelves already.  But if you HAVE to do it, if it’s a story you can’t NOT tell, then have at it, and give it your absolute best.  (By the way, you can look for a zombie-vampire book, coming soon from ComixTribe. Seriously.)

In closing, if like me, you absolutely have to do an indy superhero book, here are just a few tips that might help you beat the odds and have it be successful.

  • Have a Strong Hook – Yes, I know I said it’s all been done before.  That doesn’t mean you can’t still find an interesting way to pitch your book so that it sounds fresh, new, and appealing to readers.  Mark Waid did an awesome job with Irredeemable:  “What if the world’s greatest hero became the world’s greatest villain.”  On the face of it, there’s nothing new there.  Heroes and villains have switched from one side to the other plenty of times in the past.  But building a whole series around that…yeah, that’s something that might be worth checking out.
  • Have GREAT Art – Good art isn’t going to cut it for your indy cape book.  Bad art isn’t worth the paper it’s printed art. Fans will forgive less than amazing art on a slice-of-life or a horror book, but not for the capes.  The only way to stand a chance at competing on the shelves with the Big Two is to blow readers away with great art.  How did Robert Kirkman beat the odds with Invincible?  A number of factors, for sure, but Ryan Ottley is probably numero uno.
  • Give ‘Em Something the Big Two Isn’t – What could you possibly have to offer, that the Big Two can’t?  That, I don’t know.  But it’s worth thinking about.  And if you can find a void in the market and fill it, you might make something happen.  Here are a few ideas:
  • Long Runs from a Single Creative Team – Comic book fans are creatures of habit.  We know what we like, and we buy what we know.  And there’s nothing better than when a creative team  starts clicking, and then stays together for a long, long run.  A run we can sink our teeth into.  Readers get frustrated with the Big Two for switching creative teams all the time.  Characters voices change, a fave artist is replaced by someone you can’t stand, entire subplots are just dropped.  This is a downside of assembly line work-for-hire comics.  But in the indy field, we have the opportunity to give readers consistency for the long haul.  Solo webcomic creators are reaping the benefits of this, building fan loyalty through frequent delivery of a consistent product year in and year out.  And there are some cool examples of collaborative partnerships, too.  Take Cary Kelly and Harold Edge (Fallen Justice, Dynagirl), indy creators who’ve been working together for several years now and to date have put out 11 issues and counting in the FJ universe.  Consistency builds a following.
  • Push the Envelope – Even though the Comics Code is no more, with Disney and Warner Bros. ultimately calling the shots, there are just some places the Big Boys won’t go.  But there’s nothing stopping YOU from going there.  (Accept maybe your mom.)  The Boys is a good example of this. And in webcomics, check out God Hates Astronauts for a superhero yarn you’d NEVER get from the mainstream.
  • You – You have a unique voice. You have a life experience and a point of view not shared by anyone else on the planet.  If you can bring that to your superhero stories, or ANY comics you create, as opposed to just retelling the same old stories or imitating your favorite creators, you’ve got a real shot at connecting with readers.

All right, I’m spent.  Agree?  Disagree?  Did I ruffle any feathers? As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

NEXT: Script Adjustments

***

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, and educator residing in Newburyport, MA.  He is the writer and co-creator of EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and Tears of the Dragon, a swords and sorcery fantasy.  His past work includes OVER, a romantic comedy graphic novel, and Super Seed, the story of the world’s first super powered fertility clinic. His work has been published by DC and Arcana comics.

Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, a new website empowering creators to help each other make better comics.

Contact Tyler via email (tylerjamescomics@gmail.com), visit his website TylerJamesComics.com, follow him on Twitter, or check him out on Facebook.

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About the Author ()

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, educator, and publisher residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of THE RED TEN, a superhero murder mystery, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and TEARS of the DRAGON, a swords and sorcery fantasy. Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, which is both a new imprint of quality creator owned titles, and an online community where creators help creators make better comics. Follow him on Twitter @tylerjamescomics, or send him an email at tyler.james@comixtribe.com.

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  1. Inspiration from the Trenches | ComixTribe | February 21, 2011
  1. Ruiz Moreno says:

    A very interesting perspective with a ton of truth’s. It’s almost funny because Saturday on Twitter I posed this question:

    “@Ruiz_Moreno: For you #makecomics ppl, how do you take a great idea that’s been done in some form before & make it your own? What mentality do you have?”

    The only response I received was from John Lees (whom I was sure would respond):

    “@johnlees927 @Ruiz_Moreno I take the mentality that EVERY story has already been done and all that’s left to do is tell those stories in interesting ways”

    I had started to doubt writing my comic for a moment based on the thought that “everything has been done before” and I understood that to make it interesting you have to create something so different from the standard, which is partially what I have taken away from this article. The timing is ironic considering my thought process and a very enjoyable read. I agree with you and no feathers were ruffled. Sometimes the truth can be harsh and cold but nonetheless it is still the truth.

    • Tyler James says:

      Ruiz, I don’t think there’s a writer/creator out there that doesn’t battle with doubt. And a solid degree of skepticism towards one’s own work is a good thing. You’ll do well to be your best critic.

      But make sure you’re treating things in such a way as moves you forward, as opposed to moves you back. When looking at your work, ask “Is THIS good enough?” often. But don’t personalize it. Separate “Your WORK” from “YOU.” Sometimes when struggling through a script, it’s easy to think, “I’m just not good enough to write this.” But it’s important to give yourself permission to suck. Especially in the first draft stage. Every great story you’ve ever read started out as a half-baked idea, full of holes. Just keep writing!

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. John Lees says:

    An interesting/terrifying article today. Especially considering that my first comic project is… a superhero comic. 😛

    All the obstacles brought up for why an indy superhero comic is a tough sell are certainly valid and accurate. But equally salient is the conclusion that if you want to write one, write one. From my biased perspective, I don’t think the folly lies in writing superhero stories, but rather in writing them for any reason other than “this is the story I want to tell”.

    If you yearn to write an epic piece of slice-of-life drama, or be the next Joe Sacco making documentary-comics, make them. Don’t think, “Well, I suppose I should make a superhero comic to get noticed and become a commercial success before I start telling the stories I REALLY want to tell.” It takes too long to make a comic, costs too much, and is too much work to waste your time and effort doing something you don’t feel passionate about. I wrote a superhero story because I love the superhero genre, and wanted to write a love letter to it – originality and innovation be damned. Like Ruiz Moreno quoted me saying, I think that the key is how you tell the story, rather than the impossible goal of coming up with something “new”.

  3. Jules Rivera says:

    Every time I think “Bah, superheroes are exhausted and done,” I am reminded of the movie Unbreakable. Now that was a fairly modern piece that sort of turned the superhero genre on it’s ear a bit. And it came from M. night Shyamalan of all people. I think there’s still new material to be had with any genre, as long as creators are willing to take a fresh approach to the material.

    I made a comic about futuristic corporate mercenaries and caught crap from prospective readers saying it was unoriginal. Of course my story wasn’t original. I knew that. It was just the approach with the dialogue and the art that made it my own. No story concept is original; just your take on it.

    • Tyler James says:

      The challenge with indy superhero (or vampires, or zombies, or any other oversaturated genre) is that you’re often going to have to overcome most people’s preconceived notions about those kind of books. Even if you DO have an original voice or expectation, you’ve got to defeat the perception that indy + superhero = poor man’s Marvel/DC.

  4. Scott Austin says:

    You almost had me ticked off at first with the whole “Doing an Indy Superhero comic? Just forget it!” attitude, but then you turned it around at the end thus leaving us with both sides of the story.

    Very clever, sir.

    I don’t know if this is necessarily what you were after, but it’s “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” The best bet, no matter WHAT your creating is to just jump in and see if you float.

    If you create something that takes off, great, if not grab on to something else and jump in again. 😉

  5. Eli Ivory says:

    Yeah,it’s just easier to do your own thing nowadays. I’m a penciller really but I did everything I could to get noticed.(but who hasn’t) I met an editor at dc once that pretty much said the only way to really get noticed by the big boys is to prove you can do your own book and get it out there. I’ve just ran with it ever since. Now writing seems a little more crazy to me than drawing but it’s fun to plot and think of ideas. I know everything has been done before but there’s always someone new that hasn’t read the story. I think that’s what keeps me going. Cause you just never know. good article.

    • Tyler James says:

      Good attitude, Eli. Bringing great pencils to the Big Two is nice. But bringing great pencils AND an existing following of dedicated fans of your creator-owned or small press work is a whole lot more attractive to any publisher.

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