Saturday, April 10, 2004

Warren Ellis on ICON. 

I've received a shitload of messages about Marvel Icon in the last 24 hours, mostly of the "have you seen this" or "so when do you do something for them" flavours. Let me see if I can head off more email at the pass here.

Some history, first. Marvel were in fact the first major Western company to offer a paid creator-ownership deal. This was the Epic initiative, beginning with EPIC ILLUSTRATED magazine and becoming the Epic Comics line. Epic Comics were the brass ring, giving Marvel's most popular and gifted creators space to make and own their own stories. It took DC several years to follow suit, breaking ground with Frank Miller's RONIN. Epic was, in my personal opinion, mismanaged with the best of intentions, and was shut down in the mid-Nineties. By this time, DC had a template creator-ownership deal in place. It wasn't actually as good as the Epic deal, but other options were going away fast if you wanted to actually get paid for work you owned yourself.

The regime at Marvel went through its now famous major change, and Marvel became a work-for-hire company. Then, last year, Bill Jemas came up with the Epic revival -- making it a label for creator-owned work by new and unknown creators. Now, the Epic name had been pretty tarnished by its last several years of publication, and Jemas and Quesada had made great strides by not really giving much of a shit about what had come before them. But, to me, this was badly misconceived. Epic had meant something. This seemed more like an effort to get their fan-base on-side. More to the point, under the current management, Marvel had avoided creator-ownership. And they had a good reason. They're a publicly-traded company whose only real asset is their creative library. All their revenue stems from monetising that library. And let's not forget that these people were bankrupt. Putting money against something they couldn't sell or merchandise could quite rightly be seen as questionable. And, sure enough, word got out that the "creator-ownership" deals were creator-participation, giving the creators a slice of profits in return for total control -- or, as later transpired, not creator-owned at all. Which turned the fanbase against them. It was a huge bloody mess, and you can't help but wonder if it was one of the factors that saw Jemas moved out of publishing into a space where he couldn't break anything. The Epic II initiative was shut down as soon as he left. And the Epic name was rendered worthless.

Which brings us to yesterday, and the announcement of Marvel Icon.

Marvel Icon is a new creator-ownership imprint through which Bendis and Oeming's POWERS and Mack's KABUKI will be published. According to Bendis, it's a full creator-ownership deal, which suggests a basis upon the original Epic contracts. It would seem to me that Marvel cannot enjoy revenue from other-media exploitation of the properties, as development of both have, I believe, been in hand for some time. Further, the previous publisher of both books, Image, will be allowed to continue selling trade paperback collections.

Image has gone through its own ructions. The Image partners are quite fond of voting each other out of office and working to usurp each other's powers. And so it was that Jim Valentino was removed from control of Image Central, the "front office" of the umbrella label that had been producing books on a difficult but admirable "get nothing/give nothing" basic. This worked roughly as follows: you produce the whole book, Image publishes it for a small fee taken out of the back end. They take no rights and pay you no advances. This is how POWERS and KABUKI were produced.

Valentino was replaced by Erik Larsen, whom, some might suggest, does not enjoy the same love as Valentino. He's a committed creator, but is prickly and abrasive, the author of the once-infamous "Name Withheld" open letter that to many proclaimed that comics writers were worthless. In his press release commenting on the Bendis-Oeming-Mack defection, he tries very hard to be a statesman, but can't resist a crack to the effect that Mack hasn't produced a KABUKI book in ages.

It's interesting to contrast that with Mack's own public commentary that people who'd met him at conventions in recent times will be aware that he had a complete photocopy of the next KABUKI book on his table. The inference being that he was choosing not to publish it yet.

Marvel has long been known to offer select creators what is termed an "exclusive work-for-hire" contract, where the creator can produce company-owned work only for Marvel, but can produce creator-owned work elsewhere. This is how Bendis could continue to produce POWERS for Image while tied to Marvel. It would only make sense for Marvel to want to publish everything that Bendis, one of the medium's best and most popular writers, produces. It would also make sense to continue to reward Bendis for his success and personal loyalty. And while Marvel may not be in line to share revenue from a POWERS film, you can see the uses in being the only publisher of new POWERS material if the film goes ahead.

Bendis, Oeming and Mack are tight -- to the point where they refer to themselves as MOB. Oeming is brilliant and prolific, and Mack is an ambitious and excellent artist -- and they both double-time as writers. For Marvel. KABUKI is an acclaimed and popular work that I believe has also attracted movie interest. There is value in publishing both of these works above and beyond their intrinsic quality. If I were Joe Quesada and new publisher Dan Buckley, I'd believe I had a very strong case to take to the board in regard to relaxing the policy against creator-owned work at Marvel. Not least of which would be locking up three of the most important people in American comics.

Does this have broader repercussions?

Image has taken a reputation hit, despite everyone involved going to ethical pains to insist there's no bad will. There isn't a direct financial hit, as the Image deal sees all money outside of the admin fee go directly to the creators anyway. But, intended or not, BOM leaving Image in the wake of Valentino's ouster does not look good.

Retailers have to order certain volumes of work from publishers to attain better discount levels. Stores
that were ordering lots of POWERS may possibly find themselves unable to make discount plateaus. It's conceivable that some may shave back Image orders, but that's pure speculation.

Icon is plainly intended as a boutique label, and, as suggested above, indications are strong that presence on the label will be at the very least a reward for Marvel's most valuable players, ideally with extant and popular creator-owned works. I can't imagine it'll be anything but invitation-only. As was the original Epic line. I don't see Vertigo experiencing a sudden brain-drain.

Nor, as some have suggested, does it make Vertigo look bad. To perceive Vertigo as "DC's creator-owned line" is an error. It's DC's adult-oriented fiction line. And it doesn't, save in very rare cases, publish superhero fiction. On a book-for-book basis, yes, Icon will likely outsell Vertigo. But POWERS outsold most Vertigo books when it was at Image. Vertigo, it cannot be doubted, has
its problems, but Icon won't spotlight any of them.

Some retailers have told me that Marvel are continuing to have problems keeping books in print; that new POWERS and KABUKI collections from Marvel might prove less available than the earlier Image collections. If that is a problem,I can't imagine it won't be solved -- allowing properties to go out of print triggers publishing-rights reversion clauses in most contracts, for one thing. For another, it'd just be dumb, and all three creators will be very aware of the revenue stream from permanent collections.

So what's the upshot? BOM are being taken care of, and Marvel have done something smart for themselves. That's the whole thing.

So quit emailing me.


-- W

Interesting take on exactly how and why Quesada and Buckley are maneuvering like they are. I believe it's the first non-cynical take on anything Quesada has done, ever, anywhere on the internet, that wasn't posted on Quesada's own board.

And while I did admire the chutzpah behind the Epic II maneuver, I can only hope that ICON is invitation-only. Can you imagine the kind of quality books that could come out, if the best and brightest writers in the industry were given a shot at a big-time chance for something they created themselves? Maybe I sound like a starry-eyed optimist here, but you'll agree that that's a pretty rare case, so maybe I have reason for it.

I can't see how this would be anything but a positive step forward in the industry. Make all the snide little comments you want about a major corporation getting their hands on Powers, et al, but this is precisely how change is affected. New movements, new styles, new techniques and new approaches -- filthering their way up from the small time titles to the big leagues. Trickle-up economics, I guess you could call it. That is how revolutions work. I don't know that we'll see another Ronin leading to another DKR, because comics are a much different beast now than they were 20 years ago. But I do see a fertile new territory for acknowledged masters to work their magic -- names like Neil Gaiman and Ellis come to mind -- as well as, if this thing takes off like it probably will, a boost for the ready-for-primetime Robert Kirkman and indie sensations like Brian Wood.

(Yes, I am aware Kirkman'll be writing Cap, but he's a fill-in. Shut up.)

I want good things to come of this. I sincerely believe Quesada and Buckley want good things to come of this. I'm feeling a little sad for Erik Larsen, who's basically been handed a shit sandwich, and if guys like Kirkman do indeed get more and more Marvel work, that can only put paid to speculation that Image is on its way down.

And who can fill their gap? That's not a rhetorical question, by the way; I'm asking you, because I don't really know.

Anyway. I'm rather eager to see what the first ICON titles will be, beyond Powers and Kabuki and the oft-mentioned Romita Jr. title Shades of Gray.

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