I was bummed to learn a couple days ago that the comic series Unknown Soldier (Vertigo Comics) by Joshua Dysart is going to be discontinued after 25 issues. I have the first two trades (“trade” being essentially a collection of 5 or 6 single issues in graphic novel form) of this series, and at 25 issues I’m guessing there will untimately be four or five. It’s disappointing, because in my opinion this is one of the best comics series going right now, and, unfortunately people just aren’t buying it. It follows in the wake of another Vertigo title which is also being canceled, Air. I don’t know anything about that book, as I don’t read it, but what concerns me is some of the speculation that other Vertigo titles that don’t sell a ton might also be on the chopping block. Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool says:
Although never a great seller, Unknown Soldier survived the danger of early culling and seemed to be in process of setting up a series of trade paperbacks for the shelf, settling in for the long run. But then the same could have been said for Air, or indeed the late lamented Exterminators.
So now of course I’m suddenly also fearful for DMZ, Northlanders, Greek Street, Sweet Tooth and Scalped. Who do I need to pray to to keep the likes of these on the books?
What this tells me is that people, in general, don’t want unique and original content. One thing all of these books have in common is they are creator-owned, they aren’t rehashed stories of 50-70 year old characters like the big sellers typically are (Batman, Spider-Man, etc.). Now Unknown Soldier is based on an existing character, but I would submit that Dysart has updated the premise so drastically that he has pretty much owned the character. So it’s unfortunate to see something of such quality just not making it.
Comics certainly aren’t the only venue we see this in. How about movies, and the constant rehashing of old television shows and remakes? People grumble with irritation that Hollywood continues to churn this stuff out, but they obviously wouldn’t do it if these films didn’t make money. Movie studios aren’t in the business of giving us what is necessarily “good” art after all; they are in the business of giving us what we are willing to buy. It’s why everyone knows about the latest Transformers movie, but who saw The Messenger? People tend to go after what is most heavily marketed to them, then complain when those offerings suck. Those complaints don’t stop the endless parade of awful movies at the megaplex, though. The same mentality gets us racks upon racks of mediocre Spider-Man/Batman/Avengers titles at the comics shop. One good book for each of those characters would be fine, but four or five or more of each?
People are afraid to take risks with unknown material, when the reality is that often original material crushes the “safe” options hands-down. Not only that, but the creators themselves do their best work when unfettered by the rules governing established characters. For example, I always talk about Jason Aaron, whose creator-owned project, Scalped, is also a Vertigo title. I just read the 6th trade, Scalped – The Gnawing, and was not at all disappointed. For my money, this is the best title in comics. Think of a cross between The Wire and Deadwood, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Set on an Indian reservation that is basically a made-up version of Pine Ridge in South Dakota, this title kicks me in the guts every time. Every character is flawed, sometimes the good guys and the bad guys trade places, and nothing feels safe. It’s probably not for everybody because of its violence and pathos, but it is built on fantastic writing and art perfect for the story. Anyone who ever asks me about comics hears about Scalped.
Jason Aaron is a good writer working on other titles as well. He’s got a run going in Punisher MAX right now, plus some Spider-Man and Wolverine work. He did a run on Ghost Rider. None of his work on existing characters, at least that I’ve read, comes close to what he’s done with Scalped. Not even close to close. I would say that about other writers as well. I love what Ed Brubaker has done with Captain America, but his series Criminal destroys it. Rick Remender is another guy whose creator-owned projects Fear Agent and The Last Days of American Crime run roughshod over the work he’s done under Marvel’s banner (though his bizarre take on The Punisher as a kind of Frankenstein monster comes real close). Jimmy Palmiotti always has creator-owned stuff happening; having hit home runs with The Pro, Back to Brooklyn, and Random Acts of Violence, he and writing parther Justin Gray will be delivering another project called Time Bomb yet this year. And Greg Rucka (who has quite a history of awesome creator-owned stuff, like Queen and Country and Whiteout) is absolutely killing it right now with Stumptown, a gritty PI story set in Portland, Oregon.
These projects are all labors of love, and I can’t imagine there being a lot of money in them. They don’t have the weight of decades of familiarity behind them to lean on. In a Batman arc, if things aren’t going well DC can just fire the creative team and reload with different talent. In a creator-owned book being released by a larger company, it just gets dropped. Then there are the uphill battles fought by people going DIY, which is the case with Anthony Schiavino‘s Sergeant Zero. What’s he’s done with his creator-owned story is at least as good as what’s coming out of the bigger houses, and far better than most. But will people actually give it a shot, or go get the latest new #1 of some sprawling Justice League-related title?
In a perfect world, these writers and creators could make their living with their creator-owned stuff, but that just doesn’t happen. If notoriety from known characters helps them sell more creator-owned stuff, then more power to them and I wish them luck. Often it is their initial creator stuff that breaks them through, though, and earns them a steadier paycheck writing established characters for the bigger comics publishers. When it comes to novels, I think many writers have a smug disdain for those who write media tie-ins. I’ve only read one; Christa Faust‘s novelization of Snakes on a Plane. Yes, the book was way better than the movie. Certainly Faust had her hands tied with much of how the events of the book would play out, but she still injected her personality into it. While it was no Money Shot or Hoodtown, it was still fun. Max Allan Collins did the novelization of the GI Joe movie, and curiosity will probably demand I read it. He’s no stranger to shared world stuff, having co-written a couple posthumous Mickey Spillane novels as well. James Reasoner has written over 200 books, some under “shared names” where various authors will write under a single author’s name (a practice going way back to the pulp days, and other series like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys). Hell, big-selling James Patterson pretty much does that now too.
I’d love to get in on this action. I’d do a tie-in in a heartbeat. I’d love to write a Gabriel Hunt novel. I’d do it because a) it’s work, b) I’d like to think it would help gain some attention for my “own” novels, and c) it probably pays better than a typical book. I would guess Max Allan Collins sold more copies of the GI Joe book than he did his last Hard Case Crime book, but I could be wrong. Generally, though, I believe that is the case.
I wish that wasn’t the way of these industries, and I wish more people would take chances on the unknown. I wish the long list of writers who can write circles around Lee Child would get some of his readers so that they weren’t scraping by hoping to earn out enough to get another book published. Hell, most of the books I want to buy aren’t even on the shelf in the big chains. I wish there wasn’t such an emphasis on established characters that were in comic books when my dad was a kid. I wish movie studios didn’t throw all their money at the dumbed-down and rehashed and gave some love to movies that actually don’t suck. And I wish a reasonable fraction of the fans dropping fistfuls of cash on Iron Maiden football jerseys would instead spend it on a couple Slough Feg records, for crissakes!
But, you know, “if wishes were fishes” and all that. At least mine aren’t chock full of mercury.