Thursday, July 24, 2008

Failing Upwards

I don’t consider myself a big fan of Kevin Smith – I think he does little to expand his films out of his "comfort zone," and his only comics work that I actually enjoyed was his great run on Green Arrow. However, I think his interview DVD, An Evening With Kevin Smith, contains some of the best stories about the complete idiocy of the Hollywood decision-making process. In particular, his commentary on the sheer stupidity surrounding the disastrous Superman Lives project is truly one of the most hysterical, yet infuriating, Hollywood stories. There’s one line by Smith that highlights the entire fiasco:

“In Hollywood, you kind of fail upwards.”

In all honesty, I don’t see why that quote cannot apply to some writers of mainstream comic books.

I don’t envy the job of comic book writers. Sure, like anyone else I think it would be fun to write stories featuring my favorite characters. But have you ever thought how difficult it is to sit down and plot out, say, twelve issues of a C-level character like Hawkman or Hawkeye? Most fans already pay little interest to the character, and heck, the company may want you to write a crossover issue to try to get a sales boost from the company’s (most likely bad) Big Summer Event. That cuts into your short-term plans. And maybe the villain or guest star you fully intend to use is declared unavailable after you already turn in your first scripts. And keep in mind that no matter how much effort you put into the issues at least a good portion of the Internet message board folks are going to say it is crap. On top of all this, most comic book writers write more than one title and end up dealing with all this junk three or four times over per month.

It certainly isn’t an easy job. If you’re a writer with any kind of name value you could make much more money in television or movies. Which is why it does not surprise me why a lot of the mainstream comics on the shelves are often poorly-written. What does surprise me is why these writers keep getting gigs.

The whole idea of a job is that you are paid with the expectation that you are to do your job well. You turn in sub-standard work or, hell, turn in no work at all, you may get away with it at first. But be prepared to eventually say good-bye to your paycheck. Look, I am not that much of a jerk to want anybody to lose their job, but I can’t really feel sympathy for anybody who does said job poorly or not at all.

Yet this does not seem the case with many comic book writers (and artists, for that matter, but that’s another article). I have followed the careers of numerous comic book writers who constantly turn in work that sells poorly, is widely-panned, or both, yet still get gig after gig. This does not include someone like Jeph Loeb, whose work I personally don’t care for, who generates high sales. These are writers who have on a regular basis killed sales and entire books.

I hate to use an example, but I need to in order to illustrate my point: Bruce Jones and his recent run at DC comics (2004-current). Here is Bruce Jones’ recent resume:
  • 7 issues on Nightwing, critically ridiculed and terrible sales
  • A Vertigo series, a “reimagining” of Deadman, which lasted only 13 issues
  • A reboot of Mike Grell’s Warlord, which lasted even less (10 issues)
  • The final six issues of Greg Rucka’s Checkmate (never a strong seller, so I won’t count this against Jones)
  • Three mini-series: Man-Bat, OMAC, and Vigilante. The events of Man-Bat were ignored in the main Bat-titles, the new Vigilante Jones created has since been replaced by another new Vigilante, and the OMAC character introduced in the mini-series had no further appearances. All three had rather low sales and did not spin-off into any other titles.
…Yet Jones has been writing yet another recent mini-series of a concept that cannot be expected to sell very well – The War that Time Forgot – no matter how awesome the Showcase Presents volume is. I am not saying DC should throw the guy Batman or Green Lantern, but there are only so many chances a writer should get to turn C-list and D-list characters into success stories.

I have been told that Jones has done some good work in the past. But in the last five years Jones has worked on six DC characters, none of which has been successful. Sure, Nightwing is probably the only one of those concepts that is expected to sell moderately well (although did not under Jones’ pen). He might not be exactly failing upwards, but he certainly seems to be failing and is going anywhere but out the door. But perhaps this is less a criticism of Jones and frankly criticism of the seemingly endless stream of projects that DC greenlights for him that are so off the radar they might as well be stealth bombers.

Obviously somebody at DC likes Bruce Jones. Well, if the company is so high on the guy, give him some sort of substantial project. If not, stop giving him concepts that have little chance of success. I
t's not like he's a superstar like Geoff Johns or Brian Bendis, who could sell at least 50k of an issue of NFL SuperPro if they wanted. Otherwise DC might as well write "Bruce Jones Project" on a stack of hundred dollar bills, then throw it in the paper shredder.

I know Bruce Jones is a veteran writer, but sadly I can't help but wonder what veteran and often ignored writers like William Messner-Loebs, Steve Englehart, Jim Shooter, or Steve Gerber (RIP) could do with these concepts. Perhaps they would not sell any better, but at least these men do not have a lengthy recent history of failed projects.

I can only think of one writer in the past few years who turned in work that was considered so poor that he was effectively blackballed from mainstream comics: Chuck Austen. I’d tell you to look up why on his Wikipedia entry, but it seems the nice police have cut out the criticism. Suffice to say, well, this:

Click above to view Exhibit "A" of Why Chuck Austen No Longer Does Mainstream Comics

I can just imagine if this appeared in a Silver Age Superman book. The cover blurb would read: "SUPERMAN or SUPER-CHEATER?!?" with a fantastic Curt Swan cover. But I am sure that story would feature red kryptonite or an extra-dimensional space gorilla with magical powers. Austen, unfortunately, was not that creative.

Is that what it takes to be blackballed? Finally, honey, I found a job with security!

UPDATE, 7/27: It's interesting that I brought up Bruce Jones' failed Warlord reboot in this post, since it was announced this weekend that series creator Grell is returning to Warlord. Cool stuff! In an interview with Newsarama, Grell had the following comments on the Jones reboot:

NRAMA: Back in 2006 there was an earlier attempt to revive the The Warlord, but that was shelved after ten issues. Does this anything to do with that?

MG: No. As point of fact to that, that series didn't have much to do with the Warlord at all. I don't mean to be too harsh of a critic – I have the greatest respect for Bart Sears and Bruce Jones, but I was disappointed in that series with the respect to the fact that it had no bearing on the original besides the names. They did themselves a disservice attaching the name.... a new name would have better. The audience was looking for the Warlord in that book and they couldn't find him.

I think this quote can work as a commentary on not just the 2006 Warlord series, but all failed "reimagining" of characters and concepts. Sometimes they are just taken way too far from the original ideas.

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