001AmericanComics:Richard BruningWebvisions PDXMay 23, 2013Portland, ORHistoryTechnologyCultureHello, everybody. My name is Richard Bruning and I am a writer,designer and cartoonist.
COMICBOOKS003Today I’d like to talk about how comic books come to be.And I’m going to tell you exactly how this happened, whether it’sthe truth or not!I confess, I’m a lifer. I grew up with comics. I learned to read fromthem at age 4, was inspired to draw my own at 7, and eventually,
I became a professional in the business. My many mostly happyyears at DC were largely spent doing design and creativemanagement but,
I’m glad to say that, post-DC, I’m gleefully back to drawing myown comics again. Full circle.
So, how did this uniquely American art form come to be? In thebrief time allotted I hope I can give you some sense about howthe big changes in comics occurred.
COMICBOOKS006.1Given it’s 75 years to cover in 30 minutes, I won’t be able to dojustice to all the great things that also occurred, just the biggest.Anyway, let’s begin…
Before the 1930s, newspaper comic strips were a big business,unlike today.
People devotedly poured over their local newspapers to read theadventures of TARZAN,
LITTLE NEMO, FLASH GORDON and the wonderful KRAZY KAT.
The Sunday Funnies of the day featured gorgeous color art in alarge format and lengthy, involved story lines.
1933The first things we call comic books originated in the early 1930swhen one of the newspaper printers of the day found he couldtake newsprint stock and fold signatures up to easily create asmaller side-stitched publication.
Originally these exclusively featured reprint material from thenewspapers and were often used as give-away premiums andsuch.
$These proved so popular that publishers tried to find a way toproduce even more, but pay even less money to create them.Ah, publishers.
1935In 1935 one of the publishers realized they could commissionnew original work cheaper than paying reprint fees on thenewspaper strips.
COMICBOOKINDUSTRY015Ironically, this led to the creation of the entire comic bookindustry!Unfortunately, in those days and for many decades to follow…
LOWPAGERATESNo Rights, No Royalties016virtually all the writers and artists worked for a pretty low pagerate with no rights and no royalties. And you didnt even get youroriginal artwork back, largely because no one thought it had anyvalue.
017Originally presented in a 64-page, cheap newsprint format withthe distinctive 61/2 x10 inch configuration,
10¢25YEARS018these were sold for a mere 10¢, a price they maintained foralmost 25 years! Don’t see that anymore, do ya?
This new form factor immediately appealed to young readersdue to the relatively cheap cover price, the portable nature ofthem, their re-readability and…
…the largely juvenile editorial fare, such as humor, funny animalsand adventurers.
1938That all changed in May of 1938 when Superman appeared onthe cover of…
ACTION COMICS #1, and even though he was just a backupfeature in there, thats all he needed to fly high.
The creation of writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, thischaracter was definitely in the right place at the right time.
America was finally recovering from the Great Depression (no,not the one Dubya left us with) and the country was growing at afast pace.
Yet, the war drums were beating overseas with Nazi Germanysactions looking worse and worse every day.
Still, even though he was of alien origin, the Man of Steelsomehow embodied Americas new view of itself.Truth, Justice and the American Way.
LittleKnownFact#1023That phrase actually originated on the Superman radio show in1942.
LittleKnownFact#2026The Superman concept had already been rejected a number oftimes when it was originally presented as a newspaper strip.
Its inclusion into this new comic book was quite a long shot.
His appearance created an explosion of popularity and productlicensing rarely before seen.
Though we take big popular properties for granted these days,like STAR WARS,
this was one of the first to go Big Time. Seemingly overnight,there were Superman pajamas, dolls, toys of all kinds, lunchpails…
a movie serial, a radio show, a Macys Thanksgiving Day paradeballoon, you name it.
1939Lightning struck twice, when a year later, The Batman firstappeared within…
DETECTIVE COMICS #27. Though a much darker, non-poweredcharacter, he also proved to be a huge hit, both in publishing andlicensing and…
…became one of the most popular fictional characters ever.
Senate hearings were held and comics were banned and burnedall across the country.
SCARCITY=VALUEOne of the biggest reasons why old comics are valuable isbecause they are rare. We will see more examples of this later.
COMICBOOKINDUSTRY015The only way the comics industry was able to deal with thisattack, and not lose control, was to, like the Film Industry, form aself-regulating body…
which established some very restrictive guidelines. This was theinfamous Comics Code Authority and it sufficiently stifled anymaturing of the art form for the next 2o plus years, keepingcomics in America a predominantly childs medium.
1953One good thing came out of this. In the face of this witch hunt,
EC Comics Publisher William M. Gaines, who was known forhaving produced some of the more lurid true crime and horrorbooks,
started MAD, originally as a comic book, but when it looked likethe material might be censored,
he wisely changed it over to a safer magazine format.And humor in America would never be the same again.
LittleKnownFact#4048MAD is still being published today. So there.
Ironically, the comics storytelling medium was embraced bynumerous countries and cultures and treated as a very legitimateart form, respected and enjoyed by people all around the world.They employed the medium for a wide variety of topics, creatingmaterial appropriate for adults and children alike. America stillhas a long ways to go on this front.
1956Not to be forgotten, superhero comics experienced a revival inthe mid-50s.
In DC Comics’SHOWCASE #4, we saw a modernized version ofthe Golden age character, the Flash.
This modernized version relied more upon pseudo-science thanthe mystical mumbo-jumbo that powered many of the 1940scharacters.
Flash was soon followed by re-imaginings of some of the otherGolden Age heroes, such as Green Lantern, Hawkman and theAtom.
This ultimately led to a superhero team-up, the Justice League ofAmerica, which was similar to a group these characters had backin their earlier incarnations.
LittleKnownFact#5055The Justice League of America created the Marvel Universe.Allow me explain.The surprising commercial success of this JUSTICE LEAGUE comicinspired Stan Lee,
a writer and editor who had been with Timely Comics since theearly 1940s,
to move away from the Comics Code-safe generic monstercomics they were publishing at the time and create newsuperhero characters.
He applied his unique spin to the super group concept by using afamily structure to create the Fantastic Four in 1961, initiating thenascent Marvel Universe. So there you go.
And, in 1963, he would even have his own Justice League,when he and Jack Kirby created the Avengers.
These comics reflected the fears of America at the time,such as the possibility of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.
Many of these modern comic characters, especially from Marvel,had some kind of radiation as a source for their powers.
The brilliance of Stans approach was that he createdsuperheroes who suffered from uncertainty, angst and poor selfimage, things we can all relate to.
And this approach perfectly captured adolescent fears in general.Thanks, Stan!
1966By the mid-1960s the average American still had a rather dimview of comics.
This changed only briefly with the very successful BATMAN TVshow in 1966. The POW - BAM! show created attention andincreased comic sales for a brief while,
but it did little to garner respect for the medium.
Archie Comics, which had been around since 1941 (andcontinues to today), offered something palatable for girls, andother companies…
like DELL or HARVEY had comics for the very young.Such youth-oriented fare hardly even exists today.
late1960sEverything was turned upside down in the late 60s with thearrival of…
UNDERGROUNDCOMIX064.1Underground Comix, what I believe was the most significantevent for the medium since its original creation.
For the first time, due to a (briefly flourishing) counter culture,people felt they could to express themselves in ANY way possible.It was a complete and total breath of fresh air…
By creating and publishing a very exposed and unflatteringpicture of himself and his attitudes,
For the first time, leading underground comix creator RobertCrumb showed everyone how to let it all out, as it were.No longer was there any doubt:
COMICBOOKS003Comics were a valid medium in which to tell stories of ANY kind!
One of the first to create an original graphic novel was thealready legendary Will Eisner. Will was the creator of the verypopular 1940s character, The Spirit character.
His book, A CONTRACT WITH GOD, released in 1978, has stoodthe test of time as a very accomplished and personal piece ofwork.
1970sIn this new decade, we saw a generation that had been raised oncomics, become professional writers and artists.
FANS ASCREATORS069These young people were looking to push the boundaries ofwhat could be done, having been inspired by the undergroundsand some of the more unusual material produced in the mid-late70s.
UNDERGROUNDCOMIX064.1Unfortunately for the Underground Comix movement, theirdistribution system quickly fell apart…
…when the head shops were closed and newsstand magazinedistributors avoided any explicit material in the comic format.
late1970sThe comics industry barely survived the 70s,
largely due to the arrival of the chain stores, pushing out thesmall mom-and-pop groceries,
which tended to sell comics to please their customers.By the measurement of sales per square foot, comics generatedrelatively little revenue.
Certainly compared to what a store could make from a PLAYBOYin the same space.
One of the troubles with the newsstand distributors to this day istheir tremendously flawed system of returns. For instance…
10075100 copies of a magazine would be shipped to a distributor fornewsstand sales.A month later, when the next issue came in,whatever was left over from last month…
%80usually the majority of the print run, would get trashed, with theretailer getting credit for the trashed issues.It was a system of tremendous waste and inefficiency.
late1970sAs they say, necessity is the mother of invention and so,the Direct Comics Market was born.
DIRECTCOMICMARKET077Finding it ever harder to locate any reliable source for newcomics, a Brooklyn high school teacher and comics fan by thename of Phil Seuling, came up with the idea of going directly tothe publishers,
$78offering them less money for a box of comics but with the termsthat it was a final sale and the publisher would never have totake returns. This turned out to be a very mutually beneficialrelationship.
Small comic shops were opening up around the country, usuallyowned by a collector with excess comics and a passionate needfor new ones.
079.1Now, for the first time, the publishers could tell what was actuallyselling and why, something almost impossible with the newsstands.
DIRECTCOMICMARKET079.1Also, by knowing more about the customer’s buying habits, newcomics could be created just to appeal to those fans andcollectors.
GoodNews080This is a critical junction for the medium in my eyes.On one hand, it created a greater success for sales and itstrengthened the overall business.
BadNews080.1Unfortunately, it had the stultifying effect of predominantlycreating one flavor of ice cream, as it were. The fans mostlywanted more superheroes and so they got them. Lots of them.
GoodNewsBadNews080.2Other genres and more personal work struggled to gain traction,though some saw a measure of success.
DIRECTCOMICMARKET081The publishers also discovered that people were willing to paymore…
BetterProduction083.2for better paper stock and production values, full-color art andhardcover editions.
NewFormats083.3New formats also rose up, such as graphic novels, collectededitions and limited or mini series.These were all essential in establishing comics…
BeginningMiddleEnd083.4as a long-form storytelling medium. This gave creators a newvenue that was not endless, month-after-month serialization.
Also back then, some brave creators formed their own smallpublishing companies,
now that they had a reliable means of distribution.Titles like CEREBUS, ELFQUEST,
083Star*Reach plus later comics like LOVE & ROCKETS and RAWflourished.
083They used the freedom granted by the undergrounds to explorea wide range of genres.It was also a time when creator’s rights became a forefront issue.
The Superman – Siegel – Schuster ownership debacle taintedcomics forever as a less than savory place to work. Eventually thelarger publishers were pushed to deal with the situation
$115by returning original artwork, offering better page rates andeven royalties or bonuses, in some situations.
But the one thing they were reluctant to do was to shareownership.
LittleKnownFact#6084.1Back in the Bad Old days, after the comics were printed, theoriginal artwork was conveniently chopped up for scrap paper bythe big publishers. How considerate.
1986The business though, was turned on its head with the arrival ofthree game-changing publications:
083Firstly, from DC was Frank Millers the Dark Night Returns andAlan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen.
083The creative ambitions of these books and the fresh attitude theytook towards the long underwear crew proved a tremendouslysuccessful formula.
083The other publication of importance during this time was ArtSpiegelmans Maus. This was the story of his fathers life duringWorld War II and surviving the concentration camps.
083It earned him a Pulitzer Prize and gave the medium a legitimacythat it had rarely been granted. Thank you, Art.
COLLECTEDEDITIONS105The aforementioned titles did a lot to help popularize thecollected edition format. The overall goal was to take as much ofthe good material that had seen print in disposable periodicalform and give it a permanent position on bookshelves.
1990sAt the turn of the decade, Marvel Comics had some verysuccessful young artists…
working on new series that featured marvel’s most popularcharacters… and these books sold like crazy.
$For the first time in decades, the industry started to see millionplus copy sales. Figuring that these“special”books would beworth a lot of money someday,
investors, fans and comic shop owners alike decided that buyingthese new comics in large quantities would be like printingmoney, the theory being that these books were so hot,
$1x1yr=$10!092.1you could sell a dollar comic for $10 in another year. We’ll seeabout that.
1992The high sales figures inspired these popular artists to leaveMarvel altogether and form their own publishing collective…
called Image Comics. They sought to publish their own workwhile maintaining ownership. The first issue sales were off thecharts, creating comics’earliest overnight millionaires.
But, like many things too good to be true, over time, Imagestumbled.
WHY?097Numerous reasons. Once these new creators became wealthy offof a top-selling first issue, they had much less impetus to work onthe second issue or third, thereby negating the value of the first.
WRITERARTIST098The quality of the material varied widely. It was a very artist-driven set-up and the lack of emphasis on good writing showed.
SCARCITY=VALUE098.1But, most importantly, investors found that since there were nowmillions of copies out there of these books, nobody was payingtop dollar to buy back issues of a one-year-old comic.
$99People were going broke from over-ordering and tying up theirmoney in dead inventory. The Big Two helped things along byalso jumping on the“32 variant, gold embossed, holographiccovers”bandwagon, which had flooded the market.
Hundreds of comic shops shut their doors and all but one largeDirect Market wholesale distributor went out of business.Although some of the smaller publishers held fast, the biggerpublishers were the ones with the corporate resources to ride itout.
Countless freelancers were out of work and dozens of staffemployees lost their jobs. It was a very bad time for the entireindustry.
1993One of the few bright spots from that time was the launchingof…
the Vertigo line from DC Comics. In contrast to Image, Vertigowas largely built on the strength of its writers.
Prominent were numerous British writers that DC had broughtinto American comics. Many had great success with this maturereaders imprint.
late1990sThe business slowly reestablished itself with more secure meansof growth this time.
COLLECTEDEDITIONS105And that was the Collected Editions format. The compilation ofexisting (hopefully) quality material into an evergreen format didmuch to both dispel the idea of all comics as disposable,
$while providing royalties to the creators, for work done in thepast.Publishers of all sizes benefitted as the cost of the creativematerial was been written off with the original serializedpublication.
COLLECTEDEDITIONS105The value of this approach cannot be overemphasized.It truly changed comic publishing in a major way.
ORIGINALGRAPHICNOVELS107Later, traditional book publishers got into the original graphicnovel game in a serious way,
resulting in some significant and very personal work,
LittleKnownFact#7109I know I’m misapplying this header,
but I had to make sure to point out this fantastic book. If youdon’t already have it, buy a copy TODAY! Seriously.
COLLECTEDEDITIONS105Another fortuitous factor was that bookstores, always struggling,were looking for a hot new category and were more than happyto finally welcome comics, in book form, into their stores.
1989The other big impact on the industry came from the moviebusiness. The tremendously successful launch of…
the Tim Burton BATMAN movie created a heretofore unknowndesire in the public for these larger-than-life characters on larger-than-life screens.
Still, it was a while until moviegoers were being fed a steady dietof this adrenalized material.
2000s& beyondSo, where do we stand today? Well, unfortunately, as we allknow, bookstores in America are falling left and right,
and a number of the larger chains have already bit the bullet.
For better or worse, Amazon is a major player now and hasbecome the largest US retailer of graphic novels.
Needless to say, the competition for eyeballs has gottenexponentially worse for comics.TV, movies, video games and the Internet all offer louder, morevisceral entertainment.
$115And at their current cover price, periodical comics aren’tconsidered a cheap entertainment medium anymore.
2000s& beyondIn general, the comics industry has been a slow business tochange but, in the last decade we’ve seen a steady growth…
DIGITAL117in the digital arena, with many different forms of graphicstorytelling being put on the web.Some are simply postings of the traditional forms of strips or fullpages but theres a lot of experimental work going on also.
MOTIONCOMICS121Theres been some rather ambitious explorations into theconcept of "Motion Comics" in recent years.
When I was at DC, we did some rather extensive experimentingwith this new approach to the medium.
Still, we couldn’t get anyone to buy them though.Many have tried their hand at this…
A company called MADEFIRE has developed fairly easy-to-usesoftware that allows creators to integrate art, motion and soundin new ways. Only time will tell if this new form of comics provesto be a successful commercial model.
There’s also been a lot of interest in programs such as Kickstarter.A number of creators are now going there to seek financing,without any interference from a publisher or editor.And it seems to work for some.
COMICBOOKS121Doubtless some of you in this room are currently cooking up thenext Great American Comics story. The medium itself and thedigital landscape offers endless possibilities but remember,always: