28 September 2009

Tough Talk: An Interview With Erik Larsen

I met Writer/Artist Erik Larsen as one of the first people I contacted when I began writing about comics in 2002. I didn't know he'd be publisher of Image Comics shortly thereafter. But as such I've enjoyed knowing him and hearing his honest, sometimes brutally so, responses about the industry. As I've begun considering how the market is in comics, I immediately thought to interview Erik, his views are from the front-line, they are straightforwardly given, and, I think offer insight to the world from a number of valuable perspectives, that of Publisher, Creative talent, Reader, and, I believe, advocate of the medium.

Alex Ness: Is the Direct market for distribution of comics dead, and, was the former model better in any respects, that of the news stand distribution? What distribution model will likely be the one of the future, if there is a future?

Erik Larsen: It's not dead -- it's just very limited and very small. It does work but it works on a small scale and we'd all like it to work better than it does.

That newsstand model clearly worked for a lot of people for a lot of years. The problem with returns is, however, that there's an enormous amount of waste and an enormous amount of risk. Many companies have gone belly up by jumping into the newsstand game. Unfortunately, there's no flip, pat answer that works here. Clearly we, as an industry, are not creating the kinds of books that consumers want. At least -- not all of the time. Our books are difficult to find, impenetrable to all but the hardcore fans and expensive. Which is not to say that bringing down the cover price is a cure all -- it's not. You can price dog crap at 5¢ a ton but that still won't compel people to buy dog crap. The books need to be books that people want to read and other than the few gimmicks that reach the mainstream media -- Obama in this book or the death of famous guy in that book -- we're NOT getting the stuff out there. And even those novelty comics aren't getting read. How many people bought and read that Spider-Man book with Obama in it? How many read it and decided that they'd like to become Spider-Man readers? Based on their sales -- I'd say not a whole hell of a lot.

The problem with those big books that cracked into the news cycle is that, largely, they have been lousy comics. The Death of Superman was a lousy comic book -- especially as one to transform a non-reader into a reader. Comics are all splashes now? Comics are in black plastic bags? Comics are jacked up to $20 on the day they're released by greedy retailers? Comics are issue-long slugfests with no discernible plots? Not the kind of thing which would be likely to have readers coming back for more.

I completely agree with the fact that the event comics that got noticed were unsuitable to build new readers, that they were meant to be must haves for the already buying comic collectors, and that they were, in large part, nowhere near the best that comics have to offer. So how do you get the mainstream press to notice good comics, how do you get people to realize that popular or event oriented works aren't necessarily what is best in the market, and how do you convince kids to go out and find a comic store?

That's the big question that we've all been struggling with, isn't it? Believe me -- If I had the answer I'd be doing it. The two big project that were of relative high quality did get out there -- Watchmen sold, and continues to sell, a shit-load of copies. Dark Knight Returns has sold a lot of copies as well. The thing is -- there really isn't a book out there which is grabbing readers by the balls the way those two books did. Frank Miller took Daredevil from a bimonthly title, verging on cancellation to Marvel's best-selling title. We don't have that now. We don't have a buzz book that has everybody talking. And that's the real problem. Until we get comics that people want -- people won't want comics.

What was/is the most destructive trend in comics that contributed to their downturn as a product, if not artistically?

Gimmick covers and inflated prices and endless crossover alienated casual readers. Impenetrable story lines with interlocking continuity hasn't helped. But a lot of it is visual -- comics are dark, realistic and uninviting to the casual reader. Kids don't feel that comics are for them. Everybody is trying to do Watchmen and failing. But it's really hard to break out and try something else. This is working -- to a modest degree -- how do we know that stand alone comics with exciting art will attract new readers? Better do THREE of what we're already doing instead...

As a publisher you were in a place to approve new projects, to allow new kinds of works to enter the market. Do you feel you succeeded or failed in bringing new readers to the market through those comics?

Failed. I know that these books had an audience and that the numbers went way up during my time as publisher but I don't believe for a second that readers came in off the street because of what we were doing. We just did a better job of making books that the existing audience wanted. Unfortunately, that's the nature of Image Comics. We can only publish the books that we're pitched. As the publisher, I can't get everybody to do all-ages comics. And saying to, say, the Luna brothers -- "Hey, guys--what do you say to making GIRLS for all-ages?" would seriously hamper their creative process.

Is the loss of young readers, kids, the harbinger of death I seem to feel it is, and, how do you angle your product to appeal both to ongoing readers, and to create and interest new readers? What isn't being done well enough?

Everything. The problem is that we forgot to make books for all ages. That was the key to success for Marvel and DC for generations and now we've got comics for older readers or kids but few comics for everybody. I find it to be a pretty disturbing trend that there was a second MAD magazine aimed at KIDS--as though MAD was inaccessible to younger readers. The fact that Marvel has a line of Marvel superhero comics for kids is horrible. They're telling their audience that some of their books are for young readers and some are NOT for young readers and both young and old books emphasize the fact that they aren't for everybody.

That, and the physical look of the product is not uniformly good. Most comics look gray and muddy and unattractive. The art is dense and cluttered. If I was a kid and you gave me a stack of new comics--I'm really not sure what I'd find in there that I'd want to read.

What was/is the most destructive trend creatively that contributed to the downturn of the comic market readership?

Continuity. I, as a reader -- can't comprehend most comics from Marvel or DC. If I can't -- and I've been reading this stuff for over 30 years -- how can they expect anybody else to be able to read it? When Jim Shooter was running Marvel there was a lot of bitching -- and he had some stupid rules along with his sensible ones -- but the sensible ones led to comics that were extremely accessible. I hadn't read many issues of Thor prior to Walt Simonson's Thor but I could immediately grasp what was going on. When attempting to read most books these days -- I'm just lost.

I agree, again, the Continuity is one of the many things that contributes poorly to the market. But, then, are you suggesting that the Big Two continuity issues don't send new readers to new products and different ones?

I can't say with any degree of certainty what goes on with every potential reader. I do think that when you have something like a big-budget movie on the screen and ads all over the place that there's an opportunity to grab readers that most of us don't have. When a potential reader comes in looking to try out Iron Man and the Iron Man comic they're presented with isn't something that makes them want to continue reading -- I'm not convinced that they're going to look over and see what else is on the shelf. It may be that it starts and stops with that one dip in the pool. And I should say here that I'm picking Iron Man out of the clear blue sky as an example. I have no idea if the book is worth reading these days or not.

Is what you are saying more to say that the average reader coming in starts with the Big Two, but only after being a fan moves to try new and different publisher products?

I think, for the most part, that's how things work. Readers often start with familiar titles from the Big Two and branch out from there. But I don't think Marvel and DC are attracting a lot of new readers--for the most part they're just servicing an existing, aging market. Not all readers are the same, of course. Some just see a cover in a store window and that compels them to come in off the street and try something out.

How does the internet contribute to the problems, how does it offer a solution to them?

It doesn't help. I think in many ways it makes matters worse. writers pander to the fans instead of trying to make thinks accessible to new readers. Books become in-jokes for old fans. That, and it provides a way to download comics for free, which can't help but impact sales in a negative fashion.

So web comics and online retailers don't expand the market?

Not in significant numbers. I don't think you can look at the numbers across the board and say that with the advent of computers readership has increased. Reality tells a different story. These people are, if anything, reading comics exclusively on their computers and not spending money on physical comic books.

If we are transitioning to a more paperless world, regarding products of entertainment, doesn't online seem to be a must have in order to succeed?

It would certainly seem that way. But at this point I don't see a lot of success stories. We're in the Napster stage when it comes to comic books--we don't have an iTunes yet. People are simply stealing everything.

Shouldn't there be an effort to create a new model that recognizes the patterns of today but with an appreciation for the past? I love the smell of paper when I go into a comic store, or used book store, I hate many webcomics, and don't download, and won't read stuff on the web, so I am not, NOT saying I am one of the new kinds of readers, I am saying that the market shouldn't focus on me, but my ten year old son, (who btw loves many of the Image Comics he has read) who is in many ways more tech literate than me. And for the record, my best friend refers to me constantly as an "effing Luddite," so...

I'm pretty much in your boat. I read a few comics on computer because that's how I see them first -- I get the Luna brothers books sent to me via email and I get Kirkman's comics the same way. I read them in that form and the printed comics are something of a formality. At that point they're books I've already read. I do agree that it's something we need to work on but like I said -- until an iTunes emerges we're stuck with Napster and none of us are seeing a dime from this. But everybody is on this. It's on everybody's mind and I've seen several promising apps for comics.

But I sure as hell hope that printed comics don't go away.

I personally don't believe comics will die, and believe that the market is just going through a transformation, do you agree with that? Or is the outlook much more bleak?

I don't think we've done any damage that isn't reversible. But it's going to take some serious effort to make things work. It can be done--but I think it may have to come from somewhere outside of the "big two" who seem to be determined to go head-to-head in their monthly market share pissing contest. What they're doing is extremely unhealthy for the market. I think more books like Bone and Scott Pilgrim will make a difference. Another Spider-Man title isn't likely to do much of anything in regard to the mainstream.

How do you change mentalities? If comics are to break out of the doldrums that seem to exist, you have to change things, don't you?

I really think it comes down to the product itself. Times have shown that when there's a book that people want--that book will sell. There's a lot of product out there but it really doesn't seem as though the authors have a lot to say and to a large degree, I blame the powers that be. I don't think that the suits understand how some creators can get emotionally invested in the books they're working on and why that is a GOOD thing.

Joe Quesada, for example, never stayed on any book for any great length of time--including ones he created--and has spent most of his career jumping from book to book, jockeying for position and trying to get his name in the news. Joe spent his time promoting Joe. He didn't seem to care what book he was on as long as people paid attention to it. The idea that anybody would deliberately choose to stay on one title for an extended period of time was foreign to him. These days creators don't get the chance to do what Miller did on Daredevil or Byrne did on the Fantastic Four or Simonson did on Thor, taking an existing book and make it their own. Sure, a few writers do but largely artists are shuffled from one book to another and it's really difficult to build any kind of momentum when things keep getting shuffled around. If Miller's run on Daredevil had been a six to twelve issue arc and he was bounced over to Spider-Man or the Hulk we might have been spared the introduction of Elektra and the compelling saga that followed.

John Byrne had the rug pulled out from under him on X-Men: The Hidden Years and Quesada didn't seem to understand why Byrne would object to that. He was offering John more work, after all -- a chance to do a new book and get a new #1 and get his name back out there -- why would John possibly object to that? But with a number of creators -- they want to be able to call a book their own and build something. That's lost these days.

One can look at present day Marvel and see Joe's vision in action as creators shuffle from title to title and few stick with anything for long. It's all a big chess board. Keep things moving -- make sure you can grab a headline and and a story. John Byrne doing a book for ten years isn't a story. John Byrne doing a new book? That's a story! And DC is the same, to a lesser extent. The end result is, as you might expect, that creators can't afford to get emotionally attached to the work they do and what that does is nip long term plans in the bud and make for books that are emotionally detached and somewhat heartless. The editorially driven events are there, sure -- things are happening -- but those events are not the same as the kind of thing that leads to a genuine phenomena like Miller's Daredevil, Claremont's X-Men or Simonson's Thor. Without that emotional investment -- it's just work -- it's just more product and that's what we have a lot of these days from the Big Two: product.

I agree that the best books are not the most popular, but, as a creative talent don't you agree that,the market is in many ways models what has been sold before, following the path that revenue streams create?

Retailers can't help but order books based on past performances. That is one of the pitfalls of the direct market. If Image was really excited about an upcoming Savage Dragon story, say, we really have few options available in order to get more books in the hands of more readers. We have to depend on retailers ordering the comics.

How does Savage Dragon fit into the success stories of the market, how does it fail? What is upcoming for you in the creative arena?

It's a success to the extent that it's still being published and still providing me with an income. But I'm not kidding myself -- in the grand scheme of things it's a footnote at best. I'm still working on the book and on Image United as well as a handful of other projects. I'm still here. And actually -- Image United is one of those projects with the potential to reach out to readers. For older Image fans it's a must buy and it's getting all kinds of media attention, starting with a full page news item in the New York Times. I imagine there'll be some kind of a trickle down effect in regard to Savage Dragon.

I'm okay with that.

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