There have been moments in comics history that make people think. Think about the past, think about the future, but in almost every case, it comes from men and women of incredible ability and, usually, acclaim. When thinking about these moments, the big pieces come to mind: Kirby and Lee bringing forth the Marvel Age, Alan Moore deconstructing superheros in the mid to late 80s, hell you could even make a case for the DC New 52 reboot.It’s one of the smaller moments, yet equally impactful moments, that I want to talk about here. This case being the Keynote Speech from the 1994 Diamond Comic Distributors Retailers seminar, made none other than Frank Miller.
1994 saw comics, and the world, lose one of the greatest men the world had ever seen, “The King” Jack Kirby. At this seminar, Miller had the daunting task of addressing this, and damned if he wasn’t gonna make an impact. I’m not going to summarize it line by line, but the jist I want to look at here is how comics has a history of being cruel to the creators, and a claim Miller makes about a shockingly greedy move by publishers in the 50s.
As we all know, and if you don’t I urge you to go research it, the comics industry was changed forever in the 1950’s when a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham produced a study that tied comics to Juvenile delinquency, and in his work The Seduction of the Innocent, he changed the public perception of comics. This brought about the Comics Code Authority, which, in turn, censored comics and more or less destroyed the EC Comics publishing house. What makes Miller’s comments on this so important is the claim of why Wertham had such an impact on the industry. Miller states that while Wertham isn’t successful in the Senate, the heads of the other publishing houses allowed the Comics Code to come into existence to wipe out William Gaines, and consequently, EC Comics. This is an absolutely unprecedented move, if the claim is true. Imagine this: Dan Didio and Joe Quesada decide that Eric Stephenson at Image has gotten too big for his britches (this would never happen, just suspend disbelief for a moment). In that, the two decide that Image needs to go the way of the dodo and conspire to put him out of business, and succeed. This is fantastical, this is borderline unthinkably greedy and close minded about the industry, but this is basically what Miller is asserting happened in the 50s. That is a claim that should stick with you as a comics fan.
Additionally, reeling in the death of the greatest comic creator that ever lived, 1994 was the time to look back on the practices of the big two in terms of how creators were compensated. Miller discusses this, but think about it, Chris Claremont created a mythos that should make him a millionaire, but do you see him in that way now? The creators on the books, especially at this time, were nothing more than names in the title block, and rather, it was the characters that drove the sales. When we think about books from the 1990s, we think of the real stinkers (in a grander sense, I know there were some of the greatest comics ever published in that decade). That comes from the thought of anyone can be on these books, as long as Wolverine is in the book. Obviously, we came to see that this was not sustainable, and in time creators become the driving force, as they should. In 1994, however, history was not kind to creators. While people like Neal Adams were brave enough to demand some compensation for his work, he ended up getting slack for it, as Miller states. Today, the thought of creators getting unfair treatment would be a rallying cry for a fan base who is more knowledgeable than ever, and closer to the creators than ever in this social media age.
Why am I talking about this now? For one, Miller (and the Image founders) were so far ahead of their time here it’s scary, and it’s important for us to acknowledge that today. Yes, we love Captain America, we love Batman; but those characters we love were created by people; amazingly talented people. It’s only recently that we are giving Bill Finger his proper due in the creation of Batman, but what’s horrible is that we let men like Siegel and Shuster pass in anything other that luxury and adulation. We have to remember our history, we have to honor those that built the mythology we love. As a community, we’ve made great strides in honoring those people, and it makes me proud to be a part of it.
Also, look at the market right now. Yes, Marvel and DC are the top dogs, but the number of other publishers, with significant followings and quality work, is higher than it’s ever been. Think about it, Image is publishing a slew of some of the best comics ever, and we are spoiled with it all at once. That only comes with the fierce competition we have right now. Thankfully, these companies are run by smart people who recognize that competition makes everyone have higher quality, it makes people want to bust their ass on books rather than just get the script of pages in for a paycheck. Frankly, it makes people like me want to do this. How can you not find a community of dedicated people, who care about their work, a place you want to be?
The industry came into sweeping change in the 1990s, and right now, we are getting the best of that change. Men like Frank Miller, men like Jack Kirby, inspire the greatness we are seeing. Miller would be proud, creators didn’t let the “bad habits” and “fears” get the best of them. Change came, comics embraced it, and the future looks bright.