Film director Steven Soderbergh is known for making many different kinds of movies. He’s directed commercial hits like Ocean’s Eleven, Magic Mike, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight. At the same time, he’s also made offbeat films like Che, The Girlfriend Experience and Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Reportedly, he once said that he ascribed to a “One for them, one for me” philosophy, meaning that he would direct one commercial film if it allowed him to make a smaller, more creative and potentially less profitable film. (Soderbergh has later amended this statement, saying that his films are “all for me”). I thought of the “one for them” idea when I saw the announcements from Image Comics that came out during New York Comic Con.
The announcements I’m talking about are the lineup of upcoming comics from high-profile comic book creators at Marvel – except that the books are being published by Image. Jonathan Hickman, a writer on Avengers Vs. X-Men who will soon be taking on the titles Avengers and New Avengers, has two books coming out from Image: the series East of West (with artist Nick Dragotta) and the graphic novel Feel Better Now (with art by Hickman). Matt Fraction, an AvX writer who is wrapping up a long run on The Mighty Thor while also beginning the well-received Hawkeye series, also has two books coming out from Image: Satellite Sam (with art by Howard Chaykin) and Sex Criminals (with art by Chip Zdarsky). A writer with a rising profile at Marvel, Kieron Gillen, has a miniseries with Image called Three. There were a number of other interesting titles announced by Image, but I wanted to focus on these three creators because they are all quite big at Marvel right now.
On one hand, these new titles shouldn’t be surprising because Hickman, Fraction and Gillen all began on smaller books before they worked for Marvel. Hickman had a number of popular books such as Pax Romana and The Nightly News. Fraction created Casanova. Gillen first gained attention in comics through his series Phonogram. However, it is noteworthy that all of them became successful at Marvel Comics and then decided to continue writing series for other publishers (in this case, Image). You could call the approach “One for Marvel, one for me.” This is noteworthy to me because many in previous generations of comics creators seemed to treat indie comics like minor leagues in sports: something that you train through, biding your time until you got a chance at the big show. However, once you worked for one of the two big companies, you didn’t (for the most part) go back.
That started to change in the 1990s because of Image Comics. The company, founded by a number of mainstream creators who felt like they were not getting the creative freedom and financial compensation they deserved, offered a new outlet for comic book creators who had ideas that wouldn’t work at Marvel or DC for some reason. The company also revolutionized the industry by allowing the creators to keep the rights to their own creations. “Creator-owned” properties have become a key part of the comic book lexicon over the last two decades, and it seems like more and more creators try to leverage their name-recognition from Marvel or DC into sales for the books on which they maintain ownership of the characters.
It is not just rising comic creators who enjoy this character control. Brian Michael Bendis has been one of the most influential writers at Marvel for over a decade, but he still semi-regularly published his creator-owned series Powers, along with the new c.o. series Scarlet in 2010. Mark Waid continues to write books at Marvel, including the Eisner-winning Daredevil and the upcoming Indestructible Hulk. Still, he published Irredeemable and Incorruptible as created-owned series through BOOM! Studios. Ed Brubaker has left such a mark on the Captain America comic book series that the second Cap film is named after a character Brubaker created in the comics. Yet Brubaker has had a string of c.o. hits, all with a noir bent: Criminal, Incognito and Fatale. It should be noted that the creator-owned series by Bendis, Brubaker and Fraction (in the case of Casanova) have all been published through Icon, an imprint of Marvel, so this is slightly different than the new series announced by Image.
It’s easy to see why a comic book creator would want to be able to make a mark in the Marvel or DC universe while also maintaining ownership of their own series in hopes of having a monster indie success along the lines of Bryan Lee O’Malley or Robert Kirkman. However, it is fascinating that Marvel seems to be okay with non-exclusive creators, perhaps understanding that a dark book like Satellite Sam or Feel Better Now might not be blockbusters for the company. As long as the c.o. material does not prevent someone from turning in their Marvel work on time, it seems like Marvel is willing to be polyamorous. Although the company has put a lot more marketing focus on creators recently, they do realize that the characters are still the main draw for their core audience. The majority of Captain America fans will continue to read the book after Brubaker leaves it. Comics is an industry that has made life difficult for its creative side at times in its history. However, things might be changing in small but notable ways.