Popular, classic and brilliant comic book artist, Jerry Ordway, whose work throughout the 80’s and 90’s defined the DC Universe recently wrote a heart wrenching essay, Life Over Fifty, describing his current professional situation which is unfortunately comparable to that of many of his peers.
If you are in the comics industry or aspiring to work in the field, this is an honest and fair observation of the current state of the industry that you must be aware of and willing to change if you ever hope for a secure career as a comic artist.
Jerry asks a simple question toward the end of the essay that is at the heart of his discontentment.
“Getting back to the beginning of this essay, and to the artists I loved as a kid, all I ask is for some of the same consideration my generation of creators and editors gave to the older guard in the 1980’s. My work is still sharp, my mind is still full of stories to tell, and I’m still willing to work all hours of my day to meet my deadlines. Why am I out of work from the publishers? Why are my friends, people who turned in great work, worthy of hardcover and trade paperback reprints, not able to get work? “
The answer is simple and unfortunate. It can be summed up in a single word. Disrespect.
Disrespect in the comic book industry is a cancer that threatens to destroy the fabric of the industry that has now survived an average person’s lifespan. It is a cancer that has always been there and just as it seemed curable it mutated into a uglier threat.
The comic book industry itself struggled with disrespect from its inception. As a product, comic books were the bottom feeders on any magazine rack; cheaply made, poorly printed, sold to children. Comic books originated as a disposable, impulse purchase. Nobody expected the cultural impact they would have or the durability and value of the character trademarks in the market.
Early comic book creators and publishers had little respect for the industry, themselves. Work in the comic book industry was considered an underpaid stepping stone to a future in some other graphics or communication field. Few admitted to working in the field and fewer stayed to make a career of it.
Those were the few that had respect for comics as a medium and as an industry. Those few became legends and solidified respect for comic books and comic book art. In the 1960’s Julie Schwartz at DC and Stan Lee at Marvel created environments that, for the first time, made the idea of a career in comics attractive and secure.
The creative legends of comics came together and made DC and Marvel commercial powerhouses that propelled their trademarks into the forefront of popular culture. Writers, artists, editors and even production people gained respect and credit for their work. And they worked, well into retirement.
All was not perfect. Creator’s rights became an issue. Work for hire contracts were viewed as a necessary evil but the legends didn’t seem to care so long as there was work doing what they loved. It was just part of the industry they knew and had built. It supported them and their families.
As the legends grew old new generations of creators came in to fill their shoes and carry the mantle, insuring that the quality and integrity of the trademarks remained intact. The Big Two had distinctive “styles” that set them apart from each other.
When Jack Kirby defected to DC after establishing himself as “King” at Marvel, editors at DC would paste house style faces of Superman over his stylized work to maintain their preferred look of the character. Kirby understood.
There was respect for creators, the characters and the companies.
Jerry Ordway is from the last generation of creators that held that respect and he had hoped to retain it himself, but times have changed. Disrespect has gained a foothold again but different than before. Creators now are cut-throat and disposable. Editors have no loyalty. The companies have no respect for the trademarks other than the bottom line.
The style sheets that one time served as bibles have been tossed aside. Entire universes are rebooted from scratch establishing new versions of old characters that are barely recognizable. The comic books and to some extent the films, thumb their noses at classic, established trademarks that are cultural icons. Why wouldn’t the industry “flip off” the creators that for decades diligently maintained the integrity of those characters?
Those iconic trademarks are now derogatorily deemed “Old School” by the new elite powers of the industry and grown, snot-nosed fans, long weened from the classics, who prefer their superhero comics gritty, racy and violent.
Ironically, the old classic trademarks hold their value with licensees who plaster the images of them on every conceivable piece of merchandise. Images by Jack Kirby, Don Heck, Herbe Trimpe, Sal Buscema, Dick Giordano, Jonny Romita, and Jerry Ordway skim the surface of the list of classic comic book creators whose work continues to generate huge revenue in forms of royalties, royalties that neither they nor their heirs see a lick of.
In the meantime the trendy, “new look” reboots of the comics struggle to sell the most modest of numbers in a perpetually shrinking Direct Comic Book Market.
If DC and Marvel respected their product and their trademarks, there would always be work for creators like Ordway. They would be necessary as mentors to insure that the integrity of the trademarks is passed along to the next generation of creators.
There is hope at Marvel, now under the wing of Disney which is rigorous about preserving the iconic looks of their trademarks.
Maybe DC, under the guidance of Warner Bros new, traditionalist CEO, Kevin Tsujihara, will see the light and re-embrace that which has stood the test of time. Maybe the Old School will get the respect it deserves.
Making Comics Because We Want to,