Several years back, in those halcyon days of the summer of 2008, noted billionaire and apparent soothsayer, Robert Kirkman was named partner at Image Comics. Along with his new position, Kirkman also issued what has come to be known as “The Kirkman Manifesto” to much consternation and finger wagging of those in and around the comic book industry. A call-to-arms of sorts, (and perhaps a gimmick in others) Kirkman challenged comic book creators to abandon work-for-hire jobs to primarily focus on creator-owned work, specifically at Image. There were many thoughtful, impassioned and reasoned retorts to his brazen mission-statement at the time and for years to follow, specifically from the likes of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Waid.
Fast-forward to 2015 (the year of our hover-board) and where are we? Have we seen a mass exodus of top-tier talent from the Big Two, leaving those institutions a husk of superheroed lethargy? No, not quite. But we did just recently witness the fourth annual Image Expo, an event that is more and more resembling WWDC (that’s where the iPhones are announced to a raucous crowd of Apple fanboys, as if you didn’t know) and with it a bevy of announcements featuring… top-tier talent… focusing on creator owned books? Huh. It’s where Image Comics releases data such as finishing 2014 with a 16.48 percent market share in the bookstore market, second only to DC, but ahead of Marvel and everyone else. Well, then. Look, it’s not 2008 anymore and the comic book landscape has changed. Has it fully morphed and evolved into exactly what Kirkman trumpeted back then? No, but it’s getting a hell of a lot closer than it has ever been and the momentum doesn’t look to be slowing anytime soon. In five years from now, who knows what it will look like exactly, but for now it’s starting to look more and more like… gulp… Kirkman was right.
Kirkman specifically laid out a plan for creator’s to hone their skills doing work-for-hire at Marvel and DC and then move onto the brighter pastures of creator-owned work. Off the top of my head, Ed Brubaker, Brian K. Vaughn, Mark Millar and Matt Fraction are three examples of creators who have seemingly shifted their sights away from the Big Two (Fraction still to end his only current Marvel title, Hawkeye) in recent years in favor of being indie-only. But, yeesh, those are some big names. Some of the biggest, arguably. And sure, they’ve each been doing independent books alongside their Big Two work for a portion of their careers to begin with. There’s Greg Rucka as well, who seems to have a love-hate relationship with corporate publishers on a Shakespearean level of being the scorned-lover. Kieron Gillen still attends Marvel retreats, but his Image output seems to be growing in disproportionate ratio. James Robinson seems content to leave the shenanigans behind. Chris Roberson started up his own digital publisher, MonkeyBrain comics. Who knows exactly what Brian Wood’s plans are, but the only announced projects at this point are creator-owned. Grant Morrison is shamanistically (no, that is not a word and I don’t care) killing it on The Multiversity and kinda sorta has a Wonder Woman book ready to come out maybe, but he’s far removed from writing his Bat-saga and big events and is doing more and more creator-owned work. Jason Aaron is THE guy at Marvel, just as Scott Snyder is THE guy at DC and shit, we’re talking Star Wars and Batman money there so duh, but the critical acclaim of books like Southern Bastards and Wytches certainly holds some sway for them.
To be clear, I know little of the finances and stress and everything that goes along with being a comic creator, so there is zero judgment being made by me when it comes to trying to earn a living making art as great as all of the names I’ve mentioned thus far. This also ties into a very valid critique of Kirkman’s position at the time, that not everyone could or would have the rapid success that he did with The Walking Dead and so easily abandon steady pay for supposed “artistic integrity.”
So, the winds of change have certainly started, and continue to, blow towards Kirkman’s original statement lo those many years ago. Or they have in spirit anyway more than in hard numbers, but the numbers are getting there. Courtesy of comichron.com, let’s look at the number of 2014 books from Image and excluding Kirkman’s titles, that cracked over 15,000 print copies sold: 399 comics. How many sold more than 20,000? 231. More than 30,000? 60. More than 50,000? 27. Point is, at current $2.99 and $3.50 price points, creator-owned comics are more financially viable than they were in 2008. The average number of Image titles, not including Kirkman’s, which sold over 20,000 printed copies a month was 7. In July of 2008 (the same month Kirkman delivered his manifesto) do you know how many Image comics sold more than 20,000 printed copies? Just 2: War Heroes and *clears throat* The Walking Dead *audience gasps*.
Do big name creators need to exclusively work on creator-owned comics? Of course no and thank goodness that isn’t the case. Are more and more creators taking their talents to places like Image? Yes and again, thank goodness. Are sales and market share shifting towards a more level playing field between Image and the Big Two? It certainly appears so. Can this be attributed to said big names doing said moving? It’s fair to infer that. Am I asking too many questions? Obviously. Look at where the industry is now and where it was seven years ago. Now do what Image is doing, and look at where it’s going. At the heart of Kirkman’s Manifesto was an honest, heartfelt expression that the industry as a whole will get stronger by refusing to accept a top-heavy market share between two swollen corporations and a middling group of smaller publishers. Competition is the healthiest state of being for any industry and when Eric Stephenson announced the latest sales data, it was a welcomed reassurance that the industry is getting healthier.
Was Robert Kirkman right? Maybe. Creators shouldn’t have to live to a strict code that once they receive a modicum of success, it’s their duty to abandon work-for-hire jobs. That’s some weird, Grover Norquist type nonsense right there. However, what Kirkman described, what once looked far-fetched, is closer to becoming a reality than many gave any credence to. The truth probably involves a symbiotic relationship between working for the Big Two less frequently and producing more creator-owned work. Image was our Best Publisher of the Year and was for many others with just cause. If things have changed this much since the summer of 2008, with more and more creators eschewing work-for-hire in the name of creator owned books of the highest quality, who’s to say we won’t be talking about the Big Three in another seven years. Cut to Robert Kirkman in front of crystal ball with sign reading “Call Me Now 1-900-Cre-8ors”