Sunday, July 31, 2005


In his column this week, Steven Grant casually tosses off a phrase that I believe he is the first to use: "creator-created." On the surface, this is a ridiculously meaningless term; aren't all comics created by their creators? Well, yes, in the sense that even characters like Batman, Superman and Spider-Man were originally thought up by the first people who wrote and drew their adventures. But the creators working on those characters today are not the ones who created them; Batman, Superman and Spider-Man comics, as well as most company-owned titles, are not creator-created. They are created today by people who are simply stewards of company property, neither the first nor presumably the last creators to work with those characters.

Generally there is an acknowledged dichotomy in comics between "creator-owned" and "company-owned" characters. Creators are generally thought to have more emotional investment in creator-owned properties, because not only did they come up with the characters and concepts, but they also own the copyrights (hence the term). On the flipside, oftentimes creators, especially those who work regularly on properties that they own, are assumed to have less of an investment, both emotional and financial, in characters they didn't create and are merely taking care of for a company that relies on those characters for things like movies, TV shows and various licensing endeavors. Of course, creators have far more freedom with their owned creations than they do with company characters. This explains, for example, why Warren Ellis's work on Ultimate Fantastic Four bored me, while I find Desolation Jones much more interesting. Ellis is a caretaker for Marvel characters so he can pay the bills, but he puts a lot more of himself into Desolation Jones, which is all his.

For me, knowing that a creator (generally a writer, but often in tandem with an artist) has that investment in a book makes me want to put my investment into it, too. I also know that it's more likely that the creative team will stick around, and that they'll have the freedom to tell the kind of stories they want without editorial interference. I know that when Brian Vaughan, say, decides that Y The Last Man is over, Vertigo isn't going to bring in some other writer to keep it going because it still sells well, or because there's a movie in development. Vaughan owns it, so he does what he wishes with it.

About half of the comics I read monthly are creator-owned. But what about the rest? Leaving aside X-Men, which is on probably its 10th or 12th writer since I started reading it, and is more a habit than anything else, most of the rest of what I read is what Grant calls creator-created. Allan Heinberg created all of the characters in Young Avengers, even if they're connected to other characters in the Marvel universe. Likewise Brian Michael Bendis for The Pulse (at least where the main character is concerned). I'm not reading Warren Ellis on Iron Man, but I will be picking up his new Marvel book Nextwave, which features obscure Marvel characters so thoroughly reinvented that he might as well have created them. Even though these books are just as fully owned by their respective companies as Batman, Superman and Spider-Man, there is that same sense of investment and control on the part of the creators as there is with creator-owned books, even if it's sort of illusory. If Marvel wanted to, they could fire Brian Vaughan from Runaways and hire someone else to take over. But it seems unlikely, because Vaughan is as inextricably linked to that book as he is to Y. I know that I and most other readers wouldn't keep buying the book if he were dumped (or Heinberg from Young Avengers, Bendis from The Pulse, etc.).

Grant lumps creator-created books in with creator-owned books as concepts that the industry has hostility toward these days, and he's mostly right. There is a resistance to new concepts across the board; in a way, it's a resistance to creation. People often focus on the idea that big companies are afraid of creators owning their characters in a financial sense, but in a way they seem just as afraid of the creators owning them in a more spiritual sense. It's most profitable for Marvel and DC if characters are much more popular than their creators, but in the case of something like Runaways, that's just not true.

Although the short-sighted view makes it seem that creator-creation is bad for comics companies, in the long term it's great. Eventually Brian Vaughan will get tired of writing Runaways, and if he gives his blessing to a new creative team, then fans like me will stick around and Marvel will have acquired another property to be shepherded along like Spider-Man and the X-Men. As a reader, I find the most valuable thing to be reading a book that the creators care about creating, that seems as exciting to create as it is to read, that isn't just a cog in a machine. Even if, when it comes down to financial reality, creator-created books are cogs in machines, the respect given by companies to new ideas and to an emotional investment in them can make all the difference.

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