Originally posted 5/23/08

I don’t really want to be writing this right now. It’s been a long day and I want to do something mindless. But this is an idea I had in the shower this morning and haven’t been able to get out of my head. I was scratching notes about it at work, read 90 pages and skimmed another 200 of Warren Ellis Bad Signals, From the Desk ofs and Come in Alones looking for a single quote I wanted to insert here (you’ll probably hear echoes of all that reading in this writing), and was literally crawling through my office on my hands and knees a few minutes ago looking for a book I needed an excerpt from, all so I can write whatever this thing is out instead of doing the something mindless I want to do.

I’m warning you right now, before you feel the need to point it out, that this is me thinking out loud. It is not necessarily a proclamation of Truth, and it is probably a half-congealed concept at best.

The worst part is this is not really a new idea, just an amalgam of plenty of stuff that’s gone before. I think maybe all I’m adding is a name. But it’s a flashpoint in my thinking right now, thinking about my future as a comics creator, which is what my entire Leap Year project has been all about. So here it is, and I make no guarantees about how coherant it will be.

Pop Culture is short for Popular Culture. Comics are not popular. People in comics wet their pants if an issue sells a measly 150,000 copies. Terrible, terrible movies show on more screens than excellant, excellant comics can sell copies of in a month.

Comics are not Pop Culture.

Comics are better. Comics are Seed Culture.

Comics is the place where people can try, creatively, whatever they want with a minimum of interfereence and a minimal investment. With POD printing, you can be selling on Amazon with zero monetary investment. Just the time it takes to create your story. Here’s where I give you the quote I searched so diligently for:

The reason I write comics is that, 1) it’s the cheapest and most effective visual narrative medium in the world, and 2) no-one cares.

Which sometimes works in our favour. Because it allows us freedom. The freedom of the loser, sure, but nonetheless… We can speak our minds like no other medium, because we don’t labour under the heavy corporate control of a successful medium, and the consequent demands of a mass audience.

I can say what I like, and say it in one of the most accessible media there is. Comics are just words and pictures. You can do anything with words and pictures.

Warren Ellis, FTDO 1/23/99

I love movies. I would like to write a few. Maybe even do more than write. I live in LA. I worked in the industry for years. My wife’s career is in the industry. I’ve seen behind the cameras, the screenplays, the notes and the meetings and everything I see makes me want to make sure that, no matter what, I never stop making comics. Where I can do anything.

I was talking to John Rogers (writer of the Transformers movies and DC Comic’s Blue Beetle) last week. “I have a new idea for a screenplay,” he said, “but why on earth wouldn’t I do it as a comic first?” Where you can control the story’s entire development and, essentially, storyboard the film while you’re at it.

Comics are Seed Culture. We’re germinating the Ideas. And Pop Culture comes to us for those Ideas so it can fuel its franchises. Hollywood has caught on to this. They basically treat comics as R&D. A far more cost-effecive and innovative version of their very expensive, clumsy and thousand-cooks-in-the-kitchen development process. I walked out of Iron Man a couple weeks ago and literally half the posters I passed in the theater on my way out were comic books first: Wanted, The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, Speed Racer, Hellboy 2. These are movies coming out in a single summer.

With Marvel now producing their own films based on their characters, we’re seeing Hollywood about to be hit full-force with something that’s been a mainstay of comics for decades: the shared universe. These shared universes are mad, sometimes maddening, things, but they’re intricite and complex and literally have a life outside their creators. They’re these self-sustaining pieces of fiction that predate us and will outlive us, and we’re about to watch one formed on film. Captain America’s shield already appeared in Iron Man. Nick Fury shows up at the end of the film and asks Tony Stark if he’s ever heard of the Avengers. Robert Downey, Jr. will appear as Tony Stark in the Hulk movie coming out next month. A Thor script’s being written, Iron Man 2 is scheduled for 2010 and Captain America and The Avengers the year after that.

The Comics Way is like a virus that, once it gets into Pop Culture, infects and alters it.

The visual design of a lot of the movies you love is done by artists who got their start in comics. Hit non-adaptations (The Matrix, Heroes) are also taking their cues (or sometimes entire plots) from comics. Every time an filmmaker makes an aesthetic or storytelling decision influenced by The Matrix, they’re transmitting third-generation comics Seed Culture to millions of viewers.

I work at one the biggest comic shop in Hollywood, and I can tell you the day a comic option is announced because the book suddenly sells out and we get a ton more inquiries about it. And it is happening all the time. Just spend five minutes over at Comics2Film if you don’t believe me. Kick-Ass was bought before it hit stands, and that was even without anyone knowing how Wanted will perform at the box office.

And here’s where this ramble all starts to come together.

Comics, as much as they enable shiny, mad, new ideas, tend to want to stick with old ones. As does any human endeavor, really. And the system reflects it. One of the problems with comics being a Seed Culture rather than a Pop Culture, is that there’s not necessarily a lot of money to be had in Seed Culture. Certainly not compared to the money in Pop Culture.

And the best paying, most steady work to be had in comics is at Marvel or DC, where creators do not own what they create and where stories must be told month in and month out, not necessarily because anyone has a story crying to get out of them, but because a character’s trademark must be serviced. This is why we constantly see some of the most innovative creative voives in comics today doing another retread of Superman or the X-Men rather than something entirely new.

But here’s the thing. Hollywood money is better than Marvel/DC money. I know of a recent series from a pretty small publisher that was optioned after only three or four issues for a million dollars. A smart, savvy comics creator with lots of Ideas can make more selling their work to other media than they can at one of the Big Two. But in order for this to be possible, they will need to own their work.

Yes, I realize I’m simplifying.

But we’re living in a time in comics when not just the creative, but the financial, incentive can be for creator-owned works, rather than company-owned ones.

A Seed Culture, seeded in turn by the Pop Culture it feeds.

Comics are not Pop Culture. Comics are better. Comics are Seed Culture.

4 Responses to Seed Culture

  1. […] next several of these will be from Warren Ellis, due to all the great stuff I found when doing my Seed Culture search-reading. It’s hard to do melody in comics. I’ve been messing around with it for years, trying […]

  2. […] Caleb Monroe posted this interesting theory on comics as “seed culture” a few months back; I missed it then, but it makes incredible amounts of […]

  3. […] Seed Culture » Creator Meditation: Comics are […]

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