Wednesday, August 24, 2016 • Morning Edition • "Cyclops was right."

Interview: Erik Larsen Goes In-Depth on CostumeGate, Costume Design, and the State of Comics

Written by Jude Terror on Wednesday, March 25 2015 and posted in Features

Interview: Erik Larsen Goes In-Depth on CostumeGate, Costume Design, and the State of Comics

Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable; this is a long one.



Last week, Image co-founder Erik Larsen found himself in the center of a social media scandal after commenting on the recent costume re-designs of female characters. Erik agreed to come on The Outhouse, where we were critical of his comments in our usual style, and answer all of our questions about the events and his positions. We didn't hold back, and neither did he. Enjoy.

Note: Artwork added by us, so if any of the credits are incorrect, that's our fault.

 

Hi Erik. First of all, thanks for agreeing to this interview. There are some people who wouldn’t want to give an interview to a site that was directly critical of the them on the topic the interview is about, but you’re clearly made of sterner stuff. You’ve got my respect for that, and I want to assure you that I won’t misrepresent your answers or editorialize in this piece once you’ve given your responses, though I might ask you a few follow up questions if that’s okay.

Absolutely fine. Do understand from the offset that I’m a meandering, inarticulate dunderhead who doesn’t necessarily think through each and every word in every sentence committed to paper or otherwise. There have been times during this process where I have said one thing fully intending to convey something else entirely. I can’t guarantee that this streak of idiocy will be broken but I’ll do what I can.

So let’s just get right into it. You made a series of tweets last weekend, and it soon exploded, but the original series of tweets read:

“I’m tired of the big two placating a vocal minority at the expense of the rest of the paying audience by making more practical women outfits. Simply put “” these aren’t very good costumes. They’re bulky and clumsy and unattractive. Largely the arguments are either ‘Nobody would dress like that’ (to which I point to the thousands of cosplayers who clearly disagree) or ‘That costume is impractical’ (to which I point to the many athletes who participate in sports and wear considerably less because bulky clothes actually hinder movement). And in any case, these are lines on paper. People can’t fly in the real world or climb walls or spin webs the notion that everything has to strictly adhere to the physical rules we’re bound by is absurd.”

Following this, a lot of people have characterized your argument in ways that you’ve since said are unfair or inaccurate. Let’s address the two biggest of these characterizations. First, that by “vocal minority” you were referring to women, feminists, or in general movements to make comics more inclusive. But you say that’s not what you meant? Can you clarify one more time for our audience?

I didn’t understand going into this that the term “vocal minority” is, for some, code for a specific group of underrepresented people. My use of the term was simply an all-encompassing catch-all for “everybody who vocalizes an opinion” (which would include, for example, me). The point being that the vast majority of comic readers don't bother writing letters, posting comments or engaging in conversations on Twitter. They just read the books that they enjoy and let it go at that.

There’s also a large portion of online voices who are lapsed readers or even non-readers. They react to things without actually supporting current comic books in any measurable way. Often these people want to have a sense of community and belong to a group. This group is both male and female but more frequently male, I would think. It’s very common to have there be sites where the vast majority of the people arguing about any given subject no longer read comics (or never have) but they like the “nerd culture.” Clearly a few readers that have taken me to task haven’t set foot in a comic book store in 20 years or more, based on evidence in their responses, as they assume the same kind of books still litter the shelves, blissfully unaware of the changes made in the industry. Whenever a book like “Saga” is mentioned the name doesn’t resonate. These online voices make plenty of other wild assumptions as well.

These folks just like to bellyache about everything but it’s largely about how “comics aren’t like they were when they were kids” followed by a rant which assumes comics are the same as they were when they stopped reading them sometime in the mid-‘90s. And this happens all over. Hell, on John Byrne’s site he rants as though Image is the same animal it was in 1992 and that Rob Liefeld is still on the top of the world.

The danger of listening to these guys is that, for the most part, they have no intention of ever reading comics again. They’re done. And so tossing them a bone is useless because they’ll never see the bone. But they’ll complain about any press release or rumor. You can’t count on them for that.

The tough part, I would think, would be filtering out the engaged voices from the unengaged and determining which represent actual readers and which don’t and then--determining if those voices speak for many people or one isolated person. An industry can’t cater to a single fan, after all. One person isn’t going to buy enough of anything to make it worthwhile.

Second, there was the notion that by speaking against superhero costume designs for being “covered up," that you were advocating for the sexualization of female characters. Can you respond to that?

Simply put--I’m in favor of good design over bad.

Do keep in mind that these aren’t real breathing human beings. They’re lines on paper. Hair isn’t hair, flesh isn’t flesh and it’s anybody guess what material anything is supposed to be made of. These are drawings. And while a flesh and blood human being could be bouncing all over the place in some materials the artists choose what goes where and there’s no actual movement. The drawings are static and unmoving.

Also there’s a huge difference between costume design, character design and approach. For years Mary Marvel fought crime in a simple red dress, for example, and during all the years that character existed at Fawcett publications in the ‘40s and ‘50s we never once looked up that dress. She was never drawn in such a way that we could do that. She was based on Judy Garland and she very much played that kind of Dorothy Gale type character--a spunky, determined, strong-willed young girl. It wasn’t until more modern times that artists would turn the camera around and give us a peek up her dress. So while that artistic decision is sexualizing that character there is nothing inherently wrong with a young girl wearing a dress. Young girls wear dresses all the time and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that.

In some cases stronger costumes can be more revealing and in others less so. There is no hard and fast rule in that regard. I have stated a preference for the Darwyn Cooke Catwoman costume design over all others for that character. That costume covers her from head-to-toe. The Batgirl costume which I feel is stronger and more iconic covers her every bit as much as the current one. Similarly Spider-Woman’s more iconic costume hides as much flesh as her current one. I’ve also let it be known how much I disliked the Invisible Woman costume from the ‘90s with its keyhole top and exposed flesh. So, that argument that I’m arguing for sexualizing female characters is a complete fabrication.

 

Wonder-Woman redesign by David Finch

 

In a few cases--like Wonder Woman--I’m simply making a case for stronger design. Her upcoming costume looks ridiculous. My bringing it up was to ponder the question why? Why make the change? Arguments frequently include that fighting in her traditional costume is “unrealistic.” But boxers fight in similar apparel, wrestlers do--and the suggestion that fighters wear armor is silly. She’s flying, she’s moving, she’s tumbling over cars and jumping onto roofs. These aren’t normal people activities and when gymnasts are engaging in acrobatics they don’t do it in a football uniform--they wear tights. When Bruce Lee gets into a fight he takes his shirt off--he doesn’t put a football uniform on. He’s offense not defense. He’s throwing punches not taking punches. He’s fighting not cowering.

Now, I’m certainly not saying her traditional costume is artist-proof. Few costumes are. It can be drawn well and drawn poorly. It was largely not sexualized for 50 years or more so why is it an issue now? Because certain artists are incapable of drawing a woman without emphasizing certain aspects? Well then don’t give those artists that assignment if that’s not what you want.

In any case--that new design isn’t very strong. And yeah, her traditional costume can look ridiculous on an actual physical flesh and blood person but again--these are lines on paper--the artist determines how it fits. A lot of arguments boil down to the “realistic” argument that: "Yeah but she would fall out of that" which is ridiculous. Of course she won't--those are lines on paper. Wonder Woman's top will always stay up as long as the artist and publisher decide it will stay up. You might as well argue that when Batman turns his head quickly that his eyes will no longer align with the eye holes or that his ears would keep catching on the tops of doorways. That only happens if the creators let it happen and they don’t let it happen. Nobody is going to pull Superman’s shorts down around his ankles--as far as we know--those aren’t even shorts--we’ve never seem him pull them up over blue pants, after all. But I digress.

Not that any of this really matters. The new costume won’t last. They never do. It’ll be another brief experiment and it’ll go away forever. That’s how that works.

“No, no--Bucky is dead. He’s really dead.”

Sure he is.

There’s also an audience who clearly loves these characters being more sexualized. Some of the horniest comics I’ve read have been written or drawn by woman and many of the people I heard from during this flap were female readers or creators saying they like that aspect of superheroes--both male and female superheroes. And it’s not always easy to pinpoint who exactly is going to want to buy any given book. Ideally there would be comics for all readers.

How much of the blame for your position being misrepresented lies with the medium (Twitter), how much with the people listening, and how much with you yourself as a communicator? If people didn't get what you were trying to say, why do you think that is?

Part of it is the joy of debate. To some extent, it’s more fun to misinterpret and attack than engage in civil discourse. Outrage is fun! It makes us feel alive!

But I’m certainly willing to concede that I may not have been making myself understood. That happens. I’m not the most articulate person on the face of the earth and Twitter is a minefield. It’s very easy to lose pieces of a conversation. It’s very east to see a tweet, get outraged, and respond immediately and then ignore a successive clarifying tweet--especially if you’re just seeing isolated tweets being re-tweeted and not the entirety of a thread.

We’ve seen some of the people behind the costumes you specifically criticized, like Stephen Wacker and Cameron Stewart, have come out and specifically said in response that they were not placating fans when considering those designs, and that they were in fact creative choices. You have said that your own diverse characters come naturally. What is it that makes you assume that these designs are motivated by fan complaints at all? Is there any evidence? If you ended up at diversity naturally, why would you not assume that any other change is also the result of natural creativity?

I can’t speak for anybody. I’m looking at this from the outside and commenting on it as a casual observer not as an investigative reporter.

Did I reach out and ask everybody what compelled them to make creative decisions before tossing them all under the bus as though it was a movement? No, I absolutely did not. But on the face of it--that’s the overall impression I got.

A Spider-Woman cover by Milo Manara is shown to the world--there’s a huge vocal backlash--followed by a censored cover and a new costume design. Did one trigger the other? I can’t say for sure but certainly the impression was that it did. Did it play a part in the decision making process? I don’t know that anybody can give a definitive response to that. If I’m in power at Marvel I might not quickly admit to caving to public pressure. But certainly somebody is making those “creative choices.” Somebody is choosing one direction over another.

 

Batgirl redesign by Cameron Stewart and Babs Tarr

 

In regard to Batgirl--how did that shift come about? I’m assuming the new creative team submitted the design and DC approved it. Why was the change made? Was the book not selling before? Was there a plea for a different direction? New creative teams take over books all the time. Artists redesign costumes sometimes, sure, but more frequently they’ll tweak character design--one artist’s Batman is beefier--one is shorter--another is slight, etc. It’s not always a complete overhaul and more frequently it’s not a complete overhaul because readers want to have some continuity--to feel that it’s the same character. So in Batgirl’s case it’s fair to ask, why was the change made? Why was the costume redesigned? Why did DC choose this version over another version? If DC wanted a Batgirl for a younger audience that could easily have played into the decision. If that was the case the writer and artist may not have intended to be placating vocal few but they may be doing so regardless of their statements to the contrary.

But really--in Batgirl’s case it’s a wash. The new costume is no less revealing than the previous one.

And I should make it very clear--I like the new Batgirl. I like the creative team. I was not looking at the book before the change and I am now. My only ever-so-slight beef is that I feel the costume isn’t as visually striking as it had been pre-New 52. The same character with the same body type could wear that other costume and it would be a stronger visual.

Again--there’s a difference between costume design, character design and execution. Frequently what people object to is execution--characters posed certain ways--but it's expressed as though it's costume design. Spider-Woman's costume is no more revealing than Captain America's costume but if the artist drawing Spider-Woman draws her in a certain way--heads explode. The solution is not to redesign that iconic costume--but to not give the assignment to artists who abuse it if you don’t want it abused.

Ideally, costumes should be versatile. Cartoons traditionally are the most stripped down in terms of design. Every added line means more time for the animators so excess lines are eliminated and uniforms are just about as simple as they can be. The next step is comics--they can be more complex, sure, but again, any added line needs to be drawn again and again. And simple costumes can be dressed up. Alex Toth and David Mazzucchelli could do simple, a stripped down version of Batman, for example, while Neal Adams and Jim Lee could add a ton of rendering, but the costume itself remained essentially the same. The movies can, of course, add a million textures, seams, buckles, buttons, zippers and snaps but they don't need to draw those again and again--those exist in a physical world. We're at this point where some costumes are so time-consuming and difficult to draw that few artists are capable of meeting their monthly deadlines. I just don't think all of the added clutter is really worth it. And many designs in comics fall apart as character walk away from the “camera.” When costumes need to be drawn an inch tall they look like a mess with all of these lines and textures at war with each other. A strong costume looks great at any size.

Often readers are really impressed by guys who render well but don’t necessarily draw well or design well. Bruce Timm was given a hard time about not hiring a fairly popular artist years ago, and his argument was that although he rendered beautifully--there is no rendering in animation--and his actual construction--the drawing part--simply wasn’t that interesting. He didn’t compose well--he rendered well. The New 52 costume design team was largely comprised of artists who drew reasonably well and rendered well but didn’t design especially well, which is why there was a sameness to so much of it all and why costumes look pretty well drawn by a handful of guys and hideously drawn by others. Readers are transfixed by the art of guys who noodle the crap out of things--who, as some like to put it, “baffle them with their bullshit.”

For me, the New 52 was a great jumping off point for this reader. The new costume designs, a baffling semi-reboot, junking the old numbering--that was enough for me. I’ve checked in on a couple titles but for the most part--they lost me.

Just as all people have different tastes in clothing and style, not all superheroes would dress in the same style. In the case of a character like Batgirl as she’s presented in her current ongoing, the costume seems to suit the character. Even more so, Ms. Marvel, whose costume you specifically called “hideous, unflattering, cumbersome, awkward, and ugly,” wears a costume that is specifically tied into her cultural identity as a Muslim teenager. Both of these books show the characters in street clothes a lot as well as in costume, and I would say that fashion plays more of a role in the art of these books than usual. How important is something like that to costume design? How much did you know about these characters before criticizing their look, and what role should characterization play in costume design?

The current Ms. Marvel is just a weak design. Most character/costume design tries to give a character a strong visual hook and a unique silhouette. Ms. Marvel has neither. If you’re arguing that the costume she is wearing is the strongest it can possibly be under the parameters set I would say that you are kidding yourself.

And of course character plays into design. In many, many cases character design has been very much at odds with the characters themselves. The original Carol Danvers Ms. Marvel costume with her bare belly showing was pretty silly when contrasted with her ‘70s women’s lib stance--Power Girl was another character with a forceful women’s lib stance coupled with a keyhole top allowing readers to peer in at her cleavage. But both characters did lose their peek-a-boo windows early on (although Power Girl’s keeps coming back).

 

Captain Marvel redesign by Jamie McKelvie

 

Carol’s current Captain Marvel costume is more appropriate to the character, certainly, but less visually interesting than, say, the Dave Cockrum redesign. That was a flashy outfit. And sometimes you do need to weigh visual appeal, distinctiveness and the character itself. To me, Carol’s current look is more like a team member or a Star Trek character than a lead character with her own title. It’s a bit bland.

Distinctiveness doesn’t mean “sexy” by any means. Hell, Tintin wears street clothes but has a strong visual hook, a unique silhouette and a unique look which sets him apart from other characters visually. Superman had a spit curl for a reason--to make him visually distinctive. The current Ms. Marvel has none of that. Her haircut is not distinctive, her character design is not especially distinctive and her outfit simply isn’t very strong. If you really think it’s inconceivable that a better costume could be created for the character--I would have to disagree. I think a better costume--a better look-- could be found and the character and book would be more successful if that was to happen.

Of course, that doesn’t sound as inflammatory as, “Erik Larsen says, ‘Ms. Marvel sucks!’” but it is what it is.

Actually, this whole thing was due to me having a big brain fart and forgetting that Carol wasn’t still called Ms. Marvel. I was initially reacting to the change in Captain Marvel’s uniform, as it turned out. But then I looked up Ms. Marvel and saw that it was a pretty lackluster design as well, so my comments weren’t totally off base. Still--there was no real change in this character’s costume since it’s a new character so some of my previous comments made may not apply.

Did I mention that I’m an idiot? I thought we’d covered that…


Ms. Marvel design by Jamie McKelvie

 

According to statements Marvel has gone on record with (which I could point you to if you want), Ms. Marvel sells more copies digitally than she does in stores, and also is Marvel's number one digital seller. Going by the current sales numbers and if that digital statement still holds true, that would put her at at least 60,000 copies a month currently, and her first issue would have sold over 100,000 copies (not counting the six or seven reprints). I know fans aren't privy to all the details, but at least from what we can tell, Ms. Marvel seems to be a very successful comic. Doesn't that kind of response justify the continued push to create more inclusive comics and respond to feedback in that area?

Absolutely. If sales on a book are strong and your job is to sell books--do more of the same. Which still doesn’t mean she’s got an awesome costume. There are a lot of factors that go into the sales of a book. It’s not all based on costume design, otherwise all Spider-Man comics would sell the same regardless of who did them and that’s clearly not the case.

What are your thoughts on changing trends in male costume design? In many ways, male characters, like female characters, are increasingly being covered up too. The change isn't (and hasn't been) characterized as political by anyone, but when you look back, there were a TON of male characters in the ‘70s and ‘80s especially who were showing upper thigh, abs, etc. Like the classic black/purple Brainiac costume, or early Colossus (X-men) costumes, or Darkseid, or even something like Lion-O (Thundercats) or He-Man. You don't see that as much anymore. Is it possible that the changing designs of female characters has less to do with appealing to an audience and more to do with the broader evolution of comic aesthetic?

I’m sure that plays a part. But largely that should apply to new characters or characters that need a push either because their costumes are hopelessly stuck in another era (like, say, Luke Cage from the ‘70s) or aren’t especially strong (such as Dr. Octopus whose standard villain duds, for years, were an uninspired set of green and orange tights). To have characters be in a constant flux and constantly chasing trends is not a good idea in the long run. Better to have a timeless, iconic costume than having some character with a mullet or man-bun which will have some collections looking helplessly dated.

Male characters are getting redesigned all the time as well. Superman just got a new costume, consisting of jeans and a t-shirt, for the post-Convergence DCU, which a lot of fans took issue with. Thor and Iron Man's costumes change pretty frequently. The X-Men get redesigns every couple of years. Batman is going to be wearing, I shit you not, a suit of robot bunny armor after Convergence. With that in mind, why did you focus on female characters in your criticism, and how do you think it differs from the male character redesigns in motivation or execution?

I’ve bitched about male costumes quite frequently. All of my complaints apply to those as well, frankly. Many of those are equally awkward and hard to draw. If I had to draw the Falcon’s Captain America costume over and over again I’d probably go completely mad. Just a pain in the ass, that one.


Captain America by Stuart Immonen

 

For whatever reason I just happened to notice a bunch of the women’s costumes on that particular day and ran with it. I still think it’s a mistake, for male characters as well to emulate movie costumes.

Comics have real strengths and severe weaknesses. We don’t have sound, we don’t have movement, when you turn a page you see two pages’ worth of potential spoilers in a glance. We have a lot of things we can’t do, so why add to that and keep artists from doing things we can do well? It’s absolutely backward thinking.

The fact that we can have a guy in yellow and blue tights and buy that he’s a badass is fucking amazing! We can draw characters, fully clothed, and see every muscle in action as heroes battle to save the day--that’s fantastic. We can have characters run in high heels and fight in high heels--more, kick ass in high heels! The notion that we need to be bound by reality is complete counterintuitive. We can do ANYTHING! Why are publishers PREVENTING creators from doing ANYTHING?

You have artists with amazing abilities and they’re sitting there throwing obstacles in their own way. Why? What is the benefit? If there’s a guy wearing red, white and blue in a comic book with a big fat letter “A” on his forehead moviegoers will recognize him as being Captain America, trust me! So why make him any less awesome than he could be? Why not have moviemakers try to catch up with us instead of us having to compromise like they do? It just doesn’t make sense.

This is a familiar enough rant to my Twitter followers. Thus far it’s largely been about the guys, actually. It really bums me out that a lot of these amazing artists are sitting there drawing these characters in these crappy costumes. That’s got to slow these guys down. It just has to. And they just don’t look that good. God help us if the new Captain America ever has to tie his shoe because that belt buckle is poised to poke into his boys.

You were the Image Publisher up until 2008. Can you tell us what kind of duties your current position at Image entails on the publishing and business side of things?

Largely the duties of the publisher is finding creators with stories to tell and letting them do what they want to do. We don’t shape books for the most part but we can be a sounding board. When the Luna brothers wanted to call their first book Heroine, for example, I warned them that some readers might think it was about Heroin and that they might consider a name which is less easily misconstrued. They ended up calling the book Ultra, which was, I think, a good call.

I imagine you have some insight into things like industry demographics. What percentage of comic book readers do you think are women? In general terms, is comic book readership representative of the general population, or do you think it skews in any particular way?

I haven’t been in that position in years and I have no available data. I could only guess and that’s pointless. The bottom line for me is that there are a hell of a lot more people not reading comics than reading them and so there’s an enormous potential audience out there not being drawn to our medium. There’s also a large number of lapsed readers who have wandered off for various reasons. Are those people lost to us or is there a way to draw them back in? What might it take to do that?

In this, we certainly agree. Do you have any ideas on how to do that? Why isn't the enormous success of movies and TV shows based on comics translating to a huge influx of new readers?

The problem is twofold--distribution and material.

In terms of distribution--comics are in very few outlets. There are literally states with no comic book stores (or there were--I’m not up to date on that) and that means that a large number of potential readers can’t see what we have to sell. Expanding distribution to other outlets is a hard battle. And it will mean huge losses and nobody seems to be willing to take those losses.

In terms of content, most comic books are very insubstantial reads. If I’m plunking down $4 for a comic book it had better make sense as a standalone chapter and frequently they don’t.

I don’t follow a lot of comics. I don’t have a pull list. I graze. I’ll pick up an issue here and there but I’ll seldom follow an ongoing title if there isn’t a consistent creative team whose work I enjoy. If I like a certain artist’s work I’ll buy that book but if that artist is gone the next month I’m gone too, and with the way many books are these days, that means I’m all over the place, and in most cases those comics are incomprehensible to me. Characters aren’t introduced, relationships aren’t established, irrelevant information is sometimes dropped and it all adds up to a very unsatisfying reading experience.

Coupled with that is that there’s a million of them. And while it may be that they’re each reaching a small target audience and earning their own keep it becomes a huge, overwhelming ball of confusion to a casual reader. There are multiple books with similar logos starring similar characters and there are hundreds of them. Even if we could get into 7-11s and corner stores again there simply isn’t room for it all. So choices would need to be made and that means readers would miss out on huge chunks of these fictionalized universes and when stories cross over from one book to the next that means readers can’t follow it all and that is a nightmare.

These go hand-in-hand. You can’t fix one without the other and it’s simply easier to continue down the current path of guaranteed sales and the ongoing pissing contest between the larger companies.

Do you think the comic book audience has changed over the past twenty years? If so, in what ways? And if the audience has changed, should comics adapt to those changes, and how?

Comics are changing. That’s happening. Image comics is a leader in that regard, actually. New audiences are being found as new titles are introduced and the company is experiencing massive growth over the last few years.

The concern at Marvel and DC is publishers tossing the baby out with the bathwater. If you have an audience for a book already you want to add to that--not drive that audience away in the hope of grabbing another one. So, maybe you add a new title instead of changing the existing one--maybe you try multiple books with the same characters but a different approach and see where things go. When the New 52 hit initially there was a rush of curiosity about these books--a few years later we can see that the older readers used it as a jumping off point and not enough new readers jumped on and stayed there. It’s not always simple.

I know you've pointed out that a costume like Wonder Woman's classic one could be drawn respectfully or sleazy, but do you think the costume itself plays any role at all in whether or not a female character is portrayed as a sex object?

No. It’s lines on paper. If I’m an artist determined to make a character look sexy it almost doesn’t matter what she wears--I will find a way.

If, as you imply when saying online fans are a vocal minority, the majority of fans are "silent," then how does Image gauge fan reaction to what they decide to publish and the way you as a company do business? Is it entirely sales figures? Feedback at cons?

Image doesn’t drive content or push creators. We allow creators to tell their own stories. We don’t tell anybody what to write or draw. The creators tell their stories and the readers decide. If a creator has a story to tell--we help make that a reality. And sales determine which books are successful.

But Image does initially choose to publish or not publish particular comics from particular creators, right? Is that based solely on the strength of the creators involved and not the comic they want to publish?

It’s based on the book that those creators want to create. We don’t go to creators and say, “we’re looking for THIS kind of book.” They tell us what they want to do and we let them do it. Sometimes creators pitch shitty books. That happens too. Some big names have pitched books with poor concepts, poor character designs and tired concepts and those books have died a painful death. We’ll take on books because we love certain creators and want to do business with certain creators. I don’t know if Eric [Stephenson] gives creators the same talk I used to about iconic visuals, strong hooks, readable logos and easily pronounceable titles but I sure used to. If a creator insists on something lousy--it’s their funeral. The real drag in all this is that some decent creators have found limited success on their own and have gone crawling back to other companies because creator-owned comics are, for them, unviable.

Fan attitudes online differ pretty drastically. What makes you think the wide spectrum of opinions aren’t a microcosm of the fanbase as a whole?

Because sales don’t reflect that. When ten people online say they’ll buy something and sales aren’t much more than that it’s pretty obvious those few spoke only for themselves. Others may share an opinion at times or not but it’s hard to determine anything with absolute certainty based on online opinion. If you go by what people say online every Michael Bay movie should be a huge financial disaster but that’s clearly not the case. McDonalds has served billions of hamburgers but people constantly rag on them. Clearly somebody has another opinion.

I think stores themselves have a better idea of what their customers want and thankfully some of that information is being shared. They deal with actual readers not sock puppets, lapsed readers, concerned parents, cranks and so on. Which isn’t to say everybody who opens their mouth is a guaranteed nincompoop but that some are. I’ll listen to Jannie, who’s standing in front of me--I don’t put a lot of stock in Morlock358.

There are people online who supported your statements. Are they more representative of the larger comics audience? If so, why?

I don’t put any more stock in my supporters than I do in my detractors (although I do know some personally, so those I pay some attention to). But I don’t feel either speak for the unspoken. Those readers vote with their pocketbooks. And largely those who came out in support were every bit as wrong about my views as those who supposedly disagreed. So, there’s that. Overall it was a pretty frustrating experience.

I blame society.

Image itself seems to have had success with comics lately that are outside the norms of traditional superhero comics. Books like Saga, Rat Queens, and Bitch Planet, just to name a few. If something like Bitch Planet is specifically appealing to feminists, is that placating? How do you differentiate?

Again, we let talented people tell the stories they want to tell. We don’t tell anybody what to write or draw.

And again--it’s one thing to start something new than it is to take something existing and twist it. If Bitch Planet was a new direction for Iron Man I could see that audience losing their collective minds but it’s not--it’s something new.

With the success of some of those books I mentioned above at Image, as well as the reported success of books like Ms Marvel, Batgirl, or the recently publicized female Thor, do you think that sales justify the idea that there is an untapped market for comics that are more diverse? Would companies really be making these changes and sticking with them if it wasn’t profitable? In response to similar questions on Twitter, you replied, "Lowered expectations. The sales of Ms. Marvel from the '70s when it was cancelled are higher than current sales." Isn't that true of all comics sales today, and thus an unfair comparison? How do you think the sales of these books compare to contemporary comics?

I’m as capable of being snarky as the rest of them.

But really--it’s all sales driven. You try something out--if that works you try something else out. All of these things have cycles. When the next Thor movie rolls around the current Thor may vanish or be spun into a different title with a different name. Clearly some books are finding an audience and that’s great. Could they be doing better? Sure. Would better design help? I think so. I’m not a fan of the new Thor logo for example--its outline is too thin and it doesn’t stand out enough on the racks. Sometimes a tweak this way or that makes a difference. If I go into a store I want to see a logo immediately but that’s another issue entirely.

I was told that a certain creator will go to his local store and have them hide his new mocked up book amidst the racks. If he can’t find his own book immediately based on its logo, he goes back and redesigns it. That’s a good idea, which I highly recommend.

You gave your first big interview on this topic to Reaxxion, which is a site heavily affiliated with the Gamergate movement. Did you know about that beforehand? Do you have an opinion on Gamergate, or the culture wars in general?

I know nothing about it beforehand. I was asked by a guy who emailed me if I would answer some questions. I had no idea about the site or its viewpoint. At the same time--people go on Fox News all the time who don’t agree with their agenda. People are interviewed in Hustler or Penthouse who wouldn’t be caught dead with a copy in their possession.

I have no position or working knowledge of Gamergate. I don’t play games of any kind. I don’t follow what goes on in that world.

I really can’t talk with much authority on that, I’m afraid.

Hell, I haven’t checked into the site THIS is going up on. It may be just as bad or not--I’m taking your word that it’s the most awe-inspiring site on the Internet.

In that interview, you said that you supported the decision to pull the recent controversial Batgirl variant, but you condemned Marvel’s decision to pull the infamous Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover. What do you see as the difference?

I’m on the side of the artists. In the Batgirl case the art was commissioned--the cover was drawn--the creators balked, the cover artist pulled the piece and that should have been the end of it. If readers demand that DC publish the cover--tough shit--the artist pulled it and that’s the end of that. DC wasn’t giving in to readers’ demands one way or the other. The creative people made a choice.

In the Spider-Woman case there was an online flap and Marvel gave in.

 

Spider-Woman redesign by Javier Rodriguez

 

These are some comments made by Image Publisher Eric Stephenson from a 2014 Image Expo keynote speech:

"For decades, the comics industry has been viewed as a boys club, but that’s changing.

The reason that’s changing is because now, more than ever, there are comics that actually appeal to a readership beyond the audience our industry has spent so much time servicing since comics’ resurgence in the 1960s.

An industry status quo was set back then that ensured comics were primarily read by young, white men, and that resulted in a talent pool that consisted, by and large, of young, white men.

If we want to build a more diverse industry, though, if we want to develop a more diverse talent pool, then it is of utmost importance that we produce comics that appeal to as wide an audience as possible, because people who aren’t reading comics are not going to suddenly decide they want to work in this business.

The men and women working in comics today are only doing so because they grew up loving this medium, and because they desperately wanted to be a part of it.

We can’t go back in time and change the readership of comics in the past, but we can demand a better future by changing now.

Change is absolutely integral to our future."

Do you think Eric’s words are contradictory to your statements about placating, and can you explain why or why not?

The distinction I would give would be the difference between a few people saying to Reese’s, “I’m allergic to peanuts. Can you please stop using peanuts in your peanut butter cups so that I can enjoy them?” and them saying, “Absolutely. You are right. Peanut allergies are everywhere. We’re going to start using almonds from now on” and “We can’t do that but how about if we create a new product called Reese’s almond butter cups for people like you?” One is taking things away from an audience in the hope of another and one is expanding the existing marketplace.

Of course--if Reese’s sales are in freefall that’s a totally different scenario. At that point throw shit to the wall and hope something sticks.

But Eric isn’t saying, “We’re going to EXCLUDE these readers” but “we’ve going to INCLUDE these readers.”

I pushed for Image to take on Colleen Doran’s book A Distant Soil years ago but that was its own thing. She wasn’t pushing to take over doing Savage Dragon.

In a lot of these cases though, it isn't fans demanding Marvel or DC give them something the companies aren't promising. It's the company's executives and PR people who are going out there and talking about how they're trying to make their comics more inclusive and attract a more diverse audience, and they point to certain characters and books as examples. So when those fans speak up and let Marvel or DC know what they want from those characters or books, isn't that exactly the feedback Marvel and DC asked for?

It can be but it’s always better in person. It’s really easy online for an assistant editor to pretend to be six people and make it appear that there’s a discussion going on. It’s just as easy for a lapsed reader to weigh in or for somebody to be trolling. The point is that opinions gathered that way can be very unreliable.

In the case of Savage Dragon, that's one self-contained comic, but in the case of corporate-owned superhero comics, these are shared universes consisting of a bunch of books which experience changes and creative team turnover all the time. Is it really taking anything away from existing readers to try new things with some percentage of these books?

I would think especially in cases where books haven’t found an audience that it would be a good idea to try something else. If it was a successful title I would think there would be some concern in losing the existing fans but there’s a certain inevitability when creative teams change. And, like I said, I’ll jump off a book in a heartbeat if new creators get on it and they don’t catch my eye. I’m fickle as all hell.

You’ve said that you worry that comics could be heading toward another era similar to the era of the Comics Code Authority. What do you mean by that?

The danger of people forcibly saying, “we don’t want THIS” is that it can grow to become a censoring body. That’s how the Comic Code began--with parents concerned that comic books were leading to juvenile delinquency and then rallying to take action. They created such a stir that in 1954 there were Senate Subcommittee hearings into juvenile delinquency, with the special focus on comic books. The end result being the formation of a censoring body that stifled creators for generations (and I’m reasonably sure that juvenile delinquency was not eliminated, so I guess comic books really weren’t a huge factor. Who knew?)

In any case, I doubt anything like that would happen again but there’s a danger in letting a few online loudmouths call the shots and caving into demands is a dangerous precedent.

Can you give me an example of a comic that you think appeals more directly to women then men without pandering, and if so, how does it accomplish that?

I can’t speak with much authority here. I honestly don’t read that many books which don’t appeal to me. If I read something that I don’t care for I stop buying it.

If you could take back your initial tweets, would you? If so, would you have chosen to stay out of the debate entirely, or to word things differently?

I’d likely take them back just to avoid the headache or word them so simply that there could be little argument--or stuff in so many qualifiers there was plenty of wiggle room. If I’d have said, “it seems like these new costumes and character designs are in response to online outrage” it sounds a lot less accusatory. Not that this hasn’t been fun to stir the pot and get people talking.

Erik, thank you very much for your time. I hope our readers will look at what you’ve had to say objectively.

They can take what they will. It’s pretty much impossible to cover every aspect of every discussion thoroughly. I’m sure I’ve said something along the way that put a twist in somebody’s knickers and I’ll never hear the end of it. It’s going to be on the Internet after all and that’s how that seems to work.

 

Erik Larsen's career in comics has spanned nearly three decades. His long-running creator-owned comic, Savage Dragon, saw its 200th issue published last December. The next issue, Savage Dragon #203, will be in stores on April 8th. You can buy digital copies or subscribe at the Image Comics online store, or ask your local retailer. You can find out more about Erik Larsen at SavageDragon.com.

 

Savage Dragon #203, in stores April 8




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About the Author - Jude Terror


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