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Marvel’s Particular Piracy Situation, Or On Humanism.

Look closely at Marvel’s release schedule, as it switches out artists on their comics, and you’ll see that Marvel is feeding piracy. Okay, so maybe that needs a little explaining. Marvel has developed a habit of replacing their artists intermittently as a way for compensating for double-shipping their issues. As David Brothers is keen to tell you, this process devalues the artists and makes them seem less pivotal to their respective series. It’s a simple trick. If an artist can be switched out at will, then that sends a signal to readers that they aren’t all that integral to the comic they are currently enjoying. And this disregard is ultimately going to make Marvel poorer in the long run.

Pirates like to attack easy targets. Pirates like targets who look invulnerable, tough, ‘the man’ in all its wealth and public faculties. Every time some schlub goes to the flea market and picks up a burned copy of some movie he couldn’t be bothered to copy himself, he justifies it by saying, “This isn’t hurting anyone.” He’ll remind you that given the opportunity to help a small artist in need, he’ll pay up, gladly. See, he’s not hurting people, he’s hurting some rich landlord or a corporation, who makes millions every year anyway. And even then, this is special.  He wouldn’t watch it if it wasn’t cheap or free.  He’s only pirating because he’s bored.

That is the excuse of the everyman pirate on Bittorrent or in a flea market, for every game, movie and comic stolen. It’s not hurting anyone who counts.

By changing up its artists, Marvel kind of looks like the big corporation right now. Here’s why. Marvel clearly wants to make fans loyal not to the comic creators, but the comic series. The goal is not to have fans following Mark Waid and Paulo Rivera, they should be following Daredevil. Waid is, or at the very least Marvel would hope you believe, a Marvel man or “Architect”, much like Fraction, Bendis and Hickman. That makes him less of a writer and more of an extension of company ideal. To Marvel, Waid is a medium who can channel intellectual property into cash flow. That view is also why they don’t switch around writers as they do artists. The writers are positioned as extensions of the company. Yet, when Waid eventually leaves to focus on his own comics, or when he goes back to DC, or when he simply gets tired of Daredevil, Marvel does not want Daredevil’s fans to follow Waid away from the series.

Heck, Marvel doesn’t even want people to follow its key architects. I doubt they’ll make a big deal when Hickman takes over for Bendis on the Avengers. Perhaps a comment here, or an interview there on Bendis’ last issue. But they’ll be quick to remind people, “New Avengers out on Wednesday!” Same when Fraction eventually leaves Iron Man, because he’ll run out of stories one day and is replaced with Kieron Gillen (it will happen people).

You can’t really blame Marvel for hoping that people will look for series and not people. First of all, it’s worked fairly well for them in the past, considering how long people stuck around after Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil or Mark Millar’s run on Ultimate X-Men. There’s also the simple math element to it. Writers and artists don’t last as long as comic series do. Marvel wants to keep readers for another fifty years or so, and their characters need to survive beyond their writer’s ability to spin new stories for them. However, by building loyalties to brands and not people, Marvel is going to make it a lot easier to ‘justify’ pirating content from them.

This is entirely wrong as the human element is an easy way to make it harder for that false justification. Let me give you a personal example. I went to TCAF over the weekend for some fun and panels, and maybe a talk to a few creators. While I was meandering around, I see issue 6 of Comic Book Comics readily available. I was a pretty big fan of Ryan Dunlavey’s and Fred Van Lente’s earlier work, Action Philosophers, and was psyched to see the final issue of their new series on the desk. I picked it up and began to casually look through it.

“I can’t wait to see this in a trade,” I mumbled to myself, as I usually do when wandering around booths, trying to grow enough backbone to talk to a writer or an artist.

“Oh really?” A voice said from behind the desk. I turn up, and see, Ryan Dunlavey sitting with a child on his lap. It’s not like I expected to see someone else, but I was a little surprised that he talked to me first. Although I suppose he could have assumed I was talking to him when I blurted out my impatience to see six issues become a book.  Anyway.

“Oh, yeah, I really loved Action Philosophers. I’ve read through every issue. I’ve seen a few samples of this new one floating around the internet and I guess I’ve been waiting for it to be collected.” Of course, I should have added, “Oh by the way, I read all of Action Philosophers on my computer because a friend of mine sent me pirated copies to me over Skype.”

“Good to hear. You can take that issue you’re holding.”

I kind of glared at him in disbelief. “But, I-Are you sure?” I said and without realizing it, reached into my back pocket for my wallet.

“Hey, don’t worry about it. I believe you when you say you’re a fan,” he said calmly, before turning his attention back to this kid who was now bouncing on his knee. I mumbled a thank you and then ran to the other side of the room.

I feel  guilty for stealing from Dunlavey and Van Lente, just because it took me an embarrassing conversation for me to realize that I was taking from two (or at least one) extremely decent human beings. I don’t deserve that issue. I just feel too guilty. Though, I am very glad to have it for reasons I will get to in a moment.

You can see my point, creating empathy between the creators and the public is how you make them want to purchase a comic, or feel bad about stealing. No one is going to care or feel guilt about pirating a comic if they think they’re stealing from the brand of a faceless corporation. I don’t care about Marvel. Marvel isn’t my friend. Marvel is a creature that for over fifty years has treated its creators as disposable parts of the comic creating process. If anything, I’m prone to make Marvel the guy I avoid at the annual corporo-humanoid dance party.

Let me eliminate some misconceptions for a second. I’m not trying to validate pirating in any form against Marvel, DC or any corporation. Just that it will be far more likely if the perpetrators think they are stealing from of a million dollar corporate hierarchy instead of individuals. Nor am I saying that building a connection, like the one I accidentally formed with Dunlavey, is the catch-all solution to solving piracy. Louis CK released his comedy album for only five dollars online with a personal pledge that he hoped people would be honest and not pirate his work. They still did. But the connection between a creator and consumer still earned him a million bucks. Course, there’s a further caveat to that. Louis CK was a well-established comedian with his own TV show. People knew who he was before he released his album. As for someone unknown using the same technique, there probably wouldn’t be nearly as many sales and more people would pirate it. So the system ain’t all hunky-dory as I’d like to propose.

Yet, Marvel does make enough that instead of trying to hide its artists and trying to absorb its writers, it could bring them to the forefront. Don’t show them as ‘Marvel Architects.’ Marvel should try to showcase their unique abilities, personalities and interests. Treat them like you would treat any author, not some medium through which the corporate IP flows.  Connecting the audience to actual people will bring greater respect for creators, and bring a greater respect to comics as a whole. It is only through mature dealings with the creators, will the rest of society then see that comics, as a medium, have matured.

Fred Van Lente says it best at the end of Comic Book Comics issue 6, as he explains how he believes the comics industry in the US has to move forward in the coming years:

“Discarding the “Pennies Business” demands more respect of the medium and creators. It robs pirates of one of their most potent weapons—The self-serving delusion they’re “Sticking it to the man” and hurting only evil faceless corporations and not middle-class folks just like them. There will always be a market for free stuff with no consequences. But as corny as it sounds, putting a human face on those who produce what the Torrent Generation consumers will be a more effective curb than trying to sue them into submission.”

Summarized into fewer than ninety words, that is exactly what I am trying to say. Marvel and DC by hiding creators, or trying to mask them under a corporate brand, is only encouraging piracy. I only really talked about Marvel’s actions, but DC’s Before Watchmen is just as disingenuous if not more so. They both need to get their acts together and start celebrating their real employees as much as their fictional characters. It’s the only way they’re going to get fans to feel actual guilt for stealing.

Finally, thank you Ryan Dunlavey, and I’m sorry. Just give me a second to pre-order Comic Book Comics from Amazon. I’ll pay this time, I promise.

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Comic Book Industry Hopes to Rebound Through Digital Distribution

Thousands of fans and collectors rushed into a comic book store to witness the death of an icon. They had seen it on the news, heard it on the radio, been told by their friends. Superman was dead. The cover of Superman 75 showed Superman’s torn cape blowing in the wind like a flag, while his family and friends wept in the background.

On this day in 1992, a single store in Detriot sold nearly 200 000 copies of a comic, as consumers raced to pick up that issue. The store began to see that they were running out of issues, so they marked the prices up higher and higher. By the end of the day, the issue that had started off at a $1.50 was going for twenty times its original price. This was a common sight in comic book stores across North America.

DC Comics, publisher of Superman, and comic book retailers made around $30 million in one day. This was the third time an American comic book publisher had hit the jackpot. It was also the last.

It was clear by the end of that same year that the comic market was shrinking. Sales dropped, the collectors cashed out and sent the whole system into what Grant Morrison, a writer at DC Comics, called “a death spiral.”

However, comic book creators see a way out of this tail spin through a new distribution system: the internet. Read the rest of this entry