Over the course of the past six months, I have worked hard in my columns to give you a sense of what it was like to be a comics dealers during the early 1970's. I remember those days with great fondness, as they were the days when my dreams of the future were the strongest, and when nothing seemed completely impossible. In reality, however, I have to be honest and tell you that there were far more black days filled with despair than my conscious memory will usually allow me to clearly recall. When I stop and think about it, I can distinctly remember, for example, more than once very seriously contemplating driving my car at high speed into one of the power poles on the back road leading up to my ill-fated Fort Collins store just to end my gut-wrenching anxiety over whether I would be able to cover that week's payroll. Until you've experienced that kind of pure mental agony for months on end, you have no idea of what it really is like to bootstrap yourself into your own small business. Playing life without a net is seldom very much fun.
In the end, what kept me going through some of those awful days was an unshakable belief in comics as an art form. During the early 1970's comics were at a low point in terms of general esteem, having established an unfortunate legacy as being inane amusement for the illiterate and intellectually challenged during the dreadful post-Wertham (1955-1970) period. With the Comics Code stifling editorial creativity at every turn, and media portrayals like the 1960's BATMAN TV show contributing to the perception that comics had no greater literary merit than could be expressed in "Biff, Bang, Pow!," it was little wonder that by 1970 that the bulk of America could not conceive that comics were in any way a valid art form. Frankly, that ill-formed public perception both offended and inspired me. While I was still quite young at the time, I was absolutely convinced that comics had equal merit as an art form to poetry, dance, film, painting, music, or sculpture. I could see no difference between utilizing both prose and art in combination to create an evocative response than utilizing either communications form separately. The fact that the rest of the population couldn't grasp the incredible potential of graphic storytelling simply made me all the more determined to dedicate my life to proselytizing the merits of comics.
Blessedly, I was far from alone in my quest to elevate public perception of comics. Not only were there other comics retailers who were willing to try and convince a skeptical general public about the merits of comics, but there was also an entire new generation of comics creators, editors, and publishers raising the creative bar. The revolution began in the Underground Comix movement of the 1960's, where the Comics Code was completely ignored. While some of those first self-published works were pretty crude, the editorial quality rapidly improved as brilliant creators such as Robert Crumb, Victor Moscosco, Rick Griffin, Gilbert Shelton, S. Clay Wilson, and hundreds of others explored an incredible array of personal storytelling methodologies. Inevitably, that fantastic outpouring of creativity influenced the existing traditional comics community, inspiring many of the older generation of comics creators to experiment with stories and art forms that stretched the boundaries of what defined a "comic book."
By the time I was able to devote my life entire to comics in 1974, pioneers of revolution in the traditional comics realm such as Roy Thomas, Jim Shooter, Berni Wrightson, Jeff Jones, Barry Smith, Michael Kaluta, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Chris Claremont, and dozens of others were completely altering fan's perceptions of what constituted a "good" comic book. They were still stuck working in a publishing environment, however, that was dominated by a very few publishers more concerned with keeping costs down and making a buck (while also retaining all intellectual property rights to material created) than in any esthetic goals. The exception during the 1970's was Mike Friedriech's Star*Reach Productions, but sadly, he was a visionary before his time. The real break finally came in 1980, when the Schanes brothers began Pacific Comics. Pacific ignored the comics code, paid top dollar for publishing rights, and allowed creators to retain copyright on their material. Pacific's cover prices were far higher than traditional comics publishers of the same time period, but Pacific showed that improved paper quality and editorial content could break through consumer resistance to higher prices.
Since the year that Pacific Comics was founded, the comics world has been completely revolutionized. Dozens of small and mid-sized comics publishing companies have been formed, and thousands of comics have been created through self-publishing. This incredible blossoming of creativity has had an interesting side benefit, as self-published comics have become the basis for some of the most successful films in the history of Hollywood. Beginning with TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, and continuing through last year's incredible HELLBOY, Hollywood has been mining the Independent comics world for story ideas. This past weekend, however, something happened which is unprecedented in the decades-long romance between comics and film. With the release of SIN CITY, Hollywood has finally accepted a series of comic books exactly as they were created, and not tried to alter them to fit some pre-conceived notion. In fact, the creators of SIN CITY essentially utilized the same types of lighting and perspective that Frank Miller employed in creating his comics, with incredible success. While highly successful films like SPIDER-MAN have successfully adapted comics stories to film, SIN CITY is the first movie to be an actual stylistic portrayal of the original comics. In my opinion, it is the best comics film ever made.
Without a doubt, having Frank Miller as a co-director of the film contributed greatly to the filmmakers staying completely true to the original material. Frank has been unbelievably tenacious in not only insisting how his comics would be published, but also in retaining all of his trademarks and copyrights. That makes SIN CITY all the more important to me, as the deal that Frank Miller was able to negotiate for the creation of the film has now set a precedent that should strongly influence the ability of other comics creators to negotiate intellectual property rights deals in the future. I see this as being important because it is my opinion that if comics are to survive it is critical that we continue to attract top creative talent to our art form. Financial recompense should certainly not be the only reason for why someone should want to be a comics creator, but in all fairness, if an idea someone creates becomes universally popular, then they should be able to at least share in a substantial portion of the rewards.
Taking this concept just a bit further, I believe that there is little doubt that the financial rewards that will be forthcoming from SIN CITY will ultimately make Frank Miller one of the richest men in the history of comics. For that I congratulate him, and also sincerely thank him. You see, over this next year his comics, and his film, will open the eyes of millions of people around the world to the joys of graphic storytelling. In altering those perceptions about the artistic merits of comics he is providing us with the opportunity to reach out to millions of people who otherwise might never have even considered reading a comic book. With luck, and a bit of hard work, I think that we can quite possibly turn these new comics fans on to other comics and graphic novels, and to possibly spark a new golden age of comics popularity. Frank Miller has opened an incredibly important door for us, and we now have to capitalize on the unprecedented opportunity he has provided us. After 35 years of sweat and struggle in trying to educate people about the merits of comics, I am truly grateful to Frank Miller for providing us all this remarkable chance to reach out to millions of potential new comics readers. It could just be that Frank Miller's efforts may be what finally bring my lifelong dreams to fruition. Suffice it to say, the release of the SIN CITY film has made me very, very excited about our future as an industry.
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