The Finish Line: Jerry Prosser on the ‘revolutionary concept’ of creator-owned comics

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Here’s one from the long box.

darkhorseccomics_7_coverThe following editorial first appeared more than 20 years ago — in the pages Dark Horse books dated February 1993, which would have appeared on comic shop shelves around December 1992. So Prosser’s words are closing out a year and looking ahead to the new one. In this particular instance,  I plucked this from Dark Horse Comics issue #7, the licensed character counterpoint to Dark Horse Presents, a showcase for original creator-owned and DH-owned characters and material, which was clocking in at 71 issues by this time. This issue of DH Comics happened to feature stories of three big movie franchises – Star Wars (“Tales of the Jedi”), RoboCop and Predator. Jerry Prosser was one of the editors who worked on this title when this editorial appeared.

I’ve always subscribed to the old aphorism that it’s better to keep one’s mouth shut and be thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt. But, sometimes certain circumstances arise that prevent me from abiding by my conservative predilections. That’s what you get for working in an office. Compromise, compromise, compromise. In this instance, it was being asked to write a Finish Line about creators and creative control. So … wait for it … I’m going to have to open my mouth …

Long before the publication of Aliens, Predators, RoboCop, Indiana Jones, or any of the other licensed books that are identified with Dark Horse, Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley founded a company committed to the rights of comics creators to own and control their own work and be paid a fair amount for it. In effect, a partnership. This was, to a large extent, a reaction to the corporate-owned nature of the business at that time. Creators often found it difficult to place a new idea with the corporate giants and, if they were lucky enough to get a contract, these creators often were forced to relinquish copyright and ancillary rights. Ouch.

I believe that the concept of creator-ownership and publisher/creator partnership is revolutionary. It’s also incredibly infectious. Once one person gets it, it grows and develops until it’s passed to another. Some exposed by the “virus” show almost no signs of infection (maybe they have antibodies) and others become rabid dogs, compelled to bite at any passersby (until they’re taken behind the barn and shot, anyway). This “new” concept of creator control (really the old Underground Comics raison d’être cleaned up for a new generation) ran like a virus (or a “meme,” if anyone is familiar with the work of Richard Dawkins in The Unselfish Gene) through the comics world. Some, I’m sure, would liken this process to a plague; others to a revolution.

darkhorse_concrete_coverFrom this situation, Dark Horse and a number of other “independent” publishers arose to infect the whole of the comics marketplace with the revolutionary/infectious concept of creator-ownership. This was a glorious and heady time like any “new wave” or “independent” movement of experimentation and freedom of expression. But, like most “independent” movements, creator ownership shifted back toward the commercial mainstream (as would be expected). But, little did anyone know that this new concept of creator-ownership would, in effect, infect the whole body politic of the comics world. This change in the structure of the marketplace has not been without symptoms (as is the case in all viral infections) but the after-effects have been remarkable, e.g. Image Comics. (Anyone out there familiar with the work of Thomas Kuhn ought to recognize this “paradigm shift,” in which the old way of doing and thinking about things is “overthrown” in a revolutionary way.)

Through this process, Dark Horse has found itself poised on the fence between the old paradigm (our licensed and company-owned properties) and the new one of creator-owned books. It is this balance, I believe, that positions Dark Horse as one of the most dynamic publishers in the business. It is also this balance that gives Dark Horse its distinctive “personality” and reputation. And, it is from this position that Dark Horse will be branching out into very exciting territory during 1993. We will continue to produce licensed and company-owned material, but we will also publish new work in partnership with some of the most talented creators in the industry.

We also want to take this dangerous new concept of creator-ownershhip into other markets. We’ll see what happens. It may mean that the dominant  way of doing thins in another market is infected by this “virus.” If so, the control that comics creators enjoy in this marketplace will expand to other creators in other markets. What will this mean for these other markets? The same thing it does to the comics market. I’ll leave with another aphorism (because I can never think of anything new), this one by Nietzsche: “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”

I’m out of space and time. I’ll close my mouth now.

– Jerry Prosser

Now that was refreshing. Prosser: the comics intellectual rebel arguing a paradigm shift is bearing down on traditional publishers.

Fast forward to 2013.

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Image Comics is still going strong — arguably stronger in terms of the diversity the publisher offers and as a home for emerging and independent talent.

The same holds true for Dark Horse. The company is thriving in part due to the quality licensed properties they publish and their collectibles business. And they continually impress with the lineup of top notch creator-owned books they support, such as  MIND MGMT and The Massive to name a few. And Prosser’s statement that DH has always had a distinctive personality is more true today than ever.

If he were writing this today, I wonder what Prosser might add considering the arrival of Kickstarter to fundraise your comic launch and Etsy and other online shopping sites to sell and distribute your work?

Exciting times.

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Filed under Comics - General, reprints

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