Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Blog from Another (Other) Universe: Midnight Comics, by Tom Whiteley

For the want of a nail, the kingdom was ruined, runs the old rhyme. But it was a pin that almost destroyed Midnight Comics, the best-known brand in comic shops and bookshops, before it even began. 

Four pins, to be exact – tie-ins to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s multi-million selling graphic novel Watchmen. Produced to cash in on its unexpected success, publisher DC Comics decided to class them as promotional material, rather than merchandise, which meant the creators would be denied the royalties their contract promised them. When Moore objected, he was - in his words - threatened by an executive who saw Watchmen as one more company-owned property to be exploited like Superman and Batman, and Moore and Gibbons as modern-day Siegel and Schusters to be shooed away.

Moore said: “I was incensed. I really, really don’t respond well to threats, and I informed the company I had no intention of producing any more work for them and that I was walking away from projects that were already in progress. We had signed a contract that gave us ownership of our characters in good faith. The company had trumpeted it at conventions. But because Watchmen was raking in the cash they wanted to go back to the gangster days. I’d had enough of that at Marvel in the UK, and I made that very clear.”

But while Moore flew back to England, mighty wheels were turning at 666 Fifth Avenue. A publisher of periodicals for more than fifty years had inadvertently found itself in the book publishing business. 

Richard Bruning, husband of DC editor and Midnight Comics co-founder Karen Berger, had designed the collected volumes of breakout hits Watchmen and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and had made friends among New York publishers who were keen to get on board the graphic novel phenomenon. Berger knew the writers who were spearheading the new age of comics and already chafing under the corporate strictures of the industry. Together, accompanied by New Yorker editor Robert Gottlieb - who had taken a personal interest in graphic novels though Art Spiegelman - they stormed the boardroom to propose a new direction for DC.

Gottlieb said: “I discovered Joseph Heller with Catch-22. I knew first-hand the resistance to be overcome when you’re bringing new blood to an industry desperately in need of it. People would rather die the old way than live the new way. I knew publishing, I knew magazines, I knew writers, I knew cartoonists, and I knew that there was an opportunity here to start something big. 

“Screwing over a writer and artist the way they were doing, loudly and publicly, was like shooting a bullet through both feet. The guys have just created the biggest hit you’ve had in years, shifting more units than even a blockbuster movie managed to get Superman to move, and you’re letting them walk out the door? Any editor who’d done that at Schuster would get their cards the next day. In books we treat the talent right because we’ve seen what happens to the people who don’t.”

It wasn’t an easy sell for a business that had made its millions off owning intellectual property. Comics were DC’s daily bread, but they made their real money from licensing their characters for everything from lunchboxes to Pez dispensers. Cutting off future income streams by giving writers and artists ownership of their own characters was a tough sell and the property under discussion being Watchmen didn’t make it any easier. 

Their biggest hit for decades, one that they owned and could make everything from action figures to toasters from, and they were being told to give it up? Where would the lunchboxes of the 21st century come from if they had to get the go-ahead from some longhair writer first? 

But somehow a different vision of the future prevailed, at least in part. Seduced by the success that a creator-owned project had brought them and swayed by the argument there could be more, the foundations of a new imprint were laid. It was nothing new to the industry: Marvel had been running Epic Comics since 1982. But this wasn’t about comics. The comics were a loss-leader. It was about books, about a magazine publisher making the jump from periodicals that churned a monthly profit then disappeared to bound volumes that brought in money year after year after year. 

And DC, having decided to jump into book publishing, wanted to make a big splash. Which is why Karen Berger jetted across the Atlantic to see Alan Moore.

Moore said: “The visit wasn’t a surprise. V for Vendetta was still being published, The Killing Joke hadn’t been out long and was very successful, I had other projects that were being talked up. I expected to hear about all that, and to hear the same regretful platitudes about the issues that really mattered to me. I didn’t expect to pay very much attention. I was working on other projects, including a film script, and had no intention of returning to work for people whose business plan was ‘Rip off the hippies.’

“So when Karen started by talking about renegotiating the Watchmen deal in mine and Dave’s favour, and followed that up by inviting me to take an editorial role in a whole new line of creator-owned comics, I still regarded it as a supervillain’s trap, like Lex Luthor curing cancer in order to kill Superman. Embarrassingly, I wasn’t very receptive. It was only when I saw Dave’s wide-eyed reaction – and he’s always been a better businessman than me – that I realised that we couldn’t say no.”

Midnight Comics, named in honour of Watchmen’s clock motif and for the late-night adult associations of the name, was a secret for a year. Co-founded by Berger, Moore and Gibbons, with the former taking on the traditional roles of a publisher and editor and the latter two dealing with talent and direction, it was a line with a difference. 

Everything would be creator-owned and creator-determined, everything would be a limited series, and everything the line published would be collected in book form within a couple of months of its conclusion. Page rates were low, at the insistence of DC executives taking a spiteful swipe at these uppity creatives, but royalties were high. Ironically, however, the first title of Midnight Comics was a victory for commerce over creativity. 

Moore and Gibbons’s 1990 prequel to their groundbreaking graphic novel, the nine-issue Minutemen, told the story of the 1940s heroes who had featured in the original. Originally put forward when Watchmen was still being published until their creators decided against it, the series was a concession by Moore and Gibbons to commercial realities.

Moore said: “We were trying to make an impact and trying to introduce a whole new way of doing comics to the world, but we still had to do it with superheroes. That seemed a retrograde step to me and there were certainly other projects that I wanted to put my time into. However, the argument for using Watchmen, and the extraordinary audience it had reached, to get people reading this new line was watertight. 

"I’d come up with a clever little story, which I was vain enough to want to see in print, and I wanted to undo some of the harm I’d done to superheroes. After Watchmen every superhero had become grim and gritty. I wanted to engage the readers’ imaginations again.

“Looking back, both Dave and I wish we hadn’t done it. It’s a fun series but I think having two Watchmen products out there – even if one of them doesn’t say Watchmen anywhere on the book – diminishes the original. But without Minutemen we might never have launched Midnight and it’s possible I would have lost the rights to Watchmen and V. It was a victory for creator ownership and creative rights won on the back of an artistic compromise.”

Midnight launched with only two titles; the aforementioned Minutemen and the quarterly anthology comic, After Midnight. Anchored by another Moore project, From Hell with Eddie Campbell, the anthology was an opportunity for creators to show what they could do in short form or in longer serials. 

For its first couple of years, the artistic roster was equally divided between industry veterans trying their hands at something new and underground artists reaching mass audiences for the first time. Now approaching its hundredth issue, After Midnight has featured the work of Chester Brown, Matt Wagner, Peter Bagge, David Mazzuchelli, Jeff Nicholson, Joe Matt and many, many more, including the first adventure in Frank Miller’s Sin City and Jim Woodring’s earliest Frank stories. 

Berger said: “Midnight was a balancing act. We wanted to give new artists a chance – Alan’s entire involvement in the line was contingent on it – but I knew from experience that people can burn out. The ambitions of artists can outstrip their ability. We were on a tight budget. I didn’t want to give someone the chance to write the epic they’d been planning since they first picked up a pen and see them stall halfway through.

“After Midnight let us test people out, give them a venue for short stories or longer work without putting them under too much pressure. The anthology format gave us a wealth of material and the annual collections gave the contributors a decent return for their money. It was a great solution.”

The conclusion, and almost immediate collection, of Minutemen, got the fledgling line all the publicity it needed. The public who’d lapped up Watchmen and Dark Knight and then wondered where all the other good comics were got its answer. Moore and Gibbons began their new projects less than two months afterwards, but this time both were working with new collaborators: Moore with Bill Sienkiewicz on the ordinary-life epic Big Numbers and Gibbons with Frank Miller on dystopian fantasy Give Me Liberty. Miller, along with several other high-profile creators, had walked away from DC Comics after they proposed to implement a ratings system. To have the creators of the two titles credited with starting the graphic novel revolution back in the fold and producing high-profile, high-quality work kept everyone’s eyes on Midnight.

Big Numbers ended up being the comic that established Midnight’s reputation for late shipping, a problem caused by the switch of artists from Sienkiewicz to unknown Al Columbia then back to Sienkiewicz again, the final three issues credited to both artists and according to them completely collaborative. 

By the time it was finished Midnight’s regular series included Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli’s Sweeney Todd, a retelling of the gory English legend, Bryan Talbot’s formally experimental The Further Adventures of Luther Arkwright, and Howard Chaykin’s Time² series exploring his own family history in his inimitable adventure-liberal style. 

But Moore’s proposed follow-up Lost Girls, an unashamedly pornographic comic, was rejected as unsuitable for Midnight Comics by Berger, the first crack in Moore’s relationship with DC that would lead to his leaving the line.

Dave Gibbons's role as artistic director of the line was as much about balancing budgets as giving creatives free rein. He explained: “When you're doing a Justice League series you go with whatever format you're given. When you're bringing your dream project to life you tend to have very definite ideas. Watchmen’s 32 pages without adverts were the template for the line, and the refusal to carry ads was the given reason for the low page rates. 

"We accepted that, we wanted to create quality without commercial interference. But in the age of die-cut hologram embossed multiple covers there were creators who didn't understand why they couldn't have it all. My job was to work out what each title needed – actually needed – to succeed, and to fight the battles to make sure it got it.”

Midnight scored its first crossover success with Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn, originally conceived as a wild adventure romp with car chases and rocket launchers but which developed its sensibility  to  become a fast-talking New York comedy. Picked up as a sitcom, starring Courtney Cox as Anne Merkel and Jennifer Aniston as her beautiful but crazy sister Laura, it became one of the defining hits of the decade and brought film and TV interest in Midnight Comics’ publications until almost everything in the line was optioned. 

At the same time, Midnight was publishing unabashedly uncommercial work like Dave McKean’s Cages and his collaborations with Iain Sinclair, Gaiman and Sienkiewicz’s abstract PARADE, Rick Veitch’s Rare Bit Fiends and Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor, which enjoyed a huge sales boost once the writer became a Letterman regular.

The success of Midnight had, by the mid-1990s, a profound effect on the comics industry. Sky-high bookstore sales and the end of the newsstand market meant comics were selling to fans through thousands of specialist shops. Increased power for creators meant that the industry standard was well on the way to being reversed; fans followed the writer or the artist, not the character. 

Following the lead of Gaiman’s Sandman, acclaimed series began to end when the creative teams that made them popular left – what was the point of trying to keep them going when their audience were reading for a specific vision, not for a costumed character? By the late 90s DC was publishing fewer than 10 unlimited regular superhero series. Alongside stalwarts like Action Comics and Detective Comics were limited series by the score bringing audiences new visions of Superman, Green Lantern, Plastic Man and everyone else, and a new issue one with every series didn’t do any harm in a booming collectors’ market. 

Continuity, demanded by comics fans but of indifference to the readers buying collections who outnumbered them, was abandoned. How could a 1990s Dr Fate be realistically reconciled with his Golden Age counterpart anyway? For many years a hook to keep the faithful buying, line-wide continuity was abandoned the minute it was hurting sales. Series like Alan Moore and Alex Ross’s Twilight of the Heroes sold far more than any comic which merely curated the past. 

Marvel Comics, who experienced their own mini-boom with hot artists Jim Lee, Rob Liefield and Todd McFarlane before they left to form Image, kept their continuity going and became the home for embittered fans who resented the new popularity of their hobby, who remembered the days when you’d hunt down a complete run at conventions and when only the committed would know exactly how the Juggernaut got his powers. But when the collector market collapsed Marvel came very close to bankruptcy and only survived because they were bought by Disney to become an idea generator for movies, scoring some spectacular successes in recent years.

Meanwhile, however, Midnight was changing. The overwhelming popularity of Gaiman’s Sandman breathed new life into the idea of a series without set limits, that collected issues in volumes rather than a single book. Writers who’d followed Alan Moore’s route, doing daringly different work for 2000AD and DC’s superheroes, wanted to create series which rolled on for years at a time. But they found themselves at odds with Moore himself.

Karen Berger said: “Sometimes it seemed as if Alan Moore was determined to bring the entire British small press scene with him, regardless of quality. Eddie Campbell’s Bacchus and Alec work fitted right into After Midnight, as did Martin and Hewlett’s Tank Girl, but some of those other guys just didn’t have a lot to say. It was fanzine stuff in comics aimed at a bookstore audience.
“Alan’s genius is taking inspiration from the underground and the avant-garde and making it work for the masses. But publishing the work of those underground cartoonists wasn’t ever Midnight’s role. Meanwhile we had good writers – Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Peter Milligan – who Alan essentially viewed as superhero hacks. 

"We argued, on and off, for most of a year. I won, and Alan took another step back from the line to become a consultant. That was also when he announced he was a magician and began publishing Lost Girls through Image. He stayed involved with Midnight, though; we were still publishing From Hell in the anthology and running short pieces from him.”

So a new, and very popular, phase in Midnight’s history began. Preacher, The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children, Paradax, Bone, Paul Pope's Circus Mars and David Lapham's Stray Bullets spearheaded a new publication model for the line. Monthly – roughly – comics collected in annual volumes. Most ended after five years or so. Some never did. 

Frank Miller’s Sin City, which began in the After Midnight anthology, published a succession of limited series as did Mike Mignola’s Hellboy and Matt Wagner’s Grendel, which joined the line following the bankruptcy of Comico. Tyrant currently exists as eight volumes and one omnibus and Bissette has promised more. Midnight’s credibility in the publishing industry led to the creation of a new model.

Alan Moore left his editorial position just over ten years after the first issue of Minutemen was published, following an argument about  publication of the autobiographical Al Davison graphic novel The Spiral Cage. 

“It had been brewing for a while,” Moore admits, “and I’m actually amazed I lasted as long as I did. I’m not an editorial person. I’d been getting more and more removed from the work I should have been doing simply because I didn’t agree with what was being published.

“Preacher, for example, I felt was as juvenile as anything from the Mighty Marvel Age. We weren’t discovering new talents anymore; we were giving writers who’d made their names elsewhere a chance to do something lucrative. Which is hypocritical, I know, because that’s how I began doing creator-owned work. But when that became the purpose of the line then it didn’t need me around.

“I’m incredibly proud of some of the work we published. I can’t imagine Stuck Rubber Baby or Understanding Comics or Joe Sacco’s work coming from anyone else. I think there was a real danger of comics fumbling the ball, of losing the momentum built up with Watchmen and throwing confusing superhero legacy comics at an audience that couldn’t care less about them. Instead we published sci-fi, autobiography, art comics, soap opera, crime…"

“The work would have been done anyway, I don’t kid myself about that. From Hell and Big Numbers would have come out with or without DC Comics getting involved. But we seized a moment, we reached enormous audiences, and we finally managed to get rid of that perception that comics are about superheroes and aimed at kids. If we hadn’t, who know where we’d have ended up?”

Berger agrees: “The superhero business went into meltdown in the 1990s because the speculator boom went bust. We lost thousands of comic shops. But now a comic shop in New York looks more like a bande dessine√© shop in Paris; hundreds of bound volumes of comics on every subject imaginable with the superheroes – DC or Marvel – confined to a couple of shelves in the corner. Comics have become the medium they always wanted to be, and Midnight deserves some of the credit. It's incredible to think that it almost never existed because of a bust-up over a few pins.”


Tom Whiteley writes about comics from the late 80s and early 90s at suggestedformaturereaders.wordpress.com, and one day plans to write about something he's enjoyed in the last 20 years. But not today!


Islington Comic Forum said...

Great piece. Love it!
Does make me feel incredibly wistful tho (sigh).

Tam said...

I wanna see Why I hate Saturn! What are the directions to this alternative Universe please?

Ed Allen said...

Oh the world we might have had...

You never know though - digital publishing and a growing cynicism with the Big Two's 'Hollywoodisation' might yet lead to a commercial revolution in the industry. Fingers cross eh?

Richard Bruning said...

What an honor to be cited in this alternate history. Everything in here is TRUE... somewhere.

Comic Book Heartbreak said...

This is absolutely terrific it's a shame you stopped doing these alternate reality articles, or whatever you call them.