According to Fables creator Bill Willingham, the recent predilection held by comic book professionals – particularly those who work for Marvel or DC – towards acting “cranky, abrasive, and downright insulting to their own fans” is the result of both a shifting industry landscape and the abusive tyranny of the publishers themselves.
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Willingham shared his thoughts on the subject on September 1st, publishing a piece titled Why Are (Some) Comics Pros So Damn Abrasive? to his personal Substack account in which he attempted to “offer a theory to account for the not-really recent phenomenon.”
“I’ve been in this business more than 40 years, enough to have some perspective, and there have been cranky comics pros that whole time,” wrote Willingham. “I don’t intend to name (too many) names, because it isn’t my intension here to take them to task, either collectively or as individuals. It is my intension to offer an insider’s perspective on one of the possible reasons this may be.”
The writer then posited that “It’s the law of fecal gravity. Put in a more earthy way, it is now and always has been the case that s**t rolls downhill.”
“Since the dawn of modern comic books the publishers and their editor representatives have made it their business to keep the freelancers under their thumb,” he added, “to keep us in our place, which is the state of being cringingly subservient to them.”
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Willingham next recalled two anecdotes to support his claim.
First, he pointed to veteran comic book creator Jim Shooter’s own experience working at DC at the young age of 13, wherein “according to Shooter, those two editors took full advantage of his young age to treat him like crap.”
“In fact,” expounded Willingham, “the story goes they would brag around the DC offices of how completely they have this kid under their heels, and he can’t do anything about it, because he’s so young.”
Second, Willingham pointed to his own interaction with a Marvel editor who introduced himself to the author for the first time by accosting him and declaring, “‘Listen here! I’m the new editor on Wild Cards and I want you to know from the beginning that I’m not going to take any s**t from any goddam arrogant freelancer who came out of goddam gaming and thinks he knows a goddam thing. Let’s get that straight right away.’”
“Having never spoken to this fellow before then,” he continued, “I told him (I remember it as politely said, but who knows?), ‘No thanks. I won’t be spoken to like that from anyone.’ And that ended my run on the Wild Cards project, and any chance at working at Marvel for many years.”
These examples, Willingham wrote, were perfect examples of a general industry atmosphere, where, “as a general rule, [comic book creatives] learn to act as we’re taught to act, and the hallowed halls of the comic publishing game were places rife with spoiled children in positions of authority”
“The bullied often become bullies,” he then pointedly observed.
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This trend of ‘the bullied becoming the bullies’, said Willingham, could also be seen in a contemporary sense in the episode of Marvel’s 616, released late last year, featuring current Fantastic Four writer Dan Slott.
“In one of those odd Marvel behind-the-scenes specials on the Disney Channel, we saw long time comics scribe Dan Slott absolutely humiliated on camera by his editor [Marvel Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of Publishing Tom Brevoort],” he explained. “And of course Dan Slott is notorious for how badly he treats his readers, because those who are trained to be bullies don’t abuse the ones who bullied (or bully, since it seems to still be ongoing) them. They bully the next ones down the line.”
“It’s all about the law of fecal gravity,” he asserted. “That’s my theory. It doesn’t encompass everyone, because not everyone becomes a bully, no matter how badly they were treated and continue to be. Most have more character than that. But some do [become a bully]. And in an environment of stunted children ruling by fiat and tantrum, it’s little wonder some continue to be stunted children who lash out by fiat and tantrum.”
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As to why the examples of this law seems “more prominent now,” Willingham once again put forth two explanations.
“First, those who can leave the screaming halls of grown child terrors now have ways to do so, without sacrificing their careers to do it,” he said. “Think of Substack, crowdfunding, and a more healthy pantheon of independent publishing houses. There are actually those scrappy young contender outfits out there who try treating freelancers well as an inducement to leaving the Big Two to come over to their shop.”
This change in the industry landscape, argued Willingham, “leaves the two big publishing houses more firmly composed of the stunted tantrum monsters, without the leavening influence of the still sane and modestly mature.”
“The second reason,” he added, “is social media.”
Willingham explained, “In the past the child terrors among the writers and artist in comics could only take out their ire on readers in small doses, at conventions and store signings and such. Now one can reach thousands at a time, day in and day out. And one thing bullies will always do, is bully, whenever they can.”
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However, Willingham noted, the advent of social media was not entirely detrimental, as “the same social media is also the mechanism that allows those now the set-upon readers, critics, and until-now-they-were-innocent bystanders, to fight back,” a fact which “drives the bullies ape-s**t, over the top, even more into uncontrollable rage-land.”
As his piece drew to an end, Willingham asserted, “The rot is deep. This has been the culture in comics for decades. So it won’t end soon.”
“Remember, even after the rot had long set in, it still took Rome 500 years to fall. This will be with us for some time to come,” he ultimately concluded. “Of course that’s assuming my theory and observations are correct. I could be way off the mark.”
What do you make of Willingham’s take on the comic book industry? Let us know your thoughts on social media or in the comments down below!