Monday, March 10, 2014

Who was harmed the most by Steve Ditko's Speedball? Besides we readers, I mean.

A recent comment on the internet on the subject of comic book creators not deserving more than what their original contracts stipulated (presented anonymously):
"The thing is this. Steve Ditko is not coming out anytime soon looking for that Speedball money. He also is not going to pay Marvel back for the money lost printing that terrible book. It was not his risk, it was Marvels."

Let's unpack this statement, shall we?

First, there's the assumption Marvel "lost" money on Steve Ditko's Speedball, which published 10 issues between 1988-1989 before cancellation; Marvel was left holding several unpublished stories at the time of cancellation but gradually printed them via avenues such as Marvel Comics Presents and Marvel Super-Heroes.

It's hard for Marvel to lose money printing comics. Not impossible, but hard. Because they deal to the direct market and do not accept returns, overprinting is (by design) a diminished problem. There's also the voodoo involved in how much the book costs to produce; I worked on a series for Marvel which at one time sold 5K per month (direct market) and heard from my editor the book was "too profitable" to be cancelled.

The true risk-takers were the direct market retailers who - based on past performance - judged how many copies they could sell of a Marvel Comics-published Steve Ditko super hero comic and were then (evidently) proved wrong. Certainly the copious amounts of Speedball issues in bargain bins across North America speaks to their folly.

But ultimately how did this harm Marvel? Yes, for a time they had stories in inventory which they had paid for but couldn't recoup costs through printing. However, they had also wound up with a new IP - the character of Speedball. One year after his own book's cancellation, Speedball leaped into the pages of Fabian Nicieza & Mark Bagley's New Warriors, bearing a new personality which made him a fan-favourite and helped make this latter series a big new property for the company. Further, the renewed interest in Speedball enabled Marvel to print the remaining inventory issues without being burned at the stake by the comics community. To this day, Speedball remains a useful character in their IP farm.

So, the intellectual property "Speedball" endured beyond his failed series. Were retailers so upset by Speedball that they avoided supporting new Marvel properties? Hardly! New Warriors was one of several "Heroes for the 90s" properties Marvel sold to retailers and, with the rising speculator boom, retailers simply increased the amount they were ordering from Marvel.

If the retailers blamed anyone over Speedball - well, the buck doesn't stop with the corporation, it stops with Steve Ditko. I can well believe the series' failure damaged retailers' confidence in ordering new properties from Ditko's hand. His involvement with the now-successful Speedball property ended when the last inventory story saw print. So who, if anyone, should Ditko apologize to? Probably himself.

Publishers do take risks with new material, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking the creators aren't also taking risks. Their reputations are on the line with every job, as the career of Herb Trimpe bears witness. They have to somehow keep work flowing steadily, usually without the benefit of talent agents or business managers. As Kurt Busiek has often observed, freelance comic creators are in business for themselves and it's tough to come up with the capital to run your career like a business when the work only pays you hand-to-mouth.

Now, in the case of something like Clive Barker's Razorline comics for Marvel - an expensive series of titles which flopped hard - there, Marvel would be holding the short end of the stick; after the dust cleared, they didn't even own the Razorline characters so they couldn't write the initiative off as "creative development." Creator-owned books are a much bigger risk to the publishers.

Therefore, change the above internet comment to invoke Barker and Razorline and the statement is fixed. You're welcome, internet!

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