The House of Now

I just finished reading Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, a finely-researched and -written book about the rise of The House of Ideas, and its fall, and its rise again, and its fall again, and its rise again, again. I suppose if you're already deeply knowledgeable about comics history, or have closely followed Marvel throughout the years, not much in its pages will surprise you. For a reader like me, however, it was a wonderful and revelatory ride. I recommend it.

The comics industry has experienced countless creative and business challenges, and encountered (and sometimes outright ignored) important matters regarding the ethical treatment of creators, their creations, and compensation for the merchandising and adaptation of those creations in other media. The decades-ago outspoken criticism of Marvel by industry icons like Steve Ditko and Jack Kirby remain some of the best-known examples, as does the en masse 1992 departure of superstar Marvel artists McFarlane, Lee, Liefeld and others to form the creator-owned Image Comics.

As a fierce advocate of creator rights, I'm deeply sympathetic to the plight of folks like Ditko and Kirby, and often agree with the scathing critiques creators like Frank Miller have leveled against mainstream comics publishers. But as a guy who's gotta eat and writes transmedia stories set in the worlds of existing fictional universes—including the X-Men cinematic universe—I'm also sympathetic to the media companies' position: It's work for hire, bub. You can't always own what you write.

For creators like me, that's just fine.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story suggests that few, if any, creators were thinking much about royalties and reprint revenue and profit-sharing and merch and on-and-on, way back when Marvel (and other new comics publishers) were forging brand-new frontiers in the medium. Back in those days, comics weren't Comics. They were funny books, man. It was practically one big sweatshop. There were crushing artistic workloads to address and punishing deadlines to meet. The vibe one gets while reading The Untold Story is that the Merry Marvel Bullpen was in a state of perpetual "present tense"—now, now, now, get it done now, we've got fires to put out, fellas, move your asses, go go go.

Of course, this state of ever-present Now (and publishers' business practices of the era) discouraged long-term thinking about creator rights, adaptations, contracts, that sort of stuff. That led to a whole shitpile of problems down the road, problems that needed to—and continually need to—be discussed frankly, openly and fairly.

As I read about those effervescent times, however, I couldn't help but wonder if that ever-present state of Now also generated some unusually crazy-good stories, characters and experiences simply because creators were solely focused on creation. Is it possible that such a collective and concerted creative effort, with little regard given to "big picture" stuff like franchise development and cinematic adaptation (as undeniably important and necessary as that stuff was, and is), freed these creators' minds in ways they might not otherwise have been?

It's a romantic and deeply naive notion, I'm all but certain. But when I look back on my own career, and examine when I was at my most unabashedly energized, enthusiastic and optimistic about storytelling, my mind always turns to those early days of podcast fiction, from around 2006 to 2008, when a small collective of creators helped invent, iterate and innovate something that felt entirely new. There wasn't much, if any, money to be made—not yet, anyway. It was a fever-dream of like-minded artists and audiences merging into something organic, untamed, and certainly not fully understandable.

Taking cues from successful media that came before them, some podcast novelists shared characters amongst each other, crafted "crossover moments" between fictional universes, and more. Among some creators, there was even very-fleeting secret talk of creating a Crisis On Infinite Earths-like podcast experience in which numerous authors' characters teamed up to combat an impossible threat that feasted on Fiction itself.

I look back and marvel (ha!) at all that infectious energy, relentless creativity and good humor. The sources for some of this stuff hail from being young and hungry and industry outsiders, absolutely. But I also believe a great deal of it was fueled by a willful disregard for revenue, rights, profits, ROI. That stuff would come later, we supposed. And for many of us, it did.

When our once podcast-exclusive stories found homes in more static (and profitable) media, some of us had to untangle the threads between our works. Sadly, the tiny connections between the Siglerverse and the 7th Son universe and the Heaven universe (and others) had to be removed or revised. We did this because our works had to stand on their own, and make sense for new mainstream readers. We also did this because book/media contracts are weird things. We wanted to remove any doubt regarding "who" owned "what." We wanted to ensure everyone had proper ownership of their IP. It was a necessary, but strangely bittersweet, thing to do. At least for me.

I'm rambling now, I know that. But my point, as amorphous as it is, is that there was an unbridled energy and creativity in those adventurous early days that seemed to operate in a realm just beyond (or perhaps more appropriately, just before) contracts and film options and merch and all the things I now think about when I create stories. I can't speak for other podcast novelists from that time, but I regard those few years as the most unapologetically fun of my career. We were our own House of Ideas, in our own state of perpetual Now. Go, man, go go go.

Which brings me back to Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. The book's worth reading, if only to have a clearer understanding of how the most influential company in the comics business helped define, and damage, and redeem the medium's reputation. It's a wild story, filled with hundreds of remarkable—and remarkably creative—people. Like Grant Morrison's Supergods (which I also read recently and highly recommend), The Untold Story has me thinking about superhero comics, and the kind of stories they tell best, and the remarkable impact they've had on our culture ... and how creators (and their creations) should be valued and treated.

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J.C. Hutchins

J.C. Hutchins is an award-winning freelance transmedia writer, experience designer and novelist. He helps agencies and entertainment companies create multi-channel narratives to achieve their creative and business goals.