I'll be the judge of that.

Brian K. Vaughn And How Image Comics Is Saving The Industry

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Last week, Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples brought home a Hugo Award for their fine work on the ongoing sci-fi comic book series Saga. But this is only the latest development in the title’s continuing critical success. Earlier this year, Saga cleaned up at the Eisner Awards, winning key categories like Best Continuing Series, Best New Series, and Best Writer. It received seven nominations at the Harvey Awards.

If you haven’t yet had a chance to read Saga, or some of the other work of writer/co-creator Brian K. Vaughn, now is an excellent time to correct that oversight. Brian K. Vaughn may be the best active writer in the comic book industry today.

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BKV has been writing comic books for about a decade now, and his career already has a lot to offer. His first buzzworthy work was Y: The Last Man, which takes a thoughtful look at a world in which every male mammal on the planet instantly perished –except for one ill-prepared slacker. This character-driven sci-fi epic ran for sixty issues, and made for a fascinating read all the way up to its beautiful, bittersweet ending. Co-creator Pia Guerra provided charming, humble artwork reminiscent of Steve Dillon.

Next up was Ex Machina, in which the world’s sole superhero is elected mayor of New York City. This title’s success was in its ability to be political in an engaging but casual way. While the title addressed a fair amount of “the issues,” its tone never came off as proselytizing. It simply came off as interesting.

Brilliantly, it was a superhero comic that wasn’t really about about what it’s like to have super powers. It was about what it’s like to be a politician. (Spoiler: it sucks.) As a whole, the concept serves as a nice meta-commentary on the notion that it’s not supermen that change the world. In reality, it’s usually just stressed out, disheveled people who hate their jobs that make a real difference. Vaughn’s clever scripts were perfectly complemented by photorealistic pencils by Tony Harris (ofStarman fame) and luminous coloring by JD Mettler.

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In addition to Saga, BKV is writing an exclusively digital comic called The Private Eye. This honestly one of the dopest comics I have ever seen. BKV and artist Marco Martin are just so perfectly in synch, it’s hard to describe without reading it. But the truly unique  thing about The Private Eye is in its distribution: readers name their price for each issue, and 100% of the money goes to the creators.

On the whole, BKV’s apparently novel approach to comic books is about creating stories with “a beginning, a middle, and an end . . . a book that never has a third act, that seems crazy.” As a result, he’s able to take the long view and plan stories that give the reader a sense of purpose. While this approach is all too rare in the repetitive world of monthly comics, Vaughn’s individual issues actually feel like they are building toward something. He understands that meticulous planning and foresight is the key to producing high quality serialized fiction.

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Before getting a chance to write original projects like these, Vaughn also paid a fair amount of dues by writing superhero stuff for both Marvel and DC. But notably, neither industry titan is putting out Saga; rather, it’s coming from Image Comics, their primary third-party competitor.

Initially known as the place to find ultraviolence and lewd women in the flavor of reviled penciler Rob Liefeld, Image has made significant inroads in recent years to distance itself from that characterization. They did this by making an admirable and concerted effort to publish intelligent non-superhero comics, and Saga is just one of them. Other monthly titles in this vein include Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips’ proficient horror-noir Fatale, Nick Spencer’s paradoxical boarding school mystery Morning Glories, and most famously, Robert Kirkman’s sprawling zombie epic Walking Dead.

In an era where both DC and Marvel’s idea of a creative rebirth is slapping a #1 on all the covers, Image opted for a substantive approach to innovation. Their attitude is enriching industry immeasurably. Not only has it led to more interesting comic book content, but it has also reemphasized the importance of publishing creator-owned content. By and large, the comic books published by Image are creator-owned; meaning whoever creates the series retains the copyright. That translates directly into creative autonomy, which translates directly into quality work.

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In fact, respect for creators’ rights was what motivated Image’s founding in the first place. Though accounts vary, the story of Image Comics’ founding goes something like this: in 1991, a group of Marvel’s most talented artists (which included giants like Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee, and Erik Larsen) demanded ownership and creative control over their work. When Marvel inevitably refused, they walked out and started Image. (If DC isn’t careful, it may have a similar problem on the horizon.)

As a publisher, Image has changed a lot over the past two decades. Image Publisher Eric Stephenson says, “I always make a point to tell people that if they look at the Image Comics of 1992 and compare it to the Image Comics of this very second, it’s almost like a different company.” But Stephenson also insists that the company remains dedicated to supporting a culture that values creators’ rights. As he puts it,

“We don’t recruit people to work for Image; we set them up to work for themselves through Image. And more to the point, the idea of creative freedom isn’t just about the work itself, it’s also about how creative people are treated, and the fact that we’re on their side as the business continues to evolve . . . we shouldn’t just accept things as they are. We should try to make things better.”

Image has also unveiled a new digital sales model that allows buyers to actually own the file, rather than simply granting them access to an online library of content (as DC and Marvel currently does).

Slowly but surely, Image’s noble efforts appear to be paying off. Its market share has steadily increased over the last five years: from 3.82% in 2007 to 7.3% in in 2012. As of March 2013, Image had doubled its market share by cracking 8%. Those numbers may look miniscule as compared to Marvel and DC’s approximate aggregate 75% of the industry, but it’s progress I find quite encouraging.

What’s going on at Image right now reminds me of what Vertigo had under the leadership of Karen Berger in the 1980’s and throughout the 1990’s. That period was a legitimate golden age for the publishing of mature comic books, producing classics like PreacherThe Sandman, and The Invisibles. Don’t get me wrong: Vertigo is still a great imprint. But it’s somewhat telling that after wrapping up the incredible Scalped at Vertigo, Jason Aaron’s next project will be for Image.

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