I don’t really handle a lot of controversies here at BW Media Spotlight but since I’ve gotten a bit more creation-minded lately this is something I wanted to comment on. After all, the point of these reviews and commentaries is to make myself a better storyteller as well as draw a potential audience to my work. (Like my opinions on this or that? Maybe you’ll like my stories.) There will be an important disclaimer after the video so keep that in mind.
Said video comes from YouTube comics commentator “Just Some Guy“. I’m not a regular follower, partly because I have trouble keeping up with all the YouTube channels I watch now as it is. I do catch his videos now and then however, and this one grabbed my attention not only because of the topic but because an online acquaintance of mine is mentioned in the video. Apparently a comment by Erik Larsen on Twitter about whether or not comic creators should listen to the audience sparked a reaction in Mr. Guy. (I’m not on a first name basis so I can’t call him “Just”. Unrelated: The internet has weird names–said the guy named ShadowWing Tronix.) I’ll post the video for context (note that there is some cursing) and my own thoughts on the debate. Because I kind of agree with everybody on this one.
FULL DISCLOSURE!: I have not followed the Twitter discussion in the video so I can only go by what Just Some Guy says in the piece. I barely read my own newsfeed, just the comments directed at me because I need to seriously readjust my newsfeed in this current hostile political climate and trying to respond to a comment far enough down the feed (if I want to respond to something beyond a few hours or something the screen jumps up and have to scroll down again) gives me problems. Then there’s the interface versus the tablet and phone I rarely use at home but you probably stopped caring. So everything I know about this discussion is in the video. If other comments were made I am not aware of them and can only go by the context given, but I still have an opinion about the comments shown.
It should also be noted that not only am I a critic and fan but a creator myself (although “published” involves a weekly online comic strip, the occasional PSA parody, and some PDF Christmas superhero comics for free download, all for this site), and I know comic creators personally thanks to my reviews and people I meet at local conventions. In fact Landry Walker (who wrote my current favorite miniseries, Supergirl: Cosmic Adventures In The Eighth Grade) is an online friend of mine and occasionally checks in on this site. I have however given criticism objectively and if I get to the Tron 2.0 comic sequel reviews he may not like me anymore. 🙂 (I do need to finish that game. And Tron: Legacy is destined for Finally Watched.) Kurt Busiek is also mentioned. He’s one of my favorite writers and I have also given honest critiques of his work including ones I really enjoyed like JLA/Avengers or ones I had trouble following like Kirby: Genesis. And there are times I agree with Mr. Larsen and times I don’t. So I’m coming to the opinions in this video from multiple angles. As I said in my introduction I kind of agree with both sides of this discussion. Finally, even though this discussion is about comics specifically it can also be applied to other media, like novels or video games. And now that we have all that out of the way let’s get on to my actual thoughts.
First let’s take the creators’ side, and everyone else hold on with me to the end. As a creator you come up with stories (well, duh). These stories are often important to you. It’s a story you’re dying to tell. It’s not easy to alter your vision to make certain parties happy. You can’t really tell a story via voting…with rare exceptions, but that has to be intentional. Kim Holm’s Diary Of A Space Monkey was an experimental webcomic in which the audience voted on what would happen next, but even that was based on given choices. This is also what I’ve heard about Homestuck but to be honest all I know about it come from Atop The Fourth Wall Patreon-sponsored reviews of the first two volumes. Otherwise you really have to be guided by the story in your head. If anything controls where the story goes it’s usually the characters you’ve brought to life to the point that they almost seem to be telling you what they’re going to do, like running an imaginary RPG session and you’re just the dungeon master (or whatever variant fits your game/narrative).
And there is the question of which fans do you listen to? Just Some Guy is one of those commentators who complains about the increase of stories based less on telling a good story and more on the writer trying to push his or her social/political viewpoint. The problem is there are those readers who may be on their side and will push the writer to stay that course even if the story is crap. Some people forget entertainment should be, you know, entertaining. Then you have the slashfic community. Oh good gravy the slashfic community. Most are content to write their fanfic, and some of it may be good if you like gay romances with canonically straight characters, but there’s always “that group” in any community. The ones who insist Steve Rogers needs a boyfriend so they can watch him kissing a dude. Even in the straight equivalent you have people who have watched Moonlighting too many times or insist the two arguing people are immediately destined for a “Sam & Diane” romance despite Cheers itself acknowledging why the relationship didn’t work. (Yes, I’m old!) It doesn’t matter that the coupling the fans are pushing for doesn’t even make sense in the story or that the writer had naturally brought a certain coupling together. That group will push for “their” couple to fall in love for reasons I can’t begin to understand.
In the end the writer needs to tell the story he or she is drawn and committed to. To do anything else is to weaken their desire to work on it. If you’re doing a one-shot, graphic novel, or even miniseries you can’t spend time checking in with the audience. And stories are usually made months before the readers see them and by then the story has progressed a certain direction the audience is currently unaware. I’ve reviewed stories not sure where things were headed and despite earlier comments was pleasantly surprised when I actually liked where it was headed as well as the reverse. Writers are artists and have to focus on their craft, putting together a good story, and hoping the audience enjoys it enough to buy more of their work and the ongoing narrative.
Just Some Guy isn’t necessarily wrong either. A good writer, or editor if the writer wants to keep his or her focus on the story, does need to think about the business aspect, and to keep in mind where the audience is leaning if they expect the comic to sell well enough to keep going, especially an ongoing series. The fans are the ones who pay for the book, and thus pay the writer and art team for their work. The customer may not be always right, despite what I was told when I worked in the grocery store, but they’re not always wrong either. Remember, Most of us writers were and still are fans ourselves (and some of them aren’t just saying it for the PR campaign). Fans should be considered when continuing. I’ll give you some examples and they aren’t all comics related.
On Doctor Who the “tin dog” K9 was intended to be a one-time appearance but he played so well with kids that his debut serial, “The Invisible Enemy”, was rewritten at the end so that K9 joined the crew. He is my favorite of the Companions. Damien Wayne was intended to die at the end of his appearance but fans liked the idea of “Son Of Batman” so much that he is now a regular character and has a lot of fans. I am not one of them but at least he isn’t Jason Todd, who fans hated. Granted I would have tried to evolve and fix the character instead of having a poll to kill him off but that’s just me. Some writers wanted to kill off Nightwing on more than one occasion because he supposedly “aged Batman” being the first Robin who grew into his own character, but someone realized what a bad idea that would be and took their useless shock deaths elsewhere.
So how do you handle the fans versus your vision as a storyteller? My philosophy is always “the needs of the story”. The story comes first because that’s what you’re drawn to make and ultimately what draws the fans. It’s less the political viewpoints flooding Marvel right now and more “pushing my world view is more important than the story you want to read” or ignoring established continuity in favor of your own story that weakens my view of Marvel and I’m not alone. Even Comicstorian scaled back his dramatic summaries of Marvel because fans weren’t interested and thus in his best business interests he focused on where fans wanted to go and keep track of to find potential comics. (Or in my case keep track of what’s happening while unemployed.) ABC saw that Starbuck in the original Battlestar Galactica was popular and told Glen Larson to do more with him, which Larson had to do without losing Apollo as the main focus character or putting him above the rest of the cast. It’s often a balancing act, but it is possible to do.
If you can do more with a favorite character without hurting the story you want to tell, if you can lessen the influence or tone down aspects of an unpopular character without changing your vision, if you can follow a path that fans want to see more of, then you should try to do so. Your vision comes first but by making fans happy whenever possible you give them the incentive to stay around and see where you’re headed as well as making them feel like you care about them; always a good business practice. And no, you’re not going to make everybody happy. There are the fans I discussed in the first part who want everything just for them, or want their slash to be official, or hate the tone and direction of your story just as there will be fans who like most or all of what you are doing and will support you. But if you take the negative comments along with the positive, mute the trolls and “everything for meeeeeeeee” crowd, you can see what people like and don’t like and adjust your stories accordingly.
This is especially true for long-running comics. One of the problems I have with some writers like Brian Michael Bendis is a lack of caring what previous writers did, what established characters are like, and what history they may have, despite this being what brought fans in. All he cares about is the story he wants to tell and rather than work the story around the characters (or even save that story for a more fitting work) or create characters for the positions he needs he will alter current characters to suit his needs. Then you have Geoff Johns, who will not only retcon what others have written for the sake of the story he wants to tell (for example the clone Superboy changing human DNA donors) but will retcon himself because he has another “great” idea. And these are both good writers who can tell good stories. But they’re better off in original ideas or alternate continuities than being set loose on main canons they didn’t create. Longtime fans pick up on this and will complain while potential new readers see that nobody cares about keeping things straight and won’t even bother giving it a shot in favor of stories they can follow along with and backtrack to the early years.
Like I said, it’s a balancing act. How do you make fans happy without corrupting your vision or giving up a story you really want to tell? And yet you have to get up on that high wire and make like the Flying Wallendas in order to continue having a career in comics. Yes every story will hit at least one person. Yes, ultimately you write what you want and hope others join you. I want to make the types of stories I grew up with, give kids superheroes they can follow and be inspired by like I was during the Bronze Age of comics, and tell tales that have run around in my head for years praying there’s an audience for it. If not I will still post the stories online or go back to the 3 subject notebooks to create them. However, seeing what the fans are drawn to should have some impact on how you create. It’s what they say in YouTube video creatior tips and that’s true of any entertainment medium. If the fans don’t read, watch, or listen then you have no audience and you have no money. That’s fine if you’re doing a webcomic for fun but if you really want to make a career as a comic writer or even a novelist that means you have to make a living at it so that can be your sole focus and still pay bills, purchase art supplies, and whatever else we need money for in life.
Your vision may come first as an artist, but if your readers aren’t a close second your comic has a bad shelf life and so does your business.