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Creative Entrepreneurship and Its Discontents: The Case of Mark Millar

Column by Rob Salkowitz

Published: 08/12/2013 01:53am
Earlier this week, writer Mark Millar was the subject of a profile in The New Republic which burnished his image as a provocative bad-boy ahead of the upcoming release of Kick-Ass 2.  It also held him up as the signal success in the mainstream superhero industry over the past decade, at least in part because his alleged satires of ultra-violence, militarism and sexual predation go over the heads of many readers, landing instead as pure depravity – and therefore make him stacks of money.

I’ll leave the evisceration of Millar for the substance of his comments to people whose scalpels are already sharpened.  I have not followed his work or career closely enough to have a passionate opinion.  But as an observer of business disruption, I note the very interesting reaction from Eisner Award-winning comics journalist Tom Spurgeon (The Comics Reporter), who wrote at his site, The Comics Reporter:
 
"Mark Millar has been extremely successful in selling a lot of his comics and a number of his movie concepts.  One assumes him to be very financially well-off in a way that directly reflects well on him as the primary agent of his own success.  This insulates Millar from a lot of criticism because we live in a world where money is the bottom line, even, maybe especially, in art. [emphasis added]

This is a troublesome issue.  We live in a world where the Internet, e-commerce, constant disruption, piracy and consolidation have threatened the stability and livelihood of anyone in traditional business, from artists, editors and publishers to brick-and-mortar retailers.  Like it or not, those bottom-line issues are real and present to a lot of people who no longer have the options for success that they used to.

The universal solvent for all this turbulence, we are told, is entrepreneurship.  Take ownership of your brand and career.  Do a Kickstarter.  Open an Etsy store.  Think outside the box of your business, your industry or your job description.  Become a transmedia superstar.  In this way, the individual creator can connect directly to his or her audience, sidestepping the compromise and sharp-dealing inherent in big corporate media.

It’s a nifty David and Goliath parable, and we all feel good when something as unlikely as Axe Cop springs out of the woodwork using this mechanism, or a creator as beloved and responsible as Neil Gaiman can crash servers or propel a page-20 project to full funding with just a tweet.

But it’s also important to recognize how all the ideology of "disruptive entrepreneurship" validates the status quo: if there are in fact ways that worthy talents can prosper in the upside-down digital economy, maybe we don’t need to be quite so upset that all the solid underpinnings that allowed people to make a dependable living in publishing, retail and the creative profession are melting into air.

Entrepreneurial success is appealing, but it’s problematic at best as a model for the entire creative profession – and not just for the reasons that concern Tom Spurgeon.  To state the blindingly obvious, the skills necessary to be successful as an artist and an entrepreneur are distinct: Not exactly mutually exclusive, but close enough to make the mix rare and its manifestations unpredictable.

In other words, for every Neil Gaiman, there’s a Todd McFarlane.  For every Felicia Day, a Mark Millar.

If we are celebrating entrepreneurial success as an artistic ideal – and the potential salvation of comics and other creative industries – we are practically obliged to accept these examples as functionally equivalent, in that the standard is purely one of gaining attention, making money, and realizing personal creative projects on one’s own terms without up-front institutional support.

The problem comes when financially successful creative projects and individuals are evaluated on other criteria, as demonstrated by Abraham Reisman, the writer of the New Republic piece.  Reisman offers a solid piece of post-"Comics-Aren’t-Just-For-Kids-Anymore" mainstream analysis: a sophisticated and nuanced view of Millar’s work, its appeal, and its critics.

The results aren’t pretty.  Reisman’s matter-of-fact tone as he runs through the most notorious set-pieces from Kick Ass, the Ultimates, the Authority, and Millar’s other signature works seems designed to activate all the anxieties of the average high-minded New Republic reader.  "Wait a minute – I thought comics were getting more literary and worthwhile.  What the hell is this shit and what’s wrong with comic fans that they’ve made this guy so popular?"

Millar himself comes off as a two-faced opportunist, cynically introducing crude, odious, and inflammatory material into the sorts of comics most likely to be read earnestly by fans, then shrugging his shoulders and saying his subversive intentions are just misunderstood.

Millar’s commercial success as portrayed in this context is appalling, not inspiring. It shows the realities of a market that rewards a particular type of calculated button-pushing and image-mongering – hardly the ideal we expect of most creative professionals, and certainly not the ideal that most artists expect of themselves.  Eventually, I think we will reach a point where we recognize a range of different "success" outcomes in the new creative economy, where the baseline is making a living doing work you enjoy, and the various commercial and artistic measures of that work in the wider market take care of themselves.

Until then, there is only the devil’s bargain we take when we embrace the artist/entrepreneur and the creator-as-personal-brand as the binary alternative to creative serfdom:  suspend our critical judgment on matters of taste and simply agree that becoming a one-person transmedia gazillionaire in this day and age is worthy of praise, no matter what.
 
Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is a business futurist and author of several books including Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
 
 
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