I’ve been in a bit of a comic slump lately. I’m reading plenty (maybe that’s the problem), but it felt like a while since I read something that really made me feel something. That’s not to say I haven’t read some really good, or even great, stuff recently. I was just looking for something that would remind me why I love this medium – something that moved me enough to say “man, I need to write about this book.”
Then I picked up the first volume of PUBLIC DOMAIN.
PUBLIC DOMAIN is Chip Zdarsky’s creator-owned series, which he puts out first via his Substack, and then later distributes physically through Image. It’s an inside baseball look at the comics industry, about a family whose patriarch co-created “The Domain,” one of pop culture’s most recognizable characters. The Domain has been a cash cow for the publisher, but Zdarsky’s protagonist reaps very little of the rewards. There are elements of both comedy and drama; it’s a wide critique of the business behind our favorite characters, and it’s a very intimate look at one family’s dysfunction. Ultimately — and this is PUBLIC DOMAIN’s greatest strength — it’s about people.
Broken people, to be exact. People who do the wrong thing when they’re trying to do right, and people who do the right thing and are punished for it. Complicated people that you want to both yell at and root for at the same time, and their relationships with one another.
Take Syd, the father who co-created The Domain. Syd worked hard his whole life to provide for his wife and two sons, but at the expense of being truly present in their lives. Then there’s Miles, the eldest son who seems like he wants to help his family, but acts in a way that’s frustratingly selfish. Even characters who are introduced as mustache-twirling bad guys are given sympathetic moments as the story progresses.
These characters feel real. People will read PUBLIC DOMAIN and understand Miles’ complicated feelings towards his father — the odd mixture of resentment and gratefulness.
And the overall story feels just as real (unfortunately). As big as superhero properties are today, the general non-comics-reading populace doesn’t know about the writers and artists who created their favorite characters. Most will defer credit to the corporations instead of the people who did the work, which is exactly how the executives want it. All too often, we hear stories about creators who did not receive credit or compensation for their work.
Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster struggled in poverty without recognition for most of their lives while DC profited off their work. The same went for Bill Finger, who established almost everything recognizable about Batman, but whose contributions were downplayed and virtually ignored by his co-creator Bob Kane. And these are just two of the most famous examples; there are countless other creators from every generation whose characters both big and small are featured in blockbuster movies and TV shows, but who will largely remain unknown to most viewers.
It’s infuriating, but that’s part of what makes PUBLIC DOMAIN so gripping. There’s not that wall of separation where you can read it and say, “it’s just a comic.” It’s a comic that is perfectly emulating all-too-common real life scenarios in both the family drama and the copyright disputes — something Zdarsky acknowledges outright on his credits page, where he makes a point to state that he and his collaborators own their original works. I wanted to read a comic that made me feel something deeply, and I did. Syd and Miles’ story made me feel rage and sadness — and these feelings were all amplified because I know there are real people walking the streets every day experiencing these same things.
Slice-of-life comics feel “real” in a way that other genres can’t. They give us characters and scenarios that we can see ourselves in without any qualifiers. They allow us to relate and engage with the story to its fullest extent — which is why it’s sad we don’t see more of them in the mainstream. Western comics just haven’t taken much of a chance on slice-of-life comics in the way that manga, webcomics, and underground comics have, but PUBLIC DOMAIN is the perfect example of why mainstream publishers should embrace this genre. (And yes, there are other great slice-of-life comics put out by major publishers, but they’re few and far between. I beg you to look into them.)
I read a lot of comics, and when you indulge in too much of something, you can start to lose your taste for it. The tropes jump out at you more and more, and the stories don’t resonate with you like they once did. PUBLIC DOMAIN shook me up in a way that I forgot comics could. If you passed it up because a legal drama about a dysfunctional family didn’t sound appealing to you, I implore you to give it a chance. It’s a tale about troubled people trying to hold themselves together in the face of injustice, and what’s more real than that?
(Side note: if you’re interested in learning more about real-life comic creators who were screwed over by the system and those who fought back, check out the documentary BATMAN & BILL on Hulu.)