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See, this is the sort of thing that drives comics talent nuts.

If you’ve been reading the column regularly, you’ve probably been following the 2 GUNS saga. You probably haven’t been following the book. Boom! Studios have been publishing it: a seriocomic crime caper about two smalltime crooks who team up to rob a drug bank in a small desert town. What neither of them knows is that both of them are undercover cops, one working for the DEA and the other for Naval Intelligence, and that the “drug bank” is really a CIA black budget money laundering operation. It’s a fun little panic romp, drawn by Mat Santalouco of Rafael Albuquerque’s studio, and Rafael’s been joining in with some hot alternative covers. I wrote it up as a screenplay some time ago, and since Boom! honcho Ross Richie, who I’ve known since Malibu/Bravura days, had read it, when he was fishing around for new projects he asked if Boom! could adapt it. So me, I figures why not?

And here we are.

After a several months’ gap between issues 2 & 3 (still haven’t really had an explanation for it, but water under the bridge at this point) 2 GUNS #3 finally hit stands last Wednesday. Sort of.

So I get this email over the weekend. Commentator I know back east, follows wrestling and comics both, among other things. Smart. He tells me that he went to his local comics shop for 2 GUNS #3. Upshot: he got the first two issues there, but while the book was on Diamond’s shipping list for last Wednesday, the shop didn’t get the book in and it wasn’t on their list for this week. He figured that meant the book wasn’t actually published last week, and given the delays I can see where he’d think that, but I’d been given assurances – an open declaration! – by Boom! that it was coming out last Wednesday. It’s right there on their homepage. Thing was, the shop owner was reportedly anticipating the book too, so it wasn’t a case of his not ordering it, at least to hear him tell it. My guy keeps looking. Two stores later he finally finds a copy.

So he’s happy. But I’m not.

It’s frustrating. I imagine it’s frustrating across the board. There are obvious questions, like how a title on Diamond’s release list that was ordered doesn’t arrive at the shop that ordered it during the week of release, but accusing Diamond of screwing up is easy but probably ignoring a lot of factors.

First up is the four month delay between scheduled issues. Having been clipped by it pretty badly with the WHISPER revamp last year, where circumstances beyond Boom!’s or my control also delayed publication from the originally touted August to November and totally killed whatever scant momentum we had managed to work up. I mean totally. By the time the book was finally released, half the potential readers thought it had been issued months earlier and they’d missed it, half were pissed off that we couldn’t get our acts together and were no longer interested in supporting it.

I don’t blame them.

Back in the ’80s, when the direct market was just starting up, the notion came into vogue that truly great artists (or writers) shouldn’t be held to crass commercial schedules, that great art couldn’t necessarily be spat out on a monthly basis and if a fabulous artist was delayed by his own determination to do the greatest work he could do, it was worth the wait. Sometimes it even was. Companies even started seeing sales rise on some delayed projects. Retailers and readers weren’t fond of the delays, but when the results were good readers were more than willing to spend money, which made retailers happy, so an uneasy truce between publishers, talent, readers and retailers accrued into being, where delays didn’t harm the potential sales of most books.

Like most things, this ended up being abused pretty quickly. Some publishers started using delays strategically, announcing sales dates for material they knew wouldn’t be ready then, to tie up retailer dollars and keep them away from other companies’ books. This was also an era when publishers abruptly multiplied to take advantage of the new direct market, and the floodgates suddenly opened for loads of budding talent out trying to make names for themselves. Somewhere along the line inverse reasoning set in; while once the principle had been that, oh, giving a star like Barry Windsor-Smith more time past deadline to do the level of artwork he demanded and he felt the audience deserved got translated into the notion that the way for unknowns and near-unknowns to get perceived as stars was to miss deadline and ship late, that retailers and audiences recognized the intrinsic greatness of artists by how late their books shipped.

The problem with tricks like that, with all tricks in comics, is that they work until they don’t work, and when they stop working they usually stop working with a vengeance. Comics talent and publishers (and, to some extent, retailers) tend to be like pennystock daytraders: they rarely know when to get out, or even to cut their losses. The problem with any gimmick is that its market value diminishes exponentially with exposure, and the only way to stay alive with gimmick publishing is to keep coming up with new gimmicks – that the audience doesn’t feel are a cheat.

Anyway, we are now in a market where delayed books, especially substantially delayed books, are the kiss of death unless countermeasures are taken. It’s hard enough to even make an audience realize some new title exists, let alone get them interested in it. When books are late they understandably feel dicked around, and that quickly erodes any product loyalty. For some time now retailers have consistently tended to re-order postponed product at levels significantly below initial orders – once bitten twice shy and all that, and why should they feel compelled to support a book that has failed to reciprocate? – and that has made the difference between life and death for more than one comic.

Yet publishers and talent alike seem to cling to the view that publishing delays don’t really matter! (By the way, I’m not trying to single out Boom!, which to the best of my knowledge was very concerned with the delays and potential effects on 2 GUNS sales, but weren’t in a position to do anything about them.) I’ve heard publishers and editors cavalierly blow off the possible reader umbrage over late books apparently on the principle that no matter what the complaints they’ll end up buying them anyway because they must have them, even as their overall sales consistently sank.

There are fairly easy ways to avoid critical delays, but like most easy things it also entails considerable pain for someone, in this case, publishers, or whoever in any particular situation is financing a comic. The solution is this: don’t solicit a graphic novel before the work on it is complete, don’t solicit a monthly series until four issues are completely in the can or a mini-series until the entire thing or four issues, whichever comes first, are finished and could be published tomorrow if need be.

Sounds logical, dunnit? It should be elementary logic. The problem for most publishers is that as a practice it requires a significant dead cash outlay. Dead cash is cash that’s not flowing. Pay talent as the book is being done, and that’s thousands of dollars out the door without the project generating penny one of income. Don’t pay talent and that’s a hell of a lot of work to do on the cuff, usually prompting affected talent to make ends meet by finding paying gigs that usually delay and often scuttle the original project. Smaller publishers can rarely afford that kind of outlay; the main reason (besides imaginative inertia) that many publishers haven’t just shifted to publishing everything as a graphic novel is that the point of monthly comic publishing is to keep at least some money coming in while a series is being done. (It’s also cheaper to publish a 32 page comic than a 128 page book, and a general working theory that doesn’t have a lot of connection to reality is that mini-series can be used to anticipate which series will do best in trade paperback collection, but the two markets are different enough now that such “yardsticks” are crutches as best.) Among big publishers, it’s not unheard of for the marketing departments to have more say over schedules than editorial, and I know of more than one instance where marketing filled a sudden hole in their schedule via panty raids on editorial to find publishable projects; when told the talent involved was promised the book wouldn’t be published until they had x number of issues finished, marketing’s attitude was that they hadn’t made any such promises, and the talent involved awoke the next morning to find their status changed from weeks ahead to months behind.

Still, if financing a project and controlling the schedule (and their marketing department) isn’t a publisher’s job, whose is it? In most cases talent have no control over the schedule or the marketing except to get the work in when asked, and usually they end up with no say in the schedule.

But by this point pretty much everyone should recognize that we no longer live in the “must have it!” market of the ’80s and early ’90s, whence many of our worst habits as an industry sprang, and that comics that miss shipping hurt not only the concerned books but the entire business, by eroding retailer and reader confidence and making them more resistant to investing time, money and emotion in new projects. It’s way too easy these days to get a quick reputation that’s difficult to shake, and any company that gets a reputation for books that come out significantly past due date frequently becomes a company spinning toward the grave. Yet talent and publishers alike still rationalize the problem away, instead of taking the painful steps necessary to eliminate it, making it instead a race to see what gets eliminated first.

Someone asked me today why longtime Marvel mainstay artist Sal Buscema never got the recognition he deserved, and whether I enjoyed working with him.

The short answer to the latter question is yes. The answer to the first question takes longer, and is a bit more painful.

First off, by “recognition” we have to realize we mean “fan recognition.” Sal got the highest form of recognition from Marvel for much of his career: he was constantly drawing books for them. Among editors he was an artist in demand, and while he wasn’t perceived among “cognoscenti” fans as a “hot” artist, it was rare that his presence damaged sales and in many cases may have improved them.

That said…

Sal falls into a special class of comics artist whose sensibilities and artistic goals were geared more toward newsstand comics, comics bought mainly by casual readers without any great knowledge of or interest in the mechanics of comics. He was great at what he did: clean art, decent dynamics, clear storytelling. It was hard to get confused by a Sal Buscema story, even if you didn’t read the words, and that was a quality that greatly endeared him to many comics writers. (Ross Andru’s another artist comics writers speak of that way.) All that deserves to be recognized.

But the best you can say for his storytelling otherwise is that it was unobtrusive, which isn’t a negative but isn’t necessarily a positive either. This is where talking about comics art bluntly gets tricky, because there are a lot of people, not the least of which the artists, who have emotional attachments to particular work that makes discussing the material objectively difficult. But not discussing it objectively limits our understanding of the medium.

Bear in mind that I am in no way making a claim that Sal Buscema was a bad artist. He wasn’t. He’s a good comics artist, and I always liked writing over his work. But.

There’s a difference between appreciating working with an artist and appreciating his art; some things become important to you in a work situation that are less important when you’re looking at the finished product. There are quite a few artists like that, and I never quite know what to say to them at convention bars when (this is generally the younger ones; the old guys rarely seem to give a rat’s ass, at least that they speak of). If it sounds like I’m being harsh on these guys, I don’t mean to. It’s just a fact of comics existence. Compare, for instance, Sal’s work with his brother John’s. When John was really on, he achieved greatness.

Sal achieved goodness. He did it regularly, which is an accomplishment, but he never really achieved more, though he came close at moments like when he was drawing THOR for Walt Simonson; but there’s not one single moment in a Sal Buscema comic ever when you catch your breath and gasp and pore over the page as everything else arrests around you. There are those moments in John’s work all the time, even in the midst of workhorse work. John’s characters are fluid, vibrant, integrated into the world they seem to inhabit. Sal’s figurework is always blocky, his characters posed, the “world” they’re in little more than stage settings. There’s never a moment in Sal’s work that totally sucks you in, where you forget that you’re reading a comic book.

Of that level of craft in comics, Sal was about as good as possible. But as much as working with Sal was always a joy, if I were given a choice between Sal or someone at the next level, I’d take the next level. But that’s kind of like the conversation with Napoleon in Woody Allen’s Love And Death where they’re talking about women, and Napoleon says, “You know what I really like? Two at once.” Allen replies, “Personally, I prefer three – but it’s hard enough to get one.” Artists the next level up are hard to come by. Artists who think they’re at the next level up and don’t even approach Sal’s level are horribly easy to come by.

Sal’s only real flaw is that his work didn’t have that “it” factor. You can see “it” in John’s work, even his lesser work. But the “it” factor is important in comics, and there’s no use trying to pretend it isn’t. Sal was fortunate to have mostly worked in an era when an “it” factor was still not critical, though doubtless he’d have found work anyway, because, like I said, at his level he was among the best there was, and probably still is. But the lesson newer artists should learn from Sal’s work isn’t that the “it” factor is ultimately unimportant to drawing comics (even with Sal that’s not really true, because if anyone had the “it” factor of his level, he did; it just wasn’t the “it” factor that would have broken the ceiling for him) but that this is no longer Sal Buscema’s era, and if you can look critically at your own work and find no “it” factor in it, it’s time to find or develop one before you go any further. I freely agree there are “it factor” artists who weren’t fit to breath Sal’s air on a technical level, but that’s really irrelevant to the current market and the conversation because it doesn’t change a thing. It can only make those who can’t achieve an “it” factor feel better. While it’s possibly true that “the it factor” isn’t a standard by which excellence in comics should be judged (and it’s not the purely amorphous concept I’m making it out to be here because if I were writing an essay deconstructing John Buscema’s work the elements that make up his “it factor” would easily come into specific focus) what other standard would be fairer?

As long as I’m pissing off artists today anyway, on a related note someone yesterday suggested that Grant Morrison’s JLA run was always beset by bad artwork, and it was a shame because Morrison’s work on that run was so good and so inventive. Thinking about it a moment, I suggested that he was lucky because that was the book that reinvented Morrison into a top mainstream comics writer. While I don’t know that I’d call the Howard Porter art on JLA bad as much as undisciplined, cramped and all over the place but serviceable (and it’s hard to tell how much better Porter’s work would have been had he not notoriously been crushed against the wall of deadlines his whole stint; it’s kind of hard to put much planning into anything when you can’t even catch your breath) in comics if a well-drawn comic is really good, it’s the artist who gets most of the credit. If JLA had had better artwork, I believe Morrison wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near the subsequent attention he got. But because the book was both an interesting read and tremendously readable (what Morrison was doing, which I’m not sure DC ever figured out, was Gardner Fox’s version of the JLA, filtered through ’90s “postmodern” sensibilities) and it was difficult to ascribe that to Porter’s storytelling, the general perception was that the only person who could possibly be responsible for it was Morrison, and his reputation was assured. So excellent comics art isn’t always a comics writer’s friend… but a comics writer has to be damn, damn good to compensate for bad art. Better than I am.

A fistful of reviews:

From TwoMorrows Press:

JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR 49, ed John Morrow ($9.99)

If there’s any magazine in the comics field that has figured out how to do only one thing really well, it’s John Morrow’s oversized quarterly paean to Jack Kirby, arguably the single most influential figure in the history of comics. Gobs of Kirby pencils from all eras, long unseen published work, discussions of the ups and downs of various art collaborators, occasional new work by artists like Jerry Ordway, and very good articles by Kirby scholars and colleagues that demonstrate why Kirby was great without fawning. This issue’s as good as the magazine has ever been, but the highlight is an interview with Grant Morrison about his interpretations of Kirby’s Fourth World characters at DC and the fundamentals of the mythologies Kirby built up throughout his career, with some very interesting insights. Intelligent and full of humor, and terrific art benefitting immensely from the magazine’s size, roughly the proportions of a page of original art.

ALTER EGO 73, ed Roy Thomas ($6.95)

Usually an entertaining read, once in awhile ALTER EGO really justifies its existence. While the Frank Brunner portfolio and mini-interview were nice to see, the real highlight of this issue is a lengthy spotlight on Charles Biro, one of the most important editors and creators of the Golden Age whose little line of books like BOY COMICS and CRIME DOES NOT PAY challenged much bigger companies and kicked their sales all to hell. (He was one of the two guys the Comics Code was invented to put out of business.) Biro’s history and his dream, as far back as the mid-’40s, of comics as a medium for grownups, are discussed in an overview, the transcription of a convention talk he gave in 1968, and in an interview with Biro’s daughters. A fascinating man with great ideas well ahead of his time, and while this isn’t the definitive portrait of Biro and his far-reaching influence on comics, it’ll do quite nicely until that comes along. Must reading, so get it.

From Fantagraphics:

DENNIS THE MENACE 1957-1958 by Hank Ketcham ($24.95)

Continuing Fantagraphics’ well-designed, hardcover archives of classic Dennis The Menace daily panels. By this point Dennis is settling down a little, and Ketcham’s humor has shifted from frequently malicious to merely malappropriate, but he’s also hitting the height of his cartooning stride, with the characters assuming their best known forms and his art at his most expressive, especially the facial expressions and body language. Every panel is another lesson in how to do so much for so little, and while by this point the strip is becoming cuter and more benign than earlier, it’s no less funny. Worth getting, especially if you’re an artist or humorist.

BETSY AND ME by Jack Cole ($14.95)

This I’d never heard of before – a daily comic strip by the great Jack Cole of PLASTIC MAN fame. It’s odd to read. In comics, Cole’s trademark, in superhero work, crime comics and humor was manic movement and ambition eccentricity, and reading through his short-lived 1958 newspaper strip about a married couple having their first son we see him straining against the domesticated restrictions of the form: too many panels in these strips, too few in those, a first person narrative structure unlike anything else I recall in American comic strips. Like much of Cole’s work it’s more whimsical than laugh out loud funny, with more in common with Jules Feiffer than Charles Schulz, and I have to whether audiences would have stuck with it had Cole not ended it by killing himself. Interesting read, though. Check it out.

PERLA LA LOCA by Jaime Hernandez and BEYOND PALOMAR by Gilbert Hernandez ($16.95)

More LOVE AND ROCKETS collections. I’m getting tired of repeating the charms and strengths of the Hernandez brothers, how they incorporate magic realism into their work better than anyone and consistently create some of the best characters and slyest slice of life stories in comics with such clever humor and casual grace that most of the time they seem more like documentarians, because these things are patently obvious to anyone who just reads their work. So read their work. Since pretty much any Jaime or Gilbert Hernandez book is a good place to start, you might as well start with these. You won’t regret it.

From Doubleday:

THE MANGA BIBLE by Siku ($12.95 tentative)

When I saw the title I thought it was a guidebook to manga – you know, like THE SCREENWRITERS BIBLE – but, nope, it’s The Bible. Or at least portions of it. While I’m not sure visualizations of Bible stories are a great way to promote the subject matter, former 2000 AD artist Siku does a nice job on it, with clean, simple artwork reminiscent of P. Craig Russell’s. It’s very pretty. Some interesting storytelling choices too, as having Genesis related not as hard and fast fact but as stories handed down through generations and now told by Moses as the Israelites wait to escape Egypt. The rest is mostly cleaned up highlights like stories of David and Elijah – not a lot of begetting or men sending their wives out to be raped by lust-maddened crowds – until they get to the New Testament, which takes up the final quarter of the book. All in all, a pretty nice job, with commentary, preliminary art and notes in the back, and though calling it “manga” is an opportunistic misnomer and if they’re trying to draw in the manga crowd with it I suspect they’re doomed to disappointment, it’s one of the better visualizations of the Bible I’ve read: brisk, sharply told and attractive.

From Strange Fear:

WEIRDLING by Mike Dubisch ($15.95)

I’ve become so accustomed to self-published graphic novels looking like crap that WEIRDLING, a futuristic science fantasy drawing heavily on Lovecraftian themes that shifts a woman between conflicting realities where she copes with a future Earth in alien captivity on one hand and a Victorian-era in which the returned dead herald a conquest of the world by Great Old Ones on the other caught me pleasantly off-guard. While a bit confusing at the start (the art’s also a little shaky early on too but gains confidence as it goes along) Dubisch does a good job at steadily ramping up the tension and tying the two wings of his story, not to mention the two personalities of his heroine, together in a good reality-warping romp. One of the more inventive works I’ve seen lately, and a good job.

From IDW Publishing:

CORY DOCTOROW’S FUTURISTIC TALES OF THE HERE AND NOW #3 by Dara Naraghi & Paul McCaffrey ($3.99)

While I still feel like Doctorow’s science fiction stories – this one’s about a not too future Earth where visiting aliens in robotic exoskeletons haunt flea markets and garage sales to trade advanced technology for useless nostalgic junk – are a bit too elliptical for most people’s tastes, IDW really gets adaptation right on this one, with strong controlled writing by Naraghi (the pacing’s pretty close to perfect) and easily the best art of the series so far from McCaffrey. Great coloring really gives the art body and texture too. Doctorow’s story gets a little too rhapsodic for its own good at the end, but unlike the first two issues this story has an ending. Not bad at all, and very attractive.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Thanks to everyone who bid on my eBay stuff. I’ll be putting more up before month’s end, but for now it’s time to kick the work schedule up into high gear.

Don’t have time to make any decent political rants this week, so we’ll hold off until next week so you’ll all have something to be thankful for. (Those who hate my commentary have this week to be thankful for.) Of quick note, though: a correspondent for Britain’s The Guardian speculates that the American economy will collapse before Christmas (let’s hope he’s wrong); you probably didn’t notice, but the Cyber-Jihad – Muslim terrorists destroying the Internet in the West and in decadent Muslim nations – didn’t happen on Monday, even though Israeli intelligence fiercely warned the “attack” was imminent; and Yellowstone Park may be about to turn into a volcano, so make those summer vacation plans accordingly.

Haven’t had the chance to get to any movies and nothing much of interest on TV except the usual like AMAZING RACE (CBS Sundays 8P) and LIFE (NBC Wednesdays 10P), which remain great time killers. (We all have to relax some time, right?) I did finally get the chance to see GRINDHOUSE on DVD, or at least its halves, Quentin Tarantino’s snuff film DEATH PROOF and Robert Rodriguez’s quasi-zombie film PLANET TERROR. Of Tarantino’s dull, talky flick the less said the better; it’s fairly obvious that his key points of interest were a spectacular car crash in the middle and a creative car chase at the end, and everything else is pretty much filler that finally renders his now-infamous RESERVOIR DOGS/PULP FICTION “characters rambling on about their lovelives and/or disconnected clique pop culture” dialogue technique a total cartoon of a cliché. What can you really say about a Tarantino film with only one good line of dialogue in it? (“I’m going right, so if you were going right it’d be awhile before you’d start getting scared. But since you’re going left, you’ll have to start getting scared right now.” That’s a rough approximation, anyway.) On the other hand, PLANET TERROR is terrific, less an homage than an attempted low budget apotheosis, with SIX FEET UNDER‘s Freddy Rodriguez as an unexpectedly great action hero. Gory as all hell and following the traditional story arc of these things, but, man, it’s great to see a film really go all out again for a change, and both Rodriguezes have such control over their material it’s fascinating to watch from a technique standpoint too. But the film I really want to see is MACHETE, a great brutal Danny Trejo revenge adventure with political conspiracy underpinnings that exists only as a mock trailer ahead of PLANET TERROR. Make that one next, Bobby!

Congratulations to my old pal Bart Lidowsky, who has been trying futilely for years to win the Comics Cover Challenge and finally last week was the first of many to name the theme: bare legs. Bart would like to point you to multi-medium talk show host Richard Bey’s website. Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. (Not that it’s been an issue so far.) As with most other weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, just to give you something else to chew on. Good luck.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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