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Sometime in the next few weeks, I’d like to do a report on the comics scenes in countries around the world that are not America. I think we can leave out Japan, that one’s pretty well known here, but the rest of the world’s comics are mostly terra incognita here in America and it’s time we brought everyone up to speed. Who wants to help? These are intended to be reports, not advertisements, so we’d need good points, bad points, publishers worth following, the general market situation from both a consumer and a freelancer’s perspective, the cultural attitude toward comics, like that. Though if there’s some project your country produces that you’re particularly proud of, feel free to shout it out. That’s how these things get discovered.

It’s a big, complex world out there. Let’s hear all about it.

I guess I lead a more sheltered life than I thought, from all the emails I got from all around the world telling me about the bar code systems their local comics shops employ. (And many that don’t.) The ones that employ the systems mainly seem to be: chain shops; shops affiliated with book or record stores; shops strongly dependent on merchandise sales or the gaming market where comics amount to a special service or an afterthought; well-established independent comics shops. Even Brian Hibbs dropped a line to say that within a couple years it’s unlikely that his Comix Experience in San Francisco will even carry anything that doesn’t have a bar code – and he’s got one of the more inclusive comic shops in existence. So I owe Diamond a retraction/apology: while I suspect more that one motive is at work (no, I’m not implying anything sinister) in their bar code plan, it’s clear they’re mainly looking to better serve their clientele.

It’s the stores themselves that will effectively drive out self-publishers.

What doesn’t change is that this is still basically the end for small press comics, at least those with any designs on distribution through the direct market. Since the original, self-published TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES comics of the mid-80s broke things open to pretty much whoever wanted to throw their dreams behind a few pieces of folded, stapled paper, comics has been a bizarre little niche where what are essentially fan projects have been marketed side by side with supposedly “professional” product, an utopian world where pretty much anyone could claim to be a “professional” comic book creator by dint of merely producing comic books. They weren’t always wrong, but they weren’t often right. But how to tell? There’s the argument that “professional,” when you’re dealing with self-published work, means you could get publishers who actually make money publishing comics to pay you to do work for them if you wanted to, but you didn’t want to. By the theory of the day, you didn’t need to.

But that argument falls apart when you bring commerce into it. In a fanboy market, which it already was by the mid-’80s, it’s no surprise that fanboy artists and writers had their fingers much more firmly on the fanboy pulse than technically far superior and much more experienced writers and artists. In commercial markets, standards are rarely going to rise much above what the audience will tolerate, except where personal artistic ambition drives them. The commercial pressures on publishers in the ’80s, as many more comics companies appeared on the scene and increased the demand for artists in particular, companies became increasingly willing to let standards slide just to get issues out on time (I’m talking art, because there’ve never really been writing standards in comics, and rarely ever even formal discussion of the aesthetics of comics writing, while volumes have been written about comics art) – and while sometimes it influenced sales and sometimes it didn’t, the fact was they didn’t have a choice. Books had to come out, salaries and debts had to be paid, and publishers depended on “the best available person for the job,” a sliding scale that, once put into full motion, regularly slid downward. The tradition then became for editors to explain to the audience why the newer artists replacing popular older ones were something to get excited out, when they usually weren’t.

Top that off with weird snobberies the era engendered – militant stands that any comic story produced by a solo writer/artist was automatically superior to a story produced collaboratively, or stories produced by “independent” creators were automatically superior to any produced by “hacks” “churning out” comics, especially superhero comics, for “the big companies” – despite plenty of evidence, enough distributor competition (back in the days when there were competing distributors) to ensure pretty much anything could get distributed fairly easily, and the anti-intellectual disdain for what’s commonly called “craft” that periodically flares up in comics, and we eventually ended up with a highly active, bizarrely distorted subculture producing what ten years earlier would have been typed “fan” work which, for reasons more cultural than aesthetic, was expected to be treated as equal or even superior to “professional” work, except where fan favorite pro artists were concerned. ‘Cause, you know, it came from the heart in a way an issue of WONDER WOMAN never could. Unless it were drawn by George Perez. As with most theories, comics could be found to both support and disprove them, leaving the final judgment up to individual tastes.

In some ways it was a huge explosion that triggered a fruitful era of expansion and experimentation in comics, but years have passed and the cave-in of the market and the very tiny amount that most independently produced comics sell certainly doesn’t seem to have diminished anyone’s enthusiasm for doing them. There’s no question that anyone always had a right to produce whatever comics they wanted. The question is whether they’ve got a right to expect anyone else would want to read them.

It’s probably a moot question now. As I said last week, bar codes add in many cases prohibitive costs to comics publishing, and a winnowing of the field is the most likely option. The winnowing has been going on in any case, as sales charts reflect. Comics have been re-corporatizing since the mid-90s, increasingly that’s what they are, and that’s what many comics shops obviously want them to be. Bar codes, I’m told, are about the bottom line, and the bottom line now seems to be the top thing on most people minds.

What all this would seem to portend is redrawn lines between fandom and professional comics: small self-publishers need not apply. Of course, it’s not hard and fast – anyone willing to fork over the bar code fees and able to pass Diamond’s gatekeepers can still take a shot at it – but in practical terms the day of “the professional fan” is over, and a problem now is how to expose that unknown work really worthy of it, while work that should stay in someone’s notebook stays in someone’s notebook. The two obvious routes already exist – the book market and the Internet – plus the growing number of small press comics shows springing up around the country. The challenge is rebuilding the general quality of material. But the destruction of the ‘anything welcome’ market may do that on its own, to the extent that the comics audience hasn’t already.

If we’re lucky.

A few reviews:

From IDW:

CORY DOCTOROW’S FUTURISTIC TALES OF THE HERE AND NOW #1 by Dara Naraghi and Esteve Polls ($3.99)

An interesting dialectical tale built around a WORLD OF WARCRAFT type interactive online game world and its potentially unpleasant politico-economic impact on the real world. (Not to mention the personal impact on the heroine, who’s obsession with the game leads to physical inactivity, obesity and incipient diabetes, a bit that unfortunately evokes nothing more than a similar bit from SOUTH PARK). I can appreciate the point behind the story, and Naraghi does a decent job adapting it, but the art, not bad but too reminiscent in style and coloring of that DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS tripe Devil’s Due churns out, is so absent of energy it’s distracting. The high point of the issue is, paradoxically, its low point; what does it mean when an interview with Doctorow explicating the story is more entertaining and pointed than the story itself? A good effort that falls just shy of the mark.

From The Gerry Mooney Studio:

SISTER MARY DRACULA Chapter 1 by Gerry Mooney (no price given)

Amusing slice of life tale of an imaginative schoolboy convinced the nun who’ll teach him when he returns to school after summer break is a vampire bent on his destruction. The fantasy disrupts summer play with his friends, but not much, as they teeter on the brink of sexual knowledge. Mooney’s got a pleasant, clean style and has a nice handle on pre-adolescent behavior, though he has a tendency to go with situations that are just a little too familiar, and while he’s good enough to keep it from being boring, it leaves a sense of slightness, and would probably read better as a complete story rather than part of one. More meat on the next plate, Gerry! Based on a webimation.

From Rorschach Entertainment:

MESS by Sean Deitrich ($2.99)

Talk about strength of conviction; you’ll be hard pressed to find a comic as determined to live up to its title as this one. Deitrich’s overwritten fantasy about a man figuring out a way around his disappointing life is rendered next to incomprehensible by his elegant but confusing Ralph Steadman-inspired art, which, almost entirely free of backgrounds and characters who are identifiable from panel to panel, seems to exist mainly to hide that it’s not that interesting a story. But the experiment is, at least.

From Mummy-Boy:

MUMMY-BOY by Chris G. (no price given)

Okay… a picaresque action tale of people, monsters and mummies entering lots of conflicts without any reasons at all. The art’s decent if erratic, the book’s almost ridiculously underwritten, and, like a lot of indy artists, G. obviously intends to mock the various superhero clichés he lovingly vomits all over the page. I kind of like this book. I’d like it better if there were any kind of point to it.

From Fantagraphics Books:

I KILLED ADOLF HITLER by Jason ($12.95)

A story set in a Germany where paid assassin is an occupation and you can have your next door neighbor knocked off for playing music too loudly, this starts as undeveloped affection, then abruptly diverts into an excellent bittersweet time-twisting romance. As usual, all Jason’s characters are dogs and crows, so if you haven’t enjoyed that before it won’t appeal to you any more here, but his traditional dialogue quirks and oddball plot twists are on full display. A marked improvement over his last book, and worth a read.

MOME Fall 2007 ed Eric Reynolds & Gary Groth ($14.95)

There’s pretty much no doubt that MOME‘s the premier alt-comics anthology now, doubtless driven by an editorial insistence on quality and more or less complete stories, which keeps it from ever being the random assortment of inchoate half-thoughts so many other alt-comics anthologies feel like. Many of MOME‘ favorite talents are here – Jim Woodring, Al Columbia, Sophie Crumb, Tim Hensley, Paul Hormschemeier – but it’s Zak Sally & Brian Evenson’s disturbing, minimalist “Dread” that takes best of book honors this time. Diversity, imagination and excellence: what more could you want? Get it.

Here’s a good one, completely in keeping with this Administration’s attitude toward oversight and regulation: the State Department’s report on the incident with Blackwater USA’s fatal firefight in Baghdad a couple weeks ago, pretty much exonerating the Blackwater team on the grounds they were ambushed and making no mention at all of civilian casualties, was written by a Blackwater employee! Not that it hasn’t become traditional to let industry representatives write admin policy and legislation governing their industries – anyone remember the Cheney Energy Policy talks, the ones whose records he and the oil companies want kept dead secret? – but that’s ballsy, even for them. Too bad, now that it’s out, it makes us look like dishonest con men and snake oil salesmen. But it probably would have cost too much to have, oh, a disinterested party investigate and report.

Cost seems to be on the Ghost’s mind these days. That’s his rationale for threatening to veto any legislation to expand government-paid medical coverage for children. But I can’t imagine the medical community has any real objection to it, since it’ll just give them more opportunity to overcharge the government for services, the way everyone else does. (The last seven years have been a veritable festival of it, with absolutely ludicrous overcharges going pretty much unchallenged as long as it’s administration-approved corporations – many of them on no-bid contracts – sending in the bills.) They want to scream about welfare, but it’s really just a question of controlling whose pockets get lined. Better to shovel the money to the rich, who know how to appreciate money. Not that everyone on any end of the political spectrum doesn’t operate on autopilot when it comes to health issues. Hilary Clinton came up with a great plan last week: open $5000 starter accounts for every baby born, and watch that money grow via the miracle of compound interest (thanx and tip of the hat to Andrew Carnegie) until they can tap into it at 18 or 21 or whatever it was. What the…?! Who’d manage these things? How many idiot parents out there would start pumping out child after child before they finally got it through their heads that they couldn’t touch the money? And if they could, man, that sounds like a recipe for disaster. On the other hand, if the government managed the accounts – sort of early starter social security – you know it’s only a matter of time (I’d say five minutes) before some Congressman decided all that money’s just sitting there going to waste, so why not borrow from the fund for this and that and pay it back as needed? Kind of like how they managed social security. Of course, the Right immediately started screaming about how expensive it would be – kind of have to agree with them on that, but I’m sure it’d get knocked down to everyone getting a US Savings Bond that would be worth $5000 on maturity, some 18 years down the road, but the problem there is it would be worth $5000 US, and at the rate we’re going the Canadian dollar will be worth twice as much as the American dollar before long, and, besides, it’ll still cost too much because it’s just putting too much money in the wrong pockets and they want it now instead of having to wait around for all those kids to get old enough to spend it on crack and videogames – and that’s the Ghost’s objection to any kind of… well, any domestic programs: it’s unconscionable to place financial burdens on American taxpayers.

Just don’t bring up wars sold on counterfeit premises that cost hundreds of billions of dollars and achieve zero results. But at least now we know that Alan Greenspan, in all those years he was handing out bad advice, keeping interest rates low, encouraging bad lending practices and promoting tax cuts for the rich at the expense of everyone else, was really on our side and personally opposed to all those things – and it’s all the Ghost’s fault! And, presumably, Clinton’s. And Daddy Ghost’s. We know because Alan, one of seeming millions of administration stooges now smelling the turning tides of history and looking to whitewash his role in it, tells us so in his new book. Hell, if you can’t trust Alan Greenspan, who can you trust? (That’s what the government and financial markets told us for years, anyway.) Why, I bet he even argued against involvement in Iraq, just like everyone else did now.

Notes from under the floorboards:

For those who’ve been wondering – I know I have – TWO GUNS #3 is finally coming out this month from Boom! Studios, and I’m told #4 and #5 will follow like clockwork in November and December. For those who came in late, it’s a crime thriller (with art by Mat Santolouco and covers by Mat and Rafael Albuquerque) about two small time crooks who decide to knock over a drug bank. (A bank that launders money for drug dealers.) What neither of the small timers knows is that both of them are undercover cops, and it’s not a drug bank, it’s a CIA asset. It’s the craziest crime comic of the decade, and, y’know, I’m tired of telling you that if your local comics shop doesn’t have it, tell them to order it. They ought to know enough to have it, and if they don’t just order the damn thing straight from Boom! (I’m all for supporting comics shops, but how about a little love back once in awhile, know what I mean?) because the way reorders usually are these days you’ll probably get it quicker by direct order anyway.

Now that I’ve got some things ironed out with Ebay – I don’t use their service a lot, and terms changed since the last time I did – I’ll be getting auction items like graphic novels and some comics and original art up sometime Wednesday afternoon. You can check over at my Paper Movies site for a link to the list, or if you’re interested in buying some original art – I have a few pieces to sell – feel free to drop me a line before the auctions go up, and maybe we can work something out. (I really do hate dealing with Ebay. Don’t really know why…)

Tepid season debuts from returning TV series NUMBERS (CBS, Fri 10P) and HEROES (NBC, Mon 9P). NUMBERS was “highlighted” by a puffy Val Kilmer playing a blandly sadistic Chinese agent – I haven’t figured out whether he was supposed to be Chinese – in a tepid rehabilitation of a seemingly destroyed secondary regular, while HEROES was all over the board putting its chess pieces in new places as the show picks up four months after last season’s finale. So far it’s not promising; the show always, understandably, nicked superhero comics motifs, but now they’re stealing whole plot gimmicks – X-Men’s long-running “Legacy Plague” storyline, which petered out badly when Marvel did it so I don’t know why HEROES thinks it’s good for much mileage – and, wait. An amnesia plotline? Didn’t 24 kill those deader than dead. NUMBERS, meanwhile, is no longer even bothering to hide that the math that’s supposedly its raison d’etre is utter gobbledygook. If they’re no longer even going to put forth the effort, why should we?

The surprise must-watch new show of the season so far turns out to be LIFE (Wed 9P), a new NBC cop show that begins with a fairly ludicrous premise – a cop who spent 12 years in federal prison for a murder he’s later exonerated of gets reinstated to the force, as a detective – but quickly develops into a sharp, witty and cleverly dark little show. While it has things in common with last season’s Jeff Goldblum show RAINES – gauche outsider detective the rest of the department holds suspect solves crimes via insights and intuitions that aren’t always by the book – it takes its setup much further. Charlie Crews, played by Damian Lewis (loved him in BAND OF BROTHERS, loathed him in FORSYTH SAGA, love him again), waffles from Zen contentedness to petty vindictiveness, and obviously has no faith in “the system” or anyone else’s “justice” (he warns one suspect to dump grounds for a petty bust before other cops get there, then pulls a petty bust on the murderer of the week that lands the guy in the same prison as his victim’s irate and violent father) and for good reason: at minimum, the brass are looking for a good excuse to send Charlie packing, and the show goes way beyond other cop shows in strongly suggesting a web of departmental corruption that set Charlie’s frame and conviction in motion. Sarah Shahi may also be the best debuting star actress of the fall as Crews’ ambivalent partner, a cop fresh back from rehab trying to keep her life in order by playing it by the book, while Crews’ odd behavior constantly unbalances her and her superior (Robin Weigert, DEADWOOD‘s Calamity Jane) expects her to be Crews’ Judas. It’s also the only show in recent memory that has really captured that smoky, harshly brilliant L.A. light. Smart writing, smart acting, sure direction; I’m tempted to say the show is doomed, but let’s all do what we can to forestall that, okay? Watching would be a good start.

If you’re a Radiohead fan (I’m not, particularly, but whaddo I know?) and you were in a coma on Monday, you might not know that the group has decided to sell their new album direct via website, and if you choose the downloadable version, you pick your own price. Not one of these “three choices” scams where the lowest price is the real one and only really stupid people pick a higher one, on this one you can pretty much pay as little as you want as long as you pay something. (Plus, I gather, there’s some sort of processing fee, so stack that on top.) Physical copies are available at set prices. Of course, the servers have been incapable of keeping up with the demand – you’d think people would learn to anticipate that sort of thing – but there’s time before the album’s release. While not the first to do this sort of thing, Radiohead may be the first “major” rock act to abandon “real” record companies but if this is hugely successful – signs already point to it – it wouldn’t be the “every band its own record company” ethic spread like wildfire, since almost nobody really likes their record company. As if record companies weren’t on rough enough rocks at it is…

Interestingly, CBR honcho Jonah Weiland got a call yesterday from some Washington DC media consulting organization that tracks political discussion, verifying my email. Huh. (Verifying email isn’t that uncommon; I’ve had people email me to ask me what my email address is. I guess we do not find these things to be self-evident…) Not that I mind; my e-mail address (at least this one) is published in every column. Jonah didn’t catch the name. I’m curious, but mainly I’m curious if the larger than normal amount of spam in my mailbox this morning is any way connected…

I see Mike Gold’s ComicMix website has finally started publishing comics, with John Ostrander/Tim Truman GRIMJACK reprints. Mike, who used to work at DC Comics, confirms that there was once a policy against the use of the words “Clint” and “flick” there (he doesn’t know if it was an industry-wide policy) though that was obviously by the wayside by the time, who was it, Keith Giffen? Gerry Jones? Introduced the Green Lantern villain Flicker.

Congratulations to longtime reader David Oakes, the first to correctly identify last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as “characters Steven Grant has written.” A cheap shot, I know, but once in awhile I like to do challenges where you have to know a little bit about something beyond just what’s observable on the covers, otherwise I might as well just run eye charts. (For those who care: Spider-Man, Lady Justice, American Flagg!, Robocop, Grifter, Vampirella and Deathstroke.) Join David at The Trunk Space, the website of an Arizona arts gallery standing against the overcommercialization of the arts in their state. Drop in and give them a big hurrah.

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.) Most weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, but no map leads right to it, so you’ll have to hunt a little. 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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