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Fallout from last Friday

by  in Comic News Comment
Fallout from last Friday

Well, that sure blew up into a big ol’ drama, didn’t it?

I feel vaguely guilty about it. Even though I don’t think very much of last week’s craziness was due to what I said, considering almost all of the links and comments and so on were about Chuck Dixon’s replies. (Though several folks, in passing, characterized the column above Mr. Dixon’s comments as “well written,” which at least gave me a rueful smile.)

(And this one actually made Julie laugh out loud.)

But mostly, it was all just depressing. Not DC’s best week ever.

The hits just keep on coming, too. Valerie D’Orazio over at Occasional Superheroine already noted the unfortunate timing of the subject of this week’s DC Nation. It certainly has turned into a full-on dogpile when even Dan DiDio’s own promotional fluff column is chiming in on the industry-wide chorus of “That bonehead doesn’t know what he’s doing!” I almost feel sorry for him at this point.

And still, no effort from anyone in the DC editorial offices to get out in front of any of it. At this point, they seem to have just given up any hope of a PR strategy other than silently hunkering down and waiting for it to be over. Most industry watchers are done speculating about DiDio’s dismissal; taking it as a foregone conclusion, they’ve moved on to handicapping the odds of who his replacement might be and when it might happen.

Certainly, some kind of shakeup needs to happen over there. (We’ll see, I guess, if John Nee’s departure is just the opening round.) I’ve thought a change was due for a long time, and so have many others. But –unlike many in the comics press– I’m not enjoying the spectacle now that it’s happening.

Schadenfreude isn’t really my thing. Sure, there was the mild feeling of vindication at first, when people who actually are or have been editors in comics — the aforementioned Valerie, Heidi MacDonald at The Beat, Rachel Edidin at Dark Horse — were saying I got most of it right, but when the thing started to snowball, my vindication gave way to disgust. It seemed like everyone who’d ever been annoyed about a DC comic they’d read any time in the last five years had to weigh in, along with all the interested onlookers who just wanted to point and laugh at the circus.

A lot of the worst of it was backstage, invisible to you folks out front reading this, and that’s actually what’s been weighing on my mind the most about the whole mess. (No, I’m not talking about the two jerks who showed up here impersonating Alan Grant and Doug Moench, though it’s mouth-breathers like that who are responsible for my occasional urge to just say the hell with it and turn the “comment” function off for this column.)

See, a short time after last week’s column went up, I started to get e-mail from people in the business who didn’t want to be ‘seen’ in the comments section. “Gotta tell you, off the record, you really nailed it, it’s a mess up there.” And others, from folks whose job is to cover the business of comics. “Glad SOMEBODY in the press finally wrote about this. It’s a story that needs to be told. I’m just not in a position to do it. I’d lose my job.” Or “my access.” Or in one case, “my partner.” Whatever. Fill in the blank.

My first impulse was to explain that they must be writing to me by mistake. “Somebody in the press”? Me? Seriously?

Sure, I’ve done some magazine news during my checkered career. I’ve even done a little comics coverage for CBR here and there. I suppose, of the gang here on the blog, mine is the closest to a “journalism” resume. Which is nevertheless still a pretty thin one.

Look, let’s get this straight. I’m not a reporter. Yeah, I try to get my facts straight, and I run a correction when I miss things, but really I’m just a writer who likes comics. (To be honest, I don’t even think of myself as a writer so much as a schoolteacher who can write a pretty fair stick once in a while.)

The reason this is bothering me is because, clearly, our industry needs real reporters and a real press. (I mean, besides Tom Spurgeon. The guy can’t do it all by himself, and he shouldn’t have to.)

Heidi MacDonald was talking about this the other day, as part of her coverage of the DC troubles… she agrees that we need more serious reportage in comics, but she also doesn’t think we can do much better than we already have. (Heidi discounts herself from being a journalist, but I think she and Tom Spurgeon have shouldered very nearly the whole load between them, as far as covering Marvel and DC in any kind of meaningful way are concerned.)

The problem?

People don’t want news.

Don’t get me wrong. I love CBR, I think we’re one of the best comics sites on the net. As far as the roster of columnists goes– Steven Grant, Brian Hibbs, Keith Giffen, the whole gang– there’s no one to touch us. And even here on the blog I think us guys have got some chops.

But we’re not doing real news. Sometimes you get people doing more serious work like the ladies at Sequential Tart, but investigative journalism isn’t really their thing.

No, when you talk about ‘the comics press,’ you’re talking about another arm of the infotainment industry. This is all mostly for fun. Preview pages, interviews, the comics equivalent of Access Hollywood. Whether it’s Newsarama, ComicMix, or here at CBR, it’s all pretty much the same thing. Fun, well-done light reading.

That’s really all superhero fans care about. Remember the embarrassing fan debacle when it looked like there might be some trouble for DC with the Siegel and Shuster heirs and the copyright to Superman? For every comics reader who applauded that there had been at least a start on remedying the financial injustices of the past, there were two or three others who denounced the heirs as greedy, who thought they didn’t deserve it, and — most telling of all — feared that the court decision might somehow affect the continuing publication of Superman stories. Fans don’t want to hear about real people. They are far more concerned with the fictional superhumans in the comics than the actual humans who produce them.

Which is, you know, not a crime or anything. It was pretty much my position when I started here.

When Brian invited me to come do this Friday gig, reportage was hardly what I had in mind. Certainly not business news. My idea was just to shoot the breeze about comics I liked or that I thought had an interesting place in history, maybe tell a story about the kids in the cartooning class every so often. And I still like doing that stuff.

But what I’ve found, writing this column for the last two and a half years, is that in comics — especially the superhero stuff, Image, Marvel and DC — the business side of the equation affects everything. Everything. As I said last week, it’s not just art — it’s commercial art. Talking about good comics (which is why we’re here, after all, Comics Should Be Good!) means talking about the talent they sprang from, and inevitably that leads to talking about the working conditions, the format, the publisher, the business. Whether it’s a favorite creator getting fired off a book, or a decision to make a line of books more ‘adult,’ or even something as subtle as the new tendency to ‘write for the trade’… these are all business considerations.

It’s impossible to talk about comic books without also talking about the financial bottom line at some point. (Rather, it’s not possible to talk about them with any intelligence. There’s always going to be the demented fan with the web shrine yelling about how the only talented guy is so-and-so and they should just let him do everything.)

But serious business reporting is a necessity. Whether you people want to read it or not, whether Marvel and DC want us doing it or not, it’s rapidly becoming obvious to me that it’s got to be done. I mean actual investigative reporting that can function with real press standards and protections. We used to have The Comics Journal, at least, but since they switched their main coverage from the Marvel/DC mainstream to indie/art comics, there’s been no one to step up and assume the muckraking function they used to serve. And we need someone doing that.

Why?

Whistleblowers.

The history of American comic books is not a proud one. You know the list of scandals and ripoffs and bad behavior as well as I do, probably. Siegel and Shuster getting screwed on Superman. Bob Kane screwing Bill Finger on Batman. DC versus Fawcett. Wertham and the Code. The DC talent purge in the late 60’s when the writers tried to get a health plan. Kirby’s battles with Marvel over his page originals. Gerber and the Duck. Wolfman and Blade. DeCarlo and Josie. The CrossGen implosion and all the writers and artists that got left hanging. On and on.

How different would our history have been, do you suppose, if we had a real press on watchdog duty during those years? Do you know how DC finally got shamed into giving Siegel and Shuster a pension and a permanent credit on Superman? Because they were about to get their story in the papers and give DC a big PR black eye at the time of the Superman movie premiere. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if they’d been able to bring that kind of pressure earlier, if there had been an honest-to-God comics reporter to talk to. Or what a difference it might have made if we’d had the comics-press equivalent of Edward R. Murrow to hold Dr. Wertham’s feet to the fire and make him defend his loony accusations.

Today comics are getting more media attention than they ever have before… but in terms of investigative journalism, I think we’ve lost ground. We used to at least have the Journal, who were in there swinging for Steve Gerber and Jack Kirby when they were taking on Marvel. Nowadays, who does a comics creator talk to when they have a story that needs telling? Wizard? Come on.

The reason this bothers me so is because I apparently backed into that function last week, a little, anyway, judging from my e-mail. And it makes me uncomfortable.

I am embarrassed at being uncomfortable. I am ashamed to admit it, but the truth is that I don’t want the job, either. That’s not my kind of gig. I like teachng, and rambling on here once a week. That’s about my speed.

Doing it right takes money and time. Legwork that right now, no one wants to pay for, to write a story that, very likely, no one wants to publish. Not even the Journal.

We’re left with a situation where comic-book creators with a legitimate grievance have to speak out on their own and take a chance it doesn’t get them blacklisted.

That’s a serious threat when you consider how tiny the labor pool actually is for superhero/adventure comics. It’s trendy to sneer at the few writers and artists who are willing to sound off about publisher behavior on the internet (“Bitter much?”) but it helps to remember it’s the only recourse they have to set the record straight.

The latest is this Chuck Dixon flap, and once again let me remind all of you that Mr. Dixon exercised amazing restraint. (I’m old enough to remember Steve Englehart’s exit-from-Marvel interviews in Comics Feature and the old Comics Journal. Those were incendiary.) Dixon kept his comments short and to the point, and he only showed up here in the first place because he wanted people to know that the editors I named in the column were not responsible for his firing. To me that’s showing integrity, especially considering he’s defending his former co-workers at a company whose direction he clearly disagrees with. And yet, even that got many fans all in a dither, blogging about how ‘unprofessional’ or ‘bitter’ Mr. Dixon must be. No wonder he felt he had to speak up, when that’s the only “press” that’s available.

By itself, okay, maybe it’s not that big a deal. Just a case of bad labor relations. But considering the storm it set off and all the people e-mailing me that this is just the tip of the mismanagement iceberg, that there are more tales to be told, and so on and so on…

Look, it’s one thing to have fans on blogs mouthing off about how DC or Marvel are screwing up big-time. It’s another when it’s people actually up there in the DC offices are (secretly, fearfully, “off the record”) congratulating me on some sort of hard-hitting article that I didn’t really mean to do, and saying there’s more to be told, lots more.

(Jesus Christ, DC, have you guys learned nothing at all the last couple of years? Wasn’t Goodbye to Comics embarrassing enough for you?)

I suppose I should be pleased. I wrote something that touched a nerve. Writers usually like that.

But let me clear up a common misconception.

For me, when I do a column about a comics publisher that’s screwing up, it’s not snark or schadenfreude. It’s usually just exasperation. The same kind of exasperation you feel when you see that your sister’s back together with her creepy boyfriend, or that your mother’s about to vote for that guy, or your brother’s taken up Scientology. You know, when someone you love is doing something really, really stupid.

I love comics. I love superheroes. I love the DC characters and their history. The work published by that firm, at various times, has inspired me to the point that it actually changed my life and gave it a direction. I truly want them to do well. I am rooting for them. Even now, in the midst of all this DiDio bashing, I’d like to see the DCU line of books pull out of this mess. Columns like last week’s entry are born of that simple need to say, “For God’s sake, get your shit together, you are better than this.”

So the best outcome, for me anyway, would have been for DC to, you know, actually get their shit together…. as opposed to apparently spending a week imploding.

And I think that’s probably true for most of us that do this blog-comics-infotainment thing on the internet. We just want the comics to be good, and the people producing them to treat each other with decency and dignity.

Unfortunately, if history is any guide, the only thing that seems to make that happen at Marvel and DC is journalistic scrutiny. I wish we had more of it. Like I said earlier, Tom and Heidi can’t do it all by themselves, and God knows, this last week has shown me I’m not the guy for the job.

See you next week.

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