One of those sobering moments. I wanted to run this column again because it’s one of the few times I ever said exactly what I set out to say, and I think what I said is worth hearing. By me as well, as it turns out. I’m currently trapped in a project begun as a favor to an artist who left the project under unpleasant circumstances. It was buried for awhile but has come back to haunt me, and while I can’t walk away from it because I’ve already been paid, I also find I have little empathy left for it. (I won’t mention which project it is, as I might feel differently about it tomorrow.) Empathy’s something no one much takes into account in comics, but when it’s lacking, getting work done is like Sisyphus pushing a boulder. So this is my warning: whatever the circumstances, regardless of collaborator, big break or quick paycheck, dodge projects you have no empathy with. Intellectual interest just isn’t enough to sustain you, and if it is you’re not putting enough of yourself into your work. A big idea may catch your eye, but excitement is the only thing that will get you through in one piece. The problem, of course, is getting an editor or publisher to empathize with your story as well. But if that weren’t always the problem, this would be the easiest business in the world to work in.
I wish I’d reread this column two months ago. Would’ve saved myself some grief. But you can read it now.
A few years ago at an Oakland Con, a young man walked up to me at the bar and demanded I introduce him to PUNISHER editor Don Daley, who was across the room, because, as he put it, he wrote The Punisher better than anyone.
Why this was supposed to impress me into doing his bidding I don’t know. (I also don’t know why he didn’t just walk up to Don, who was across the room, like he walked up to me.) As I’d hit a couple of my brief shots of fame with the PUNISHER MINI-SERIES and the Punisher graphic novel RETURN TO BIG NOTHING – neither of which the young man had read – I was amused. He, in fact, had read very little of the Punisher, had disliked what he read, and decided he’d be so much better at it, so he was there to save the character. (Not that the Punisher, who’d spent six years carrying three regular series and numerous mini-series and guest-shots on his shoulders, wasn’t commercially burned out and desperately needed saving at that time.) Because I’d had a few at that point, I quizzed him just for fun, asking him what makes the Punisher tick.
“They killed his wife and family –”
I shook my head.
“He hates criminals, and he wants –”
I shook my head again.
He tried a third approach, and when I cut him off again, he got angry, and demanded to know the “truth.” “The Punisher –” I teased it out with a sip of my drink. “– is an existentialist.” (For an explanation of why, see MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS #104.) He just stared for about thirty seconds, then stormed from the bar without another word. I could tell he thought I was just giving him a hard time, and missed that I was giving it to him straight up.
Sometime in the mid-80s, as artist-turned-artist/writers were just coming into vogue in mainstream comics in the wake of Howard Chaykin, Frank Miller and Mike Grell, a COMICS JOURNAL reviewer made a snotty but perceptive crack along the lines of “I can understand why artists would look at what they’re asked to draw and think ‘Hey, I can write this [crap]!’ And it’s true! They can!”
Of course, crap is a relative term, and no two people will agree down the line what’s crap and what isn’t. It isn’t confined to comics by any stretch. Most TV is crap, the movie theaters are filled with crap, reams and reams of crap disguised as novels are published every year. (And I don’t exonerate myself; I’ve turned out more than my share.) But comics is a strange field in that so much of the audience is not only convinced that most comics are crap (the ones they don’t read, of course) but that they could do better given the chance, to the point where someone can claim he’s the best writer ever on a character he barely read and never wrote.
Not that we haven’t brought much of this on ourselves. So many comics are so obviously crappy it’s no wonder many readers, just to keep themselves interested, brim over with ideas they’d do if they were writing the books. It’s also due to the relatively tight interrelation between pros and fans – very few of today’s comics professionals didn’t rise from fan ranks, and comics fans have virtually unparalleled access via cons, e-mail, etc. to many people who work on the books – that it seems far more possible to write an issue of SPIDER-MAN than an episode of XENA. And writing, even to the general population, seems like a romantic way of life. While it beats the hell out of sewer maintenance, keep in mind that nothing is glamorous when you do it for a living. (And all restaurants are greasy spoons when you get into the kitchen.)
Still, many want to break into comics. While the business is in a state of deep compression, and opportunities are vanishing like the buffalo, the Diamond catalog looks like the phone book and reads almost as well, and people do break in. So the question constantly comes up at conventions: “Comics are such crap, I know my ideas are much better, but I can’t even get an editor to look at them. Why is that?”
Since so many of you have asked, here are the reasons:
1) It’s not the editor’s job to find new talent. Comics generally have set talent stables and there isn’t much room to, say, come in with a new take on Green Lantern; even if the editor is dazzled, he can’t do much with it. Just getting existing books through the system puts most editors into overtime. Talent hunting is a spare time activity, and while many editors do want to stay open to new talent, time is short.
2) Because they need to get books out on a particular schedule, most editors like to work with people they know, and think they can trust. Even if they can get one great idea out of you, they have no guarantee they can get a publishable story out of you issue after issue, and that’s what they need. On serial comics, anyway.
3) These days, a lot of stories featuring established characters generated out of the internal politics of comics companies. Ideas are judged not only on their own merit but on how they mesh with the company direction. You can have the most brilliant idea in the world and there are all kinds of reasons why it wouldn’t sell.
4) It takes time to look at writing, and, again, time is short. An editor can spot art he likes in an instant, but wading through plots is time-consuming and demands a focus that art doesn’t.
5) Tastes vary. In some cases, an editor knows he’s publishing crap, but the schedule demands he has a book ready at a set date and he lets it go and hopes he can do better next time. In many cases, editors don’t think they’re producing crap. And they might not be. You might think it’s crap because it doesn’t play to your particular obsessions. It’s a judgment call with two judges, the editor and the reader, and sales figures are the tie breaker. If you’re looking to catch an editor’s interest, it’s probably not a good idea to start by telling him his books are crap.
6) Ideas are crap. Ideas by themselves mean nothing, and here you’re caught in #2’s web again. An idea doesn’t mean you can plot, a decent plot doesn’t mean your dialogue’s any good, and these are all things an editor needs to know. Ideas aren’t that difficult to come by, but they only matter if you do something with them, and you can only say an idea is good if it pays off. (And I’m not strictly talking about money.) Great stories can have appalling-sounding plots (break TRANSMETROPOLITAN or SANDMAN down to one-line ‘high concepts’ sometime) and great-sounding plots can generate horrid stories. So I can forgive editors for not always knowing which is which.
7) Even bad work is harder than it looks.
That said, people do break in all the time. I used to say that if you want to break in at Marvel, move to New York City, and if you want to break in at DC, move to London. Wherever you try to break in, whether on work-for-hire or creator-owned material, it’ll be difficult and painful. We live in an era where everyone wants the hot new thing but no one wants to take a risk on it, and, particularly among the smaller houses, pass as much of the risk as possible down to the talent. Self-publishing is always an option, but promotion and distribution are prohibitive.
Which is too bad, because the comics industry needs work that will stand out and make people take notice. We need writers who can generate one great idea after another, and then make them work, and if one idea is shot down another’s there to take its place. We need writers who aren’t afraid to jettison the tired old detritus of comics’ past and look to its future, and aren’t afraid to treat that past as raw material for new directions. We need iconoclasts who think like devils and write like angels.
We need writers who have something to say, who impose their point of view on whatever material they’re asked to handle, and who can transform it into something dramatic, contemporary, individualistic and – hardest of all – necessary.
What we don’t need is writers who want to rerun what’s already been done. It’s true: anybody can write that crap!
But why would you want to?
The management has, understandably, asked me to say a few words about the forthcoming column, PERMANENT DAMAGE. Some have asked me how it will differ from MOTO, so: while MOTO was an essay column, I have something different in mind for PERMANENT DAMAGE. As I envision it now, it’ll be more of a cross between a working diary and a “compressed magazine,” open to many types of features including interviews and reviews, but from a professional standpoint and not the point of view of comics fandom or the comics press, which have their own agendas, however harmless and expected, to pursue. Where MOTO was something of a long slow twist of the knife every week, I picture PERMANENT DAMAGE as more of a hit-and-run affair: guerrilla journalism. We’ll see. But one thing I’d like to emphasize is high quality independent comics being done and perhaps ignored in the wake of the hundredth revamp of WONDER WOMAN. The problem is this is that I have no access to many of these comics, so if you have what you think is a high quality, imaginative and original independent comic, send me a copy (or more, it’s entirely up to you) at
Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074.
Include purchasing information so interested parties can order the books. I can’t promise I’ll agree with your assessment but I’ll mention you. Like I said, that’s coming in September. MOTO fans may be startled, but they won’t be disappointed. Probably. (I never was much good at wholehearted self-promotion.)
On the GRAPHIC VIOLENCE forum, we’re currently discussing heady things like how to finance a new comics venture and trivial matters like who the most beautiful actress in film today is. Stop by and give your views.
And, at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, this week’s Question Of The Week: Mark Hamill has done it! Freddie Prinze Jr.’s going to do it! Why stop at them? Which actor would you most like to see win the WCW World Championship belt? (No, wait, that was David Arquette.) I mean, which actor (or actress) would you most like to see write a comic book, and what kind of comic would you like to see them write?
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.