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Issue #112

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Issue #112
  • ITEM! Remember those old Marvel Bullpen Bulletin Pages, back in the days when Marvel still tried to pretend there was some sort of conspiracy of fun between the company and the audience? When every little infomercial on the page was prefaced with ITEM!? For some reason I’m feeling nostalgic today…
  • ITEM! Was contacted by another would-be publisher the other day, and, y’know? This is beginning to get repetitious. I can understand the urge to publish your own line of comics, really I can, but we really have to stop this run of publishers figuring to start up their own operations by essentially asking freelancers to underwrite them. This particular guy’s pitch was inadvertently laughable, but he was very earnest, and I don’t think he quite understood how I could be willing to walk away from such a great deal. Here were some of the terms offered. Would-be publishers, listen up.

    1) Because the publisher “created” the underlying “universe,” all characters would be company-owned.

    Why this is bad: In the first place, look at the mass of “comics universes” littering quarter bins over the last decade. Now look at the “universes” still out there: DC and Marvel. Neither erupted full-blown from Zeus’ head, both accumulated, minus a master plan, over spans ranging from a decade (Marvel) to forty+ years (DC). They’re messy, contradictory, and, at least until people became obsessed with ordering things, organic. Those elements were exactly why they had, and still have, some life to them. Prefab “universes,” no matter how good you think the underlying uberstory is, are about as much fun as concrete bunkers. The success or failure of a comic or line of comics has never depended on the quality of the uberstory but on the quality of the actual stories (writing and art) being told in the comics themselves. Any company that starts with a “universe” is holding up a big flag saying that reads “We Want To Be Marvel.” Saying the company deserves to own everything because whatever your work will be appearing against the nebulous backdrop of the greater “universe” is bass-ackwards thinking. Spider-Man isn’t great because he’s in the Marvel Universe, the Marvel Universe is great because it has Spider-Man in it.

    Better choice: Co-own the character, with equity automatically being part of the deal. Even Marvel and DC do this now; the creator gets a share of any profits, from any direction, from the use of his character. Most publishers insist on ownership because they ultimately envision themselves as Hollywood moguls, and they want to be able to be the ones who deal with Hollywood. Fine. Just be prepared to pay fairly for the privilege.

    2) Not only would pay be significantly lower than Marvel or DC pay for what would amount to work-for-hire, but it would also be partly deferred until publication.

    Why this is bad: I can understand why a small publisher wouldn’t want to pay Marvel or DC rates, particularly in this market, but asking freelancers to take payment deferrals until publication or later is unconscionable. The thinking of most publishers is that the risk is all theirs because the money is theirs, so they should be the ones to reap the benefits, but that’s not true. Time is money. The time I spend working on a project for you is time I’m not spending working on a project for some other publisher. Or working at a job somewhere. Yet most freelancers don’t live in their parents’ basement; they have bills to pay too, and supplies to buy, and there’s no safety net. Asking freelancers to defer payment until publication or later is asking them to bear the risk of publishing for you. You’re the one who decides what gets published and what doesn’t; if you look at the orders and decide it’s not worth publishing a book, at that point it’s not you who suffers, it’s the freelancer who takes it on the chin, losing money they could have made spending that time doing work for someone else. You might think the money isn’t real, because it doesn’t get paid out, but to a freelancer it’s as real as the bills that don’t get paid because the money never showed up. It’s the freelancer’s job to provide material to be published, it’s the publisher’s job to bear the risk.

    Better choice: Pay on acceptance. If you can’t do that, you’re probably well undercapitalized and your company isn’t likely to survive anyway.

    3) In addition to standard payment, after a period of time I’d be entitled to profit-sharing on proceeds from the book I created and wrote.

    Why this is bad: Per se, it isn’t. But “profit-sharing” here is used as a fancy synonym for royalties. Royalties should be a standard deal, from the word go. And profit-sharing on what? All revenues generated by the character? Sales from the book? A piece of cover price? Or the net profits?

    Better choice: Get specific, and offer a better deal than someone would get from Marvel or DC. Remember, this is never-never money; if you make it, there’ll be more than enough to go around (unless you make the standard publisher mistake of rushing to hire a huge, salary-hungry staff, just to show you can stand toe-to-toe with The Big Boys, which, as a start-up, you can’t, so wise up) and there’s no need aside from greed to skimp. If you don’t make the money, at least you offered a great deal. There’s no reason creators shouldn’t be entitled to 50% of the profits to split between them. (If you’re obsessed with having majority control over the property, put it in the contract.) If you end up in a situation where you’ve actually got a successful book and hot talent, you stand a much better chance of having talent so happy they won’t run off to write or draw a DARKHAWK revival for Marvel if they have a chance.

    Bottom line: freelancers don’t exist to underwrite your dreams of publishing, and expecting them to want to “do what they love” without the money to support the time and effort needed to produce a good comic book is naïve and stupid. But we live in a society where even at a minimal level of existence you run up lots of bills that need paying, and if feeding that dragon in selling out, great, but any publisher who expects freelancers to live at any lower standard of living than the publisher does is simply an exploiter and nothing more. We’ve had enough of those in comics and we don’t need any more of them. A saying from the ’60s goes: love is like butter, it’s better with bread. Publishing comics may not be on the level of making a movie, but it’s still a fairly expensive proposition. If you’re going to start publishing comics, make sure you first have the money to do it right.

  • ITEM! Marvel’s Epic branch continues to go through system shutdown, most recently with their last four titles in the works being combined into a quarterly anthology, apparently so they can see how one issue sells before going ahead with another. (Jeez, is it the ’40s again already?!) Too bad, especially for the people working on projects who’ll never get paid for them, and the people have dealt with in the Epic offices have been very nice (hi, Stephanie!) but I’m sort of glad the Epic experiment is bottoming out. Whatever its other faults, the one steady virtue Marvel (and DC) has had was that it paid real money for work and paid it quickly, and Epic seemed geared to evaporate that as soon as possible. But it would be nice to see Epic do right in some way by the talent it was working with. Given their apparent expectations, the anthology would seem to exist for nothing more than to establish Marvel’s property rights in the material involved. While it’s an open secret that Marvel exists now to produce properties that can be optioned to Hollywood for movie development, it’d be a nice gesture if Marvel simply signed over all rights to those properties to the creators involved. Not, I guess, that it would affect anything more than PHANTOM JACK, since the other series included all spin off existing Marvel properties (I think; I’m not sure about STRANGE MAGIC) but still.
  • ITEM! I enjoyed it well enough, but I wasn’t trying to sell anything and didn’t have any obligations (except an ultimately cancelled panel), but the Las Vegas Comic Convention held over Los Dias de Los Muertos has been generally judged to have been, um, dead. “Anticipated” crowds of 30,000 per day turned out to be more in the range of 4,000, not a terrible number but bad for a hall that could easily handle five times that. I know a lot of very unhappy retailers and exhibitors, though I saw some doing fabulously well. Not many, though. A lot of guests were annoyed that, unlike with other cons, no passes were available for their families. By Sunday afternoon, con reps were circulating to entice retailers back for next year’s show, to be held in an even bigger hall with higher prices, which probably wasn’t the best public relations move they could have made.

    It’s probably true the California wildfires, in full bloom that weekend (two days before the con the Las Vegas Valley was thick with smoke from the wildfires, the nearest of which was over 200 miles away), kept a number of Californians from coming in, but it’s hard to believe 26,000 were going to come in. Friday was a state holiday here in Nevada, so schools were out, but I think two things prevented an influx of locals to the show, despite there being a large enough comics-reading community here to keep around a dozen comics shops in business: high ticket prices and bad advertising. Most of the local advertising for the show consisted mainly of a single word – EXTROSION! – that nobody could figure out. There isn’t all the much to work with in promoting a comics show: you mention the characters, the talent, the range of material for sale, attending media celebrities if any, and any special features like movies show. You don’t focus on an inexplicable catchphrase, particularly in a town where such things are commonly reserved for topless revues. I’ve no doubt the weird promotion here cost them a lot of local attendees. Also odd was the lack of communication with local media. Radio stations here will contest off tickets to anything. Go to San Diego, and the convention there is all over the news for days. The closest it got to a media blitz here (aside from some EXTROSION! commercials that popped up) was a small flurry of “Do you have a million dollar comic hiding in your closet?” messages that encouraged viewers to trundle their comic collections down to the con for evaluation.

    In other words, local promotion was ineffective.

    Not that putting on a comics convention isn’t a pretty complicated affair. So rather than dwell on what made any single comics convention bad, maybe we should be working on ways to make them better.

    Artist Alleys, for instance. I don’t sit at them, I don’t have any personal stake in them. Most conventions have them: an area or two where artists selling sketches are clustered and easy to find. That was the theory. The new reality is they’ve turned into artist ghettos, usually way off to the side of the main floor action. (The same can be said of small press publishers at some conventions.) How hard could it be to design a convention floor where artists alley is in the midst of other exhibitors? (Say, an artist mile stretching from end to end down the middle of the floor at San Diego.) At the Las Vegas Con, the shoddy design thought that afflicts most artist alleys at most conventions was evident. Artist alley was at the back of the hall. Well-known artists were clustered together, as were lesser-known artists, with most of what passed for the action gravitating, as expectable, to the former. More than a few artists never showed up, but instead of rearranging the seating to compress things, the con left some artists (mainly Alex Robinson from Top Shelf) adrift alone amid a sea of empty tables.

    So this is my prescription for improving artist alleys at convention: Bring the artist area into the mainstream of convention traffic, which could also serve to draw people to other areas of the convention they might not necessarily go to, by using artists as a magnet to bring them there; Cluster artists, and where there are empty tables put artists closer together to eliminate the gaps (when other artists show up later, they can be placed in the empty areas most adjacent to the filled areas; I know some cons number the tables where artists are supposed to sit, but no one pays attention to the numbers anyway).

    Now I’m throwing the floor open to you. What improvements would people like to see in comics conventions? (I don’t mean a specific convention, I mean in general.) What would improve your convention-going experience? e-mail me your suggestions.

  • ITEM! For those who like to keep track, TV fatalities so far this year (no, I don’t mean John Ritter) include LUIS (UPN), COUPLING and BOOMTOWN (NBC), and TARZAN (WB). I didn’t even know TARZAN had aired. Meanwhile, the head of NBC made the statement that fewer people are watching network TV this year than ever before because “the programming sucks.” Gee, that wouldn’t be because focus groups and network demands for “broad appeal” bleed all the life, personality and originality out of them, would it? But it’s a little weird to hear the head of NBC moaning about crappy shows when he’s somebody who can do something about it
  • ITEM! I wasn’t very sure about ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (Fox, 9:30P Sundays) after its debut last Sunday week. For several weeks, I’d heard critics talking about how it was the funniest new show of the season (which, let’s face it, ain’t much of an aspiration) but the debut episode was quirky but pretty dull. (There was a nice joke about a pirate ship in it, but that was about it.) Watched the second episode to give it another chance, though, and that was better, with a much better pace, snappier lines, wacky but logical development delivered at a racecar clip. The actors remain something of a problem, though. Jeffrey Tambor’s domineering but jailed family patriarch is a nice change from his usual Hank Kingsley-style roles (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you haven’t watched enough LARRY SANDERS SHOW), but it has already gone so one-note it’s becoming irritating. Matriarch Jessica Walters has never played any other role than the one he’s playing. I keep wondering what kind of secret pact Portia deRossi has with Fox that they keep putting her in shows. Jason Bateman is obviously at least trying to break out of that alter-Michael J. Fox mold he’s been saddled with for 15 years, but I’m not convinced yet. David Cross keeps wobbling his character between being really funny and interesting, and a joke. Still, the show keeps you off-balance; it’s one of the few sitcoms you have to actually pay attention to. Which means it’s probably doomed.
  • ITEM! The other debuting Fox sitcom, A MINUTE WITH STAN HOOPER is the second sitcom outing for former SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE mainstay Norm Macdonald, a comedian I know better than to like but there’s something about him I like anyway. His last series, NORM, (a little voice in my head is telling me there was a very short-lived series in-between, but I can’t quite place it) had him as the central buffoon, but STAN HOOPER reverses that formula: in what’s basically a knock-off of the old show NEWHART, Macdonald, playing a guy who does basically an Andy Rooney segment for a network prime time news show, moves to his dream town in rural Wisconsin (there’s a dream town in rural Wisconsin?) and is soon inundated with wacky local characters and customs. (The rather tasteless second episode had the bumpkins totally unaware of American civics, with the same mayor running unopposed for years while the town denies women the vote. Hooper’s cosmopolitan wife, played by Penelope Ann Miller, has apparently so become part of the town that, despite her outrage, it never once occurs to her to sue over it…) I still like Macdonald, and A MINUTE WITH STAN HOOPER has its moments. As a time killer, it’s okay. But must-see TV it’s not.
  • ITEM! Wow. The last person pretty much anyone wanted to hear from, Al Gore, abruptly surfaced with a bang. It’s amazing how much livelier he can be when he’s just out there to deliver a message and doesn’t have to worry about whether he’ll get votes, and the message was a doozy. Unlike any of the current Democratic presidential candidates, Gore seemed to be spelling out a line of attack against Bush next year, focusing on the administration’s running practice of raping civil liberties. He made a nice soundbite about how “fighting Al-Qaeda by attacking our civil liberties is like invading Iraq to fight Osama Bin Laden,” and suddenly all the news shows are running segments about how Americans cherish their privacy and are becoming increasingly nervous at administration efforts to take that from them. Not that this is exactly news – how many states and municipalities have now passed resolutions condemning the Patriot Act? – but I guess the news media finally found a face to hang it all on. Still, these things accrue. It must be an annoyance for the White House that the Supreme Court has opted to listen to arguments challenging the legality of the Guantanamo Bay detention center for foreign nationals, and there are suddenly new questions rising about not only the 2000 Presidential election (like, what really did happen to those tens of thousands of votes from mostly black areas that were thrown out and never counted, and why, when Al called him to withhold concession, did the Hand Puppet crankily tell him Gov. Jeb Bush had promised him he’d take Florida (and Pennsylvania!)?) but about the upcoming election, as new electronic voting machines around the country, built and maintained by companies with highly partisan Republican connections, are demonstrating quirk after quirk, each time favoring Republicans, in election after election that they’re used in? So far this is something the news hasn’t widely covered, but watch that primary season.

    (Another minor assault on civil liberties you might not be aware of. Cryptome is a website that monitors the government. It keeps a database of government documents, and you can find your own patterns of abuse if you search it. It’s very educational. Last week, FBI agents descended on the site’s offices on the basis that the site intended to “harm the United States.” Cryptome has been investigated before, and nothing has ever been found except citizens keeping an eye on their government. This search found nothing. They didn’t specify what documents they felt were harmful. The visit had no purpose except harassment. With local Red Squads reactivated to “cooperate” with the government’s new push for “intelligence” on American citizens, this sort of thing is geared to be the norm in the Hand Puppet’s vision of America. Enjoy.)

    Civil liberties in themselves don’t rouse much interest in the American public, since they’re mostly painted as what criminals use to escape punishment. “Privacy” is a much stronger button word, not that you care about my privacy, but you almost certainly care about yours. It’s a word Americans all over the political scale feel protective of. It could lock in nicely with other grievances. With the Hand Puppet’s currently in the position his dad was in, once upon a time: despite indications the economy is improving, most people don’t feel their personal economy is improved. Daddy insisted the economy was getting better because the stock market was strong, but all that meant to most people was that the rich were getting richer, and the rich were all the president cared about. That’s what “compassionate conservatism” translates to: love the rich. Of course, in America any mention of rich or poor in politics is now considered “class-baiting,” and class wars can only consist of the poor attacking the rich and not the other way around.

    And nothing quite improves the public’s view of the economy like voting to “give” $87 billion to Iraq. Iraq becomes thornier the longer we’re there, and now we’re seeing, in Vietnam flashbacks, helicopters being shot down. Add this to the bombings, shootings, etc., and Iraq doesn’t give the impression of a pacified country. We keep getting entertaining spins from the government on what’s going on – the last one I heard was that we took Iraq so easily because the French and Russians had told Saddam Hussein we wouldn’t invade and he couldn’t believe it when we did – but there are so many divergent messages coming out of the administration they no longer mean anything, and it’s pretty clear they’re never meant to mean anything, just to pass for the moment, while the White House continues to push the equation that support for the troops equals support for the peace. (I mean, they already said the war was over, so what is it exactly?) While I was driving the other day, I heard a radio program about how we’re repeating the same mistakes in Iraq that the British made in the ’20s. The British assumed it was a situation like Arabia and the power lay with the sheiks, who by that time were politically almost irrelevant, and the British chose the sheiks to rule the country. The result of being “chosen” was that the populace didn’t trust them, and guerilla fighting against the British and the sheiks alike ensued. Pretty much the sort of thing we’re seeing now. Our mistake, according to the report, was to assume Iraq is a land of warring factions (the assumption is strengthened by viewing Saddam’s Ba’athist regime, but then you have to assume that all Iraqis are like Saddam Hussein, which vitiates any point of trying to replace him) whereas, if you travel the country, you’ll find that while there are Iraqi Kurds and Iraqi Shi’ites and Sunnis, etc., the vast majority of Iraqis are very patriotic, viewing themselves as Iraqis first and whatever faction they subscribe to second. Two things currently unite most Iraqis: their love for their country, and their desire to see foreign troops gone. This suggests that action against American troops and strongholds may not be the work of either Saddam loyalists or outside agitators, but may represent a widespread, heartfelt public sentiment. So when Paul Wolfowitz snarls that no amount of violence will drive us out of the country, well, that kind of bravado plays well on the evening news here but it’s probably the wrong thing to say to the Iraqis. No doubt they’re of the opinion that we’re committed to a long occupation, and there’s little in administration policy so far to suggest otherwise, except for an increasingly shrill insistence that this isn’t a Vietnam-style quagmire. Of course, it depends what they mean by that – there wasn’t any oil in Vietnam, after all – but if we’re still there when the election rolls around next November, with American soldiers being killed virtually daily while the White House continues its efforts to slash pay and benefits for enlisted men and woman and veterans, a quagmire’s exactly what it will look like, regardless of what the Hand Puppet says about it.

  • ITEM! Hey, did you hear famed nutjob minister Pat Robertson recently called for the nuking of the State Department? I wonder if he’s being investigated as a potential terrorist threat.
  • ITEM! It occurs to me that the main function of a good editor is to say no, and to know when to say it, and there’s nothing that needs a good editor more than an anthology. Case in point: the trade paperbacks KOMIKWERKS Vol. 1 and 2 (Komikwerks, 205 Beech St., Belmont MA 02478; $9.95@). These are stories, I presume originally done online, by people experienced in film, animation and/or comics, and the volumes are beautifully produced, with pretty nice artwork overall (a couple of real standouts artists are Vatche Malvian and James Baker), but somehow it all comes off kind of… flat. Not helping is a first volume overloaded with continued stories that don’t continue in the second volume, but the worst aspect is how derivative most of it seems, treading a host of comic book clichés (including a Superman takeoff that’s so non-variant it’s practically actionable). This isn’t always a negative – Baker’s cross between Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein in “The Adventures Of Slim and Steve” is pretty good – but it does leave a general sense of unoriginality that the individual stories might not necessarily engender. Not surprisingly, it’s the longer pieces like Anissa Dorsey and SD Lara’s “Crashgirl” that are the most effective, which overcomes the weakness of virtually all the selections: the writing. Not that the writing itself is bad, but almost nothing seems to have a core. It’s times like that an editor should say no.
  • ITEM! Oni Press sent me a couple graphic novels by Neal Shaffer. I haven’t finished LAST EXIT BEFORE TOLL yet – next week – but it may not be a good sign that they sent it to me in photocopy and I was 20 pages into it before I realized there were pages on the backs of the photocopies as well as the front. ONE PLUS ONE ($14.95) points up what may be the problem. While I generally liked the story of a man whose job is to “ensure that fate runs its proper course” as he becomes guide to a gambler whose girlfriend is unexpectedly pregnant, Shaffer’s storytelling style is decompressed to the point of diffusion, with (at least in this story) no real payoff. Not that I don’t like inevitability in a story – I think it’s a very underused technique – but nothing besides the action is ever really revealed, and I can’t help but think at EC Comics they could’ve told this whole story in eight pages, with more impact. Got to say I like Shaffer’s dialogue here, and the way he uses minor characters, and Daniel Krall does a terrific job on the art, but the book never really coalesces.
  • ITEM! I often get e-mail from people asking for advice on writing comics, and here’s the advice I feel like giving them now: go buy ALAN MOORE’S WRITING FOR COMICS (Avatar Press; $5.95), a collection of essays he wrote ages ago on various aspects of creating characters and stories, along with a latter day reassessment that puts the rest of it in the perspective I though was missing while reading the original essays. It’s a terrific little book on the psychology and mechanics of writing anything, and if you’re serious about writing (or even just understanding) comics, consider it indispensable. It may be the last thing I have to say on the subject.
  • ITEM! Speaking of Avatar, I’m a little miffed. You people didn’t go to your local comics shop to ask that they order MY FLESH IS COOL! #1, the first of a three part mini-series I’ve got coming up in December. I know because the orders came in and they’re not good. The good news is there’s still time to push them to order #2 and #3 and get them to reorder #1 for you. Of course, I could tell you what a good artist newcomer Sebastian Fiumara is, how much I like Jacen Burrows’ covers, or that the story involves a personable hitman who can throw his mind into other people’s bodies, and is an action-packed meditation on what happens when you don’t have to take responsibility for your own actions, but here’s what I’m going to do instead: anyone who drops me an e-mail requesting one can have a .pdf copy of the first issue script to read, and you can make up your minds from that. The only thing I ask is that if you like it, you bring it up with your dealer.
  • ITEM! I don’t much go in for these kinds of things, but I liked the WHAT GRIM AND GRITTY COMIC BOOK CHARACTER ARE YOU? finder. Turns out I’m The Midnighter. Who knew?
  • ITEM! Some anonymous soul sent me the recent Marvel Max mini-series BORN and asked me to review it. While I appreciate the gesture, I’m sorry. I don’t read other people’s PUNISHER stories. If anyone wants me to review any recent minis featuring characters I haven’t been intimately associated with, please feel free, and I’d be happy to give my opinion. The address is below.
  • ITEM! Nah. Not really. I’ve got some personal notes but I’ll save them for next week, along with a slew of reviews and some reader mail. I’ve got more additions to the DAMNED Retailer Roll Of Honor that’ll run next week too. (If you don’t know what DAMNED is, go to the Cyberosia site and find out – you’ll see some gorgeous Mike Zeck artwork there – then bug your retailer for it (it’s a trade paperback of a crime comic) and if they don’t want to help you, order a copy from Khepri or Mars Import.

    I forget the rest of it off the top of my head, and I’ve got writing to get back to.

    Up up up and away we go. See you next week in a brand new show.

    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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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.

    Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should 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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