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Issue #150

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #150
  • It’s two days after San Diego, and I’m beat. Great to see everybody, and thanks very much for the many many compliments on the column. Very strange energy at the con this year. In the last couple years, Comic-Con International has been a deflating place, particularly if you were an American comics talent. Movie companies and manga publishers had taken over the floor, and that was all most of the audience was interested in. American companies seemed to be entrenching, drawing the wagons, steering toward what few illusory “sure things” they thought they had. Marvel didn’t even bother officially showing up. There really was a quiet sense of panic and growing stench of death on American comics, third wheels at their own convention desperately trying to get anything to get attention.

    That wasn’t the tone at Comic-Con 2004. Though not much has significantly changed in the marketplace, jubilation was in the air. It felt like big companies were actually celebrating comics, finally unembarrassed at being associated with them instead of being perceived as “media companies.” Maybe it’s the success of SPIDER-MAN 2, I dunno. The movie companies were still there, bigger than ever – the biggest display on the floor was LucasFilms, throwing out various freebies to convince people REVENGE OF THE SITH will be better than the last two STAR WARS movies. (Rumor has it Chewbacca will be a player, and the voice of James Earl Jones will have a cameo.) The manga companies were still there, having a great time with games and giveaways. (As I said a few columns back after the Anaheim Anime Expo, American comics companies might want to consider the carny routines instead of the more staid sit-and-sign sessions everyone here seems to go for. They may be corny, they may not be dignified, but, man!, do fans eat it up. And maybe that’s something we have to remember: there’s a time and place for dignity, and a time and place for fun.) Even Marvel showed up, though their booth was far removed from most other publishers and oddly circumspect despite the big MARVEL banner suspended between floor and ceiling. Image was drawing crowds every time I walked past, with many waiting in line to meet Erik Larsen, who seemed to be living at the booth. Most surprising, I think, was the sudden surge of new publishers like Joe Pruatt’s Desperado Comics, that seemed confident of a bright new future, and the line expansions of smaller existing companies. Genuine enthusiasm was everywhere, buoyed by the announced numbers of more that 100,000 ticket buyers and dampened only a little by the high humidity in San Diego this year and the convention center’s reluctance to turn up the air conditioning, exacerbated a bit by things like the fabulous giant silk-screened banners draped from the ceilings over their booth, giving an awe-inspiring view of Alex Ross’s renditions of their characters but effectively cutting off the air blowers. Oh well. The booth was still constantly hopping.

    But really interesting this year was how integrated it was. Unlike previous years since the “Hollywood invasion,” the divide wasn’t there. (Of course, the CATWOMAN movie was scarcely referred to.) As if comics weren’t an adjunct to media, and media wasn’t something comics had to chase anymore, but all parts of the same vast beast. Maybe that’s good, maybe bad, but it freed everyone up to stop worrying about such distinctions and just get on with it. Which freed up the audience to enjoy everything, and there was the impression (which I got from speaking with several different people during signings) that people who had come for the media stuff, particularly the anime and movie screenings, were more than interesting in learning more about comic books, as if they considered them worthy entertainment. (By which I mean they were considering spending money on them.) In some places, particularly the Dark Horse booth where the SIN CITY movie was touted with Frank Miller and various personnel from the movie, and mob scenes burst out on a regular basis (though DH’s strange booth design exacerbated this), it was nearly impossible to tell where comics ended and movies began. Pulse‘s Heidi Macdonald mentioned that Hollywood, which has taken to coming each year to tout coming wares, scour for properties that might be developed into films or TV shows (despite the high profile of films like SPIDER-MAN 2 and BATMAN BEGINS, most films based on comics that get greenlit come from lesser known comics, like MEN IN BLACK, GHOST WORLD, 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, ROAD TO PERDITION and even HELLBOY) and hold parties, now views San Diego as “Sundance in the Summer,” a phrase so apt I’m going to steal it from her, since I haven’t seen her use it in her columns yet and no one knows she came up with it.

    (Oh. Wait a minute. Dammit…)

    Which leads into something else I’ve been thinking about for awhile.

    For a long time factionalization has torn and weakened the comics industry. This is natural enough, and it’s been going on pretty much ever since fandom was founded. DC vs Marvel. Independents vs mainstream. Black’n’whites vs color comics. Superhero comics vs. autobiographical comics or funny animal comics or whatever other genre. A little over a decade ago, a number of writer-artists got together and issued “the Creator’s Bill Of Rights,” a manifesto with the unintended effect of alienating many of those – the comics talent pool – it sought to win over, by implying comics written and drawn by the same person were inherently superior to those with the disciplines performed by different people. I still hear that argument, heard it this weekend as a matter of fact, and it’s specious nonsense. The person I talked to cited Will Eisner as the exemplar, going back 60 years to THE SPIRIT and earlier works, but THE SPIRIT, one of the most influential strips in history, was a gang bang if there ever was one.

    There are economic reasons for freelancers pursuing creator-owned work, and economic reasons why most companies prefer company-owned comics, but nothing makes creator- or company- comics inherently superior to the other creatively. As a group, I mean. Specific comics, sure. But PLANETARY isn’t inherently superior to most other superhero comics because it’s a creator-owned comic (or is it company-owned? I forget…) but because it’s usually a better comic book. Likewise, other comics from other genres or publishers aren’t inherently superior to PLANETARY because they’re not superhero comics or not published by DC. There’s no criterion that makes any group or type of comic inherently superior to any other group or type. French comics aren’t inherently superior to American comics because they’re French. Manga aren’t inherently superior to X-MEN just because they’re manga.

    I mean, come on. There are crappy superhero comics, crappy French comics, crappy manga, and great superhero comics, great French comics, great manga. There are great company-owned comics and creator-owned comics that wouldn’t qualify as toilet paper. Fantagraphics is one of the great publishers out there, but even Fantagraphics has published its share of crap; you can’t expect a comic to be good just because Fantagraphics puts it out any more than you can expect any comic with the Marvel name to be good. Because genres, publishers, designer labels, modes of creation, target audiences, characters, nations of origin, title affiliations, size, print style and even talent names don’t matter.

    The only thing that makes a comic book good or bad – the only thing that matters, that really matters – is the work.

    Everything else is marketing.

    It’s rock’n’roll crap, left over from the days when rebellion was what they were marketing. “We’re Mods, we’re better than the Rockers, our music is better than theirs.” “We’re punks, we don’t listen to that hippie bollocks.” Etc. Which, again, isn’t to say that some of what some Mods listened to wasn’t better than some of what some Rockers listened to. But isn’t it a bit odd to hear publishers (and fans, and even some talent) pushing their wares by saying, “Don’t buy that publisher’s output, they’re just pandering to what they think you want, but our books give you want you want.”

    It’s all just marketing.

    For decades now, popular acceptance of comics has been a consummation devoutly to be wish’d, to the point where some were willing to throw out everything interesting about the medium, everything that would give it a future, in order to drag in a phantom audience that wasn’t interested. San Diego indicated there’s a cultural sea change going on, and it’s not the only indicator. Maybe it’s all the movies, maybe it’s the phase of the moon, but comics are becoming of greater interest to the wider market. I can envision many publishers, or talents, or fans seeing in this an opportunity to cash in, and push their desired dominants at the expense of other comics, on specious grounds. What everyone, in this moment when what needed is not factionalism but a unity that suggests the medium is a strong, exciting entertainment choice (and bearing in mind that entertainment, for better or worse, is in the eye of the beholder), is this:

    Comics is comics is comics is comics is comics is comics is comics.

    After years of hope, we may finally be sitting on a golden goose. Let’s try not to kill it this time.

  • Just so we don’t get too far behind on these things:

    “You are right on about Marv and George saving DC from the awful 70s. NEW TEEN TITANS was the only DC book I bought at that time. One of the best mainstream super-hero books to ever come out.”

    That’s true, and thanks. But even if it’s remembered as being utterly horrible, it was still the book that saved DC, and that’s the point.

    “Wasn’t the reason Wolfman/Perez went to DC was because they didn’t like Jim Shooter? I know Shooter worked to break the writer/editor contracts and ended up driving a lot of established pros to DC. And I keep thinking Wolfman is one of them.

    Perhaps Perez left because of the JLA/AVENGERS fallout? I could have the time wrong on that.

    Anyway, you mentioned in your column that there was something else that you were forgetting about – and I was thinking this could be it.”

    No, it was something completely different. A MONTY PYTHON sketch, maybe. As for why Marv and George left Marvel, you’d have to ask Marv and George. I really don’t remember.

    “I’ve been dying to go to the San Diego Con for well over a decade, but responsibilities, lack of money and distance always seem to get in the way. I was really looking forward to meeting you, discussing Gil Kane and congratulating you on the release of THE LAST HEROES. Perhaps next year.

    Anyways, the reason for writing was to throw in my opinion on DC Comics’ debt to Wolfman and Perez. I find it interesting that the period when I got into comics – the 70’s – was when the industry had begun shrinking. I had no idea the industry had once been much larger and that just five years before I was born the BATMAN TV show and the Marvel Age had made comics a fad. I’d heard that the SUPERMAN titles were selling at cancellation levels, but I was surprised to hear that the BAT-titles were once experiencing a similar fate. As much as I enjoyed the characters on SUPERFRIENDS, the reruns of their old shows and the reprints, their then current newsstand exploits seemed rather bland (particularly the SUPERMAN titles). I could get into a lengthy debate over the reasons; suffice it to say as loyal a reader as I was, it was very distressing to see characters with an iconic stature going through the motions with no heart. The SUPERMAN movie showed me that the characters could be adapted to changing times (making my disappointment that much more distressing).

    I believe that one of the reasons Wolfman and Perez had the impact that they did was that they were able to fuse superheroic fare and adapt it to their era. A lot of it is due to Claremont and Byrne creating a hunger for characterization and evolving plotlines. Fans looking for more of this were able to latch on and see something similar. Yes, there were flaws. However, Wolfman and Perez however brought an intimacy to their work which made me and others care for the characters. I wasn’t around for the birth of Marvel, but I’ve heard that a very similar thing happened in the ’60s. As I’ve heard from so many writers, “Make people care about the characters and the audience is yours.” Wolfman and Perez made fans care, and saved the company.

    I know many people credit Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman for bringing DC critical acclaim. But where would DC be if Wolfman and Perez hadn’t helped save the company where new visions and talents could develop?

    Sadly creative tastes change and time passed for the Titans. Liefeld, Lee, McFarlane and others became what fans craved. I haven’t seen much from Wolfman in the last few years. It would be nice if DC would provide him the opportunity to tell his stories.

    I have a feeling many will cringe at the suggestion that the creators get a pension from DC. From what I’ve heard they both received ample amounts of royalties at the time. Much of what I see on the stands seems to be a modern version of what they did about two decades ago. The TEEN TITANS cartoon and Geoff John’s TITANS book seem to be heavily inspired by the work the two gentlemen created. One of the saddest things about this industry is how companies can dispose of talent once sales start to dip. Reminds me of a statement Ice-T once made, “The companies don’t love me. They just love that I make money for them. Once I can’t make money for them anymore I’m out on the street.” Both creators are working on a TITANS graphic novel and I’m really looking forward to it. I hope that Wolfman reaches a new audience and that he can reverse the trend of creators falling off the face of the earth once they fall out of favor.”

    I hadn’t heard Marv and George were working on a TITANS graphic novel, but I’ve just decided not one more week will go by in 2004 when this column doesn’t refer to SUPERFRIENDS at least once. Unless I forget about it. See you in San Diego in 2005.

    “I have a question concerning Comics Code Authority, I mean who are they? Aside from the Wertham historical mumbo-jumbo are they some secretive high council? How would a non-DC or Marvel publisher get them on their books? Can they?”

    Oh, that’s easy. You’d buy into it. DC and Archie and other companies (DC and Archie really founded the Comics Code, back in the ’50s) put down a buy-in every year to help defray operations costs, then pay a fee per book submitted. Not sure if it’s still that way, but the Comics Code Authority used to be mainly stocked by bored housewives brought in as day laborers to read the comics and apply the rules, with considerable latitude, so whether you got the code seal would depend on who read your book that particular day. One person might get offended by something incredibly trivial, another might not look twice at some major infraction. No secrets there, except that it has historically been managed by Archie Comics. In theory, any company could get the code seal if they wanted it. But why would you want it? Means jack to distributors and retailers these days; it’s so little promoted no one who isn’t intimate with the business even remembers what it is. With Marvel effectively out of the Code, you could very easily go into a comics shop or even a news dealer, grab comics off the rack and random, and go some time without ever finding one marked with the Code seal. More vestigial rubbish.

    “Hell, the politics is the main reason I read the column. Seems like everybody’s writing columns about what they’re going to pitch next or what was on TV, but the anti-Hand Puppet diatribes are what makes me come back.

    Just a shame I can’t do anything to get him out of office, save occasional pats on the back for people like you that can. Tempted as I am, I’m not going to campaign in another country’s election.”

    Probably just as well. If you did that you’d be just another foreign terrorist as far as the law’s concerned…

    A follow-up note from the person who wrote last week looking for sales data:

    “I did the analysis on genres yesterday. It serves as the starting point for my project, so I needed to go ahead and get it out of the way. I received a note from someone at Diamond about their research, but it was unhelpful, so this is entirely my own creation based on last month’s sales numbers as published at CBR. I wasn’t sure what I was going to learn from this data when I started, but, in the end, it proved interesting. I am now firmly convinced that neither of the big two is paying the slightest bit of attention to long-term industry trends and that comic sales in general would not be in decline if they were to publish what people wanted to read rather than what they think will sell the most lunchboxes via licensing agreements.”

    Finally, a bit of advice for him from another reader:

    “The person who needs the data might want to contact the Comic Buyers Guide staff. If I remember correctly they have a database tracking long time selling data (starting with data long before the direct market).”

  • Much as I hate to do it, I need to hold another fundraiser. Last month I unexpectedly came down with a weird medical condition (if you really, really want the gory details, drop me an e-mail but it’s stupid and gross) that was painful and irritating, and cost me a couple weeks of work time, but nothing major. The only thing major was the cost of treating it, since it just had to happen in between one health insurance policy (the premiums for which skyrocketed beyond affordability, even though I’m almost never sick and never used the policy) and the next one kicking in. With work going in late, the payment coming back will also be later than expected. So… I’m forced to make up a $1500-2000 shortfall, and don’t have a lot of choice. If you’d like to help out, check the Paper Movies page for how. Thanks.

    Unless, of course, some company would like to toss an issue of something at me and advance me the feel, like, today. I’d much rather work it off, know what I mean?

  • Turns out DC issued two CATWOMAN collections to correspond with the movie. Wow, after last week’s box office performance, am I glad my CATWOMAN story was tied to the collection that ties directly to the movie, CATWOMAN THE MOVIE AND OTHER CAT TALES! (That’s sarcasm, in case you missed it.) Oh, well. For real CATWOMAN stories, get Ed Brubaker’s wonderful collection CATWOMAN: CROOKED LITTLE TOWN. Finally got around to reading it last week, just before the Con, and it’s really good crime comics, if you must have costumes involved. Even better, of course, is Ed’s terrific SLEEPER: OUT IN THE COLD; I’ve never in my life seen so many secrets laid out there in plain sight for people to miss…

    I think I’ll skip the pimp-a-thon this week. If you want to see everything I’ve got available out there at the moment, check the archives for last week’s column. See you next week.

    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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