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Issue #175

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #175
  • The world was shockedshocked, I tell you! – by DC‘s abrupt cancellation a couple weeks ago of a slew of titles. If you call half a dozen titles a slew. Some, like THE HUMAN TARGET, had 21 issues and a few trade paperback collections to round up an audience, while others, like BLOODHOUND seemed to come and go without much of a ripple. Still, it’s far from the first time DC, or most other companies, have bulk cancelled books – who remembers when execs slaughtered an entire crop of new DC comics in their cribs in the late ’70s, when the editorial department was trying to draw audiences back in? – and it’s time to abandon the cherished myth that such things ever have anything to do with quality. It’s a two-edged myth designed mainly for self-justification. If you don’t like a book, it got justifiably cancelled because it was crap. If you like a book, it was tragically cancelled because it was too good for the audience, which only responds to crap. No one ever accepts the books they like might be cancelled for being crap, or that a book they don’t like may be too good for the audience. It’s a logic bomb. The only way both propositions can be true is if the books that do sell, including the ones you like, are neither crap nor high quality. In other words, mediocre. And who wants to believe that, right? It’s this simple: sometimes quality sells, sometimes crap sells. No way to figure it.

    More often, nothing sells.

    But you’d think, after a few decades in the business, comics companies would have a better grasp on how to launch titles. Not that the readership makes it easy. But (not to pick on Dan Jolley or suggest anything about the book, it just happens to fit the thesis) why take a book like BLOODHOUND and simply dump it onto the market? On the surface – and that’s as far as most people who go with anything – it wouldn’t appear to be a particularly salable property, at least not without some marketing muscle behind it. Neither writer nor artist have big followings (that I’m aware of, and, again, that’s no reflection on their skills if they don’t), DC has tried and failed with the basic concept – a non-superhero hunting superbeings – before at least once with a pretty decent book (CHASE), and it sits merely on the cusp of superhero comics when the direct sales market has skewed strongly toward superheroes since its inception. But it got the standard half-push: a splash for the first issue involving internet interviews and a little in-house promotion, and then DC cast its bread upon the waters, with predictable results. Not that DC’s the only company that does such things; the anomaly is the company that doesn’t. A friend in magazine marketing refers to this as the “Field Of Dreams” approach, after the slogan in the Kevin Costner film of the same name where he erects a baseball field in an Iowa cornfield on the promise from apparently God that “build it and they will come.” Anyone paying attention noticed the people who marketed the movie didn’t follow their own advice. It was promoted and promoted and promoted – as the feelgood film of that year, with an “inspirational” message that also happens to be a fairytale. For the comics market, a Biblical equivalent might be more appropriate: cast your bread upon the waters and it will return to you.

    And it’s the direct market; publishers don’t like returnables.

    So what’s a company to do?

    BIRDS OF PREY, which now qualifies as a long-running title, makes an interesting example. Starring a couple of second string superheroines – I always liked the Black Canary, but she was far from one of DC’s most popular characters or even costumed heroines, and she’d spent the previous decade mostly playing an object of abuse to where it make it difficult for even longtime Black Canary fans, all 12 of them, to take her seriously, and, speaking of abuse, her partner was a costumed heroine so good at it she got shot, paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair – then basically abandoning the superheroic mode. Sure, there was that tentative connection with Batman, but it wasn’t played up, and connections with Batman stopped being an audience draw years ago. (It has gotten to the point where guest-starring Superman or Batman in a book, unless it’s drawn by Jim Lee or an equivalent, can cause a book’s sales to go down.) Yet it started slow, it built, and it’s still around.

    What did they do right?

    1) The concept. Not that it’s a terribly brilliant concept, but that’s sort of the point: two adventuresses join forces and take on assignments around the globe. Comic companies these days have fallen into a very harsh trap: they no longer approve of (or even approve) simple concepts. They obsess on big canvases, grand concepts, nailing down every aspect of a series before it’s put forth and too often straitjacketing everything in without regard to whether the concept can sustain a series. There’s something Roger Ebert calls “the idiot plot,” the plot that would fall apart if just one character would pause long enough to ask the obvious question. That’s akin to how many comics concepts work; there may be one great story in them, but continuing requires the main characters to lock into a single mode that quickly burns out its own possibilities. Forcing a) a revamp; b) “a new direction”; or c) forcing the protagonist to relive the original situation over and over. There’s a reason why DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE isn’t as fondly thought of as DIE HARD. For comics, I call it the MASTER OF KUNG FU syndrome: once Fu Manchu is beaten or dead, there’s no reason to continue the series. Which is why they had to jump through hoops to figure out rationales for continuing, and why they always eventually resorted to bringing back Fu Manchu, over and over. (Which ends up making the hero look like an ineffectual yutz, eventually.)

    Simple underlying concepts are the best. They might not be as immediately flashy but they’re terra firma. They’re open. They can be built on. “Two women having adventures” isn’t something you can stick unadorned into promotional copy, but it leaves the possibilities as open as imaginable.

    From a creative standpoint this makes sense too. Way too many people come up with huge, sprawling epics of vast complexity and duration apparently without the slightest awareness that the book probably isn’t going to last that long. Frankly, anyone can come up with vast, sprawling concepts that illuminate all the secrets of the universe, rewrite history and open the path to total spiritual enlightment. Coming up with a story that can be told in an interesting way, with interesting characters and a fulfilling climax, in 4-6 issues, or even 22-48 pages, is a lot tougher. And you may think you know now where you want a series to be in five years, or ten, but you’re going to be a completely different person ten years from now, with different interests and a different viewpoint, and creations that can’t evolve with you are creations you’ll either stick with in growing frustration or walk away from.

    2) The development. The book wasn’t just thrown out there. Not as a monthly. They were smart enough to test it as a miniseries. Then a number of one-shots spread over a couple of years. They didn’t just expect a market to appear, they generated one. When BIRDS OF PREY finally became a regular series, three years after its debut, it already had an audience and word of mouth.

    Word of mouth is still what sells comics more than anything else, which is why so much effort’s expended, mainly via Internet “newssites,” to manufacture word of mouth, an effort usually undermined by the dual nature of comics marketing. They have to market to retailers first. Retailers, notoriously reticent to test new material, often wait for their customers to tell them what they want, but the customers don’t see the material until months after their retailers have to order it. Which means, more often than not, they don’t see it. No word of mouth is possible.

    So the miniseries and the one-shot, or, preferably, recurring minis and one-shots, are among companies’ best chances to generate word of mouth on a new concept, with minimal commitment. Nobody liked it? Everyone walks away, but the story’s done, those who read the book (and there are always a few) don’t feel cheated, it’s good policy all around. BIRDS OF PREY did it well – with already recognizable characters, true, but recognizable characters very few cared about at the book’s inception – but that way takes something neither talent nor publishers are very big on: patience.

    The other best shot of promoting a new concept is to find an existing title where it fits and introduce it there. In TV that’s called a backdoor pilot. The way regular series are done mitigates against this, though; either the character/concept would have to be developed by someone other than its creator(s) or books would have to take on rotating creative teams, which would then be “spun off” along with the new creations. To some extent DC is already swinging this way, with the rotating teams policy on BATMAN (not to mention the longrunning and periodically endangered LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT, but it’s far from being encoded or properly exploited, and it has yet to be consciously used in SHOWCASE mode. Marvel has long made a habit of generating (almost exclusively) new series with characters developed and exposed in other series. But even Marvel cancels a lot of books, most of them new series. And patience is again a virtue, even with this technique; a single appearance or arc will only generate an audience if the concept is really strong, gets in your head and won’t let go strong. Most concepts don’t fall into that category, and if the goal is to end up with a longrunning sustained series most concepts that fit into that category have expiration dates. They rarely sustain themselves indefinitely. In the face of less overpowering concepts, word of mouth will grow best in the soil of repeated exposures.

    The main point, though, is that successful characters/concepts/series generate word of mouth. Word of mouth only comes, in most instances, after extended exposure. Extended exposure can only be gotten by extended exposure. (There are exceptions, of course. There are always exceptions. But you can’t make a career out of depending on them.)

    Clearly, this idea of throwing material out there to see what floats doesn’t work (or doesn’t work often enough to merit continuing the practice). There are other ways of “showcasing” new properties, and DC has tried most of them, notably with SHOWCASE, which I always liked as a kid but which fluctuated greatly in sales depending on what was being run in the book at any given time. With books like SHOWCASE, which changed concepts every few issues at a minimum and occasionally every issue, publishers have to take as a given that they’re loss leaders, with the cost of the book, which will likely not sell more often than sell, amortizing over time and across the line rather than the title. (It’s the sort of book that shouldn’t be judged by how many copies it sells but by how many successful books spring from it, and even then it’s the editorial and marketing staffs that should be judged, not the book.) But pretty much no publisher who has done that kind of book in the past thirty years has done much business with it. There’s also the anthology, and you’d think different series testing under a single roof would create enough cross-momentum to sustain itself, but the direct market has been traditionally very hostile towards anthologies, with many readers seeing anthologies as being forced to buy material they don’t want to get material they want, and, it’s true that even if you published a 48 page anthology for $2 but a reader only wanted to read eight pages of it, $2 for eight pages wouldn’t feel like much value for cost. Even anthologies that have all strong contributions are often castigated by the market for obsessing on one genre, or mixing them.

    Basically, anything a publisher does, someone’s going to bitch about.

    Many readers are even resistant to miniseries, having been burned by them many times now. They’re aware minis are often collected into trade paperbacks, and wait for the trades. (Ensuring, usually, that the trades never get collected, since most publishers still look at pamphlet numbers as indicators of potential trade sales, whereas in many cases there may be no correlation between the two, or even an inverse correlation. But there’s no way to know until publication, and how many publishers want to throw good money after bad?)

    The logical alternative would be to go straight to “trade paperback collection,” AKA the original graphic novel. A big financial commitment for publishers. But it’s where it’s going, inevitably. One direction, anyway. Of course, all this bypasses the question of whether ongoing series are still a healthy direction for the business anyway, but, since most publishers (and, certainly, Marvel and DC) are predicated on continuing series, it’s a moot question. If they want them, they’re going to have to start putting more care and effort into marketing them, and however that’s done, whether via recurring one-shots and miniseries or some other way, it’s going to take three things the industry is very short on at the moment: money, patience and time.

  • That was a real blast from the MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS past, wasn’t it? (Stylistically, I mean; it’s not a reprint.) I haven’t done a sustained essay like that in some time. And what a week for it. The laptop, where I do all my work, crashes and the rebuild didn’t take, but I have to keep it intact long enough to finish the latest CSI: SECRET IDENTITY script (the first issue’ll be out next month, by the way, so go buy it), which was quite a juggling act, then last night, having transferred all my important data to my ancient desktop (now functioning mostly as a big backup box), I did the one terrifying thing I hoped never to do: a factory restore. Press a button and the contents of the entire drive are wiped into oblivion, to be replaced by what the factory originally put on the machine.

    Then on to wiping out what I don’t want, like Microsoft Works (not that I mind the program, I kind of like it, but Microsoft Office makes it redundant, and installing all the programs I use. These break down into several areas: writing programs (Microsoft Word; Final Draft; Wordweb Pro); systems utilities (Diskeeper; Eraser; Atomic Clock; AlZip; Batchrun); Internet utilities (Firefox; Thunderbird; Gaim; Zone Alarm; Avast Anti-Virus; Spybot; Ad-Aware; Mailwasher; Maxthon); media (Photoshop; Exact Audio Copy; RioPort; ACDSee; Photocopier); hardware drivers and mostly business-related miscellanea like Talkworks). Looking at the list, it’s amazing how many great programs are freeware now. I recommend all of them, and if I had the time I’d run links for all of them, but you can find them about as fast by Googling. The great thing about this is that it cleared out all the crud that’s accumulated over five years, the detritus of programs I tried, didn’t want, and eliminated. Also amazing how must faster the machine is just with all that trash gone.

    Because I’m still in reinstalling, no reviews or TWO HEADS TALK this week, but look for them next week. They’ll be back next week. And if you’ve sent any e-mail over the last two weeks and haven’t gotten a response that you might have expected, you probably want to send again. Thanks.

  • Did I sleep through the State Of The Union Address again this year, or hasn’t the Hand Puppet gotten around to it yet? (Lord knows giving an inaugural address and a State Of The Union speech in a single week would be way too taxing for him, and he’s adamantly anti-taxation.) Or did the Red States just decided he really shouldn’t be answerable to anyone? Not that any halfwit couldn’t figure out the speech: everything’s going peachy in Iraq, where democracy will reign once elections take place, so we need another $80 billion. For peace. Peace is apparently the Hand Puppet’s new watchword; he wants to bring peace to the whole world. Which, no doubt, is why reports surfaced last week of pre-war covert incursions (apparently by the CIA but placed under military auspices to circumvent regulatory prohibitions on such behavior) into both Iran and Syria, apparently in anticipation of full out assaults, now that we’ve “won” in Iraq and the insurgency has been effectively crushed. (Wait. What? They haven’t? When the legend becomes truth, print the legend!) So obviously when the admin swore up and down that the Iraq invasion was not intended to create a Middle Eastern base via which they could impose their will on other Middle Eastern countries, it was just another lie.

    Not that we should be expecting anything else by now. Nor should we expect the Democrats to step up on any war issues. Democrats were not only solidly behind the Iraq invasion, despite the easy availability (regardless of the official line) of plenty of evidence to punch craters into the admin’s thin and long since collapsed arguments, and Democrats far more than Republicans have been backing calls for a new draft, ostensibly to “equalize” the economic disparity in Army recruitment. (Poor kids join the Army. Rich kids help their dads figure out what countries to send poor kids into next.) Not that the admin’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth; given how much manpower we’re bleeding – literally – in Iraq, where they’re hijacking the wounded and crippled back into service, they’re going to have to get their vast reservoir of invasion forces (and vaster reservoir of occupation forces) from somewhere. Yeah, yeah, I know, the Pentagon has stated they don’t like the idea of a draft, but, you know, in crucial times you sometimes have to do things you don’t personally like for the good of the country, blah blah.

    Like pretend it’s 1910 again. That seems to be what House Republicans feel they now have a mandate to do, if Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas is any indicator. On Meet The Press on Sunday morning he put forth the no doubt purely scientific proposition that social security payments be tied to race and gender, on the principle that statistically black men have shorter average lifespans than white men, which is along the lines of, as Humphrey Bogart said in THE BIG SLEEP (courtesy of writer Leigh Brackett): “He knock your teeth out then kick you in the stomach for mumbling.” Hey, let’s just accept statistical inequities (exactly why do white men, on average, live significantly longer than black men in this country, anyway?) – or eugenics, if you prefer – as the natural order of things, instead of looking for root causes and doing something about them. (That might entail, oh, coming up with a workable health system, and the only plan on the table for that in Washington is to make sure citizens damaged by the existing system have considerably more trouble going to court over it. While making sure drug companies get lots more money.) Of course, the Hand Puppet has already endorsed dismantling (I mean saving) Social Security as his primo domestic issue; look for Republicans, especially the yeehaws in the House, to come up with all sorts of nutty schemes to redistribute the wealth. (Thomas’ other main claim was that Social Security costs jobs, and a better way to fund it is through what amounts to a National Sales Tax. Which is Republican code for “raise taxes on the poor.”)

    But who can think about petty nonsense like that when Brad and Jen are still split up?

    Speaking of petty nonsense, you probably didn’t hear we had a nuclear incident last week, in Montana of all places. Seems we have around nuke silos up there, loaded with enough hardware to obliterate a good chunk of Asia, and the doors abruptly opened on many of them. That may not seem like a huge deal – it wasn’t Chernobyl; no meltdowns, no radiation, just close those doors back up again – but there’s only one situation in which those doors are ever supposed to open: launch. Don’t think the people we have them aimed at, mainly Russia and China, don’t know where they’re aimed. They have missiles aimed back, and we’re not the only ones who have never sworn off a first strike. Even these days, when tensions are at a relative low, at least as far as the general public is concerned, if it looks like we’re going to launch there’s a really good chance they’ll launch first. That mutually assured destruction thing the government used to make such a big deal about. (These days it’s just “gotta have more!”) The Russians almost did nuke us a couple times in the ’70s when just a couple silo doors flew open, so we’re kind of lucky a couple hundred opening didn’t trigger international panic. But that’s national security for you.

    Despite the wretched excess of last week’s inaugural balls (who says the president has no balls, right?) – if he wants $80 billion more he ought to get it from all the bargain hunters who forked out for the parties to make sure the Hand Puppet would look out for their interests during his new term – the party of the month had to be the one the hapless Prince Harry attended in Nazi drag. So much noise made about Harry wearing a swastika, which was a stupid idea in any case, but he wasn’t operating in a vacuum. What was missed in the majority of fingerwagging news reports, both here and in the UK, was the costume party’s theme: colonials and natives. A celebration, in other words, of the glory days of the British Empire, attended by twits nostalgic for the bygone times. All good fun, of course, but while the press was getting exercised about Harry dressing as a member of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, which certainly fits the theme. (Don’t forget that Rommel, often portrayed as a noble soldier trapped working for the Nazis, is highly regarded by many sectors of the British cognoscenti – boys school attendees and graduates, mostly – as a military genius, mainly because he spent a couple years running roughshod over the British army in North Africa, which, I presume, in British eyes only a military genius could pull off.) If nothing else, one can easily make the argument that social diseases like Nazism are the logical end result of the Imperial mindset, and the sorts of behavior the party was glorifying isn’t all that far removed from the horrors of Auschwitz. America and Britain’s tabloids may have had seizures over Harry’s getup (in any case, it’s not like the British Royal Family has never sported Nazi sympathizers) but where was their outrage over the attendees in blackface, or dressed as wogs or coolies? One paper lamented that Harry’s behavior simply fueled those who want the monarchy abolished, but the party itself was a pretty good argument for jettisoning the whole of the British upper classes.

    But, as Johnny Rotten sang, god save the queen, ’cause tourists mean money…

    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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