SILENCE OF THE LAMBS: whatever happened to real discussion of comics?
MY BUSINESS, RIGHTS OR WRONG: how we ended up in this mess again
COMEDY OF TERRORS: fun and games with the Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time administration
Over on this column’s message board, almost no one ever comments on comics topics brought up here. Almost no one ever comments on comics at all. (They talk a lot of politics, for obvious reasons.) Whenever I check other boards, what passes for comics talk usually has to do with the “hot scoop” on some future event (“Dude, Marvel’s doing a sequel to HOUSE OF M!”; “Dude, Neil Gaiman’s writing THE SMURFS!”), or bitching (“Hey, did anyone else think COUNTDOWN sucked?!), or largely uninformed commentary about personalities the commentator has never met or had any notable contact with. If there’s much actual discourse out there, or aesthetic discussion, or even people spreading word of mouth on notable lesser known comics they really like, I must be missing it. Hell, there are only a couple of review boards that are both updated regularly and have any density of coverage. It’s pretty obvious that most of those who do regular reviews are mainly only interested in Marvel and DC comics (which, in terms of comics to talk about, is a pretty small subset, since many of the comics each publish is functionally the same comic) or believe their audience is.
Since word of mouth is still the best way to publicize comics (and, for many comics, the only way), this is an issue. Since we still don’t have a definitive “language” of the medium and reasoned discourse examining and dissecting existing comics (particularly but not exclusive the ones people think are good) is the best way to achieve a “common” language (I mean, how many times do creators really want to reinvent the wheel?), this is an issue.
Of course, we read comics schizophrenically. I thought about this a little while I was writing up Grant Morrison’s SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY for my “Fun Fun Fun” column in COMICS JOURNAL #272, though there wasn’t room to discuss it there. Aesthetics is only one aspect of comics, and far from the most visceral one, though we absorb the aesthetics of comics without even thinking about it. (Absorbing is one thing, understanding is another.) Reading a comic involved a connection to either the story or the character(s) as primary point of interest, and whichever of the two isn’t primary is usually secondary. This is the level on which most comics are discussed. If I talk about how much I enjoyed Morrison’s weaving of bits of DC lore into a fight against a giant monster than turns out to presage the return of an ancient evil, that’s pretty much just story. If I talk about how I’ve always dug the old western Vigilante character and Morrison & J.H. Williams III do a great job with him, that’s character. And, usually, that’s the limit of connection most people have with a comic. They like the story, they like the characters. To talk instead about how Williams changes the tone of the art in his second chapter to beautifully capture the essence of Jean Giraud’s fabulous LT. BLUEBERRY series and colorist Dave Stewart doesn’t miss a step in helping him, or how Morrison subtly sets up the great reveal at the end in the initial scene, which also cleverly spells out the entire series and establishes all the themes of the semi-independent mini-series involved, that’s just way too much information for most people.
But it shouldn’t be.
Not that professionals are generally much help in that regard. When I first entered the business in ’77, it was practically social suicide to attempt a “serious” discussion of comics. There was so universal a dismissal of what they did for a living in New York comics circles that expressing any sort of “serious” interest in comics would get you labeled and derided as a “fanboy.” (And that was from guys who filled their studios with toys – excuse me, “action figures” – and sat around having long drool-filled discussions about what a hot Wonder Woman Lynda Carter was.) Even today, when comic writers get together there’s rarely any discussion of writing; they bitch about artists, and editors. When artists get together they bitch about writers. And editors. When writers and artists get together, they bitch about editors, and publishers.
Not that there isn’t something to be said for doctors not wanting to discuss medicine when they’re not at work, but doctors also hold conferences and are expected to stay knowledgeable about changes and improvements in their profession. Comics pros, as a group (there are always exceptions, and you know who you are), tend to follow the example of one pro I knew many years ago: he had a set idea of what comics “should” be – 12 cents, 32 pages, printed on cheap paper – and claimed anyone who thought they should be more than that were being pretentious and anything else wasn’t really comics, but the moment anyone else got more, he felt it was his right to have the same thing. Considering what a fluid and still unsettled medium this is, you’d think there would be many more talents interested in innovation and invention, in finding new and better ways to produce newer and better comics.
The general attitude is pretty rampant in fandom as well. What passes for discussion is way too often dominated by a handful of fans who aren’t interested in any real discourse or discussion but want to achieve some sort of stature by seizing on a single idea, imposing it on everyone else and ridiculing or harassing anyone who disputes it. (My favorite description of them is that they’re guys who really like ideas but have so few of them that when they finally get their hands on one they refuse to let go of it.)
I realize much of this is the general nature of the Internet itself, but it isn’t just the Internet. Sure, there’s a lot of chatter about comics out there, but we need a much higher quality of chatter, even if it’s just people talking about the comics they love and being able to explain why they love them. That’s what critical thought is about: it’s not enough to be able to say whether you like something or you don’t. You have to articulate why. It’s not enough to say other people should like something. You have to give reasons, and be ready to watch those reasons undergo independent deconstruction. It’s not enough to say a book is good. “I like it” and “it’s good” aren’t euphemisms for each other. Critical arguments aren’t made to be blindly accepted but to be tested against other critical arguments, to see where both flaws and common ground lie. This is how critical language and critical thought evolve, and this is what we need.
This has never been a business that has seriously believed creators should control their own work, even though there was a brief moment from the late ’80s through the early ’90s when creator-ownership was almost a feasible business practice. (Not that it couldn’t be; it has been in the book trade for decades.) For decades, for the vast number of writers and artists who’ve worked in comics, it simply wasn’t permitted, even when it looked like it was. There were the few odd exceptions, like Will Eisner, who managed to maneuver himself into a pretty good position, or Bob Kane, who cut a sweetheart deal then functionally got out of the business, but there has usually been an inverse relationship between the value of the creation and the treatment of the creator – look at Siegel & Shuster, or Jack Kirby – and the best most talent throughout the history of comics have been able to expect from most publishers was to scavenge enough of a page rate to pay the bills before getting kicked to the curb, which was what happened to most of them, regardless of their value to whatever company at one point or another. Either the publisher or editor decided their value was reduced for some reason (a whim of marketing, failing health, inquiries about increased page rates or frivolities like medical coverage) or the company itself went out of business. The traditional reasoning has always been, “Hey, that was the life you chose, deal with it,” without taking into account that the choices were slim, particularly for those with a genuine love for the medium. Publishers have traditionally cited costs or risks as the rationale for why they should own everything and creators should have nothing – the capitalist philosophy that the man who financially backs a venture should be considered the true creator of the subsequent work – and that rationale as their excuse for the traditionally miserable treatment of talent, but the real reason is: they did it because they could.
And, for awhile, it looked like it might change. Due to factors ranging from Marvel Comics’ use of credits in the ’60s and marketing their talent like toothpaste – Kirby, Steranko, Ditko, Romita and Buscema, not to mention Stan Lee (always Stan Lee) became brand names, a trend that picked up even more steam with tidal wave of new talent in the ’70s) – as well as the sudden growth of a fandom ravenous for knowledge about the creation of comics and the people behind them and the rise of a “critical fandom” that actually analyzed aspects of the creative process (including financial) and proposed possible alternatives (remember, this was an era when alternatives in all walks of American life were receiving considerable play), plus sudden sales collapses provoked by shifting distribution patterns – converted talent into something marketable of themselves, separate from specific characters. Savvy talent started seriously talking guilds or unions, though the closest anyone came was the short-lived Acadamy Of Comic Book Arts (ACBA), which ended up with Neal Adams as its most visible and vocal member. Neal and others were aware of changes being discussed in copyright laws, and started making creator ownership of copyrights an issue, as well as focusing on whether publishers had any rights to the physical art. (They didn’t, though none would admit that for almost a decade.)
Some new companies like Atlas sprang up, marketing talent as much as characters (which wasn’t much of a crapshoot for them, since no one was familiar with their characters anyway, so by marketing talent they were marketing the better known quantities) but there was little lip service to creator rights there. It was left to newer small companies trying to take advantage of the nascent direct market, like Star*Reach and Eclipse, to put ACBA theories into any sort of practice. To some extent it worked; Star*Reach placed creator-owned work by smart young guys like Howard Chaykin, and Eclipse lured popular talents like Steve Gerber, Don McGregor and Marshall Rogers who were disgruntled with the way “the big boys” did business. Not that Star*Reach or Eclipse made huge inroads, though Eclipse managed to stick around for the better part of two decades (though, as the battle between Todd McFarlane and Neil Gaiman for the MIRACLEMAN rights (bought by McFarlane from Eclipse) indicates, their business practices “adjusted” some in the intervening years), but they planted a small seed that other publishers milked to death in the ’80s.
Publishers may have made a huge noise about “creator ownership” in the ’80s, mostly as a way to convince talent to work for them instead of Marvel (DC as well as smaller companies like First jumped on the bandwagon), but in virtually every case it was smoke and mirrors. Sure, contracts would assure “creator ownership”… then insert clauses giving the publisher complete editorial control over the property and its use ad infinitum. Sure, there would be methods by which the creator could reassert his complete control over the creation… but they’d frequently involve either the total payback of all publisher expenses on the property regardless of profits made from it (don’t laugh; I’ve read contracts with exactly that clause in it) or recovery would only be possible in the event of breach of contract by the publisher, and the contract would inevitably also contain a clause stating that no failure by the publisher to meet individual terms of the contract could be considered a breach. (In other words, it was functionally impossible for the publisher to breach the contract.) This was still in a day when not many freelancers used lawyers. (Publishers also had a tendency to insert clauses diminishing pay if work was delivered late; I usually countered with a clause raising the fee if the check was delivered late, and the first clause was quietly stricken each time.) Frankly, it wasn’t until there were so many companies, and many of them were actually making money, that companies began offering real creator ownership/control deals, just to get salable talent to work for them. Even then, there were never that many companies that offered genuinely creator-friendly deals. Most wanted guarantees that if the talent decided to stop producing the property, the company could continue to produce it independently.
From a company POV, it makes perfect sense that they’d want a popular property continued. From talent POV, it’s reasonable that at some point they’d feel they’d said all they can say with a particular property, or they’d have other ideas they’d rather explore. It’s also understandable that a company would want to prevent a cash cow product from jumping to a rival company. These are the conundrums that “creator ownership” has never successfully addressed. What’s really needed for creator ownership to take hold is for someone to generate a successful business plan based on it. The problem for comics publishers and talent is that creator ownership without creator control is meaningless; what’s the point of being king when all the power is in the hands of the regent? Especially in a business where the business model is now not publishing but generating franchises for wide exploitation. Frankly, the franchise model (at least as it applies to comics) is built on the robber baron concept of the 19th century, and, with the inability of many so-called comics publishers to figure out how to turn a profit from publishing, has triggered a wave of publishers demanding more and more back from talent, mostly media rights but now, if TokyoPop starts a trend, at least partial ownership of the property itself.
Interestingly, many readers translate any talk of “creator ownership” into sheer greed on the part of the talent, and it suggests a not particularly subtle (though frequently unconscious) belief of many readers that properties, once published, really belong to them. (This is nothing new, really; Arthur Conan Doyle was “forced” by public outrage to bring back Sherlock Holmes after he had killed off the immensely popular detective.) Which adds another wrinkle to the issue; strides in creator rights were mainly possible in the ’70s and ’80s because readers were partners with the talent in demanding them, and companies were certainly aware of the potential for trouble with the audience. Though that rarely overwhelmed their other interests, they still had to go through periodic song and dance routines to show their hearts were in the right place after all. Not that talent did themselves any favors with the audience, usually. As I said, by the early ’90s there were tons of creator owned properties on the market, many doing quite well. But talent was frequently late – I mean really late – producing the books, or they’d get a big payoff and instead of banking it and steadily continuing production for three or four years then taking a break, the talent would abruptly stop putting out a book, sometimes in mid-storyline, in the misplaced belief that they and their property had secured a rabid audience that would wait breathlessly for their return. In most cases when they did return, they found their audience moved on, leaving publishers holding the bag. It didn’t put them in solid with publishers, and it convinced many readers and publishers that “creator-owned” was synonymous with “don’t bother.” The perception has been exacerbated over the last ten years by the refusal of virtually any publisher of “creator-owned” comics to promote those books, especially if the publisher also publishes company-owned titles, leading to a general market invisibility and subsequent failure of “creator-owned” comics, which in turn has led to a widespread perception among retailers that “creator-owned books don’t sell” (and who can tell them otherwise, since they’re the ones on the front lines and, due to the way the direct market works, the ones who literally pay the price for it), which has only increased the degradation of the creator-owned comic in the popular view.
So here we are, bemoaning “bad” contracts from TokyoPop. I haven’t read it, I don’t know whether it’s really bad, aside from the 60% company ownership clause, or not. But, as I said, even that’s not that uncommon, it’s just usually not couched in such naked terms. Far more than one talent has signed a contract that assured them the work was entirely theirs then discovered when it was far too late that their work was legally an asset of the company and completely out of their control. One thing I have to say for TokyoPop is at least they’re up front about it. (Even now, though, many talents are saying how they’re willing to go along with the deal because of the exposure it will bring them, though TokyoPop’s new line isn’t yet tested – no one’s yet sure there’s an audience for nissei comi, or whether the manga market will consider them carpetbaggers, regardless of publisher – and is lengthy enough that individual exposure will most likely be minimal.) In no way is it a bad thing to have a growing renewed discussion about creator rights, but for it to have any real meaning or effect, the conversation will have to be regular, public, load, and considerably more complex. Right now there’s absolutely no reason for (most) publishers to think such a thing is in their best interest, or most readers to accept that it’s in theirs.
But the funniest moment in recent memory was last week’s “spontaneous” conversation with American troops on the eve of the Iraqi elections. (It remains to be seen whether they’re the watershed of Iraqi democracy the White House is touting them to be, or the final impetus to outright civil war in Iraq.) As you must have heard, correspondents in to cover the “historic” “candid” chat between the President and the troops were inadvertently ushered into an unexpected preshow, where Pentagon propagandists were rehearsing the Hand Puppet’s forthcoming questions with the troops and instructing where they should punch up their answers and the language to use, to get across the idea that things are absolutely just great in Iraq. It was such a blatant manipulation that it’s turning even the Red States sour on Iraq (not that they weren’t already working toward it). It was funny, but not all that surprising to anyone who has been paying attention. It’s been obvious for years that this entire administration has been ridiculously stage-managed, without regard for truth or honesty, since the beginning. Thanks, guys, for making it blatantly obvious. (I now gird my loins for the onslaught of right wingers moaning, “Well, duh. Every administration tries to stage manage.” That’s true, but some of them also do other things.)
Also funny has been New York Times writer and administration lapdog Judith Miller, who blithely used her position on the paper to reprint every lie espoused by the White House as a rationale for invading Iraq as unadorned truth without bothering to, oh, fact check and who most recently has become the weird poster child for the First Amendment after being jailed for refusing to tell a grand jury who fingered exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame to her. (It was Dick Cheney’s flunky Lewis “Scooter” (love the prep school nicknames, guys) Libby, though Miller claims he never mentioned Plame by name, though her notes of their meeting specifies Plame by name, with the name misspelled, strongly suggesting someone did mention her by name, and not in writing, and logic suggests it wasn’t Miller. The thing about Libby’s involvement is that most of the other leaks have been established as originating with White House Deputy Chief Of Staff and longtime Hand Puppet puppeteer Karl Rove, which suggests that the Plame exposure wasn’t simply cooked up and executed by Rove as a wildcat but actively discussed and planned by the administration. Miller gave a speech here in Las Vegas today where she very carefully chose her words, saying reporters have a duty to print what they believe to be the truth. Nice caveat there; betray the public interest as a political favor for the powerful, and you can always beg off any consequences with “well, I believed it was the truth at the time.”
Finally, longtime Hand Puppet lapdog, advocate for con artists, and random Supreme Court candidate Harriet Miers sure has a way of winning friends and influencing people, doesn’t she? I can just imagine the round of guffaws at the White House when she met Conservative criticism of her qualifications by telling reporters that all the Congressional Republicans are doing with their comments is making her more liberal. Yeah, that‘ll convince them…
It’s a mad mad mad mad administration, ain’t it?
Not a lot going on this week. My time’s being all eaten up by a huge graphic novel project – I have to say it’s been great fun, an action-thriller – and I haven’t had time to read anything, so reviews will have to wait for next week. My birthday’s on the weekend, so I’ll be taking at least Saturday off, but I don’t really have anything special planned. (When you get to my age, birthdays become irrelevant and anything you really want costs far more than you or anyone on your behalf is willing to shell out for it anyway.) But I feel oddly revitalized, creatively, like something has snapped after a long, long era of tension. There’s something in the air…
Ray Cornwall was the winner of last week’s Comics Cover Challenge, which was a pretty easy one with a pretty transparent clue. (“Lulu,” for those who didn’t get it. Think about it.) All the comics shown had stories created or co-created by women. While I wasn’t surprised that many readers got the answer (though none were as fast as Ray) – there were far more answers to last week’s challenge than ever before, so many I couldn’t answer all of them – I was surprised that so many respondents seemed to know who Ann Brewster, artist on EC’s CRIME PATROL (not to mention CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED and other comics, and one of the very few female artists in the Golden Age), was. Anyway, Ray would like to promote Comic Widows, “a great website about comics run by a good friend, Glenn Walker. Glenn’s one of the most amazing people I know; not only is he a transplant survivor, he’s managed to build healthy online communities where people can talk about their passions (not only does he run comicwidows.com, but he also moderates Writers Circle, a wonderful group for authors)… (And I have a column there too – Why I Love Comics – although I haven’t updated in a while. Need to do that…)” Go check it out, and while you’re there pester Ray to update his column, just to prove that no good deed goes unpunished.
Somewhat after the fact but always welcome, Mike Everleth reviews last year’s release of THE LAST HEROES (by Gil Kane and me) over at Bad Lit. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet, so I hope it’s good.
Almost no one took me up on my offer last week to publish their TV reviews. Here’s the one who did, Croatia’s Denis Pajtak, who had this to say about BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (Sci Fi Channel, returning in January):
” I’m a picky sod, and there is so much to miss in SF. And this show does it; ever since the plugging of the Cylon ship by Starbuck to the survival of the “new” home fleet which uses a network. But that just makes it more incredible. It is the most intelligent SF show since STAR TREK NG, it allows for thrillers not seen since “V”, and it quite possibly has the best camera work ever in such a show. The cast in nothing short of brilliant, and while one would expect that from Olmos (Adama), but Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck) steals every scene she’s in and Tricia Helfer is simply the best model ever to make actress. And there is very little black and white, which is refreshing to see.
Other picks: ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (best American comedy, no contest), HOUSE (proving one brilliant man (Laurie) can carry a show to great heights, THE WIRE and THE SHIELD for the gritty in us. I applaud DEADWOOD for being different and mourn THE WEST WING, whose first 2-3 seasons were the best on TV. Ever.
New shows? Not a happy place. EARL is fun, I’ll give THE LOOP and EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS a chance, maybe INVASION, the rest – the less said the better.”
Thanks, Denis. I didn’t know they even got American programs that quickly in Croatia. The offer’s still good for everyone else, by the way: 200 words telling us why a particular show (preferably one I haven’t covered) is worth watching. Drop it to me in an e-mail; you’ll find an e-mail link toward the bottom of the column.
I’m also told the BBC is spinning off a new series from their recent DR. WHO revival. Apparently it won’t overlap with DR. WHO, at least not by current plans.
Tech difficulties have once again scotched the Comics Cover Challenge this week, but check in next week for a new one. In the meantime here’s a rare early Joe Kubert job from BOY COMICS #10, from the same people who once brought you CRIME DOES NOT PAY.
And don’t forget my two books are available in pdf e-book form at The Paper Movies Store: TOTALLY OBVIOUS, collecting my Master Of The Obvious essays on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life; and IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS, a running commentary on American life and politics in the first half of the Terror Decade. 250+ pages each, $5.95@ or both for $10.95. What are you waiting for?
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.
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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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