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Issue #231

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #231
  • THIS WEEK:

    THE EMPEROR’S NEW NEW CLOTHES: no news from WonderCon is good news?

    BLACK AS PITCH: the plot sickens

    MAKING COMICS FUN AGAIN: a blast from the deservedly forgotten past

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD: Cheney shoots wide, Pentagon invades Internet, Captain Valor and much more

  • Here I was, set to dissect the big news that came out of WonderCon this weekend, and –

    There isn’t any.

    Sure, there are the usual new assignments, but even with Grant Morrison on BATMAN it’ll still be Batman, and I find it hard to believe that at this point in his life Morrison woke up one morning and decided he wanted to write Batman more than anything else in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure he’ll have plenty of fun writing it and it’ll be a very cool version that’ll help DC’s bottom line no end, but on some levels the announcement’s depressing. But we’ve been through this before; one person joins a book, another leaves. Likewise, announcements of exclusive deals. I like Peter David and Tommy Lee Edwards and their work just fine (Tommy Lee’s pencils, for example, are so much better than any of his inked work that has ever seen print that it looks like completely different art), I can see lots of advantages to having a set home for awhile, and I’m sure it’ll mean a lot of Peter, Tommy Lee, etc. and their mortgage lenders but otherwise it’s about as significant as me signing an exclusive somewhere. Wooo-hoo. What would it really matter to anyone else? Especially in the modern age of non-exclusive exclusives, where you can only work for one company except for all the things you’re doing for other companies. (For instance, if you want to read Peter David’s work now, his new exclusive means you’ll have to go to Marvel. Or IDW. Or Claypool. Or, presuming he has been writing any lately, his novels.)

    Frank Miller co-directing his first movie? That’s big news. Co-directing his second movie? Not so big. (But good for Frank!)

    Maybe it’s just February, I’m never at my most energetic or optimistic in February. It has always been my least favorite months. (My favorite, for those who care, is October. Nothing to do with my birthday, I just love the way the air and the night feel in October. I always get the urge to travel in October, though I almost never do.) But, despite all the bluster and pomp, the business feels stagnant. Every mega-event that gets announced – and we’re in the silver age of the mega-event now, boys – gets fuzzier and more indistinct, harder to fix on. Reading comics news now is like walking down a carnival midway with dozens of barkers yelling at you to pay your nickel to see The Living Mermaid or Jojo The Dog-Faced Boy but only the nouns vary and the patter’s all the same. Nothing in the way of actual advances to the business or the medium, just the Emperor changing his new clothes, and we’re all supposed to be polite enough to not notice.

    But there’s always MegaCon in Orlando and the Publisher’s Weekly Comics Convention in NYC at the end of the month – I suspect the big news coming out of that will be the ratio of professionals to paying attendees, especially if the weather’s awful and it hasn’t been great so far this month (I’ve been to conventions in Manhattan in February, and it’s a consummation devoutly to be not wished) – and WizardWorld Los Angeles in mid-March. Maybe something interesting will come out of one of those, if only the announcement that starting 2007 convention season will never end.

  • Had a back and forth with one of the better new writers over the last few weeks, as he geared up to try to crack DC Comics with a mini-series. He had tried before, but what he couldn’t get down, what he asked for help with was the pitch.

    He’s not alone. The pitch is a strange beast that’s only marginally connected to actual writing. I’ve never been comfortable with pitches myself, as I’ve always liked feeling out a story as I go along and making changes as better ideas come to me, and pitches tend to lock them in. (Or, at least, lock in the elements that least interest you as a storyteller, which for some reason are almost always the elements editors latch onto like rabid dogs on a blood flavored chew toy.) But in most instances pitches are an unfortunate economic necessity. Most editors don’t have unilateral power to accept projects, and need a hook they can interest their publishers or superior editors with. (Same thing goes at movie studios, and I know few screenwriters who enjoy the pitch process.) Every editor looks for something different in a pitch – I know some who want no more than a short paragraph and at least one who wants every beat of a story worked out – but generally if you go beyond a single typed page you’ll start losing them.

    Most writers equate plots and pitches, and most writers are fascinated by the various plot twists they come up and think that’s what others will find most fascinating (especially when they work out long, complex runs, which so many aspiring writers do) so plots are what they pitch. Then they don’t understand why editors’ eyes roll up in their heads.

    Think of Cliff’s Notes. As a rough rule of thumb, Cliff’s Notes are the plot of any story, in copious detail. You don’t want to give your editor the Cliff’s Notes on your story, unless you’re asked to. You want to give the summary. A brief summary, because editors’ time is all clogged up, and the more time they have to put into the initial read, the less chance you have of getting your pitch read. You don’t have to besiege an editor with detail; any editor who wants more detail will ask for it, and they’ll only ask if they’re interested.

    One tip: the first thing you want to do if you’re planning to pitch stories about company-owned characters is to try to find out if something’s planned for those characters. You’ll save yourself an awful lot of work that way. Theoretically, if you’ve got enough contact with an editor to be pitching to them, you’ve got enough contact to ask if the company already has something in the works for the heroes and villains you want to use. I found this out the hard way, the first time I pitched at Marvel. Not that it mattered to me at the time, but my pitches were cut short with “[So-and-so already writing for the company] is doing something with that character.” It made for a very short pitch session.

    Even if you’re pitching a completely disconnected story with original characters, these are the main things you need to get across:

    – type of story

    – who your main characters are

    – what the premise/main conflict of the story is

    – how the events of the story affects the characters and vice versa

    – what the end result of the story is, how the characters are changed by it

    The writer I was talking to kept having problems with the concept of pitching because he couldn’t divorce character from plot, and the editor he was dealing with wanted him to focus on the characters. But no writer divorces character from plot. As I’ve mentioned before in the column, character and plot are irrevocably intertwined or your doing it wrong. That intersection of character and plot is where story lies.

    But –

    Repeat after me.

    – the pitch is not the story.

    The pitch is the summary.

    Take MACBETH. You could spell out the plot beat by beat, but this might be a pitch for it:

    A sword and sorcery story. In a land of blood and myth, a mighty general, Macbeth, destroys his king’s enemies and receives their titles and lands as a reward. His wife’s ambition is whetted by this and, on hearing a prophecy that Macbeth will be king, engineers the king’s murder while framing his sons for it, eliminating any heirs to the throne. The sons flee the country, and Macbeth is declared king, fulfilling the prophecy.

    But Macbeth is wracked by guilt and tormented by additional prophecies that he’ll produce no heirs, making the takeover pointless. As he grows more paranoid and jealous of the friend whose children are predicted to become heirs to the throne, Macbeth plots to beat the prophecy and unleashes a bloody reign of terror that alienates supporters and forces many of the lords to flee the country for their lives. But as his personality disintegrates his bravado grows, fueled by yet another prophecy that sets up the only seemingly impossible circumstances by which he can be overthrown and killed – a forest would have to march on his castle, and a man who was not born from a woman would have to kill him. Events take their toll on his wife, though, as fear and guilt drive her insane; it turns out she doesn’t have the nerve to go with her ambition.

    Macbeth’s enemies hook up with the old king’s sons, who are raising an army to retake the kingdom. He’s not afraid, but his spirit is broken when his wife, unable to stand the stress, kills herself. Things get worse when his enemies cover their approach by cutting boughs from trees in the forest and hiding under them. As his own army deserts him in panic, Macbeth carries on the fight alone. Emboldened by the prophecy of his invulnerability, he cuts a bloody path through his enemies. But he learns the general of the enemy army, his former friend MacDuff, was “born” in the conventional way but torn from his mother’s stomach via C-section. Pride prevents him from surrendering peacefully to death, but in his final moments Macbeth comes to understand that he rose to power via prophecy and now prophecy will kill him, and that fate can’t be beaten no matter how much we try.

    You can quibble about how much like the Macbeth story that actually is, or whether that’s the actual point of the play, but it’s a perfectly serviceable one page pitch. You could probably come up with something better and punchier; I did it in a hurry without referring to the play. But it describes the story, outlines the main character and his arc, establishes the changes he goes through, and sums up how he comes out the other end, what he learns from it, why it’s his story. That’s what you have to get across in your pitch.

    In some instances, you might also want to very briefly outline target audiences or hooks on which to hang marketing, but in most cases the publisher and editor will have a much better handle on that sort of thing than you will, so push on the story. But the art of the pitch is in taking a complex story and reducing it, in the most interesting manner possible, to the barest elements necessary to sell the story. This doesn’t mean gutting your story or rendering it simplistic, it just means not burdening your editors with things they don’t need to know at that particular moment. You’ll have plenty of time for all that if the project gets to development stage, which is where you start discussing the story in depth.

    That’s all pitching is. Just remember: the pitch is not the story. The pitch is the symbol that represents your story, the microcosm to your story’s macrocosm. Think of it that way.

  • Ran across this weird little Black Canary story from the ’40s the other day. I’ve always had a sort of youthful fascination with the Black Canary, having stumbled across her on her Silver Age return in my pre-pubescence, right about the time I started figuring out that women were sexy. Not that comics characters did much for me in that regard, but the Black Canary was one of the few comics characters that, innocuous as she was, screamed sex, and not in the dippy ways skimpily clad latter day comics heroines have. “Born” in the late ’40s, arguably the first noir superheroine (she started as a Robin Hood-style thief robbing criminals of their ill-gotten gains, a motif I’ve had a fondness for ever since) with a faintly fetishistic costume and not so loosely patterned after screen femme fatale Veronica Lake, the Black Canary was a glamorous, physical woman who could kick your ass. Of course, DC couldn’t let her be. By the ’70s they turned her into a second banana to Green Arrow, switched her to a nondescript new costume (the first of many, and not one of them has ever had the sexy panache of the bolero jacket/Andrews Sisters gloves/fishnet stockings original), gave her a sonic scream (because just being about to beat the crap out of anyone isn’t superpower enough in this day and age), had her tortured and her throat slit (to get rid of the sonic scream), killed her and resurrected her (and the sonic scream with her), etc. etc. In other words, she’s one of those characters who has never really been used properly.

    And I mean never. But she used to look great. (She looks better these days than she did for 20 years, but go back to the original costume. Some classics never go out of style.) In the ’40s, except when she ran around with the Justice Society, she mostly appeared in little crime stories in the back of THE FLASH, though a few popped up elsewhere. DC collected these in BLACK CANARY ARCHIVES a few years back, around the time of the short-lived BIRDS OF PREY TV show (by the way, before anyone drops me an angry line about it, I think what Gail Simone is doing with the Black Canary is BIRDS OF PREY is just fine, though it’d be better if they brought back the original costume… which Dan Brereton and I did, sort of, in a BIRDS OF PREY one-off done just before Gail got the book that’ll probably never see the light of day now – Dan’s cover already did, used on another issue because the new editor didn’t realize there was a story that went with it – because the setting is now so changed due to INFINITE CRISIS and 52) but, at $40 a pop, I never got around to getting it. Now I’m kind of glad I didn’t. I recently ran across a Black Canary story from COMIC CAVALCADE, a 1948 DC anthology comic. Wow.

    The story’s pedigree is pretty good. Bob Kanigher wrote it, Carmine Infantino and Frank Giacoia drew it. The art’s not bad. But the story…

    Wow.

    A hayseed comes to the big city, only to find himself being shot at by a lamppost and a mailbox. A cop doesn’t believe him, and chases him off. The Black Canary, appearing from nowhere, does. Turns out the hayseed is an heir to a nightclub. The Black Canary figures out that criminals, who want the club, have been trying to kill him or scare him off to cost him his inheritance so they can buy the place up. That’s right. Run of the mill criminals have brilliantly managed to come up with mailboxes and lampposts that shoot at people. It seems to work; the hayseed decides to leave town, and the Black Canary goes to investigate, but then he returns. Their scheme undone, the criminals capture both the hayseed and the Black Canary and decide to get rid of them the hard way – by tying them together and throwing them off the roof of the tallest building in town. Nothing says “accidental death” like a couple of dead bodies tied together. These gangsters are perfectly willing to have mailboxes and lampposts shoot people, but it never occurs to them to do it themselves, because shooting someone and dumping the body is so much harder than carting them to the top of a skyscraper.

    Here’s where it gets really interesting: as they plunge to their deaths, the Black Canary reveals a hitherto unseen superpower (it hasn’t been seen since either, that I’m aware of). She sends out a secret bird signal, and suddenly dozens of black canaries swoop down toward them and catch them in mid-air, supporting their weight and flying them to the ground! Do you know how many canaries it would take to support the weight of even a light human being? Whatever canaries are famed for, strength isn’t it. The landing point just happens to be where the gangsters are, and the Black Canary easily overpowers them.

    You’d think that would be the end of it – it’s only six pages total – but no! The canny Black Canary has figured out that the hayseed she has just saved is an imposter! It’s the hayseed’s twin brother, who also wants the inheritance, and captured and imprisoned the hayseed in order to impersonate him and take possession. (Don’t even try to think that one through.) Twin tries to eliminate them, but the Black Canary overpowers him too, hayseed gets his inheritance and plans to run a clean, gangster-free environment there, and all’s right with the world.

    By this point I was laughing uncontrollably.

    I wish I could say they just don’t write comics like that anymore, but… well… you know. What really gets me is that when people talk about “remember when comics were comics,” “making comics fun again,” etc., this is exactly the sort of thing they’re talking about, whether they know it or not. In capable hands, the “wild ideas” thing sounds just fine, but unleashed it’s going to become an excuse for zero story logic, and that’s going to end up being not much fun for anybody.

  • NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD:

    Running late again, and I don’t have the energy to get into politics this week. In a week where the Vice President of the United States shoots a guy (I’m willing to bet no breathalyzer test was given), why even try? How can I possibly top that? Cultural inanity has even gotten beyond me: right after driving with her infant on her lap, white trash diva Britney Spears announces she’s pregnant again, because, after all, Kevin needs an airbag too. How can I even compete with any of that?

    If you want a little politics though, let The Christian Science Monitor tell you of the Pentagon’s plan to take over the Internet. Seems they consider it an “enemy weapons system” and would prefer if it stayed “on message,” and are willing to take steps to get it there. (Thanx and a tip of the hat to Bryan.)

    Former Marvel/Byron Preiss and current WRITE NOW! editor Danny Fingeroth is at it again, teaching two comics writing courses in New York over the next couple months. A four-session weekly course begins Feb. 21 at Media Bistro, and the New York University’s SCPS course, also four sessions, starts Mar. 8. Check the respective websites for prices and information.

    As mentioned last week, my graphic novel PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE, resurrecting the toughest of the ’40s tough guys in a semi-humorous, semi-homicidal hardboiled mystery that extends back 40 years – and beautifully drawn by Tom (GRIMJACK, MARTIAN MANHUNTER) Mandrake – comes out next month from Moonstone.

    A couple quick reviews.

    From BOOM! STUDIOS:

    PLANETARY BRIGADE 1 by Keith Giffen, J.M deMatteis and various artists, 32 pg color comic ($2.99)

    Torn from the pages of HERO SQUARED. But only sort of. These are the adventures of the dysfunctional superteam square HERO SQUARED hero Captain Valor belonged to before his ex-girlfriend obliterated his world. Giffen and deMatteis, best known for JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA at DC and THE DEFENDERS at Marvel, know a little something about dysfunctional heroes and villains, and are in top form here. As analog characters go, these aren’t bad either. Captain Valor and Grim Knight are Superman and Batman, obviously, but other characters are more obscure: Wonder Woman is crossed with Zealot and the original Captain Marvel, Dr. Strange with a goth chick, etc. The story, about an escalating extradimensional invasion and the helpless Earthman who’s facilitating it against his will, stays just serious enough to anchor things, and the art ranges from good (Joe Abrahams, Eduardo Barretto) to good enough for a town this size. Not bad at all, and if you were a JUSTICE LEAGUE AMERICA or DEFENDERS fan, you’ll find this has pleasantly more of the same.

    ZOMBIE TALES: DEATH VALLEY 2 by Andrew Cosby, Johanna Stokes & Rhoald Macellus, 48 pg color comic ($)

    Wrapping up the story. #1 was a mishmash of overly familiar zombie movie riffs, and this isn’t much different, except that this time it’s far less grating, since the story moves at a much better pace, and there are a couple amusingly original bits as well, like a zombie dog and taking refuge in the Playboy mansion. Could’ve used more character work, since the characters never quite break away from stock teenagers-in-jeopardy, and the mindless zombies seem to get through all barriers far too effortlessly, but there’s a passably reasonable explanation for the zombie outbreak and it comes to a decent climax. The art’s passable, too, though not much more. It’s okay.

    A day late, but happy Valentine’s day. I love Valentine’s day, a remnant of paganism and heresy that starts with Rome’s orgiastic Lupercal, overseen by the Roman goddess of love, when any form of sexual morality and restraint was thrown right out the window, and continuing into the Middle Ages, where the church constantly had to put down recurring love cults that practiced communal marriage where everyone would choose new partners once a year. Guess which day. Now it’s a way to sell candy, but it’s the thought that counts.

    Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week’s Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn’t been an issue so far.) Another relatively easy one this week, especially for you Marvel zombies.

    Still putting the final touches on the script book as well as wrapping up a screenplay, but 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.

    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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