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Issue #279

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #279

A brief cautionary tale.

Back before I was even starting out in comics, at least from my point of view though looking back it’s obvious I was despite at that moment having no intention of trying to earn a living at it, I pitched a short western story to a small publisher of my acquaintance. This was right after underground comics were crushed by judicial fiat. (If not for that, FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS might still be the best-selling comic in the country today.) “Ground-level” publishers were springing up like flies on a rotting corpse, they were all hungry for product and most (like most small publishers today, it seems) weren’t particularly fussy about its quality, so it was a good time to putter and experiment (there was even pay, usually, though it was also usually negligible) and it was also a time of great camaraderie among the fan community, and even among different fan communities. (Around this time, via an HP Lovecraft fan group based in Minneapolis, I also made the acquaintance of future superagent Kirby McCauley – very smart, friendly guy – though I never got around to capitalizing on it, which, in retrospect, was likely one of my dumber moves.)

Unlike most small publishers I talked to then, this one was something of an industry insider, with many connections to “real” comics talent, and he had a specific vision for his publishing “empire.” My word, not his, though he preached the notion that “ground-level” – not quite as adult as underground comics, but more sophisticated than the usual Marvel-DC-Archie-Harvey (was there anyone else left, besides Warren?) fare of the day – was the future of the industry, and damn if he wasn’t right. Had there been distribution and he had really had the resources to continuously get the kind of material he needed, he might have even been a king of comics today, but he eventually fell into the trap – again, my interpretation – of deciding that the material he was getting was the material he needed to succeed, and he didn’t. That’s not unusual; most comics publishers take that plunge eventually. Even at Marvel for a long time, despite what was going on in the rest of the industry, there was the very vocal attitude that if some comics talent were really any good they’d already be working for Marvel, a notion that lasted until the day DC Comics finally beat them in the charts for a couple months in a row. (The concept that replaced it was that talent can reach a certain level of popularity elsewhere but it’s Marvel that makes the real stars. But that ran into trouble when a passel of their then-hottest real stars jumped ship and formed Image Comics, and then it became the popular notion that the characters were the real stars at Marvel, a semi-delusion that held pretty much until the company filed bankruptcy, though it can hardly be said that the bankruptcy was in any sizable way the fault of the editorial department, even though sales were slipping badly by then.)

Here’s what I wanted to do: a straight western. (Westerns and sword-and-sorcery are two genres I’ve always been something of a sucker for, at least in theory, which isn’t all that strange since they’re really the same genre in different clothes.) A vignette, really; a traditional one-horse town main street gunfight. I had it broken down in my head, great visual angles, the way to build it up bit by bit with cross-sections and cross-cutting, all kinds of great cinematic effects. I could see how great it would look on the page.

And he says, “We’ve seen this a thousand times.”

Peeved, I start explaining why we haven’t, which is a standard rookie error. Unless you have a working relationship where they already have faith you’re capable of surprising them, by this point you have already lost them and arguing is pointless. Fortunately for this story, I was egotistical enough to have not figured that out by then. He interrupts me, and says, “Well, what’s the twist?”

“The twist” was something college fiction courses told me to be wary of, a sop to popular preconceptions that dampened true creativity. It was O. Henry crap. (And, yeah, I know, one of the greatest short story writers ever, etc. etc., but man, do I hate reading O. Henry.) My story was a straight gunfight, building slowly and tensely ala Sergio Leone to the moment of the draw, and then it was over in a shot. Here’s where the logic of youth enters into it: the twist was that there wasn’t a twist, on the theory that readers, having seen plenty of western gunfights on TV and in the movies, would be expecting some sort of twist, and would be caught off-guard by the lack of one. One shot, that was it. The hero falls, the bad man rides off, that was the other twist. It was realism, man!

(Not quite. It was TV realism. Despite the cliché, actually face to face gunfights in the Old West were next to non-existent, mainly because the handguns weren’t all that accurate and if you really wanted to kill someone the easiest way to do it was to ambush him with a shotgun and keep yourself out of harm’s way. But that doesn’t make a very entertaining story either, at least on its own.)

(An aside: the outlaw gunman in the story was named “Red John” Byrne, named after a high school friend, long before I’d heard of comics artist John Byrne.)

The story never got done. The publisher dismissed it with a simple, “sorry, it’s been done.” But he missed the point. Sure, it had been done.

But I’d never done it! And my doing it would make it something different!

And what that really meant was: I was missing the point.

It’s a point that seems to get missed a lot, particularly among beginners, and not surprisingly, since when dealing with existing characters the message is often mixed: the popular misconception, usually found in beginners but far from unknown in established professionals, that you working material you’ve never done before makes it new, and unique, and interesting. I’ve even seen very well-known authors pronounce it a principle. I see a lot of comics where that was obviously the working theory of the talent involved. Trust me, you can always spot them.

But it doesn’t, unless someone of exceptional talent, intelligence and inventiveness is involved, and then it’s still a crap shoot. Even the most talented, intelligent and inventive person in the world can still get blindsided by their own ego. (For living proof, just take a look in the mirror, haha.)

In comics, you’re given plenty of excuses and reasons to retread old ground without inventing your own. Even – maybe especially – in climates catering to fanboy desires for “comfortable” material that doesn’t veer too far from the narrow and predictable scope of their interests, some sort of twist is necessary. They’ll bitch in they don’t get it. (They’ll also bitch if they don’t get the twist they expected, if it takes them out of expected area. I’m a bit surprised by the very positive fan response to the revelation of Supernova’s true identity and what’s really going on in the latest 52, since, I dunno, hasn’t it been utterly obvious for weeks? Which isn’t to say it was badly done, I’m just wondering how anyone can think it’s an amazing twist. But that’s what I’m saying; bloody obvious or not, it was a twist they appreciated because it was a twist they wanted to see.)

There are two ways to approach these things, if you’re treading old ground. You can either study the ground, learn what has already been done there, and find some new angle, or you can trust that your presence and genius is innately transformative and because it’s you doing it, the result will be different and unique.

Do yourself a favor. Play the smart odds and bank on the former, not the latter.

Someone brought up an angle on the Platinum COWBOYS AND ALIENS debate from a couple weeks ago that I hadn’t really considered, which is: the incentive program works against the interests of those talents involved in the creation of the book.

Which, in a perfect world, would be very true. In theory, provided the deal is any good (while Platinum’s basic deal isn’t the greatest in the world, there’s a minimum payment – putting them ahead of many small publishers – and royalty/participation guarantees, so eventually it falls somewhere in the realm of an okay contract, all things being equal, though there’s no telling what the specifics of the COWBOYS AND ALIENS deal are), increased sales/distribution of a particular project results in increased royalty/participation payments to talent. The trick for a publisher is to price a publication, whether book or magazine, at that juncture where both sales and price hit their highest points before the other falls off. That point is called maximum profitability.

In other words, a book that can sell 30,000 at $5 (gross sales: $15,000) is less profitable than a book that can sell 25,000 at $10 (gross sales: $25,000). It may look good on sales charts to chart higher in unit movement, but if the talent is getting, say, 10% of the gross (or even the net), a publisher who sells at the $5 price is shorting the talent $1000 what they could have made.

Putting that in the context of Platinum’s recent promotional stunt, a book of COWBOYS AND ALIENS size, from a smaller company, could easily have been priced in the neighborhood of $14.95. Theoretically, then, by pricing the book at $10 less, Platinum is cutting the talent out of 66% of their potential earnings. Factor in those copies that were given away, or paid for via kickback or company rebate or promotional fee or whatever you want to call it, and the situation worsens. Then we get into the question of “promotional items.” In most contracts, talent doesn’t get any piece of “promotional items” aside from perhaps a complimentary copy. (You may recall the issue that caused Alan Moore to walk away from DC Comics was their claiming a fairly expensive WATCHMEN watch was a promotional item, cutting Alan and Dave Gibbons off from any profits the product earned.) But can a book be its own promotional item? To some extent, yes – book publishers send out complimentary review copies all the time – but does virtually an entire run of a book, most likely with no anticipated further run, constitute a promotional item? At any rate, by reducing COWBOYS AND ALIENS to a promotional giveaway, Platinum effectively cuts the talent off from all royalties, unless they’re paying them their cut of whatever those copies would have earned had they sold at their official price.

As I said, that was the perfect world scenario. Given the reality’s of today’s market, the odds are, left to its own devices and with either its given price or one equivalent to the price of similar packages on the market, COWBOYS AND ALIENS wouldn’t have sold enough to pay out a royalty anyway. (Commonly, royalties are paid off the net profit from a comic, after publisher costs are taken out, rather than a piece of cover price, as used to be the standard.) So criticisms would be moot, except philosophically. (Though it would be a nice gesture on Platinum’s part to pay out whatever royalties the title would have earned had the number of copies ultimately distributed been actually sold.) It was probably a smart move for Platinum regardless, as it put them on the map, though perhaps not in the way they would have chosen, after years of being little more than a phantom name at the fringes of the business. At any rate, it’s unlikely they’ll try such a thing again, since it amounts to losing money with every book distributed. In most cases, the object is to achieve a critical mass of sales where your price per unit lowers to the point where even sales at a reduced price result in profits. Give something away, and it can’t reach that point; whatever your losses rise parallel to number of copies distributed. As a one-time stunt, it’s a loss leader for any other books you might put out. As a policy, it’s a plan for financially bleeding to death.

Well, the Ghost is about to begin this year’s State Of The Union Address, but we all know the union’s state already. What’s he really going to say besides yes, he knows no one wants any further involvement in Iraq but he’s doing to do it anyway because posterity will eventually vindicate his rapidly collapsing president, so here are some tax cuts to convince you to shut up about it. Meanwhile, it has surfaced (again; it’s not the first time) that prior to our invasion of Iraq – whoops, I meant “liberation” – the Iranians (who engineered the invasion in the first place, as it turns out, by feeding us misinformation about Saddam’s capabilities through various Iraqi moles supposedly working for us who had their own reasons for wanting Saddam deposed) offered to normalize relations, help police their border with Iraq, not only withhold aid from Iraqi Shi’ites but withdraw aid from Hamas and Hezbollah, and allow monitoring of Iranian nuclear sites and programs. Only to be brusquely told by Dick Cheney’s office that the USA does not talk to “evil.” Which suggests either the Dick already had Iran on tap as the next domino to fall in the Middle East or he took the offer as a sign they were running scared so there was no need to negotiate. Or that diplomacy is the tool of cowards willing to settle for the easy way out. I know that the Iranians are not to be trusted, etc., but when someone offers you everything you want, you at least hear them out. That’s why diplomacy was invented.

Of course, now we know – like we didn’t before – where the “unconditional surrender” mentality gets you. Everybody wants to be MacArthur, but that trick hasn’t worked for a long, long time.

But, like I said, it’s not like this story hasn’t circulated before. We used to say that history repeated itself, now the news just gets recycled. I imagine the State Of The Union speech is going to be a lot like last year’s, with new euphemisms substituting for “stay the course” and “freedom from foreign oil,” all of which basically translates into more wealth for his rich cohorts. (The coal industry is already getting boisterous with anticipation.) Meanwhile, Scooter Libby’s lawyer’s main defense of Scooter is that Karl Rove set him up, and the only thing lower than the Ghost’s approval ratings is the value of the dollar against the Euro. I wonder how badly the British comics writers writing for American companies are feeling the pinch now.

Ah, the dog days of January, when networks dump original programming and air reruns as they gear up for February sweeps. I never quite understood the philosophy of it, particularly now that January is the beginning of “the second season,” when Fall’s bombs are washed away and new bombs are trotted out. Why air for two weeks then break the momentum? BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (SciFi, 10P Sundays) has resurfaced with a kickass episode in what’s rumored to possibly be its involuntarily final run. (SciFi is reportedly developing a new FLASH GORDON series to be a kinder, gentler replacement, and Yellow Peril analogies be damned.) If you can still stomach interminable hours of bad singers, AMERICAN IDOL (Fox, apparently all the time) is back with this season’s tryout episodes. Its usually superior yokel counterpart, NASHVILLE STAR (USA, 10P Thursday), is also back, except this season the producers apparently didn’t wait for audiences to whittle the contestants down to the blandest, most vanilla countrified voices in the running, they just filled up the ranks with them, and let the boredom fall where it may. (Seriously, there’s not one interesting voice among them, and a couple who don’t even qualify as voices at all, suggesting that country music in America has finally burned out whatever pool of unknowns could even remotely claim to be talented.) Meanwhile, THE KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY (ABC, 9P Wednesdays) and IN CASE OF EMERGENCY (ABC, 9:30P Wednesdays) have already, three episodes in, abandoned whatever promise their premieres held. I.C.E., as the logo calls it, is at least giddy; THE KNIGHTS OF PROSPERITY seems to have gotten a memo from the network that it just wasn’t humorless or clichéd enough, and get on it in a hot New York minute if they expect to glom any audience at all. But they won’t.

Which makes it a great time to catch up on theatrical films, now appearing on DVD. Quite a few friends recommended MIAMI VICE, Michael Mann’s paean to his old TV show with Colin Farrell as a mumbly redneck Sonny Crockett and Jamie Foxx as a drastically underutilized prop. Watching it on DVD, I have to think theaters were slipping mind-altering drugs into the popcorn. It’s an amazingly empty action flick, a virtual pantomime that I fast-forwarded through two-thirds of (I trained myself a long time ago to follow action in fast forward, which saves a lot of time) without missing a drop of dialogue. The first half is baffling as hell, mixing apparently random movement with a plot about tracking down murderous Aryan Brotherhood drug dealers and a mole inside the FBI; the second half illuminates the logic of the first half’s action but then drops the FBI plotline cold, without even a nod toward resolution. It’s like, at well over two hours long, they simply ran out of time. Likewise, THE DESCENT was hailed by multiple film critics as the best, most original horror film in a long time, which really doesn’t say much for the rest of them; despite being well-acted by a small cast of mainly actresses (particularly Natalie Mendoza, who gets the best action scenes) the first half hour is utter tedium as they mostly crawl around in tunnels, while the “horror” portion becomes ALIEN in a cave, with the women tormented by a little tribe of hungry Gollums. There’s a fairly surprising moment in the last few moments when the surviving heroines meet up to face the final onslaught, but whatever steam that gives it is blown by a cheesy “horror movie shock” that makes absolutely no sense. Then again, neither does most of the film, especially how these things could have existed for a long time, scarfing down countless spelunkers, in a cave guidebooks describe as well-scouted and safe. Finally, LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, which is this year’s beneficiary of what I call the Sundance Syndrome, being the independent film everyone’s raving up – if nothing else it’ll now be known as the sleeper that blew DREAMGIRLS out of the Oscar running for best picture – as if it’s a watershed in the history of film, when it’s really pretty much frilly crap. At least it’s got decent acting and some funny lines, but it’s also got nothing but totally self-absorbed, deluded characters you just want to punch, who we’re supposed to feel superior to and identify with in the same breath. But it sure is heartwarming, with a big feelgood ending that pretty much ignores that all the characters remain in dead ended, desperate lives. Or maybe that’s just acid reflux. But every year there’s one of these that’s supposed to illuminate the human condition and somehow show us important things about ourselves, and it’s not like I ever expect it anymore, but that doesn’t change that they never do.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Back in business. Readers may recall my computer suffered a near-fatal electric shock just before Christmas. I replaced the apparently affected parts – a burned out power supply, the apparently shot motherboard, the possibly shot CPU and memory chip. With the new power supply, the case fans worked, the computer would light up for ten or fifteen seconds. Then die again. Finally I got it staying on, but the monitor, which worked fine with another computer, registered no video signal. I replaced the videocard. Nothing. So I packed all the new parts but the power supply back where they came from and, out of ideas and time, took the computer in to the shop. (Laboratory Computers, who deserve a plug.) Of course, it had to be the holidays so they weren’t open until after New Year’s, but… Anyway, they went at it and at it and at it. Complicating matters was the Socket 754 form factor of my chip and motherboard, which was a decent alternative when I built the thing but is now a couple generations behind. Nobody has the parts anymore, and upgrading would mean spending a lot more money on new memory etc. The motherboard was definitely fried, but I ended up getting an identical replacement cheap from Fry’s. Next time I went on the site, a couple days later, the board was off the listings, so that was the last they had. In the midst of getting put in and yanked out so much, my CPU had lost a connector pin and also needed replacing. (You can apparently lose close to half the hundreds of pins on many CPUs and they’ll still work. Just not that one. Of course.) So it was off to NewEgg, for a new chip, a marginal upgrade from my old one, since nobody locally sold Socket 754 chips anymore.

And it still wouldn’t work.

Because, as they finally discovered, the new power supply I’d bought, an Antec (and Antec generally makes rock solid products), wouldn’t supply power to the videocard. I don’t know why, they couldn’t figure out why, but when they swapped it out (to a more powerful different model Antec PS that I kept) the thing zipped right on.

So now the desktop computer is back and all hooked up. One screwy thing: just before the breakdown I installed Microsoft’s new version of Internet Explorer. (Before you start suggesting alternatives, I usually use Firefox and occasionally K-Meleon, but some sites only open properly with IE.) On starting up again, I’ve discovered downloading from Microsoft sites through IE is next to impossible, especially from their Windows Update page, which asks if I want to open pages already in my “trusted sites” list – and then it won’t regardless of response. I’d heard Vista and the new products built for it, like IE7, went so far overboard on security features they cripple functionality; I guess the rumors are true. There’s probably some setting I can change to cover it, someday when I have time to worry about it…

Here’s something interesting: apparently there was recently a meeting of record company executives where the future of Digital Rights Management (i.e., making it as difficult as possible for consumers to copy music) was placed in doubt. Seems consumers just prefer music they can play on any device, which has slowed DRM-protected digital music sales to a crawl, and those were expected to be the salvation of the music business, since CD sales are similarly crawling. Anyway, they’re now apparently discussing if it might be appropriate to abandon DRM altogether. It may, as music distribution swings increasingly away from hard copies, CD players, etc, and toward portable electronic memory devices like iPods and Zens, to abandon record companies. (Certainly their constant pressure to expose the greatest number of people to the blandest, narrowest assortment of pap – encapsulated in AMERICAN IDOL, and how appropriate was it that last year’s “shocking” winner, the doughy Taylor Hicks, turned out a debut album of almost stunning banality) – and their insistence that the people will think what they want them to think are not arguments in favor of their continued existence.) The biggest problem of abandoning digital rights management is figuring out how to get musicians paid for their creations, and that’s a fair question, but with very rare exceptions, it’s not the musicians who get paid anyway, and record companies have made it a practice for decades of loading acts down with debt most of them can never pay off. Musicians are one thing, but does anyone really care some record company magnate somewhere doesn’t get his tithe off somebody else’s music?

Of course, all this raises parallel questions about the comics industry.

Congratulations to Anthony Hoffman, first to correctly identify last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as “gemstones.” Anthony would like you to go discover his sister’s paintings at her website; you might just want one on your wall. For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column, but I’m modifying that policy this week.

Because the computer’s back, the sale at the Paper Movies Store is finito, but a lot of items are still available there, including my three pdf format e-books and a small library of graphic novels (mine and others) and comics-related books. Check it out.

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.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

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.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, 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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