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Issue #281

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Issue #281

It’s time to kill the 22 page story. Seriously.

Got into a couple conversations about this over the past few weeks – there seems to be something in the water – and it turns out writers hate the 22 page story. Artists aren’t that crazy about it. Readers generally find it frustrating, particularly as prices creep upward. Retailers mostly seem fine with it, since it semi-guarantees a steady flow of product. Publishers? It’s the familiar format for most of them, but most, particularly small publishers, probably aren’t seeing much in the way of profit from them anymore. I doubt many editors would care one way or the other.

Bear in mind I’m not calling for the death of the 32 page comics package, though that’s been a wobbly format for years now, and some accommodation of value and price is likely to obliterate it before too long. The 22 page story is a different beast, and a clumsy one. About all it has going for it, after all this time, is familiarity.

There’s a contingent out there that believes “comic books” are properly 32 page ~9.5″x6″ magazines printed in gaudy ink on cheap paper. One contingent adds “and sell for 10¢,” but since no comics longer sell for that anymore except in extremely rare, make it requisite – any of the stipulations, really – moots the discussion. In most instances, none of those things, besides the shape, constitute “comic books” anymore, and even what we’re left with is just the result of shrinkage from larger dimensions of earlier eras, a meaningless accident of history.

Likewise, the 22 page story is an accident of history, Marvel’s artificial concoction. When I started writing Marvel comics in the late ’70s, the story page count had shrunk to 17 pages an issue, making the books almost half ads with a smidgen of editorial material like letter pages and promotional blurbs. DC had more or less followed suit, as DC usually does, but then independent comics came along, bolstered by the budding direct market, with more pages, and Marvel started feeling a little heat about it, especially with so many readers complaining of the story-ad ratio. Story page count crept up to 20, then 21, then 22 pages over a couple of years, and locked in there, for the most part.

How they settled on 22 pages I don’t know, but I suspect it was the intersection of how much the company wanted to spend on creative costs per issue and how many pages they felt any given artist would be able to turn in during any given month. (In many cases it turned out to be a bit ambitious.) As for content, one editor told me to plot 17 page stories as always and allow for longer fight scenes, which became the generally accepted (if rarely mentioned) practice. Oddly, from a writer’s perspective, 17 pages were easier to structure, as 8 or 11 page stories are. I suspect it has something to do with the three-act spine most of us were trained in, by pop culture if not scholastically. Basically, the first act introduces the characters and conflict, the second (really two acts in one, and twice as long as acts one or three) adds complications and builds dramatic tension, and the third resolves the situation and by doing so determines the work’s real theme. In theory (though in reality it never works that way, for reasons artistic as well as structural) stories should balance mathematically. In an ideal world, the act structure of a 22 page story would break down 5.5 pages – 11 pages – 5.5 pages. Given that nobody splits pages anymore, more reasonable balanced ratios would either be 6-10-6 or 5-12-5. All sounds very workable, doesn’t it?

Except in most cases it doesn’t work. You either end up with too short a story that needs to be padded out or too much story to fit in the allotted space. Then throw in the mandatory splash pages, each of which steals precious space from a story. Not that I mind splash pages, but let’s face it: their main function is commercial, not artistic. They give the publisher some eye candy to throw at the fans and the artist something to sell at conventions. For the writer, they’re mostly irrelevant, except for how they distort pacing. Which only throws oil on the fire because they’re already distorted, forced into the artificial 22 page construct, with virtually every book in that format reflexively configuring into that construct to build, along with other factors, the impression that all the stories in that format are effectively the bland same. Then most 22 page stories are also continued stories, which further complicates things. (A portion of each story necessarily has to go toward recap, to keep readers up to speed and accommodate any coming to the story midway.) The continued story has recently been rationalized as the building block of trade paperback collections, for which companies increasingly depend for their income, but originally it was simply a valiant effort to overcome the artificially limited physical confines of the standard comic book. But that created its own problems and further distortions.

If there were some natural reason for the length, it wouldn’t be that bad, but the only real reason it’s there is that Marvel decided on it and stuck to it. Not all companies have kept to it. First Comics, when they were around, opted for 28 pages per issue to give readers better value for price (of course, the trap of that is that you can’t assume more pages=better value; it’s what’s on the pages that increases or decreases value), while DC, with similar logic, jumped their page count to 24 pages for a long time in an attempt to improve their rep against Marvel, and to some extent it worked, the page count only dropping when the mid-’90s crash set in and budgets had to be cut.

But look at what gets significant push these days. It’s rarely the 22 page story comics, because most don’t make any money to speak of. Special events get the juice. Most 22 page comics exist, from the company’s point of view, simply to keep other companies’ books out of that rack space.

Reader buying habits are the other part of the story. Readers aren’t particularly drawn to 22 page stories anymore for all kinds of reasons, but they’ve also been trained now to avoid mini-series, and they’re also resistant to anthologies and backup stories, which doesn’t leave publishers with a lot of options. As I’ve mentioned before, the logical step is a shift from many monthly, 22 page story comics to far fewer original graphic novels of varying length. It’s not quite here yet, but it’s not far off either. Monthly comics will always have a function – for keeping talent in the public eye, they’re apparently essential – but the 22 page story doesn’t, not really. It’s time to abandon the standard and let stories determine their own lengths – and publish/price accordingly. Sure, it’s as much a crapshoot as anything else these days and success depends on the concept and individual talent involved because comics publishing can never be separated from these things, but the bet is a relaxation of that restriction will challenge preconceptions and create opportunity for better stories, and better comics.

Hotel reservations through the San Diego Con‘s official housing service opened up about two hours ago as I write this, and early reports have it a complete mess, with phones never being answered, website pages for the convention’s travel agency stalling in mid-load, and generally tons of angst and frustration all around, not to mention very few people ending up with rooms at the low, low convention rates. There’s no question that Comic-Con International has become a truly international show, and far from solely focused on comics anymore. That’s just something we all have to live with. Despite having become a hotel town, there aren’t enough hotel rooms in downtown San Diego for a convention with over 100,000 official attendees, plus hundreds of guests and exhibitors (or are those figured into attendance figures?) and only a fraction of those rooms are blocked off for Comic-Con reservations. It seems to me that demand has gotten large enough and the system cumbersome enough that a straight lottery might be the only way to go from here on in: rather than have a day when “reservations open,” and the resultant tumult of people scrambling to get rooms, set a date when all reservation requests must be in, then draw randomly from the pool of requests beginning with hotels and rooms closest to the Convention Center and radiating outward, with notifications within the week and the rest being drawn equally randomly for the waiting list. A set number of days for reservations to be finalized, and when that expires the next person on the list is notified. Among other things, this would put an end to the apparently popular practice of bulk multiple bookings pared down at a later date. Or you could do what I do and book outside the Con. I know booking through the Con is generally cheaper, but a little money is worth the peace of mind. (Book early enough and the rates are lower, usually.) Use at AAA card if you’ve got one (and get one if you don’t, if you own a car) as most hotels also have blocks of rooms set aside for AAA travelers, sometimes even as late as two weeks before the convention. It’s obvious the current system can’t bear the strain, so there are only two solutions: someone get creative or everyone take matters into their own hands.

No, I don’t believe “shifting focus” to another convention is a solution, though fans keep (understandably) proposing that. For years, fans bitched that comics got no respect from the outside world, but be careful what you wish for; the San Diego Con is not only now the industry’s most famous and public event, a cultural icon in its own right, but comics are now pretty much irrevocably an acknowledged part of the greater entertainment industry, and San Diego is the main place that comic converge with the rest of it. A ton of business gets done there now, as often via random encounters as planned meetings. To a great extent it has become an industrial convention rather than the fan convention it was in its early days, and one of the rare industrial conventions open to the general public. All that makes it a weird, unpredictable few days, and that’s as much a virtue as a hindrance. If some fans (and some artists, since Artist’s Alley has shrunk again this year; perhaps it’s time to experiment with moving it off the convention floor again, if they can figure out a high-traffic area to put it) feel increasingly marginalized by the shifting focus, the impulse to shift allegiance elsewhere makes sense, but it’s also possible that the days of the isolated comics fan are close to dead and gone, and it’s unlikely huge numbers of fans could be convinced to follow suit. For fans with a broader interest in games, films and TV as well as comics, there’s no other event in North America, possibly the world, where so much in so many areas is going on. In the immortal words of Ric Flair, whether you like it or you don’t like it, learn to love it.

Notes From Under The Floorboards:

A very amusing 1986 flashback from PC Magazine:

“Microsoft Windows 1.0

256KB of RAM (640KB recommended), two disk drives (hard drive recommended), DOS 2.0 or later. $99 (in 1986)

Pros: You can launch applications even if you can’t remember how to spell them.

Cons: You’ll need state-of-the-art hardware. That means an 8-MHz PC.

Bottom Line: Will run on top of DOS for years to come!”

Saw the Super Bowl commercials for the year. If the theory is that the Super Bowl gives you the chance to put your company’s best foot forward and grab the attention of a huge audience, a lot of company’s should be firing their ad agencies right about now. Notable were a high concentration of ads featuring people hitting other people for no apparent reason. The first CareerBuilder ad about working life as an episode of SURVIVOR was amusing, but by the fourth variation the novelty had worn off. I don’t know if there was a “worst” commercial per se – the bulk of them were simply forgettable – but it was probably GoDaddy‘s snorefest ending in a debauch for no apparent reason besides a sexy commercial of theirs getting lots of attention a year or two ago. This time it didn’t work. I got the idea behind David Letterman’s ad, but in the moment it was just a headscratcher. (Reportedly the original idea was to have Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell on the couch with Letterman, but Trump nixed it.) In the end, there was only one really good ad, funny and eyecatching and leaving you with a probably undeservedly good feeling about the product – Taco Bell’s ad on the savannah where two lions hungrily watch a safari and discuss the fast food chain’s new menu item – but U*Trade‘s dissertation on all the things you can do with just one finger was clever and had a great punchline. And this was the first year I’ve ever sat through a half-time show; I’m not a big Prince fan, but he was very entertaining. I’m tempted to go see his regular show here as The Rio now. As for the game… um… who played?

(Before anyone leaps for their e-mail program, that was a rhetorical question. I know, and I still don’t care.)

Good reasons not to live in Florida or Connecticut:

In Connecticut, a 40 year old substitute teacher, Julie Amero, might get sentenced to a 40 year prison term for exposing a classroom to pornography. She’d been using the classroom computer and hit some site that started spitting porn come-on pop-ups all over the screen. Apparently she didn’t act fast enough to cut off the feed, some kids saw some pop-ups, and the state decided to prosecute her for it.

Among their apparent assumptions were that Amero had been properly trained in use of the equipment and would immediately know how to handle the system to stop the flood (most substitute teachers barely receive specific training from their school district at all, in any area, and very few teachers of any sort receive adequate tech training), that the school district wasn’t remiss in not keeping their systems upgraded (since pop-up floods of that nature are only possible on older or inept browser software), that you have to intentionally click on a porn site to start them (untrue – all kinds of apparently innocent sites used to trigger them – though a police “computer expert” clinched Amero’s fate by testifying otherwise, to a jury apparently also composed of techno-idiots), and that Amero herself had sufficient experience with such things to not be completely flustered by it. Are they so desperate to show they’re tough on immortality in Connecticut? Was there the slightest shred of evidence, besides the cop “expert”‘s firm belief that Amero intended to access porn in front of her class, to support the charges against her? Why did they even bother to arrest her? Of course, by blaming Amero, they relieve the school system of possible negligence suits (which is probably the prosecution’s objective, beyond scoring political points for the prosecution) since these days, with Firefox and IE both free and capable of blocking popups, using antiquated browser software (I’m guessing IE 5) under those circumstances while accessing the web is sheer negligence. Connecticut substitute teachers should either take action on Amero’s behalf, stop subbing (let’s see how long the school system there makes it without substitutes) or refuse to operate any computer with an Internet connection.

In Tampa FL, a rape victim was held in jail after her rape – police found a supposedly unpaid fine from her teen years (her lawyer said it had been paid) and busted her for it – where a Born-Again Christian attendant refused to let her take the necessary second dose of the morning after birth control pill prescribed her by a doctor. The pill – which the forced labor movement abhors – needs to be taken in two stages. There are so many crazy things about this situation my head spins just trying to narrow them down, but the story joins with so many others to meld into a single message: stay the hell out of Florida. (Tampa police, by the way, say the incident is “being looked into.”)

Meanwhile, on the subject of Fundamentalists, how’s this for a fresh horror?:

Creationist tracts from a Muslim fundamentalist, who also specializes in Freemasonry conspiracy and Holocaust denial texts, and cites Charles Darwin as the source of terrorism, communism and fascism, have flooded schools across France, being sent directly to students and faculty by name, which means somebody, most likely within the French educational system itself, must have tapped into the databanks and provided it. Here’s the interesting thing, though: author “Harun Yahya” appears to not only have strong connections to American fundamentalists and creationists (including pilfering a lot of his material from them) but seems to be, at least in part, directly funded by them. (Given their history of crap like this, I suspect Turkish intelligence has their fingers in there somewhere as well, but that’s just me.) “Yahya”‘s main contribution to the genre seems to be basing his creationism on the Quran instead of the nutty interpretations of some minister 100 years ago, but what he represents is the first clear crossover and collaboration of Muslim fundamentalism with American Christian fundamentalism. Now that’s a scary idea, since by definition these guys don’t have a very strong grip on common sense to begin with. Talk about unholy alliances…

However, Texas managed to somewhat redeem itself recently. You may recall Gov. Rick Perry was the Ghost’s handpicked replacement as Governor, and he has spent of his gubernatorial career catering to the same right-wing Christian elements that the Ghost milked for political capital. While that likely hasn’t come to a screeching halt, Perry took a break from favoritism last week by signing into law a bill giving all Texas schoolgirls the new vaccine for cervical cancer. While that seems logical enough – and was, even to Perry – his fundamentalist power bloc was screaming for him to not sign… because, in their beady little minds, the vaccine would convince the schoolgirls it was all right to have sex. In other words, God’s down with slow, painful death, mutilating operations and debilitating cancer treatments as long as morality remains intact. An argument so sick even Perry couldn’t stomach it.

By the way, if you have any sort of scientific or economic credentials at all, Exxon-Mobil – through their Ghost-haunted think tank The American Enterprise Institute – is buying scientists willing to write papers niggling at the recent UN report on global warming (basically it says what everyone already knew, that human behavior is having serious effects on the environment) and provide them with carefully selected snippets that will convince the public to ignore the report as crazy alarmism and keep buying lots of gasoline. $10,000 a pop. Use it for anything: a new deck for your house, a gambling jones, your drug habit…

Finally, in case you missed it, say bye-bye to the Big Bang. A group of mathematicians and physicists have apparently figured out the math for an oscillating universe. That is: their theory, supported by their calculations (obviously, these will be put through the grinder, probably for the next several thousand years), is that the universe neither begins nor ends, as the Big Bang theory proposed (in the BBT, eventually cosmic matter would spread out and just drift off into diffuse nothingness), but expands to a certain size whereupon processes shift it to collapse mode, which continues until it reaches another point and begins to expand again. Which means no beginning and no end, just an endless back and forth, over billions of years. This runs counter to obvious logic – of course everything has to have a beginning and an end – and while it doesn’t address The Prime Cause any more than the Big Bang does, should the Cyclic Universe (which does solve certain problems the Big Bang doesn’t) become widely accepted it promises to be another front of the current tooth and nail battle between science and religion. On one hand the concept of an infinitely existing universe fits nicely with a God without beginning or end, but on the other it mitigates the whole need for a Prime Cause, which could strain more than a few nerves. Crazy world, huh?

Congratulations to Justin Newberry, the first to correctly identify the theme of last week’s Comics Cover Challenge: spinning objects. (Because some out there still don’t see themes even when identified and want to know how I got there, from top to bottom: motorcycle tires; airplane propellers; top(p)s; lasso (or wheels, take your pick); planet; revolver – or, rather, the bullet chamber therein; whirlwind. Easy when you know the answers, innit?) Justin wishes to pay tribute to one of the great Marvel iconoclasts of the ’70s, who has continued to do interesting work in animation and at a variety of comics companies ever since: HOWARD THE DUCK creator Steve Gerber, whose blog can be read by clicking here. Go ahead and show Steve some weblove.

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. Matter of fact, this week there are nine of them. Good luck.

Was just informed that the trade paperback edition of CSI: DYING IN THE GUTTERS, featuring a host of real comics professionals at a murder-ridden comics convention, will appear on March 7 from IDW.

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the 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.

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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