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Issue #288

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #288

Speaking of bit-torrenting comics

Writer Dan Slott caused a little tempest in a teapot last week when he a challenged downloaders to stop downloading scans of Marvel’s SHE-HULK and go buy copies, either in single issues or in the several SHE-HULK collections now available instead if they want to read it. Which put the whole discussion into a weird and twisty perspective.

It’s hard to fault Dan’s reasoning. Way too many comics these days are marginal sellers or worse, and bit-torrenting isn’t helping. Every copy read but not bought puts books in jeopardy of cancellation and everyone involved with the book is at risk of that dream career at McDonald’s, and there’s virtually no such thing as a failed book that does anyone’s reputation any good. Thing is, no one knows just how deep bit-torrenting comics goes, and if 30,000 people are reading a comic via download, which would make it relatively popular by today’s standards, certainly not X-MEN popular, but well over the threshold for continuation, the publisher has no way of measuring that or making an informed assessment of the title’s popularity. In the old world of comics, even that wouldn’t matter; the bottom line wouldn’t show profitability in any case. But these days, there’s more money to be made in the trade paperback collection, and a much wider audience than sales reports indicated could have considerable influence on publishing decisions. For a book like SHE-HULK, which has generally been reviewed kindly but regularly teeters on the brink, every viewing transmuted into a sale means a better shot at life, every sale lost to downloading is another drop of death.

So I can sympathize when Dan says:

Please stop downloading my work. I know it’s easy to do. I know you enjoy doing it. But, as one of the people whose work you’re enjoying for free– it really feels like a slap in the face both to myself and the other members on the creative team. Please do right by us. Please.”

But, as I mentioned a few weeks back, the practice of scanning and bit-torrenting comics is with us now. No question that it’s illegal, but it’s illegal like bootlegging was illegal; whatever the law, the public’s happily enjoying the fruits of the practice. The RIAA and MPAA push for shutdown of torrent sites, but for every one sued out of existence other “speakeasys” pop up, and widespread international regulation of the Internet isn’t likely to occur anytime soon. One site, Sweeden’s Pirate Bay, has been the subject of pressure and investigation, and has responded by forming its own political party, which is now a favorite of Sweedish youth and spreading to other European countries, with a “blows against the Empire” populist appeal the Green Party never dared dream imagine. The Pirate Bay site is still under threat of closure, largely under pressure from external sources, but, I’m told, inside the country there’s a fierce wellspring of support for the website. In America, the RIAA recently tried getting universities to help them go after students using freely available university hi-speed hookups to bit-torrent by turning over student internet usage records. My alma mater the University of Wisconsin responded they’d be happy to turn over records – as soon as the RIAA produced a subpoena. (Subpoenas can be hard to come by in the absence of specific information, while the RIAA request was clearly the sort of fishing expedition judges tend to frown on.) The RIAA scolded the University Of Missouri for its practice of assigning a new IP address for every new logon rather than assigning a static IP to each student, and for flushing usage records every month, but failed to cite any advantage changing policies would bring the university. Despite publicized lawsuits against illegal downloaders and various “Just Say No” style public relations efforts, the RIAA hasn’t made much of a dent in illegal music downloading. When I lived in Madison, I figured out that if I parked my car without ever putting money in the meters, I’d get a $3 ticket for about ever $40 worth of meter time, which were irrefutably good odds. For most music downloaders, it’s like that: if only one out of every 30,000 or so is nicked, those are pretty good odds.

And that’s the record industry. The comics industry not only doesn’t have the kind of money the record industry puts behind these anti-bootlegging measures, it doesn’t even have an organization even vaguely analogous to the RIAA. Even if every illegal music torrent was shut down tomorrow, it’s unlikely comics torrents would go with them.

Which means, barring huge eruptions of conscience in the comics reading Internet public, we’re kind of stuck with them.

Here’s the thing, Dan’s underlying message was the right one. Comics do live and die on their sales, and no comic will continue if people aren’t buying it. But the business is wonky these days; it hovers, wobbly, in all sorts of no man’s lands. The rising cost of comics makes various old habits, like the vast integration of many titles across a line, problematic; while the idea is to convince readers to buy all the titles, too often it convinces them to buy none of them, and it’s hard to guesstimate – good grief, guesstimate doesn’t trigger a spelling error underline in Word – how individuated any single issue is these days. It’s possible bit-torrenting may be the best advertising comics currently have, allowing people to sample many books and figure out which ones they like well enough to buy. But a lot of research must be done before we necessarily jump to that conclusion.

Still, the way things are now, it’s entirely possible that those downloading SHE-HULK are the biggest fans the book has, and (if research into CD sales reflects anything) possibly the bulk of those buying the book at the comic shop, or buying the trade paperbacks editions that Dan mentioned.

Thing is: I sympathize with his message, but it was the wrong approach. His anger is understandable, but anger and scolding triggers defensiveness and defiance, not sympathy and conscience. Dan’s was also an “old world” response, and we’re simply not living in that world anymore.

What he should have said:

“If you read and enjoyed SHE-HULK, please go to the store and buy a copy, because that’s the only way the publisher will keep it going. I know readers dislike it when titles they want to read get cancelled, but no company will keep publishing a book that doesn’t sell enough copies. If you want to read more issues of SHE-HULK, buying the book or buying trade collections of the stories is the only way to make sure you can. Thanks for your cooperation, and enjoy.”

In other words, don’t bogart those downloads, my friend. Try to convert them into real world sales.

Because that’s the world we live in now, as the expanding number of publishers now planning to essentially give their comics away on the Internet to get people interesting in the eventual trade paperback attests to.

Dan did weaken his case a bit when it came out that he was himself a member of Demonoid (Bit-torrent sites have members? Who knew?) – I gather he wouldn’t be able to post messages otherwise – and had downloaded and uploaded (non-comics?) material himself. I don’t recall if I’ve ever met Dan, and I usually enjoy his work well enough and his online persona, but I have to think he had a lapse of instinct for self-preservation when he joined a bit-torrent site under his real name (and, presumably, data). By and large I think people should internet using their real names, but when you’re engaging in an activity that’s flat out illegal, you probably want a little shielding. Dan defending himself by pointing out that the material he was torrenting was unavailable in American region editions (so, DVDs of one sort of another, I assume) and once they get Region 1 releases he will buy those, but I’m not sure that, should they decide to crack down on torrenters, copyright holders from Asia and Europe would rush to buy the argument that what Dan’s doing on Demonoid isn’t criminal so much as honesty delayed. In theory, if you’re championing the rights of copyright holders, those also get to say where their material is released and when, and if you’re presenting an argument that’s not likely to hold up in court, don’t do it using your real name.

So those are my two pieces of advice for the week:

If you’re going to rob a bank, don’t autograph the holdup note.

If you’re going to bit-torrent comics – and I can understand how, with all the bad comics out there, you want to be better informed about what to spend your money on, and actually reading the comics is often the only way to accurately gauge that – buy the comics you like, because that’s the only way publishers can get a handle on what readers really want. What they can’t measure gets them, and you, nowhere.

I finally finished Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, AGAINST THE DAY, after four months of stealing seconds here and there to read handfuls of paragraphs at a time. It seems to me there was once a time when I’d get an 1100 page novel and read it in four or five days, but that might have been in some alternate world I now remember only via dream or corrupted delusion…

Anyway, best science fiction novel I’ve read in a long, long time. Aetherpunk, really, and Pynchon cannibalizes gobs of pulp genres; it’s also a western, a boys’ adventure novel, a hard boiled detective story, a men’s adventure novel set against the Mexican revolution, several varieties of romance novels, 20s style scientifiction, Lovecraftian horror, as well as an historical novel (it begins with the Chicago World’s Fair of the 1880s and ends sometime in the 1920s) and a prequel to Pynchon’s classics V and GRAVITY’S RAINBOW. It’s all kinds of bizarre and very funny, esp. in the last quarter of the book when Pynchon, having introduced a sprawling cast for 800 pages, jumps into his “there are only 500 real people in the world and they all know each other” mode. It has numerous stylistic shifts to match the content that are part of the fun, even as it’s arguably Pynchon’s most accessible novel, a heartbreaking saga about numerous damaged visionaries dreaming at distances of building a brilliant future for everyone, and about the future they get. I very strongly recommend it.

But what’s probably most important to you is all that time I’ve been putting into Pynchon I’ve since shifted to comics reading, starting with a stack of the Marvel and DC trade paperbacks stocked by the Las Vegas-Clark County Library System, which continues to do a superb job of keeping up. After reading a dozen or so “special event” trades from both companies I’ve come to a conclusion.

Alan Moore was one of the worst things to happen to our business.

Not that Alan isn’t one of the best writers ever to work in comics. Not that he has left in his wake an oeuvre of generally great material: SWAMP THING, WATCHMEN, MARVELMAN, V FOR VENDETTA, BOJEFFRIES SAGA, PROMETHEA, LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, HALO JONES, the abortive but ambitious BIG NUMBERS, A SMALL MURDER, LOST GIRLS, not to mention piles of other stories and THE STARS MY DEGRADATION and MAXWELL THE MAGIC CAT. It’s hard to find a comics writer who can get more kick out of any given phrase or moment. And that’s part of the problem.

By and large, Alan’s work is predicated on the found object. From MARVELMAN to D.R. & QUINCH to LOST GIRLS and LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, many of his stories devolve from cultural artifacts that preceded him: the Marvelman comic strip, NATIONAL LAMPOON, Sax Rohmer and Robert Louis Stevenson, PETER PAN, etc.

Certainly Alan’s not the only, nor the first nor even the most flagrant comics writer to do this. Comics have promoted the activity for decades, for reasons having nothing at all to do with Alan. But largely comics stuck with lifting characters, themes or action sequences from other comic books, comic strips and immensely popular and recognizable movies. Bear in mind there’s a huge difference between rifling non-fiction books and magazines for ideas to mutate into fiction and prowling other people’s fiction for elements to pay homage to, just as there’s a huge difference between copying someone else’s work and using it as a springboard toward your own themes, ideas and characters. Everyone does the latter, it’s just part of the natural process, but swiping is something companies have generally promoted, at least until it becomes unmistakable plagiarism, and even when, say, a talent is so enamored of the work of Jack Kirby or Gardner Fox that they copy their work practically verbatim, they’re just as likely to be raved over by readers who are either unfamiliar with the source material or don’t care. And it’s not like companies haven’t traditionally encouraged or enforced the use of their characters over those of a talent’s creation. It’s a business that congenitally feeds on itself, and pretty much everything else, and likes it that way.

Alan also came along during a schism of directions among comics talent: a growing emphasis on creating new characters and concepts to better fit stories to personal themes and ambitions, and a new desire to not create anything new for companies that would claim all ownership of those creations and the resultant determination to use only properties already owned by the companies. Alan straddled both, as all of us learned to. Generally, he made the most of whatever situation was dumped on his plate, and did better than most of us at carving out his own situations. So what’s the problem?

WATCHMEN.

It wasn’t the first operatic comic book spanning numerous pages and vast tapestries, or the first to base a whole set of new characters on existing characters and thrust them into unfamiliar territory. (I’d wager most readers weren’t even aware of the old Charlton characters when WATCHMEN was published.) But it was different in several ways. It referenced everything from Graham Greene to old EC Comics and the OUTER LIMITS TV show, giving the reader depths to plumb read after read. To this day it’s probably the height of structuralism in comics, in both plot and visual style, and Alan wrote in a crisp, take-no-prisoners style that yet allowed for an unusual level of poetic imagery and philosophical concerns uncharacteristic for comics of the day.

None of which is bad. But here’s its big sin:

It was successful. So successful that, twenty years later, the collection still sells steadily, general culture commentators still cite it as the greatest graphic novel the way TV commentators still call our soldiers who fought in WWII “the greatest generation,” filmmakers are still try to turn it into a blockbuster summer film. (Equally focused, beautifully drawn art by Dave Gibbons didn’t hurt.)

And the comics market is crawling with sprawling, pseudophilosophical, plot-deficient, “character-based” epics without discernable characters but with the right lilt, lots of casual brutality and cascades of allusions to other comics, to pop culture, to obscure quotes from Aleister Crowley well-known lines from rap songs, to other people’s creations – analogs or otherwise – from comics, pulp magazines, novels, movies, TV shows, cartoons, anywhere, in the apparent belief that enough accrued references equal context, depth and ideas.

It’s not that Alan set the tone for this with WATCHMEN, or that he did it badly. Quite the opposite. He did it well. Very well. So well that people outside comics started seriously talking about comic books as “art” for maybe the first time, which convinced a lot of people that all they had to do was “their” WATCHMEN (however they choose to define that) and, voila!

Art!

Like it was just that easy.

On top of everything else, whereas once the general public used to think comics were the BATMAN TV show, now they think comics are WATCHMEN, and its not enough that people do their “own WATCHMEN” over and over in comics, now they’re doing it in novels and on TV. And now if they’re not trying to nick WATCHMEN, they’re trying to nick LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN.

Which I guess is a step up, though it’d be nice to see someone bring, oh, an original idea with them now and then. Standards are only standards; it’s okay to do something different or even. But it could be worse, I suppose.

They could all be mimicking NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD

Notes from under the floorboard:

Like I said, I’m in reading mode now, plowing through stacks of manga, pamphlets, trades and graphic novels like there’s no tomorrow, so not much else I feel like talking about this week. It’s been fun watching the Justice Dept. and the White House slowly self-destruct over this firing prosecutors thing, as what began as a relatively cut and dried example of political manipulation with an apparently workable rationalization comes apart amid incriminating e-mails, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales flat out lying to Congress about his role in it, the White House trying to keep their own people from being questioned about it (or, rather, not questioned anywhere that anyone can hear what they say or under circumstances where they might be held to it) and now DoJ officers invoking their 5th amendment right against self-incrimination, normally considered a big red flag that some has done something they could go to jail for. Well, this is the administration that declared the standard that only people who had something to hide wouldn’t be willing to allow authorities free and total access to their lives. It’s starting to look like one of those hoist on your own petard things.

Congratulations to Gabriel Need, the first of many to correctly guess last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme was “underground.” That was low, I know. Anyway, Gabriel wants to point you in the direction of Cinema Treasures, a site dedicated to the days when men were men and movie theaters were palaces. Go take a look. 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 if you want any clues this week, you’ll have to look elsewhere for them. Good luck.

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. Then again, who doesn’t?

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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