In 1988, I attended a comicon in Atlanta with a crew from First Comics, including editor Larry Doyle (now on THE SIMPSONS TV show), art director Alex Wald and marketing director Kurt Goldzung. (Among other things, we sat around the bar and made up a Harvey Comics version of the First line, like Li’l Badger and Whispy, the Good Little Ninja.) The con took place in a hotel, with the show space in the basement, the escalators bisecting the area and forcing traffic in odd directions. Con management made the odd choice of shoving all the company booths into an alcove to the left of the escalators, away from the dealer floor, and many attendees didn’t seem to know the companies were there.
As things went, the First booth was fairly well placed, with DC to the right and Marvel to the left. Marvel was the big draw, but it worked to our benefit, since the spillover ended up in front of the First table, giving everyone plenty of time to peruse the wares. (Not that it helped First in the long run.) At the time DC, though it had finally overcome the dark days of the late 70s and attracted attention again with projects like DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN, was still struggling to make a dent in Marvel’s sales. Sales Director Bob Wayne (he has since moved up to Vice President – Sales) manned the DC booth most of the time. Warner Bros. had just announced a Batman movie for summer of ’89, and director-designate Tim Burton, fresh off the success of BEETLEJUICE, had announced his choice for leading man. I hereby apologize to Bob for my crass behavior that convention: when things got slow and I got bored, I’d look over at Bob and, mimicking a mynah, would say “Michael Keaton! Michael Keaton!” just to watch him grimace and twitch. Cheap amusement.
No one thought the short, balding, weak-chinned, perpetually pinched Keaton could make a credible Batman. But, as with most comics companies and Hollywood films based on their properties, there wasn’t much DC could do about it. Movie studios, particularly when they’re your parent company, dictate what’s what to comics publishers, not the other way around. Unless you’re very lucky, or the studio/producer is very desperate for your property, or you’re putting up the money for the movie yourself. (I was discussing this with a fellow writer a few days ago: the only real leverage most of us have in media deals, whether for comics, TV, film, whatever, is our willingness to walk away.) Studios have a longstanding tradition of trying to keep directors happy; short of heavy cost overruns, most directors of feature films get to be little Hitlers on their projects, which is part of the fun of being a director. (Blame it on the French: for a long time Hollywood resisted the CAHIERS DU CINEMA “auteur” theory that the director was the true author of the film – ignoring the strong contributions of screenwriters and film editors, among others – but, in the golden age of American film criticism at the end of the 60s when people actually paid attention to film critics, when they finally swallowed it they really swallowed it.) So if Burton wanted Keaton and Keaton, thanks to BEETLEJUICE, was an A-list star, that was that.
(I didn’t bother telling Bob I’d had a run-in with Keaton on a Manhattan street several years earlier where he’d narrowly avoided doing some serious damage with a speeding baby carriage, then, on seeing the bag I carried, demanded to know where Tower Records in Manhattan was.)
Fast-forward a year: 1989. The Burton BATMAN, with Jack Nicholson totally over the top as The Joker and Keaton invisible in a Schwarzenegger-sized foam body suit, is the runaway hit of the summer. I’m living in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. The movie’s playing at one of those great old Westwood movie houses where they always hold red-carpeted, star-studded Hollywood premieres, and, around the corner on Gayley Ave., a comics shop called Graffiti is raking money in hand over fist selling all kinds of Batmerchandise. They can’t keep Batman comics in stock. People were actually coming out of the movies and asking for Batman comic books. And buying other comics too. Comics had spent the 80s broadening the field, but it took BATMAN to bump the business up another level.
I didn’t like the movie, but that’s not the point. The point: in 1988, I was wrong, and Bob had nothing to be nervous about. We can prognosticate all we like, but in pop culture there’s often a gulf between our expectations of situations, and the way things turn out, which drives everyone in the entertainment business nuts. Regardless of my impression of the movie or the star, BATMAN did what it was supposed to do. It made a lot of money. It produced the level of excitement needed to attract a wider audience to the medium. When that audience did arrive, it found a spectrum of material to appeal to varying shades within the group. Marvel Comics. MIRACLEMAN. SANDMAN. ROCKETEER. LOVE AND ROCKETS. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. CEREBUS. ARCHIE. You could go as highbrow as you wanted, as lowbrow as you wanted. As retro or as visionary. As a business, we were able to project and capitalize on a perception of something happening that wasn’t happening anywhere else. Comics, for one brief shining moment, were “discovered” as the place the future of media was coming from, and the business managed to maintain that impression through the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES movie, the death of Superman, the Image Explosion.
|“Regardless of my impression of the movie or the star, BATMAN did what it was supposed to do. It made a lot of money.”|
A lot has been said about gimmicks killing off the comics audience, about the boom resulting from an influx of speculators buying tons of copies and the crash resulting from speculators turning away (or, more often, getting buried by their own bad timing), but it remains that speculators thought there was potential here because suddenly a great many people were very interested in comics. The real downside of speculators was that with the specter of quick riches they lured most publishers and retailers (and, to be fair, most talent) down the path of homogeneity. By 1994, quicker than you can say “grunge rock,” there wasn’t a noticeable spectrum of material or style. We were narrowcasting. There were still plenty of small publishers releasing “spectrum” work, but they were buried virtually unnoticed in the distribution system, overshadowed by increasingly homogenized major publishers (who generally put their advertising dollars behind homogenized product rather than their own “spectrum” material) and surrounded by hosts of third-rate publishers desperately duplicating major publisher output.
And there was suddenly the popular impression that nothing was happening in comics anymore. Because nothing was, except more of the same. Movies haven’t helped. BATMAN was partly a success because it looked like nothing else on Earth: one part BLADE RUNNER, one part Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, one part DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, in a lurid 30s retro art deco-gone-mad soup. It didn’t matter that elements were derivative: the movie was visually unique, the anal obsessiveness and bizarre perspective reflecting and amplifying the overheated characters. It hasn’t helped that virtually every comics-based movie since has visually fallen into lockstep with the Batman look. MYSTERY MEN drowned in it. It may be what audiences expect of a “comic book movie” now, but it’s a paradox that almost as soon as you give an audience what they expect, they get bored and want something else. Until a filmmaker – and, for all the relative success of X-MEN, it wasn’t Bryan Singer – comes up with a new and powerful motif for what a “comic book film” should look like, the general public is likely to view comics as old hat. Because, like it or not, movies and TV are now how most of the public comes into contact with comics. We’re at their mercy. Unless there’s some sort of press groundswell for comics themselves (and since recent articles in THE NEW REPUBLIC and US NEWS AND WORLD REPORT imply it’s two-thousand-zero-zero-party over-out of time for the industry, I don’t anticipate it) other media will continue to be our main ambassadors to the world at large.
Which makes Marvel’s failure to capitalize on the X-MEN movie bizarre. Let’s face it, it’s not like the X-Men are a creator-owned property. They’re as corporate as properties can be. You can say Marvel couldn’t be sure it would be a hit, especially given the “success” of other Marvel inspired movies, but surely the presence of A-list director Bryan Singer and a big money cast, as well as a big budget for a change, would have tipped somebody there was a decent chance this time around. You’d think they’d have learned something from BLADE, a sleeper hit whose success caught Marvel totally flatfooted. DC had every reason to expect trouble from Michael Keaton as Batman, but they still managed to have plenty of licensed product out there. These things build on each other. It wouldn’t have been Marvel’s risk anyway; callous though the attitude may be, the dealers would have been taking the risk, not Marvel, and many dealers would probably have welcomed the lures. Even now, many comics companies and comics dealers make more money selling t-shirts, shotglasses, Zippo lighters and other “chachkis” (as one publisher put it) featuring their characters than they are from those characters’ books. Batman had another advantage: the character in the book and the character in the movie looked reasonably similar. Considering the various (pardon the expression) mutations the X-Men have been through in their books, how hard would it have been to concoct a storyline so that, for a month before the release to a couple months after, the X-Men could have looked enough like their movie counterparts that the movie audience would have recognized them if they saw the comics? Sure, longtime fans would have groaned and called Marvel sellouts, but, much as I really hate to say this, my experience with longtime X-Men fans is they’d buy the book if it were nothing but 22 pages of Wolverine urinating. At that point, they were simply not the people Marvel should have been worrying about. Opportunities like the X-MEN movie don’t come around that often. As BATMAN suggests, by not capitalizing on it, Marvel not only harmed itself but damaged the industry as a whole.
As I’ve mentioned before, publishers are a weird lot. When times are bad, they resist change because it’s risk. When times are good, they don’t see the need for risk or change. When they do engage in “risk,” it’s usually with the binary either/or thinking so prevalent in comics. Let’s say a company decides to “experiment” with a western. If it sells well, they manufacture all kinds of reasons why that success can’t be duplicated. If it sells poorly, it’s considered failed and further attempts at westerns are banned, rather than figuring out why it failed so the lessons can be applied to future attempts. Curiously, they never try this with superhero comics no matter how many superhero comics fail. It’s almost as if they’d rather justify their failure to produce successful “spectrum” material than demonstrate they might have been wrong all these years by not focusing on it more.
|“Opportunities like the X-MEN movie don’t come around that often. As BATMAN suggests, by not capitalizing on it, Marvel not only harmed itself but damaged the industry as a whole.”|
A reader wrote me last week about Marvel’s new ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN book. He was concerned about the lack of a costumed Spider-Man in a book ostensibly aimed at a younger audience, for whom one would think a costume would be of great appeal. I’d think so, but, after Michael Keaton, I’m willing to let it play out before I pass judgment on the validity of the concept. But the writer’s main concern was that interest in the book will lag after the initial burst of attention, and the consequences if it fails to attract kids back to Marvel because it lacks the elements he feels kids would be most interested in:
“Most likely [Marvel will] draw the conclusion that it’s hopeless. Content won’t be blamed at all for that will mean admitting failure. Instead, they’ll say the audience just isn’t there. That if this recent attempt, driven with good intentions and misguided judgment, this attempt that involved more dollars being thrown at it than any other recent launch can’t work, nothing will.
Once that judgment is made, it’s the harshest, most damning one of all.”
I haven’t seen ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN and can’t comment on how compelling or not the material is, but I understand the writer’s point. This is another experiment and another potential event, and the industry can’t afford to keep throwing both away. We can’t afford to keep being languid and insular. Like it or not we need events. Not the “Carnage is destroying Manhattan for the fun of it, how will we stop him?” or “Look! A new Spectre!” events, but what the outside world will see as events: whether movies or bold new directions or whatever, what will give an audience the sense again that there’s something going on in comics that isn’t going on anywhere else, something worth paying attention to. It galls me that content itself isn’t enough, but it isn’t. We desperately need the content, because once an audience is attracted back to comics, content will be the only way to keep them, and that means content that’s constantly surprising, in varying levels of sophistication that readers can gravitate or graduate to at their own pace. But the content alone won’t bring them in. We need catalysts, and the answer to failed catalysts, or to any failed “experiment, ” is not to decide such efforts are useless, nor to automatically dismiss odd ideas on face value, but to keep trying. It’s something you learn in high school chemistry: very few people get experiments right the very first time. And, as with the Burton BATMAN, we might. But we can’t afford to stop experimenting, to stop trying to find that catalyst that will re-ignite the business, because if we don’t try we can never possibly get it right.
X-MAN #69 should be out today.
The list of comics I’m selling (comps of books I’ve written over the years that have been piling in my closet) goes out today. If you’re interested, click on this link. $1 an issue plus postage, signed if you prefer, and some sets on special sale. The second WHISPER BUREAU OF PROPANGA COMMUNIQUE also goes out this week, with a special deal for subscribers, so if that intrigues you as well, click on this link and this link only. Some scoundrel leaked the secret contents of the first communiqué, and news of the forthcoming WHISPER graphic novel was suddenly everywhere comics are spoken of, but what can you do? There are spies everywhere. But COMMUNIQUE subscribers get the real poop first. (By the way, addresses aren’t being collected or sold. Any requests for the communiqué are strictly between you and me. So subscribe with confidence.)
This week’s Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: like every other comics company, Dark Horse, still considered one of the Big Five comics publishers, has seen rocky times lately. Congratulations! You are now the new fantasy publisher at Dark Horse! How would you “fix” the company and drive it back to the forefront of the comics industry?
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.