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Issue #69

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #69

Interesting piece last week on Pulse under the title “2002: It Was A Big Year. Numerous pros listed their choices for the Big Story in comics last year, including some interesting ones, like the comics website Modern Tales, which brought many comics – not “webcomics,” real comics – to the web (including my pick for #1 comic of the 2002, SHUCK) on a pay basis. I think it’s too early to call this a significant event in comics history, though it’s certainly an interesting one. At the point where Modern Tales has been around awhile and increased subscribers to the point it qualifies as an institution, at the point other websites are able to make similar moves with similar success, at the point it changes the economic direction of the industry (and it’s certainly off to a good start), then it becomes significant. I’m not implying that Modern Tales isn’t important, or that it shouldn’t be supported. It should, and I hope lots of people head over there, find something they like, and subscribe. I hope five years from now we can look back at 2002 and say Modern Tales> was a groundbreaking, industry-changing event. But the history of comics is littered with “groundbreaking events” that somehow evaporated into nothing once the initial hoopla passed. As comics companies have learned the very hard way, creating an event is relatively easy. Sustaining an event is next to impossible. If Modern Tales can sustain and profit to the point that things change, then it will have been a major event. Right now, it’s just a ray of hope.

My criterion may be too harsh to be practical. The only true “Big Story” is the one that alters the course of history.

Most other choices fail the test as well. The collapse of LPC Distribution could have been the major story of the year – the way LPC was situated in the industry, it could have been the equivalent of a nuclear bomb that left only the very major publishers alive – but, despite varying degrees of pain, most affected publishers managed to survive, which made the saving of Top Shelf via rapid Internet sales an interesting story as well, but just one of dozens and an “event” that’s not likely to be replicated anytime soon. The SPIDER-MAN movie was certainly a big event, but not one that has so far impacted much on the rest of the business, or even noticeably on Marvel aside from a bump in cash flow. The corporate comics emphasis on Batman and Spider-Man, respectively, isn’t an event; it’s business as usual, and that they were somewhat more successful this year doesn’t make it anything more than business as usual. Many people cited the attention of bookstores to graphic novels as a major event (combined with Diamond’s new will to enter the bookstore/graphic novel market in force after treating those markets as a bastard stepchild for years), but the attention of bookstores (or even the “rise” of graphic novels) isn’t the real story there, since bookstores have actually been paying attention to graphic novels for years. It’s that the comics industry actually lifted its nose from its own muck long enough to pay attention to the bookstore market. Which would seem to be a history-altering event on its own, except the attention-span seems to be short lived; when I talked about this in MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS (hopefully the collection will be out shortly from AiT/PlanetLar Books, if you want to make sure I’m not talking through my hat here) years ago, I specified that comics companies will have to start making material aimed at the bookstore market if they don’t want to just kill that market altogether. But they’re not, though, in some cases, they’ve adjusted the format of comics stories to facilitate book collection, and 2003’s top story could as easily be the killing of the graphic novel market, as it was killed in the early ’90s by companies just flooding crap into the format, which seems to be happening again.

The lawsuits were interesting. Stan Lee v. Marvel, Joe Simon v. Marvel, Gaiman v. McFarlane. Stan v. Marvel was certainly something we thought we’d never see, so it has a car-wreck kind of fascination to it, but whatever happens with it it’s not likely to change much about the business. While the other two might, neither are anywhere near completion yet, despite Neil’s initial stunning victory over Todd. Civil suits usually drag on for years, and, in any case, Todd tends to do better in appeals than in initial rounds, judging from his other lawsuits. Like the Modern Tales thing, we won’t learn the true significance of any lawsuits for years.

Hollywood’s fascination with comics. Free Comics Day. The Jesus Castillo prosecution. ROAD TO PERDITION. Nostalgia.

But only a couple people got 2002’s Big Story right: this was the year Viz Communications and Tokyo Pop became the dominant forces in the American comics market. While the rest of the business was focused on their own navels, Viz and TokyoPop took over the bookstore market, pulled in a new audience, and became the top publishers in the country. Not that it’ll do American comics talent much good, but that is an industry-changing event. The industry has changed, but the standard American comics market has gone out of its way not to notice it, as it basically refused to notice bookstores for years. This isn’t the longstanding type of “get them reading any comics so we can sell them X-Men” “change” comics shops have fixated on for two decades. This is a “this is ours, we don’t want yours” change. The audiences Viz and TokyoPop are creating are, for the most part, not audiences that have the remotest interest in shifting over to “standard” comics. But they’re among the hardest core comics fans out there. The challenge for American publishers will be to attract them, if it’s even possible, but it’ll take pain and soulsearching, and perhaps an acknowledgement, finally, that “business as usual” just won’t cut it anymore. But the other message of the rise of Viz and TokyoPop is this: for years, the comics companies have insisted there’s no other market out there besides the dwindling specialty market they’ve almost psychopathically served. They’ve been proven very, very seriously wrong. There are all kinds of markets out there for those willing to go get them.

For a good eight years, the American comics industry has actively chosen to insulate itself, and dwindle away, claiming there was nothing that could be done about it. (It would, after all, require change.) I hope 2003 is the year the industry chooses to survive.

The other important story of 2002 was the rise of ambitious new alternative publishers. There was a small flood of them: Idea+Design Works, Future Comics, Absence Of Ink, Moonstone Books, Penny-Farthing Press and several others. That so many are starting – and finding niches – in what has been considered a business downturn is inspiring, and a good thought to start the new year with. The downside to this is that, traditionally, the survival rate of these start-ups isn’t good. I know there are those who dispute this, but new ideas are the best chance for the longterm survival (let alone growth) of the industry, which means there’s just that much more need for support mechanisms for such start-ups. I’m not suggesting that Marvel or DC (or even Dark Horse, Image or CrossGen) underwrite this, since it’s not really to their benefit to create their own competition, unless we want to continue the self-destructive system of independent comics as feeder systems to develop new talent for Marvel and DC to cannibalize; the object should be to help independent publishers be financially viable on their own, not mere training grounds to be looted at will.

I’ve been, via private e-mail, accused of not supporting smaller publishers by being critical of their output. (This accusation didn’t come from any of the publishers nor talent involved.) I can understand where this might look the case, and it plays up the dilemma of reviewing. On the one hand, you want to give serious publishers (and it’s fairly easy to tell the fast buck or brain dead dilettantes from the ones who’d like to stick around awhile) as much of a boost as possible. On the other, it does no one any good to push product you find badly flawed or simply don’t like. There should be no such thing as tolerating from one publisher what you wouldn’t tolerate from another, just because it’s a publisher you approve of. What’s really needed now – and there has been strong movement toward it over the past year, particularly on the Internet – is focused critical thought, from a variety of sources: criticism that embraces the medium rather than genres or characters. We have a tendency to give more or less weight to publishers’ offerings depending on our prejudices – some automatically dismiss any book that’s not from DC, for instance, and those who tend to automatically dismiss any book they publish – so the first effort of budding critics, I think, should be toward neutrality. Obviously, we all have our biases – e.g., elves give me hives – but it doesn’t take much work to recognize your own biases and take them into account, or at least cop to them. (Wearing them as a badge of honor isn’t good.) We need critics who are students of the medium, not of any single publishers or characters, educated in the language and history of the medium but able to speak plainly without ego or smugness – who can help push publishers to publish good books by helping to define what good books are. Critics who know what’s good as well as bad (it’s much easier to identify – and ridicule – the latter than to explicate the former). A new generation of serious critics, parallel to a new generation of serious publishers, all with an eye toward better and better material, particularly if the critics are letting audiences know the new material exists – that’s something that could change the industry.

[CSI]

Speaking of which, Idea+Design Works sent me a copy of their forthcoming CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION comic (5 issues; $3.99@) by Max Allen Collins and Gabriel Rodriguez (and a very nice cover and some interior work by Ashley Wood). The promo notice sums up the plotline as well as I could: the miniseries finds a serial killer on the loose in Las Vegas, where the CSI team soon discovers the unique aspect of the case – the killer seems to be re-enacting the crimes of Jack The Ripper. I’m not a regular viewer of the show (I tend to pop in for the last ten minutes every week, and can usually piece all the storylines and character arcs together in about 30 seconds), and I’ve never been crazy about procedurals, but there are few comics writers alive better at writing them than Max Collins. Rodriguez does a good job of capturing likenesses (characteristic expressions as well as faces) and the show’s austere visual feel. It’s not a breakthrough comic by any stretch, but it does the job: fans who can’t get enough CSI, and CBS knows there are an awful lot of them, will find the comic a convincing recreation of the show. Good job.

This mini-comic slipped out of the pile last week: MEENA: An Immigrant Tragedy (Stephen Turner; $2). Bleak and thoughtful, filled with reflections on racism in Turner’s homeland of Australia, it compares favorably with Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber’s exceptional ME AND EDITH HEAD; while artist iKE%mORPH isn’t as accomplished as Lieber, his work’s pretty effective here. It’s a brief tale of a young documentary filmmaker and his key subject, a Afghan doctor who escapes the Taliban for what he believes will be freedom in Australia, and both pays and extracts a terrible cost for it. It’s disturbing on several levels, and a fine job. Read it.

COMIC BOOK ARTIST (TwoMorrows Publishing, 1812 Park Dr, Raleigh NC 27605; $6.95), which is switching publishers soon, has a new issue, #23, out, focusing on Mike Mignola and Jill Thompson, with features on Harlan Ellison and Jose Delbo. For as good as this magazine regularly is – I’d say it’s the best magazine dedicated to comics history published today, but that’s a superlative rather than a comparative because there really are no others to speak of – I’m surprised people don’t make more noise about it. The issue also features a new column by Don McGregor, this one focusing on Tom Sutton. Excellent work all around, as usual.

It seems to me this would be the killing time for someone to make money in the comics business. You’ve got the crumbling old world over here, several new worlds over there, a giant of two like Marvel strenuously straddling them, and no real focal point. After the spiritual winter of last year (Warren Ellis, in one of his newsletters, mentioned something about how half the industry’s threatening to get out of comics, and I agree with him that we need more comics and it’s still a great business to work in, when you can) I get intimations the ice is finally starting to break, and I know I’m not the only one. It feels like we’re on the cusp of something.

Fact is, I seriously believe that the market is so ripe for exploitation – if something jumpstarts general interest, which would be a lot easier to do if we weren’t so fixated on solipsism as a way of life – that it wouldn’t be any trick to start with, say, $200,000 and end up with $2 million in your pocket in five years or less. Anyone want to give me $200,000 to see how it’s done?

A couple weeks ago, I listed the odd projects I’m working on, but for some reason I blanked out on the oddest of all:

[Bobocop]

BOBOCOP, with art by CRAB ALLEN writer-artist L. Frank Weber. (BOBOCOP™2003 Steven Grant, art ©2003 L. Frank Weber. All rights reserved.) If you haven’t read the fabulous CRAB ALLEN yet, order a copy from the only American outlet, Comix Experience. And, yeah, I still hate ape stories. That’s part of the perverse appeal BOBOCOP has for me. Look for it soon. There are a few other surprises coming soon as well…

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.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. Be warned that this site is functionally dead – I’ve switched to a different server and am prepping a new page – but it’s still up and the backstory details are still germane even if the news page is a bit dated.

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