A decade ago at a convention a reader asked what was our responsibility, as writers of “commercial fiction,” to our audience? I answered we should be almost obvious.
It’s no secret comics are “commercial fiction.” I know saying this drives the aesthetes nuts, and screams of “sellout!” and “philistine!” fill the air, but I don’t think there’s one person working in the field, from the creator of the smallest mini-comic to the publisher of DC Comics, who doesn’t at least have somewhere in the back of their mind that they’d like to make a living off their work. Or in any creative field. Culturally we’re still afflicted by a number of myths about “artists.” There’s the Jeffersonian view of the “gentleman farmer,” who spends his days pursuing commerce and spends his evenings creating philosophy and literature. Nice work if you’re landed gentry, and most of them didn’t care about literature beyond social fashion or philosophy beyond making more money. There’s the medieval/Renaissance “patron” mode, wherein writers, painters, composers etc. pursue their art with the (historically scant) financial assistance of kings, princes or bourgeoisie, but if your style is out of cultural favor you’re screwed. (Ask Mozart.) There’s the later romantic myth of artist as denizen of garret or coldwater flat, living an impoverished but noble life of genius apart from corrupt society (but, somehow, not apart from the wild sexual favors of young women fascinated by genius) whose brilliance is later recognized against society’s better judgment. (And its 20th century Communist-romantic development, “artist” as Spokesman Of The People, beleaguered champion of truth and justice standing against The Power.)
And there are still wealthy people who spend free hours producing paintings or writing novels or short stories. Foundations still dole out arts grants to whomever they deem worthy. I’m sure there are still writers and artists living in slums and working the drivetime shift at McDonalds, feverishly producing works of genius in obscurity. Just as I’m sure there are other economic models for a life in the arts. A writing teacher in college told us in complete seriousness the modern “serious” writer, to support their art, should find work teaching writing at a college. (Reminding me of the Firesign Theatre bit about the mural commemorating the heroic struggle of the little guys to finish the mural.) Presumably allowing time and funding for serious writing, though conflicting with advice from populist writers for “serious” writers to step out of ivory towers and experience life in all its socially and economically dodgy glory, in order to connect with “the people.” I have to say I was always doubtful of my teacher’s proposition that the true goal of the “serious” writer was publication in THE PARIS REVIEW or NORTHWEST REVIEW, just as I’m uncertain living in New York City roachtraps constitutes “reality.” (Face it: if you want to get “real,” there are thousands of places in the world more horrific than New York City. New Yorkers, being the most parochial people on the face of the earth, deny this.)
None of these are valuable models for comics talent. The rich don’t sit around producing comics in their downtime. Those who fund what “the arts” rarely count comics in that category. These days I know more and more people who have taken jobs with Citibank or computer game companies to keep the bills paid while they occasionally produce comics on the side, but I don’t know anyone who prefers it that way. While Joe Kubert’s school chugs along, I don’t know of any colleges hiring comics talent to teach how to write or draw comics. Not that it’s a bad idea, but we just don’t rank very highly in the cultural scheme of things. (Colleges do hire screenwriters and other TV talent to teach how to work in TV and radio and film. Why? Because those are considered culturally and economically significant.)
Which pretty much means this is our economic model: we sell comics directly to the public. That public may be small (a mini-comics artists swapping with other mini-comics artists) or large (though the gap between small and large in this business is getting smaller all the time), but the comics industry depends on sales for income. Which means we have a much stronger relationship with our audience than even most magazines do. Magazines economically break down into three main groups: popular, niche and marginal. With popular and niche, the name of the game is demographics. “Popular” means the magazine can offer the advertiser a wide demographic base; Colgate toothpaste (what G. Bush Jr and Tony Blair have in common, according to Dubya) wants to put its money behind where people from 12-82 stand a chance of seeing their ad. “Niche” magazines may not have the widest sales but provide a focused audience for advertisers; Maxtor will advertise their hard drives in MAXIMUM PC before they advertise in PARADE because MAXIMUM PC narrowcasts to an audience more inclined to buy Maxtor hard drives. Marginal magazines are those with a small core audience almost no one is interested in reaching, like AMAZING STORIES.
Somewhere in the last couple decades we, as an industry, made the decision to cater to our core audience and all others be damned. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of people working in the business (including me) were rising out of the core audience, and distribution had pretty much become restricted to the core audience. It didn’t hurt that, for whatever reasons, the core audience was mushrooming. Some of it, I think, had to do with the newness of the concept of the comics shop, some with the sense of life and vitality comics were then projecting. Even within the dominant context of the superhero strip, there was a sense of exploration and experimentation, of something happening that hadn’t happened before: a flood of bold new talent, specifically artists but sometimes writers, changing the face of something, creating something that was worth being a part of.
Okay, it was mostly illusion, but so is our culture. People wanted to be part of it. The comics audience has access to the talent and the inner workings of the business virtually unheard of in any other medium. (Most TV viewers, for instance, don’t care about the inner workings of TV, they only want to know what’s showing.) And somewhere along the line, the core audience not only got the idea it was their job to dictate content (via spending habits, which is true everywhere, but also via direct decree) to content producers, but many producers – specifically publishers and editors increasingly overseen by sales departments but some writers and artists too – got the notion it was their job to do what the core audience dictated.
Particularly in marginal publishing you have to take core audience tastes into consideration. Particularly if you’re trying to make a living off your work. Elmore Leonard shifted from westerns to crime novels for a reason. Arthur Conan Doyle brought Sherlock Holmes back from the dead against choice because his audience demanded it. But there’s a problem: an audience that knows everything that’s going to happen beforehand quickly becomes a bored audience. Audiences demand every project have a specific context, regardless of the project; to maintain their interest over time, we have to work within the expected context and mine the unexpected from it.
We have to make the work almost obvious.
This is why deus ex machina endings are generally frowned on. Solving all the problems in a story by having a large truck round a corner at high speed and run down everyone involved is something a reader can’t possibly foresee. It’s a cheat. Every story is a jigsaw puzzle the reader puts together in his head. So every story begins with established principle or by establishing it. You don’t have the Scarlet Pimpernel suddenly rescued from French torture by Martian invasion (unless you’re Philip Jose Farmer). While THE X-FILES can have an “NYPD BLUE” episode, NYPD BLUE can’t have an “X-FILES” episode, at least not without a severe breach of audience faith. The serial nature of comics exacerbates this. If a Superman story opens with Superman having grown up on Venus, the reader expects an explanation by the end of the story. Maggie and Hoppy won’t suddenly turn into Des Moines career women without some sort of reason for the change. Comics readers will only accept non sequiturs where non sequiturs are the established norm (i.e., Keith Giffen stories). When they accept non sequiturs at all.
Working off these accepted contexts, it’s our job to find a way out of the trap of reader expectation. Inexorable stories – where the action is set in motion, patently obvious, and rigidly played out – can be done, but not as a regular diet. No matter what they demand, people still want to be surprised. They want to see it coming but still be surprised, and that’s where “almost obvious” plays out. It’s not enough to play to audience expectation – to make sure there are four full page breast-forward shots regardless of story demand, or that the Flash cleverly uses his superspeed to escape that inescapable deathtrap – the only way to keep an audience coming back is to exceed expectation, in such a way they want to play the game again. To be able to reinterpret what they’ve seen for in such a way that they not only grasp how we came to that interpretation but see that it’s really the best interpretation possible.
Maybe we have to start thinking this way: comics stories as games we play against the audience. Too hard and the audience goes away. Too easy and they goes away. Every story is a series of problems for the authors to solve, and that’s one of the problems: how far can you play to your audience without it becoming the audience’s game?
Our current state gives us another problem. Every game sets the ground rules, accepted by the audience with their dollars, and then we have to play by the rules. But the ground rules the core audience wants are ground rules that frustrate a wider audience. It’s been a game we’ve deliberately been keeping people from playing, like a playground clique shooing away “uncool kids.” But if we want a wider audience we have to adopt ground rules a wider audience will be willing to play by. We’re a business supposedly built on imagination, but we’re locked into a structure that squelches imagination by forcing it into narrow, shallow channels. And when someone tries to break out of those channels – witness Warren Ellis’s abandonment of the comics mainstream for imaginative work like MINISTRY OF SPACE and MORNING DRAGONS – they’re more likely to be mocked and ignored than aided by the business and the core audience. There’s barely anyone today, when some companies that used to sell 100,000+ per issue are now selling 4000 per issue of their comics if they’re lucky, when even Marvel has to struggle to breach 100,000, that doubts we need a wider audience. Look at it this way: the population of the United States is about 275,000,000. 1% of that is 2,750,000. One-tenth of 1% is 27,500. The vast majority of comics published today don’t even reach one-tenth of 1% of the population of the United States. Never mind the rest of the world. The best selling comic today doesn’t reach one fifth of 1% of the American public.
So maybe we aren’t commercial fiction anymore after all. And if we’re not, there’s no inherent duty to any audience left, nor any reason to play by any rules. We’re free, and maybe it’s time we played it like that.
Not much to discuss this week – there’s a WHISPER newsletter going out imminently, as I finish up the script for what’s turning into a wicked graphic novel, I’m trying to organize a comics writing e-mail correspondence school while firming up new projects at several companies, and I’m setting up a couple other websites that I’ll talk about later – so I’d just like to remind everyone that Larry Young does a column every Friday here on CBR called LOOSE CANNON that shouldn’t be missed. Larry’s a little more laidback than I am – a downside to a long life in San Francisco – but he’s got good ideas and knows what he’s talking about.
And congratulations to @VENTURE contributor Jan Strnad, whose e-novel, RISEN, already partly published on @VENTURE as well as on his own Atombrain site, is being published by iPublish in May. We won’t have it on site anymore, but that’s a small price to pay. (@VENTURE is returning with new material and a vast redesign very soon, by the way. I’ll let you know when it happens.)
Also sorry to hear of the collapse of Fandom.Com. Along with the Siskel and Ebert of comics on the web, Randy Lander and Don McPherson (both of whom were very kind to my recent X-MAN run) it featured an always entertaining column by Joe Casey. Fandom’s still momentarily up and running, but when the death signal finally works its way to its brain and its mighty carcass finally crashes to the ground to rise no more, I hope those three find new homes in more resilient e-tracts. Good luck, guys.
Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: Do you pre-order comics (those who don’t know what I’m talking about should look here? Why or why not? If yes, what comics do you pre-order?
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.
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