Issue #100

Not if you're lucky enough to have the White House's economists writing your statistics for you, I guess.

Fortunately, we know people who are willing to do actual breakdowns, working from Diamond's July sales reports. The charts tell a different story. Between them, Marvel and DC hold about 62% of the market. The top ten publishers hold 87% of the market. (Curiously, while TokyoPop is now the #5 direct publisher and Viz, Fantagraphics, long a hotbed of what's generally considered "independent" comics, not to mention the ancestral enemy of WIZARD – itself the #6 publisher on Diamond's list – comes in at #10, which in itself indicates considerable growth in the diversity of the market. Though it could just have to do with Fantagraphics' recent plea for mercy.) Which means the other independent books – do the math with me here, Garub – hold 13% or so of the direct market.

So, in theory, if WIZARD is actually claiming to represent the demographics of the comics market, less than 2/3rds of the magazine should be about Marvel and DC product. Over a third should be covering books like MARMALADE BOY and SAFE AREA GORAZDE.

Then again, WIZARD may be claiming knowledge of more than the direct market. If you count newsstand sales, and you include WalMart in that, the Marvel/DC bloc probably does edge up some. If you don't count Archie Comics and Bongo Comics, which seem to do most of their business outside the direct market – something neither DC nor Marvel could survive on at this point – or Viz's SHONEN JUMP, which sells phenomenally and mostly on newsstands and in bookstores. Add in the bookstore market? TokyoPop and Viz clobber DC and kill Marvel in that market, so if you're figuring those sales in you're probably bumping the Marvel/DC market ratio proportionately down.

All of which take the wind out of WIZARD's sails. The fact is that DC and especially Marvel are what WIZARD – a basically conservative magazine born in the glory days of price guides, bad girl comics and skyrocketing market speculation – opted a long time ago to hitch its star to, and that's where their only real interest lies. Everybody knows it. They might as well just say it, they may as well just admit, "Sure, we'll run an article on something else once in awhile in the interest of 'fairness' but we only think Marvel stuff is cool, or DC stuff when guys who used to work for Marvel are doing books over there" and skip the tissue-thin excuses. (One friend of mine suggests that what WIZARD really means is that Marvel and DC represent 95% of its ad revenue... and there are recurring rumors from various independent publishers that the magazine is willing to feature them if they're willing to buy ad space. Which, if true, is short-sighted of WIZARD because today's unknowns are tomorrow's ad buyers – if they're making enough money, and publicity can only help that.) Go ahead and put your cards on the table, Garub; it's not like we don't all already know what's in your hand.

(Thanks for your help, Rory.)

I'm also seeing, possibly, where the notion that Will Eisner is "the father of the graphic novel" originated. As I mentioned a few columns back, I've been rethinking creative approaches to comics, particularly how words and pictures in comics should blend together and how the trend has been to [McCloud]devalue the function of words in the relationship and deify the function of the pictures instead of seeking a more perfect integration, so I decided to reread Scott McCloud's REINVENTING COMICS (Perennial Press; $22.95). I have a few issues with some of his premises and conclusions, both in REINVENTING and in the earlier UNDERSTANDING COMICS, which for some reason seems to send certain people frothing (Scott tends be to deified in some circles himself) though Scott himself insists he's not writing a bible but tossing ideas out there to intermingle and be tested against other ideas so that some kind of truth can eventually be achieved. Anyway, I'm rereading REINVENTING COMICS as a sort of cranial massage, and there it pops up right there on pg. 28:

Whether the notion originated with Scott or whether he accepted it from someone else (both Will and Scott's association with Eclipse Comics suggests another possible source) I couldn't say, but it's an odd assertation. Whether or not you accept or dismiss the idea that Will created the first "graphic novel," REINVENTING COMICS clearly suggests Will coined the term, which, as far as I know, was coined in the late '60s by one of Bill Spicer's FANTASY ILLUSTRATED crew (Richard Kyle, I think) as demonstrated in an interview with Alex Toth from the Spring 1969 issue of GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE:

INTERVIEWER:Someday graphic novels will take up where comic books are leaving off, but what about the artist who has to sit down and drawn them? If someone came to you with a 200 page pictorial novel to illustrate, and if the money was okay, do you think you'd be interested?

TOTH: I'd probably blow my brains out. It could be done, and there are plenty of guys around who could and would do it. But I'd rather have twenty 10 page stories than one 200 page story... this graphic novel concept frightens me... If they would reach into new subject areas, maybe graphic novels will happen as dollar or two dollar softcovers in black & white or color. The medium deserves a better shake than it's gotten from its practitioners who're making it go on the way it's been going down...

And while his style derives from Captain Marvel's CC Beck, Scott's books leave no doubt he's an Eisner acolyte (ain't we all?) but he's also enough of a comics scholar to know graphic novel antecedents to A CONTRACT WITH GOD existed. So how did that slip into REINVENTING COMICS? (Which is worth reading, by the way, if you haven't. Always nice being given the tools through which to examine your own presumptions.)

Also got a number of responses to my mini-history of the evolution of the direct market, among which:

"Hi, your timeline matches my recollection quite well. I believe that it was Phil [Seuling]'s idea to suggest the "no return" distribution, which had a couple of key aspects: 1) It enforced that he got to order what he wanted, and didn't just end up with a random assortment of titles; 2) It was completely tied up with getting a dramatically better discount (50% or more) than the returnable distributors were getting (20%, I think).

By 1974, comic conventions were becoming quite common around the country, and these local shows actually provided the breeding grounds for most of the comic stores, as a lot of us who opened stores did so after selling at conventions for several years. The role of the conventions is neglected, I think, in the development of the direct market."

That's true, and I should have brought that up. The successful trading and selling of back issue comics at conventions – and "conventions" in those days could be little more than a group of teenagers borrowing a church basement for an afternoon and putting up notices – convinced many of the early comics shop owners there was a market for such a store. The popularity of the major conventions – at the time, Phil Seuling's annual July 4th con (which is where I went for a high school graduation present, actually) – gave the impression, as San Diego does today, that the market for comics is potentially monstrous.

"Just read your column, and I must chime in here...

I've said it a million times and I'll say it again: The direct market and comics industry is not in trouble due to the direct market or lack of diversity. The problem lies squarely with the comics shops and the people who run them. More often than not, the owners of these shops are not experienced businessmen, or they're just overgrown fanboys – who think having their own 'den' is cool.

Lone Star Comics in Fort Worth, TX fired it's fanboy staff and hired men and women with REAL retail experience. They ditched the card game tournaments, yanked off the posters and got uniforms for the staff. They went to the bank, got loans and improved their stores, got involved with various art, community, parent/educator groups, and began carrying a diverse line of comics books. They advertised on dirt cheap AM talk radio stations, the local cable 'slide show' channels and in various freebie newspapers.

Lone Star's sales quadrupled within a year and they opened two extra locations in the DFW area. They're still going strong, and now their online store is humming along, while NPO and a number of other online retailers went belly up.

They're living proof of what happens when real businessmen and women get hold of a comics shop and treat it like a business and not a hobby."

Okay, that's both good advice and a bit harsh. Not that I haven't been cranky with comics shops myself in this column, but...

The type of shop you disdain is a dying breed, and the type of shop you represent via Lone Star Comics (does Buddy Saunders still own it, or is he out now?) is on the rise, as a basic function of the economy. The last ten years have been very, very rough on comics shops, and it's mostly the ones that have been able to approach it as an actual business – whatever that constitutes for their particular market – that have survived and even prospered. Frankly, given the growth of the graphic novel market and their growing importance in general bookstores, I think it's really only a matter of time before the long-imagined dream (or nightmare, depending on your perspective) of a national comics shop chain (or, rather, a chain of graphic novel shops that would also carry comic books) materializes; that may be the next big sea change for the business, particularly since any national chain would almost certainly strongly focus on manga at the expense of more "traditional" fare. In any case, I'm not sure there are compelling arguments for uniforming your employees like Hollywood Video does, and we really shouldn't underestimate the value of card games, posters, toys, etc., as interest boosters. I suspect the really big difference for Lone Star came with creating a generally appealing environment and then using every available avenue to promote themselves, and that's a lesson all comics shops could take to heart. (Though, as I said, a lot of them already know this.)

By the way, I want to thank everyone who wrote to tell me George Pelecanos has always been involved with THE WIRE (HBO, 9:30PM Sundays). His episode was great, but, unfortunately, with only two episodes left to go, the show just never quite gelled this season. Still, it hasn't been bad, just diffuse, and the result was a hell of a lot better than THE SOPRANOS' second season. And since there's no TV to review this week (worth mentioning, anyway) let me take this moment to mention Cartoon Network starts the second run tonight at midnight of FLCL aka FOOLY COOLY, a wild, entertainingly incoherent anime about a sixth-grader who starts growing robots out of his head after he's run down by a Stratocaster-wielding, Vespa-riding woman who just happens to be an alien cop. Or something like that. Best anime I've seen in ages.

The main complaint this year seems to be Pulse cohort Jen Contino's absence from the actual selection procedure. The way the awards are set up, five judges are selected from various walks of comics life, imprisoned together for a weekend and forced to read and sort out gobs and gobs and gobs of comics and graphic novels and come up with nominations. Report is that, due to health reasons, Contino ducked the weekend in hell and sent along a list of her own recommendations instead.

Okay, I sort of agree the Eisners ought to follow their own few rules and as soon as Jen was aware she wasn't going to be able to make the cabal she should have begged off or been replaced. Her absence no doubt hobbled the give and take of the weekend a bit. But I can't imagine it hurt much. It doesn't seem worth getting upset about.

Other complaints involve Comicon International matriarch Jackie Estrada's "undo" influence on the awards, selecting judges from her own "clique" and obstructing the nomination of publishers she doesn't have strong connections to. (Larry Young's Ait-PlanetLar Books was specifically named – not by Larry or anyone with anything to do with the company.) Frankly, I've got no idea what Jackie's personal connections to any of the judges for any years are, and I've never once heard Larry suggest Jackie had a grudge against his company in any way and I doubt it would ever occur to him to think do. But here's the thing: even if all this is absolutely true – and my best guess is that it's not – Jackie's the administrator of the Eisners. That means it's her job to choose the judges and otherwise make the rules. Anyone who doesn't think the Eisners (or the Harveys, or whatever) are properly representative should either start their own awards and do them better, or do what I do: ignore them. (Those who don't ignore them told me the actual award ceremony was vastly improved this year by severing the Inkpot Awards from them and dumping what passed in comics for the song-and-dance routines, which shortened the proceedings considerably and kept a high energy level all night.)

There are better things in comics to try to dig scandals from than the Eisner Awards.

200 candidates for governor of California – who says there's no freedom of choice in America? Top of the list is apparently Terminator Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, though Republican, is still far from the worst choice. (I've met Arnold, and, in addition to being a fairly shrewd businessman, is a pretty decent guy, and remember when he was named Worst New Kennedy? On the other hand, there's the Planet Hollywood fiasco and his connections to closet Nazi Kurt Waldheim...) Gallagher, HUSTLER magnate Larry Flynt, ex-DIFFERENT STROKES star Gary Coleman, Arianna Huffington (whose rich prick ex-hubby, who once tried to buy political office himself, immediately endorsed Arnie), the more the merrier. (Among the great ironies of the race is the millionaire Representative who financed the recall campaign got cold feet and yanked his own name from the ballot as soon as Arnie threw his hat in.) As I understand the balloting process, the recall itself is on the same ballot as the other candidates (who will be listed not in alphabetical order but by district as chosen by lottery... or something like that... like White House explanations of WMD intelligence and who knew what when and allowed what to be said, it changes every time I hear it...) and you vote for both at once. If the recall doesn't carry, the other votes get discarded. (Unlike Florida, where they just discard votes – particularly if cast by blacks – regardless.)

It'd be interesting to see someone like Green Party candidate Peter Camejo get in there to shake things up, instead of "stars" (Arnie may play like an "outsider candidate," but he's got strong Republican connections and, don't forget, he is a Kennedy now) or political hacks like incumbent Gray Davis (who has, amusingly, claimed he's going to just ignore the whole recall and 'get down to business.' Gee, if he'd done that years ago, we might not have all this cheap entertainment. Cheap for us, anyway; California's going to be paying through the nose for it. For years.

Let's face it: it's good sideshow. But there are other sideshows out there: flipping through this morning's paper, I find the Iraq mess will probably end up costing something like $600 billion and the Administration is "fuzzy" about where the money will come from. (One would think the oil companies, since they're now in the active process of profiteering off Iraq, but, considering the way of things, that's the same thing as saying the American taxpayer will pay for it.) There's the upcoming Presidential elections, as inane Democrats scramble to rally behind Joe Lieberman clone Howard Dean. (An equally inane article on some right wing rant site about Joe Kelly's Superman claims Kelly's version is "more left wing than Howard Dean," which is pretty funny since Dean is such a flagrant right winger, a man, who among other things, never met a death penalty conviction – wrongful or otherwise – he didn't like and wants lots more of them, thinks we have to cut back on civil liberties as a response to terrorism, and as governor of Vermont regularly appointed judges who regularly ignored the Constitution in their decisions – how is this different from what we've got?) There's Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's continuing war against the judiciary, with him collecting reports on federal judges who has sentenced pretty much anything at less than Justice Dept. guidelines, with the obvious intent of targeting them for pressure to bring sentencing up to Ashcroft's severe standards. There are the continuing investigations in Britain into the intelligence about Iraqi WMDs further indicating weapons accusations against Iraq were known fabrications, punctuated by the insistence by top brass, there as here, that the reports were good and accurate. There are the investigations into corruption in the Sharon government reputedly leading all the way to the top; while pundits don't expect it will unseat Ariel Sharon, I remember when they said the same thing about Nixon. Oh, don't forget the Hand Puppet's kid, in something like a scene from the sequel to TRAFFIC, has finally graduated from rehab. Way to go, girl!

I don't know if I'd call it a great time to be a politics-watcher, but it's certainly a surreal one. And way too real, all at the same time.

I was asked, though, why I hadn't commented on the Jesus Castillo case. Castillo, you may recall, was arrested and prosecuted in Texas for selling an adult comic to an adult, and convicted basically on the premise that comics are for kids and the shop was in proximity to a school, despite the comic in question not being sold to a child or in any way accessible to them in the store, making both Castillo and the comic automatic abominations. The case was appealed through several courts, a process that came to a halt recently when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case. That doesn't necessarily mean they agreed with the conviction. It meant they weren't really interested in taking on a case that might revisit the difficult subject of obscenity standards that the court "settled" in 1973 by deciding all areas had the right to determine what their own standards are.

I don't have much to add to what's been said elsewhere. The conviction sucked. What happened to Castillo sucks. The Supreme Court's choice is cowardice. And whatever you choose to believe regarding obscenity or the proximity of comics shops to schools, there ought to be a basic principle in American society and law that if an adult comes into your store and buys something available to adults, it's presumed to be an informed purchase and a matter between two adults, not the law. Selling to kids is something else again. But that's apparently not the way they want things done in Dallas TX. If you're living in Dallas, or anywhere else similar rubbish is going on, I can really see only one good alternative: get together and get out there and flex some political muscle, campaigning and voting. For many politicians, this sort of thing is a "safe" issue – they get to prove they're standing up for "decency" while not actually having to do anything that might upset the constituency or political backers (like, say, investigate and prosecute corruption, bribery and influence-peddling rackets) – but the hint that it could turn into a political liability is enough to shut many of them down. You've got more power than you think. If you don't want to see more Jesus Castillo cases, use it.

. Sure, he says nice things about me, but the smallest fraction of what makes it interesting.

Grant Morrison fans, in the meantime, can have a field day on the web. Not only has his jump from Marvel to DC prompted entertaining interviews about his company relations and future projects at CBR and Newsarama, but those hungry for The Whole Grant Morrison experience might want to check here or here. (Curiously, the latter site also mentions "Steven Grant" after a fashion; I seem to have become a cultural sublimin.)

For those seeking distribution alternatives and different ways of getting work out there, David Ingersoll is chronically his adventures with a free comics tabloid in Seattle.

Roger Robinson's mainly known for his work on books like DC's AZRAEL, but often work-for-hire books make certain demands and only certain writers or artists ever get the chance to break through the glass ceiling and show what they can really do. I don't think Robinson's ever been in the latter camp, because I don't remember much of his comics art being anywhere near as striking as the work in his SAMURAI SKETCHBOOK VOL 1 mini-comic (no contact info; no price). The title says it all: 20 pages of samurai drawings obviously influenced by LONE WOLF AND CUB, Frank Miller and other sources. What's interesting (and this is true of many artists) is that the looser and more fluid the drawings become, the more impressive they are. The booklet suggests Robinson's got ability he has yet to adequately show off, and I hope he sticks with the looser, less controlled style and gets a chance.

SHOOTING STAR COMICS ANTHOLOGY (Shooting Star Comics, 5665 Highway 9 Suite 103-140, Alpharetta GA 30004; $4.95) is a reasonably good annual, this one sporting a Jeff (THE INTERMAN) Parker cover and a Tim Truman story with a bunch of semi-pro stories sandwiched between. Most of them are superhero stories in some manner or another, but they're mostly not a mainstream approach; Sean Taylor & JP Dupras' '38 Hours' has strong inflections of ASTRO CITY, for instance, while J Morgan Neal & Todd Fox's "Amy Geronimo" (returning from last issue, if I recall correctly) is a postmodern Indiana Jones riff. It's not bad, but like a lot of semi-pro material it all somehow seems a little undercooked, and a lot more looking backwards than forwards. I don't think people adequately understand that venues like SHOOTING STAR are their place to experiment and cut loose as well as a place to simply get experience. None of this stuff is bad, but I'd really like to see more creative adventurism.

Okay, I'm running a little late on REX MUNDI #4 (Image Comics; $2.95), but better late than never and that goes for you too. If you're not reading REX MUNDI, basically an occult crime comic set in an alternate world '30s Paris where sorcery is prevalent, the Inquisition underscores all of society, and a doctor seeks to understand a priest friend's death, you're missing one of the best books being done today. Arvid Nelson writes with a sure hand, steadily stalking his story in a way no other writer in the business does, and artist EricJ's work is a deft pleasing blend of Chaykin and Perez at the height of their powers. I'm surprised these guys haven't had more money than they can pass up dangled in front of them by major companies yet; REX MUNDI is that good. This issue ends a bit abruptly, but aside from that...

I've praised Aussie cartoonist D.A. Holgate in previous columns. Now he has self-published TALES FROM UNDER YOUR BED (Blue Monkey Design; $4US), a picaresque concoction of monsters, Mexican wrestlers, amusement parks, pagan idols and Elvis. It's slight but amusing, a kid comic, really, and Holgate has a great cartoony style. (That Craig Phillips pinup is pretty damn cool too.) Another guy someone should be exploiting.

Finally, of all the series in SHONEN JUMP, my favorite is NARUTO, about an outcast boy (really the avatar of a formerly malevolent fox spirit) determined to become a master ninja and facing all the dismaying obstacles that the impatient and inexperienced always find in their way. The tone is appealingly anarchonistic, simultaneously tense and lighthearted in that way that's rare in American comics but common in manga, the characters are sharp and interesting, the episodes have a natural flow and growth, the writing's tight and the exciting, kinetic art is well-designed, well-drawn and just fabulous, some of my favorite manga art ever. (Not hurt by the avoidance of many of the familiar clichés of manga.) Best of all, NARUTO's now available in trade paperback (Viz Communications; $7.95) and reads even better in collection than it did in serialization. Don't miss it.

Also out this month is DAMNED, from , a trade paperback. Lots of new stuff. Me, Mike Zeck, Denis Rodier, Kurt Goldzung. Crime comics the way crime comics were meant to be. Pester your retailer for it, and if he won't get it buy it at Khepri.

Oh, one last thing: I don't care who you are, don't send me press releases. I don't do press releases. Send 'em to a website that cares.

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.

My old personal webpage – the one with all the information – has finally vanished, and it's about time, since I left that server almost a year ago. The new one isn't up yet, but keep watching this space for details.

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