In other words, it’s that time of year when everything that should’ve gotten done earlier gets done, because holiday season is right around the corner (it lasts from late November or early December until sometime in mid-January) when absolutely nothing gets done.
This also seems to be the time of year when young talents’ fancy turns to digging up moribund DC properties with an eye toward revamps they can sell to the company. Warren Ellis brought this up last week when mentioning in his BAD SIGNAL newsletter (which I keep subscribing to but never get) that current DC editorial ramrod Dan Didio reminded him he had promised DC a revamp, but he’s not the only one. Across message boards and e-mail, many talents have been trolling the same trench, and it brings up some interesting aspects of our business.
First, what’s the point in revamping old properties? The habit has become so ingrained in American comics no one even questions the validity of the approach anymore. They just don’t buy the results. At one point there was economic value in revamps to both the company and the talent. Doing work-for-hire was a stepping stone to a creator-ownership deal somewhere; by revamping existing properties, the talent could bypass essentially surrendering their marketable concepts to the company for page rate. They could simply use the company’s characters and prove their marketability that way. (Frank Miller, for example, took on Daredevil and Batman at times when their respective publishers couldn’t give the books away; there’s no way to explain their sudden marketability except to ascribe it to Frank.)
Now, however, almost all publishers have backed off from creator-owned books in a big way, so there’s nothing to climb to unless you plan to self-publish. (Which, considering how much publishers willing to publish creator-owned books are generally willing to advance the talent, and how much they’re actually willing to promote and distribute them, you might as well.) Marvel and DC both offer fairly decent “participation” packages – you may not own or control your property, but you get fairly good compensation anywhere the companies make money from it, whether via a major motion picture or Underoos. In theory, anyway.
So if you can make more money off a new creation, where’s the virtue in revamping? If the big companies are basically license producers now – and that would seem to be the overall goal for both DC and Marvel, not to mention companies like Future and Crossgen – then logic dictates they’d want more new properties to work with, not fewer. So why the push for revamps, since they’re obviously as desired inside the companies as much as among talent? Are “Tommy Tomorrow” or “Skull The Slayer” really such evocative names?
There are three approaches to revamps. 1) Take the name, come up with a whole new concept. (Example: Andy Diggle’s recent THE LOSERS, though I’m told it will have a fleeting connection at some point to the original war comic version.) 2) Faithfully duplicate and continue most of the elements of the original, with some modernistic spin. (Example: Brian Vaughan’s SWAMP THING. 3) Retain elements of the original, but with a tongue-in-cheek, post-modern ironic spin.
Y’know, if you’re going to come up with a whole new concept, you might as well get the full economic benefit of it. Meaning: new trademarks, not old.
But you never know, you might end up turning The Sandman into SANDMAN and the company might be willing to cut you a bigger piece of the action to keep you happy. It happens. Just not very often.
“Revamps” that duplicate and retain elements of the original come with a built-in booby trap: that concept has already failed once or more; whether it never got a fair shake or the audience already rejected it is usually a matter of interpretation, and they’re not mutually exclusive. It’s not like having a “name brand” is a potential element of success if that name is Ultra The Multi-Alien. For every STARMAN there are a thousand “faithful” revamps that go absolutely nowhere. The tongue-in-cheek post-modernist spin, the core of many Vertigo revamps of DC characters, has its own pitfall: at its heart is the insistence that comic books are silly. The post-modernist tongue-in-cheek spin is a wink to the audience, but it’s also a subtle slam at them. We all know a lot of comics are silly, stupid, preposterous. What’s the point of wallowing in it? Sure, you’re superior enough to recognize how silly the concepts are but you’re still working with them. The solution to realizing how stupid some ideas are isn’t to wear it as a badge of honor, it’s to work with less stupid ideas.
(That said, there’s a thin line between stupidity and genius, and that line’s called success. Something that succeeds we praise, but if it didn’t succeed it’d be ridiculed. With the exact same product.)
And there are things that just aren’t worth revamping. The example I used recently is Atomic Knights, a series that ran in DC’s STRANGE ADVENTURES science fiction comic in the ’60s. It took place after the thermonuclear WWIII of 1986, which lasts only minutes and leaves the Earth a beautifully mutated, if somewhat irradiated, planet where nations and infrastructures no longer exist. Despite some subtle concepts about the nature of nuclear war and the weaknesses of government approaches toward it (notably the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction that was used to keep arsenals in check), what’s most notable about the series was the bizarre silliness of it. Stock noble heroes discover suits of medieval armor will protect them from radiation, so they ride the wastelands on giant Dalmatians that have replaced horses and spread the virtues of civilizations, overthrowing tyrannical local barons and battling more science-fictiony enemies like the underground Mole People who were actually responsible for starting the war. (Otherwise human in form except for mole heads and hands, they wanted to wipe out humanity and inherit the above; the Atomic Knights beat them with – I kid you not – fireflies, in a spasm of traditional Julius Schwartz applied science.)
A few problems to “revamping” this. There was no nuclear war in 1986. In 1961, that sounded like a reasonably far-off date (certainly back then no one really expected to go this long without a nuclear war). The name “Atomic Knights” is also terribly retro; nobody says “atomic” anymore. The name itself is a red flag to an audience. Unless it’s played as over-the-top tongue-in-cheek retro, but, again, what’s the point? We already know it’s a silly series; where’s the percentage in rubbing our faces in it? Sure, you could take the underlying concepts of Atomic Knights, make the series as serious (and I don’t mean humorless, I mean serious) as those concepts, put another name on it…
And you’d have a whole new series with no connection to Atomic Knights.
Maybe Grant Morrison can squeeze that lump of coal and end up with a diamond. But does anyone really have a great yen for the return of Atomic Knights? Or Little Boy Blue? Or King Faraday, or most old series? Isn’t it time comics companies, and talent, cut loose the past? We don’t have to forget the past, sure, but why live there?
The wider audience sure as hell doesn’t.
I should mention I’ve known John a long time, since before either of us were comics professionals. There was a point where we were in fairly regular communication, and later in regular communication by proxy, when I was staying with Roger Stern after my move to Manhattan, and Roger was editing UNCANNY X-MEN and constantly conferencing with John. I like John. While his style has changed since he was the #2 artist in comics (from the market’s standpoint – all artistic considerations are a matter of personal taste – and even though John was #2 to Frank Miller, for a long time he was a very close #2) I still think he’s still a tremendously talented artist. Back when I was involved in writing AVENGERS and Chris Claremont was writing UNCANNY X-MEN and John was drawing both, I remember Chris approached me at Marvel and asked how we managed to get such interesting work out of John. Rather pompously, I said that we would give John impossible things to draw, and he’d find a way to draw them. Honestly, John’s great that way, and once in awhile he still proves it, as on the very underrated OMAC prestige series he did for DC in the ’90s. From what I’ve seen of his recent work – I haven’t seen much, never even saw a copy of LAB RATS, for instance – if his reputation as an inventive illustrator hasn’t stayed strong, it’s because his writers haven’t been challenging him enough. I did read several issues of GENERATIONS, his on-again off-again prestige DC series and found it interesting but frustrating; structurally more adventurous than most comics, it still reads like anthologized vignettes rather than a coherent style. But at least he’s trying something different, which is more than can be said of many current fan favorites.
So when did he start getting a rep for not selling? John himself cites the perception, when he worked on FANTASTIC 4, that the book wasn’t selling, despite sales considerably greater than UNCANNY X-MEN had while he was there. And that’s unfortunate, but there’s a reason for it: the average sales for comics during his UNCANNY X-MEN stretch were bad, making UXM sales king of the mountain, a runaway #1 book. (Similar today is BATMAN being the #1 book with sales around 150,000, which at one point was a number well below cancellation level but now is untouchable.) FF, selling more than twice as well as John’s UXM, was nonetheless selling well below the numbers of contemporaneous hits; it was nowhere near a #1 book. In real terms, John’s market value had drastically increased. On a comparative basis, it had declined.
I can understand his frustration. That’s enough to frustrate anyone.
John’s discussion brought a lot of theories out of the woodwork, but few of them really wash. He does mention a phenomenon many of us have experienced, where titles ordered by retailers sell out and have other customers wanting them, but the books aren’t reordered because, paradoxically, according to the retailer, the talent behind the book “doesn’t sell.” I can see how that might particularly anger someone like John, whose reputation used to be that of a name that did sell books, lots and lots of them. Even at the height of Image, John was still a tremendously popular artist with a very faithful fan base. As it happens, I know where the bottom fell out on him (to the extent it did) and he did it to himself.
Seeing the sales on the first issue, John not only self-cancelled the book but issued a public statement about it. I forget what the numbers were, but while significantly below the best sellers of the time they were numbers anyone today would kill for. John’s statement was that the numbers weren’t significant enough for him to continue with the book. I forget the exact wording, and it probably wasn’t John’s meaning, but an awful lot of people came away from it believing John had said his fan base hadn’t swarmed to support the book and he felt betrayed by them. If the perception before that book was that he couldn’t sell a book, he’d pretty much made it a self-fulfilling prophecy. The sales of DANGER UNLIMITED were most likely a census of John’s hardcore fans, and by saying the sales weren’t good enough for him, he gave the impression they weren’t enough for him, and years of good will went right down the drain. As I’m said, I’m pretty sure this wasn’t John’s intended meaning, but I know from many conversations I had at the time, online and in comics shops, that was the perception, and they were mad about it. I’d guess that killed a lot of his core fan support. Aside from BABE, DANGER UNLIMITED was pretty much John’s kiss-off to creator-owned comics, and the ’90s subsequently saw him bouncing between Marvel and DC cribbing off the past with series like X-MEN: THE HIDDEN YEARS and SPIDER-MAN: CHAPTER ONE. It was the same trap Roy Thomas had fallen into ten years earlier, becoming almost exclusively associated in the market mind with “old stuff.” Bad career move? I dunno. You follow your interests, make your choices and take your shot. Like I said, the line between genius and stupidity is success. What people don’t want to accept is there’s no way to know how it’ll come out until it comes out. John also did a lot of comics like NEW GODS, but that just reinforced the “cribbing the past” perception, as one of his many builds on Jack Kirby.
Which isn’t to suggest the criticism wasn’t unfair. But that’s how these things go. It’s not something you can really cry fair or foul about. In many ways, John is just the most prominent victim of a general perception found in the comics market that has grown since the ’70s. Prior to the ’70s, newcomers in the comics field were a very rare thing, and they were still pretty rare into the ’80s. If the direct market has brought anything to comics, it’s the slavery of the new, and the perception, widely accepted in editorial circles, that “old talent” can only produce “old work” and the audience wants “new” work, and therefore “new talent” that can “speak to them.” Not that this has helped comics sell, for the most part, or that, for the most part, new talent hasn’t wasted much of its oomph constantly reinventing the wheel for corporate masters (see the first section on revamping). But it’s something most of us experience if we stick with the business long enough. Editors tend to be far more swayed by this perception than the fan base is, but that’s not surprising in a business that now largely takes its rewards via “critical acclaim” than sales. It’s an artificial cycle imposed on the business for various reasons that have more to do with control and promotion than talent, and John is, unfortunately, among those who have been ground up in the cycle.
It’s not impossible to beat the cycle, but it’s tough.
And the hits just keep on coming. Following the exposure of VP Dick Cheney as an apparent pathological liar (he told a whole slew of obvious lies and pointed misimplications on NBC‘s MEET THE PRESS) both Sec. Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and the Hand Puppet himself came out and said they knew of no connections between Saddam Hussein and 9-11. The Hand Puppet couldn’t quite bring himself to admit there is no evidence, and instead stated we hadn’t “found” any, an argument the administration is now well practiced in using courtesy of Iraq’s still-absentee weapons of mass destruction. The Hand Puppet claimed to understand why so many Americans (if a Washington Post poll can be believed) believed Saddam Hussein was directly involved in 9-11, which was big of him, considering it’s his administration that has most fostered and manipulated that perception.
In fact, that perception was the underlying cause for the Iraq War, since the measure that gave the Hand Puppet authority to pursue it called for military action not against Iraq, but against “nations, organizations, or persons who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001…” The admission that the administration knew there was no Saddam/al-Qaeda connection is tantamount to admitting they knowingly misused their authority. If the White House didn’t know there was no connection before they went to war, it could only be because they ignored all their own intelligence briefings.
Though that appears to be standard procedure for this administration. For all Republicans blame “the al-Qaeda threat” on Clinton’s inaction, it now comes out that Clinton was prepared to take action against bin Laden but chose not to saddle his successor, whoever that would be, with a war. Instead, Clinton’s people gave the Hand Puppet’s national security advisor Condaleeza Rice a full briefing on the scope of the problem and outlined possible steps to take against him – but all that basically went unreported to the current administration, not surprisingly since the Hand Puppet since inauguration has done whatever he could to ignore or undo as much of Clinton’s presidency as possible. It was only a week before 9-11 that the administration finally got around to discussing the possible threat of terrorism, almost a year after the Rice briefing. If they were inert in the interim, it can’t be laid at Clinton’s doorstep.
Of course, this is only a problem now because the press has finally decided to ask a serious question or two, which more than anything explains Monday night’s double dose of Hand Puppet, courtesy of ABC MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL and a powderpuff interview from FOX NEWS.
The situation hasn’t been helped by the sudden reappearance of the administration’s invisible man, Dick Cheney, who managed to top his MEET THE PRESS liefest with the equally sudden blessing of his once and future firm, Halliburton, with a slew of profitable government contracts absent of competitive bids. If Iraq has been anything, it has been a godsend to Halliburton’s coffers. But Cheney’s also been on a tear to preserve the “integrity” of the Energy Policy meetings he held with various “experts” in the administration’s early days. Thanks to lawsuits from citizen’s groups, we now know his “consultants” were strictly executives in the energy sector, no scientists or citizens’ advocates allowed. The same suits resulted in an order that the minutes of the meetings be released, and that’s what Cheney’s going to ground to prevent. Considering what has gone on in America since those days, it’s easy to wonder what he wants to keep hidden so badly. Was anything discussed regarding the subsequent organized bilking of California by energy cartels, resulting in a greatly depleted state treasury that was trumpeted as a major argument for the recall of California governor Gray Davis? Were they discussing the potential value of Iraqi oil well before the invasion? (Don’t forget, Rumsfeld’s first reaction to 9-11 was that it provided a rationale for the invasion of Iraq, a move both Cheney and Rumsfeld had been arguing for at least since 1998.)
When the dust settles, lies and corruption will end up the hallmark of this administration. The arguments for going into Iraq. The claim that New York City’s air was perfectly fit to breath following 9-11. The handing over of public agencies to those openly hostile to their purposes. Then there’s the scam cooked up by Utah’s senators and the Bureau Of Land Management to swap protected government land in Utah – some of the most scenic in the state and home to various endangered species – for basically worthless Utah state land. The official appraisal places them at equal value, despite the former’s greater size and the vast pools of oil there. The oil’s the crux of the matter. Independent appraisers put the value of the state land at $35 million and the value of the federal land at over $150 million. Yet the Hand Puppet’s Bureau Of Land Management was so keen to go ahead with this deal – Utah could easily turn around and license the land off to oil companies – that their negotiator told their several appraisers who objected to the deal as basically a looting of the government to shut the hell up. You probably haven’t heard about the investigation into that, but the land swap essentially amounts to a payoff for the Hand Puppet’s supporters in Utah, the most conservative state in the West. (Remember, Utah’s governor, whose main environmental claim is that pollution in Utah has skyrocketed under his administration, is the Hand Puppet’s pick to head up the Environmental Protection Agency.) Just another of a million stories in the Hand Puppet’s Naked Nation.
HBO added two new shows to their Sunday night line-up as SEX IN THE CITY went on break and the second season of THE WIRE just sort of faded out. CARNIVALE (9PM) I just couldn’t sit through. Though I like leading lady Clea Duvall, I have a really low tolerance for midgets, circuses and the Dust Bowl ’30s, and CARNIVALE, seemingly shot in sepiatone, plays like someone fell asleep during a TWIN PEAKS marathon and dream-blurred it with the screening of THE GRAPES OF WRATH that followed it. Lord, not another epic battle between good and evil. Lemme guess, good wins, right? Odds are I’ll never know, since I can’t work up the interest to check back. More interesting, though not necessarily successful, is George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh’s K STREET (10PM), an apparently largely improvised mock-reality show set within a DC public relations firm run by real-life political gurus and married couple James Carvell and Mary Matalan. Word has it each episode goes a week from concept – they watch the Sunday morning news shows to see what the hot button topic is – to presentation. The first episode revolved around Carvell’s coaching of the Howard Dean presidential campaign (Matalan’s expression at one point provides the only real laugh in the show, and it was a good one) while the second involved the firm trying to land the RIAA as a client. One employee is a closeted lesbian played by Mary McCormack, another a mystery man played by Roger Guenveur Smith. It’s been mildly entertaining, but there haven’t been any of the promised savage looks inside the beltway so far. It’s just barely good enough to merit continued watching, but that’s largely on the basis of promise, and it can only get so far on that.
And on a whim, and because I like Jon Cryer, I tuned in the new CBS sitcom TWO AND A HALF MEN (9:30PM Mondays). Cryer’s a married man whose wife decides she’s gay, so he and his kid move in with his wild bachelor brother, Charlie Sheen, a man who has his own beach house and stalker. The kid’s maybe the most unappealing new kid on TV, and it’s already starting to wallow in sentimentalism, but Cryer and Sheen are both good (as is vet Holland Taylor as their obnoxious mother) and there’s the occasional good line. Maybe a little too occasional. Call it Maybe-If-There’s-Time-To-Kill TV.
Also went to see Robert Rodriguez’s modern western, ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO, the final part of his EL MARIACHI trilogy. Ostensibly an homage to Sergio Leone, it reminded me more of Dario Argento, particularly in the liberal amounts of fake blood clotting densely on many of the characters. According to legend, Rodriguez filmed the whole thing himself cheap on digital camera, and you can’t really tell. It’s certainly my favorite bad movie of recent memory. Meaning: it isn’t a good movie, but I didn’t feel like I’d wasted my money or time. Johnny Depp, in another very amusing oddball role played with just the right combination of comedy and menace, gets things rolling as a CIA man working a million angles (one of them eventually catches up to him) as he attempts to oust the current president of Mexico while keeping the drug lord underwriting the assassination from placing his own man on the throne, and for that Depp needs Antonio Bandaras AKA El Mariachi. The movie’s full of good parts, and besides Depp and Bandaras Willem Dafoe, Mickey Roarke, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Ruben Blades, Eva Mendes and even Enrique Iglasias make the best of them. The action’s pretty good, if too convenient in too many places, and the dialogue’s occasionally great. But this isn’t a movie you critique; it doesn’t bear up under it. (It helps to have a tolerance for screen blood.) It’s a film the sum of whose parts is much greater than its whole, but most movies don’t even add up to that.
No other real news this week. I’ll be at the Las Vegas Comic Con at the end of October; check their website for details on the huge guest list.
See you next week. Big pile of comics reviews then.
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.
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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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