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Issue #120

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the biggest story of '03 (jeez, I sound like I'm telling tales of the Yukon gold rush, don't I?) was the manga explosion here in the states. Here people are saying what a big deal it is that Loeb and Lee jacked BATMAN to – what? 150,000 copies sales per issue? – when SHONEN JUMP was doing 350,000-500,000+, and selling mostly on newstands and by subscription. This is BATMAN we're talking about. One of the best known characters in the world.

I read an article yesterday (forget where, sorry) claiming that new characters don't sell because readers only want old characters, like Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. That's nonsense. When SHONEN JUMP can hit half a mil, and BATMAN and NEW X-MEN think 150,000 sales is something approaching Nirvana, it's hard to say audiences are locked into old characters. Sales on the SUPERMAN books continue to flounder, don't they? There have been times when sales on SUPERMAN and BATMAN sank so low DC considered canceling them (and did cancel bunches of ancillary titles starring those characters including their longest running title, ADVENTURE COMICS, and almost cancelled the next longest running titles, ACTION COMICS). The main difference between "icons" like Superman and Batman, and "new" ideas like THE AUTHORITY (which, not too long ago, was outselling both those characters) is support. Left to their own devices, a lot of "familiar" titles would've been dead years, even decades ago, but their publishing houses took special measures to keep the books alive, even if sales sank to 30,000 or 40,000 copies per issue. Artificial resuscitation cannot be cited as natural law. Sure, against overall average sales of less than 15,000 per issue, 150,000 for BATMAN or NEW X-MEN looks great, but are either anywhere near saturation of the potential market? (Well, maybe, depending on how you define the potential market.)

This is why manga were the big story. Not only because readers – and a lot of young readers at that, something American comics haven't had in a long time and something I'm not sure they'd even know how to lure in, since every time anyone in American comics mentions "young readers" they go all PLC and start de-gutsing the stuff to make sure no parents will get offended and bring Big Mother down on the business – are mad for manga (which is why Borders, Barnes and Noble and most other bookstores have learned to separate manga out from American trade paperbacks, because manga's where the action is), but because the business of manga has held a harsh mirror up to the business of American comics, which are still in most except the most cosmetic ways mired in the 1990s. (Which were mired in the 1980s, which were mired in the 1970s, etc.) The short version is: manga in America have a business model that apparently works. (At least if Viz and Tokyo Pop are to be believed.) Traditional American comics do not.

Which may turn out to be the big story of 2004. (Or not; I'm just speculating, I'm not psychic.) Every year seems like it could be a make-or-break year for comics – and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a number of smaller companies come crashing down; does anyone really expect the now uncharacteristically silent and low-key Crossgen to still be around by 2005? – but every year the comics industry staggers on, moaning about shortness of breath while it lights up cigarette after cigarette.

But I'm told there's much online discussion these days (Dirk Deppey had a summary of it not too long ago, I believe, but now I can't find his article or the links therein) about the impending manga crash, which, apparently, a number of people are looking forward to. The main argument seems to be that manga are a "fad," and the main fear that if comics shops leverage heavily into manga, they'll be hit with the load just as they were when the black&white fad collapsed, and the speculator bubble burst etc. Sure, you could make an argument for that.

But I don't expect the "fad" to collapse anytime soon.

While there is a large new influx of manga titles and several new publishers trying to get in on the act (at least one has already felt the pain), there are several differences between the current situation and previous fads.

Take the "black and white" craze of the late '80s, generated mainly by the success of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, which abruptly became a collectors item by basically doing to Frank Miller's DAREDEVIL what Dave Sim's CEREBUS had done to CONAN THE BARBARIAN (not to mention WOLVERINE and MOON KNIGHT) and convinced a generation of budding writers and artists that it would be a lot easier to just publish their own black & white books than to try to crack "the majors". A good idea, in theory, and one rabidly supported by a number of distributors trying to rise up in the wake of Diamond and Capital's success at distributing comics to the mushrooming comic shop markets. The b&ws gave distributors something to pad out their catalogs with, and, for a moment, readers wanted them, bad.

And bad was the way they got most of them. The connection between the b&w craze and the speculator bubble was that content was irrelevant. (From the point of view of American comics publishers, content continues to be more or less irrelevant, or, at least, far less relevant than, oh, licensability.) The vast majority of b&w comics were badly written and badly drawn, with many having little more imagination than calling themselves NASCENT NUCLEAR RONIN RACCOONS or something equally evocative of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES. In other words, derivative and unimaginative was the name of the game. Sounds kinda like the speculator bubble, don't it? Perhaps that's a bad characterization: could anyone really call that horde of crossovers, new superhero universes, characters dying and being replaced by evil or cross-gender or ultraviolent or cross-racial alternative selves before coming back from the dead derivative?

Crashes in comics generate from a very few things. A) Bad economics. B) Publishers repeating what has succeeded long past the point that everyone and their grandmother is bored sick of it. C) Buyers buying because they've been conned into thinking there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, only to realize that the "investments" they've made, are, in fact, worthless, not to mention rubbish. Don't forget the b&w craze was fueled by speculation too: it was largely caused by buyers terrified they'd miss out on the next TMNT, and floundered about the time everyone finally figured out there wasn't going to be one. If it didn't severely damage the comics market – though retailers around at the time still rub their battle scars and wince – it was mainly because comics had something to fill the gap. The one good outcome of the b&w craze (combined with the rise of "alternative" publishers like First, Pacific and Eclipse) was to drop kick Marvel and DC into believing a) their talent had other options and b) the way to keep their talent was to give their talent more options, financially and creatively. So in came WATCHMEN, DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, etc., and comics shops had something new to offer potential readers. (The arrival of the first BATMAN movie, which, unusually, did bring newcomers into comics shops for the first time, didn't hurt either.)

None of these things apply to manga. To the best of my knowledge, speculation is in no way fueling the manga boom. Sure, there's a cool factor involved and cool wears off, but it's the content that's largely fueling the boom, and content is the one thing that can hold a sizable audience after coolness fades. The boom is also being fed by interaction with TV, videogames, card games, etc., generating an entire self-reinforcing milieu, something rarely accomplished by American comics. And while American comics have traditionally depended on cashing in on a craze, the hallmark of manga has been diversity of content. There are various genres liberally represented in manga, of course, but delusions of a "manga artstyle" are pretty much an American interpretation. Anyone who reads any amount of manga can easily see how much variety is represented. Even in SHONEN JUMP, where there are surface similarities across the material, none of it comes off as duplicating the other material in the magazine. Due to the Japanese system, there's also a quality baseline to most of the material. You can find bad art in manga just like anywhere else, but most manga show an attention to detail and quality, in both story and art, that simply didn't exist in most of the black and white books published during that craze and the volumes of crap dumped on the market during the speculator bubble.

So it's just not the same situation. Will the day likely come when just too many manga are published? Of course, just like the day came when every other bookstore category was overpublished. But too many mysteries didn't drive audiences completely away from mysteries, or romances away from romances, it just drove them toward those ills they knew. Manga may reach market saturation, but most RANMA ½ fans will continue to buy RANMA ½, most NARUTO fans will stick with NARUTO, even if they don't keep up with all the new kids on the block. Why? Because manga has generated fans, lots of them, which is something most American comics haven't done in a long, long time. They've created fans and they've created access. The curious subtext to the "manga will die" predictions is the intimation that if manga dies on the market, American comics will rise again, but that's like saying that when hip-hop dies, Henry Mancini will make a big comeback. There's no basis to assume cause and effect. Likelier would be hip-hop dying and it having no effect on the sales of Henry Mancini recordings at all. If the manga craze dies slowly, there's the possibility of niches opening up that smart American publishers could swoop in to fill. If it dies abruptly, it'll probably just kill the bookstore market for comics material, regardless of country of origin, and it's unlikely the death of the bookstore market would drive hordes of hungry readers back into the comics shops because there wouldn't be any hungry readers. That's what the manga craze ending means. Any American comics fan or comics shop owner eagerly anticipating the death of manga as a market force may as well anticipate shooting themselves in the book, because that's what it will amount to.

The problem, for manga, is that (I suspect; I don't know) the vast majority of good manga is more than likely already in print or in the process of being published here. As more publishers swoop in for a piece of the manga pie, shelves will get fuller and fuller with the bad manga, and as the good manga wraps up (most manga being finite) newer, bad manga will inevitably squeeze it out. (Though there's also the presumption that new good manga will continue to be made in Japan and transport here, which will vitiate the situation somewhat, and with Viz, Tokyo Pop and Dark Horse established as the kingpins of manga, newer companies will be put in a position of being the First or Pacific to their Marvel and DC, that'll vitiate the situation some more.) That's an opportunity for American comics. But they have to have the foresight and imagination to capitalize on it by filling in the opening niches, and foresight and imaginations have been very finite qualities in American comics publishing.

The last question in Heidi's survey was: "What are you looking forward to most in 2004, be it comic, book, movie or dessert?" Me, I'm just looking forward to staying healthy and working a lot. Anything else is gravy.

Question: What course should the American comics industry follow in the year 2004, and what can it hope to accomplish in the following year?

Answer (courtesy of the John Blofeld translation, EP Dutton Books, New York, 1965):

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Hexagram 33: Tun (Yielding, withdrawing)

Yielding. Success! Persistence in small things wins advantage.

The first, third and fifth lines are all moving lines, indicating a year of great change for the comics industry:

Line 1 (bottom): Withdrawal to the hindermost point – trouble! It is useless to seek any goal (or destination) at such a time. Commentary: To withdraw to the hindermost point causes trouble, but if you refrain from moving back (so far) what misfortune can overtake you?

Line 3: Yielding under constraint results in ills and troubles, but there is good fortune for those who are supporting servants and concubines. Commentary: The evils referred to here are those attendant on extreme fatigue. Though supporting servants or concubines brings good fortune, it does not lead to achieving anything of consequence. Footnote: Seemingly, Confucius, always inclined to be austere, does not altogether approve of this type of good fortune.

Line 5: An admirably carried out withdrawal. Persistence in a righteous course brings good fortune. Commentary: This good fortune results from a withdrawal carried out as a result of rectifying our aims. Footnote: i.e. revising them in the light of unfavorable circumstances.

The result?

With those three lines changing, Hexagram 33, Tun, becomes

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Hexagram 21: Shih Hô (Gnawing)

Gnawing. Success! The time is favorable for legal processes.

Commentary on the text: When something is gripped between the jaws, we speak of gnawing and with this gnawing we associate success. The firm and the yielding are separate and the two trigrams representing these qualities are movement and brilliance respectively. Thus thunder and lightning are brought together and emit brilliance. The yielding obtains the central position and rises upward (from the center of the lower to the center of the upper trigram). Although this arrangement is an unsuitable one, it favors the process of the law.

That's what the I-Ching says about 2004 for the comics industry. Not stellar hexagrams, but not bad ones. Depending on how we handle ourselves.

For an alternate take, here are three cards drawn at random from the 1978 edition of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's "oracular" card set, Oblique Strategies. Eno and Schmidt originally developed these as a means of breaking through creative obstructions. As Eno explains them:

"These cards evolved from our separate observations of the principles underlying what we were doing. Sometimes they were recognized in retrospect (intellect catching up with intuition), sometimes they were formulated.

They can be used as a pack (a set of possibilities being continuously reviewed in the mind) or by drawing a single card from the shuffled pack when a dilemma occurs in a working situation. In this case the card is trusted even if its appropriateness is quite unclear."

So how should the comics industry proceed in the year 2004?. Card #1:

Short circuit (example: a man eating peas with the idea they will improve his virility shovels them straight into his lap)

Card #2:

Cut a vital connection

Card #3:

Use fewer notes

There you have it. (I'd do a tarot reading but I'm not in the mood. Maybe next week.) You people working in comics have your marching orders. Go forth in wisdom and conquer.

So New Year's Day was a refreshing surprise, as votes were tallied from the ten countries involved, and country after country placed Kelly #2 behind Nilson. It was sort of fascinating, watching (fast forward via tape) Kelly's facial tics as she kept coming in #2, racing through denial, anger and whatever other stages there are to that pattern. Whether she hit acceptance there's no way to know, as, following Kurt's final victory the other contestants simply vanished from the stage, leaving him to a final song as the show petered off the air.

Interestingly, Nilson was one of the few rockers on the show, blowing through a good version of a U2 song. (Also interestingly, virtually all contestants from foreign countries sang American songs with impeccable American phrasing and accents.) It may have been this energy, in addition to his voice, that put him over the top. AMERICAN IDOL has been traditionally hostile to rock music, and while pushing contestants to "be themselves" paradoxically has forced on them old fart fodder like '70s disco songs and Burt Bacharach numbers, then complained that the performances sound like karaoke. Well, of course they do. In its desperation to create a "star" who's vocal style appeals to as wide a CD-buying audience as humanly possible, the show drives out anything but MOR crooning; too often, you might as well just listen to a Whitney Houston greatest hits album or the soundtrack to THE BIG CHILL. Obviously, the rest of the world's a little more interested in energy than the American music business is. Nilson had personality; Kelly had packaging.

Another season of AMERICAN IDOL starts next week. Is there anyone undiscovered left in America who can actually sing?

It's hard not to be generally unnerved these days. Not by terror threats – there haven't been any serious ones since 9-11, and while the administration and its supporters eagerly take credit for that with the nonsense that passes for "homeland security," go back and read my column immediately following 9-11 (it's in the archives) where I talk about how every terror attack makes another in the USA less likely, and why – but by odd comments in the weirdest places. Like CIGAR AFFICIANADO magazine, of all places (I thought the Hand Puppet banned cigars from the White House to thwart the possibility of any Lewinskygates in his administration) where General Tommy Franks talks about how terrorism may "convince our population to question our own Constitution and to begin to militarize our country in order to avoid a repeat of another mass-casualty-producing event." In other words (and with a tasteful touch of regret), he ponders the possibility that we'll abandon what pundits seem to like to call "the democratic experiment," as if it's just something we've been puttering around with to see how well it'll work, in order to thwart terrorism. Franks isn't the first person I've heard talking about this, but he's the highest ranked, and certainly there have been suggestions of it in high places ever since the by comparison mild Patriot Act was rammed through in a panic. (The Patriot Act, you may recall, was not actually designed to fight terrorism but was a shopping list of Constitution-bypassing measures that law enforcement, particularly the FBI, had been trying without success to muscle through Congress since the Nixon administration.) It's an unnerving meme to have entering popular discourse, even if it's mentioned only casually now. While Franks hardly embraced the notion, neither did it sound much like a cautionary warning to stand fast. It sounded more like a regret.

It's been hard holding onto freedoms in America. They're often subverted, and have to be fought for again and again. Our democracy is far from perfect, but it's really all we've got. The only logical alternative to democracy here is a police state, or a military state/imperial government, or chaos. When people talk about terrorism convincing Americans to give up democracy for protection, there's no time soon enough to start asking how exactly that protects us from terrorism, and no time soon enough to assault the meme. The Constitution is our birthright, and the foundation of our society. Consider anyone who suggests it might be necessary to abandon it a traitor.

This weekend I'm spending at the annual Consumer Electronics Show, where hopefully I'll see an array of really cool junk I can talk about next week. As it turns out, I'll also be spending a lot of time at the adjacent Adult Entertainment Expo, where Vivid Video is doing a big push for the Vivid Comics I'm doing for Avatar Press (great art on that work, I have to say that). If I can figure out a way to keep it clean, I'll talk about that some as well. But probably no pictures.

Don't forget I currently have available:

DAMNED: trade paperback from Cyberosia, art by Mike Zeck and Denis Rodier, coloring by Kurt Goldzung

Crime. A parolee jumps parole to fulfill a promise to a dead cellmate, and finds himself hunted by mobsters looking for missing money he knows nothing about, in a city where he has no friends.

MORTAL SOULS: trade paperback from Avatar Press, art by Philip Xavier

Crime/horror. A police detective tracks and kills a female serial killer, only to gain her gift of seeing her targets for what they really are: the dead, who run the world, and who hate the living.

BADLANDS: trade paperback from AiT/PlanetLar Books, art by Vince Giarrano

Crime story, set in 1963 and starring the man who really killed John Kennedy.

BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY: text from AiT/PlanetLar

Screenplay version of BADLANDS, designed to ward off anyone who wants to make a movie of it.

PUNISHER:CIRCLE OF BLOOD: trade paperback from Marvel Comics, art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

Crime. The original mini-series that transformed The Punisher from a minor character into a movie-franchise spawning star. Imprisoned for his killings, the Punisher fights to survive and escape, but the war he declares on organized crime once he's out takes an unexpected turn.

GREEN LANTERN: TRAITOR: trade paperback from DC Comics, art by Mike Zeck, Gil Kane, Scott Kolins and Klaus Janson

Superhero action. Three generations of Green Lanterns – the alien Abin Sur in the old west, Hal Jordan joined by the Atom in the Silver Age, and the modern Green Lantern Kyle Raynor – battle an unstoppable cyborg powered by the stars and driven by a religious calling to snuff out all life in the universe.

MY FLESH IS COOL: monthly comic from Avatar Press, art by Sebastian Fiumara

Crime/science fiction. A charming assassin has the ability to work through other people's bodies to fulfill his commissions, but then his power becomes available to the general public, for a price.

FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP, monthly comic from Avatar Press, art by Juan Jose Ryp

Science fiction action. The most faithful adaptation of a screenplay in history. From the version of ROBOCOP 2 that was never filmed, Frank Miller's vision of the decaying future city of Detroit is realized for the first time, as Robocop crosses swords with a demented squadron of military police and a program-altering self-proclaimed moral watchdog, while the real police go on strike and OCP readies an even more powerful Robocop to replace him.

Hopefully, by next week I'll have a full list of projects coming up in the near future.

Finally, I want to again thank everyone who has donated to my fund drive. (For details, click here.) It's been one of those moments every freelancer hits every so often, where cash flow just grinds to a halt as the bills continue to pour in and there's nothing to be done except to stagger through it, and it's you people who've kept me on my feet. While I'm not out of the woods yet – the fund drive is still going on and will be for at least another week, if anyone would care to help out a poor beleaguered columnist – every week you help bring me a little closer to the other side of it, and I really appreciate it.

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.

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