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Issue #136

"Well, thank you, Steven... That's very kind of you...

I'll tell you, if you ever get the chance, and are so inclined, you'd be doing me a huuuuuge favor if you let the Review Journal know you like the strip. I can't tell you how much that helps a new strip like mine! If not, that's fine, also. I'm just glad you like it.

Thank you again"

A few years back, afriend of mine, Lee Nordling (currently graphic novel editor for Platinum Studios), wrote a book about creating and selling syndicated strips, YOUR CAREER IN COMICS (Andrews and McMeel, 1995). (If you want it, best to check library shelves or the used books on Amazon.) It paints a fairly grim, though far from hopeless, picture. Realistic. Though guys like Charles Shultz and Scott Adams made fortunes doing comic strips, the odds on surviving three years at it are minimal. As with most other things, we remember the successes. The failures usually sink without a trace. And the vast majority of comic strips hang on by their fingernails, day in and day out, for years. It's a field that, even more than comic books, takes guts, tenacity and a unique approach to seriously crack. There are far more restrictions on it than on comics, despite some of the things (like the above strip) that get through to them. Newspaper editors are by nature a fairly conservative lot, not necessarily in their politics but in their reticence to promote complaints from readers. There's also the occasional pressure to "freshen up" the comics page, which makes strips perceived as not having an audience fair game. Not many editors get a lot of mail about comic strips, except for complaints. So, yeah, Pastis is dead right about mailing the editor: even one or two letters can mean the difference between staying in a paper or being replaced, and all it takes is a few replacements to put a strip out of business. It's a tough racket. Strips forced out of business rarely come back. Even successful strips can use the perception someone out there likes them, because nothing but, apparently, CATHY and DOONESBURY is sacrosanct.

So it is in comics, to a degree.

Recently the comics world was "rocked" by the sudden cancellation of Wildstorm's WILDCATS 3.0 and STORMWATCH:ACHILLES, despite a recent high-profile crossover that involved both books with on-off hit THE AUTHORITY and another tenuous but highly-regarded title, SLEEPER, and brought a sales bounce to them. Both brought new ideas and new takes to the well-trod superhero genre. WILDCATS 3.0 was a unique attempt to upgrade superbeings to a corporate environment. STORMWATCH:ACHILLES was a highly politicized series about paramilitary human response to super-action. Both were well done. Both had audiences. And only an idiot would be surprised by the cancellations.

Because, good as they were, they weren't selling.

The fact is: cancellations are a fact of life in the comics business, and all cancellations upset someone. (Besides the talent involved, I mean.) It's easy to rave about how good a book was and how it didn't deserve cancellation, and y'know what? It probably didn't. Hell, I've been there. When I was doing X-MAN at Marvel, it got big raves and I still get e-mails from people telling me how much they liked the book. I appreciate it, but the time to bring it up was when the book was being published, and I'm not the one who should've been told. Neither are Joe Casey or Micah Wright, the respective writers of WILDCATS 3.0 and STORMWATCH:ACHILLES. Or the talent behind any book. Not that we don't like to hear it.

But the people you should be telling are publishers, editors, retailers and other readers.

There are a few factors at play here.

By now you may have recognized that comics companies do a crappy job of promoting, particularly with new "untested" concepts. Comics companies, like most other American entertainment media these days, are geared toward The Franchise, that "iconic" product that can generate sales on name alone and will, theoretically, continue to do so for the indefinite future, from a variety of sources. (With a big enough franchise, like Superman, the actual comics sales become irrelevant to the secondary market money.) New properties have a major liability: they aren't franchises and most aren't likely to be, and no one has yet figured out the formula for deciding what the next big franchise will be, try as they might to pretend they do. (I did an interview last week on the basis of the PUNISHER movie – no, I haven't seen it yet – and was asked about Marvel's "enthusiasm" for the character when Mike Zeck and I were doing the PUNISHER MINI-SERIES aka "Circle Of Blood," which really got the whole thing rolling. Despite the character's guest appearances in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and particularly Frank Miller's first DAREDEVIL run, a week or so before the mini-series came out, a high ranking member of Marvel's marketing department scolded me "Marvel's readers are not interested in the adventures of a homicidal maniac." A week later, they were setting up an overship program for the third issue.) Most companies continue to try to "instant franchise" various properties by binding them together into "lines," "imprints" or "universes," despite this pretty much never having worked. (There are some rare exceptions, like Vertigo, but Vertigo has pretty much always been run as a standard comics company within a company, with a much greater breadth and variety than the usual "line.") Generally, promotion consists of a blurb (sometimes an ad) in PREVIEWS, some house ads in the other comics they publish, if you're lucky a puff piece or two designed to make the book sound like the answer to the unified field theory on news sites that understandably give equal weight to everything from the death of a giant in the field to a minor character guest-starring in some other character's minor book. (Have news sites ever considered redesigning to have a newspaper look for their front pages, with a new major headline every day, and minor stories in other "columns," etc.?)

Which means, like it or not, if you like a book, or think you're going to, and you want it to survive, promotion largely falls on you.

Freelancers do the best they can, in general, but most freelancers don't have the time or resources to do whole hog promotion on their books. Neither do you, but you don't have to. All you need to do is hit your little corner of the world. I'm not talking about "comics activism," putting up posters all over your town or handing out copies of select comics to strangers on the street. All you need to do is a) try to get your retailer personally interested in the book, or even a clerk at your store – it's amazing how much more effort retailers will put into talking up a book they personally like, and a retailer's recommendation can sway a lot of on-the-fence buyers, and b) get one other stinking person interested enough in the book to buy it. Micah Wright says approximately 11,000 people bought STORMWATCH:ACHILLES every month. If 22,000 people were buying it, it would most likely still be around. And if each of the 11,000 people brought in "recruited" another 11,000... Sure, that's sort of pie-in-the-sky, but 40,000 people buying a specific book isn't anywhere near out of the question. As I've said before, the best advertising in comics is still word of mouth, but it's a grass roots thing. It's got to come from you.

I understand why that might be more effort or commitment than many readers are willing to put in. That's cool. Just don't be surprised when books get cancelled. The majority of comics get cancelled. It's the rare few that stick around.

Predictably, the cancellations prompted calls for letter writing campaigns to barrage the publisher, DC Comics, a ploy that at one time was fairly successful, until companies brought back comics on the basis of frantic letter writing campaigns but the books still failed. We're sort of spoiled in comics. Series do come back, but the fans of those series are virtually always disappointed, because the concept has by that point been tinkered with, or different talent is handling it, with a different slant. Look how much grief DC has taken from fans on their new FIRESTORM book, and it isn't even out yet, while Firestorm was never a major character at the best of times. The thing is this: when bringing back a series, a company (or even a creator with a creator-owned series) will usually examine it and try to determine what elements made it fail in the first place, then try to alter, replace or eliminate those elements. Thing is: those elements were usually what generated whatever passed for the hardcore audience of each book. Once a book goes away, it's almost never the same book when it comes back.

So the time to write letters is before a book gets cancelled. Long before.

Letter writing is something of a lost art in comics, not the least because letters pages are largely a thing of the past. The reasoning at comics companies is that the Internet is where people say things about comics now, and the reason they got that idea is that it's mostly true. Readers don't write letters to comics anymore, and companies don't encourage it. Considering letter pages were the glue of the camaraderie that created comics fandom in the first place, and comics fandom was linked to the companies by their letters, that's sad.

Letters ultimately don't mean a lot in the face of sales, but they mean something. A new book getting, and maintaining, piles of fan letters is something a company will take into consideration, at least for awhile, simply because it's so rare these days.

But a letter writing campaign after cancellation? Uh-uh. I'll say it again: the time to write letters is before cancellation, and letters alone won't save a book. At best they'll buy time. How you use the time is up to you.

But cancellations, like everything else, are part of the evolutionary process. It's overstating Darwin to suggest evolution is hard and cruel, but it's certainly unsentimental. We're at a cataclysmic time, with lots of interesting little mutations springing up, but mutations by their nature have brief, often tragically short, lifespans. Occasionally, a little furry mammal finds a niche to thrive in, but it's not common and never was.

Publishing is risk. Being a fan is, to some extent, risk. There's always the potential for disappointment and tragedy. But that's true of anything. Even if you're a total activist for a book, that's no guarantee your efforts will be successful, or that the book you're touting will survive. The question is whether you'll answer with cynicism and annoyance, or whether, like the people creating the books you like, you'll move on to something new and give that all your support. If you're upset with the cancellations of WILDCATS 3.0 or STORMWATCH:ACHILLES, keep your eyes open for the next work Joe Casey or Micah Wright do, and give that your support. Keep track. Spread the word. Get your localized promo efforts in gear. There are new little furry mammals, new mutations, springing up all the time. At least some of them (THE AUTHORITY's a case in point) are going to click.

If you don't support them, who's will?

Cancellations happen.

Welcome to our world.

   

(Thanks to The Grand Comics Database for providing these great examples of Heath's work, the first from 1965 and the second from 1993. With thousands of covers on file, as well as data about comics from all eras, the Grand Comics Database is one of the best comics reference tools available. Great job, guys.)

Something of interest in this week's mail:

"A while back you wrote that you would like to see more intellectual comics criticism. I couldn't agree with you more. In order for the medium to be recognized as a viable art form, we need to discuss comics with intelligence and positivity.

With that in mind, the staff at Paperback Reader.com are attempting to open the door to in-depth conversations about comics and graphic novels. In essence, we're experimenting with an online book club. At first glance, it won't look much different then a regular forum thread, but we hope to keep the conversations focused. We'll have the usual discussions of art and story, but also dig a little deeper into themes and morals of the work, as well as any impact the book might have on society.

Every month, we plan to choose a title that's had a significant impact on the world of comics. These books might be 'important' comics, or they might just serve up a rip-roaring good time. We'll post the title of the book for discussion at the beginning of every month, and once everyone has had a chance to read it, we'll open a forum discussion that centers on the book's specific merits.

The first book we'll look at is BLANKETS by Craig Thompson. Discussion opens on May 16th and runs as long as necessary. Information about the book club and the first book can be found at Paperback Reader.com. I would appreciate it if you stopped by and offered your comments once the discussion is opened. This experiment may or may not work, but I think if we get enough people who are interested in improving the way we talk about comics, then the idea might blossom into something great."

I doubt I'll have the time to stop by personally for awhile, but good luck with it. Just do me one favor: don't say rip-roaring. (But thanks for not say rip-snorting.)

And a couple of political letters:

"I thought "the silver bullet" was the name given to the shot to cure VD."

Is it? I thought that was also a magic bullet, but I could be wrong.

"Kerry's following Bush's strategy, actually: let others rake the muck and do the damage on potentially inflammatory stuff like criticizing a wartime administration. That way you don't have to take the heat for being unpatriotic or whatever, but the damage is (hopefully) still done. I personally think he should take a more direct approach, but I understand why he isn't."

Me too, but from someone who wants my vote I'd appreciate something gutsier. (Not sure if accusing the Hand Puppet of plotting an oil price "October Surprise" qualifies or not, though I did notice in 2000 gas prices rose steadily all autumn then dropped precipitously within a couple days of the Supreme Court deciding it was too late for Florida to recount the votes.)

Not surprisingly, the Hand Puppet was moved enough by the growing litany of accusations about his character, responsibilities and policies to mount a defense on TV last week. It was illuminating. Sure, there was all that "we're in Iraq to do a job and we're staying till it's done" tough guy talk, but earlier in the speech, when claiming absolutely no administrative responsibility for 9-11 and insisting sole responsibility lies with bin Laden (which it does, of course, but that's hardly the issue, and if that's their official stance why have they fought so hard to keep not only their papers but the Clinton administrations papers relating to 9-11, terrorism, and al-Qaeda/bin Laden out of the investigating commission's hands?), I never saw the man look more scared in my life, as though he were terrified people might not believe him. Curiously, when asked about the hijackings during the subsequent press conference, the Hand Puppet angrily snapped, "Don't you think if I had known they were going to fly planes into buildings, I'd have moved heaven and earth to stop them?" Yes, I do, actually, as I've said before, but that phrasing was oddly specific.

Someone asked me recently what I propose to do about Iraq, since leaving would result in an international loss of face for the United States. Well, y'know, I'm not all that concerned about the country losing face. Not being able to admit blunders and staying in a bad situation because you don't want to look bad getting out of it is hardly a mark of intelligence or maturity. But, yeah, we're stuck in the box the administration built around it, and that's the way it always goes when you let hawks run free. The Democrats demands to internationalize the situation isn't really a solution either, esp. since we waited to focus on it (yeah, yeah, the Coalition of the Bribed is "international," but it's also ridiculously lopsided in our direction) until foreign nationals became common targets in the country. Aren't many countries that'll go out of their way to put their citizens in direct danger. (The USA, gearing up to dump more troops into the region, is the notable exception.) But the presence of more Western troops, American or otherwise, only exacerbates the growing sense among Iraqis that they're an occupied land, and, given the underlying religious tensions, more troops may signify a temporary "greater safety" for the troops already there, but, as we learned in Vietnam, it's only going to eventually create a more dangerous situation for all of them.

It's a pretty good bet that most Iraqis, whichever side of the fence they fall on, probably don't want a permanent U.S. military or economic presence in Iraq, and that's pretty much what the administration has set in motion there. Now we're saying no transfer of power in June because Iraqi security forces can't control the country. Maybe yes, maybe no; their current inactivity could just as easily be interpreted as an unwillingness to get in the middle, or to act as enforcers for Halliburton and Bechtel. Because you know that's what they mean by "unable to guarantee security": unable to guarantee the security of American interests. Not that June was ever a reasonable date anyway – it seemed chosen solely to give America time to forget Iraq as an issue before the November elections – but if the administration actually has a plan for dealing with the situation, they're keeping it close to the vest. But any plan has to accept one tenet:

We're not in Iraq to make Iraq safe for Americans. We're in Iraq to make Iraq responsive to Iraqis. If we want the Americans in Iraq to be safe, the best thing we can do for them is to get them out of there, and to do it without abandoning the Iraqis. There's no reason our departure from the country has to be synonymous with chaos, anarchy and revolution. So the first thing we should do is go to the United Nations. Not to convince the member countries to send their troops in. That accomplishes nothing. But we need their help to get help from the nations that have the greatest stake in a new Iraq.

We need the United Nations to organize and oversee the world's Muslim nations, and enlist their aid in overseeing the establishment of a lasting and benevolent government in Iraq. Let them make the call as to when outside help is needed and let them call it in. This removes us as a threat to Muslim nations – and don't think many of them aren't nervously eyeing Iraq with that in mind – and makes them partners in our progress. With the UN watching them. Sure, most Muslim nations don't have democracies, but if you think they don't care what the rest of the world thinks of them, you're wrong. And, of course, there are many in the West who will see menace in a unified Muslim front (not to mention in Israel, our main stumbling block in dealing with Muslim nations directly), but, handled properly, this could more effectively draw the Muslim nations into international fellowship. I'm not claiming this is a perfect solution – there will be no perfect solution – but it gives us an out, it at least threatens to create a stability in Iraq that we claim to want there, and at some point you have to take a chance and trust someone else, or nothing's ever going to change.

I also have a stack of ARTESIA comics and graphic novels from Archaia Studios Press sitting here, but I've been waiting for a chance to read them all in one sitting. My apologies. Soon, I promise.

Huh! They did it to me again. Seems DC's gearing up to release a collection of CATWOMAN stories in trade in time for the upcoming Halle Berry movie, and they've included the Catwoman story I did with Brad Rader in CATWOMAN #11. You probably missed it then, so here's your chance to check it out. Go to the DC website for details.

We finally managed to track down all the film, so keep an eye out for the complete EDGE mini-series (all four issues) – EDGE was the anti-superhero book Gil Kane and I did back at Malibu/Bravura, with the fourth issue never released – in trade from Byron Preiss' iBooks sometime this summer. For various reasons, it'll probably have a new title, and, if it does well enough, there's a fairly good chance of new stories. It's up to you. Details to follow.

While you're at it, order:

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.

HATED AND FEARED: Best Of X-MEN UNLIMITED: trade paperback from Marvel Comics collecting a number of short X-Men stories, including two by me: a "Blob" story with art by Sean Phillips, and a "Lockheed The Dragon" story drawn by Paul Smith.

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.

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.

MY FLESH IS COOL, mini-series from Avatar Press, art by Juan Jose Ryp. To quote COMICS INTERNATIONAL, which gave it an 8 out of 10, "An experimental drug enables Evan Knox to work as a highly paid assassin and troublemaker who can take over other people's bodies. He can get to anyone, anywhere, without detection. He does whatever he wants, and uses other people in a ruthlessly instrumental way. The catch is this: what if everyone could get their hands on the drug? Both script and art are adult and gritty. This comic is cool."

I encourage the patronage of local comics shops where applicable, but don't forget that if you can't find what you want there, you can always shop the fine online retailers Khepri and Mars Import. Lately I've been getting a lot of e-mails from people wanting to know what address to send review copies to. If you continue reading down to the bottom of the column, it's right there.

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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