Issue #157

Unless, of course, some computer company'd like to donate a new Athlon-64 machine with USB2, 512 megs of fast DDR, and an ATI 9600 or better videocard...

Nah, didn't think so... Anyway, happy anniversary. Where we go from here, I'm not sure yet. Three years is a long time for anything...

Comics are arguably doing better than they were five, or even two, years ago, but it's still not what I'd call a healthy business. So what's with all the new companies suddenly rising up? Did I miss something? I'm not talking about little companies – those spring up all the time, maybe make a little burst of noise, maybe not – I'm talking about would-be players, the guys who appear to have money to throw around. The ones who want to be Marvel.

Don't get me wrong. I want lots of companies that want to throw money around in the business, particularly if they want to throw money my way. I love companies with money. But you know what I love even more?

Companies with a game plan.

I'm sure all these new companies think they have a game plan, but I've seen a lot of companies that thought they had a game plan come and go: First, Valiant, Tekno, Eclipse, CrossGen, Malibu, etc. etc. Given that the sales of most "successful" comics get above the 50,000 range these days, and the vast majority of comics sell 15,000 or fewer (many far fewer), I'd love to know how these guys entice investors to put money into a company. Force of personality? As I've mentioned before, the "money" appeal of comics these days seems to be in the prospect of creating a Disneylike "universe" of licenses that'll become cultural icons and reap billions upon billions of dollars for generations to come. Now it's true, it could happen. Odds are pretty good it won't, and I can't imagine that buying into it requires a great capacity for self-delusion.

Most companies' game plans seem to come down to this: we'll put out a lot of comics, everyone will buy them, producers will want to make movies from them, and we'll own all the rights. A friend of mine calls this the FIELD OF DREAMS philosophy, after the Phil Alden Robinson film about a sports fan who erects a baseball field in an Iowa cornfield: "Build it and they will come," the voice of God tells him. "Build it and they will come" is the operative philosophy of many would-be companies.

It's a philosophy for idiots, a business plan that practically guarantees failure. Yet, time and time again, you get new publishers out to make a "killing" in comics, which in 1993 was theoretically possible, but these are different times. It's certainly possible to get your comics turned into movies, and it's still theoretically possible for your characters to even become icons. But it takes promotion, it takes money, it takes time, it takes work. It takes good work. And luck. Spider-Man isn't an icon today because everyone woke up one morning and "Wow! We want Spidey underroos!" He's an icon because AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, in the early years, was good enough, striking enough, original enough and enough of the time, with enough consistency that, over time, he caught on, and caught on enough that the piles and piles of later crap might've occasionally threatened continued publication, but never threatened his iconhood.

If having movies made on your properties automatically made stars and publishers, Max Allan Collins (ROAD TO PERDITION) and Dan Clowes (GHOST WORLD) would be stars, and Fantagraphics would be raking in the dough.

It's nice to have faith in your properties and all, but what do you do if they don't come?

Here are what I like to call "stupid publisher tricks":

Insufficient capitalization. It's amazing how many publishers start out basing their budgets on projected sales of untested books in a questionable market. Don't worry about what you'll do after your first releases sell 100,000 copies, worry about what you'll do when they don't. Most companies start up looking three months or six months or a year down the line. Look ten years down the line.

Insufficient promotion. Dropping an ad into the monstrosity that is PREVIEWS, sending a press release to The Pulse and Newsarama and CBR, and dropping a house ad in your other books isn't promotion. You've got to do more, and not necessarily even spend a lot more money. Original and clever promotion doesn't have to be expensive, though it's likely to cost something, so figure it into your budget.

Proving you're a "major" by getting big Right Now. This is the theory, foisted on many dot-coms by venture capitalists, that in order to convince everyone you mean business you have to have big offices, a large staff, throw parties at conventions, etc. In other words, become successful by acting successful. And many of those "dot-com millionaires" are working the fryer at Wendy's now. Don't try to grow any bigger than you absolutely must be at any given moment, which means: don't spend any money you don't absolutely need to spend.

Underpaying talent. This may be a business in which properties are the path to success, but those properties are only as successful as the talent on them. Bad writing/art/lettering/coloring/covers will destroy property credibility, and company credibility, faster than anything. When you offer people nothing to work on books, unless it's offset by some other equally alluring incentive, you either get people whose work is worth nothing or people who will leave you, basically throwing away the time and effort you put into developing them and their reputation, as soon as possible. Only the people who believe their work is worth nothing will stay.

Overpaying talent. A lot of would-be publishers think they can make a huge splash by "stealing" name talent with offers of money far beyond what that talent normally earns for the same work. For some reason these lines always fail. If you want to compete on Marvel and DC's playing field, all you have to pay are rates competitive with Marvel and DC. Overkill almost always leads to that painful moment when you have to ask them to take a pay cut. Anyone who'll work for you for twice their normal page rate will work for you for $10 over their normal rate. Overspending drains coffers; it's stupid.

Deciding whatever talent is willing to work for you is the greatest talent ever. A lot of publishers seem to want to publish so badly they'll publish anything, and try to hype what they publish as the greatest thing ever to hit print. Bad writing can sometimes be masked by great art, and there's bad art that's slick enough in some way to be oddly appealing, but there's usually just bad art that's obviously bad. Any idiot who takes half a glance can see it bad. Publish enough of it and you're the publisher who publishes bad art. Try to sell it as great art and you're either the publisher who knows nothing about art or the con man who thinks we don't know anything about art. As I said, good art can mask bad writing. But only until the audience reads enough of it, and then the artist had better be damn good.

Having a bunch of "ideas" you figure you'll get other people to put on paper for you. If your ideas mean that much to you, put them on paper yourself. From a craft standpoint any talent worth their salt will put their full effort into any assignment, but it's an emotional reality that most people do better work on material they feel personally connected to. Trying to turn them into your personal create robots is like kicking yourself in the balls. If you're hiring people to create, let them create. (See last paragraph.)

Trying to be all things to all people. We're in Darwinian survival territory here. "Survival of the fittest" doesn't mean the biggest, toughest kid on the block always wins; "the fittest" is the one who can find an untapped ecological niche and fill it best. Fact is only very well-funded companies can afford to take a shotgun approach to publishing, and even those, like Marvel and DC, have a core niche. Success in comics these days is all about finding your niche. Don't try to go after every audience at once, figure out what niche you want to fill and go find good properties that fill it. But niche publishing is scary. An untapped niche means it doesn't pre-exist, you have to develop it yourself. It's working without a net. It requires faith and determination, and the rapid development of acumen.

Creating a line, not building a brand. The philosophy of the "line" is that comics fans won't pay attention to a single comic, they need a group of comics to sink their teeth into. A line. A universe. Whatever you want to call it. The last 10-15 years are littered with failed comics "lines," because almost no one wants to buy a whole line of books, particularly from creators whose work they don't know. Building a brand takes a lot more time, planning and attention to detail, and it's scary. (See paragraph above.) But a brand – let's say Marvel Comics – is your promise to your audience that when they come to you, they will get what you've based your brand on. As I've mentioned many times before, Marvel really took ten years to create and solidify as a brand. A recent successful brand, IDW, is still in the process of solidifying their brand, but underlying it is the promise that when you buy an IDW comic you have some idea of what to expect. Not surprisingly, their biggest successes haven't strayed far from the brand image; most of their failures have. (Same with Marvel, actually.) A successful brand is worth the effort; as Marvel again shows, an established successful brand can dominate a market and provide a huge buffer against downturns and the unknown, and Marvel has been as successful with marketing their brand as with marketing individual characters.

Publishing too much too soon. Everyone wants instant gratification, and publishers are no different. Want to know why lines really fail? Because throwing four or six new books at once onto the market doesn't mean the audience will have room in their budgets for four more books. Tying books together in lines doesn't encourage audiences to buy the whole line but to ignore the whole line. Look at Valiant, in its heyday a surprisingly successful company; it started with two books, and, until it picked up momentum, introduced new titles at a fairly slow pace. Outstripping audience willingness to buy your books will very quickly kill you.

Having no publishing philosophy aside from making money. Your philosophy toward the material is gives your brand its identity. But way too many publishers just want to publish because they want to publish, or they think they can make money at it. The publishing philosophy is where the publisher rightly gets to display his own creativity. Included are: choices of material, marketing approach, design and visual approach, and all the other little choices it's the publisher's function to make. It's the bedrock of the brand. If you don't know what your publishing philosophy is, you don't know what you're trying to say with the comics you publish, and if you don't know what you're trying to say, you're not going to build a successful brand. Because your philosophy is your promise to the audience.

Anyone got any other stupid publisher tricks?

Very few successful publishers are created overnight, and most of the successful ones will tell you it's still an endless struggle. I really do hope the new publishers inexplicably springing up not only know something I don't but represent a changing tide for the American comics business. Do we need new publishers? A: we need successful ones.

For lots more Frazetta, visit The Frazetta Art Gallery.

Artists: if you want your head used in "Two Heads Talk," email it to me. Color or black and white, it's your choice, but all heads should be .jpgs 3" wide x 6" tall, 150 dpi, with no figure in the top 3". No trademarked characters, but otherwise it's entirely up to you. No heads rejected, as long as they're clean, and you own it; we only use it once. Please don't put a panel border on. And please list a website or other contact site so all your new fans will know where to find you. Oh, and don't forget to put HEAD in the header so I don't assume you're a virus and trash you. Because I will, you know. I need to keep the one computer I've got left healthy.

I've collected my MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS columns into a .pdf format e-book called TOTALLY OBVIOUS, now available at the Paper Movies website. The book comes in two flavors – one optimized for reading on your computer and one optimized for printing out – and is packed with anecdotes, creative tips, inside looks at the inner workings of the industry, the overall cultural context of comics, and much more. Almost 300 pages of entertaining irreverence and information. (You can check out a sample essay online at the site if you want.) You'll need Abode Acrobat Reader to open the book, but you can get that free from Adobe.

Those who want the scoop on my available work can also find that at Paper Movies.

Some might be disappointed that there's no political discussion this week – esp. those dying to see how I spin President Hand Puppet's surge in the polls since the Republican convention (here's how: yawn) – but it's currently pushing 11 PM and I was supposed to have this in by 5, so I'm not going to get one done this week. I'll try to make up for it next week, if I don't go on vacation.

Oh, for those who don't know, THE COMICS JOURNAL has a new look, starting with #262, which is out now. Squarebound, slicker paper, a fabulous interview with arguably the greatest cartoonist to ever set foot in comics, Alex Toth (with a comics section reprinting his breakthrough "widescreen" comics of the 1950s, originally published in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT), and a slew of new features. Including my own regular column, FUN FUN FUN.

Writers and artists: remember that in early October, we'll be holding another festival of upcoming comics, so email me info (including publisher, cost, names of collaborators, and a brief, like 50 words brief, TV Guide-like description of the concept) and a .jpg of the cover (only one per project, thanks, and keep them in the 50k range) and I'll set it out for my thousands of readers to salivate over. But don't forget to get it in!

Way too often, "graphic novels" are little more than extended comic books, harping on the same content as pamphs and doing nothing particularly different with style or content. Aaron Magruder, Reginald Hudlin and Kyle Baker – all masters in their own field – use the form to generate BIRTH OF A NATION (Crown Publishers; $25) (ironically titled, since the silent movie of the same name saluted the formation of the Ku Klux Klan), the story of what happens when a security firm declares the entire population of East St. Louis, Illinois criminals who are ineligible to vote, resulting in the election of an unpopular president. If this sounds a bit familiar, it should be. Never mind dangling chads; the "criminalization" and exclusion of thousands of voters in Florida on the basis that they were black – and, coincidentally, statistically likely to vote for Al Gore – is the real scandal of the 2000 election, never seriously addressed by the press, and many of those disenfranchised have still not been able to regain their vote for this election. These guys treat it very seriocomically, as the mayor of the town responds, after some convincing, to invoke clauses of the Constitution and secede the town from the Union. Pretty much everything in this graphic novel is dead on, from wry humor to some very strong real world political savvy to some terrific characters, art (some of Baker's best and most focused in years), coloring and just the right level of naivete. With some genuinely chilling developments as well. Excellent, and possibly even important.

I've got a pile of mail, and another mountain of books to review, but, hell, I have to get up at 5:30 in the morning. Next week. Happy anniversary.

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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