For some reason, there’s been a lot of new discussion about “saving comics.” (I know the optimal method is mylar snugs, but I just use the cheap file boxes you can buy at Office Depot.) (Sorry, bad joke; does anyone remember when Mike Barr, I think it was, created a villain named Mylar Snugs in E-MAN? Which doesn’t tickle me quite as much as Marty Pasko’s Rice O’Rooney, the San Francisco Threat in PLASTIC MAN, but that one never got published. Then there was Howard Chaykin’s riff on saving Soviet jewelry in AMERICAN FLAGG! Ah, the laughs just keep on coming.) Alan David Doane recently posted his 15 Ways To Make Comics Better; some are dead on, some are a little screwy, but there’s only one I’d really take exception to:
“10. Creators: At all stages of the creative process, seek out the opinions and evaluations or people whose tastes and critical faculties you trust implicitly. Ask them to be brutally honest in judging your work, and accept there is at least a grain of truth in everything they tell you, and likely a lot more than a grain.”
Only a critic would come up with that one.
What’s wrong with it? If your object is to be liked or to make sure at least someone out there likes your work, it’s a great idea. If your object is to express your own viewpoint, it’s terrible. Asking for advice on breaking an impasse, solving a problem or mastering some technique is one thing, but if you don’t trust your own creative instincts you’re in the wrong business. Most people are likeliest to “trust” those who’ve agreed most frequently in the past anyway; very few people have access to genuinely dispassionate critics who wouldn’t simply impose their own viewpoint on the material anyway. It’s a bad idea in any case.
All feedback is noise in the system.
And most people who show work in progress are looking for approbation.
Creative work, really creative work, stands a great chance of being initially misunderstood. Traditionally, much of it has been. You think people who saw RONIN and DARK KNIGHT RETURNS before they saw print didn’t tell Frank Miller he was out of his mind? Picasso once said good taste is the enemy of art. Hemingway said you shouldn’t pay attention to nice things critics say about you, because then you have to pay attention to the bad things too. Robert Heinlein, though I generally dislike his work, insisted you should never alter your work except for editorial dictate. I know it’s potentially more painful, but do the work first and make it what you think it should be, to the best of your ability. If you want to show it to people, fine, show it. But if you’ve got any faith in yourself, don’t listen to what they have to say, good or bad. What’s in the material is between you and your editor. The critics don’t get a say until after it comes out, and that’s just how it should be. Even if the people whose taste you trust are the greatest talents in comics, even the greatest talents in comics are still only critics if it’s not their work.
But, like I said, the subject is out there: how do we make comics better? It’s nice to see people seriously approaching it. I got a couple different e-mails lately asking, in so many words, what one thing I’d suggest to improve comics, given that I’ve suggested dozens over the past few years. Took a little thought.
Over the past couple decades, the payoff has become of the most neglected aspects of comics, partly due to the soap opera nature storytelling style that became prominent in the ’70s and has never really faded away since. I wrote once that the problem with serial storytelling is you never know what a story’s really about until it’s over – the ending of a story can vastly alter our perception (and appreciation) of what came before it – and in open-ended serial comics the stories never really end, so much of them end up being about nothing. I’m not an expert on the subject myself – it’s something I’ve neglected for too long that I really have to start paying more attention to – but if you carefully re-read comics, you’ll find that most that you have the greatest affection for have the best payoffs.
The payoff is that great moment when everything builds to an emotional and logical crescendo, when you feel fulfilled by the time you’ve invested in the story. It can be an amazing twist, it can be straightforward development, but it hits you right because it brings everything to a head in an exciting way that makes you glad you had the experience.
The fact is that it’s easier to appreciate a mediocre story with a great payoff than a great story with a mediocre payoff, and by some definitions any story with a mediocre payoff can’t be a great story. The big flaw in Neil Gaiman’s early SANDMAN stories, for instance, was that no matter how wildly imaginative and entertaining his set-ups and characters were, everything would be undermined by having Morpheus walk onstage at the end, snap his fingers and everything would be resolved – a nearly literal deus ex machine. There’s a time when even that can be satisfying, when more traditional payoffs are overexposed; anything can become an acceptable payoff if the moment is right. SANDMAN came along when everyone was sick of the standard payoff of most comic books: the hero beats the villain. It’s the expected payoff, and the only one most readers will accept (unless the potential of beating the villain remains in the wings for a later issue), but unless it has the right emotional oomph behind it, it very easily goes flat.
But the success of books like SANDMAN (and even WATCHMEN, whose ending was derided at the time as being derivative of THE OUTER LIMITS, with the final page threatening to undo the whole point of the entire plot… but that was perhaps the point…), along with the exploding success of the soap opera format, briefly convinced a lot of people that the payoff was an archaic unnecessity. It became considered “sophisticated” to abandon traditional elements like that. (Though most traditional elements were too sacrosanct to abandon or even acknowledge, and it was most of those that should have been jettisoned. Companies would go into huge storylines without any notion of how to resolve them. The Spider-Man Clone saga went through constant revisions and extensions until it collapsed of its own weight; for a long time Marvel seemed to believe there was no need for any sort of payoff, and only the sudden plummet of Spider-Man sales convinced them otherwise. And then the payoff was lukewarm, utterly expected, and generating nothing: the series returned to status quo, except for sales. ARMAGEDDON 2001 had its ending gutted to work fans who’d learned of the intended ending on the Internet.
The problem isn’t ending a story, it’s finding a satisfying ending that both resolves expectations and isn’t quite expected. (Garth Ennis is generally among the best at this.) There are no specific formulae for this, no special techniques. It’s a matter of bravery and instinct.
But the payoff on the payoff is this: memorable stories. When it comes down to it, the only thing that will really make and keep the industry healthy is more readers, and without memorable stories we really have nothing to lure them in. They won’t stay if the stories aren’t memorable. They won’t come back.
If the stories are memorable enough, they will. And they won’t be memorable enough without great payoffs.
So if there’s one thing that creators can specifically do to bring in the audience, it’s focus on great payoffs. Will Eisner said the way he wrote THE SPIRIT was to work out the ending first and work back from it. Which is far from the worst way to build a story. If you know where you’re going it’s easier to get there.
Payoffs. We need bigger and better payoffs. Without them the rest of it is useless.
This occurred to me, for some reason, when I was fast-forwarding through The Super Bowl, to see what new commercials were airing. (I’m not a big fan of apes, but I loved the chimps. Great usage.)
You know what talking smack is. It’s insulting other people for the sake of insulting them, to show you’re cooler than they are. It’s talking tough. Lots of it in movies, on TV shows, in music (especially a particular style of rap, immortalized in the film 8 MILE). Used to be Gary Cooper was the ideal: keep your mouth shut, take action when necessary, but only when necessary. Now it’s still the Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Willis paradigm: it’s not good enough to be tough, you have to shoot your mouth off about how tough you are. It’s the pro wrestling promo as worldview. Ex-wrestler Mick Foley pointed out that there wouldn’t have been a Hand Puppet without Stone Cold Steve Austin’s interview style to rip off, and that’s a pretty astute assessment. You can hear it in his voice when the Hand Puppet goes out and rattles sabers at Russia or Syria. If you’ve ever met genuine tough guys, they don’t advertise it, they don’t care who knows about, they don’t talk about it. They just deal with what they have to and get on with their lives. All the growing acceptability of talking smack has done is made society noisier and nastier. It’s all hyperbole: just noise. What do I care how tough anyone says they are? Why would anyone take their word for it? Anyone can say anything about anything.
Fact is that talk’s cheap, and hyperbole destroys the meaning of language. Which is what some people want, for words to mean anything they want. Hyperbole’s all around us, trying desperately to take the place of substance. Who needs it?
Rule of thumb: if you’re genuinely tough you don’t have to talk about it. If you have to talk about it you’re not tough. So shut up with the smack talk. It’s boring.
Citing its recent mutation into a variety that affects cats, the Center For Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta has warned that a new superflu will likely soon evolve from the Asian bird flu to strike down humans in numbers paralleling the Great Flu of 1918, which left entire towns dead, but Dr. Ian Llewellyn of the University Of Port Talbot, Wales’ microbiology research school couldn’t be happier about it. Llewellyn has spent 15 years investigating the relationship between the 1918 flu and the relatively low incidence of lung cancer among soldiers who took up smoking during World War II. His controversial research suggests that flu, rather than abruptly vanishing as if commonly supposed, mutated into a more benign virus that triggers lung cancer. “Mothers immunized by exposure during the epidemic would have passed their antibodies on to their children in the womb and via their milk, and those children grew up to fight World War II,” he explained, claiming the rise in cigarette-related lung cancer deaths since can be ascribed to both increased amounts of toxins and additives in tobacco, general environmental contaminants, and declining immunity levels in successive generations. Llewellyn anticipates cataclysmic human evolution as a result of the new superflu, with the widespread population devastation winnowing out the weaker human genetic strains and possibly stimulating a human immunity to many forms of cancer. He also expects changes in human society as dramatic as those prompted by the Black Plague in medieval Europe. “The world will look considerably different in 50 years,” he said. “We must stop treating even lethal viruses as enemies and start treating them as our partners in evolution.”
Accusing People For The Ethical Treatment Of Animals (PETA) with moral weakness, insurance heir and major sponsor Alex Hawkley has withdrawn both financial and spiritual support with the intent of purchasing a small island off New Guinea where he can train an animal army to carry out armed revolution against man. Hawkley, 27, has already been in contact with zoos and circuses around the world about buying various “recruits” from them, with a special need for chimpanzees and gorillas. “Our weapons are built for human use, and they’re as physically close to humans as occur in nature,” Hawkley said. “Plus they’re capable of developing language. But that’s only the start. People oppress, kill and eat animals to destroy species esteem and keep them down. That’s because we recognize that we’re the inferior species. A Bengal tiger with a bazooka will send them screaming. An ape with his finger on the nuclear button is their worst nightmare.” He said he hoped to be among the first casualties in the forthcoming “triumphal war of beasts against man.”
A new breed of tourist has sprung up in the wake of the tsunami that devastated much of the Indian Ocean and much of the coastland in the region: Americans and Northern Europeans have flocked to the area for essentially free vacations during which they impersonate tourists killed by the recent tsunami. “It’s incredible,” said one man during his stay in Thailand, on promise of anonymity. “You smear on this body gel like suntan lotion and wherever you go, the Thais think you’re a ghost.” Ghosts are a commonly accepted feature of Thai society. The gel, manufactured by “Ancestor Products” of San Diego CA (no address, phone number or website provided) and sold exclusively on the black market, turns Caucasian skin a pale, slightly luminous white in the dark. “Once you get the hang of it, it’s a snap to jump from a Thai taxicab at night, and they think you’re a ghost, so they don’t try to come after you for the fare. I’ve saved a fortune in tips too.” Others have skipped out on hotel and meal bills. The FDA has not approved topical use of the gel.
DAN DeCARLO ed. by Alex Chun & Jacob Covey, 216 pg. tri-color trade paperback (Fantagraphics Books;$18.95)
Strange sensation reading this. I’d swear I saw some of this material, or material very much like it in those magazines my father kept under his workbench that I wasn’t supposed to know about. DeCarlo’s best known for his years on BETTY AND VERONICA and more recently for his failed lawsuit to recover the rights to JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS from Archie Comics, and it’s easy to forget or to never have known that he also drew smutty cartoons for men’s magazines. This volume collects a couple hundred of his panels for Humorama publications. (Ex: one woman in a strip joint dressing room says to another, “Just tell him money can’t buy everything, then let him prove you wrong!” I don’t really have much to say about the cartoons – some are mildly funny, some just coy, many repetitious, but if you have any familiarity at all with 1960s BETTY AND VERONICA books, seeing DeCarlo’s very identifiable art in this context is like falling into the Bizarro world. A curious book.
STYX TAXI: A LITTLE TWILIGHT MUSIC by Steven Goldman, Elizabeth Genco, Rami Efal & Leland Purvis, 32 pg. b&w comic (FWD Books;$3)
I recall not being very impressed with the first STYX TAXI I saw, but A LITTLE TWILIGHT MUSIC is a vast improvement. Still centering around psychopomps driving cabs that ferry the newly dead in NYC to the afterlife, this new volume pays lip service of the gimmick of the dead having two hours to wrap up their personal business before departure, but the real gimmick is the “music” that links the three vignettes. Fairly nicely if obliquely written, with some nice art, esp. the stylish work of Rami Efal, who shows real potential.
WYATT EARP: DODGE CITY #1 by Chuck Dixon & Enrique Villagran, 32 pg. b&w comic (Moonstone;$2.95)
Some people seem to think I should have issues with Chuck Dixon, due to political differences, but, really, what do I care about that if he writes well? If nothing else, I love a good western, and Chuck’s got a great grip on the west. His version of Wyatt Earp (who has possibly had more titles at more publishers than any other character in comics) owes a lot to characterizations in the 1993 film TOMBSTONE and 1957’s GUNFIGHT AT THE OK CORRAL, but that’s hardly a bad thing, and Dixon pulls off Earp’s chaotic debut as Dodge City’s sheriff with panache. Nice art by Villagran, too, though loose and a bit strange; in places it looks more like Ernie Colon. Solid, violent western action, with the added bonus of a sharp Steve Lieber/Jeff Parker cover. Lieber’s lovely and ever-improving work doesn’t get nearly enough credit. Worth a look.
Smells kinda fishy.
Not that I’ve heard the tapes in their entirety – even if they’re widely available, I don’t have the stomach for it – but what segments I’ve heard have sounded strangely scripted. I don’t really hold with those who think the Hand Puppet’s a total idiot, but a great extemporaneous speaker he’s not. Yet his answers to questions on the tape sound direct, confident, and seemingly designed to moot possible criticisms. So he mocks Al Gore’s voice? Who among us hasn’t? Why did he refuse to even acknowledge his elaborate and exotic history of recreational sex and drug abuse during any campaign? For the children! (Uh-huh.) Because, you know, acknowledging behavior is the same as endorsing it and he wasn’t going to have even one child trying pot because he heard the president had once used it. (Actually, when you think about it, he is a terrific argument against recreational drugs.) There isn’t one single “incriminating” answer he gives to any question I’ve heard that doesn’t sound like an “official record” statement, given from the safety of the second term Oval Office.
Or maybe it’s real. Maybe I’m just a crazed cynic, and it’s not just one more example of Karl Rove manipulating public image, as when the Hand Puppet was out stumping for Social Security reform and not only did they make sure all venues were stocked solely with supporters and sympathetic reporters but The Republican Party was handling security. And I don’t know of one major newspaper that happened to mention that in their coverage. Not that Rove hasn’t pulled little cons before. Enter “Jeff Gannon,” ace phantom reporter, actually a guy named Jim Guckart, a former Washington rent boy working for “Talon News” AKA a Conservative propaganda farm called GOPUSA, who quite easily gained White House press credits and gained renown during White House press conferences for lobbing softball questions crafted carefully enough to either allow the speaking official in question to answer in phrases most conducive to Administration desires and purposes, as opposed to other reporters who might just, oh, ask something they don’t want to answer. (Which is a really sad commentary on admin paranoia, given the rest of the White House press corps doesn’t exactly seem driven to dig for facts or clarifications either.) “Gannon” is currently in the news because the prosecutor for the grand jury investigating just who committed the highly punishable federal crime of leaking CIA agent Valerie Plame’s identity to the press wants to know how “Gannon,” during an interview with Plame’s husband Joseph Wilson (the former official who investigated claims Saddam Hussein was trying to buy weapons grade plutonium from Niger, found the claims baseless and reported that back to the White House, then went public with his findings when the Hand Puppet kept referring to the threat in speeches as justification for war with Iraq), managed to reference an “internal government memo” mentioning Plame as a CIA agent. A note the CIA claims cannot have referred to an actual meeting and must have been forged specifically to name Plame.
There are plenty of other examples of administration propaganda being foisted, like Health & Human Services and the DEA creating infomercialesque fake news broadcasts with actors as reporters and sending them out to local TV stations, which run them as straight news. Like the White House buying the services of at least 20 reporters who then ran whatever the administration wanted them to say. (An almost shocking waste of money in these tight economic times, given how eager most reporters, papers and news programs are to give verbatim recitals of admin positions as fact for free.) The aforementioned “town meetings” loaded to the gills with sympathizers to the vehement exclusion of all others. Dummying up an “unauthorized” biography doesn’t even seem ludicrous in that company, it seems like business as usual.
Big fun at NATIONAL LAMPOON, which uses close to 100 covers of old comics starring Superman, unretouched, to quite credibly make the argument that Superman Is A Dick. It’s hilarious.
Franklin Harris of the Decatur Daily has been on a little roll lately, with discussions of The First Comics Legacy and Gerard Jones’ MEN OF TOMORROW: GEEKS, GANGSTERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE COMIC BOOK. (One big error, though, Franklin: Forest Hills, Queens was Spider-Man’s home turf, not any Bronx neighborhood.)
And, over at Movie Poop Shoot, Marc Mason‘s back with a look at several comics-related books, including my own TOTALLY OBVIOUS: THE COMPLETE MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, collecting two years of essays on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life from my original online column.
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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