FORWARD INTO THE PAST: Gerard Jones and the birth of the comic book
NO CANNON FODDER LEFT BEHIND: checking up on government fine print
(I also have a theory about Senator Estes Kefauver’s Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency, popularly credited, along with Dr. Fredric Wertham’s notorious SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT with “infantilizing” comics in the ’50s and “forcing” the creation of the Comics Code. In fact, Kefauver’s subcommittee, despite some flamboyant hearings mainly courtesy of EC Comics publisher William Gaines’ testimony, disbanded without ever making a recommendation on what should be done about comics, and my suspicion is that Kefauver, whose main claim to fame was his war on organized crime, was only interested in comics insofar as they would allow him to pressure the Mob-owned distributors.)
But when I tried to discuss the subject of Mob connections to early comics with Gil Kane, an unquenchable font of anecdotes and gossip from comics early days and a guy who seemingly knew where all the skeletons were buried, he vehemently denied any such thing. So I figured I must be barking up the wrong tree, though there were always little tidbits that didn’t jibe with Gil’s certainty.
What I only suspected, Gerard Jones has gone out and proved, in his recent MEN OF TOMORROW: Geeks, Gangsters And The Birth Of The Comic Book (Basic Books; New York, 2004). It’s an amazing history, not simply of early American comics but of the drastic and still mostly unacknowledged shift in American culture from the 1890s through the 1940s, of the forces that created secret empires, of institutionalized political corruption that has always ridden the tide of money, of imaginations simultaneously unleashed and shackled by their own limitations. The central figures of his book, though, are DC Comics founders Harry Donenfeld and Jack Liebowitz on one side, and SUPERMAN creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster on the other.
Donenfeld’s not only a fascinating character, a “pornographer” (though by today’s standards his hottest product wouldn’t be titillating enough to make the cover of the New York Post) and a huckster from rough streets, with no particular interest in culture or creativity, who basically specialized in taking over other people’s businesses, he turns out to be the (or, more probably, a; there’s plenty of early comics history yet to be unearthed) missing link in at least one of my theories and possibly more, cemented where Jones quotes Donenfeld’s son Irwin as saying, “Let me put it to you this way. Frank Costello is my godfather.”
For those who don’t know, Costello was one of the four kings of the New York mobs throughout most of the ’20 and ’30s, alongside Charles “Lucky” Luciano, Benny “Bugsy” Siegel (no relation to Joe, as far as I know) and Meyer Lansky. According to Jones, Donenfeld was acquainted with all of them thanks to growing up among Lower Manhattan’s notorious street gangs, viewed them (along with much of New York and a lot of the country) as superstars when they rose to prominence and power during Prohibition, and particularly emulated the less flamboyant Costello – who, it turns out, used Donenfeld’s employment in the Donenfeld brothers’ print shop (though Harry wasn’t originally a partner and had no interest in the trade) to create possibly the first magazine/bootleg hootch distribution system. (They also added prophylactics and other “prohibited” material to the mix.)
Perhaps not coincidentally, Costello was later a prime target for Kefauver.
I’m only about 100 pages in, not even to the first DC comics yet – it’s 340 pages long – but this is a book for poring over, not skimming. There’s so much information in MEN OF TOMORROW. He goes into apparently unrelated areas, like the bodybuilding boom of the ’20s and the new cultural emphasis on sex that accompanied it, then abruptly ties it to items of traditional concern to comics historians. Not only does the publisher of the first bodybuilding magazine, PHYSICAL CULTURE, inspire dozens of other publishers and triggers a flood of soft porn and sexualized behavior, it prompts SUPERMAN co-creator Joe Shuster to take up bodybuilding and informs Hal Foster’s TARZAN, the influence of which, in Jones’ estimation, is far less artistic than sexual, a major leap forward in sexualizing comics art. Or how Jack Liebowitz’s early disillusionment with socialism eventually spawned DC Comics: the accounting skills he developed for the unions generated an uncanny ability to cook books that kept Donenfeld’s business alive long enough to take over DC Comics.
These are the histories we need, not just for comics but for everything, full not of pleasant, orderly fables but of messy, true life. It’s what any history buff will tell you: we can’t really know where we are unless we know where we came from. Jones does a fabulous job of recreating what’s now an almost alien world and filling in huge chunks of terra incognita, and the writing is terrific; if his comics had been this lively and compelling, he’d be a major superstar in the business today. I can’t wait to read the rest of it.
Remember the odious “No Child Left Behind” Act? Sponsored several years ago by advocates of dismantling secular public education and seized upon as a convenient placebo by a Congress more interested in looking like they were trying to solve problems than in solving them, the act purported to “improve” education in America by instituting a standard test then insisting schools bring themselves up to standards or lose Federal funding, without bothering to provide a means for them to do this. The theory was apparently that there is no correlation between money and educational standards, and while it’s true that this school or that might be held up as having just the right combination of elements necessary to beat the odds, it’s also no great trick to show that, for the most part, schools with the least money, the least access to adequate textbooks and the least community support, the schools with the most students who come from broken or disinterested homes where the parents themselves show no interest in the children or their studies, are the schools that perform the worst in testing. So NCLB was, basically, just another salvo of class (and, to a large extent, racial) warfare. It also forced even those schools that do well on it to largely dismantle traditional, not to mention experimental, education techniques and make passing the test the focus of a new, fairly robotic education system that demands not free thought and the exchange of ideas, or the inclusion of new, more modern information into curriculum, but the rote recitation of specific material needed to pass the test. As a side-effect, many school systems have been forced to divert funding from now “non-essential” programs like art, music, languages and other cultural education, leaving many students either unaware of their talents or forced to develop them elsewhere. (Recently, several school systems and the NEA filed suit to exempt systems from adherence to any provisions of the Act left unfunded by Congress. We’ll see how that goes.)
Just out of curiosity, are there any questions about evolutionary science on the standardized tests?
But now it has come out that the Act intends to leave no child behind in another way. Quietly placed in the text of the act and not publicized in the slightest was a requirement that all high schools must turn over to the Pentagon, for recruitment purposes, all student records, except for those individual students whose parents have formally asked to opt out of the program. The opt out is a cop out: how do you opt out if no one tells you not only of the ability to opt out but of what you have to opt out from? There’s no question that this purposely wasn’t widely publicized. In the current climate of war, the big question has to be: why?
“No Child Left Behind” (I guess we can call it “No Cannon Fodder Left Behind” now) was passed during an era of warmongering and superpatriotism, when the government and the news media were actively encouraging high school graduates to race out and sign up to “serve your country,” and many graduates eagerly complied. Recruitment soared. Where was the need for such a clause then? Was this just an example, like the longstanding FBI power-grab wishlist blithely incorporated into the Patriot Act, of the Pentagon using a Congressionally popular bill to get a long-desired perk? Or did they, looking at trends in recent American history, like the path of public support for military action in Korea in the ’50s and Vietnam in the ’60s-’70s, and anticipate a time not to far in the future (now we’d call it now) when American support for a military presence in Iraq, battered by incessant casualties, would slip badly, and recruitment with it? With graduates now far more aware of the dangers of service in Iraq and the government’s increasingly desperate need for more warm bodies for their war, to the point where many existing soldiers are being held, essentially in slavery, for much longer terms than they signed up for, recruit numbers are precipitously low. Few politicians are publicly calling for a draft (except for New York’s Charles Rangel, ostensibly operating under the delusion that a draft will equalize the racial and economic makeup of the military, even though no one with enough money ever had a problem getting out of any draft before; just ask the President) and most publicly decry even the suggestion of one, but more and more stories leak out of Washington about behind door discussions of a draft in Congress. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said over the weekend that we’ll be needed in Iraq for at least twelve more years (the commander of our forces in Iraq later amended that to five on the inside and twelve on the outside) and, at the current casualty rate, which they themselves say shows no sign of abating even as they claim the insurgents are being beaten back, that’s a lot of recruits needed. With (at least for the moment) no more re-elections to face and faced with a legacy of leading America into a second Vietnam, the Hand Puppet’s got nothing to lose by it except popularity, and that no longer seems to be an issue if polls can be believed, though a draft would certainly make life difficult for whatever Presidential candidate the Republicans field next. If the Democrats don’t shoot themselves in the foot, and that’s a huge if, particularly given that the Democrats have dedicated themselves over the past two+ years to vehemently supporting the war so no one can doubt their patriotism. (In recent months, more prominent Republicans have officially come out against the war than Democrats.)
If a draft’s inevitable – and if we choose to “stay the course” in Iraq, it would certainly seem to be – the mandatory student information demanded by the Pentagon via No Child Left Behind would make the institution and processing of a draft, which would likely stay in place at least as long as the nebulous and indefinite “War On Terror” continues, much more feasible. Parents who don’t want their children living or dying at the government’s whim (for an example, the government recently dropped their order for Iraq-bound military-quality armored Humvees and replaced it with an order for Iraq-bound Dodge minivans, presumably armored because the ones currently sold you can almost punch your fist through without significant injury; wouldn’t you like your kid riding through contested Iraqi territory, which pretty much means all of it, in one of those?) are advised to get in touch with their schools and formally opt out immediately. That won’t free high school grads from any coming draft, but it won’t make the Pentagon’s job easy for them either. I’d suggest writing Congress and condemning any draft propositions as well, but in recent years the government, the White House and Congress both, haven’t shown the slightest indication of giving a rat’s ass what the public wants, unless it corresponds with what they’ve told the public it wants. What it tells us we want is almost always in the broadest possible generalities, but, as someone once said and the No Cannon Fodder Left Behind Act demonstrates, the devil is in the details.
ZOMBIE TALES, 48 pg color comic (Boom!/Atomeka;$6.99)
13,000 knockoffs of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and one decent one (28 DAYS LATER) later, and you’d think zombies – brain-hungry walking dead – would have been milked for everything the dull little bastards are capable of, wouldn’t you? But Boom! Studios, letting a slew of creators do their zombie thing, neatly puts that supposition to rest. This is a half dozen stories from the decent (Michael Nelson & Joe Abraham’s “Severence”) to the excellent (Keith Giffen & Ron Lim’s “Dead Meat”), with a lot of very entertaining in between. Mark Waid and producer-writer John Rogers both produce clever EC pastiches, Giffen draws the first chapter of an intriguing Andrew Cosby serial, and overall the art work and production are top-notch, with artist J.K. Woodward in particular making a big stylistic breakthrough. ZOMBIE TALES is what comics anthologies should be. Get it.
SHUCK THE SULFURSTAR #1-2 by Rick Smith, 32 pg b&w comics (Sulfurstar;$2.95@)
Rick Smith produced four issues of SHUCK a few years ago, before hostile market conditions drove him away. I’m not sure why he’s back, but I’m glad he is, since SHUCK, a sort of hybrid of Little Lulu, Pogo and Aleister Crowley, is one of the few comics today that can genuinely be called charming, not to mention good enough to spend money on. This series is a prequel to the other, a sort of origin story for Shuck, a former demon who retires, under divine duress and wearing a tie-on old man mask, to a small town where he’s pursued by other “crèches” and befriended by a young girl, Thursday Friday (a spiritual, if cheerier, cousin of Tuesday Addams). Smith’s art is simple, expressive and unique, his touch is gentle, and one of the book’s great joys (though some may find it a stumbling block) is his phonetic deconstruction of English to the level of a lilting song. The series remains a singular achievement, and hopefully he’ll find a more receptive audience this time around.
England’s CI remains the best comics newszine in print, though, as with most print magazines, if you follow the Internet you’re unlikely to find any stunning revelations here. What is found is breezy but slightly deeper looks at the news, starting, in this issue, with the recent V FOR VENDETTA-triggered flap between Alan Moore and DC, as well as a refreshing lack of Marvel-DC worship, though both companies are well-represented. Particularly interesting is a little piece on an Egyptian startup producing a superhero comic called MIDDLE EASTERN HEROES, something I don’t recall being mentioned here, an article on CORTO MALTESE, and a slew of British comics news. Lots of nice art, a good review column, and JACK STAFF fans won’t want to miss the new Paul Frist strip now running in the back.
A PERFECT DAY FOR LOVE LETTERS, Vol. 1 by George Asakura, b&w trade paperback (Del Rey Manga;$10.95)
Del Rey’s latest shojo is a fairly standard romance comic, five stories of high schoolers falling in love with each other through the medium of letters. There aren’t any huge surprises here – the stories are relatively standard stuff – but the art’s graceful, the writing’s good and the characters are entertaining. If you’ve been dying for a straight-up romance comic, this is your meat.
JOHNNY PUBLIC #9 by Sean Frost & Wendi Stang-Frost, 24 pg b&w mini-comic (Hula Cat Comics;$2.50)
More zombie tales, sort of, as a traveling salesman wanders into a small town most of whose population died 23 years earlier but picked that day to start coming back. As a vignette, it’s unsatisfyingly short on explanation but good on situation. Wendi mostly carries this one, though. Decent.
SHOOTING STAR COMICS ANTHOLOGY #6 ed. by Sean Taylor, 64 pg b&w comic (Shooting Star Comics;$4.95)
A better than usual edition. Shooting Star’s a company whose heart is traditionally well in the right place but whose product has trouble matching up, though not for lack of trying. These guys are earnest if nothing else. This issue sports a nice Mike Grell cover and three interesting works: Danny Donovan & Nat Jones’ “Death Becomes Me,” about a dead man working off his sins as a grim reaper; Todd Fox’s modernized DIRTY DOZEN pastiche, “The Terribles”; and Eric Burnham’s detective parody, “Nick Landime.” Even Scott Rogers’ “Bedbug,” a strip I routinely hate, ain’t bad this issue, with the eponymous hero choosing between joining a pack of other heroes on a world-saving cosmic mission or going home to see his kid. There are weak spots – J. Morgan Neal, Gregg Noon & Robert Bavington’s Dr-Strange-meets-Indiana-Jones “Rex Solomon,” continues to be overdone and underdone at the same time, though at least they’re finally giving us some sense of who the hero is, and Shari Lipkin & Stacy Lucas’ pseudo fantasy “Shayara” is pointless and not particularly well done – but they don’t quite qualify as bad either. The camp treat of the issue may be Sean Taylor & George Pitcher’s “Ace Robinson,” which is pretty well-drawn, and they manage to not overplay the joke of a vampire hunter with a baseball bat and it’s got a decent twist. It’s not a joke I’d care to see again, though. The weak part of SSCA still seems to be the editing; the talent here could be greatly improved by some decent direction, and the mock-pulp atmosphere of the magazine is working against that now. It was amusing for awhile, but it’s perhaps not the best direction to take.
JETTA: Tales Of The Toshigawa by Marthius Wade & Janet Stone Wade, 84 pg. b&w comic (Shooting Star Comics;$6.95)
On the flip side, this Shooting Star book is also obviously earnest, but bad. It’s every damn Elektra/bad Hong Kong kung fu movie cliché crammed between two covers. A young woman hides out in the United States from an evil Japanese underworld lord who commands a vast army of assassins and happens to be her father. Despite being in hiding, she openly wanders streets and dance clubs, where apparently everyone knows her real name, but she decides to take the name given her by her new boyfriend who, not knowing her real name, just manufactures one out of the air for her. (I know I always did that when I met unfamiliar women.) Oy. Oh, did I mention her enemies seem to know exactly where she is? And that she wears a fighting uniform apparently nicked from Marvel’s villain The Constrictor? And she turns out to have a whole bunch of amazing magical martial arts skills up her sleeves. The artwork’s mostly not bad in a Rob Liefeld kind of way (there are a bunch of pages in the middle where it goes all the hell, though) but the story and character are just awful. There’s not one ounce of wit or imagination anywhere in the thing. Pass.
ZIGZAG #1 by J Chris Campbell, 32 pg comic (AdHouse Books;$5.95)
Ever see the Xmas special, OLIVE THE OTHER REINDEER? That’s what the intentionally clunky “cutout” art in the color section reminds me of. There’s a great level of surrealism in the whole book, and Campbell has a good sense of the picaresque: a tale of motiveless murder gives way to a TV show about the broadcast death of Suzanne Somers, a robot wanders through a repair nightmare trying to put a missing part to rest. The bulk of the book is taken up by the baffling “Attic Bugs,” who wander randomly through situation after situation. It is funny, though. Worth a look.
FRANCIS & THE VEGAS TRAMPS: Love Potion #9 by Brian Kelly, 48 pg b&w comic (Brian Kelly Army Comics;$8)
Continuing the adventures of an intergalactic rock band. Kelly slumps a little with a relatively pedestrian white slavery plotline, but his characters’ sophomoric heroics and improved art pull it through. It’s got its moments.
SKYSCRAPERS OF THE MIDWEST #2 by Joshua Cotter, 64 pg b&off-yellow comic (AdHouse Books;$5)
Josh Cotter’s getting to be one of my favorite alt-talents, and once again he romps through apparently unrelated vignettes that turn out to be chapters of a single story, orbiting a boy’s baptism, migraine headaches, a drunken breakup and dead cats. Cotter steers clear of clean endings and clearcut morals; this is strange slice of life comics at their best, and Cotter’s art is now very strongly reminiscent of Robert Crumb’s. Top notch.
ODDLY NORMAL #3 by Otis Frampton, 32 pg color comic (Viper Comics;$2.95)
The powerless half-witch Oddly Normal continues to make her way through her witchly mother’s world following her family’s disappearance. It’s clearly aimed at the Harry Potter crowd, but, as is the case with many third issues in four issue mini-series, it’s treading water a bit
RANDOM ENCOUNTER #3 by Nicc Balce, 32 pg b&w comic (Viper Comics;$2.95)
The all-action issue. Teenagers continue to be attacked by big, semi-formless monsters while monster hunters fight back. I still don’t know what’s going on – something to do with strange trees with leaves that heal people – but it’s lively, fun and well done. Wouldn’t want to see it get dragged out much further without some payoff, though.
DEAD@17: REVOLUTION by Josh Howard, 112 pg color trade paperback (Viper Comics;$14.95)
The manga paperback-sized collection of the final DEAD@17 mini-series. Like many “battle against the devil” stories in comics, it ultimately disintegrates into an amorphous superhero fight scene with body morphing, strange energies and indecipherable spells, and I was expecting something a bit more creative from Howard, but it also has good emotion, a couple interesting twists, and pretty good writing and art by Howard, not to mention some of the dumbest bad guys on the face of the earth. Enough people have passed a resoundingly upbeat judgment on DEAD@17 that my assessment is pretty irrelevant, but while I thought it was overall pretty good, it wouldn’t have taken much to make it much better.
THE BLACK DIAMOND: ON RAMP by Larry Young & John Proctor/SMOKE AND GUNS by Kirsten Baldock & Fabio Moon, 32 pg color/b&w flipbook comic (AiT/PlanetLar;$2.95)
Larry Young’s a friend of mine, not to mention publisher or a couple of my books, and I’ve really wanted to flat out like something of his since the excellent ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE, which is still worth seeking out if you’ve never read it. This is just a preview book, an advertisement for some major AiT/Planet Lar books coming out this summer, but if the preview’s an accurate indicator, his BLACK DIAMOND, about a psycho super crosscountry superhighway and a man’s mad race across it, looks to be that something. Larry gets considerable help from artist Jon Proctor, whose work has a lovely streamlined Val Mayerick look. In the copious notes, Larry claims the story is “MAD MAX meets DIE HARD” – you must knock off the high concepts, Larry, even Hollywood turns up its nose that those now – but it feels more like an upscale DEATH RACE 2000 to me, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s hard to flat out vouch for something on the basis of a preview book, but it’s good enough to make me look forward to the series. I’m less sure about Kirstin Baldock & Fabio Moon’s SMOKE AND GUNS, which so far is a fairly amorphous tongue-in-cheek noir, but Moon’s sharp art is good enough to grab my interest. There’s also a cute teaser for Matt Fraction & Steven Sanders’ FIVE FISTS OF SCIENCE, which is good enough to let me set aside my qualms about the new LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN knockoffs steadily popping up in comics these days, using characters from life or public domain fiction. At least for now. But THE BLACK DIAMOND looks like it could be Larry up to speed again, and that’s great.
Still have a small stack of books here, but the clock’s ticking, so more next week.
In other forums, though, there seemed to be a misinterpretation of my point. I wasn’t talking about self-publishing as a moneymaking venture, though of course that would always be nice and in a perfect world it would always be the case. The scenario I presented was creating and publishing your own comic in an effort to prove your skills. In that case, you probably wouldn’t want to print up more copies than you’d reasonably need for promotional purposes: choose the number of likely targets for your work, then double it. Selling the comics wasn’t even at issue, though, again, if you want to, then mazel tov.
Anyway, what others had to say was this:
“Here’s two pieces of advice for self-publishing:
– Avoid floppies. Go straight to OGN. Lots of reasons for this, including: monthlies take a ton of work coordinating between you, Diamond, printer and your marketing push; they have a finite shelf life.
– Figure out a way to make color affordable by recruiting overseas (China, Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan, more) printing houses. The shipping you pay to get the books here still won’t be more than the pricing differences between those printers and ones in America.
There’s lots more, of course. These two will save you headaches and money, though.”
The price of shipping could be enough to wipe out the difference in color costs if you pay for fast, fast shipping. The advantage of graphic novels over floppies in that regard is that timeliness of delivery is of less concern with gns, though it may tie up your investment without recoup for much longer than you’d prefer. Again, you’re talking about self-publishing as a business, and I wasn’t, but it’s still pretty good advice.
“Your article about self-publishing brought this other article to mind.”
Thanks. Those interested should click on the link.
“I have a question that ties into this series, especially with regards to self-publishers. It is in reference to distribution options for those small press/self-publishers. As far as I can tell the only real options available, esp. to self-publishers are:
- Go through Previews or Cold Cut or some other distribution company.
- Sell their books through local outlets
- Sell their books online
- Go to conventions and sell their books in artist’s alley.
I also came across the small press swap meet website which is a place for any number of small publishers to come together and sell their creations. But all of options are very limited in either geography or visibility.
My question is, are you aware of any other distribution options available to self publishers? Is there any way for me in Bangor, Maine to get my book distributed in cities and town in Illinois and California and Nevada? Yes, I could find contact info for comic shops in those areas, but I’m trying to get my books into other outlets such as my local college campus, and independent music store here in town, and other venues that don’t cater to Superman and X-zombies.
I have a germ of an idea on how to possibly attack this problem, but do not wish to step on anybody’s toes if there is already something being done.”
If you really want to bypass the X-zombie market, my best suggestion would be to put together enough material for a decent sized graphic novel – unfortunately, for many bookstores manga have upped the expected ante to around 200 pages – and run the material through a book distributor rather than standard comics distribution, though even there your best bet might be to use Diamond. (I’m not sure how deeply they’re managing to penetrate the bookstore market, but I get all tingly just phrasing it like that.) Anyone have any better suggestions?
Some other topics:
“Loved your latest column, as usual. The advice ‘Don’t compare yourself to the worst’ is invaluable; doing that only (a) keeps a creator from improving and (b) makes him bitter.
I thought you got a little off the mark on the question of cover art, though. In my experience, the reason companies discourage cover art submissions — and the reason it’s so hard to break in — is actually very simple: When you’re trying out to draw the interiors of a comic book, you’re competing against the relatively small number of artists who can turn out (at minimum) competent sequential art at a rate of somewhere near 22 pages per month. When you’re shooting for a cover slot, you’re competing against the entire pool of comic book artists – no matter how slow or how dodgy their storytelling skills – plus the whole illustration community. And let’s not forget the interior artist of that particular comic book, who’s bound to be lobbying to do the covers himself.
There’s also the sheer math of it: If a comic company publishes sixty titles a month, it has to fill 1,320 pages of interior art every 30 days — but only 60 covers. Monthly comics always need fill-in artists, but most cover artists can handle twelve pieces per year — so most of the slots are already filled. And while this may be changing in some quarters, in my experience Marvel and DC are not looking for a bargain in this area. They’re willing to pay top dollar for the people they consider the best.”
I think we’re basically saying the same thing, but if we aren’t – that makes two (or is it three?) reasons artists shouldn’t try breaking in as cover artists.
“How has the change in availability changed the comics market? I’m talking specifically about back issues and the continually in-print nature of TPBs. In the 40s-60s, comics literally lasted a month. If you didn’t buy it this month, and didn’t have a friend who bought it, then you didn’t read it. Ever. Stories really could be recycled every five years, because not only had the audience changed, they also had no way of going back and reading the old stories. I believe I could have a lifetime of brilliant comic reading without ever buying a book made since 1999. How does that help the industry & the talent?
For a current example, think of Dan Brown. THE DA VINCI CODE makes a mega splash. #1 on the best seller lists, etc. So, you look at the top 10, and what’s there? #4 ANGELS AND DEMONS, #9 DECEPTION POINT. Not only is a new author competing with DA VINCI, they are also competing with the entire Dan Brown catalog.
I just bought the full run of BATMAN AND THE OUTSIDERS on eBay for $10. Or 32 books, anyway. How do 3 new comics at $2.95 compete with that? Of course there’s the newness factor, or else no new novel/comic would ever sell, but knowing that there’s a wealth of great stuff out there, is it a wonder that mediocre stuff doesn’t sell?
I think that’s something that the direct market and the non-returnability brought to the industry that’s overlooked. The fact that books stayed around necessitated some kind of continuity, otherwise, if you could read the books in any order, why wouldn’t you? Consider the CSI reruns on SpikeTV. For the most party, CSI can be watched in any order. So, why watch the new one if there’s one you haven’t seen on Spike? Or, more to the point, why not skim the first minute of each, and watch the one that looks better?
It’s my belief that the Direct Market saved the industry. But in so doing, infected it with terminal cancer, that has given us a slow death, instead of a quick one.”
Hmmm… to some extent what you describe has always been the case, but people who like a character or the work of an author/artist are almost always going to be interested in new work involving them, regardless of the availability of older material. And authors have always competed with not only dead authors but popular living authors. It’s just the nature of the beast. If the surge in trade paperback collections has done anything, it’s put a strongarm on the speculator market. There will always be a collector’s market for back issues, but the easy available of some material will in most cases cap the investment potential for back issues of that material. Your CSI example perhaps explains it best: the argument for watching new episodes of CSI on CBS when you can watch endless reruns on Spike is that you like the show, and you like it well enough to want to watch new episodes when they first appear rather than at some indefinite time in the future. So the answer to all your questions is: do comics good enough that people will want to buy them.
But that’s always been the answer to most questions about comics, hasn’t it?
” I just had a couple of quick follow up questions, if you don’t mind:
-One of the reasons I had the impression it is a bad time to break in (apart from the never-ending articles on the web on how poorly the entire scene is doing) were some of the remarks made by the editors that you asked to give some pointers last year. One in particular that stands out is “most of the best guys at the reviews are just pretty good. I’ve got plenty guys already that are pretty good”. (Paraphrasing here but that was the gist). It certainly seems to go along with some of what you said in your last column about established artists (even ‘mediocre’ ones), being a known and proven factor for editors. It would suggest the ‘next new big thing’ is what is really searched for, and that if we do manage to reach a professional level in our samples, just being pretty good and dependable doesn’t really cut it to get your foot in the door. Is that conclusion too pessimistic?
-Another thing said (I believe last year as well but I’m not certain) was that ‘even seasoned pros are having a hard time finding work these days’. Which doesn’t sound very hopeful. Or is that something that actually always applies? During the 90’s ‘boom’ a lot more books were put out and they seemed to have been a lot less picky about artists. I know things have things gotten better since the crash afterwards but have they improved significantly in the last year or so? Marvel has certainly been doing better, and the growing bookstore market is certainly a great development, (as are the various movie successes) but I had the impression all of that still hasn’t done as much as we’d like it to in terms of actual sales.
-On your ‘best way of getting published is being published’ part, I understand what you mean, but since I assume even small publishers still require a portfolio first, can I see the core advice as try for small-to-tiny publishers instead of big(ger) ones? And as for self-publishing, what about the idea some people have, namely to draw an entire issue by yourself and have it printed out by something like Cafepress.com and showing that? It obviously doesn’t prove that an earlier editor at a smaller company found you good enough but it should go a long way in proving dedication.”
The answer is unfortunately murky. It’s always a bad time to break in, because they are lots of working comics artists, good and bad, out there, and editors are always looking for a good reason not to take a chance. In any climate, that’s something the aspiring artist (or writer) has to figure out how to overcome, and the only really good (and not always effective) way to do that is to do work so spectacular they just don’t want to be the one who let The Next Big Thing get away. (And every editor has stories of doing just that, believe me… but under most circumstances it won’t affect their job standing if that happens.)
In some ways, it’s a better climate for aspiring pros than seasoned pros who aren’t generally considered by companies to be first tier talent, because the companies are often seduced by the hope of the shock of the new. Sometimes they like working with hungrier people, though they’re rarely going to do that to their financial deficit. Like I said, the competition is always tough – there’s little material being done relative to the number of people eager to do it – so newcomers are always going to be in competition with established pros and established pros with newcomers for work. (The main difference between the two, as Steve Gerber might point out, is that generally newcomers feel they’re honoring established pros by working on those pros’ characters whereas established pros rarely feel that way.)
Small publishers don’t necessarily require a portfolio. They usually want to see samples, but that’s about it. What you describe – printing out a small run of a self-created comic, and handing those out as samples – is what I meant by “self-publishing” in this instance, not necessarily a full-fledged publishing operation.
“I’ve noticed that you haven’t said anything about the re-emergence of the 80’s titles lately. Let me recap briefly the last 5 years of the new 80’s titles:
First, the entire 9000 pgs of LONE WOLF & CUB was reprinted by Dark Horse (whereas 1/3 was published by First Comics); Second, the early years of DREADSTAR (including the METAMORPHOSIS ODYSSEY) was published by Checker (whereas Marvel Comics and First Comics each had published); Third, AMERICAN FLAGG is being published by Dynamic Forces and/or Image; Fourth, IDW is currently reprinting the entire series of GRIMJACK, JON SABLE: FREELANCE, and MARS with new limited series of GRIMJACK & JON SABLE by the original series creators.
Wouldn’t it be cool if IDW would reprint the entire series of WHISPER in a 5-6 trade paperback set with a brand new mini-series (or graphic novel) by you and artist Rich Larson, Norm Breyfogle, Spyder, or Vince Giarrano? I haven’t forgotten that NEXUS has seen some reprints by Dark Horse as well as new mini-series, or BADGER by Image, but either of them has not seen print during the last 5 years. Anyway, I’d like to hear what you think about all the 80’s revivals these days and whether you think WHISPER can be the next to make a comeback.”
I haven’t commented on the “’80s revival” mainly because I’m not sure anyone has proven there’s any real interest or money in it yet, though I’m always glad to see things like AMERICAN FLAGG! back in print. Over at The Beat (which seems to be having technical difficulties at the moment) Heidi Macdonald recently wrote a Toyfair report describing how licensors these days are driven by nostalgia, and I think that’s got a lot to do with it in this instance, too. I’ve had a few offers to reprint WHISPER over the years, but my personal preference has always been to have the series redrawn from the original scripts by a single (good) artist and “reprinted” that way, though I expect that would be ridiculously cost-prohibitive and I’m always willing to consider alternatives if anyone wants to put enough upfront money on the table. (Nothing says “convince me” like upfront money.) I did write a new WHISPER graphic novel for AiT/PlanetLar Books a couple years ago, but we’ve been through three or four different artists so far, none of whom turned in any pages before eventually vanishing off the face of the earth, and I’m still looking for a new one – and getting choosy about it. WHISPER was very much a product of the Reagan era; any new Whisper material would have to be pretty radically different from the original. But thanks for asking.
By the way: DON’T SEND ME ANY PRESS RELEASES! (Not that I can’t use the scratch paper.)
My desktop computer crashed a couple weeks ago, necessitating, finally, the switch to a new motherboard, case and memory chips, but until I can afford them – I’m building my own computer this time – I can’t access the hard drive with my Paper Movies, so until I can I guess the bargain sale on a joint purchase of my collection of political writings, IMPOLITIC, and my collection of comics essays from Master Of The Obvious, TOTALLY OBVIOUS, in pdf e-book format, will go on indefinitely. (It had been scheduled to end Friday.) $10.95 for both, over 500 combined pages of good reading. For more details, hit The Paper Movies Store.
I know I have other notes, but I’m spacing out on them now. Have a great July 4th. One last thing: the covers reprinted here have absolutely no significance at all. I just like them.
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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