Issue #20

[Mortal Souls]Among other things, I've been working for the past couple weeks on the books I'm doing for Avatar Press, MORTAL SOULS and MY FLESH IS COOL, which I've mentioned before. Avatar isn't a publisher I'd previously considered working with, even as the company lined up talent like Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis, because, frankly, the upfront is low and I have a lot of bills to pay, and the company had never really made an impression on me one way or the other before.

(One aside: I say "working with" above, while a lot of readers and even editors like to say "work for." But that's wrong, in most instances. Comics freelancers, it's worth repeating now and then, are independent contractors, not employees. Employees work for. Independent contractors may work with a comics company and we may work on particular titles, but we only work for ourselves. It's a subtle distinction that's not really important for most people to grasp, but it's important for publishers, editors and talent to grasp.)

It's been an interesting experience. First, contrary to most publishers, Avatar's ideal unit of presentation is the three-issue mini-series. This is essentially what Warren Ellis pegged as "pop comics." (And if you're one of those disgusted by how often I "suck up to" Warren here, bite me. He formulated the pop comics theory and deserves the credit.) A highly bowdlerized definition: "pop comics" are down'n'dirty comics done for their own sake and function to function as the comics equivalent good pop song, getting at least one good idea out there, and you get in and get out in a small handful of issue. "Pop Comics" exist not to generate franchises or any of that other pie-in-the-sky nonsense most comics companies obsess over these days but to generate (hopefully) good stories geared toward readers, not collectors. Avatar, furthermore, is trying to become pretty much the essence of what I outlined in the very first Master Of The Obvious column (if you don't want to dig in the CBR archives, you can read it when the MOTO collection arrives from AIT/PlanetLar Books sometime in the not too distant future): a company that uses the standard comic book as a loss leader/promotional tool for trade paperbacks. Having this as a serious prospect makes the low front-end money worth considering, since the trade paperback back end is where the serious money now exists in the comics market. Not to mention Avatar doesn't buy anything but publishing rights. It's getting to the point with most comics companies that publishing rights are the only thing they don't want. (Plus, unlike many smaller publishers I've worked for, Avatar actually pays when they say they're going to pay. So far.)

But the most interesting and, frankly, satisfying aspect is how quickly the whole process of working with Avatar is going. Publisher William Christensen got in touch with me for the first time in December. I got a feel for what he was looking for, pitched him a paragraph, and he said go. That was it. I was writing the first issue of MORTAL SOULS by Christmas. The span from conception to first issue was about three weeks. This may sound silly, but for the way the comics industry has become it's mindboggling. I've had pitches at Marvel and DC for twenty times that which haven't even been responded to yet.

Y'see, the comics industry is geared against inspiration. Inspiration is one of those lofty words we throw around, like genius, that people use to aggrandize themselves, but I don't mean it like that. But the process goes like this: you get an idea, you pitch it, companies mull it over, eventually they say yes or no. If they say yes, then often they want a fleshed-out beat sheet for a run or series, then they start adding in their own suggestions, etc. This can happen even on supposedly creator-owned material. Everyone thinks they're Hollywood. The talent learns to nurse ideas, or discard them, or cannibalize them. The process can literally take years. (Three years from conception to solicitation isn't anything usual.)

The creative problem is this: there are scant few moments, very early on, as you get an idea, when the whole thing unfolds in your mind and you see it with absolute clarity. You know what it should be, like Michelangelo looking at his block of granite and already seeing the finished statue in it. It's a very small window, and comics almost never even get started during that window. Pitches lie unread on editors' desks, or wallow in committees that weigh their possibilities for market success, and other ideas come and the window on that idea and the raw creative enthusiasm it generated closes. And all you're left with is the idea, and a memory of what drove it to burst full-blown from your skull in the first place. Which then gets molested by the process until even when you get a go on it what you're now creating isn't what you originally envisioned, and often it ends up being something else entirely.

That doesn't mean most of the talent is unhappy with what they turn out, but if you've ever been in a position where you get that inspiration, pump it out and see it done in a very short moment of white hot time, especially if it comes out the way you saw it and it's good, you know there's a world of difference between the two experiences.

I got that thrill three times before: on BADLANDS (soon to be reissued by AIT/PlanetLar Books), and when I did THE PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING and DAMNED with Mike Zeck. Working with Avatar has been like that so far. Now I'm hardly the biggest name in comics, but I can call William Christensen, pitch him an idea over the phone, and he'll say yes or no on the spot, and if it's yes I can just get on with it. In some ways, I feel like I'm pulling a bait and switch on him because... for instance, MY FLESH IS COOL changed focus in the writing. It wasn't really intentional. But almost all comics writers I know go through this: ideas mutate as you flesh them out into stories. Let inspiration loose and you get more inspiration: characters, twists, unexpected scenes. Sometimes the original idea is better and you go with that. Sometimes something hits you that's so much better than what you started with. Normally, in comics, you're stuck. You either have to convince your editor that your new variation is superior enough to remold everything else for, or you put it in the file and save it for something else. Unfortunately, in a pop comics world, that just feels too much like repeating yourself. (Which, of course, most publishers love. Who among them doesn't want Chris Claremont or John Byrne to concoct a new ALL-NEW, ALL-DIFFERENT UNCANNY X-MEN? Never mind that it was concocted by Len Wein and Dave Cockrum in the first place. Repetition? Now there's something you can market!) If there's one thing pop comics aren't about, it's repeating yourself. I didn't call Avatar to check if the changes were okay. It's my project. If he didn't want to publish the script after reading it, I could live with that, and it would've been his right. It apparently worked out okay with William.

I realize this reads like an ad for Avatar. Tough. If I have to backhandedly promote the company to discuss their methods, I can live with that. My point is that it's possible to work that way, to give the talent as much leeway as possible and get out of the way It'd be nice if other comics companies would get in the habit of trusting their talent like that.

Though they'll give you endless reasons – mostly financial – why that's not possible. I sympathize. That doesn't explain how Avatar manages to make money in this market with that attitude. I still that it's individual inspiration and talent following their own muses – not necessarily my efforts, but someone's – that's ultimately going to resurrect this business, not all the cutesy press releases or editorial conferences but the riveting and new ideas of individual writers and artists let loose as they see fit. The issue for most companies, when you get down to it, is control, when it should be inspiration.

Speaking of Marvel, someone asked me recently to address their current policy of not going back to press on comics, particularly as a creator rights issue.

Now we all know it's hard to mention "creator rights" and "Marvel" in the same sentence with a straight face, though I keep hearing rumors Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas are working to change this. It's true that "no going back to press," a policy geared (intentionally or otherwise) toward generating a new collectors market by enforcing scarcity (not to mention "encouraging retailers to order more heavily on Marvels in the first place for fear of being caught flatfooted in the event of an unexpected hit), is potentially a creator rights issue, as it would seem to directly affect the income of talent working on the books. Can you imagine Random House (or whoever his publisher is) telling Stephen King they've printed 30,000 copies of his latest novel and that's all they're going to publish? Or, translated, "Hey, Steve, we're going to &$%! you blind in the bank account because we're the publisher and, haha, we can do it!" Certainly, if Marvel wants to make a real play for creator-owned/participation comics, this is a question that has to be addressed. By refusing to take comics back to press even if demand exists, Marvel is potentially screwing their talent out of deserved money in favor of whatever corporate scheme engendered the policy. They are, in effect, forcing the talent to underwrite the company's marketing policies.

However, things aren't quite that cut and dried.

In other times, they would be. In 1993, for instance, when royalty payments were at their height and there was an eager market gobbling down hundreds of thousands of copies of practically everything being spewed out, Marvel refusing to take a book back to press would've practically been grounds for a lawsuit, with enough money at stake that it wouldn't have been hard to find a lawyer to take it no matter what the "contract" on the back of the check said about Marvel being lord and master of the universe. The main principle of publishing is fairly simple: where you can make money, you make money.

In the current climate, though, the situation is murkier. It's not a collector's market where demand exists across the board. Since some comics shops still hoard a few copies of various Marvels for the eventual day when the mass audience will rise up again and demand back issues, I'd be surprised if most Marvel comics actually have a 100% sellthrough in the first place, so meeting demand probably isn't an issue in most cases. It's conceivable that if their policy is intended to force dealers to order more comics upfront, they're actually increasing the earning potential for a lot of low performers. (Though there are so few royalties paid on anything published in pamphlet form these days it's probably a pyrrhic victory at best.)

And Marvel has lately undergone a major philosophical shift, falling in line with my tenet that the real longterm money is in trade paperbacks, and the "return to press" ban would seem, longterm, to be swapping the now all-but-annihilated back issue market (which publishers don't make any money from anyway, though comics shops long considered that market their bread and butter and many would love to return to those hallowed days of yesteryear) for the trade paperback market (where publications do earn addition income for publisher and talent). So the answer to whether Marvel's policy is actually screwing over talent lies somewhere in a complicated equation calculating how much profit can be made from going back to press on comics compared to how much can be made from TPBs, whether there's any actual overlap, and where the most benefit lies. Since the variables can only be determined through some concentrated market research that no company is likely to fund, the best we're stuck with is hopes, suspicions and fuzzy logic. My best guess is you're probably better off if Marvel does one of their quick trade paperbacks of your project rather than rush back to press with the comic. Of course, if Marvel decides not to bother with a trade, you're really screwed. If I were signing a contract with Marvel, I'd try to insert a clause saying they must release the project as a trade, though I suspect that would pretty much bring negotiations to a screeching halt.

Some industry-related lightbulb jokes:

Q: How many comics publishers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Maybe next year, if someone else does it first.

Q: How many comics shop owners does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Does Marvel make lightbulbs?!!

Q: How many Internet comics fans does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

A: Screw that! The lightbulb SUCKS!

If you've got any more industry-related lightbulb jokes, feel free to tell them at the Permanent Damage Message Board. I wait to see how pithily someone can answer "How many Internet comics columnists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"

Just got a note from Kim Thompson of THE COMICS JOURNAL that this year's Harvey Award preliminary ballots have been mailed out and, if you're a comics professional, you should receive yours by Friday. I never take part in these awards things myself, but if you (the comics professional, I mean; nobody else, because Harveys are voted on only by comics professionals) want to and it's Friday and you still haven't gotten a ballot, e-mail me and I'll send you the email address you should get in touch with.

Back in the late '70s, a musician friend of mine named Wazmo Nariz released a song called "Welcome To The Eighties, Ladies." I'll have to call him and ask if he has licensed it to the current administration as their theme song. Let's see: a war against an evil empire used to justify voluminous military spending; a gutting of funding for military spending; a quasi-S&L scandal, courtesy of the energy establishment this time; everyone talking about paper shredders; a vice president who's unofficially running the show while the world's most powerful hand puppet is trotted out for appearances; a doctrinaire attorney general awash in the radical religious right; a mushrooming federal deficit, voodoo economics, recession and growing unemployment. Did I miss anything? Oh yeah... bad fashions, bad music, bad TV, and Hollywood pumping out vainglorious military epics. (Look for gobs of them, now that BLACK HAWK DOWN has stayed #1 a few weeks.) A few differences: James Woods is now channeling Lester Maddox while Arnold Schwarzenegger is channeling Francis of Assisi. Now Dubya – I think I'll just call him The Hand Puppet from now on – trying to shift attention away from the Enron collapse (and, like I said, next week, we're only at the lip of that particular pit), put forth his reforms for America's retirement plans, which is still weighted toward big business instead of workers (the Democrats have put together a more comprehensive plan, since The Hand Puppet didn't bother to address 401(k) issues that arose in the wake of Enron, but whether it's any more effective is hard to say) and seems to consist mostly of looting social security and Medicare to fund a massive military buildup. (And I'd like to know how much of that would go toward actually giving soldiers better pay instead of putting ludicrously inflated amounts of cash in the pockets of arms merchants, as has traditionally been done with increased military budgets.) Well, no sacrifice is too great for our personal safety, right? Just don't bother getting old from now on, unless you're rich. I find some solace in the Hand Puppet's call for a "Freedom Corps." Or would, if it wasn't so vague and didn't smack so much of cheap labor force. I'll give it the benefit of the doubt for the moment, but I wonder how long before someone tries making the "two years of voluntary service to America" involuntary, particularly if we actually attack the nations the Hand Puppet sideways identified as our next targets in his State Of The Union address: Iran, Iraq, North Korea. There's likely to be a lot of opportunity coming up in the armed forces, whether you want it or not.

Welcome to the '80s, ladies.

Last week's diatribe about grammar triggered a flood of messages, both on e-mail and at the Permanent Damage Message Board. And I was taken to task for my own grammar flub, courtesy of Daniel Senes (Sean Sheer also called me on it):

"Actually, the difference between "less" and "fewer" is not that one is singular and the other is plural. It is that they go with different types of nouns. We call them "count" nouns and "noncount" nouns. For example, "water," "sugar," and "polution" are neither singular nor plural because it's not like you can have a pollution, and then if you double it you have two pollutions. Rather, "pollution" is noncount because you can't count it. You can, however, count lumps of sugar or gallons of water.

"Book" is a count noun. You can count them. So you can have "book" (which is singular) or "books" (which is plural).

That is why you have "less pollution" and "fewer comic books." It's not that "less" is singular and "fewer" is plural. It's that "less" goes with noncount nouns and "fewer" goes with count nouns.

(Of course, when you go out to dinner you can ask the waiter for three waters or three Cokes or three of some other liquid which shouldn't be countable. But what you really mean is three glasses of water or three cans of Coke.)

Sorry if this seems nitpicky. I read your column regularly and enjoy it. But I figure if you're going to give grammar lessons, they should be correct ones."

Daniel and Sean are, of course, correct. I should have said that the "singular/plural" distinction was really a rule of thumb to help keep it straight. Like most rules of thumb, it doesn't apply in every case; for instance, it's proper to say "I have one fewer dollar than you do" and improper to say "I have one less dollar than you do," even though the latter is now common and the former sounds clunky and archaic. But, by and large, the rule of thumb holds and makes the distinction easy to remember – a lot easier than working out what are "count" and "noncount" nouns. A small sacrifice for the greater good, as far as I'm concerned. (Didn't I warn you I've been known to play fast and loose with the English language?) Thanks, Daniel.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the newly redesigned Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail 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. 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.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.

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