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Issue #209

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #209

    NOTHING EXCEEDS LIKE SUCCESS: saving the graphic novel from itself

  • Someone asked me the other day, “Are there too many graphic novels?”

    I used to drive interviewers nuts. They’d ask what they thought were simple questions, particularly about story points, and I’d answer, “Well… yes and now…” Because even apparently simple questions don’t have simple answers, especially when misdirection is part of the job description. Let’s face it, if everything was exactly what it looked like on the surface, the readers would lose interest in comics pretty damned quickly. Most readers resent simplicity, even when it’s the logical course; often they feel it just means the writer isn’t trying, or they’re being talked down to. (Just one of the reasons simplicity is pretty hard to achieve.)

    Are there too many graphic novels?


    And no.

    Part of this is simple marketing confusion. Marketers leaped on the term “graphic novel” like it was manna from heaven. For them, and for a lot of booksellers, if it’s in graphic story form and it’s squarebound, it’s a graphic novel. Trade paperback collections are graphic novels. 30 page children’s books with more than one illustration per page are graphic novels. 260 page anthologies with dozens of unrelated short comics pieces in them are graphic novels. That well’s been fairly hopelessly polluted and there’s no getting around it.

    Look on any bookstore rack, and, yeah, it’s pretty obvious there are too many “graphic novels.” Not a lot of them are terribly good. Not that many are all that bad either, but being “not all that bad” isn’t exactly high service to the medium. Considering that being “not all that good” is what killed the graphic novel the last time (circa 1991) it became “the hot thing,” it’s something we should all be a little concerned with. Of course, times are a little different now, and we’re not seeing piles of bloated MARVEL TEAM-UPs disguised as graphic novels, and “primitivism” is semi-acceptable, so we can probably ride of any potential backlash against the form, but inevitably there’s some kind of shakeout on the way – Diamond’s “baseline” declaration last week was somewhat indicative – and it’s going to be painful. The last decade’s been painful enough.

    But if by graphic novels, we mean original graphic novels, no, there really aren’t enough of those, on several levels. There just aren’t enough, period. Many that lay claim to the term don’t have much to do with novels at all, and certainly don’t have any degree of imagination, style or density that might merit the name; many are little more than overinflated comic books, the pictorial equivalent of cotton candy so in love with “decompression” or endless meandering dialogue that they’re really nothing but big wads of sugar and air. Most are way too short or too empty to really be considered novelistic in any way, and don’t aspire to any sort of moral, aesthetic, plot or character complexity. Part of this is economic; a lot of publishers, particularly within the comics field, simply don’t want to publish books thicker than 48-64 pages. (Not that size alone suggests density or sophistication, but considering the relative information that can be processed in the usual comics page and the usual book page, you have to figure anything truly novelistic has to run a hell of a lot longer than 64 pages.) Thick books represent significant economic outlay for somebody, whether publishers underwriting the time needed to produce them or talent financing them with their time and sweat. Which is why the system – as I predicted a long, long time ago now – of “series arcs” that could be collected into trade paperback mainly evolved: the comics financed the creative costs of producing a book and provided early advertising for the product.

    The problem now is that the “original graphic novel” has also largely been supplanted by the “comics string,” an artificial growth that mimics the appearance of a graphic novel but follows the strictures of the monthly comic book. A great example of this is 100 BULLETS, which actually reads very well in collection but is also forced to follow the necessary beats of the serialized comic book, which at times disrupts the overall flow of the material. (Strangely, the better the product, the more apparent the disruption is; crappier material tends to be badly paced enough that such niceties are less obvious there.)

    Another problem is the bipolar stratification of the business. (For the sake of argument, I’m leaving manga out of the equation, though they certainly constitute a third pole, though a pole with its own special conditions that don’t apply to the others.) On the one hand, there’s material produced in the comics market. While many different types of material are produced, what mostly gets distributed are superhero books and their fuzzier analogues, mainly because, as with the comics, it’s mostly Marvel and DC graphic novels that get distributed, and their fuzzier analogues. On the other hand, there’s the plunge of “real” publishers into the market, focused on a fairly narrow (but perceived as hip) spectrum of “alternative” comics material that often depends more on cachet than content. But there are an awful lot of people working whose focus is on the no-man’s land between the two poles, and their work, by and large, gets lost in the aether, though potentially that work, once exposed (assuming it’s any good, all things being equal), would hit the largest audience.

    That’s pretty much the state of the graphic novel today. We’ve come a long way in the last five years, but not so far that Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Rizzo are producing, say, single 150-200 page 100 BULLETS original volumes, though, really, that’s the natural form of that kind of project. The support structures for such things simply aren’t there yet, especially in the world of independent comics, and no one has yet convinced “real” publishers of the possibilities. But, as the sheer volume of “graphic novels” out there continues to escalate, we’re quickly approaching a watershed moment for the medium. Ultimately, the continued existence and success of graphic novels means that the average graphic novel will be of much greater quality and sophistication. It also means there will be many fewer graphic novels published. And that means good things for the business, and lots of heartache to go around. Anyone who wants things to go their way better start thinking about that right now, because only newer and better support structures will grow move it in different directions, and those don’t grow themselves.

  • Big week, with a lot of things going on, so the column might suffer a bit for it today. Sorry about that. Those who’ve been following the long-suffering tale of my slowly dying and periodically collapsing computers will be happy to know I’m finally starting to build my new one, thanks to a small troop of swell guys at Microsoft and in Los Angeles who provided most of the parts (Thanks, Frank!) and software, including Windows XP and Microsoft Office Pro (Thanks, Rob!), all I really need now (and have gotten, since the time I first wrote this) is the motherboard and CPU (Athlon 64-3000, which ain’t quite state of the art, but good enough for a town this size), which I’m off to pick up this afternoon. Theoretically, next week I’ll be typing this on a whole new rig. Since the last one dates to ~1997, it’s about bloody time. So the next couple days will involve mapping out the guts of the thing to make sure I can fit in everything I want, then building it. Then installing all the software. Man, I love building things in my old age.

    And it’s a good way to start a new year. It’s Permanent Damage New Year today, starting year five. Things might be a little different from here on in, as the career front is heating up again: lots of behind the scenes stuff, a couple possible movie gigs (these things are never real until they’re real, though), a new series and an interesting gig turning an unproduced suspense screenplay (not mine) into a thriller graphic novel. (Which, just so the serpent can eat its own tail, will then be used to market the property to movies, since film companies are much more receptive to comics than original screenplays these days. Go figure. But that’s outside of my scope on this particular project.) And those are just the paying gigs. It’s a brave new world out there, folks…

  • Not much time for politics at the moment, I’m afraid, but what a weird week. Moments after DOONESBURY jokes about it, the administration starts talking no-bid contracts for reconstructing the Gulf Coast for Halliburton, of all companies. Never mind that they ripped off… whoops, I mean “accidentally overcharged” millions and millions of dollars for badly performed “services” in Iraq, and meekly refunded around 10% of it when caught, and for some reason everyone was appeased by them… has it occurred to no one that Vice President Cheney directly profits from this? Oh, sure, he’s not “on salary” while in government service, and not officially an employee – his salary is only put in escrow, presumably accumulating interest, to await his return to the private sector – but does anyone really expect that the company’s fortunes, raised by his tenure as VP, aren’t going to spill over to post-administration life and his subsequent personal profit, whether by salary increase, dividend, bonus, or “finder’s fee.” And what’s this no-bid business about? Certainly not about saving taxpayers money, which doesn’t surprise me since the administration has no bones about spending it – nearly $60 billion to repair New Orleans without so much as a clear plan as to what they’re going to do, for instance; I mean, aren’t they supposed to work up plans and budgets before throwing money around? – even though there isn’t any, and we’re now subsidizing both Iraq and most of America’s business by borrowing all our working capital from China and other countries. The trickle down theory in action. The rush to abandon New Orleans, which met with such public disdain, has now been overcompensated by the rush to rebuild it, with all kinds of interesting nonsense going on, such as one senator suggesting suspending all environmental laws because ensuring decent air and water quality, as well as preserving fragile eco-systems in the bayou, makes the process just too damn slow. The new philosophy is get those people back in their homes (a noble thought) and if they start dying in five or ten years, hell, we’ll cross that washed-out bridge when we come to it. (Not so noble a thought.)

    Then NASA declares its retro mode. No space shuttle. Too dangerous. No word on space stations that I heard, but the sheer lack of mention doesn’t bode well. What’s their hot plan? Stick a nosecone capsule on a rocket and land men on the moon. My god, Hollywood’s everywhere; the only safe thing to put money into is what’s already been done. Yeesh.

    The week’s final spectacle has been the savage “grilling” of Chief Justice nominee John Roberts by the Senate. An example:

    Senator: Judge Roberts, what are your personal feelings about [fill in controversial subject of your choice]?

    Roberts: Go fish, Senator.

    The little song and dance will doubtless continue another couple of days, with it put into record that Roberts’ more controversial advisory writings were only made to please whatever master he was serving at the moment, with the assumption that as his own master, secure in a virtually unassailable Supreme Court posting, he will serve only his own conscience. Presuming he feels no lingering loyalty to the masters he has served so self-effacingly for so long. There’s pretty much no doubt he’ll be voted in, so the dog and pony show is basically only for the amusement of the few among the press and electorate who are paying attention.

    The funniest, and most redundant, dog and pony show in recent memory, though, was the all-star multi-network sixty minute telethon to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Despite, or more likely because of, widespread successful relief efforts already underway, few watched, few donated. Essentially flipping the bird to a lot of celebrities leaping on what they thought was a bandwagon but was already a steamroller. It’s one thing to illuminate a bad situation that people aren’t generally aware of, it’s another to harp on something not only universally known but about which many are already doing something. Still, I guess it’s the thought that counts.

  • The new TV season suddenly started when I wasn’t watching. Still not, for the most part. Not for lack of interest, of course. No, wait, exactly for lack of interest. And time. My schedule has changed to the extent that I only have around an hour per day to watch TV, plus what I can squeeze in while I’m exercising, so that’s basically 7-10 hours of TV tops and two of those are already taken up by ULTIMATE FIGHTER (Spike, 11:05P Mondays) and BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (Sci Fi, 1OP Fridays), which is going away soon but will be quickly replaced by the returning VERONICA MARS (UPN, 9P Wednesdays). And don’t forget THE AMAZING RACE returns next Tuesday at 9P on CBS; its “families of four” concept for the new race is a little weird and threatens to produce some really goofy or treacly moments, but AMAZING RACE has always managed to make gold from dross, and I don’t expect this season to be any different. HOUSE returned last Tuesday (Fox, 9P) and was as macabrely funny as ever. So that’s what? Four hours out of seven spoken for already? Fallen by the wayside this year: THE SIMPSONS (just too much of the same thing), THE O.C. (quickly disintegrated into cheesy soap opera), DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (ditto, and now that she’s a widow, how long can it be before Marcia Cross’ character wakes up naked in the arms of Nicolette Sheridan’s character, with neither of them remembering what happened?), and ER, which even the great Maura Tierney can no longer keep afloat. None of the new shows seem all that special. Can’t work up the interest to check out PRISON BREAK (Fox, 9P Mondays), and when I think BONES, all I can think is “oh, lord, not another medical mystery show.” (They’d have to go a long way to beat the BBC’s WAKING THE DEAD, a truly great show that walks the same skeletal ground.) Maybe one alien invasion show might’ve grabbed my attention, but three? Do the three main networks have a bet going or something? Taped the THRESHOLD (CBS, 9P Fridays) premiere but haven’t had a chance to watch it yet; one review says it’s the best of the invasion shows, and I like Carla Gugina, but another I read said it’s the worst, and everyone seems to agree the writing needs some pumping up. SURFACE (NBC, 8P Mondays) I haven’t heard much of anything about. INVASION (ABC, 10P Wednesdays) might get some rub from lead-in LOST (ABC, 9P Wednesdays, and another show I’ve no interest in), which is obviously what ABC’s hoping for, but… aliens who take human form and walk among us? Isn’t that, um, THE INVADERS? Not to mention INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS?

    I did manage to catch a couple new shows. I was under the impression that SUPERNATURAL (WB, 9P Tuesdays) was almost identical to a concept I’d tried to sell (to comics, not TV) five or six years ago called ROUTE 666 (this was well before the Crossgen comic of the same name debuted), basically a road movie that veers off into the occult, but it’s not. Two brothers, raised to be monster hunters after their mother is apparently murdered by The Amityville Horror (or was she?), take to the road to catch up to their monster hunter father. The dynamic between brothers is roughly the same as in THE BROTHERS GRIMM, the heroes are personable enough, and I like the grungy little touches, like the father and older brother financing their beyond belief activities via credit card fraud and other scams. But it plays like THE HARDY BOYS meet X-FILES in a transgender road show of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. The directing and cinematography in particular evoke X-FILES. It’s not a bad show, but not good enough to survive that tough time slot, the roughest on TV this season, though being on a network with as low expectations as the WB ought to help.

    Also caught one of the most touted new sitcoms of the year, KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL (Fox, 8:30P Mondays). That’s a big “eh,” good buddy. The narration’s calculated to evoke the show’s lead-in, the hilarious ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (Fox, 8P Mondays), and, okay, it’s isn’t your standard sitcom. Yet. The epic, quasi-true tale of a swell chef with a nasty self-destructive streak, the pilot makes the mistake of shotgunning characters at the audience so rapidfire that almost none of them sink in, including the sad sack star, and it’s got that shiny quasi-documentary look that has run through every Fox sitcom from THE ADVENTURES OF BEANS BAXTER to MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE. (Ever notice how all sitcoms or all dramas from a particular network seem to have almost the same look, regardless of production company?) And though the pilot tries to hide it, the festering sore of Romantic Tension is already visible on KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL, as the head chef’s star butts heads with the owner’s daughter who thinks she should be making the decisions. On its face, it may be saying ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, but in its heart it obviously wants to be CHEERS.

    And that’s one of the four sitcoms being pimped as hot and original this season. Also on board, but as yet unviewed, are HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER (CBS, 8:30P Monday), a title that unfortunately translates in my head to TEN RULES FOR DATING MY TEENAGE DAUGHTER; EVERYBODY HATES CHRIS (UPN, 8P Thursdays), the Chris Rock vehicle that at least sounds like the genuine article; and MY NAME IS EARL (NBC, 9P Tuesdays), starring Jason Lee, who has traditionally been better than the material he has been in. We’ll see. In the meantime, don’t forget: next week is AMAZING RACE (CBS, 9 Tuesday) and VERONICA MARS (UPN, 9P Wednesday).

  • Notes From Under The Floorboards:

    My apologies: in my haste to explain the rules of the Comics Cover Challenge, last week, I completely forgot to provide the solution to Sept. 7’s mystery: all the comics in that group featured characters named Thor. Here’s the solution to last week’s: the comics involved were the first that published work by talents strongly identified with Marvel after they left Marvel: Jim Lee (WILDC.A.T.S), Steve Ditko (CAPTAIN ATOM), Frank Miller (MS. TREE), Roy Thomas (DC COMICS PRESENTS), Steve Englehart (WEIRD WAR TALES), John Byrne (MAN OF STEEL), and Stan Lee (STAN LEE’S BATMAN). This one promised to be a little confusing, as specific issues were sometimes hard to pinpoint (Ditko’s work continued being published by Marvel for awhile after he left; Byrne’s first non-Marvel appearance could be in either MAN OF STEEL or BATMAN for that month; etc.), but I did the best I could, so sorry if anyone got thrown. The winner of last Wednesday’s challenge is Jim Drew, who’d like to push .

    But let’s go over it again, in short hand. Seven covers (you see them scattered throughout this column). One theme or unifying element. Maybe in the covers, maybe in the comics themselves. What is it? The first one to e-mail me the answer gets to push the website of their choice, subject to approval. (We’ve never disapproved anyone yet, so as long as you’re not pushing the Wicked Pictures site or latter day version of the Bund or something like that, you’re probably okay.)

    Speaking of pushing, John Siuntres’ lengthy audio interview with me is now up at Word Balloon. If you’ve ever wondered what I sound like (it’s nothing to write home about, believe me) this is your chance to find out. Did I mention I know where all the skeletons are buried? While you’re over there, check out the also posted interviews with Will Pfeiffer, Joe Casey, Larry Young, Gene Ha, Geoff Darrow, Ande Parks, Mike Norton, Steve Englehart, Colleen Doran, Jeff Parker, Brian Azzarello, Mark Andreyko… man, John’s been busy. If you keep checking in, you’ll find Mark Waid there sooner or later.

    As I’ve been enjoying Grant Morrison’s SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY concept and haven’t been pleased to watch it essentially being buried amid mountains of much better publicized Big Events, let me point you to this week’s Rich Johnston column here at CBR. Scroll down a bit, and Rich turns over the column to a SEVEN SOLDIERS fan who illuminates the series with commentary and questions, poring over what seems to be every little grain or clue that Morrison has peppered into the books. Fascinating stuff that delves into the mythic quality Morrison’s obviously trying to achieve with the books. (In some ways, they’re his SANDMAN.) Check it out.

    Rich also hits on what everyone suddenly seems to be talking about: John Byrne‘s “feud” with the online “community encyclopedia,” Wikipedia. Seems John took exception to his characterization and some of the alleged information posted in his entry, attempted to change them, ran afoul of administrators who sided with the editors (comics fans, so I’m told) against him, and at some point the page was trashed, with suspicion apparently falling on John, if I understand things correctly. I’ve known John a long time, we were pretty good friends at one point, and I still like him and seem to get along with him fine the one time every decade or so we run into each other, and lord knows there has been plenty over the years to snark on John about, though I do think people tend to go overboard on him; it’s sort of this weird fan sport now. That said, there’s one point in the current controversy most people seem to be missing:

    John’s right.

    The first time I ever heard of Wikipedia, I liked the idea but was warned there was no real guarantee of accuracy. Professional encyclopedias usually employ scores of researches, experts and fact checkers; their reps rest on accuracy. Wikipedia, whatever its virtues, is particularly susceptible to opinion, rumor, speculation and hearsay. (As is fandom.) You’d think they’d be constantly on edge about this, since lawsuits for libel are hardly unheard of, and internet companies are still seen as having deep pockets. I can’t say what was in the Byrne bio originally, since I never looked at it before and it has apparently been stripped to the essence, but even what remained (it has undergone a revision since I first looked at it) gave a taste of what seems to have been there: John’s titles DOOM PATROL and BLOOD OF THE DEMON are each highlighted as cancelled with #18, which seems a little overly specific given the context of the page, and they harp some about NEXT MEN never having been finished while specifying that John has refused to state when he will finish it. Not that its incompleteness shouldn’t be mentioned – that’s certainly a viable enough fact – but wouldn’t simply putting (unfinished) after the entry do the trick just as well. Deleted sections seem to have included characters John has “destroyed.” And while John is certainly a colorful character, how much does anyone really need to know about him, aside from a brief biography and a list of works? Does it really matter that he thought Jessica Alba shouldn’t play Sue Storm? I notice on the discussion page one correspondent complains that “fact checking” means you leave everything on the page until the discussion group goes through point by point to determine what’s correct and what isn’t. If that’s Wikipedia’s official position, man, they’re staring down a potential mountain of trouble. There are reasons why most publications fact check before they publish. People seem to think the issue here is that John wants to totally control commentary on his personality and career, and while that may be true, the real issue is Wikipedia: if you have a serious complaint with their listing about how, and things you know are inaccurate or purely speculative, how do you get it changed, especially when the editors in charge of the listing insist on their version? If Wikipedia’s out to accumulate all the collective knowledge of the species, that’s a grand and noble thing. If the objective is “truth by consensus,” it’s not.

    Last week, I mentioned an idea for an “encyclopedia” of shot types and their story/emotional uses, and while no pencilers have yet stepped up to the plate to lend their expertise, Pablo Eekman was nice enough to send a link to the Wally Wood page I mentioned (at least a pencil version of it), Wally Wood’s 22 Panels That Always Work (or some interesting ways to get some variety into those boring pages where some dumb writer has a bunch of lame characters sitting around talking for page after page). Read it, capture it, learn it, live it. Thanks, Pablo.

    Meanwhile, CBR honcho Jonah Weiland has discovered an interesting trend: whenever I lead with the Down And Dirty Guide To Creating Comics feature, hits drop off around 20%. So it seems a good fifth of you are all about controversy, not education. That’s cool, I can work with that. Don’t expect the Guide to go away anytime soon… but when it does show up, expect it to be lower down the column.

    My two books – a collection of essays on comics, creativity, modern culture and the freelance life called TOTALLY OBVIOUS: the complete Master Of The Obvious (~300 pgs), and a collection of political essays covering the Terror Years (2001-2005) called IMPOLITIC: A Journal Of The Plague Years, Vol. 1 (~250 pgs) – are available in pdf e-format at The Paper Movies Store. $5.95@. Go get them. Thanks.

    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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