REASONS TO BE THANKFUL, PT. 3: ’tis the season…
CREATING COMICS PT WHATEVER: the down and dirty guide to comics covers
1621: secrets of Thanksgiving, greatest of the bogus holidays
KISS KISS BANG BANG: a night at the movies
I was going to write a piece on the various things in the comics industry that we can be thankful for, but you know what they are, and listing them would be corny. Comics have had it rough the last ten years, and things haven’t gotten all that much better recently, despite claims of rising fortunes from Marvel and DC, which are mainly doing their best to attenuate the form (and that’s not a complaint or accusation, just an observation, and it’s a perfectly normal and expectable function of corporate procedure). So any year there still is an American comics industry in any recognizable form is something to be thankful for. This year saw no seismic shifts, but a lot of little ones bode well: graphic novels were, if not at critical mass, are at least critical darlings, and pretty much everyone’s familiar with the term; comics conventions are now a hip setting of choice for numerous TV shows; Hollywood has ceased to think of “comic book films” and instead views comics as just another source of material alongside novels, songs, videogames and amusement park rides instead of just material for “comic book movies,” with films like A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE getting just as much attention as BATMAN BEGINS. Manga is popular enough that people show off reading it. For the first time in a long time, the American comics industry potentially has the ingredients for a broad spectrum audience, if only it can figure out the way to capitalize on it. Additionally, there are some relatively smart new small publishers in the game this year providing possible future models, if they can overcome the obstacles of a monopolistic distribution system and a, let’s face it, antiquated marketing apparatus, the Direct Market, that desperately needs an overhaul.
But that’s for next year. All those little rumblings have the potential to merge into something seismic for the industry, but they’ll need a conscientious burst of creativity, focus and seriousness (by which I do not mean humorlessness) to do it. There’s a strong sense of potential now, for the first time in a long time; that’s something to be thankful for. The previously threatened dominance of webcomics still hasn’t appeared, though there are plenty of webcomics but a way to make a real income through marketing them via the web hasn’t materialized. They’re still a hard sell. But creators are adapting, and more and more now find the web a conduit to print collection, where money is still possible: an evolutionary adaptation to the environment. The short dollar may be in short supply but the long dollar is still evident, and getting easier to come by, something else to be thankful for.
Me, I’m thankful you’re still reading me after all this time, and that Jonah Weiland of Comic Book Resources still wants to run it. So thanks. I’m thankful for all my friends in the industry, and that many of them are doing so well. Hell, never mind the industry, any year I’m still here I’m thankful for.
So, if the rest of the column doesn’t put you completely out of the mood, enjoy the holiday.
The object of a comics cover is to sell the comic.
You can argue art vs. commerce all you want, but in the case of covers Form. Follows. Function. Period. And the function is to catch the attention of the potential buyer and encourage/convince them to investigate that comic above all others on the stands.
Bear in mind that I’m not saying comics covers aren’t art, or shouldn’t be considered that way. They should be art. But they’re not art for art’s sake. They’re propaganda. They’re a message to the person walking by, and that message is “Buy Me!” and if they don’t project that message they’re a failed cover, no matter how good the art is. I’ve noticed over the years a lot of artists (and, presumably, editors) have taken to positioning the cover as a virtuoso art project frequently not even related to the contents of the book. In these instances, the only real function of the art is to sell the artist, which I’m sure a lot of artists don’t mind. While having a great piece of art for a cover is preferable, if it comes down to a great piece of art or selling a comic, if you don’t go with the latter you’re not doing your job.
Back in the early days of comics – and, let’s face it, most covers were really crappy then too, so even their grasp of the concept was rudimentary at best – this was a make or break deal. Hundreds of comics were available, distribution spotty, and most characters weren’t well known enough to have generated a significant enough number of diehard obsessives to guarantee sufficient enough sales on their own. (Which should sound familiar to most modern publishers.) Comics swapped out on the stands regularly, and each comic had usually one shot at grabbing each reader, so each cover had to be something – gaudy, lewd, dynamic, funny – that would grab their attention first. This led to all sorts of theories (also like today) about what makes good covers and what doesn’t; one company made sure all the action on its covers flowed from upper left hand corner to lower right, one carefully analyzed what elements were on the best selling covers and started generating stories incorporating those elements. These were largely based on the suspicion of an indiscriminate but manipulable readership with minimal brand loyalty, a state that somewhat faded with the rise of comics shop as the primary outlet for comics. Then the flood of new comics put a new emphasis on covers, as spinner racks, which focused attention mainly on the title, were replaced in many shops by full frontal display.
But it’s difficult to tie the success of a comic too closely to the success of a cover or vice versa. Fans of a particular character (or artist) are likely to buy that character’s (ibid) comic(s) regardless of cover image. While it was once the case, even a great cover rarely convinces readers to buy a comic if the guts are crappy, the genre or some other aspect of the book doesn’t appeal to them, if the price is too high, or any number of other variables. The time when a cover could sell a comic on its own has mostly passed.
Which doesn’t mean they’re not still the first line of attack. A great cover can generate reader interest in an unknown concept or book quicker than virtually any other means.
What constitutes a great cover remains debated. Some cling to the standard “representational” cover, portraying some aspect of the interior story as a teaser. Others prefer the “symbolic” cover, illustrating a characteristic of a character or concept rather than a specific story concept. Once word balloons and blurbs were standard issue for covers, to make it more like a comics panel and generate an immediate emotional connection for the reader, but, as art fans became more of a consideration, those were frequently eliminated for a sense of comics cover as gallery piece. More recent approaches: cover as “movie poster,” cover as “book jacket,” cover as “advertisement,” with the heavy emphasis on design elements those connote. A general rule of thumb is to keep designs simple, with a single element becoming the eye’s focal point, but even that concept’s not so simple. George Perez has drawn some of the most successful covers in comics history, featuring bewildering onslaughts of dozens of characters, so many that it’s virtually impossible for the eye to focus, but those worked because what George was selling was the concept that the book was loaded with characters. One recent cover I saw had what would have been the focal image in most cases disintegrated into a mosaic – but the mosaic itself became the focal image.
But, if you’re looking for rules of thumb, here are four things to focus on:
– Be unusual. With covers, familiarity breeds contempt. Why should anyone pay attention to your cover if it looks like everyone else’s?
– Keep it simple, and direct. Unless (as with George Perez) something you’re trying to get across with your cover requires a lot of elements, busy covers connote desperation or indecision. Pick one thing you want to sell your audience on, and make that the focal point so they can quickly and easily grasp what you’re trying to get across.
– Make it striking. Ugly, boring or badly designed art generates bored or repelled responses. Sharp looking art can still inflict a moment of awe on even the most jaded potential customer, and that moment of awe is what you want.
– Have it tell a story. Not a whole story, of course, but even a single shot can get across tension or emotion. The old rule of thumb is to use your cover to put in the reader’s mind a question they have to buy the comic to answer.
Pull all that off, and you still may not sell comics, and at the least you’ll have covers people will remember and no one will be able to say you weren’t trying.
I never get tired of right wingers (particularly ultraChristian right wingers) conflating early American history so that the “Founding Fathers” were particularly concerned about religious freedom. They weren’t. The notion goes that “America” was founded by those seeking religious freedom, which is sort of true, but only if you look the other way on an awful lot of points. It’s true that the celebrated Pilgrims (who, basically in anticipation of Cromwell, were peeved that the Church Of England wasn’t repressive enough) fled England looking for “religious freedom,” but they were Christians running from Christians, and they weren’t interested in religious freedom, they were interested in having a patch of land (the one they ultimately decided was theirs was one they weren’t legally entitled to, and not what they had set out for) where they wouldn’t have to put up with anyone else’s religion. They weren’t “founding fathers” of America anyway; the colonies may have eventually become the United States Of America, but breaking from the crown almost certainly wasn’t the intent of any of the original colonists, and a “United States Of America” is so far removed from the Pilgrims’ worldview. The religious motive for colonization was also far from universal in America; many colonies – there were a lot of them – were founded for purely mercantile reasons, while some were basically penal colonies (much as some of the British colonies in Australia originally were) a place to dump those British society was unwilling to suffer. Which also applies to the Plymouth Colony, in a manner of speaking. In any case, “religious freedom” was hardly an underlying principle of either colonization – for a long time, you could be shot on sight, by law, in Virginia just for being suspected of being a Catholic, a law presumably meant to preserve the Virginian gene pool from predominantly Catholic neighboring Maryland, which must have made the tourist trade something of an adventure – or of the real founding fathers of the eventual USA, who were so concerned with the matter that they didn’t even bother to mention it in the original version of the Constitution. (It did pop up in the Bill Of Rights, which was mainly inserted to prevent populist insurrection, but the Bill Of Rights was an afterthought, as all amendments are.)
But here we are with the myth. The Pilgrims flee persecution and settle in a new land only to find their harvests amount to nothing (this is your basic “God’s testing our faith” approach to theology; of course, the failures, including half the settlers dying the first winter had nothing to do with them being badly prepared) but are rescued by the local savages, who share their own food in a sumptuous banquet. And the colonists were spared to found the basis of what we now call The United States Of America. Shore is a purty story, I’ll give it thet. By the records of the colonists themselves, we can pretty much debunk it as nonsense. The first thanksgiving among the Pilgrims (who hardly invented the concept) came after their first crops, which were pretty decent, and, according to their reports, they chose to invite the Indians over, probably to stave off any raiding. Apparently there were lots of turkeys in the region (Benjamin Franklin, you may recall, recommended the gentle and useful turkey as our national bird, rather than the scavenging and remote raptor, the Bald Eagle) and the bird did become a staple, along with fish and other birds, but the Pilgrims fairly quickly all but obliterated the local populations through overhunting. Pumpkin pie only became a popular dessert around revolutionary times, but it was a soupy custard baked inside a carved out pumpkin, far different from what we call pumpkin pie today. At any rate, the legend of Thanksgiving is pretty much a con job, and the Pilgrims didn’t bother to make a day of thanks a regular thing.
The country managed to make it through without a Thanksgiving Day for almost two centuries – well over three if you consider the Pilgrims founding fathers – until Congress got into it in 1941, and the sell job on that included tying back to a day of thanks declared by the Plymouth Colony’s governor in 1621. Not that various communities hadn’t had Thanksgiving Days on and off, but you have to think the national holiday was a present for poultry farmers and shopkeepers who needed a clear demarcation to kick off the Christmas shopping season; I doubt it’s an accident that the decision to institute Thanksgiving coincided with the new emphasis on getting the economy going again in the waning days of the Great Depression, when we were on the cusp of World War II.
Oh, well. What’s America for if not bogus myths? (Just ask the White House, where they’ve now got up a sign that reads “over 4 billion served.”) Bring on the turkey…
But I have to cop to being a Val Kilmer mark – he referred to the film as the first comedy he’d done in a long time, if you don’t count ALEXANDER – and a number of reviewers, not to mention a producer friend, gave KISS KISS BANG BANG all raves, and it turned out to have elements in common with a project I’m trying to get off the ground. Seeing it seemed to be in my interest.
As it turns out, it was the best time I’ve had at the movies in a long, long time, probably since GO! A smart little flick, heavy on coincidence as pattern, it plays on metafiction levels that normally annoy me no end but seemed totally in place here. Downey’s a small time New York thief who stumbles into an acting audition after a heist gone bad and ends up being swept off to a Hollywood screen test for the lead in a private eye flick. He’s given a gay but very masculine private eye (Kilmer) to research with. Kilmer’s character has the real life view of private detection, but Downey’s (and that of an actress he gets involved with) expectations come out of a series of gaudy tough guy detective novels he read as a kid. Downey’s character, Harry, narrates the film directly to the audience, aware not only that he’s in a film narrating a film containing his story, but also of traditional film structure and audience expectations, the deconstructed elements of detective fiction, and the plausibility of coincidence. (I wasn’t counting while watching, but I’m pretty sure that 16 people die are killed in the course of the film, for reasons obvious if you’ve seen the film.) It’s a bravura gimmick almost destined to go cloyingly sour, but Black and Downey pull it off with panache and a lot of very funny lines. Kilmer’s the most solid in this than he has been in a long time, full of power and restraint, and the female lead, . The dialogue is hilarious, stylized but coming off as perfectly natural, and Black is obviously expert on both milieus the film straddles, Hollywood and the hardboiled detective novel. For me, it was unnerving on another level: Downey, with his character’s deadpan delivery, world-weariness subverted by a subterranean moral streak and rat-tat-tat wit, I’ll be damned if he’s not channeling Howard Chaykin c. 1979. Truly eerie.
Anyway, the dialogue, direction and acting is terrific, the structure is inventive, I loved all the little detective thriller references (it’s crawling with Raymond Chandler tributes), and Black does a fantastic job with the plot, effortlessly tying together all the threads and elements except the ones not meant to tie together. Best of all, the characters are funny but they’re not aware they’re being funny unless they’re intending to be funny, and the actors play them that way. There’s nothing worse than a comedy where the characters all know it’s supposed to be a comedy and keep smirking to make sure the audience knows they know it too. This isn’t like that. The writing is tongue-in-cheek, the movie isn’t. It’s like a strangely mutated, really good long episode of THE ROCKFORD FILES. The studio hasn’t been pushing it, but it’s worth finding. Go see it.
Overall, this doesn’t impress me. It’s like writers pitching stories to an editor whose comics they’ve never read. And y’know what? Much as I like reading and reviewing comics and graphic novels, it really doesn’t matter to me whether I read those particular books or not.
So I’ve decided to stop replying to those emails. Life’s just too short, and if you can’t be bothered to do the most basic research that’s about the extent of my interest. I’m more than happy to review anyone’s comics, though the only things I guarantee is that I’ll read it and you’ll get an honest response (except for one comic, and you know who you are). To find out how and where to submit review copies, continue to the final section of the column.
Time’s been against me for reviews the past few weeks, so it looks like next week will be another review onslaught to catch up. If you’ve sent me anything in the last two months, that’s where the review will be, just in time for the Xmas buying season.
Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week’s Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn’t been an issue so far.) I usually put some clue in the column somewhere, but this week there’s really no point in it because the solution is super obvious, and, no, the word “super” is not a clue. Quickly now, because I guarandamntee someone’s going to get here before you if you wait.
And don’t forget my two books are available in pdf e-book form at The Paper Movies Store: TOTALLY OBVIOUS, collecting my Master Of The Obvious essays on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life; and IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS, a running commentary on American life and politics in the first half of the Terror Decade. 250+ pages each, $5.95@ or both for $10.95. What are you waiting for?
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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