STATE OF THE DISUNION PART 1: where comics sit commercially as 2005 winds down
SILVER BELLS: it’s Christmastime in the city
PATRIOT REACTIONS: curious alliances as the Patriot Act approaches Zero Hour
FEEDBACK: Blackmark, The Pope, Toth and honoring Jack Kirby
NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS: Gerard Jones, comics in media week, Black Friday and more
Which may not be the worst thing in the world either. In principle I’m egalitarian but it has become far too easy for “writers” who know absolutely nothing about story structure, character development or the functions of dialogue and “artists” who know only the barest rudiments of how to draw to get published. Writing is one thing – it’s fairly easy to con yourself into believing bad ideas or sheer drivel are utter brilliance (certainly I’ve done it enough myself) – but are all these “artists” that blind? Do they honestly think their work looks appealing? And can the publishers (often it’s self-publishers, for obvious reasons) really wonder why neither retailers nor readers (nor anyone who even tries to glance through the monstrosity that’s PREVIEWS?) pay no attention to their books? It doesn’t help that there are now tons of deluded publishers out there who really aren’t interested in publishing comic books, they really want to be powerhouses in Hollywood. That sort of thing can ultimately only lead to even more talent being screwed over badly, especially if it’s talent who aren’t so much interested in producing good comics but in seeing their names in print. I understand the thrill, but know from personal experience that it’s far better to be known for good comics than for bad ones. I know of at least one small publisher who’s more than happy with Diamond’s new policy of refusing to distribute books that don’t reach a certain sales level, because it clears out the chaff and increases visibility for his product. (And the proposition can be put forth that most good writers and artists don’t languish in the smaller presses if they don’t choose to for whatever reason, since there are roads out.) There’s the argument that Diamond is throwing the baby out with the bathwater – that’s the argument of pretty much every publisher caught in the jaws of their new policy – but the real question has to be: just how many babies are really out there?
Then there’s manga, the most closed of closed shops as far as American talent is concerned. Sure, all kinds of companies, not the least of which is TokyoPop, are trying to push Amerimanga, or nissei comi, or whatever you want to call it – in fact, most publishers just want to call it “manga” and hope for the best – but a brief sampling of manga fans at the local high school (not the most representative of poll groups, probably, but still…) indicates they are not fooled. Nor interested. Given the hundreds of officially Japanese (not to mention Korean and Chinese) manga series already available in the USA, I’m not surprised. Imitating manga’s success here sounds like a good idea – certainly manga is the success story of comics in the ’00s – but imitating manga? Not so good. It’s the traditional practice of American comics that nothing exceeds like success, so if killing and replacing a character worked over there, do it over here because that’s what people are buying – a practice that has led to killing more interest in comics than anything else – but manga got bulletproofing against that. To the vast majority of manga fans, manga comes from Asia, usually Japan. You can’t be imported from Asia if you weren’t published in Asia (and most nissei comi don’t imitate the aspects that make manga genuinely interesting anyway). Which makes imitating manga’s success far more difficult and challenging than most American publishers are used to.
Comics continue to be big in Europe. But not across the board. European comics have had negligible luck invading America, though European talent often does, and American talent in general has had little luck invading the European market.
And that’s where things currently stand. Are comics hot? Yes and no. We’re really to the point now where no one bats an eye at the thought of comics books, and “graphic novels” even get a modicum of honor. But who’s buying them? We’re the source material for movies, but the proportion of movies generated from comics to movies generated from other sources isn’t huge. There still isn’t a healthy American comic book industry, though there are little pockets of health here and there and many comics retailers are encouraged by what DC has told them about next year’s plans. (If they’re less exuberant about Marvel, it’s probably just because Marvel’s playing their cards closer to their vest. The pendulum swings unpredictably, but it never swings far.) Except for a very small handful, which by no means includes all the talented people out there, it’s probably harder to make a living in comics today than at any point in the last 25 years.
Got an interesting letter the other day:
“What’s interesting about the present market is that the cards are all finally on the table, and the smart observer can see both the promise of adaptation and the peril of the status quo far more clearly now than ever before. I’m not just referring to Marvel and DC’s output; the traditional art-comics ideology has worked to an astonishing degree, but its limitations are fairly visible now, as well. All the high-art graphic novels in the world won’t propel a medium into mainstream acceptance without a wide variety of solid, populist entertainment to support it and justify the shelf space, and right now said entertainment only really exists in Japan. (So near as I can tell, the well’s dangerously close to running dry in Europe, as well.) If Western comics are to compete, they’re going to have to do far better than the current model.
Getting closer to the topic at hand, it seems to me that the problem is one of theme more than concept. I’m fascinated by NARUTO and FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST, for example, because both titles use clever concepts to propel serious, resonant themes (the importance of friendship and loyalty in the former, the meaning of honor and owning up to karmic debts in the latter) while still maintaining a sense of adventure and excitement. Most of the “cool concepts” you find in Western comics, by contrast, are mere surface: you get the feeling that we’ve created a generation of middle-genre cartoonists who throw their technopirate-ninja-whatevers onto the page and figure they’ve completed the storytelling job. There’s no thinking it through, which is why even the best of the high-concept funnies – STREET ANGEL and THE GOON – only work due to the artist’s strong sense of visual presentation (the former) or because it excels in sick, over-the-top funny stuff (the latter). There’s no depth to either title that might make them worth following in a longer, more complex narrative. I like both, but the fact that THE GOON won best series at the Eisners this year left me vaguely depressed; if it is the best mainstream work we have to offer, we’re screwed. It’s as if SUPERMAN were slowly being replaced by Evan Dorkin’s MILK AND CHEESE.
It won’t be the next GHOST WORLD that allows us to compete – let alone decadent inside jokes like IDENTITY CRISIS – but rather the next USAGI YOJIMBO or the next STRANGERS IN PARADISE. Show me more of those, and I’ll be convinced that we’ve got a shot at a healthy market.”
Which was interesting to me because I had just turned in a COMICS JOURNAL column dealing with some of these same topics. (It’ll be in #273; #272, with my commentary on Grant Morrison’s 7 SOLDIERS OF VICTORY and its implications, just came out.) It’s quiet in comics these days, which makes it a good time to think about these things, about what we want really to be in years to come and how we can get there.
Anyway, I’ve pulled and judged a lot of tracks, so here are this year’s official Permanent Damage Holiday Jukebox selections:
- Fairytale Of New York – The Pogues with Kirsty MacColl
- Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas – The Pretenders
- 6 Bullets For Christmas – Angry Johnny & The Killbillies
- The Christmas Blues – Dean Martin
- 12 Days Of Christmas – The Cast Of Twin Peaks
- Father Christmas – The Kinks
- Christmas With Satan – James White & The Blacks
- Yule Shoot Your Eye Out – Fallout Boy
- Auld Lang Syne – John Fahey
- Yulesville – Ed “Kookie” Byrnes
- God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen – T-Bone Burnett
- Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree – Rosie Flores
- Rudolph The Manic Reindeer – Los Lobos
- Santa Can’t Stay – Dwight Yoakam
- Christmas – Beat Happening
- Run Rudolph Run – Dave Edmunds
- Santa Doesn’t Cop Out On Dope – Sonic Youth
- Christmas In Kentucky – Phil Ochs
- Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis – Neko Case
- I Won’t Be Home For Christmas – Blink 182
- It’s Christmas Time Again – Little Charlie & The Nightcats
- Good King Wenceslaus – Mojo Nixon & The Toadliquors
- Christmas At My Comics Shoppe – Idlechatter
- Rockin’ Little Christmas – Carlene Carter
- Christmas Blues – Canned Heat
Sorry if your faves aren’t on the list, but that’s only the top 25. This year. Feel free to make suggestions, maybe I’ve missed something. I’ve gotten so into Xmas in my old age that I don’t even feel compelled to go into all the pagan and pre-Christian origins of the holiday and its motifs. Speaking of which, a reader reminded me of something I’d completely forgotten about by sending his Christmas wish list, which I’d run here except it’s about 200 lines long. (What do I look like, Santa Claus?) But, since there’s still a couple shopping weeks until Xmas and someone you know might have the urge to rain some comics-related product down on your stocking, email in the one thing you most want. Someone sent me a survey about this a few weeks ago, but I never got around to answering it because… I don’t really want anything comics-related for Christmas, except a publisher open to creator-owned projects and willing to pay enough upfront that creating them is economically feasible. Computer parts, that’s something else again; I could do with a sizable external hard drive and a USB2 16x DVD-RW…
policymakers – though not, apparently, the White House’s – doesn’t dispute this rumor.) His recent Asian tour, intended to establish him as a foreign affairs powerhouse, was all flatulence, capped by South Korea announcement it was pulling their troops from Iraq, an announcement the Hand Puppet wasn’t warned of beforehand. (His expression when it was made while he was standing right there was priceless, though.) Even the recent announcement that a “high-ranking” al-Qaeda chief no one ever heard of before was killed in Afghanistan in a robot bomb attack hasn’t resuscitated popular faith in his policies, as his credibility and job ratings continue to slip. Let’s face it, the Pakistanis haven’t been particularly trustworthy when it comes to this sort of thing, there’s no reason any more to take anything the White House says at face value (statistically, skepticism is the safest response to any Administration statement) and they could waste any hapless shepherd and claim he’s a major al-Qaeda mastermind. They don’t even need a body, or a real victim, just an announcement. Meanwhile, while former POW John McCain, who during the last election looked to have become a good little administration lapdog, is vehemently insisting the United States adopt an official anti-torture policy and pretty much the exact moment that the CIA’s torture prisons in Eastern Europe, long known if you were paying attention, were publicly revealed on the advent of Condi Rice’s European goodwill tour; the CIA has instigated an investigation to discover the whistleblower as the German government has started an investigation of the CIA for kidnapping German citizens. Even more governments have announced their pullouts from Iraq, and our staunchest ally, England (or, should we say, Tony Blair), has clipped the Hand Puppet on another embarrassing front, by legalizing gay marriage (or, technically, something legally identical to it). How long before the Christian Right starts demanding the administration have no further connections with such a godless land? (Arguably the most amusing political moment of the past couple weeks was former Attorney General and longtime anti-Iraq War activist Ramsey Clark entering the fray as Saddam Hussein’s new attorney and immediately petitioning the court to invalidate the trial because it was organized under the US occupation. I’m not sure what the legal basis was, but acceptance of his argument would have officially declared, for the first time, that the American presence in Iraq is an occupation, so it was a pretty good bet the argument wasn’t going to fly. Nice try, though.)
If Iraq has been the wobbly cornerstone of the Hand Puppet’s foreign policy, the Patriot Act has been the centerpiece of his domestic policy. Actually, the only element of his domestic policy, if you discount a culture of presidential secrecy or the sellout of public lands and resources. (And certainly the administration discounts as much as they can, as long as it’s their pals doing the buying. It’s no wonder Tom DeLay is peeved that he’s being brought up on corruption charges for selling Texas government to corporate sponsors, since that’s pretty much official Administration policy, which is probably why the Hand Puppet’s Justice Department went through hoops for a couple years to cover DeLay’s tracks, as ultimately revealed by The Washington Post.) The Patriot Act has been under attack since inception, but the White House has routinely dismissed critics as nutcases, crybabies, fellow travelers and Liberals. But now the Act – which the Administration and its acolytes want renewed, considerably added to and permanentized before it hits its built-in expiration date – is under attack from unexpected new quarters: big business, which is complaining of the FBI’s new rights and willingness to pry through corporate health, personnel and financial records in their relentless hunt for fifth columnists everywhere, among other things. Not that big business gives a rat’s ass about your privacy or mine or whether the library you check books from are forced to turn out lists of every item you’ve checked out, but they care enough about their own privacy – many corporations have a culture of secrecy second only to the White House’s – to link up with the ACLU to see the Patriot Act put out to pasture. Many Congressional Republicans have already leaped aboard the anti-Patriot Act train under pressure from their
government-suspicion Republican constituents. A year ago, the Patriot Act and its follow-up, the one John Ashcroft insisted during his run as Attorney General wasn’t even being considered even while it was being circulated to senators, looked to be shoo-ins. Now, barring some new terrorist attack on American soil that sends everyone into renewed panic and calls for swift action, the end of the Patriot Act is looking pretty good. (I wouldn’t quite lay odds on it yet, but the political environment is drastically improved; there are too many influential factions pissed off by it.) Given the new 9-11 report that gives the Admin failing grades on security issues, a new attack probably wouldn’t help the White House’s current standing anyway; while everyone was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt on the 9-11 attacks, blame for letting a new one happen on their watch would almost surely be laid at their doorstep.
So “Merry Christmas” probably isn’t an operative word around the White House right now. I’m kind of amazed how many pundits are now tossing around the phrase “worst president ever”; I still remember what a furor kicked up when I discovered he made a worse president than Lex Luthor and now nobody bats an eye at it. (I notice at the local Barnes & Noble there are now no fewer than six 2006 desk calendars ridiculing him, most quoting the stupid things he says.) The way things are going, the biggest question about the Hand Puppet’s legacy is whether all his administration’s little scams will catch up to him and VP Dick Cheney in the form of impeachment, or whether he’ll just fade away for awhile to eventually become a grand old man of the Republican party, the way Nixon did before the Republican re-excoriated him to as a convenient way to cast aspersions on Bill Clinton.
Interesting and entertaining column. I thought it important to add two items to the discussion, one an educated opinion, the other a factual note. The first, my having just bought the Fantagraphics reissue, is that the pictures alone don’t tell the story. I’m not sure how that notion couldn’t be rejected on its face, since if you take away the writing what’s left is essentially a storyboard, which is no more a movie than a script would be. Even if you just take the opening scene, there’s no way of knowing, without the writing, who those people were, or the fact that the woman was barren, or any of several things that help make up the whole of the story.
The other note is simply that I saw BLACKMARK on a paperback rack at the regional chain Hill’s Department Store in Star City, West Virginia, in 1971. I picked it up, looked through it, and damn, do I wish now I had bought it! But 75 cents was the price of five comic books back then.”
The only place I ever saw BLACKMARK on sale was at the Woolworth’s across from Grand Central Station in New York City the first time I ever went to a Seuling Con there, in 1971. As far as I know, it didn’t get distributed throughout most of the country so you’re lucky Star City had it. Or, rather, you would have been had you bought it.
Gil very much envisioned BLACKMARK as a break from “conventional” comics, something you’d have to read to get the full story, more along the lines of an illustrated story than a comic book. He always felt comics were an exciting form but the writing hadn’t kept up or been meaty enough, that amping up the writing would make a denser, more impacting experience on the reader. I’m pretty sure he would have adapted Robert E. Howard’s version of CONAN had Marvel not gotten to it before him; I’m also pretty sure that, ironically, it was Gil who connected Roy Thomas with the Howard estate, if not who introduced Roy to Conan in the first place. Howard’s sort of beefy pulp writing was exactly the sort of thing that Gil had in mind. Whether the “storyboard” style of the book worked is up to you to decide, but it wasn’t accidental. Apart from complications from Bantam – if I remember correctly, Gil originally pitched the project for large trade paperback format but got cut down to mass market paperback format at the 11th hour, necessitating quite a bit of cut and paste – BLACKMARK is pretty much exactly what Gil intended it to be.
“Saw Peggy Noonan on The Daily Show Tuesday night and she was touting her new JP2 bio . It was both creepy and informative. Check it out.”
No thanks. I already know more about Pope John Paul II than probably 98% of the people on the planet, and that’s quite enough.
“With the first page [of last week’s Alex Toth crime story reprint], I was going to suggest you get a new scanner. The second convinced me it was intentional, but I wondered how long he could get away with such an obvious gimmick. But that car honking panel on page four totally sold it. Dense and cluttered, it shouldn’t work at all. And yet it so perfectly captures the paranoid claustrophobia of the tale, you really don’t need anything more. I will never second guess Toth again.
While the public service announcement is a classic (cue Tom Lehrer), the ad that caps off the tale is truly sublime. “Serve the LORD and you can have these PRIZES!” You just can’t make this stuff up. Hell (um, “Gosh”), I see it and I still don’t believe it. Sometimes I wonder how your generation grew up as nominally normal as it has…”
That was a little before even my time. I love those old public service ads comics used to run, though, and some of the ad strips that ran in the ’40s and ’50s. Maybe I’ll dig some of those up.
Again, I may be remembering incorrectly, but I believe it was Charles Biro, editor of CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, or maybe publisher Harry Chesler, who came up with those wonky concave page edges to simulate then popular Cinemascope movies, or maybe they came up with the notion and it was Toth who came up with the exact gimmick. I’d have to look it up, but it would be simpler if someone who knows for sure dropped us a line. At any rate, Toth was working within a format more or less dictated to him, which makes his design work on the job (and the other stories that shared the format in that issue) even more impressive.
“I have an issue that I would like people with a bigger forum to consider.
I would like for the industry to begin a hue and cry against Marvel’s policy of not paying any royalties to an artist 15 years after his death. What most disturbs me about this is that Jack Kirby’s work is making money for a lot of people even today with swipes; homage, using his concepts etc. and I have read that Marvel may not even be paying his family a single dollar when they reprint a Masterwork that has his art. I hope that isn’t true, but if it is let’s start a discussion that when someone’s work is reprinted their family still deserves his reprint rate no matter how long he has been dead.
Also I would like to start the discussion that anyone working on a comic that was part Jack Kirby’s creation donates 5% of their paycheck to his family for that book once a year. In other words if you do 12 issues that year just 5% of your check for one month of that book go to Kirby’s family.
I think that we all have seen so much be done with his work and we have seen Stan Lee get wealthy (deservedly so), that Kirby should be honored and if not done by the company themselves, let’s do something as an industry.”
I’m not sure what Marvel’s current policy on paying heirs is, but I’m pretty sure the hue and cry would have to come from Marvel readers – Marvel could easily ignore most professionals complaining about their policies, unless there was an irate reader base behind them – but I suspect a good portion of Marvel’s current readers have never heard of Jack Kirby, and many of those who have don’t care whether Kirby’s estate is being paid for old work, or even who’s producing The Hulk or The X-Men every month as long as somebody is. You’re not the first to suggest the donation plan, but so far it hasn’t much caught on. And it should probably be extended to any creator of any character, when it comes down to it. Jack was a powerhouse and in no way has gotten fair recompense for all the characters he generated – but very few creators get that, and Jack should, it’s true, but they all should.
Of course, it’d be so much easier if companies would just do it.
Word Balloon has posted an interesting interview with author Gerard Jones covering his comics work and his recent iconoclastic history of the formation of the comics industry, MEN OF TOMORROW.
Medium big week for comics related media projects: the FANTASTIC 4 film came out on DVD (pimping an ULTIMATE AVENGERS – er, wouldn’t that be THE ULTIMATES? – cartoon) came out Tuesday, while Joe Quesada & Jimmy Palmiotti’s creation (remember Event Comics?) PAINKILLER JANE debuts as a made-for-TV movie and series pilot on Saturday night. That’s the good news; the bad news is it’s being done by The Sci-Fi Channel, home of anti-production values. Here’s hoping it’s more of the quality of the new BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and less of the quality of, oh, ALIEN APOCALYPSE. Check your local listings.
Just what idiot decided to call the shopping day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday?” I get the reference – it’s supposed to mean that’s the day retailers go into the black – but since at least 1929 “Black Friday” has always symbolized disaster, usually in the form of stock market crashes. (There are also “Black Sunday” and “Black Thursday,” but those spun off “Black Friday.”) Not that in about five days we won’t start seeing newspaper articles about how no one’s spending money (I know charities have taken a hit, since New Orleans seriously charitied Americans out this year) and holiday buyings in a slump, because they always run those articles like clockwork, but it might have psychologically been better had we started out with something more festive than “Black Friday.” (Green Friday, maybe, to symbolize the rivers of flowing cash?)
I’ve had a couple people ask me lately if I’d put together books of comics scripts, the way I’ve collected my Master Of The Obvious and Permanent Damage material (see below). I doubt it would be possible with work-for-hire material, but I don’t see anything stopping it with my creator-owned titles, if there’s enough interest. If you’d be interested in such a thing, drop me a line and let me know.
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.) Good luck. Unfortunately, any clue I could give on this one would give it away, but it shouldn’t be too hard anyway.
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.
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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