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Issue #223

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Issue #223
  • THIS WEEK:

    DÉJÀ VU ALL OVER AGAIN: The dark face of “creator-owned” comics

    WE WISH YOU A RELIGIOUS DIVERSE CHRISTMAS: and thanks to the pagans for everything

    SPIES IN THE WIRE: the Hand Puppet slips in dodgeball while Hilary waits in the wings with the game to end all games

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD

  • The whole Speakeasy thing continued to blow up over the last week, with people yelling about late payments and no support, and Speakeasy coming back with tales of who’d been fired from what, making the whole thing sound like Dreamwave mk.2. For those who came in late, this was basically triggered by Speakeasy decision, following Diamond Distribution’s announcement of a cutoff point below which they’d no longer distribute a title, that below that cutoff point they’d no longer physically publish a comics title. Which makes economic sense: if you can’t get a product distributed, why bother with it? (Most publishers are in it for the money, after all, and the publisher who isn’t in it for money isn’t very likely to make money for the people he publishes.) Those comics not physically published by Speakeasy could, if their creators chose, be published virtually on Speakeasy’s website. On the surface, that sounds like a no-lose situation, but obviously some of Speakeasy’s contributors don’t see it that way. Not surprising, since there’s still more cachet in print publication than Internet publication (I’m not slamming the Internet, I’m just saying), plus, if you’re a budding talent looking to win assignments and influence editors, it’s still way more impact to send them a published comic book or graphic novel than a website link. But not really in step with the realities of the marketplace either.

    Then, amid a flurry of counteraccusations over at Rich Johnston’s gossip column this week, former Speakeasy owner and current publisher Adam Fortier flat out said that, given the market, the only way to have avoided the current situation would have been “by not starting a publishing company.” There’s some question about the earnestness of the reply – he says he’s serious then seems to backtrack – but Fortier has stumbled on a problem with most comics companies, at least ones that have risen (and mostly fallen) since the mid-70s:

    There is no good model for comics publishing.

    American comics publishers basically split into two groups: Marvel, DC and Dark Horse in one group, and everyone else in the other. The differences, from a professional point of view, isn’t that one group insists on owning and controlling the properties, and the other allows creative freedom. Dark Horse, though it does less of it these days, built its rep on creator-owned material, while both are possible to some degree at Marvel and DC as well, and increasingly smaller companies regardless of size are demanding more and more control even when they trot out the phrase “creator owned.” It’s seen as a necessary tradeoff, their shot at making back their publishing money via selling movie rights etc., since none of them expect to make their money publishing anymore. Obviously, not every publisher does this but, like publishers who aren’t exclusive with Diamond, that field is continuously shrinking. We’re accustomed to thinking of smaller publishers as the noble underdogs, but, as hundreds of screwed-over talents have learned in the last 30 years or so, that’s generally self-generated propaganda. Certainly they’d prefer everyone to think of them that way, the way Stan Lee conned everyone into viewing Marvel as the brilliant underdog in the ’60s (and, to some extent, it was), but all publishers really are is just more businessmen, and if they’re not they don’t have much business publishing.

    What really distinguishes Marvel, DC and Dark Horse from the rest is that they usually pay at least something resembling a living wage to the people they publish, and they usually pay it at some point after the work is turned in and prior to publication. The others generally don’t, even on work for hire books, though some at least pay the equivalent of an honorarium, though I doubt they view it that way. In most cases, it’s what they can afford. Many offer nothing at all but an increasingly nebulous “back end” paid out, in the Hollywood studio manner, only after the publisher has “recouped costs,” though few get specific about what those costs entail. (To be fair, not many tack on excess baggage, as far as I know.)

    When you combine zero payment with demands for rights, what you get is basically publishers being subsidized by talent, though, again, I’ve never met a publisher who viewed it that way. From their point of view, they provide a service, giving talent opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise. Many talent see it this way too, though their sympathetic view of things usually doesn’t help them in the long run. Many, even some fairly well known and ostensibly popular talents, confess in private that they’d love to be published by Marvel, DC or Dark Horse. But all three of those, and the few other companies that pay upfront, are pretty much invitation-only closed shops these days. Given the number of people trying to beat down their door, they almost have to be.

    Speakeasy’s original business plan was two-tiered: a company-owned shared world line, and a creator-subsidized line based on the Image model, at somewhat lower costs than Image charges. It’s still not quite vanity press, which publishes anyone with the coin to pay for the books, since both Image and Speakeasy are selective about what they publish and, at least in theory, fit material to a publishing plan. Nothing’s inherently wrong or underhanded about it, and both companies spell out terms upfront; I’m not questioning their ethics. From the outbursts of the last week, it’s clear that Speakeasy pays an advance on their company-owned line, as they have to with work for hire. (Technically, if money doesn’t change hands, the company doesn’t own it.)

    I want to say I have no bone to pick with Adam Fortier. I met him once in passing, for about three seconds. I don’t know him. The people I know who do know him like him. When Speakeasy was starting up, someone tried to make a case that Adam was a marketing genius who revived TRANSFORMERS, but I was skeptical; it didn’t seem to me that being smart enough to bring back an existing property with a built-in audience (I remember the first TRANSFORMERS craze, though I didn’t understand it, and didn’t understand the new one) doesn’t necessarily mean anything if we’re talking about totally untested properties that have to build an audience base from scratch. It’s just not the same thing unless the company has TRANSFORMERS as an anchor for everything else, to draw people in. Speakeasy didn’t. From what Fortier tells Rich, it doesn’t seem there was ever a coherent marketing plan aside from placing press releases on Newsarama, but most small companies don’t have them. In the direct market, there is no marketing, aside from blurbs and ads in PREVIEWS, where dealer money is spoken for long before they ever get to the smaller publisher listings. There used to be posters (and some retailers think companies should do more of them now) but then there were so many posters that retailers didn’t want to bother with any of them. There were previews, ashcans, all kinds of free premiums, but all promos really do is tack onto the project cost without any even marginal guarantee they’ll generate interest, or even that retailers will distribute them to customers instead of throwing them away.

    I don’t have a winning marketing plan either, but I’m not the one who needs to come up with one. Publishers are supposed to do that.

    Thing is, this is nothing I haven’t seen before. I’ve watched a lot of comics companies die. I’ve worked for a lot of them. First Comics was decently financed at the start and even had momentum but couldn’t keep it up; their collapse was long and slow, but the writing was on the wall years earlier, about the time their first wave of talent, like Mike Grell and Howard Chaykin, left for greener pastures and paychecks flowed out slower and slower. (My system for getting paid was to call their comptroller directly to remind her it was time for my check to go out.) And First was one of the stronger independent companies. There have been dozens of others – Comico, Innovation, Tundra, Malibu, Vortex, Now, Chaos, Pacific, Noble, Valiant, Continuity, Eclipse, Broadway, Crossgen, Future, the list goes on and on – that wanted to believe the direct market was a built-in audience, and all they needed was to produce books.

    But that’s never enough. Except for fleeing bursts, it wasn’t when the direct market was flourishing, and it sure isn’t now. Marketing isn’t simply frontloading as many books as you can manage for “market presence” (though a lot of companies I’ve worked with have deluded themselves that such a chimeric thing was all-important); what matters most is what’s in the books, how they’re designed, what they’ve got that can focus audience attention. Those are the prerequisites, the barest starting point. And it’s all uphill from there.

    I hope Speakeasy makes it over this hump and continues as a growing concern, as people I know are expecting to publish through them, but their new “partnership” with Ardusty Entertainment suggests the creator-owned books will be phased out to make the company a license developer for Ardusty if it manages to hang on at all. This is likely only the first salvo of another of the company shakeouts that hit the business periodically. Speakeasy isn’t particularly important or unique as far as the business goes but it is emblematic of the new breed of publisher that, consciously or otherwise, preys on the desire (and often desperation) of budding talent to be published. As many of them are discovering, those who want to be published badly enough will tolerate, excuse and rationalize just about anything. They’re willing to grasp at straws, but so are most small publishers.

  • Happy holidays, or however you choose to phrase it. The little brouhaha over the “deChristianization” of Christmas over the last couple weeks seems to have died down, but it was pretty funny while it lasted. A pathetic attempt by right wing radio to rewrite history, basically, while striking a blow against cultural diversity. Personally, I’ve got no problem with anyone sending out whatever kind of greeting card they want? It’s a personal choice thing, know what I mean? And if Wal-Mart or Target have people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” it just means they recognize some of their customers may be Jewish, or Muslim, or Buddhist, or atheist or whatever. Jeez, early Christians didn’t even think Christ’s birthday was any big deal, and that celebrating it took focus away from the important part of the Christ story, that crucifixion and resurrection thing. Puritans and other Christian groups were known to scorn the holiday, aware of its pagan origins. It wasn’t until the Council Of Nicea, under the Roman emperor Constantine’s watchful eye, that December 25th was agreed on as Jesus’ birthday, though the New Testament paints balmier circumstances for the season of his birth, and ain’t it a coincidence that it was also the birthday of Sol Invinctus, “the invincible Sun,” the god Constantine worshiped? (If you don’t get the reference, December 25th is the day, immediately following the winter solstice, when days begin to lengthen again, i.e. the sun is “reborn,” which is why so many cultures around the northern hemisphere have some sort of feast day or days right around this time. It’s not hard to see Christmas as a straightforward continuation of pagan nature worship.) Most of our Christmas rituals come from Germanic paganism. Traditionally in Europe it was considered a minor holiday, mainly for kids, and even in the USA it wasn’t that big a deal until 1800.

    But ain’t it a shame how Christians, despite being far and away the most populous group in America, are now being persecuted because stores, loaded to the gills with Christmas decorations and Christmas presents, with Christmas music treacling out over loudspeakers at every turn, and pretty much trying to remind everyone from early September on now that Christmas is a-coming and the geese are getting fat, aren’t telling everyone Merry Christmas. Boy, I bet there are lions roaming the parking lots, just waiting for them as they leave, too.

    I know a lot of Christians who are very tolerant, okay with diversity, and if someone tells them “Happy Holidays,” they have the brains to figure out that includes Christmas. Too bad the other clowns make them all look like imbeciles. Here’s an idea: if someone says “happy holidays” to you and you feel it’s important enough, just smile and say “merry Christmas” back. But that’s the problem with having a religious holiday that’s got the same name as a secular holiday. For many people, Christmas means nothing more than a few days off from work and some smiles on their kids’ faces, and what’s wrong with that? If your Christmas demands a spiritual message, try “peace on earth, good will toward men.” More than likely that’s all Christ would have wanted of it anyway.

  • It’s been fascinating, recently, to watch the Hand Puppet bobbing, weaving, backstepping and, most recently, trotting out the old John Wayne impression. (“That’s right, pilgrim, I did it an ah’d do it uhhhGHEN, caz yuh don’t think I’d let uh goddamned piece uh PAYper stop me, DO yuh?! Now get outtah my WOOAY, cuz there’s bad people out there, an I aim tuh STOP em.”) But there he is, suddenly switching sides to join John McCain in calling for an end to torture as a tool of American foreign policy after weeks of telling Congress to keep their noses out of it, not to mention “authorizing” its use originally. (At least in this instance, which is why the quotation marks; torture has been a covert tool since at least the 1950s, and the CIA used to run a school to teach foreign police modern torture techniques and maybe still does.) It’s no coincidence that the anti-torture statement, which I’m sure will be about as binding as the administration’s pledge to uphold civil rights since there’s no official definition of what constitutes “torture” on the books, was attached to a defense spending bill that the Hand Puppet desperately needed to sustain his Iraq adventure but promised to veto if the torture restrictions weren’t excised; his change of heart came shortly after the bill was passed intact. Then, suddenly, as calls get stronger in Congress among Republicans and Democrats both to investigate the false information that prompted the Iraq invasion, he admits to maybe operating on faulty intelligence. (Manufacturing would be closer to the truth, but his version makes him the well-meaning victim, not the perpetrator.) Then news leaks that he authorized illegal spying on Americans, bafflingly circumventing a legal chain that basically exists to rubberstamp any bugging request his administration might have and already allows “emergency” wiretaps etc. with backdated permission if the need is urgent enough. (For those rolling their eyes over the word “illegal,” the article of the Constitution the Hand Puppet cites as his justification specifies not only that he notify Congress of all actions he takes as Commander in Chief, but that he isn’t even Commander in Chief of the entire military, only the Army, Navy and certain militias, let alone Commander in Chief of non-military and civilian operations like the NSA. In other words, the Constitution doesn’t name him emperor.) First he stonewalls, then, as the fuss mounts, he admits to signing off on it but makes his bold John Wayne stand that unless he can ignore the law the terrorists will win. (Again, it’s not like this is anything new; the way the NSA commonly behaves and has behaved for decades, presidential permission was just a formality anyway.)

    So another investigation brews there, as the administration scrambles to put forth the notions that such a directive is business as usual (which it may be, but not in the way they mean; rumors abound of numerous similar directives the Hand Puppet has signed off on) and that extraordinary Presidential powers – functionally kingship, as Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, obviously gearing up for a 1008 run at the Oval Office, put it on virtually every pundit show over the weekend – are the only way America will ever be safe from terrorism. Except, apparently, state terrorism. All this as the Patriot Act ticktocks toward expiration next week. Feingold has proposed a three month extension while the Senate hashes out solutions to the more heinous portions of the act, like the ones obliterating the concept of habeus corpus or giving the FBI virtually unfettered secret access to the private records of American citizens, but the President got all John Wayne again, demanding all or nothing and making speeches about how it’s the Democrats in Congress – he has conveniently forgotten a number of Republicans are leading the charge against renewal of the Patriot Act too – who will feel the wrath of voters when another terrorist attack hits America. Which sounds ominous, but, again, not quite in the way the White House intended. All of this is intended to panic the Senate into renewing the Act, the same way they were panicked by 9/11 into passing it in the first place, but recent history suggests that by about 3PM on the 30th, the Hand Puppet will be begging them for the three month extension if they just sit tight.

    Of course, it’s the “I” word that’s most likely on the White House’s collective mind, now that some of its staunchest Congressional cronies, like Bill Frist and Tom DeLay are facing legal problems that are gutting their effectiveness in keeping the troops in line, and even Republicans have been throwing the “I” word around, though I doubt anyone in Congress really wants to go through that little song and dance. Lord only knows what other revelations wait in the wings, like the little publicized admission by the National Transportation Safety Board that the FBI recovered, and had the NTSB examine, black boxes from the 9/11 planes. (The NYC firemen who found them have also gone on record saying they turned them over to the FBI; the FBI denies all this vehemently, and it does open the question of why on earth the government would want to hide such a thing, but maybe it’s just habit by now.) Meanwhile, mad dog right wing pundit Bob Novak, put on the spot in the Valerie Plame investigation but not imprisoned for withholding sources, said during a speaking engagement last week that he’d be very surprised if the President, who stated he’d severely punish the perpetrator, didn’t know who leaked Plame’s identity as a CIA operative to the press. But if an investigation is opened into domestic spying, it should really be two investigations, one looking hard at the New York Times, which broke the story. Thing is, it broke it a year late. They had the story a year ago, and, after some sweet talking by the administration, deep-sixed it as a favor to National Security. So the newspaper that has declared itself our paper of record decided that it was in the best interests of Americans that they not know our government was spying on us. Why did they change their minds now? Some think it was to influence the Senate vote on renewing the Patriot Act, and the timing would suggest that, but does it have anything to do with the departure of its former grande dame and White House courtesan (not to mention conduit of many of lies that formed the basis for the Iraq invasion, using the Times to give them the patina of authenticity), the publicly disgraced and embarrassed 1st amendment poster girl Judith Miller? When Miller was there, the Times seemed content to play footsie with the administration until the end of time, but with Miller gone, stories implicating the administration in crimes suddenly start appearing? Was the story some half-assed attempt by the Times to reclaim its Miller-strained credibility?

    Not that the Democrats really seem all that interested in any of this. Feingold may be virtually alone in trying to wave that particular flag; when accused by the president of trying to undermine the country by stalling the Patriot Act, Senate minority leader Harry Reid replied it was the Republicans, not the Democrats, calling for rethinking the act. Which is not only disingenuous, but, if true, disgraceful. What’s the point in being an opposition party that doesn’t oppose stupidity? That’s what opposition parties are supposed to do. No matter – they’ve found the issue that’s going to sweep Hilary Clinton back into the White House in 2008: videogames.

    That’s right: Big Mother is watching again. More psycho-claptrap about how playing videogames is destroying the moral fiber of our youth. The new communism, I guess. Sure, there are games young kids shouldn’t play, and thanks to the last go-round on this sad little nonsense, the videogame industry has been posting right there on the boxes what age groups the games are appropriate for. If anyone looked, which no one does, but, you know, that’s something parents are supposed to handle, not the government. But it’s not like Hilary or most other Democrats can campaign on an antiwar platform, since most of them flew into it gung-ho. (Or, rather, flew our troops into it gung-ho.) So we’re supposed to operate on the premise that kids who play GRAND THEFT AUTO will want to steal cars and shoot cops.

    Because, obviously, society offers no ethical countervalance.

    Games, even videogames, are fantasy, and fantasy serves certain psychological purposes. What Hilary and her ilk really want – the prosocialism movement begun in the 1970s – is to colonize our fantasy lives and rebuild them into what they think are nurturing socially beneficial impulses. Strangely, there used to be a school of psychology that encourages people to explore their fantasies instead of repress them. Fantasy is largely misunderstood anyway; it’s an outlet, a safety valve, whether sex fantasies or roleplaying fantasies, even fantasies of violence. It’s a way to work the antisocial out of your system. It’s just fantasy. Most people don’t have the slightest desire to act out their fantasies in real life, even if they were given the opportunity. And what would you rather have: people gunning down their co-workers because it’s the only way they can expunge their frustrations, or people gunning down a small army of villains in TOMB RAIDER to get some release?

    Seems like everywhere you turn these days there’s someone waiting to unleash some form of petty (and no so petty) fascism on you. With all the real issues there are out there, you’d think Hilary wouldn’t have to manufacture one, but, as the Hand Puppet’s team has amply demonstrated time and again, scapegoats are so much more functional.

    (By the way, for those who are wondering, the Hand Puppet did actually call the Constitution “a goddamned piece of paper” last month at a meeting with Republican Congressional leaders with qualms about blanket renewal of the Patriot Act. The exact quote is: “Stop throwing the Constitution in my face! It’s just a goddamned piece of paper!” But no doubt a lot of people feel that way.)

  • Finally got around to reading Mark Millar & J.G. Jones’ WANTED, a mini-series published by Top Cow awhile back, about a world – clearly Earth-DC, if you take all the Superman, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman references at face value (the Batman references are more elliptical) – where the villains teamed together, defeated and mindwiped the heroes, rebuilt the planet to their own specifications and took over as secret masters. Interesting element: the world they create is basically our world now, where they can just sit back and grow fat on profits, a true ’60s-DC version of a villain run world. In fact, they several times mention how they want to avoid a “grim and gritty” world. (Of course, Millar’s whole point is that, for the average person, it is a pretty grim and gritty, not to mention hopeless, world.) More curious: many of the series’ elements have been recently replicated in DC’s current string of major crossover series, particularly VILLAINS UNITED, where Earth-DC’s villains join together with a plan to defeat and mindwipe the heroes, and WANTED‘s J.G. Jones does covers. Hmmm.

    Meant to mention this before, but over at Comic Book Galaxy, Chris Allen has had a couple really good meditations in a row, one on WATCHMEN that you really shouldn’t miss, and one on the recent criticism brouhaha that’s been eating up bandwidth everywhere. Check ’em out.

    As it turns out, there are quite a few people interested in collections of my comics scripts, so over the break (well, it’s a break for most people, but I’m back up to my neck in pressing work) I’ll see what I can put together. Next week maybe, since there’s an off-chance it may be a slack-off week for the column. If anyone has any summations of the year in comics from their perspective, send them on in and I’ll run them next week.

    There was a slight problem with last week’s Comics Cover Challenge – two possible correct solutions – due to my error. I remembered the BIG APPLE COMICS cover as being drawn by Ralph Reese, but it was done by several talents, including Wally Wood. BIG APPLE COMICS was intended to be the ringer last week, the one book that didn’t fit the theory that all the covers were drawn by EC artists. Which, it turns out, they were. I was going to accept the first EC answer, provided no one came up with the intended solution. But Mickey Coalwell correctly identified the comics as having work by people involved with Warren Publishing’s CREEPY #1, which brought horror back to comics, albeit via b&w magazines that didn’t need to go through the Comics Code. (BIG APPLE had a rare story written and drawn by Archie Goodwin, the core writer and editor of the early Warren comics magazines.) So congratulations, Mickey. Mickey has no website to promote, but, “as a librarian, I would appreciate it if you would encourage your readers to visit their local libraries. Graphic novels and manga are a vital and growing part of most library collections today. Stop by your local library for your comics fix.” Personally, I do, Mickey, and, as I’ve mentioned several times, the Las Vegas-Clark County Library System does a great job of stocking graphic novels, trade paperbacks and books on comics criticism.

    For those unfamiliar with the game, 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.) Normally, but not always, there’s a clue to the solution hidden somewhere in the column, and this week, just because I’m filled with the Christmas spirit, it’s right in front of your nose.

    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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