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Issue #225

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Issue #225
  • THIS WEEK:

    2006: welcome to the year of naval-gazing

    THE FIRST REVIEWS OF THE YEAR: Ghost Hunt, Pastel, Snake Eyes Declassified, Black Harvest, Dragonlance Chronicles, Exile, Serenity

    CASHING OUT AMERICA: the economics of politics in the new year

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS

  • Okay, pretty much everyone had a crappy 2005, but 2005 is over. Time to get on with 2006. “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is an aphorism quoted way too often but if it’s appropriate, it’s appropriate. The comics business is predicated on fantasy, it’s true, but once in awhile some harsh reality has to creep in. Otherwise we’ll be on the same treadmill forever.

    We don’t have a healthy industry. Parts of it are healthy, and, in most instances, that’s only in comparison to what they were. But the business really splits along those lines: those who are feeling healthy don’t see why they need to change anything, while those who aren’t feeling healthy grow more and more frustrated and angry, feeling penned in by unfeeling outside forces.

    So as along as I’m kicking up aphorisms, let’s go for a little Shakespeare:

    The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.

    In many ways, our business as it stands today exists not to produce comics, not even to produce franchises, but to maintain cherished myths about the nature of the business. Here’s our situation:

    1. Most of the world ignores American comics, at least in their native form, though almost no one despises, fears or thinks ill of them or those who read them anymore. But the success of movies like BATMAN BEGINS and FANTASTIC FOUR really only reinforce popular assumptions about what comics are while very few people associate films like SIN CITY or A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE with their source material. Comics have become mainstream, as far as the general public is concerned – to the extent they’re aware comics still exist, comics are just one more bit of cultural detritus, not something to get exercised about, but not something to get excited about either – but unless a general public somehow becomes excited about comics, acceptance is only relevant to those who incessantly worry about another ’50s style crackdown that’s unlikely to ever come.
    2. Anyone waiting for Marvel or DC, the big players in American comics, to change anything is wasting their time. Marvel and DC have determined what niches they want to fill, and they fill them fairly well. Their only real interests in the rest of the market are what can work to their advantage to achieve or maintain supremacy over the other company, and what “theft” of talent from independent titles might be useful to them. Likewise, Diamond, the only distributor of note, has little incentive to change anything about the business as it’s currently set up. They do just fine distributing Marvel and DC. They’d do fine (from the perspective of some at Diamond, better) if Marvel and DC were the only comics they distributed. I’m not saying that any of these companies are evil incarnate; all they are is business people. They have their own business plans and pursue their own business interests, and that’s the extent of their interests. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand them, and if you don’t understand them, you don’t understand the market.

    3. More diversity is not the answer. (Which doesn’t translate to less diversity is the answer, just to make that clear.) Looking at the Diamond catalog, it’s hard to imagine a more diverse array of material. You can ride the scale from Fantagraphics on one end to Image on the other without even figuring in available manga or the various new graphic novels now being published by “Diversity” is simply an independent comics codeword meaning “not superheroes.” It’s not enough. It’s true that many superhero comics are crap. But most independent comics are crap, too.

    And that’s one of the cherished myths of the industry: to be an “independent” makes your comics somehow innately better or more worthy of attention than those published by Marvel, DC or one of the mid-range publishers like Image or Dark Horse. This is an extension of other long-cherished myths. That comics written and drawn by a single talent are innately superior to those “hacked out” (somehow whenever this myth is presented those creating the comic in question are hacks, except when they aren’t) by a collaborative team. That creator-owned comics are innately superior to company-owned comics. That because a comic can be published or self-published, it should be published. You know the analogs, you can fill them in yourself. They’re not hard to spot; they’re all self-serving myopia from a self-centered, self-aggrandizing perspective. And, often, that’s as much reward as anyone can expect in comics, so it’s understandable that’s what they gravitate to. It’s a hell of a lot safer and more satisfying than sober reflection.

    Part of me feels I’m retreading a column from several years ago, but another part feels it’s a message that needs retreading.

    Part of the problem is distribution, yes. The business needs a viable alternative to Diamond. (Current alternatives are only vaguely viable, at best.) But that’s not the real problem.

    Part of the problem is marketing, yes. Almost all current marketing of actual comics (as opposed to franchise characters and the underoos etc. that feature them) is aimed at the Internet, and one of these days I plan to pillage featurettes from Newsarama, The Pulse, Comic Book Resources and other online “news” venues to examine how copywriters, “reporters,” interview subjects, etc., all depend on a small cache of catchphrases that have now been repeated into utter dullness – they’re equivalent to something “cleverly” saying “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore – and running them in an article or interview is a great way to kill any sense of excitement about projects under discussion. But that’s still not the real problem.

    The real problem is that most American comics are crap. (And, yes, I’m well familiar with “Sturgeon’s Law,” which is almost always misinterpreted and used as a justification for crap, and Sturgeon never claimed it was a law anyway. So don’t bother writing me about it.) We are never going to draw in a mass audience – if that’s what we really want to do, which is something we as an industry should damn well figure out, though, personally, I make my living off this stuff so the bigger the audience the better living I make and it’s in my interests and those of most comics talents to go for as big an audience as humanly possible – if they have to wade through a vast sea of crap to find a single gold nugget here and there. I’m not talking about whether plot and character live up to my personal standards or not. (Which, as should be evident to anyone who has read my comics, aren’t all that high.) I’m not suggesting comics should fall into goosestep with what I think comics should be.

    But these are the facts, as we march into 2006:

    Many comics are ugly.

    Many comics are badly written and badly thought out.

    Many comics are ridiculously derivative and unoriginal.

    These are not things that will entice an audience into even trying comics, let alone sticking with them. These are things that will only convince any potential audience that every idiotic cliché they ever heard about the medium is completely true. And the fact is that while DC and Marvel produce a lot of undeniable crap, they usually at least mask their crappiness behind a certain level of craft. They don’t immediately rub your face in their crappiness. As a result, even most bad Marvel and DC comics can be read with mild enjoyment if you don’t think about them too much. (If they push the right buttons, they can often even get fans to completely overlook their sheer crappiness and push them as genuine works of brilliance.)

    Most independent comics don’t even aspire to that level. They wear their crappiness nakedly, with pride, then are baffled and angered at how they’re overlooked or dismissed. It’s true that there are good books out there that are overlooked and dismissed, but it’s not syllogistic: being overlooked and dismissed doesn’t automatically mean the book is good. Too many people try to spin it that way; we are an industry that loves the image of the oppressed genius struggling against an unfeeling business and an uncaring world. That’s an image we have dump right now. Of course, there’s also the long-cherished myth of comics as a cottage industry, where anyone with an idea (it doesn’t even have to be a good idea, obviously) and a pencil can cheaply create their own work. And they can! But the question of whether the resulting work is any good or not, whether it deserves publication and distribution, still has to enter into it.

    Most independent publishers, excluding self-publishers, break down into two groups: those that want to be Marvel or DC, and those that don’t want to be Marvel or DC. The former group are the ones who’ve bought into the myth that market presence=market success, and the way to achieve market presence is to put out a lot of different comics. The latter group are the ones who base their publishing decisions on what Marvel or DC wouldn’t do. Virtually no independent publisher projects a viable independent self-image, nor do many demonstrate a coherent game plan with their publishing. Market presence doesn’t mean pumping out a lot of books, especially when most of those books are half-assed, derivative or empty. It means projecting an identity that suggests dependability to customers. The right kind of dependability.

    Which may be what the industry needs more than ever in 2006: publishers with “dependable” output who aren’t Marvel or DC.

    We’re really far too complacent an industry on far too many levels, and we have no right to be. Comics still have the potential to be great, but they’re never going to be great simply because we say they are or because we want them to be. They’re never going to be great by being a vast ocean of ugly, barely literate tripe. Sure, there are great comics out there now, but on average they’re really pretty bad. We need the average dramatically lifted.

    You can say TV is pretty bad and it does just fine, and it’s true. It is and it generally does, and it has a far larger audience than comics. But TV is also something that comes to its audience, and a lot of networks wouldn’t agree that it’s doing just fine at all, at least not for them. Movies have been pretty bad for the last couple of years despite several good ones, and Hollywood’s paying the price for that. It’s not enough to say that some other medium, or entertainment opportunity, is also crap, as if that somehow vindicates comics. It doesn’t.

    The main problem with comics, as we enter 2006, is that comics need to be better, and independent comics in particular have to be better, especially if they intend to promote themselves as the future of the industry. Which means every one of us has to make their comics better.

    This is the year every talent, every publisher, every retailer should seriously think about what they want to be. Where they want to be when 2007 rolls around. Because the only way comics will get better is if we make it happen, and the only way the business will become strong and viable again is if we make it happen.

    It’s a good year to decide for real what we want to be. Let’s get it done.

  • The first reviews of 2006.

    From Del Rey Manga:

    GHOST HUNT Vol 1 by Fuyumi Ono & Shiho Inada, 206 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

    What the title says: a team of ghostbusters, including a 15 year old girl and the 17 year old all-business boss she has a crush on, investigate paranormal activity. The stories are relatively standard lightweight ghostbusting material, redeemed by both the many approaches to exorcism practiced by the various religions found in Japan (various freelancers from various religions join the team) and the central character, the 15 year old girl through whose “normal” eyes we view the action, giving proceedings a credibility they wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s good.

    PASTEL Vol 1 by Toshikiko Kobayashi, 222 pg b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

    A shy 16 year old boy on the rebound meets the girl of his dreams on summer vacation, embarrassingly loses her, and returns home to learn she has moved in with him. But so far this series is a waste of nice art and appealing characters, since it seems to exist mainly to concoct excuses for hero Mugi to accidentally see virginal (and apparently unconscious tease) heroine Yuu naked and rub up against her body. If it had a story, it might be decent, but so far it’s about as eh as nice art and appealing characters can be.

    From Devil’s Due:

    SNAKE EYES DECLASSIFIED #4 by Brandon Jerwa & Emiliano Santalucia, 32 pg color comic ($2.95)

    I didn’t care much for this series early on (I never thought much of the GI JOE concept despite having written a couple early issues of the Marvel version) but now I see where this is going: more than simply an origin tale for Snake-Eyes, it’s building into the origin of Cobra, or at least many of their operatives, as one’s very evident and other shows up at the end. The story’s more relaxed – it involves Snake Eyes’ ninja training as an old enemy plots to kill him – allowing writer Jerwa to back off from forced melodrama that marred the early issues and artist Santalucia to open things up, experiment with design a little, and generally pull it all together. Pretty decent for a GI JOE book.

    BLACK HARVEST #2 by Josh Howard, 32 pg color comic ($3.25)

    The problem with this book is that, while it’s not bad (Howard’s fleshed-out stick figure style, particularly in his anorexic big-headed heroines, is something of an acquired taste, but it works fine in his worlds), we don’t come out the end of this issue knowing the slightest bit more than we did at the beginning. The hero’s a reporter trying to figure out what his story should be after he finds the long-missing heroine in the Texas desert, something unknown and weird has happened to the heroine, and sinister townspeople are somehow involved. I know Howard’s trying to build mood, but I hope he’s not back in DEAD@17 mode where nothing of note happens until a rushed final issue.

    DRAGONLANCE CHRONICLES by Andrew Dabb & Steve Kurth, 32 pg color comic ($2.95)

    AD&D fans will doubtless know and like what they’re getting here – murky pseudo-LORD OF THE RINGS heroic fantasy – and probably like it, but I don’t know what it’ll do for the rest of us. A band of adventurers, including a drawf, a wizard, and a couple humans including a barbarian hero and a sword-wielding princess (they reiterate their love for each other in nauseatingly treacly pseudo-Claremont blather) invade a dragon’s den for a book that will – damned if I know. Things don’t go well. Dabb’s script is passable, but he seems constrained by the source material, while the art is… I didn’t quite realize how not good Kurth’s figure work often is until I realized how splendidly he draws dragons. The characters and scenarios were so cookie-cutter I had trouble staying awake.

    FORGOTTEN REALMS: R.A. SALVATORE’S EXILE #2 by Andrew Dabb, Tim Seeley & numerous inkers, 48 pg color comic ($4.95)

    Until now this series has embodied the worst idiot excesses of this brand of heroic fantasy, though I guess the heroic renegade elf Drizzt a fairly popular novel character so it must have something going for it I’ve missed. Hunted by his own malicious, spider-worshipping race (again, the underlying material reads like someone threw LORD OF THE RINGS in a blender, while the Drizzt character owes an unhealthy debt to Michael Moorcock’s Elric), Drizzt hangs out in a city of miner dwarves until they get scared of retaliation and throw him out. He and his dwarf patron, along with a spirit panther, strike out on their own, pick up a new friend and find themselves targeted. Seeley’s art ranges from good to murdered by the inker, but Dabb, finding his pacing for once, makes the script pretty readable; what’s bad about the story certainly can’t be laid at his doorstep.

    From Real Buzz Studios:

    SERENITY #1-2 by Buzz Dixon & Min Kwon, 96 pg color trade paperbacks ($10.95@)

    No, nothing to do with Joss Wheden. This is a new Christian comic, apparently aimed at young teens and mimicking manga. (It calls itself “America’s premier inspirational manga” and the art is manga-influenced.) Christian comics have a bad rep, mainly because they’ve largely been shrill fire-and-brimstone screeds, but this is a more gentle, liberal Christian comic, making an effort to be inclusive and non-dogmatic. It generally works okay. Serenity’s a troubled, blue-haired, foul-mouthed kid in a new school who finds herself “adopted,” against her will, by a Christian clique. Dixon’s smart enough to not “convert” his heroine right away – by the end of the second book, she’s really only at truce with the Christians and still only vaguely viewing them as friends rather than marks – and he keeps things on a pleasant keel, with even his Christian kids showing various character flaws. It’s still a little preachy, particularly in the early part of the first book, the dialogue occasionally gets painful (as when Christian Justin Timberlake wannabe exclaims “Dawgz, we been dissed“) (punctuation gets a bit sloppy as well), and the mock-manga artwork needs more depth and backgrounds though it also gets better as it goes along, but overall it’s a nice little series. I can’t see it convincing anyone who isn’t already Christian, but kids looking for comics with Christian values that don’t come off as insane (see Jack Chick) could do a whole lot worse.

  • Gearing up to be an interesting year already politically, as mid-term elections approach. On the one side are the Republicans, so deep in crap thanks to the administration they’d seem to be drowning in it. On the other side, the Democrats, so thin on ideas and, apparently, courage it seems like they could drown in a thimble full of water. (The Democratic National Committee is now actively overlooking popular local candidates with a point of view in favor of supporting very vanilla candidates whose main qualification is an unwillingness to rock the boat, something the electorate may simply not want to go along with this year.) It’s a make or break year for the White House, though, since a Congress full of Democrats would likely be emboldened enough to prosecute an impeachment against both the President and the Vice President just out of spite, though there are currently plenty of Constitutional lawyers around drawing up fairly sound impeachment arguments against the Emperor-In-Chief.

    But things are already heating up economically, as most Americans, many of them more than happy to scoff at ne’er-do-well “credit cheats” last year when Congress passed the new bankruptcy laws as a golden gift to the credit card companies, open up their card statements this month to find their minimum necessary payments have been doubled. See, that’s Congress’ way – you remember them, they’re the ones who’ve authorized hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit to pay for torture camps and buying democracy in Iraq and things like that – of teaching Americans to be “fiscally responsible.” See, the banks spent at least the last 25 years handing out non-secured credit accounts like Halloween candy – certainly ever since Reagan-era “bank reform” laws removed all restrictions on allowable interest and generated all kinds of scandals in all kinds of banking areas – and now they’re in a panic about getting it back. Maybe they know something they’re not telling us. Say your family’s has been steadily paying $500 a month on their credit card bills. Not difficult with the number of cards handed out. Now you’ll be paying $1000 per month. This is, in other words, the credit card companies and Congress’ way of getting you to move your debt out of “unsecured” loans (though they’re a hell of a lot more secured after the bankruptcy bill than before) and into secured loans, like second mortgages AKA “equity” loans, which are known to be one of the great scams of banking. What’s interesting is that, to serve the banks, they’ve taken that amount of money – several billion dollars per month if you take America as a whole – out of the rest of the economy, meaning, theoretically, merchants as a whole will suffer, and non-essential/luxury items will certainly take a hit. Meanwhile, business debt, which way out values personal debt in this country, remains unencumbered because, after all, we can’t do anything that might affect business, can we?

    Speaking of Reagan-era bank deregulation, anyone remember the Savings & Loan scandals, where, capitalizing on deregulation, various gangsters – there’s really no other word for them – bought into S&Ls (which were created as low risk savings alternatives charged with making loans to the working public at usually better terms than regular banks) and turned them into their own private piggy banks and investing in high risk loans that basically existed to transfer money from the bank accounts of average citizens to the pockets of the S&L owners friends? (The office of Housing and Urban Development got into the same scam under Reagan and Bush the First, using government money rather than bank money and transforming an agency designed to facilitate low cost housing for the poor into an ATM for the rich and usually criminal.) You might recall American taxpayers ended up on the hook for a few billion dollars, bailing the S&Ls out and making appropriately hollow noises about why crime doesn’t pay while most of the perpetrators. Including one Neil (son of George I and brother of the Hand Puppet) Bush, who, despite having no banking experience, ended up running Colorado’s Silverado Savings And Loan – into the ground – in what appears to have been an operation connected to CIA laundering of Contra drug money… except we all know the CIA never had anything to do with Contra drugrunning because the CIA did an internal audit and declared themselves cleared of any such charges).

    Well, turns out the Iraq War is having similar effects on pocketbooks of those close to a sitting president, also while American citizens foot the bill. No, I’m not talking about companies like Bechtel and Cheney’s Halliburton, though they’re certainly raking in their share, even as our soldiers roam around dangerous territory with bulletproof vests that don’t stop bullets, armored cars with no armor, and all the other accoutrements the Administration feels are so necessary to “supporting the troops.” (Which is, after all, their #1 concern.) No, I’m talking about – look, there’s that name again: Neil Bush. And other Hand Puppet siblings, raking in what’s pushing toward a billion dollars in no-bid contracts, heading (with no applicable experience) companies (with no experience) handling myriad tasks in Iraq. If that ain’t democracy in action, I don’t know what is.

    Then again, democracy hasn’t been working out so well for us, which may be why the Hand Puppet is so eager to dismantle it here at home. Iraq has gone to the Shi’ites, who want the USA out, want the Sunnis out, wants normalized relations with Iran, want all kinds of things that we just don’t want them to have. (Of course, whatever group ended up in democratically-elected power in Iraq, and anyone with a third grade math education could have figured it out it’d be the Shi’ites, would have wanted things we don’t want them to have.) Venezuela continues to elect socialist Hugo Chavez to run the country despite our various efforts to unseat him, while Bolivia just elected a socialist former coca grower to institute numerous reforms, especially getting US influence (and that means the DEA anti-cocaine paramilitary) the hell out of their country. It looks like there may be a reason Che Guevara (murdered in Bolivia in ’67) became a pop hero last year.

    But the Hand Puppet has other worries: insurrection in the ranks. As Nixon demonstrated, this is the great hobgoblin of all Imperial Presidents. Suddenly even Republicans in Congress are getting nervous about the war, illegal wiretaps, etc. Suddenly the Democrats are threatening to filibuster another Supreme Court justice candidate into oblivion. When the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is asked at a press conference what our soldiers in Iraq are supposed to do if they see Iraqi security (including former Ba’athist death squads organized by our government to crush possible insurrection among Sunnis, as reported last year by the New York Times) abusing prisoners, he answers “It is absolutely the responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene and stop it,” forcing Secretary Of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to step forward and amend that: turns out, as far as he’s concerned, they only have to file a report. Poll numbers remain down, leaks are everywhere. When news gets out that the NSA is illegally wiretapping Americans by Presidential order even while the Hand Puppet is assuring his ever less complacent audiences that such things could never happen on his watch, how does he handle the news?

    The same way every Imperial President does: he swears to mount an investigation to find and punish the rotten little whistleblower who let the American public know what was going on in their own country. Like I said, if that ain’t democracy in action, I don’t know what is.

  • NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS:

    I haven’t been reading DC’s INFINITE CRISIS, but I got a note the other day from a friend who has and asked, “Is the Earth-2 Superman a metaphor for a crazed right-winger who wants to bring back the “good old days” no matter how many people he’ll end up sacrificing?” Not having read it, I don’t know, but I suddenly find myself fascinated by this idea. Given that it’s not only Superman, but the original Superman, I somehow can’t see it being DC’s intent, though.

    I just realized it’s been a year today as I write this since Will Eisner died, and close to six since Gil Kane died. They, and many others, are the giants on whose shoulders we stand. A toast to those who are gone.

    Might have done this last week, but here’s wishing everyone love, peace and prosperity in the coming year. For those who’ve been asking, I’m still pulling together select scripts for a script book, and I’ll let you know as soon as it’s ready. Likewise, news on my new projects for IDW and another company as soon as I can. I’ve spent the last week mapping out the coming year. Now all I have to do is make it happen.

    The annual Consumer Electronics Show is in town this week, so I’ll probably be spending most of Thursday and Friday there, with a report on all the latest electronic gadgets in next week’s column.

    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.) Your clue this week is a quote from Cervantes: “Even here in Aragon is the truth found by he who searches.” Or something like that; it’s a loose translation. I used to hate DON QUIXOTE but over the years it grew on me – and I’m sorry if I slurred that a little, but I’ve still got New Year’s Eve in me. (Just between you and me, I’ll be shocked – shocked, I tell you! – if anyone figures this one out. A special pilfered-from-Marvel’s-wastebasket-when-they-were-throwing-the-last-of-them-out No Prize to anyone who gets it.)

    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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