SPEAK HARD: the stillbirth and fall of a comics company
NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD: Explaining the week, PAT NOVAK redux, assessing New York, TV notes & More
FLASHBACK – PRUDE AND PREJUDICE : the two-faced war on sex
FLASHBACK – 9-11/IRAQ TIMELINE: because there’s no such thing as paranoid enough
FLASHBACK – RETHINKING COMICS: strategies for reinvention
Speakeasy was one of those companies that wore the sickly specter of its own demise on its sleeve like a badge of honor, but never seemed to realize it. I only met Adam Fortier once and he seemed like a perfectly nice guy. When Speakeasy was starting up, I had people telling me Fortier was a marketing genius, on the basis of TRANSFORMERS, which he licensed and shepherded back to popularity. Those people, particularly the ones who had already decided to work with Speakeasy, usually got annoyed when I suggested that having the sense to mine a formerly popular property with a tapable fan base, while commendable, isn’t on the same level of being able to convince audiences to spend money on properties they’ve never heard of before. People, especially those chasing their own dreams, like to believe in a magic touch. I’d like to believe in a magic touch.
But magic, in comics as in most businesses, is mostly a matter of intelligence and preparation.
Which isn’t to suggest Fortier is unintelligent. He was unprepared, for reasons I’ve discussed before. It’s a funny thing about comics that so many people who can do perfectly well in other businesses let their fan programming take over when it comes to comics. Since they became actual if tenuous influences in the business (not to mention an ever-expanding talent pool) in the early ’70s, fans have always had a distorted view of what the comics business is supposed to be about. (Them, mainly. That’s only an observation.) People who don’t start out as fans usually don’t come into the comics business, so for the past 30+ years, the industry’s perception of itself has increasingly distorted, but fans turned pros and fans turned publishers both tend to find out the hard way that what the ypresume the business is isn’t really the case. As I said, I don’t know Fortier, and I have no way of really knowing what was going on in his head while he was building Speakeasy, but what I’ve seen of the building blocks indicate most of the usual fannish expectations.
The current rough market climate for comics and the direct market’s emphasis on DC-Marvel product are partly blamed for the Speakeasy demise, but any publisher for whom these factors are a surprise isn’t doing their homework. Early on, Speakeasy fell into the big trap of comics publishing: trying, like “the big companies,” to be all things to all people. This is an area where comics logic is counterintuitive. Most publishers rationalize that a wide array of titles, with an array of genres and styles, will draw in a wide array of readers and create a customer base.
This is not smart. It does in more companies than any other factor, even (maybe especially) those with large startup pots. It calls for large initial expenditures, and in this business there’s no way to predict your level of return. A lot of money spent slowly creates a buffer that allows companies time to assess and adjust expectations. Spending a lot of money quickly on comics publishing for this market and banking on being one of the extremely rare exceptions that has a runaway success out of the gate is pretty much the same thing as burning it.
My earliest knowledge of Speakeasy came from them fishing (through a blind) for concepts to fit in with the superhero universe they were basing their company around, though as far as I know the “creator-owned” line, patterned after Image but at lower rates, was also in process then. I saw the bible to their universe – I probably still have it around here somewhere – laying out its secret origin, developments, central characters, etc. Speakeasy ultimately never much emphasized their superhero universe, but then they never much emphasized anything.
Two things can be gleaned from this:
1) If you’re starting a comics company, don’t start a “superhero universe.” Even if you’re doing superheroes. They don’t work. The ones that have stayed, Marvel and DC, are ones that stumbled into themselves over decades, they didn’t spring full-blown from a master plan. That’s the kind, frustrated as they can be, that have a little life to them. The prefab universes have – well, let’s see – they’ve all died! Audiences don’t care. Even Wildstorm, the longest lived of the other universes, only pays lip service to the concept of their “universe” anymore. You can tell just from reading them that THE AUTHORITY, SLEEPER and MAJESTIC don’t really take place in the same universe. There’s just too much discrepancy between them. But it’s also idiotic to insist they should, beyond lip service. If something in WILDCATS should contradict something in PLANETARY, so what? They’re different books, they’re telling different stories. That’s what they’re supposed to do. At any rate, if you’re going to publish superhero comics there’s not only no need to create a superhero universe – just let one accrue over time, like the big boys did – but statistics indicate superhero universes are detrimental to your company’s health. They not only don’t draw in readers, they may chase readers away by implying they have to buy multiple titles when they’re really only interested in one.
2) There is no good way to market to the direct market. Structurally, the direct market is predicated on the pre-existent. Marketers need a two-tiered marketing strategy – marketing first to retailers to get them to order books, then marketing to consumers when books are available for purchase – but that has really become a nearly impossible three-tiered marketing situation. Retailers are, quite naturally, hesitant to order comics they aren’t sure they can sell. Which I’m sure became a problem for Speakeasy, as it is for most comics companies. To get retailers truly interested, then, the publisher must create a market for their books before they solicit retailers. Which means another earlier marketing tier to build consumer interest so customers can influence retailer orders, but consumers are unlikely to get too excited by properties they’ve had no real exposure to. So we end up with a worm quickly devouring its own tail. The short version of this is that the main marketing tool is the blurb in Diamond’s catalog – I’m told advertising doesn’t have that much influence because most retailers are trained to no longer look at the ads (retailers: if this is untrue, please let me know) – and that’s like dropping a needle in a haystack of needles. Arguably, publishers should put much more creative thought into their marketing than their line; in theory, comics talent is creative enough to handle the creative thought for the latter. But marketing is grunt work, creating stories and characters is the glamour work, and almost everyone gets into comics for the glamour. Such as it is.
So what’s a mother to do?
The comics industry has morphed radically over the past few years, and the time of the all-purpose publisher is mostly dead. Ironically, popular interest in comics may be at its highest since World War II. Last weekend’s New York Convention was so great a success it bordered on a disaster, with so many people showing up that police were forced to close the doors and turn back anyone trying to buy admission on the spur of the moment. The rampant rise of the graphic novel as a force in the book and comics markets was highlighted, with the information that two-thirds of the almost $300 million dollars in graphic novel sales came through bookstores, not comics shops. Most comics fans, hermetically sealed, still insist the general public hold comics in disdain and thinks they’re for kids, but it’s no longer true, and I suspect the reason many maintain the fable is that it allows them to continue to want, read and even create comics mired at their personal comfort level, usually set when they got interested enough in comics to become fans. But it’s obvious there are huge opportunities out there right now.
It’s also no longer possible, or desirable, to be a “full service” publisher, with dozens of titles on the stands, unless you have an economic structure to support it. (Marvel and DC do; Viz and TokyoPop, whose economies are mostly predicated on cheap reprints from overseas, do.) Even Marvel and DC aren’t really full service publishers. They may publish other material, even have wings like Vertigo set up specifically to publish it, but their core is the superhero book and both companies service that core uber alles. Because that’s where they live or they die and they both know it. Speakeasy, like most other companies, pumped out title after title, across a spread of genres, but generated no coherent company identity.
Anyone considering a new comics startup should first do a market study, find a niche they can colonize, and focus on it. Start small, with one or two books. Machiavelli said it best: in order to exact revenge, one must first win. A dozen titles launched at once dilute the potential market. Find one thing that works – it’ll take trial and error, unfortunately – then build on that. Shotgunning titles is for idiots.
It should be said that building a line of comics on untested and unknown talents is, unfortunately, very difficult, unless those talents happen to be extremely talented. Like stop traffic talented. There just weren’t any of those at Speakeasy (or many other independent publishers, that I’m aware of). Even with stop traffic talented talent, they then have to be paired with the right product, and they have to be able to get that product out on a regular enough basis that both retailers and consumers get in the habit of wanting and expecting it. Even Marvel and DC have trouble pulling off this formula. Without stop traffic talent, unknown talent really bring nothing to the table for a publisher except filler to put between covers and, usually, a willingness to work cheaply. Often very cheaply. (Speakeasy’s creator-owned line was ostensibly underwritten by creators themselves, though it seems unlikely that Fortier, to his credit, is going to push them hard. Also his credit, he’s also resisting going into bankruptcy to protect creator-owned titles from becoming company assets to be distributed to creditors.)
But if all you’re looking for is to fill pages to maintain a quota of books, you’re not much of a publisher. Just filling pages, as many anthology editors have discovered, is not enough to generate good books, and another unfortunate condition of the current market is that you not only have to publish good work (or work that somehow spikes a significant enough audience’s adrenaline) but in order to get anyone to pay attention it has to be significantly better work, in some way, than they can get elsewhere. Otherwise why come to you? This is the downfall of most independent superhero comics: they don’t do anything different from what can bet got at Marvel or DC. If you’re doing other material – westerns, mysteries, romances, whatever – trying to draw in an audience from other markets, the task is just as hard. It’s not enough to do a western better than those done in comics. A western comic has to be better, in some way, westerns done anywhere, in any medium. Any publisher that wants others to come to their table has to bring something special to the table to start with. That’s just the way it is.
The fact is that Speakeasy didn’t, and few comics publishers do. Now that the eyes of the world are back on us, publishers, talent and fans all seem happier to pretend they aren’t, that the climate hasn’t changed, and the end result of this will be to create a newer market where that’s true, where all potential new audiences have been driven away. It’s our choice, and by not making a choice we’re making it. Maybe that’s what comics publishers want, but hopefully someone out there is more ambitious. When it comes down to it, most comics publishers aren’t, and that includes Speakeasy.
One other Speakeasy failure should be mentioned, because so many comics publishers these days are bound and determined to take the same path: the idea that Hollywood will somehow save them. That possible salvation was a lot more concrete in Speakeasy’s case than for most, as Ardusty Entertainment (what movies or shows has Ardusty actually made, by the way?) supposedly cut a deal to take over the company. But months dragged by and the deal never finalized, and that was apparently the final kiss of death. (Rule of thumb: if the money’s not there within sixty days after a “deal” is “made,” it’s more than likely never coming, and that’s what Fortier discovered.) Even if the money had come in, it’s funny how many comics companies collapse and blow away after “a new round of investment.” Investors put additional strain on company expectations, and influxes of money rarely overcome the behavior, policies and attitudes that made the company need new money in the first place. Money is great, but when you throw it on a forest fire, you just end up with more smoke.
An autopsy of what Speakeasy did wrong isn’t really necessary. They pretty much did everything wrong. But that’s not really unexpected, because they pretty much did everything the way most comics startups have done them for the last 15 years, the way comics startups have been led to believe they should do it, and they ended up the same way as most comics startups. Anyone who didn’t see it coming either wasn’t looking or chose not to look. And that’s the bottom line.
Still working on the screenplay and I like the idea of a sort of vacation in February, so I was planning to take this week off as well, then Speakeasy went and screwed it up. So I’m off for the week after this section; the rest is blasts from the past, but hopefully enjoyable ones.
Last week I ran PAT NOVAK FOR HIRE pages, without word balloons; it’s a semi-tongue-in-cheek hardboiled mystery graphic novel artist Tom Mandrake and I created for Moonstone Books, based on an old radio show of the same name. Funny thing: Moonstone sent me the lettered pages Wednesday morning, so I popped them over to CBR honcho Jonah Weiland, who someone manages to also be the one who does all the grunt work, so he could replace the unlettered pages with them. But by then Jonah was on his way to New York, for the many stories out of the New York Convention that you’ll find on our main page. So, though I’d hoped to avoid it, as mentioned last week here are the first six lettered pages of the story. If you like it, pester your retailer for the graphic novel, Star order #DEC053113, available from Diamond. But if you can’t get no satisfaction there (retailers occasionally being an odd bunch), you can order the book directly from Moonstone.
As mentioned above, and by various people I know who went, once you got past the lines and the door, the New York Convention turned out to be quite the event. San Diego On The Hudson they’re calling it. Tens of thousands of people, which is pretty impressive considering New York City has been a morgue for conventions ever since Phil Seuling (who founded the original “national” comics convention that ran every Fourth of July weekend for many years; Phil also invented the direct market) died and Creation Con drove the area into the ground. On the really plus side, while there was plenty of emphasis on traditional comics fan programming the convention also spotlit more upscale and ambitious aspects of comics, which is something we as an industry should focus Congratulations. Now if they can just move it to May. No word that I’ve heard from Megacon, though, which seems to have been eclipsed this year, which is too bad. I wouldn’t want to see Megacon go away. A strong mix of national and regional shows would make for a healthier business. And, of course, I hope the NY show next year (they’ve already signed for it) has the sense not to oversell tickets if they know they’re approaching or beyond capacity, and that the workers at the show are better trained on procedure and locations. From what I’ve heard, trained at all would be a nice change.
Former Robocop/Buckaroo Banzai Peter Weller showed up as a deranged, defrocked CTU agent on 24 (Fox, 9P Mondays) this week, and… wow. Age has actually made his face… almost expressive. Remember when people used to talk about “hulking out?” On 24, they jack out – what we used to call “finding their inner jack” – and longtime Secret Service whipping boy Agent Aaron was the latest in that time honored tradition. Next episode brings the return of Bauer fils Kim (Elisha Cuthbert) who will likely more quickly out of the CTU offices because there’s no room to run in there. Run, Kim, run! Meanwhile, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (SciFi, 10P Fridays) ended a streak of three forgettable episodes with an amazing episode about the Cylon enemy on their new homeworld of Caprica, formerly owned by the defeated humans. Some of the character bits were remarkable, with two Cylons, played by Grace Park and Tricia Helfer, truly taking their places among the best characters on the show and on television. Park’s character has became easily the most sympathetic and human on the show, in either of her incarnations, while Helfer, who I originally didn’t care much for, is doing a stunning job, now playing three different characters on the show who are identical but with distinct, and distinctive, personalities. British actor James Callis also did a spectacular job this episode, playing a second character far removed from his regular one. By the way, as near as I can tell when B:G ends its season next week, the recent BBC run of DR. WHO will replace it. Don’t miss the show. I recently finished watching the run, starring film actor Christopher Eccleston as the Doctor and pop star Billie Piper as his latest, arguably best companion, and it’s great. The stories mostly still have that pop Dr. Who veneer, but there’s a very serious underpinning to them and to the new Doctor’s personality. Like most people, I started watching DR. WHO with the Tom Baker episodes, and Baker was terrific, but, in retrospect, Eccleston has easily eclipsed him to be the best Doctor, and the season turns out to be amazingly well-plotted, thirteen episodes that ultimately become one episode, with plenty of surprises. Like I said, don’t miss it.
Comics Cover Challenge returns next week, along with a ton of reviews and a political update. In the meantime, if what you get below doesn’t satisfy you, 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?
Oh, and the script book as well. It’ll be ready within two weeks, a potpourri of comics scripts I’ve written across my career, in various formats. Best not to expect any material from Marvel or DC books – trademark conflicts – but it’ll be a good selection anyway.
See you next week in a brand new show.
Is this top advice from the writer of adult industry leader Vivid Video’s new comics line (now available – at least last I heard – from Avatar Press? Or is it blistering social commentary on America’s current state of increasing sexual repression?
Answer: it’s a search engine con.
Don’t know if anyone reads John Dvorak, longtime computer industry pundit whose columns appear in PC Magazine. Dvorak’s been a favorite for a long time, regularly serving up cranky commentary on industry trends and what passes for juicy gossip. (In his personal blog, he discusses many topics having nothing to do with computers, including, as I do here, politics; he’s one of the few reporters in any field to pick up the revelation that one “Jeff Gannon,” a fake reporter from a fake news agency given credentials by the White House, was most likely to have exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame a couple years ago, theoretically in retaliation for her ambassador husband Joseph Wilson’s refusal to toe the administration line on Iraq’s mythical nuclear program… “Gannon’s” “news agency” turns out to be a front for a GOP-supportive website…) One of his recent columns discussed the magic words that can bring tons of traffic to any website: free porn. (His first column on the subject, from two years ago, still gets an inordinate number of hits. His new column expands the “magic words” to “free porn magic for you.”)
So I thought I’d give it a try. As an experiment. But, if it works, I really have to wonder:
What the hell is wrong with us?
It’s been, what, four damn decades since it became acceptable to acknowledge that sex exists? I remember back in high school discussing advertising subliminals, like the supposed shape of a woman’s breast in the ice cubes in liquor ads and nonsense like that, with my best friend, and he just said, “Ads are so openly sexy now, why bother?”
Let’s take comics. Rich Johnston on Monday unveiled the new “nipplegate” scandal coming out of DC: the cover of Wildstorm‘s THE INTIMATES features a more salacious cover than solicited, enraging some retailers. Not that I blame retailers – they have their idiotically repressed local communities to deal with – and it does seem like a counter-intuitive move for a company that had traditionally tried to avoid making their comics returnable. And the book’s not being marketed as “mature.” (The labeling fetish continues.) On the other hand…
You’re going to bitch about sexual content in a book called THE INTIMATES?!! Maybe I’m reading too much into this, or maybe it’s got something to do with having actually, you know, opened a dictionary once or twice, but… isn’t the title sort of a tipoff? Labels aside?
Speaking of Nipplegate, how many people read Media Life‘s exposé revealing the vast, and I mean vast majority of complaints about lewdness in media to the Federal Communications Commission come exclusively from the tiny membership of the ultraconservative Parents Television Council, which dedicates itself to turning everything on TV into LEAVE IT TO BEAVER. The PTC spearheaded the Nipplegate campaign as well.
Anyway, considering the great number of comics out there constantly trying to sell themselves on nothing but salacious sexual content, it’s hard to imagine many people getting worked up about THE INTIMATES‘ lapse of judgment. (Considering the “sexy cover” is one of the most unerotic images I’ve ever seen.) If sex didn’t sell, people wouldn’t buy it. They certainly wouldn’t go online to hunt it out for free. The currently acceptable argument (meaning positing any different one automatically marks you as immoral) is the way to deal with this is to ban sexy images, at a minimum. A puritanical prohibition, in other words.
Here’s the deep dirty secret about prohibitions:
They exist to make money.
People are funny. They don’t like to be told no. Tell them they can’t have something – for all you Biblethumpers out there, does a story involving Eden and apples ring a bell? – and they want to know why not. Particularly if it’s available to someone else. In a totalitarian society, it’s possible to enforce prohibitions; you simply break the will of your populace by any means necessary. But, in a capitalist system, any prohibited item becomes a profitable commodity. Look at Prohibition in the ’20s. It didn’t stop anyone from drinking, it just made a lot of criminals rich, and we’ve been paying the piper on that one ever since. Drug prohibitions have done the same thing. Where there’s a prohibited drug, there’s someone getting rich selling it. That’s a reason marijuana has always been high (no pun intended) on the law enforcement hit (no pun intended) list: the ease with which it can be grown makes it a potential grassroots (no pun intended) commodity. Potentially profitless, in other words. Something widely available to everyone has no market value. It’s pretty hard to grow cocaine or heroin in your basement, and crystal meth is a pretty dangerous proposition, but marijuana? If you can grow a ficus, you can grow pot. So what happens when marijuana’s prohibited?
The price goes up. Way up. And people can get rich selling it.
Which brings us back to sex.
You want sex to stop selling? Stop trying to prohibit it. Kids might find out about sex? Hell, entire generations of families used to live together in one room huts, standard. Our ancestors were well aware of sex when they were kids and it didn’t stop the march of western civilization. The fact is: if no one makes a big deal out of something, it ceases to become a big deal. (The administration has based pretty much their entire foreign and domestic policy on that principle; when was the last time pointing up all the lies the White House used to leverage support for the invasion of Iraq got any response more than “yeah, so what?”)
Of course, without titillation, the advertising industry would be in the dumper; people might think about products long enough to realize most of them are crap. The music industry, wallowing in decades of bad decisions and its own arrogance toward the public, would have its last legs kicked out from under it if acts like Britny Spears couldn’t be sold by showing skin. Comics… think of all the independent comics lines that would belly up tomorrow if we started thinking of sexual content as a commonplace and not something to get excited about. (For most “sexy” comics, that’s already in process.) It’s no coincidence that porn kept Fantagraphics going for years when none of their mostly excellent high end books would do the trick. (Now, amusingly, it’s PEANUTS giving them a huge boost.) And hundreds of other businesses, large and small, would be forced to find a new come-on. The last thing a businessman wants to hear isn’t “you’re evil and you should be banned,” it’s “who cares?”
And that’s the way to deal with these things. Some idiot shows a nipple on national TV? Who cares? A comic with a salacious cover? Who cares? The vast majority of this stuff is people trying to draw attention to their product. If no one reacts, if it doesn’t bump sales, the behavior stops.
Face it, repression and prohibition are marketing tools. There’s always a buck, physical or spiritual, to be made from them. Bertold Brecht knew: morality is only wallet deep.
Free porn is right. Free porn, and free ourselves. And forget “just say no.” Just say “so?”
1997: a private policy group forms called Project For A New American Century. It includes Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitze, Richard Armitage and Jeb Bush – all insiders or confidantes in the current administration – and promotes American military and economic dominance over the rest of the world. Among the group’s proposals is the establishment of a permanent American military base in the Middle East.
1998: a strategy paper by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, urge then-President Clinton to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power, citing Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” and claiming Saddam poses a threat to the USA.
1999: The Hand Puppet, then governor of Texas and “writing a book” to improve his public image in anticipation of a run for the presidency, confides to his ghostwriter that he wants to step out of his father’s shadow specifically by effecting regime change in Iraq, something the elder Bush “failed” to do.
July 4 2001: Despite “shoot on sight” order signed by Clinton, Osama bin Laden is treated for a kidney infection at the American Hospital in Dubai, where he informs CIA operative Larry Mitchell of an impending attack on the USA.
Sept. 11 2001: On hearing of the World Trade Center attack, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proclaims it will give them a rationale for attacking Iraq.
Late 2001: The President and Prime Minister Tony Blair meet to discuss an invasion of Iraq. Blair insists Afghanistan must be attacked first.
April 2002: During a meeting at Crawford TX, Blair agrees to support an American invasion of Iraq
July 22, 2002: a memo issued by Downing Street summarizes a meeting between British and American authorities during which the invasion of Iraq is discussed. Among the statements in the memo: American intelligence are being fixed around the policy of invading Iraq; it would be necessary to “create conditions” that would legalize the war (indicating they knew it would be illegal otherwise); an ultimatum must be cast in terms that Saddam Hussein will reject.
Late 2002: Using intelligence already dismissed by British intelligence (as 2004 memoes reveal) and known by American intelligence to be largely fabricated by CIA asset, international conman, would-be ruler of Iraq and, as it later turns out, Iranian agent Ahmed Chalabi, America begins calling for the dismantling of “weapons of mass destruction” Saddam doesn’t have. His denials are dismissed as dissembling.
Dec. 2002: Saddam Hussein secretly offers to fully cooperate in the war on terrorism, fully support any Arab-Israeli peace plan, give the USA “first priority” to Iraq oil and minerals, aid US strategic interests in the Middle East, and “direct US involvement on the ground in disarming Iraq.” His overtures are rebuffed.
2003: On the advice of Colin Powell, the Administration presses the United Nations for a war resolution against Iraq. The UN pauses the process to send weapons inspectors, who find nothing. The absence of WMDs is proclaimed by the United States as evidence that Saddam is hiding them.
Early 2003: Claims that Saddam Hussein has been trying to buy fissionable material from Niger for the production of nuclear bombs, a cornerstone of American arguments for the invasion, are proven to be a hoax by the American government’s own investigator. American officials, especially VP Dick Cheney, continue to repeat the claim nonetheless.
April 2003: Unwilling to justify war in the absence of any evidence of threat, the United Nations refuses to issue a second war resolution. The USA then declares war, and hastily assembles its own “United Nations” of “support” countries, most of which become involved over the objections of its citizenry after being offered substantial economic incentives by America.
2004: Following extensive investigation, American military search teams are unable to come up with any evidence for the existence of WMDs in Iraq.
Make up your own minds.
That’s neither a good or bad thing. I think every talent in comics has to periodically reinvent themselves or they become stale. (I mean, come on, you don’t really want to see someone writing the same way they did in the ’80s, did you?) Grant Morrison did it, rebuilding himself from the “outré genius” behind his original INVISIBLES run and DOOM PATROL rethink into a mainstream superstar via JLA. Warren Ellis did it (though for it was more part of the longterm game plan) by shunting off work-for-hire books to creator-owned projects like TOKYO STORM WARNING. Even Alan Moore did it, coming back from his post FROM HELL sabbatical to update the superhero comic with TOM STRONG, PROMETHEA, etc.
These things can make for an interesting, tricky balancing job. Everyone has their own focus and obsessions, and dumping those is the best way to strip any semblance of personality from your work. Generally not considered a consummation devoutly to be wish’d (though I’ve had people tell me that’s exactly what’s expected of a “true professional). On the other hand, adapting to circumstances is a cornerstone of evolutionary behavior: change or die. (Or, as Stewart Brand once put it, to an anaerobic organism, oxygen is death.) Every so often adjustments are called for.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about shifting styles. (I’m not placing myself in Grant, Warren or Alan’s company, by the way. They were just good examples of successful reinventions.) To some extent, the project determines the style, and, particularly in work-for-hire situations, you’re usually subject to editorial taste as well. For a large part of my career, I’ve been essentially a hired gun, doing the job I get paid to do. Even some of my own creations I’ve approached that way. (cf. TWILIGHT MAN, at First Comics, what I still think is a good idea that veered disastrously off-course as it collapsed from twelve issues to four, whole storylines were thrown out, etc. I tend not to separate character and storyline – the two inextricably shape each other, which isn’t an especially useful sensibility in an industry where character is often consider this thing over here and story that thing over there that are only in the same place because it’s expected – so disrupting storylines inevitably disrupts character for me.) But I try to approach stories in particular ways, and I’ve never been particularly satisfied with the restrictions on narrative in comics. For instance, I always hated the method, thankfully all but gone now but still prevalent when I first entered the business, of captioning a panel with information already represented in the art. (What Denny O’Neil called “idiotproofing the script.”) When I was writing WHISPER I always found I had 1.5 issues worth of material I wanted in each issue, and developed what I called a “foldover narrative” – captions that didn’t immediately appear to have any direct connection to the story in the panels, but which put forth certain information that juxtaposed (fans of Burroughs and Gysin’s “cut up” writing will understand this, ’cause that’s where I nicked the idea from) with the art and dialogue to create new information connections. As time went on, the placement of these “foldover” narratives became increasingly random, and the results more interesting. (To me, anyway; some thought they were brilliant and some thought they were unreadable rubbish.) A variation on this showed up in PUNISHER MINI-SERIES: CIRCLE OF BLOOD and the PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING graphic novel, where, following the Punisher’s traditional first person narration, I wrote very coolly expressed, almost hyperrational, thoughts for the Punisher to intentionally clash with the white hot expressions Mike Zeck gave him, to suggest his underlying psychopathic nature. After WHISPER, I rethought things and came up with my “Paper Movies” concept in my JFK assassination crime thriller BADLANDS, where virtually all information aside from time and place settings was carried entirely in the art and fairly sparse dialogue, foreshadowing (not that I was the first, by any means) what’s now become known as “widescreen comics.” The “comics as movies” approach is one I’ve tried where possible over the last decade, but now I’m thinking it has outlived its usefulness.
Of course, it’s a bad idea to be doctrinaire about these things. No one approach will be good for all talents, or all stories. But having a philosophy doesn’t hurt.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of graphic novels, including some highly acclaimed ones, and many of them just don’t seem like much to me. Lots of pages, lots of pictures, no real content. No weight. Not even particularly good writing in many of them. Many read like… well, like comic books.
There are a lot of theories about comic books. Probably the most popular one among purist is the “comics as film” notion, or, more properly, the idea that the art in comics should be the main narrative vehicle, extending from the underlying principle that what separates comics from other art forms is the use of pictures, which is at least partly true. The logical extension of this is that the perfect comic would be one with no words at all – something that’s tried with passing success now and then but always comes across as an interesting (hopefully) novelty, but not something that usually suggests a steady diet. There’s certainly an argument to be made for the “pure art as pure comics” approach – I’ve made it myself now and then – but lately I’ve gotten increasingly dissatisfied with such a limited viewpoint.
Fact is, what separates comics from other narrative forms isn’t the use of art but the interrelationship between art and language, and the ability of the medium to merge the two into a third thing that’s both and neither. A long time ago, a friend of mine pointed out that until color became available in movies, black and white wasn’t really possible. By which he meant: using black and white film as a narrative device wasn’t possible until something other than black and white was available. (The same can be said for comics.) When everything is black and white, black and white evokes nothing. It’s the environment. When color is introduced, black and white becomes just one more element in the palette, and can be applied in new and different ways.
This is also largely the case with “silent” comics. They only have significance in a medium where use of language is the commonplace. In other words, the language in comics is as pivotal to comics as the art is (meaning, likewise, the age-old argument over whether the writing or the art is more important in comics is a false argument; the only significant thing is what happens at their intersection.)
And I’m thinking: there’s got to be some way to make the writing in comics better, in a formal sense. As we shift from comics to graphic novels, the weaknesses of the older form writing are just becoming too apparent to ignore. We need a new density of content, a weight, to make the new forms worthwhile. Simply transmigrating the style of the former to the latter is stupidity and suicide.
I don’t have his ALTER EGO interview, but in it Gil Kane suggested a new sort of narrative in comics, where captions were used in a Mickey Spillane storybook kind of way. He employed this in his abortive HIS NAME IS SAVAGE, above, where pictures of prison guards beating our hero are accompanied by descriptive text:
“For an instant, silence hung as heavily as the surrounding mist. Then the air exploded with flashing truncheons, raining lacerations and bruises on Savage’s back. He sagged under the furious hammering. Blows thudded with sickening impact onto his shoulders; well-aimed jabs gouged with terrible pressure at his kidney; sharp raps slammed against the base of his spine… But through the pounding punishment Savage’s coal-hot eyes never left the leering face of Captain Bayard…”
Gil’s philosophy on this was that this would create a density of effect that would give the reader a much deeper visceral (or intellectual, depending on the scene) connection with the material that would go beyond the standard comics experience. Gil never really got the chance to work out what he wanted – his main vehicles, …SAVAGE and the later sword-and-sorcery epic BLACKMARK were too short lived and life after that for him was mostly the more controlled work-for-hire comics – and he was aware of all the flaws of those pieces, but he still held out hold for such a style (nobody gets it dead right the first time anyway) and spoke of it constantly, and we pleasantly argued about it regularly. At that point, I can’t say I was really on board with it. I agreed with him about better content in comics, but I wasn’t sold on the “Spillane narrative” no matter how much I loved those books, and I wasn’t really sure what constituted “better” content in comics. I’m still not.
But now I’m thinking he had something there, at least in the concept of merging art and text for a denser fiction, a denser experience. Part of it’s economic survival; the price of a standard comic has gone up precipitously in the last 45 years, from a dime to almost $3, but most comics are still essentially the same reading experience they were in 1963. Obviously they’re generally more sophisticated in terms of story structure, but sophistication of the content hasn’t quite kept up with inflation, or, for the most part, with the general sophistication of all age groups of American society. The stars of superhero comics are generally a little more flawed, but they’re still mostly in the set Spider-Man mode if you scratch beneath the surface. Independent comics may have more varied characterization and more novel stories, but many of them fall into other traps. Gil, in a later COMICS JOURNAL interview, noted
“That’s what I though Harvey [Kurtzman] and Will [Eisner]’s lesson was… that all of the pictures formed a continuity and if one picture overwhelmed all the rest it broke continuity. Only the narrative has a value. It’s like in an animated film; no individual cel dominates… I think you’d have to build a whole new audience for the rhythms and understated qualities of TWO-FISTED TALES. Today you’ve got to snare the audience any way you can, with long panels, by short panels, by using whatever hype you can on the goddamn page. And when you think that way, the storytelling is subordinate to the hype… Everything becomes subordinate to the effect.”
There’s got to be some way – some serious intent – to recover what we’ve lost, and improve on it. There has to be some new merger of art and language in comics form – not necessarily what Gil attempted on …SAVAGE, or even what Moore, Williams and Gray have managed on PROMETHEA but something – to enable comics reading to be a real experience. We’ve had some true “graphic novels” (I’d still rank FROM HELL as the first real graphic “novel,” a book that can stand up against any novel anywhere) but it’s time for all “graphic novels” to at least attempt to approach that state. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea for pamphlets to think in those terms as well, considering so many pamphlets are mainly being published now as grist for the more profitable collections.
And now I’m rethinking my own approach to my work. But I’m not there yet.
I’m not looking to start a school, or crusade, or whatever. This isn’t a manifesto. I’m just saying…
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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