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Issue #234

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #234
  • THIS WEEK:

    DRINK UP?: network or web of evil?

    RED LETTER DAY: catching up with e-mail on Speakeasy, Diamond, small publishers, new approaches to comics, comics conventions and more, with the usual pithy responses

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS

  • I was over at The Engine, sticking my nose into things (even after everything I’ve ever written in this column and MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, there are still a lot of delusional aspiring pros out there who want to believe there’s some magical way – besides good luck and extraordinary talent, of course – to achieve their hopes and dreams, and someone’s got to wise them up, right?) I noticed one person putting forth the notion of getting “inside” by “networking” with professionals, and proposing buying drinks at a convention to get that networking going.

    In this person’s defense, he’s a semi-professional with a body of published work behind him and already has some contacts in the business. I originally misinterpreted what he meant – he was talking about boozing it up with those he already knew – but this wasn’t the first time I’ve heard this sort of thing, usually from aspiring comics writers and artists who are sure, damn sure, that all they need is just That Break and the world will be their oyster, and that lubricated established professionals will be That Break.

    I’m the last person to dismiss the importance of networking. Much of my own career has happened as a result of networking, including the start of it. (I’d met Roger Stern at regional conventions in the Midwest and stayed in touch with him, and one thing developed into another after he became an editor at Marvel. But I was already working as a writer by then, in a different field. Networking affected what and where I wrote, but not that I wrote.) It never hurts to be in communication with as many people as possible, because that’s where opportunity arises from. For an established professional whose name is known and whose body of work is openly available, networking isn’t absolutely necessary – work will still get you through times of no networking better than networking will get you through times of no work – but it never hurts.

    However.

    For the last 35 years or so, the border between fan and pro has been tissue thin, and in few media do the end users have such generally open access to the producers. Sure, you might see Jessica Biel doing her own shopping at the San Vicente Market in Brentwood (a mecca for movie and TV stars when I lived in Brentwood, though the Ralph’s on Wilshire wasn’t far removed; I have no idea if Jessica Biel shops there or even if the place is still there anymore, I’m just saying) but it would be considered uncool to approach her, let alone show her your work. The comics industry, though, developed this fantastic thing called the comics convention where fans not only meet professionals, but often have lengthy conversations with them – right before they ask them to look at their portfolios. This on top of years of letter pages where editors disingenuously said readers were the real editors of the book, which left the hyperbole-challenged with delusions of grandeur. (And when those delusions crash on the shoals of the real world, man, you can end up with some really pissed off hyperbole-challenged on your hands.) Internet forums are another place where fans and pros intermingle fairly freely. All this has led a lot of people to assume that fans and pros are somehow equal in the overall scheme of things.

    And they’re not.

    I’m not talking about inane concepts like superiority. It’s just that what, say, I do and what you, Mr. Fan, do just aren’t the same thing.

    Conventions are a strange environment for professionals. And whoever a professional meets at a convention, the same question will run through the professional’s mind. It’s not a kind question, we almost never ask it out loud, and sometimes we’re even ashamed of it. But there it is anyway, and if you look you can see it flicker across our eyes.

    “What do you want from me?”

    Sometimes it’s a sketch or an autograph, sometimes they just want to give a heartfelt “Job well done,” simple things like that, and the balance rights itself. Sometimes the person on the other side of the question wants to be a comics professional themselves, or want to deliver elaborate critiques on our work, and that’s a bit thornier. Sometimes the person wants a friend and has decided you should be it, and that’s the one most of us really dread. As Bob Dylan once said, don’t go looking for friends because all the good ones are already taken. Most of us don’t want enemies, but most of us already have friends. Believe it or not, the vast majority of comics professionals don’t want friends so much as they want someone to buy their work.

    And I’ve heard it put forth before that “the way” to “get to know” professionals, to “network” or to “make friends” or both, is to hang out at the convention bars and buy drinks.

    There are a few problems with this. Those who’ve hung out at convention bars might have noticed that pros at the bars tend to hang out with each other, and the fans they hang out with are those they already know. In other words, they’re friends, not fans. When you, a fan they don’t know, offers to buy them a drink, there’s that question again: what does he want from me? Like I said, doesn’t matter how just or unjust the question is, it’s there. In this case it wouldn’t be unjustified anyway. But if you’re offering a drink to someone you don’t know at a convention bar, trust me, they’re onto the game, and they’ll either blow you off or think nothing of taking the drink as though there are no strings attached. You’re not likely to achieve anything anyway; there’s no point in schmoozing up writers unless you’re one hell of a good artist, and if you’re one hell of a good artist you don’t need to schmooze them up anyway. Sometimes artists can be worth schmoozing up – if you’re an artist and are looking for an assistant’s job. The appropriate party to schmooze up if you want a job in comics is an editor, and editors have a hard enough time remembering who’s who when they’re sober. Add alcohol to the mix, forget about it. And that’s the biggest hazard of “networking” by bar light: who’s going to remember you in the morning?

    Again, let me say it again, if you’re trying to break into comics, your best bet is really good work, and that means really hard work. Then sprinkle in some effort, and the luck to be in the right place at the right time. There are no magic short cuts, and certainly not any that intersect at bars. Don’t dismiss the value of “networking,” but keep in mind that networking, like most things, is a long-term investment that may or may not eventually pay off. It’s not a short fix. Just like most things. Who you know plays into it, certainly, but you don’t need to know a lot of people in comics. You just have to know the ones who are willing to pay and publish you.

  • I haven’t had the time to pay much attention to mail lately, so let’s catch up with some of it.

    On the Speakeasy closing:

    “I remember one year at the ‘con I sat at the Acclaim panel. A friend of mine had a book in that family and the panel was introducing the line. One of the editors indicated it would cost about 20-25 bucks to buy the whole line every month. I thought, “Is he thinking an average customer is going to spend that much on just their books, and are they counting on that business model to sustain them?”

    But I think they do. Because if somebody walks into a comic store with 20-25 bucks and he only buys one or two from that line and they’ve just come out with fifteen books how is that company going to sustain itself over time? How are they going to pay everyone working for them? The guys that survive, as I’ve argued before are the ones that build themselves around one product that has a high level of quality and is doing something different. Poor Speakeasy. Rest in peace.”

    Valiant did pretty well at convincing customers to spend $20-$25 per month on their line, but they were a new comics company with a certain level of star power behind them in a day when the audience was particularly open to new companies. Those owners were pretty smart to sell to Acclaim when they did, because by the time Acclaim bought the company the bloom was off the market rose and readers were in general revolt, but Acclaim tried to operate (as most companies since have, to their regret) like it was still 1992. Probably because they didn’t really know the comics market and didn’t know any better. But, at least since the Reagan era, the object of existence hasn’t been to create or build things but to get rich as quickly as possible; if you had money you played the stock market, and if you didn’t you bought Lotto tickets. The object of comics publishing is, of course, to make money, but long term money isn’t much on anyone’s minds anymore. It’s the quick money everyone wants, in the worst possible way. (Not that I couldn’t use quick money myself, but hey…)

    “Wasn’t just TRANSFORMERS [that made Adam Fortier’s name]. Part of it, obviously. But also getting the company out of Image before issue 1 shipped. Leading to the first non big four comic to top the comic charts in recent memory, issue after issue. Joe Quesada’s reaction when TRANSFORMERS #2 was the no.1 book in the month the SPIDER-MAN film came out was, by all accounts, one to watch.

    But then he did a very similar thing again with Devil’s Due and GI JOE.

    And then with Udon, Roaring Studios, Dabel, IDW and others, to differing levels of success. He set companies up in advantageous positions. What happened after that, also differed.

    Maybe that was the thing with Speakeasy. Out of the gate with five figure sales comics and then… oh…”

    Oh what?

    ” As someone who is making final preparations to launch his own title into the comics galaxy, I am writing to thank you for the insightful and well-written piece about the demise of Speakeasy. Too often people do indeed seem to launch their endeavors with a minimum of fanfare not realizing that in this day and age marketing is as, if not more important than the final product. The only reason I have even heard of Speakeasy prior to today is because I stopped by their booth at Comic-Con SD and had the opportunity to meet some of the creators. Other than that, I can’t recall the last time I actually saw anything anywhere online promoting any of Speakeasy’s projects.

    Anyway, thanks again for confirming a lot of my own publishing philosophies and opening my eyes to a few other potholes I might have driven over had I not read your article.

    Most publishers (not to mention talent) refuse to accept that the absolutely best way to generate buzz in the comics market is to have either a really good product or something that strongly taps into the zeitgeist. Even then, the buzz can take a long time or be localized (say, among professionals, who then tell other professionals, who mention it in interviews or online, etc.) and it’s not unusual for one very good project to fail commercially but set up the commercial success of the next project by the same talents. (For example, DC’s CHASE went nowhere but made industry names of J.M. Williams III and Mick Grey, who’ve gone on to work on very successful projects for the company.) Every project has to be viewed as an investment, especially now that very often it’s the trade paperback collection where the money’s made, not the comic book.

    “I read your analysis of Speakeasy’s demise, and pretty much agree: they did everything wrong, of course they went belly up. I remember your thoughts on CrossGen’s demise, as well, and you’ve not been silent on Alias’ chances for long-term survival.

    I’m curious what you think is responsible for the success, or at least survival, of newer (non-Marvel or DC, and excluding Viz and TokyoPop) comics companies: Dark Horse, Image, Oni, Avatar, etc. Certainly none of them are threatening the Big Two’s dominance (though Image did for a while about a decade ago). But then again, Speakeasy and CrossGen never really did either – they just pretended to. (And isn’t funny that in this industry, companies over 20 years old can still be considered relatively “new”?)”

    I don’t think anyone considers Dark Horse or Image “new” anymore. Image probably would have continued challenging Big 2 hegemony had many of their readers at the time not felt they’d been baited-and-switched; Image was never exactly marketed as a place where only creators of books worked on those books, but that was the way it translated to the common language of the time, and many converts grew disappointed when many Image books turned out to indeed be “creator-owned” but work-for-hire, long before the concepts were established enough for the audience to be sure of them regardless of who worked on them. Interestingly, Image titles are now mostly creator-owned in the classic sense of the phrase – but the audience has now turned largely against creator-owned titles for a variety of reasons. (But mostly because the term is now synonymous with flakiness or amateurism.) Dark Horse started out as a “creator-owned” company and did passably well at it, but really made their mark as one of the early American outlets for manga and as the company that took media tie-in comics seriously. Companies had always done media tie-in books, of course, but by the time Dark Horse came around, mostly Marvel and DC scooped up properties to keep the other company from getting them, then tossed them to whoever happened to be in the office that day, and generally kept their focus on titles they owned. Dark Horse turned all that around by maybe not using “top talents” of the day but by putting a lot of work and thought into them, and it got noticed. They got noticed even more when they started attracting top talents of the day. When every company’s fighting to sign Frank Miller to a project, and Frank Miller goes with the company that’ll allow him to do exactly what he wants with unfettered freedom, people notice, both pros and fans. In recent years, Dark Horse has also focused on expanding into Hollywood and have done reasonably well with it, and used this to buttress their comics operation during rough times. Oni and Avatar are both examples of publishers who nosed out a niche and went for it, Oni for the “we’re young and we’re hip” mostly college audience that had been generated in the ’90s but wasn’t really being served, and Avatar for the “adult” market, though they’ve expanded in recent years. Both companies also kept their overhead very low and their staff’s as small as humanly possible. Neither company is likely to ever “challenge” Marvel for dominance of the comics market, but they’ve got pieces of the market that Marvel doesn’t have.

    Niche publishing has its own drawbacks, of course. Feeding a particular niche is one thing, but publishers are then faced with three options: living within the economy of the niche, attracting non-niche customers to the niche, or expanding beyond the niche. But should that niche become, by luck or work, the next big thing, whatever publisher is in it will have a leg way up on even Marvel or DC. (Don’t forget that Viz and TokyoPop started as niche publishers with faith that their product would appeal to readers, and Viz in particular went through its share of rough times before getting where they are today.)

    “I’m interested in knowing which independent publishers you believe are succeeding (if any) where Speakeasy, Crossgen and so many others have failed. I’m sure working with Avatar and Moonstone gives you a good perspective on their operation procedures.”

    Hmmm… I’d have to go with Boom! Studios, and not just because I’m setting up a project with them. (That’s called full disclosure, folks.) So far, publisher Ross Richie has a structurally very small (and low-overhead) company, he has (at least from what I can tell) developed a company economy based on what’s currently possible in the marketplace rather than the best possible scenario, and he’s moving fairly slowly. Which doesn’t mean I don’t question some of his choices – that’s going to happen with anybody – and even smart people do suicidally stupid things, but so far so good. Avatar, as I’ve mentioned, has carved their own little niche and are carefully expanding beyond it, and I don’t see any sweeping changes of fortune coming there. My book PAT NOVAK is coming out from Moonstone imminently, and I haven’t heard any serious complaints about or from them regarding their economic situation, but I never much hear anyone talking about them either, so your guess is as good as mine there.

    On new approaches to comics (the response surprised me a little, since I wrote that piece ages ago):

    “I wanted to mention some of Dan Clowes’ recent work in regard to the last section of today’s Permanent Damage column.

    I think he’s done a lot of interesting things with words and images in DAVID BORING, ICE HAVEN, and THE DEATH RAY. In BORING, the narrative captions and images interact in very unique ways. Unlike captions in older comic books that often described the images/action in the panels, Clowes use of captions enhances, contradicts, and at times changes the meaning of the imagery in the panels. I think it relies more on writing than many writer-artist cartoonists are comfortable doing. I would suggest also that Alan Moore seems to approach the printed word in a similar manner. It’s almost an graphic element, another opportunity to bring significant, additional meaning to a sequence even to the extent that it changes the meaning of the drawings the reader sees.”

    I do think writers (whether writer-artists or standalones) do need to think more about the visual impact of the text, its positioning, how it can be effectively used as a graphic element, how writing can work in juxtaposition to the art, etc. Funny, Jim Steranko brought up this same point in this panel discussion at the recent New York con, citing his frustration with the “five-sided panels” that Marvel’s text boxed used to generate (and which were common in comics from the ’30s on) where captions would cut into panels. Steranko’s solution, when he was in a position to apply it, was to block out space for the captions so that they’d be adjacent to a panel but not imposing on it. Which has since become the high-end standard for the business. Clowes does terrific work with juxtaposed text and pictures. Creating comics on computers gives writers new ability to control text placement even when they’re working with distant artists; Roger Stern, while an editor at Marvel, recommended the creation of the “writer-letterer” job so that writers would stop using so much unplaceable text in their stories (you’d think that working the Marvel method, where art was drawn from the plot then sent to the writer for dialogue, you wouldn’t get problems like that, but no) and with computer technology and digital fonts that’s now completely within the realm of possibility.

    “I wanted to point out that Gil Kane’s efforts at “novelizing” comic art didn’t really work. In sample you showed, and in BLACKMARK, Gil’s over-written blocks of prose-style text simply did two things:

    1) It did what the earliest comics did that took so long to outgrow – it simply told you what was happening when you could get that info from looking at the art. You’ve mentioned this before, and it’s one of my pet peeves that still occurs today: there’s no reason to “idiotproof” comics these days – you shouldn’t tell the reader what’s happening when it’s obvious because it’s right before your eyes. Gil’s expanded, verbose captions were not far from a “Superman smashes the evil robot” caption running over a picture of Superman smashing the evil robot. Although Gil was stretching, exploring, trying to make that leap, the additional text didn’t add anything to the pictures except badly written prose. (I say this as a huge Gil Kane fan. But Gil was a artist, not a writer.)

    2) It slowed down the pace of the reading. As you’ll probably agree, pacing is everything in a well-written comic. You’ve got to have just enough text to balance and enhance the images. Too little text, and your readers are flying through the book and feeling cheated. Too much text, and your readers are bogged down in dialogue (a common complaint among Brian Bendis’ readers – even those who like his writing) or in captions. Pacing is a function of that magical nexus point where words meet pictures. Sometimes, you’ve got art doing more work in a panel, other times you’ve got text doing more work, but overall it has to be a balance. And if you’re going to write lengthy captions, you’ve got to add something to the art – preferably at a point where the story slows enough to support a vast block of text.

    One example of a guy with near-perfect pacing in all his work is Ed Brubaker. He’s really won me over as a reader in a the past few years, and his ability to balance art and text is a key ingredient.

    As a terrible example of pacing I can cite the last few years of David Mack’s KABUKI – which used to be an excellent book back when it was actually a comic with multiple panels on each page. Now every page is a single painting with text sprinkled or spackled onto it. There’s no real narrative and no pacing. It’s just a series of paintings that involved text elements. That’s not comics. Comics are sequential art – which means several images strung together by narrative cohesion and text. (Forgive me if I’m prattling, but I really hate books that aren’t comics and try to pass themselves off as if they are.)

    Anyway, my overall point is that text and art have to blend in a balanced way to create perfect pacing, which is essential to a good comic book read.”

    I can’t really argue with much of that, even that Gil was more artist than writer; like many artists in comics he was a storyteller, and it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish that from writing. (It was Archie Goodwin who wrote the dialogue of HIS NAME IS SAVAGE.) But what Gil was at least intending, whether he managed it or not, was not simply an extension of the old “idiotproofing” tactic, but an attempt to use captions to text and prose to amplify and color in the content of the pictures, not just reiterate it. Whether text outweighs visuals or vice versa depends on the particular story and what the creators are trying to achieve with it. The only real criterion we have to judge things on is whether a story works. I can see being irritated by Brian Bendis’ often heavy reliance on dialogue, but there’s no denying it often works.

    Miscellaneous:

    “You mention Phil Seuling and Creation Con in your column as the forces behind NYC Comic Conventions in the past. I work in NYC and chose not to attend the con, but I’ve noticed in the aftermath that many bloggers have referred to the New York Comic Con as the first of it’s kind ever in the city. I went to two comic cons at the Javits Center back in 1994-95 (at least I’m 99% positive they were comic cons and not media cons that just had comics professionals attending) and specifically recall the launches of Tekno Comics and Valiant/Acclaim’s Windjammer imprint in 1995. And I also recall a much bigger space in Javits being dedicated to these cons than what bloggers have been saying about the space at last weekend’s con.

    Are you familiar with the cons I’m talking about, and if so, do you know if these were run by either Phil Seuling or Creation Con?”

    I was at the ’94 Javits Center con, but I don’t recall who put it on. Big Apple? At any rate, it wasn’t Creation, which had shifted almost entirely to Star Trek conventions by then, or Phil Seuling. I don’t recall if Phil was dead by then, but he was out of the convention business at least. It wasn’t a particularly successful con, since the weekend brought a snow-intensive blizzard, and a lot of potential con-goers stayed home, though a couple thousand did brave it. I’m told the organizers of the recent convention canvassed NYC comics shops on the numbers they could expect, and revised downward what they thought were overly optimistic estimates. Apparently, they’re not going to do take future predictions for pie-in-the-sky optimism again.

    “I love FROM HELL quite a bit and I understand that yes, it does hold up to a real novel unlike most graphic novels. But wouldn’t MAUS, which came out before it also apply?”

    Sure, why not? (Maybe we should ask Oprah. She’s good at spotting subtle distinctions in literature.)

  • NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS:

    Next week, I’ll be happy to answer any of your questions about anything. Email your questions by 6PM Monday March 13th (Friday the 13th comes on a Monday this month) and if no one sends any questions, you’ll just have to suffer through what you get.

    FOR PROFESSIONALS ONLY: In the April 5th PERMANENT DAMAGE, you can promote upcoming projects you’ve got coming up in ’06. Needed are: title (and name of book it’ll appear in, if it’s part of an anthology); name of publishing house; names of collaborators; price; format; a short descriptive paragraph – really short; an art sample is optional, but if you want to send one keep it no more than 600 pixels wide, 72 dpi. Thanks. This is your big chance to stand out from the crowd, so send the info in.

    I had several other things planned for this week, but I’m cutting it short again because I’m feeling pretty crappy today. (Please don’t send any “get well quick” messages, thanks; I’ll just assume that’s what you’re thinking, okay? Thanks for the well wishes, I appreciate them. And if that’s not what you were thinking, I don’t want to know about that either.) I think it’s just fatigue from burning midnight oil to get scripts done, so a couple days sleep or a couple 2-liter bottles of Coca-Cola and everything should be just fine.

    Something a little different this week. I’m constantly fascinated by in-comics ads of the 1940s, compressed stories featuring their own characters (intended in most instances to be taken as seriously as any other feature in any given comic, as near as I can tell) pushing particular products. Some of the ads are inadvertently hilarious in the context of modern slang, but I almost have to think the hilarity wasn’t so inadvertent as the slang was known at the time, too.

    Rumor has it my SOCORRO project, a Latino-themed crime comic in production at Platinum Studios, is being developed as a feature film. Bear in mind this doesn’t mean it has yet been sold as a movie – that comes after the development process and is no less a crapshoot at that point – but it’s nice to see signs of life out of Platinum, and the management company they’re working with is apparently well thought of in Hollywood. I’ll let them give out details if they’re inclined, but fingers crossed. (No, I’m not so far involved with the production, such as it is, but that’s okay; I’ve done my part and I’ve got more than enough things on my plate right now.)

    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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