Had a chat last week with a despondent artist. Having something of a reputation as a deadline assassin, with his latest assignment he has made a special effort to become a solid citizen even if it means 14 hour days at the drawing board. Problem is: now the writer (no, not me) is screwing things up and very badly missing deadlines, meaning if the book goes sour due to fill-ins and deadline foul-ups, it doesn't matter that, in this case, it's not the artist's fault. What matters is that he'll be attached to yet another book in deadline hell, basically undoing his rehabilitation and making it that much harder for him to get more paying work.
A work-for-hire book, natch, but this scenario isn't uncommon in creator-owned titles either. I, for instance, still haven't turned in the script to a graphic novel due last October; the deadline has been renegotiated to April. But in this instance the gn has a very tiny advance (and is unscheduled) and the editor understands my first duty is putting food on the table, which means paying work takes priority. But that's a lengthy graphic novel with no advance to speak of. It's not a 22 page comic for a large comics company.
I can't fathom why any writer would be terribly late with one of those. Of course, editors have spent decades training talent to believe deadlines are flexible. In the late '70s, when deadlines were botched right and left, someone finally came up with a workable solution: set deadlines a couple weeks to a month ahead of when the work was actually needed. Might've worked, too, if editors hadn't then told talent there was actually more time built into the schedule. Quickly everyone came to understand the "deadline" was not the "real" deadline, and bargaining mentality quickly came into play. You know, like when you're negotiating for a raise, and you figure if the boss says he can give you $15 more per week he'll probably go to $25, so you try to wheedle your way up to that. By not enforcing deadlines, companies trained talent to believe any deadline set was a lie. So reverting to the "real" deadlines didn't help things – especially when editors themselves didn't keep up with the deadlines, and let plots sit unread on their desks for days after the artists were supposed to start working, etc.
On the other hand, the average 22 page comic isn't usually nearly as hard to write as it is to draw. There's a popular myth that time taken is an indicator of quality, and you'll improve your work by worrying it to death. In the case of most "mainstream" output it's not difficult to figure what's asked of you, and allowed. Which isn't to say there's any excuse for sleepwalking through a script or going by the numbers, but in my experience very few writers (or artists, for that matter) that much time because they're chiseling every line to perfection. Barring health problems (which do make it very hard to concentrate enough to write), the main cause of delay is procrastination, and the main cause of procrastination is lack of interest. If you're inspired enough by an idea or an assignment, you work on it, because work under those conditions is play. You concentrate on it. If you're not inspired enough, you procrastinate.
That mainstream comics aren't wellsprings of inspiration is obvious to anyone who reads enough of them, and it's fairly easy to spot where the writers were inspired (if their work is any good). While this is an argument for inspiration, nothing's likely to change in the system anytime soon – as I've pointed out before, businesses usually like to focus their financial hopes on elements they can control, and inspiration isn't one of them, even in an ostensibly creative medium like comics – so that brings us to the work. There are really two choices when you're doing work-for-hire: do the job you were hired for, or don't. For way too long the business has been tacitly encouraging primadonnaism instead of a work ethic, and it has caught up to us. The problem of work-for-hire comics is that everything's compartmentalized: whatever your level of creative genius, you're just one step in the process and everytime you screw up your step you screw up every step beyond you. Every deadline botch you make has to be made up somewhere down the line, and puts pressure on everyone following in the chain. Pencilers are expected to catch up for late scripts, inkers for late pencils, colorists for late inkers, while lettering on overlays became the vogue because inkers could then work on pages at the same time as letterers. In the "Marvel method" where plot precedes are precedes dialogue, the writer has traditionally been expected to make up for artist lateness (under protest, I've dialogued entire issues overnight, and an editor once expected me to dialogue an issue in two hours but I'm only willing to be so helpful).
"Professional" is often a cudgel word, and editors often use the term "unprofessional" to mean "anything I don't like." Too often it means not taking risks or pushing for your own point of view. But there's a basic level of "professionalism": you don't screw up the talent you're working with. It's bad for everyone. Botched deadlines mean either sloppy catch-up work, or issues by other talent the audience isn't expecting, or delayed (sometimes greatly delayed) publication. Each of these is an excuse for the audience to walk away. And they teach the talent bad habits, which is often carried over to creator-owned work, which weakens the case for creator-owned work as well, as readers fall away because they never know when the next issue is coming out and, as more creator-owned books deliver erratically, they come to believe that all creator-owned books are equally frustrating.
"Professional" can be a harder call in terms of product. It suggests a certain level of craft, but too often people consider what they like "professional" work while what they don't like is "unprofessional," without other aesthetic considerations. Me, it's not style I look for so much as unity of style. That's what separates the men from the boys, so to speak. Most mini-comics, for instance, are not professional. But they're not meant to be. They're expression, pure and simple, and that's the yardstick they should be judged by.
A lot of "independent" comics serve the function of what we used to call fanzines, functioning as portfolios for people hoping to become professional comics talent. For example, DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS #1 (31 Westford St, Haverhill MA 01832; $2.95), whose cover proclaims 48 PAGES! 26 CREATORS! 9 AMAZING STORIES! These are writers and artists who got together on Ed Dukeshire's Digital Webbing website, and the book's an interesting object lesson. It opens with Cal Slayton's "Lost Child," a brief action piece in the currently popular mangaized style. I'm not particularly partial to it, but unlike most of it, Slayton's work is at least clean and open, while the storytelling's good, and aside from a little problem drawing feet it's easily as good as most of its "professional" parallels. Given that the mangaized style's quietly becoming the DC house style, I'm surprised Slayton's not working for them already.
Less polished but more individualized stylistically, and probably my favorite piece in the book, is "Burn," by what I assume are the Ma brothers, Rich, Jerry and Jimmy. It's a piece of a bigger story, so it's hard to get a feel for the plotting, but the dialogue actually pushes a point and, though he's not quite there yet, artist Jerry Ma already shows signs of being a real force in the future. But Allan Thomas and Gabe Degel's "The Auditor" is a multitude of sins: erratic art, not particularly interesting writing (yes, it's another superhero parody), and, hey, don't use the names of existing characters, okay? Not much to comment on there. Jeremy Feist and Ray Dillon's "To Be A Good Father" is notable mainly for the interesting use of point-of-view storytelling. The art is again uneven – I hate to keep saying practice, but that's the only advice I have for artist Dillon, who needs confidence but isn't bad – but the flaws are covered by the darkness of the work. Christopher Heath, Brian Baity and Jason Embury's "Azeiran, Lords Of Time" is a heroic fantasy vignette also hampered by uneven, not very convincing art. Like the story, it seems drawn from several difference sources, and lacks personality. Which isn't the case in Matt Starnes, Diego Jourdan and Diego Barreto's "The Team: Dream Come True." While Starnes' story – another chapter work, this time involving the formation of a superteam – doesn't do much for me, he at least handles it with a bit of flair. The Jourdan & Barretto art is great: polished, quirky stuff with equal footing in Phil Bond and Keith Giffen. Jason Fliegman, Shelby Miller and L.A. Gould's "Eclipse: Following Yonder Star," is pretty much sub-Image material, undercharacterized and underdrawn in fourth-generation Todd McFarlane, which is also about as much as can be said for L.A. Gould and Jon Malin's "The Infection." Finally, there's Ian Asher, Eric Roman and Cliff Kurowski's "Slight Of Hand: Magic, Mayhem and The Mob," which shares the flaws of many of the other pieces here – uneven art, ordinary writing.
Not, I hope, that many of the Digital Webbing participants expect to be acclaimed as professional caliber. It amazes me how many people in books like this aren't that shy of it, yet will never put in the effort and training to get over that bump and make it, and I hope that doesn't apply to anyone here. The main flaw I see in most of this material is a probably unconscious attempt to approximate what they see in mainstream comics, under the presumption it makes for professional material, when what they should be doing is developing their own styles and approaches. I haven't said much about the writing, since most of it is as good as the average professional comic. But who wants to be average? It's not work that's "good enough" that's likely to get anyone's attention these days, it's work that feels like a breakthrough. That's why the Ma Brothers really stand out here; some of the work in DIGITAL WEBBING is very good, some not that good, but only the Ma Brothers present a piece that feels like only they could have done it.
It'll probably puzzle many of the Digital Webbing guys that I like Troy Little's CHIAROSCURO#1 (Meanwhile Studios, Box 39040, 2269 Riverside Dr, Ottawa Ont K1H 1A1 Canada; $2.75) so much, especially since it's drawn in the "American manga" style I dislike. But here is just feels right. Little's main focus is dialogue and storytelling, which is interesting enough to sustain a book mainly about walking and drinking coffee. It helps that Little actually has something to say. Get this if you can find it.
Out of Germany comes FLESH ANGELS (VonPhantasi Studios; $3.75), a not entirely successful but certainly ambitious painted comic loosely based on Jungian psychology. The paintings, by Von Phantasi are sort of Heironymous Bosch by way of Image (no, that's not meant as an insult) while the writing is R.D. Laing channeling Charles Bukowski writing Steve Ditko's AVENGING WORLD. A truly unique experience, and some of the painting (particularly the last couple pages when it becomes less fantastic and more representational) is exceptional. You probably won't be able to find it outside of Germany, but a slightly modified American version is apparently on the way.
If underground comics were still active, Farel Dalrumple's POP GUN WAR (Absence Of Ink, 365 Smith St, Freeport NY 11520; $2.50@) would be a star player in that market. It's a urban fantasy about misfits at the edge of life, centering around a young African-American named Sinclair who has a pair of wings strapped to him. Beautifully written and drawn; why isn't Vertigo publishing this? It's certainly up their alley.
DEAD TRANSIENTS (Dennis Culver, 115B Prospect Ave, Long Beach CA 90803) is a mini-comic preview of a forthcoming graphic novel, and it's not bad. It's a chapter, so things are set up and nothing resolved as cops start investigating the killing of a homeless man and discover one of their own in an unexpected situation, but it got me interested. The art's a little rudimentary, but it's not bad and it carries the story well. Keep an eye out for it.
While DEAD TRANSIENTS is starting as a mini-comic and going to full-length, Dick Troutman's OUTFITTERS (Aweful Books, Box 264, Pittsburgh PA 15230-0264; $2@) seems to have gone the other way, from standard pamphlet format to what might be best called a "midi-comic." Troutman's a pretty good artist, and while the art seems to slip a bit in the transition, in fact he's adjusting issue by issue for content. #6 is a pretty good Archie Comics pastiche, a look at life in high school with sex and Charlie Brown thrown in. #11 reunites Troutman's Outfitters team of adventurers to track down Bigfoot, and the art has a down-and-dirty Eddie Campbellish quality, told wordlessly. Expressive and adventurous stuff, which looks to be the Outfitters' last outing. I dig it.
In case political pundits calling for the execution of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh so liberals will be put on warning that they can be executed to isn't enough of a signal that maybe America's getting a little too repressive for its own good these days (okay, it's only one "pundit," who's a bit of a nutjob in any case), here's a little tidbit Atty. Gen. Ashcroft shoved through with the "U.S.A. Patriot Act" that Congress was in a mad rush to enact last Fall to prove America Can React To A Crisis: did you know the FBI can now demand of bookstores or libraries a list of the books you've bought or borrowed, to see if you're getting exposed to any dangerous ideas? This is to help protect the country against domestic terrorists, so they know who to keep an eye on.
Oddly enough, I don't have a huge problem with that. Sure, it's a privacy issue, but I think a lot of people are overly sensitive about trivial stuff, and, personally, I don't care who knows what I see or read or buy. On the other hand, if you do care, the accusation is often that you wouldn't care if you had nothing to hide, which is nonsense. Anyway, the kicker to this whole thing is where it really gets interesting: according to the act, any bookseller or librarian who turns over a list is automatically enjoined from disclosing the info to "any [italics mine] other person" under penalty of law. Not that gag orders are unknown in American jurisprudence but prior to this judges have imposed them, but in those instances the gag orders can be mentioned publicly and challenged in open court. This new style gag order prevents a bookseller or librarian (or video store owner or music retailer or whoever) from even mentioning they've given information to the FBI. Which means: they can't tell the person involved. They can't tell the press. They can't tell a court. There will be no public scrutiny of the FBI's actions in these cases because no one can be made aware any action has taken place. The FBI has no responsibility to tell why they're targeting some person, or what particular books they're looking for, and given a long history of political abuses, it's frightening to think what uses an ideologue (not that John Ashcroft, for instance, is an ideologue, no sirree) could put such powers to. It may be a watershed moment: America has never truly had a Secret Police. Not until now, and we have Ashcroft, who clearly thinks such concepts present no conflict with American traditions of liberty, to thank for it.
Can't really talk about it yet, but I pitched and sold another comic to Avatar a couple weeks ago, wrote the script in a blind frenzy last week, and when it comes out you'll be able to say to your grandchildren that it was the point where I went certifiably insane. All I can tell you right now is it's called SACRILEGE and lives up to its name. And fans of the DAMNED series Mike Zeck and I did for Wildstorm/Homage a couple years back will hopefully get some good news in a couple of weeks or so. Meanwhile, since in POPLIFE tomorrow, Matt Fraction will be talking about the western graphic novel he's got in the works for AIT/PlanetLar books, AIT/P publisher and former CBR columnist Larry Young exhorted me to mention my upcoming western graphic novel for the company, RED SUNSET, since mine will come out first. (Aside to Matt: nyah nyah.) But I'm not quite ready to, and refused to be pressured into it, though, yes, it looks like we have an artist. A really good artist, and with luck next week we'll be able to give you a preview.
More news to come.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the newly redesigned Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail 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. 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.
If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.