Issue #246

ALEX TOTH R.I.P.: a fond farewell

SAVING COMICS (AGAIN): defining the challenge for independent comics, with cautionary tales for independent publishers

NEWS FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS: Toth gallery; challenge winner; reviews of minicomics, magazines, manga, magicians, mice and more

BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: arts and grafts in the halls of power

I have two regrets about Alex. During Michael Golden's fleeting stint as a DC editor, I was writing SHADOW STRIKES stories for him (DC cancelled the book before any saw print, and no longer have the license) and Michael asked me to come up with a story for Toth to draw. As a kid I was a monster Shadow fan - encouraged by my father, who himself was a monster Shadow fan when he was a kid - but I've never much liked the way the Shadow has been presented in comics. Everyone goes for the pulp illo version of the character, which looks antiquated and has failed time and time again. What I'd had in mind for a long time was a very visual, very high contrast look for the character - the sort of look Alex Toth invented. According to Michael, Alex was also a huge Shadow fan, not surprising since he was a kid of the '30s. But I had read enough interviews with Alex to be aware of his views of modern comics - he believed most were too depressive and negative, with no sense of adventure - and of his fixation on Errol Flynn, so I cribbed a Jules Feiffer summary of an old Batman story and came up with the perfect Alex Toth Shadow story: the Shadow goes to Hollywood in pursuit of some villain, is wounded in the process, and Errol Flynn is recruited to impersonate The Shadow and finish the case for him. Michael loved it. Unfortunately, the day I pitched the story to Michael was the day word came down the book was dead. So Alex never drew the story; as far as I know, he never even heard about it.

Which leads into my other regret. Stylistically, nobody in comics was better suited to crime comics than Alex Toth. And I don't mean cops-and-robbers stuff, but the shadowy underbelly of the underworld stories about criminals type of crime story. Alex had the dynamics of that look solidly in place. (He did do a smidgen of this material, like TORPEDO 1936 for an Italian publisher, but he never stayed with it long.) Philosophically, Alex was dead set against that type of material, preferring the dangerous but ultimately sunny adventure style crystallized in TERRY AND THE PIRATES. Moral ambiguity was not his thing, while his style cut straight to the heart of moral ambiguity. Just one of those weird schisms.

But enough of that. What's important about Alex's legacy isn't what he didn't give us, but what he did. (Though, on his blog, Mark Evanier suggests that as much as Toth gave us, there might have been much, much more, and certainly there was much more he would have given us if he could have.) It's too bad he wasn't better known and more widely lauded during his life, but if fan recognition for Alex hasn't been all it might be (some recognition can be found at Toth Fans, which includes much of his writing on the subject of comics, and a fairly vast library of his work) it's not hard to find Toth fans. Just walk into pretty much any comics company and you won't be able to look in any direction without seeing one. And probably many more.

So long, Alex. Thanks.

The good news… is that if you can actually figure out an enforceable way to force talent to do that, exclusive contracts shouldn't be any problem at all.

But I'll go you one better:

Let's force everyone doing comics to stop doing genre work altogether. Not only are there too many superheroes, there are too many zombies, too many pirates, too many apes. Etc. Whaddaya say? A one-year moratorium on all genre material of any kind in comics?

I want to see what these guys do when they don't have all their childhood reading or movies or crappy TV shows to fall back on.

The problem, though, isn't so much the talent as the readership, though it's obviously a vicious cycle. I'm sure a lot of guys who are "top talent" in comics right now would love to do nothing but non-superhero creator-owned stuff. But, unfortunately, the audience has decided/been convinced there's no money in it, and it's likely to stay that way until someone comes up with a new killer ap that will put creator-owned comics back on the map, and then people doing that new material do it on a regular enough basis than an audience can be built, kept and kept happy.

A common question came back at me: what's not genre material in some way?

Gravity's Rainbow. The Recognitions. Cities Of The Red Night. Under The Volcano. Virtually anything by Margaret Atwood.

These don't so much defy genre as totally ignore it.

Here's the thing about superhero comics: all other genres sublimate into them. Superhero comics incorporate crime comics, science fiction, adventure, horror, romance, war, political thriller, etc., even many of the tropes of westerns. They are really very genre non-specific. Don't take that to mean me arguing for superhero comics, I'm well aware of their shortcomings and pitfalls, but I understand why the current market doesn't get all exercised about non-superhero genre material, and it's not all "they're sheep and superheroes are the only grass they've ever been fed so they don't know any better." From their probably unconscious perspective they already get that stuff, so what's the big deal? In some ways, trying to market non-superhero genre material to them is like Microsoft telling their market they have a special version of Windows, XP Home, just for them, when XP Home is basically nothing more than a more limited version of XP Pro. Trying to sell the comics audience a science fiction book is the equivalent of trying to sell pizza fans just the melted cheese they'd normally get on the top of the pizza. There's no reason it can't be done - but it has to be done more cleverly and enticingly than just saying, "Look! Cheese!"

In that situation, you basically have two options: try to convince pizza lovers the melted cheese on its own is a real treat that they don't want to miss and once they try it they won't want to live without it (in which instance, you're attempting to supplement their pizza craving, not supplant it, at least not right away though you probably want in the long run to encourage the belief that melted cheese by itself is better than melted cheese on pizza) or try to find or build a significant (significant meaning large enough to be profitable) audience for melted cheese that has no interest in pizza.

Frankly, creator ownership is a more important issue than the specific content, and the entire system as it is set up now and pretty much has been since Diamond became to all intents and purposes the sole distributor of comics is skewed against creator-owned comics. The ultimate solution to all these issues is not going to be, say, convincing Brian Bendis to go back to doing creator-owned indie comics but to create an entirely new marketing & distribution apparatus separate from Diamond that will tilt away from Marvel and DC and toward creator-owned independent comics. It's not impossible; underground comics developed their own system basically from scratch in the late '60s that was very, very effective. By the early '70s, many underground comics were way outselling the "mainstream" comics, and FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS was far and away the top-selling comic in America. Maybe the answer isn't to dictate who gets to swim in which end of the pool but to build a whole different pool...

The thread also includes interesting observations by Colleen Doran, Dan Wickline, Brian Wood, Heidi Macdonald and others.

Something that Heidi brings up is worth mentioning: with mainstream book publishers now turning their eyes toward graphic novels and comics collections, they might be the new natural nesting place for creator-owned comics. On the other hand, I hear more and more small comics publishers looking toward the book market as their salvation from the direct sales market, and for them the book market is a huge potential boobytrap. As much as they hate the direct market - and it does favor corporate superhero comics as well as the fans who read specifically them - they are all used to the creature comforts of the direct market, which was partly concocted to appeal to comics publishers by buffering them from the harsher realities of publishing, i.e. it's a non-returnable market, and it's also mostly run by distributors. I've personally watched two comics companies get destroyed by doing what a book distributor told them to do: First Comics by Berkley Books and TSR-West by Random House, neither of which had any knowledge or experience of the comics market. First's CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED line got a terrific push from Berkley that went very well, but, because they were doing a push, they determined how many copies of each comic First would publish. In advance of any concept of what the actual sales figures would be.

For a distributor, this means nothing. The publisher bears the risk of publishing. First, in fact, did very well, with great sellthrough - while the promotion was going on. As soon as it ended, stores stopped paying much attention to CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED and stopped racking them in the special point-of-purchase dumps Berkley had provided (I believe these were underwritten by First as well, but I'm not certain), instead putting them... at the time most bookstores had no idea where to put comics material, and it normally ended up in Humor sections. For the most part, CLASSICS ILLUSTRATED stopped selling in bookstores, but it was some time before Berkley figured this out, leaving First month after month publishing many more copies of each CI title than they needed. If they had all sold, First would have made a fortune, but they didn't. Most of them didn't sell, leaving First sitting on a small mountain of returns and an unbearable pile of debt, since First (which by then had changed its name to Classics Illustrated) had been convinced to sink all of its money into meeting the illusory demand. A short time later, First, at one point the #3 company in the business and one that galvanized much of the interest in independent publishing in the '80s, was gone.

I personally witnessed the collapse of TSR-West, almost a year before it actually started publishing, at a TSR-West launch party thrown by TSR's distributor, Random House, on a cruise ship south of Los Angeles. The collapse took all of two hours, as I listened with a sinking heart to enthusiastic Random House executives "fine-tuning" TSR-West's publishing plan with a slew of contradictory "suggestions" that had the force of "this is what you need to do to convince us to distribute this material." The Random House executives were all nice enough, but it was a strange new world for them, and I saw TSR's decision maker hanging raptly on their every word, like Greek students at the feet of Plato, as Random House laid out a plan of action that would have worked fine for novels but was virtually calculated to stillbirth a comics line. There were many other problems with the books and the company, but the seeds of destruction had already been sewn, long before either of those were finalized. (That would come a couple months after the Random House meeting.)

Not that dealing with book companies or distributors is impossible; certainly as Fantagraphics deal with W.W. Norton has been their salvation. As I said, talent interacts with book publishers on a different level than comics publishers; for talent, the book publisher is just another outlet, if they can crack that outlet. But comics publishers, particularly small publishers, should be very careful in their dealings with book publishers and distributors, and it's not difficult to get overwhelmed by promise and enthusiasm, especially when you're used to facing the usually barren wastelands (for independents) of the current direct market. But the way distribution deals in the book market are usually structured, they share the rewards, but the risk is all yours.

In lieu of the Comics Cover Challenge this week, I'm running a mini-tribute to Alex Toth - a survey of his work from the 1940s on. Enjoy it, then bump over to Toth Fans for much, much more.

By the way, the winner of last week's challenge was Mark Katzoff, who was the first to correctly guess the comics portrayed were done by First Comics alumni: Howard Chaykin, Mike Baron, John Ostrander, Mike Grell, Tim Truman, Mark Wheatley and Stefan Petrucha. (Several respondents suggested I chose the theme "in honor" of the new version of WHISPER coming in August from Boom! Studios, but, honest, it didn't even occur to me. The theme was just something that came off the top of my head at the last moment, as they usually are.) Mark wants to promote the website of Aruna, "an LA-based singer-songwriter whose music has appeared in movies (EULOGY) and TV (QUEER EYE, LAGUNA BEACH). I would describe her music as a cross between Michelle Branch and Tori Amos, leaning a little bit more in the pop direction as time goes by. I had the pleasure of watching her develop for a few years here in Boston before she moved to LA and have made the trek to LA to see her perform 3 times in the last 2 years."

I'm wrapping up both the projects I've been working on - the last touches on the WHISPER script today and tomorrow morning, the third issue of CSI: DYING IN THE GUTTERS by Friday - which will leave me a couple days for marathon review copy reading. Expect a subsequent review marathon next week. In the meantime, a handful of reviews of what I have read:

From Goofa Man Productions:

3D PETE'S BIG ORBIT COMICS! #8 by Mike Fisher, 2*p b&w mini-comic with color cover, mail order ($4.00)

Geek's eye humor, the possibly quasi-autobiographical of a budding animator as he deals with software snafus, self-motivation, film festivals, self-doubt, geek obsessions and more, plus a space adventure and the adventures of Nanosapien. The art's not great but it does the trick, and the book's smart and funny. I never thought of redoing Rodin's sculpture "The Kiss" with Batman and Catwoman before. Track it down.

From Del Rey Manga:

PICHI PICHI PITCH: MERMAID MELODY Vol 1 by Michiko Yokote & Pink Hanamori, 186p b&w trade paperback ($10.95)

Apparently there was an audience waiting for this release with bated breath, but I'm not sure why. It's pretty formulaic: cross SAILOR MOON with WEDDING PEACH, make the heroines mermaids, and have absolutely baffling battles. (The villains, trying to capture all the mermaid princesses and take over the oceans, do bad things, then the princesses show up and sing and the villains immediately go home. Over and over. Even the main villain, after chewing out all his flunkies for doing the same thing.) The art's okay but the project feels very packaged and innocuous. Del Rey's currently putting out of a number of terrific manga, but this isn't one of them.

From Archaia Studios Press:

MOUSE GUARD: SHADOWS WITHIN by David Peterson, 24p color book ($3.50)

Another chapter in Peterson's intriguing fantasy adventure starring mice, this one involving a mouse warrior uncovering threads of a treacherous plot while fending off an attack by bloodthirsty crabs. Very nicely if sparsely done, in a format that makes it very easy to rack with children's books, though some aspects of the story are a bit brutal. It still seems slender for the price, though

ROBOTIKA #3 by Alex Sheikman, 32p color comic ($3.95)

This book is consistent, I'll say that for it. Still great to look at, still a pretty uninspired mélange of clichés, this time teaming Sheikman's futuristic samurai with a monkish woman warrior and a cyborg cowboy to protect a group of pilgrims. It's still great to look at, but I wish he had a story, and his woman warrior's vertical word balloons get bloody annoying once you get the joke, which takes about a page and a half (though if Moebius is your idea of great literature, it might be more to your taste). Buy it for the art.

From Vertigo:

THE EXTERMINATORS #5 by Simon Oliver & Tony Moore, 32p color comic ($2.99)

Continuing Oliver & Moore's strange tale of pest controllers confronting what turns out to be a new breed of supercockroach as the corporate-engineered end of the world as we know it peeks over the horizon. (And what's it got to do with self-destructive junkies and an ancient magical box?) Good writing, good art, good intrigue and good action laid on in just the right doses, for the most sickly humorous Vertigo book since PREACHER, whose tone THE EXTERMINATORS very much evokes. If you're not buying this, start.

TESTAMENT #5 & 6 by Douglas Rushkoff, Liam Sharp & Peter Gross, 32p color comics ($2.99@)

With the conclusion of one arc and the start of another, TESTAMENT and its underlying premises are finally coming into focus. There's a smidge of SANDMAN in here as Rushkoff fixes on gods (a cosmic battle is going on between pagan gods from our earliest civilizations and emissaries of the One True God for the future of mankind) and stories (Rushkoff isn't simply paralleling Biblical stories; the gods themselves are replaying old stories in modern guise, with unexpectedly new results that surprise even the gods), as tales of Abraham get traded in for tales of Adam and Eve, as a computer researcher and his revolutionary girlfriend debate unleashing an artificial intelligence he has created. I'm still not convinced. As far as the book goes it's not bad, but it would be nice to see Rushkoff do more to examine the ethics of the issues he's playing with. TESTAMENT is a book that strives for resonance, but so far it's playing on the surface.

HELLBLAZER #219 & 220 by Denise Mina & Leonardo Manco, 32p color comics ($2.75@)

Editor Jonathan Vankin told me that if I stick with HELLBLAZER long enough, I'd get new writer, mystery novelist Denise Mina. And whaddaya know? He was right. Mina and Manco's tenure has been tentative up until now, everything seeming like a long prelude while they were finding their footing, replete with menace and foreboding but going nowhere (except Scotland). With #219, it all coalesces: the threat, Mina's take on John Constantine, her command of the story, Manco's art. With #220, where the action kicks up a gear and Constantine's involvement with a cult trying to find a way to deal with an occult threat becomes direct rather than peripheral. This is what you get when the talent finds their confidence. Check it out.

From Fantagraphics:

THE SANDMAN PAPERS ed by Joe Sanders, 202p trade paperback ($18.95)

Or "The one where academicians write essays about Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN." Which hardly surprises me: SANDMAN was arguably the first comic book invented for college students. It was reflective, reverberatory, laden with references and allusions - a comic made for literary critics the way most comics are made for comics fans. Which is why many of these essays are quite funny, apparently inadvertently; you can't tell if they're in on the joke or ignorant of it. (One essayist writes in awed tones of how the story in all its important details - the comic in microcosm, with its visuals expressed but undrawn - already exists on Gaiman's script pages, and I just think, "Well, duh!") Nevertheless, most of the essays are fairly entertaining as they mine Neil's work (and that of his immediate predecessors, like Alan Moore) the way kobold mine for gold, and some, like K.A. Laity essay on female powerlessness in the "Kindly Ones" arc, are surprising. Not surprisingly, many of the essayists are women. If literary criticism of comics is your thing, or if you're equally fixated on SANDMAN, go for it.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

BACK ISSUE #16 ed by Michael Eury, 96p b&w magazine ($6.95)

A special issue on "Toy Comics," with the GI JOE link paving the way to a Mike Zeck portfolio too. I have to recommend the issue just for that. Toys don't do a lot for me, though some of the stories about the comics are pretty good. If you ever dug Gumby, Transformers, the Joes, Micronauts, Captain Action, Rom or Masters Of The Universe (wow, I can't believe how much of this $#!+ I wrote at one point or another) or if you've got an eye for rare artwork by some gifted comics artists (I wonder how Michael gets his hands on it), check it out.

ALTER EGO #58 ed by Roy Thomas, 96p b&w magazine ($6.95)

I haven't seen ALTER EGO in awhile, but it's nice to see some things stay dependable. The magazine's "formula," so to speak, remains the same as always: throw editor Roy Thomas' history (Silver Age comics) and obsessions (Golden Age comics) in a Cuisinart - and then design the magazine with the Cuisinart too. Still, the magazine's almost random appearance gives it a strange energy; it's the sensation of digging through an attic the owners forgot about. This issue fixates on The X-Men, with a brief early history of the superteam paving the way for two discussions of an X-MEN screenplay, and then there are articles on '50s comics and artists, Roy's anniversary party slides, the transcript of a 1966 panel discussion on EC Comics with Ted White and Archie Goodwin, forgotten comics, obits, a CIVIL WAR-timed discussion of old Marvel villain the Hate Monger, a '50s Captain Marvel-Human Torch team-up, and tons more. It's almost dizzying, but there's tons of information on old comics here.

From House Of Collectibles:

OFFICIAL 36TH EDITION OVERSTREET COMIC BOOK PRICE GUIDE by Robert M. Overstreet, 1120p trade paperback ($25)

Some things defy review. This is one of them. I remember when Bob Overstreet was just beginning this project. Now it's bigger than a lot of phone books. Of course, people have always quibbled about Overstreet's valuations of comics and I don't know how many dealers pay attention to them, but beyond pricing this is also an invaluable listing of virtually every "mainstream" comic ever published in America, along with publication dates and contents notes. Plus weird little featurettes, but I can't believe anyone buys it for the featurettes. What can I say? If you need a price guide (or a comprehensive index of American comics) it's about the only game in town. Fortunately, it's a good one. (But let's get those WHISPER back issue prices jacked up by next year's edition, okay? I have a yen to cash out my copies.)

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Got quite a few letters last week, but it was them or the reviews, so next week for letters.

Finally, best wishes for speedy recoveries to writer Mark Evanier and artists Steve Lawton and Matthew Clark, all of whom recently had medical problems. Considering their relative youth, it's a bit disturbing, but get well quickly, all of you.

I understand the supposed Constitutional issues involved. Separation of powers and all that; the House is declaring that no extension of the Executive Branch has any right to anything belonging to Congress, the same way that the White House (particularly the ever so secretive office of the Vice President, who, let's be honest about it, is really running the country alongside Donald Rumsfeld, who's really running foreign policy; it's blatantly clear that the Hand Puppet has no interesting in being president, only in being seen as president, and since Cheney has no interest in being seen, it works out great for everyone, except us) has consistently told Congress it has no right to view any White House documents or interview White House staff. Separation of powers. I'm not a Constitutional scholar, so who knows? Maybe they're right. But it's the wrong fight to fight, given the House's continual refusal to pass any real reform to stem Washington's runaway graft culture, which has permeated virtually everywhere. (The story continues to float that former CIA director Porter Goss' abrupt departure from office was precipitated by discovery of his involvement with hookers & graft parties run by lobbyists that recently netted his second in command.) This makes it look like Congressmen want their graft, dammit!

On the other hand, it's interesting that even arch-conservative House Republicans are stating that the raid on the office of Jefferson - a Democrat - is an attempt by the Executive branch to intimidate legislators, particularly when so many of them are defying the President on immigration... um... reform. (In this instance, he's not psycho enough for them.) Which isn't a very wild accusation, considering the Hand Puppet's reputation dating back to his days as governor of Texas for wreaking vengeance on those who dared to defy him. (Even Laura Bush tells the story of how he tried to crash their car in retaliation for her criticism of a speech he gave at the dinner they were returning home from - the last time she ever did anything like that.) So it looks like two principles are at stake here: the legitimate principle of the Legislature feeling secure from intimidation by the Executive branch when they are in disagreement, and the illegitimate principle that if the Justice Department can raid William Jefferson's office and confiscate his papers and any evidence of wrongdoing on his part, they can do the same to Roy Blunt or John Boehner.

Call it enlightened self-interest, I guess. How else to explain how they're getting upset now at power grabs by the President (whose people are frantically trying to figure a way out of this mess, since on one side Congress is pretty much threatening to shut down and on the other Attorney General Gonzales and FBI director Mueller are threatening to quit if they're forced to back down) when for four years they've been gleefully surrendering power after power to him? Of course, those moves were only bad for us, and for the Constitution, while various Republican members of Congress saw their own influence and value inflate as a result. This latest power grab is the one that finally hits them where they're scared, and if it is a threat, it's the one that counts, at least for them.

On a side note, there's a new sinister 6/6/06 connection: that's the day Congress reconvenes. Sure smells like the Antichrist to me...

By the way, does anyone else feel like they're living in the Twilight Zone when they hear the Hand Puppet say he wants all Americans - especially Hispanic immigrants (presumably the legal kind) - to have a grasp of the English language?

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.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

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.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, 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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