: a potpourri of short bits, on all subjects, because time itself is short
Had an interesting discussion over the past couple days at Warren Ellis’ The Engine about the “FELL” format, what Warren calls a “dose.” (A self-contained, low price 24 page comic with 16 pages of compacted story that reads denser than the book physically is.) So far Image has released only one other title in the format, Matt Fraction & Gabriel Ba’s CASANOVA. The subject turned to format, since both books have become successful for Image, and it was asked why more books in the format haven’t been done.
Format’s a tricky thing. Over the past thirty years, it has become traditional for comics companies with a successful product in a new format (prior to that, shifting from long standard formats was anathema, and comics came, generally, in only three forms: the 32 page pamphlet that still haunts us today; the black and white magazine; and the 7″x4″ mass market paperback) to conclude it was the format that sold the material. A rush of other material in the format generally followed, first from the birth company and then from other companies jumping the train. Funny enough, in most instances it was the talent first published in the format who concocted the format and pushed for its use. (Warren with the “dose,” for instance.) But, traditionally, publishers prefer to rationalize themselves out of situations where their ability to profit from an innovation teeters on the availability of specific talent, hence the format=sales formula.
We’ve been through a lot of formats since 1980. In each case, formats are successful until a significant enough body of bad work appears in them to convince audiences that not only is the format nothing special but that the format itself breeds bad work. (Both black and white comics and the original push for graphic novels in the 1980s were killed off in this way.) Justified or not, it’s a customer consciousness thing. The lesson to be learned isn’t that formats sell, but that formats sell as long as the content they contain remains interesting to the audience. So I applaud Image’s restraint, and I imagine the (blessed) failure of other companies to leap onto the format extends from the relative lack of success of the format compared to, oh, X-MEN or JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA. In the Image economic framework, the package does splendidly, for publisher and talent; in the Marvel economic framework it would constitute a disaster. Which is fine. We can no longer consider ourselves a monolithic standardized industry, but that’s fine too; the success of new companies doesn’t depend on being “the next Marvel” but in carving out their own niches. The “dose” has the potential to be such a niche, but it’s not so much the format that makes the “dose” attractive as the thinking behind it.
Warren’s main concept was density of content, in opposition to the “decompressed comics” he helped pioneer in the ’90s. It’s one of the first salvos in “recompression” that I spoke about a few columns back. The format itself isn’t as important to the success of the book as the tenets of the content: a self-contained story each issue, created in such a way that it contains enough of a reading experience to deliver a sense of more bang for less buck. The format, as Warren pointed out, allows them to carry a low enough price point ($2, I think) that new readers can be more easily enticed by dealers into trying out the comic, and the self-contained aspect works with that to allow readers to come in at any issue without feeling lost. (A plus for retailers is that they can then get back issues to feed interested customers.)
What’s really going on with the format, in both books, is a rethinking of what goes into a comic, in order to best take advantage of the format. Which is where most creators fall down when taking on a new format; they don’t rethink so much as try to squeeze the same old stuff they’ve always done into a new package, and publishers, who are almost always happy with the same old stuff as long as it’s a little dressed up in new duds, don’t have any problem with that.
But that’s exactly what kills formats. We’re now at a very critical moment; it’s time everyone in the business, or wanting to be in the business, began rethinking their comics. Format is not the excuse for it. Format comes after, but format possibilities are also wide open now, and where format shifts new content options become possible as well.
Saw HOLLYWOODLAND over the weekend. The story of a low-rent detective investigating the mysterious death of George Reeves, the actor who played Superman on TV in the ’50s, it’s probably the best “superhero” film of the summer, though it still not very good. Not that it’s bad, exactly; the acting – particularly Ben Affleck as George Reeves (other raves for his work here are not simply hype), and Diane Lane and Robin Tunney as Reeves’ sugarmomma and fiancée, respectively – and the directing are terrific, the dialogue is generally very sharp, and I almost never use the term mise en scene, but, man, the film captures the dismal pastel-monochromatic drabness of the 1950s (I’m just barely old enough to remember it) perfectly. The problem lies in the story they cobbled together, which chugs along just fine for the first hour and a half, then starts fabricating, omitting and twisting events for a bloodless non-revelation that answers nothing but, seemingly, the desire of the production company to stave off libel suits. If you’re completely ignorant of Reeves’ waning days, I’m sure it plays fine. If you’ve got any knowledge of what was going on with him at the end, it’ll just piss you off.
The TV season started early, but so far there’s not a lot to brag about. THE WIRE (HBO, 9P Sunday/On Demand) is great as always, even if it eschews most of its old cast to focus on the crisis of Baltimore schools and the underbelly of Baltimore politics. The show has a great knack for personalizing even the toughest issues it tackles, and you should be watching it. Everyone’s darling HOUSE (Fox, 8P Tuesday) has returned with the crankiest miracle man on TV cured of his leg problem but not of his psychological quirks, but the first episode seemed all over the place as they tried to establish the new status quo. But it’s still fun. JUSTICE (Fox, 9P Wednesday) is the first “HOUSE with lawyers” show to hit the air (CBS’ forthcoming SHARK is the second), but by the second week it already hit the wall. Too bad, because there’s a lot of talent on the show, but the formula – showing behind the scenes how defense lawyers stage and manipulate trials to their clients’ benefit, complete with an irascible, unlikable senior partner who insults clients and harangues the other lawyers, but mostly he just seems to be yelling, “I’m Gumby, dammit!” and the show ends, after the verdict, with a scene showing us what really went down during the “crime” – is too formulaic, the characters too cookie-cutter (the young handsome trial lawyer insists he only defends clients he knows are innocent, for example) and it’s already repetitive. Plus House stand-in Victor Garber doesn’t have one-tenth of Hugh Laurie’s underlying charm. Over on BBC America, LIFE ON MARS (its season just ended) continues to hit sour notes with me; despite multitudes telling me how good it is, I still find it a whiny excuse to run brutal ’70s style macho cop stories but be able, though the time-displaced hero, to wash their hands of any moral implications, though they’ve now established the brutal, rule-shrugging boss cop as a secret softie who’s really on the side of the angles after all; he has just learned to survive the politics of the job is all. Eh. I am enjoying MURDER CITY (10P Thursday) mainly for the interplay of Amanda Donohoe and Kris Marshall and the twisty mysteries, but if it weren’t for the leads it’d just be another light cop show: decent popcorn TV. But sometimes all you want is popcorn.
The Comics Journal‘s website has undergone an attractive overhaul, but the real gem there is the return of Dirk Deppey’s ¡Journalista!, which he abandoned a couple years ago to take over editing the magazine. Nobody’s better at tracking down all kinds of odd little stories most of the comics press ignores, from the worlds of news, business, media, comic strips, comic books, manga, graphic novels, anime, editorial cartoons – everywhere. Good thing the guy works at home now, because he doesn’t sleep. Truly comprehensive, even if he doesn’t mention Booster Gold’s death a lot; take a daily hop over there.
Last week, someone wrote to ask if I was going to be among those to apologize to Karl Rove (and, presumably, Rove flunky Scooter Libby) now that deputy Secretary of State and Iran-Contra co-conspirator Richard Armitage had “come out” and declared himself journalist Robert Novak’s informant in the Valerie Plame/Joseph Wilson “CIA leak” affair. Not having heard about Armitage by that point, I had to look into it, and, now that I have, the answer’s no. No apology. Armitage may have hastily arranged an interview with the New York Times where he mea culpaed himself theoretically out of an indictment for breaking a federal law prohibiting revealing the identity of CIA field agents, but the people who really outed him were reporters Michael Isikoff (famous for his Clinton-whipping investigations into MonicaGate, which made Isikoff the darling of the right wing) and David Corn, whose book HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR, just released, really outed him. (In other words, Armitage publicly coming clean was damage control.) But the book also points up that even as Armitage was leaking to Novak, Rove (who had been openly telling reporters, including MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, that the White House was going to get the Wilsons) and Libby were independently leaking the story to Matt Cooper and Judith Miller – before any Novak column appeared. (He also become Novak’s second source for the material.) Isikoff and Corn also reveal Plame’s real role in the CIA: she headed up the covert team attempting to develop spies inside Iraq, particularly among scientists connected to the development of WMDs. (Contrary to popular belief, she didn’t order Wilson to Niger to investigate claims Iraq was trying to buy uranium from that country.) The team successfully made inroads under difficult circumstances and a tight timeframe (the Administration wanted very much an ironclad premise for war with Iraq) but kept getting the same story: there was no program. According to the book, this put Plame herself on a collision with the White House for obstructionism, indicating (along with Rove’s comments) the administration’s wrath wasn’t aimed at Wilson alone. The CIA, in its brilliance, eventually decided that everyone telling the same story about no WMD program meant all their sources were compromised and handing over the cover story Saddam Hussein wanted us to believe. Anyway, the book’s loaded with information, and, on examining what’s pertinent to our reader’s question, I have to say, no, no apology, and, like Armitage, it’s Rove who should be apologizing to us.
Ain’t it funny where politics and pop culture collide? The recently disgraced and defrocked right wing pitbull Trent Lott still has his mailing list, it seems, but no grasp of how TV talent competitions are supposed to function. Seems Trent sent out a mailing the other day telling his millions and millions of fans to vote regularly and often for country singer Sara Evans, a contestant on this season’s edition of DANCING WITH THE STARS (ABC, 9P Tuesdays). Why? Because she’s a fine morally upstanding Republican woman and a good role model. I’ve got nothing against Sara Evans, she sings well and seems perfectly nice, but, jeez, Trent! Trying to rig a dance competition? Is this what Conservatism has come to? If she can dance better than anyone else, fine, but are Republicans that desperate for a win, any kind of win, this year?
Funny how many of the same people who’ve ranted for years about how “liberal” professors should be driven from American universities before they corrupt callow, impressionable youth with wrongheaded ideas are now outraged that the president of Iran has called for a 1979-style purging of liberal professors from Iranian universities before they can sway callow, impressionable youth from ideological purity. I’m with them that Ahmadinejad’s push deserves to fail miserably (and reports indicate the Iranian people, including students, aren’t too happy about it, so it might) but such efforts here deserve to fail too. In neither case do the attackers of professors want to “free” universities from political influence, they merely want to enforce that the politics being discussed are their own.
Congratulations to Tony Rose, who correctly identified the theme of last week’s Comics Cover Challenge as “girlfriends.” (For those who were wondering, the SAVAGE HENRY cover, by the ineffable Matt Howarth, features Henry’s girlfriend Caroline, who, to the best of my knowledge, does not have red hair. But he draws her in black and white so I can’t be sure.) Tony, who’s on the board of the website that provides the challenge with its covers, The Grand Comics Database (and, no, that didn’t give him an unfair advantage), would like to direct you to his blog, which presumably will mention this today.
Congratulations also to winners of this year’s Harvey Awards, especially best artist JH Williams and my pals, best writer Ed Brubaker and special humorist Kyle Baker. Umm… why is there a special award for humor, anyway?
Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week’s Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn’t been an issue so far.) Normally I’d leave a clue to the theme somewhere in the column, but since some people now think they’ve got a divine right to one, this week I don’t think I will. (But, letting bygones be bygones, there are two different answers I’ll accept this week.)
Since everyone’s going nuts this week with reflections on 9/11 five years later (though an L.A. Times poll indicates the vast majority of Americans don’t really feel their lives were affected that much by 9/11 at all), several readers have asked for my reflections. Eh. I said what I had to say in the first original Permanent Damage column in Sept ’01, and, looking back, I don’t find my view altered much at all.
This week I’m reading THE GOSPEL OF JUDAS, ed Rodolphe Kasser et al. (National Geographic; $22) This little hardcover has the first translation of a Gnostic text railed against by the vehement anti-heretical church father Irenaeus 1800 years ago, who thought enough of it to single it out as a particularly vile example of heresy. That was our main experience of it, until the only known copy turned up buried in the Middle East a couple decades ago (though it only came to scholarly light in 2001), but, in the breezy translation here, it turns out to be a very gentle narrative. In addition to the Gospel of Judas, which spells out a theology vastly different from Christian orthodoxy (it pretty much mocks it, along with the other twelve apostles, who are presented as baffled dullards and positions Judas not as Jesus’ betrayer but the one who makes his sacrifice possible and the disciple to whom he reveals the true religion), there are some good essays interpreting and clarifying Judas, illuminating the early (pre-Orthodoxy) history of the Church, and other subjects. Not a dry read at all, very entertaining, and some of the ideas in the Gospel sound like a bad comic book, or Scientology. Worth reading.
Funny thing happened yesterday: I stopped by my local library, and ran into Jimmy Carter. The former president, that Jimmy Carter. (He’s in town stumping for his son Jack, who’s running for Senate from Nevada.) Giving a speech for some seniors group, nothing sterling in it but he’s very pleasant to listen to. Hearing him talk there, it’s easy to remember why he got elected. (I’m talking style, not content.) Still, it’s weird meeting a president in the middle of nowhere, but it explains why the parking lot was full and Secret Service agents were hanging around.
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.
HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.
“The cyclical theory is popular with a lot of people in comics mainly because it takes the onus off them: the fault lies not in ourselves, but in our stars…”
This same reasoning is used by the WWE on why its revenue from PPV and attendence at house shows is down: Linda McMahon says the business is ‘cyclical.’ No, it’s just that they lost great showmen like the Rock and Stone Cold, and RAW became the HHH Show for a while and now it’s McMahon (two) Hour. If they came up with compelling stories on a regular basis and had a wrestler break out into the mainstream, lord knows they’re trying with Cena, then things would be on an upswing. I bought a book, WORLD WRESTLING INSANITY, which goes through the last few years, haven’t read it yet, but that might explain things, too.”
Wrestling’s a great example of abuse of “cyclical” thinking. McMahon did jump to prominence by serving up huge dollops of Hulk Hogan, but Hogan had already established himself elsewhere. (Hogan wasn’t even his first choice; that was Kerry Von Erich.) He didn’t invent the next boom either: those came as a result of Steve Austin and Dwayne Johnson reinventing themselves (with some help from Mick Foley, Bret Hart and others) and McMahon giving them the leeway to run with it. Now the McMahons micromanage almost everything, scriptwriters feed the wrestlers all their promos so everything feels canned, and he wonders when the “cycle” will come back around. Even in things are arguably cyclical, decisions still great affect the intensity and duration of downward cycles.
“This in response to the Nigerian Yellowcake/Valerie Plame story.
Over at Slate, Christopher Hitchens has been pursuing this story pretty closely lately (he seems to have a keen dislike for Joseph Wilson).
I’ve included links to the two most revelvant columns (the first his case that Iraq really was trying to buy yellowcake, a column which drew a response from Iraq’s nuclear envoy Zahawie; the second his summation of the entire Plame case). Slate is generally very good about including links to past stories, so it should be no problem tracking down his other columns on the matter, if you are interested.
I am sending this along as it has been the one place that I have seen for someone to actually be making the case for the yellowcake purchase.”
Thanks. This is another interesting one. For the last week, lots of people have been telling me about “evidence” “proving” the Iraqis really were trying to buy uranium from Niger, but all anyone ever tells me about is a Nigerian diplomat who suspected the Iraqi ambassador wanted to ask him about it one time… but never did. That’s like me saying I ran into Joe Quesada at San Diego and I suspect he wanted to ask me to take over AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. But he never did. Then there are supposed British and German intelligence sources that had reason to believe Iraq was attempting such a purchase, but without knowing the sources and circumstances it’s hard to evaluate how much stock they should have put in it, how much they were just repeating each other’s rumors (a very common occurrence in international intelligence gathering, and a handy dodge), etc. Faith may have its place in international relations, but hard evidence is always better. But right now, as the Senate Intelligence Committee report on pretexts for war with Iraq is basically blowing the Administration completely out of the water (not to mention, like the Supreme Court and Federal Appeals Court, opening them up to war crimes accusations) a lot of people seem to be scrambling for the slightest shred of justification.
“I love your column and CSI:DitG. I have a note about something you said this week: ‘DC and Marvel have both been on special crusades to recruit that talent from the ranks of novelists and filmmakers, so it’s a two-way door.’
Brad Meltzer gave a radio interview yesterday talking about his move to comics. He said it was always a goal for him to write comics, and that he was only accepted by DC after he had 4 bestsellers. He had approached them several times before finally wining over DC with his track record. Although it’s definitely true that the big 2 have their eyes on other media, most of the writers who have moved over to comics seem to be those who have an avowed public interest in the form anyway-Whedon, Meltzer, even Stephen King.
Also, about your rebuttal to Millar’s boom/bust theory-when you say that the market is only as good as the content of the books, you’re being naïve. Perhaps on a long enough timeline the cream shall rise to the top, but we can both name a hundred bad films or songs that have done great business. You were hinting at the point that the relevance of the content to the audience is hugely important-i.e. Captain America in the 1940’s, and I think that’s a very strong argument for the waxing or waning of in the industry. Spider-Man is a wonderful character, but how much does he speak to the kiddies?”
It makes perfect sense that Meltzer et al were comics fans first and wanted to do comics, because writers approached by the companies who aren’t interested in writing comics don’t write them. But those are approached too. (I know of several.) As Meltzer himself said, it wasn’t his desire to write comics that got him in, it was a company’s desire to have a popular published novelist writing comics for them.
It’s not so much that the medium is only as good as the content, it’s that its fortunes rise on the backs of breakout items that represent a shift, and fall as those shifts are… um… downshifted into neutral…
” I understand your point about the market. The strong titles that are often part of the zeitgeist are the ones that propel the market, and the tired, retreating titles are the ones that exhaust it. I find this fascinating and would love to see some sort of timeline mapping it. Was there a mid-80’s market swell in DARK KNIGHT‘s or WATCHMEN‘s wake? Was the death of Superman that same wave’s death rattle? Can other-media work like the Schumacher Batman films be attributed to this theory? Which side of the wave did Image ride in the 90s?
I know this isn’t a unified theory, so how does the sales vector come in to play? The move away from newsstands sales into the direct market seems to absent in Mark Millar’s theory. How do you reconcile it?”
Good question. The fall of newsstand sales (again, we didn’t move away from newsstands; newsstands moved away from us) bolsters my theory, because what happened afterward didn’t happen by itself, but because a man named Phil Seuling had a vision of a new way to distribute comics and worked to make it happen. The ’80s “revival cycle” wouldn’t have happened without him, and what he did, and the subsequent rise of the comics shop and the direct market, was not an obvious or natural move that would have happened anyway. Without Seuling, comics could very well have been dead by 1980. And, yes, there was a significant swell in the wake of DARK KNIGHT, WATCHMEN, AMERICAN FLAGG! and other titles, followed up by books like SANDMAN, which lured enough money into the field that publishers mutated into collectibles manufacturers, and, yes, “The Death Of Superman” probably was the crest of that wave, as the widespread mania for it quickly turned to despondency as the vast public quickly realized that comics weren’t their path to quick riches, that mentality already having driven many regular fans of comics out of the field, so that what was left of the audience in the aftermath (it took a couple years) was a smoldering crater. Image rode both sides of that wave, starting as the company that really triggered speculation fever (there was no doubt in the minds of many that the first publication of Spawn was as big a deal as the first publication of Superman) and ended as a company facing the same problems as every other company. Publishers do seem to have wised up a bit, though; while they’re tending more and more toward trying to turn comics into collectibles again, at least this time they show some interest in whether the buyer also reads them.
“Teresa Nielsen-Hayden’s blog discusses a recent Nation article on Valerie Plame’s actual role at the CIA, and what this means for the action taken by the Administration with the suggestion that it wasn’t about hurting Joseph Wilson for his statements, but, in fact, designed to bring Valerie Plame Wilson to heel. It’s an interesting take that reflects back to the point that invading Iraq was, in one way or another, in the plans since 1997 and PFANAC.”
” Just an addendum for your note about distributors for libraries: Ingram and Baker & Taylor are probably the biggest distributors for libraries. Most of us view Brodart as an equipment and supply vendor first and a distributor last. I’ve seen their graphic novel catalog/list and it is very well done, but I don’t know how many institutions actually use them.
Thanks for noticing our efforts in getting comics out in the stacks!”
You’re welcome, and thanks for stacking them. Regarding Brodart, at least out here in the west they seem to be getting a lot of action.
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.
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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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