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Issue #271

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #271

I was going to spend the day spelling out a foolproof way for any publisher to turn comics publishing into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, but a minor family emergency ended up killing off most of my time today. (Everything’s cool on that front, and thanks for the well-wishes.) It’s always Tuesdays, ain’t it? Anyway, circumstances have forced me into a rerun, at least for the first section of the column, so sorry about that. But consider this my little holiday to start the holiday season, where we look back at what I wrote at the beginning of the year, and everyone can let me know either how accurate I wasn’t, or how much things have (or haven’t) changed in the interim. The real thing will be back next week. Thanks for bearing with me:

Okay, pretty much everyone had a crappy 2005, but 2005 is over. Time to get on with 2006. “Those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it” is an aphorism quoted way too often but if it’s appropriate, it’s appropriate. The comics business is predicated on fantasy, it’s true, but once in awhile some harsh reality has to creep in. Otherwise we’ll be on the same treadmill forever.

We don’t have a healthy industry. Parts of it are healthy, and, in most instances, that’s only in comparison to what they were. But the business really splits along those lines: those who are feeling healthy don’t see why they need to change anything, while those who aren’t feeling healthy grow more and more frustrated and angry, feeling penned in by unfeeling outside forces.

So as along as I’m kicking up aphorisms, let’s go for a little Shakespeare:

The fault lies not in our stars but in ourselves.

In many ways, our business as it stands today exists not to produce comics, not even to produce franchises, but to maintain cherished myths about the nature of the business. Here’s our situation:

1) Most of the world ignores American comics, at least in their native form, though almost no one despises, fears or thinks ill of them or those who read them anymore. But the success of movies like BATMAN BEGINS and FANTASTIC FOUR really only reinforce popular assumptions about what comics are while very few people associate films like SIN CITY or A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE with their source material. Comics have become mainstream, as far as the general public is concerned – to the extent they’re aware comics still exist, comics are just one more bit of cultural detritus, not something to get exercised about, but not something to get excited about either – but unless a general public somehow becomes excited about comics, acceptance is only relevant to those who incessantly worry about another ’50s style crackdown that’s unlikely to ever come.

2) Anyone waiting for Marvel or DC, the big players in American comics, to change anything is wasting their time. Marvel and DC have determined what niches they want to fill, and they fill them fairly well. Their only real interests in the rest of the market are what can work to their advantage to achieve or maintain supremacy over the other company, and what “theft” of talent from independent titles might be useful to them. Likewise, Diamond, the only distributor of note, has little incentive to change anything about the business as it’s currently set up. They do just fine distributing Marvel and DC. They’d do fine (from the perspective of some at Diamond, better) if Marvel and DC were the only comics they distributed. I’m not saying that any of these companies are evil incarnate; all they are is business people. They have their own business plans and pursue their own business interests, and that’s the extent of their interests. If you don’t understand that, you don’t understand them, and if you don’t understand them, you don’t understand the market.

3) More diversity is not the answer. (Which doesn’t translate to less diversity is the answer, just to make that clear.) Looking at the Diamond catalog, it’s hard to imagine a more diverse array of material. You can ride the scale from Fantagraphics on one end to Image on the other without even figuring in available manga or the various new graphic novels now being published by “Diversity” is simply an independent comics codeword meaning “not superheroes.” It’s not enough. It’s true that many superhero comics are crap. But most independent comics are crap too.

And that’s one of the cherished myths of the industry: to be an “independent” makes your comics somehow innately better or more worthy of attention than those published by Marvel, DC or one of the mid-range publishers like Image or Dark Horse. This is an extension of other long-cherished myths. That comics written and drawn by a single talent are innately superior to those “hacked out” (somehow whenever this myth is presented those creating the comic in question are hacks, except when they aren’t) by a collaborative team. That creator-owned comics are innately superior to company-owned comics. That because a comic can be published or self-published, it should be published. You know the analogs, you can fill them in yourself. They’re not hard to spot; they’re all self-serving myopia from a self-centered, self-aggrandizing perspective. And, often, that’s as much reward as anyone can expect in comics, so it’s understandable that’s what they gravitate to. It’s a hell of a lot safer and more satisfying than sober reflection.

Part of me feels I’m retread a column from several years ago, but another part feels it’s a message that needs retreading.

Part of the problem is distribution, yes. The business needs a viable alternative to Diamond. (Current alternatives are only vaguely viable, at best.) But that’s not the real problem.

Part of the problem is marketing, yes. Almost all current marketing of actual comics (as opposed to franchise characters and the underoos etc. that feature them) is aimed at the Internet, and one of these days I plan to pillage featurettes from Newsarama, The Pulse, Comic Book Resources and other online “news” venues to examine how copywriters, “reporters,” interview subjects, etc., all depend on a small cache of catchphrases that have now been repeated into utter dullness – they’re equivalent to something “cleverly” saying “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore – and running them in an article or interview is a great way to kill any sense of excitement about projects under discussion. But that’s still not the real problem.

The real problem is that most American comics are crap. (And, yes, I’m well familiar with “Sturgeon’s Law,” which is almost always misinterpreted and used as a justification for crap, and Sturgeon never claimed it was a law anyway. So don’t bother writing me about it.) We are never going to draw in a mass audience – if that’s what we really want to do, which is something we as an industry should damn well figure out, though, personally, I make my living off this stuff so the bigger the audience the better living I make and it’s in my interests and those of most comics talents to go for as big an audience as humanly possible – if they have to wade through a vast sea of crap to find a single gold nugget here and there. I’m not talking about whether plot and character live up to my personal standards or not. (Which, as should be evident to anyone who has read my comics, aren’t all that high.) I’m not suggesting comics should fall into goosestep with what I think comics should be.

But these are the facts, as we march into 2006:

Many comics are ugly.

Many comics are badly written and badly thought out.

Many comics are ridiculously derivative and unoriginal.

These are not things that will entice an audience into even trying comics, let alone sticking with them. These are things that will only convince any potential audience that every idiotic cliché they ever heard about the medium is completely true. And the fact is that while DC and Marvel produce a lot of undeniable crap, they usually at least mask their crappiness behind a certain level of craft. They don’t immediately rub your face in their crappiness. As a result, even most bad Marvel and DC comics can be read with mild enjoyment if you don’t think about them too much. (If they push the right buttons, they can often even get fans to completely overlook their sheer crappiness and push them as genuine works of brilliance.)

Most independent comics don’t even aspire to that level. They wear their crappiness nakedly, with pride, then are baffled and angered at how they’re overlooked or dismissed. It’s true that there are good books out there that are overlooked and dismissed, but it’s not syllogistic: being overlooked and dismissed doesn’t automatically mean the book is good. Too many people try to spin it that way; we are an industry that loves the image of the oppressed genius struggling against an unfeeling business and an uncaring world. That’s an image we have dump right now. Of course, there’s also the long-cherished myth of comics as a cottage industry, where anyone with an idea (it doesn’t even have to be a good idea, obviously) and a pencil can cheaply create their own work. And they can! But the question of whether the resulting work is any good or not, whether it deserves publication and distribution, still has to enter into it.

Most independent publishers, excluding self-publishers, break down into two groups: those that want to be Marvel or DC, and those that don’t want to be Marvel or DC. The former group are the ones who’ve bought into the myth that market presence=market success, and the way to achieve market presence is to put out a lot of different comics. The latter group are the ones who base their publishing decisions on what Marvel or DC wouldn’t do. Virtually no independent publisher projects a viable independent self-image, nor do many demonstrate a coherent game plan with their publishing. Market presence doesn’t mean pumping out a lot of books, especially when most of those books are half-assed, derivative or empty. It means projecting an identity that suggests dependability to customers. The right kind of dependability.

Which may be what the industry needs more than ever in 2006: publishers with “dependable” output who aren’t Marvel or DC.

We’re really far too complacent an industry on far too many levels, and we have no right to be. Comics still have the potential to be great, but they’re never going to be great simply because we say they are or because we want them to be. They’re never going to be great by being a vast ocean of ugly, barely literate tripe. Sure, there are great comics out there now, but on average they’re really pretty bad. We need the average dramatically lifted.

You can say TV is pretty bad and it does just fine, and it’s true. It is and it generally does, and it has a far larger audience than comics. But TV is also something that comes to its audience, and a lot of networks wouldn’t agree that it’s doing just fine at all, at least not for them. Movies have been pretty bad for the last couple of years despite several good ones, and Hollywood’s paying the price for that. It’s not enough to say that some other medium, or entertainment opportunity, is also crap, as if that somehow vindicates comics. It doesn’t.

The main problem with comics, as we enter 2006, is that comics need to be better, and independent comics in particular have to be better, especially if they intend to promote themselves as the future of the industry. Which means every one of us has to make their comics better.

This is the year every talent, every publisher, every retailer should seriously think about what they want to be. Where they want to be when 2007 rolls around. Because the only way comics will get better is if we make it happen, and the only way the business will become strong and viable again is if we make it happen.

It’s a good year to decide for real what we want to be. Let’s get it done.

Circumstances have forced a change in review policy here at Permanent Damage national headquarters: I can no longer guarantee I review everything sent in. I’ll still try to get to most of it, but just too many things (like lots of research, not to mention the new Thomas Pynchon novel) are filling up my time these days, so from now on what I like or what surprises me (or, conversely, what’s so bad warnings are demanded) gets first consideration at write-up. Sorry about that. But I can at least mention what I’m sent, so if you send items for review, include websites where more information can be found about them, just in case.

On to the reviews:

From Del Rey Manga:

TRAIN MAN by Machiko Ocha($)

Romance comics for the millions. For some reason, TRAIN MAN was a phenomenally popular novel in Japan, spawning several different manga versions – from several different companies. This is the shojo version, though how it might differ from the shonen version isn’t immediately clear: an anime fan nervous around girls has a random encounter on a subway that propels him into a romance that changes his life. It’s well done enough, though for a manga the story has precious few twists and turns. The main innovation is the Internet bulletin board group that talks the hero through his fears and doubts, even though the group is for those who are luckless in love, and anonymously broadcasts his inspirational story to the world. It’s cute, and very pleasant, and if you’ve been wanting to try manga but not invest in an endless series, it’s one volume long.

PASTEL Vol 4 by Toshihiko Kobayashi ($10.95)

Though still a bit of a jiggle book, this series about sexy sisters who come to live with a hapless teenage boy, and their subsequent romantic misadventures, has evolved from mainly an excuse to tease teenage female nudity to a pretty decent comic. The art was never the problem, but the characterizations have gotten much more complex, and it’s starting to veer away from the continuous cliché romantic ambivalence that mars way too many of these things.

KURO GANE Vol 2 by Kei Toume ($10.95)

Here’s a nice dose of fatalism, via a wandering cyborg assassin with a talking sword in feudal Japan. Effectively dead, and outside the bounds of society in more ways than one, he eviscerates foes and delusions of honor with stoic precision, though, with his own origin story finished in volume 1, he is increasingly becoming more of a witness to the folly of others, a sort of Greek chorus for an unending flow of tragedies. Interesting.

From Fantagraphics:

AN ORGY OF PLAYBOY’S ELDON DEDINI ed Michelle Urry & Gary Groth ($39.95)

Okay, I admit it. Like many men of my generation, my first real foray into the world of sex was via the PLAYBOY magazines my father had hidden away. It’s still a familiar joke to talk about reading PLAYBOY for the articles, but what I always read were the cartoons and comic strips (yes, I also looked at the nude photos), and among them, usually in the vicinity of the centerfold, were full page cartoons that were not only usually wryly funny but very attractively painted in a voluptuous but cartoony manner. And until this very instant it never once occur to me that a specific person had created those. Though, obviously, someone had: Eldon Dedini. (I had just never thought about it.) This meticulously produced hardcover (complete with a DVD documentary) is a great collection of Dedini’s work, with over 200 pieces, most of which remains very funny, and very voluptuous.

CONNECT THE POLKA DOTS: Zippy The Pinhead comic strips by Bill Griffith ($18.95)

One of the few underground comics characters who went mainstream, Zippy The Pinhead has appeared in his own newspaper strip – in not particularly watered down form – for a couple decades now, making surrealism and non-sequiturs its stock in trade. This collection proves two things: Bill Griffith deserves to be recognized as one of the leading cultural commentators of our time, and “Zippy The Pinhead” is best appreciated in small doses. Buy it, but read it sporadically

From Devil’s Due:

GI JOE DECLASSIFIED #2 & 3 by Larry Hama & various ($4.95@), GI JOE: AMERICA’S ELITE #14-16 by Joe Casey, Josh Medors & Richard Zajac ($2.95@), GI JOE-TRANSFORMERS #5 by Tim Seeley & various ($2.95), SCARLETT DECLASSIFIED by Mike O’Sullivan & Phil Noto ($4.95)

It’s been a while since I’ve looked at Devil’s Due’s GI JOE line (they also sent CRYSTAL SHARD #1, CHRONICLES: DRAGONS OF WINTER NIGHT #2 & FAMILY GUY: PETER GRIFFIN’s GUILD TO PARENTING: FAMILY COMES FIRST (RIGHT AFTER TV) but I can’t stand either Dungeons and Dragons or Family Guy, so what’s the point? Those reviews can only end badly…) and the first thing I noticed is that credits are getting very hard to find. (Only Hama, Noto and O’Sullivan are even mentioned on covers.) GI JOE is by its nature a pretty silly concept, which has largely worked in comics when its writers took it seriously and hasn’t when they didn’t. But not always. Tim Seeley struggles valiantly to make something of GI JOE/TRANSFORMERS, but a standard crossover wraps up with standard blather about future golden ages, sacrifice and destiny; it’s sort of predicated on its readers never having read a comic book before. Larry Hama’s original GI JOE run was highlighted by tongue-in-cheek moments that gave the characters unexpected personalities, while he took the material as seriously as he took anything else. His work in GI JOE DECLASSIFIED, recounting what amounts to secret origins of various Joes and Cobras pretty much follows that pattern, except for the tongue-in-cheek stuff, and, strangely, the stories are almost smothered by their consternation. Likewise, Joe Casey, like Hama, turns in pretty decent JOE scripts (with the occasional topical reference, like Scarlett condemning torture and imprisonment without trial) but the constant sphincter clenching gets wearisome, particularly since Casey (like Hama) has proven in the past he can effectively mix comedy and drama without stories seeming ridiculous. Everything’s so constantly life and death, and the art so interchangeable, that while it’s probably exactly what the Joe hardcore want I can’t see it appealing to many others. The one exception is Mike O’Sullivan’s SCARLETT DECLASSIFIED, the Joe heroine’s secret origin, which is something of a revelation via O’Sullivan’s sparse, muscular script and possibly Phil Noto’s best art to date – bright, open, clean, sharp. It’s the only book in the bunch that’s actually designed, and written to appeal to anybody. Check that one out.

NIGHTWOLF: THE PRICE #2 by Stephen L. Antczak & Nick Marinkovich ($2.95)

A slick b&w comic notable mainly for Marinkovich’s artwork, marked by a sort of impressionistic photosurrealism that hasn’t much been seen since the old Warren magazines, with a little Tim Bradstreet thrown in for good measure. The story’s a not terribly compelling urban werewolf tale, complete with paranoid politics and cutting edge dialogue like “We been waitin’ for you, sucka.” But the art has its moment.

So we’re out of election season and into crazy season. The OJ Simpson Show ground up the airwaves, with ReganBooks and Fox-TV shelling out hundreds of thousands to various OJ concerns (not to OJ directly, because then his ex-in-laws could confiscate it) for the era’s most famous acquitted murder suspect to tell how he might have killed his ex-wife Nicole. (When last we heard, OJ had vowed to find the real killer if he had to scour every golf course in the world to do it.) I can’t blame Simpson – though he stayed out of prison or worse, he has pretty much become an international pariah, and he can’t have much else left to sell – but even Fox should’ve been able to see the storm coming. Even Fox employee Bill O’Reilly ended up on the right side of the issue, issuing a diatribe about how consumers should stop buying ever from any company advertising on the proposed two-hour OJ interview special, which probably had a lot to do with it being yanked from the air. (O’Reilly wasn’t the only person to suggest it.) Now, of course, Fox can look all “responsive” and “responsible” for killing the show, not to mention to the book. Fox owns ReganBooks, though eponymous editor Judith Regan was previously taking lots of credit for putting the book deal together, and it’s almost like the parent company of both, Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp, made a calculated bid to find out just how ghoulish Americans were willing to go. In this instance it seems like mere cancellation just isn’t enough – odds are pretty good they still have to pay OJ anyway – and the whole project is so morally vacant, so devoid of any moral sense at all, that if Regan genuinely got the ball rolling and wasn’t force fed it by some higher up she should get the boot from her job and the publishing industry just on principle. Not that the publishing industry built its reputation on moral sense…

Then former Seinfeld sidekick Michael Richards gets heckled in a night club and has a nervous breakdown on stage, launching into a racist mantra that thrust him back into the public eye. The way Richards has started milking the talk show circuit to proclaim his apology (complete with the obligatory “I’m not a racist, but…”) and his new urge to self-examination, with all the gravitas of a DR. PHIL guest. I just imagine somebody marketing self-help groups for impromptu racists now.

Of course, all this is the sideshow. The real craziness, as always, is in Washington, but who has time for that when K-Fed’s battling it out with Britney? Among other things, the White House – déjà vu, anyone? – received a CIA report stating that Iran has no nuclear capability… and rejected it out of hand. And though it could all be forgotten by January, new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi may have set the tone for Democratic rule of Congress when she backed Jack Murtha – who referred to Pelosi’s proposed ethics reforms as “total crap” – over Steny Hoyer for House Majority leader… and Hoyer won, giving the early impression of Pelosi as a paper tiger. Not that Republicans have done any better; their first post-election act was to resurrect Trent Lott as Senate Minority Leader, allowing the press to remind everyone that Lott fell from grace three years ago for pronouncing with starry-eyed admiration that the country would have been so much better off had Strom Thurmond’s pro-segregation 1948 presidential campaign (and, by extension, all the social modifications that suggests) succeeded. Causing even the Hand Puppet to excoriate Lott. Does Lott’s return mean he’s reconstructed or merely disinterred?

Meanwhile, John McCain functionally launched his ’08 presidential campaign on the battle cry of more troops in Iraq. Of course, so did Hilary Clinton. Which made yesterday’s headline in my local paper a bit of a shock: BUSH ‘AMAZED’ BY PROGRESS IN VIETNAM. Interesting that the Hand Puppet should pick this moment in his term for a visit; I could almost hear him saying in his good ol’ boy nasal cornpone “Well, heck, looks like maybe it’s not so bad if America pulls its troops out of a country after all.” Speaking of troops, Democratic Rep. Charles Rangel’s celebrating the Dems return to power by regurgitating his plan to reinstate the draft. (Even he voted against it last time.) Rangel’s logic is almost appealingly idiotic; he claims that the lack of a draft has promoted a willingness to go to war, and that the draft would level the recruiting field and force even the offspring of the rich to serve on the front lines. Apparently he hasn’t studied a lot of history, since the rich have always found ways around conscription, like, oh, paying off the poor to take their place or using connections to keep their own kids off the front lines. Plus there’s always that urge to “glory” that the prospect of war seems to invoke in the ambitious, and when America gets its dander up, as with 9/11, the presence of more available troops isn’t likely to be much of a deterrent to war. The question is whether, at a moment when even Democrats are trying to claim a victory in Iraq is still possible if we dump enough American troops in there, the prospect of a vastly expanded army will have a new appeal.

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS:

Before I forget, Happy Thanksgiving (at least for my American readers), and Happy Black Friday, which it turns out is now called that because it’s the day when many stores go into the black for the year. I’m not sure how they do that with so many items cutthroat priced, but hey. This year something new has been added to the mix, in addition to many stores opening at midnight rather than 5 or 7 AM: Black Friday, a website that lists the special one day sales items at a number of chain stores. Best Buy threatened to sue them if they didn’t take the list down, so they did, and the main flyer I’m interested in, Fry’s, hasn’t surfaced yet, but there are a slew of other stores posted, and some really great deals. (Like 2G USB thumb drives for around $14, at Office Max, if I remember right.)

Director Robert Altman died yesterday. There’s not much to say about him that his films M*A*S*H, THE LONG GOODBYE, SHORT CUTS and THE PLAYER can’t say better. But stay away from things like QUINTET. His piercing cynicism drenched every project he ever worked on, but, as with many directors, when he was good, he was very, very good, but when he was bad he was horrid.

Jeez, I just realized as I was putting the column to bed that today (as you read this) is the 43rd anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination. (The first one.) I remember when they used to go on endlessly about it year after year on this date, like it was some national holiday. Now it’s barely a footnote…

I read that Mothers Against Drunk Driving wants a breathalyzer in every car. Big Mother is watching! And there’s a mounting campaign in the city of Boston to get adverts for the videogame GRAND THEFT AUTO off subway trains there, apparently on the principle that taking the ads down would resolve the issues of gang war and violence against women (particularly hookers) in the greater Boston area. I know the appearance is that the transit authority is somehow endorsing the game via the ads, but, jeez, nobody’s getting any ideas from the game. If anything, it’s the other way around. The Boston paper talks about how the game “encourages players to steal, murder and have sex with prostitutes.” Sure. In the game! The argument has apparently been liberally (pun unintended but probably appropriate) peppered with the obligatory (not to mention self-serving) “I believe in the First Amendment, but…” (Which I’m sure someone will accuse me of due to my criticism of Judith Regan above. Hey, I never said the O.J. shouldn’t be published, just that the idea was ghoulish.)

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.) I also like to leave a clue hidden somewhere in the column. I can’t help it; it’s genetic. Good luck. (For further clues, as always, check out The Grand Comic Book Database.)

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.

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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