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Issue #272

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #272

It’s not every week I get to sorely disappoint my hardest-core readers, but here goes.

For the past couple days I’ve received a small flood of email asking for comments on Vertigo’s new Minx line for girls, most of them hinting that it’s a ridiculous idea. It isn’t. It may be a bit late, given that manga have not only resuscitated the dormant girl’s comic market here (presumably encouraging DC and its corporate masters to put a little money behind the line) but thoroughly colonized it, but we’ll see. It’s not like that market doesn’t exist. The question is what it takes to crack it.

It’s true that DC used to be a bastion of girls’ comics, at least if romance comics are a measure, along with Archie and Harvey (BETTY AND VERONICA and LITTLE DOT were about the only comics girls would be caught dead reading when I was growing up), but the weepy man-centricity of confessional mainstays like GIRLS’ LOVE didn’t segue well into the women’s lib era. The romance comics tried to adapt, but between congenital adherence to long-established formula and the new unwillingness of newsstands to carry a variety of comics, that was that for them. DC tried a “hip girls’ comic” in the ’80s with the peculiar ANGEL LOVE, with art mimicking greeting cards and a story vaguely anticipatory of SEX AND THE CITY about a struggling career woman. While I know several professionals who think very highly of it, it played like it was aimed at 35 year old professional women who chose to believe that was what girls wanted, the same way most superhero comics are really aimed at 40 year old superhero fans (many of whom are editors) who choose to believe they mean something to teenage boys. There was a level of silliness to it that was intended to be charming but read as condescending.

But that wasn’t what killed ANGEL LOVE after eight issues, though it didn’t help. It wasn’t even the talking cockroaches, and, man, in my experience there’s nothing more appealing to girls than talking cockroaches. What killed ANGEL LOVE was the marketing, pure and simple, and it epitomizes the problem with most marketing for most comics in the last thirty years: it doesn’t matter what new ground you’re trying to break if the only place you market to is the direct market. The direct market is by, of and for superhero comics, with some allowance for horror and occasionally humor comics, and trying to market girls’ comics, among other things, there is a fool’s game. Marketing girls’ comics anywhere, if they’re only sold in comics shops, is a fool’s game.

From the money they’re spending on an outside agency to handle promotion, it seems DC has learned at least half the lesson. Assumedly their recent experiences with the bookstore market will cover the other half, assuming the outside promotion is apt and the bookstore market has any idea what to do with the books, which are always big ifs; people inexperienced with comics have a bad tendency to take their preconceptions and prejudices as fact and make their judgments from that perspective. Yet comics publishers also have a bad tendency to expect the book market to accede to preconceptions and prejudices formed from years of operating in the bubble universe of the direct market and comics shops, and that usually doesn’t work very well either. New approaches require new viewpoints, and that has been a big flaw in most new comics lines introduced in living memory: ultimately rather than trying to be something new they’re trying to be something familiar but vaguely tarted up.

Regardless, unless we want to be a bubble industry living basically on reservations left for us by manga – we’re preciously close to it already – we need to draw on more varied audiences, and to carve out a niche audience you have to define a niche. A niche almost by definition means some kind of genre (while “girls’ fiction” can encompass virtually any genre, the approach forms a sort of genre of its own, the same way “men’s fiction” does; anything that feeds set expectations of an audience is a genre) and carving out a niche requires a certain concentration of product in that genre, enough and good enough to mark the publisher as a trustworthy producer of that product. Which means, in the comics field, pretty much only Marvel and DC have the resources to pull it off, and Marvel already has their niche, which limits their incentive. For some reason, “real” book publishers haven’t quite copped to this, and resist the idea of genre graphic novels, though specific focus lines of prose novels have usually worked out pretty well for them. So more power to Vertigo in that regard. I know Vertigo is discussing other specific focus graphic novel lines mainly for the bookstore market, and it’s not only a good idea, it’s something publishers should have been actively pursuing five years or more ago.

A main objection to the Minx line was best summed up by Johanna Draper-Carlson – the lack of a sizable female presence on the creative end of the imprint (mastermind by Vertigo’s Shelly Bond)- and there’s something to that. Not that men can’t write women, but we’re back in the arena of unconscious bias and preconception, which makes it a matter of attitude and keeping some sort of perspective on the material. Warren Ellis suggests that’s an overinflated concern, given that Shelly (the first female Shelly to work at the company, as far as I know, but there were at least two men with that first name) and Karen Berger can be expected to give the line a female perspective.

That’s a dodgier proposition (which also implies strong editorial control and shaping of the material, something we may not want to see in a company, or rather division, that has traditionally promoted the individual voices of the talent, within Vertigo’s parameters); women who last in editorial or creative capacities in comics for any length of time tend to either adopt the general attitudes of their male counterparts as a sort of natural camouflage, or they hold those viewpoints, basically, going in. Women who openly challenge the male perspective on what comics are supposed to be all about generally don’t last a long time, not surprising considering that, as mentioned above, the comics market for the past couple decades has been the direct market, which has had little tolerance, except in fits and spurts, for anything that doesn’t immediately feed its favorite jones.

But this is an argument that can’t be settled until the material starts appearing. I’ve no idea yet what tack Berger & Bond will take, nor does anyone who hasn’t been directly working with them on the books. On the surface, Minx (and the other lines Vertigo is concocting) is not only a good idea but a necessary one, and one that I suspect many other publishers, both comics and book publishers, will find themselves following as graphic novel saturation of bookstores continues. The main obstacle – and it has been something of an obstacle at Vertigo so far, as Minx and the other offshoots have been in the works for some time – is time, and the slowness at which material crawls through the bureaucracies of most publishing houses. You may recall Dark Horse’s abortive superhero line, Comics’ Greatest World/Dark Horse Heroes. It was conceived three or four years before it appeared, and the Dark Horse staff painstakingly developed it for that time. When it was conceived, the shared universe in comics was pretty much limited to Marvel and DC, and the New Universe was the only notable (if short-lived) offshoot; had it appeared within, oh, ten months of conception, Dark Horse’s CGW likely would have gotten a lot more attention than it did, and whatever happened Dark Horse would at least have preserved their reputation for innovation. But development dragged on for years, and by the time the line surfaced, there was Image, and the Ultraverse, and any number of other superhero universes, and CGW was just another bit of flotsam adrift in the ocean, with Dark Horse being tagged as just another company trying to hop on the bandwagon.

Which is unfortunate, but the point is that in this business when you’re invading a niche, you have two Darwinian choices: be first or be visibly better. Minx, whatever its eventual flaws may turn out to be, is at least first.

Time for some blatant self-promotion, as the new iteration of WHISPER, from Boom! Studios should finally be out today. Not sure why it wasn’t out earlier, but there it is: a new era in political action-adventure.

The following has nothing to do with this week’s cover contest, but I couldn’t resist it. From an obscure crime comic of the ’50s, Great Moments In Internal Continuity #1:

Reader, can you spot the snafu the editor missed? ( A big welcome to my one-time publisher, Scott Brown, who has started a new series called Flying The Standard. Scott has set himself the task of figuring out what the best comics work (presumably in the history of comics) is, and then explaining why. Despite our prior connection, I had nothing to do with the gig and wasn’t aware of it until I got the announcement, so it’ll be interesting to see whether he turns out to be a sycophantic traditionalist or an iconoclastic dissident. (I mean, sure he was great and all, but do we really need another Will Eisner hagiography?) Anyway, take your best shot, Scott. I’ll be watching.

Short column again this week, due to the head cold from hell. Sorry about that. Concentrating makes my skull hurt today, so if this edition is even more incoherent than usual, that’s why.

Interesting thing about last week’s Comics Cover Challenge: I’ve decided we have three winners this week. The solution was: X-Men. All the comics feature characters that share a name with someone from the X-Men comics. Getting that first was Patrick McAvoy, who wants to pimp Ninja Mountain, a freelance artists’ group he belongs to. Go check them out. But then I got an email from Alistair Kennedy, who, as well as getting everyone else right, was the only one to name the very obscure character Rogue in ATOM CAT (which is why that cover was included), and I thought that qualified for co-winner status. Alistair wants to promote his new blog, One Hundred Days Of Comics, so read that too. Then previous winner Nicolas Juzda was the only one to point out that Maverick was never actually an X-Man, and if that doesn’t qualify him for co-winner status, it at least qualifies him for a no-prize. Congratulations, all of you, and everyone else who got it right. (There were quite a few.)

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’d give you a clue this week, but you won’t need one – your chances of winning are just as good as anyone else’s.

It’s Christmas season, and for the comics fan who’s got everything, the perfect Christmas gift is a tri-pack of my .pdf books (yeah, yeah, I know – “Like hell!” – but what else am I going to say? It’s Christmas!) So at the Paper Movies Store, we’re selling all three –

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.

– for a low package price. Check it out, as well as the catalogue of Paper Movies-approved graphic novels and comics-related books, available through the site via Amazon. The only way we could make it easier for you is to pay for it all ourselves. (Don’t ask.)

I was going to skip politics this week, but just ran across a Newt Gingrich thing. First Trent Lott and now Gingrich; are the Republicans now in the business of resurrecting disgraced assholes? Gingrich’s flair for audacity hasn’t diminished in his years of exile: at the recent annual Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment award dinner honoring those who’ve done the most to support the First Amendment, Gingrich called for a scaling back of First Amendment protections, specifically as they apply to the Internet. His argument was basically that freedom of speech is a concept that will help the terrorists win, since it allows them to freely disseminate their message.

Not that the Egyptians haven’t embraced the concept – they’ve recently started banning access to various websites and blogs for espousing ideas they feel are contrary to the Egyptian way of life, including quite a few sites originating in America – but this is essentially a reiteration of the regular refrain, particularly during wartime, particularly during wartime when the war’s not going the way whatever administration in power would prefer, that any ideas or news in circulation that doesn’t bolster the government’s case is giving aid and comfort to the enemy. (It’s been kind of fun over the past few years, watching Republicans, who originally embraced blogging as a means of bypassing the “liberal media” and delivering “truth” straight to “the people,” turning against bloggers and, in substance, the web, due to the free transmission of information about the mushrooming mess in Iraq and political corruption at home; by now how many stories originally “uncovered” on the web eventually became front page news?) Gingrich’s thesis is basically one we’ve already heard – it’s the foundation of the Patriot Act – that Americans must surrender traditional liberties in order to prevent their misuse.

What guys like Gingrich dislike about freedom of speech isn’t that terrorists might abuse it, but, from their point of view, spreading a message that doesn’t jibe with theirs is de facto abuse of it. Ideas, as many governments around the world have long believed, are dangerous, which is why so many of them try so hard to control the flow of information. And they’re far from the only people or entities, of all political persuasions, who believe this. Liberals are often just as (and frequently more) eager to silence opposing viewpoints as their conservative counterparts, rather than toss them into what amounts to the Octagon of public discourse. It’s the Fundamentalist mentality in a nutshell, and I mean fundamentalism of all stripes – political, religious, social, anything that demands its adherents unquestioningly adopt a fixed point of view.

The First Amendment was put into play because while ideas are potentially dangerous (not to mention potentially enlightening, redeeming, etc.) allowing a government or other group to determine what you’re allowed and not allowed to hear, read, be otherwise exposed to and subsequently say is far more dangerous, and governments, it seems, are far more likely to be afraid of truth than fiction. (Given how much fiction they churn out themselves.) It’s not like terrorists openly recruit and swap bomb recipes in public areas of the Internet, so implementing what Gingrich is talking about means one of two courses: allow the government full access to all private communications or shut down all but specifically government approved access to websites. The former the government basically already has, if not officially; the latter – the Chinese solution – is what an awful lot of countries, including the European Union, are already considering. The Internet was originally conceived as a vehicle for the free exchange of information across borders, but there are many in the world who want to transform it into a medium solely for the unfettered transmission of propaganda to select groups.

This is a future quite possibly facing us. Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

But we’re Americans. We’re supposed to be dangerous, and it’s only natural that we expect a little danger back. The real question is what kind of dangerous we’re most willing to live with.

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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