Issue #285

Why Batman's being investigated by the Office Of Homeland Security:

(Note: the above plays no part in this week's Comics Cover Challenge.)

Damn, a week of March flown already. Anybody else notice how distorted time seems now?: irregular fits and spurts alternating with lengthy and tedious distensions until the regular passage of time is no more than statistical average.

Or maybe the business just seems that way these days. I remember when convention season, where what passed for the major conventions were concerned, began mid-June at the earliest and ended mid-July at the latest. Now it's what? Early February for New York, WonderCon last weekend, WizardWorld Los Angeles next weekend, though... what? November? And everywhere, apparently, the same general scenario: attendance way up, with thousands everywhere eager to see media stars, find out what's going on in comics and graphic novels, and not spend much money at dealer tables. Considering conventions started on a tiny local scale as a way for fans to exchange comics (and coalesce into something resembling semi-organization) and then morphed into shows that made it easy for people to buy from back issue dealers they normally would have no contact with and the programming and guests were just the cherry atop the sundae, this is the height of an industry good news/bad news joke. We can tout press attention, movie ticket sales and massive convention crowds all we like, but unless that converts to better business for the business, we're doing something, probably many things, wrong.

Something that came out of Oakland suggests what one of those things might be.

There may have been other announcements out of Oakland but far and away the most widely reported was Dan Vado, comics writer and chief of SLG Publishing, wistfully declaring that if he could change anything he had done, he would have insisted on owning everything he published, since creator-owned comics don't provide a viable business model. To be fair, it was an off-handed comment in answer to a panel question, not an official statement to the press or declaration of new company policy. It slammed so many people because SLG has existed for years, longer than most independent companies, on a diet of creator-owned books. Which is what Vado was grousing about. I've met Vado on a couple occasions, never worked with his company, and have rarely heard talent complain about SLG. I doubt what he said suggests anything more for the company than fatigue from 20 years of a war of attrition with the comics market. But his comment, however strongly he did or didn't mean it, is representative of the beliefs of many publishers who have far worse comics companies than SLG.

"Creator ownership" in comics has always been a lot more ambiguous than it sounds. The vast majority of "creator ownership" contracts, pre-negotiation, have not read "You own the property, we'll publish what you produce until the contract expires" but more along the lines of "You own the property but we control it and decide what's done with it forever and ever, including being able to reject your work and replace you if we see fit, and we'll pay you a royalty but all our expenses will come out of the profits before you see a dime, and did we mention that if someone sues, they'll be suing you 'cuz you're indemnifying us 'cuz, hey, you own the property after all, and, oh yeah, in that case we'll probably sue you too, but if we decide to settle you don't have anything to say about it and anything we lose in a settlement we're getting back from you, oh, and before we forget, we can cancel this contract any time we feel like it but you're stuck with it 'cuz even if we don't fulfill terms that's not a breach of contract 'cuz the contract says so, and don't dare ask us to commit to any plan to market the work 'cuz there's no way we'll let you back us into a corner." (And then publishers complain they should be getting a bigger piece of creator owned comics because they're the ones taking all the risks.) Lawyers, y'know. But that's understandable, they're paid to maximize the power and minimize the liability of the publisher, not the talent, and more often than not publishers don't tell their lawyers, "Hey, this isn't the deal we offered them," they go all round-eyed at the explanations and say, "I never thought of that!" Which is also understandable, and usually true. Lawyers, most of whom have had no experience with creative media at all let alone comics, love to put things like that in contracts. Except my lawyer, who loves to take it out.

Since Vado laments the loss of properties published by SLG and how much more profitable the company would have been had he held onto them, we can assume most of those clauses are not in SLG contracts; they're just not uncommon to the business. But you have to wonder how he thinks holding onto, say, MILK & CHEESE would have resulted in significantly more profit. It had its fans, but it was hardly AMAZING SPIDER-MAN. The material was strongly tied to creator Evan Dorkin's personality and talent. Would the book's fans have been eager to buy a M/K series by, oh, Mike Barr & Ted McKeever?

There are basically three types of material published in comics: company-owned (AKA work-for-hire), creator-owned, and licensed. The first two are self-explanatory; the last means publishing properties owned by another person or company, usually that carry their own promotion (though usually by association, as in the comics adaptation of a Major Motion Picture that has not yet been released) or existing fan base (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER). For those reasons, licensed comics often look like viable options to comics publishers, and the last few years have seen a scramble for existing media properties from the well-known (THE LONE RANGER) to the ludicrously obscure (SPECIES) to turn into comics series, apparently on the premise that something even remotely pre-identifiable has an innate advantage over something new, with varying sales results and almost always the entertaining nightmare of coping with the permissions department of the controlling companies for every breath the resultant comic takes. (Vado himself recently tried signing up Disney's characters, and dropped the idea for just that reason.)

There are peculiar gray areas and overlaps. The "creator participation" deal is now frequently found at the bigger companies, where the company may own the property but the creator(s) get(s) a cut of the profits ad infinitum regardless of any continuing personal connection; these deals can be simple or very complex. Viewed from outside, licensed comics would seem to be indistinguishable, in terms of company control, from creator-owned comics - it's hard to imagine Disney giving any comics company a piece of future INCREDIBLES movies because they publish the comic book - and it's sometimes difficult to understand why publishers who rush to line up licenses complain there's no money in creator-owned comics. Functionally, there just isn't a lot of difference between creator-owned comics and licensed comics, except that the latter is (often no more than marginally) identifiable, and it's theoretically easier to make talent interchangeable on the latter, thus making production more controllable.

But Vado, in fact, is punching a paper tiger when he talks about "creator-owned" comics being not a viable business model for a comics publisher. This suggests that the alternatives - specifically company-owned comics - are. But there have been plenty of companies whose publisher insisted on owning everything that have failed miserably and died horribly. By that standard, SLG has had a pretty good run with creator-owned titles, and as far as I know the company's still not in any danger of imminent collapse, though doubtless Vado wouldn't mind having more money in his pocket at the end of the day. I don't think any of us would.

He's partly right, though. Creator-owned comics are probably not a viable business model. But neither are company-owned comics. Or licensed. I wouldn't put all my money in gold bullion either.

Take a company like Dark Horse. They've been around a long time, and, while they've had their share of shaky years, like virtually all independent comics, they've managed to stick around and remain relatively solid. A large part of their company was built around creator-owned comics, and still is. But creator-owned comics wasn't their business model.

Their business model was diversification. Which didn't hurt DC during its darkest days either. Dark Horse has published creator-owned comics, company-owned comics, licensed comics (when licensed comics were generally scorned by the comics industry, and DH put them back on the map), manga. They worked hard to make a Hollywood connection, and there's HELLBOY and SIN CITY on the screen.

At this point any company that depends on a specific class of comics for their continued existence is walking on thin ice, just as anyone who invests their life savings solely in a single company on the stock market runs a pretty good chance of looking at a post-retirement career as a greeter at Wal-Mart. There's nothing wrong with publishers going at the market from many angles. It's not an either-or proposition.

But there are also classes of comics publishers.

In post-Wondercon explanatory comments, Vado expressed pride in what his company has accomplished so far. That's fine. But it's a niche company, and if he has ever had any inclination to move beyond that niche it's never been publicly evident. There's nothing wrong with niche companies. Most independent companies are niche companies. Hell, even DC and (especially) Marvel are niche companies, they just have much bigger niches. Part of Vado's expressed frustration is the way bigger companies poach the talent working on SLG titles, and, having had artists poached off projects, I can sympathize. But it's the nature of niche publishing in this business, and publishing company-owned titles wouldn't change it. Talent that SLG has "nurtured" has gone on to bigger things, sure, but has anyone ever taken a title from SLG and turned it into a mad runaway cash cow elsewhere? I can't think of any. Even creator-owned contracts can have terms; if Vado wants to protect himself on creator-owned contracts, all he has to do is sign talent to exclusive contracts. Simply locking titles into place doesn't really change anything, unless the publisher is one of now seeming millions who thinks his future lies in scoring piles of option money from Hollywood. But, as I've mentioned before, that trick is a whole lot easier said than done.

But here's another question: has any creator ever made a lot of money doing an SLG book while the company made considerably less from the same property? There are reasons beyond money why someone might want to jump from a small niche company to a larger one, like more exposure or a simpatico editor, but let's face it: the more money someone makes working for a company (which also represents exposure, since that's pretty much the only way comics make more money) (jacking up the price usually results in less money overall, as the pricier a title gets, the fewer buyers) the smaller the chance that person will be looking for greener pastures elsewhere. When talent doesn't get paid much from smaller companies, especially if payment is on a royalty basis when next to nothing in the business generates a royalty, of course they'll be susceptible to poaching. In the ecology of the business, small publishers now serve basically the function fanzines once did, to give young talent a place to develop and be seen and impress companies that can pay decent money into noticing them. (Let me emphasize we've strayed back into the general here; as I mentioned, I've no idea what terms or rates SLG gives, and for all I know they've been making the talent published there filthy rich.)

So what's the solution for niche publishers who want to keep this from happening?

Grow. In sales if not in size. If you want to be taken seriously, get serious.

Sure, I know that's much easier said than done too, and I know, phrased that plainly, it sounds glib. But if you want to hold onto talent, pay them enough that they won't want to go anywhere permanently, and treat them well enough that money's the only real variable. Most publishers I know aren't independently wealthy enough to support a line of comics out of their wallets, so the only way to make that kind of money is sell more comics. Shifting "business models" isn't a cure; if you can't sell MILK & CHEESE as a creator-owned comic (and I'm just using that name because I already did, I've no idea what the title's actual sales were) you won't be able to sell it as a company-owned comic.

The job of publishers is to sell comics, plain and simple. When a creator takes a project to a publisher, there's an implied promise that the publisher will do his very best to sell it. There's no magic bullet that will solve any publisher's problems, there's only hard work and a hell of a lot of it.

If comics don't sell, either no one wants them or someone isn't working hard enough to sell them. Sure, that's glib too, but it's also true. And right now I hear a lot of pissed off publishers saying, "Okay, smart guy, tell me how." Easy answer to that one: any way you can. But that's really your job.

As far as Vado goes, let's just write that one off as convention fatigue.

Oh lord, two whole years of presidential campaigning now? This one I think we can blame on the Ghost; everyone wants to cash in, since he couldn't wait until next year to make virtually the whole nation want him gone. (As long as he takes Cheney with him.) But the campaign has already generated its share of laughs, as when Ilsa of the SS - whoops, I mean Ann Coulter - inadvertently boost John Edwards' presidential campaign by calling him a faggot while mocking every Democratic candidate at a Republican brouhaha last week. (Ilsa really puts the haha into brouhaha, doesn't she?) Kind of hard to imagine a roomful of Republicans going all aghast at that, but I guess by now most of them not only recognize when a photo op has just flushed down the drain but have had enough experience with sound bites to know which one will make all the papers. It's not like Coulter lost any credibility - it's not like the Republican Party isn't already obsessively antigay (despite the presence of a large conservative gay contingent that either tells itself it can change things from within or has no interest in changing anything) or that Coulter has any credibility to lose - but it has cost her money, as several sponsors pulled out from her website. (They claim not to have known they were sponsoring Coulter, only finding out when complaints came in.) I'm sure it won't last long, as doubtless Diebold will be happy to launder their electronic voting machine profits through Coulter's site.

Or maybe not. Diebold, whose proprietary and systems suspect voting machines have triggered considerable controversy for the last couple presidential and midterm elections, might be pulling out of the voting game. Seems all the negative publicity has been having a negative effect on their core business: ATM machines. The company's refusal to let anyone have a look at their voting machine operating system combined with a total absence of control vote records, various demonstrations of how they can be overridden to manipulate votes, and widening suspicion that the heavily Republican-leaning company could be using their machines, employed in 34 states next year, to rig elections has for some reason diminished confidence in the company. Of course, last November's Democrat-swept elections could be used to counter any suspicions, but if the idea is to manipulate close elections to minimize the value of statistical analysis of the vote (and if any company should know the value of statistical analysis, it's Diebold) then rigging would be useless in that situation anyway. The real measure would be an analysis of how much the vote alters if Diebold does pull out of that arena, but there are no controls on that test either, since results could be just as easily ascribed to public rejection of all things Ghost.

He did have a mostly down but slightly up week. Scooter Libby gets convicted of two counts of perjury, obstruction of justice and intentionally lying to the FBI, with a potential quarter century jail term if an appeals court or presidential pardon doesn't get in the way. Not that it's likely to snowball into anything, but in the course of the trial plenty of evidence came out that, yes, various sectors of the administration did indeed orchestrate a campaign to get at war evidence critic Joseph Wilson via leaking to reporters the identity of his CIA wife, in contravention of American law. Interestingly, the conviction came right about the same time that the New York Times and Washington Post ran articles, quoting a "senior Administration official," that indicated the Ghost's administration pretty much made up their intel on North Korea in the early days of his term when the Ghost used it as a way to scotch a Clinton deal to keep tabs on North Korea's nuclear capabilities. (Basically, at the time the Ghost's people said they had a gung ho program going while it turns out, no, they didn't. But it seems to me I've heard that one before. Was the North Korea lie a test run for the subsequent accusations, eventually proven completely unfounded, against Iraq? Or is the new "information" a double bluff to moot right-wing opposition to the deal by downplaying a North Korean nuclear threat? Only time will tell.) The Ghost recent concluded a new deal, that gives us nowhere near the investigative capabilities of the Clinton deal but is otherwise essentially the same, while the intervening years gave Kim Jong Il not only the time but the incentive to ramp things up. Nice going there, Ghost. Time seems also to have been a major consideration in Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England's conveniently leaked memo that the War On Terror is expected to be over very soon, rather than the possibly half century Cheney originally warned us of. In fact, England believes it will be over in - late October 2008! Presumably, as the White House has constantly stated that Iraq in the front line in the War on Terror, this means not only with al-Qaeda be smashed by then but Osama bin Laden will either be in custody or dead, and Iraq will be at peace. Good for everyone if it happens that way, but the anticipated timing is, ah, suspect. But the White House won one today, when an appellate court declared Guantanamo is, in fact, not a part of the USA and not subject to its laws, which I guess means the Pentagon has its own country now and those who favor torture and the incarceration of people without any recourse to law or even need to demonstrate their guilt can hoist a big glass of victory champagne. A few innocents get caught in the grinder? Chalk it up to the price of freedom, as long as you're not the one paying the price.

Notes from under the floorboard:

The legacy lives on. Captain America may have wussed out something fierce in the final CIVIL WAR, but he came back with a vengeance last Saturday, when 43 year old Randy "Captain America" Couture (that's his ring nickname) came out of retirement, added weight to fit into the heavyweight division, gave up 13 years age, 6" height, 14" reach and 40 lbs. against UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia - and won the title (for the third time) in a five round match that Couture dominated from start to finish. Going in, the bets were on Sylvia, a fierce puncher and a very difficult opponent for a natural grappler like Couture to wrestling to the ground. Two seconds into the first round, Couture effortlessly stepped inside Sylvia's much greater reach, staggered him - and stunned everyone else - with a fierce punch, then controlled him on the ground for the rest of the round. The rest of the match was pretty much the same. Not that Sylvia's that great a fighter - if all-American boy Randy Couture merits his Captain America nickname, Sylvia's more like Batroc the Leaper - but he's a mountain with a killer right. And it wasn't the greatest match of all time, but psychologically it played like any great Captain America story: Cap beating down his far stronger and more brutal opponent with guts, determination, speed and skill, and walking away with the victory. It's a big win for UFC as well, since Couture has about 300 times the personality, popularity and charisma that Sylvia does, not to mention a thousand times the marketability. Not that I expect Randy to hold the title for that long, but... you know... they don't call him Captain America for nothing...

A couple web destinations: Steve Bissette interviews Bryan Talbot about Bryan's new magnum opus, the adventurous and innovative ALICE IN SUNDERLAND graphic novel, which has also been gaining considerable notice among ALICE IN WONDERLAND scholars. (Apparently, there are quite a few of them.) And for those who think a little censorship never hurt anything, WIRED has an amusing little snippet about the effect the Hays Board had on cartoons in the '30s, including the elimination of effeminate male figures. (Which doesn't quite explain Woody Woodpecker, but oh well.)

I guess I should remind everyone that the trade paperback collection of my comics convention-themed CSI mini-series, DYING IN THE GUTTERS, from IDW Publishing arrives in stores today. To celebrate this, Publisher's Weekly has been kind enough to run a short feature full of pithy commentary by some of those involved. (Not Grissom, though.)

Congratulations to first time winner Mark McMurchy, who was the first of a very scant handful to realize that if you strung together the first letters of each title pictured in last week's Comics Cover Challenge, they spell "Quesada," which, as everyone knows, is the last name of Marvel's editor-in-chief. Hi, Joe! Mark wishes to point your attention to David Campbell's blog, Dave's Long Box, just because it amuses him.

For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme - it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything - and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next's week's column. If you need any clues beyond what's here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. So look for today's, and if you've never been able to figure a challenge out, keep trying, because, as my grandmother used to say, it's always darkest before it goes completely black.

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn't?

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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