Interesting articles around the web this last week, finally expanding to critical issues facing the comics industry beyond “Who’s faster, Superman or The Flash?” or “Which universe-altering crossover was better, 52 or CIVIL WAR?” Or whether Clive Owen or Gerard Butler is the hotter star of a film based on a Frank Miller comic. Not that those aren’t fascinating questions worthy of many, many webpages and much bandwidth, but the answers would seem to be, how shall we put this? Inconsequential. In THE GREAT COMIC BOOK HEROES, Jules Feiffer said about Batman, “prick him and he bled buckets.” Prick pretty much anyone having anything to do with comics from creating them to reading them, it seems, and you get the trivial. Buckets of it.
The argument can, of course, be made that comics are trivial, and it’s the kneejerk fallback argument of anyone trying to justify a sloppy story choice, bad publishing or marketing decision or just personal taste in material. But even if true it’s a self-defeating argument. Underlying it is the suggestion that comics aren’t worthy of being taken seriously. And if we don’t take them “seriously,” why should anyone else, at least if by seriously we mean seriously enough to spend money on? It doesn’t help that in comics discussion circles (such as they are) “seriously” is way too often intentionally and willfully confused with “humorlessly,” and there’s no reason for that besides obstinancy. Yet it’s a common pose in comics that anyone who shows any intellectual curiosity about comics and particularly about their potential as a storytelling medium rather than about their fairly listless current existence must be some kind of lunatic, which is itself basically an argument for intellectual laziness. The common argument is that asking someone to take comics seriously is tantamount to telling them they’re no longer allowed to get any “fun” out of comics, like the two things were utterly contradictory concepts. Yet there are all those blogs and columns all over the web with writers practically begging us to think of them like serious critics when they show absolutely no willingness to put any thought or effort behind it. So what should we think of them? Not everything written about comics has to read like a Kenneth Smith column in THE COMICS JOURNAL; a little good-humored seriousness never hurt anybody.
Then what should appear but a refreshingly short and precise Tom Sturgeon column about the current state of various aspects of the comics business, as well as a growing discussion about the use of perverse sex, particularly among “The Big Two,” to sell comics (I weighed in on the latter myself at PUBLISHERS WEEKLY last week), culminating in a brief yet piercing summary of the efficiency of that policy by Paul O’Brien (I had the link here somewhere but now I can’t find it; sorry, Paul) examining the sales of “mainstream” comics pushing “sex appeal” and “good girl art” as their main selling point and finding sales wanting, suggesting the use of sex as a sales tool not “just giving the audience what it wants” but a mark of editorial/publisher desperation. This is a business based largely not on facts or strategies but on assumptions, and it’s good to see those assumptions publicly challenged. This is how any good discussion develops, by presenting arguments and testing them against reality to see which parts can be improved on and which fail completely.
Tom, on the other hand, explores challenges facing various niches in comics today: the direct market and all who sail with it, independents, manga, newspaper strips, superhero comics and the professional community. He’s dead right about the professional community: the recent rapid expansion of comics into various areas has paradoxically corresponded to a vast decline of the number of people able to earn a decent living from their comics. To sum up his other points: the direct market is crippled by a lack of comics shops; the hidebound nature of newspaper editors and apocalyptic future facing newspapers makes new comic strips problematic; alternative comics publishers need more logic in their publishing choices; superhero comics publishers are putting all their eggs in one precarious basket; and manga publishing in America has never really defined itself.
I don’t think he’s wrong. Newspaper strips have been all but a write-off for years, and those that succeed in being any good mainly do so in spite of the medium, not because of it, and are usually rewarded for their efforts – as Tom points out – by being ignored by zombie continuations of strips that should have been put out of their misery decades ago. Superhero comics have taken to depending mostly on the cross-book crossover series (anyone remember the day when companies harped on “simplifying” continuity, blind to the real problem being not complexity but insipidity?), a gimmick oddly reminiscent of the various gimmicks they burned off at a mad rate in the heyday immediately preceding the collapse of the ’90s, both resulting from the demand for immediate profit at the cost of long term stability. But what choice do they have? Boxed in like Dickens’ Fagan in OLIVER TWIST, their choices in the past have left few options, and few options but to burn off those remaining options with reckless fin de siecle abandon, each rollercoaster forced to rise just a little higher than the last and praying to all that is holy that the audience never loses its taste for rollercoasters. (I remember having a conversation with Al Milgrom when he was an editor at Marvel and someone was rumoring that Jim Shooter was jumping ship. We were throwing around names of possible replacements, and someone brought up Mark Gruenwald. As readers of OMNIVERSE know, long before he was hired by Marvel Mark’s great obsession was comics continuity, and during his time at Marvel he oversaw the sewing of a lot of disparate Marvel stories into a massive tapestry, and he rarely pitched a story that didn’t try to tie into or tie up some loose end from an existing story. When Mark’s name came up, Al said, “Then instead of having no continuity” – at the time Jim had decreed that references to previous stories be all but banned, in order to simplify the reading experience for the audience – “we’d have to have nothing but continuity.” Al was accidentally prophetic.)
But Tom, in his subdivision of crises, uncharacteristically misses the element that unifies all of them into the great elephant in the room that no one wants to look at:
Understand that I’m not using the word in the common sense. I’m referring in no way to actual quality of work, though in specific cases that certainly figures in. I’m not even talking about entertainment value. I spent much of the last week reading piles and piles of comics, graphic novels and manga trades. Mainstream, manga, independent, the whole schmeer. I found many of them entertaining, fewer genuinely good, but the overall impression was:
While they were usually indistinguishable from each other, in their own sectors – let’s call the divisions sectors, since they really are evolving into three distinct markets – the books were almost universally indistinguishable. It’s not the work per se – some of it’s very good – but the problem with most comics, most graphic novels, most manga, most newspaper strips, is they lack character. Read one or two of them and it’s fine. Read a lot of them and they blur together. At least with mainstream comics it’s the underlying intent that they blur together – that’s the overall marketing strategy these days, the semi-futile hope that if you like one you’ll like them all and want to follow the joint story they haltingly tell – but it’s really an across the board phenomenon, and the inability of most people in comics to recognize it – at least with their own work; most publishers, for instance, will wholeheartedly agree that other publishers’ output is interchangeable – is mostly a matter of smugness. Which is common, and tolerable in some market climates, but these days it’s problematic.
Mainstream, manga and independent comics have one thing in common: they each are convinced of their innate superiority to the other two. Back in my early days at Marvel, it was commonly stated up there that they didn’t have to look to other companies for talent or worry about other companies’ talent because anyone who’s any good already works for Marvel. The main conceit of the independents is that the work they produce is automatically superior to mainstream comics because the latter is the result of impersonal factory creation and theirs is the result of personal inspiration. Manga’s theoretically automatically better than American comics because it’s not American comics and are produced from a tradition where the creators theoretically are much more connected to their strips.
And not one of those things matters one damn bit.
Independent comics, particularly of the “personal” nature, are pretty much a mess. Stories are often all but absent, characters flamboyant but just as driven by what passes for the plot instead of by what should be character logic as any run of the mill superhero story, and somehow elliptical, unfinished thoughts have become a synonym for sophistication. This isn’t just “alternative” self-publishing, but the major book publishers seem to have bought into this style lock, stock and barrel as well, as if their main goal is to put distance between themselves and Spider-Man and damn the torpedoes. Manga for awhile had the virtue of being cherry picked, so most of the more interesting series were picked up for American publication early, and gave the whole sector a patina of originality and daring, but now that literally hundreds of them are in print it’s way too easy to pick out the stock characters, and repetitive plots, gimmicks, art styles and story/series ideas; turns out the Japanese are just as fond of cookie cutter comics as we are. Not that there aren’t good examples of both sectors, and I’ll go into some of them next week, but, oddly, read en masse, most of the genuinely entertaining comics from the stacks I read come from mainstream comics, as if at least some working those fields are aware they’re in an uphill battle and are trying a little harder. But way too many comics don’t really seem to want anything to do with comics, and many seem less about stories those creating them really want to tell than about what they think they can cash in on, or what they think will get them labeled geniuses, or what fits best with an array of existing content worship that has nothing to do with what comics should be about. Sorry, but doing your own version of Robotech or the Doom Patrol or James Bond or Mr. Natural or Maggie and Hopey is not creativity. Usually it’s not even entertaining.
Everything Tom mentioned is important, of course, but in some ways it’s missing the forest for the trees. As a business, as a creative field, as a fandom, we’re just way too accepting of mediocrity, not in the sense of something being good or bad but in the sense of an average reading (or, if you prefer, entertainment) experience that doesn’t much stand out from any other average reading experience. To some extent it’s unavoidable; there are so many publishers out there now whose existences depend on pumping out a set number of books, and when quantity is the goal quality will inevitably suffer because the dragon in the basement must be fed. When that happens, it’s easy to delude yourself into believing nothing has really suffered at all, but all that has really happened was a little dirt being kicked away under our feet, and that cliff we’re always standing off falls off a long, long way down. But good material is just not that easy to come by, or anyone could. Mainly by cherry-picking the past, Fantagraphics Books has put out a pretty stellar line-up, including about the finest alt-comics anthologies available anywhere, like Craig Yoe’s arf and Gary Groth & Eric Reynolds’ MOME, but even they often show the strain of trying to fill pages.
None of this is helped by a pretty listless comics press. The recent brouhaha over the HEROES FOR HIRE cover brought this to a boil, as NEWSARAMA found themselves hopelessly caught between their self-image of hard-nosed reporters and their required role as industry shills, as Newsarama chief Matt Brady interviewed Marvel honcho Joe Quesada on the subject like he was auditioning for a spot with the White House Press Corps. (Or, as DOONSBURY put it, “Mr. President, why do Congressional Democrats hate America?”) Not that anyone should expect otherwise; Newsarama’s existence depends on them making nice with publishers, especially Marvel and DC, in order to get those hot exclusive scoops like “They are not the Champions, my friends” that used to be doled out to WIZARD before WIZARD achieved the market presence of a five year old Crossgen book. And Newsarama’s one of the best and most dependable sites out there! But strangers looking for top information about the comics business would doubtless be utterly flummoxed by it, because it also typifies all the inbreeding we’ve come to know and love about our business.
The short version of all this is that content has to become king, for real. We pay a lot of lip service to content, but it’s a pretty hit and miss proposition and you’d think after an industry’s existed for eighty years or so someone would have tumbled to this. Not that it’s an instant cure for not enough comics shops or quickly allow a lot of people to start making actual money from their work again, but the market we talk about building, if it coalesces, won’t be maintained for long unless we have something real to sell. What we’re supposed to be selling is content, that’s our stock in trade, and unless it’s real content, new and not prefab, and we keep it that way through conscientious effort, the best we can hope for is another bubble to ride for a little while until it bursts. We can’t expect a public large enough to sustain the business to take us seriously until we take ourselves seriously first.
Lots of mixed messages out of the White House lately. The Ghost gives speeches about how he’ll pull our troops out of Iraq if the Iraqis tell us to, and in the next breath talks about how it’ll be necessary to maintain a permanent base in Iraq and we can expect to be there for at least the next 50 years. The monstrous
palace embassy we’ve built there at least suggest that the latter is the likelier course, and has been all along, but the Iraqi Parliament is set to vote on showing American troops the door and it’ll be anyone’s guess what happens if that goes through. Americans and soldiers based in Iraq also overwhelmingly favor withdrawal sooner than later, which apparently just gives the White House a rationale to stand on principle, which is pol-speak for “I don’t care what anyone else wants, I’m going to do what I damn well want to do!” The dwindling core of Republican Party faithful remain behind this, and at least one of them proposes a dramatic solution to the Ghost’s current public relation woes: more terrorist attacks on America so we’ll all remember why we need the Ghost so much. (Weren’t no rank-‘n’-file Republican, neither; the head of the Arkansas Republic Party made the suggestion.)
Not that the Democrats are a marked improvement – their highly touted war resolution, vetoed then modified and returned, ended up less a restraint on the Ghost’s warmaking powers and more a threat lobbed at Iraq to open up their oil resources to plunder by international corporations if they wanted the scene to let up anytime soon; and a recent debate between leading Democratic candidates for present quickly disintegrated into a testy squabble over who had supported the war the least, which is hardly a shining credential in any case – but the Republican race seems to have already come down to who claims they love torture the most. And dang if it ain’t playin’ to the peanut gallery. It seems to be what Rudy Guiliani’s depending on now to steer everyone’s attention away from his history of handing out public works jobs to campaign contributors, his callous, distant treatment of Ground Zero cleanup workers, any memories that his right-hand man turned out (during routine investigation after Rudy tried to set him up as the head of Homeland Security) to be mobbed up, and Rudy’s new alliance with big oil. Pretty much the same way Fred Thompson would rather no one remember his career as a lobbyist for big tobacco.
At any rate, as Paul Wolfowitz craps out of his World Bank job and Scooter Libby goes off for a prison stint for obstructing justice (even as both of them deny any involvement in doctoring up the rationales for the Iraq War, which, of course, both of them were all over), enough has happened that we can pretty much drop any doubts as to what the Ghost’s team set out to accomplish. In Iraq, we have the makings of a permanent military presence (AKA “a new Korea”) and hundreds of billions of barrels of missing oil. We have a war on terror that has now been used time and again as a rationale for stealing powers and breaking the law. In case the terror front fades, we have the makings of a new arms race with Russia, which will have the double effect of chilling targeting Europe’s economy and giving a huge boost to the American munitions industry. And we have a mushrooming of the use of mercenaries, and whole corporations like Blackwater that now function largely as a private army, used for handling all kinds of “sensitive” activities in Iraq and elsewhere. On the homefront, we have “terror cells” shattered regularly, like last week’s terrorists who were caught targeting New York airports; too bad they were clearly identified as completely without resources and their plan exposed as impossible to accomplish. (The fuel they were looking to blow up doesn’t work that way.) In other words, the Feds managed to catch another handful of ineffectual idiots. Do they keep a database on these crackpots and arrest a bunch of them when they need a good publicity shot? (That may sound flip, but Hoover’s FBI was big on that sort of thing in the ’30s, often taking over from local police forces about to close in on some petty crook, massacring the guy or gang, then playing them up in the press as Public Enemy No. 1 and the most
dangerous underworld threat imaginable, as the FBI looked blissfully away from mob racketeering, so it’s not like such a thing would be unprecedented.) I mean, I have a plan to turn lead into gold, but unless I have the means it doesn’t mean squat. We have Pentagon schemes to harass ex-soldiers who served in Iraq and are now speaking out publicly against the war. We have an expanding investigation into the attorney replacement “scandal” that has expanded into an investigation of Justice Dept. hiring practices to make sure all new employees were loyal Party members, White House pressure tactics to get authorization to break the law, and a roster, growing daily, of Republican attempts to manipulate elections and intimidate voters, one of which, in Alabama, has produced testimony (from a Republican, no less) that none other than Ghost svengali Karl Rove (also suspected of suggesting numerous firings to the Justice Department as well as a key player in illegally outing Valerie Plame as a CIA agent, and, yeah, you can write me to tell me he wasn’t tried like Scooter Libby was, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t plenty of evidence tying him in; he just wasn’t so idiotically overt in lying to investigators as Libby was) was directly influenced the graft prosecution of a former Democratic governor who was about to ask for a recount in an election that suddenly swung to his Republican opponent when a collection of suspect ballots were abruptly allowed into the record; the prosecution halted the recount, and the Republican squeaked into office.
So the blueprint has become pretty clear: a designed “terror state” with a quasi-dictatorial president insulated from scrutiny by an enforced cone of silence and obfuscation; a permanent expanded foreign military presence buttressed by soldiers dragooned into endless service and by private mercenaries answerable to… whom?; a Stalinesque litmus test of party loyalty when filling official positions and inner circle loyalty when filling top official positions, as well as a centrally orchestrated campaign to manipulate elections on a broad scale and disenfranchise “problem” voters in order to maintain a grip on power; and a blustery, stammering figurehead president who admits to only paying attention to that same inner circle. I’m sure there are elements I missed. Okay, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. That may not have been at all what they planned. It may just be what they’ve given us.
The latest week in my schedule for hell, but it’s all over next Monday. I managed to read a hell of a lot of comics and graphic novels this last week, but I haven’t had time to write them up yet, so I’ll be picking the best and the worst from the bunch. And we’ll all have a great, great summer together. No Notes this week to speak of, but maybe next week for that too.
Like I said, last week’s Comics Cover Challenge was the easiest ever, and the first one to send in the correct solution – Dynamo – was none other than FABLES, JACK OF FABLES and SHADOWPACT writer Bill Willingham. And, yeah, he may practically be my next door neighbor, but I haven’t spoken to him in weeks, because he’s had his own schedule from hell, so he figured it out all on his own. Bill didn’t mention anything he wanted to push, so the honor goes to #2 winner John Ashton Golden – who wasn’t actually #2, just the first to include a link with their answer, so let that be a lesson to you – and he wants to point you to his online portfolio, Mortal Mirror. Good going, Bill and John, and those of you who actually got the answer wrong might want to think about staying away from sharp objects from now on…
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. This week you don’t need to find a clue, you just need to look up a clue.
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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