Issue #306

I've been doing quite a bit of consulting lately for people looking to get into comics publishing in large or small ways, mostly because the world at large is starting to become aware of what seems to be considered the new comics/Hollywood synergy. There's a certain amount of carperbaggerism to this, and still the general perception out there that anyone, especially an artist, who'd work in comics (except me, apparently) is some kind of cream-faced rube eager to forego any kind of decent pay or participation just for the sheer thrill of transforming someone else's vague concept into pages of comics art that will (undoubtedly, because the ideas are always just that good!) generate a fountain of gold for the "creators." It's kind of fun to get the reaction when I mention art fees like $375 for penciled and inked comics pages, which is hardly out of line for work-for-hire (though DC-Marvel-Dark Horse level, but why shouldn't they be?); the double takes are usually so violent I'm surprised no one's sued me yet for whiplash.

I've been having fun like this for years now. Everyone seems to think comics can be put together for a couple hundred bucks, tops. Which they can be, if you ignore publishing, marketing and editorial costs and want a book to read and look like it was put together for a couple hundred bucks. Then again, trying to explain the comics business to outsiders is always entertaining.

Back in the early '90s, when I was involved in putting together the abortive TSR-West line of comics, I pulled in a friend with a long history in the magazine business - he was then working for RADIO AND RECORDS - to be publisher. We'd talked about the ins and outs of comics publishing before that, but it was a couple months of him picking his jaw up off the ground as he saw in practice what he'd never quite believed. (And TSR, for various reasons, was a more special case than even I was used to.) Today, my friend still baffles his friends in "real" publishing with tales of the comics business, leaving them all awestruck and wondering how the hell comics manage to continue to exist. For a long time, comics have been the beneficiary, and victim, of a special set of historical circumstances which have been generally interpreted by "mainstream comics" as "the nature of things." Well, they are the nature of things, but that nature isn't natural.

Mostly due to Marvel's high profile, a lot of people out there still seem to think comic books = superheroes, and, objectively, they're not far off. Even a lot of the material in American comics that purports to have broken ties with superheroes feature an awful lot of superhero tropes. There's not a lot that can be done about it, and I don't know that anything needs to be done about it. So when someone asks questions about "solving the problem of the superhero," I'm never certain of what to say.

Superheroes have generally been considered to appeal mainly to the young, and that's more or less true. As I've mentioned in a few interviews lately, superhero stories are about winners, and when you're young you not only want to win, you usually have a certainty you're going to win. (This is the basis of many manga, especially fight manga, as well.) Most people, by the time they're in their 30s, have either "won" or figured out life might work out a little differently, and a sort of schism between cognitive and emotional interest sets in. While it's possible to approach superhero comics from an aesthetic basis just like any other type of fiction, most people hook into them on an emotional level, and some keep that hook in a lot longer than others. Most young novelists write superhero stories, in one guise or another, because what they write is stories about winners, the "hero" who triumphs over the environment or conditions that others falls prey to. Even something like Bret Easton Ellis' drug culture novel, LESS THAN ZERO, with a nihilistic title stolen from an Elvis Costello song and tales of pampered youth destroying themselves with casual sex and easy potent drugs, can be considered a superhero novel, as Ellis' protagonist eventually rises about it all and forges a trail to a better tomorrow. The gimmickry may smother comics, but the tropes are everywhere, and generally well received.

And there's room for superheroes. Traditional superheroes pretty much are - even Marvel doesn't really do them anymore, and DC fortunes clinging obsessively to them haven't exactly been on the rise lately - but there are still things that could be done with superheroes that haven't been done. But genuinely new ideas are getting harder to come by. A major problem is the perception that superhero stories break down into two camps: the romanticized "new wave" nostalgia camp, and the "dark," or "grim'n'gritty" camp (which more often than not ends up being the same as the former, with body parts). Or a third "ah, superheroes are just so stupid, here, let's rub everyone's noses in just how truly stupid they are so we can show we hate superheroes even though we won't do anything but superhero comics - but ones that show how stupid the whole idea of superheroes is!" camp. Very few people write stories that actually take the idea of a superpowered being seriously - it's one of the few things that the TV show HEROES, for all its "homages" to existing material, did right. It made the audience take the idea seriously. Mainly because (most of) the characters didn't go, "Oh, look, I have superpowers, I Shall Become A Champion Of Justice!" The people with superpowers on HEROES mostly acted like, well, people, instead of moves from a Playbook.

So... the "problem" of superheroes? Why, I am asked, is there no step marketing, to coax an audience up one rung of comics appreciation to another? Suck 'em in with superheroes when they're young, but move them up to horror, crime, spy thrillers, etc. as they outgrow the cape. Nice idea, and it has occasionally been half-heartedly tried. But the comics market just isn't built for it.

The main reason there's not a "weaning path" in comics is that there isn't one. I know that sounds like reflexive logic but it comes down to this: every publisher would love to have one, but no one's going to spend the money and take the risk to be the first to make one. "Paths" are generally difficult in comics anyway. For years publishers have started at the other end, trying to do "kids comics" as an "entry point" to "start them reading comics early." Sounds good on paper, but the fact is that most kids want to feel more grown up than they're otherwise allowed to be, so for most kids the entry point isn't Animaniacs, it's X-Men. Going out the other end is more problematic, though to some extent the traditional "exit strategy" from superheroes now is horror, and horror's quite popular too, though there's no one company that markets horror the way DC and Marvel market superhero comics. Marvel has in recent years taken some stabs at "paths" with things like its Ultimate line and Spider-Man (or Mary Jane) comics geared toward younger readers or girls. But are these "paths" or are they simply generating versions of characters that, for whoever comes to them first, becomes the version of that character while all others, even the originals, become inadequate substitutes? That's been the general pattern among comics fans for decades, and no matter how awful an old version of a character, there will inevitably be complaints about any new version on the grounds that it's not the old version. It's just something publishers have come to live with.

Do superheroes still dominate American comics? Per ratio in the Diamond catalog, not nearly. (Horror's probably #1.) Per dollar spent on comics? Definitely, if deceptively. Superheroes generally don't sell. Most superhero comics don't do much more than scrape by, if that. Marvel really only has a dozen or so comics that do better than subsistence level, and, as things like the latest ANT-MAN series indicates, they're no strangers to dipping below that level. Let's face it, in a country this size, 180,000 copies, which is about what their best selling title sold last time I checked, isn't all that much of an achievement. (Not that I wouldn't want my comics to sell at that level, but...)

But they still sell better than most other comics.

Here's the problem: the comics industry isn't built on logical progression. It's built on periodic eruptions followed by waves of knockoffs. It's not built on builds. It's built on accidentally discovering current audience tastes and rushing to oversaturate those tastes. Most mass media in America is built this way, and it only shifts gears once in awhile and the shift never lasts long. It's geared toward the short con, not the long haul. Back when I started writing comics, in 1978, the operative viewpoint in the business was that the audience turned over every four years, which I thought was an inane self-fulfilling prophecy. When they dropped that, sometime in the late '80s, they started operating on an equally flawed premise epitomized by the "Marvel zombie," that once readers were theirs they were theirs for life, and that their readers would buy anything they published. And it did work, until so much was being published, and general quality dropping off so far, that even readers who could afford everything weren't bothering, and Marvel almost lost the company as a result.

On the other hand, readers often operate under a similarly flawed premise: that the books they loved as kids should "grow up" with them. So for the main readership, the idea also isn't that they should "evolve" up a path, but that their favorite characters should be at whatever level of personal development they're at. (Married superheroes is a good example. Readers or writers or artists or editors get married, and suddenly they decide it would be interesting if they character they love or work on got married too. Me, I think the most idiotic thing in the world is married superheroes, because domesticity is the utter antithesis of what superheroes are all about.) So the idea that, say, Green Lantern should start worrying as much about his mortgage or health insurance as about saving the universe, instead of just creating a new character who worries about his mortgage or health insurance. Because Green Lantern's the character they love and want to read, not some new character they have no emotional attachment to.

In theory, things like DC's Vertigo line are usually intended to provide a "path" for readers who are phasing away from superhero comics. The problem is that lines like that usually have to initially market themselves as an explosive departure from 'the mainstream' in order to grab attention, and once that happens they're no longer perceived as a continuum but a separate entity. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing but it defeats any intent for a "path."

But, ultimately, like most things in this life, it comes down to money. To really create a distinct other market requires specific focus on a specific type of material, until your brand becomes the publicly accepted brand representing that type of material. But it takes faith and dedication, because there's likely to be a long drought before that well starts pumping. Publishers hate "focus" because that equals "putting all your eggs in one basket." Which they don't like unless it's an instantly profitable basket. And comics publishing still largely remains the domain of fanboys, dreamers and hustlers, and they all bring their own short-sighted baggage to the table. It's not that the underlying causes of the comics mentality that prevents "marketing paths" can't be treated, it's that you can't treat anything unless the patient wants to be treated. As soon as someone goes ahead and successfully undergoes the treatment - and stays successful - they'll all want it. But until someone does that, none of them want it. What they know is that the market could be killed very quickly, and they prefer to watch it die very slowly instead.

Which isn't unreasonable.

To some extent, the current graphic novel boom is the path they're talking about, but, again, I think book publishers make a big mistake by focusing on material that's explosively separate from what a large part of the potential base is familiar with. I see PERSEPOLIS getting reviewed in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, and I think it's a good book, but I don't know what would entice a FANTASTIC FOUR fan to read it, since most fans aren't fans of the medium and its possibilities so much as fans of specific material or types of material...

Superheroes themselves don't make much of a bridge, or path. Superhero comics are sort of a hobbled catch-all for other genres - crime, horror, sf, romance, political fiction, westerns (at least in the tropes, though those are updated and somewhat disguised), historical fiction, etc. - so to some extent they subsume all those genres as well. But superhero comics are also weak sister entrées to those genres, so clever planning could, theoretically, allow readers to refine their own tastes and interests as their perspectives become more refined, and "discover" stronger material in other genres - and instead seem to end up as a dead end. While THE BOYS, which is basically guys in supersuits being caught up in comedic non-superheroic, is frequently a good laugh and certainly pushes the limits of taboos in the genre, I'm not sure it's really any great improvement, material-wise, over, oh, WONDER WOMAN...

The "answer" to superheroes? Hard work and good luck, but if you want a non-superhero audience, you're going to have to find or build one yourself because superheroes are their own weird bag. They're not leaving us anytime soon, and while the traditional superhero, bolstered so far mainly by promotional muscle, comics shops and fan obsession, may be in the midst of a long, slow fade, the gimmick-stripped tropes are spreading further and further everyday. They're an insoluble problem, and they're only really a problem if you're trying to market against them. But that isn't their problem, it's yours.

By the way, if you're thinking of getting into comics publishing, or if you're looking to transform that unsold screenplay or pitch into a comic that'll light production company imaginations afire, and looking for a consultant, the email address is at the bottom of the column. I may not tell you what you want to hear, but I'll never lie to you. Unless you pay me to.

Haven't had much time to read comics lately - doing up a bunch of comics pitches and film treatments - but a couple quick reviews:

From Viz Media:

YAKITATE!! JAPAN Vol 1-5 by Takashi Hashiguchi ($9.99@)

The kinder, gentler IRON WOK JAN, with baking instead of cooking. Did you know Japan doesn't have a signature bread? Neither did I. What could have been a fairly typical fight manga, using the Iron Chef format, turns out to have superb plotting, great characterization, pleasing and uncluttered art and a ton of warmth, humor and insight into Japanese mores. One good-natured young baker defies tradition and expectation in his quest to invent a truly Japanese bread, triggering a strong tale of loyalty and rivalry that has repercussions far beyond his personal quest. Very good.

From Fantagraphics:

MAGGIE THE MECHANIC by Jaime Hernandez & HEARTBREAK SOUP by Gilbert Hernandez ($14.95@)

Okay, these are yet another repackaging of material from Los Hermanos Hernandez' legendary LOVE AND ROCKETS, in attractive trade paperback editions, but, let's face it, this stuff never gets old. Some material, when you haven't looked at it in awhile, comes across as fresh and new again when you go back to it, and this work certainly qualifies; this is bold, clear, lovely work from the Hernandez Brothers at the height of their skills and creativity. MAGGIE, with its array of pop culture nods and more over-the-top characters, is arguably the more accessible volume, but HEARTBREAK SOUP is ultimately the more rewarding. But only by a little. If you haven't read these seminal works, which basically invented "alternative comics" as we think of them today, don't miss this chance.

From First Second:

GARAGE BAND by Gipi ($16.95)

Which is somewhat indicative of the difference between European and American emphases. Italian cartoonist Gipi pretty much foregoes niceties like plot and resolutions altogether to focus on the struggles of four teenagers trying to make sense of and give direction to their lives by forming a band - and it's good! Gipi's great at indicating the depth of both their desperation and their passion without beating you over the head with it, and their triumphs, hardships and stumbles flow at a natural pace, drawn to ragged perfection. I've been kind of hard on First Second books so far, but this one really paid off.

From Raffaele Ienco:

DEVOID OF LIFE by Raffaele Ienco (price unknown)

When will small publishers learn to always price their books? A decent sci-fi horror novel that exceeds its reach a bit. The story's obviously meant to be epic, stretching from ancient Mars to modern day as creatures from a hidden nearby world arrive to pass judgment on the Earth. Dialogue gets a bit too on-the-nose here and there (a wife kneels over her husband's body and tells no one in particular "Garrett's dead"), Ienco's art, while generally pretty good, is at its best when he's not drawing human faces, and the ending abruptly introduces random elements in order to tie things up. Not bad, but it probably wouldn't have suffered from stronger editing.

Man, all it takes is one collapsed bridge and a whole history of fundamentalist Republicanism (nothing to do with organized religion) goes right out the window. For his entire run, the Republican governor of Minnesota steadfastly did his bit for the Minnesota public by insisting taxes are the work of the devil and shutting down every attempt to get the money to repair Minnesota's crumbling infrastructure. But one sticking little bridge falls apart and kills a few people, and suddenly he's calling for new taxes to patch up Minnesota roads and stuff. Like, oh, bridges that should've been fixed four years ago. But that's where an obsession with no taxes for the sake of no taxes gets you. Now even the Feds are getting in on it, asking all states to assess the condition of their public thoroughfares. Which is a nice idea, with one flaw:

No money.

The news hasn't brought it up much, but idiot home loan practices, rammed into high gear during the boom housing bubble that popped over the last year, seem to be on the verge of triggering a new worldwide depression. Second mortgages, mainly. Even today, I get no fewer than four ads for these services a week, though now they've shifted from offering to let me put the value of my home to work to, creepily, advertising their status as (do they know something they're not telling me?) foreclosure specialists. Yeah, I bet.

Behind all this is the con man notion that anytime your money is just sitting there, like in a compound interest savings account, or in home equity, it's just not giving full value. Money sitting in your own private vault is money they can't make money from, though someone usually is: your bank making loans off the value of your savings account, your mortgage company off mortgage interest. The specific idea of the home equity loan is that you own something you don't: your house. On paper you do, but until you make that last payment to the bank, you really don't. But, oh, all that value. I know the temptation. I moved to Las Vegas seven years ago, moments, luckily, before the housing market here superheated. Even now, on paper my house is worth well over twice what I paid for it because property values rose so much in the interim, though I might have trouble collecting on it since roughly 5% of the houses in my neighborhood are already for sale and no one seems to be buying anymore. Anyway, someone somewhere along the line got the idea to sell short term sub-prime second mortgages (that's all an equity loan is, really), on the premise that, as much as your house is worth now, in a couple years when your loan is up for renewal it'll be worth even more, so all you'll have to do is take out a new loan that will more than pay off the old one, and repeat ad infinitum.

Except house values went down instead, leaving a hell of a lot of second mortgage holders unable to get renewed loans because lenders can't give out new loans that cover old ones for less than the value of the old loan. And still that loan had to be paid, leaving a lot of homeowners with no option but to default on their loans, and leaving a lot of lenders and banks in possession of foreclosed homes that they can't do anything but sit on. (As well as leaving me thrilled all to hell that I never gave into the temptation to get one of those loans.)

And the ripples rush outward.

Since a lot of foreign money is tied up in financing these loans, foreign investors in particular have gotten pretty hinky on them, and the fact that they're now virtually worthless has been triggering attempted selloffs right and left. Panic selloffs crash markets, and governments stepping in to put an end to selloffs, as France did, tends to increase the panic. The Chinese are terrified, and since they hold a huge amount of American debt - they've basically been underwriting our billion dollar per day war - them calling in their loans and bankrupting the country isn't out of the realm of possibility. While this administration has been apparently willfully overseeing the decline of the international value of the dollar - Cheney has even gone so far as to invest heavily in foreign currencies - this seems to be ready to put the dollar in the dumper even more than they'd planned on, and if that happens it's going to take all the economies linked to the dollar with it. About the best case scenario at this point is that other countries hastily attach their currency value to the euro or some other currency, and the USA bears the full brunt of this itself. Wall Street has been more or less at a loss to deal with the situation. The companies that bought up the worthless loans were financed by some very high powered brokerage firms, which will ultimately end up holding the bag as everyone in the chain below them goes bankrupt, and since they follow the same general loan scheme as everyone else in finance - making loans worth ten times (at least) the value of your assets on hand - bankruptcy would seem to be their only eventual out as well. If they go they take most of the stock market with them. The whole thing is a tricky house of cards made of securities, stocks and mutual funds that's getting shakier by the second.

So in steps the Feds again. Virtually moments after the Ghost goes on TV to say that as far as he can see there is no mortgage crisis and if you're having trouble paying your mortgage your best option is to go cut a deal with your bank (and he's talking from experience, considering most of the "business deals" he prospered from were based on gift loans that the good ol' boy banks he dealt with cheerfully swallowed, letting the taxpayers pick up the tab, after his companies bankrupted on them), the Fed drops sixty billion dollars (in reality, probably closer to a hundredbillion) into the stock market, supposedly to "stabilize" it. In essence, though, this was a gift from us, the taxpayers, to the filthy rich, so they'd be able to sell off the junk in their possession to a new buyer - us - and so keep their trembling fortunes intact. (One silver lining: we're not alone. "Central banks" around the world have dumped around $400 billion into the system so far to keep things from looking like total economic collapse.)

So what's anyone going to do about this? Hope and pray, and especially pray that no one in the media wakes up and does a report people can understand. Because we're about that close.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Very sad to hear of Mike Wieringo's untimely death, which was eerily similar in several respects to Mark Gruenwald's a decade ago. I never had more than a couple brief email dealings with Mike, but I was always impressed by his art, one of the precious few manga-influenced American styles that evolved into something really strong and distinctive. I can't help thinking, though, that being a 40-something vegetarian in the comics business doesn't seem to be a good idea.

I hope you're having a good Feast Of The Assumption. For those who weren't raised Catholic, that's today, the day the Virgin Mary was lifted bodily into Heaven. I remember back in Catechism, the nuns referred to World War II as "The War Of Our Lady" because it began (in the USA, anyway) on Dec. 8, the Feast Of The Immaculate Conception, and ended on Aug. 15, the Assumption. World War II: oddest miracle ever! (Except for maybe the Virgin Mary conceiving on Dec. 8 and giving birth on Dec. 25...)

Last week, AT&T was webcasting a live Pearl Jam concert when, "mistakenly," parts of a song abruptly vanished, like dirty words in theatrical films broadcast on network TV. Just blank space. Turns out the missing lyrics were "George Bush, leave this world alone" and "George Bush, find yourself another home." Apparently this was considered inappropriate language for an "all-ages" broadcast. Uh-huh... (No wonder my father once made me promise to never work for the phone company...)

Finally got a chance to watch 300, which turned out to be one of the dullest films I've seen in a long time. I freely admit it must have lost at least a little something in transition from the big screen, but that much tedium can't possible arise from a mere format shift. A lot of line-spitting, weirdly stilted action. I know that, like SIN CITY, it was often shot for shot directly like the comic, but it still shouldn't have moved like the comic. It's an interesting conundrum. The comic moved very quickly, partly because Frank kept dialogue minimal, and partly because your mind fills in between comics panels, as part of the comics reading experience, and that tends to speed up your perception of action in a comic, but when a film fills in the action for you, it tends to slow everything down. The battle against the Persians is pretty suspenseless, with yoyo fights that seem to exist mainly to show off one sideshow attraction after another as one wave hurls itself to destruction, the Persians back off awhile to let the Spartans get their wind, then another wave hurls itself to destruction. ("Oh, look, here come the elite Persian warriors, let's kill them. Oh, look, here come the elephants, let's push them off a cliff...") It also didn't help that I know too much about ancient Sparta to buy into all that "We are creating a Europe of free men, free from superstition!" crap sprinkled throughout. It's not like we're anything resembling free from superstition, and if the Spartans were so damn concerned with justice and posterity, why all the xenophobic rewriting of history? Maybe I'm misremembering, but I don't recall the Persian Empire extending to Nubian Africa, so why the sweaty black men drooling over the prospect of enslaving Spartan women? Why portray Xerxes as a decadent, if ripped, layabout when by all accounts he was quite the tough bastard himself? I know the film's supposed to be a rousing celebration of the warrior spirit, and the last two minutes as well as the general narrative structure are very good, but I have to go with the reviewer - don't recall which - who said the film's main moral is: first, kill the hunchback. Eh.

I see HBO's JOHN FROM CINCINNATI won't survive its first season. No loss. For those who chided my rush to judgment, I have watched a couple more episodes of FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS (HBO, Sundays 10:30P), and at least some of it, like this week's band tour episode, does get fairly funny, but other parts of it (like pretty much anytime it has anything at all to do with girlfriends) doesn't even rise to whimsical. Part of my problem is the two stars, who continue to give the impression you could light them on fire and it would take them ten minutes to figure out they were burning. There's deadpan, and then there's just dead.

Congratulations to Chris Aruffo, who has been trying for ages to come in first on a Comics Cover Challenge and finally made it with the correct solution, offensive stereotypes. Millie The Model was the ringer but the one that seemed to slow up a lot of people was Speedy Gonzales. (I was kind of surprised to see he had popped up in a late era DC book.) Chris would like to push his own interesting site, Acoustic Learning, which has information on everything from perfect pitch to acting technique and Edgar Allan Poe. Check it out.

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. I know a number of you suspect I don't really plant a hidden clue to the solution in the column each week, but I do! You can trust me! Good luck.

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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