This is what I love about work-for-hire comics.
Some time ago – must be at least six months by now – I was asked by an editor at a major company to develop a mini-series for a secondary character who it was felt could use some more exposure. The caveat was this: a writer for the major character under whose umbrella the secondary character fell had creative dibs on the character, so whatever I came up with a) would have to be not continuity dependent (which is my bent these days anyway, so that didn't matter) and b) could not alter the characters, because that was the other writer's province, not mine. Well, fine. Not difficult, I liked the character well enough, I could use the money. So I came up with a story that hit the character's main points without involving the external elements of the franchise. The editor liked the story and put the pitch into the pipeline.
Where it sat. And sat. And sat.
Like many other pitches from many other writers.
So. Six months tick by. Bi-weekly phone calls to the editor. "What's up?" "No word yet." Etc. Annoying for writers, embarrassing for editors. In the meantime, the situation changes. The other writer leaves the primary book, and is no longer custodian of the secondary character. There is no longer a custodian for the secondary character.
So the pitch finally comes up for consideration. Apparently – I wasn't in the room and only hear these things secondhand from the editor – everyone involved liked the story.
The complaint was it didn't take the character anywhere new – pretty much what I was specifically asked not to do. What they're looking for now is a new direction. Which I agree with. The character does need a new direction. I've now been asked to come up with one, so it's not a complete washout, but...
This doesn't make me feel any less like six months of my life just got pissed away on nothing because I did what I was asked to do. What's most frustrating is that those higher up on the chain who ultimately make the decisions but don't know the circumstances are likely to remember next time they see my name on a pitch that on the last one they saw from me there weren't any new ideas, and, right now, after many years of strongly emphasizing the same old same old, the major companies are now at least paying lip service to "new ideas" (even if much of it seems like the Emperor's New Clothes) and shying away from writers who can't seem to deliver them. (In THE BIG SLEEP, Humphrey Bogart says of a thug "He'll beat my teeth out then kick me in the stomach for mumbling." Same concept.) So this doesn't make for a good situation.
Don't mind me, I'm just venting.
As I said, this is one of the things I love about work-for-hire comics.
I've harped on covers before, and I've got this little hobby going now: I scour Ebay about once a week or so to download comic covers. It started with the old DC westerns and expanded in a number of directions, but I've begun to study covers to see what made them work and not work, and I've recently come back to westerns by discovered Gil Kane did a slew of gorgeous covers for Marvel western comics in the mid-'70s, when I wasn't paying the slightest attention to such things.
Particularly interesting is how dynamic they are, with beautiful composition and a stunning sense of space (use of foreground, midground and background to create a three-dimensional realism) highlighting the drama of the situation. Brilliant use of forced perspective. Lines with a sharpness and precision rarely seen today. And every cover, in addition to being a beautiful piece of artwork, tells a story.
Then there's Joe Kubert, whose covers I've also been examining. Joe, though stylistically different from Gil, was also a master of the line, of forced perspective, of three dimensions, of using pictures to tell a story, of sheer design. Of drama.
Then there's Alex Toth's cover of covers, arguably the first great comic book cover, from the early '50s, when Toth was refining his art, quantum leaping from the cartoony style he had brought to the Golden Age GREEN LANTERN to something truly bold and original.
I don't think there's any question it was beneficial to these men to work in a variety of genres with different requirements, restrictions and openings.
Gil was quietly sidelined in the comics business toward the end of his career, despite not the slightest diminishing of his talents or imagination. Joe Kubert, also still at the top of his form and arguably a better artist now than ever before in his life, is almost unknown to the new generation of comics reader, outside of occasional forays like STAN LEE'S JUST IMAGINE PRESENTS BATMAN, and I wouldn't be surprised if many readers now considered him a cheap knockoff of his sons, Adam and Andy Kubert. Alex Toth, once widely touted as the artist's artist, hasn't functionally participated in comics in years. I think it's interesting that both Gil and Joe came into the business in the '40s but really didn't refine and perfect their styles until the '70s, when changing editorial demands allowed them to really open up and experiment with exactly what I'm talking about, while Toth did the same under companies in the '50s that were trying to survive by looking for something a little different.
Still exciting stuff, from my point of view. I look at these covers and they captivate me. I look at today's covers and they're almost universally dull and unimaginative. (To be fair, most covers at any given time in comics history have been dull and unimaginative, but that's no reason we should settle for that.) Why is there rarely any drama on comics covers now? Maybe I'm just overwhelmed by a sudden wave of nostalgia – let me check – nope, just riffled through a hundred or so modern covers and not one of them raised my pulse. Not even on the really good books, not even the covers drawn by really good artists. Very little sense of threat or adventure, and I can't help feeling those being leeched out of the business altogether.
It's not that I'm against the "in your face" style of cover that came into vogue a few years back. It's hard to imagine a more "in your face" cover than Toth's CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (though the logo taking up half the cover space diminishes it some). But even Toth's piece isn't all on one plane; the background builds the effect, instantly creating a milieu that informs the main image and heightens dramatic tension – something missing in most "in your face" covers, which mostly take place in the foreground alone. Backgrounds, properly done whether on covers or in stories, aren't trivial or expendable; they're storytelling. Obviously, no one type of cover can hold any force when repeated ad infinitum. There's also the argument that covers don't really affect sales, though there's precious little research to bear that out either way. About a year ago I was developing material for a since aborted web startup being run mainly by people who came out of animation, and had a real tiff regarding presentation art, since the artist I was working with and I felt a movie poster style piece of art with title, clever tagline and an enticing image would be more effective than the flat, character-sheet style artwork the art director preferred, which basically just showed character designs, which he felt, perhaps justifiably, would appeal more to investors. Maybe. I think a case could be made either way, and discussing covers is like that. But it seems to me we really need dynamics, dimension and drama, something that can get pulses racing at a glance. Of course, this is a fight I periodically get into. Some striking linework couldn't hurt either, but I probably shouldn't ask for too much. Let's try for a little drama, at the least.
Speaking of Gil Kane, got this the other day from David Copson:
The Gil Kane Memorial Scholarship has been established by the Green Lantern/Hal Jordan fan club H.E.A.T. at the School of Visual Arts in New York. As a co-creator of the Silver Age Green Lantern, Gil Kane was a favorite artist of ours. As Eli Katz, Gil studied at The School of Visual Arts before going on to become one of the industry's most innovative comic book artists. Over his long career he drew virtually all of the major comics' characters and invented the graphic novel. Gil Kane passed away in January 2000. The late Rich Morrissey was instrumental in securing the blessing of Gil Kane's widow, Elaine Kane, for this project.
The Scholarship has been fully funded for the next academic year by donations from H.E.A.T. members. The recipient of the award will be a talented third year student that has a financial need and has expressed the intention and has the potential to work in comic books and/or graphic storytelling. We have directed that the recipient of the award is to be the most deserving student without regard to any particular drawing style. The Faculty of the Cartooning Department will choose the recipient this spring.
H.E.A.T. is an acronym that stands for Hal's Emerald Advancement Team. We have a diverse membership that is united behind this mission statement: "As Green Lantern fans, it is our goal to encourage and advocate the return and exoneration of Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, the restoration of the Green Lantern legend, and the revival of the honorable Green Lantern Corps." In a broader sense, we stand for quality comic books, responsible storytelling and respect for traditional comic book characters and their preservation for the enjoyment of future generations of fans. We do not expect the School of Visual Arts or the recipient of the Scholarship to endorse our mission statement.
H.E.A.T. was formed in 1996 out of frustration with DC Comics editorial indifference to fan reaction over the treatment of Hal Jordan. We were instrumental in raising the airfare for John Broome (Green Lantern's other co-creator) to attend the 1998 San Diego Comic-Con. It was the only con he ever attended before his passing. In 1999, we collected over 7400 comic books that we donated to children's hospitals.
It is beyond our resources to establish the Gil Kane Memorial Scholarship as an ongoing award. We are in the process of seeking corporate sponsorship to enable the Scholarship to be awarded annually. For more information about H.E.A.T. go to our website.
This is a wonderful tribute to Gil, and I wish they luck in their hunt for funding, assuming all donations go toward the scholarship. (No reason to believe they won't.) Anyone willing to be a sponsor, please contact them. Thanks. Personally, I couldn't care less about the fate of Hal Jordan, but it's great to see a committed group of fans doing something really special for comics, and it'd be nice to see DC, Marvel, and the other surviving companies Gil did most of his work for help fund the scholarship – which, who knows, could generate the next great superstar of comics.
For those who haven't been paying attention – the press here hasn't made a lot of mention of it - Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder and leader of the neo-fascist National Front Party of that country, stands poised to potentially win the presidency of France. This is the equivalent of Richard Butler, founder and former head of the Aryan Nations (not to be confused with Richard Butler the diplomat), being up for the job here. It's thought Le Pan ended up in this situation by quietly confusing elderly citizens of France for the past several years while younger voters, turned off by bland similarities of other more mainstream candidates including current president Jacques Chirac, grew indifferent to politics, and while that may be true it doesn't put France in any less tenuous a situation. Imagine if the deciding election were held tomorrow in Florida. The Le Pen ascension immediately caused protests across France in which people held up impromptu placards saying things like "Today I am ashamed to be French" but whether that'll count for anything in the May elections remains to be seen. It's an interesting situation for the USA. Le Pen claims not to be anti-Semitic though he dismisses the Holocaust as a historical triviality -- anti-Semitic activity in France is dangerously and violently on the rise, the latest wave rationalized by Israel's recent attacks on Palestinians – and he blames all France's current economic problems on foreigners, particularly North Africans who've come to France seeking work. His election would certainly bolster neo-fascist movements throughout Europe, particularly in Germany, England and Italy where they've long simmered just barely under the surface, and probably in America as well. And let's not forget France is a nuclear power. Should an elected Le Pen decide to "get tough" with Israel and help to fund Israel's enemies (not an outlandish scenario under the circumstances) as we're claiming Saddam Hussein is – or even if Le Pen stakes the claim to exporting ultranationalist neo-fascism and underwriting brother movements elsewhere – does France then become a terrorist nation? If so, how exactly do we handle a terrorist nation with genuine nuclear weapons and the capability of using them? Or do we simply decline to name it a terrorist nation because it's France?
Hopefully we'll never have to learn the answers to these speculative questions.
A couple weeks ago I reviewed Nat Gertler's PANEL ONE: COMIC BOOK SCRIPTS BY TOP WRITERS ($19.95) and mentioned it was one of the view indispensable reference works for the field. Someone wrote me afterward to ask what other comics-related texts I'd consider indispensable, and the answer is: damn few. I know everyone loves the Scott McCloud books and Will Eisner's dissertations on comics storytelling, but while I think they're well worth reading, I wouldn't call them indispensable. Nor would I list Warren Ellis' COME IN ALONE (AiT/PlanetLar Books, $16.95) though it's full of great and often very insightful essays. There just aren't many great texts on the medium or business of comics, and, Scott, Will and others aside, no one has yet produced a really good book on the craft of comics.
However, there's now a book about the business of comics that qualifies: Larry Young's TRUE FACTS: A POCKET GUIDE TO SELF-PUBLISHING YOUR OWN COMIC BOOKS (AiT/PlanetLar Books, 2034 47th Ave, San Francisco CA 94116; $9.95). In the early 1900s, a college professor named William Strunk Jr. published a slender volume called THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE (Macmillan Publishing Co., 866 Third Ave, NY NY 10022), often referred to as "the little book," which concisely laid out a series of rules for good writing. Subsequently revised a few times by EB White, like most works of its kind it has its limitations and is often taken way too seriously by well-meaning zealots, but it remains one of the few indispensable texts on the mechanics of writing. TRUE FACTS, a collection of essays originally written for the website Savant, is only marginally bigger than THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE and in many ways does the same thing for comics publishing. Larry's pithy, funny, cranky and concise, and doesn't pussyfoot around his subject or pussy out in the clutch. And he covers pretty much everything. Like every other comics columnist on the web, I receive e-mail every week from someone wanting to know how to publish comics. I've traditionally helped as much as I could, but now I've got a mantra I can turn into a macro so I can respond at the tap of a key: go read this book. It holds the answers you seek, and is good reading besides.
Viz Communications (Box 77010, San Francisco CA 94107) continues their output of interesting trade paperbacks this month. DRAGONBALL Z Book 8 ($12.95), by Akira Toriyama, continues to be the best all-out superhero comics available: high stakes, great action, big explosions and an interweaving of the fight scenes with the personality stuff that American comics way too often just botch up. This volume takes place on the planet Namek, where arch-villain Freeza (master of the universe) tries to unlock the power of the Namekian dragonballs to grant him immortality while the heroes get the living crap beaten out of them until the amazingly transformed Goku arrives to briefly balance the odds. But that backfires too. Toriyama weaves subplots so expertly you don't even pick them out as subplots (they're more sideplots, only coming into play where they intersect the main action), and Vegeta remains the coolest hero-villain in the medium. Not to mention the storytelling and art is clear as fresh water. (The comic is better than the TV show, by the way.) The more adult BANANA FISH Vol. 6 ($15.95) by Akimi Yoshida, originally published in the soon to end PULP magazine, isn't the most satisfying crime story I ever read, but this is a transitional volume in the tale of a mobster's attempt to use a new drug called Banana Fish to take over the underworld and manipulate American politics. Opposing him is Ash, the mobster's former boy toy and leader of a recently dispossessed street gang, who unfortunately spends most of the volume in captivity, which bleeds off the energy a little. Yoshida' pleasant art is a bit soft on the violent scenes, but the story pushes the plot and the shifting and somewhat enigmatic character relations along nicely, and Ash's revenge when he finally gets free is pretty satisfying even if the important confrontations continue to be pushed off. I've never seen the fascination with GUNDAM WING, or any other Japanese giant robot series, so it was with some doubt I accepted a plea to review MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM W: EPISODE ZERO ($16.95), written by Katsuyuki Samisawa and drawn by Akira Kanbe, from concepts by Yoshiyuki Tomino & Hajime Yatate. It's a prequel to the GUNDAM WING TV series, starting years before those events and covering the early development of the series' five main and several secondary characters, and, to my surprise, it's pretty good. Set against the backdrop of a war between space colonies that I presume is the premise of the show, each story is a little slice of life vignette: a war orphan watches the only "parents" he has ever known destroyed by the widening war; an assassin learns his craft; a mercenary has to deal with a spy he secretly loves; a rich girl tries to confront a mysterious boy; a surly kid gets hijacked by pirates; a young man develops a sense of justice. There's also sort of a team-up and a coda, and the latter two are too bound into continuity to be very satisfying, but the earlier segments have some oddly touching moments, and the material is far more diverse and entertaining than the other GUNDAM material I've seen. Finally, Taiyo Mastumoto's NO.5 ($15.95) is a strange little number, in many ways (particularly in the colored section at the front of the book) looking and reading like a Moebius project. On a desert swept future Earth, peacekeeping forces maintain an elite Rainbow Council with nine members known by number, but one of them, the eponymous No. 5, has turned traitor and kidnapped a woman for mysterious reasons and kills the others one by one as they come after him. That's pretty much the entire story, painted in broad strokes that leave nothing but questions. Just like a Moebius project. Sure is purty, though, with the single best production job I've seen from Viz. It's worth a look, just for the sheer confident strangeness of it all.
There were those who thought I was a bit harsh on DIGITAL WEBBING #1 (31 Westford St., Haverhill MA 01832), so let's see how #2 is. I'm still not particularly taken with the superhero team parody/pastiche, Matt Starnes' underwritten THE TEAM, but that Diego Jourdan & Diego Barreto art is sweet. In Bryan Imhoff and Brad Green's boxing story PERCEPTIONS, the situation is reversed: Imhoff's story has a nice surety and pacing while Green's art, though not bad, is uneven, and he needs to polish up his style and technique. Gary Lister's JONAH FARADAY: DEMONHUNTER falls in the middle, with some decent dialogue sabotaged by a story that's a little too straightforward and predictable (unlike the rest of it, the demon dialogue is painful) and the art, also Lister's, that starts off strong and fuzzes out by the end, as if he got caught in a deadline crunch. It's a problem shared by Jeremy Feist and Ray Dillon's nice little horror story, VOICES IN THE TUNNEL. I don't recall if I liked Feist's story from last issue but here he does a pretty good job, while Ray Dillon's also starts out strong but by page 4 starts losing confidence along with sense of proportion. Stylish and unusual is the art on GOT I.D.? by Mike Scigliano and Scott Morse, with shading by Chris Mendoza, but I'm not sure who's responsible for what here, and the story, about a guy trying to get into a comics shop that now i.d.s customers is an amusing little comedy. BLOODLUST, a down-to-earth vampire story that smacks of a series by writer Daniel Wickline and artists Mikel Whelan and Terry Statts, isn't exactly an adventurous departure but it's borderline professional; Malibu would've published it in a flash. Jason Shane Powell and Ken Haeser's giant robot parody BROKEN TOYS is cute, but why are the robots more credibly drawn than the people? The issue winds up with the Ma Brothers' THE EIGHTH DRAGON, though I prefer the first issue's rock club story to this Wuxia stuff, but the writing's good and the art, still a bit uneven but very appealing, is sometimes great. Aside from Jourdan and Barreto, I'm not sure I'd say anything here was really professional quality, but, unlike with #1, I'd say there's nothing less than competent and much is significantly better than that. Things like DIGITAL WEBBING serve the function fanzines used to, where people who aspired to creating comics professionally could hone their craft and get the kinks out. I applaud DIGITAL WEBBING for that, and hope the participants take this as it's meant: as a push to improve and keep improving.
Returning briefly to comics covers: if you happen to collect Marvel westerns of the mid-70s and have access to a scanner, could you scan any Gil Kane or John Severin covers at a decent size (big enough for the art to be easily seen, but not huge) and e-mail them to me? There's nothing in it for you but my undying thanks, and a mention here if you like.
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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.
If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.