Despite a slow but steady increase in comics sales now extending over the space of several months, the industry continues to be in a state of flux not entirely of its own making. Besides two editors leaving in the past few days – Vertigo's Heidi Macdonald and Wildstorm's John Layman (sorry to see you go, guys) – the finances of the comics have become of increasing general interest. First, Broadway Books has released Dan Raviv's COMIC WARS, which follows the intriguing tale of the collapse of Marvel Comics in the late 90s, without much reference to comics at all as moguls Ron Perelman and Carl Icahn duked it out in courts and boardroom for control of the company, a fight both ultimately lost.
It's a particularly interesting story in that comic books barely figure into it at all. Perelman's reign at Marvel is punctuated by the way comics barely entered corporate thinking; it was about "branding," and using the characters as a springboard to a media company, and many of the Perelman-era "innovations," such as Marvel's takeover of its own distribution, which ultimately climaxed in Diamond being the sole distributor for the majority of the industry, were examples of short-term gain over long-term interests, both for Marvel and for the comics industry. Like it or not, Marvel remains a, if not the, major anchor of the business (mostly because, mostly on the principle that comics shops would all die without Marvel, no one has been willing to snatch that place away from them), and when Marvel collapsed it took much of the business with it. It sometimes feels like we're recovering from a war, and we are; COMIC WARS described the war we're recovering it.
Key to understanding exactly what went on with Marvel is understanding how Marvel's finances worked in those days. From the moment Cadence Corporation decided to sell Marvel to New World Pictures in the mid-'80s, the company's value became vastly inflated, to make it both more attractive to own and more profitable to sell. (The same was done with companies like Valiant, whose real value almost certainly didn't match what Acclaim paid for it and whose ultimate worth to Acclaim turned out to be much less than its real value.) Something like Marvel can get away with that because its perceived value lies in its "properties," like Spider-Man and The X-Men, whose profit potential can be estimated in terms of media and merchandising tie-ins as well as (possibly in lieu of) in terms of the likely concrete profit to be made (or lost) in publishing. The thing about potential is that any estimation can be set on it because there's no way, or need, to prove it. It falls to the buyer to realize the potential. By the time Perelman tried to sell it, Marvel's "estimated value," if one goes by stock price, was somewhere in the ludicrous neighborhood of $2.5 billion. Anyone with half a brain and resistant to razzle-dazzle economics could look at the big picture and estimate that if Marvel was worth a tenth of that (and it wasn't long before they were) they might be overvalued. In reality, Perelman had caused Marvel to become drastically overvalued for his own reasons, and the "collapse" was really a return to where things probably should have been all along.
The same thing is the case (no pun intended) with the other recent comics-inflected financial story, the enormous devaluing of AOL-Time-Warner, which took a $54 billion "one-time" "goodwill" write-down, supposedly based on a decline in the value of AOL and its failure to earn expected ad revenues. (One expert suggests if you do the math, it amounts to a decline of all the value of AOL. Plus.) Time-Warner (nobody bothers mentioning Turner anymore) originally bought AOL to establish itself as a tiger in the Internet/paracommunications arena, and, as it seemed to a lot of people at the time that AOL's value was being drastically overestimated in order to make it very attractive to stockholders, you could make a case for this being another return to real value. Amusingly, rumors are afloat that Time-Warner will now spin AOL off, leaving us to ponder exactly what the purpose of the whole exercise was.
In the business, the question on the lips of many is how this will affect DC Comics. My guess: not much. For one thing, DC's somewhat protected under Warner Studios' wing, and Time-Warner barely acknowledges its existence in the first place, so whatever fallout will come that direction from the AOL thing will hit Warner Studios in general, not DC specifically, and it looks as though AOL will bear the brunt anyway. It has been suggested to me that Heidi and John's departures are the first in a wave of "write-down" austerity being imposed on DC, but that doesn't make sense to me. Rumors of Heidi's layoff had been circulating well before the write-down, while John had several reasons to resign and Wildstorm is looking for a new editor, something that wouldn't be happening if they were under budgetary pressure. There are likely to be a number of changes over the coming months, and some people won't like some of them, but there's a game plan at work there and there's no reason to go eyeing AOL's finances for a rationale.
Last week's tale of misery and failure went over so well that several people asked me to talk about other projects that never happened. Apparently it's inspirational. So here's another fable of the comics business, you ghouls.
I've been talking with the Bat-offices about doing projects up there pretty much since my pal Bob Schreck took over as editor. On occasion, things have happened: in addition to DC FIRSTS: BATGIRL, which will be out sometime in May with art by Bill Sienkiewicz and Terry Moore, I've got issues of CATWOMAN, drawn by Brad Rader, and BIRDS OF PREY, by Dan Brereton and Phil Noto, coming up. All in all, my story sense seems to be right on the money, because I keep pitching things identical to the secret projects they haven't told anyone about yet. Bob must be starting to think I have his office bugged. Before Charlie Adlard took over THE ESTABLISHMENT at Wildstorm, we pitched a prestige series where Bruce Wayne becomes suspected of murder and even Batman becomes convinced he did it. Sounds kinda familiar, don't it? A coincidence, I swear. The in-house work on the current "Bruce Wayne: Murderer" and "Bruce Wayne: Fugitive" arcs was already in progress.
This is why pitching to work-for-hire comics is tough, and why it's worth thinking twice before leaping to accusations of plagiarism when a comics company publishes something similar to something you've pitched. (DC tends to be particularly scrupulous about such things. I once had a series called COLD ANGEL bounced by their lawyers because someone from New Zealand had pitched a totally unrelated series with the same name several years earlier.) When coming up with stories for existing characters, you have to try to find the angle that hasn't been done with them (at least in living memory) – which is how I came on the "Bruce Wayne, Murderer" bit – but you have to remember that the writers and editors already working on the character are trying to do the same thing. When you get a character like Batman, who's been going on pushing seven decades now, there aren't many wrinkles that aren't used up.
At one point, Matt Idelson suggested I try to come up with some new character who can be worked into the Bat-mythos, rather than deal with existing characters. While total creator ownership is still the brass ring to be grabbed for, now that the major companies have integrated participation into their financial scheme, creating work-for-hire characters has its benefits as well.
Around the same time I made the acquaintance of a Spanish artists' agent named David Macho Gomez, who has a number of European and South American artists in his client list. Particularly appealing were the Fiumara Brothers of Argentina, Sebastian and Max, who remain unknown in America. I've since tapped Sebastian to draw the sf-crime book MY FLESH IS COOL for Avatar Press, and I figured Max would be a good talent to tap for "the Bat-project."
Also known as THE LAW.
There's a reason why you should always talk to editors before creating anything. I'll get to it in a moment. Max and I put a project together over a long weekend, entirely through the Internet using David as intermediary. The first thing I did, per usual, was look at where there was a vacuum in the Bat-mythos and see if I could fill it. It struck me that Batman's whole "crusade" centered around the absence of real law in Gotham City. Commissioner Gordon and the Bat-flunkies aside, Batman was the only one who could always be depended on to do the right and moral thing instead of pursuing his own interests. Where there have occasionally been "heroes" who stood counter to Batman on his home turf, all have been shown to have feet of clay, if not outright villains in disguise. But what, I thought, if there were a lawman who was fundamentally good, decent and incorruptible – and thought Batman was a dangerous outlaw who needed to be reigned in if not stopped altogether? I've always been attracted to the concept that true drama isn't the clash of a great good with a great evil but of two great goods in irreconcilable conflict. From there, it didn't take long to concoct The Law, who viewed the Gotham police force as essentially corrupt and untrustworthy and who actually held the moral high ground on Batman himself, who played by the rules but played to win? Generally that sort of character is portrayed as a naïve boy scout, but, again, what if he weren't? It's possible to be both moral and tough-minded, even if that's rarely shown in comics. I built in a rationale and a backstory, making The Law a military man with a history with both Gotham City and Bruce Wayne, recruited by Gotham's representative in the House to be the law in Gotham City. We tied in little bits of the DCU: Lex Luthor, elected president in the DC continuity, signs off on The Law's demand for total autonomy just to put a burr up Batman's ass. The Law would refuse to operate outside the law, and would not resort to hidden hideouts or secret identities; he would play everything above board, to prove it could be done, though he'd be will aware of the risk and be willing to take it. That way Gotham's citizens would always be reassured he's there. He wouldn't be secretly insane, have a hidden agenda or be a criminal in drag. Ostensibly on the same side as Batman but diametrically opposed philosophically with the skills and authority to do something about it, I thought he had the potentially to be an intriguing long term character on the DC landscape.
Max churned out a flurry of designs. I tore them apart. I told him what I always tell artists: remember if this sells whatever you design you'll have to draw hundreds of times per issue. Which, besides aesthetics, is why I prefer simple, streamlined designs. Once we'd gotten the look where we were both happy with it, we went back and forth on the color scheme, bearing in mind that The Law would have to stand in stark contrast to Batman without being ridiculously gaudy. We settled on a red-tan-black combo that also suggested a military look. Possibly the toughest challenge was where to put that damn star emblem. (With Starman out of the picture in the DCU, I wasn't particularly worried about using it.)
After about sixty hours, the character was designed, the pitch was written and The Law was born.
Not a dazzling breakthrough of a character, true, but you'd be surprised how rarely those go over. It was solid, it filled a niche, Max's designs were bitchin. The pitch was sharp, concise, it raised all the right questions and answered them. I sent it off to Lysa Hawkins, my editor on X-MAN at Marvel who had since jumped to the Bat offices.
And here's why you always always always discuss these things with editors first.
When I spoke to her the next day, she reluctantly said, "You do know about GOTHAM CENTRAL, right?"
Which, of course, I didn't. It's not that the concepts are similar. They're not. It's that the premise of THE LAW would basically invalidate GOTHAM CENTRAL's premise. That GOTHAM CENTRAL was already in the pipeline, being done by Bat-office regulars, pretty much killed any prospects THE LAW might have had.
So that was that.
David suggested I tinker a bit and ship it around to other offices, maybe set the series in Metropolis instead of Gotham City. I don't think it would work. The concept's core was the conflict between a new arbiter of justice and the dark outlaw guardian of a major metropolis. There just aren't many characters who fill the latter slot. Superman certainly doesn't. The Law would need to be some kind of maniac to stand against Superman that way; at least with Batman it's a rational enough response. He's not a Marvel character. And he needs that conflict to be what he is; you can't just plop him down in a void and get the same kind of resonance. It's easy to think characters can be transferred between settings easily, and there are a few great characters for which that's true, there's a Darwinian aspect to creating characters for an existing "universe": you have to figure out what niches aren't being filled.
And I'm not sure there's any room in the comics business for a character like The Law outside that niche. I don't even see a lot of publishers eager to publish characters like The Law. I still like the concept and the design. Maybe someday I'll come back to them. In the meantime, The Law sits in the drawer, Max is still unknown in the United States, and I'm still looking for a project to work on with him.
For the last year or so I've been running the GRAPHIC VIOLENCE forum on Delphi, but for the past few weeks I've had trouble accessing it. Things sort of ground to a halt there as a result. I finally solved the problem by rebuilding the site under a new address; click the link above and you'll get there. Unfortunate side effect: all traces of the old site have been wiped out. So consider it the Earth-2 version of GRAPHIC VIOLENCE, which is there for discussion of all aspects of comics, writing, culture, media and politics. I've tossed in a few starter discussions but feel free to add your own. Today's the grand opening. See you there.
Got the following from a reader in San Diego:
"I thought it would be a great birthday gift to get my nephew some sort of comic book subscription and I have no idea how to go about this or if you can do such a thing. Is there a 'Comic of the week' type of subscription through someone? He's only 8, by the way. I think comics would help increase his interest in reading. Any help on this would be GREATLY appreciated."
Of course, many comics offer subscriptions, but beyond that I don't know the answer and I'm hoping some other reader does. This really breaks down into two questions. 1) What comics are appropriate for eight year old boys that an eight year old boy might actually enjoy? (As opposed to something like, say, IMPULSE, which is really more of a book for 40 year old men who want to believe it's what a 12 year old would enjoy.) I'd suggest Viz's DRAGONBALL comics and trade paperbacks, which the boy might be familiar with from Cartoon Network. And maybe Alan Moore's TOM STRONG (DC/Wildstorm), though that might skew a bit older. But what would you recommend? 2) Is there any good "comic of the week" subscription club that would generate titles for that age group? (Or any other specific age or demographic group, for that matter? Someone might want to consider doing this.) To give answers to these questions, go to the Permanent Damage Message Board or my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE.
Speaking of Delphi forums, over on The Warren Ellis Forum someone recently asked which TV shows, in our opinion, have crashed the hardest? Meaning started out good or got good then ending up stinking to high heaven. I annoyed a few people by replying "all of them." It wasn't a flip answer. It's a result of the serial form, and it afflicts virtually all recurrent entertainment, including most comic books. (Unless it's something like THE PRISONER, which flares briefly and then the light is switched off.) Most TV shows have fairly soft concepts to start with, so if they're successful the concepts really don't bear up endless repetition, and the more popular a show becomes the more loathe networks and producers are to change elements of the formula, so everything collapsed into shtick and quickly grows uninteresting. Paradoxically, shows with very strict premises, like X-FILES tend to quickly start looking for wrinkles and variations and quickly go off-base and grow tired. Imagine what THE PRISONER would have played like four seasons on.
Last fall I ragged on OZ, noting how it had lost its oomph and focus and should either be ended or drastically revamped, though it was still my favorite current TV show. Today creator-producer Tom Fontana announced the next season would be the last, allowing him to finish the story he'd begun when the show started. Hallelujah. I'm sorry to see it go, but I'm hoping the planned exit gives the show time to go out swinging.
No such luck with other HBO shows, it seems. THE SOPRANOS followed a brilliant first season with a fumbling second season scraping for a continued rationale for the show with all the plotlines giving the first season momentum wrapped up. The worst decline was in Lorraine Bracco's Dr. Melfi, who was utterly critical to the first season and superfluous in the second, and now HBO's SIX FEET UNDER has done the same with Rachel Griffiths' Brenda. As oddball seductress with a dangerous streak and an insane family, she was the smoldering core of SFU's first season, but in the second she's little more than a bitchy, schitzy nymphomaniac. Huh? Where did that come from? The other characters aren't faring much better: David's settled into bland domestic bliss as the bottom for his unraveling cop boyfriend; Nate's got a permanent fatal headache; interminably PMSing mama Ruth delves into EST while her boyfriend's being crippled by the Russian mob; Claire bops from one psycho to another with cynical outrage; Rico's getting buffeted by endless marital and financial distress while having his sense of manhood's undercut at every possible juncture. AND THERE'S NO FOCUS. After only one season, it has descended to mere soap opera, with things happening just to keep things happening. Oddly, the best moments almost always come where Nate's consoling some widow at a funeral. Maybe that's the direction the show should take. Lord know it needs one. What's really sad is that it's still the second most watchable show on current TV.
Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the newly redesigned Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail 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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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.
If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.