Issue #42

One of my regulars over on the Permanent Damage Message Board suggested the other day that the board would get much more action if I mentioned it at the beginning of the column rather than the end. It really doesn't matter to me how much action it gets – it's for your use, not mine – but let's try it this week and see.

A correction from last week: the co-writer, with John Benson and Art Speigelman, of the essay on Bernie Krigstein's "Master Race," was David Kasakove, not Bhob Stewart. Sorry about that.

Last week's piece on the return of cattle calls at comics companies generated a lot of irate e-mail. Not, as I expected, defenses of the practice from angry editorial types wishing to keep their names out of it (and I get a lot of those when I write pieces critical of editorial practices) but mail from freelancers pointing out that DC Comics in fact did not discontinue the practice (of which, it's noted, The Writer's Guild takes a dim view when Hollywood producers try to do such things) (and Hollywood producers have gotten more sophisticated in their behavior, keeping everything verbal and taking writers out to lunch or holding "introductory" meetings where they ask what "your thoughts" are for some concept under the guise of c. 1992 but have been cattle calling – simultaneously getting different pitches from various freelancers for the same company-owned property so editorial can sort through the various ideas at their leisure and pick the one they like best, without any sort of compensation for the work and time that went into it and often without the talent involved being told that others are "trying out" for the same project – continuously over the past few years. Vertigo books as well as DCU books were cited, and a couple people suggested the practice is endorsed by people very high up in the company.

I don't know if this is true. I would hope not. I think a reason I was unaware of this practice was that it seems to target mainly younger writers, if e-mail is an indicator, not veteran writers. Which, if true, suggests a conscious pattern of exploitation. Because that's all it really is.

Which is just one of the reasons many people around the business are renewing suggestions of some kind of guild. There are many reasons I don't think a guild will ever work. The B. KRIGSTEIN book by Greg Sadowski that I reviewed last week (order it directly from Fantagraphics Books; $49.95 but worth its weight in gold) has a section on Krigstein's attempts to organize comics artists in the early '50s. Some established pros resented the attempt to set minimum page rates because it meant newcomers would be getting the rates they had to work like dogs to get. (During my time around Marvel, the updated version of this was a fixation by many established pros – ironically, all fairly recently established – with newcomers "paying their dues." Meaning: they were treated like crap on their way up, so everyone else on their way up ought to be treated like crap too.) Jack Kirby was leery of it because it might get people tarred as Communists. (Granted, this was the McCarthy Era, so that wasn't entirely paranoia.) Even those who joined the short-lived union were concerned that their corporate masters, like DC Comics, would simply blacklist them, so they became extremely deferential in their rebellion, to the point of inviting Robert Kanigher in to speak and give the "company" view of things, which was, basically, "You are scum, you are nothing, how dare you call yourselves artists? You ought to get down on your knees that thank what fates spewed you out that we even deign to use your work." About then, the party broke up.

Even if the National Labor Relations Board allowed the establishment of a guild – and that's a huge if – there are so many would-be comics talents out there just aching for a chance to get their hands on Luke Cage or Power Girl, so many so certain their ideas are so much better than what's being done now that any sort of organized action against comics companies – and, let's face it, if you're talking companies that can actually pay you up front, you're talking DC and Marvel – would be an inconvenience for a couple months tops. Hell, both DC and Marvel are scouring for screenwriters now, often with sweetheart deals, and, ironically, the influx of screenwriters (with the strongest writers' union in the country) pretty much undercuts the possibility of comics writers having any effective leverage on companies. Artists are a little trickier, but if there's anything the last 20 years has taught us it's that art standards can be easily manipulated, and readers (at least what dwindling numbers of them remain) will not only put up with it but eventually embrace it. It's been like watching George Orwell's 1984 in action: one day the official word is "This artist does not meet our standards," and the next it's "This artist exceeds the standards of the finest artists we have ever published – and he always has."

The top writers and artists will, of course, always be able to swing their own deals, and, given how many would just as soon undercut them for a shot at their slots, in this business that has chosen to emphasize company-owned and licensed properties over individualistic talent-generated-and-controlled creations, it doesn't surprise me in the slightest that there's no great impulse to solidarity with the oppressed masses. Solidarity goes both ways. The secondary and lower tiers of talent will always be vulnerable to editorial whim and fluctuating sales, things they largely have no direct effect on but which they often take the official heat for. Companies now zealously control their marketing, Diamond filters it, the talent usually has little say in it and are frequently squelched or upbraided if they attempt to independently promote their work, editors increasingly try to micromanage work – and it's the talent that's blamed when sales don't materialize.

And the crux of it is: the fans don't care.

The readers don't care.

The readers don't care.

In these days of increasing financial pressure, with page count rollbacks under way and page rate cutbacks rumored, readers do not want to see the man behind the curtain. They're as unconcerned about the labor problems of the comics industry as most mothers in Wausau are about what Asian sweatshop made the t-shirts they buy for their kids at K-Mart. They want their MTV. They want their latest issue of X-MEN, and if it happens to be written this month by Johnny Smudge and drawn by Mark Maypo instead of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely, well, that's a letdown, but as long as it's got Cyclops and Marvel Girl in it, that's the important thing. Which is understandable. The comics business has trained them that the man behind the curtain is unimportant, except as a marketing gimmick. I don't see any leverage or support there for a creators' guild, and ultimately they're the ones who'd have to bring the real pressure for change to bear on the comics industry, because if every current talent were replaced and sales remained static – or better, as even negative changes can generate a temporary boost if they're marketed properly – there goes any incentive for the companies to negotiate with talent.

But talent unrest is widespread and growing. In a freelancer's group I belong to, someone yesterday suggested publishing a "editorial report card" to track and publicize how editors deal with freelancers, good as well as bad. Which certainly appeals to me: I'd like to see good editors rewarded for their behavior as well as bad condemned. I have two problems with it:

1) Even if such a scorecard were a completely anonymous thing, I know many freelancers who, though they'll grouse privately, refuse to go on any sort of record, even anonymously, for fear it'll somehow get back to an editor who'll cut them off. In my 20+ years in the business, this is its most static feature. Freelancers generally don't want to risk anything, they want others to take the risk. But they always feel they have some claim on the gains. Even when there's no risk. (And if there were some way for editors to retaliate against anonymous complaints, Rich Johnston's gossip column, LYING IN THE GUTTERS, and its predecessors would've caused volcanic upheavals throughout the business by now. It hasn't. Still, try convincing a comics freelancer of that, unless it's someone secure in their position.

2) There is no standard for editorial behavior in the comics business. As far as I know, there aren't even any real qualifications for editorship. So, in order to rank editorial behavior, we'd first have to develop some criteria by which to judge it, in order to cut away those complaints that are simply sour grapes and quibbling by freelancers (yes, those happen) and that praise which is some freelancer's means to suck up to some editor (which also happens).

I'm open to suggestions – from professionals only.

A fascinating week in politics, jurisprudence and finance, starting with the Pledge Of Allegiance flap. I can't believe it's not obvious to anyone of any persuasion that the words "under God" impose a religious viewpoint. Sure, yeah, uh-huh, it could be any god, an argument I've been hearing. Except in this country God means God. Yahweh. Jehovah. Old and New Testament. It doesn't mean Satan or Buddha or Brahma or Ahriman. It certainly didn't to the Congressmen who, in 1954, inserted "under God" into the Pledge Of Allegiance to prove America would never be home to those Godless Commies, and it was the duty of every American to stand up for God. Meaning, for them, the Christian concept of God. Because, y'see, in the Christian concept of God there are no other gods! (And it wasn't so long ago that Protestants popularly refused to believe they worshipped the same God as the Catholics. Prior to the Revolutionary War, Catholics could be executed on sight for stepping into the state of Virginia. Many still refuse to believe in a shared God, both here and in Northern Ireland.)

So, yeah, it has always been religious, and blatantly Christian. And, in its use to indoctrinate millions of school kids of 50 years, using state means to promote specific religious beliefs.

Something the Supreme Court itself specifically declared unconstitutional in 1969.

Even if you accept the "any god" theory, it still means the state is pushing the position that belief in any god is better than no belief at all, and required for being a Good American.

The big question is: if, as claimed by many of its defenders, "under God" really doesn't mean anything, why are they so upset about its removal?

But I've never been much on the Pledge Of Allegiance anyway. Allegiance to a flag? A piece of cloth? What's that about? Sure, it's a symbol of our country, but so is the Bald Eagle, and when was the last time you pledged allegiance to a bald eagle. The flag is not America. The land isn't even America, not really. The real America is an idea, it's not tied to the concept of land. It's an idea embodied in our Constitution. Ask me to pledge allegiance to the Constitution, and now we're getting somewhere. Of course, pledging allegiance to the Constitution probably wouldn't be very popular in the White House or the Department Of Justice right now.

But here's a simplified Pledge Of Allegiance, courtesy of Dwight Williams and Mike Kelley over on the GRAPHIC VIOLENCE forum:

I pledge allegiance to the Constitution of the United States of America, and to the Republic that it established, one Nation out of many Peoples, with Liberty and Justice for all.

Simpler, and it hits all the right beats. Let's make it our new Pledge Of Allegiance. Spread it around.

Meanwhile, Martha Stewart's lying and conniving has put a personal face on the spreading financial scandal in this country that pasty, amorphous Kenneth Lay couldn't, while WorldCom's collapsing under a storm of ridiculous inflated profit numbers and crushing revelations. Somebody made a joke about the last 100 unprosecuted CEOs in America making a mass escape across the Mexican border. And, as European pundits declare American markets can't be trusted and are no longer fit for investing, American pundits are crawling out their windows to proclaim that less than 1% of the businesses in this country have shoddy accounting and business practices and there's no reason to panic or lose faith. Unfortunately, they're the top 1%. The current head of the SEC, seeing no problem with financial institutions policing themselves, has declared war on corporations, insisting they all refile their financials, with criminal prosecutions impending should the figures not jibe. Sigh. That less than 1% ruins it for everyone. Meanwhile, the official White House line is that all this was caused by the "previous administration" (though I seem to remember Enron filling the Hand Puppet campaign coffers, and, wait a sec, wasn't that last year they coordinated a massive fraud to rip off energy consumers here in the West?) even though, hmmm... The Hand Puppet administration has been in power more than a couple months, right? I guess they were too busy collating information on potential terror strikes in the USA and swinging into action to prevent such strikes to focus on the financial markets they were so keen to oversight. The Hand Puppet himself gave a rousing, cranky speech the other day about how financial leaders in the U.S. have to show integrity and self control. Strange words coming from a man who has regularly played fast and loose financially and whose whole family has a history of financial shenanigans. (You don't have to take my word for it. MOTHER JONES magazine has conveniently listed many of the Bush family peccadilloes in an entertaining, easy to read form. Click here.) Meanwhile the White House still insists all the paperwork on its dealings with Enron and other energy companies remains under lock and key, far from the prying eyes of American citizens. You know, the ones who might get upset enough to vote.)

And they say terrorism threatens the economy? If computer hackers can get labeled terrorists, shouldn't crooked CEOs and CFOs be too? Who does the country the most harm?

For a hilarious assortment of fake propaganda posters, check out this site from the writer of Wildstorm's STORMWATCH: TEAM ACHILLES, Micah Wright.

In response to my musings about PILOTE and the potential of that format for the comics field, writer Darko Macan (currently breaking out with Marvel's SOLDIER X) counters my admittedly highly-Americanized perspective on the matter with his probably more-informed European perspective:

You wrote: PILOTE was a weekly French magazine in the first golden age of French graphic novels... eventually it was cancelled because - get this - the publisher found it more profitable to go straight to graphic novels, because, yes, they were doing that well.

To me, this reads as a slightly romanticized account of the events. When PILOTE started it was customary for a children's magazine (and PILOTE started just like that: one western strip, one with pirates, one about the pilots; some reporting, etc.) to be published weekly (a week is an eternity when you are a child) and to have the strips serialized in one or two page installments (the pages were customarily 12-panel jobs and fairly elaborated). Taking its cue from the US Sunday sections, the French had one page a week as a norm and the artists rarely produced more than two pages a week (Uderzo was considered a workhorse for doing three or four pages a week – some Asterix, some Tanguy, some Oumpah-pah - before Asterix took off and allowed him to concentrate solely on it). Therefore, it was not exactly the situation of "we'll publish whatever you produce this week" - it was more along the lines of hoping that everyone brings his page or two so the "trous" (holes) wouldn't happen. The editors (at PILOTE those were Rene Goscinny and Jean-Michel Charlier who among them wrote the better part if not the whole of the magazine) coped as well as they could, hoping nobody would fall sick and always having some fillers (a popular Achille Talon by Greg was born, in later PILOTE years, as such filler, just as Franquin's legendary Gaston (Gomer Goof in rare US appearances) was originally a half-page filler in SPIROU magazine), or one-off illustrated pages at hand.

The longer segments (first introduced, though I might be wrong, in TINTIN magazine when aforementioned Greg took up the editorship and decided to modernize the publishing formula by serializing the stories in self-contained 8-page segments) took off when PILOTE switched to monthly and/or when his audience grew older and more impatient. Not to go into too many details here (the revolution of 1968 and the trial of Goscinny, for example), let's cut to the downside of the "graphic novel" (or "album") upswing.

Once upon a time, the "albums" were the reward for the best series, a chance for the second life. The print runs were small and softcover was the norm. Spurred, among the other, by the success of ASTERIX (early sixties, after the fifth book was published), more and more albums appeared and by the seventies almost everything was appearing in albums sooner or later. By the eighties, the audience realized that everything of interest would show up in albums so the circulation of the magazines dropped and many were cancelled to the point where only half a dozen are nationally distributed today (VECU, which is bacically a Glenat's illustrated catalogue; BODOI, which serializes the books already published in albums, serving I have no idea what purpose; FLUIDE GLACIAL, a French Mad, whose short bursts of outrageousness are not jopardized by the later collections; the 60+ year-old Belgian stalwart SPIROU, aiming for children of all ages; TCHO, for kids, and JOURNAL DE MICKEY which needs no translation).

Now, you may argue that working straighT for the "graphic novels" is a dream come true (and I certainly understand that position coming from someone who's been coping with the US market for years) but the situation is not as clear cut as it seems. Please consider that the demise of the magazines meant the Evaporation of the training ground for the new voices, too. When PILOTE etc. were published, there was always a space for an experiment, a page or two to try a youngster on. Now, a young author has to commit himself to at least a five-album contract, a five-year stint (series are published, as a rule, one album a year) on an idea that might've seemed good when you started but that bores you to death five-years later. The overall blandness of the current French market is the result, I believe, of the absence of the magazines, of the industry that allows only the persistent (hey, the French consider 35-year-olds as "youngs" - maybe the worn-out comic-book veterans might retire there and get seen as fresh? :)) and not very passionate to succeed. It is rectified somewhat by the appearance of the numerous smaller publishers so it's kind of ironic that in this aspect - the indies as a training ground for the majors - the French are starting to mimic the US while you are lauding their approach.

The grass, to conclude, might seem greener on the other side but beneath the grass you'll always find the same old manure everywhere you go.

Thanks, Darko.

[Badlands]Today should see the release of MORTAL SOULS #3 from Avatar Press, wrapping up the first arc in my crime-horror tale of a cop who realizes the dead run the world. In #3, he also starts to figure out what to do about it. Also available today is BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY (though I guess that means it's published now... oh, well...) from AiT/PlanetLar Books. Hit up your retailer for them both now, and, as both can be ordered from Diamond even at this late date, don't take no for an answer. Them's good readin'.


Danny Fingeroth's WRITE NOW! magazine has gone to press and should be on sale in late July, featuring interviews with Stan Lee, J.M. DeMatteis, Brian Bendis, Tom DeFalco, Joe Quesada and Mark Bagley, as well as script-to-comic comparisons. It's published TwoMorrows Press, which has been turning out the entertaining ALTER EGO, the excellent COMIC BOOK ARTIST and other good comics-related magazines for several years now.

Artist Andrew Pepoy's first penciling work since he stopped drawing the LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE comic strip last year appears in the forthcoming AC Comics. It's an updating of the old Bob Powell Cave Girls strip, guest-starring Yankee Girl and some Wally Wood style aliens, and there's a Jack Kirby-inspired '50s style strip called Fighting Yanks as well as a Powell reprint. Andrew mentions Diamond is soliciting the book this month and most stores probably won't order it, so ask for it specially.

Forthcoming from Darko Macan (besides Marvel's SOLDIER X, I mean): Mr. Meow in FURLOUGH #113, with art by Robert Solanovic, and a short story in Marvel's forthcoming CAPTAIN AMERICA: RED, WHITE AND BLUE hardcover, with art by Bruce Timm.

And Len Wein just signed with Joel Silver Productions to write a new theatrical version of SWAMP THING. (Len co-created the property, remember.) Way to go, Len!

Time and space have pushed reviews out this week, and I apologize for that. On the shelf and coming up are Gary Spencer Millidge's STRANGEHAVEN; Jareth Grealish, Evan Young and John Forcucci's THE FORGOTTEN; and Andy Winter & Natalie Sandell's DEVILCHILD, VOL. 1: HELL IS AROUND THE CORNER. Next week, I promise.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the 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.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

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.

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