Issue #44

Met the other day with a newcomer artist, just in the business, who clearly and lucidly and without rancor, outlined various stupid ways the comics industry sucks. Nothing new to me, since I've written up many of them. But it's always a bit odd hearing it coming out of someone else's mouth.

There's this general perception out there that comics professionals love to do nothing but grouse. While that's true of a few – and if you read Newsarama, you probably know their names – by and large, I've never met a more timerous bunch in my life. I've known comics pros to suffer through humiliations and miseries like you wouldn't believe rather than take the slightest risk than a single publisher might be angry with them. Particularly in rough economic times it sometimes gets to the point where they won't even express their misgivings about the business in private for fear some other pro will snitch them out to an editor (and, yeah, this does happen). So when I suddenly get an influx of complaints about the business from pros who generally try to steer clear of the fray, it smells like something's up.

"I've been really noticing a drop in reproduction quality on comics lately, especially on prestige quality work, on slick paper, etc. It's like the linework is all pixelated at 200 DPI or something. It's just awful, and no one seems to notice it. Look at the new HUMAN TARGET GN - just on the first page, try to find one clean line that doesn't break up. The coloring is amazing in comics lately, thanks to technology, but whoever is scanning that artwork needs to pay attention. Today I got the 2nd EXILES trade, and it's possibly the worst example yet. The first 40 pages are so are completely digital looking. So much that I couldn't even read the story. The first time I noticed this was on that CAPTAIN BRITAIN trade, on the Moore stuff, and I thought it was because they had to scan from bad copies or something, but it's just continued for months and months, and I wonder if I'm the only one noticing.

"It's not a minor nitpick, either, since comics is an art-driven medium, it's pretty pathetic if we can't even set the scanner to make the lines smooth and the reproduction level top of the line. Why go to the expense of using glossy paper if you can't even print the black and white lines properly? It certainly wouldn't cost anything extra to do it right, so the thing I can conclude is just that no one gives a shit.

"What do you think?"

I think you probably said it as well as I can. This isn't the only letter I've gotten on the subject, especially since many people thought the first issue of my own MORTAL SOULS was printed on particularly bad paper. Anyone from any production departments care to explain what's going on? Is it just apathy or is something enforcing this bad technology that we don't know about?

A number of reactions to last week's Chicago absentee report. A number of people thought I was "going after" CrossGen's Mark Alessi or sneering at their books. Untrue. I don't know Alessi, have never dealt with him, have never read a CrossGen comic. (I'm not morally opposed to it. They've just never sent me any. Which doesn't upset me either.) His comments were just the most interesting thing to come out of Chicago, which says something for the generally blah atmosphere of the business right now. Anyway, I was sent this report from the now-notorious "Alessi luncheon":

"I was one of the fortunate people to have lunch with Alessi, CrossGen's Tony Panaccio and Ian Feller along with about fifteen comics media including the charming Heidi MacDonald. Alessi is an absolute quote machine and, love him or hate him, you have to love his enthusiasm.

"Thought I'd drop a few more things on you from the luncheon. One the most interesting things that has been glossed over is that Alessi is about to go toe-to-toe with Diamond if they don't change some of their policies. He claims that when CrossGen hits the magic 5% mark of market share they are to be included in the big boys club. He says that's in black and white in their agreement.

"Now, according to his inside sources, Diamond has some sort of agreement with their premier publishers that allows them to veto anyone looking to join the club. That's a violation of his contract, in his opinion, and he's ready to go to court to enforce his agreement which would put him at the front of PREVIEWS. CrossGen is hovering around the 4% mark at the moment.

"Alessi wants Diamond to report actual sales and not just pre-orders. They claim their computer systems won't support that kind of reporting, which he thinks is bull.

"According to CrossGen's numbers, their doing something in the range of 30 - 40% of total books sold on certain titles in reorders. If those numbers were reported he thinks that would put him close to the 5% mark (especially considering Marvel's no reprint policies where they have almost no boost in numbers from reorders). I have to think that CG Entertainment deals and Code 6 stuff would put him over the magic mark. He said, "I refuse to sit at the back of the bus." The unfortunate Rosa Parks comparison aside, it also appears he's ready to step in with an alternative distribution chain to get his books out."

Okay, taking it from the top:

Not being privy to the Diamond contracts, Alessi or anyone else's, I can't say what's in them. However, if his contract specifies status changes if CrossGen meets certain conditions, if they meet those conditions and Diamond refuses to change CrossGen's status then, yes, he ought to take them to court. They have no valid reason for refusal. That's a breach of contract affecting his ability to do business. Sue 'em.

On the other hand, I can't believe Marvel, DC, Image and Dark Horse (I presume that's Diamond's "Big 4") have engaged with Diamond in what amounts to a conspiracy to prevent other publishers from competing on their terms. Aside from restraint of trade issues – and, if I were smaller publishers, I'd have banded together to take Diamond to court on those issues already – there's that conspiracy thing. Some smart lawyer could easily jimmy RICO laws into that situation. There's a scene in CITIZEN KANE where Kane returns from a '30s junket to Europe, and claims something along the lines of he has met with the leaders of Germany, Italy, etc., and they're smart enough to refrain from embarking on a path that will mean the end of civilization as we know it. "Trust me, gentlemen," he tells the press, "there will be no war." (Or words to that effect. This echoes in my head as I say I know many big players at the Big 4 companies personally, and I find it hard to believe any of them are that stupid. I really hope they aren't.

As for creating a new distributor... didn't Marvel already try that? And they did it at the height of a growth market (an action that helped spur the collapse of that market), with product in wide demand in the marketplace (among retailers if not among readers). They not only failed miserably, but ended up collapsing the two-distributor system and inadvertently created the exclusivity monster that is Diamond.

Fast forward to a company that by its own admission doesn't have 5% of the comics marketplace (I think Marvel had something like 45% when it went for the distribution jugular, trying to cut all other companies out of retailer spending) and whose comics are not ordered, again by its own admission, by a sizable number of possible comics outlets. If CrossGen hasn't already made their books indispensable to the comics marketplace, what could possibly make them think creating their own distribution system could make them indispensable? Retailers want one-stop shopping. That's what made Marvel take the distribution risk in the first place – that's how they planned to cut everyone else out, by becoming that one stop – and it's what enabled Diamond to corner the market by using exclusivity to drive out Capital in response to the Marvel move. All CrossGen could hope to achieve by creating their own distribution is further marginalization. As long as we're talking about the current comics market. They could conceivably create an entirely different market, but that would take an enormous commitment of time and marketing. Distribution without viable outlets is useless, and creating viable alternative outlets is a nightmare in itself. Just ask TeknoComics.

Oh. Wait. They're out of business...

But if Diamond's computer systems are incapable of reporting actual sales rather than pre-orders, they need new computer systems. That's just idiotic. Unless they don't want actual sales known, which, considering some of their major clients, would make sense.

Here's one that hasn't been covered a lot here (thank you, Sydney Morning Herald): TIPS, the ever so cleverly named Justice Dept. plan (Terrorism Information and Protection System, get it?) to organize a select group of citizens into a domestic surveillance unit that would report "suspicious activity." To combat terrorism, of course. Starts next month in selected cities on a test basis. I guess this is why Ashcroft suddenly started warning of "Al-Qaeda cells" in cities all over America. Time to root them out, using, oh, roughly 1 in every 24 citizens to do it.

Used to be if you moved into a new neighborhood, the Welcome Wagon would come around and give you a big basket of goodies from local participating merchants. That part was kind of cool; who doesn't like Free Stuff? The uncool part was how those cute homey ladies who brought the baskets around were trained to snoop for salient background about you, particularly economic status, religious beliefs, that sort of thing. Same thing here, writ large. Without the free stuff. The Welcome Wagon used the free stuff to gain access to homes. TIPS will reportedly recruit mailmen, utility workers, presumably repairmen, and others who can, in the course of their daily lives, fairly easily gain access to private homes or in other ways become aware of the living patterns of their fellow citizens.

Of course, in societies our government rails against, this sort of thing is commonly referred to as "the secret police." Here, of course, it will undoubtedly referred to as "a necessary tool in the war on terrorism, and a means for ordinary citizens to take part in the fight." And while in other times I'd have said everyone can now see there's no doubt that the "war on terrorism" is actually a "war on freedom," I'm sure there are a host of readers already sharpening their word processors to spit out missives along the lines of "this is a necessary tool in the war on terrorism, and if it takes just one Al-Qaeda munitions dump out of just one basement in Des Moines, it'll be worth it."

Uh-huh. Meanwhile, the last couple weeks have been punctuated by little-mentioned FBI raids on the private homes of American citizens, complete with seizure of their personal property, usually including computers, without explanation aside from some vague connection to terrorism, baffling those affected. (Of course, they'd pretend to be baffled, wouldn't they? Those scummy play-acting terrorists.) This is the future that the Hand Puppet, Cheney and Ashcroft are spelling out for us: the "threat of terrorism" excuses any government action. The Hand Puppet even trotted it out this morning, following yesterday's "near-collapse" of the stock market (it was rescued by investors snatching up bargains on good stocks whose prices had plummeted, which, if you watch, is pretty much what always happens in these situations these days), claiming that America's current economic woes resulted from 9-11 and not from behavior endemic in the corporate community and other negative factors already in play in the economic climate long before any planes started veering toward any skyscrapers. (A claim that sounds uncomfortably like Bush Sr. dealing with American economic jitters prior to the '92 election by insisting there was nothing wrong with the economy.) So blame them damn terrorists; if not for them it'd be the days of wine and roses.

But how comfortable are you about living in a society where any person entering your home could be cataloguing your possessions and behavior for government databases? Where they might even be willing to make things up in order to raise their status in the system? (And this isn't paranoia; a big problem with most informant systems is exaggerated or fabricated information.) Who's the Justice Department going to believe, you or their handpicked agent? And that's only if you're "apprehended." In the meantime, your info, correct or otherwise, gets accessed by all kinds of government agencies from the Feds down to your local police, and you won't even know about it.

I used to predict Beirut 1977 would be the paradigm of the 21st century. It could still work out that way, but the future is starting to look more and more like East Germany 1988. But don't worry: it's only until the war on terrorism is over forever.

Too paralyzed by indecision in the face of all the really, really great films in theaters right (REIGN OF FIRE? THE POWERPUFF GIRLS? CROCODILE HUNTER? The mind boggles!) now to leave the house, I tried to watch THE MOLE (ABC, Tuesday 9PM) for my sins. So bad a "reality/game" show it makes me long for FEAR FACTOR. It makes SURVIVOR look good. Appalling nonsense with no point: random puzzle games and cheap humiliations. (Example: two players have to stomp grapes into "wine" – really just grape juice – with their bare feet, then convince the other players to drink it. Without knowing how it was produced.) Once was enough. The mole is Heather, by the way.

From our friends at Digital Webbing comes the latest issue of DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS (31 Westford St, Haverhil MA 01832; $2.95), the independent comic serving as the sort of "training ground" that comics like DC's SHOWCASE in its final incarnation used to provide. In other words, those would-be comics artists and writers who complain there's nowhere to "train" anymore aren't looking hard enough. What they really mean is there's nowhere to learn their craft and get paid and published at the same time, but the business is such now that you either need a vision so powerful it grabs everyone by the throat and screams "money to be made!" or you need to learn your craft before you try to break in. I've reviewed DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS before, and it's pretty obvious – and meant without prejudice – that most of the talent involved appear to be aspiring toward careers working for DC and Marvel; that's certainly the level most of the material is at. Of the six stories in #3, Francesco's cover-spotlit superheroine origin story falls heavily (or, rather, with a thud) into that arena: the sort of characterless cheesecake with exposition and cosmic twaddle passing for dialogue that would fit right in alongside many Marvel, Image and Chaos comics, drawn in an odd "Art Adams does Ken Steacy" style. Neither particularly good nor bad, it's just there. More ambitious is C.G. Kirby and Juan Moreno's "The Dark Side Of The Moon," a interesting but somewhat underplayed vignette involving a moon mission and a good man's morality conflicting with his sense of duty. Moreno's art is reminiscent of the late Tom Sutton's, his staccato inking style giving the piece an intriguing sense of life. Unfortunately, Kirby's script plays against it with documentarian reserve, his protagonist so subdued he seems little more than an observer in his own story. It's well enough written but falls shy of involving. Steven O'Connell, Roger Connelly and Rob Lansley's "The Nest" veer back into Marvel-Image land, about a training ground for killers. The art, in the Campbell school, could easily fit into any Image book without alteration except for maybe fixing a face here and there, but the ending hinges on a twist that flies completely in the face of the story's logic. Decent until that point. "The Team Pt. 3: Dream Comes True" continues Matt Starnes' superteam pastiche. I was kind to the first chapter, which had a verve to it, less kind to the second. The third chapter is an improvement, hinging a fight scene on a shaggy dog joke, but it's still hard to see it leading toward anything. If Starnes is out to lampoon superteams, which seems to be the intent, this is way too gentle and polite. If he isn't, then what's the point of a character named Leather Jacket Guy? Diegos Jourdan and Barreto still provide some pretty snappy art, though, and Starnes still shows potential, though he ought to kick it up a notch or six. While I wasn't crazy about Matt Scigliano and Mermuse's "Not Quite Lab Rats" – it's less a story than a joke with a not all that funny punch line – it's nice to see someone trying out material that doesn't openly aspire toward major comics companies. Which can't really be said of Doug Giffin and Anthony Castrillo's "Harlow's End: Elijah's Tale." Though it stays away from the standard material and plays pretty well, it still reads and feels like someone trying to do their own DC comic. Which isn't in itself a bad thing. It does play up the major flaw in the DIGITAL WEBBING PRESENTS series so far. Whether design, coincidence or confluence in taste, the material tends to blend together too much. I have to reiterate there are few better places at the moment for aspiring talent to learn and hone their craft while being published, but it would be nice to see more emphasis on the honing of individual voices as well. This is all decent and capable work, and I suspect it wouldn't take many of the people represented in the book to get professional assignments, but only the Jourdan and Barreto art team stands out as idiosyncratic. It's something to work on.

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.

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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. Be warned that this site is functionally dead – I've switched to a different server and am prepping a new page – but it's still up and the backstory details are still germane even if the news page is a bit dated.

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