Spent two whirlwind days in Hollywood last week, talking to producers and agents: fascinating if exhausting. Here's what I learned: whereas once Hollywood people laughed at comic book writers, this year many are very eager to talk to them. Comic fans actually run some of the bigger production companies, while the recent success of SPIDER-MAN and ROAD TO PERDITION have everyone scouring available properties. (ROAD TO PERDITION is a particular boost, since it really drove home that you don't need a "name" property, whether a sales success or a critic's darling, to generate a successful film.) Fact is studios don't give a rat's ass about comics sales; a 5000 sale means the same to them as a 100,000 sale, since both are just fractions of the potential audience for films. What they're looking for is interesting ideas that can make interesting movies.
Whether they end up as interesting movies is another thing, since the process is long and convoluted, and the process shapes the outcome. And writing comics doesn't mean anyone's going to invite you to write, or even work on, the screenplay. As in comics, The Writer is suddenly becoming much more important again, but The Studio is now as concerned with who The Writer is as with who The Star and The Director are. It's all about what the people with the money perceive as maximizing profit potential. I know one writer who has pretty much killed any chance of a movie based on his comics being made by insisting he be the screenwriter. (Frankly, I thought I'd done that too, intentionally, with BADLANDS, but that's starting to not look like the case.)
But, still, it's a much different atmosphere there than the last time I trawled that particular grotto. The new, mostly younger producers are either much less Sammy Glick than their predecessors used to be, or they're much slicker about it. (Or I wandered among a particularly decent crew.) Maybe we have some things going, maybe we don't. Too soon to tell. There was interest. A lot of interest, in a lot of different properties and ideas. We'll see.
But it got me thinking about comics companies again.
You may not have noticed, but most comics companies are now hinging their futures on media tie-ins. If you don't think this has partly fueled the recent "'80s revival" (GI JOE, THUNDERCATS, MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE, etc.) you haven't been paying attention. If you can't get a bandwagon of your own rolling, hop onto someone else's. On the other end of the spectrum, there's CrossGen pimping their movie options, DC verging on taking over the WB while Warners argues over whether to proceed with a BATMAN VS. SUPERMAN film or just do a new SUPERMAN movie, Marvel announcing a new movie project seemingly every other week, Dark Horse finally getting the HELLBOY movie off the ground, and on and on. Hell, even AiT/PlanetLar might be getting an ommph from an ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE film.
Not surprisingly, most publishers now consider media rights to even "creator-owned" comics as their rightful due. Yet, last week drove home to me, very few publishers have a clue as to what Hollywood actually wants. I'm not arguing for publishers to gear their product to Hollywood sale. But that's what many of them, predicating their publishing selections on the possibly self-fulfilling prophecy that there's no money in selling comics and they need avenues of revenue like film and TV sales to buttress their bottom line, are doing anyway.
It should come as a surprise to no one that the comics market and the media market are two different beasts. For some reason it does. What's considered to work in comics – to the extent that anything with an average audience of 20,000 and a top audience in the very low six figures can be said to "work," especially when compared to a medium that measures failure in tens of millions – doesn't necessarily work in movies. Hollywood is interested primarily in three things: interesting stories, interesting characters and cool art. To the extent Hollywood perceives them as being such.
Comics publishing, meanwhile, seems to have broken down into two categories: too hard or too soft. The latter's what's usually known in comics as "back to basics": emulating '40s-'60s tripe and "making comics fun again." The former's the urge to snatch attention by "going to the extreme," particularly with sex or violence. Neither's an automatic killer for Hollywood – you just need to find the right producer, with a passion for the material (like that's easy) – but, if you're a publisher with a jones for selling to Hollywood, you're really making things hard on yourself. Even if a producer goes for the product, a studio could still freak out over it rather than greenlight it, and Hollywood's dirty little open secret is that a movie without a green light means nothing, and the only real green light is when the cameras start rolling. So face it: Hollywood's a PG-13 world. Those films are where the bulk of their money comes from: teenage date movies. That's what Hollywood really wants out of comics, for the most part. Which means flirting with darkness, but not too dark, and not kiddie. They want their characters strong but flawed, they want their worldviews dangerous but not irredeemable.
Which means it's time for comics publishers to decide what business they're really in. If their prime concern is to service and hopefully grow an audience for comic books or graphic novels, fine, do it. But define the audience and drop any pretense of Hollywood. If it comes your way, it comes your way (and, in theory, if the work is good enough, it will, because Hollywood is finally paying attention to comics in a very serious way, and will at least until there's a major comics related bomb – so sell those options before DAREDEVIL hits, haha). If their prime concern is to create licenses to aim at Hollywood for money or publicity or whatever, hey, there's nothing wrong with that either. Business is business. But it's arrogant and stupid to take the traditional "they must like what we like" attitude. If you're going to gear comics to Hollywood, gear them to Hollywood. Find out what Hollywood likes and make comics that fit. It's not that hard, and it's potentially much more fulfilling than gearing comics toward superhero continuity fans. At least Hollywood wants actual stories, whether those stories ever really make it to the screen or not, and actual stories in many comics would be a step up.
So, given that it has now gotten to the point where most comics companies feel all rights to properties, even supposedly "creator-owned" ones, are essential to their financial well-being, where does this leave the creator? There's so little money in comics for creators, really, that ancillary rights, such as film and TV rights, now amount to a potential nest egg, which gives us a clear conflict between company and creator. Yes, you can get participation deals, but those usually leave the creator in no position to control what's done with the property, even when it's not necessarily in the creator's best interest. (You'd be surprised how many comics companies take the old GM attitude of "what's good for General Motors is good for the country.") It has gotten to the point where I'd suggest any creator who wants to hold onto and control these rights give serious consideration to self-publishing. Fraught with peril as it is, it's getting to be about the only way to maintain your rights in your own creations. (As I said above, Hollywood doesn't really care how many copies are sold or what the publisher's name is.)
Of course, self-publishing is "Death-By-Diamond" in most cases. But, given that Image does a lively trade in publishing what are essentially self-published comics (given Image's financial structure regarding such books), and given that, as CrossGen recently made clear, gaining more than 5% of the market bumps you into the prime real estate at the front of Diamond's catalog, I'm a little surprised that someone hasn't realized the long-discussed consortium of self-publishers by now. (Fantagraphics pushed a similar idea with independent publishers back in the late '80s, as I recall, to no avail.) How many comics, and what level of joint sales, would it take to nab 5.1% of the market? For new self-publishers, such an arrangement would evade Diamond's "thumbs up, thumbs down" selection system. Obviously, there are many factors to consider, and some sort of administration would be necessary, but it's one of the few things I can think of that would allow creator-owned self-published comics to play on that field, protecting the intrinsic interests of creators in their own creations while standing anything like competitively in the marketplace, with even the remotest chance of success. You self-publishers out there may want to consider such an umbrella consortium.
I want to bid adieu to Chaos! Comics, which closed its doors last week, with all their properties going on auction. I worked with Chaos! for a couple years there, mostly doing comics based on WWE wrestlers, and always got along with them pretty well. Since Chaos' announcement, I've received many e-mails asking if I'm among those owed money. I'm not. Though we were discussing more wrestling comics, I haven't done anything for them in over a year. Chaos was a company whose material you either liked or you didn't, but they'd carved themselves out quite a niche market for awhile there. I don't have any inside information on what brought them down, but I suspect some of it had to do with their inflexibility: they, smartly, chose a market no one else really acknowledged and built it, but ultimately achieved such a defined house style that it made it difficult for the company to adjust when that market started disintegrating. Much of the early product that defined Chaos! Comics sprang directly from owner Brian Pulido, a sensibility that was difficult for others to duplicate when Brian was forced, as the Image boys were forced after the formation of their company, to devote increasing blocks of time to business rather than creation. (I know that on the few "Chaos! Universe" projects I did with Brian, I understood his approach well enough but kept feeling the pull of my own creative instincts, which increasingly went their own way despite my efforts to cooperate.) It's a good bet that the less Brian was directly involved with the material, the less satisfied his core audience was. The "Chaos! Universe" may have been a trap in itself in an era when "comics universes" had been played to death; a problem of "universes" is if audiences grow tired of them, replacing them with a "new universe" or a "non-universe" only seems to weaken brand identification. It's a tricky business. Whatever the reason, Chaos! had a few good years, a handful of bad, and are gone. They took a good shot at it, but, for whatever reason, were ultimately able to compete. It's not so much a pity that they closed their doors as a miracle that more companies haven't, but it's still a pity and I wish Brian and editor Mike Francis well, and hope those freelancers left in the lurch by the closing will at some point get paid at least some of the money they're owed.
Watched WILD IN THE STREETS, one of the great truly bad movies of the '60s, on The Sundance Channel recently. Besides sporting the film debut of Richard Pryor and one of the best cheesy pop songs of the era ("The Shape Of Things To Come"), WILD IN THE STREETS is a prime example of The Hollywood Reversal, showing us just how good we have it by showing us just how bad things would be if some aspect of our great world flip-flopped. Other examples are that awful John Travolta thing of a few years back where African-Americans ruled the country and whites were a repressed minority, and at least two Gene Roddenberry things set on worlds where women were the dominant sex. In every case – and we do this with "reversal" stories in comics too – the "reversal" regime is even more vile than whatever we currently have in power. In WILD IN THE STREETS, the ultimate paranoid fantasy about youth power, a rock band with a charismatic leader (played by the ridiculously uncharismatic Christopher Jones) gets the government to lower the age for presidency to 18 and the voting age to something like 11 (they do this by slipping LSD into Congress' water supply, then going around and raising the hands of the wasted and unresisting Congressmen during the vote), whereupon Jones runs for, and wins, the White House. The film presents one great horrific image: brutal concentration camps built to house anyone over a certain age, driving home the message that in a youth-dominated world, growing old is hell.
That was a movie, this is reality, and it turns out age has nothing to do with it. But keep that image in your mind, because, it turns out, Attorney General John Ashcroft wants to make it a reality. This isn't paranoia on my part; a couple weeks ago Ashcroft quietly announced his intention to build camps for United States citizens that he considers to be "enemy combatants." It may turn out Jose Padilla – remember him? Arrested in Chicago for supposedly planning to set off a "dirty bomb" and held since without legal counsel or charges officially brought, in complete denial of his civil rights – was always intended to be a test case for this. Ashcroft's plan involves, as an article in the LOS ANGELES TIMES (Wednesday August 14 2002, pg. B11: CAMPS FOR CITIZENS: ASHCROFT'S HELLISH VISION by Jonathan Turley) puts it, "the indefinite incarceration of U.S. citizens and summarily stripping them of their constitutional rights and access to the courts by declaring them to be enemy combatants."
A judge recently asked the Justice Dept. to justify the holding of Yaser Emil Hamdi, also uncharged and without legal counsel, and got the response that in wartime it's none of the judiciary's damn business because the President has "absolute authority." In other words, Ashcroft has declared the Hand Puppet dictator. Never mind that Ashcroft has had to fess up that the whole "dirty bomb" scenario involving Jose Padilla was the attorney general's self-justifying fever dream. Never mind that Padilla is an American citizen grabbed within our boundaries, and in theory fully covered by the Constitution. Not in Ashcroft's America. Herr Ashcroft seems to have decided only "good Americans" (and he's the one who gets to decide who's good or bad) deserve Constitutional coverage, and "bad Americans" (or "terrorists," or those who are part of a "wider terrorist conspiracy," perhaps by, oh, questioning the President's "absolute authority," or, given Ashcroft's proclivities, by getting an abortion or by worshipping a non-Christian god or not worshipping a god at all, or... which is the point: we really don't know what his criteria would be) deserve only the camps.
Now consider this: the attorney general clearly envisions enough "enemy combatants" that entire camps are required to house them. As Turley's article puts it, "We are only now getting a full vision of Ashcroft's America. Some of his predecessors dreamed of creating a great society or a nation unfettered by racism. Ashcroft seems to dream of a country secured from itself, neatly contained and controlled by his judgment of loyalty."
It has become cliché to refer to those you don't like as Nazis, but this is a Nazi vision rarely imagined outside some Hollywood reversal film, let alone by someone willing and capable of turning such a fantasy real. Prior to this, the Hand Puppet's administration, even Herr Ashcroft, has been arguably repellent, but with enough leeway for interpretation, so that you could make an argument, if you chose, for being pretty much anywhere on the political spectrum. But Ashcroft's new proposal has made them flat out dangerous. Ashcroft, who promised before taking the job that his only concern would be the law of the land, is truly scary now, and, I'm sorry, but there's no way anyone can support John Ashcroft and claim in any way to support liberty or American values. He needs to be removed from office right now.
But liberals can get scary too. Check out this page. Then do something about it.
I hate to say it, but Garth Ennis as a humorist just doesn't cut it for me. I generally find Garth's humor hysterical, but it works best in a serious context – and for as often as PREACHER and HITMAN were played for laughs, there was an underlying seriousness to both those series that tinged the humor in them with sadness and humanity. But I've been reading Garth Ennis and John McCrea's BIGGER DICKS (Avatar Press, 9 Triumph Dr, Urbana IL 61802; $4.95@), and I finally figured out what its problem is. Sure, Garth still has a great ear for dialogue, the pacing is crisp, and McCrea's looser black and white art here, strongly reminiscent of better underground comics, rapidly becomes very appealing, but after a few pages it's like being stuck in the second reel of some independent Irish movie. You know, the reel all the characters spend swearing at each other in some pub in barely comprehendible slang? As befits the title, the two main characters – a couple supposed detectives – are too obnoxious to live, but the book's big problem is: it's just not very funny.
On the other hand, there's THE PRO (Image Comics, 1071 N Batavia St Ste 1A, Orange CA 92867; I got a "limited convention edition 2002" so I've no idea how much it costs) by Garth Ennis, Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti and Paul Mounts. Despite the inherent goofiness of the concept and execution – a prostitute is given superhuman powers by a Watcher-like alien determined to prove all humans are capable of heroism – there's a serious point underlying it. I know this comic is being marketed as a parody, but it's not, though it does contain parodies. It drops a pretty real character with pretty real concerns into the superhero fantasy, and they play the character for real, not for laughs. Especially considering the hubbub and how potentially bad it sounded when the book was originally announced, THE PRO is a pretty good comic, and probably one hardcore superhero fans (sorry for the double entendre) ought to be force fed if they don't want to read it for themselves.
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN Vol.2 #1 (America's Best Comics, 888 Prospect St #240, La Jolla CA 92037; $3.50 @) certainly redeems the general concept. The original series, also written by Alan Moore and drawn by the amazing Kevin O'Neill, collected a host of familiar literary heroes of the Victorian Age – The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll, Mina Harker, Allan Quartermain and Captain Nemo – in an intricate plot that pitted them against both Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes nemesis Dr. Moriarty. While it was entertaining enough – and easily one of the best adventure comics of the last ten years or so – it also gave the sense of struggling against its own limitations. This series starts off with a grand sense of expansion, merging various fictitious Martian cultures and storylines – mainly John Carter and Gulliver Jones (I forget – was Michael Kane Michael Moorcock's Mars-based swashbuckler?) as they drive the Martians of H.G. Wells' much-milked WAR OF THE WORLDS to migrate to Earth, with which, we may presume, the eponymous League will be forced to contend. What can I say? It's precisely and energetically written, beautifully visualized by Kevin and beautifully colored by Ben Dimagmaliw, and I want to read the rest of it.
I've been following Arvid Nelson and Eric Johnson's "Rex Mundi: Brother Matthew" in COMICS INTERNATIONAL the past few months, and it's been unfortunately slow going due to the nature of the story and frequency of publication, but there's something fascinating about it that's kept me coming back. Now Image Comics (1071 N Batavia St Ste 1A, Orange CA 92867; $2.95@) has issued REX MUNDI #0, and it's worth tracking down. It's a moody, deliberately paced suspenser set against the backdrop of the interwar Catholic Church. Like the first issue of LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN, this issue is little more than setup, but it does a good job of introducing the characters and setting the mood and pace for the series, appealingly written and drawn. Nelson and Johnson aren't perfect, but with a little more practice they might approach it. (There's also a Brother Matthew vignette that wraps up the story in COMICS INTERNATIONAL... sort of...
And I'm out of time again. There are so many books piled up next week might just be a review blow-out. Or not. We'll see how it plays out.
As I mentioned a column or so ago, recently I had the pleasure of doing a "Lockheed The Dragon" story with one of my favorite comics artists, Paul Smith, for X-MEN UNLIMITED, one of the few "nice" stories, somewhat humorous, I've had the chance to do lately. (Believe it or not, even I don't like gloom and doom all the time.) Editor C.B. Cebulski tells me it's scheduled for #41, out in January, plus he mentioned the "Sabretooth" story I did with David Finch will be in X-MEN UNLIMITED #40, out in December. And I forgot to mention the MY FLESH IS COOL PREVIEW BOOK is now available (Avatar Press, 9 Triumph Dr, Urbana IL 61802). In addition to a selection of penciled pages by our artist Sebastian Fiumara, it's got an essay on the creation of the book as well as an except from the first issue script. The comic itself, which will solicit sometime early next year, is an sf-inflected noir about a hitman who uses a drug to throw his mind into other people's bodies, and what happens when the drug hits the streets. And the overriding theme is responsibility, so all you Spider-Man fans out there will dig it no end. Honest. You can trust me...
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.