Issue #59

A couple weeks back, I wrote a disgusted rant on the dissonance between what comics are and what's continuously presented to the general public – superheroes – as being what comics are. And not just superheroes but generally superheroes at their dumbed-down clichéd dumbest. Of course there were the usual cries that I have no right to rail against superheroes if I write them (ignoring that what I rail against are the artificial and unnecessary restrictions placed on and generated by the genre), and this time there were also a number of "defenses" the comics plurality as well: there are lots of comics that aren't superhero comics, so what's with all the complaining?

Which was, of course, missing the point: it doesn't matter that other genres besides superheroes exist in the comics medium, it doesn't even matter if they're preponderant, if the face of comics most frequently shown to the wider public is the dumbest aspect of superheroes. Like it or not, unless we're interested in being the pop culture equivalent of crystal radio sets – yes, there is still a crystal radio subculture... a tiny one – we need at least part of that public for an audience. They're only going to be attracted to the medium if they are made aware of and have access to – that means availability in book stores or comics shops of – material they want to read. A lot of comics shop owners want things both ways: they resent the shift of audiences to bookstores and the growth of the graphic novel/trade paperback market, and feel the companies should be putting their efforts behind supporting comics shops instead of creating new competition for them, but they don't want to stock the new material, or make their own shops more open and alluring to a casual audience instead of the hardcore comics fan. For whatever reasons, they'd rather have shops full of crystal radio kits than state of the art home entertainment systems. (Obviously, a number of comics shop owners are going the other way and fully embracing the graphic novel and all that it suggests for the medium.)

But accessibility is just half the battle. The general public still needs to be made aware that there's a vast sea of material out there to choose from, and not just one project at a time. If you hold up MAUS as a hot ticket one year and THE GOLEM'S MIGHTY SWING ten years later, that sounds like occasional flukes, not a movement. From a popular point of view, they become the freaks, the sideshow, something to go out of your way to gawshucks at. (Especially nice if you can feel yourself intellectually superior to those pathetic comic book fans while doing it.) But superheroes are still presented as the midway. (Historical note for those who came in late: the superhero costume derives from circus/carnie costuming.)

Admittedly, there's only so much we ourselves can do about this. More of these presentation generate from outside the business than inside: from condescending reporters or press editors who really don't care enough to get it right because a) comics pieces are "soft" news, which means, basically, fluff filler intended as light entertainment to give the readers a chuckle(the gawshucks principle again) and b) the vast majority of their readers don't care about "funny books" anyway. So general press articles about comics tend to fall into three categories:

Look at those silly superheroes.

Comic books are all about silly superheroes, except this one here.

Wow! Those silly superhero comics you read when you were young and stupid are worth a ton of money now! Don't you wish you'd kept yours, stupid?

What's clearly needed is a more general, sustained promotional effort by the – well, let's rename it the graphic novel industry. That's our real business now. Get used to it. The industry as a whole needs to sell the concept of variety, not to mention entertainment value, to the public. There's no need to abandon or destroy the superhero, just to wean the general public (which includes the general press) from the insufferable notion that that's all there is. We manage that, we've managed something. (To the extent the Comics Code Authority still exists, since the supporting publishers always cite its "public relations" work when rationalizing their continued support of the organization, maybe the Code can get this message across, if they're not still pumping out their "comics are wholesome goodness" pablum.)

Which is why it's gratifying to see a headline in the Oct. 28 BALTIMORE SUN reading: Variety spicing up comic books' success Convention: diverse new titles and genres are pulling in readers of all ages, intro'ing a story by reporter Sandy Alexander. (I'd like to thank Jeff Mason for sending me this. Jeff's got an e-mail p.r. service called Alternative Comics, and while the volume of press releases gets annoying at times, it's generally worth sifting through them for the odd nugget, like this one.) Among the emphasized points:

  • Many comics finding favor with new audiences aren't about superheroes or even action-adventure.
  • Comics for kids are coming back, and more and more comics are being done by, for and about women.
  • Bookstores are getting more and more of the comic book action, and libraries are now hungry for graphic novels.
  • Movies are hungry for comics material, with no preference toward superhero material. (They mention FROM HELL, GHOST WORLD and ROAD TO PERDITION.)

  • Conventions – the piece was done about last weekend's Baltimore Con, which is gaining status with every year – are increasingly important showcases for new material.

Some of the statements in the article are a bit utopian, but so what? It's a puff piece, but it's the kind of puff piece we need: a more-or-less accurate statement about the current state of the comics business and medium. I hope Alexander's piece becomes the model for new comics reporting by the mainstream, so I don't have to have any more allergic reactions to BIFF! WAM! POW!

I've noticed there seem to be seasons to things. Things don't happen for a long time – sometimes they've never happened before at all – then they happen several times almost at once. It's like an idea gets into the air, and everyone breathes it in and acts on it without realizing it. In the last couple weeks, for instance, the idea of script consultants in comics seems to have come into vogue: three times I've been asked by apparently unrelated parties if I'd be willing to read over their scripts and not rewrite them but point out potential flaws and trouble spots, like clunky or inexpressive dialogue, or panels that should be split up into multiple panels because they call for things artists can't draw all in one panel, that sort of thing, and suggest possible fixes. You may think that's an editor's job, but many editors, particularly at startup companies or non-publishing companies like gaming houses producing tie-in comics for their products, are too new to comics themselves to be sure what to be sensitive to. If this is actually a trend, I suggest people be careful about who they approach to be a script consultant; it's fairly easy for an experienced writer, especially in a business where ego is often the only payoff, to unconsciously overwhelm someone else's script. (I've seen writing teachers trying to impose their own writing styles and views of what constitutes "good" writing – aside from technical aspects - on students as well, dismissing other styles and tastes as substandard.) If you do choose to use a script consultant, remember that you're paying him to help you strengthen your script – but it's still up to you to do the work.

And several people in the last couple weeks have written asking about formats for series pitches. Pitches have grown more problematic in the past couple of years. Some companies, such as Image, have very specific requirements for pitches, and it pays to get submissions information from any company you intend to pitch to. Some, like Oni and Penny-Farthing Press, have specific pitching "seasons," and there's no point in even approaching them at other times of the year. Additionally, while it used to be common to pitch a series then let the company you're pitching to find an artist, increasingly companies from the biggest to the smallest are deciding they'll only consider pitches with an artist already attached. This is a double-edged sword that demands a writer hone his art appreciation skills before pitching. While most companies prefer both, very strong art can still carry a weak concept better than weak art can carry a very strong concept. "Strong" and "weak" are also relative terms that aren't necessary stable from company to company, or even year to year, so it pays to do thorough studies of whatever company you want to pitch to and the type of material they produce. Some companies only wanted typed pitches, some want fully realized comics pages.

The first rule of pitching is find out the rules. Every company has their own.

Which makes general advice problematic as well. Complicating matters is that there is no set pitch form in comics, just as there's no standard script form anymore. As a rule of thumb, though, it's best to keep in mind that editors don't get a lot of chance to read things that don't specifically pertain to the work they have to get out now. So it's in your best interests to keep it short. The Image Guidelines have arguably the best summary of what a good proposal should have these days:

"A typed ONE PAGE synopsis of the over-all STORY. As concisely and as succinctly as you are able, TELL US THE STORY, make us interested. Please avoid hyperbole – avoid questions as plot points ("what will Alex do when confronted with...?), etc."

Which means: a brief description of the concept, central conflict, and central character(s), and some indication of the denouement of your story, with as much drama as you can cram into one typed page. That may seem like a relief to those who thought they'd have to write whole concept bibles, but, trust me, it takes a lot more work to do a pinpoint writing job. And that's what you're doing: you're pinpointing exactly what it is about your concept and series that's so cool, compelling and marketable they just have to have it.

I used to do fairly elaborate formatting on pitches, but these days it's strictly utilitarian: name and phone number in upper left hand corner, linespace, title (capitalized, underlined), linespace, start the first paragraph. There's very little point to anything fancier, at least at the text stage. Companies aren't going to be wowed by your font choices (stick with Courier, Times Roman or Arial) or your design skills. They only want to know how good your ideas and your writing are. A one page pitch might not prove you can write fiction, but it can prove you have basic writing skills.

One last caveat: think in 3-6 issue arcs. Even if you've got a huge, expansive epic in mind, think in arcs. We live in an era when comics die quickly, and when successful comics get repackaged as trade paperbacks, which is becoming a lively source of revenue. Not that it'll be easy in any case, but it'll be a lot easier convincing a company to take a risk on your limited series than on your multi-volume phone book.

One last less interesting apparent trend: lately I keep running across "prose comics." Or variations on that theme. One runs in a local weekly paper. I've been aimed at a couple online. I get several in e-mail. And, call me a purist, but there's the same basic flaw in all of them:

If it doesn't have pictures arranged in a narrative function, it isn't comics. It's just prose. Gaudy stupidity like space Nazis doesn't make it comics, it just makes it gaudy stupid prose. So let's quietly put the "prose comic" to a quick death. Stop kidding yourselves.

As the current TV season has worn on, whatever charm most new shows have had has worn off. BOOMTOWN (NBC, Sunday 10PM), despite valiant performances by Donnie Wahlberg and Mykelti Williamson, has turned out to be no sizzle and no steak, relying on its "multiple angle" gimmick to disguise the now incontrovertible fact that its stories are about as tense and clever as an unraveled sock. I watched through the episode with Patricia Wettig as a former '70s radical captured after 25 years. Every step teases drama: will Wettig's family get caught in the crossfire when the cops take her down? No, they don't. Catching her is about as impressive as catching a bus. If she maintains her innocence, former patsy Chris Mulkey stays in prison for her crime. Will she maintain the charade even if he's destroyed by it? No, the instant she sees him, she confesses. The partner of the cop she killed is convinced Mulkey was involved anyway. Does he try to do something about it? No, he hugs his son. Etc. I realize BOOMTOWN is supposed to be more human interest show than cop show, but it fails at both. It's boring. And I really wanted to like it. I wanted the greatly underrated Donnie Wahlberg to have a hit. I hope his next show is a hit.

So far the most watchable new series remains WITHOUT A TRACE (CBS, Thursday 10PM), but it also remains formulaic filler. The new season of 24 (Fox, Tuesday 9PM) debuts tonight as I write this, and, while the first season wasn't perfect by any stretch, it was ultimately satisfying enough that I'm on board for the new season. I hope it's good; it'd be a shame if AMAZING RACE (CBS, Wednesday 9PM), stayed the only thing worth watching on network TV this year. So far this season has been just great, full of twists and turns and intrigue, with my team of choice, Aaron and Arianne, abruptly plummeting to last place last week and holding on by their fingernails. Now that's the sort of thing that brings you back for more. (An amusing note: I can't stand AMERICAN DREAMS (Sunday 8PM), NBC's revisionist nostalgia twaddle show, but I love reading the TV GUIDE blurbs. In a recent episode, the parents on the show were having dinner with radicals! Not in 1963 they weren't...)

I see where Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has decided that if the CIA refuses to tell him that Saddam Hussein is tied into Al-Qaida (the CIA's conclusion, based on available evidence, is presumably supported by the DIA as well or the administration would be trotting that out), he'll create an intelligence agency that will. Those wacky warmongers... I know the Bush family has been trying to get us to root for the CIA for decades, but I doubt this is what they had in mind...

Not long ago at GRAPHIC VIOLENCE I ran a poll and discovered there's a considerable appetite out there for historical fiction in comics. (Maybe not considerable enough to interest a comics publisher, but it's out there.) What has generally passed for historical fiction in recent comics falls more into the realm of quasi-history, the retelling of myths, like Eric Shanower's retelling of The Iliad, AGE OF BRONZE. Falling into the same category is ROLAND: DAYS OF WRATH (Terra Major, 1741 Loma St, Santa Barbara CA 93103; $2.95@), a four issue mini-series retelling The Song Of Roland. There are a few problems – the storytelling is sometimes a bit clunky, and characters in the first issue are poorly identified – but overall it's a really nice job, written by Shane Amaya, drawn by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, and colored by Steve Oliff and Kirk Mobert. A strong evocation of the source material that will satisfy the historical fiction jones, at least a little.

But if that's not enough, Amaya has also produced PREY (Terra Major, 1741 Loma St, Santa Barbara CA 93103; $2.95), with some fine art by Bruno D'Angelo. It's a one-shot with a series of thematically related vignettes strung across time: the Roman era, the Crusades, the pre-American West, and WWII. I was also sent some Xeroxed Spanish language material Amaya wrote, also historical fiction, and I start to wonder whether some progressive publisher might pick up Amaya's work and expose it to a much wider audience. It deserves it.

There's apparently a big comics scene in Finland, if GLÖMP #5 (Boing Being, Hyytiäläntie 9, 35500 Korkeakoski, Finland; $10US) is an indication. The apparently themeless anthology (an aspect I like) features 22 cartoonists with a variety of styles and genres. (They've conveniently provided English translations at the bottom of every page, so American readers won't get lost.) Suffusing it all is a sort of hallucinogenic primitism, but the overall level of accomplishment is staggering. Excellent.

I have the feeling I've read SAVIOR NO. 7 #1 (Special Comics, 2133 NW 108th Ave, Coral Springs FL 33076; $2.50) before, but I haven't. It just feels so familiar. Two alien races (with inexplicable Judeo-Greco names) war eternally, and to save his life the heir of the side is sent to Earth where he grows up oblivious to his true heritage. His evil brother sells him out to the bad guys, but in the meantime he's just living the life of a slacker – until his powers start to emerge. See? Even you've heard it before. The script by Shawn DePasquale is okay – he co-plotted with Dave Kushner – but Kushner's art is awful. Can't recommend it.

Bits and pieces of Jeff Parker's THE INTERMAN have been floating through for several months – you can also read it online - but the 128 page graphic novel from Octopus Comics comes out in January so the Diamond solicitation comes in November. The eponymous hero is a genetically-enhanced globehopping adventurer with amazing adaptability, but the tone's a lot closer to TERRY AND THE PIRATES than James Bond. Parker's a natural-born storyteller, his art's very pleasant to look at, and the story's exciting and funny, with some nice characterization. Very entertaining.

Have a happy Halloween and a great Day Of The Dead.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me 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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