Curious. After all the fuss at the end of ’99, in the last week everyone seems to have quietly agreed 1.1.01 is the true beginning of the new century and the new millennium after all. Every newscaster I saw in the last seven days, every paper I read, every radio DJ went on and on about how everyone thought last year was the real deal but it wasn’t. It almost makes me wonder if the psychos are right when they blather about some central cabal governing all media. (A more secretive one than Time-Warner or the Gannett organization, I mean.) I notice every so often suddenly all the news anchors turn a mispronunciation into the new standard pronunciation, as when they all abruptly began saying “jun-ta” with a pronounced “j” when talking about juntas, instead of the more traditional “hoon-ta.” “HAIR-ess-ment” instead of “huh-RASS-ment.” Things change when a consensus of the right people reaches critical mass. (And “the right people” is anyone who can effect change.)
So the consensus is: here we are, at last. 2001. The 21st century is official. No apocalypses to speak of, no sudden onslaught of a Jetsons future either, and most cartoonists have gotten the “apes with bones” jokes out of their systems. The annual predictions are popping up everywhere, including in the comics world. You know: pie-in-the-sky utopianism or cautious optimism. Occasionally reticent pessimism. “It could be really good… or it could be really bad.” Definitive stuff like that. Me, I’m looking forward to 2001.
Welcome to the Year Of Blood.
Remember the DC crossover series ARMAGEDDON 2001 where Captain Atom becomes the mighty supervillain Monarch who wipes out all the superheroes and turns the world into 1984 in 2001 except he goes back to 1991 where he gets his ass kicked ’cause it turns out Monarch was really Hawk of Hawk and Dove ’cause those in possession of the big shocking secret couldn’t keep their mouths shut? The series may have squandered the payoff on too much editorial second-guessing, but what a prophetic title. All the seeds of blind self-destruction we’ve been sowing for decades are about to flower. The future is now, baby.
Fact: the comics audience may or may not be smaller than it was ten years ago, but – if the literally hundreds of e-mails I got following last week’s column, every single one of them describing how the correspondent abandoned obsessive collecting ala the letter printed here last week, is an indicator – the audience is, due to taste, boredom or fiscal responsibility, far more frugal and picky in their reading. They’re tired. They’re cranky. They’re looking for the door, and there’s no incoming stampede on the horizon.
Fact: there are far more comics published today than ever before, even at the recent height of the comics market, and most of them don’t have any audience at all. Speculation: most probably don’t deserve an audience. Comics publishers and talent tend to speak as though they have a right to an audience, not as though an audience has to be built and maintained. As a result, in the absence of that audience, rather than rise to the challenge they prefer to wallow in perceived persecution and use it to justify all manner of insular and self-serving behavior.
Fact: the main existing channels of distribution and promotion were long ago co-opted by the major players in the comics field, who have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo at least ten years out of date that is possibly not in the best interests of the field in general, and sponsoring the anal fabrication that the key to the health of the industry is the continuation of what has been done in the past. Hence the pawning off of the corporate concern (and, it must be said, the genuine emotional concerns of some) that every month must see a new issue of SUPERMAN as a cornerstone of stability, and the panicked insistence of many that without Marvel there couldn’t be a comics industry at all.
Fact: nobody in the real world gives a rat’s ass about our obsessions, and more people defect from our little world to the real world every week. The business has been bleeding customers for years.
Our sister column, COME IN ALONE closed out the year and its lifespan last week (if you haven’t read it yet, pop on over there right now, and come back when you’re done) with a pithy assault on everything this industry holds sacred. Among its admonitions: a drastic whittling back of superhero material. In my odd moments this last week, I’ve checked in on a few web discussions and have come to wonder if all superhero fans are whiny little gits. I like to think not, but I’ve having doubts. Every time – every freakin’ time – anybody suggests that maybe, just maybe, superheroes don’t deserve to be the only (let alone dominant) species allowed to show their heads above ground in the comic book medium, a litany of broadsides erupts about how everyone’s trying to drive the superhero into extinction. Got news for you: the superhero’s already extinct in the wild. Yeah, I’ve heard all the arguments about THE MATRIX being a superhero movie and DRAGONBALL Z is a superhero cartoon, and, sure, they are, but if the audience doesn’t perceive them that way, it doesn’t mean jack for the superhero. Want to know what you get back if you explain to someone it’s really a superhero movie? You don’t get “wow, superheroes must be cool,” no matter how much Grant Morrison and Joe Casey would love to pretend it’s so. You get an offended, “Yeah? Well, I liked it anyway.” Because superheroes, at least to the American public, are goofy costumes and goofy names and ridiculous fight scenes and, as a layover from pre-post-ironic days, corny speeches about Mom and apple pie. You can push the superhero genre via other things all you like but to most people if it ain’t those things it ain’t superheroes. And if it has those things, it’s superheroes to them whether it’s superheroes or not. Casey’s WILDCATS has been very interesting, but it’s a post-superhero comic, regardless of the characters flying around and having laser eyes. Its interests aren’t superhero interests. It’s not perfect, but it does suggest a trend, much as PLANETARY and a handful of other books do. This is where the stake will be driven through the heart of the superhero, if anything does it. Not by a vast consensus but by the evolution of the overall concept into a new creature that fills up all the environmental niches and drives the superhero out.
|“The [comic] business has been bleeding customers for years.”|
But this is the year the market falls apart completely. Watch. Tension, apprehension and dissension have begun, to quote Alfred Bester. Beneath the faux glaze of good vibes circulating with the turn of the century, there are odd mutterings. Rich Johnson’s most recent rumor column cites trepidation among colorists and inkers over Marvel’s new policy of having colorists bid on computer coloring jobs. While perhaps not a good step on some levels, the move makes perfect sense from an economic standpoint. Less comforting are the likely repercussions of such a precedent. Can letterers be far behind? Rich cites the probability that “digital inking,” i.e. sweetening pencils via computer to make them printable rather than having them inked, will soon threaten a large segment of the freelance community, and Alan Davis is quoted as foreseeing a not too distant day when pencilers will be forced to do a lot more work for no more pay to accommodate digital inking, or sub-contract to physical inkers out of their own pocket, both amounting to a tacit pay reduction. While I emphatically don’t think Joe Quesada would ever tolerate such a thing, it would take no more than Joe’s ouster (unfortunately not a terribly far-fetched scenario in a company where editorial is ultimately at the mercy of increasingly impatient moneymen) for some numbercruncher with no sense of the medium to decide writers and pencilers should bid for work as well. If it were only Marvel, that would be one thing, but the business has shown a continuing weakness for following Marvel’s lead in virtually everything like a pack of lemmings, so anything Marvel does is likely to become standard for the industry as long as the industry stands.
But at this point you can count the lifespan of the industry, as we know it, in months. DC and Marvel are pushing upbeat hype as we enter the New Year (or, I should say, Marvel is pushing hype; DC’s public statements are oddly subdued) but the rah-rahs sound hollow. Several “secondary” major companies already have the stink of death to them, and show signs of quietly passing away in their sleep some night soon. We’ve seen our audience base, or, at least, their will to purchase, shrink, but we’re on the cusp of a drastic contraction of production. Considering all the e-mail I’ve gotten recently from independent producers failing to get Diamond to carry their wares, I’m expecting a distribution contraction any day now as well.
Fact: we’ve systematically thrown away every opportunity this medium has presented, and now we’re paying for it. We’ve fouled our air, eroded our ground, and pissed in our drinking water. One publisher I write for – not a comics publisher – kindly sent an Amazon gift certificate as an Xmas present this season. I used it to buy the collected FROM HELL, which I haven’t seen since its early installments in Steve Bissette’s greatly-missed TABOO. I have seen the future of the medium and it is FROM HELL. Not in terms of its subject matter (it pretty much exhausts all the non-B-movie possibilities of Jack The Ripper) nor stylistically (Eddie Campbell and Alan Moore are too idiosyncratic to credibly copy) but because it’s a literate, expansive, absorbing piece of fiction on its own terms, doing everything that fiction is commonly expected to do and presented in as much space as proper execution requires, so straightforwardly and compellingly that its market potential in that format is unlimited. You read FROM HELL and it’s easy to imagine it still being in print 100 years from now. It may be the first true graphic novel.
FROM HELL is the future.
TOM STRONG is not the future. It’s well done, but at best it’s a conceit. A throwback. What the hell’s wrong with this business that the man who wrote FROM HELL is now spending his time writing TOM STRONG? Why does the man who wrote THE INVISIBLES have to dick around with X-MEN? Does anyone else get a sick feeling at the thought of a writer as good and edgy as Garth Ennis actually turning out a Spider-Man story that Marvel would even consider publishing?
We’re in very, very hostile territory, and our obsession with superhero nostalgia put us here. It didn’t have to be that way. Companies with new ideas have arisen before. Charles Biro made a small empire out of crime comics in the late 40s. Bill Gaines oversaw a whole new style of comics that virtually invented comics fandom as a side effect. Both made a lot of money going against the grain; it took the collusive Comics Code to shut them down. Hell, Stan Lee founded Marvel on a single new idea (never mind that the idea was Jack Kirby’s, haha) are unexpectedly carved out a niche that became the dominant force in the business. (Though it was eventually eaten through by “tradition,” becoming the very things Stan’s style of comics had originally abandoned.) The underground comics saw a niche and exploded into it, threatening the hegemony of mainstream comics and making them seem like ridiculous relics; in 1972, the big seller in the business wasn’t AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, it was THOSE FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS. As with Biro and Gaines, it took outside forces to bring undergrounds down. Fantagraphics made an impressive push originally on the back of LOVE AND ROCKETS (their subsequent failure to capitalize on it ground the company down, but the potential for something truly new was there) and for sheer niche publishing chops, it’s hard to fault Eros Comix. Vertigo almost makes the list, thwarted from changing the course of the industry by its yin/yang ambivalence of its sometimes position as a subsidiary of the DC Universe. Fact: any publisher could change the course of the industry at this point. But they’d have to have a new idea. They’d have to have the acumen to build a company around that idea. They’d have to accept right off the bat they can’t be all things to all people, and to focus on being one dependable thing to a niche no other company is feeding. They’d have to present work dynamic, accomplished and idiosyncratic enough that the company becomes synonymous with scratching that itch. They’d have to abandon the idea of instant and rapid growth that has stunted the business for ten years; in medicine, they call that kind of growth cancer. This is one of the laws of money, as written down by Michael Phillips: do something well enough, and money will come to you.
|“…this is the year the market falls apart completely.”|
Most of all, they’d have to forget the game the other guys are playing and play their own game.
Any company could have done this. Any company could have steered the industry to the new land. All it would take is the right people making a choice. Instead a bloody war is about to erupt over feeding rights to a stinking, fly-bloated corpse, like one of those post-nuclear war horror movies where all the survivors become cannibals because there’s nothing else to eat.
It’s going to be a messy year. The industry won’t look anywhere near the same at the beginning of next year. Of course, the business won’t die entirely; even the Black Plague couldn’t wipe out the whole of Europe. (It just backed up the course of civilization by a few hundred years.) Mark my words: The Year Of Blood. It won’t be pretty, and the survivors will be few and far between.
And the dominant company in the business in 2002?
I’m running really late this week – it’s almost 1:30 AM and the deadline’s midnight – so announcements will have to wait until next week. As mentioned above, Warren Ellis ended his COME IN ALONE column last week, but you can still catch his parting shot. Sorry to see you go, Warren. But I’m looking forward to the debut of Larry Young’s debut, since Larry publishes his own stuff so he can be even nastier about the business than we can.
Question of the week: A multi-part question. Does your comics dealer ever recommend comics you might not have looked at? What was the last comic (or graphic novel or trade paperback collection) he/she recommended to you? Did you follow his recommendation? Did the recommendation seem to have more to do with your tastes as expressed in your buying habits, or with your dealer’s tastes?
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.
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