The problem with improving the reach and grasp of comics is a surfeit of Catch-22s. (If there's anyone out there unfamiliar with the term, see the bottom of the column for a definition.) In answer to last week's question, over on the Permanent Damage Message Board Buzz Dixon left the following fairly well-thought out game plan:
- Find new readers
- Go to where new readers are; specifically, get back on the newsstands (an adjunct of #1)
- Find out what non-comics readers are interested in (HINT: The areas commonly dismissed as "flyover country" is home to your largest potential audience. Most people in the mass media fields -- comics, TV, movies, music, etc. -- are living in a very insular world; their attitudes are regarded as smarmy and snarky by the bulk of their potential audience.)
- Find a cost effective format ($3 for 24 pages of story just ain't cutting it)
- Stop drenching your stories with Fun-A-Way. Tell good upbeat stories. Grim and gritty is D*E*A*D.
- If Marvel and DC want to increase their sales, they need to cut back on the number of titles they release. DC needs only 4 monthly titles: A Superman title, a Batman title, a Wonder Woman title, and a revolving anthology for all the rest. The vast public out there recognizes only four DC characters: Superman, Batman/Robin, and Wonder Woman. After that the recognition factor drops waaaaaay off for Flash and Green Lantern. If DC were to cut down to 4 titles, however, they should be a lot thicker and carry several stories per issue.
Unfortunately, it's a good plan with Catch-22s galore. Bear in mind there's nothing essentially wrong with the plan, but to put it into effect you'd basically have to create a whole new industry, because the industry as it is now is set up to do almost none of those things, and implementing any of those things threatens what little economic base it already has.
Some things, of course, are inarguable: find new readers, find a cost effective format. Without some catalyst, though, these two things constitute a Catch-22, the same as access to newsstands does. As I've said before, newsstands are a profit business, and the reason comics left newsstands in the first place wasn't because comics grew tired of newsstands but because newsstands didn't want comics. That's why comics shops came into existence: self-defense. Why didn't newsstands want comics? Because the amount of profit comics, at their price point, would generate in the necessary newsstand space didn't come anywhere near the amount PLAYBOY, for instance, would generate in the same space. It didn't make financial sense for newsstands to carry comics. Today the price point of comics has risen (though the price point of PLAYBOY and others has also risen) so that's arguably less of a factor, except it has risen past the tolerance of the audience, so the audience has badly dwindled. (In fact, the audience for standard comics has dwindled, barring the odd speculator craze, with every price hike since comics stopped being 10¢. Except for the moment in the late 80s and early 90s when comics were briefly positioning themselves as pop literature for sophisticated tastes, which brought in a new crop of readers the industry then failed miserably to support.)
At this point, even if comics make major inroads back onto newsstands, they'll be dependent on a pre-existent audience to make newsstand sales profitable. In the current format or even in a format that presents more bang for the buck, a $5 comic book isn't going to be a big casual audience draw. Unless an audience for it pre-exists (as was the case with SHONEN JUMP, which benefited from an audience carefully nurtured for several years on Viz Comics and Cartoon Network), a comic placed on a newsstand will most likely sit there, a situation that probably won't exist three months before the newsstand fills the slot with something else. Buzz later explained by "newsstand" he also meant racks at Borders, Wal-Mart, etc. But those venues mostly already stock the few comics they want, so unless we're talking about reducing the industry to AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, NEW X-MEN, a couple of ULTIMATE titles, BATMAN, STAR WARS and THE SIMPSONS – and Viz Comics – that's not really a solution. (Though, I notice from my local Borders, comics sales must be up there since they recently expanded the comics section.)
Catch-22: in order to get better distribution, we need new readers. In order to get new readers, we need better distribution. To go to where new readers are, we have to show new readers want what's placed there, but for new readers to see what's placed there we have to get it placed there, and to do that we have to show new readers want what's placed there. Head hurting yet?
The idea of DC combining its four monthly Superman titles or Marvel collapsing their various X-titles into one large monthly package also undermines a revenue stream: advertising. (This isn't an issue for most other comics companies, since they don't get advertising to speak of and don't have large enough single or gang print runs to attract advertising, but a big one for Marvel and DC.) Advertising in comics isn't usually sold per book but across a line of books. Collapsing the four SUPERMAN titles into, say, one $4.95 88 pager every month would quarter the amount of ad revenue DC takes in from the Superman books and narrow the profit margin. Which wouldn't be a bad deal if such maneuvers brought in a sufficient rise in readership to offset the losses. But what are the realistic chances of that? If the current content of SUPERMAN isn't attracting a massive audience in the current format, why would a format change without a concurrent content change be that much more attractive?
(Content's a factor that's largely ignored. I have to disagree completely with Buzz's comments on the subject. "Grim'n'gritty" or "upbeat" is irrelevant. It's a matter of taste, and banishing any type of material based on type potentially cuts away too much good, compelling material. That's what we need, regardless of whether it's "grim'n'gritty" (which, I have to re-emphasize, was an editorial reductionism, not a creative style) or "upbeat." Doesn't matter, as long as what appears in print is good.
In fact, most "solutions" to the problem of comics is geared toward the big boys, as if we've quietly accepted (we probably always have) that Marvel and DC are the industry, and everything else is smoke and hubris. Could be true. Certainly Marvel and DC would prefer we think that way, even if they never admit it publicly or even to themselves. I'd like to see some solution that addresses not just corporate need but also the needs of independent publishers and creators. 2001-3 have seen the virtual disintegration of any concepts of creator rights (or even creator control) in the business. Creator ownership is flat out the window at most companies. (Though reversion clauses, guaranteed to kick in only long after the property in question has lost all marketable value, abound, giving at least the illusion of creator "ownership.") Self-publishing is the last bastion of talent who want to maintain creative control and control over other uses of their ideas, but, as I've also said before, with the current distribution system it's also like pissing into the wind. The major companies now see independent and self-published comics as a farm team, a feeder system, and the point isn't to get people to be creative, it's to find warm bodies to replenish slots on company-owned properties, and, frankly, getting a page rate dangled before you after languishing in the zero profit/net loss zone of independent comics and self-publishing, it's not surprising that most talent jumps at it. It'd be nice if creative considerations could always be paramount, but when the power bill's due the power bill's due.
And the one tool we have for potentially distributing comics at a profit – the Internet – is pretty much universally dismissed by comics fans who want paper. Period. They don't want to read on computer screens, they don't want to print out pages themselves, they don't want an electronic file that could vanish in the blink of a power failure or disk crash. I don't blame them, but it's frustrating because it cuts off an avenue that could potentially drastically improve the profitability of creator-owned comics, and become a parallel to a marketplace that has become increasingly hostile to them.
Will Eisner said it at Pro Con a few years ago and I repeat, "pros depend too much on the publisher for the business end of things..."
"I have tended to involve myself in the administrative side of things, because that is where creative battle are won or lost." -Stanley Kubrick
1 - Pro Con should be more than an extension of the regular con. Issues such as medical insurance, the ancillary market and distribution should be covered. The lack of organization at Pro Con last year was palpable I spoke to Jackie Estrada when she came up with Batton Lash for a signing about Pro Con it sounded like input was welcome. We all ought to get involved.
[I was at the first couple of Pro Cons – this was before it switched to Jackie's oversight, so I don't know what it's like currently – and my reaction was that, whatever the express purpose of the event, the organizers perceived it as a big "I'm okay, you're okay" session, at a time when things were definitely not okay. I'd heard it quietly said that the participation of publishers was required for the success of the event, so no one wanted to antagonize them by getting too deeply into issues like medical insurance, since, in an industry where most of the money is made by the publishers and most of the talent lives on a shoestring, when more money is required the natural tendency is to demand those with the most money pick up the slack. So I've never been all that enamored of Pro Con. There are times when a big hug is the right thing to do, but there are also times when it's proper to get out there and dig some ditches. – SDG]
2 - There is a complete disconnect between the creative side, editorial and the corporations who own the companies. Ron Perelman is the most recent example: his disinterest in the demographics of readers, the panic following exclusive distribution is a prime example. We need to have a voice in the corporate end of things.
[Which brings us back to the problem mentioned in the section above. There are only a handful of ways to have a voice in the corporate end of things. You can join the company and work your way up, but by the time you get "up" it's fair to say the conditions of the freelance community won't be the biggest issue on your mind. You can buy a sufficient amount of stock in the company to vote on issues pertaining to the company, but editorial policy rarely comes up at stockholder meetings – unless someone doesn't want material about abortion published, or something like that. Comics talent could try to unionize and force corporate offices to pay attention that way, but, between the natural dispositions of freelancers and the virtual impossibility of being recognized as a labor negotiation force, given the general refusal of the government over the last few decades to recognize any new labor organizations, that's not very likely (becoming a union is a lot more complicated than simply declaring yourself a union) and, at any rate, the union movement has suffered setback after setback since the dawn of the Reagan era and most corporate offices aren't particularly impressed by organized labor anymore. The only really effective way to have a voice on the corporate end of things is to own your own publishing company and make the decisions yourself. But then you're trapped in independent publisher distribution hell. - SDG]
3 - Changing the direct market is critical. An article in CBG a few years ago spoke of a 1/3rd split between retailers and publishers-if that isn't feasible, well, something has to be...
4 - Building successful retailers, better presentation, better customer service, better business sense: we should care at least where and how our work is sold and in what format.
5 - Dealing with Diamond: some kind of competitive edge needs to come about. Publishers are at the mercy of Diamond, which generally takes care of its more major clients and don't exactly help the competition to make much of a threat. It's great Cold Cut Distribution is there for re-orders for independents, but we need fair competition in the distribution end of things. We need to correct what happened with the exclusive distribution panic that created this mess in the first place.
[Very true, but the fact is that most retailers prefer Diamond's "one-stop shopping" and don't want to have to cope with two or more distributors. Unless retailer attitudes change, competition for Diamond is going to find the going rough – unless they can come up with something the retailers desperately want that Diamond can't give them. So we're back to Catch-22. In order to compete with Diamond, new distributors have to find a niche that Diamond isn't addressing, but it has to be a niche important to retailers, and even then it has to be important enough that they're willing to go through the extra hassle to get it. Simply distributing independent product won't sell many retailers because they don't believe the material will sell in the first place, or they'd already be ordering it. Of course, unless they order it and display it for their buying public to see, there's no chance the books will sell, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. – SDG]
6 - Continue to build adult audience in the bookstore through book size format and advertising. DC built vertigo, Touchstone proved you can sell a different product through product positioning, etc.
I sent pages to an inker yesterday... but given the current state of the market it makes me nervous. I guess the reason I'm self publishing at this point is to have a hand in the business end of things and I'm committed to that but basically you'll see change occur only when creators realize they can't depend on the publisher and hope for anything but business as usual (no pun intended).
Of course, it all comes back to content. Putting comics within easy reach of potential customers is one thing, but without comics they're willing to pay for it's pointless.
First, you've got the Hand Puppet and Ari Fleischer fantasizing an entire economic report just to be able to say someone thinks more tax cuts for the rich (otherwise known as "supply-side," "trickle-down" or "voodoo" economics) would be good for the country – as if no one would check to see if such a report actually existed.
Then Deputy Secretary Of Defense Paul Wolfowitz declares the Pentagon's assessment of troop requirements in post-war Iraq is way off because, unlike the Balkans, there's no history of ethnic conflict in Iraq! Sure, if you discount the Kurds... and the Shi'ites... and the Sunnis... and the Turkomans... and the Assyrians...
Then the Turks, against all odds, deny America military staging privileges in their country, leaving numerous troops floating around in the Mediterranean.
Then the Washington Times and the Fox News Network try to galvanize public outrage against Maine teachers who supposedly tormented students whose parents are in the military, without revealing one single instance where this actually happened. (Lots of hearsay, though, and one Maine National Guard chaplain waving around papers and saying "I have here a list of names that only I know..."
Then, when the USA is trying to get members of the UN Security Council to vote their way on a war resolution, the Observer gets its hands on a NSA memo instructing the bugging and surveillance of Security council members in order to gain information through which to "encourage" them to vote as America wants.
Then Attorney General John Ashcroft, who not only won't make a move to stop illegal trade in guns but has actually taken steps to make it easier for felons to get them, nonetheless launched a major assault (including rounding up famed glassworks owner Tommy Chong) on the diabolical scourge of hash pipes. Which, someone obviously neglected to tell him, aren't illegal. (Unless there's hashish in them, of course.)
Then, while the Christian Ultraright went into a Pentecostal frenzy over the revelation that Armageddon would hit – um, two days ago – the Dept of Transportation finally announced its plan (I mentioned it a few weeks ago) to classify all airline passengers as varying levels of potential terrorists – based, according to one report, primarily on credit rating and size of bank account. Your Office Of Homeland Security in action. (Wait, did I mention the Al-Qaida attack on Pearl Harbor?)
Meanwhile, even the Canadians are cooking up counter-resolutions on how to proceed on Iraq.
Face it: it wasn't a very good week to be the Hand Puppet. There was one bright spot, though: the capture of Al-Qaida mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. Kudos to the security forces of America and Pakistan. It's just too bad they didn't capture Khalid before they killed him last September!
There were several responses to last week's guest projection about the influence of the Iraq situation on Scottish Independence, and this e-mail sums them up nicely:
"The main opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament are the Liberal-Democrats (pro the current devolution situation, and in a minor power-sharing deal with the Labour party in government); the Conservatives (generally anti-devolution, and completely anti-independence) and the Scottish National Party (pro independence).
The Labour party is expected to suffer fairly badly in the forthcoming Scottish parliament elections, but a significantly low turnout is expected for the elections as a whole. There's severe Scottish voter apathy to the Parliament due to the poor standard of politics practiced there and the ongoing national scandal of the cost of the still uncompleted Parliament building here in Edinburgh - £350 million and rising, and still not due to be ready until next year; a mere 3 years and about £280 million past the original estimates. Basically, people are so hacked off with the Parliament that people are now less keen to see an independent Scotland.
The Labour party in the Parliament won't be kicked out of power, although it may well have to form some kind of a coalition with either the Lib-Dems or the Scottish Nats. Even if the Scottish Nats do barnstorm the election and win an overall parliamentary majority, they can't declare an independent Scotland the morning after the election, since the constitutional powers handed down to the Scottish Parliament by its bigger brother in Westminster expressly don't include the legal powers to do this. Even if a renegade Scottish Parliament did declare independence, it still wouldn't happen - the nationalist party politicians are such a dull and colourless bunch (and riven by in-fighting) that the Scottish people aren't exactly going to rush to man the barricades on their behalf."
"My girlfriend has gone to Ireland and planned on using my cell phone, which is what I use for long-distance, to call her while she is away. So I call my service provider, Sprint PCS, to get set up for international calling.
So after the obligatory 15 minute wait for customer service, I talked to a "customer care specialist." Wonderfully, the call was full of background noise, which wasn't another call feeding in, as I thought, but just the chatter of the lady in the next cubicle, but I digress. I chose my plan and asked when my service would begin. She said three to five business days. I asked why it would take days, and she told me that I had to be processed through an international calling bureau. I asked why I had to go through this bureau and she said it is something for post-Sept. 11 security. That answer sounded satisfactory - it is understandable in our current state of "heighten security" and such.
So five days pass and still no call for this international calling bureau. After the obligatory 15 minute wait for customer service, I inquire about this international calling bureau. I asked what was up about getting my service. He said they bureau would contact me within SEVEN TO TEN DAYS. I asked if it was a governmental body or Sprint. He said it was Sprint. I asked him what exactly this bureau was. He told me couldn't tell me. Then I asked him what the process was that decided if I was approved or not. He said they would just tell me so. I asked what the process was that determined this, since all I was asked during my initial conversation was where I wanted to call.
He responded with: You not want to continue this line of questioning, sir. You want international calling, don't you? They are doing what it takes to get that for you.
I was taken a back by that so I stopped asking. I didn't want to get in a shouting match on the phone with some poor schlub at Sprint.
But I am curious about this "international calling bureau." What is the criteria to determine my approval? I mean, if it was determined by tagged locations, they could just look at map and say, "Ireland. Approved (or unapproved)." I don't want some Sprint PCS-hired investigators looking into my shit just because I want to call my girlfriend on the phone.
Am I just being massively paranoid - which is the state the current administration wants us to be in - or is this just routine? Have any of y'all gone through this process or know anything about it?"
Of course, anytime one of these customer service yahoos gives you grief (Sprint in particular seems to take pride in flat out hostile customer service, and I don't mean the customers are the hostile ones), don't argue, just demand to speak to their supervisors. They're not allowed to refuse you, it automatically starts the call quality monitoring process, and can cause plenty of trouble. At every point you don't get some sort of satisfaction (don't be ridiculous about it) ask to speak to the next higher up person until you either run out of options or find someone who can help you.
But what is Sprint (and, by inference, the NSA) up to, and why aren't we supposed to know about it?
If anyone's got the poop, let me know. Thanks.
I never thought I'd say this, but bring back Brenda.
AMERICAN IDOL (Fox, 8PM Tuesday) has finally justified its existence and made a lasting contribution to American culture. No, I don't mean Simon Cowell or any of the singers. (Is the country really baiting its breath for THE JUSTIN AND KELLY MOVIE or whatever it's called?) Here's AMERICAN IDOL's big accomplishment: it goosed the ratings on the show that follows it, 24 (Fox, 9PM Tuesday), enough that Fox has already announced the renewal of 24 for a third season, keeping the show's hour-to-hour serial thriller format. While most good shows (ex.: SIX FEET UNDER) disintegrate and homogenize in their second seasons, 24 used theirs as an opportunity to get the kinks out and do it right, ending up with a second season that's much better than the first. Sure, there are still logic gaps, but they hide them better; they don't seem as convenient or pivotal. In case you haven't been watching the show, Islamic terrorists (though the show has gone to great pains to portray them as willfully misinterpreting the teachings of Islam and not being representative of the vast majority of Muslims) now revealed to be somehow working in tandem with a subset of the American government, are going to nuke Los Angeles, and it's up to defrocked anti-terrorist agent Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) to stop them, while a maze of plot twists and turns are ready to trip him up. It's easily the best show on network TV, and among the gutsiest. Bauer's a brilliantly compartmentalized character – a concerned dad on one hand, a conscienceless killing machine on the other – and Sutherland has mastered the fine art of being brutal and sympathetic in the same breath. There's a lot more to the show than Bauer, of course. Some have complained about bouncy daughter Kim Bauer, who flits obliviously from one hazard to another in a plotline that apparently has less and less to do with the main story by the week, but I finally figured out what she's there for: comic relief. (She did meet the perfect man for her recently: someone actually dumb enough to give the braindead klutz a loaded gun, then send her on her way down mountain paths in pitch darkness! Is Pegleg Kim in our future?) Whatever. If they can make next season as good as this season, bring it on.
Clint Eastwood's BLOOD WORK (Warner Bros. DVD) is well-crafted, sturdily paced, well-dialogued (by Brian Helgeland, adapting from the novel by Michael Connelly), and well-acted. It's also a bore. Eastwood is an FBI profiler who has a heart attack while chasing a serial killer who's been playing cat-and-mouse with him. Two years later, Eastwood has a new heart and is painstakingly recovering from heart surgery when he's asked to find the killer of the woman his new heart came from. Of course, it ties back into his old case. Which sounds great on paper, but the problems of translating this kind of thriller to film bury the picture. The compressed world of the movie unfortunately burns out the options too quickly, and, unless the point is to give the audience the thrill of figuring out the mystery long before an experienced FBI profiler can, there's no suspense. They only give us one possible suspect, fer chrissakes! What saves the film is that Clint Eastwood's still great to watch on screen. But I'm greedy; Eastwood without a worthwhile story just isn't enough.
I don't know if it's out on video/DVD yet, but the Sundance Channel is showing Billy Morrissette's SCOTLAND PA, a hilarious knockoff/adaptation of Shakespeare's MacBETH done as battle over a mid-American burger restaurant in the 1970s. It doesn't exactly parallel the play; there are a lot of little in-jokes; James Le Gros, Maura Tierney, Kevin Corrigan and Christopher Walken are all great in it; and it's possibly the only really good use of Andy Dick outside of the late lamented NEWSRADIO. Did I mention it's hilarious? What more do you need? Catch it.
I'm not all that keen on Nick Hornby novels, but they seem to translate into pretty good film comedies. John Cusack's manic energy really supercharged the pop culture frenzy of Hornby's HIGH FIDELITY (a much, much better movie than I would have expected going in). Contrarily, ABOUT A BOY (Universal DVD) gets its pop from Hugh Grant's emotionally remote confusion. He's always at his best playing genial slackers, for some reason. His character Will, living on his father's song royalties and having nearly 40 years experience in avoiding connections and responsibility, suddenly gets his world turned upside down when confronted with a 12-year old boy desperate from some relief from his miserable school life and hippie-dippie suicidal mother. (Sounds like a Mike Leigh film from that description, dunnit?) This could've been one of those brutally earnest "revelation" movies so often churned out in the guise of comedies, but Grant is so thoroughly unconcerned with how bad his character come off (his gestures and expressions are so nuanced as to appear invisible, or non-existent, if you're not paying attention) and so good at slipping the comedy in naturally that ABOUT A BOY becomes a genuinely feel-good film. Not earthshaking, but funny and entertaining. (I'm still trying to figure out why the kid's got Spock eyebrows, though...)
THE SUM OF ALL FEARS (Paramount DVD), directed by Phil Alden Robinson and adapted from the Tom Clancy novel by Paul Annatasio and Daniel Pyne, is an empty, smoking bomb crater of a film. It's fallout free, though; you won't remember it ten minutes after it's over. All I remember about it is Liev Schreiber's great in it and I wish they'd've made a movie about his character instead.
Indie wunderkind Kevin Corrigan (SCOTLAND PA) also surfaces in John Schultz's BANDWAGON, has been running on the Independent Film Channel. It's a rock-'n-road picture about a Raleigh NC quartet who decide to form an alternative rock band and face the hazards of trying to keep a vision while simultaneously trying to find a mass audience, as well as sort out their own secret desires. Unlike millions of similar films, this one's actually good and pretty funny, the acting's terrific (esp. jittery-neurotic Lee Holmes and cool-beyond-abstraction Doug McMillan, himself an actual singer in an indie band). As with SCOTLAND PA, catch it. Indie comic talent will particularly feel resonances.
Over on the message board awhile back, someone asked me who I'd want to star in the forthcoming PUNISHER movie. Didn't care then, don't care now, but I mentioned that in the 80s, B-movie action star William Smith was physically perfect for the character, practically the spitting image, and that I would've like to have seen. If you don't know who William Smith is, I'm told there's a recently online interview with him. (Thanks, Pierce.)
My MORTAL SOULS continues to get chops from all around. If you haven't bought the trade paperback yet, read Matthew Craig's stellar review for some encouragement. It kicks.
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.
My old personal webpage – the one with all the information – has finally vanished, and it's about time, since I left that server almost a year ago. The new one isn't up yet, but keep watching this space for details.
CATCH-22, from the war novel of the same name by Joseph Heller. A catch-22 is a requirement necessary to achieve an objective that makes the achievement impossible. In the novel, the hero Yossarian finds that in order to get out of the war he has to prove he's insane, but trying to prove he's insane means he's sane. Meaning the more insane he tries to prove he is, the more sane he's judged to be, but if he doesn't try to prove he's insane, they'll keep him there anyway. No way out. Catch-22.