A lot of people have asked me why I decided to move to Nevada. While there are plenty of practical reasons – no state income tax, relatively low cost of living, cheap airfares underwritten by the casinos, proximity to Los Angeles in case the various impending strikes ever get settled and potential deals rush ahead, booming cultural life (especially if you mean pop culture) and vast entertainment options – emotional reasons like stunning scenery (constantly mutating mountain vistas are everywhere you look, and, trite though saying it may be, the sunsets here are truly beyond belief; and while I’m nowhere near the Strip, it towers enough over the desert that I can see it from my office window, and in how many places in the world can you look out your window and see New York skyscrapers, the Eiffel Tower and a pyramid?) and a dozen more personal reasons I don’t choose to share, it has occurred to me in recent days that, metaphysically (and, yes, metaphysics do play some role in my life, if usually only in hindsight, as now), I’ve been moving here all my life.
I like deserts. I’ve always had a romantic affinity for them. Maybe it’s those Dristan commercials they played when I was a little kid that said Dristan was “like sending your sinuses to Arizona.” You get the image, wrong as it is: Arizona (which, we all knew from cowboy movies, was nothing but desert) is open, pure, clean, and, by implication, empty. In other words, another world.
The otherwordliness of deserts caught my imagination as a kid, and everything I knew about them came from TV and movies. I knew Arabia extended all over the Sahara Desert, which was just sand, endless sand, that occasionally had a few palm-flecked oases, if they weren’t mirages. Southwestern deserts were different, with sagebrush and saguaro cactus, but they were still endless emptiness you could cross for weeks without seeing anything more alive than dried out steer skulls stripped clean. Or maybe buzzards, or scorpions, or Chiracahua Apaches. You knew it was the desert because nothing grew or lived there. Not exactly inviting, but always in a context of freedom and adventure, and possibility. (That was certainly the unspoken message of the Dristan ad: in Arizona your sinuses – and, by extension, you – can be free!) I grew up in a dull outlying quasi-suburb, and our property line was the city limit: streets and streets of nondescript houses out the front window, tedious miles of cornfield out the back. A world I was then certain was packed with nothing (and while I now have an adult understanding of how the economy of the country is perched on all those homes housing all those workers, and all that corn feeding them – though the cornfield no longer exists, having long ago been uprooted for more housing, but not before I moved out – it still registers as nothing when I think back on it) but a nothing conning itself it was something. The Western Desert, as I saw it then, was real: a void that knew it was a void, wore that upfront like a badge of honor, and smiled.
Which was a delusion, of course. I never formulated it that way back then; this is looking back and trying to make sense of what was then a purely emotional response. 50s and 60s westerns felt no compulsion to get the details right as long as the basic myth was adhered to (mockingly yet tenderly summarized in John Ford’s great THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE – “when legend becomes truth, print the legend”) so pretty much everything I thought I knew was wrong. For one thing, there is no vast emptiness, except on a human scale. The desert has it own elaborate ecology, teaming with life, if anyone cares to look for it. The traditional view of the desert is economic: if cows can’t graze on it and you can’t plant on it, it’s useless, except for testing atom bombs. Unearthly to the point some people could actually believe we never set foot on the moon but faked the whole thing in Arizona, though the bomb craters of Nevada’s testing grounds would be a much likelier setting.
But the difference between belief and lies is that people try to make the former true. There are no palm trees native to American deserts but people think palm trees when they think desert so palms were imported. Bugsy Siegel stopped his car on a lonely stretch of road, looked at the desert, imagined Las Vegas there, and made it true. (The story’s almost totally bunk, but print the legend and all that. Even the truth doesn’t lessen Bugsy’s importance in Las Vegas history; unlike many legends of the West, Bugsy’s legend is only streamlining, not pure fabrication.) And somewhere in my head, I’ve turned my boyhood concept of desert into a metaphoric truth. Since I’ve started writing, deserts have been a recurring motif, where they were allowed to surface. The short story I wrote to get into a college writing course was set in the desert (I thought at the time I was just dodging the detail research that writing very quickly often makes impossible – when in doubt, set your story in the dark or the desert – but looking back I see the desert was as much a character as anyone else in the story, a ham-handed pastiche of Albert Camus and Thomas Disch) and the first I wrote for the course involved a man arriving in a desert town to get away from his life only to find the offshoots of his life unexpectedly there ahead of him; at the end he abandons the town and potential love and vanishes into the desert entirely. The desert didn’t initially figure into my comic writing career much – when you’re writing Marvel stories centered mainly in Manhattan, it doesn’t come up much – but WHISPER, entirely urban at the start, segued into two different, critical desert sequences toward the end, and my crime comics keep ending up in the desert. BADLANDS concluded in the badlands of Texas, ENEMY in Utah, while PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING took place almost exclusively in the Southwest. There’s a reason for this: when you’re out there, you’re out in the open. There’s nowhere in hide in the desert. As many westerns have shown, it’s a good setting for quickly bringing conflicts to the point of no return. If that’s what you want to do.
And it’s a metaphor for futility – it’s hard to feel grandiose surrounded by all that space – and, paradoxically, dreams – surely all that nothing is an invitation to build something.
Which is a bit like comics: it’s only nothingness if you want to see it as nothingness. Tempting as the myth of Bugsy Siegel inventing Las Vegas out of whole cloth is, Las Vegas existed before he got here. Even the strip, even the name of the strip, preceded him. Yet comics now aren’t much removed from Nevada 100 years ago: the motherlode played out, the population whittled down mainly to prospectors out panning for gold or scraping for silver, hoping that somewhere in the endless dirt, stretching out seemingly forever, there’s still a fortune to be made, a dream to be built. And boomtowns become ghost towns in the blink of an eye.
Witness Gorilla, touted a couple year’s back as “the writer’s Image.” (Hell, look at Image.) It sounded good. There should have been gold there. They made classic mistakes, but how avoidable were they? How much other choice would any of us have had? The oft-repeated myth is that their backers pulled out and the brave participants forged on alone at great personal cost, and, like Bugsy’s myth, it’s not entirely untrue. Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek etc. did end up outlaying a ton of their own money to keep Gorilla going, but to say the backers “pulled out” suggests a lack of faith in the product, in the ability of the Gorilla crew to produce comics (in the absence of the popular existing characters) that would appeal to a wide audience. In fact, the “backers” were all talk but when the bills came due they turned to smoke, a common feature of “backers” in independent comics. That was when the mine collapsed, and pretty much made Gorilla’s demise inevitable.
But that wasn’t the only problem with the project (though, perhaps, the only insurmountable one). From the moment it was announced, Gorilla gave off an in-jokey retro aura: a fanboy throwback to the Silver Age, particularly the DC Silver Age where gorillas (Congorilla, Gorilla Grodd, The Gorilla Boss Of Gotham City, Titano The Super-Ape, Angel and the Ape, etc.) were populous to the point of motif. Not that, in the retro mood of a couple years ago when companies were still trying to delude themselves it could quickly become 1993 again, that was necessarily a negative. But it reinforced a “back to basics” image that both Kurt and Mark and Karl Kesel and others involved in Gorilla had developed for themselves over the years, and while that also isn’t necessarily a negative it did present certain marketing problems. History has shown it isn’t enough to say “these are creator-owned comics!” From a creator’s economic point of view, that makes a lot of difference, but from a reader’s perspective (unless that reader is a particularly informed rebel) only the content matters.
Which is the trap that snaps shut on a lot of us as we try to make the jump to creator owned comics. To a great extent those comics are marketed not on content – as most companies discover, it’s difficult to market brand new product on content because no one has ever seen it, unless it’s like older content, which is why you’ll see ad lines like “Sugar & Spike crossed with The Punisher!” – but on the reputation of the talent. So talent goes into creator-owned comics producing what they feel they’ve already developed an audience for, or maybe similar to what they’re known for but a step beyond. But here’s the trap (and it’s no longer just a trap for creator-owned comics; a lot of companies have found it now applies to any new product):
If they can get it in existing product, they’re not (new wrinkles be damned) going to be inclined to go after it in the new product. Those days are over (except for a few odd franchises like the X-Men, and even there the prospects are tenuous and grow more tenuous with each failed “differentiation”) unless someone hits another motherlode. It’s true that EMPIRE and SUPERSTAR bore little resemblance to, respectively, FLASH and THE AVENGERS, and a quick read would have verified that. But they also weren’t dissimilar enough for the differences to be striking. They were superficially similar enough that a reader could be excused for thinking the new titles unnecessary. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggestion the work was bad – it wasn’t – or criticizing their decisions. The logic of them makes perfect sense, and, again, it’s the standard logic of comics talent pushing into creator-owned comics: firm up the audience by giving them what it wants. (And I don’t mean to suggest their motives were strictly calculated, or mercenary; I’m sure the Gorilla projects were exactly what the respective talent wanted to do.)
But logic can fail, particularly in markets like this one. Again, there’s a discrepancy between talent and reader perceptions. A creator may say, “I could do this book for Marvel, but I’ll publish it myself and own it,” but a reader will just as likely say, “they could just as easily have done this for Marvel.” This is why much independent publishing is a booby trap for talent; even the smoky underwriters that populate the independent market tend to balk at funding unfamiliar projects, while the thought of having the next Spider-Man is what keeps their insectoid juices flowing. Traditional logic tells you variance from the familiar is a deathtrap; it’s no more plausible to think fans of George Perez’s WONDER WOMAN won’t be able to live without CRIMSON PLAGUE than to expect DIE HARD fans to flock to HUDSON HAWK. But we’re in a market where new product has to be a radical enough departure from existing material to inspire interest or the audience will consider it simply redundant. (There will always be exceptions. Howard Chaykin’s new AMERICAN CENTURY, currently getting a lot of notice, is clearly named to capitalize on nostalgic memories of his AMERICAN FLAGG! But FLAGG! was itself ground-breaking, so by association AMERICAN CENTURY invokes interesting possibilities). There’s occasionally new gold found in old strikes, but new ground is always a better bet. As with any form of gambling, you can follow logic or you can play the log odds. Any gambler can tell you the results will most likely be the same either way, but the log odds bring the biggest payoffs. Bugsy Siegel didn’t invent Las Vegas – gambling and casinos were Nevada institutions, to the horror of decent America, long before he trod its sands – but he remade it with a new idea: a casino that was a hotel, a resort, a beautifully decorated entertainment palace where gambling is only one of the available diversions. An absurdly simple idea, but one that recreated the state. That’s as much new idea as comics needs, really, but it’s got to be the right new idea, and that’s what’s such a gamble about it. Because we’re in the desert now, and there’s no place left to hide.
And that’s what I like about both Nevada and comics; both remain outlaw cultures at heart. I don’t think there’s a more civilized place in the country than Las Vegas at the moment, but it’s still got that air. Comics have made some inroads to respectability, and it’s an obsession for some people, but we still have enough of the outlaw about us to keep it fun, to give the medium an edge and a hook. If one stumbles across the bodies or the ghost towns, well, that’s just local color, another story to tell, another legend. Nevada, particularly here about Las Vegas, is the land of the longshot – the idea that a city could rise in the middle of the desert and become in its way everything that America has ever been and will ever be about is itself a longshot – and comics are longshot too. They always have been, they likely always will be. It’s not the longshots that flop that matter. It’s the longshots that pay off.
Yes, it gets hot here, but, as the cliché here goes, it’s a dry heat, and, having grown up in a place where Augusts were generally a long unbroken chain of 98° heat with 98% humidity, I can vouch that dry heat means something. Besides, that’s why God created air conditioners.
This week’s X-MEN UNLIMITED (should be out today in most areas) features not only my last X-Man story, with art by Charlie Adlard, but also a story by Brian Stelfreeze and an extremely rare job by comics great Michael Golden, one of the best artists ever to hit our shores. Go buy it. And while you’re there, buy Warren Ellis & Chris Weston’s’ MINISTRY OF SPACE, which should also be out today. If you miss these you’ll kick yourself later.
Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: as we play taps for Gorilla in this, the year of blood, what other comics companies do you see as not surviving through December? What gives you that idea?
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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