Yeah, there had better be. I have yet to see proof that there are more than 100 retailers who can even tell the difference between good and bad content.
Books that win Eisner's still sell like crap. Books that are universally praised for their content (the kind those new readers we crave might enjoy) flounder all the time. The only decent book that has captured retailer attention and been saved from cancellation recently is Y THE LAST MAN, and there are a lot of other books on the market just as deserving of a readership as Y.
Anyway, you know all this."
I do. Which is one of the things that makes the prospect of retailers "banding together" to demand "better" content in comics a fairly scary proposition. What makes for "better" content? Nick himself cites the Loebs & Lee BATMAN, the #1 direct market comic, which is indicative of the narrowness of our collective vision in this field. Nick likes the recent BATMAN, that's cool, nothing wrong with that. But. As the best-selling direct title it still only does, what? 130,000 copies? Admittedly in a desert a drop of rain plays like a miracle, and in a market where publishers like Marvel pray for 20,000 sales on their Epic line and Vertigo can get away with publishing comics that sell 13,000 copies, 130,000 is manna from bloody heaven, but 130,000 copies is still piss poor, given the general population. And what exactly makes the content of the recent BATMAN "better?"
Obviously, from a retailer POV, a comic that sells itself is automatically "better," but, as pretty much any retailer will admit, that doesn't mean the content is "better." I'm not trying to put down the Loebs-Lee run. It's a good story. It's a solid superhero story. Jim Lee produces really good superhero art. It's a good comic book.
But it's not a great comic book. It breaks no new ground, offers no great insights into either character or the human condition. It plays with familiar stuff. It's entertaining. I'm not saying being entertaining is bad, because it isn't. But a long time ago, THE COMICS JOURNAL took heavy flak for running a review of Howard Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG! that suggested that, rather than the awesome leap forward for comics it was being made out to be, it should have represented the minimum standard for quality in the comics business. A lot of people took this to mean the reviewer thought the book was crap, but that's not what he was saying. He was saying there was no reason on earth all comics shouldn't be at least as good as AMERICAN FLAGG! Which is still true today, and still so far from reality – even further – that the argument remains nearly impossible to grasp.
But that's BATMAN today: a good book. An entertaining book. And the minimum we should be expecting from all comics. All comics should be well-written, well-drawn, entertaining. At minimum.
Especially superhero comics, if we're going to obsess on them. BATMAN, Geoff Johns' & Scot Kolins FLASH, Mark Waid & Mike Weiringo's FANTASTIC 4 - these should be the baseline for our expectations, and that they're not isn't something to celebrate. Let me reiterate I'm not complaining about any of these books. They're good. The problem's that all the books they're far better than aren't at least as good.
The citing of BATMAN as the example of what the industry should be producing is disturbing on a couple other levels. There's the now-ingrained retailer dependence on industry "icons," which only serves to concentrate even more power in the hands of major companies and substantially decreases the possibilities for effective change inside the business. In the Nick piece, Cliff Biggers (one of our better retailers) suggests talent have to learn to market themselves (which in itself is true enough) by alternating between major characters (aka "industry icons") and "minor concepts" (presumably lesser-known or new self-created concepts). (Cliff and Nick cite the way Hollywood works as an example, but, creatively, the comics market is worlds different from Hollywood, and, unless your idea of a great comic is one that dozens of people have input into, it really would be better if comics stayed that way.) Certainly this is a path various talents have fallen back on over the years, Jim Lee being a more recent example, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it, but there are only so many spots on "major concepts" available, and, again, it places the power in the hands of the major companies as to who they choose or don't choose to elevate. It also suggests nothing of interest. Obviously Jim dredged up a great deal of interest in Batman, but to suggest, say, Warren Ellis should do a Batman six parter every half year so he can do six issues of PLANETARY (spare me the e-mails, thanks) is inane. Not that Warren's Batman wouldn't be better than most versions, or that it wouldn't be entertaining or interesting, but why should anyone be forced to work on projects they have no interest in? Yet Warren has probably marketed himself more effectively than anyone else in comics today aside from Stan Lee.
This also suggests that low sales on books by top talent is the fault of the talent, which is, I think, a comforting myth for retailers. In some cases it may be true, but how many bloody times have we heard retailers say, "This is a great book, too bad it doesn't sell." But if a great book by great talent isn't selling, it means the retailers aren't doing their job. I keep hearing great things from retailers about books like 21 DOWN (now getting a relaunch with new push from DC) and SLEEPER, for instance, but then they say the books don't sell. Why not? If Jim Lee's BATMAN's such a good book, why aren't retailers using it as a hook for Wildstorm titles? Why isn't DC? That's still Jim's company, more or less, right?
The fact is that, yes, talent should be helping in the marketing of their work, but if retailers think a book is worth buying, it's their job to sell it.
Of course, there are all kinds of myopias ingrained in comics. In his Pipeline column this week, Augie De Blieck (and thanks for the recommend on DAMNED, Augie!) made this curious statement:
"For whatever reason, the monthly SHONEN JUMP seems to be the belle of the ball in this country. I don't understand it at all. SHONEN JUMP is filled with comics for kids. Kids aren't reading comics all that much, although the sales figures on the magazine don't reflect that. It's all Yu-Gi-Oh. "
This is fairly common thinking for the industry, and an example of where we are where we are. Kids aren't reading comics (which we may presume to mean superhero comics) so why would he think they'd be reading SHONEN JUMP, even though SHONEN JUMP is comics for kids? I've heard similar arguments from comics retailers. Except SHONEN JUMP is being read by kids, in significantly greater numbers than read BATMAN, possibly because of the price point but more because it's comics for kids. Not for kids who were kids 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Sure, Yu-Gi-Oh is popular because of the cartoon show and the card game, but when I was signing FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP at Ralph Mathieu's Alternate Reality on Free Comic Book Day, we had kids – actual kids, leading their parents rather than following them – coming in asking for Yu-Gi-Oh comics, and Yuyu Hakusho comics, and Onepiece comics. None of which exist, and those who didn't know about SHONEN JUMP were thrilled beyond belief to see it. Not one of them was asking after X-MEN comics, and this was on the weekend X2 opened.
But this is the big paranoia about the concept of retailers determining content. They've tried it before. At a time when more "adult" concepts were being injected into comics and those concepts were drawing in a suddenly mushrooming audience – something everyone pines for today – some retailers put a concerted effort to put a halt to it, on the fear that we'd attract unwanted outside attention. The urge to freeze or retreat the business, to shrink the concepts back to "acceptable" material (ie, Silver Age superhero concepts, endlessly repackaged) remains strong in many retailers, and I've heard the argument put forth time and time again that since retailers are the ones who have to sell the comics, they're the ones who have to sell the comics they're the ones who should get to dictate what's in them. That's the job everyone seems to want. I'm sure a new wave of repression isn't what either Nick Barrucci or Cliff Biggers had in mind, but it's also a good possibility if retailers seriously form a power bloc, and conservatism (in the creative sense, not the political sense) and timidity isn't what the business needs right now. Or ever.
KEEN EDDIE debuted on Fox last Tuesday (9PM), with former soap star ("Jack Deveraux #4") Mark Valley as the eponymous Eddie, a NYPD detective played by a drug dealing femme fatale who unleashes a new drug on London, where Eddie goes to help stop the powder plague. (He's the only one who can identify any of the dealers.) In the hands of Simon (TOMB RAIDER) West, it's pretty much played for laughs, but balances the action pleasantly, with herky-jerky camerawork that makes the show play more along the lines of LOCK, STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS than an average American cop show. Plus it has a good supporting cast including Sienna Miller, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Alexie Sayle and the drastically underrated Colin Salmon, who plays stone-faced through most of the first ep but has such an expressive face that it projects subtle reactions across long shots. As a replacement for 24, it's iffy. As summer entertainment, so far it's just fine.
Director Todd Solondz's STORYTELLING got pretty much universally panned in its theatrical run, but the recently released DVD tells a different story. The film's broken into two unrelated pieces: "Fiction," in which a young white female creative writing student (Selma Blair) has a brutal sexual encounter with her older, black Pulitzer-winning male professor, which she then writes up as a story for the class, and "Nonfiction," with Paul Giamatti trying to resuscitate his failed life – he set out to be an actor and ended up a shoe salesman – by making a documentary on modern high school life, eventually focusing on a single student with no academic record and only the vaguest ambition to become a TV talk show host. Critics complained the movie was shallow and obvious, but on DVD it doesn't play that way at all. Both sections are about how we unconsciously rewrite our experience to meet our own emotional needs, and if, for instance, Blair's character is stung by her classmates' and professors' criticisms of her story ("But it really happened!" she and her boyfriend protest), in retrospect none of the criticisms are invalid. It's a funny, bitter movie, and, if not as unnerving as it sets out to be, still better than most.
It's an interesting thing about the "American public." You can lie to them endlessly and most will lap it up like dogs returning to their own vomit (as the Bible puts it), you can manipulate them and anaesthetize them, but the second you tell them they shouldn't be interested in something political they become interested.
So I wake up Sunday morning to a flurry of broadcasts. Some White House press flak – don't think it was Ari Fleisher, but I was half asleep so I'm not sure – is talking about accusations of White House "lying" to push a war with Iraq, egged on by the papers finally starting to ask, as European, Middle Eastern, African and Asian papers have been asking for months, where are Iraq's Weapons Of Mass Destruction? And, sure, enough, he says the papers are building up this whole thing and the American people believe the invasion of Iraq was right and just and they have no concerns over where those weapons are. Meanwhile, the Hand Puppets giving impassioned speeches – I saw this one on Saturday – about how the weapons do exist, and we will find them, and Saddam Hussein had years to learn how to cleverly hide his weapons (which, I suppose, is why none of them were ever used; they were so well hidden no one could get to anything more than WWI-era rifles) so of course it's going to take us "a little while" to find them. Because no budding Hitler in his right mind would ever keep highly lethal advanced weaponry anywhere they could actually be put into play, if, oh, someone invaded the country. Then there's Colin Powell, who apparently has forsaken any claim to credibility, angrily giving a speech about how – I'd never have guessed – the papers are trumping this whole thing up, how the American people don't care about the charges, and about how all the "evidence" he presented to the UN for Iraqi perfidy was dead on accurate. Even though three-quarters of it has already been proven to be forgeries, and practically as Powell is citing Iraq's mobile bioweapons labs, the Observer in England publishes the findings that those "labs" were, in fact, hydrogen generators sold to Iraq by Britain.
And in practically the same breath it's now the cant of the Hand Puppet's supporters that it was perfectly all right to lie to "the American public" about the need to invade Iraq because those lies ensured we could save the "Iraqi people" and particularly Iraqi children (most often cited is a mass grave of Kurdish children, the result of an abortive American-sponsored Kurd uprising against Saddam Hussein that we Bay Of Pigged on) from the evil dictator. (They're less eager to mention the American soldiers killed in the aftermath of the war – an average of one per day, a much greater toll now than the war's American soldier death toll, and a great enough number than, despite all the importuning to "support our troops," virtually no mention of the deaths is made on the news here and the dead soldiers are no longer celebrated as heroes.) It's interesting to see Republicans picking up the banner of humanitarian war after castigating Clinton for it in Bosnia (though it wasn't really war in Bosnia, and all those vast Bosnian oil fields weren't at stake either), and there's something to be said for that point of view, particularly if, in the long run ('cause it sure isn't doing much for many of them in the short run), Iraqi children grow up under much better circumstances than the last 20 years have brought them. However, it overlooks other issues.
This administration invented the doctrine of preemption to justify a war on Iraq, and invented the threat of weapons of mass destruction to justify the doctrine. Regardless of the justice of the rationale, the underlying doctrine is still in place. Is it all right for us to manufacture excuses to invade countries we want to invade? If, as the revision currently goes, the true purpose of our invasion of Iraq was a humanitarian mission, does that make it all right to lie to "the American public" about it on the presumption that they wouldn't support a humanitarian war? If there was a good case to be made for a humanitarian war, why not present it? Why trump up a threat that didn't exist? Why endlessly imply Saddam Hussein had a direct connection to the 9-11 attacks or to Al-Qaeda when he didn't, and our own intelligence agency and every intelligence agency in the world knew he didn't? Why try to foster the impression that Saddam Hussein, that Iraq's fabled, non-existent "weapons of mass destruction" were immediate physical threats to the American homeland? Why not just tell the truth?
It's also interesting that Republicans are now doing an abrupt about face on the issue of Presidential lying, the cornerstone of their impeachment of Bill Clinton. The Clinton thing, they insisted, wasn't about what he did with his sex life, it was that he lied about it, to Congress and to the American People. Now we have clear evidence that the Hand Puppet also lied, to Congress and to the American people, and it's suddenly not about lying anymore, it's about the ends justifying the means. Perfectly all right for a President to lie now, if it's done in a good cause.
Except lying prevents Americans from making informed judgments about the course of the country, and that's specifically what the administration's lies were designed to do. They were pure propaganda designed to rally the country around the administration agenda, specifically the war in Iraq and the doctrine of preemptive war, and putting now increasingly anonymous American lives on the line to do it.
Now Congress is getting into the act, which could get entertaining. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) were on THE TODAY SHOW this morning pretty much calling for a Congressional investigation, while the Republican head of the Sen. Intelligence Committee was calling instead for a quiet CIA audit of all the facts of the case and letting them make a determination instead. Which could also be interesting. In most cases, that's like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse, but the CIA continually insisted that there was no evidence of any connection between Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda and no credible evidence of significant Iraqi WMDs – until they were ordered by the White House to review their data and come back with a finding in line with what the White House wanted to hear. I'm sure in days to come everything possible will be done to swerve away from this story – the Democrats are sharpening their knives to make it a campaign issue, but these are the Democrats we're talking about, and they can be depended on to use only socially responsible bladeless rubber knives – but the foreign press isn't letting go of it (for obvious reasons that I'm sure quite a few Americans don't understand, the doctrine of pre-emptive war isn't a huge hit overseas), breaks new stories about Administration lies regarding the War (not to mention stories about the Administration's real agendae, something American papers are pretty loathe to touch, since it's tantamount to calling the President – gasp – a liar) so our choices are either to run with the ball or retreat into defiantly willful ignorance. It takes no guess to say which the White House would prefer. What I want to know is whether the "newsmen" who cheerfully swallowed the lies and waved the flag will as cheerfully take their place next to the President when the firing squad loads up.
But I forget: questioning is no longer part of their job.
In other political news, the FCC voted last week to relax laws on corporate ownership of media, thus opening the door to quasi-fascistic corporate mind control over the American public. Like this is something new. The 1996 Telecommunications Act, now nostalgically remembered as the cornerstone of media diversity, was a massive giveaway to corporate interests; the recent ruling just continues a process that's been going on for a long, long time. There's much wailing and gnashing of teeth about single news sources controlling much of the information the "American public" gets. What country have these people been living in? What's changed? Worries about local TV news broadcasts are unfounded – even in a corporate chain, local channels still have to make their nut, and local news is still the biggest draw anywhere for advertisers – and radio news was given up to packing by the likes of Clear Channel Communications, the right wing corporation that controls about 60% of the American radio market and took it upon themselves to fan the anti-Dixie Chicks flames. They didn't need any stinking FCC permission. So what's changed? That the FCC is no longer even pretending they're looking out for our interests? They're not. They never were (and anytime they did, administrations replaced the commissioners). If we want to stop lying in government, we've got to stop buying into the lies, or expecting them.
Anyway, all this ruling will really do is make the Internet an even more invaluable news resource for most people, which is the role it's taking in many lives today.
For those who care about such things, there's a good article by Ishmael Reed about the Iraq War at CounterPunch.
A new spate of Future Comics highlights the company's biggest problem: both FREEMIND #6 ($3.50) and DEATHMASK #2 ($2.99) play as vignettes, parts of some nebulous larger story, and, as a result, they feel weightless, like there aren't really stories there. DEATHMASK in particular remains so much of a vacuum I'm not even sure if the protagonist is Native American or not (last issue I'd've said yes, after this issue no), and what passes for a story in #2 builds around a deathtrap that the hero evades essentially flexing his muscles. No tension or drama at all. Considering Bob Layton and David Micheline are both talented guys and they've been sitting on this concept for 20 years (penciler Dick Giordano's no slouch either) you'd think they'd have this tightly packed by now. But there's no sign of what either hero or villain want, except that they're the good guys and the bad guys, and having the Batmobile drive up out of Lake Mead ain't exactly a spellbinding cliffhanger when there's no tension or jeopardy in the book. FREEMIND's a little better, despite the nonsensically named villain, but it also flounders on too little information about anyone or anything, and becomes essentially a chance to show off Freemind's powers, which is what way too many superhero books are about. The best Future output remains METALLIX, which appears this month in #0 and #5 editions ($3.50@), the former a compendium of the vignettes running in the back of the first four issues with a concluding chapter, and the latter continuing the team's story with, finally, some actual character development and plot movement. That's the main problem with Future Comics so far; they're professionally enough produced and the basic concepts are interesting enough for superhero comics (at least METALLIX and FREEMIND; I have no idea what the concept of DEATHMASK is) but they're playing their cards to close to the vest that whatever energy exists in these books is being sucked right out of them. All the great superhero concepts in the world won't do you any good if there's no energy behind them.
Now that Viz Communications has elected to go to a smaller size of trade paperback, it's a credit to Rumiko Takahashi's elegantly simple art that RANMA ½ VOL. 1 ($9.95) so easily survives the transition. RANMA ½'s a great series, a romance disguised as a modern day martial arts comedy that's the closest thing to Jackie Chan slapstick as can be found outside Jackie Chan movies. Ranma's a teen martial arts master who turns into a girl when he's doused with cold water (his dad turns into a panda; other characters turn into pigs and cats and geese and other, indescribable things) and he finds he was engaged as a boy to a girl named Akane; the story, with all its permutations, is really about the refusal of Ranma and Akane to admit they love each other until the other admits it first. I first read it years ago. It's still hilarious, with really nicely developed characters, and this is the obvious jumping-on point. The smaller size has a psychological effect as well; with the same page length, it seems much thicker than the original, larger edition. But I can think of few American comics that would survive a transition to that size.
Following the success of their adaptation of Hayao Miyazaki's SPIRITED AWAY, Viz is going the same route with Miyazaki's CASTLE IN THE SKY ($9.95). On a strange world, air pirates attack a dirigible to get a young girl's crystal, but she falls to earth and becomes involved with a young boy who harbors and protects her. Fans of SPIRITED AWAY may find echoes in this story, and, like the SPIRITED AWAY adaptation, a single volume is beautiful, with art transposed from the movie, but far too little happens in the 164 pages to be very satisfying. I'd rather have read the whole thing in one volume, or seen the movie.
I saw the X movie, based on the manga, on the Encore Action Channel, and it's pure gibberish, so I was a bit leery about Viz's X/1999: PRELUDE ($9.95), which sets up the manga. The series by studio Clamp is a little confusing, as a young sorcerer named Kamui returns to Tokyo, pursued by other sorcerers intent on testing him and meeting a brother and sister who were once his friends. He also, it seems, "holds the key to the world's future," and that's the point where, I have to say, I tend to lose interest in these things. Something about predestiny does that to me. It's nicely drawn and sparsely written, but it's about on the level of the average issue of X-MEN. So far, anyway.
The weirdest project I've seen lately is Junko Mizuno's reimagining of HANSEL & GRETEL (Viz; $16.95) as a full-color children's book (at least in the drawing style) with nudity. Gretel's a sword-wielding girl in a Sailor Moon outfit and her brother Hansel's a lumpen genius, and they set off to stop an evil monster from eating their town. Very strange. It's either horrible or a work of sheer genius, and I can't quite figure out which. Don't mistake it as a book for little kids, though.
A virtue of this column is that I see things I'd never see otherwise. Topping that list this week is Shane Amaya and Bruno D'Angelo's LORD TAKEYAMA ($3.95; 40 pages, Diamond order code MAY03 2428), a splendidly written and drawn fable by the talents behind PREY and ROLAND: DAYS OF WRATH, which I glowingly reviewed some months back. LORD TAKEYAMA's a deceptively simple story of a never-seen dying Japanese warlord and his attempts to enlist an embittered former samurai for one last mission. Characterization is everything here, and Amaya and D'Angelo handle it well. Worth taking a look at.
The SUPERMAN: ANCIENT BLOOD graphic novel that was partly drawn by Gil Kane and finished by John Buscema is finally done, exquisitely inked by Kevin Nowlan. You can read all about it on Newsarama.
Mike Zeck and I, with Denis Rodier on inks and Kurt Goldzung on coloring, did a crime comic, a mini-series, for Wildstorm called DAMNED a few years back. Widely praised by the seven or eight people who actually saw it, it's now being released by Cyberosia Books in trade paperback in August, with new cover, a brand new six page coda to the story, and lots of behind the scenes art and other materials, so the time to order it's now. The order #'s JUN03 2224, and if you want to find out more about it, click here or here. I suggest you walk into your retailer's and demand it by name (hey, ever notice how "demand" is "DAMNED" spelled sideways?); I suggest something along the lines of "WHERE'S MY DAMNED TRADE PAPERBACK?!!" Say it loud, say it proud. A little anger in your voice couldn't hurt either...
In other career news, my crime-sf comic MY FLESH IS COOL is finally on the verge of being completely drawn after about a year's delay, and with luck should be popping up on the Avatar schedule sometime in the Fall. Work on the second MORTAL SOULS arc should be starting up fairly soon as well. There are a couple setbacks on other projects, but I don't see any reason to burden you with those...
Last week I mentioned how, due mostly to distributor problems, Fantagraphics found itself in dire straits as loans in the tens of thousands of dollars were coming due. Because of a massive rallying of the Internet comics community (you can follow its progress at ¡Journalista!) they're spared that particular crisis, and are heartily thanking everyone they can find, but that's not the same thing as being out of the woods. They've got tons of great product, so, if you can, keep investigating and buying it. Among upcoming projects about The Air Pirates, a collection of Bernie Krigstein comics, and a new collection of Barry Windsor-Smith's work. Let's do what we can to make sure those get published. (And if you don't know who the Air Pirates, Bernie Krigstein or Barry Windsor-Smith are, that's even more reason to support them, because where else are you going to find out?) (And if anyone's got any good ideas on what I could sell to raise thirty or forty thousands dollars, I'd love to hear them. Anything involving body parts does not constitute a good idea.)
Speaking of worthy causes, Jim Vadeboncouer was a fixture of the San Francisco underground comix scene in the early '70s and a bridge between the undergrounds and the "mainstream" of comics, as demonstrated in his early, eclectic, wonderful magazine PROMETHEAN. He currently produces a magazine called IMAGES about illustrative art, and the only thing wrong with it is that nobody knows about it. So go check it out. Order it if it appeals to you. Help him out, and get a great magazine as well.
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.