Master Of The Obvious: Issue #17

Wed, November 24th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

From 1977-1984, I interviewed musicians for a living. It wasn't much of a living, but records were part of the job and I walked everywhere, so all I had to pay for was movies, rent and food, and I wasn't yet old enough to get tired of living hand to mouth. Starting in Wisconsin and continuing to New York, where I landed at TROUSER PRESS magazine, I did dozens of interviews, from Nick Lowe to The Ramones to Brian Eno to Killing Joke. I gave up in '84, after interviewing Tears For Fears. They were pleasant guys, intelligent. It was a fun chat. But I was reciting their answers in my head, word for word, even as I asked the questions. Before they spoke. It had been happening every interview for six months at that point, and not because I'm telepathic, nor because I kept asking the same questions. It was The Script.

No one writes The Script. It's a set of culturally (usually unconsciously) acceptable responses. In the rock world, The Script is rebellion, and while it originally sprang from inchoate resistance to a neutered conformity (and often only half-hearted resistance at that), as soon as the world didn't end and people showed a willingness to spend money on rebellion, it was quickly institutionalized. That rebellion exists in our culture only as commodity is no secret; it's no longer a matter of what you think but what jacket you wear, in iconography now almost 50 years old. I think it was critic Jon Savage who summed up rock's version of rebellion as "My dad's a boring old fart, I hate my dad, I hate you, I want to kick your face in." By 1984 we were already several generations (in music marketing terms) removed from The Sex Pistols, and whatever was left in music of their inspired anarchism was washed over by predictable if earnest dance pop generated by groups like Tears For Fears, but the language hadn't changed. To hear every group positioning itself as The New Individualistic Rebels - and meaning it! - beat me down. I knew The Script by heart, and so did they. After Tears For Fears - it could have been anyone! - I told Ira I wasn't doing any more interviews. A few months later, having watched the music scene shift from power pop he loved to increasingly generic dance groups all the record companies were pushing like nothing else existed, Ira decided he didn't want to play anymore and shut down the magazine rather than turn it into the upscale 80s version of TIGER BEAT.

"The Script is what you get when enterprises of great pith and moment turn awry, and lose the name of action."

The Script is what you get when enterprises of great pith and moment turn awry, and lose the name of action. Every medium, every business, has their own Script. Read practically any interview coming out of Hollywood, compare a few of them, and it takes no effort to figure out what Hollywood's Script is. All cases amount to the same thing: The Script is the ultimate marketing gimmick, the lie that can be told so that no one has to say they just want the money, blather repeated so frequently and by so many it's mistaken for consensus.

Dave Olbrich, when he was editor-in-chief at Malibu Comics, was fond of saying "perception is reality." Meaning it really doesn't matter what the truth is, whatever people think is the truth becomes the truth. Dave's perception crashed into reality when his company was yanked out from under him and sold to Marvel, but his aphorism defined The Script that every company has worked from since the days when Stan Lee put Marvel over with an omnibus of glib catch phrases and a wink. Stan's method was to be so over the top with his self-promotion (and of the company, of course, since Stan clearly worked so hard to blur the lines between himself and Marvel) that it was funny, a joke the reader could conspiratorially get involved with. Now nobody's joking, and they haven't been for 20 years.

Comics marketing has become a desperate, somber business. In many ways, it's expected to be no different from marketing any other product, on much less (in many cases, no) money than other businesses lay out for promotion. The marketing Script goes This Is Big! This Is Worth Your While! This Is Worth Your Money! Meanwhile, the range of comics marketing basically covers the same ground as at the dawn of comics: you try to get a book onto the shelves where customers will hopefully see them, and if you're very lucky, you get a house ad that will go in other books. When was the last time you saw a full page ad for comics in TV GUIDE or PLAYBOY? Likeā€¦ never?

"..., the only lasting marketing innovation of the last 20 years is Diamond's PREVIEWS, a dizzying, virtually unreadable compilation of ad blurbs..."Previews

With WIZARD no noticeable marketing force in the business anymore (and an arguably tenuous force at the height of its influence) and all its competitors long ago vanished, the only lasting marketing innovation of the last 20 years is Diamond's PREVIEWS, a dizzying, virtually unreadable compilation of ad blurbs that sells its cover space to the highest bidder, virtually ensuring that nothing risky or unusual gets a sales push over the tried and familiar.

So it doesn't surprise me that marketing is a tense occupation these days. It doesn't surprise me that marketing departments focus principally on established company franchises. They survive on a shell game: push what you know sells, then credit the sales to your efforts. Who can prove them wrong, especially when what they don't push fails? It's been known to drive editors and talent nuts. I don't blame the marketing departments a bit, because what else can they do? They've got next to nothing to work with, including the product.

Because, let's face it, most comics aren't very good, but we're not supposed to say that. It's not in The Script. While in some quarters, talent ripping on the work of other talent is something of a spectator sport, fueling feuds and juicy gossip, we're not supposed to admit our own fallibility, that we may have produced something that didn't quite live up to our vision of it. We're all marketers now, self-promoters, and no one winks anymore. (The best guy I ever saw at self-promotion was Mike Baron - the author of many entertaining series - who would stand before a crowd and push his work with Barnumesque conviction I could never even dream of matching.) With most marketing resources spent pushing franchises, the only choices open to talent are self-promotion or obscurity, and the former doesn't necessarily ward off the latter.

With the rise of a star system in the 80s, it became unfortunately commonplace for people to want to enter comics not to express a point of view but to become stars. (A syndrome Howard Chaykin described as "the world's tallest midget.") All of us want to be stars, of course. All of us want the money and relative ease of life that comes with it. There's nothing wrong with wanting money; in a society where money determines the parameters of your life, not wanting it borders on insane. The Script means never having to say you want the money, or the fame. (And there's nothing wrong with wanting the money and the fame. It's only wrong if all you want is the money and the fame, and you don't want to do what it takes to earn it.) The Script says your comic is the greatest comic ever done, a precise exposition of your vision, a masterpiece that no right thinker could bear to do without. Now that's promotion.

To not say it, to suggest your work perhaps isn't the pinnacle of human achievement, is perceived as weakness, doubt. Betrayal. Fail the script and you fail marketing. Fail marketing, and you fail those who have put their money behind you.

"It's only comics" is something of an anthem these days."

The Script goes schizoid, though. On the one hand told to take comics seriously enough to spend money on them, the reader is also told that taking comics seriously is demented, that comics are a lark, a laugh, they should be enjoyed simply as what they are, and anyone who suggests otherwise is subjected to enough abuse that they either fall in with the parade or get off the field. "It's only comics" is something of an anthem these days.

But there's very little to laugh about with comics anymore. As 1999 draws to a close, the business is in very, very deep trouble. The industry rests on a froth of hype that the content rarely ever matches, and while people will tolerate that for awhile, no one puts up with it for long. Again, it comes down to content. You build a business on what's not there. The only really good form of promotion remains word of mouth, but who can hear it against a perpetual din of lukewarm products all screaming for attention with the same interchangeable, meaningless words? Who wants to put up with the din at all?

Speaking of self-promotion, STONE COLD STEVE AUSTIN #2 should be out from Chaos Comics by now, and Dark Horse should have OUT FOR BLOOD #3 available mid-next week. Oh, and X-MAN will be pinnacle of human achievement when Warren, Tim, Ariel, Jason and I get done with it. Honest! You can trust me! My middle name is Donald, not Irony!

I'm starting work on a Whisper novel called DAY X. Nothing to do with mutants. More as it progresses, including where you can see the first couple chapters when they're ready. Stay tuned.

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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