Master Of The Obvious: Issue #19

Wed, December 8th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

A few years ago I read, back to back, Gillian Gaar's SHE'S A REBEL: The History Of Women In Rock & Roll (Seal Books, 1992) and Lucy O'Brien's SHE BOP: The Definitive History Of Women In Pop, Rock & Soul (Penguin Books, 1996). More complementary than redundant, they tell the same story - a story worth reading - of how women have been a backbone of pop music for decades, and how, for generations, they were almost universally treated as novelties, used, molded against their wills, misdirected, cheated, marginalized and dismissed, while others made millions from their work.

While this is nothing unusual in the music business - African-Americans as a group have historically had it just as bad, and the business has always been infested with rapacious moral vacuums - in these stories, one thing stands out: each generation seems to have been an island to itself. Maybe each artist was an island to herself. Of the women Gaar and O'Brien interviewed, almost every one claimed they had to struggle to get whatever success they had because the women who came before them had managed to accomplish nothing, at least in terms of the status of women within in the business. Yet almost every one of them felt she had broken new ground, and took comfort from knowing she had made things a little easier for those women who would follow. These perceptions repeat over and over, again across several generations, which means almost none of them were really aware of the triumphs of those who preceded, almost none had any noticeable effect. It's only very lately that things have changed in any way, as women pushed their way beyond artistry, into management, and it's too early to tell if those changes will amount to anything or if the new bosses, to show they can do the job, will turn into the old bosses.

This is the story of American pop culture in general. Pop culture ultimately isn't about art, or dreams; it's about money. And Money. I knew a guy in Los Angeles who claimed his grandfather had created one of the more successful comic strips of this century, and that sounded odd, since I'd never heard that name in connection with that comic strip. When I dug up the creator names and braced him with them, he admitted his grandfather paid them to create the comic strip - but that was the true creative act. He didn't see any contradictions, and most likely still doesn't, because from his perspective there are no contradictions. It's the perspective of Money, and while I'd always been vaguely aware of it, that was the first time I'd run into it as its baldest and most unapologetic.

"Pop culture ultimately isn't about art, or dreams; it's about money. And Money."

That women musicians didn't know what happened with or to their predecessors isn't strange. Money doesn't like change, unless it means more money. The music industry is predicated on the absence of a past, the tyranny of Now; at least since 1955 - and they played with it before that, when mass media was still struggling its way out of the womb - it transmuted the impatience of youth and the urge to identity into systematized attention deficit disorder: marketable rebellion. What came before is tainted by pre-existence (unless "rediscovered"), and all that matters is Now. It set the pattern for all media, where history is permissible only as nostalgia. "Now" means "new" less and less; by keeping media in a perpetual timeless state, it promotes the repackaging of the old as the new because no one remembers the old. The truly new is often squeezed out.

The comics industry has never quite sunk to the venal depths of the music industry at its worst, but both share that tin pan alley mentality. Babies of the 30s, me-centric use-'em'-&-lose-'em omnivores desperate to escape their "disreputable" roots, dangling sentiment and dreams like flytrap with no intention of paying off. You can dream if you dream what we want you to drive, but don't imagine dreams are free. There's always a price tag: you have to buy in.

Comics eat their own dead, and discard the traces that way. The history of comics is littered with talents who gave everything for the business, worked on some of the most popular properties ever, and were forgotten or ignored. Bill Finger. Mort Meskin. Gardner Dozier. Joe Maneely. Frank Robbins. Wally Wood. Curt Swan. Hundreds of others. Even Jim Steranko, in his day the most revolutionary force in comics, is now barely remembered, the comics mainstream having sucked up his innovations like The Blob and blindly regurgitating them. Most of these worked far beyond any reasonable capacity because the money in comics was so bad that churning out endless pages was the only way to break even. When I broke in at Marvel in '78, the beginning page rate for writers was $18/page and the high end was barely double that, with no royalties, meaning earnings on a 17 page story (their length then) were $306 in an era when New York rents - and if you weren't established and wanted work, you had to live in New York - started at $1000/mo. Add in pleasantries like food and forget about taxes, and you needed to write five books per month just to break even. Many writers before '78 would have killed for $18/pg, and those writers were well-established.

"The history of comics is littered with talents who gave everything for the business, worked on some of the most popular properties ever, and were forgotten or ignored."

Now and then I hear fans wishing for a return to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when artists turned out two books per month instead of one every other month or less. That Jack Kirby drew so much proves it can be done. Of course it can be done but who wants to do it? Jack drew that much because it was the only way he could earn a living. I've talked to Gil Kane about this, and Gil, along with Jack and Joe Kubert, used to have a rep for tying as fastest artist in comics. He drew that quickly because it was the only way he could earn a living, but he hated working at that speed. Everyone does, particularly if they have any pretenses toward creativity. At that speed, there's no time to be creative, only time to get the work done, and whatever's creative about it is more accident than design. It's not impossible to work at high speed today - I know several artists who stew themselves into a white heat and then blaze through pages, solving as many problems as possible before they start - but there's a vast difference between choosing to work at breakneck speed and having to. When fans wish a return to the past, they're also wishing for a return to the conditions of the past, and if they understood those conditions they wouldn't wish it.

Or maybe they would. Stars are a relatively recent phenomenon in comics; even the "stars" here have never been sure how to handle it. It's almost a joke now how some talent ascends to "stardom," feels his audience is secured, takes two or three years off to bask in the glory, and comes back to find no one remembers him. Most fans are, understandably, only there if you produce, usually on a familiar character. This makes a lot of sense. What mass media appeals to is loneliness, it offers something big to latch onto. Music has always been a secondary concern to the music industry; what the music industry really sells is the idea that you'll never sleep with a rock star, so the music is as close to them as you're ever going to get. It's hard to imagine sleeping with comics talent would ever be that much of a challenge. It's the characters you'd never get to first base with. The sex lives of movie stars pass for hours and hours of entertainment in the media, but nobody cares about the bit players. In comics, all talent are bit players.

Girls to Grrrlz

But bit players are what history is made of. Where are the histories of comics, the memoirs, the exegeses? Every other field of media crawls with them these days, but comics histories remain few. The few that exist are either character encyclopedias, ax-grinding masquerading as historical record, assemblages of myth masquerading as historical record, or too general to be more than a basic introduction to the field. Only a handful, like Trina Robbins' FROM GIRLS TO GRRRLZ: A History Of Female Comics From Teens To Zines (Chronicle Books, 1999), cover less familiar material and give a new perspective to the past. Real understanding of even the most renowned talents in comics is often truncated by their own legends. (It's rarely mentioned, for instance, that Will Eisner, truly one of the greatest, most progressive talents ever in comics, also gave us the comics sweatshop - possibly his most lasting "contribution" to the field - and paeans to his work rarely mention the hordes who played a huge part in his success, like Bob Powell or Jerry Grandinetti. None of this suggests Eisner is an evil or amoral man - he's not - only that his real story has yet to be properly told, and put in informative perspective.) Meanwhile, hundreds of stories - not of the characters but of the people behind them - die off, or are forgotten or dismissed, and new talent entering the field make the same bad decisions, the same mistakes, take the same wrong turns, tacitly encouraged to sneer at "the old guys" while constantly pushed - often pushing is unnecessary - to lift from the work of those same "old guys."

Of course, there's no percentage to Money to have those stories in circulation. There's no particular benefit in people inside the industry having a broad knowledge of their cultural past except in the most aesthetic sense. There's a perceived benefit to more or less interchangeable workforce eager and willing to produce to suit, and that's all Money really cares about.

This isn't likely to change anytime soon. The women of popular music give us a cue: change will only come when we infiltrate the group running to show to the correct extent - another reason for talent to become their own management. We need to know our history not to regurgitate the past but to avoid duplicating it, both in the material and in our lives. We need to build on the past, on the successes and the failures, instead of playing the same tune again and again and again. This is called progress. If the medium is going to advance, we need, ultimately, to wrest it from Money, at least for blocks of time, or convince Money that it's in their best interests to leave us alone.

"If the medium is going to advance, we need, ultimately, to wrest it from Money,"

The newly-announced Gorilla line seems a step in the right direction. The talent involved have carved out a novel financial arrangement, and threaten to strike out from their standard work. If successful, it could be a working model for other such alliances. We need all the alternatives we can get.

In a cramped theater in Milwaukee in 1978, I saw Patti Smith climb dance atop huge, wobbly stage speakers and pound out her version of Van Morrison's "Gloria" on an electric guitar. She ended by screeching, "We created it, now let's take it over!"

Let's.

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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