Master Of The Obvious: Issue #26

Wed, January 26th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

[Phil Ochs]
Phil Ochs

It's no surprise to anyone who knows me that Phil Ochs remains one of my favorite musicians. Phil, beaten down by life, politics and alcohol, hung himself in 1976 off his sister's bathroom door, but in his time he wrote some terrific songs. (And, yeah, some crappy songs too, but, as Iggy sings, you got to take a little bad with the good.) Whenever anyone interviews me and asks about my influences, the only writer I ever list is Phil Ochs. I'd heard lots of music before I heard Phil, but Phil was the first person to show me that words could be used as weapons. Which greatly appealed to me. (My other big influence is Lee Harvey Oswald. Not because I learned anything from him or care to emulate him - let's face it, the guy was skeevy at best - but because, whether he pulled the trigger or not, he was this huge reality landmine, and it's hard now, in a culture inundated with the fallout, to understand just how big that explosion was. The results are today so assimilated into the cultural landscape I can easily understand why a lot of people wonder what all the fuss was about.)

Phil was perhaps best known for his antiwar songs, but he got tired of writing them. They culminated in one of his best songs, "The War Is Over." According to the liner notes on the fabulous Farewells And Fantasies collection (Rhino/Elektra Traditions), "the song grew out of an offhanded remark by Allen Ginsberg to John Carpenter of the Los Angeles Free Press. Demonstrating the Buddhist logic for which he was famous, the poet suggested that the paper simply declare the Vietnam War over and see what happened." Ochs comments - almost rabidly patriotic in feel and sentiment, the song also suggests

"right before the end


even treason might be worth a try


this country is too young to die"

- "I believe there is something inherent in the fibre of America worth saving, and that the fortunes of the entire world may well ride on the ability of young Americans to face the responsibilities of an old America gone mad." Phil was nothing if not grandiose. But we all need grandiosity in our lives now and then.

We don't admit it often, but we tend to view pop culture, comics included, as a war: a war for the popular imagination. Wars are caused not by ideology but by finity, the unacceptable surety that resources have their limits, the universe can't go on expanding forever, and sooner or later death - never as pretty as a blanched teenaged Goth girl - will come for us too. Or, rather, by the lust to escape finity. Western civilization has been molded by the philosophy that if you accumulate enough stuff, you can buy your way past the human condition. (I'm reminded of Rorschach's comment in WATCHMEN: "Nice idea if you can afford to go first class, with pharaohs… but judging from our departures, most of us travel steerage.") If you hit the limit of your resources, grab them somewhere else, and if that somewhere else belongs to someone else, well, they don't deserve what they've got like we do. (Which doesn't make us superior or inferior to other cultures; all have their own delusions of eluding finity.) Ideology's just the pretense for war. Crusades may start in the urge to save Byzantium from the unbelievers, but they end by looting Byzantium of its riches and leaving it to be crushed.

"Western civilization has been molded by the philosophy that if you accumulate enough stuff, you can buy your way past the human condition."

Pop culture has always been defined not by art but by money. No one thinks in terms of the limits of pop art, only in terms of how much money it draws, but art is a far more limited commodity than money is. To some extent, pop culture's about the elimination of art as a variable in commerce. This was Andy Warhol's message when he founded The Factory to convert what had always been thought of as art into very expensive merchandise; he figured out the game - that despite the various tags there's essentially no practical difference between fine art and pop culture - and beat them at it.

So pop culture is war. The victor gets all the money. The loser used to get cast on the roadside, but these days they're more likely to end up absorbed: pod people. Mergers are the empire-builders of the day: AOL and Time-Warner devouring each other to make a bigger, better war machine to get Bugs Bunny into your home. (It's funny how, when mergers are announced, pundits and journalists keep hauling out the new stock phrase, "For consumers, it's a win-win situation!")

Comics companies have gone increasingly warlike over the last twenty years. Marvel in particular pushed the notion of market domination; it was the driving force of their approach toward the direct sales market and comics shops. Their operating philosophy was that people went into comics shops to buy Marvels and weren't interested in any other comics. Some editors often suggested that if you were any good as a writer or artist, you'd already be working for Marvel. Contrarily, it wasn't unusual for some editors to try to lure over DC talent (or stop talent from jumping) by suggesting "in confidence" that Marvel was about to buy DC, and those already working at Marvel would end up in a much better position. But this sort of thing was already implied in the Marvel rule book from the moment Stan Lee first uttered the term "brand ecch" and started shifting the marketing focus away from individual characters, properties or talent to create the perception of Marvel as a brand name. He wasn't trying to create Spider-Man fans, he certainly wasn't trying to create comic book fans. He was creating Marvel fans, and that style served the company pretty well for a few decades. Marvel's marketing style in the direct era consisted almost exclusively (and fairly successfully) of parlaying the Marvel name to the exclusion of everyone and everything else. DC, still playing by the old rules, always wrestling with internal factionalism that made the company incapable of Marvel's monomania, couldn't do much more than carve niches in the side of the rock. Smaller companies were even less capable. Marvel controlled the language and the pace of the direct sales market, and they dominated less by quality of product than by forcing the rest of the market to play their game, with the odds weighted toward the house. Whatever other brand names they generated - Frank Miller or John Byrne, for instance - were little more than ways for other companies to capitalize on Marvel's success.

It wasn't uncommon for the average person to think all comics were published by Marvel. What always burned the company is that it wasn't uncommon for the average person to think Marvel published Superman and Batman. (It burns DC, too.) If they'd stayed on their own little battlefield, they'd still be the dominant force in comics today, maybe the only force; even badly wounded from years of crisis, they still come close. Nobody else has been able to generate a brand name. TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES came close, but it didn't spill over to the other Laird/Eastman ventures. LOVE AND ROCKETS put Fantagraphics on the map, but it didn't make them a household word. The only way the market war escalated was when seven Marvel talents pulled a Warhol and decided to play Marvel's game better than Marvel, with Image, and that was a business move, not an artistic break. But Image is now back down in the trenches with everyone else. Marvel's big salvo was the push onto new battlegrounds, as new owner Ron Perelman forced the company onto the stock market with dreams of using it as the basis for a Disney-challenging entertainment empire. Marvel's attempt to monopolize the industry by forcing dealers through an alternate distribution system that allowed no competitors (carrying the premise that Marvels were the comics customers went into stores for and all other purchases were flukes on Marvel's dime to its logical conclusion: if Marvels had to be ordered separately and dealers ordered from the Marvel catalog first, presumably spending the bulk of their budgets there, other companies would be forced out) came ten years too late. By that time, the massive overflow of Marvel titles, combined with the enticements of Image and other new product, had made being a Marvel completist impossible, and the completist mentality reinforced for years by Marvel was such that if they couldn't have it all, they didn't see the point of having any of it. Once the Marvel name collapsed (though it's far from completely collapsed) that was the ball game. When the Marvel pillar went soft, the industry did too, and now we're in a long war of attrition and survival.

"The only way the market war escalated was when seven Marvel talents pulled a Warhol and decided to play Marvel's game better than Marvel, with Image, and that was a business move, not an artistic break."

Don't kid yourselves. It's still a war. It was a war in the early 90s when everyone developed a scorched earth policy toward the readers: get their money and get it now. It's like salting Carthage then still expecting the crops to come up there in the spring. (A dealer friend of mine tells me that the trading card industry is currently collapsing for the same reason, prices rising ridiculously for no reason other than greed as they focus on collectors items and chase cards, instead of the core product.) Companies still view the situation as war, and no side wants to blink before any other sides do. It's just the ingrown etiquette of the business that keeps anyone from calling it a war. They still like to view it as a war to become Media Icons and Entertainment Superpowers, even as they're reduced to living in muddy, barren trenches and subsisting on roots and grubs. (Though that's not what people in the comics business mean when they talk about going back to their roots, that's what they're doing.)

Tipping my hat to Phil, I declare the war is over.

We in comics like to act as if the current industry recession (spelled C-O-L-L-A-P-S-E) is something that happened to us, instead of something we did to ourselves. We like failure. We like to wallow in failure. It's perversely comforting to think we're doing our best but the audiences just won't be drawn in, that we fought The Good Fight but the odds were just too great. That, in the end, we can at least say we stuck to our guns, and we have nothing to be ashamed of.

Screw that.

The war is over. Everyone lost. Time to raise the white flag and get on with our lives. It's been over a decade since the business started shifting toward special event publishing, and if you ask dealers and marketers, it's the only material the audience pays much attention to. So why hasn't it become the key focus of comics publishing yet? Warren Ellis announced on his forum that DC has had great success with paperbacks in the last year, and TRANSMETROPOLITAN sells only 19,000 or so copies in comics form but he gets very nice sized royalty checks on the trade paperback collections. So where's the company with the sense to do comics with the goal of eventual trade paperback publication, instead of using weak comics sales to judge the trade potential of material never really aimed at the direct sales market? An old joke springs to mind, about the moron who was going to make a name for himself by swimming the Atlantic Ocean, but got halfway across, decided he couldn't make it, and swam back.

The war is over. Comics as we knew them are dead, and most of what we see before us in the comics market are zombie crawling around ala NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, stutteringly seeking brains to eat. That doesn't mean comics are dead. Comics won't die. Companies die, systems die, characters will fade into obscurity, but that's a natural process. Things die. It happens. Things change. You adapt or you die. As Stuart Brand once wrote, to an anaerobic organism, oxygen is death. It's time we started breathing again.

"Comics as we knew them are dead, and most of what we see before us in the comics market are zombie crawling around ala NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, stutteringly seeking brains to eat."

The Internet holds some hope, though I didn't used to think so. I've seen a lot of Internet startups stumbling around, trying to see how much they can be what's already failing in the business. Stan Lee is trying to turn his own name into an Internet brand name, while there's minimal emphasis on anything resembling a product besides his name. A lot of companies are struggling to become brand names, refusing to see the Internet isn't going to work that way. I had the interesting experience this week of dealing with an Internet startup that emphasized the need for all staff to be "in-house." In-house? This is the Internet. You don't even need a house. One comics-related startup has been spending ridiculous amounts of money to promote themselves and buy up competing sites. But the Internet was made for slow builds. Conceiving of it as a new battlefield is missing the point: if there's unlimited land, everyone can have their own plot - unless your only idea of territory worth having is what someone else has got.

The Internet allows things to be done cheaply and quickly. The operating theory so far seems to be that no one will pay attention to anything on the Internet unless it moves, so Flash movies and other animations have been trying to nick the name of comics, but it's unnecessary. With most ISPs giving sizable free websites with every account, anyone can publish their own comics - write them, draw them, letter them, color them, publish them - on the web. What's simpler than a comics page. (Maybe adjusted for screen proportions instead of comic book proportions, but we can adapt.) It's the great democratizer of the business. And when I hear from people who want to do it that way, they all seem to want to duplicate what already exists in the failing comics market. What's that about?

There's room on the Internet for all kinds of comics, and all kinds of ideas. Sites of sufficient quality and interest will get known if someone's willing to stick with it. There's no need to make it a battleground. But if it is a war, it's a war currently being fought with gimmicks and empty forms. What the companies currently trying to invade the Internet don't grasp - maybe can't grasp - is that whoever focuses on the content first wins. If it's not the same tired content that bored everyone right out of the comics market to begin with.

That's a new possibility: Internet publishing of all kinds of material leading to trade paperback collection, liberated from current distribution and marketing systems. That's the new face of comics, in the decade ahead. We can all swim for that shore.

Or we can decide we can't make it, and swim back.

Either way, the war is over.

Just picked up a number of assignments I'll be mentioning in coming weeks, but, speaking of the Internet, I'll be starting up a new Internet magazine in March called @VENTURE. (www.atventure.com is where it will be, but there's nothing there yet.) It'll be a fiction magazine publishing prose stories by comic book writers, ranging from vignettes to serialized novels - with no restrictions on genre or style. Mike Baron, Dan Brereton and David Quinn have already submitted stories and I'm in touch with a number of comics writers, all of whom have been enthusiastic so far. The magazine is open to all published comic book writers (sorry, you unpublished writers or writers in other media, that's the sole determining criterion, and if you don't fit it, we can't accept stories from you) so if I haven't contacted you, it's only because I don't know how to. If you're a published comic book writer and are interested, please e-mail me for details. If you're not a published writer, please don't e-mail me. I'll send out a formal press release on @VENTURE in the next couple of weeks.

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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