Master Of The Obvious: Issue #34

Wed, March 22nd, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Tales from my year of shame:

In 1989, I was living in Los Angeles and pretty much severed from the New York comics world. Mike Zeck and I were still putting out the occasional Punisher graphic novel (okay, one). I was still writing for First Comics but they were fading fast. (I could tell you the exact page where First turned the corner toward oblivion, but it would insult too many people whose work has since improved very nicely.) I'd been writing mini-comics for Mattel to insert into MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE toys and the like while trying to edge my way into film and TV (as is often the case in Hollywood, production companies and shows had a way of going belly up seconds after I got through the door) but the action figure market was bottoming out for awhile and that cushy gig was coming to an end.

Animation was a logical market, and many comics writers relocating to Los Angeles automatically took it up. I wasn't keen on it. At the time, if you worked in animation, life-action producers usually held you in contempt. (This has changed somewhat since, with the rising success of animated features over the last ten years, but then, mostly due to all the good press comics were getting from DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, WATCHMEN, LOVE AND ROCKETS and other hip properties of the time, you were better off saying you wrote POWER MAN - IRON FIST than if you said you wrote INSPECTOR GADGET.) To some extent, this was because animation deals were generally so bad animation writers were considered boobs for taking them. The animation pecking order has a very wide bottom and a very narrow top - Mark Evanier, who pretty much is the top, can verify this - and in the late '80s, those on the bottom (read: almost everyone, but particularly newcomers) got crapped on big time. I know of one major company that regularly budgeted their shows, to networks, with a $10,000 - $15,000 allowance for writing on each episode, claiming they needed that much to hire the best talent, then paid the writers $1500-3000 per episode and the producers pocketed the rest. This went on for years. The networks all knew it. The writers all knew it. The production company never put much effort into hiding it. For all I know, it's still going on, in the world of television cartoons.

So I stayed away from cartoons, for the most part. Steve Gerber was a story editor for Sunbow, the animation wing of Hasbro, producers of the GI JOE cartoon, had invited me to come up and discuss writing an episode (a particularly gracious gesture, I always thought, in light of my trashing his creation Omega - on orders from management is my only defense for it - on my way into the comics business when I was young and naďve). I never did write one (Sunbow was among those places that shut its doors about as soon as I passed through them) but there I met Flint Dille, heir to the Buck Rogers fortune (yes, there is a Buck Rogers fortune) and also looking for a new direction, and I have to say I smelled blood. Or, more to the point, money.

I've talked about money before, and whoever said money makes the world go round wasn't kidding. Love of money may be the root of all evil, but I don't love money, I just need it. Like almost all freelancers. Leonard Cohen's got a line in one of his early songs that goes, "Like any dealer he was watching for the card that is so high and wild he'll never need to deal another," and that's freelancers all over. The best most of us can manage is to eke out a living but the dream of that big score, that major breakthrough that puts pain and hunger for money behind us, that great coup that finally allows us the control to proceed as we wish (or, as I like to put it, to fail on our own terms), that dream is always with us. That dream is what keeps most of us going, even as it further and further recedes. While for some it means creating one property so fabulously successful and marketed that you and your children and your children's children to the nth generation will never have to work again (TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, anyone?), since most freelancers have all kinds of ideas and simply want a secure berth to present them from, in comics terms this dream is usually expressed as: your own company.

[Those Annoying Post Bros.]

There are very few freelancers who don't secretly dream of having their own comics company, the way screenwriters and actors dream about having their own production companies. Somewhere you can disseminate not only your own work but other work you really like. (Personally, I'd love to be able to keep Matt Howarth's THOSE ANNOYING POST BROS. alive and bring back writer-artist George Metzger from wherever he's been these past two decades.) "Your own company" also strips out those nasty existential dilemmas, like being forced to surrender rights and control to your creations in order to put food on the table. (Bible fans may remember how the starving Esau was pressured into surrendering his birthright of leading the chosen people to his brother Jacob for a handful of beans, or bowl of porridge depending on the translation, knowing that the birthright didn't mean squat if he didn't survive to enjoy it.) There are periodically movements to drive wedges between "freelancers" and "creators" in comics, but the distinction is negligible. There isn't one "creator" in any field anywhere today who isn't a businessman as well, because that's what it demands now. While emulating Mozart and Rembrandt is a noble pursuit in some respects, I don't know anyone who particularly wants to die in misery, obscurity and abject poverty like they did, and the notion that "creators" should inherently be above leaving a financial legacy for their own children while their "patrons'" heirs are well-supported by creators' work is medieval.

"While emulating Mozart and Rembrandt is a noble pursuit in some respects, I don't know anyone who particularly wants to die in misery, obscurity and abject poverty like they did…"

Anyway, money. When I met Flint, I seized the opportunity to enlist him in starting a new comics company. Living on an allowance from the family estate as well as his earnings, he didn't have tons of money (he lived pretty nicely, though), but his sister owned a little company they liked to call TSR Inc. (Home of DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS, now part of the Wizards Of The Coast empire, which is now part of the Hasbro empire, which sort of brings things full circle in a twisted and utterly pointless way.) Given that comics were on the rise at the time, the TSR people were pretty excited about the possibility of their own comics company. My pal and I discussed it over many lunches and meetings. I brought in my friend Brad Munson, an expert on publishing who then worked for RADIO AND RECORDS, and Brad and I put together a business plan for what we'd like a comics company to be.

TSR fed a number of game markets, most untapped by the comics market but with some promise of crossover. We broke things down into five categories and created one book for each, so that the line would start with four titles, enough for market presence, but not so many they'd go piranhic on the budget. The idea was to grow the line by pyramiding, based around arcs: each book would start with a four issue arc clearly establishing the premise and the main characters. Following that would come another four issue arc in which a major secondary character would be introduced, and in the month concurrent with the fourth part of that arc, the new character/concept would be spun off into its own book. The arc structure would allow stories to complete even if the title was a flop, permitting easy collection later on if desired. Each new title would then be similarly used to generate a spinoff within its first eight months, so that four regular titles might turn into eight by the end of the first year, sixteen the second, etc., as far as the market would bear.

The initial titles were the obligatory space opera BUCK ROGERS; the pulp action hero AGENT 13; a science fiction book specifically tooled for war gamers called WARHAWKS, in which time traveling cops hunted escaped future war criminals on the scenes of history's greatest battles; and an anthology horror title called R.I.P. There was no "universe" linking the books, but a fifth book was added called INTRUDER, whose eponymous hero had the ability to shift across realities, and who was supposed to be the link between the various worlds, as well as the D&D world, to the extent we could use it, since DC was licensing some D&D properties at the time.

The company structure was to be odd as well: no editors. Editors are problematic in comics, made necessary only by the factory mentality of most companies. There's a sect among comics pundits (to the extent such a creature exists beyond me, I mean) that touts the editor as natural undisputed lord and master of all he surveys, but I doubt any editor feels that way. Mostly they seem to feel besieged by intrusive demands from higher editors, marketing departments, publishers, parents' groups, talent, etc., and by endless strings of pointless meetings and other business obligations that do little more than infringe on their abilities to get their books out on schedule. There aren't all that many editors with any particular skill in that department to begin with. Few have any special training for their job, but, especially in the major companies but increasingly in the minors as well, pressure is often on them to be (or at least appear to be) the major creative influence on the titles they edit. If your editor is Harvey Kurtzman or Archie Goodwin, that can be made to work okay. But Kurtzman's talent was so meticulous and apparent that by all accounts it was the sheer unified logic of his vision that seduced talent into wanting to work with him, that surety that if you worked with Kurtzman you weren't only working with the best but you would produce your best. Archie, in contrast, rarely imposed his own vision on a book. Instead, he hired the most appropriate talent available and where necessary helped them sculpt their own vision.

"Editors are problematic in comics, made necessary only by the factory mentality of most companies … there aren't all that many editors with any particular skill in that department to begin with."

Creative vision is anathema to many editors not just because that sort of spark is just plain rare in everyone, but also because most editors don't have time for it. Whatever they may aspire to, in many cases they're really little more than glorified traffic managers. Which, in a perfect world, is what they should be. If the talent is any good, it only needs the slightest direction. The editor's real creative role today, aside from shuffling pages, is to rein in work to keep it on message with the publisher's often vanilla standards.

I've mostly been blessed with editors I get along with very well. I don't dislike most of them, and I don't begrudge them their jobs. I'm less tolerant of editors who make major changes to work without consulting the talent involved and then stick the talent's name on it anyway, without explanation, to let the talent twist in the results, like what recently happened to Scott Lobdell on GEN-13 #50. Overall I don't have personal problems with editors. It's the theory of editors I'm shaky on.

So we dropped the concept of "editor" and replaced them with "project manager." Who were also freelancers, paid by the project, conveying the creative director's expectations to the talent and following up regularly to bring the work in on schedule and ready for publication.

Which isn't that different from editors, except that they had no creative input into the work, and, from a legal standpoint, they weren't salaried employees of the company. The fact is that most editorial work on any one project doesn't take eight hours a day, and even the several books most editorial offices put out shouldn't eat up as much time as editors spend in offices. There's no point in paying for a lot of editorial office space. Most editors could be far more productive if they worked out of their houses and did everything by phone, fax and e-mail. Of course, as freelancers, they wouldn't have pensions and benefits, but neither do most of the talent who work for them. They wouldn't get a paycheck regardless of results, only when specific projects were successfully completed. In most companies, most editorial time is eaten up by meetings that exist to provide the illusion that someone's accomplishing something. (Also true in most companies in America, from what I'm told.) In terms of company function, regardless of stated duties, editors exist to provide slave presences at meetings.

Our way paid the project managers nicely, probably as much as an editor would make inclusive of benefits, doing a similar amount of work. But it was a nice little bit for the bankers to see. On paper, we had stripped down the operating costs for the company to next to nothing. I'm told most bankers don't get very excited by business plans. I'm told ours sent the bankers who saw it into dances of joy.

And before I knew it, I had my own comics company. Sort of.

I should say that Flint wasn't stupid by any stretch. While we liked each other fine, he knew I was using him. I knew he was using me. Neither of us went into this blind.

But I forgot Shooter's Law. (In my defense, this was before Valiant or Defiant, so it wasn't even formulated then, but logic dictates I should have seen it coming.) If it isn't your money, it isn't your company.

Repeat that: if it isn't your money, it isn't your company.

It was amazing how quickly it all fell apart. It was fascinating to watch.

DC was the first problem, though I don't think DC knew it. They were licensing D&D product. Out of the blue, TSR announced that all D&D material was completely off-limits, something they probably knew from the start but never told us. They suddenly panicked that DC might take exception to their publishing comic books, so the format started shifting and the cumbersome term "comics modules," ala game modules, was enforced on all promotion. Meeting after meeting ate up time that should have been applied to producing material to be published, but efforts were thrown completely into marketing instead. Though we had included in the business plan an overview of comics marketing and how to approach it, TSR started instituting advice from their book distributor, Random House, instead. Not that Random House isn't a great book publisher, but comics market experts they're not.

I should have seen it coming. Brad and I were both stunned when high level TSR execs were impressed by our "project manager" concept not because it saved the company money or replaced editors but because it suggested the apparently novel concept that a single person ensure projects were completed on time and on budget. Seriously. Our jaws hit the floor. We couldn't stop talking about it for weeks afterward. The business plan also pressed the concept of creator-owned concepts - we wanted to do real creator-owned concepts - and the company kept saying that was an interesting idea "for the future." At the time I thought it might have been a little too New Deal for a family whose fortunes rested on a property bought into existence by their grandfather, but in the interim, I've come to understand when most companies talk about creator-owned comics, they're lying. Even those who still publish creator-owned concepts more and more want rights and controls that effectively turn creators into the traditional serfs on their own land if granted.

"… I've come to understand when most companies talk about creator-owned comics, they're lying."

Then I remember the luncheon when they asked me if it was a good idea to hire Jim Shooter to be editor-in-chief. (I think I said, "Um… if that's what you want.")

By the time I drove home from a Random House sales meeting in Costa Mesa in October '89 that announced TSR-West Comics, I knew the company was finished. It didn't open its doors until mid-October. I stayed around until January in hope that the situation would improve, but it was a runaway train by that point. There was a brief time when I though Flint was a bad guy, but he was under enormous pressure to prove himself; we had a difference in style that was bound to explode sooner or later. Had he, as editor-in-chief, had the luxury of approaching things in his own way at his own speed, things might have worked out differently. We'll never know.

Financially, it worked out pretty well for me: for some reason TSR refused to negotiate a single settlement but kept buying me out point by point, usually demanding I take far more money that I would have settled for. It kept me afloat for months, but had they just spoken to me they could have saved themselves tens of thousands of dollars. The books finally started to appear (I kept writing INTRUDER, the concept of which immediately went to hell when no concepts from any other TSR properties were allowed in it, turning it into a vacuum that it took me five issues to overcome, the storyline for the first four issues set in stone except for the parts I was forced to leave out) and had all the impact of a peanut shell hitting the moon. Intended to bridge and unify markets, the "comics module" concept managed to alienate both sides of the equation, maybe because there had been no marketing explaining it. Mostly relegated to gaming modules shelves in Waldenbooks, given close to no promotion in the comics market, the books couldn't be found even by the handful of fans who wanted them. Steve Gerber, Hildy Mesnik and Elliot S! Maggin all had frustrating stints as creative director during the company's short life. Talent like Roy Thomas, Marv Wolfman and Peter Ledger put a lot of work into the books but TSR-West's releases, though not terrible, were forgettable at best. At a time when comics were close to as hot as they've ever been, the company came and went without causing so much as a ripple.

That was my year of shame: the company that never should have been. It had its upsides. It kept me alive for 1˝ years. (Always a virtue from my perspective.) Frank Miller's presentation piece for Buck Rogers rematerialized later in his creator-owned LANCE BLASTOFF at Dark Horse. I learned a lot about how companies work, how money changes everything.

Mostly I learned what would become Shooter's law: if it's not your money, it's not your company.

X-MAN #63 and LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE #28 are still on sale, so if you haven't picked them up yet, harass your dealer for copies. Over on @VENTURE, several new stories are going up today, including another short story by Kurt Busiek, chapter two of Mike Baron's HODAG, and the first half of my one-off crime story, STICKING POINT, that keeps growing on me. The initial response to @VENTURE has been overwhelming: the hits just keep on coming.

One question: every week I get tons of e-mail on this column, and I mean tons, but virtually no one posts their views on the Master Of The Obvious Message Board. Any reason for this? Should we chuck the message board altogether?

I don't usually praise politicians, particularly Republicans, but kudos to Colorado Gov. Bill Owens for calling the vixen of the vapid, Barbara Walters, on the carpet for her inept, fawning interview with the parents of JonBenet Ramsey, to her face on her own network. Walters has always epitomized the "what's your favorite color?" powderpuff school of interviewing, while lapping up the reflected glory of the powerful and famous and strutting the title of "journalist." ABC should call her what she really is: a groupie. She and her male counterpart, Larry King, a man who likes to claim zero preparation for an interview is a virtue because it allows him to reflect the presumed ignorance of his audience, help explain why so much of the public is as cynical about TV news as it is about politics.

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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