Master Of The Obvious: Issue #40

Wed, May 3rd, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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What the hell is wrong with you people?

Not all of you, of course. But.

On April 21, Warren Ellis and Jim Valentino announced that Warren will produce a new line of comics for Image, beginning in May with the long-buried CITY OF SILENCE he did with artist Gary Erskine. (Gary's an accomplished artist and a nice guy, and I hope this will pull him out of undeserved obscurity, since my own OUT FOR BLOOD at Dark Horse didn't do the trick.) According to the press release, the "line" will consist of "three issue mini-series and original graphic novels. Regardless of format, each story will be completely self-contained, with no crossover of characters or concepts." Those who've been paying attention know Warren has been trying to do something like this for years, recently promoting the concept of "pop comics" (exactly that idea of disconnected three issue series that hit and run like terrorist attacks on the bloated, crapulent corpus of the comics business) and almost got a line of such off the ground at a different publisher until rights and control issues, as well as Mike Allred's use of a similar line name, scuttled the deal.

"What the hell is wrong with you people?"

A quick caveat: besides both being columnists here at CBR, Warren and I are friends. Though we've only met once, we've been in touch since around the time he wrote THOR, and we've had many discussions on the state and theory of comics. We abortively attempted to get a line of crime comics off the ground a couple years ago, but found no takers and let it drop. I like Warren's writing. He's one of the few people in comics I can honestly say I respect. I'd kill to get an open deal like the one Image gave him. So you're welcome to take anything I say past this point with a grain of salt.

Except this isn't about Warren. It could be about anyone in the business. It has been. He's just the one in the crosshairs this week.

While I know there are people who come into comics solely with a dream to write Spider-Man or Batman, I don't think that's ever been the norm. Though it's not uncommon, early on in careers, to have a desire to write this existing character of that, most talent harbors a desire to "graduate" beyond other people's ideas and work on their own. We did that even when I was a kid. We all read AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and GREEN LANTERN, but when we went on flights of fancy, it wasn't to create new Spider-Man or GL stories in our heads. (Well, once in awhile it was, but not usually.) We all created our own characters. Sure, most were derivative, but they were ours. We weren't locked into the rules of the existing characters, we could pick and choose the elements we liked. Everyone I knew who read comics when I was a kid did that. My earliest "creation" (they were never that developed) that I remember was a Batman-like character called The Mosquito. (Sure, it sounds idiotically trivial now, but this was Madison, Wisconsin. Madison's built on a swamp. Mosquitoes abounded, and, aside from tornadoes, they were the nastiest thing there in my relatively sheltered childhood. Hey, I was eight years old, whaddaya want?) Later my main man was a cross between Dr. Strange and The Spectre called The Darkling. The Mosquito was just a name and a vaguely realized costume (I don't remember any of us fantasizing we were our characters, we just created them, and for that reason I've always thought issues of "identification" were way overstated) but the Darkling had a whole storyline that spanned twenty-five issues or so, complete with supporting cast, villains (the main bad guy being a Mephisto surrogate named Erebus, but there were a dozen or so others), plot twists and philosophical meanderings similar to what Jim Starlin would make popular a few years later. I never produced any of those issues - maybe if I could draw I might have - but I knew what would have been in them.

By the time I became a comics writer when I was 25, I'd pretty much abandoned the notion - this is Alroy's law: give up on it and it falls in your lap - but looking back it's clear what I wanted.

I have to believe I'm not alone. Dave Gibbons at one point talked about characters he had created as a boy. Bob Budiansky reportedly created SLEEPWALKER when he was young and carried it around in his coat until the chance came to do it as a Marvel comic. Frank Miller has made no secret of his youthful obsession with Mickey Spillane that translated into rudimentary SIN CITY stories, and there he was with SIN CITY years later. Erik Larsen may have broken in with a burning passion to do Hulk vs. Thor, but his true obsession turned out to be Savage Dragon. Talk to any comics talent. If you were interested enough, it was just something you did.

Sure, circumstances change things, but the general dream was to break in, work up an audience via existing characters (the only real games in town were Marvel and DC, and you knew going in odds were good they weren't going to buy original characters off you until you proved yourself, and, if anything, that's more the case today) then parlay that into working on original creations, whether creator-owned or work-for-hire. (The former was always preferable, but the latter was expectable. Particularly as "franchises" have become the focal point of comics publishing, publishers have tried to reclaim the concept of ownership, and have largely succeeded. Turns out we're not the only industry having this problem. I read today where record company lobbyists quietly got Congress to redefine recordings as "work-for-hire" in the copyright laws, and now Don Henley and Sheryl Crow are trying to mobilize recording artists to lobby to overturn that. Which means the only thing saving us from a similar fate is that comics publishers are too cheap and factious to have lobbyists. And the way they have things rigged now, they don't really need Congress.)

The 80s saw Marvel and DC largely ejected from the equation, and even if what companies like First published weren't creator-owned in any way that meant anything when you read the fine print, at least they paid lip service to the idea. The explosion of small publishers and self-publishers, combined with a competitive distribution environment meant virtually anyone could get their comic in print, and they didn't have to go through Spider-Man to do it. Image in the 90s brought in the concept of the "line": it wasn't enough to simply do your own creation, you had to have a total market presence. This concept alone wiped out a rash of budding publishers who really should have known better, since the Image guys did go the traditional route and made their mark on Spider-Man and the X-Men before launching off on their own. The failure of Image (failure being a relative term because, in retrospect, it certainly wasn't one of their apparent objectives) to shift the paradigm and of companies like Dark Horse to finesse their "creator-friendliness" into a marketable commodity has in the past several years forced things back to the original model, DC and Marvel being the only places to reasonably expose your talent because, in the current market vacuum, they're the only companies that receive sufficient attention to possibly matter. Even that's overestimating the market.

Which is why talent shifts from places like Oni Press, where they can blip across the aesthetic viewscreens of what passes for the comics intelligensia, to places like DC, where they write GREEN LANTERN and BATMAN. But it's hard to believe that someone like Greg Rucka, who could conceive and write WHITEOUT, intends DETECTIVE COMICS to be his crowning achievement. Everything he writes, the attitude and tone of his work, suggests there are stories seething inside him where caped crusaders have no place, and while he may not want to replace Batman with them, he'd welcome the opportunity to do those stories in addition. (I've never met or spoken with Greg, so I could be wrong. I don't think so.)

[Spider Jerusalem]Likewise, Warren crawled up the ladder. He wrote English comics (though he dodged the 2000 AD bullet). He wrote work-for-hire for Malibu, Marvel, DC and Dark Horse. Within those strictures, he produced work idiosyncratic enough to attract attention, until his name was associated with a certain style and worldview. He parlayed this into new creations like TRANSMETROPOLITAN. He took financial hits to get material he really wanted to do published through small publishers. He has gained enough notoriety to put together a deal with Image that's not only a virtually carte blanche situation almost any of us would like to have, but exists to be a concretization of Warren's philosophy about comics, dedicated not to replaying everyone else's golden oldies in new arrangements but to attempting something new in today's market.

Triggering, apparently, the inevitable fan backlash.

It seems any time talent attempts to break out on their own and go against the rudderless course of the industry, it's an invitation to a certain type of fan to excoriate them. I saw it when Frank left DAREDEVIL to create RONIN (which, while flawed, has held up pretty well) and readers (and many inside the industry as well) who had praised him as a dynamic writer-artist and innovator started accusing him of self-indulgence and arrogance (and later repeated the accusations when he "jumped" from Batman stories to SIN CITY). There have always been those who felt the Image 7 didn't deserve the breaks they got, and have been happily gloating over their general fortunes since 1997 (whether the perception of their fortunes bears any connection to reality or not). I've seen it in numerous other cases: this depreciating concept of "getting' too big for his britches."

"It seems any time talent attempts to break out on their own and go against the rudderless course of the industry, it's an invitation to a certain type of fan to excoriate them."

While a number of readers have expressed great curiosity about Warren's upcoming line, a vocal band of fans have rushed to judgment about his unworthiness to bear such a weight. Among the charges leveled:

Only sycophants cheer Warren Ellis on.

Warren's only true talent is self-promotion, and by forcing the industry to focus on him he takes the focus off worthier talents.

Warren Ellis hasn't proved himself and therefore doesn't deserve such an opportunity.

Warren Ellis has already spread himself too thin, so this line can't be anything more than self-indulgence.

The ideas about the industry that Warren Ellis has espoused are not original with him and therefore he deserves no credit or attention for being the one to put them into practice.

Warren Ellis is only getting this deal because he's a celebrity, and there are people far more deserving of such a deal than he is.

And on and on. I've been running across comments like this here and there all week, even on the MOTO bulletin board (where one correspondent suggested Warren is "just milking his 15 minutes of fame") and enough is enough.

There's really only one answer to all those criticisms: so what?

Of course Warren's milking his 15 minutes of fame. What's he supposed to milk, his 30 years of obscurity? What good is having fame in this business if you can't put it to work? What does it matter if Warren's ideas for the shape of the industry match those of others? If celebrity doesn't generate opportunities to put your ideas into practice, what use is it? (Besides a way to get laid, of course, but that's barely an issue in the comics business.) Of course celebrity gives him the chance to do this, because comics companies very rarely put resources behind unpopular talent, and Warren, whether by dint of his writing or his advertising, has generated the impression that his name will draw buys. If that's appalling, grow up. Comics companies live and die by sales, and these days most of them are dying. They're not philanthropic organizations. They'll put their money behind the people (or properties) they think will sell books. Every media business works that way. Right now, Warren fits that bill. Right now he has to move on it, because if he waits until his 15 minutes are up, he won't be able to do it.

"What good is having fame in this business if you can't put it to work? ... If celebrity doesn't generate opportunities to put your ideas into practice, what use is it?"

Roy Thomas used to do this thing that just drove me nuts: whenever Marvel published a letter complaining about this or that, or pointing up some blunder in one of Roy's stories, he would reply something like, "it's easy to criticize, but I'd rather make the comics." Which made it fortunate, I guess, that he was in position to. While I always thought that response was a little on the creepy side - a sort of "I'm Chevy Chase and you're not" bit - in this case it's perfectly applicable: Warren Ellis has every right to do this line because he's the one who put himself in a position to do it. (Credit also goes to Jim Valentino for putting Image's resources behind it.)

As for self-promotion, have you looked at the industry lately? As the franchise mentality locks on, the tendency almost everywhere (except where it's worth it to the publisher to do otherwise) is to undercut talent as a marketing factor. The new reality is that self-promotion is an absolute necessity if you want a career in comics. Warren realized this years ago, and has acted on the presumption that if he doesn't promote himself no one's going to. That he promotes his work by every means open to him doesn't invalidate it. I don't recall an instance where Warren's message has ever been: idolize Warren Ellis. He has always said: know the work is here. Following in the footsteps of generations of novelists.

"The new reality is that self-promotion is an absolute necessity if you want a career in comics."

It doesn't matter whether you like Warren's work or not. No one has a duty to like anything. It doesn't even matter if we're talking about Warren. You could drop any name in there, because sooner or later the same accusations are leveled against anyone with the pull and the temerity to elevate themselves in some way. Backlash is a game we play in this business, but it's getting tired. Complaining about the work is one thing; seeking out specious excuses to dismiss out of hand concepts and talent before anything has been played through is actively detrimental. It's what we expect from editors; I'd like to think the readership is capable of better.

The comics business has never been about worth. It's about value, and that means value to the people footing the bills. Whether Warren is worthy of his new deal is totally irrelevant; like most questions of worth, it can only accurately be judged in hindsight. At least, finally gaining the opportunity, he's threatening to put his own vision into play, which will be a great relief from the traditionalism of recent similar moves.

As I said, in this specific instance it's Warren Ellis. It could be anyone. This last week spawned a host of rants about DC publisher Paul Levitz's willingness to pulp runs of comics he feels crosses the line of DC's standards, but we have an audience subset eager to pulp anything new on the most spurious of grounds - and often this subset includes people who most loudly call for change. But we're not going to get chance in an atmosphere geared toward dismantling out of hand any shift from the norm and offhandedly denouncing the talent involved, which happens far too often in this business. It's strictly reactionary, and plays into the hands of those who'd like nothing more than to keep comics on the same footing they were on fifty years ago.

And, so far, those people are winning.

More up at @VENTURE: four more chapters of Mike Baron's THE HODAG, a full screenplay by Jan Strnad of DALGODA and SWORD OF THE ATOM fame, and a novel excerpt by David Watkins. Check it out. For those very generous many who have asked, with luck there'll be more TEQUILA up by the weekend.

The question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what one thing could the comics shop you buy from do to improve your service? Not comics shops in general: what could your comics shop do for you? Leave your viewpoint on the board. (Your comments on the column and other matters are also welcome, as usual.)

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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