Master Of The Obvious: Issue #44

Wed, May 31st, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

The good news is: we're not alone.

If you want to really torture the definition of "good."

We tend to think of comics as apart from the mainstream. Mostly they are. Underneath all the gimmicks, the clichs, the drivel, the sops to the status quo, there's something seductively anarchic about comics. It's what attracted the original run of cartoonists, what appealed to the underground cartoonists in the '60s when the medium exploded with unfettered imagination, what continues to draw people to the business today: the notion that all you really need is an idea, a story and pencil and paper and you have something, an artifact, to show somebody. Self-expression in the face of whatever opposition life throws at you. Sometimes that becomes art.

We're increasingly less alone on this too. Anyone can now get and design a web page, which can serve the same function. The director Mike Figgis (Stormy Monday; Leaving Las Vegas) believes new video and computer technologies allow anyone to make a movie very cheaply, and distribute it over the web. Web cameras have made something like television available to practically everyone for the first time. For inexpensiveness, nothing yet beats pencil and paper, but there's clearly a general decentralization of expression taking place, something that started with Guttenberg's printing press and may ultimately end with each of us living entirely inside our own heads. And it's creating a lot of problems for a lot of people.

"Art" has meant a lot of different things through the ages. At its heart, though, sometimes buried very deeply and sometimes worn on its sleeve, has always been self-expression. The Cro Magnon painting images of elk on cave walls may have been performing magic or simply recording an event, but it was still his decision to put it there, which lines to use, what color paints. The Renaissance-Reformation artists working to the whims of their patrons still made most of the creative decisions; while subject to political considerations, they were most often hired on the strength of their talents. Certainly in comics today, companies with money remain very interested in hiring names with sales records, wrestling with the problem that often that name talent is often more "independent-minded" than companies would prefer.

But America (or, rather, the American culture, which is the pervasive culture of the world today) isn't about art. It's about media. It's about delivery systems. Some character in DICK TRACY used to say whoever controls magnetism controls the world. Whoever controls delivery systems - media - controls what can be said via those systems. The traditional model has been one product absorbed by as many consumers as possible, Henry Ford's black Model-T. It's how wealth is made; a single item mass-produced and mass-purchased means the most profit for the least expense. It's how old media continues to look at the world, and why merger is today's great war cry. It's why Time-Warner's merging with AOL, in an attempt to make the Internet safe for old media.

It's why they're losing money, and scared.

Take TV. 30 years ago, it was ABC-CBS-NBC. Nobody counted PBS. If you wanted to see movies, you went to movie theaters, or you watched very old movies badly cut and stuffed with commercials on TV. Shows were cancelled outright for ratings better than what the #1 network show ER garners today. While there were differences between them, they shared a general mindset. As today, there's nothing to really distinguish a show on NBC from a show on ABC. (Except ABC shows always seem to have worse lighting than NBC shows.) When those three options were your only viewing options, that wasn't a problem for networks. They had an essentially captive audience, and like Citizen Kane, they told audiences what they should think.

Today network TV is a relic, not a delivery system. The system's been co-opted right under their noses. Increased and increasing options steadily erode network viewership: cable networks like HBO and Showtime run popular movies and original programming, or you can hook your TV up to web browsers, satellite dishes, VCRs, DVDs, game players. No one depends on network TV for their entertainment, or even their news, anymore. The web has broken the hegemony of news organizations (with the Moonies buying established news services, presumably to prune news feeds to their nutcase right wing religious cant, not a moment too soon). TV networks respond with cookie-cutter shows - I've generally made a habit of at least checking out new series just to be fair, but the descriptions of next fall's shows leave me so cold I don't think I can be bothered anymore; it just all sounds so dull - and still try to operate on the premise that they have a captive audience when the Bastille collapsed years ago.

All this is hauntingly familiar to those of us who watch the comics business. Comics follow an old media model as well. The business never had the sort of cultural hegemony that the networks had, but it suffered even worse erosion in the face of new media. The parallels continue: the networks increasingly try to use The Web to promote their programming, with the curious result that their programming - particularly news broadcasts - increasingly turns into little more than advertising for their websites. Comics companies talk more and more now about "web comics," on the somewhat inane premise that they can simply move material that has failed onto the web somehow, and somehow it will be miraculously refreshed and salable again, even though selling media over the web, where it's mostly given away, is dodgy at best. Many eye the "success" of StanLee.Net, but that company has yet to produce anything of significance at a time when dot-coms are falling under extreme scrutiny and those that turn out to have pie-in-the-sky business plans (most of them) are having funding pulled out from under them. Reports are the company's spending close to $2 million per month, or, roughly, $58000 per day, with next to no visible income and it hasn't yet become clear whether they have anything to show for it; now that's the job I want. StanLee.Net is clearly predicated on an old media business model: become the name-brand source for online comics, in a new world where name brands mean nothing. As the TV networks have discovered and obviously deny, a name brand is only as good as the product it produces, and once that product degenerates, future product is only tainted by the brand. Comics-related sites sprang up last year and tried for similar "brand-name" carpet bombing, spending millions promoting their sites before tuning the content, and hoping to score overnight, with disastrous results. (For them, not for us. Good riddance.) The web is built for slow builds, not overnight explosions, and any company demanding immediate results going in is begging for trouble.

"StanLee.Net is clearly predicated on an old media business model: become the name-brand source for online comics, in a new world where name brands mean nothing."[Stan Lee]

But "old media" companies tend to view The Web as the prime enemy, and it isn't just the web. Old media is built on the concept of mass media, and mass media is a thing of the past. There are just too many options, and not enough impetus for a mass audience to choose one over another. While there will always be general content trends, and some things will be of wider interest than others, media has fractured to the point that garnering a massive audience for anything is a Herculean task. As I said, TV networks now rave over ratings that the worst-rated show exceeded three decades ago. HBO, operating on a different economic base, has a "runaway hit" with THE SOPRANOS at 6.4 million households, while CBS's similarly themed FALCONE is a network bomb at 8.6 million households. But THE SOPRANOS is also surrounded by eclectic fare, and the audience that goes to HBO goes there for that kind of entertainment. FALCONE (leaving aside the issue of relative quality) is surrounded by TOUCHED BY ANGEL and PRESCRIPTION MURDER, stale entertainments geared to be soothingly familiar. The problem for networks is that if you want shows like FALCONE, you can get them from HBO, and if you want the likes of PRESCRIPTION MURDER, shows like MATLOCK are on 24 hours a day in syndicated and cable reruns, and the new shows aren't any different from the old.

Of all old media, movies seem to be thriving best in the new culture. Maybe this is because they already learned survival techniques in the onslaught of TV. Sure, the medium is overrun by studios, bankers and producers picking over the bones of past hits to ensure, as best as possible, the most profit by playing off what sold before, just as TV and comics do. And, sure, they go through spates of recycling cultural debris like MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and CHARLIE'S ANGELS in the hopes they'll turn out to be icons. But movie companies have learned quicker than most others how to use new technologies to peddle their wares. "Sneak previews" have always been a great come-on, that sense of getting in on the ground floor of something really cool. Theatrical movies come in two preferred forms, the super-blockbuster (always with the promise of the most immediate income, and the threat - as with the recent BATTLEFIELD EARTH - of the most appalling losses) and "sleepers," low-budget films (keeping in mind that low-budget in Hollywood now is anything made for less than $15 million) that become monster hits. Studios actually prefer the latter, and every time a sleeper makes it talk runs through the industry about putting everything on limited budgets, but still consider the former more dependable. And movies can still do things other media, even new media, can't: there's still no experience quite like sitting in the dark looking at a picture a story tall.

But movies have also learned to profit off new media. Small pictures may play briefly in theaters, but their real markets are in pay-per-view, cable broadcast, videotape and DVD. (DVDs, as the high-end, product, now regularly add "special value" features like production commentaries, deleted scenes, and promotional material, all of which help generate an interest in the idea of movies as a medium and an art, rather than just a consumer item.) Movies are being created for the web, and even small pictures (BLAIR WITCH PROJECT being the poster child) have learned to successfully manipulate interest with the web. Then there's ancillary marketing like games based on movies.

Movies can also manufacture the appearance of newness without necessarily doing anything new, something modern culture always appreciates. Comics and TV are mired in the serial form; the sheer repetitiveness, once the anchor of culture, now seems excruciatingly dull in a world where new product spits around us like machinegun fire. Serials are rare in movies, and hard to sustain. STAR WARS worked by presenting serialization as something new. The James Bond franchise stays market fresh by making every film a separate event (and loading the films up with sex appeal and crazy stunts).

[Shanghai Noon]This weekend's box office, traditionally the launch of the summer movie season, was interesting. 1: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2. 2: DINOSAURS. 3. SHANGHAI NOON. 4. GLADIATOR. 5. ROAD TRIP. I'm not going to argue all those movies are good. At a weekend take of $72 million, M:I2 is the clear winner, but DINOSAURS pulled in $34 mil, SHANGHAI NOON $20, GLADIATOR (already a top-grossing blockbuster) $17 mil, and ROAD TRIP (the most inexpensive of the lot) $14 mil. That's a lot of money, a lot of tickets sold. Given relative costs, those are all successful results. Look at the choice: spy adventure; computer-generated animation; chop suey western; historical adventure; wacko comedy. Something for practically every taste.

Now look at the top five network TV shows and the top five comics.

Variety is the byword of the new media. In that way the web has changed things drastically: if you don't like what you're looking at, there's always something else, and it's there to be found. At face value, the movie business seems to be getting the message.

Can we say that about comics?

So far the comics industry has resisted the challenge of the new era. Mass media is dead. Niche media is the future. Like TV, comics have approached new media as something that can be colonized by old media when the business should, like the movies, be approaching it as something to be symbiotically co-existed with. Comics have special problems. The niche product is there, particularly from small companies, but the delivery system is so geared toward the industry giants and its own prejudices that there's no delivery of that product to the niche markets that could sustain it. (Diamond's discount structure also prejudices against small company sales, and subtly urges retailers to bolster their own bottom line by focusing on the more discounted "major market" books.) We're in an era where the web is virtually wiping out the concept of print magazines, even as more magazines are being published than ever before. (There are companies that specialize in identifying upcoming niches, surgically striking with niche magazines, and getting out when other publishers start to come in, the information quotient of the niches largely having been exhausted by that point.)

Despite dire prognoses from many areas, there's no reason comics can't survive and even thrive in the new niche culture. If movies can do it, we can. Comics are still relatively cheap to make (unless you view web comics as hideously costly amateur cartoons, of course). We're not intrinsically attached to a particular package, even though we tend to view comics that way. We're not restricted by content, despite the best efforts of major players in the business. There was a point where comics were the web of their day, an easy portal for many to express themselves in the form. Comics still project, if subtly, that anarchic wild side. We need to go back that way. Wildness is one of the things comics can do really well, and I mean wild concepts more than wild art. We need variety. We need to isolate and amplify those things comics can do that no other medium can. We need to figure out what in new media can be used in our favor, and use it, not to emulate the old but to innovate and integrate ourselves into the new culture.

"Despite dire prognoses from many areas, there's no reason comics can't survive and even thrive in the new niche culture."

In other words, abandon the relic mentality we're clinging to. If we don't stop thinking the future has to be like the past, the past will be the only future we've got.

Not much to discuss this week. Keep reading the fiction on @VENTURE, where comics writers publish their prose fiction. Various time pressures have prevented me from updating the site as often as I'd like but there will be more up later this week. X-MAN is selling handily, thank you very much. More comics news next week hopefully. Meanwhile, my old ISP blew up on me. I can still get e-mail delivered through them, but I've signed up with a new server. Unfortunately, between that and my desktop computer collapse of a couple weeks ago, my e-mail address book is in shambles, so if you had my old e-mail address (and I know who you are, so nobody else try anything funny) drop me a line and I'll send you the new one, because I might not have yours anymore.

Meanwhile, the question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board is: in keeping with this week's huge box office and the upcoming X-MEN film, what comics property, past or present, from any company, of any kind, would you like to see filmed, and why do you think it could make a successful movie? I'm still waiting for a THOSE ANNOYING POST BROTHERS movie. Now there's a classic in the making.

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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