Master Of The Obvious: Issue #47

Wed, June 21st, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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I keep having this interesting conversation with artists. I've been having it what seems like all my life.

[Damned]It always turns into the same conversation. While I've spent most of my career in the salt mines, every once in a blue moon I manage to convince someone to publish something that delivers a little artistic credibility, like BADLANDS or DAMNED. So once in awhile, I'll be contacted by an artist who likes things I've done and who wants to collaborate on something… different.

There are a lot of comics artists out there. Some are brilliant, some aren't so brilliant. Some who sell really well mystifyingly fall into the latter category, many who fall into the former category suffer a frustrating lack of market popularity. Some who fall into the latter category also lack market popularity, leading some artists mistake unpopularity for proof of their own genius, when in fact their work is just bad. Or dull, which is worse. In comics, soulless pizzazz will you through times of no technical acuity a lot better than technical acuity will get you through times of no pizzazz.

Like most people, artists like to keep working. At least until they become popular, at which point many (writers do this too, I'm not meaning to pick on artists) decide their place in the pantheon is assured and it's time to take a long vacation and spend some money, secure in the knowledge that all they need to do is pump out another project and the money will come rolling in again. Even ten years ago, at the height of the speculator market, that was an iffy proposition: Jim Lee's popularity never quite recovered from his long sabbatical. Jim's art is as striking as ever, but his cachet dropped to the point that his name doesn't blip sales much anymore. I only mention him because he's the biggest name I could think of. The last decade is littered with artists who thought their audiences would remember them when they came back after a lengthy sabbatical only to find no one cared anymore. Dealers could once be trusted to have long memories and overorder titles by former fan favorites that current readers didn't even know anymore. As the dealerships all over the country have been Carthagenated, many of the survivors have shifted gears, focusing on what their remaining customers specifically want rather than buying based on their own preferences. Since their customers don't want much, they aren't buying much. Many artists and writers today continue with suicidal market behavior. Which puts them on par with today's basic comics business model.

"The last decade is littered with artists who thought their audiences would remember them when they came back after a lengthy sabbatical only to find no one cared anymore."

But there are excellent artists who for one reason or another can't quite crack comics' paper ceiling. Whose names should be household words (at least in comics-reading households) and aren't. Some have styles that aren't quite seen as mainstream. Some draw slowly and are unable to maintain a monthly book. Some ended up on unsuccessful projects and got tarred as "non-salable," a label that's hard to shake. (Until they have a hit - I don't think anyone really considered Bryan Hitch's work salable until THE AUTHORITY though he'd been in the field for years, which isn't saying no one liked it, just that no one considered Bryan's name a marketing asset - and it's hard to get a hit assignment if an editor isn't convinced you can carry the ball.) Some make bad career moves, like altering their styles to suit editorial taste and losing their personal styles in the process, and they just can't pull themselves back from it. The reasons don't really matter. All reasons really amount to are something else to get bitter about if you let yourself.

So, every so often, I hear from an artist who wants to put a project together. Me, I'm game for pretty much anything. I'm easy. Except.

I can't afford to work with bad artists anymore. No writer can. People often ask me whether I think art is more important in comics than writing, and while the short answer is no, the long answer is that without good writing readers are unlikely to stick with a book for long, but without good art they're unlikely to pick up the book in the first place. There used to be enough leeway to give artists a lot of space. Nowadays if you don't have topflight art going in, you don't survive till sundown. Do that and it starts looking bad on your permanent record.

The easiest way to sell a new project now is to attach both a writer and artist to it before pitching it. (It still isn't easy, but it's easier.) There are perils in this: an editor may like the idea but not want the particular writer or artist. Given my druthers I don't like pitching with an artist attached because I don't want an editor not liking the project but wanting to do it so he can work with the artist, which has happened. The upside is you sell the project, and usually it gets published. The downside is the company's interest is in nurturing the company-artist relationship, not with selling the project. I like to know it's the project they want.

These are things we all have to take into consideration now. We didn't used to. This has made work-for-hire a scarier situation than before; it's far from unusual for artists to be replaced at the last moment, and when you hear names you don't know as replacements - while sometimes it works out, there's always that moment when you just want to cry.

Still, there are good artists who for one reason or another simply haven't gotten that break. When one calls, worlds of possibilities open. It's easy to get excited. It's easy to fantasize that project, if you can only get it out, will put both of you in the fast lane. The conversation always starts with a chat about what's wrong with the contents of modern comics, a discussion of possibilities, some excitement over the thought we could possibly pull it off, and then…

"Maybe we should do a superhero book first, just to establish ourselves."

Buh-doom.

I don't blame them. You only get so many chances to establish yourself in this business, particularly in these cutthroat days. The market perception, left over from the early 1990s, is that anything not superhero-based is marginal product, and working on it is just another chance to marginalize yourself. Certainly many editors and publishers still cling to the notion that any material lacking lots of costumes is de facto doomed. As important as public acceptance is to an artist's career, the acceptance of editors and publishers comes first, by necessity. Frankly, if it has superheroes or something like them in it, it's a lot easier to sell a project.

To an editor, anyway.

To the public, it's a different matter. Given the overwhelming preponderance of superhero comics in the business in 1995, and their dominance over such areas as marketing and promotion (down to the level of virtually every article about comics in the mainstream press having a headline like BAM! POW! WAP!), it's reasonably safe to say the audience's wholesale abandonment of comics in the late 90s equates to an abandonment of superheroes. Later sales figures bear this out. Certainly some recent superhero comics have been a rousing success (Grant Morrison's JLA, for one, so forcefully retro on the one hand and forward-looking on the other that it tore open new possibilities for the genre - but it's a road anyone less than a Grant Morrison is going to stumble badly on, and anyone trying to cling dutifully to the past while walking it will end up flat on his face, ridiculed or ignored) but by and large the audience seems bored with the whole thing.

"...it's reasonably safe to say the audience's wholesale abandonment of comics in the late 90s equates to an abandonment of superheroes."

And many artists simply don't have styles that lend themselves to superhero comics.

That isn't a slur on those artists. Traditionally the industry has promoted the interchangeability of genres as far as talent is concerned, as if a writer gifted at spy thrillers should be expected to write a romance at the drop of a hat, or an artist who does fabulous cowboy material automatically qualifies to draw urban crime stories. (Which isn't to say they can't, but it's presumptuous to expect it.) Personal sensibility always seems either ignored completely or it's invoked to pigeonhole talent. In any case, it's often considered a detriment; an unspoken notion in the business from very early times is that any artist trying to follow his own muse is a prima donna. On the other hand, playing against sensibility rarely results in the kind of work anyone pays attention to. You can get it right technically, you can even do it spectacularly from a technical standpoint, but unless the artist connects with the material emotionally on some level, there's ultimately nothing there. If an artist (or writer) works against sensibility enough, sensibility dies; the work eats the artist alive.

Which is how the business has traditionally preferred it. Until the books don't sell because the audience gets no emotional connection to the material either. Then the artist gets blamed for the failure, and the business moves on.

There's also the problem of hybridizing material: doing, say, crime comics as superhero comics, or teen soap operas in superhero drag, or a slacker superhero who'd rather watch TV than fight supervillains. As I've mentioned before, superhero comics have become, in effect, our noh drama, so stylized in approach that the audience has come to expect specific elements. This is why so few hybrid books work: superhero comics play to the superhero audience, they don't play to the non-superhero audience, and the superhero elements must overwhelm the non-superhero elements in order to grip and hold any kind of audience at all. You can't do superheroes as film noir because superheroes are about success and film noir is about failure. Weak superheroes don't get over with audiences. (I'm talking emotionally, not physically, though physically weak superheroes are frowned on as well.) Any hybrid book is, ultimately, a superhero book first. Unless it's a parody of a superhero book.

Ultimately, doing a superhero book to establish yourself is playing the system's game. It perpetuates the delusion that creating superhero comics is the field's top priority, and talent that climbs on board superhero comics waiting to arrive at the junction somewhere else usually wake up one day years later and realize superhero comics is all they ended up doing. It's playing by the rules in a field where the rules don't really benefit anyone, and change at the whim of those who make the rules, which usually means the big comics companies or Diamond. They're arbitrary; we may as well stop treating them like natural law.

"...doing a superhero book to establish yourself is playing the system's game. It perpetuates the delusion that creating superhero comics is the field's top priority..."

We're in a time when the true quickest way to make a name for yourself is to break the rules, and follow your own path. Producer Michael Phillips, in his book THE SEVEN LAWS OF MONEY said do what you want well enough and money will follow. If a project is good enough, if the writing is sharp and the art exciting, someone will want to publish it regardless of costuming. Those are big ifs, of course, but life is risk. Playing the game is suicide. George Bernard Shaw once said, "When you begin by giving yourself to those you love, you end by hating those you've given yourself to."

Everyone's suddenly talking about changing comics, even if there's no consensus on what to change them to. Ultimately, writers and artists are the only ones who can change them. The way to do material other than superhero comics, if that's what you want to do, is to do it and do it so well that people will want to know what it's about. To carve out your own path and follow it. Certainly DC, in its Vertigo and Homage lines and even in such mainstays as the DC Universe, has shown considerable publishing flexibility, even its marketing hasn't been so evenhanded. If the business is geared toward marketing nothing but superheroes, it falls to us to self-market. We can wait for dealers to operate differently, for distributors, for publishers until we're blue in the face, but if we don't push change no one will, and the only real way we can push change is through the material.

If we don't do it, who will?

X-MAN #66 is supposed to be out today, wrapping the first arc. Give it a read, let me know what you think. And next month we begin the "origin" story of the new style X-Man. Give it a look. All thine questions will be answered.

New on @VENTURE this coming Friday: lots more chapters of Mike Baron's HODAG, plus new short stories by Rick Beckley and Scot Snow, and whatever else comes in between then and now. And if you haven't read Matt Howarth's return of the Post Bros. "L.A. Differential," drop everything else you're doing and go to @VENTURE and read it right now. You won't regret it.

Anyone concerned with creator rights and work-for-hire issues should read Courtney Love's Salon article on the music industry. Thanks to James Hass for the tip.

Question of the week: What relatively unknown talent now working in the comics field, in any creative capacity, do you expect to have a major effect on the field in the next five years, and why? This doesn't include people who have already made their mark, like Grant Morrison or Alex Ross. These should be people most comics readers haven't yet heard of: tomorrow's superstars today.

Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions (probably in a new location by next week). 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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