Master Of The Obvious: Issue #52

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

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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This is what I learned at San Diego this year: an old friend of mine back home (ever notice how we always call where we grew up "back home" whether we have any home left there or ever intend to return there again?) is seriously ill with stomach cancer. Seems he started having gut pains last Thanksgiving and finally in April went to a doctor, who examined him and pronounced it was probably nothing, and "probably not life threatening." Last month, it was found to be advanced stage stomach cancer. It's not clear how far it has spread. This time he was told not to make plans for Christmas. The chemo started last week.

I'm told he remains in good humor regardless. He always did have a good, if savage, sense of humor. The alternative medicine quacks have already started coming out of the woodwork, one suggesting he take a regimen of 8 aspirins with linseed oil. I guess the idea is to bleed to death internally before the cancer can get you. I haven't spoken to him in years, just one of those situations where distance and time get in the way, and eventually you just stop. Brian Eno: "People come and go and forget to close the door, and leave their stains and cigarette butts trampled on the floor." This is the way we live our lives. I remember us standing around 4th of July, '77, in the parking lot that passed for my back yard, drinking beer and setting off totally illegal fireworks he had brought up from Missouri, which was when he told me one of my favorite jokes:

An old man has a pet goose that he takes with him everywhere. He takes it shopping, he takes it to the library, he takes it to the zoo. One day he decides he wants to see a movie. At the ticket booth, he says, "Two tickets, one for me and one for my goose."

"We don't allow animals in here," says the ticket seller.

"I take my goose with me everywhere!" the man protests, but the seller is adamant. Sadly, the man and his goose walk away.

Then he gets an idea. He steps into a nearby alley, unzips his pants, and stuffs the goose inside. Then he rezips, and goes to buy a ticket. Inside the theater, he stops briefly at the concessions stand, then hurries upstairs to the balcony. In the dark, he unzips his pants so the goose can get its head out.

At the far end of his row, two old ladies sit. One looks down at the old man, looks away, looks back again. She nudges her friend. "Take a look at this," she says.

The friend peers down the row into the dark, then, with disgust, says, "So what? We've seen that before."

"Yeah," her friend agrees, "but this one's eating popcorn."

[X]San Diego was an odd affair this year. The X-Men movie energized the event to some extent, if in no other way than to precipitate a small flood of movie business middle management trying to justify their jobs by rushing down from Los Angeles to peg The Next Big Thing for exploitation. I had a lot of professionals telling me X-MEN proved the superhero is alive and well, and people want to read superhero comics. Which is a possibility, I guess. It's equally (perhaps more) possible that whatever taste the public has for superheroes can be fulfilled by one blockbuster movie every few years or so. X-MEN (the movie) debunks the long-standing industry myth that comics do superheroes better than any other medium can. Clearly that's no longer true. The truism is that it would cost a fortune for movies to replicate the kinds of things comics can do really cheaply, but that's looking at it all wrong: movies can (if they're lucky) get an audience to shed $8 per unit while comics can't get them to shed $2.25. The fact is movies are now a better buy, and film companies are willing to spend tens of millions to produce them. Which would you rather absorb: a slender story or a fraction of one for $2.25, or a whole story with explosive visuals and booming wraparound sound for $8? Put it another way: would you rather spend $2.25 on ten minutes of entertainment or $8 on two hours? The success of X-MEN (particularly when the last major studio superhero film, MYSTERY MEN, was an awesome bomb) can't be used as an indicator of either the long term health of the comics industry or the potential marketability of superheroes to a general audience. Until other indicators surface, it can only be taken to mean that an audience was willing to shell out for an X-MEN movie.

But you can view it however you like. We are vindicated. We are lumbered. You pays your money and you takes your chances. The smart money remains on some sort of package that represents better value for money, and a number of publishers I spoke with have quietly come around, as trade paperback sales become more and more of their profit base, to the view that the standard comic book is increasingly a niche item the purpose of which is to spawn tpbs for sale to the public. Because that's where the money is: a comic book that can compete with a book or a movie.

Then there were the dot.coms, taking up a good third of the dealer area with monster booths, head-scratching concepts and the general stink of impending death. (Come to think of it, was StanLee.Net there? I don't recall seeing it. But I was a floater this time around, without schedule or anchor.) Let's stop calling them webcomics. They're cartoons. I heard only one good suggestion for how to do true comics on the web all weekend. Most dot.coms don't have any apparent interest in actual comics, they seemed more interested in luring movie or TV producers to the properties. Many may also be crippled by business structures imposed on them. I discussed creating a dot.com with a friend some months ago, structuring it the same way I'd structure a new comics company: small and lean. Virtual companies don't need to be built the same way traditional companies are. They don't even need a physical base of operations. But many are hobbled by the venture capital they seek. I spoke with several companies that had tight business plans marked by graduated growth and contained costs who, on filing for venture capital, were told they needed to borrow a lot more than they were asking, and ordered to radically increase expenses and add unnecessary staff if they wanted the money. This is nuts. Comics on the web, whether creating or selling, isn't a business that's going to mushroom overnight. Trying to push that along is what will put most webcomics companies out of business. One online comics store that has spent gobs on advertising and promotion and is now on very shaky ground was getting no more than 200 orders per month at the height of their success. Comics, especially previously unknown titles, are traditionally an impulse buy, and readers are used to instant gratification: buy a comic, read it seconds later. Comics don't get a lot of subscribers, partly because subscription copies usually arrive after retail copies are released. Convincing readers to shift online for their comics purchases (not to mention convincing them to take electronic delivery of comics) isn't something that's going to happen overnight. Virtually all e-tail operations, comics or otherwise, are learning the same thing. Those that stand the best chance of survival are those that can manage to grow slowly, that can maintain a miniscule expense/revenue ratio. Attempting to force rapid growth is suicidal. Impatience is death.

[Crowds at Comic-Con]Dealers, on the other hand, were generally reporting boom sales and increased interest in a lot of products. Just not traditional products. (Except X-MEN products, mainly WOLVERINE.) Crowds were huge, even on the traditionally slack Thursday. Smaller publishers whose material mimics large publishers' seemed to be seeing a lot of downtime, smaller publishers carving out their own turf seemed to be seeing increased interest. Unlike last year's festival of doom, there was a general air of cautious enthusiasm this year.

Is this the coming trend? Will it spill beyond the confines of San Diego? I wish I knew. When I started writing this column a year ago, I said the period we're in isn't so much a collapse as a shifting of the underlying economic concepts of comics. San Diego tended to back this up. Two new economic models are emerging simultaneously: comics as feeder system for the trade paperback book market, and comics as farm team for mass media. We aren't the first medium to undergo this shift: pulp magazines transformed into mass market paperbacks in the 60s, even though a few vestiges remain (ALFRED HITCHCOCK MYSTERY MAGAZINE; AMAZING STORIES), and more than a few novels are published today solely with the movie rights in mind, the real payoff being in option money and movie edition sales. Online comics still threaten to send some real ripples through the business if anyone can figure out how to do them right (and animating them is missing the point entirely).

In other words, we're going through changes. And I think we all knew that. Things aren't staying the same. San Diego remains fascinating because it's like the Galapagos Islands of comics, a closed environment where you can study the changes going on while they're happening. This is why we have to embrace change and work with it: it's going on whether we like it or not. Evolution or extinction, take your pick. Sure, we can continue to pray the familiar doesn't bore the market to death but, like the X-MEN movie, if we want anyone to look there better be popcorn involved.

X-MAN #67 is still on sale from Marvel Comics, while, for all you wrestling fans, Chaos Comics should be releasing CHYNA #1 this week.

The question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board is a traditional question: what's your list of the top ten comics being published today? Justify your rankings.

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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