Master Of The Obvious: Issue #53

Wed, August 2nd, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Has it been a year already? Happy birthday to MOTO.

From here, it seems like I've been writing the column half my life, week in and week out, every Tuesday like clockwork, regardless of other deadlines, appointments or obligations. I've stumbled, rambled, forgotten points I was going to make until after the column went to bed. I've cobbled columns together at the 11th hour without a clue where they were going or what I was trying to say. I've been called a genius, a visionary, a pessimist, a moron and a traitor. I've been accused of hating the medium I've (mostly voluntarily) spent most of my adult life in. Of hating my job. Of hating superheroes. Most readers are aware that I love the comics medium and only want it to get better, that I hate aspects of my job but it's way better than most alternatives, and that the only things I have against superheroes are the obsessive juvenilia of the underlying concept (though there's a place for it) and the rigid "ubermensch uber alles" philosophy of most of the business' major players. Wiping out the superhero would be counterproductive and unnecessary; exclusive focus on them (and I'm talking in terms of what gets promoted and what is emphasized in public focus, not necessarily the width and breadth of what the industry publishes, most of which can be most aptly described as vanity press to the extent a buying public knows that material exists) is also counterproductive and cripples the medium's potential.

"...it seems like I've been writing the column half my life, week in and week out, every Tuesday like clockwork..."

A few people along the way suggested my own output contradicts and disqualifies many of my statements here, and others have suggested my main goal is self-promotion. Hard to argue with any of that. For every BADLANDS or DAMNED I've done, there are a thousand SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN and VAMPIRELLAs. But that suggests that we all get to do exactly what we want at any given moment; closer to the truth is that we all work within what opportunities are available at any given moment. As for self-promotion, I cop to it. In a year when the business is only starting to crawl out of stop-and-start mode, it has kept my profile relatively high. It's a nice side effect, but if that were the reason I'm writing the column, it would be a miserable failure. No one's flooding me with offers on the basis of MOTO.

Here, for the first time, is the secret origin of MOTO.

[Women in Refrigerators]Gail Simone, of YOU'LL ALL BE SORRY and now SIMPSONS fame and formerly unreconstructed fangirl, started a website a couple years back called WOMEN IN REFRIGERATORS. Gail predicated the site on the somewhat famous scene in GREEN LANTERN where Kyle Rayner returns home to find his girlfriend dead and stuffed in a refrigerator, and she asked (nicely) why such bad things happen to women in comics. She prodded a number of professionals to comment, and I sent in the following, which may be regarded as the first actual MOTO column:

Steven Grant, among many other accomplishments, created "Whisper," one of the prototypical buttkicking female characters. He also wrote the definitive Punisher stories and the Marvel biocomic "The Life of Pope John Paul II"--now THAT would be a great crossover! Mr. Grant also has a terrific web site: Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.

Well, thanks. I put Alex/Diane [of WHISPER] through a lot of crap, but she was a survivor.

As for comment:

It comes down to sex, really. It's no big secret that, in the adolescent power fantasy which are the bread and butter of superhero comics, fight scenes are symbolic surrogates for sexual activity. You can't get up the nerve to ask the girl who sits next to you in geometry class for a date, but you can buttress your virility by vicariously beating the crap out of the Joker. At heart, superhero comics are conservative, exonerating status quo attitudes rather than undermining them, and a basic tenet of the conservative attitude in this country is that women shouldn't enjoy sex. When superheroines go out there and beat up villains, hey, those fight scenes are symbolic surrogates for sexual activity, too. They have to be punished for enjoying it, because it's just too threatening for women to enjoy power corresponding to that enjoyed by men. So heroines are de(p/fl)owered, mutilated, raped or sexually threatened, and killed. "Serves 'em right for trying to do a man's job." A lot of recent "bad girl" books would seem to disprove my point, but many of those are boldly misogynistic, basically excuses to torture women then justify it by having them "win" in the end (not to mention most of the "women" therein are actually thinly disguised inflated dolls). Guys in general tend to be paranoid about the notion that women don't actually need them for anything (which is why so many find the double-edged sword of lesbianism so fascinating), and, let's face it, superheroines don't exactly mollify that paranoia, unless they're functionally subservient to a male figure.

The short version: yeah, I think you've got a point.

A few years back, a book was being published that caused me to suggest a new rule that no male writer should be allowed to write a female protagonist unless he had at least dated a woman at least once in his life.

Astute readers will spot the MOTO attitude in full bloom in the above. I've never met Gail. Aside from a couple e-mails, I hadn't had much contact with her. Gail, though, talked to everyone, including CBR owner Jonah Weiland, who told her he was looking to add a column by a comics professional. She suggested me, one thing led to another and, to paraphrase the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, fate played the straight man and since then we've never looked back.

This is the intro column I probably should have written back then. But what was the point? I've noticed, when professionals start columns (and they've been springing up like weeds lately), instead of saying anything they spend columns saying what they might say, or what they're going to say. Tip to my fellow pros embarking on web columns: just say it.

People have asked where the column's title comes from, and now it can be told. In a whimsical mood in the no man's land between high school and college (which for me extended three years, ending only when it turned out I could get paid to go to college) my best friend Michael Alroy and I pondered the titles of our autobiographies. Mine was "Ill-Prepared For The Onslaught," and I briefly considered using that as the column's title. (I actually envisioned my fantasy autobiography as a trilogy including "Fun Fun Fun" and wrapping up with "One Less Drunk At The Wake." Not that I ever intended to write a word of it.) Michael's was "Master Of The Obvious."

I lost track of Michael a few years ago when we both moved at about the same time and our data became mutually obsolete - if anyone knows where he is, please drop me an e-mail with the info - but I nicked the name partly as a tribute to him, partly because I really like it. It locks into perhaps my favorite aphorism, from the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (~500 BC), who introduced the concept of change as a condition of existence: latent structure is the master of obvious structure.

The latent structure underlying comics, both creatively and economically, is what this column is really all about.

A quick summary of the last year's salient points:

The superhero comic is based on an unconscious formula that everyone knows and few people recognize, but decades of repetition have bled all energy and meaning from it. We may be on the cusp of a new paradigm that will give comics meaning for a new audience.

"The superhero comic is based on an unconscious formula that everyone knows and few people recognize..."

The reason comics aren't selling is that, by and large, they're not interesting.

The current "slump" is a shift from a magazine economy to a book economy, as consumer dollars go more toward trade paperbacks and less to the financially inefficient standard comic book. The standard format will increasingly be little more than a loss leader for the trade paperback edition.

As long as comics remain trapped in the past, desperately clinging to outmoded material and attitudes, they will go nowhere but oblivion.

We can't assume that casual readers or non-readers can approach comics from the same level of sophistication (relative to the form) than longtime readers can. We need to produce works with more coherent visuals and content if we want to bring casual readers back. We must make it easier for people to understand comics.

What we need for a core base is not specifically readers who are obsessed with particular characters or companies or genres, but with the medium itself, with its history and its potential; an informed core willing to be (for lack of a better term) comics missionaries, carrying their appreciation to a wider market. Because word of mouth is still the best promotion possible.

"What we need for a core base is not specifically readers who are obsessed with particular characters or companies or genres, but with the medium itself..."

We need to produce material appropriate to various levels, but we also need to fight back against any attempts to reduce comics to "safe" content. Comics have wasted too much time being safe as it is. We need to reach out to audiences we've abandoned or ignored, like kids, and women. Publishing comics targeting audiences will be meaningless unless we promote directly to those audiences as well, and produce material that fits what they want, not our view of what they should want.

Either we need to create a mechanism for self-published comics to have an even shot at gaining an audience, or we need publishers again who are more interested in publishing comics than in generating licenses they control completely. We need to stop pigeonholing talent and start letting them go for whatever inspired madness they're capable of. We need to make this a medium and a business that appreciates its talent, not actively tries to suck them dry then send them on their way.

We have to stop looking for the magic formula, or deluding ourselves that all we have to do is continue as we've been and audiences will eventually cycle back to us. They won't. There are too many factors different from previous down cycles for the comics market. Recovering is going to take a lot of work, and we need to just do the work.

If we want the medium to survive another decade, we have to start taking it seriously. Not seriously like treating every issue of BIRDS OF PREY as holy writ, but seriously as in sincerely believing in the value and potential of the medium regardless of specific content, with talent treating the specific content seriously, and not, as is traditional, as throwaway junk that no one will recall past next ship day. We have to toss aside our own cynicism about the material and invest it with a sense of joy and purpose. And include a sense of humor in our definition of serious.

Finally, we have to start changing things ourselves instead of waiting for someone else to, because if not us, who? We have to stop bitching about change, and embrace it. Change is good. Change means risk, but it also means possibility. Clinging to dead forms from the past means death.

This is not a manifesto. It's just… obvious.

On to year two.

This week's useless list question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: what five comics most influenced your tastes in comics, and how did they influence? From your entire comics experience. They can be either runs of comics or single issues, but please limit yourself to five. Or fewer.

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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