Master Of The Obvious: Issue #54

Wed, August 9th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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This is the way deals are made.

[Whisper]In 1980, I created Whisper. For those who never read it, Whisper was a con job from the word go. I'd gotten the idea on a long train ride, while reading some cheesy paperback about the history of ninjas. Ninjas weren't really part of the comics landscape in those days: Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson used them in their MANHUNTER, Frank Miller was calling them The Hand in DAREDEVIL. I can't say I had any particular interest in them as a motif. Until I read the book, whatever it was. (A lot of water under the bridge, know what I mean?) What I'd seen of ninjas presented them as shadowy supermen possessed of esoteric, radical martial arts knowledge, which always made me wonder how Japan could possibly have managed to lose WWII. But the book kept reiterating that ninjitsu, rather than being a specific fighting style, was really the art of making martial use of whatever you had at hand. It was thinking on the fly as warfare.

I don't claim to know that this is true. I know there are people who supposedly teach ninjitsu. I know people who have taken the courses. It doesn't really matter. The upshot was that I loved the idea of a character whose motif was making it all up as they went along.

Two conversations at Marvel polished up the idea in my head. I once stood in the hall outside Denny O'Neil's office having a chat with John Romita Jr. (one of the great nice guys in comics, just like his dad) about sex and race and superhero comics. I observed - I really hadn't thought about it more than two seconds before I said it - that the comics audience was willing to accept moral… um… latitude in minority and female protagonists that they refused to accept in white male protagonists. Spider-Man was not allowed to run away from a fight he knew he couldn't win, even though that might be the smartest course of action. The audience would view it as cowardice, and he would be tarnished as a hero.

[Marvel Team-Up #94](In case anyone thinks I'm exaggerating, I once wrote a story in which Spider-Man, the clock ticking on his plane flight home, threw up his hands on a ridiculous fight and baled out - MARVEL TEAM-UP #94, if you're interested - and was called on it by Marvel editor-in-chief Jim Shooter who told me, qualifiers be damned, that Spider-Man never ever runs out on a fight before it's won.) But I noticed no one complained a lot if Luke Cage or Spider-Woman exercised the better part of valor. At that point, sometime prior to my train trip, I decided writing a female protagonist would be more interesting than writing a male protagonist, at least for awhile.

Jo Duffy gave me the final piece. Jo's a longtime aficionado of all things Japanese, and after my trip I talked ninjas with her at the Epic offices, where she then worked. She mentioned reading another book that suggested the ninja was nothing more than a nationalist myth concocted (if I recall correctly) c. 1925, and never had any basis in reality. They were pulp fiction, set in ancient Japan. I liked that, too. A lie that overwhelmed the truth fit the material I had in mind. I'd had the name Whisper on my list for years. It clicked: my heroine was a fraud, masquerading as a ninja in a world where none ever really existed.

In fact, the whole ninja thing was a con job, a hook to sell the series with, but I never had any intention of playing it straight. What I wanted was an entryway to the world of subterranean politics. Capital Comics, the short-lived offshoot of Capital Distribution, wanted to run WHISPER as its first series. We snagged on finances: I couldn't justify asking an artist to draw the series gratis. As it turned out, I knew a couple of Madison boys (Capital, run by friends of mine, was based in Madison WI) looking to get published, Mike Baron and Steve Rude. The story they were pushing at the time, "Adventures Of An Encyclopedia Salesman," wasn't quite up Capital's alley, but they scored with the now legendary NEXUS. Mike followed with THE BADGER. WHISPER became Capital's third title, once they had a cash flow.

Capital hit an unexpected roadblock: other publishers were unnerved by a distributor directly competing with them. Capital's comics always made money, but the distributorship was the real cash cow, so Capital Comics closed its doors. The books, after a brief hiatus, landed at First Comics, which published WHISPER until the early 90s. Throughout the book got increasingly political and fringy. I'd designed a costume for her (beautifully realized by original Whisper artist Rich Larson) because Capital wanted a costume, but as the series went on, I veered from it as much as I could. It was usually in the book somewhere, but it wasn't always the heroine wearing it. It eventually became more trouble than it was worth, and I've found costumes problematic ever since. The book had a bad rap for being humorless, but it was filled with jokes you could find if you knew where to look. Unfortunately, I was the only one who knew. (Such as: my heroine was forced by circumstances to adopt a new civilian identity after #6, wherein she supposedly died and wished to leave it that way; her new name was Diane Young and her friends called her Di, but I don't know anyone who put it together that her new name was Di Young. Even after she teamed up with a young rocker named Olivia "Liv" Fast.)

WHISPER had a hardcore audience of somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000, which in those days was considered too insignificant to support a book and these days would be manna from heaven. (In the unlikely case we could now get those people back, that is. It takes a lot of work to unlose fans. First's circulation records indicated the vast majority of Whisper fans lived in either Southern California or Atlanta GA. Go figure.) First had cut a deal with Atlantic Releasing (whose major claim to fame was the Michael J. Fox flick TEEN WOLF) for a WHISPER movie, and kept the book going until Atlantic dissolved. I still brief an occasional sigh of relief that the movie, which reconstructed the concept as a quasi-BLADE RUNNER vehicle for ex-Prince protg Vanity, never got made. Paperwork never even got signed on it. Once the book had been cancelled, I twiddled my thumbs a few years waiting for the rights to revert to me.

An interesting thing happened. Cancellation increased the book's audience. At conventions, people would tell me how they bought issues in quarter boxes, read them, and really dug them. Quarter boxes gave the character a new lease on life. Not a week has gone by in the last five years that I haven't had at least a couple new people ask me to resurrect the character.

The problem, from my point of view, was that I'd always prided myself on being just a little ahead of current events (or, at least, of public awareness of them) in WHISPER, and current events had gotten out of control. I'd had one idea involving race riots in Los Angeles - and then they happened, so that idea was out. When asked about Whisper in interviews, I'd say I only needed three things to bring her back: a publisher, an artist and a storyline.

The rough fact is that the book was really a creature of the 80s, heavily tied to the weirdness of the Reagan years. I wasn't sure it could translate very well.

As it turns out, in San Diego this year, a publisher (I'll keep which one under my hat for the moment, if that's okay with you) told me he'd really love to publish a new Whisper story. A graphic novel, as it turns out. He has an artist in mind, whose work I like. And I'd started working out a Whisper novel last year that actually works better as a graphic novel, so…

This is the way deals are made.

It interests me that it's a graphic novel. For years, Warren Ellis has been pushing hard the concept of backlist, a standard of the book industry. I agree with him. I'd like a backlist. I'm tired of pumping out material month after month with a shelf life of next Thursday. Comics publishers are past resistance to the idea; the smarter of them are actively embracing it. Diamond isn't exactly hostile to the idea, but they clearly aren't warm and fuzzy about it either. It's part of the shift from a magazine to a book economy, and it's not a transition Diamond is, understandably, comfortable with.

"I'm tired of pumping out material month after month with a shelf life of next Thursday."

But the most hostility comes from comics shop owners. I remember c. 1988 when First Comics publisher Rick Obadiah, at an ABA, carefully explained to a comics shop owner how he'd make more profit selling one $14.95 ELRIC graphic novel than a sizable number of UNCANNY X-MEN, and while the owner got it intellectually, he couldn't wrap himself around it emotionally. As with distributors, such a shift hits many dealers wrong. Again, understandable. It's a new economic model that seems rife with risk. Higher ticket items like trade paperbacks and graphic novels apparently tie up more capital. There's still a theory among many dealers that trade paperbacks gut the back issue market, though I don't know of any convincing evidence of that. The book format didn't kill the collectors' market, it became our lifeline in that collapse.

The origins of these attitudes are historical and inbred, something many don't even think about. A friend of mine, Bruce Ayres, founded an early comics shop in the late 70s. It started as an antique shop, The Buffalo Shop, one of the old-style mishmash antique shops where things were scattered everywhere, that we discovered one day. Someone had sold them half-sized black and white subscriber copies of comics Jack Kirby and Joe Simon had done for Harvey Comics in the '50s: STUNTMAN, BOY EXPLORERS, and something else I forget. No one knew these existed. We bought them for $3, $4 and $5, took them to a New York con, and sold them for, respectively, $300, $400 and $500. Bruce went home and bought into the shop, eventually buying it out and converting it from an antique store to a successful comics shop. We used to frequent another antique store-cum-comics shop in Milwaukee, where I heard the strange philosophy that new comics would kill the market for back issues by siphoning off the money. It wasn't the last time I heard that.

The fact is that many comics shops are still run like antiques stores. Or, rather, junk shops, since high end antique stores tend to be well-organized and meticulously clean. A lot of comics shops, like junk shops, look like abandoned barns. Dust everywhere. Badly lit. Back issues are racked in crumbling longboxes, or piled ramshackle on grubby floors. New comics are sloppily put out, in no apparent order. No design sense whatsoever. You get the idea they don't actually want to sell anything to anyone, especially with all the employees over at the card tables where the D&D and Pokemon card trading goes on. (Though I gather those markets, too, have deflated considerably.) Reflecting the overall tone of the industry, they project the image that only those already belonging to the club are allowed in. Many shops have cut their stock to next to nothing, eking out a miserable existence pre-selling to a dwindling base of regulars who have no opportunity to expand their interests because they never see anything they haven't seen before. It's feudalism applied to comics marketing. It's a dead end.

"The economic base of the industry is shifting toward graphic novels and trade paperbacks: accept it and adapt, or die."

I was going to ponder this dilemma, but Larry Young (publisher of AIT/PlanetLar books; writer of ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE; and manager of the great San Francisco comics shop Comix Experience) saved me the trouble with a recent article. His perspective: as above, so below.

As a publisher, Larry has decided to abandon the monthly comics format and go straight for the trade paperback collection. He suggests:

"The comic book in its serialized pamphlet form is a dinosaur whose body doesn't know its brain is dead yet. Us clever mammals have already realized that original graphic novels are the model of comic book entertainment in the 21st century. Most successful comic book stores are already operating on the

bookstore model. Rory Root's Comic Relief in Berkeley, to just name one, is a bookstore that sells comics. Why not give Rory and the guys like him product to sell?"

And there it is: comics shops that want to survive must dump their casual fan attitudes and start behaving like businesses. Like the rest of the industry, they should begin trying to get ahead of the curve; like the rest of the industry, they've been resolutely staying way behind it. They have to drop the magazine shop/junk shop model for the bookstore model (or the entertainment store model, something Bill Liebowitz's Golden Apple shop on Melrose Ave. in Los Angeles pioneered two decades ago, though, oddly, his Northridge store stuck with the junk shop model) and making themselves inviting to a general audience. Less concern with getting customers hooked (the serial magazine model) and more with getting them satisfied (the bookstore model). The economic base of the industry is shifting toward graphic novels and trade paperbacks: accept it and adapt, or die.

I realize many comics shop owners will view this as a hardship. But while comics shops were vital to the health of a magazine-based comics economy, in a book-based comics economy they're not. They're still beneficial. They're still preferable. And they're on the front line: it's up to them to put the best face possible on the comics industry. If they can stay abreast of changes in the industry (and I don't mean whether Cyclops is currently a member of the X-Men or not), if they stay in tune with their markets, they can profit. Comix Experience and Comic Relief prove it.

If they can't, they're doing us more harm than good.

I have a new maildrop set up for anyone wanting to be kept abreast of WHISPER developments, by the way, so to put your name on the info mailing list, click here and here only.

Some months back, I asked for art samples for an adult comic I'm slowly working on for Fantagraphics/Eros. I want to apologize to everyone who sent samples for not getting back to them personally. A lot of things have happened. For one thing, the computer whose drive held the samples has been out of commission since April, and I've been working on this notebook I'm typing on now. Now the sad truth: I saw a lot of good work. I saw work by artists I'd be inclined to get in touch with if I ever do another project for Eros (unlikely but never say never, right?). I'd like to do material to suit their particular strengths. But no artist had what I wanted for this particular project. Those who sent samples, don't consider this a rejection. It's more like just one of those things. It doesn't mean there was anything wrong with your art, it just means it wasn't quite right for my purposes.

New material is finally up on the @VENTURE site, which starts up again with more COMEBACK by Michel LaCombe, lots more HODAG by Mike Baron, more Anna Passenger by Adi Tantimedh, more Scot Snow and Nat Gertler and more more more. It has been a long and grueling couple of months, and it's time to kick out the jams.

This week's Question Of The Week. All other things being equal, which would you prefer: buying six issues of a comic on a monthly basis to get a complete story, or buying one long book comprising an entire story every six months, and is monthly publication necessary to keep you interested in a continuing character or concept? Why? Leave your answer at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board

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, 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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