Master Of The Obvious: Issue #61

Wed, September 27th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

For those who didn't read last week's column, in anticipation of moving I'm clearing out old comics. (See below.) When you write or draw comics (I've no idea if it extends to letterers and colorists, now that I think about it) companies send you complimentary copies of your own work. Anywhere between three and 50 copies. Sometimes its courtesy, sometimes contractual. It's customary. If you write even a couple comics per month, the comp stacks can pile up quickly. (And that doesn't include single-issue comps on the other books the company publishes, a once-ubiquitous practice the slump has exterminated from most companies' budgets.)

What's been odd about my little adventure into direct sales is the main object of desire.

[Challengers of the Unknown]Everyone wants CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN.

Along with Keith Giffen's BOOK OF FATE, Marv Wolfman's NIGHT FORCE, Len Kaminski and Anthony Williams' SCARE TACTICS, COTU was one of the books in (now relocated) DC editor Dan Thorsland's ill-fated attempt to carve out his own empire on the (then) abandoned shores of mystery/occult comics. COTU (as I took to calling it, to distinguish it from the Jack Kirby's original CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, nicknamed "The Challs") actually started a year earlier, when I was brought in to create a new COTU for a TV pitch DC wanted to make to Warners. Yes, it can now be told, and I freely admit, that we threw out the original team because, SPACE COWBOYS aside, trying to pitch a concept built around four aging white guys to a TV market focused on a youth audience and pushing a veneer of multiculturalism (plenty of activist groups argue it's a pretty thin, even invisible, veneer, and they make a good case) would have been flat-out stupid, a waste of everyone's time and money. So: out with Ace, Rocky, Red and Prof; in with Brenda, Kenn, Marlon and Clay.

And, yes, it was aimed at the X-FILES market. With a name like CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, where would you aim it? When the comic came out, we fielded a host of accusations that we were "just ripping off X-FILES" (in retrospect, making Brenda Ruskin a redhead probably wasn't our smartest idea) but the basic idea - and, despite the cast change, we were going back to basics with the concept - had been around for 40 years, since Jack Kirby drew the first Challs episode in SHOWCASE in 1956.

An aside: one of the things that always drew me to CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, even as a kid, was the name. Naming comics is a tricky business. Most comics are titled after the main character, but many names don't really mean anything. JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, even if you've never heard of the book or seen superheroes before, you've got some idea just from the title what you're going to get. FANTASTIC FOUR, not bad: four people who are fantastic (in the dictionary sense of "absurdly fanciful"). You may not have a complete grip on what you'll get when you see the FANTASTIC FOUR name, but it's a good bet it's not MELROSE PLACE. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN starts to stretch things; we're so familiar with the character it's hard to remember someone coming to the name cold might have a hard time understanding it. (Fortunately for Marvel, public saturation of Spider-Man is now such that's not an issue, and hasn't been for a long time.) Tell me anyone who hears the title SILVER SURFER blind will be expecting stories about a melancholic alien with cosmic power (whatever the hell that is). When you start getting into titles like CABLE, or even PLANETARY, you're spitting out codes that need deciphering.

It's worth pointing out that, in the comics market, name rarely directly affects sales. Comics readers are trained to accept as names words or phrases they might not immediately understand, like GRIFTER. But companies can get capriciously anal about titles. (I recently mock chewed out my old pal and now GREEN LANTERN editor Bob Schreck because last year the company refused to consider the title CIRCLE OF LIGHT and this year published GREEN LANTERN: CIRCLE OF FIRE.) In the early 90s, publishers went psycho over books sounding "tough," hence a lot of comics with BAD, BLOOD and DEATH in the titles until everyone was sick of them. There was also the tendency, particularly the Master Of The Obvious Message Boardin the wake of CABLE, to invent titles that were intended to sound cool whether they meant anything or not. Did this trend help isolate the industry from casual readers? Your call.

CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN is the perfect comic book title. Pure and simple, the concept is the title. You see that title, you know exactly what to expect. If it's not what you get, it means someone's doing something very wrong.

Anyway.

The TV show version (I'd share the outline but technically it belongs to DC) was pleasantly free of superpowers, but, when Dan started what would become known as the "Weirdoverse" DC started pushing for the characters to have some sort of powers. (Actually, I don't know if Dan ever got actual pressure to make the characters superheroes or if it was just his interpretation of what the company expected.) I dodged that bullet as best as I could, focusing instead on what I called "affinities," with each character not having special abilities so much as being able to connect with other things. And, yes, as many readers suspected but which was never confirmed, I patterned them after the ancient elements. But not earth, water, fire and air. These have been used time and time again, as a subtle pattern for the Fantastic Four and the original Challs, more obviously on books like Bill Willingham's ELEMENTALS. It's a motif so common it's moribund now. While stuck with an "elemental" structure, I turned instead to the five Chinese elements: wind, water, fire, metal and wood. (That college course on The I-Ching finally paid off.) For those who wonder how that worked, Clay Brody was metal; arch-enemy and unofficial fifth Challenger Saxon was wood.

"CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN is the perfect comic book title. Pure and simple, the concept is the title."

Dan signed John Paul Leon to draw the series: a wonderful choice. We nicked the origin of the first Challengers for ours, tarting it up with a mystery. Per the thinking of the day, we stayed off continuity for the most part (we didn't ignore it, we just didn't refer to it) and made all the issues one issue stories, to make things easy for new readers. (We broke both vows once, in an overly convoluted three-parter centering around the Challs; other "violations" included a two-parter guest-starring Batman - at DC you always know your book's in trouble when the editor suggests a Batman guest sting - two crossover inclusions I'd rather not have done, and a "retro" issue where Mike Zeck drew a 50s style "Challs" story with a framing device by John Paul, which was a lot of fun.) When I hear people make hard and fast rules about such things now, I have to laugh because, really, they didn't help us at all. This could have been due to any number of factors that had nothing to do with them, it could have been simply the state of the industry at that time, maybe the per-issue price was just too high, but it's a lesson that nothing is a guaranteed cure-all. Books that defy "right thinking" can flourish, books that follow "the rules" can still belly up.

And belly up we did. But not right away. COTU lasted 18 issues. Enough, apparently, to get some sort of underground reputation. Because people are always asking when we're bringing back The Challengers. (When hell freezes over would be my guess.) Now that I'm selling back stock, it's the most requested product, wiping out the available sets, and I had a lot of copies.

That there's an active public for COTU out there isn't surprising, only the volume of it. As I think I've mentioned before, this is my general curse: my work tends to be better appreciated read in bulk than issue by issue. (There are, of course, those who can't stand any of it, and if you're one of them there's no need to write and tell me. I already know you're out there, you can keep it to yourself.) I've been at this for years, and have plenty of flops to my name, and it's a recurring pattern. Even my MANHUNTER, which is roundly considered a miserable flop, has a sizable and apparently growing number of fans; just last week I got an e-mail from someone who'd bought many of them when they came out, disliked them, tossed them into storage, took them out only recently when preparing to dump them, read them through just for one last look, really liked them the second time around, and is now trying to complete the set. Go figure.

"...this is my general curse: my work tends to be better appreciated read in bulk than issue by issue."

I'm not trotting this out to aggrandize myself. I don't have great delusions about my own genius. (Just small ones.) While the only examples I have are my own, I have to think many writers and artists in comics get the same thing. (Particularly in this age of so many cancellations.)

Some might have caught HBO's SEX AND THE CITY last Sunday night. (The episode's in rerun on HBO all week if you're feeling masochistic.) The usually mildly funny sitcom, sort of FRIENDS as a girls' locker room where women can talk smutty too and great gynecological and social issues such as who likes what inserted where get sorted out. In the latest show, the focal heroine, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) runs down to St. Marks Place to get her shoes repaired, only to find her repair shop replaced by St. Marks Comics (which has only been there twenty years or so, but I'm sure St. Marks didn't mind the publicity). The store's staffed (and apparently owned) by some hunky blond guy, and their conversation begins with the unnerving revelation that the comics industry is in the dumper these days - and then shows why, as Hunky Blond Guy trots out his own self-published comic, POWER LAD. I was waiting for Batman-style onomatopoeia to explode across the screen. Despite the Malibu tan, HBG soon turns out to be every geeky stereotype about comics wrapped into one: he's an artist (there's no suggestion comics are actually written) who owns a comics shop stocked with buyers who gape slackjawed at women just because they're women but never go within a hundred feet of them, and to afford to fritter away his time drawing comics and running a shop, he, despite his advancing years, lives with his parents, who treat him like a 15 year old, and he behaves like one. Y'know, it wouldn't have been offensive if they'd actually come up with a joke to go with it, but that was the whole joke. Don't these people read ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY?

The running gimmick of SEX AND THE CITY has Carrie as a columnist whose titular column discusses her and her friends' sex lives and pauses at critical moments for her to type the pertinent question of the week across her computer screen, in this case IS IT ALL RIGHT TO DATE SOMEONE WHO LIVES WITH HIS PARENTS? (Fortunately, comics get dropped from the discussion entirely about halfway through. Having brought up the subject, they clearly didn't have a clue where to go with it.) With a tip of the hat to SEX AND THE CITY:

DO COMICS PUBLISHERS ABANDON CONCEPTS TOO QUICKLY?

Maybe. There's clearly some dynamic going on here we don't take into account. Word of mouth perhaps. Word of mouth is still the most effective way of building an audience, but it has one huge drawback: it takes time. Comics marketers have spent years trying to beat it out of the equation. Someone has to (presumably buy and) read a comic, tell someone else about it, then that someone has to go get the comic, read it, and tell someone else. (In theory, this works as a pyramid scheme, but it just as often runs in a single straight line.) With word of mouth, audiences build slowly. There are no first day sellouts, except, as is often the case, when dealers buy so few copies they automatically run out. Which kills word of mouth because no one can get the book in question, and that moment of curiosity evaporates. No sales. No sales, no book.

"Word of mouth is still the most effective way of building an audience, but it has one huge drawback: it takes time."

I'm not talking about canceling comics. If comics don't sell, they get cancelled. That's the rule. There's no point in a company endlessly supporting a book on the off-chance it'll get an audience. In some cases, cancellation might be the smartest move. It brings the wheel to a halt, erodes back issue prices often to the point where issues become considered affordable (there's no doubt the high price of most comics today, for the format, severely inhibits new sales) and allows an audience the luxury of time to build around what has been done. Particularly with unusual material that strays from the rote of modern mainstream comics, it allows readers time to become comfortable with the underlying concepts.

Then companies change the concepts.

Take FATE for example. Launched (along with MANHUNTER) among a number of poorly received spin-offs from the major crossover event ZERO HOUR (most of which originally had nothing to do with ZH and were attached to it to create a sense of event), FATE ran through several issues by John Francis Moore, who has since gone on to bigger things. When John left, Archie asked me to take over, but I didn't want to write a book like that regularly, so I took care of the book until Len Kaminski could open a hole in his schedule. Len's got the wacky alternate-reality sensibility the book really needed, but by the time he came on, the book was barely clinging to an audience. Len's run started rebuilding an audience for the book and the character, enough that DC decided to give it another run at success as BOOK OF FATE.

Except Len, who had finally made the character intrinsically interesting, wasn't hired to write it. They changed the concept. Whatever progress they'd made, whatever audience had slowly been building, the company was now back to square one. BOOK OF FATE lasted ten issues.

The market has changed enough that launching monthlies and expecting them to be instant overnight successes is ridiculous. It makes more sense to put whatever creative muscle there is fully behind a beautifully thought out mini-series (if many fans can be convinced to ignore their increasingly ingrained resistance to mini-series based by years of exposure to shoddy fly by night minis that serve no purpose) and toss it out there to start word of mouth going. There's a concept in movies where writers, directors and stars, when they sign onto a movie, also agree to participate in any sequel that may occur. It might apply equally well to comics. Why shouldn't a company sign up talent for a mini-series, with a corollary agreement that they'll return for a second mini-series six months later if the company decides it's a good idea? (Even better, if, as Wildstorm is now doing with the LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN sequel, companies underwrite complete production of a mini-series before they solicit it.) If companies still insist that monthlies are an absolute necessity, an introductory mini followed by a gap followed by a second mini (provided the mini's well done, of course) may be a way to capitalize on word of mouth, allowing it to build. If a concept can hold its own after two minis, maybe it'll mean a monthly series based on the concept will have legs.

"Why shouldn't a company sign up talent for a mini-series, with a corollary agreement that they'll return for a second mini-series six months later if the company decides it's a good idea?"

It's a truism in business that it's not the innovator of a concept who makes money from it, it's the one next in the chain who manages to market it. Ideas need time to build a market. Reconcieving every concept after an initial failure is throwing away a lot of good, potentially commercial ideas needlessly, and, since most reconceptions aren't intelligent improvements on the original but wholesale revamps that start the clock again, they just dig the industry's pit a little deeper. We don't want a pit we can't climb out of.

As mentioned above, I'm clearing out the comp copies in my closet. Boxes and boxes of them. I'm kind of amazed how much I turned out over the space of eight years or so. Last week's response was phenomenal, thanks. Very few full sets of anything remain, but there are plenty of comics left, at prices so low we're practically giving them all away. (Every New Yorker's dream, to be Crazy Eddie for a day.) If you want a current list of what's available, click here. (Note to the person who wrote me about an issue of I-BOTS: I wiped out your e-mail address by mistake. Get back in touch. Thanks.)

X-MAN #69 came out from Marvel last week. If you haven't got it yet, pester your retailer for it.

Moving is curtailing my extracurricular activities for the moment, but the second WHISPER BUREAU OF PROPAGANDA COMMUNIQUE #2 went out last weekend. If you want to join the mailing list, click here. And if anyone knows of a good Windows-based freeware mailing list manager, let me know that too, 'cause the one I'm using stinks. Caveat: though work on the new WHISPER graphic novel continues, odds are another COMMUNIQUE won't materialize until mid-November.

I've also signed with Platinum Studios to produce a graphic novel and two mini-series. More on those at a later date.

Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: We all complain about Hollywood casting of movies based on comics, so here's your chance to be a Hollywood mogul. Cast the movie version of your favorite comic (again, make a stand and choose only one)… with the worst possible choices.

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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