Master Of The Obvious: Issue #62

Wed, October 4th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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When I was 15 or so, I was out riding with my father when he abruptly said, "I want you to promise me something."

Now my father, who smoked between two and three packs of Winstons a day, almost never asked me for anything, so when he said things like that I never knew what to expect. When I tentatively agreed, he continued, "Promise me you'll never do two things I do: never smoke cigarettes, and never work for the phone company."

[Guinea Pigs]
[Guinea Pigs]
What prompted that, I never did learn. My father was in a pensive mood around that time, also telling me how, during his post-WWII stint in the Army Air Corps, he worked on the ground crew that loaded A-bombs for testing on small Pacific islands. How the crew formed what they called The Guinea Pig Club, as a semi-joke about their involvement in the tests. Their work was classified, they were all sworn to secrecy. Since my father took that sort of thing very seriously I was the only one he ever told. So seriously that years later, while he was dying of cancer possibly spawned years before by exposure to those bombs, when I mentioned it he told me never to bring it up because he should never have told me, and made it sound as though he'd invented the whole thing. It was very strange. I felt like I'd imagined the original conversation. Yet, after his death, I found his file of memorabilia from those days: crew photos with the planes they loaded, and membership card in The Guinea Pig Club. So he hadtold me; neither one of us had made it up. The air corps was also where he started smoking; cigarettes were provided free by the military to get soldiers through the boredom of service. The phone company, on the other hand, was almost the family business. In the 20s and 30s, in Fond Du Lac WI, my grandfather practically was the phone company, a job that got him very comfortably through the Depression, and my father had a job waiting for him when he got back from the Army. As with most people, what he thought he wanted from life wasn't what he got. He certainly didn't want to work for the phone company in Fond Du Lac all his life. But the phone company was a good job at a time when jobs were scarce, so his rebellion consisted of accepting a transfer to Madison. Given his druthers, I think he would have been a professional photographer, and he was an excellent amateur photographer. All that kept him an amateur was that he never tried to sell anything.

When he hit his reflective stage, my father was about my age now. I think I get now why he told me these things, why he made me promise. You reach a certain point, it starts to feel like you've already played your hand, and whatever you might have done right, it's easier to communicate what you think you did wrong. "Do as I say, not as I do" sounds like the height of hypocrisy, but few people correct their own mistakes, even if they recognize them. The best most of us, locked into our bad habits despite our best efforts, can hope for is that someone else might dodge our errors if they're clued in early enough.

Someone recently asked me to do a column on how to survive your first year as a professional writer. I get this question all the time, like it's difficult. Presuming by "professional" one means writing is your full-time bring home the bacon vocation and not something you do after hours from your job at Apple and on weekends when the dog is walked and the Raiders aren't playing on TV, there's an easy way to survive: marry someone with a good job and lots of patience. Preferably they should believe in your talent, but any rationale for indulging you will do. You can also live with your parents. Or you can just get really lucky. People do. Sell your first novel for a million dollars, survival's no longer an issue.

"Someone recently asked me to do a column on how to survive your first year as a professional writer…marry someone with a good job and lots of patience."

Otherwise start eating lots of spinach, 'cause you'll be spending lots of time selling your blood and they consider anemia a real turn-off.

I'm kidding, of course. (Columnist etiquette tip #1: a little white lie effectively puts readers at ease.) But the question itself is a borderline between pro writer and non-pro, because only a non-pro would ask it. Not just because a pro writer doesn't need to ask it, but because a pro knows it's no easier to survive your third, or fourth or twentieth year.

It also depends on what you mean by professional writer. Pro writers tend to break down into two schools: snobs and whores. Snobs are in it for the art, certain their superior vision will open all doors and rain riches down upon them, while whores are in it for the money, willing to take any assignment just to get published, sure that regardless of the degradation and humiliation of whatever their current assignment is, perseverance will eventually bring the recognition which will rain riches down upon them. Snobs read THE FOUNTAINHEAD, whores read WRITERS DIGEST. Snobs wish they could make the kind of money whores appear to. Whores wish they could have the creative freedom snobs seem to have. Both tend to mock the other. In my experience, snobs eventually grow bitter. Whores just get depressed.

And they're both wrong.

Surviving my first year as a pro writer wasn't all that hard. It was like the old saw about teaching a baby to swim by dropping him in the water. Like many things in my life, it worked out okay for me but I probably wouldn't recommend it. I started writing professionally in October '77, having graduated college eight months before and suffered through the worst summer of my life. (Best summed up by the Mott The Hoople lyric, "There ain't nothing going right. There ain't even nothing going wrong…") A friend from college was starting up a music paper and sent me to see the editor, who blew me off. They had all the writers they needed, he told me. There was an Iggy Pop concert that weekend. Rather than leave the office, I (somewhat arrogantly, but some arrogance is a necessity in this business) made the editor a bet: I'd pay my own way into the show, write my own review of it, they send whoever they like to cover the show, I'll bring my review in, and they run whichever review they think is better. They thought that was the funniest thing. The editor took me up on it, sure an unpublished git like me didn't stand a chance. A week later they printed my review.

I was still living like a college student in a college town, getting barely paid for the work and barely scraping by. Things were so weird by December that when I ran into a woman I'd known but hadn't seen in years, I told her I was in the aphelion of my existence. I had no job, no viable source of income, no money, no way to pay the rent January 1 and looking at spending February forward on the street. But there were upsides: mostly due to the snottiness that infested my criticism (my attitude was very influenced by punk rock, leading to me playing Sex Pistols 45s at the office Xmas party to the annoyance of the Aerosmith fans that made up the rest of the staff) I made a small local rep in a very short time. Women began buying me drinks in bars, usually in return for spontaneous bad poems on cocktail napkins. Women began offering me other things: a novel experience. A rival paper hired me to write film and theater reviews (they first wanted me to write music reviews, but I told them I already had a job like that). That paper actually paid, not well but it added up. The music rag paid more occasionally, when they managed to collect ad revenue, but traded ads to a local sandwich shop in return for meals, and since I'd moved up to the editorial staff I was eligible to collect. Since they were on the street where I lived, I collected a lot. As reviews editor, I assigned records for review and got my pick of the remaining albums, some of which ended up on my turntable but most of which went to a used record store for cash, a standard income-buttressing ploy of editors throughout the music press.

Mainly, in January my boss where I'd worked as a student asked me to come back on a non-student basis, which meant six hours a night four or five days a week, sitting by myself in a room doing nothing, giving me plenty of time to write on the theater's electric typewriter. For the next eight months, until I packed my bags for NYC, that's what got me through. Had I depended on income from writing, I'd've been writing out of a cardboard box.

Here's the thing: while my music reviews were able to jump me to film reviews, reviewing wasn't a jump to anywhere else. That I could be equally articulate about Richard Hell And The Voidoids and Jean-Luc Goddard's WEEKEND meant absolutely nothing to editors at Marvel. (Though he was New York City boy and the sullen toast of Manhattan's punk scene at the time, most Marvel editors had never even heard of Richard Hell.) It was enough, though, for entre to TROUSER PRESS, an Anglophile rock magazine careening headlong toward New Wave. But Marvel editors couldn't care less whether I could reviews, they only cared whether I could write comics. And they were right; for what they wanted, none of the rest mattered.

So I ended my first pro year in New York City, writing music reviews for TROUSER PRESS and comics for Marvel, sleeping on Roger Stern's couch while hunting for my own apartment, and barely scraping by.

That "barely scraping by" part comes up a lot in writers' self-descriptions. It's the standard of the writers' existence. Even comics writers fans think must be making money hand over fist are often making ends meet, at best. And the fact is that writing is not a high-mobility business. Every time you want to do something new in writing, it's your first year. Writers funnel down, not up. Fans often wonder why comics writers aren't hired to write movies based on their work, but that's rarely how it works. There's a food chain to writing. Like I said, no one presumes you can write comics just because you can write reviews; you have to show them. Movies and TV are up the film chain from comics; comics writers aren't asked to write movies, but comics companies are usually thrilled to have screenwriters write comics. It's not unusual for novelists to be hired to adapt (or, more often, co-adapt) their work to film, but when was the last time you heard of a screenwriter being asked to write a novel? There's a pecking order, and the only way to break through it is to do the work to show you can do the work.

There are a rarified few writers who can feel secure about their careers. No writer's secure in comics; steamroller careers can vanish in the blink of an eye. In a market that generates no royalties, popularity can be entertaining, and it can be useful in convincing editors your work is salable, but ultimately means nothing. It's like being captain of the chess club in high school. Sure, the other members of the club hold you in high regard, and you've got all the moves down, but you still ain't the quarterback.

"In a market that generates no royalties, popularity can be entertaining, and it can be useful in convincing editors your work is salable, but ultimately means nothing."

So how to survive? Ease into it if you can stand to. Drop a baby into the water and more than likely it'll drown, not swim. Remember that what you call yourself means nothing; you aren't a professional writer until someone is willing to pay you for your work. That can mean advances or back end money, but until that check clears, and you start getting enough checks to cover a sizable part of your expenses, you're not a professional. (Don't get me wrong, there are extremely talented amateurs.) That first year is the time to develop your habits. Act like it's your job, not just something to do when it catches your fancy. Generate your own material and fight like a dog to sell it, or keep your options open and seek assignments, but be careful: you never know what piece will generate your reputation, and it's better you get known for something you're proud of than that pro-Hitler tirade you spat out for THE SPOTLIGHT because you knew you could get $100 for it. Don't be afraid of money, but don't be too eager to get it. Your job in that first year is to lay down the foundations of your career, and to hone your focus. The first year is tough, but all the years are tough. Welcome to the writer's life.

Where the only way to survive is by writing, and writing well enough that people will pay you to write more. If you can do that, you have nothing to worry about. If you can't, there's always a future in sewer maintenance.

By the way, I've never smoked cigarettes, and, thankfully, have never ever worked for the phone company. Do as I say, not as I do.

Thanks for the many people who have made my closet sell-off a huge success. For those who came in late, I've accumulated piles of comp comics over the years. I'm moving now and see no reason to take them all with me (what does anyone need with 50 copies of VAMPIRELLA #13?) so I'm selling them all at the price of one thin dollar, including autograph. While titles like WHISPER and CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN are as good as wiped out, and virtually no sets remain (still got some GRIFTER sets and MANHUNTER sets, but that's about it) there's still a good selection of 90s comics from Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Wildstorm, Tekno, First, Harris and I can't remember the other ones, so if you want to see a list, drop an e-mail at this link only and I'll bring you up to speed. Thanks.

Speaking of movies, this week's pick to click on DVD is the new wave German thriller RUN LOLA RUN. If you haven't seen it, go watch it now. The new TV season's pick to click is… um… look, just go see RUN LOLA RUN and forget about the new TV season.

Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: Joe Quesada recently mentioned his desire to make Marvel a heavyweight in the trade paperback market by digging through the vast Marvel back catalog to see what's there that could be tapped for tpb treatment. But we're talking 40 years of material, and Marvel's staff barely has time to get today's comics published, let alone root through that much dust. So we're going to pitch in, okay? (No, that's not this week's question. Here's this week's question.) What three Marvel story arcs (tops; you can suggest fewer) do you think deserve trade paperback collection? BEFORE YOU ANSWER, here are my instructions to the jurors. Historical Significance is irrelevant; those with a knowledge of the historical context are a tiny subset of the intended audience. Popularity of the work among hardcore Marvel fans isn't a factor, and shouldn't be considered; one may even consider it a deficit. Worthiness is judged by how good the story in question is, and how satisfying the material (both story and art) would be to a sophisticated modern audience. Important factors are: slickness of the work; how much sense the work makes outside the context of Marvel continuity without extreme rewriting; how contemporary the work feels. You needn't concern yourself with the impact of such product upon the trade paperback collection market as a whole, because Marvel almost certainly won't. Don't think like a fanboy, think like a book editor. Defend your choice. (And not with something like "Perez. Nuff said!" 'Cause it ain't.) Go to your corners and come out swinging.

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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