Master Of The Obvious: Issue #64

Wed, October 18th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

What a week for mixed signals. On the one hand, Marvel announces Grant Morrison as the new X-MEN mastermind, at last assuring (barring editorial interference) futurism in the premier franchise in comics: a sign the industry may finally be starting to seriously look forward instead of backward. In his recent press release, Morrison alludes to stripping out the ludicrous baggage, like the piles of excess nebulous characters and those silly yellow-and-blue costumes, and getting on with the show. (Curiously, this was Stan Lee's ploy in 1961 with FANTASTIC FOUR #1, the book that launched the Marvel Era. They had costumes by #2. But those were different times…)

Then we have Splash and our pal Warren toll the bell on Marvel's rapidly collapsing financial situation, mooting the Morrison coup with the implication that the Evil Empire, like the Soviet Union a decade ago, may simply cease to be come the new year, while former Marvel editorial honcho Jim Shooter abruptly resurfaces with yet another self-exculpatory interview the upshot of which is that he, if only he were returned to power and left unfettered, is still the company's logical savior.

While Hollywood's new fascination with comics continues, as TNT (which rumor claims will soon be switching to all-female-targeted programming… hmmm…) decides to go to series with WITCHBLADE and former Marvel editor Carl Potts, after years of pushing it, has cut a high-priced deal with Dimension Films for a project based on his ALIEN LEGION series once published by Epic. (Congratulations, Carl!)

While FOAF rumors that can't be traced back to any source, about impending firings and companies going out of business and content crackdowns etc etc, fly through fan circles like boulders flung from distant medieval catapults, leaving everyone sure they're "experts" on the current scene.

I have some good news and some bad news: there are no experts anymore. Nobody knows what the hell's going on now. Even me. As authoritative as the column must sound (not to me, but from the mail I get it's reading that way to someone) most of the time I'm shooting in the dark myself. Some trends are easy enough to spot, but our trends have a habit of suddenly mushrooming like amok cancers, devouring themselves and vanishing functionally stillborn.

There's a concept in physics called "Brownian motion" that says the inherent motion of molecules in a solution will cause them to randomly collide with each other. (That's an oversimplified explanation, anyway.) The constant collisions of the particles bump them around and keep colliding - but it means nothing in terms of the nature of the particles. In a college writing course I wrote a story called Brownian motion, putting several characters through random, meaningless "events" that only qualified as "events" because the "observers" projected significance onto insignificant "motion." My teacher's main criticism was that the apparent "hero" of the story doesn't act on events but is only acted on by them, a running pattern in my early writing. Which I've always thought is how most of us view our existence - we want to control our destinies but more often than not, we end up where we are because other particles randomly bump us there - but it's usually considered bad fiction. My preference for characters like that (cf. Connie Bremen in BADLANDS) remains one of my big drawbacks in the comics market, which prefers its "heroes" to leap on in there and duke it out.

But all that "duking it out," is there a better description of most of that than two (or more) characters tossed into the same solution and bouncing off each other. That's just Brownian motion too.

We're in the Brownian motion stage of culture.

This isn't surprising, nor is it confined to comics. All the ridiculous polling being done in the current election is just Brownian motion. Because we can never accurately predict the future (a problem now codified as Chaos Theory), we're obsessed with trying to figure it out. More than that, we try to affect it, as if to prove our lives are more than just random particles in play. Polls statistically try to predict election results, but often as not they're used to influence those results. To try, in other words, to use future events to validate the significance of the poll. Releasing a poll that says, for instance, that George Bush has marginally "crept ahead" of Al Gore in voter preference (extrapolating a tiny sampling to the will of 200 million voters) is subtly suggesting it's time to leap onto the Bush bandwagon. (Conversely, a bump up might be considered by Republican pundits as a negative, encouraging Republicans to feel Bush has it in the bag so they don't have to bother going out to vote or the more right wing of them can now feel secure enough to protest the new "lax Republicanism" by throwing their vote to renowned Hitler fan Pit Bullchanan.)

"Because we can never accurately predict the future (a problem now codified as Chaos Theory), we're obsessed with trying to figure it out."

Meanwhile, over at Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News, the once useful "insider film news" site has been increasingly colonized by "reviewers" jumping down the throat of new projects before they've even been written. It's familiar behavior: buttress your own self-esteem by being the first precog on your block to correctly predict someone else's failure. (The flip side is being the first on your block to explain why someone else really isn't worthy of their success.) For example, the recent mass trashing of the proposed YOUNG CLARK KENT TV show, based on little more than the title. (This accompanied much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the apparent dumping of a YOUNG BRUCE WAYNE concept that never made sense to me anyway. As a screenwriter friend of mine put it, a young Clark Kent is still Superman, but Batman before he was Batman is… well, just a guy. To be true to the character, he'd have to be one seriously obsessed guy as well.) It's the same mentality that creates "infotainment" TV shows focused on whether Meg Ryan's dating Russell Crowe or not - with implicit judgments as to the propriety of their behavior, just to spice things up - as if it means jack to anyone's life but theirs.

Brownian motion. Empty, random activity.

We don't know what's going on. We have no way of knowing what will happen. And it kills us.

Since the continuing story became a staple of comics, fans have wanted to know what happens next. Nothing's intrinsically wrong with that; it's the whole point of the continued story. It's what makes soap operas click. (The continued story virtually defines soap opera.) It's standard sales technique: give them enough to keep them interested, but give them incentive to come back for more. But as fans over the years turned into retailers and marketers, the coming attraction has become far more important than story. Obviously marketing departments feel it's preferable to play to insiderism among retailers and readers than to tease them into buying the books. How else to explain a monstrous monthly catalog, PREVIEWS, virtually dedicated to blithely spitting out plot twists as a tool for generating interest? There are better marketing techniques. (I see as I write this that Ed Brubaker has unleashed an interesting self-styled "rant" on the same subject.) Once in a blue moon major plot revelations sell comics (DC was furious when Capital spilled the beans on the Death Of Superman, but it led to a massive demand for the comics that wouldn't have existed had the secret been zealously guarded) but easy access to plot details has - cause and effect? - coincided with a precipitous dropoff in sales; as the old saying goes, why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? That's the trap of marketing by plot: it throws away character, interaction, story progression, all the things normally necessary to sustain audience interest. Are significantly more comics really sold because someone learns three months before the fact that all Wolverine's hair will be pulled out by the roots in the forthcoming issue's blazing finale? (Whoops. You didn't read that.) It's like trying to sell a suit by telling the customer all about the hanger.

"…as fans over the years turned into retailers and marketers, the coming attraction has become far more important than story."

Just more senseless activity, really. I start to wonder if most people connected to the industry really want an improvement in the market and the medium or whether they just want to push themselves. While I'm all in favor of pursuing your dreams, I get requests all the time from well-meaning would-be comics talent wanting to prove they're equals to Jack Kirby or Neil Gaiman with 100 issue rigidly plotted epics with 1000 characters and definitively illuminating all the mysteries of existence that have baffled philosophers for millennia, and they can't figure out why, in a market where a book's lucky if it lasts eight issues, no one wants to give them the time of day. It also never seems to occur to any of them that they couldn't possibly know what the hell they're talking about (and, in the few I've wimped out and looked at, the ultimate battle between good and evil - it's always about good and evil, as if no other, more interesting theme existed - comes down to a fist fight or a sword fight). All their effort really breaks down to nothing more than Brownian motion: they're feverishly active mostly because they're being bumped by other people's ideas, and because the activity itself gives them the delusion they're actually accomplishing something.

Just like most comics companies.

It's anyone's guess whether we're at the end times (or, at least, Marvel is) or on the brink of a glorious Morrisonian future. It's not really important: one species' extinction is another species' opportunity to move up the food chain. But as an industry we tend to let things happen to us, to let ourselves be knocked around by whatever particles stagger by. We don't need to. We don't need to preen by pretending we can see the future when we can't. We can choose a future, and focus on what needs to be done, and stop wasting our energy on nothing.

Go assault your comics shop for X-MAN #70, out today or tomorrow depending on your locale, from Marvel. It's everything you want in an action comic. Trust me.

The "closet sale" is in its last week. As I mentioned I was out of town all next week, so those who sent in checks since then, don't worry: your order's going out today. Anyone who wants to take part - when you do work for most companies they send you complimentary copies of your own work; mine have formed huge piles in the closet that I'm now disposing of - click here and send an e-mail for the list of what's left. If you want comics, or if you've reserved comics but haven't paid for them, the clock is ticking. Anything not paid for by next Wednesday (Oct. 25) hits the recycling bins instead.

Also prepping a secret surprise for those on the WHISPER BUREAU OF PROPAGANDA COMMUNIQUE subscription list, if certain websites will cooperate, but it's for them alone, so if you want to sign up for the communiqus, featuring semi-regular updates on the progress of the forthcoming Whisper graphic novel from AIT/PlanetLar Books, click on this link only.

For some reason this past week has seen a flood of people wanting to interview me for college papers. I'm very flattered, but, unfortunately, you picked the wrong week. (The wrong month, actually: things won't be anything resembling normal until mid-November.) I've been bouncing back and forth between here and Las Vegas and have barely had time to keep up with urgent matters, so that kind of extracurricular activity is currently impossible. I urge anyone wanting my slant on things to view the MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS ARCHIVES or check my ALLEGED FICTIONS homepage. I really haven't been holding anything back, honest.

Jonah tells me the column's been getting an unprecedented number of hits lately. While I'd like to chalk it up to my wit and eloquence, I know it's really you. Thanks.

Finally, The Question Of The Week. Well, I'm just too damn tired to come up with one, so I guess it must be up to you. Post your own question of the week for others to answer, but it must encourage people to state, if not challenge, their own unstated assumptions about comics. Go to it.

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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