Master Of The Obvious: Issue #65

Wed, October 25th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

If you watch DRAGONBALL Z for any length of time, you'll become aware of a running motif. The anime, from the manga by Akira Toriyama and touted as "the greatest action cartoon ever produced" (and it's certainly a top contender), specializes in mighty heroes with various martial arts skills and energy attacks having vastly extended battles (lasting dozens of episodes) against even mightier villains. These truly monstrous evils all have staggeringly high power levels, and the heroes fighting them have a tendency to start out by exclaiming "No Way!" before the heroes go to great extremes to drastically increase their own power levels. Then they unload on the villain with everything they've got, in amazing pyrotechnic displays with thick-clouds-of-smoke chasers - attacks nothing could possibly survive. Then the smoke clears, revealing their foe standing or hovering there, either unharmed or slightly scuffed, at which point the hero (particularly the surly green-skinned alien/demon-cum-hero Piccolo) raises eyebrows, drops jaw and gasps "HUH?!!"

Overall I find the show, appearing weekday afternoons and late nights on Cartoon Network, pretty entertaining, but that bit gets done so often I'm thinking of turning it into a drinking game: a shot of whiskey (your choice) every time the smoke clears and a character goes "HUH?!!" (A cooler motif they also frequently re-use is having former enemies turn into the heroes' allies and eventually friends as they join to battle the next, more powerful villain, though this isn't always done.)

Every so often I feel like I've beaten this business. I've been trying for years, as has almost every freelancer I know. There's a momentary thrill when you feel like you've finally produced something fairly cool, or cracked some barrier, and many freelancers have the fleeting sensation they've made it, that the salad days are finally over. That something has genuinely changed, and for the better. Top of the world, Ma!

Then the smoke clears and the fireworks fade, and there's the business, standing there sometimes scuffed but always unscathed.

It's been my experience there are generally two types of people who want to work in comics: those who want to make the rules, and those who want to break the rules. A long time ago now, when comics shops turned alternative comics (which were born on shaky ground in the 70s in the aftermath of the undergrounds via companies like Eclipse and Star*Reach) potentially viable for the first time, someone - I don't even remember his name now - decided the time was ripe for agents to become a fixture of the comics scene, as they already were in the book market and Hollywood, and asked me (among others) to let him represent my projects.

"It's been my experience there are generally two types of people who want to work in comics: those who want to make the rules, and those who want to break the rules."

Now the comics market is a small market, even though it started mushrooming at the time, and it remains a relatively small market to this day. Then, as now, if I could coldcall any editor in the business if I wanted, so the concept of agent-as-entrée was a little dodgy, and I still think it's so. A lot of newcomers sign with agents, and the agent horror stories have grown as a result, on the grounds that agents have connections they don't. While sometimes this is true, it remains that if your work's no good an agent won't be able to sell it any better than you can, and if it's good enough to stop traffic - which it needs to be - you probably don't need an agent anyway.

On the other hand, I hate pitching. Anything you say out loud about superheroes sounds stupid (Don't believe me? Pick any superhero and explain his origin and powers out loud. I suggest starting with the Billy Batson Captain Marvel.) and anything not superhero results in blank stares. (Less so today, certainly so back in the early 80s. But still so today.) It struck me as possibly a good thing to have someone else handle that. So I said okay, let's try it.

It didn't last long. I handed over some ideas for projects I really wanted to do. Did he approach editors? Did he attempt to sell them?

No. He came back instead with a laundry list of things to change in order to make the property easier for him to sell. The thrust was to make everything more generic and comfortable for the editors he had in mind to approach with it, to make it… well, just like everything else that was hot in the market at that time: i.e. Star Wars and X-Men. This he felt it would be a snap to sell. That it didn't resemble anything I'd pitched didn't faze him at all. I quickly understood his view of our professional relationship: it was my job to make money for him, not the other way around. When I bristled at completely altering the concept to fit his vision of the future of the market, he grudgingly suggested he could piggyback my book, if I really wanted to do it my way (the concept seemed totally alien to him), in a deal with some other project. In other words, in order to get something they really wanted to publish, a publisher would have to agree to publish my book as well.

Lord knows I'm way more arrogance than pride, but I still have a little pride. If a publisher doesn't want to publish my work, I'm not about to hold a gun to his head. Forcing people to publish your work is pretty much admitting you have no other way to do it. So it was immediately after this would-be agent suggested the leverage arrangement that I said, "I don't think this is going to work out."

He was someone who wanted to make the rules. This business is filthy with them. (I presume most businesses are, but we're talking about this one.) For a lot of people (often the ones with the least talent, for some reason) it's not enough to pursue a vision of what comics should be, they have to inflict it on everyone else as well. I have a stock slur for that sort of comics pro: "He's someone who really loves ideas but has so few of them that when he finally gets his hands on one he refuses to let go of it." That many of these end up as editors and even higher up in companies is not coincidental or unexpected; it's almost inevitable, since there are inevitably multitudes more who never sufficiently rise in the business but attach themselves to a company or an editor (or publisher or marketing director or whoever) like barnacles on a ship's hull, extolling the company/editor/etc.'s point of view with Pavlovian fervor, scowling at the successes of others and slamming the work (and often the characters) of fellow professionals whether freelancers or other companymen, and keeping their little checklists and black books in panting anticipation of the purges to come when they finally ascend to the seats of power.

Or, like my would-be agent "friend," they aren't interested in the long haul. They look for ways to jump to positions of power. What they all seem to have in common is the belief that the talent can't be trusted to create. That writers have to be told how to write, artists must be instructed in the "proper" way to draw. Inevitably, they also end up believing the audience must be led by the nose and told what to buy and what to read. "The people will think…" begins naďve pal Jed Leland in CITIZEN KANE, and Orson Welles' self-obsessed newspaper publisher bellows "… WHAT I WANT THEM TO THINK!" (Earlier in the film, when a stringer telegraphs there's no war in Cuba, paralleling William Randolph Hearst's instigation of the Spanish-American War, Kane telegraphs back, "You provide the pictures. I'll provide the war.")

The people will think what I want them to think: the mantra of the rulemakers. They're not limited to companymen, of course. Simply issuing proclamations and manifestos doesn't make one a rulemaker. Manifestos can be a starting shock for discourse and the dissemination of new ideas. Discourse is good. You can tag rulemakers by their response; they're the ones who get pissy and bitter if the ideas they spit out aren't immediately embraced by the larger group. They don't want discourse or examination. They want to be told they're right. They want everyone to leave the thinking up to them.

"You can tag rulemakers by their response; they're the ones who get pissy and bitter if the ideas they spit out aren't immediately embraced by the larger group."

On the other side of the line are the rulebreakers, but the business doesn't much care for rulebreakers. Until rules are successfully broken, anyway. Frank Miller has spent most of his career as a rulebreaker, and mostly benefited from it. Most of Frank's risks have paid off, mostly because his talent has generated an audience interested in whatever work he does. Still, you don't find many companies (besides Dark Horse, anyway) saying, "Frank, your work generates sales and interest so do whatever you want and we'll publish it." They say, "Gosh, Frank Miller's popular, I wish he'd do DAREDEVIL again." And if he, say, returns to Batman to draw a project or two, there's also screaming because suddenly he's "following the rules again." But real rulebreakers don't go out of their way to break the rules, they just don't care about them. And it drives rulemakers nuts. The rulebreakers are the ones usually noticed, the ones who get followings, the ones who stand out because putting their own stamp on their material lifts them above the level of cog in the machine. It's not unexpected that the top talent today, to the extent that anyone can be called top talent, tend to be rulebreakers. Warren Ellis is a rulebreaker. Grant Morrison is a rulebreaker. Morrison's run on X-MEN will be interesting because Marvel's been a haven for rulemakers so long a major collision seems inevitable. Then again, Morrison's battle cry for X-MEN is "synthesis" so maybe a middle ground will be found.

But companies have always been a haven for rulemakers. They like rulemakers. Rulemakers like systems, companies like systems. The first rule of systems mechanics: whatever the intended purpose of the system, once the system is installed, the purpose of the system becomes the perpetuation of the system. The system we've got has been steamrolling along, crushing or assimilating all opposition, for 65 years. It has made cosmetic changes when necessary to preserve itself, but that preservation has been its main objective. Not the publication of excellent work. Not the exposure of new talent and new ideas. The only new ideas that matter to the system are new packaging ideas: ways to market old, familiar ideas controlled by the system. The chief rule of the system is that all power must remain with the system. Thus publishers masquerade work-for-hire contracts as creator deals, dumping offending terminology and replacing it with expansive Byzantine legal gymnastics to ensure that control remains where it has always been. After nearly 30 years of "alternative comics," comics history is littered with creators who, like the Z-Warriors of DRAGONBALL Z, thought they had slain the enemy only to watch the smoke clear and find all their rights securely in a publisher's pocket, making further use of their creations impossible. Rulebreaking is about belief in your own point of view, rulemaking is about the negation of all other points of view. Is it any wonder rulemakers are attracted to the system, or that the system makes room for them? Is it any wonder that so many rulemakers croon "Back To Basics!" as their great idea, their panacea for all the ills of the business?

"The only new ideas that matter to the system are new packaging ideas: ways to market old, familiar ideas controlled by the system. "

With the market upheavals of the last five years, things have gotten way out of hand. Freelancers used to at least have the buffer of a personal relationship with an editor to protect them, but so many editors come and go so rapidly now that, for many freelancers, than becomes impossible. I keep hearing stories of new editors coming onto projects and throwing off the existing talent basically for no other reason than the talent is viewed as loyal to the former editor. This has become known as "putting your editorial stamp" on a project, and the companies have embraced it. From the company's point of view, it's probably not a bad idea. It keeps talent off-balance, keeps them beholden to specific editors, enlarges the company's say in the content. It's not uncommon now for freelancers to be harangued and insulted by new editors for producing exactly what the previous editor desired, as if they're incompetent to produce anything else, without being given a chance to adapt. Such harangues are rulemaker behavior: intimidation as critique. Certainly there's psychological value to the company in reinforcing for freelancers the truism that they can be removed from any project at the company's whim; keeps down those nasty discordant opinions. An employee fired from his job might have legal recourse in the form of a wrongful dismissal suit, but what does the freelancer have? I keep waiting for some comics talent to follow a whim dismissal with a personal damage suit, citing lost revenues and damage to professional standing as a result of being removed for doing what they were supposed to be doing: cooperating with the former editor and following, by extension, the company's edicts.

But what rulemakers in the comics business inevitably find is that they're only tolerated as long as their ideas coincide with the objectives of the company. Those who succeed are those who can merge most successfully with the system. Those who don't just become bitter old men, muttering in their drinks about everything would have been great if only everyone would just have done what they were told.

"…what rulemakers in the comics business inevitably find is that they're only tolerated as long as their ideas coincide with the objectives of the company."

Of course, being a rulebreaker doesn't guarantee success. And a lot of rulebreakers turn out to be closet rulemakers when they become successful, doling out their points of view as roadmaps and waving their success like a cudgel to intimidate whoever possible into following in their footsteps. And, because the system has always been geared toward that end and will always be until it collapses of its own weight (and it's pretty damn close now) or someone steamrolls it with something it can't assimilate, a lot of rulebreakers end up bitter old men muttering in their drinks as well.

By and large, though, rulebreakers have more fun getting there.

As of today, the closet selloff is over. (If you don't know what this means, it's too late to matter anyway, so forget it.) Those who still want a Steven Grant comic of their very own are advised to pick up the latest issue of X-MAN, if you can still find it. (Good luck.) Thanks to everyone who ordered; those of you who held out can now find the right recycling bin and pick them up free, if you're fast.

I'm moving to Nevada now, and things will be a bit dicey for the next couple weeks. But next week, a special Halloween treat: something you can make fun of me over for years to come. Until mid-November, though, don't bother e-mailing any requests because it won't happen. I'll still be reading all my mail, though.

Question Of The Week: To what extent do you prefer to see the "real world" reflected (or not) in comics, and why?

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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