Master Of The Obvious: Issue #70

Wed, November 29th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

There are people who think Warren Ellis is overexposed. (That any writer is overexposed, particularly one like Warren with the talent to justify it, is ludicrous.) If you're one of them, move on. This story begins with Warren, and nothing can be done about that.

About a year ago, Warren mentioned in private he had been approached by Marvel to revamp some of their fading X-books.

Anyone who's been following Warren's ruminations (and if you haven't, see his web column COME IN ALONE while it still exists, or go to his personal webpage, or check out the hyperactive Warren Ellis Forum on Delphi, or subscribe to the e-newsletter From The Desk Of Warren Ellis) knows Warren's tolerance for spandex shenanigans has worn extremely thin. Prior to the announcement of his X-connection, Warren had sworn off superhero comics once his stints on his creator-participation comics for Wildstorm, THE AUTHORITY (a widescreen disaster film on paper) and the truly uncanny PLANETARY, were completed.

But Warren has steadfastly been building a name for himself in this industry for the last several years with challenging, often outrageous, and simply different work. The only thing we writers have to offer that no one else can offer is our personal perspective, which, in theory, informs everything we do. Comics writers are often taught early on by osmosis to hide themselves and flatten out their material to suit the presumed "needs" of the publisher: to go bland. This results in a lot of us, and I don't exclude myself from the list, doing work we hate. You do it because you're a professional, and professionals suck it up and get the job done, like cannon fodder in a real man's army. You do it because that house payment needs to be made and you can cry all you want about integrity, but when you weigh integrity against the prospect of your family living out of a car it doesn't quite stack up. You do it as an investment in the future, crow you have to swallow to get to that place you really want to be, that mirage that seems to always recede the closer you get to it, where you can finally call your own shots. You do it mostly because that's how things are done, and after awhile you do it because that's how you've always done it, and then it's hard to even remember what, aside from your own ego, made you different from anyone else.

When what attracts attention today, unless you want to cater to a shrinking audience insistent on an absence of significant novelty, is what people haven't seen before. Done well. Which is what Warren did.

Marvel was watching some of its X-titles - specifically the once-popular GENERATION X and X-FORCE and the misbegotten oddity X-MAN - sliding toward cancellation, and editor Jason Liebig argued it was worth a shot to go nuts with them instead; there was nothing to lose. He had nothing to lose by approaching Warren either. Warren had ties to the X-offices due to his stint on EXCALIBUR, and, following eyecatching runs on THOR (in which the thunder god spent almost four issues in bed with the Enchantress), Wildstorm's STORMWATCH, Vertigo's HELLBLAZER and his continuing political sf epic TRANSMETROPOLITAN, his name now draws attention. His core audience is constantly growing and very faithful, his work has helped trigger the growing interest in trade paperbacks (TRANSMETROPOLITAN sells much better in paperback than in comics form, and comics sales remain healthy) and he's very in demand with a variety of publishers. To top it off, he's being lionized by venues like ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and the BBC as a force in pop culture.

Attention was what Marvel wanted.

Warren had sworn off superheroes but he also had a prior commitment to the X-offices for one last project. If there's one thing Warren takes seriously, it's his commitments. (He also demands reciprocity from the other party, and takes breaches seriously as well.) This was one of the terms: if he took on the X-revamp it would discharge his obligation on the other project. He worked out fairly radical rethinks of the properties, going places Marvel hadn't been before. I think he was seeing how far he could push them. Far enough, as it turned out. They wanted his name and his ideas. They gave him what he wanted. He had no time to write the books himself, so he would set the new directions and sketch out the initial storylines, but he wanted to use the books to showcase the talents of other writers (and artists) he felt were worthy of greater exposure.

I made the cut, for X-MAN. (English writer Ian Edginton, who produced some excellent, if largely ignored, books for Marvel UK and Dark Horse, got X-FORCE while cult star Brian Wood, whose breakthrough creation CHANNEL ZERO has just been collected by AIT/PlanetLar Books, landed on GENERATION X.) Though we've only met once, Warren and I have known each other for years now, and he has long championed my better work, like BADLANDS. As readers of both MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS and his COME IN ALONE know, we share many attitudes about the comics business. While I've written team books (cf. I-BOTS for Tekno, WETWORKS for Wildstorm, and CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN for DC), my main interest is outsider loner heroes. (I even named an abortive Wildstorm character Loner.) Warren designed X-Man to be the ultimate loner; alone among comics heroes, in his new incarnation he not only liked being a loner, he dedicated his life to it. Going balls out in directions Marvel had previously flirted with but never really pursued, Warren and I mostly separated him from the rest of the X-universe; transformed him into "the telepathic mutant shaman of the 21st century," transliterating, in small doses, the traditional role of the shaman with a massive dose of futurism; and expanded his range beyond the traditional Marvel world along a vast array of parallel Earths.

[Counter-X]The three titles became collectively known as Counter-X, to distinguish them from the rest of the X-Men-related titles. The revamps launched last April. Even prior to the launch, there was political infighting about them. The rest of the X-books were also relaunching, with "major changes" following a gap in the storyline that covered six months, but marketing elected to focus on Counter-X in their April push, causing some friction between X-offices.

X-MAN was a special problem. Pre-Counter-X issues had driven away readers in droves, convincing many the character was beyond redemption. Though Nate was being converted into a basically new character, a considerable number of people just hated the character so much they weren't interested in anything done with him. They weren't shy about saying so.

Still, sales jumped when Counter-X launched. They didn't spike; they went up and stayed up. I don't think we got back many of the old readers - online I was constantly begged to return to storylines from the previous run, and considered setting up a macro on my computer so I could explain for the nth time with a single button that we were staying for the most part away from continuity and those storylines were destined to remain unfinished as long as we were on the book, barring editorial fiat - but we seemed, largely on the strength of Warren's name - to pick up a new audience that had never read X-MAN and generally didn't read X-MEN or even Marvel comics. Some readers, apparently raised on the gonad-clenching, teeth-gritting fever pace of most comics, were upset by the book's more relaxed pacing. Some claimed the characters talked too much, some that the dialogue was too sparse. (We did prefer to let the art carry the story wherever possible.) But, by and large, people were enjoying it, people who hadn't enjoyed an X-title in years.

To which I can only say thanks, and, particularly, thanks, Warren.

[X-Man Covers]
X-Man Covers #63-66. The "No Direction Home" storyline.
There's some intentional confusion about Warren's role on the book. His semi-official title was "plotmaster." He was both a lot more and a lot less than that. He set the tone and the pace, but none of us were ever expected to be his stand-ins. Warren was the navigator, but ultimately we were expected to be captains of our own ships. We were even expected to savage his instructions when we felt they were off-course or we had something better. Some sections of the first arcs he laid out in fairly lengthy detail, with copious dialogue notes; some were mere sketches. By the second arcs (by the end of the first, really) he'd cut back his direct participation considerably, leaving it up to us. I've heard it suggested that Warren's ego drove him to take on the Counter-X project, but there was no ego in his dealings with us.

As most readers know by now, just before Thanksgiving Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada announced X-MAN was cancelled, along with a handful of other X-related titles. The final issue will be #75. This had been nerve-rackingly rumored for months, pretty much from the moment previous EIC Bob Harras, widely viewed as an architect of Counter-X, was fired. I knew much of what was going on behind the scenes, but, since Marvel editors are not supposed to discuss with freelancers what's said in editorial meetings, I had to feign ignorance when people asked. Doing otherwise would have cost Jason Liebig his job. (With his departure from Marvel a few weeks ago, that's no longer an issue.) Jason has taken a bad rap from some freelancers, but he had the basic human decency to defy Marvel policy and keep informed people whose livelihoods were being affected by what was being said in those meetings, and basic human decency is often in short supply in this business.

At the eleventh hour, there was a flurry of fan activity to save X-MAN, and following the cancellation announcement I've received hundreds of letters of protest and condolence. Thank you. That's extremely gratifying. I enjoyed the work I was doing on X-MAN. I'm happy others did. I'm sorry Marvel cancelled the book. My accountant's sorry Marvel cancelled it.

I'm not convinced Marvel was wrong to cancel it.

There's a Wall Street term: a dead cat bounce. If you throw a dead cat out the window, it'll bounce when it hits the street, but that doesn't mean it's not still dead. They apply the term to stocks in freefall, whose value have disintegrated; when these stocks reach a nadir, there's often a buying frenzy that drives the price up a little, which makes it look like the stock is active again, but the buyers only buy to make a quick sale and profit during the brief bounce, and the stock falls into oblivion past that point. A dead cat bounce.

I've no doubt everyone involved gave it their best efforts, but we expected from the start that Counter-X would be a dead cat bounce. (At San Diego, I suggested a Counter-X marketing slogan - "pissing on everything Marvel holds dear" - but, for some reason, it was rejected.) Even while Bob was in charge, we were looking at possibly crippling changes after the first year. For reasons that mystified all of us, Bob insisted on dropping the very identifiable Counter-X rubric with the second year, effectively blending the books back into the anonymity of the swollen X-line when being separated had allowed us, from a marketing perspective, to stand out. It was as it had been decided to intentionally bury Counter-X. Joe's ascendancy stalled that for a bit, and it briefly seemed the situation had reversed, with next March being made "Counter-X" month to promote the line and introduce a fourth Counter-X book written by Joe Harris.

Barely a breath after word of that came down, Marvel reassessed its publishing strategy, Jason was fired and X-MAN was done. (I'm presuming the fourth Counter-X title is done as well.)

Readers tend to view cancellations on an individual basis. Publishers traditionally do too, often to their detriment. Marvel, staring down their own potential dead cat bounce on Wall St., have to think holistically about their publishing operation now. While it doesn't immediately make much sense to cancel a book that's making money, there are good reasons for it.

Marvel's in the process of rebuilding their business now, of recreating investor and consumer confidence in the company. This is the reality of all comics publishing today. X-MAN may have been a good enough book on its own, but it wasn't on its own. It was indelibly connected to X-MEN despite our best efforts to sever it, by dint of the name. With X-MEN their most popular comic and their best known brand name now, boosted by last summer's successful movie, it makes sense to rebuild the company around the X-Men. Which Bill Jemas appears to be doing. X-MEN is the likeliest entry point for young readers (which does make the choice of Grant Morrison to helm it a little strange, but what the hell), and the X-line is the logical progression to the rest of Marvel, if what you're looking for is a new generation of Marvel Maniacs.

In that framework, X-MAN doesn't make sense at all.

[X-Man Covers]
X-Man Covers #67-70. The "Infinities of Evil" storyline.
Online, Joe has said he found X-Man a confusing concept. He's right. It is. I wish we'd been able to simply say "he's a shaman now" and forget all the rest of it. But the concept is this: on an alternate earth where mutants declared final war on humanity, Nate Grey is cloned from the cells of Jean Grey and Scott Summers, two founding members of the X-Men, to be a world destroying weapon with incredible telekinetic and telepathic powers and a body that will eventually burn itself out. When the timelines changed and the other Earth was wiped out of existence, Nate wasn't wiped out with it but somehow returned to Marvel-Earth where he became a wanderer trying to find a place for himself but now he has transformed into the telepathic mutant shaman of the 21st century.

While I'm not a huge fan of the high concept concept, I also think any concept that needs a dictionary, a thesaurus and a line chart to grasp is arguably a concept that needs real work. Given the potential market confusion between X-MEN and X-MAN in an audience basically unfamiliar with comics (particularly since we were already working the "big ideas" territory that Grant Morrison has reportedly staked out), given that our aim was more at the Vertigo/alternative reader than Marvel's key 12 year old demographic, given that we had severed Nate from his X-roots and set him afloat in a cornucopia of parallel worlds instead of tying him closely into the X-line, cancellation wasn't a risk, it was virtually a given. We made him the ultimate loner, but if X-MAN didn't need the rest of the X-line, the rest of the X-line also didn't need X-MAN. Add in the marketing decision to trim back the X-line to make it easier for readers to buy all of them, thus creating buying patterns for Marvel to capitalize on at a later date (this was Marvel's greatest strength in its days of strength, and the decline of Marvel can be traced to the moment when "Marvel zombies" were faced with too much product to keep up with; faced with the all-or-nothing nature of collector completism, many chose nothing when Marvel expanded beyond their means).

As I said, this is the reality of the comics business today. I'm not happy about the cancellation, but I don't think the decision was unreasonable.

This is a good field to vanish in if you can't maintain a level of visibility; Mark Millar recently revealed he went from a good year to nearly vanishing off the face of the map, and rescued only by interference from friends like Grant Morrison, much as Warren ran interference for me. From my perspective, X-MAN - particularly the latest arc, with no input from Warren - did what it was supposed to do: raise my profile in the comics market, especially among readers and especially among the more mature demographic I'm most interested in reaching. I appreciate their new attachment to the X-Man character, but I'm hoping they'll look for the next projects I do in that vein. The cancellation is really the Shooter principle in action: if it ain't your money, it ain't your company. Marvel and I both have the right to choose which direction to pursue, but where our opinions diverge, Marvel's under no obligation to underwrite me. There has been no indication there's not room there for a similar project, aimed at a similar demographic. Just not X-MAN.

So I wish Joe and Bill and Marvel luck with their plans; they have to do what they feel is in the best interests of the company. Me, I'm proud of what we did. I've got no regrets. It's not a tragedy the run lasted so briefly; it's a miracle it was ever done at all.

I want to apologize for not getting the improved @VENTURE up yet, but last week was complicated by my car breaking down (twice!) and piddly other interruptions caused mostly by the move.

Not much to report at this moment. I'm still in discussions on a number of new projects, but nothing has been finalized. Still working on the WHISPER graphic novel that will eventually see print from AIT/PlanetLar, a crime comic from Eros called CHARLOTTE SOMETIMES, and several projects for Platinum, as well as helping out Brian Pulido on Chaos' forthcoming BAD KITTY. As soon as I can tell of other things, I'll tell.

This week's Question Of The Week: there's an argument that we need comics in venues (in other words, magazines, like Kurtzman and Elder's LITTLE ANNIE FANNY ran for years in PLAYBOY) outside comic books to spread the popularity of the medium. Choose a magazine you'd like to see comics in, tell why, and explain what types of comics you think would fit there.

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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