Master Of The Obvious: Issue #72

Wed, December 13th, 2000 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Is this pop?

"Pop" is maybe the theoretical buzzword of comics in the year 2000. One of those vague words subject to interpretation, seemingly "popular" truncated but carrying volumes of meanings, it invokes images of transitory madness: screaming teenage girls mobbing The Beatles. The word, which began… er… popping up everywhere this year, appeals not for what it means but because it represents everything comics, in the year 2000, aren't.

Warren Ellis fired the first salvo for pop in 1999, when he proposed Pop Comics (intended as a line until Mike Allred launched AAA Pop Comics) as a new style comic designed as a sort of kamikaze assault on public attention: three issues, exploding genres, get in tell the story get out boom. No long serials, no genre fixations, none of what has infected comics since the dawn of direct sales. Aimed at a wider public (or, rather, not aimed at the narrower one). The comics equivalent of the finely crafter three-minute pop song. Grant Morrison also beat the drum for pop in a 2000 interview: "I believe we're on the verge of another big surge of mainstream interest in comics and it would be nice if we had some good, forward-looking stuff ready for when they get here?… My ideal comic is the one which perfectly expresses its moment and makes you want to dance like your favourite records do. The ideal comic is a holographic condensation out of pure zeitgeist. Pop is my god and goddess… and I believe comics should strive to be popper yet than Pop itself." If separated by nuance - if printed claims mean anything (they often don't) Warren and Grant differ wildly on the notion of ideal content - they're united by a belief that something must be done to feed public interest in the medium, and what comics now consider "traditional" is ephemeral, retrograde and must be either juiced to the nth and made new again (Morrison's view) or done away with (Ellis').

"… something must be done to feed public interest in the medium, and what comics now consider "traditional" is ephemeral, retrograde and must be either juiced to the nth and made new again … or done away with ..."

It's no surprise both are British. In the UK, "pop" still means something; the nation has culturally orbited "pop" since the end of WWII turned teenagers into an economic class, and youth there traditionally use it as an identifying stinkbomb to hurl at society at large. It's also a tiny island, which skews the perspective some. This was crystallized in punk, whose heyday as a subculture really only lasted under three years before it was consumed by the rapacious music industry. Punk sent a paradoxical message. On the one hand, it called for the undermining of all that predated it, "purifying" music and culture to its rawest, most accessible elements so that people could live it rather than consume it: everyone on the inside. Though they were ultimately better musicians than they cracked themselves up to be (well, except for Sid) The Sex Pistols gave off an intoxicating "if we can do it anyone can" vibe that jumpstarted dozens, if not hundreds, of bands. On the other hand, punk was partially about the preservation of musical heritage in the face of a music industry driven to homogenize product to maximize profit and whose memory was only as long as the last sales charts. (Sounds kinda familiar, don't it?) Groups like the Clash resurrected pop gems like The Bobby Fuller Four's "I Fought The Law"; even the Sex Pistols covered the Who and the Monkees. The main point of punk was empowerment, if you'll excuse such a crappy word: seize the music (or the fashion or the language or whatever) and turn it into what you want rather than what you're told you want. Do it yourself. And the main output of punk was pop, though not necessarily pop the record industry would recognize, but fast, disposable three-minute songs nonetheless, regardless of polish. (Polish was, in fact, the enemy.) "Pop" suggested fun as well as style, something that would arrest your attention and get your blood flowing for three minutes, I suppose distracting you from the fact that you lived in England. (Not possible in the USA, where everything - and I mean everything - is geared toward reminding you you live here.) XTC could pump out a bouncy pop number called "Is This Pop?" and reasonably expect their audience to get the joke. The anarchic, anti-melodic Pop Group could use the name with minimal irony. The underground marketing structures that rose in the wake of punk created the means for pretty much anyone, at least for awhile, to put their sound on vinyl and get it heard despite the wishes of record companies, aided by a music press composed of fiercely rival papers (one of which, SOUNDS, gave exposure to a young artist named Alan Moore… oddly right around the time it also championed the Oi! neo-Nazi punk rock movement…) all rabid to get credit for discovering "the next big thing."

That was '77 and on, but things haven't changed that much there. Virtually every cultural artifact out of Britain since has played to some extent off the punk ethic, and neither Grant nor Warren are exceptions. I used to buy the music papers regularly, and still check them out once in a blue moon, and the style and approach remain the same as the height of the punk era. It's still possible, though less possible, in England to launch yourself to musical prominence through a DIY approach, and the relative size of the area still plays into the "local hero" mentality that used to make regional stars of groups in the USA. People there still pay attention to the pop charts. Pop still means something in Britain.

But not here.

"Pop" in the United States has always been used derisively. Old people's music: the Boston Pops, for instance. Slick, sweet, pointless and dull. When I was growing up, "pop music" suggested everything you didn't want to hear, which is why bands took to screaming "Let's Rock!" at every opportunity, so no one would think they were just doing pop music. Not that pop music isn't often inexplicably popular (Celine Dion is one of the few singers considered a "pop" artist) but for pop artists like Britney Spears or N'Sync - and what else can you call them, really? (Stupid question; scads of epithets come to mind.) - the label would be the kiss of audience death. Other use is usually dripping with irony, as in Warhol's "pop art," probably the usage Americans are most familiar with. Even a comics website as good as PopImage flirts heavily with irony; context suggests the site isn't immersed in pop so much as above it.

To the extent "pop" has any hip cachet in America, it refers to the garage band sensibility that made numerous bands momentary (often regional) sensations in the 60s and 80s: a parade of one-hit wonders with three minute songs blissfully grabbing for the stars before falling back into a morass of record company-induced debt, bar and prom gigs, or pedestrian oblivion. Icarus, flying too close to the sun. It's so familiar a story it's become a Hollywood clich. (You can check it out in the film THAT THING YOU DO, which is the pop version of it, but I prefer BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD, who play air guitar to bad Metallica videos and call themselves a band.) The thing is that in America - and perhaps in Britain - it's not so much pop that matters as pop stardom, and it's not pop stardom anyone here wants. It's rock stardom. Pop stars burn out, you don't take them seriously, but rock stars go on forever, even if you don't take them seriously. Back before TROUSER PRESS magazine closed its doors, publisher Ira Robbins tracked down and surveyed one-hit wonder rock musicians of the 60s. It was eye-opening. Most had left the music profession for more prosaic (if probably more profitable) careers, but, depressingly, virtually all of them - virtually all! - were plotting their musical comebacks. It's not that their ideas were particularly good, or novel - many planned to go on the nostalgia road doing their golden oldie, apparently irked that their songs could become classics without them - but that they once got a bite of the apple and they want another bite no matter what. But who really wants to see The Shadows Of Knight reform? Pop stardom in America is, by nature, ephemeral, regardless of the medium. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a rock star. Patrick Swayze was a pop star.

Stardom has been an obsession in comics at least since the dawn of Marvel Comics, when Stan Lee remade himself into an icon and broke through into popular consciousness in his own right. Until direct sales there were no other real stars in standard comics, widely identified apart from their creations, barring, arguably, Robert Crumb; even Jack Kirby only qualified as a cult hero. UNCANNY X-MEN made Chris Claremont and John Byrne the apotheosis of the comics cult hero, but only a fistful of talent like Frank Miller and Neil Gaiman made it to our equivalent of rock star. (Mileage may vary in the UK, where population density shifts the ratio of cognoscenti to general public a bit; I presume more people per capita there would recognize Alan Moore's name.) The original Image crew almost made it to rock star status; Jim Lee, Rob Liefeld and Todd McFarlane managed to make it as pop stars for a little while. Many were drawn to comics in the 80s and 90s with the hope of becoming stars, and, for awhile, the black and white craze made DIY comics a punkish possibility before they sent the business into a brief economic tailspin. Many act like they're stars, in the rock star sense of the mundane rules not applying. They appear, they preen, they behave badly in public, they blather on about their own "genius," they turn out an "album" every three years to stake their claim to "artistry," then they wonder why their audiences aren't there, why readers seem to prefer newer talent.

Pop stars? Feggedaboudid. There's loads of better b.s. to imitate than that. Besides, comics already have pop stars: the characters. If the stories equate to songs, then the characters equate to the performers. Writers (and artists) equate to… well… writers, and whole generations may still rock to "I Fought The Law" but who can tell me, without looking it up, who wrote it?

[Dazzler]But pop comics, true pop comics, that's something else again. What goes against this is the traditionally stodgy nature of the medium, which is what the whole pop concept is intended to combat? While the track record has improved somewhat in the last decade or so, comics tend to wait to leap onto fads until just after they're dead. Kung fu comics appeared only after the first kung fu film craze had passed, and when the second phase started comics were still convinced the death was permanent. I remember getting to Marvel in '78 to be told that Marvel had just inked a deal with Casablanca Records to develop a superhero character for Donna Summer called "The Dazzler," whom Donna would portray in concert. They weren't pleased when I told them it was never going to happen. It never occurred to anyone that when dealing with the record industry you should read BILLBOARD, and had they done it they would have learned a) the two owners of Casablanca were suing each other; b) the I.R.S. was investigating the company's bookkeeping; and c) Donna Summer had announced her intent to leave the company when her contract expired. Not to mention disco was, at that point, dead. Dazzler was shelved for several years, then regrooved into a blonde white chick to suit Bo Derek, shelved again, and when Marvel dug her up once more to cash in on a revived disco craze, she inexplicably ended up eschewing disco to hang out with some over-the-hill Frank Sinatra stand-in. I mean, you have to wonder what goes on in people's heads sometimes. Even when comics are fairly atop the cultural mainstream for a change - and it does change rapidly, despite the best efforts of most media corporations to keep it in a predictable stasis - it theoretically takes four months to get a comic from concept to publication. Which isn't bad as production goes, but it's still too slow a response time, especially when necessity has proven comics can go from start to finish in under a month if need be. Add in pitch time and marketing considerations and you're conceivably adding years to the process. Energy is a lot of what makes comics interesting, and time leeches energy out of anything. You can't perfectly express a moment, as Morrison put it, if the moment's long gone by the time you get around to expressing it.

Given the tech at our disposal these days, I'd like to see some true pop comics: projects created rapidly, geared for a particular incendiary instant and meant to either evaporate afterward or remain as artifacts, souvenirs of themselves. Comics have almost always been produced as ephemeral disposables anyway; let's toss aside our delusions and make it official. This would also be a sea change from the ponderous, overplotted, simultaneously over-and-underthought, and generally overstuffed pap companies seem hellbent on churning out. Won't happen, though; our current system's antagonistic toward such things, on both the editorial and marketing levels. There's not a comic published today that doesn't need two, usually three, months to promote because that's when dealers have to place orders. Have we reached a stage where dealers will respond to a book simply listed as "To Be Announced. Grant Morrison, writer. Bill Sienkiewicz, artist. No information available. $2.50."? On the other hand, how much information do they really need?

"Comics have almost always been produced as ephemeral disposables anyway; let's toss aside our delusions and make it official."

But if we could put together a system - again, why not, given new technologies? - wherein true pop comics, created on the fly and saturated with the energy and spirit of the moment, could easily be produced and marketed, and emphasize a spirit of adventure in content and style rather than lock everything in a priori, it might go a long way toward reminding people what made comics entertaining, and worth paying attention to, in the first place.

I can see a lot of virtue in pop comics. I just wouldn't use the word pop. We could use some screaming teenage girls, depending on why they're screaming.

I've gotten a few complaints lately that I mention Warren way too much, which is probably true. It's not because we're friends, or due to any urge to fawn, or because Warren also does a CBR column but because Warren's one of the very few comics talents who speaks openly and has interesting things to say. Which hopefully makes for interesting responses. Live with it.

Last week I recited a story I always thought to be just one of those shaggy dog jokes that get passed around. Turns out the original was written by famed screenwriter/fantasist Richard Matheson. Sorry for the inadvertent swipe; I had no idea.

As most regular readers know, I moved at the end of October, and prior to that held a sale on the vast array of comp comics that had accumulated in my closet over years. When moving date hit, a number of reserve orders hadn't been paid for and were subsequently dumped, as the point of the sale was to keep from having to move them. Several customers wrote me prior to moving date to tell me the money would be coming at a later date; those orders I packed away and moved. The rest vanished into the aether. Several complications followed. First, for several weeks I've been unable to access the site I was taking orders on. Second, the post office for some reason wasn't forwarding my mail. Result: in the last couple of days I got a month's worth of mail all at once. In it are some orders I did hold, and others I dumped. I'm trying to reconstitute the latter from my private stock (now in storage, making access interesting) but if you've sent money and haven't received anything from me yet, please contact me at this e-mail address and I'll get it sorted out one way or another. Thanks for your patience.

I also mentioned a few weeks back the possibility of selling copies of original scripts. While I'll be making some of my creator-owned properties like ENEMY and DAMNED available shortly, I'm working out the legality of offering scripts for things like CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN and X-MAN. These are stories done work-for-hire; I'm not sure I have the right to sell them in any form, though I do have permission to excerpt them. So, those who are interested in such things, I doubt I can help you. Stay tuned.

Things are chaotic in general, dealing with licensing boards, insurance companies, finance companies etc. as well as keeping up with my work, so my extracurricular activities, like @VENTURE, have suffered horribly. Christmas is a'comin', though, which means all good offices are shutting down for two weeks, so I plan to use that time finishing short stories and WHISPER graphic novel scripts, and getting @VENTURE kicking again. Sorry for the delays and inconvenience. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Question of the week: which one person, still alive and once prominent in the comics business but no longer working in it, would you most like to see make a comeback?

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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