Master Of The Obvious: Issue #96

Wed, May 30th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I've been going over the numbers on MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS, and have noticed a bloodthirsty trend:

Aside from the occasional political diatribes (which seem to attract either disgruntled politicos or frothing arch-conservatives – it's hard to tell which – like a giant, supercharged electromagnet) the column gets the most hits when I'm perceived to be slagging off other talent. At a time when brotherhood (and sisterhood!) among talent may mean the difference between a future and no future for the business, this attitude among readers seems, to put it politely, counterproductive.

However, being unwilling to buck any trend that'll put money in my pocket, here goes, everything about my fellow professionals that drives me right up a freakin' wall:

Walt Simonson – keeps beard impeccable but hasn't trimmed moustache in years

Howard Chaykin – throws big Hollywood parties but the only hors-d'oeuvres are always Oscar Mayer Pickle-and-Pimento Loaf wadded up on Ritz crackers

Jim Shooter – wears his shoes on the wrong feet and dares you to mention it

Mike Zeck – won't turn off those damn reggae records

Alan Moore – kicks your teeth out, then punches you in the stomach for mumbling

Alex Ross – can't actually paint but wrote a computer program that paints for him, and he won't sell it to anyone else

Dave Gibbons – smells like oatmeal

Frank Miller – covers his eyes during movies, and asks over and over "What's going on now? What's going on now?"

Jimmy Palmiotti – waves guns around like a pistolero but when it comes time to shoot he never remembers to take the safety off

Michael Golden – keeps calling for instructions on how to set his VCR

Bryan Hitch – can't be bothered to fly to the USA for meetings, always wants to meet in the Azores

John Byrne – can't walk down 42nd Street without screaming "What am I doing here? This is Kojak Country!"

Grant Morrison – starts every phone call with a ten minute Bible reading

Warren Ellis – insists on ordering cherry-flavored Polish vodka after meals at restaurants, refuses to pay his part of the bill if they don't have it

John Cassaday – loves to dress like Karen Carpenter and lip-sync to "Close To You," keeps looking for someone to play Richard

Gene Ha – tattooed "We're Not In Indiana Anymore" backwards on his forehead so he can read it in the mirror to calm panic attacks

Matt Haley – will share his works with everyone but me

Mark Waid – won't say hello, instead stretches out his hand and says "you may kiss the royal ring"

Mike Mignola – even after the 300th time, still thinks his impression of Little Stevie Van Zandt on THE SOPRANOS doing an impression of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone is funny

Dave Sim – calls in the middle of the night trying to unload all that Mexican land he bought as "a hedge against the coming Armageddon"

Art Adams - even after the 300th time, still thinks his impression of Little Stevie Van Zandt on THE SOPRANOS doing an impression of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone is funny

Kelley Jones - acts as though he invented manga

George Perez - couldn't figure out where to punch for Al Gore and where to punch for Pat Buchanan in the Florida presidential election

Greg Rucka - claims he taught James Ellroy everything he knows

Alan Davis – won't learn to use a map

John Paul Leon – one word: wedgies

Neil Gaiman – won't wear any color but black

I'm kidding, of course. Almost none of the above is true, and none of it would bother me even if it were. But the "let's you and him fight!" mentality (as verbalized by Wimpy in the POPEYE comic strip) has saturated fandom, and it's no longer amusing.

[Crossfire #14]Back in the mid-80s, about the time I moved from Manhattan to Los Angeles, Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle created for Eclipse Comics a lovely little crime comic called CROSSFIRE (a spinoff from Mark's sci-fi superhero comic DNAGENTS). Heidi MacDonald, now an editor at Vertigo, wrote a review somewhere (the Comics Buyers Guide, I think) discussing CROSSFIRE as "the real Hollywood." Well, CROSSFIRE, though a well-written, beautifully drawn title steeped in Hollywood lore, no more featured "the real Hollywood" than SCOOBY-DOO does. Nor was it really meant to; like most comics and movies, regardless of claims to "realism," it was more impressionistic than realistic. I wrote a letter to that effect. Didn't trash the comic. Didn't insult Mark or Dan. Simply stated anyone coming to Hollywood expecting it to be anything as portrayed in CROSSFIRE was going to be severely disappointed.

The next thing I knew, I was feuding with Mark.

Thing was: I didn't know it. Mark didn't know it. We were still going out to lunch now and then, and I was still in awe of his classic cars and his 30s style hacienda (once owned by Raymond Chandler). But somehow the concept had been lost on the rest of the world (or, rather, the handful that even cared) that friends and colleagues can disagree, argue, critique and have varying viewpoints without it being personal. And people kept telling us we were feuding. In the CROSSFIRE case, had I turned around and said WHISPER (which moved its setting from Manhattan to L.A. about the same time I did) showed the "real Hollywood" instead, that would have been something else. It's very easy to fall into the "don't look at them, look at me" trap when critiquing someone else's work, and many of the actual feuds in this business extend from the notion that one way to get (or regain) attention for your work is to slag someone else's. But WHISPER was no more "real" than CROSSFIRE, and I knew that. WHISPER was my particular fever dream, CROSSFIRE was Mark's.

That "Wimpy" culture is now a mainstay of the comics industry isn't surprising. It has also become a pillar of our civilization, as demonstrated by the continuing success of checkout lane scandal rags and "reality" programming on TV. The Internet hasn't helped things much. Not that, in the days long ago when I hung around Marvel, various fanzines weren't constantly sniffing around for some scandal or another. Like most small ponds with some relatively big fish and a lot of little fish wanting to be bigger, it's fairly easy to stir the pot if you want to. It's not enough, for instance, that Frank Quitely left THE AUTHORITY, "reports" have to have him seduced away early by Marvel as he "treasonously" "abandons" the company and book that gave him his "big break," while he leaves Authority fans high and dry. None of which even remotely resembles the truth. It's not enough for Bryan Hitch to decide he wants to move on to other things besides JLA, "reports" have to set a "feud with Mark Waid" as the reason. I imagine if I mentioned I hadn't spoken with Warren in six months (which is more or less true, mainly because both of us have been up to our necks with very little time for e-mail) I'm sure someone somewhere would transform it into "Steven Grant and Warren Ellis are feuding," perhaps due to disagreements over X-MAN, which Warren "abruptly left." (There was nothing abrupt about it, we had no disagreements, and we're not feuding, just so everyone's clear on this. It's just an example.)

This sort of thing isn't funny anymore.

We're at a critical moment for comics. It may not be quite sink or swim for the industry as a whole, but it's sink or swim for many people in it. The companies don't care. Why would they? Companies in the comics business (like most companies everywhere) have traditionally seen talent as transitory and ultimately meaningless, existing to be replaced when their economic worth becomes questionable. The factory mentality. And why not when there's fresh fodder chomping at the bit? "Fire one artist, and two more shall take his place." Economically, what other viewpoint could they take? It hasn't escaped most freelancers that the companies (particularly the major companies), logically the ones with the money and organizations to do something about the current state of the comics business, aren't really doing anything. Aside from milking the last few drops of blood out of the stone. I belong to a private comics talent e-mail group where we discuss various issues of importance to the comics business, and one member put forth the proposition that the companies form and underwrite an organization simply to promote the idea of reading and buying comics, using actual advertising and marketing techniques (different approaches for different audiences and other real difficult concepts like that). But it'll never happen – and a part of me thinks that's a good thing, because the last time publishers got together to form an organization, we ended up with the Comics Code Authority – because Marvel isn't going to pay out good money to sell comics for Image, which is what such a thing would amount to. DC can't logically go to their corporate masters and announce they want to spend 1% of their budget getting people to buy Marvel. We who are fans of the comics medium tend to think of comics as comics, but that's not the corporate outlook. Comics as a business is a small Darwinian pond rife with competitors, and in American business that attitude only changes (maybe!) at the point of species extinction. DC may have spent much of the 90s supporting smaller companies in various ways, but it wasn't strictly altruism. They perceived real benefits from such policies: using smaller companies to chip away at Marvel, as talent feeder systems, as ways to bring heat from smaller companies DC's way, etc. None of this constitutes evil, or even underhanded, behavior. It's just business (and, let's face it, more for rest of the industry than Marvel was doing). But I think it's safe to say DC never felt its position in the industry (are they still #1, or has Marvel reclaimed that spot?) threatened by Dark Horse or Slave Labor, or the company's behavior might have been considerably different.

At the moment, solidarity among companies seems restricted to a common belief in business as usual, despite the widespread knowledge that business sucks.

So, in the abdication of the companies, it falls to talent to save the business. (Or, preferably, build a new business that can rise up as the other collapses of its own sodden weight.) The problem: we have been trained to view each other as competitors, because there are only so many Spider-Man assignments to go around, just so many Batman spinoffs. In so many ways, from petty sniping to brown-nosing editors with poop on other professionals to giving inflammatory interviews condemning work by other talents while touting our own, we are a divisive bunch. And it's easy. Particularly in an industry and a medium where so much rests on personal tastes and on ego, it's much easier to trash or ignore someone you don't like or whose work you don't like than it is to embrace them on behalf of the medium. It's certainly harder to be kind about someone who's work you think is far worse than yours who's getting more attention than you are. And, just as companies would use an industry-wide organization to jockey for position, certainly many freelancers would find it hard to resist using such a thing to promote themselves. This is my problem with so-called "manifestos" that occasionally pop up, such as the "Freelancer's Bill Of Rights" that appeared in the early 90s; they tend to aggrandize the "basic tenets" of those writing the manifestos over the realities of the people they're ostensibly aimed at. They raise one group over others. It's divisive behavior, much the way the comics press trying to pit Brian Bendis against Frank Miller over ELEKTRA is.

The freelance community is past the point where we can afford to view each other as competitors. Let the companies play that game. The fact is the companies are going to look out for their interests, not ours, and their interests are best served by business-as-usual, while ours have never been. The fact is the companies aren't the best ambassadors for the medium. We are. We're the ones who do the creating. We're the ones who can talk about it. We're the only ones who can make really comics better; who can present a professional front beyond the WAM! BIFF! POW! Popular image of comics; who, seemingly, have a vested interest in broaching and maybe solving some of the problems confronting us today. We can't do it divisively. We can't play any games anymore that pit talent against talent for the amusement or economic benefit of others. We don't need that. What we need is more successful comic books, and support for comics that become successful instead of petty jealousy trying to tear them down, because the more comics succeed, the more success there'll be to go around. There's a line I love in the movie THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE. Jimmy Stewart, the alleged title character, has just left a statehood meeting because it's said the only rep he has is for killing Liberty Valance. John Wayne, whose lover Stewart has won away, stops him and says "You taught Ellie to read and write. Now get in there and give her something to read and write about." That's the only real success we can have: to create good works and then relentlessly get out there and talk about them, to give people something in comics worth reading, and to spread the message at every opportunity that there's a breadth of comics material available for all tastes. But we can't make comics look cool by sniping at each other, or by playing impersonal critiques as though they were personalized daggers. All it takes is to set aside ego and focus on our best interests. We need, for lack of a better word, solidarity, and I'm suddenly reminded of the old saw about hanging together or hanging separately.

Can talent get it together? Probably not. As the companies know, it's hard work with no guarantees, while divisiveness is always entertaining, and in this business entertainment is the god whose dirty feet we always bend down to kiss.

Not much to say this week. I hope everyone had a great Memorial Day weekend. At last check, my e-bay auctions, mentioned last week, were netting well over $600, so thanks to everyone who bid. For those who care about such things, the big winner was the STORMWATCH/AUTHORITY set by Warren Ellis, with the TRANSMETROPOLITAN set coming in a close second, and the 100 BULLETS set third. The big loser was the MEDIEVAL SPAWN-WITCHBLADE set by Garth Ennis and Brandon Peterson, which only got one bid. Don't forget to check out my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. More on other projects next week.

Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: It's been awhile since comics has had a "hot artist," as in whose work alone was a reason to buy comics and attracted tons of attention. Who's the next "hot artist" in comics? Explain your choice.

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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