Master Of The Obvious: Issue #99

Wed, June 20th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Got a call from Mike Conroy the other day. Many know Mike's the news editor at COMICS INTERNATIONAL, the UK's comics newszine of choice. (At least that's what Dez Skinn tells me.) Fewer know he's an online columnist for Cool Beans, a UK online comics site that's daringly pushing a subscription model for webcomics, and features among others new comics written by my Counter-X pal Ian Edginton. Part of Mike's job for both is to scour the Internet relentlessly for the least hint of scandal and controversy in the comics world, and for his Cool Beans column he has decided to canvas comics talent for their opinion on such controversial developments as he finds, and this time what caught his notice was Marvel's recent announcement they were going to spend the convention season hunting for new talent, notably new artists. What really caught his attention was Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada's explanation:

[Joe Quesada]
Joe Quesada
"I know there will come a day for me, and for every creator, where people lose interest in your work. You lose your voice, whatever that may be. It happens to everyone. It will happen to me, it will happen to the best of us. Essentially, it's 'Darwinism.' It happens, and you just have to move on. If the comics industry has passed you by, it's passed you by. We need to rely on new, young voices..."

Mike wanted my opinion.

While it's tempting to write Joe's statement off as flatulent bullshit, it should be noted first that a) it has cultural parallels elsewhere; b) it's not entirely incorrect; and c) as a member of the League Of Aging Farts, anything I say on the matter may be considered self-serving and suspect (oddly, I can live with that).

Joe's simply echoing a prevalent attitude in Hollywood, particularly in TV but it's not unheard of in movies, which continues the tenet of medieval medicine (far better known for killing people than for saving them) that like attracts like. Want to get dirt out of a wound? Rub it with pig dung! Want to draw in that all-important 18-34 year old demographic, the ones who have money in their pocket to burn and don't mind spending it on any old crap as long as the prospect of getting laid is somehow involved? Hire kids to create the material, because they know what kids want to see! Sure, you'll likely get nothing but crap that no one will remember tomorrow, but they'll sure want to see it today. And, in media, that's the name of the game. Make your money quick, make it now, or you may not even be here tomorrow.

So Joe, if he actually believes what he said (and while Joe's not the most egotistical guy in the world by a long, long stretch, I think he's egotistical enough deep down inside to believe that "losing his voice" is a long shot at best), is not alone in his opinion. He's got lots of company.

And it's true the day comes for all of us when people lose interest in our work. I remember when people lost interest in Frank Miller's work. It was when RONIN got published. I'd walk into comics shops and hear bitching like you wouldn't believe. "Miller's no good on anything but DAREDEVIL! Why doesn't he go back to DAREDEVIL?" "This is such crap I'm never buying another Frank Miller book again for as long as I live!" Over and over and bloody over. Never mind that RONIN's a lot better than it was given credit for at the time, and that the gobs of money it has made in continuous trade paperback publication bears out its long term commercial viability. Three words: DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

Sure, I'm stacking the deck by invoking Frank. Frank's The Beatles of comics, one of the few international pop stars we've got. He's even got his own Yoko Ono. (Just kidding, Lynn!) His SIN CITY franchise, while not universally loved, has maintained a fiercely loyal core audience that keeps his sales well into profitability. But the fact remains there was a point where the market had declared him washed up, and if the comics business had acted on that, imagine how much poorer we would be as a medium today.

It's true there's only one Frank Miller. But I remember a time when no one pronounced his name with Capital Letters. I remember when he spent all his time doing throwaway jobs in SPECTACULAR SPIDER-MAN and MARVEL-TWO-IN-ONE. (I have a page from his TWO-IN-ONE job on my downstairs office wall.) I remember when a certain editor-in-chief warned a certain editor with dire import that he would be the one to suffer if the risky experiment of letting Frank Miller write his own stories failed. But Frank got something most of us in this business never get: a buffer to develop in. It helped that he had the talent to ultimately justify it.

But this isn't a business where people "lose their voices." This is a business where most people are never given a chance to develop a voice in the first place. If they even want to. There are still far too many people who come into the business because they loved this or that creator when they were younger and they want their opportunity to speak in Jack Kirby's voice, or Stan Lee's voice, or Chris Claremont's voice, or Alan Moore's voice, or whoever's voice, and they're perfectly happy to exist that way. And companies like that, particularly companies with longstanding franchises they want continued. It used to be standard practice in comics to keep talent on as long as possible, to maintain an even keel in the material from issue to issue. Until 1968 or so, it was virtually impossible for young talent to even break into the business, because the companies had talent they'd worked with for years if not decades who could produce exactly what they wanted without rocking the boat, and all new talent meant was they'd have to train someone else. Until the old talent decided it was time to form a union and actually try to get real wages and benefits for their servitude. Suddenly DC Comics (it wasn't much of a problem for Marvel, which was then essentially a closed shop) decided maybe a youth-centric system wasn't such a bad idea after all. As long as the kids did what the company wanted. (It wasn't like they had much choice; they'd fired everyone who thought a union was a good idea.)

In fact, it's never been particularly important, especially at companies focused on company-owned characters, for talent to even have a voice. The company's voice is generally expected to do fine. Wiping out voice – making work conform to formula, treating talent as interchangeable extensions of the editor rather than as creative forces in their own rights, squashing anything genuinely controversial (as opposed to the faux-controversy that always ends up refluxing back to status quo that's been a prime marketing gimmick for comics companies for the past ten years) – has been an unspoken goal of much of the industry since I've been a part of it.

"Voice" is a function of personality, and the ideas and attitudes that shape your personality. It's not the same thing as talent. It's having something to say, a worldview to express, and the desire and technique to express it. People with strong voices and not a lot of talent can get by in comics. People with strong talent and no voice can get by. But "voice" has traditionally flown in the face of producing superhero comics, where there can really only be one voice because they all say the same thing. Maybe now, when writers are becoming much more of a drawing card for comics than artists, "voice" is now an issue in the business. Maybe at the top levels of the business it's finally considered important. I hope so. Because I've watch brilliant talents – and I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about artists – get their spirits ground down to nubs because every attempt to express their natural bents have been thwarted at every turn by editorial dictate and the need to pay the bills. And it does kill me a little to think what these guys might have produced under freer circumstances.

[Daredevil]The funny thing is: if you look at Frank's first DAREDEVIL run, it isn't his voice at all. I'm not saying it's bad material, it's just not his voice. It's Will Eisner's voice. It's Steve Ditko's voice. It's Walt Simonson's voice. (Whatever else you can say about Frank in those years, he had good taste.) It's the voices of a horde of other influences, pretty much left bare and undigested for much of the run for anyone to see if they choose to look. True "voice" isn't something you start out with, it's something you develop over time as you play out your hand, and shift from other people's ideas to your own. Frank's voice only starts emerging toward the resolution of the Elektra run, and only really starts to crystallize in that fabulous final issue where Daredevil sits at the bed of the paralyzed Bullseye and plays Russian roulette with him. This was something new. This was something you never saw in comics. That was the point where I knew that, whatever happened, Frank wasn't going to go back to being "one of the boys," churning out material on demand.

Well, people have been tossing around the term "Darwinism" for years like all it's about is extinction: old species passing away so newer species can feast on the corpses. "Social Darwinism" (the principle that some people are more fit to survive than others and no one has the right to do anything about it regardless of inequities) and its scientific offshoot eugenics (improving the genetic quality of the human race by eliminating everything considered "unfit") were popular notions among the social elite until, oh, around World War II or so. But actually read Darwin and you get another picture: not extinction but a wonderful display of survival, as species adapt to change and find specialized niches and continued existence. (In fact, the term "survival of the fittest" comes not from Darwin but from Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, whose philosophy was not surprisingly embraced by many of the great American industrial, railroad and oil barons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

But if Darwinism teaches us anything, it's that it's dangerous to weed out strains or qualities, because those may end up being exactly the strains or qualities the species in the long run needs to survive. Small furry mammals were around concurrently with dinosaurs but had no value except as pests and food, yet what made them helpless victims when dinosaurs ruled the world made them masters of the earth when circumstances wiped the dinosaurs out. And basic ecology teaches us that willfully exterminating species is asking for trouble.

On the other hand, Joe is partly right. This is a business where it's easy to get ground down, as you subsume your own ideas to someone else's notion of what they should be (usually no real ideas at all) in order to pay the rent. Where it's easier to sell a piece by ripping off an old issue of FANTASTIC FOUR than by creating something entirely new. The fact is we need new voices. We need all the true voices we can get, voices that are something more than editors pushing company-approved tradition and speaking through the mouths of marionettes who write and draw the material. And it really doesn't matter whether those voices are new to the industry or are finally unleashed after ages of suppression.

Except on two levels. Comics marketing since the advent of the direct market has depended on the shock of the new. I took a poll a couple weeks ago on the "hot new artist," since that's been a staple of comics marketing for 20 years (Joe himself was a hot new artist once), and the general consensus is that there isn't one. We now, for the first time in my memory, stand in a comics market without a "hot" artist. There are no artists anymore – not even Alex Ross – whose name on a book guarantees sales. Except maybe Frank Miller. A year ago, Bryan Hitch was about the hottest artist there was, and, somehow, hooking him up with "hot" book JLA has turned him into the Invisible Man. What the hell happened there? (Note: "hot" may attach to talent, but it only appears at the intersection of talent and project. If the two don't connect, heat does not exist.) (None of this is a rap on Bryan, by the way, nor should any of it be construed to be his fault. He draws better now than he ever did.) New and unknown now means the potential to market a "hot new artist" – promo blurbs still talk about "hot new artists" before readers have even seen their work, and finding THE "hot new artist" has been a popular editorial game since Frank Miller and John Byrne both erupted onto the scene – with the hope people will get the idea the company is a hip and happenin' place. And that's what "voice" is taken to mean in Hollywood, and in the pop music business: the ability to say exactly what your audience is saying, and, therefore, presumably wants to hear.

But there's another level: money. This is a cycle in all media these days: established talent makes increasing amounts of money to the point where what they're being paid doesn't equalize with what the company is earning from their services. In good times, it's not an issue. In bad times, producers start searching for stars they can "make." At some point, it just becomes cheaper and more expressive on the bottom line to bring in new people at bargain basement rates than to pay established talent the salaries they've become accustomed to over the years to produce essentially the same material. Not that it hurts to put that all-important veneer of youth on tired old regurgitated ideas. As DC learned in the late 60s, new talent can still get excited by regurgitating the same old ideas where old talent can't, because new talent never had the chance to regurgitate it before. In media, enthusiasm (preferably infectious) is nine-tenths of the game. And in comics, where nothing seems to sell anymore no matter who you put on it (with a tiny handful of exceptions) and whose increasingly miniscule audience has traditionally been unable to distinguish good from bad on any significant level, it's hard to argue against that.

But I wish someday a company would just figure out that developed and unique voices do sell – take a look at what's selling today: Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Kevin Smith, Brian Bendis... – and take the chance that these aren't flukes, and let everyone run with their own voices for a change...

People have been asking whether I'm going to be in San Diego this year, and the answer is: I don't know yet. I thought I was. I registered after last year's con, and reregistered after I moved to Nevada, so they'd have my correct address. Somewhere in there I became not registered and only just found out about it. I've been back and forth with the Con about this for the past week, and all they keep telling me is that it's beyond deadline for professional registration and I should have registered already, so who knows? If you're a professional and think you've registered, you might want to check their list to avoid any unpleasant surprises when you show up.

Question Of The Week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: Easy one this week. Your favorite comics character. Company-owned or creator-owned. Ever. Just one. No explanation necessary.

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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