Master Of The Obvious: Issue #102

Wed, July 11th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

There are days I really feel like an old man. Like today.

I have a ritual every Tuesday morning, when I write the column. First thing I do is check the Internet. SPLASH, Comic Wire, Newsarama, All The Rage, Comic Shop News, The Warren Ellis Forum... generally if something's going on in the comics world that can be spoken of publicly, it's one of those places. There's also always plenty happening that can't be spoken of publicly and there now seems to be a whole network keeping me apprised of that, but since it can't be spoken of publicly I don't speak of it. Rules of the game. So which editor's about to be fired, which company just held a staff meeting to assure the staff the company's solvent, which company's transferring characters to a subsidiary with an eye toward the day the parent company collapses, well... you'll just have to wait. (Sorry, I like to do things like this once in awhile just to drive Rich Johnston mad.)

People send me things they think worthy of comment as well. Sometimes I riffle through those for a column. Recently a friend sent me a piece that aired at Silver Bullet Comics some months ago wherein some self-styled "keen observer of human behavior" from Florida (translation: git, if he was serious) pronounced that girls weren't worthy of comics, didn't have the imaginations necessary to read them, and if they had any sense would identify with the big breasted airheads that generally pass for heroines in mainstream comics. I'm pretty sure it was a joke. It read like an episode of You'll All Be Sorry. I'm only bringing it up because I told my friend I would. But as an example. If it's a joke, it doesn't require a response. From anyone. If it's serious, it's just pathetic. I'd feel like I was kicking a coma victim.

I can't exactly say nothing's happening this week. Marvel's doing Manga versions of their characters. Umm... didn't Harris Comics just do that with VAMPIRELLA/VAMPI? DC's putting out a 10 BATMAN comic. I've got some reason to believe Bob Schreck, Greg Rucka and Rick Burchett can put together a Batman comic that doesn't depend on a working knowledge of either comics or Batman and can appeal to the general audience it's theoretically aimed at, but I hope everyone in the company is very clear it's a promotional item because at that price there's no way DC's not going to take a monstrous bath on it. (Side note: I was amused by the suggestion in Matt Brady's Newsarama piece that the book is partly experimental because "Rucka and Burchett have to tell a clear, compelling story to an audience that may or may not know who Batman, Bruce Wayne, Oracle and Nightwing are." Have comics really slid to the point where clear, compelling stories for a general audience are considered experimental? My god, we deserve the sales we've currently got.)

I suppose I should be excited about all this. But it's tiresome. I'm happy DC's making an effort and all, but will a 10 comic, no matter how well done, really translate into sales for a line of $2.25 - $2.50 comics, let alone $20 graphic novels? What are they going to do if there's suddenly a huge demand for more 10 comics? Deficit themselves to death? Even done and printed entirely in third world countries using slave labor, you can't produce a profitable comic book for 3 per copy anymore. The Marvel Manga is... I dunno. Mangas are selling these days, sure, but no more across the board than American comics are. Slapping the "manga style" on American comics is no different from slapping the "Image style" all over American comics, and we all remember how well that worked out. (There are artists who altered their work to the "Image style" to get hired, then got crucified by market rejection of their "new look" and still have a hard time finding work because of it.) So one of two notions are at work here: it's a novelty designed to briefly grab attention, or it's an attempt to cash in on the relative success of mangas under the assumption that if you can make something look like something else, it'll sell like something else. If it's the latter, it's not worthy of a place that labels itself "The House Of Ideas." I'll give Marvel the benefit of the doubt and guess it's the former. The secret of using novelty successfully is to get in and get out. And don't do it twice because novelty isn't novel the second time around. The trouble with novelty is it rarely translates into long-term interest. Sell a comic on novelty value and people buy it for the novelty, not for any interest in the core concept. Of course, if novelty significantly spikes sales that can look good on the bottom line but it means nothing for the overall health of the company. It's just another nasty Dead Cat Bounce. Health is harder work, and takes a lot more time. I'd rather the industry didn't end as one of those doctor jokes that goes "the operation was a success, but the patient died."

Where's the inspiration? DC's looking backwards, Marvel's looking sideways, nobody's looking forwards. Where's originality? Where's innovation?

I'm bored. I can just imagine how what's left of the audience feels. On the Master Of The Obvious Message Board last week, someone brought up the old theorem that the comics audience turns over every certain period of time – four years was the rule of thumb when I got in – so material could be "reprocessed" past that because the new audience would be unfamiliar with it and no joke is an old joke to someone who hasn't heard it. Mostly it was a way of coping with the stress of putting out 70 titles a month and not being able to quickly think up stories for all of them: "reprocess" an old story no one remembers. The specifics have changed over the years: X-MEN replaced the "use old stories" method with the "never finish your stories so you'll always have something to refer back to" method, but the industry's still built on reprocessing the old over conceiving the new, and we're not the only ones. Try selling a movie to Hollywood without a comfy line like "It's sort of a cross between THE TERMINATOR and CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON." When you leave creative decisions to money, money gravitates to the familiar.

It's just all so friggin' familiar.

Awhile back, a friend from high school asked if there was any music I listened to back then that I found embarrassing now. One group leaped instantly to mind: Mott The Hoople. Cobbled together by mad producer Guy Stevens via an ad in MELODY MAKER and taking their name from a little known black comedy novel, they were sort of art school pub rockers who started out doing a riff on Bob Dylan in his Royal Albert Hall concert days (now finally available on record as BOB DYLAN LIVE 1966 – The Bootleg Series Vol. 4) and going through several musical permutations before throwing in the towel then getting resurrected as glam rockers by David Bowie in his glitter period. Some Hoople stuff, particularly Bowie era, is painful to listen to today. Other songs are just there. But they have one truly great song, a masterwork of depression summing up, as it happens, the general spirit of today's comics. Called, as it happens, "When My Mind's Gone":

And yesterday becomes tomorrow


and I can see the day after tomorrow


I can even see next year

when my mind's gone

The recipe of modern comics: yesterday becomes tomorrow. The wheel turns, and turns, and the rungs may look new but it's the same old wheel. I made a comment on the message board that got a good laugh – and it seems my curse that when I'm kidding people think I'm being serious but when I'm being serious they think I'm kidding – that the only turning over the comics audience is doing now is in their graves.

There ain't nothing going right


there ain't even nothing going wrong, that's why


...when my mind's gone

Buddha concluded after considerable observation that there's only one constant to the human condition: suffering. I tend to think there are two: terror and boredom. The vast majority of human existence is spent in one state or the other, and if you've got one you want the other. Most people would rather have neither. And, in fact, in much of what we've come to call western civilization, terror has been eliminated as a daily fact of life. No more Vikings sailing up unexpectedly to the shores, no more Mongols or Ostrogoths marching over the next hill to rape, murder, pillage and dispossess. Under most circumstances, no more getting hauled out of your house and hung in the middle of the night because you happened to piss off someone you shouldn't have pissed off or simply because they got a mind to haul you out and hang you. You might, of course, live in a neighborhood where guns, drugs and young men and sometimes women with a burning desire to prove how tough they are – i.e., to prove they're there at all – are a fact of life, but most of us don't. Our terrors, at least in America, are mostly paranoia, which is to say imagination. Despite NRA rhetoric, for instance (and, don't worry, I'm not arguing for gun control, which is a different matter altogether), how many of us have actually been in a situation where guns were drawn? (I have been, twice, but neither were situations where my having a gun would've helped things much.) I lived in New York City in the late 70s through the mid 80s, when the press was labeling it the murder capital of the world and the most violent city in America, and I never felt scared or threatened walking anywhere at any hour or riding the subways, and I was never once mugged. (Frank Miller was, though.) My apartment was robbed once. Matter of fact, I grew up an hour's drive from Plainfield Wisconsin, home of famed serial killer Ed Gein (the inspiration for PSYCHO) and once proclaimed the mass murder capital of the world with more mass murders per capita than anywhere else. (I don't know if the claim still stands, and I suspect Ed skewed the numbers a bit.) And, sure, there are still earthquakes in Los Angeles and tornados still eat trailer parks in Oklahoma and now and then the Mississippi floods out some town in Iowa or Missouri or a shark bites off a boy's arm. Terror, real terror, isn't unknown. But it's rare. If 8% of Americans have had direct experience of violent crime or disaster, it's not exactly a heartwarming statistic, but it also means 92% of Americans haven't. Most of us never really experience terror. Or, having experienced it once, we cling to it. (Being robbed in Manhattan, I never left the apartment thereafter without wondering whether I'd be robbed again, but I never was. In Los Angeles, the last thing that pops into the minds of many people as they drift off to sleep is the fear that the Big One will finally hit that night.) As a culture we love terror, as long as we know in advance we can walk away from it, back to our boring little lives. And as long as we can bring a piece of it back with us, a memory of the experience to be replayed like a videotape, to keep our lives from being quite so boring.

Which is why much of our entertainment revolves around terror, the thrill that comes from colliding with unexpected danger. This used to be what religion was about as well: facing what can't be faced. It was the core of the first religions, the mystery religions: the apprehension, in the original sense of the world, of the awesome, in the original sense of the word. In real ways it was the miraculous, a transformation of the world from base mud to a state of light. Illumination. At least for the percipient.

What we call madness. Except it was organized madness then, and when it became more widespread and accessible, it was called theater. (Our term "tragedy" derives from the Greek "tragoedia," or "goat song": referring to the rites of the Bacchantes, the madwomen worshippers of Dionysus who, according to legend, tore the king Pentheus apart when he refused to acknowledge the god's divinity. Q: What's the difference between a Russian comedy and a Russian tragedy? A: In the comedy, everyone dies laughing.) What we now call entertainment originated as madness for the masses. But it's hard now to recall when theater was an experience so engrossing people would break down sobbing from the terror of it, or a time when film was so fresh and powerful that nothing more than motion was required and a movie of a speeding locomotive would send audiences scrambling in panic to get out of the way.

And what is entertainment today? What are comics today? Predictable. Dull. Locked into meaningless familiar patterns no more inspiring or dramatic than getting up and taking a leak in the morning. Safe, and free from the slightest taint of terror. Even things touted to me as "breakthrough" material are too often derivative or mere parody, except we're all supposed to play the game of not saying it.

Boring.

Where's inspiration? Where's creativity? Where's madness? Give me madness.

Slim Intoxicado did a screwy but entertaining interview with me for Drunken Edge that's up now. It's mostly about wrestling comics but I was asked a lot of questions I can safely say I've never been asked before.

There've been a couple minor changes in the status of the WHISPER graphic novel, just to drive Larry Young nuts: mainly I threw out everything after page 9. Which has set any promotional items back as well. But it's now whipping along, so hang in there. It won't be long now. Larry's also threatening to put out a collection of two of MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS columns to complement Warren Ellis's COME IN ALONE collection (certainly worthy of your money, so pester your local dealer for it; Diamond's got it) and because I collect shotglasses I've conned him into consider a MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS logo shotglass, so if either of these things interest you, harass the m-----f----- for them and keep his mind of WHISPER for a couple more weeks, thanks. (Oh, and please don't send me any shotglasses, since I only collect those of some sentiment personal to me. I'm not a completist or anything. Thanks for that too.)

Check out my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. That is all.

Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: Congratulations. You're the new editor at Vertigo, and a pact with Lucifer has given you unlimited power within your sphere. Rebuild the line. Justify your decisions to the moneymen.

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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