Master Of The Obvious: Final Issue

Wed, September 12th, 2001 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I was going to rerun the Bush-Luthor column today. Under the circumstances, it doesn't seem appropriate. My views haven't changed, and I know the right-wingers in the audience didn't think it was appropriate the first time, but with the country pretty much shut down as I write this, it's probably not a good moment to encourage divisiveness. While we've all been affected by these terror attacks, I hope no one in the audience has been directly harmed by or lost any loved ones to them.

In its place, one that elliptically touches on Monday's events, with the promise of a happier future:

The Millennium's a silly thing, isn't it? Some cleric 500 years ago picks a year zero, and we're supposed to get excited about it? Does it count for Jews, whose calendar started the third century well before the Christian year zero? How about Muslims, whose year zero corresponds to our 622 AD? Mayans? Hindus? Of course, a millennium is always a good indicator of an apocalypse, but if Christ was really born around 4 BC, as is now commonly accepted, then the apocalypse already happened and roughly corresponded to the re-inauguration of President Clinton.

It's not like we need a millennium for people to think apocalyptically. They've been doing it for centuries. Apocalypse, religious and secular, surrounds us. Terrorism on American soil. The New World Order. Y2K. (If you haven't heard of it yet, here's Y2K's latest cousin, extending the apocalypse well into next year: some claim computer's won't recognize Feb. 29 in the year 2000.) One panicky leftist I know pointed me toward a report the other day that the FBI and civil authorities are quietly enlisting militias as auxiliary "peacekeeping" forces in the event of social breakdown. Considering the public image of the militia movement since the Oklahoma City bombing, this struck him as paradoxically crazy and frightening, and it baffled him that I wasn't more concerned. But various government agencies at all levels have cut pacts with right wing paramilitants at least since the 1960s, particularly during the Reagan years. It's business as usual.

For some reason, that didn't comfort him, though I'm sure many Americans would now prefer their own local death squad to roving hordes of homicidally sociopathic armed teenagers in black trenchcoats. Which we all know are lurking everywhere, even in our own homes, because TV news told us so. And you can always have more kids, and, besides, they're talking about someone else's kids. So death squads it is.

That's the beautiful thing about potential apocalypses: if one doesn't pan out, there will always be another.

You may not believe this, but in some quarters I have a reputation as a cynic. Grossly undeserved. In fact, I'm one of the most optimistic people I've ever met – for example, I still believe the comics industry has a future – and, as the Millennium and potential chaos approaches, and the Jetsons future we all awaited (who didn't want to walk their talking dog on a treadmill 200 miles in the air?) fades to mere lines on paper and film, I find myself in a perversely utopian mood.

Someday the perfect comic book company will exist.

For many readers, the perfect comic book company would be one that never cancels their favorite books, which will always be done by their favorite talent. As it stands, pretty much any company fits that bill, as much as any ever can. "Favorite" will never have anything but statistical meaning. (You may hate JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA, but clearly it's a "favorite" book. Sales prove it. SCARE TACTICS may have been your favorite – but it wasn't a favorite, and sales proved that too.) Even in an utopia, comics that sell will (all other things being equal) still be produced while those that don't won't. Readers have a tendency to believe comics they like are cancelled because the audience doesn't appreciate quality while those they don't like are cancelled because they're bad. While both may at times be true, comics are generally only cancelled if a) insufficient numbers of customers are willing to buy them, whatever the reason, and it doesn't seem worth it to the publisher to underwrite them in hopes they might find an audience; b) despite sales, they appall more people than it's worth to the publisher (this doesn't happen often, but it does happen); or c) it's in the interest of one or more involved parties (writer, artist, publisher) to discontinue the title, regardless of sales.

{Which happens less often than option B.)

As for maintaining specific talent on a specific book, that's only up to the publisher when the talent doesn't want to leave. While longevity on a title is often lauded and sometimes laudable, it's irrelevant unless a tolerable level of quality is maintained, and it's very easy to burn out on a book. Particularly with the speed at which most comics must be produced. Readers fixated on specific regular characters rarely grouse too much when talent changes anyway, again as long as a tolerable level of quality is maintained. (It's that tolerance more than anything else that not only allows but encourages descending standards of quality in the business.)

To talent, "perfect" covers a lot more ground.

Comics companies have built up certain habits over the years, few of which create strong bonds between publisher and talent. The original companies were based on a depression era "get yours and don't give anything to anyone" mentality in which (in most cases) publishers owned and controlled everything and talent was left with nothing but the privilege to do the work at often near-slave wages, ensuring that anyone with decent talent left the field for greener pastures. This changed somewhat in the 70s and 80s with the onslaught of upstart companies wooing talent with all sorts of "rights" in the wake of Neal Adams' noisy 70s campaign for copyright ownership by talent, but if you read their contracts carefully – few did – the old work-for-hire language was almost always replaced by convoluted megaliths of copy that translated to: "talent 'owns' the property, but surrenders all creative control, all licensing decisions and decisions regarding other uses of the property to the publisher, who maintains this control in perpetuity unless the talent wants to pay through the nose to buy out the publisher, which is only really possible on properties that have already failed miserably and even then we're going to make it hard as hell. And we don't have to pay more than page rate advance/royalties for any of this, because any market value the property has is created not because of your work but because the publisher has created a market for the work."

That model was swept away for the hipper, more worldly 90s style publisher, whose model isn't other publishers but movie studios. Unfortunately, when you sell to a movie studio, you surrender not only all creative control, and control over licenses and other uses of the property, and can only retrieve the property by buying the studio out (after they've piled on all kinds of ridiculous accessory "costs") – in addition to which, you become work-for-hire on your own creation. Any 90s publisher that tries to deal with Hollywood is forced to resort of a basically 1940s style deal plus royalties simply because if they can't guarantee they control and can surrender all rights to a property, no one in Hollywood will want to speak with them. Because Hollywood depends on all those ancillary rights to pay for the movies they make. They want to be the ones making the video game deals, the Underoo deals, the Burger King deals. (I just read somewhere that the James Bond GOLDENEYE videogame took in well over twice what the movie grossed, at a much lower production cost for a much higher overall profit – and the movie was a huge success.) They don't want you to do it.

Frankly, working work-for-hire on your own creation is a galling situation, and I thought the business would be beyond that by now. (It's up there with The Jetsons for how we thought the future would be.) But it has only gotten beyond that in fits and starts, and even where the term "work-for-hire" has been wiped out whatever's left is usually a euphemism for "work-for-hire," and that means watching others take your creations where you never intended them to go, if they're willing to get them anywhere at all. In Hollywood, only directors are allowed visions; in comics, what passes for vision is design. If you're stuck with work-for-hire, you might as well work for Marvel or DC. At least you have a reasonable expectation their checks will clear.

Then, of course, there are the publishers who expect the talent to tacitly underwrite the business by somehow never quite getting the checks out on time, or within a month of on time, or within three months of on time, or six. There are the publishers who try to defer all payments to a distant back end, or change deals in mid-production or after production is finished, sometimes even after publication, regardless of contract (if there is a contract), because they know talent won't sue them to get money or enforce the contract because they don't have any money, because the publisher has made sure they don't have any money. There are the publishers who overcommit on properties their schedules has no room for, leaving someone else to call to explain the property will never be published after all and no money's coming, or publish the property anyway but don't bother telling anyone it exists. There are the publishers who insist they're interested in a property but drag on and on without making a commitment to it, in the meantime trying to get the talent to work on other projects, usually work-for-hire, that the talent has no piece of. There are the publishers with no noticeable resources who obsess on proving they can compete on an equal footing with "the big boys" by hiring unnecessarily huge staffs and putting out all the flourishes while screwing talent every time they breathe. There are the publishers – way too many publishers – with no personal vision of what a comic book should be, who exist to wait for someone else to succeed then leap in to beat whatever succeeds to death with cheap knockoffs.

There are, ultimately, just too damn many publishers who just don't give a rat's ass for anything but money, and whatever money is in the system they believe is by rights their money and theirs alone, and they're not even very good at making that.

So what will be the perfect comics company in the utopian future? To start with, it won't be any of those.

The perfect company will not be a cog in a corporate structure, it will be an independent, self-sustaining unit, though it will have enough corporate connections to allow utilization of a property to whatever extent the property's creators desire.

The perfect company will buy publishing rights only, and leave all other rights and controls with creators, leaving the creators to exploit other rights as they see fit. The perfect company will, however, have sufficient connections, expertise and success in such matters to make "one-stop shopping" available to creators if the creators so choose.

To the extent that control of a property rests with a publisher, the perfect company will be a partner to creators, not a de facto employer, and all proceeds will be divided between publishers and creators in a manner they all deem equitable and mutually agreed on.

The perfect company will let creators create, staying out of their way but offering formats and packages that accommodate the needs of the property, rather than forcing the property into whatever is convenient for the publisher.

The perfect company will make an advance sufficient to allow creators to put all their attention to the property because they don't have to worry about how the bills will be paid, and it will send out checks exactly as contractually specified, without the need for pestering phone calls.

The perfect company will be small, one of many perfect companies. Instead of trying to be all things to all things to all readers, each perfect company will focus on a niche, building audiences carefully over time by demonstrating they can deliver desired qualities in the material time and time again.

The perfect company will make its decisions quickly, accepting or rejecting projects without leaving the talent hanging.

The perfect company, once a project is accepted, will publish it as quickly as the creators can produce it, but it will make all schedules in consultation with creators, not imposing a schedule on them.

The perfect company will notify creators of impinging business problems before they become critical, so that creators can make any necessary decisions before their options are closed off.

The perfect company will make a strong attempt to build an audience for every property they publish, allowing each title a sufficient amount of time to prove itself, and it will take whatever steps are necessary to widely distribute each property to the public.

The perfect company will be staffed by editors capable of recognizing quality work when they see it, and of helping the creators to achieve their own vision instead of trying to impose a "marketable" vision on them. It'll be lean, mean, tough and feisty, putting its resources behind the material, not to show itself off.

The perfect company will be perfect in lots of other ways that haven't even occurred to me yet.

Finally, perhaps most importantly, the perfect comic book company will be interested not in being a licensing company or a media company but in publishing comic books. Great comic books. Really great comic books. Comics so good, everyone will have to sit up and take notice. Comics with a panoply of genres and content, to suit a variety of tastes. Comics unlike most we have today.

Not that it'll matter to me. In the utopian future, I'll have won obscene sums in the state lottery and instead of working will spend all my time flying around the sky in one of those little round, tireless cars with bubble tops and sporty fins on the back. Just like George Jetson used to drive.

This is the true last MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS. Next week, PERMANENT DAMAGE debuts in this time and place. As I've mentioned, PERMANENT DAMAGE will be a different sort of column, but you'll just have to come by next week to see what I mean. Look for, among other things, a sneak preview of an upcoming TV show of some interest to comics fans. As I've mentioned in previous weeks, I'll be reviewing independent comics, so if you've got one you want me to check out, send it to Permanent Damage c/o Steven Grant, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074. Some people have been sending t-shirts and other promo material, and as much as I appreciate it, I'd rather you just sent the comics, thanks. My guarantee is still in force: while I can't guarantee I'll like your work, I guarantee I'll mention it.

As stated last week, I've been forced to rebuild the WHISPER news list, so if you want to get the WHISPER newsletter as the graphic novel from AIT/PlanetLar Books nears completion, click here to send me an e-mail. Just put "Subscribe" in the title.

It's a little quiet this week because I'm in Los Angeles and haven't been checking in, but if you want to get into discussions, try my GRAPHIC VIOLENCE forum on Delphi.

No question of the week this week. Instead, if you have one question to ask me, put it up at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board. The clock is ticking on the board; its time is nearly up.

And don't forget to check out PERMANENT DAMAGE at Comic Book Resources next Wednesday.

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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