Permanent Damage

Wed, October 24th, 2007 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Got a message this morning, from a fairly well-known up and coming writer who shall remain nameless:

"About a month ago, I was invited to pitch for a forthcoming indie project with quite a bit of buzz. I definitely want to be involved.

I pulled together a creative team pitched. We were told that it was a great pitch, but it didn't fit the tone of the anthology. Fine. Three more pitches turned down for different reasons that seemed to do with quality. I was assured they do want us in the book.

I'm starting to think I have no indie sensibility. All respect due, Erik Larsen can write a story about a guy with a cheeseburger for a head, but I'd never even consider such a thing. I don't want to. It's just not my thing.

Is it wrong to be mainstream? Is it wrong to be driven towards the things that appeal to a mass audience? I've been toiling away for a mere five years, but I am still unfulfilled in my desire to write a superhero book. It's pretty much all I want, and the depression I feel about the subject is enough to put me in bed for the day sometimes.

It's ironic; I'm an indie guy in terms of my career profile, and yet I have no real association with that term. I'm dying to sell out over here! Yet Marvel or DC won't give me work, likely because I've never done anything that shows my ability to handle the capes and cowls. Is it wrong to want it?

Can't get a car 'cause I don't have a job...can't get a job 'cause I don't have a car..."

Short answer? Yes. And no.

Depends on specifically what you're talking about and who you're talking to.

Certainly there's nothing wrong with wanting to write superheroes (though there are plenty of people who'll tell you there is) - if you have a good idea for a superhero story. Which I realize for most people is a reflexively true statement because everyone thinks their own superhero comics ideas are de facto good ideas. If you want to write superhero comics because you perceive them as innately more popular than other kinds of comics - "mainstream," as our jargon goes - or if you've spent your entire creative life dreaming of the moment you can retell all the classic Stan Lee-Steve Ditko Spider-Man stories (or all the Howard Mackie-Alex Saviuk ones) but with your idiosyncratic spin, best then perhaps to move on.

Superheroes are just a genre like oodles of other genres. There are types of stories you can tell easily and well with superheroes and types you can't. From an economic standpoint I can see where comics writers might decide superheroes are where it's at, but, ideally, whether you write a western or a romance or a superhero story or whatever should be governed by the story you want to tell and nothing else. In practice, it's less doctrinaire, and any number of addition factors from who's willing to publish your work to what your necessary expenses are next month can figure into it.

Then again, that's self-marketing, and in theory comics writers are intelligent enough to, if they can't sell that big Daughters Of The Dragon idea they've been nursing, to put it in a drawer until they can sell it or manipulate it into an original concept with no company-owned strings attached, and not instead try to sell it as a BETTY & VERONICA story. Unless it works really well as a BETTY & VERONICA story, in which case it probably wasn't that right for Daughters Of The Dragon in the first place.

Both Marvel and DC have been harder nuts for new writers to crack in the past few years. The structures of both companies have changed; while you used to be able to deal mainly with an editor to sell a story (series were a bit different), both companies now have far more gatekeepers involved in each story, and far more company control - certainly on books connected to their superhero universes - and the general thrust is to have get "experienced" writers - experienced in film, TV or novels - to write their comics. This isn't really snobbishness or perversity; the presumption is that these writers - and certainly neither Marvel nor DC has just rolled out the red carpet for any writers from other media to stroll up - have economic value, that they've already demonstrated their ability to appeal to a mass audience in a way that the average non-Marvel/DC comics writer hasn't. Getting the attention of decision makers at either company is still possible if you get your comic published by a smaller comics company - but if you really want to show them you're capable of selling to their idea of a mass market, publish a comic that sells a lot of copies. A hell of a lot. And reads well. They like that. Second best case scenario? Publish a comic that maybe doesn't sell so well but gets a hell of a lot of hot press.

Usually that takes a fairly original idea that fits into a fairly comfortable familiarity. 30 DAYS OF NIGHT. POWERS. THE WALKING DEAD.

If you can tread familiar ground and make it look like terra incognita, and you can write well, you're golden, man, and I don't mean Michael. That's what superhero comics companies look for anyway, whether they realize it or not.

Indies, meanwhile, are a whole other beast. Sort of. They like to think they are. The real meaning of "mainstream" in the American comics business is "concerned with genre." If that genre is usually superheroes, it's because superhero comics have absorbed most other genres - a little sci fi, a little horror, a little romance, a little western or war, you name it - and because the audience they perceive themselves feeding is the superhero comics audience. In American comics, genre defines mainstream. (In novels, curiously, the at least pretended absence of genre - which is usually presumed to be more poorly written and focused more on plot than on the style and characterization - is what defines "mainstream." It's also a reason why "real writers" have traditionally taken comics less than seriously.) The indie presumption about genre is that material written to genre strongly suggests hackwork, the philistinic collaboration of the comics creator in his own corruption by molding his original pure and unfettered ideas into prefab constructs (genres, which someone or other once accurately described as a set of pre-established audience expectations). (What's today generally called "indie comics" used to be called "alternative" comics - comics that generally turned their backs on "mainstream" comics and pursued their own goals in their own way - while "indie comics" applied to the many smaller companies who essentially turned out their own versions of stock Marvel/DC comics and unhesitatingly embraced genre. They still exist and still call themselves "indies" when pushed against the wall, but the older ones are largely reduced to farm teams for Marvel and DC while the newer ones mainly exist to, theoretically, feed the Hollywood material machine. Leaving the "real" indies.

I've always found the whole "purity of essence" routine of many indie talents and publishers pretty funny. It really is a DR. STRANGELOVE notion, as if condescension was their main reward in the face of little attention and few sales. Which isn't to say all indie comics are bad - there's no greater ratio of bad to good in indie comics than in "mainstream" comics, and some indie comics really are superior, but the ratio of bad to good isn't really lesser either - but that they have their own sets of presumptions and restrictions. There's no moral or artistic high ground there, much as they try to sell the opposite idea, because moral or artistic high grounds only exist in individual works, not in marketing clusters.

That's all "indie" and "mainstream" really mean anyway: marketing. They're labels for marketing comics. For either "indie" or "mainstream" American comics to claim to be "the" market is just ego. Those are ideas that come out of high school, where indies would be the Goth kids and "mainstream" comics the Jocks, cliques that hold each other suspect and bolster themselves with various canards and rationalizations about their supposed innate superiority to each other.

The fact is that neither superhero comics nor indie comics are a "mainstream" anymore. Both push their own prejudices as to what constitutes a "real" comics story, both pretty much really exist to tell people who write and draw comics what they should and shouldn't be doing, neither has quite figured out yet that far and away the most popular character in comics in America today is a hotheaded and literally alienated kid who nonetheless doggedly clings to a belief in his own self-worth and tries to overcome prejudice, loneliness and presumptions about his nature by treating people honestly, sticking to his principles, defending others and never giving up. Or that reducing that to "people want old fashioned heroes again" is missing the point completely.

Ultimately there's no publisher in America today predicated on the idea of letting talented creators go their own way, because no publisher has a coherent plan for capitalizing on that, and that goes for both indie and mainstream. So, really, it falls to creators themselves. Which means there's "selling out" and there's "selling out." To work in as many venues as possible, and to do the most impactful work there to open more opportunities to do the comics you think should be done instead of what publishers and editors should be done, to take the opportunities presented to you and do your best with them and to pry open new opportunities even when it sometimes means accommodating other expectations to get what you want, that's an okay kind of selling out. It's only trouble if accommodating other expectations at your own expense becomes habitual and reflexive. Wanting to write "popular material" in the absence of good ideas for that material, that's not such a great way of selling out.

Because, ultimately, it comes down to the idea you have, and what you're capable of doing with it. Not a lot else will matter in the long run, and if you're good enough at it, selling out should be the least of what's possible.

Continuing the SPARKY WATTS end of the world story, which so far has been the greatest story of the "Golden Age," though I don't expect that will last:

For those who take the Comics Cover Challenge (see below) these pages have nothing to do with it, only the various covers scattered about. Boody Rogers fans, take note: Craig Yoe, impresario of arf (published by Fantagraphics), tells me that prior to his death Boody Rogers provided him with a drawing that finally appeared in the recently published arf forum, and with a nudie painting that will see print in the forthcoming clean cartoonists, dirty drawings. Just thought you'd want to know, since these reprints have been pulling the Boody Buddies out of the woodwork...

Don't know if you heard, but the International Monetary Fund recently - not to mention quietly - announced that the U.S. is no longer the main stabilizing force in international economics, a role it has held since WWII and a lynchpin of its overall power, since many, many nations tied the value of their currency to the US dollar. China is. Not that it wasn't already obvious for a few years - about since the time the Ghost's administration started paying for its Iraq war and occupation by borrowing money from the Chinese like there was no tomorrow - but no one ever said so officially before. So much for the American Century, I guess. Curiously, China achieved its runaway economy by tying to the US dollar (which has fallen so badly over the last couple years that the Canadian dollar is of roughly equal value and will likely outvalue the dollar in a couple years - and Canada used to be where Americans went for really cheap vacations!) and many concerned about the constantly widening inequities between the two economies have been pressing for China to disconnect from the dollar in the belief that it would force them to even out prices and trade deficits. (Currently Chinese products sell relatively cheaply over here and are bought, while American products are sold expensively over there and are not.) The American economy is being currently being pounded by the sub-prime mortgage collapse (which pundits keep insisting is just a "blip" but amount to hundreds of billions of dollars built on smoke, with the value of many securities based on the value of sub-prime loans that were based on... nothing but a shell game, leaving many banks and other financial institutions to scramble to find ways to keep from admitting this, because admitting it means putting the loss on the books and forcing companies to lock up money in reserves instead of having it out there "making money"; the latest scheme by the Treasury Department to sweep everything under the rug is to simply allow companies to defer copping to the worthlessness of their financial underpinnings until such time as the public has forgotten enough about the situation to re-invest in the bonds. In other words, the bonds' value is determined not by any underlying factor but by how much more money they can get suckers to put into the bonds - never say Ponzi. Don't people get sent to prison for scams like that?) and the ridiculously expensive Iraqi occupation, which creates the interesting spectacle of a Republican president saying on one hand there's no money to make sure American kids get all their inoculations so they can stand half a chance of growing up healthy, and on the other asks for a couple hundred billion dollars at a drop to keep going an occupation that close to three-quarters of the American public now want ended, like now, daddy-o. The ridiculous, not to mention increasingly pointless if the point is something other than to funnel public money into the coffers of private contractors and let all the other chips fall where they may, cost of the occupation makes any whimpering the Ghost makes about "fiscal responsibility" on health care and other domestic matters laughable.

The slide in American economic fortunes - and yeah, yeah, I know, the economy's booming etc. etc., which it is if you don't take all the debt into consideration and prefer to ignore that many companies listed on the NYSE no longer much connect to America economically either and have taken their business global, so that what happens with the stock market doesn't necessarily reflect on the state of the American economy at all - has doubtless emboldened other nations, like Russia, which its President Putin now obviously intends to return to world power status. It seems like just yesterday that the Ghost was praising Putin as a valued ally in the War On Terror, but now, as Russia warns against interference with Iran, Putin seems now to be just another evil butcher willing to murder... I'm getting confused. Are the Chetchnyan rebels still terrorists or are they freedom fighters now? Meanwhile the Ghost warns other nations to start WWIII in order to prevent WWIII, because, y'know, those Iranians, they're crazy Muslims. If they get any kind of nuclear capability they'll blow the whole world to hell. Never mind that Pakistan has been nuclear for decades now and is crawling with America-haters both in and out of their government. (Not to mention they invented the Taliban and set them loose on Afghanistan.) Pakistan hasn't started WWIII yet, or directly attacked America. (That we know of.) But the Ghost is cool with them... and you really have to wonder whether it's because there's not a lot of accessible oil in Pakistan.

Oil's really the thing that's going to kill us in the not very long run. Imagine that $190 billion more for the occupation going instead into research and development of alternative energy, which isn't the pipedream oil enthusiasts make it out to be. Think T. Boone Pickins has a problem with a gallon of gasoline costing $5 or more? Of course not. He's not going to lose money by it, in fact is anticipating that price by Christmas; the higher the price of gas goes, the more profit oil companies make, which suggests that higher prices don't represent any particular hardship for them. From Exxon's POV, gas probably should have cost $5 per gallon years ago. So what demands are there on Detroit to retool for hybrid vehicles and bring the era of the gas guzzler to an end? Detroit responds to Honda and Toyota's mushrooming success with hybrids by advertising that Humvees now get their best gas mileage ever - 20 whopping miles per gallon! Wow! Energy policy in America doesn't exist so that the most benefit can go to Americans for the safest product at the cheapest price, it exists so that energy markets can maximize profits at public expense. As long as we let oil continue to reign as king, that's not going to change, and policies will be mainly based on how and where we can get more oil, and the fewest number of people can continue to get richer while the greatest number of people pay for it... even if it means going into hock to China.

Notes from under the floorboard:

I've got another batch of graphic novels, books, toys, etc. up for bid at eBay, so go take a look. For wrestling fans, there are several books as well as an old Pro Wrestling Torch annual with some great pieces in it. A lot of these auctions end on Friday this time, but I'm still posting things, so keep checking.

Lest I forget, my 2 GUNS #3 should be out by now from Boom! Studios by now, with #s 4 & 5, wrapping up the mini-series, in November & December respectively. As always, if your local comics shopped hasn't cowboyed up on the book, you can get it straight from Boom! (Just click on the title(s) of your choice, and go to the order page.)

I was going to run a list this week of The Ten Modern Comics You Should Be Reading (besides 2 GUNS) but I haven't had time to finish reading them. Thinking about it, I'd like to throw it open to the floor as well. What are the five modern comics everyone should be reading, and why? Let me know and I'll run them next week.

Meanwhile, two weeks down the road I'm planning to run that report on international comics publishing I mentioned a couple weeks back. I've had several reports from people already and contacts with other people for reports yet to come. If anyone else wants to get in on it also let me know.

Interesting weekend. I had to go to San Diego on personal business on Saturday and left midday Sunday for what I figured would be a pleasant cruise down the highway home. That was the morning Malibu went up in flames, and by the time I got going, brush was smoldering alongside the I-15 from Poway to Hesperia, Riverside County was hit by dust blizzards, 18 wheelers were overturned on the shoulders outside San Bernadino, and open fire dropped traveling speed to between 1-10mph for almost 1.5 hours. On the opposite side of the road near Rancho Cucamonga I saw an upright 18 wheeler whose cab had for some reason burned black with a fire hot enough to melt holes in its shell. Greater Los Angeles radio was completely useless for information. Bad as we had it, and it wasn't all that bad, just slow, traffic on the other side was at a dead halt for as far as the eye could see. The best moment came when the traffic started flowing again, just as the 15N linked back up with the 215. In the gulleys and fields you could see firemen darting from one small flare-up to another, as plumes of smoldering smoke rose from brush patch after brush patch - and there, four feet away, was the thick wooden post of a guardrail, totally ablaze...

The wait is over: the first official cancellation of the fall TV season (if you discount Fox's NASHVILLE, which began before the season and they it's coming back sometime in... wait, isn't October already over?) is the CW's ONLINE NATION - a show I've never heard of. Meanwhile, the first scripted show cancelled is CBS' short-lived VIVA LAUGHLIN, the casino-based soap where characters periodically broke out in song and dance. Song and dance (at least in fiction shows) hasn't been part of a successful equation on American TV in a long time and I'm pretty sure the place name in the title elicited a big "huh?" from most people, so it's not much of a surprise that the show lost more than half of its CSI lead-in audience in its special 10P Thursday presentation last week and got CBS its lowest primetime rating in any timeslot in years in its 8PM regular schedule debut last Sunday. Not even exec producer Hugh Jackman's Wolverine cred could bring in viewers. (I guess the WOLVERINE solo film's a go now, so he most likely won't be crying for long.) The upside is that CBS was holding onto the next season of AMAZING RACE to slot in over the first failure - and so AMAZING RACE, the best game show ever, returns in its familiar Sunday 8P timeslot on November 4, just in time for sweeps.

Someone just wrote to mention that at this year's Spike Scream Awards Frank Miller won Best Comic Book Writer for his work on ALL STAR BATMAN AND ROBIN THE BOY WONDER and FRANK MILLER'S ROBOBOP! You like me! You really like me! (Just kidding. Frank wrote FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP. I just transliterated it.) Congratulations, Frank... though I do kind of wonder if Spike is aware other comics writers even exist... Wait, they must be because Steve Niles and Neil Gaiman were namechecked, and they acknowledge Ed Brubaker's work even if his name didn't come up that I could tell. (We'll see when they run the awards program.) Funniest moment: 30 DAYS OF NIGHT won Best Comic Of The Year, and in his acceptance speech artist Ben Templesmith pointed out it's five years old, which says something about somebody...

Speaking of 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, interesting if brief interview with IDW publisher Ted Adams over at Newsarama that highlights the growing irrelevance of the direct market to many publishers. I mean, if they're not even supporting TRANSFORMERS... (By the way, ask your bookseller for IDW's CHIAROSCURO collection by Troy Little. You won't regret it.)

You may recall the times I've listed good free software, I've never listed the Open Office office suite, the open source alternative to Microsoft Office. (There's also StarOffice, if you don't trust any office suites under $70.) Some people love it, but I'm not among them. Now, however, IBM, once the premier name in non-Apple computers (they sold their consumer computer business to Lenovo a couple years back), has decided to unleash former Office competitor Lotus Symphony as free software. (It's currently available in beta release. They want you to register but you can opt not to and still download it.) Lotus was sort of the original software company, creators of the first "killer ap" for the PC, the spreadsheet Lotus 1-2-3. They were also the poster company on tanking a market you unimpeachably own, which is why IBM now owns what's left of them, and Symphony was originally their belated, abortive shot at stealing Microsoft Office's dominance. I'm in the midst of trying it out, so I can't yet say whether I like it any better than OpenOffice... .

Congratulations to Courtland Funke, the first to correctly identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "pointed objects." Courtland wants to promote Barnacle Press, which reprints pre-WWI comic strips. Go take a look.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme - it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. (Not that it's been an issue so far.) As with most other weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, but if you can't find it, what the hey? We don't stand on ceremony around here. Good luck. (What's really weird is for the last six months every week somebody has sent in the solution "hands" - and it's never hands - and it's never the same person! Go figure.) (No, that's not the clue.)

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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