Permanent Damage

Wed, March 26th, 2008 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Not much of general interest coming out of last weekend's Comics Pro retailers conference, but organization president Joe Field's keynote address hit a point worth repeating.

I have limited use for most professional groups, which tend, especially in this business, toward feelgood social clubs. Because no one faction in comics has the power to get any other faction to go along with what it wants. By factions I mean various groups within the business – talent, publishers/editors, retailers, distributors, even consumers – that outsiders would probably believe to be one big collective working toward the greater goal of world media domination but which all have their own perspectives on what's necessary and desirable that are often at odds with other factions. There's little consensus between factions, and the factions themselves are often little more than squabbling self-interested parties with no natural affinity until brought together by a conflict with some other faction. No professional talent group has ever been effective, partly for this reason. ACBA, the "Academy Of Comic Book Arts and Sciences" (sciences?) started as a fan group in the '60s but in the '70s became what was probably the most effective professional group, but that's damning with faint praise. Dominated at its peak by the forceful personality of Neal Adams and fed on an early '70s "takin' back the streets" vibe that permeated the hipper edge of American society at the time, it seemed poised to take on various issues facing the creative end of the industry at the time, and in theory could have, since it was largely New York-based professionals at a time when all comics publishing (if you excluded the undergrounds, and Gold Key) was coming out of New York. For the most part, it had the support of what passed for comics fandom at the time.

But that was also its weakness; its members drew their incomes from the same companies ACBA would have had to war on to be effective, and alternative markets were functionally non-existent. Fandom's "support" was also a double-edged sword, since many in fandom, as now, identified with the professionals' goals but wanted the rewards for themselves as the ones who created the comics, providing the companies with potential talent pools should existing professionals get too uppity. (Both Marvel and especially DC had already turned to foreign artists as a cost-cutting tool.) Significant changes for talent had to wait until new competition forced Marvel and DC to keep up, and Marvel didn't bother until DC, which had spent most of the '70s and early '80s in potentially fatal decline, and inspired by publicized early '80s creator-rights struggles by Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber, adopted many "independent publisher" notions about royalties, artist ownership of original artwork, etc. to woo talent away from Marvel. It wasn't long before ACBA, after a splurge of publicity and good will early on, disintegrated into what became Adams' "First Friday" professional get-togethers at his studio or apartment. The much later Pro/Con, not an official organization but a gathering of comics talent to discuss issues facing them and the industry ala the Comics Pro conference for retailers, faced many of the same problems. Run at the moment in the '90s when the serious problems inherent in the comics business threatened to overrun the burst of phenomenal success that opened the '90s, it was nutted by a dependence on the very comics publishers it needed to confront to be at all useful. Instead it opted for an "I'm okay, you're okay" approach that only approached economic issues on the level of suggesting (certainly a good idea) a group health plan for freelancers, and while it made for a pleasant conference the whole Pro/Con concept was undermined by the fact, which subsequent years that decade made horrifyingly obvious, that we were very much not okay. The rest of the '90s saw a sales collapse that wiped out scores of comics shops, ended dozens of publishers, and drove talent en masse out of the business – not to mention trimming consumer ranks to a scant few who basically read comics rather than speculated on their near-future financial value. Distribution consolidated in Diamond's hands. Other factors nearly caved in Marvel for good. Could Pro/Con have changed any of that? Probably not. But the danger signs were visible before the first Pro/Con, and for whatever reason they weren't brought up in any significant way, let alone addressed. It would have made people uncomfortable.

In the midst of his largely cheerleader speech at Comics Pro, Field chose to go for the uncomfortable, and harpoon a popular, comforting myth the comics industry has nurtured for years.

We're big on comforting myths. When I first got into the business, the myth was popular at Marvel and DC that the readership turned over in full every four years, so repeating plots from five years and beyond earlier was respectable behavior, since the audience would be unfamiliar with them. (The popular wisdom of our current decade seems to be that the only audience actually reading comics now are hardcore fans with an encyclopedic grasp of continuity going back, well, forever, and I suspect that's equally as wrong.) Not long ago superhero enthusiasts, fan and pro alike, were touting the cyclical theory of the superhero; that is, that the superhero becomes the focus of comics at set points in time and this decade was due to become a new golden age of superhero comics. What has happened instead is that Marvel and DC have continued mostly selling superheroes as they have for decades, few new superheroes from Marvel or DC or any other companies have caught fire, superhero comics strongly promoted by the major companies have done decently but rank-and-file superhero comics without special promotion still sell only marginally at best, sales on the best-selling superhero titles are substantially better but still rarely anything to boast about, and if we go by the sum total of American comics being published superhero comics constitute a very small fraction.

Field took on a similar, often-repeated retail myth, that comics sell best during economic downturns, such as the one the country's currently experiencing. The theory generally goes like this: in good times consumers gravitate toward more expensive entertainments, but in bad times "cheap" entertainment (i.e. comics) holds more appeal. By that logic, comics shops are about to enter an unprecedented era of prosperity. Field suggested the assembled retailers not put a lot of stock in the theory, correctly pointing out that in earlier downturns, comics were a cheap entertainment option, but, even when compared to $12 movie tickets, at a starting price of $3 a pop, traditional format comics aren't "cheap" anymore by anyone's definition of the term. TPBs/graphic novels generally have a better content-to-price ratio but still require a decent capital outlay that could just as easily go for videogames. (Not that the videogame market is having good times right now.) Our buffer of producing product that only costs ten cents in an era where people only have ten cents to spend is long gone.

If we're in a new inflationary cycle – all evidence seems to point to it, even as the Fed keeps cutting and cutting interest rates to force inflation down, and we're in an unprecedented era where inflation keeps rising regardless of rate cuts, while many more cuts and lenders will have to start paying borrowers to borrow their money – then it's pretty much destined the cost of the regular comics package will go up, if for no other reason than gasoline prices have skyrocketed enough to force truckers to raise shipping prices, meaning at minimum the cost of paper will inevitably rise. On all fronts: the cost of shipping trees to paper mills, paper to printers, printed items to outlets. A lot of comics from smaller publishers already start at $3.99 for a 32 page package; I expect that to go as high as $5.99 by the end of next year, while it would surprise me if Marvel and DC didn't raise their base price to $3.99 by then. There won't be much choice – unless they change the package. (This could go either way, with the Warren Ellis-pioneered 24 page package Image uses for a few titles, or raising the page count along with the price to theoretically give a stronger sense of value-for-money, though traditionally any comics company that has tried this has ultimately reverted to the 32 page package.) In any case, even if we still harbor delusions that the current traditional package is cheap, the day of the cheap comic book is done.

I know there are retailers who think I'm hostile to comics retailers, but I view them more as being in a noble and unenviable position, the frontlines infantry of our little army, forced to work with whatever weapons are supplied them at any given time. Many of their former advantages have turned to disadvantages. Where once they had captive audiences, they now face tons of competition – from bookstores, the Internet and other outlets – and often negligible customer loyalty. The 30+ year old no returns system publishers and Diamond have them on keeps them on the cusp of industry risk. The growth of the graphic novel potentially puts them at a disadvantage over bookstores and especially chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble, which already operate on a book economy (rather than the magazine economy that still dominates much of comics' thinking) and minimize their risk via a returnables system. (Still, even they're far from immune to economic conditions; Borders this week announced willingness to consider selling the company, if not exactly to actually sell.)

While I hate to use another analogy to the wrestling business, we're arguably on the cusp of what happened with pro wrestling in the mid-'80s. Wrestling prior to that was split into regions, each usually dominated by a single strong promoter; some cooperated, some were bitter rivals with one another, some regions were big on wrestling while others struggled. While the underlying product was essentially the same, they each had their own styles, their own "right way" to do things. The situation is roughly analogous to the comics shop market; while there are a few areas with heated competition between rival shops, most areas are dominated by a single shop. Then, c. 1982, Vince McMahon got the brilliant idea of using the then new but suddenly widespread medium of cable TV to turn the "World" (formerly the no more accurate World Wide) Wrestling Federation, the New York-based regional he'd recently bought off his promoter father, into the first national wrestling promotion. It wasn't that there was a huge demand for a national promotion, though regional wrestling had been heating up across the country since the late '70s, but McMahon, a born hustler no matter how you view his product, tapped into various cultural threads to create one anyone – and sold a suddenly gluttonous public on it, mostly through the larger-than-life construct of Hulk Hogan. He bought TV time to play his shows in most major markets, made cable deals, booked arenas across the country and ran tours, and, via the twin unprecedented technologies of MTV and pay per view, generated a sense of pro wrestling as pure spectacle.

Not to mention a hell of a lot of money. Like comics, wrestling had traditional been considered to have upswings and downswings, and, like many comics shop owners, most promoters never got rich, or if they did never for long, but most managed to make a decent enough living and keep their regional promotions going. The WWE changed that. Its more contemporary (not to mention generally more tongue-in-cheek product – no more of that "wrestling is real" nonsense, they let everyone in on the joke if they weren't already), flashier product put the great regional promotions out of business one by one. New regionals pop up – some are now feeder systems for the WWE – but, aside from a late '90s fling by Ted Turner's WCW, no promotion has yet risen to successfully challenge WWE hegemony, and, like many people think all comics are Marvel comics, the average person thinks wrestling means WWE. (For those who've been away, a lawsuit forced them to change the company name to World Wrestling Entertainment a few years back.)

This is a potential quandary for comics shop owners. Their futures depend on increased, preferably exponentially increased, interest in comics material in the future. But the more successful comics become the closer we get to someone creating a national chain of comics/graphic novel stores. (Marvel and possibly Dark Horse considered something along these lines in the '90s; the ill-fated Tekno actually tried it, but managed to hit the business on its downward arc and that was all she wrote.) The common wisdom is that no national chain would be able to provide the service local comics shops could, or successfully mold sales to the vagaries of specific regions. But that was the same thing regional promoters said about the WWF, and the same thing small independent bookstores said about Borders/B&N. That's potentially the biggest booby-trap (for retailers) in a growing comics market; but a market that doesn't grow will be equally as devastating.

Despite all this, the mood at Comics Pro this year was reportedly positive. There's a new appreciation of a widespread public acknowledgement of comics as viable entertainment form, and while the question of converting new, casual customers into recurring customers remains there seems to be little question of new, casual customers. But it must be an interesting way to earn a living these days, in the worst sense of the word interesting: while not long ago comics shops were the absolute bedrock of the business, now it must often feel something like surfing a lava flow. The only thing we can be certain of right now is that, while cautious optimism might be the byword of the day, the business is still a minefield, and past models are, at best, untrustworthy predictors.

Have a minor office disaster going on at the moment (and by minor I mean minor but it can't wait without getting worse so I have to deal with it now) so another shortish column today. Let me make it up to you in some small way with the first chapter of THE MASK OF DR. FU MANCHU, a '50s yellow peril fantasy from Avon Comics, drawn by the late, great Wally Wood. Wood's art got slicker as he went on, but there's a life to his early work that I've always found tremendously appealing. The extraordinarily problematic Fu Manchu even gets played with a little life and humanity. But just a little. (It is a McCarthy-era yellow peril fantasy, after all.)

[JONAH: INSERT "Mask Of FM 01 01.jpg" – "...01 07.jpg" HERE.)

Part 2 next week.

Notes from under the floorboards:

As mentioned last week, over the next few weeks I have two books coming out, TWO GUNS from Boom! Studios in late April, collecting the five issue crime mini-series (with art by Mat Santolouco) often mentioned in earlier columns; and THE SAFEST PLACE from Image/12 Gauge, an adventure/espionage thriller wherein a war photographer with a strange and potentially fatal condition gets involved in an intercontinental search for a kidnapped child whose father is protected by a lethal web of criminal enterprise and geopolitics, theoretically available in May with art by Tom Mandrake. (Check here for a story on THE SAFEST PLACE.) Ask your retailer for more details, and if he can't provide them, drop me an e-mail. (Covers above, and, yes, they are part of this week's cover challenge. And, no, the answer is still not me, though this week it's not "you" either.)

It has become easy to tell Barack Obama's the current frontrunner in the presidential race, since other candidates have declared open season on him. The Clinton campaign remains especially interesting, with a two-pronged attack strategy of half their spokespeople making nasty insinuations (Hillary suggesting the country would be better off with McCain as "commander-in-chief" should the race come down to McCain v. Obama; Bill openly questioning Barack's patriotism) while the other half leap on anything anyone even vaguely connected to Obama says like free speech is essentially treason, even when what's said is indisputably true. So apparently it's perfectly reasonable to question a candidate's patriotism on absolutely no basis other than your wife is running against him for public office, yet it's a terrible breach of ethics and public trust to bring up a former president's carnal relations with an intern while in office. Whether it's having an effect on electorate opinion is anyone's guess (the Clinton campaign has apparently also decided that only the states in which Hillary came out victorious are truly representative of the people, but that's to be expected since it's the only way to spin her few victories into a positive) but it's nice to see that Hillary really is capable of acting presidential, if by "presidential" you mean "Richard Nixon." Meanwhile, it's interesting that John McCain hasn't (that I ran across, anyway) joined the cry for Obama to repudiate every minister who says anything objectionable. Probably because then people might start demanding McCain repudiate the ministers in his camp who have declared that Katrina was God's punishment of New Orleans for not stamping out homosexuality, or called for a literal, not figurative, war to wipe Islam from the face of the earth, and since right now they seem to be key to any hopes he has for election, he's unlikely to want to alienate his current coterie of right-wing pastors, especially the telepastors...

Just got back from a screening of the new MTV/Paramount film STOP LOSS, starring Ryan Philippe as a soldier finishing up his enlistment with a bloody Iraq tour only to find that the "stop loss" of the title (military jargon for essentially forcing re-enlistment by halting a discharge, or, as the film puts it, "a back door draft") has been placed on his file and, rather than receiving his well-earned freedom, he's being sent back to the nightmare he thinks he has escaped. It's a hard film to discuss, neither bad nor especially good, despite my sympathy for its subject. What it gets right is good acting and a nice demonstration, at last, of how supporting the war and supporting the troops aren't anywhere near the same thing. What it doesn't get so right is a cumbersome script – someone seemed overly enamored of the picaresque social dramas of the '70s, so the script is littered with random incidents there mainly just to show the negative effects Iraq had on the AWOL Philippe as he bolts from Texas toward Washington DC to get help from a senator – and just in case you didn't get the '70s salute, he ends up abandoning his car for a motorcycle. The directing swings wildly between grainy cinema verit, nauseating rapid fast cuts and ABC After School Special, with more than a few nods to similarly-themed Vietnam-era films. The script plays clichs like we never heard of them before; character fates are telegraphed, the conflicts between Philippe's character and his best friend/comrade-in-arms climaxes in a good ol' boy fist fight. Worth checking out for performances, STOP LOSS tries a little too hard to be a "serious" film – understandable, given the subject matter of the military basically enslaving soldiers for as long as the military likes – but in its urge to serve two masters ends up just being Hollywood.

Possible imminent end of the world warning: though I don't now remember the subject or punchline, a Garfield strip last week was actually funny.

Trying to think of some movie or TV show I saw in the last week where, in a scene set in 1924, a character makes reference to comic books. I was going to excoriate the thing over its historical inaccuracy (not that not bothering to research the origin dates of comic books makes it 10,000 BC, but hey) but it turns out that seems to have been the only lasting impression it made on me. Anyone else see this?

For all those who ever thought suicide was the fit course for Congress, Jack Kervorkian is now running for a Michigan seat in the House Of Representatives. His backers say he'll kill at the polls...

Congratulations to Dave Robinson, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "amazing." Dave wishes to point your attention to oDesk Insider, a curious website that gives advice, information and theoretically pay opportunities to freelancers.

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. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. (You never know; I might just go on a mass linking spree one of these days, if I can ever find the Internet's answer to a water tower.) As in most weeks, I've hidden a special secret clue to the answer somewhere in the column, but I won't force it down your throat. Good luck.

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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