Permanent Damage

Wed, April 23rd, 2008 at 2:42pm PDT | Updated: April 23rd, 2008 at 3:47pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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No special news out of New York or Barcelona that I've heard. (The real news I heard isn't anything I can put in public print. Unless your idea of news is that Dark Horse is publishing a new HELLBOY series or Stan Lee's creating a new superhero universe for Virgin Comics. Not that there anything wrong with either, but for me that kind of thing's just business as usual. But no super-garbagemen this time, okay, Stan?) Or maybe there's news by omission: Josh Neufeld suggests that independent comics are getting the short straw at the New York Con now too, as superheroes, movies, manganime and big book publishers dominate.

You didn't see that coming? Really?

By "too" Josh implies indies get the short straw at cons like San Diego as well. Which is partly true. It's no secret that San Diego, since its humble beginnings, has evolved into a nightmare mediacluster in which comics are a sometimes overshadowed, but still focal part of the show. At San Diego's hands, "Comic-Con" has become synonymous not with comics but with fan-focused media in general, with the celebration of everything "mainstream media" and "mainstream culture" always said was sick and twisted and wrong in pop culture. Except now it is the new mainstream, which in realpolitik means: that's where there's money to be made!

This is the bitchy, badly-kept secret of American culture, which everyone knows but we're supposed to be too polite to mention in public (and anyone who really thinks that obviously doesn't know much about Americans): wherever there's money to be made, that's where "culture" will go. Because there is no culture in America, not really. There is only media, and media is always drawn to money.

That said, the San Diego Con has always found a place for independent comics. Unless someone ends up in charge whose only interest is the bottom line, I doubt they'll ever abandon that portion of their heritage, not completely. They'll always have an independent comics sector of the floor, and a small press sector. I doubt independent comics will ever abandon San Diego, since it's still the place to be seen if you're anyone who's anyone in comics, and the place where you're likeliest to run into others you want to see. (And probably many you don't.) Which isn't to say independent comics, like many people just wanting to attend San Diego, aren't likely to be forced out by the cost or sheer unavailability of accessible hotel rooms, which is now the most critical element the San Diego Con needs to address, and an element that's mostly beyond their influence. Let's face it: they can arguably leverage pressure by threatening to move to convention to another locale (if they could manage to break their current contract) but wherever the convention moved the nearby hotels would jack their rates way up to cash in on the new demand. Or independents may decide they don't get enough profit or juice from San Diego to balance the cost of a table/booth. Those wedges are there; I do know independent publishers who just don't think it's worth the hassle anymore. But I suspect most have enough sentimental attachment to a "San Diego presence" that they'll eat their shortfalls and call them promotional costs.

The New York Convention has never made a secret of its desire to be "San Diego East" but I doubt that extends to any similar "commitment" to independent comics. Behind San Diego, ultimately, is a bunch of fans promoting a fannish philosophy. (As with most things in this piece, that's just an observation, not a criticism.) That philosophy has underpinned the convention throughout its various stages, and it's still fairly strong now, once you step back from the pomp and look for it. Behind New York is the parent company of PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, and an entirely different philosophy. Whatever else you can say about PW, it's a magazine that has survived even in a turbulent and unpredictable industry by providing a specific service to a specific niche audience, and it has never taken its eye off the money. The same can be said of its parent company.

From its first appearance in 2006, the New York Comic Con always seemed predicated on the wrong premises. Considering the PW crew, pretty much with the exception of longtime pro/fan Heidi Macdonald, was new to comics, the misunderstandings are understandable. 2006 was when the phenomenon of comics was really crossing over, when graphic novels and manga really jumped into the consciousness of bookstore owners, librarians and at least enough customers to matter. Marvel was generating movies that were making money like never before. (Still are, of course, but then it was still new.) "Real" publishers were just beginning to actively seek out material to publish, buoyed by a flood of reviews and, I've always suspected, creating a hip "alternative" graphic novel market the way the music industry had concocted "alternative music." (But an alternative to what? To what they were already bombarding the market with.) It must have seemed, to anyone on the outside looking in, like comics were suddenly a goldmine, everyone in the business was out buying a Porsche, and (if you believed the reviewers) a huge audience was just chomping at the bit for any "graphic story" material that was beyond the realm of superheroes or pretty much any other genre.

The New York publishing industry was seen as the Mecca of a whole new type of "comic book" and a whole new kind of reader, and the New York Comic Con was created to service that market. And to establish New York not as the new comics capital of the nation â��š�“ it had pretty much always been that â��š�“ but as the new comics capital of the nation. And because though New York was a major comics town, there hadn't been a "real" franchise convention there for a long time, so they perceived another niche they could tap into. As Josh indicates, that first year was especially sympathetic to independent comics, I suspect less because the promoters had any special sympathy for independent comics as that by pushing them the convention would bring together those works with the book publishers who were actively seeking graphic novels to publish.

My guess is that subsequently reality settled in.

Like the cold, hard fact that there's not a lot of money in comics.

There's money, sure, and once in awhile someone has a shock runaway hit. Or you can work very hard for a long time and build up business. Or you can cross your fingers and hope the comics you pump out for little or no profit bring you media deals and t-shirt empires. But it's not the gold rush a lot of people seemed to think it was for awhile there. It's a business where you don't usually hit the motherlode, you pan for nuggets and it's an awfully big stream.

The thing about independent comics: they don't make money. They can make money. They just usually don't. The business is stacked against them. Established independent publishers like Image or Dark Horse have carved out their niches, but they're still mining mainly in a market where DC and Marvel hold dominance. Not, perhaps, on the superior quality of their material, but on its reputation, audience acceptability and historical circumstances. For smaller companies, now that the market has pretty firmly coalesced around The Big Two after a decade or so (long ago now) where their dominion seemed to be disintegrating, it's like boxing with a hand tied behind their back. For smaller independent publishers, and self-publishers, things are a lot tougher. It doesn't help that the vast majority of independent comics of all stripes aren't very good, though, as I've said before, the ratio of bad to acceptable is probably about equal to Big Two ratios. Josh bemoans the lack of the show's emphasis on â��š�great stories, exciting art, innovative uses of the form" but where is that in strong evidence anywhere?

Virtually nowhere in independent comics at any level is the marketing/promotions genius that branch of the business needs. Independent comics generally aren't marketed to make money; they're marketed either to earn money off ancillary (mostly movie) rights or to provide their creative teams the assurance that they're true artistes and somehow above mere, base commerce. Sure, the publishers may dress it up differently â��š�“ "build it and they will come" and other malarkey; is THE SECRET mandatory reading for small publishers or something? â��š�“ but that's what it comes down to. The best most indie talents can hope for (which isn't to say get) at this point is either that their skills will be noted by Marvel or DC or their work will get noticed and repackaged for a general audience by Random House. In either event, it reduces indie comics to a farm team with its diehard fans sitting in the bleachers telling themselves it's better than watching the major leagues (and for them, it probably is) while nobody else cares.

I'm not saying this is right, or the way it should be. But right now this is the way it is.

San Diego started because a bunch of fans loved comics. I have no doubt that New York would never have started had its backer not believed there was money to be made there somewhere. I doubt it would have continued had there not been money there somewhere. That first year, they seemed to have vastly underestimated the number of superhero and other genre comics fans, and have been compensating for it since; likewise, I suspect they rather overestimated the number of alt-comics fans. They've adjusted because that's where the money is. Again, this is neither good nor bad. It's just how things work. Money gravitates to money. Film and media companies wouldn't show up at either San Diego or New York if they didn't think it was worth money to them. Hell, Marvel and DC and Dark Horse and Image and dozens of little companies wouldn't show up if they didn't think it was somehow worth money to them, either in sales or public relations.

But right now, there's next to no money in independent comics. People outside the business have all kinds of weird delusions and expectations, but it doesn't take long from an inside perspective to figure out the real poop. Indie comics can offer creators a lot of things, but a living wage generally isn't among them. That suggests to people who are more interested in money than creativity or self-delusion that perhaps their efforts are best focused elsewhere. All my career I've run into salarymen who held the opinion that being a freelancer was evidence one "couldn't make it" in a "real" job, and wrongheaded as that is I see a corollary in the apparently firm believe of many comics readers that self-publishing or being published by an independent publisher is just evidence that you're not good enough to make it to the major leagues. Whether anyone agrees or disagrees with those sentiments, indie comics are just too diffuse and too absent of marketing tools and opportunities to significantly alter those perceptions. The last company that came close was Image, pushing two decades ago now.

As Josh notes, there are smaller cons that cater to indie comics - SPX, APE, MoCCa, etc. â��š�“ cons largely by and for activists, who've decided to make that niche their bread and butter. But any con that hits a certain size has to start looking at their bottom line at all times, and, as in most arenas, what brings in the most money gets the most attention. That's just how it is, and expecting the New York con to change it is looking in the wrong direction.

I seem to be on an inadvertent Wally Wood kick here. Not that Woody can be blamed for the following story (which may have been penciled by Joe Orlando, with Woody inking):

Not that Woody wrote it (probably, author unknown) but how can so many things be so wrong in a single seven page story? (My favorite line: "Poor Tommy! Those wretches killed him!" Tommy's death is such a visual afterthought in the preceding panel, and the hero's so torn up about it Tommy doesn't get another mention the rest of the story. It's like "Oh, well, kid's dead, let's shack up?" Very funny.) The '50s may have been something of a Northern Renaissance for comics art, but writing? Not so much. (Speaking of which, though â��š�“ anyone got any scans of Prize Comics' American Eagle material by Severin & Elder? Aside from anything published by EC, what are some nominees for best comics writing of the 1950s?)

House ad from DC Comics, c. 1966:

I've got nothing against DC, honest, but this one always cracked me up, even as a kid. By then beatniks and supposed beatnik slang were already years pass��'©, and 77 SUNSET STRIP and Edd "Kookie" Byrnes long gone from public view; who on earth did they think this ad was intended for?

And why does it always sound similar any time anyone in comics marketing decides to get down with "The Young People" and prove they speak the lingo, the patois, the argot, the rap, hepcats? (I think I just answered my own question.)

Notes from under the floorboards:

Nutty week, but next week it's time to catch up with some interviews and reviews, among other things. Got to finish one graphic novel and plot another, too.

Repeated again: I've got two books out over the next couple months, a trade collection of my crime series, 2 GUNS from Boom! Studios, which should be out at the end of the month, and the adventure-suspense thriller THE SAFEST PLACE from Image/12 Gauge, which ships in May. Click on the titles to get the skinny on the contents, then go pester your local comics shop to order a copy of each for you. (Release dates are approximations, and I understand the weirdness of the business right now, with release dates contingent on various difficult decisions and the vagaries of overseas publishing, but I still say indies could do themselves a world of good by somehow guaranteeing rock solid schedules for these things.)

Interesting poop for BATTLESTAR GALACTICA fans...

I hope you had a great Earth Day. I remember the first one: a candlelight march to the State Capital with a few thousand other people back there in Madison. In a soaking mist. At just above freezing by a couple degrees. With no ride home, and about a six mile walk ahead of me. (The bus system shut down for the night before the rally ended.) The coldest I've ever been in my life, and I grew up in Wisconsin. I did manage to score a ride home, but it was touch-and-go for awhile, and they didn't really want to because I was way out of their way and the roads were slick. I remember we ended up in a fast food place at the bottom of State Street that was just about to close, and all they had left was French fries. I bought a couple bags. I didn't eat them. I wrapped my hands around them to warm my fingers. Those were the days, eh? Whoever came up with Earth Day didn't live in Wisconsin or they'd have scheduled it for June. But in honor of Earth Day, I present this old school form letter from way back when:

"Dear Senator/Representative ______________:

I wholeheartedly support the rape and despoiling of our precious and irreplaceable natural resources.

Keep it up.

Sincerely, your constituent,

__________________________"

Good for a joke, but I wouldn't recommend sending it. They're as likely to take it for validation as sarcasm.

Here's a good one: for last week's 244th Clinton-Obama debate (I'm all for candidate debates, but at this point is there one single new fact or idea likely to come out of yet another Barack-Hillary faceoff, especially in a format designed to avoid direct confrontation?) ABC, which broadcast it and apparently tried to make a primetime event of it by tape-delaying it for different time zones, tried to claim proprietary rights and insisted other networks and news channels only show 30-second chunks until its West Coast airing was done. At least they didn't waste court time trying to enforce the restriction, which everyone ignored. But it does raise an interesting point: in an age where everyone's obsessing about "intellectual property rights," who owns the news? If you really think yet another tepid debate is news...

More campaign weirdness: all three candidates made wonky wrestling-themed campaign pitches on World Wrestling Entertainment's MONDAY NIGHT RAW this week, apparently going after the audience that won't get the chance to elect Jesse Ventura this year. All three sounded like their staffs had scrambled to figure out wrestling metaphors for them - Hillary talked about using "the People's elbow" while McCain compared himself to Hulk Hogan (well, they are both old and reinvent their resumes at will) â��š�“ but Obama scored the cheap pop of the night with the so-obvious-it's-funny-if-it-weren't-funny-anyway "... if you smell what Barack is cooking!" Too bad he didn't/couldn't cock an eyebrow way up when he finished. If you don't get that joke you don't watch enough wrestling, but starting now won't do you any good because the reference is years out of date...

Huh. Seems there are too many pigs in Canada, and the government there is apparently willing to pay $50 mil to farmers to butcher the little porkers and, I guess, bury the remains to drive the price of pork up. (While the weak American dollar has crushed pork prices, fuel concerns and demand for ethanol-bound corn has driven the cost of feed way up.) This while some places in the U.S.A. are now facing food shortages. Meanwhile, there's at least one growth industry in America, though you might have to bribe your way into it: corruption...

A small victory for Internet users (and an apparent defeat for the RIAA and the Office Of Homeland Security): in New Jersey, at least, ISPs must be presented with a formal subpoena â��š�“ signed by a real judge and everything â��š�“ before they're allowed to surrender any user information. To anybody. By decision of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Well, as the late Charlton Heston once said (though Orson Welles wrote the words), "A policeman's job is only easy in a police state." But I'm sure if this gets pushed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court will figure out some rationale for overturning it...

I see some honcho at AT&T is predicting the heat death of the Internet by 2010. There will just be no Internet left to conquer! Wait... what's that fine print? "If the government doesn't do everything AT&T asks." Damn, there's always some catch. Even though the whole proposition is ludicrous, if Congress has proven only two things, it's that a) they pretty much know jack about the Internet and how it works and b) the only information they pay attention to is the official memos they're given, from "trusted sources." You know, like lobbyists or the White House. So expect them to do something to stave off Internet death, even if it's wrong.

Ha! Seems Cablevision has been telling customers they have to switch to digital cable next year when broadcast TV goes digital, and it's the government, not Cablevision, saying they have to. They kindly neglect to mention that cable and satellite transmission is unaffected. We can chalk this up to malicious greed (to the tune of about $17.50 a month per hookup) but, given how much misinformation there is out there about this digital switch, and how much even corporate folk these days don't seem to have the slightest interest in getting the straight poop on what's going on in their own industries, I'm half inclined to believe this can be chalked up to pure stupidity. Half inclined.

As someone with a widely known email address, courtesy of this column, I get a hell of a lot of junk mail, Nigerian scams, etc. Much of it gets filtered (and if your email got scrapped in error, I apologize, but the exigencies of the Internet make you a necessary casualty, until someone concocts a kinder way to eviscerate spam; I'd set a filter to wipe out any bulk mailings, like press releases, if there weren't once in a blue moon something I need to see) but once in awhile I'll see some anyway. Most of it's idiot crap apparently written by three year olds, but a couple things lately have really impressed me. The latest wrinkle I've seen on the Nigerian scam is half-brilliant, claiming to be sent by Nigerian cops who've busted Nigerian scammers, and have uncovered records indicating the scammers took you for some whopping amount of cash, and, per international law, the cops wish to now return it to you â��š�“ if you would be so kind as to give them your bank account and social security information and pay a small handling fee to facilitate the transfer. I'm also always getting phishing scams, which I always know are crap even when I'm stupid tired because I don't run anything vaguely having to do with finances through my Permanent Damage account. But this week I got a great offer from the IRS! Turned out I could get my tax refund directly deposited to my Mastercard or Visa credit or debit account. All I had to do is fill out the attached form with my name, address, phone number, taxpayer i.d. (AKA social security number), name of financial institution, account number, CVV number and PIN. Aside from a very professional looking form, what was really impressive were little touches like a written privacy policy and HTML explanations like "What's a CVV?" and "Why we need your PIN." Considering these guys can't have all that strong a work ethic, that's an awful lot of work to go to. Of course, I didn't download any images, and forwarded the email to the IRS...

It's a fun world, ain't it?

No winner in last week's Comics Cover Challenge â��š�“ the theme was "mutilation" (quite a few people guess "dismemberment" or variations thereof, but at least one cover featured no dismemberment and there can't be any exceptions to the theme) â��š�“ so I'm picking one entrant's website at random to push: Ryan Lindsay's Stinkbrown, where he blogs on the trials, triumphs and tribulations of being an Aussie writer trying to crack American markets. You fool! Europe's where the money is now. Check it out.

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 â��š�“ 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 one warning: it might be at trap you'll have to think your way out of. 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 â��š�“ I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them â��š�“ 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.

TAGS:  new york comic con, comic-con international, indie comics, wally wood

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