Permanent Damage

Wed, June 4th, 2008 at 3:52pm PDT | Updated: June 4th, 2008 at 3:54pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Let's talk about alt comics.

Of course, there's no such thing as alt comics, not really. Or, rather, they only exist to the point the audience is willing to swallow a marketing gimmick as a category. Kind of like "grim'n'gritty." I know a lot of creators and publishers (and fans!) out there have worn the title like a badge of honor " theoretically indicating inherent coolness, or creative superiority, or any number of facets intended to make the books, talent and publishers (and fans!) seem to stand out on the cultural landscape " but, really, all it really means is that they don't publish superhero comics. Except when they do. Or some say they don't publish "genre" comics, but publishers and genres are like peanut butter and jelly whether publishers like it or not. It's the price of publishing: any amassed collective of creative material geared toward the tastes and expectations of an existing audience becomes a genre. It doesn't much matter if the authors intended that material geared toward an audience; the publisher's selection process takes care of that.

It's a subtly corrosive thing. Publishers tend to be in business for only one of two reasons: to make money or to scratch some personal itch. Someone with a taste for, say, funny animal comics will decide the world would appreciate them more once again if someone published "good" funny animal comics, and if they're of a particularly daring or addled bent, they decide the task falls to them because who else could possibly get it "right"? (Good and right remain in quotes because the path to comics hell has been paved over and over by creators, publishers and, yes, fans who firmly believed that their ideas and tastes represented the crème de la crème of comics achievement. Self-perspective isn't generally a prerequisite for comics.) Or they're businessmen who smell a potential money niche, and stake their claim. There's nothing wrong with either approach. In either case, publishers gravitate toward a goal " fill a void in the comics firmament, or make a lot of money " and build their line (the editor, if there is one, is expected to serve what the publisher perceives as his interests) to reach that goal.

The publisher's tastes delineate the line, not the tastes of the creators. To the extent the publisher's taste is enforced, whether by project selection or by talent molding their work consciously or unconsciously to fit those tastes and theoretically improve the salability of their work, at least in that market (happens all the time), once the publisher's books go up for sale, the audience quite understandably associates the publisher with specific titles and the more these titles accumulate the more the audience associates the publisher with a specific type of material. Which is called branding; publishers do it whether they wish to or not, as a byproduct of doing business. To the extent they do it well, however "well" is defined in the moment, their product earns audience. But it's a double-edged sword. While in most instances the audience doesn't clamor to buy product from a publisher just because it resembles product they already associate the publisher with (Marvel had a good run with this for a long time but it seems to be much less the case now) they're also usually not inclined to buy product from a publisher in a genre they don't associate the publisher with.

Which is why many would-be publishers rocket in with a scattershot approach, trying to be all things to all people, and usually ending up nothing to anyone. The (non-Marvel/DC) companies that have stuck around the longest, like Image and Dark Horse, have basically promoted "umbrella genres" as their stock in trade, usually action-adventure so they can run the gamut of sub-genres " horror, espionage, superheroes " without having to retool their brand every time. (This is probably not conscious in most cases, but rather publishers looking for the broadest reach while appealing to an audience they already perceive as existing " and there's no doubt most comics shops, where most comics are sold, is essentially a superhero audience, which at least suggests a taste for action-adventure.)

So I can see the appeal of "alt comics" for many publishers, especially book publishers who have lately pushed into the field. It's also something of an umbrella genre, covering a lot of dissimilar material; LOVE AND ROCKETS only has anything in common with JIMMY CORRIGAN, THE WORLD'S SMARTEST BOY if you're comparing them both to BATMAN. Falling under the rubric of "alt comics" are things as dissimilar as SCOTT PILGRIM, DRAWN & QUARTERLY, autobiography, "art" comics, Joe Sacco's personal journalism, and Johnny Ryan. That's a mighty big umbrella. "Alt comics," which were originally known as independent comics until those got too washed over with ninja turtles and New Gods knockoffs, then alternative comics to differentiate them from more "commercial" fare " the war against commerciality being the great battle of many self-proclaimed artists who nonetheless would like to sell lots and lots of comics and gain huge audiences and karaoke sing "My Way" - and finally the cute-but-edgy diminutive "alt comics," which was where it really became a marketing gimmick, and a genre. These aren't your older brother's alternative comics; these are the real thing. Due to some good marketing of at least the concept of alt comics over roughly the past decade, if not any specific examples, a certain cachet attached to them, an impression of coolness, of what the cogniscenti, the ones really in the know, are paying attention to in comics.

Which brings up a point about marketing and the genre phenomenon. They are not aimed at those already familiar with the material. Almost nobody reads "genre work." Sure, there's the occasional reader who must read every crime novel he can get his hands on, but most readers differentiate after a fairly short period of time, depending on their tastes. "Crime" novels break down into policiers, noir, stories where the criminals are the heroes, murder mysteries, heists and capers, drawing room mysteries, hardboiled detective novels, and numerous other subdivisions, with runovers and sub-sub-divisions and about as many variations as there are reader or authorial tastes. Not to mention relation genres like spy thrillers, political thrillers, etc. That's the really irritating thing about Amazon and their "recommendations," which now pepper every page you access, if you've ever bought from them or searched their catalog. Just because I buy a James Ellroy's AMERICAN TABLOID doesn't mean I give a rat's ass about THE BOURNE SUPREMACY, or that if I check to see whether Dark Horse really released an X OMNIBUS I'd even consider buying an O.M.A.C. hardcover or a BOOSTER GOLD collection. (True results.) It's, in fact, a little condescending, as most people feel it's condescending when any expression of their tastes summarizes all their tastes. But that's presuming you know the elements that draw them to that particular material. It could be Neil Gaiman's themes and characters that drew readers to SANDMAN but it could just as easily be the way he structures stories or the way he strung words together and the words he chose to string, or other factors, and we can pretty much take it as a given that different readers were attracted for different reasons. That doesn't mean anyone should reasonably expect SANDMAN fans to flock to some other book that features some other character with a connection to dreams, as Marvel discovered with SLEEPWALKER and Vertigo itself discovered with several titles spun off from SANDMAN.

But the marketing of American culture, not only in comics but in movies, TV, pretty much everything, is now pretty much predicated on that theory: like attracts like. Interestingly but expectedly, book publishers moving into the comics field took to the alt comics hype, and so did most of the professional critics they deal with.

An interesting thing about alt comics is how much they replicate what their supporters tend to condemn about "mainstream" comics. (Mainstream having about as much meaning as alt in this context.) I have an oversized two volume set from Villard Books, OUT OF PICTURE. (The second volume is due out this week.) It's an interesting, beautifully produced anthology, apparently emphasizing foreign cartoonists and "non-traditional" (in a superhero comic or manga sort of way) art styles. And while there's good material in them, overall the stories are pretty much... nothing. They're often cute, often whimsical. I don't feel bad about reading them. But there's just not much to them either. And I have to ask myself, apart from art appreciation, how is this significantly different from when Rob Liefeld legendarily produced comics exploding with pictures and very shy on story. If we condemn that, shouldn't we condemn this as well? Or do we look the other way because to suggest the emperor has great visual style and impact but no clothes is to open ourselves to the interpretation that our tastes are jejeune and insufficiently developed? Make no mistake, OUT OF PICTURE is absolutely beautiful, but there's more to this game than beauty.

But that's a huge problem with many alt comics: they just aren't very good. The standard defense is that most superhero comics " it's always superhero comics, with horror lumped in under the rubric " aren't very good either, so there. Which I'd say is also true, but not much of a defense. This is especially true of autobiographical comics, as demonstrated by Mike Dawson's FREDDIE & ME, a Coming-Of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody (Bloomsbury Books), about, theoretically, how the music of the rock group Queen shaped his live. Again, Dawson's a splendid cartoonist and not a bad writer, and I certainly didn't feel bad about reading this book either. But it brings into focus something not often mentioned about autographical comics: they work best in short form highlighting some specific anecdote, because most people's lives are just nowhere near as interesting as they think they are. The same thing that's terribly interesting to live through is frequently pretty dull to talk about. This is true of Dawson's book, despite his quirky life of migrating at a young age from England to New Jersey, karaoke singing Queen on lunchroom tables and writing bad art rock songs, though occasional fascinating moments explode out. Funny thing is they never seem to be about his life. At one point he tangents into a discussion of a radio show on the philosophy of self; it's probably way more interesting than the show was. But it's also the furthest Dawson gets from his life in the book, and it's far more interesting than imagined, empty chats between Brian May and George Michael. His unifying theme also falls apart as his character grows up, where Queen's music has next to no importance at all, nor do any of his early experiences appear to have any more significant effect on his ultimate development than anyone's does. Doubtless there are moments from Dawson's life of great pith and implication, but burying them in some 200 pages of memory lane drivel, no matter how artfully delivered (and I do give him chops there), does no one any good. The trick to autobiography is that it must be in some way significant. Ordinary life I can get at home.

Finally there's Fantagraphics' long-running alt-comics anthology MOME. Fantagraphics is pretty much the mother of American alt-comics publishing as we know it as a delivery system for the Hernandez Brothers, Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Peter Bagge, Daniel Clowes & many others, though (like many publishers) the company would probably cringe at the alt-comics label, and it's probably significant that their real income has come from high end reprints of famous comics strips. Nonetheless, Fantagraphics (and publishers like Drawn & Quarterly) has become something of a template for graphic novel publishing by major book companies. I've mentioned enough times that MOME is the best recurring alt-comics anthology, with generally terrific cartoonists and a usually much stronger emphasis on story content than most, that I've gotten sick of saying it. Over the past couple of issues I'd also found myself getting a bit tired of MOME itself, since several of their regular contributors were getting as familiar and repetitive as a NANCY strip and I'd noticed story becoming less and less emphatic. The Summer '08 had the usual lot of MOME contributions " wordless vignettes, underground comix knockoffs, art comics, Gary Groth interviewing cartoonists, a biographical snippet about Anita O'Day " nothing bad, but it just wasn't clicking for me. It was like no one had anything to say and didn't feel like putting much effort even into not saying it. Then I hit Tom Kaczynski's "Million Year Boom," a terrific little J.G. Ballard pastiche about a man going to work for a new style corporation out to change the way business is done. A genuine story. For that reason alone " pretty much for that reason alone " MOME is the book to get this week.

But this is the challenge for "alt comics," I think. I'm not sure anyone in comics actually believes in "alt comics" anymore; outsiders seem these days to be the ones mainly buying into it. Which isn't to say there isn't good material coming out under that rubric, but comics are comics are comics, and stratified categories with some sort of spiritual purity as a basis for assessment is kid stuff. It's great to see all this beautiful and inventive art, but, like I said, wasn't that in the face of a content void what comics were getting raked over the coals for 10 or 15 years ago? It really means squat whether comics creators' hearts are pure or not, or whether their work fits into the right prefab category, or genre, or style or however else you want to pigeonhole individual works and relate them to marketing entities. (That's the job of marketing departments, not ours.) It only matters what you have to say, and then how well, in both story and art, you say it.

The Cheyenne Kid was one of the longer lived western characters in comics, published by Charlton Comics from 1957-1973. His gimmick was a Army cavalryman who'd been raised by the Cheyenne Indians, hence the name, and like several cowboy characters of the '50s, like Marvel's Apache Kid, he sometimes swapped his civvies for buckskins and rode as a Cheyenne warrior. Indians trusted him above all other white men, except when they didn't, and he had a special fondness for Indians too, though how culturally sensitive he was depended a lot on who the writer was.

The following is the first part of an early Cheyenne Kid adventure, this one recounting the Battle Of Little Big Horn. Interestingly for the '50s, the Sioux were not portrayed as bloodthirsty killers but as a wronged people; even General Custer, in the story, admits they have legitimate grievances. (From everything I've read, the real Custer wasn't so concerned, and mainly intended Little Big Horn to be the centerpiece of his planned presidential campaign.) More interesting, though, is the art, about the best the strip ever had; it looks an awful lot like Al Williamson to me, with some panels strong on the Frazetta and others looking like Angelo Torres. All, of course, hung out together in the '40s & '50s and often worked on each other's stories. But I've never heard of them working for Charlton, especially since Charlton had some of the lowest rates in the business at the time. But John Severin was working on the strip not long after this too, so anything's possible. Take a look:

Or it could be someone (with a much nicer line that was customary for Charlton) using a lot of Williamson art, not to mention Frazetta's Tomahawk and White Indian stories, for reference. Any art experts out there care to weigh in?

Notes from under the floorboards:

Like last week, run out right now and buy the TWO GUNS trade paperback from Boom! Studios and Marvel's hardcover repackage of THE PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD, because, let's face it, you just don't have enough crime comics in your life. And look for THE SAFEST PLACE mid-June, knock wood.

Huh. Seems Dark Horse released a collection of my first 11 or so X issues, from the mid-90s, last month, and nobody bothered to tell me. Shouldn't stop you from buying X OMNIBUS Vol 1, though. (Oh, great, now I've got "Come and take a ride on omunee-bus" running through my head...)

Interesting article on artificial scarcity in marketing and what a godawful stupid idea it is. The theory behind artificial scarcity is that you can force your audience to buy quickly by limiting availability. The short piece quickly explains why that's crazy talk. I mainly bring this up because the comics industry is no stranger to artificial scarcity.

So long, Bo Diddley. Bo (real name: Otha Ellas Bates, or Ellas McDaniel) was one of the big blues rock innovators, a monster influence on both '60s British rock and Southern rock (and, by extension, on everything those influenced) and the author of our national anthem, "Who Do You Love." Also a model of how the music industry was built on screwing musicians. Died Monday at 79. If you've never heard his work (whether you know it or not, you've heard his songs) go listen to it.

Hillary's latest broadside at Obama finally focused on what she means by "experience," as she stated she was all about solutions (though she still hasn't specified any) and not speeches, and mentioned she was in the White House long enough to know that when the cameras are gone and the voters have stopped voting, whoever's in the Oval Office will have to decided how to "honorably" end the Iraq War. Which I guess was her way of suggesting to superdelegates " the only ones now who can possibly swing the nomination her way in August, though over the last month they've been declaring nearly ten to one for Obama over Clinton " that come November she can get Republicans to vote for her. Anyone who has paid attention to political buzzwords over the past few decades knows "honorably" is code for "win," which suggests Hillary seeks a way not to end the Iraq War but to win it. I'd say good luck with that, but staying in Iraq doesn't constitute good luck for any of that. If we were all that worried about our honor, we should have been worried about it before the war, when the country was swallowing disinformation as gospel truth right and left, and Congress was the first to sidle up to the trough and gulp down.

Speaking of which, I can't resist... For any who've been reading my political commentary the past seven years: according to Scott McClellan, I was right. About damn near everything. I'm just saying...

Apparently, at the moment I write this, Barack Obama has secured the Democratic nomination. By somebody's count, anyway. I can't wait to hear James Carville's explanation of why Obama's delegates don't count...

Just as the Canadian Parliament makes a move to enshrine in law "net neutrality" and "prohibit [ISPs] from engaging in network management practices that favour, degrade or prioritize any content, application or service transmitted over a broadband network based on its source, ownership or destination, subject to certain exceptions," our Federal Communications Commission, which regardless of administration becomes more and more the Bureau Of Retrograde Busybodies with each passing year, is considering auctioning off part of the communications spectrum to someone willing to use it to provide free wireless Internet access. As long as your definition of "free" is limited to Abbie Hoffman's "free means you don't have to pay." The other condition the FCC wants to impose on the sale is that the winner must censor all Internet access over that network and filter out all "obscene" content. So far they haven't bothered to specify what they mean by "obscene" but odds are they define it a lot more broadly than they define "free"...

If Sharon Stone hasn't convinced everyone to shut the hell up about "karma," nothing will. As probably everyone knows by now, Stone, sounding as if she were auditioning for Paula Abdul's spot on AMERICAN IDOL, managed to say the recent monster Chinese earthquake, which mostly wiped out Chinese citizens not even remotely involved in their nation's political decisions or foreign policy, was "karma's" retaliation for China's treatment of Tibet and specifically being "mean" to her good friend, the Dalai Lama. Because, you know, she's such a deeply spiritual person. (A little tip for the obnoxiously "spiritual" out there: if you have to tell people how spiritual you are, you've still got a hell of a lot of work to do. I don't want to hear how spiritual you are, I want to see, and reorganizing your living room or patio to put yourself in great harmony with the universe doesn't come anywhere close to counting.) As I've mentioned before, if you accept the notion of karma at all, that the universe is really one big certified public accountant, this is the idiot's version of it, which is to say the version that evolved where American New Age twaddle collided with the new consumerism of the late '70s: instant gratification karma! (If the original stuff works, it's not in your lifetime, and the most immediate result you can expect is coming back after death as a lower lifeform to be determined in accordance with your sins in this life. Payback might be a bitch, but it's got an awfully far-off due date.) You want real payback involving China? Get ready for it. The Chinese have been quietly developing a new hi-tech Big Brother state (being tested now in Shenzhen) where citizens will be monitored day in and day out, all their movements and communications in any form recorded, and their access to "contrary information" via the Internet severely curtailed, using new tracking chip, voice and face recognition, closed-circuit cameras, two-way computer monitors and other technologies " all eagerly being developed by American companies. (Kind of reminds you of how eagerly Ford and other American corporations " some of the same companies, actually, like IBM - eagerly sold their wares to Nazi Germany in the 1930s, dunnit? Wait, wasn't the Ghost's granddaddy one of those guys?) Here's the karma part: the real profit centers for all that surveillance technology are Britain, where some of it is already in play, and right here in the new American security state... especially in the face of widespread financial and social collapse, should the current climate precipitate those… Really want to believe karma exists now?

Uh-oh. They've woken up bacteria that has lived in suspended animation in icebergs for the last 120,000 years. No one's sure what it does yet, only that it's so small it'll slip through bacterial filters. Hopefully it won't also slip through whatever safeguards Penn State has in its labs because I'm willing to bet that if we as a species ever had antibodies to it those probably faded away a few tens of thousands of years ago. Pandemic, anyone?

Congratulations to Chris Sequeira, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "styles of music." Chris wishes to point your attention to comic book commentary by the brilliant Dave Richardson. What, I ain't brilliant enough for you, Chris? I'm hurt. Anyway, check it out. (And I'm not really hurt. As Pauwels & Bergier wrote in THE MORNING OF THE MAGICIANS, there's room enough in the universe for more than one star.)

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.) I was going to hide a special secret clue to the answer somewhere in the column this week, but I had another appointment. 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.

TAGS:  alt comics, cheyenne kid, 2 guns, politics

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