Permanent Damage

Wed, October 1st, 2008 at 4:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Enough has been said of the recent failure of DC's Minx line that there's very little to add, at least specific to that topic. Tom Spurgeon has probably the best summation of the perceived misconceptions and missteps behind the line. The write-up by David Welsh on Sept. 29, excoriates the marketing strategy behind the nascent line of "girls'" comics, which was at once too hazy (were they trying to create a market or crack one?) and too specific (as Tom puts it, "a fantasy-free alternative to manga, featuring 'real girls in the real world'"), and seemed to be defining itself mostly as a solution to the problem of manga, which was no problem to anyone but American comics companies, and which in fact incorporates a number of "real girls in the real world" titles from numerous companies. Offering itself up as a "real world" alternative to the frivolous fantasies of SAILOR MOON and CARDCAPTOR SAKURA would only appeal to those ignorant enough of manga to be unaware of MARMALADE BOY or HOT GIMMICK or works like FRUITS BASKET, which have fantasy elements but are in most aspects "real world," especially emotionally, and certainly anyone schooled in manga would have laughed off that approach, and possibly the line, as hopelessly uninformed. As Tom mentions, DC's own CMX line publishes titles like EMMA, a Victorian-era tale of class conflict that couldn't be more "real world"; it's historical fiction totally shorn of fantasy.

But that was likely only the cutting edge of Minx's problems, which afflicted not only of that line but of much of the American comics industry. To the extent, and for so long, that Minx can perhaps be forgiven for not recognizing them. They're part of our landscape, widely accepted as states of nature, and a lot of people don't even see them, or want to.

It's unlikely that Minx's editorial team, led by Shelly Bond, was unaware of those other books. I'd hope that anyone starting up a line of comics would have the sense to survey the competition. But this hasn't always been the case in American comics, where egos and laziness often result in curious blunders. It wasn't that long ago that the widespread view in Marvel editorial was that no other company was worth paying attention to, and no "outside" talents worth poaching because — I've actually had Marvel editors, albeit from earlier regimes, specifically tell me this — anyone who's any good is already working for Marvel.

Which never stopped them from knowing about, say, TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES, but while the face of such behavior has changed in the interim, such fanboy-style stupidity is something American comics can no longer tolerate. It covers a lot of ground now, from talent not bothering to find out whether the title or character name they want to use is already in use (despite the Internet providing extremely easy ways to find out, like The Grand Comic Book Database, Amazon and Wikipedia) to publishers and editors insisting that the talent they can sign on -- the best talent available -- the best in the business to marketing directors who only market to superhero fans regardless of a book's contents. I've seen professionals, many in all walks of the industry, who came up out of fandom cursing the ignorance of civilians who wrote off all American comics as braindead mimics of the BATMAN TV show dismiss all manga as "big-eye" crap.

What we don't understand, or we don't want to understand, or we don't want anyone else to like we scorn. It's how, not exclusive to comics but pretty widespread in the business, we try to control our reality. The behavior is so ingrained in many, maybe most, in the business that it pops up even where it's utterly self-defeating.

Then people look back at failed projects and wonder how anything could have gone wrong.

What the editorial department did or didn't know about their competition — and who was their competition, really? NANA or WONDER WOMAN? — is almost irrelevant, since Minx, regardless of special focus, was part of a corporate structure, and that means that whatever Shelly and her assistants knew about manga possibly meant nothing. In the corporate setting — and any number of smaller publishers love to pretend they're corporate - any project like Minx is forced to serve a host of masters, and the ones likeliest to be making the important decisions — what specifically to publish, how to promote and distribute it — are not likely to be the ones most intimately familiar with the material, the market or the competition, though the likelihood of them being consulted is fairly good. That is, after all, why organizations have experts on things: for consultation.

The problem with consultation is that under many circumstances when the consultant's POV differs from that of the person making the decision, decision makers usually trust their own viewpoints over someone else's. Because everyone thinks they know what they're talking about. When they do, it's fine, but this is comics, where the reductionist view rules, especially when discussing something you personally don't like. So if, say, an editor knows a vast amount about shojo manga, but the person running the promotional campaign reads none of it, holds it in contempt, and believes it all to be goofy froufrou about magical girls who fight goofy villains and pine after goofy mystery men, guess how the marketing goes? I've no idea if that's what happened with Minx, but it's certainly not out of the realm of possibility. An awful lot of people in comics operate as if their own biases are natural laws. I've had publishers brag about turning down licenses offered them, unaware that the property in question is the hottest show on TV. I've seen marketing directors purposely screw up promotions for the books of editors they don't like.

Add considerations like whether material is "appropriate" for "young" girls — if you've ever read shojo manga, "appropriate" seems to mean something different in Japan — and corporate concerns over risk, and it's not difficult to bland out comics before they start. The other major corporate focus, especially when concocting a new line, is the franchise. Everyone's looking for their franchise player, everyone wants to tell the audience what the franchise will be. But in comics audiences tell us what the franchise is. Sure, you can promote comics, and should, but while not enough promotion can hurt something that an audience would want if they knew about it, given that most comics never get enough time to generate word of mouth, all the promotion in the world can’t get audiences to buy what they don't want, except maybe for long enough — one issue — to decide they don't want it.

Word is the bookstore market didn't help Minx either. Which other publishers should note. Much has been made of bookstores being the future of the business — I've said it, and I believe it, with caveats, and along with comics shops that take on more aspects of bookstores — but, as I've mentioned before, that market has its own little set of booby traps. Certainly something like Minx would've been aimed at bookstores, since "girly" fare, especially lacking fantasy elements, isn't something I can easily imagine most comics shops eagerly embracing, unless they've already built up a steady female audience via manga sales. (Face it, in the superhero world even "girls'" comics aren't really aimed at girls.) The problem, as I understand it, is that DC's new bookstore distributor, Random House, didn't really get the line and didn't think they could do much business with it.

Now Random House is a good book distributor, one of the best, with tons of market muscle, but I can say from previous experience that they're not especially cognizant of the comics market. To some extent that's good, since you don't want a bookstore distributor necessarily jumping to the conclusions direct sales distributors, with notions firmly set by that market, would fall back on. But with bookstore distribution it's bottom line — it has to be, too many bookstore distributors have bellied up ignoring it — and given that DC has over the last few years built its book business that Random House wanted on superhero trade paperbacks, relatively sophisticated Vertigo-based horror comics and CMX manga collections, I can see where they might feel reality-based trades for girls weren't what they signed up for. Especially at a moment where manga's experiencing a slight sales recession, and the major bookstore chains, esp. Border's, are grinding their way through financial difficulties. The timing was just wrong.

It could've been worse. Better to be told no than for a bookstore distributor to demand a publisher pump tons of cash into ridiculous print runs that ultimately end up as bankruptcy assets in some warehouse somewhere. I've seen that happen before. (Note to publishers: if a distributor demands you print well beyond your budget, say no! In a returnable market it's not their ass on the line, and remember: it's the bookstore market. If something's an unexpected hit, you can always go back to press.) But if you're planning something new you're aiming at the book market, it's probably a good idea to convince your distributor first.

But ultimately blame may be a wasted effort. Minx could've had edgier content or a more encapsulatable (I'm sure that must be a word somewhere) concept, but how much would either have changed the line's fate? Would they have drastically changed the likelihood or options of distribution? We're in a time — maybe it has always been that time in the comics business — where the likelihood of startup failure is far greater than startup success. Sure, there are things DC could have done to minimize the risk of failure a little more, but nothing they could have done would have significantly raised the odds on success. Launches fail. It's not inevitable but it's probable, and those are the odds publishers face.

What could DC have done? Same as most publishers: make the line as close to something else they saw as successful as they could. As many failed publishers can tell you, that's far from any guarantee of success. I've seen people make the argument that Minx was crippled by a failure of editorial imagination but even if that's true how much would reversing it have altered Minx's chances? We've all seen (what we perceived as) great work and razor-sharp concepts fail miserably, we've all seen tepid work rocket to baffling popularity. We can hedge our bets as much as we like, but the cold hard truth is that there's no way to judge. Not until after the fact. Given how little American publishers have even sought after the girls' market, it isn't really a matter of DC not trying well enough but that they tried at all.

It's one thing to figure out what went wrong, another to get back on that horse. The question isn't really why Minx failed, it's how many publishers are going to use Minx's failure as an excuse to write off that market, and as further smug justification for business as usual. Because that's also an extremely probable outcome.

A couple reviews:

From Fantagraphics:

MOME 12 ed. Gary Groth & Eric Reynolds ($14.99)

Still the most professional, entertaining and eclectic alt-comics anthology out there, with a special focus on actual stories that most others, in their iconoclastic nose-thumbing at convention, lack. (Here's your catchphrase, boys: "the PARIS REVIEW of alt-comics" and I say that without irony.) There's virtually nothing bad in this volume (except maybe Nate Neal's rather unambitious "Tender Henderson"; has he used that punchline before?) but what struck me most this time around is that the best pieces — the same Nate Neal's "A Reality Apart" and Killoffer's "Dirty Family Laundry," despite having apparently been inspired by an episode of WIRE IN THE BLOOD - probably would've worked about as well as prose. Hmmm. Anyway, get it.

WHERE DEMENTED WENTED: THE ART AND COMICS OF RORY HAYES ed. Dan Nadel & Glenn Bray ($22.99)

When I was a boy back there buying underground comics, I loved the work of tons of cartoonists. Rory Hayes was never one of them. Always struck me as crude and stupid, and this collection of his work doesn't change my mind any. It's certainly counterculture, I'll give it that. Good critical essay by Edwin Pouncey, though, and a fun Bill Griffith quasi-bio-strip about Hayes. But what does it say about a book when the supplementary material is the best thing in it?

From Pantheon Books:

BREAKDOWNS: PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG %@&*! by Art Spiegelman ($27.50)

Those only familiar with Spiegelman from MAUS may be unaware that he was also a leading light of underground comics (where "Maus" made its first brief appearance). A couple decades back, Nostalgia Press issued BREAKDOWNS collecting a lot of that underground work, including his seminal "The Malpractice Suite" and "Prisoner Of The Hell Planet," and the book has never strayed from my book collection since. (It has survived a lot of competition.) The new Pantheon edition adds considerable material, including new biographical comics that (like "...Hell Planet") cover some of the "Maus" material in a different light, and an excellent afterword that delves into the times and thinking behind many of the included strips. Spiegelman was always a talent to watch; here's the proof, and much of this is still better, technically and imaginatively, than most comics being done today. Highly recommended.

The last time we saw a rebellion in the Republican Party this big was Watergate. (Yes, the Watergate investigation was largely overseen by Congressional Republicans.) This week House Republicans, many of them up for re-election and facing the wrath of their constituents (seems there were so many emails flooding into Congressional mailboxes in the last week that they had to severely curtail the number of incoming emails to keep the system from crashing), turned on the White House and voted down the Wall St. Bailout package the Ghost was feverishly pushing. Rightly so: it was a monstrous giveaway that didn't specify the source of the funds and didn't specify how the funds should be used by the recipients. The Administration's idea was that Wall Street would know how to handle the funds in the way most beneficial to ordinary Americans, the same way trickle-down (AKA voodoo) economics proposed that money given to the rich in the form of tax cuts would benefit everyone.

For some reason a lot of Americans, especially Red State Americans, doubted that a financial system that had screwed up so massively it needed close to a trillion dollars (or well over if you add in all the financial institutions with their hands out right now, not just Wall Street) to ward off theoretically horrific outcomes could be trusted to spend public money wisely. The Ghost assured us that the money would be used to make easy credit once again the birthright of all Americans — um, isn't that how we got here in the first place? — and interestingly, House Democrats tended to favor the measure, it seems on the theory that Obama will be elected president in November and they didn't want him taking office with an economy in collapse because the previous Republican president hadn't gotten everything he wanted. That's curious logic, trying to make sure blame for a bad situation gets cast on your opponents by voting to worsen the situation. (By last weekend, numerous economists had come forth declaring that The Gift — let's call it what it was - wouldn't improve anything and would likely make things worse by draining public money in the same way private money was going down the toilet.) Not that there isn't rebellion in the Democratic Party as well; a splinter group of 95 Democrats noted the public was unlikely to ever recoup that money, that the bailout would necessitate a massive tax hike that Congress was unlikely to ever approve, and that there were no provisions for helping out equally strapped citizens, things that bothered many Republicans as well.

The biggest victim of the vote might not be Wall Street, but John McCain, who famously "suspended" his campaign for the Presidency last week to rush to Washington for a demonstration of his leadership skills as he "negotiated" a bailout package. Last week ended with McCain (who joined Obama in an extremely bland debate on Friday — is it really a debate when nobody answers direct questions and it's all mainly an excuse for both sides to repeat their catch phrases over and over? - yet somehow still got killed in it) declaring victory and a package that was in all substantive ways exactly what the Ghost had demanded, and many House Republicans swarming all over the weekend news shows praising McCain as a "get it done" leader. Yet many of those, including the entire Arizona House delegation, voted against the package McCain had "led" them too. Man, you can't buy public embarrassment like that.

But thanks to the Republicans and Democrats who voted it down. When you had the chance to sit back and sift through the rhetoric, the main thrust of the "panic," as the Ghost so nobly called it, was to "save" easy credit in America. Looking at the genesis of the mortgage crisis, it's easy to see credit's place in wealth-building; the end recipient ends up with the wealth, and the spender and intermediary get to sort out who's saddled with the debt. Would it really be such a bad thing if America learned to live on cash again?

Since I'm a bit rushed again this week, here's a rarely seen Wally Wood-Al Williamson barbarian adventure story, which I'd forgotten about until reminded by Sept.'s sword-and-sorcery issue of ALTER EGO, which revealed that while Williamson drew the story, predating both Marvel's first CONAN THE BARBARIAN and Gil Kane's BLACKMARK by some four or five years, for Harvey Comics' short-lived UNEARTHLY SPECTACULARS in 1966, Wood wrote the story a couple decades earlier but was unable to find a publisher. (By the mid-60s, Wood was trying to turn himself into something of an auteur, generating not only T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS for Tower Comics and a number of features for Harvey, Giant Comics and others but also the very influential prozine WITZEND.) Given the fairly brutal nature (for the time) of the strip, set in a far, far distant future where, despite remnants of by then ancient technology, most of what remains of the human race has sunk into prehistoric savagery. The strip only appeared in one issue, though it stood out in virtually every way from its surroundings, and the book only lasted one more issue, which made it one of the longest lasting of Harvey's action line of the era. Clawfang:

Notes from under the floorboards:

Don't forget that my ODYSSEUS THE REBEL webcomic drawn by Scott Bieser is currently running at Big Head Press, while Boom! Studios continues to run TWO GUNS online. Both are free, so you're out of excuses. Go! And Image still has the action-adventure graphic novel THE SAFEST PLACE available, with maybe Tom Mandrake's best art ever, so pester your retailer for it if you haven't got it already.

It's October, birth month of Halloween, the United Nations, Howard Chaykin, America (at least by Columbian reckoning) and me, so thanks to everyone for their birthday wishes and let us never speak of it again.

For those who care about such things, the second series of DR. WHO spinoff THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES began in England this week with two episodes. I haven't seen either yet, but they're floating around. Meanwhile, the most curious new American TV show is CBS' THE MENTALIST (Tuesdays 9P), starring Simon Baker as a professional psychic turned cop for a special California State task force (led by the underrated Robin Tunney) and hunting specifically for the mysterious serial killer who killed his wife and child. (A hoary gimmick that was old when I tried to beat it out of THE PUNISHER and failed miserably.) Besides the hoary gimmick, it's got that traditional CBS "cool" lighting and pseudo-Quinn/Martin "serious" tone, and at least in the first episode the mystery was ludicrously transparent, and would not on the surface seem to be especially interesting. Yet Baker plays his character so perversely lighthearted as he fakes psychic feats for one and all then brutally explains how they were done and what the point was that, like all actors in the best of these cop procedurals, he's fascinating to watch. More fascinating, he's an unreconstructed atheist who not only denies the existence of real occult phenomena but of heaven and the afterlife, and does it straight to the face of a very religious teammate. Given the temper of the country these days and the nature of network TV (where CBS especially regularly plows out faith-based shows like TRU CALLING and TOUCHED BY AN ANGEL) that came off as pretty damn gutsy, enough to keep me around a second week. Baker may be enough to keep me around longer, we'll see. The returning show of the week is NBC's LIFE, the quirky Damian Lewis/Sarah Shahi cop show about a cop driven half-insane by a dozen years of prison for murders he didn't commit, now improbably returned to the force and solving cases while unraveling the mysteries surrounding his frameup. A snappy little get acquainted episode aired on Monday; NBC dumps it into the 10P Fridays graveyard starting Friday, so start watching. If NUMBERS managed to survive that timeslot, the vastly superior LIFE should be able to.

Congratulations to Rob Means, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "the seven Catholic sacraments." (He thanks the Baltimore Catechism for helping him win.) The politically conscious Rob wishes to point your attention Electoral Vote, which graphs the (currently likely) electoral totals for each candidate in easy-to-assimilate form. 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 — 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. As in most weeks, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column; accept no substitutes. 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:  minx, mome, where demented wented

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