Permanent Damage

Wed, December 3rd, 2008 at 7:08pm PST | Updated: December 3rd, 2008 at 7:09pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Got an invitation from THE COMICS JOURNAL last week to submit my notably good and notably bad comics lists from this year. (Some of you may be aware I periodically write reviews or articles for The Journal; my most recent appeared in #293, whose high point was a terrific interview with S. Clay Wilson.) Funny thing happened when I tried to write the piece. I couldn't recall any comics I'd read this year. I know I read them. Lots of them. All kinds of them. Manga and superhero crossover epics and self-derogatory autobio comics and zombie horror comics, webcomics, westerns and documentary comics...

All I can remember is a sensation running through them all like the Mississippi River.

Dreariness.

2008 was one dreary year for comics.

Not that there weren't good books, and entertaining ones. People keep telling me there's a higher general level of skill and creativity in the field than ever before. That may even be true. Doesn't change anything. It also depends considerably on what one considers "creativity." A jungle girl comic with the most exquisitely crafted prose and finest art in existence is still just a jungle girl comic. A finely honed symbolist Batman story is still just a Batman story.

Nonetheless there were maybe more comics published this year than ever before, if we include comics, manga, graphic novels, and original and reprint trade paperbacks. At this point, the general public may not have a love affair with comics but it's certainly amenable to one night stands. New comics publishers keep springing up, niche publishers (some of them, like Dynamite, IDW and Boom!, doing quite decently) proliferate, media old guard from Pantheon to Disney now have or are forming graphic novel divisions. WATCHMEN is easily the most anticipated film of next year. Aside from those pesky economic woes, the field would seem to be in some kind of renaissance.

It's some kind, all right.

I won't bother repeating my "best of 2008" list – you'll have to check the Journal in a couple months for that – except to say it was two items long, and both were reprints. Worst of list? Why waste the time? There are two levels of "worst": amateur work that either aspires to nothing, or whose reach exceeds its grasp, and professional work (and there's no clean demarcation between amateur and professional anymore, given the propensity of publishers to gravitate toward warm bodies rather than talent) that's incompetent or competent but listless. What's the point in commemorating any of it?

I should reiterate here that I love reading comics, because it's about this point people start telling me I must really hate comics. Couldn't be further from the truth. I've loved comics since the first one I owned, when I was seven years old. That's pushing 50 years now of reading and collecting comics, and somewhere around 40 of actively studying and critiquing them. I love reading comics. And I'm not masochistic; I wouldn't waste my life working in a field I didn't love.

So let me ask one question:

Who in comics can be genuinely considered a star today? I'm not talking about people whose work you like. I'm not talking about people who get namechecked at Newsarama. I'm talking about talent known to the general public. Which has been paying more and more attention to comics.

I can think of three.

Stan Lee. Frank Miller. Alan Moore.

Maybe Neil Gaiman, if you hit the right segment of the public.

Does anyone else find this mildly disturbing? Shouldn't there be more by now? How come everyone knows Frank Miller created SIN CITY and 300 and nobody knows Mark Millar created WANTED? (As an aside, if you must create "comics intended to be made into movies," Millar's formula isn't the worst one to follow: a concept geared to play to an identifiable comics audience, like his pastiching of the DC universe in WANTED, where the comics-specific material can easily be stripped away for the film version. I don't know if that's a road to great art, but it certainly demonstrates some commercial acumen. If you're going to be commercial by intent, you might as well be smart about it.)

It's hard to believe we're already almost a decade into what was once a new millennium. Notice it took no time at all to get used to? Maybe because there's little new to it at all. Nobody even pretends to think millennial thoughts anymore. This wasn't 2008 at all; it was a mildly adjusted rerun of 1989.

The story of this decade is the slow undermining of the creative process in comics. This is the real "final crisis" of 2008: everything has settled into its own commercial niche, and shows every sign of staying there. This time it's happening with the cheerful collaboration of talent across the board.

It's the result of several things, all offshoots of the industry's successes of the past few years. Habits have been fallen into that are now generally accepted as the nature of things, when they're thought about at all. Comics publishers increasingly tailor their output not to a popular audience or even a comics audience but to what they perceive as "what Hollywood wants," in the misguided belief that that's where the "real" money is. (It's true, there is money there, but it's not easy to come by, usually long in coming when you can, and rarely ever as much as you imagined it would be.) Book publishers have largely colonized alt comics by providing formats and distribution networks that drastically increase profit potential, but the material has become increasingly standardized and homogenized as a result as business practices dictate the need to minimize risk and exacerbating the already pronounced tendency of alternative comics to narrowcast to an audience already almost as insular as superhero fans. Homogenized is the other word of the year: "mainstream" comics – superhero comics – are at their blandest and most unadventurous since 1977, insular worms eating their own universal tails. (I won't bother explaining the fatal problem of that cherished insularity, since Abhay Khosla already does a good job of it here.) There's still a race among publishers to scrounge up every existing license and franchise, theoretically with pre-packaged markets, rather than encourage new work and new ideas, which only turns the business further and further back into a work-for-hire economy. The other current keystone genre of comics, horror, is largely an identikit hodgepodge of zombies, vampires and other well-tred monsters instead of new ideas, with the main new entrée of the last couple years being crawling Lovecraftania, despite H.P. Lovecraft never being all that popular in the first place. Other genres nip at the heels of the business, but virtually across the board those also look back to former successes and bring nothing new to the table.

Never mind new. Nothing interesting to the table.

Talent? In the one corner, there are the old-timers, the established pros, who are mostly bummed out by their own failed concepts over the years and see no percentage in trying anymore for anything other than a paycheck – and, given the current nature of the industry, it's hard to say they're wrong. In the other corner, new talent, desperate to get known, mostly dripping with "new" ideas cobbled together from older talents' work and either not realizing they're retreading old territory, trying to camouflage it, or glorying in it, and also actively (whether consciously or reflexively) contorting their work to what they perceive is most commercial, i.e. what they think publishers want. Unless that's the extent of their ambition in the first place.

I'm not saying everyone fits these molds, but there are enough that potential high points get drowned in the general sea of blandness. The output of the entire industry is blurring into a single nondescript landscape, and that landscape is gray.

The result: all our touchstones are culturally ancient now. Both Chris Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT and DC's output with the character (including ALL STAR BATMAN & ROBIN THE BOY WONDER) firmly established that the Batman franchise is still living off the fumes of Frank Miller's THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. WATCHMEN is still the most evoked comic of our day, especially now with the film in stages of marketing.

The fact is people still talk about WATCHMEN like it was the endgame of comics, comics talents still keep trying to come up with "their" Watchmen (only two, Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch with THE AUTHORITY, have ever done it, mainly by not approaching it that way in the first place, which nobody, including everyone who came later on THE AUTHORITY, has managed to duplicate) and it's 20 years old now. TWO DECADES! Look at NBC's HEROES. What's that if not Tim Kring's "version" of WATCHMEN, with huge heaping dollops of X-MEN sprayed on top? Now in its third season, it's teetering on destruction, and there have been dramatic moves like Jeph Loeb's firing to save it, but I've been watching – I didn't last season – and it's no less interesting or coherent than the first season. Motivations are still perfunctory and characters still idiotically call themselves heroes or villains (it's one thing to read that in print, though it's never less than idiotic, and another to hear it spoken aloud), people still jabber on about "destiny" like that should drive plots, and the elaborate action still consists mainly of Brownian motion, but those are the same elements that made the show a big hit when it debuted, so where's the problem?

The problem is that everybody ignores two key aspects of WATCHMEN: while it drew on the long tradition of superhero comics, it made specific points that had not been made before (or, at least, not so publicly), and Alan and Dave made their points and got. The hell. Out.

WATCHMEN didn't exist to create a franchise. It existed to tell a story. Period. You may not like the story, you may love the story, you may not think it was worth telling or whatever, but all that's irrelevant. It existed to tell a story. A story. Prequels? Sequels? Regular series? Why? No need for them. People want to read new Rorschach stories? So what? Is there anything of importance anyone needs to know about Rorschach that isn't already in WATCHMEN? Would a secret failed marriage or an unmentioned half-brother or expanded rogues gallery or any of the other soap opera tripe that passes for characterization in superhero comics make him a better character? In fact, WATCHMEN is anti-franchise. The best any attempt to revisit the characters can hope for is to not weaken or subvert the original work. About the best anyone intentionally doing their "own" WATCHMEN can achieve is pathetic knockoff status.

This is something we need to address. It's one thing for publishers to want their own versions of popular characters or concepts. That's what publishers do. Although there are "creative" publishers, and publishers (though damn few of them) who are open to wondrous, genuinely new ideas, publishers exist to make money, at least theoretically. They may not make money, but that's their place on the food chain. Believe me, if you're talent you don't want anything to do with a publisher who's not trying to make money.

But talent?

One of the few people I genuinely respect once told me, when I was talking about the virtues of innovation, "innovation's overrated." It was startling to hear at the time, but by now I get the point. Comics being a pop culture medium, we do have to consider audience tastes to some extent, and getting hired to, say, write Spider-Man usually doesn't mean that Marvel's looking for a lot of innovation on the character. If they want it they'll ask for it. It's not like everyone doesn't know what Spider-Man is supposed to be like, what has kept audiences coming back to the character for four decades now. There've been high and low points of interest, of course, but the low have usually been either when the business in general is in the dumper, and Spider-Man's popularity remained comparatively high throughout those stretches, or when Marvel has strayed far from the character's core appeal – clone saga, anyone? – with the damage repaired by moving back to the core.

Which isn't to say slow evolution of the character hasn't taken place, or that some little bit of newness isn't appreciated in Spider-Man stories, but the usual job of a Spider-Man writer is to write a recognizable, entertaining Spider-Man comic, and everything else is gravy. If you don't know what Spider-Man's supposed to be like, you probably shouldn't be writing the book. If you want to take Spider-Man in radical, unheard of new directions that alter the entire series setup, odds are pretty good you won't be writing Spider-Man. (Odds can be beaten once in awhile, but making a living beating the odds is like trying to pay the rent playing slot machines.)

I don't have any problem with writers who take on a Spider-Man assignment, and do the best they can with the assignment. That's what professional writers are here for.

But there are other types. There's the person whose great dream is to work on Spider-Man. (I've done it. It's fun and the money's nice, but, trust me, get a better dream.) There's the person who wants to work on Spider-Man so badly, whether out of obsession with the character or belief that it's a money concept) that when they can't creates their "own" version of Spider-Man. (Or Watchmen.) And there's the person who wants to write or draw Spider-Man to pay "homage" to Stan Lee or Steve Ditko or John Romita or Todd McFarlane or Joe Straczynski or John Romita Jr. or whoever else's work caught their fancy.

(WATCHMEN may seem a strange example here, as it's widely known the story was originally conceived for the Charlton superheroes – Captain Atom, Blue Beetle, etc. – DC had recently purchased at the time, and changed to original creations when DC balked at featuring the Charlton heroes in such a terminal adventure. But, as far as I know, neither Alan nor Dave had an obsession with those characters and were asked by DC to do something with them, they didn't show up in editorial hat in hand. If characters were swapped out, it was still in service to the story, not the other way around.)

Really, we have to get over this. It's great to be a fan when you're a fan. It's great to acknowledge your interests and leanings when you're a pro. If you're a pro and still trying to behave as a fan, you're really not helping.

Throughout my professional lifetime, I've watched talent go to Marvel or DC and occasionally other places, simply so they could work on Jack Kirby's characters. And do "their" version of Kirby. This includes people I consider friends. Again, it's one thing to have a good OMAC story in mind, but I'm talking about people whose greatest dream in life is to make their careers continuing Kirby characters. I don't think there was one of them who didn't believe their work on his characters somehow honored Kirby's contributions to the field. I only spoke to Jack twice in my life, but one of those times I asked him about this.

In fact, Jack did not feel honored. He wasn't upset about it, and didn't complain (like others I've known in similar positions have) that he hadn't been hired instead to work on his own characters. He was saddened. Why? Because he hadn't spent his career just working. He'd spent it creating, and constantly coming up with new characters and new creations wherever he had the chance.

What saddened him was that message – create your own, create your own, create your own - wasn't the legacy his career was leaving for new talents instead.

Likewise, the message talent should be getting from WATCHMEN is: tell the story you want the way you want to, make the story your only, know when there's no story left, then get. The hell. OUT. And two decades on, they're still not getting that message.

We have to drum it into our heads: if you like Jack's work, or Alan's work, or Warren's or Robert Crumb's or Daniel Clowes' or Jim Lee's or whoever's, do not imitate their work.

Imitate their example.

Because that's the only thing besides death that's going to put a crack in the current incestuized commercialized ennui that is the comics industry. Underneath "commercial considerations," underneath "homages," is always the urge to get rub off fame, to amplify your own credentials and popularity by leeching off the fame and authority of those who came before. Sometimes it works, at least for a little while. Mostly it just tarnishes what we rub against, and accomplishes little else.

And what was Alan Moore's big output this year? A &@#%ing encyclopedia!

That's the kind of year it was. Not that I have anything against THE BLACK DOSSIER, I liked it fine, but if I want hermeticism I'll reread MYSTERIUM CONIUNCTIONIS. Alan's to the point now – a handful of other comics talents can claim this too - where his name on anything automatically elevates it from pulp to fine art, as far as the public's concerned. In a way, that's dangerous, because anything that prejudges the work is a disservice to the work, though marketing directors are unlikely to ever see it that way.

But at least he did just what he wanted.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to 2009, because for the most part 2008 left me cold. If I wanted cold, I'd still be living in Wisconsin.

Tis the season already, so here's this year's holiday music selection, part 1:

Can – "Silent Night." The epitomal krautrockers take the Xmas classic to the synthesizer and the synthesizer to the shredder, like a kid's music box gone insane, with great energy and a beat you can almost dance to, if they didn't keep unexpectedly dropping it. Great music to fray your holiday guests' nerves with.

The Wombats – "Is This Christmas." Liverpool's Wombats come across as idiot savants of power pop, the singer's incredulous tones and infectious exuberance imperfectly masking a gift for bitter irony. On this song, the title's childlike question of impatient anticipation collapses into a more adult perception of expectations unmet and hopes dashed, as reality dumps icewater – or, rather, sleet – on cheery fantasy.

Eartha Kitt – "This Year's Santa Baby." The refreshing sequel, by the Catwoman, no less, to the holiday's now overworn golddigger chestnut, as the singer ratchets up demands on her sugardaddy. Greed may be bad, but it has its moments.

Rilo Kiley – "Xmas Cake." This year's art rock It Girl, Las Vegas' own Jenny Lewis, and her bandmates with a tale of lost Xmas season love aggrandized to the level of international crisis, played with wintry gloom and sung with barbituated intensity. Not recommended for the already suicidal.

Glasvegas – "A Snowflake Fell." Not sure if this is a song or just the title of the EP, since I haven't heard it yet, but Warren Ellis was kind enough to recommend it, and it sounds great: "For those of you who thought the GLASVEGAS album wasn't depressing enough, Glasvegas have released a Xmas EP called A SNOWFLAKE FELL. For those of you who've never heard Glasvegas, imagine a Glaswegian band who can turn "You Are My Sunshine" into a thing that makes you want to cry bitter, painful tears of abandonment and endless bleak lovelessness. In my pants. People will be committing suicide to their version of "Silent Night" for years to come." Since the original version damn near drives me to suicide that's not much of a stretch, but what's good enough for Warren is good enough for you.

Find it all. That ought to keep you entertained until next Wednesday.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Ah. The graphic novel is finally finished, at least until notes come in, I'm plowing through the big climax to ODYSSEUS THE REBEL (running online at Big Head Press), working on a project for Moonstone Press whose lightness is a refreshing change from the past couple months, the TWO GUNS deal at Universal is finalized and the checks cashed, and other deals hover teasingly on the horizon. It's like the year's pleasantly winding down for once. For once I had a little cash to spend on Black Thursday, though you really had to look for bargains this year since a lot of advertised specials weren't all that special. My big score this year was an Ion USB turntable for transcribing old records to MP3, and that's going to keep my free time busy, since all the vinyl I've still got is mostly stuff, like Wazmo Nariz singles and Stockhausen albums, that have never seen the light of MP3. But it's great. First thing I transcribed was the soundtrack to '80s indie film BORDER RADIO. I've had it since 1987 and have never heard it before. (Bought it right after my old cartridge died, with expectations of another cartridge that I never fulfilled.)

Anyway, that's my life these days, with the peace of mind of a 30 year fixed mortgage thrown in. By the way, seems the trade paperback COUNTER-X Vol 3, featuring the first eight issues of X-MAN I did with Warren and Ariel Olivetti is really available, since Marvel sent me copies just before Thanksgiving. So go buy it; it's a fun book, and I make loads of royalties off this one. And I gather WHAT IF: SPIDER-MAN BACK IN BLACK - go read more about it at Marvel's website (or in the news section here at CBR, whenever the story goes up) – is due out imminently, since it goes to the printer today. Not sure what else of mine is out when, but that should cover it for awhile.

Congratulations to Garth Gersten, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "classic literature." Garth wishes to point your attention to Bluegobo, for videos of classic Broadway performances. Check it out.

In vegout mode so I've been mostly catching up on TV shows that've been waiting to be viewed for weeks, and paying little attention to the outside world. But I'll work my way back into things.

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, there's a wonderful clue cleverly hidden somewhere in this column. 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:  year in review, alan moore, christmas

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