Permanent Damage

Wed, December 17th, 2008 at 6:55pm PST | Updated: December 17th, 2008 at 7:00pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Wither, 2008. Whither 2009?

Prognosticating the future of comics is remarkably easy, and remarkably difficult. A little over a decade ago, it wasn't difficult to see the broad strokes of where the business would be this year. I (not that I was the only one) pretty much had it called: comics would move, were already moving, from a magazine economy to a book economy; special events would be the predominant magazine publishing mode as graphic novels increasingly became the vehicle of choice and the standard comic book little more than a loss leader for the eventual collection; talent would hire publishers, not the other way around; the Internet would be increasingly important to the form. Dead right on all of them. Dead wrong too.

Not that it took an oracle to see any of that. All those things were already in gear back then, though the common wisdom in the business was that they were all flukes, ultimately irrelevant in the long course of time. For all the decades it has nursed its insulted outcast image (Slan, anyone) the comics business has always been compulsively conservative, treating each new trend or development as either a fleeting cash machine or a disaster in the making, and more fixated on imaginary "golden ages" – a perceived "natural order" of shifting definition whose resurrection some embrace as the industry's most desirable objective – than at the moment at hand. That's not to say there haven't been great comics or great moments for the business, just no true Golden Age, at least not by any standard that didn't sacrifice the welfare of the greater part of the talent pool to bitterness and endless struggle, regardless of what the odd individual was pulling off. From that perspective, the early '90s were about as golden an age as the business has ever seen. By other perspectives, it may have lagged some.

But it served its purpose by popularly jumpstarting the notion within the industry that comics might just appeal to a general audience after all, as a form as much as specific content, even if that was largely abandoned by the traditional comics business the instant the financial worm turned. Didn't matter. The future we live in now was already set in motion.

Moving from a magazine economy to a book economy? Check. But when we imagine these things beforehand, we tend to envision a natural progression – a willing surrender to "inexorable logic" - rather than the seemingly inevitable whining, stumbling, kicking and scratching, and, ultimately, trickling into the new condition. (Which is no different from anything else in life, but one always hopes for the best, know what I mean?) Currently the industry is amusingly schizophrenic, both lusting after a graphic novel market that's likely already expanding beyond the capacity of a readership to absorb it (but we shall see; appetites could be bottomless) while clinging desperately, despite steadily shrinking audiences, to the standard comic book, alternately as a universe-building tool and/or a feeder system for graphic novels (or, in more recent days, film/TV pitches).

Which brings us to event publishing. Almost 20 years ago it was obvious this was where the business was heading: one-shots, limited series, original graphic novels, not to mention gimmick publishing, tie-ins, inclusive crossovers, exclusive crossovers. For awhile there, new monthly titles simply didn't survive; even today, most don't see their first birthdays and of those that do few see their second. Most long running monthly titles only survive because the economics of the business have changed enough to keep them marginally profitable despite badly depleted sales, largely via often more profitable trade paperback collections or, if the company is big enough (only a handful are), amortization of costs across the publisher's line.

Of course, the first bloom of event publishing came at a time when most publishers viewed the monthly comic as the cornerstone of their company identity; what used to be "events" are SOP for most publishers today, especially independent publishers. (There was a day when, for instance, a new LOVE & ROCKETS series by the Hernandez Brothers would've been monster news; now it's just fodder for another press release.) Though few publishers are strangers to franchises (or dreams of them) many specialize in mini-series and one-shots and others in books rather than comics and almost no one aside from DC, Marvel, Dynamite and to a much slighter extent Image and Dark Horse bothers with ongoing monthlies anymore, and in most cases they make neither artistic nor financial sense. (When Boom! Studios started up, publisher Ross Richie quickly found ongoing series, the traditional marketing cornerstone of every comics venture, a quick path to extermination.) In effect even ongoings are usually thinly disguised strung together limited series now anyway, destined in a perfect world for trade repackaging... when they aren't superfluous adjuncts to extraneous limited series.

So everything's "event" publishing, events are no longer events (as Doonesbury once pointed out, a crisis that lasts long enough – I say that without intended reference to any specific comics series – becomes ordinary life) and a lot of fans are sick of them anyway. Especially if they were fans of interminable soap opera storytelling, though that's almost entirely in superhero comics and THE WALKING DEAD these days, and neither seem destined for extinction anytime soon, with even the fabled "trade paperback arcs" that traditionalists bitterly denounce making for trade paperbacks that now require the reader to buy other books to get the whole, or at least more of, the story. (Whoever originally made the decision to extend the corporate comics philosophy of unending comics series to trade paperbacks deserves an exhibit in the Wax Museum Of Raw Stupidity. Unless it works.) At any rate, "event" really means nothing outside of superhero comics anymore, and precious little there now. In indie comics, what's an "event"? A new Dave Sim project? Kevin Smith oversees more Jay & Silent Bob? Paul Hornschemeier teams with Jeffrey Brown? The completion of CHIAROSCURO? Spain Rodriguez does a comics biography of Che Guevara? All are arguably big deals, but only in the comics market does publication of a book constitute an event (except where book publishers hypermarket a known quantity to an already eager audience, as with a new Stephen King novel or the latest TWILIGHT sequel) and even that was then; the comics market is now familiar enough with books that most of them can't truly be "evented" either.

Not surprisingly, economics have triggered periodic backlashes against limited series and trade paperbacks, with many readers feeling exploited by the programmed repackagings, to the extent that they skip the limited, or even monthly, series to await the eventual trade collection, and complain bitterly about collections with additional new material. Talent and publishers see such as "added value," like bonus extras on DVDs; readers see it as coercing them into buying the same material twice, if they already bought the source series. Both have a point. (While book publishers are no strangers to repackaging, their general objective is to sell existing material to successive waves of customers, not to sell the same customers the same material over and over.)

As mentioned in other columns, the Internet has turned out not to be the fleeting fad many in the business still thought it was ten years ago. (In 1998, much of the American comics world still hadn't even adopted computers as a business/art tool.) Of course the web was already the new fanzine, a meeting place for fans via AOL, Delphi or Compuserve forums, though few companies were taking advantage of the access. A few websites struggled toward a credible business plan for original comics online, but most of those were built on delusions of grandeur and irrational convictions they'd become the new Marvel or Disney overnight. (Many tried to achieve Disneyhood in their legal dealings with talent, too.) The big names back then, such as they were, all vanished untraceably (anyone remember Icebox?) in the dot-com collapse, many without ever producing much besides promises.

Today, original comics websites still exist - Modern Tales and its sister sites claim significant viewership, and there are others – but for most comics fans they tend to remain well kept secrets. Others like Big Head Press (truth in advertising: I single them out because they're currently running my ODYSSEUS THE REBEL strip, and have followed through on their business plan with book releases of LA MUSE and THE ARCHITECT, but I don't mean to suggest they're innately superior to similar sites, just that they're a site I have experience with) have adopted the Internet as a means to expose original material without having to cope with expensive traditional print comics publishing in order to underwrite book production), while some print publishers are also experimenting with running original material on the web, as with Avatar Press' online serialization of Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield's FREAK ANGELS. But most print comics companies remain tentative about the Internet as a publication medium, though, contrary to 1998, virtually every company has an online marketing presence.

The Internet's value as a marketing tool remains questionable, though. It has one great flaw in that regard: most online comics promotion is an indistinct white blur against a blizzard of promotion, a blurred smear from one press release to another, standing out only for those who are already looking for it. How much does it really achieve, aside from giving marketing directors the sanguine delusion they've done their job? For all the hype about the Internet providing access to a vast potential audience, is there any real evidence it doesn't just preach to the converted? The most successful "promotion" on the web, as far as getting readers onto new books, comics publishers are likely the least comfortable with: comics bootlegs via bit torrent. The great unknown there is whether pirated comics lead to more sales or to more pirating.

At this point, it seems the Internet's main service to the comics business has been not the promotion of new material but the preservation of old, in dozens of blogs (chronicled daily in places like ¡Journalista! and The Comics Reporter) that feature all types of comics from all eras; and in the discovery of new art talent via portfolio/advice sites like Penciljack and Digital Webbing.

Back in the '90s, it seemed to me a natural evolution of creator-owned comics would be boutique publishers, effectively vanity press operations that creators would "hire" to handle the tedious parts of self-publishing - dealing with printers and distributors, managing p.r., supplying Diamond with promotional details, etc. – for a cut of the profits, rather than funding talent up front. On the surface, it looks like I was dead wrong on that one, except for the standard Image deal, which hits many of the points. But publishers like that have arisen in successive waves. Mostly. Where I got it wrong was thinking publishers would see this as an equitable arrangement instead of wanting the benefits of such a structure – mainly no upfront payments to talent – along with the traditional "rights" of comics publishers: selection of and creative control of properties, control of all property rights and merchandising, even ownership (real or effective) of the properties. While leaving it to the talent to do most of their own marketing. Which, given the quality and reach of most "official" marketing, is probably what talent should've done all along.

There's still potentially room for a good boutique publisher with a capable "staff" (and certainly one Internet aspect few publishers have picked up on is how it makes "staffs" physically collected in one location, or even the necessity of a physical business location at all besides a drop box or a spare bedroom, completely unnecessary) to make a dent and a home for talent to produce their own creations without throwing out every right they should have. But I don't expect to see it. One development I missed utterly was the sudden almost psychotic obsession of comics publishers across the board with existing licenses, regardless of obscurity. Not that surprising things haven't been done with some of them; Nick Barrucci over at Dynamite managed to build his whole company on properties most people would've though completely drained of value years ago.

What I've learned from all this is to be a bit more circumspect with my predictions. 2009 sure makes that easy. I doubt we'll see huge changes in the business next year, though the big question hanging over our head is what effect the national financial crisis will ultimately have. On the one hand, the (still) rising price of comics makes them more vulnerable to general economic malaise than ever before – most non-essential items are likely to take a hit, so the question is how non-essential comics readers think comics are – but comics economics have always constituted their own weird little subculture as much as comics themselves have. To the extent we depend on book publishers, bookstores and distributors, things may get dodgy. While graphic novels seem to still be a bright star in the otherwise dour firmament of book publishing, recent events with TokyoPop and other companies (though Viz, Del Rey, Dark Horse and CMX seem to be doing fine) suggest the decade's manga explosion has reached the limits of incautious growth, at least for now. A lot of graphic novel growth, especially those published by "real" book publishers, has been fueled by the eager collaboration of superchains Borders and Barnes & Noble, but both are financially troubled at the moment, with Borders teetering toward dire. Losing either of those outlets could put the brakes on bookstore distribution of graphic novels in a big way.

If that happens, look for renewed publisher interest in Diamond, and if I were an indie publisher I'd seriously consider pulling out from any book distributor that didn't have some serious financial muscle behind it. That's another trend over the last decade I didn't foresee, though it should have been obvious: independent bookstore distributors going belly up and leaving graphic novel publishers holding the sodding baby. (Thanx & a tip o' the hat to Harry Flowers.)

New publishers? Always possible, since there are ways to finance a comics company besides a bank loan, but anyone trying to make a dent had better have a clever new angle. I expect we'll see at least a couple jump in, briefly, with more now-largely debunked dreams of making millions shilling their properties to Hollywood, which isn't as easy to access nor pays as much nor as quickly as everyone seems to think. (The other day I heard of someone asking several tens of thousands of dollars for a three year option to a little known property with no appreciable market value all on its own, and that amounts just ludicrous, given current Hollywood standards, not to mention the Hollywood method. Maybe that's a good topic for next week.) Anyone looking for Hollywood to bail them out had better either have a real lock on what Hollywood wants (and nobody, including Hollywood, does) or a good bankruptcy lawyer. But don't look for new publishers with a new angle on how to publish comics and make it profitable for everyone involved.

Creatively? Depends on what kind of panic ensues; talent creates what talent creates but what sees print depends on publishers (though here, again, the Internet may hold more sway, if the problem of standing out amid the vast ocean is solved), and in tough times publishers either hunker down and produce what they know used to sell (SOP for superhero comics these days, with variations) or they open their arms to the off-chance of a miracle. The latter used to happen more often, but anything is possible. Especially now that all the good (and quite a few of the bad) existing licenses are all scooped up.

But no real change in the business seems on the horizon, except for a winnowing brought on by economic stress. To some extent we're buffered from general economic trends by our low level of general success; who in comics had the money to invest in the stock market? Time-Warner has taken some punches, but whether that trickles down to DC hasn't played out yet, while Marvel and Disney stocks have stayed relatively strong and are now listed by analysts as good buys because they're predicated on marketable licenses that can presumably withstand general economic chaos.

The glory of every new year is that we're allowed to approach it with hope. Who knows what's percolating under the surface of our business, ready to break out? Who knows what, unlikely as it seems at the moment, could suddenly turn the medium into a pop sensation again, and usher in new eras of creativity and profitability. (I know linking the two in any way is politically incorrect, but love is like butter. It's better with bread. And every starving artist I've ever met would rather have avoided the cliché.)

2009? Here comes the new year, same as the old year. But with hope. For now.


More Xmas songs to make your season bright:

"Maybe Next Year" by Meiko. Unrepentantly telling Santa to stuff it. Bad girls don't cry.

"Things Fall Apart" by Cristina. From the no wave disco days a savage tale of holiday tradition, with a savage beat.

"The Christians & The Pagans" by Dar Williams. A surprisingly uncynical plea for religious and familial tolerance in the season.

"This Year's Santa Baby" by Eartha Kitt. Classic sex kitten and part time Catwoman Kitt gives the golddigger chestnut an upgrading and puts all sexpot Janey-come-latelys like Madonna and the Pussycat Dolls to shame.

"Psychedelic Christmas" by Her. Heartfelt holiday wishes for the Xmas season and beyond. And if you see swirls of red at the end of your bed, just enjoy it.

"My Night Before Christmas" by Julie Brown. The true meaning of Christmas, valley girl style.

"I Want A Casting Couch For Christmas" by Kay Martin & Her Bodyguards. An especially self-aware '50s classic. I bet they don't play this in Hollywood much. They should.

"Sleigh Bell Rock" by Marti Brom. Rockabilly will get you through times of no holiday spirit better than holiday spirit will get you through times of no rockabilly.

"A Five Pound Box Of Money" by Pearl Bailey. Pearl takes a practical approach to Christmas presents.

"Christmas Boogie" by The Davis Sisters. This week's hipster retelling of 'Twas The Night Before Christmas, again from the '50s.

For some reason women much more than men (unless they're male country singers) tend to record "classic" X-mas songs instead of original ones, let alone outré original ones. Seems to have been a lot more common in the '50s. So these ten will have to last you until next week, when we go back to the classics ourselves. 'Tis the season, after all.


If we ever really wondered how an almost totally unregulated (a nice way of saying "lawless") Wall Street could ever have gotten to its current straits, look no further than longtime investment broker/advisor and former NASDAQ chair Bernard Madoff, a man who innovated several "financial instruments" and so highly thought of on "The Street" (where some call him "the father of modern Wall Street," which explains a lot) that when they came to arrest him for investment fraud the FBI gave him every opportunity to write the whole thing off as a "innocent mistake." (Their words.) He didn't, apparently eager to admit pretty much his whole career has been a shell game (or, as he put it, a Ponzi scheme, after a "genius" immigrant moneyman of the '20s whose investment practices consisted of using money paid by new investors to pay dividends to old investors, which worked great as long as new investors signed up in requisite numbers but not so well when they didn't) and spend his remaining days as a ward of the state. Like Ponzi, Madoff's business was based on paying his clients with other clients' money and, in his defense, he told the agents his clients were out, by his estimate, fifty billion dollars.

And he knew what he was doing.

Hopefully the fifty billion is a gross exaggeration though it won't be clear for months, but, in the light of his revelation, it's obvious Madoff had a flair for self-aggrandizement. His success, and popularity, was the result of the sort of misplaced power-of-positive-thinking mutation that infects American society from time to time, the idea that if you present yourself as successful you will be successful. It's a seductive notion – everyone wants to believe in a short cut; in fact, fast track "wealth-building" philosophies are almost always predicated on "secret short cuts" and arcane processes that in practical terms translate to high risk, but they're never marketed like that – and it's a notion con men have been using to their advantage, at least short term, for centuries. Was Madoff always a con man, or did he once follow traditional financial rules, the kind that didn't put enough money in pockets quickly enough to keep clients happy? (Andrew Carnegie once called compound interest the true road to wealth, and Einstein called it the greatest mathematical discovery of all time, but its downside is it takes time.)

I write comic books. I've been doing that a long time. I might not spot them all and I might occasionally be wooed by the wrong one, but generally when I read a crappy comic I know it's a crappy comic. If I get it wrong there's always someone out there perfectly happy to point out my error, and often they can even explain my error. (Hey, even Stephen Hawking gets his equations wrong once in awhile.)

Didn't all those other brokers and financial advisors on Wall Street know Madoff was pulling a con when they eagerly embraced both him and his techniques? There aren't that many possibilities: either none of them understand the math of their profession, they understood but social or occupational pressure provided incentive to not be so crass as to make an issue of it, or they knew and they liked how it accrued money and sheen not only to Madoff but to Wall Street – Madoff was one of the architects of the "Wall Street as ultimate financial Mecca" image investment firms have pumped out for a couple decades now – and nobody wants to upset the gravy train? It's pretty well upset now.

Fact is at least some people did know, and The Street dismissed the importance of lawsuits and accusations against Madoff's firm on the basis that, after all, it's Madoff we're talking about, and, after all, his firm's own literature stated he has the "highest ethical standards." But he didn't, and it's more than guilt by association that suggests that Wall Street, as a rule, doesn't either. For all the talk of sweeping the auto industry with a new broom, it seems aiming such a broom at The Street, not to mention educational institutions that turn out brokers and financial advisors because, obviously, they're not getting that whole ethics thing across very well, might ultimately have a better result for our economy, because there's more and more evidence that the "ethics are for wusses and cowards" ethos has been running rampant in the financial markets for a long time now. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be having scandal after scandal, and each one makes it that much harder for anyone to have any confidence in our economy, let alone the stock market.


Notes from under the floorboards:

I enjoyed Noel Berlatsky's essay on Death And The Superhero, even if, given the current state of things in superhero comics where death is always only a stone's throw away from reversal (cf. The Red Hood), its conclusions were a bit utopian. You should read it. (Just kidding, Noah. Not about the essay, though.)

Argh. Between a Captain Action script for Moonstone and various social obligations, I'm completely out of time for the notes this week. Just remember to check out ODYSSEUS THE REBEL at Big Head Press and brush up on 2 GUNS over at Boom! before the movie comes out, buy WHAT IF: SPIDER-MAN BACK IN BLACK at your local comics shop next Wednesday, and put copies of THE SAFEST PLACE or COUNTER-X VOL. 3:X-MANin lots of stockings this year, and I'll make it up to you next week. Lots of little tidbits to get to.

We've had other weeks where no one cracked the Comics Cover Challenge, but this one was so easy (though already knowing the answer may have colored that perception) that for the first time I'm running it for a second week to give everyone another crack at it. (A lot of people who lost out two weeks ago have no excuse for not getting it, and are going to kick themselves.)

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,. 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:  2009, comics publishing, economy

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