Permanent Damage

Wed, January 7th, 2009 at 5:23pm PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've been slowly working my way through Cosmos Books' five volume THE WEIRD WORKS OF ROBERT E. HOWARD collection, with Howard's stories printed in chronological order of publication, and, usually, writing, and restored to Howard's original text. I'd read the first two a couple months ago, but only got the final three volumes at Christmas. It's interesting, especially the Conan stories. Reading Howard as a teen – his "resurrection" of the late '60s, after a couple decades of obscurity, remembered only by the hardest of hardcore fans, resulted from an odd confluence of publisher scramble to cash in on the fantasy cash cow implied by the successful resurrections of J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the sudden popularity of Frank Frazetta as a paperback cover painter (he did most of the Lancer edition Howard covers) and a more general interest in old (presumably cheap) WEIRD TALES pulp material, with H.P. Lovecraft also benefiting from the revival (The third key WEIRD TALES writer, Clark Ashton Smith, proved resistant to revival attempts, but where Howard's stories were in the literary tradition of H. Rider Haggard and Talbot Mundy, as were Burroughs', and Lovecraft's Edgar Allan Poe, Smith's were in the more obscure and less penetrable tradition of Lord Dunsany, whose attempted contemporaneous revival also sputtered away) – I was always less impressed with his most popular creation, Conan, than with his other works: Solomon Kane, Bran Mac Morn, Breckenridge Elkins, and numerous short stories like "Wolfshead," "The Valley Of The Worm," and "Pigeons From Hell."

Now I know why. I was aware at the time, but never quite understood while I read the Lancer editions, that author L. Sprague de Camp had come into control of the Conan material in the '50s and had "edited" it for book publication, and Lancer Books presented that version in their CONAN book series. While an exciting read when you're 16 or 17, the Lancer Conan stories seemed duller, less wild, than Howard's other material. de Camp's fault; turns out the originals, republished in WEIRD WORKS, are much more muscular affairs. Reading them now, some forty years after I crossed the de Campated versions, it's easy to see why Conan was Howard's most popular creation. Beyond the surface action and apparent bloodlust of the thing, Conan represents what's probably still a fairly widespread desire: the wish to enjoy to its fullest the benefits of civilization while still holding to something primal and (in our fantasies) primal inside. It isn't that Conan rises from nothing – just another child in some hardscrabble backwater – through a series of experiences consisting mainly of flouting social mores and scorning hypocrisy after hypocrisy until ultimately becoming king of the mightiest nation of his era. That rise to kingship thing has been the plotline of dozens of barbarian hero knockoffs since, and not one of them has come close to equaling Howard's creation, and no simply because the other writers aren't Howard.

What matters in Conan is while he becomes king, it is never his goal, though he sometimes makes reference to the possibilities. It's just one more opportunity that presents itself, one more that he seizes. He is no happier as king than as warrior, wanderer, thief, pirate, soldier, or any of the other roles he plays in his life, and no less happy. His station is basically irrelevant to him so long as it's of his own choosing. Not that he doesn't take his kingship and its responsibilities seriously – he applies a lifetime of experience as well as native instinct, and Howard makes it clear through the course of the Conan stories that his hero may have once been callow, but he is anything but stupid, learning quickly as he goes (including several languages, and even some diplomacy) – but, and this is what Howard's imitators never seem to get, the fantasy isn't that Conan will become king but that whatever his circumstances he is always his own man. His ascension doesn't change who he is. Except one way: in "The Hour Of The Dragon," Howard's one Conan novel where the barbarian loses then torturously regains his kingdom, for the first time he feels the need for a son, to carry on his lineage. (The fourth volume in Cosmos' series, THE HOUR OF THE DRAGON, contains the novel oddly juxtaposed with Howard's famous essay "The Hyborian Age," where he outlines the history of Conan's era, and if the desire to be remembered through time and have one's accomplishments stand is the underlying theme of "Hour," the essay pounds home, as if punctuated by the pessimism of much of Howard's work – the previous volume contains Howard's grimmest commentary on the subject:

"Barbarism is the natural state, the borderer said, still staring somberly at the Cimmerian. "Civilization is unnatural. It is a whim of circumstance. And barbarism must always ultimately triumph."

- that such dreams are pointless, and it's only Conan's actions - anyone's actions – that matter.)

What the WEIRD WORKS series underscores is that something must've happened to Howard in mid-1934, because his writing suddenly becomes tight and lean. You can see it happen between Conan stories in Vol. 2. Prior to that, he's a pulp writer; though his prose is already pretty muscular, his syntax is frequently pretty tortured and you can almost smell him counting the words as he writes. Past that point, he seems to focus on being a writer. His plotting becomes much more expansive, his language sharper and more precise. He leans toward long form stories. Where earlier stories tend more toward typical WEIRD TALES fare, straightforward adventure stories with a requisite monster or supernatural element, his later stories are much more concerned with cultural nuance and complicated political intrigue, and the ramifications of both. It's sad that Howard took his own life in 1936, but sadder when you spot the directions his writing was taking. Had he lived into the '40s and '50s, when the pulps were giving way to both collections and original novels, he likely would've ended up a top espionage, historical and/or western novelist. All those genres were already evident in his later Conan work (my favorite Conan story, "Beyond The Black River," the source of the above quote, was basically a cavalry vs. Indians story that with a few name changes would've been equally at home in the Western pulps, and Howard was already writing for them) so a move into those much more profitable modes would've been logical for a working writer.

Howard's career was roughly restricted to the Great Depression, hitting publication in 1927 but the bulk of it done in the '30s, when the pulps were king. The pulps were a curious phenomenon, hitting their heyday at a point when money was at its scarcest. There's no doubt what the pulps brought to the table; like the dime novels and penny dreadfuls before them, pulps were plebian pop literature, full of the smut and violence and lives lived large that still grips the popular imagination today, traditionally vilified and dismissed by self-appointed tastemakers and cultural watchdogs. It was the same mix that movies and radio (and, overlapping, comics) provided, but pulps were a headier, racier brew; it didn't hurt that adults comprised a large section of their audience, and that publishers and distributors generally ignored any snorts of derision. Or maybe the watchdogs were too focused on taming movies – there has always been a tendency in our culture to believe the printed word is "safer" than pictures because it requires reading - to waste much energy shutting down the pulps.

WEIRD TALES was far from the most popular pulp out there – more than once it teetered on bankruptcy, and delayed payments to contributors weren't uncommon – but even it had a faithful niche for a couple decades. The pulps survived because of accessibility and because what you could get from the pulps you couldn't get anywhere else in the '30s. The '40s saw changing conditions whittling away at them: the war made paper scarcer and publishing/distribution more difficult, comics often provided thrills almost as lurid, and following the war what once the pulps had delivered almost exclusively could be found in the cheap paperbacks suddenly flooding the market, while postwar film moved into a pulpier and more sophisticated stage. The pulps' strength became their weakness; they had no way to adapt, no way to make themselves unique again. Not that they ever died completely; shapes and formats changed, some mystery anthology magazines like MANHUNT that, if not pulps exactly, were certainly heirs to their legacy, arrived in the '50s and did quite well for awhile, while a handful of mystery and science fiction "legacies" are still being published. (WEIRD TALES is even in one of its periodic resurrections.) But their days of "popular" culture are long gone; like many things, they're just cult culture now, and their cults are miniscule.

The same could be said of most current magazines and newspapers.

And comics.

The comics business settled down a little over the past year – there wasn't quite the aura of doom as over the last decade or so – and on some grounds it seemed we're making great strides. That part's probably more illusory than we care to believe, specific advances being extrapolated into general experience. We're still in critical times, and while it's comforting to believe that, say, Marvel's stock price is on the rise, and will pull the rest of the industry up, it's a smarter survival technique to address not our specific successes, unless we can cite a mountain of them, but our general failures. That's not defeatism, it's smart business to fix what problems you can first. I noticed a piece over at Newsarama where the director of Harris Comics reiterated things I've been saying for years:

- For most publishers, monthly comics are a booby trap

- Trying to compete in that arena cripples new publishers

- The direct sales market works against monthly comics that aren't from DC or especially Marvel, as declining orders are usually automatic and frequently insurmountable

- The artificially imposed 22 page story format automatically contorts stories

- Most publishers who wish to survive must develop multiple revenue streams

Like I said, none of this should be news to any regular readers. But he does leave out an important part of the formulation that's often ignored because it's the hardest to accomplish:

While part of the problem is that there are now myriad other media competing for consumer bucks and face time, our biggest problem is that no one in comics – not publishers, not talent, and I don't discount myself – have seriously addressed the issue of what comics, in whatever form you choose to publish or read them, can bring to the table that nothing else can, and why that would be relevant to anyone anyway. Because both are important. In many circles it's jejeune to even bring it up, since it also opens that whole art-commerce can of worms, and many people associated with comics not only want to believe that commercial considerations have no place in the creation of comics (though they always do; no one creates works they don't expect anyone will want to see) they enjoy reveling in the relative small-timeness of the medium, and the art. One argument frequently proffered, and a reasonable one if something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, is that the time of comics as a mass medium is done and wider issues need not be considered. (Curiously, many of these also argue that there's no reason to consider the time of the 32 page pamphlet format done even though except in narrow circumstances its popularity has been in decline for decades.) While certainly almost no one (maybe publishers) wants commercial considerations to dominate artistic concerns, the notion that the two can (or ever are) separate is a convenient self-congratulatory myth. Even fine art functions on patronage, and in comics the patrons are the readers.

So what do we bring to the table? We no longer hold any monopolies on content. A number of top ten films of the year lists include IRON MAN and THE DARK KNIGHT, both of which, if not better than their comics counterparts (and many will argue they were), were certainly more accessible, and done at least as artfully, and many comics openly copy material already done in TV and films. But if that's the case, what do comics give new readers that they can't get elsewhere, besides the format? Comics talent has long fallen back on the gaudy, lurid and sometimes tasteless in order to stand apart, just as pulps did and penny dreadfuls before them (the definition of gaudy, lurid and tasteless shifting somewhat with time) but virtually every facet of the uberculture exploits those now, and those who rail against them are commonly denounced, usually rightfully, as busybodies and prudes. The format itself remains something of an acquired taste, though more seem open than in recent years to acquiring it, but to say comics are special and worthy because of the format alone isn't enough, even if the interaction of words and pictures in comics (or, rather, the many interactions, since there are all kinds of ways to handle it) can only be found in comics. It just isn't a credible argument. It's like saying the aspect ratio is a reason to watch DVDs. Aspect ratio is sometimes an interesting facet of DVDs, but it's not a reason to watch them.

And what we have to provide now, more than ever, is reasons to read comics. Not as a laundry list but as the material. It's commonplace among comics to argue either that they're being aimed at an audience or that they're being done to artistic vision, but neither by itself is sufficient if gaining or even maintaining an audience is an objective. (Whatever else you can say about Marvel, this is something they seem to get.) If either art for art's sake or pure commerce is your primary objective, then either audience or art is an irrelevancy, but if you don't care if your work is seen why create and what are you selling if not, ultimately, the content?

The paradox is that good content in itself is no longer reason for anyone to buy into anything, let alone buy it. We can market ourselves with nothing more than "this is good" until we're blue in the face and it won't change anything, because "good" doesn't necessarily translate into "perceived value," and "perceived value" is the only element of anything that's truly marketable anymore. We're not the only mass (or formerly mass) medium facing these questions today. Music CDs, TV shows, movies, videogames, everyone has to answer the same questions. Not facing those questions, or believing we're above them, or ignoring that they even exist is suicide.

That's the challenge facing every comics creator, every comics publisher today. And if there are answers, there aren't any easy ones, and unfortunately their substance is shifting and mercurial, meaning the same questions must be asked time and time again.

And that's fine, as long as we don't forget that it isn't just marketing that kept Conan a more memorable and popular character than scores of other sword and sorcery heroes, nor keeps Howard's best work readable, and enjoyable, today.


Notes from under the floorboards:

Working on a somewhat tighter schedule this year so the columns are likely to be a little shorter, probably with, as above, something of a return to the Master Of The Obvious format. We'll see.

Finally, stem cells aren’t just for Michael J. Fox anymore. Seems within a few years using them to regrow teeth in adults will become standard practice, lord willin' and the religious right don't rise.

I asked a friend in Minnesota what's up with the Senate race recount between Al Franken and Norm Coleman up there. Has a winner been decided yet? His reply:

"The short answer is: yes.

The longer answer is, yes, but it won't be 100 percent official for another month or so, and he probably won't be seated until then. All the votes have been recounted and he came out on top by about 225. Now, there was a big stack of absentee ballots that Franken claimed all along were wrongly rejected (about 1,350 of them, I believe). He asked for these to be counted. It went to court. The court made a bizarre decision, saying that the votes would be counted, but only those that both the Franken and Coleman camps could agree on. Which is obviously not going to happen.

If you read the national media you'd think this was each side trying to cherry pick their favorites to come out on top. The reporting on this story has been, by and large, just awful; Coleman has tried to play the media all along, and mostly it has worked. Franken has been saying all along, "Count every one of those 1,350 ballots." Coleman's people only want to count 650 of them (and, gee, I imagine that if you count those specific ballots, Coleman wins. What a shock). So the new BS Coleman line is that Franken is trying to stop 650 ballots from being counted and steal the election. Well, no. He just wants all of the absentee ballots (most of which were rejected do to lacking a signature on one or another line, or having been inadvertently mailed to the wrong place) counted, rather than the cherry-picked batch. But the MSM keeps repeating Coleman's claim about these 650 votes, as though they exist independently of the total 1,350. It's Coleman who wants fewer votes counted, and, much to his credit, Franken is sticking to his "count 'em all" statement even though it would obviously be in his favor not to count any of 'em, since he already has a lead. And Coleman remains the guy who said a few days after the election that Franken, with a clear deficit, should step aside to let the healing process begin in the state. Now that the shoe is on the other foot...

Coleman has been juking the process since Day 1. The reason he was perceived to have had a lead for so long is that he used the Bush strategy from Florida. During the recount, the Coleman people challenged way, way more ballots than the Franken camp, which put those challenge ballots in a nebulous "maybe" pile, so the official total, as the recount wore on, looked more and more like a clear Coleman victory. The strategy being to get people used to the idea, via daily repetition of the "official" numbers, that Coleman had a strong lead and Franken was trying to steal the election somehow. Of course, those challenged ballots eventually got evaluated at the end and, surprise surprise, most of them went Franken's way because they shouldn't have been challenged in the first place. That's why the lead shifted so late and so dramatically.

The Franken camp all along had been keeping an unofficial count based on a very logical strategy. During the recount, you've got your election judge and one observer from each camp. The Franken people kept a count based only on what the election judge said, the idea being that, yeah, some ballots might get thrown out on either side, but most likely the impartial judge's initial call is going to stand. By that count, Franken had the lead for most of the recount. When you heard people talk about "Franken's numbers," which sounds eerily like Hillary Clinton's desperate math in the primaries, all that really meant was Franken's unofficial count as determined by election judges, with all partisanship set aside.

So Franken won. Coleman is going to challenge it in court, but it seems highly unlikely that the ruling will come down in his favor, since Franken wins in basically every scenario except a very specific set of circumstances carefully constructed by Coleman's lawyers.

If I had to guess, I'd say the endgame here for the Coleman people isn't even so much winning at this point as making Franken look like he stole the election so he only gets one term."

Anybody else out there watching THE MENTALIST (CBS Tuesdays 9P.) Anyone else figure out who Redjohn is yet?

Congratulations to Jim Martin, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "Happy New Year 2009." (For those who want it spelled out: pluck from the titles Happy – New – Year – Two - Zero – Zero – Nine.)Jim wishes to point your attention to his fine review site Comics And... Other Imaginary Tales. 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 this column, but while there are a number of reasons to find it, don't obsess. 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:  robert e. howard, comics industry, comics publishing

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