Permanent Damage

Thu, March 12th, 2009 at 10:48pm PDT | Updated: March 12th, 2009 at 10:53pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Every indie publisher I've spoken with (indie meaning every American publisher this side of Marvel and DC; don't get me wrong, I only spoken with a sampling) indicates that Wondercon was a mad success for them this year, with lots of enthusiastic crowds spending money. Some pundits have blamed this on our "fantasy economy," some on the old chestnut about comics "doing well" in a recession, but given the recent changes in the comics business, this suggests a couple things running contrary to how the direct market is currently set up:

1) The reader attrition indicated by declining sales, at least as far as Diamond tracks these things, may not be an attrition at all.

2) Oddly enough, readers seem to prefer to see what they're buying before they buy it.

Since the advent of the direct market, the latter has increasingly been seen as an expendable, even retrograde tendency, something preferably eliminated. Understandably; there's advantage for retailers and publishers both in pre-sold comics. For awhile, even readers found advantage of it, during that period when nobody wanted to risk missing the "hot" books. Problem was, most of the business liked the setup so much they decided it was how things ought to be and would be, and we've operated since as if that's the way it is.

Marvel doesn't use The Mad Thinker much anymore, but his gimmick back in the original FANTASTIC FOUR days (you know: Stan & Jack) was that his evil, maniacal schemes were calculated to 99.9% perfection, but what always tripped him up, what he was always trying to compensate for (and failing miserably) was that .1%, the human factor. Translation: no matter how perfect your plan, it still requires everyone else to perform according to plan. That escape hatch everyone else forgot about is exactly where some unwitting taxi driver will park his cab.

In this case, everyone has turned out to love the pre-sold comics idea except readers. Customers might be a more pertinent characterization. Especially as the gulf between hype and reality widened. Whether it has narrowed again, as I'm sure many will argue, or not doesn't matter; damage already done. It's like spanking your kid; you may think you're teaching him discipline but what you're really teaching him is that the big guy who hits the hardest gets to say who does what. In the case of comics, the industry believed – I'm not saying it was conscious, mind you – it was training customers that The System was their perfect means of acquiring the comics they so desperately desired. They were really training them to accept that maybe the comics weren't so desirable after all, because the system became less desirable. Doesn't take much to turn that sort of thing into a cascading event: customers stop committing to buying books before they see what they're getting because so much of what they get turns out to be either not what they thought they were getting or not what they want, retailers stop getting pre-orders, retailers cut down orders, the few books ordered either go straight into the hands of those who did preorder or don't get ordered in the first place. No malice suggested; as many apologists have claimed for Diamond in the wake of its new stocking policies, comics shops and publishing houses are their owners' businesses and they can run it as they see fit. (By the way, Diamond, being a monopoly, theoretically doesn't quite qualify for such grace, but it's 1888 again anyway, so what the hell.) But since the big collapse of the mid-'90s, the business has over and over convinced itself it has only the customer's best interests at heart when it has, in practical terms, become consistently more hostile toward customers.

I'm not talking about individual comic shop owners or workers. I'm talking about the industry's operating philosophy.

What's going on at Wondercon and other comics conventions around the country is a tacit negation of that philosophy. I'd say it's putting a whole new spin on the term "direct sales" if it weren't really resurrecting an old spin, one operating through much of the '70s between the collapse of newsstand distribution (again I repeat that comics did not, as the myth goes, abandon the newsstand; the newsstand abandoned comics, and there ain't nothin' we could do about it) and the solidification of the direct market. There's a whole history of American comics in the '70s yet to be written, a fertile if abortive period where the legacy of the recent wave of underground comics mingled with rising comics fandom to generate all kinds of regional comics publishing, and lots of small regional conventions. Regional publishers tended not to last very long – it was expensive, the concept was new and alien to readers (many of whom still viewed comics as Marvel or DC and still held the concept of alternatives suspect) and there still wasn't enough money in the business to justify traveling much outside your own region or any effective way to promote – and publishers then as now crippled themselves by viewing Marvel (or, rather, Marvel's business plan) as the gold standard. Certainly the monthly comic was a gold standard with readers, and no regional publisher had the resources to match that. Selling on a Marvel/DC scale, no matter how degraded that standard had become by the mid-70s, just wasn't possible. Subscriptions were usually offered; but even with Marvel and DC only the most fanatical customers shelled out in advance, especially since there was no guarantee, even with Marvel and DC and certainly with small publishers, that another issue would ever appear. It's not that readers were against buying comics, but in general they wanted to see what they'd getting before they bought.

Not an unreasonable request.

So most books that regional publishers sold face to face at conventions. Where readers could look and, rather than make the leap of faith the business has since come to ask of readers again and again with diminishing results, judge for themselves whether a book was worth their money and interest.

Virtually everyone who reads comics loves the medium, whether they conceptualize it like that or not. But virtually nobody buys whatever a medium produces just for the love of the medium. They still have to believe they're getting something of value. Things went goofy when publishers tried to cash in by strictly monetizing that value, selling comics on the basis of what they'd be "worth" on a collectors market later on. It was a good little con game for awhile – one many publishers still view as the new gold standard, and still dream of resurrecting – but all it ultimately did was alienate buyers who found themselves holding next-to-worthless paper when the con ran out its string and readers who still wanted worth measured by other yardsticks.

Bringing us to our current fractured marketplace. This isn't the '70s. It's easy to see where the last thirty years have generated hundreds of thousands of readers now at least acclimatized to comics, and any vestigial stigma to "comics" is pretty much vanished from the public. (We're still a little unusual, sure, but average citizens envy unusual these days. Nobody wants to be usual, especially since now there's no money or security in it anyway.) "Comic-con" now holds the same general aura for a good chunk of "the public" (or, as we used to call them, "casual" readers, back when they were the industry's bread and butter) as "rockfest." Only at comic-cons you don't do drugs (well... some do...) you live them. They're weirdness on display, tacit invitations to let loose a little of your own weirdness in good company. While lots of monthly comics are still published – and it's clear Diamond, with their new stocking policies, wants to see the business steered back that way – readers are no longer tied conceptually to monthly comics. In fact, many no longer see them as desirable at all, preferring trade collections or original graphic novels.

They're apparently no longer tied to the comics shop either. For many indie publishers, comic-cons – not necessarily San Diego, where the competition for attention is much fiercer, but the new breed of large regional cons – are becoming the new prime marketplace, where a new crop of eager buyers, many of whom apparently now feel disenfranchised from the direct market, are eager for new comics in various formats, if they can see in advance what they're buying. (Many publishers have been finding "advance viewing" on the Internet a useful marketing tool as well; it's a funny thing, but giving material away "free" on the web, in comics, TV and music, seems more often than not an inducement to buy.)

So, a possible new business model that some publishers are already figuring out ways to capitalize on: the con buyer. Can they be translated into subscribers? Comic shop haunters? Maybe not. The underlying mentality appears completely different, and they may be throwing off all expectations about the business, since they seem to exist outside of our current measuring tools. A sale of, oh, TWO GUNS (I feel self-serving today) at WonderCon doesn't register on any scale of Diamond, Bookscan or Amazon. It's an irrelevant sale to them – but not to the publisher and not to the talent. From all reports, direct contact sales are now an important rising tide in the comics industry, and suggest a new business model for any publisher (or self-publisher) with the imagination, content and guts to capitalize on it. But if it catches on, it won't be pretty for the industry's middlemen, and that's a whole other mess.


1000 reviews in 1000 days (days):

From About Comics:

THE BLANK COMIC BOOK by Nobody ($9.95; comic book)

Publisher Nat Gertler claims this is the perfect comic book – 24 blank newsprint pages with blank wraparound covers – because there's nothing in it that critics can complain about. It is not the perfect comic book; it doesn't say anything about mama, or trains, or trucks, or prisons or getting drunk. Funny, back around 1970 a friend and I, knee deep in fanzines we found less and less interesting, plotted our own fanzine that would have been a not blank cover with nothing but blank pages in between. And a pencil. It would also have been #35. So I can't say I think this is a terribly original idea, and I suspect a lot of people have had it, though I don't recall anyone else concretizing it before. Gertler leaves out the pencil, but once the sheer stupidity of the concept wears off, this may turn out to be pretty functional for a lot of people who've always dreamed of making their own comic book. Just fill in the pages and you're there. (The paper strikes me as friendlier to paper than to ink, though.) Also would work nicely as a convention book, for autographs and sketches. Goofy and practical; maybe Gertler's onto something.

From Image Comics:

KILLER OF DEMONS #1 by Christopher Yost & Scott Wegener ($3.99; comic book)

An ordinary guy is recruited by a foul little cherub (the real kind) to kill demons disguised as people. Again, not a terrible original concept, but Yost & Wegener play it out with verve and humor, as antihero Dave, dismayed with his new lot in life, gets an anonymous rep as a serial killer, seeks psychiatric help (though I don't see him walking out of the shrink's office once he cops to murder), dodges his cop girlfriend, and gets a visit from the Prince Of Darkness. Entertaining, and a lot better than it conceptually has a right to be.

From Titan Books:

MONSTERS VS ALIENS: THE OFFICIAL MOVIE ADAPTATION by Andy Lanning, Alex Dalton, SL Gallant, Bambos Georgiou & Gary Erskine ($4.95; prestige format one-shot comic book)

Cute. If you can't wait for Dreamworks' next high concept animation blockbuster, this is your ticket: an evil, egotistical, fairly stupid alien conqueror attacks Earth and is challenged by the government's secret stash of weird, if benign, monsters. It probably works better on the big screen -44 pages makes for a pretty stripped down adaptation of a full-length movie – but the art's very good and it's bright and colorful. More whimsical than funny, though, but that's probably the movie. It's a decent kids comic.

From Dark Horse Comics:

KULL 4 by Arvid Nelson, Will Conrad & Jose Villarubbia ($2.99; comic book)

Adapting Robert E. Howard is fairly problematic these days. What made Howard fresh and original in his day has since been copied and mimicked into cliché; strip the dynamics of Howard's language from stories and there's not much left anymore. Kull, though the prototype of Conan, was never one of his stronger creations anyway: an intended contrast between the vitality of barbarism and the decadence of civilization, he spends most of his stories being led around by the nose and effectively saved by others from his own ignorance. Nelson's a good writer - REX MUNDI proves that – but his little additions and linguistic modernizations don't help the story's mood any, and the Conrad/Villarubbia art, though the storytelling's clean and easy to follow, just doesn't give the character enough weight to give him credibility. Half the time he doesn't even seem to be the center of the action. Probably fitting, though, since that's the main problem with the original story; Kull may be the nominal central character, but the real star and hero is "sidekick" Brule The Spear-Slayer. Kull may have been the prototype sword-and-sorcery hero, and certainly the prototype barbarian hero, but unlike other Howard characters like Conan and Solomon Kane, and like most other barbarian heroes, there's nothing in the concept that rises above the now pretty dull pack, and while Nelson, Conrad and Villarubbia are more or less faithful to Howard's story, what was needed was something to make the book stand out. The book's not bad, but that's not there.

From Twomorrows Publishing:

BACK ISSUE 33 ed. Michael Eury ($6.95; magazine)

If you love teen heroes of the '70s and '80s, this issue's for you. Pretty good even if you aren't: a very good, not especially reverent overview of the TEEN TITANS/NEW TITANS evolution, interesting interviews with Mike Baron and Jackson Guice on their development of the late '80s FLASH, features on odd flotsam like Power Girl, Firestar and James Bond Jr., lots of curious art. I like that BACK ISSUE's tone has slipped from its earlier rah-rahness (it has at times felt like it was wistfully advocating some of the goofy old comics it spotlighted) into a more objective, matter of fact voice that can celebrate comics without idealizing them and assess them without condemning them. That's a fairly rare thing in comics criticism. Anyway, a good read about a lot of things you may never have thought twice about before. Worth a look.

From IDW:

DARK DELICACIES #1 ed. Del Howison ($3.99; comic book)

An experiment in adapting prose horror stories to comics form, in this issue courtesy of Joe Lansdale and F. Paul Wilson. Sort of; Neal Barrett and Dan Wickline are the real writers, respectively, working off the stories. Here again, are the problems of adapting stories, especially horror, from prose to comics. Prose horror works via pacing and concerted manipulation of reader imagination, effectively coercing the reader into creating the horror in question themselves. But it only works because prose isn't a visual medium. Comics are, and paradoxically are rarely visual enough for good horror. The implacable, violently rapid dog of Lansdale's story may be horrific in prose, but in the comics version it just looks kind of... silly, and the story becomes a one-note, straight-lined exercise in violence that doesn't even look especially violent, while Wilson's police detective in '30s Chinatown with a huge insect's nest growing inside him can be imagined into something horrific, but the comics version is just dull, and shows us nothing so there's no point in a visual interpretation. (It doesn't help that the story seems to exist just so the author can say "chink" a lot.) There are ways to effectively adapt horror prose into comics, but DARK DELICACIES has yet to find them.

From DC Comics:

SUPERMAN – WORLD OF KRYPTON #1 by James Robinson, Greg Rucka & Pete Woods ($2.99; comic book)

A few people have told me I should check this out because I've complained in the past about all the Superman possibilities being all used up, but this is an angle they've never done before: Superman as just another Kryptonian on a world full of Kryptonians. Not for awhile, anyway. It's fairly well done, though I seem to have missed some story developments somewhere; the last the subject of moving to New Krypton with all the other Kryptonians released from Kandor in the recent storyline, Superman soundly rejected the idea, yet here he is meekly showing up with only an "I changed my mind." I gather this is what's up for Superman for the next year, but I sure hope it's some sort of undercover mission. If it isn't they're jumping through hoops to mangle the character, who, except for a brief plea for social equality in New Krypton society, is here utterly unlike any incarnation of Superman I've ever seen, meekly surrendering himself to a quasi-Stalinist system and its petulant, self-justifying masters. Given his life on Earth and his lack of personal experience of his homeworld, it's hard to swallow that Superman desires the company of his own kind that much. If they play it right, it could end up a pretty interesting examination of the character faced with a rift between what's just and what's the law, in a society where there's no cheat around that rift. If not, it's not like the character isn't a burned out concept to begin with.


Notes from under the floorboards:

No time for many notes this week. I'm running way late as it is. I'd like to remind everyone to head over to Big Head Press for the ODYSSEUS THE REBEL webcomic I'm doing with Scott Bieser.

Also, I've decided to do a piece on longform webcomics, so if you're doing one, drop me an email and I'll check it out. Please, for the moment at least, no single panel, daily strip or short strip sites; I'll get to some of those at a later date. For now I'm only looking for online continued stories or graphic novel projects, ala ODYSSEUS THE REBEL or FREAK ANGELS. Thanks.

I've seen a number of ebook readers now, and while they're interesting, so far they're not of much value for electronic comics. There are comics being done for the iPhone and similar devices, but when we're speaking of a screen just large enough for one legible panel, that's a far cry from what we've come to know as a comic book page, and a severe restriction on available techniques. But Asus has demonstrated a prototype for a laptop computer that could change everything: it replaces the standard keyboard with a touchscreen showing a software keyboard. What's most interesting to this business is that the keyboard can be switched off, with both screens convertible from landscape to portrait format, allowing users to use it like a book, flip "pages" etc. No word yet if the touchscreen as well as the monitor supports color, but screens' size and shape come very close to approximating a standard physical comic book.

Congratulations to Scott Slemmons, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "Watchmen." (Good week for it, right?) Scott wishes to point your attention to his blog Hero Sandwich. He's twisted (check out that DEFENDERS cover), you'll like it.

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 secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in this column, if you want to push it. Good luck.

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:  comic conventions, kull

Permanent Damage Home | Permanent Damage Archives

Permanent Damage

Send This Article to a Friend

Separate multiple email address with commas.

You must state your name.

You must enter your email address.