Permanent Damage

Thu, March 19th, 2009 at 6:36pm PDT | Updated: March 19th, 2009 at 6:38pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

There's a new meme wandering the business, voiced last week in a Newsarama piece, that the recent product restrictions imposed by Diamond on the direct sales market is somehow a de facto "quality assurance" program that the business desperately needs.

If you're not up on your cutesy jargon, "meme," concocted by Richard Dawkins basically to reframe human culture as an evolutionary process, now means some idiot notion repeated often enough that it's commonly supposed to be true, or important, or vital, because people keep saying it. Whatever the original intended meaning was, a meme is now the Internet age equivalent of an urban legend or a talking point. Like most "talking points," memes are usually less about any sort of concrete reality and more about serving someone's (not everyone's) personal, financial or political interests.

In other words, the meme is just another form of propaganda.

How is Diamond's contribution to the artistic integrity of the comic book industry (if that phrase alone has you laughing uncontrollably on several levels, you're forgiven) supposed to work? The theory goes like this – well, here, let's have Dirk Manning explain it, as he did in the piece cited above:

"After all – let’s be frank, people – PREVIEWS has agreed to distribute a lot of sub-par comics for a long time... and now, due in large part to the struggling economy, I reckon, those days are over."

As I recall, one purveyor of this theory – was it Heidi Macdonald? I forget – was alarmed to later discover that a line they characterized as fairly smutty quasi-porn comics would have no problem reaching Diamond's minimum, meaning that "sub-par" comics (however one chooses to define that) might not be victimized by Diamond's new policies at all. I'm not denying there are a lot of sub-par comics out there, but equating low sales with low quality is a dangerous, not to mention myopic. Dangerous to your mental health, I mean. It's common practice in comics, among professionals as well as fans, to imagine books they didn't like failed because they were crap books and book they did like failed because they were too good for a bottom-feeding, mouth-breathing audience trained to Pavlovianly drool over zombies and mutants (not necessarily in that order) and unable to appreciate the rarified delights of "true quality." This is mainly an exercise is soothing or aggrandizing your own ego when your tastes have been challenged by marketplace realities, but the fact remains numerous factors having nothing to do with "quality" affect sales and salability and the only practical derivative of such logic is the rather obvious conclusion that some good books sell and some don't, and some bad books sell and some don't.

Junk sells, except when it doesn't. Quality sells, except when it doesn't. So why assume making it harder to sell anything will fall in favor of quality? At least Manning makes his agenda clear: wishful thinking. Turns out he creates his own comics. Not surprisingly, his theory runs along the lines that a higher Diamond baseline eliminates the weaker competition, giving his work more opportunity to stand out from the pack. In order for this to make any sense, he has to rationalize that his work lies on the winning side of the line, and that retailer money once spent on the other side of the line can happily divert to his work instead.

Understand: I'm not mocking the guy. I don't know Manning's work. (That isn't a slight either. I don't know the work of a lot of people. That doesn't make it bad. Or good. It just makes it work I don't know.) He's the one, so far, who has put the argument up on the Internet that I'm aware of, but he's not the only one I've heard it from. There are a lot of talents out there who believe, or want to believe, their careers will somehow benefit from Diamond making it harder to get books on the shelves.

Because almost everyone creating comics today, at whatever level, is convinced that their work is quality. Everyone. Editors and publishers may frequently feel under the schedule gun and maybe not everything ending up in print on their watch meets with their complete approval, but I don't know any who don't believe their office produces predominantly quality material.

The problem of "quality," at least in the arts, is that it's a consensus commodity. Don't kid yourself that it's anything but. I would consider a lot of material "quality work" – Kurtzman's war comics, many of Eisner's SPIRIT strips, FROM HELL, virtually any piece of Al Williamson art, loads more – but the operative word in that sentence isn't "quality," it's "I." My tastes may have formed and articulated over decades of exposure to comics and many other arts and art criticism, but any judgments I make about quality are still informed (and, perhaps more importantly, restricted) by my tastes. I may be able to explain my choices, might even be able to impress you with my explanations, but the final authorities all such artistic decisions rest on are tradition (or contemporary consensus, it amounts to the same thing) and taste. These are shaky (maybe fluid would be kinder) criteria at best, and half the point of marketing is to manipulate them. Comics are at least as much commodity as form of expression, and it's the commodity aspect that complicates matters. Quality in manufactured commodities is perceptible, if not measurable: regardless of other considerations, a wristwatch's first obligation is to keep time, a refrigerator to keep things usably cold, a woven blanket to keep things comfortably warm. And to last long enough that the expense of purchase is amortized through use. Here "value" and "quality" are justifiably synonymous: a $10 watch that keeps time for a week isn't a good value or a quality item, a $10 watch that keeps time for ten years is a great value and certainly better quality than would've been expected from the price.

Comics don't have the luxury of the concrete. They're subject, like all mass market media, to the whims of changing tastes, whether individual or consensus, and whether they hold any inherent value is debatable. Readers bring as much "value" to the table as comics do. Here terms like "value" and "quality" are not synonymous; it would be hard to say readers were wrong to consider an Alan Moore written Jim Steranko drawn eight pager selling for $29.95 a much worse value than an 32 page issue of THUNDERCATS selling for $3.99, no matter how beautiful, touching, imaginative, innovative and excellently developed the former is. Quality beyond imagination it might turn out to be, but it's still just too damn much money. As art it could succeed fantastically but as commodity it would almost certainly fail miserably.

That's the schism we're up against, but it's also the divide that virtually everyone thinks is the divide that doesn't apply to them. Quality is a fine and useful thing to debate – good for knocking preconceptions loose if nothing else - but any means of enforcing "quality" is a dangerous trap. The topic usually surfaces when someone or other decides it's high time "standards" were enforced on comics, with the notion that these would somehow result in a better overall product (which is to say one more appealing to the public, which is to say more salable, though if you study sales reports over the history of comics you'll quickly find the equation is sophistic and laughable). But standards, while not censorship, are defined the same way: they're an opinion enforced by an organization. Standards aren't censorship, but they're necessary for censorship. Comics had a set of standards once. It was called the Comics Code. It didn't do much overall for quality in comics. While it lasted, though, it was a successful anti-competitive tool allowing large comics publishers to hold the business in a deathgrip. There's that commodity thing again.

Of course, comics-as-commodities are Diamond's stock in trade, which is how it should be, and if you think Diamond has any stake in comics-as-art, go tell someone to slap you. Hard. Diamond's only purpose in imposing new sales floors is to maximize sales per warehouse shelf space and limit costs. The wisdom of their trying to re-impose a direct market as it was in the mid-'80s to do it is debatable, but that's their only objective and, at least in theory, no matter how quality-riddled a publication is, if it doesn't achieve their sales minimum it's toast as far as they're concerned. Trust me, I remember when Diamond did talk about imposing "standards of quality" on the business, and it's not something to be wished because if the history of the medium means anything, any "standards of quality" imposed are imposed not to ensure artistry but to ensure marketability regardless of creative intent. All publishers do that, of course – it's sort of their job – but there are a lot of different publishers, and they all have different ideas of what's acceptable, and that's creative opportunity. Any one force imposing a single standard across the entire industry restricts possibility, and that's the one thing we don't need.

What's good is that doesn't appear to be Diamond's objective in the slightest. All they want is cash flow, and they don't much care which book brings it to them. Sure, there will be a lot of books culled from distribution, but presuming they'll all be someone else's and not yours is pretty much the height of egoism. Unless you're already selling above Diamond's new minimum, in which case all those other books were never camouflaging you anyway so it's no issue. If you weren't already selling above Diamond's minimum, or if you're considering launching a new project, it's unlikely the absence of those other books will allow you to finally shine more brightly in a newly underpopulated sky, and far, far more likely that the truly quality work you've poured your hopes, dreams, talent and imagination into will be just one more stone sinking out of sight.


Some changes in San Diego registration, I see, mostly affecting professionals, who are just now being allowed to sign up for July. Four day passes are already all bought up and dailies are already approaching endangered species status, so it makes sense that they want, probably need, to control further admissions. There's a new limit on guests that can enter under a professional's aegis; rather than split it per pro, there's a combined limit of ancillaries equal to the number in attendance last year, and once that limit is hit, pros can still register (until May 5, anyway) but no further guests will be allowed. Pros can still get theoretically unlimited underage passes (until the overall guest limit is reached, I'd presume) but beyond the first two from now on they'll have to pay for them. That could run into sizable money, but what about San Diego doesn't these day?

I've found a few pros who are disconcerted by these changes, and some a bit panicked because the official notifications take longer to get to some part of the world than others (being in Las Vegas, I got mine almost immediately) and afraid that by the time they get their letters all the slots will have been used up. Nonetheless I applaud San Diego's moves. Given the size of the convention has gotten ridiculous, anything they can do to move potential problems forward away from the date of the show can only be a plus.

Oh, and no on-site pro registration anymore. If you're not signed up by May 5, you're toast. Spontaneity's not all it's cracked up to be anyway.


1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 57-63):

From Image Comics:

ELEPHANTMEN 16, by Richard Starkings & various ($2.99; comic book)

While this has been one of my favorite titles for a long time, the nature of the work – mostly intriguing but unsatisfying vignettes – has kept me from wholeheartedly recommending it. Not this issue. Starkings finally jumps that hurdle with an excellent, complete in itself short story, a nasty bit of noir vaguely reminiscent of THE SPIRIT and having little directly to do with the book's main characters. But it works, and says more about the book's world than almost the rest of the series combined. Nice art by Chris Burnham, and Starkings finally feels completely in control of his material. The flip side, a Marvel UK comedy revival from John Carnell, Andy Lanning & David Hine, is okay too. Worth a look.

From Tripwire Publishing Ltd:

TRIPWIRE SUPERHERO SPECIAL 2009 Joel Meadows & Andrew Grossberg, eds ($7.95; magazine)

TRIPWIRE's a former fanzine that reinvented itself as the FACE of comics in media, and has generally been pretty good, though it never seems quite sure of what audience it most wants to serve, being almost too deep into comics for a casual audience but not deep enough for a comics audience, and its annual schedule didn't seem geared for momentum. They've seemingly found a swerve on the latter problem, anyway: this "special" – it does give it a more urgent aura – is one of several planned, so while the official TRIPWIRE is still an annual, it's really more a quarterly. Clever. As with most issues, they give a lot of play to comics films, taking full advantage of WATCHMEN and cover story KICK-ASS for some good interviews with Dave Gibbons, director Matthew Vaughn and Mark Millar. Interviews have become the magazine's stock in trade; their interviews with Geoff Johns, Paul Cornell, Mark Waid, Brian Bendis, Dan Didio and the new HEROES producers are all pretty entertaining as well. Somewhat less satisfying are the tenuous feature articles: a fairly uninspired rehashing of Kirby that quotes Kahlil Gibran and hinges on a paper tiger, "The 15 Most Important Superhero Graphic Novels Ever, which is basically an arbitrary laundry list, etc., though I have to give them props for finding 15 superhero graphic novels they can even pretend are "important." The slick format's very pretty, and overall Meadows and co. do a very nice job of making comics look worthy of attention. A good read.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

THE COLLECTED JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR Vol. 7, John Morrow ed ($29.95; trade paperback)

Reviewing the KIRBY COLLECTOR and COLLECTOR collections is starting to feel like preaching to the choir; is there one single hardcore Kirby fanatic out there who isn't already aware of them? You don't need to be obsessed with Jack Kirby's life, work and legacy to enjoy this, but it helps immensely, since it's all Kirby all the time – except when it's people like Roger Stern, Mark Hamill, Moebius, Mike Allred and Alan Moore talking about Kirby – along with tons of Kirby art, including many uninked pencil pages that demonstrate the real power of Kirby's work much better than most of what's in print does. If Kirby weren't the talent he was, this would be insane overkill. That it isn't speaks volumes in itself. All the Kirby talk might drive those less than overwhelmed by Jack's work to distraction, especially when people say silly things like "I don't think there'd even be a superhero genre if it weren't for Jack" and "after all, it was Kirby who first worked on the character which Steve Ditko was to immortalize as Spider-Man!", which is true enough if you discount that it wasn't even the same character, but those who love Kirby will love it. But they already know that. And THE JACK KIRBY COLLECTOR in any form remains a valuable testament to why Kirby's important, if you need any convincing, and it's worth reading just for that.

From Dark Horse Comics:

SOLOMON KANE 5 by Scott Allie & Mario Guevara ($2.99; comic)

I haven't checked in on the new SOLOMON KANE comic in awhile, but it seems to have improved immensely as it wraps up its first storyline, where Kane battles alongside a disreputable rogue to free a German village from a demon-haunted castle and its evil lord. Guevara's art is clean and effective, and Allie has found his voice, pulling off the rare trick of capturing the spirit of Howard's Solomon Kane stories (they were considerably different from his Conan stories, and the urge of later interpreters to "Conanize" Kane is always there, but Allie sidestepped it nicely) without mimicking Howard. My one quibble is Guevara's demi-human depiction of Kane, who's given an elvish look more appropriate to Elric. I'd like to see a bit more density of plot on the next arc, but overall pretty good, and the John Cassaday cover is terrific.

From DC Comics:

BATMAN: BATTLE FOR THE COWL 1 by Tony Daniel & Sandy Florea ($3.99; comic book)

I admit that even though we all know Bruce Wayne's coming back eventually, they hooked me on who'll end up playing Batman until Bruce returns from the dead or prehistory, whichever one is canon these days. This is one of those things predicated on us swallowing the iffy proposition that Gotham without Batman immediately degenerates into a brutal chaos of amok villains neither the police nor the Legion Of Bat Hangers-On can cope with, though the latter have previously seemed perfectly capable. If you can buy into that, there's nothing wrong with it. Daniel – I never understood the complaints about his work on the "R.I.P." run – is a satisfactory writer, and he pulls off action well. Since the book's pretty much all action, that helps. Structurally it's a bit odd, though; all the likely suspects for becoming the new Batman are eliminated out of the gate, with the replacement already established if not accepted – a gun-toting, fully armored Batman. Kind of kills most of the potential fun of the concept. Otherwise, it's a reasonably entertaining Batman story, and how much else can you reasonably expect?

From Avatar Press:

RAWBONE by Jamie Delano & Max Fuimara ($3.99; comic book)

"Pyrates," lesbians, degenerate priests, vengeful Englishmen, rape and pillage, floggings, lustful ape boys, treasure hunts. What's not to like? Delano was one of the first wave of English comics writers to gain a foothold in American comics with the earliest HELLBLAZER issues and a horde of weird and challenging original projects, and he hasn't lost a step, while Fiumara visualizes it beautifully. I rolled my eyes when I saw it was a semi-smutty period piece pirate comic – not the best lure I could think of – but Delano still knows how to tell a gripping story, and it seems like there's much more here than 23 pages could hold. A very pleasant surprise, looking forward to the next issue. The art of comic as story is less and less practiced these days, but Delano remains a master at it.

From Dynamite Entertainment:

DEAD IRONS #2 by James Kuhoric & Jason Shawn Alexander ($3.99; comic book)

Lone gunman vs. vampires and werewolves in the Old West. While in general I feel horror westerns have been done to death, this is one of the more intriguing of the species. Not that the story's especially interesting – it's a decently written, fairly typical example of such things – but the art's terrific, bearing the story along effortlessly and pumping it for good emotional effect. It has impact; there are a lot of pages I look at and see Neal Adams, back when Adams was the force in the business. It's rare that I say this, but while the story's not bad, tracking this down just for the art's worth the effort.


Notes from under the floorboards:

I'm still gearing up for that dive into longform online comics, so if you haven't sent me a link to your site, do it now. Again, I'm looking for longform series, not one panels or the equivalent of newspaper strips.

A quick apology to Nat Gertler, whose THE BLANK COMIC BOOK I reviewed last week. I listed the price as $9.95 per book – struck me at the time as a bit extreme – but the price is really $9.95 per 10 pack. Sorry about that.

If you're anywhere around Columbia University in New York City next Monday, the 23rd, former Marvel and WRITE NOW! editor/writer Danny Fingeroth is giving a free presentation on Will Eisner covering his life, achievements and influence on the development of American comics and graphic novels. That's Schermerhorn Hall, Broadway & 116th, rm 501 at 8P. If I were there, I'd go.

So AIG insurance is the latest outrage in financial circles, with public animosity over bonuses paid to execs (whose main accomplishment was running the company into the ground; as one editorial cartoon put it, "Think how much they'd be paid if they had done their jobs!") has roused public ire to the point where some AIG employees have taken to hiring bodyguards (though, really, if you worked for AIG would you want to be constantly in the presence of someone with a loaded gun; security guards are citizens too!) in anticipation of attacks. But, really, it's all sideshow. Egregiously stupid and greedy as their behavior has been, AIG is still just symptomatic of the overall financial institution landscape. And don't think a hell of a lot of money businesses aren't thrilled to have AIG as a new focus of citizen wrath; look for the new talking point to be that "dealing with" AIG will represent the "chastisement" of the whole industry. (If you don't think moneymoving, and that's what it mostly is, is an industry, think again.) So how come when, oh, a couple kids walk into a high school and shoot the place up, everyone starts screaming for legislation to crack down on videogames and student dress etc etc, but when the whole moneymoving industry collapses and takes miles of personal wealth with it how come nobody screams for a solution to a big root cause of it, like nationalizing the Federal Reserve Bank and putting American money policy back in the hands of the government. The government may be generally inept but at least it's answerable. The Fed has been a wellspring of bad economic policy for decades, and the subprime, mortgage and investing crises were just a payoff of those policies. It's a rhetorical question, I think we all know the answer...

The latest big question in the Bernie Madoff case, besides how long will he go to prison for and where, is will all those clients who received annual earnings statements from Madoff for years and paid taxes on the basis of those statements though there were no actual earnings get their taxes refunded? Didn't the government just give all that tax money to the banking industry? (And speaking of nationalizing, how much of the damn banking industry do we the people have to own before we can tell them what to do, anyway? I've heard rumblings that big banks like CitiBank are now arguing their recovery is dependent on Congress voting to increase their already nigh-kingly powers to jack up interest and tack on fees without customer consent. This is what comes of shoveling out hundreds of billions without conditions, on the premise that they're the ones who know their markets so they're best positioned to make the best decisions. That didn't seem to stop them from putting their businesses in the toilet.) A bunch of lawyers have concocted what they think is the perfect answer to all those questions, by the way: a new international court similar to the World Court under the auspices of the World Bank and the IMF to take jurisdiction over financial cases. In other words, though they don't phrase it as such, of bankers, by bankers and for bankers. Presumably, again, because they're best equipped – unlike us common citizens – to understand financial matters and make realistic judgments. And banks' record of self-policing has been so good...

So the Sci Fi Channel is changing its name to SyFy? Oooookaaaaaaaay... (Seems "Sci Fi" is too common to trademark so Universal opted instead for stupidity. Wouldn't be the first time.)

ABC launched new "mystery" show CASTLE last Monday (10P), starring former FIREFLY hunk Nathan Fillian as a semi-charming, semi-ne'er-do-well but of course runaway bestseller mystery author who hooks up with a semi-sexy and semi-reluctant female police detective to... gosh, solve crimes. Applying mystery writing techniques to detective work. Or something like that. I can't figure out whether it's supposed to be a throwback to all those cutesy '70s-'80s lighthearted detective shows like TENSPEED & BROWN SHOE and SIMON & SIMON or ABC's attempt to rip off PSYCH, its closest current parallel in style and tone. The show's stocked with stock characters and situations – Castle's ex-wife is also his publisher, his boozing, uninhibited mother, played by Susan Sullivan (what, Holland Taylor wasn't available), blithely spills all his secrets and brings home strange men – but very little that hasn't been seen a million times before. The pilot's plot was so perfunctory that it seems the network's banking entirely on Fillian's charm, but while Fillian has had his moments, CASTLE isn't one of them (please spare us the cocky man-child routine, okay?), and the show's only real mystery is whether it can run out available episodes before cancellation. Dull.

Congratulations to Daniel Trogdon, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "forces." Daniel wishes to point your attention to political discussion site 538 (subtitled "Politics Done Right," but that doesn't seem to be a pun, though modified it sure would be a great tagline for Fox News). Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but of course it's covered up. 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:  quality comics, comic-con international

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