Permanent Damage

Wed, April 8th, 2009 at 6:10pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

It's spring and apparently everyone's thoughts are returning now to breaking into the comics business, because in the last week I've gotten several e-mails asking for advice in anticipation of the San Diego Con right down the road. While it's certainly a hoot to attend, San Diego may now be too overwhelming (for editors as well as fans) to be of much good anymore for shopping your work around. The basics are the same as any other year – be really good, only show your best, latest samples, be polite and recently showered – but the question now is how much new talent can or will the market absorb? Marvel and DC both continue to pump out a lot of books, but most of their titles are coordinated in-house, while many other companies are effectively closed shops now, and Diamond has made launching new titles even more problematic. Everyone's worried about the economy, so while spring is in the air fear is too.

So here's my best advice of the moment:

Fear isn't worth the effort.

Depending on what you mean by "getting into the business," there has never been a better time to get into the business. If by "getting into the business," you mean "getting rich and famous with your work," those odds have never been good, regardless of talent or era, though it does occasionally happen. If you mean, "writing and/or drawing Spider-Man and Batman," that possibility's on the marginal side too. Barring special circumstances, a good artist will always find entrée easier than a good writer will, but breaking in really isn't about working editors in New York anymore. When I "broke in," it was strictly luck and an accumulation of circumstance – I wouldn't say I was untalented, but I was certainly no more talented than a thousand other guys who wanted to do the same thing, but I knew someone who ended up becoming an editor – and there were really only two options, if I wanted to write comics: Marvel or DC. While those are still two of the likeliest places to earn a living at, if you can manage your way through the door (luck and circumstance don't really enter into it much anymore), but no one's restricted to those options anymore.

So here's what I tell everyone now: if you want to create comics, create comics. That's how you break in. The mechanics of how a comic book is created isn't even a poorly-kept secret anymore; there are dozens of books available on the subject, like Nat Gertler & Steve Lieber's THE COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO CREATING A GRAPHIC NOVEL. Even if your great goal in life is a creative credit on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and all the implied glory that goes with it (and while that's not inconsiderable, if you manage to stand out from the pack, in a good way, it's probably not as much as you'd imagine), what do you think will impress an editor more? That you managed to stuff ten pages of pencil drawings into a portfolio or you managed to get your work in print and start building an audience? That's what comics companies are looking for these days. Dozens show up on their doorsteps every day who can churn out a passable BLUE BEETLE or IRON FIST story, and so what? What they want now are people who can not only deliver (theoretically) great work but a preexistent audience, and preferably an audience they don't already have.

You need two things to build an audience: 1) a venue; 2) work good enough that readers will make it a point of coming back for more. Good enough to convince them you, not only the particular work, are good enough to merit following, so that once you manage to get that MS. MARVEL fill-in written and published, they'll be intrigued enough by the possibilities to buy a copy. (That kind of goodwill only lasts as long as you pay off, but that's another issue.)

It may seem to some, at this point, that I'm encouraging making a berth at DC or Marvel your great long term goal. I'm not. But I'm aware many harbor that goal. That's fine. Whatever gets you started is fine. That's the great thing about goals: you don't have to stick with them if something better pops up in the meantime. Personally, I think it's silly to have something as specific as writing for Marvel or writing for DC or writing DEATHSTROKE or THE AVENGERS as a goal. I'd say creating comics is the goal to pursue, if that's your bent. Then again, I've done all those things, so who am I to declare them worthy or unworthy? Here's my point: it's great to have goals, but letting your goals rigidly shape your choices is inane.

There's no point in pursuing goals you no longer need.

It may seem like a Catch-22: to "break in" you need an audience but to get an audience you need to break in. That's only if you're locked into old systems. The "comics business" is far bigger and more fractured than it was in 1978, when I broke in, and Marvel and/or DC are no longer "the comics business," no matter how much fanzines and newssites and their own propaganda push that notion. "The comics business" is all over the place: newspaper strips, online comics, manga, animation, mini-comics, indie comics, alt-comics, original graphic novels... It doesn't matter whether any of these have the critical mass to challenge Marvel/DC "hegemony," it only matters that your contribution pulls in enough eyes to make it worthwhile for you. Which doesn't necessarily mean you'll be making money in a hurry, or at all. The question isn't really income but audience. Build a large enough, faithful enough audience and you will end up making money. There are all kinds of ways to make money.

Audience is the true grail now, not assignments. You think Marvel or DC (or Fantagraphics or Viz or Avatar) just have so many pages they want filled in order to publish a comic book? They want audience, and they either publish talent whose work they're gambling wlll draw that audience or who they're gambling can follow through on ideas they think can draw that audience? (I sometimes get this question from aspiring artists: what's the best thing they can draw to get an editor's attention? Answer: an audience.)

How to build an audience? Only one way: do the work. Get in there and work. Work at the work. Work at getting the word out. Create something, develop it, sell it. Go the print route if you like, either through a publisher or self-publishing; as I mentioned in the aftermath of Wondercon, if you can do the convention circuit there appear to be new opportunities for direct-to-audience sales that may alter the way the comics business works before long. Get an Internet site and publish there. If you want to be in print, you can be in print. It might become a harsh lesson that your work can't garner an audience, but the great thing about that is that, unlike when an editor (they reserve long memories for the most inconvenient things) sees your name attached to something he considers utter trash, no one needs to know about that lesson but you. The product can softly and suddenly vanish away while you return to practicing and polishing.

Here's the thing: you might ultimately want to write Spider-Man, but doing, say, a webcomic about your own Spider-Man knockoff probably isn't the way to go about it. Spider-Man fans already have Spider-Man to kick around; people who don't like Spider-Man are unlikely to appreciate the obvious similarities. To go after a new audience, come up with something new. THE WALKING DEAD may be your favorite comic but why should anyone seek out a feature elsewhere that gives them exactly what they're already getting? To find a new audience, you need a new idea or a sufficiently new take on an old one.

But don't forget to ask yourself: once you've got that new idea, that's all yours, and once you've built an audience for it, and gotten enough word of mouth that all the big companies have gotten wind of it, what, really, do you need them for any longer? It's okay to dream big, of that day when the X-Men will be your jurisdiction, but while you're dreaming why not go for the bigger dream, of that day when everything you create is completely yours?


Now that I've brought up long form online comic strip as a serious alternative – maybe the serious alternative, as opposed to the four-panel online pseudo-newspaper strip – for comics creators, time for part one in our survey of what's being published on the web now. With print publishing becoming more expensive and print distribution dodgier by the day (it used to be a venue where you could be underfinanced and still make due, but no longer) online comics are increasingly the only sane solution, especially since more and more it isn't the intended money element itself, but a step in producing enough material to generate a graphic novel. When graphic novels first materialized in any number in the late '80s, publishers restricted them to as little as 44 pages, twice the length of a standard comic, and rarely stepped over 88. But bookstores, the new key venue of the graphic novel trade, have increasingly demanded "graphic novels" of no fewer than 128 pages and preferably over 150, their idea of what amounts to a salable package in their market. That's a lot of pages to underwrite, but the web is quickly providing the answer to that problem as well.

On to the first batch.

Making the jump to graphic novel soon is Robert Burke Richardson & Steven Yarbrough's THE MATRIARCH, about the tribulations of a single working mother who doubles as a superheroine. It's not bad but needs to answer a couple simple questions pretty quickly, like why has she returned to superheroics when she obviously has a ton else on her plate? Hopefully they'll tell us soon...

Kieron Gillan & Chastity Larrison's Busted Wonder is an intriguing, evocatively written and drawn light fantasy about circuses, adolescence and creativity. Quite clever; it puts me in mind of LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND and some of Neil Gaiman's more whimsical SANDMAN stories, while being like neither.

That one's finished, but recently begun is Adam Knave, Renato Pastor & Lauren Vogelbaum's Legend Of The Burrito Blade, another contemporary fantasy about Lords Of The Sky come to earth to take over and solve "the human problem." With different viewpoints. Played for laughs but not entirely. There used to be underground comics like this.

Every Friday through May, RM Rhodes is publishing four pages of Oceanus Procellarum, a mélange of fumetti, layouts, graphic design and meditations on the nature of fiction, with some vaguely surrealistic meta-narrative thrown in. A good example of how comics can be made with non-traditional elements; it's hard to tell right now where it's going but it's interesting enough to find out.

Finally, for now, there's Bill Williams & Robb Phipps' Side Chicks, apparently about an agency staffed by women that handles sensitive jobs for superheroes. (I'm picking that up from context; the strip doesn't really specify.) The current, fourth storyline finds the heroine (also not sure what her name is, or her powers... a little more context, guys...) hiring out to prove a gay man innocent of murdering his lover. It's fairly entertaining and nicely drawn, but I'm a bit leery about any strip that suggests someone accused of shooting a gun might be exonerated if no powder residue is found on the movie stub that would prove his alibi. Doesn't quite work like that. The strip is slightly hampered by its 1-3 panels per outing format, but still worth a look, though I have to wonder if there's anything here that requires superheroes to be part of it...

More next week.


1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 78-84):

From Dynamite Entertainment:

THE BLACK TERROR #3 by Alex Ross, Jim Krueger & Mike Lilly (Price unknown; comic book)

This is the problem with superhero comics these days; while this is certainly written and drawn well enough, I kept having flashbacks to INFINITY INC and ALL-STAR SQUADRON as the lead character winds through a plot maze of timelost heroes trapped in limbo, time-traveling villains, flashbacks and lots and lots and lots of costumes. I appreciate that Dynamite/Ross & Krueger are trying to do something different with superheroes, but taking a bit from WATCHMEN and a bit from X-MEN and a bit from JUSTICE SOCIETY and a bit from this and that just isn't different enough. That's the real problem with doing new superheroes these days: giving superhero fans something they can't get elsewhere and reason to want it. THE BLACK TERROR is as good as the average Marvel or DC comic, but the flip side is that the average Marvel or DC Book is as good as THE BLACK TERROR, and when you're coming in from left field that's not exactly a hook. For all I know it sells fabulously but I'm just not sure what the selling point is besides Alex Ross, and his presence doesn't noticeably permeate.

From Del Rey Manga:

WOLVERINE: PRODIGAL SON BOOK 1 by Anthony Johnston & Wilson Tortosa ($12.99; trade paperback)

I'm far from convinced that "mangafying" American comics is of use to anyone, but that's partly because most American stories don't lend themselves to the rhythms and tone that permeates manga, and because Western manga imitators have a terrible habit of copying the surface elements of manga (or, usually, the clichéd reductionist American delusion of manga) and missing the elements that make it interesting. So WOLVERINE: PRODIGAL SON came as a surprise. Johnston and Tortosa get the rhythms, tropes and action presentation down almost exactly right. And while I have zero interest in Wolverine, turns out that shorn of all that tortured X-Men/Alpha Flight/SHIELD backstory and reimagined as a teenager determined (again, in manga mode) to become the best at what he does, he makes a fairly interesting character. In Johnston's hands, anyway. The plot won't be a mystery to many, but they pull it off pretty well. Worth a look.

From DC Comics:

DEAD ROMEO #1 by Jesse Blaze Snider, Ryan Benjamin & Saleem Crawford ($2.99; comic book)

Oh, look: a character named Whisper. This should be fun; it's been a long time since I sued anyone for trademark infringement. Otherwise, this is a fairly hyperactive but nondescript and mildly confusing story of a gang of vampires doing... well, what exactly besides slashing jugulars I couldn't say. Naturally, the titular hero/gang member seems destined to rebel against them. Could've used a little less handwringing and a little more exposition, but it's okay. Sure hope they get to a point soon, though - and change the heroine's name.

From Watson-Guptill:

GET ANIMATED: CREATING PROFESSIONAL CARTOON ANIMATION ON YOUR HOME COMPUTER by Tim Maloney ($24.95; trade paperback + DVD)

Not comics; this is the instruction manual the title says. Maloney distills a decade of animation experience into good advice as he goes through dizzying layers of the animator's art and craft – subjects as diverse as design, sound, staging, camera techniques, distribution and narrative elements - though his best and harshest comes early on: while a computer will help with the technical stuff, you'll still need to know how to draw. The book's slightly schizoid in focus – I realize Maloney's emphasizing professional and it doesn't hurt to learn good habits early, but if you're creating animation yourself on your home computer what does it matter what your script format looks like? – but overall it's hard to imagine a better primer on the subject. Whether it'll actually get you to a finished, polished cartoon when all I said and done, I couldn't say, but I imagine the included tutorial DVD helps.

From Image Comics:

INVINCIBLE #60 by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley & Cliff Rathburn ($3.99; comic book)

It's been a long time since I checked in on INVINCIBLE, and, um... wow, sure looks like housecleaning in whatever passes these days for the Image Universe. A supervillain sets an army of pandimensional evil Invincibles loose on earth to demolish cities and slaughter superheroes. And that's pretty much the story. As a superhero slugfest it's kind of exhilarating, but it could really have used a character glossary somewhere. Now I'm interested to see if any characters really died in all this mayhem...

From Oletheros:

THIS IS NOT VIVA LARS VEGAS by RM Rhodes, Azcra Woodward & T Magwood ($13; prestige format comic book)

A reporter goes to Amsterdam to interview a retired giraffe-headed fertility god upset about a planned remake of a film about his life. Heavy on design, photography, collage and a lot of genitalia and virtually absent of physical action as the reporter's reminiscences intersect with Lars Vegas' interview, it's nonetheless cleverly done, reading very well with good, funny dialogue and a striking look as it fixates on the mysteries of love, identity and death.

From Fantagraphics:

MOME 14, Spring 2009 ed Gary Groth & Eric Reynolds ($14.99)

Still the most literate and interesting alt-comics anthology around. No noticeable theme this issue but some terrific material, including a wonderful "Kafka meets Little Lulu" piece by Laura Park, another hilarious chapter in an ongoing series by underground comics icon Gilbert (FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS Shelton, a handful of beautifully cryptic one-pagers by Derek Van Geison, and Émile Bravo's savage and thankfully unprophetic reimagining of the end of the Ghost's presidency as a western. But the centerpiece is a lengthy bittersweet piece about longing and escape by Lilli Carré that's worth the price alone. But pretty much everything in MOME is top-notch, though I've grown to hope we've seen the last of "The Truth Bear."


Notes from under the floorboards:

Our condolences to Len Wein and his wife for the fire that recently cost them their home and pet.

Finally I have something in common with Orson Welles besides Madison WI. Last week's April Fools stunt was generally well-received – but triggered a minor firestorm at a company where employees read neither the end-of-column disclaimer nor a calendar that day. (Not a comics company, either.) Not my intention and sorry for any misunderstandings, but it was a joke. See, I'd always been taught that if you're going to bother to come up with an April Fools joke, it should be as convincing as possible. It's only a good joke if they can't tell it's a joke. Until you drop the AF-bomb. Things calmed down quickly but it was exciting for a little while there. Oddly, most readers figured it had to be a joke when I "revealed" that DC was unaware of Warner Communications' intent to sell off the division, but those inside the comics business didn't find that difficult to swallow at all... (I'd also like to reiterate, for the record, that no DC editors or Fox executives, current or former, or anyone else, was consulted for the piece. Why would I? I made it all up.)

Other excitement was triggered last week by the leak of the forthcoming WOLVERINE film on the Internet, which quickly led to Defcon-4 status at Fox and an ongoing FBI investigation. The ironic big fallout from the situation so far was the firing of a film reviewer from Fox News - who was one of the very few to publish a review of the pirated film. (Most reviewers, not wanting to unnecessarily bloody themselves in Fox's eyes, stayed clear of the thing... besides which, with FBI involvement now, downloading the film might not be the smartest maneuver on its own merits...) More evidence that you have to be an arrogant idiot to work at Fox News... but apparently that's no longer enough to keep you there, if it's Fox's toes you're stepping on...

Huh. Turns out Papercutz has been reprinting the old First Comics Classic Illustrateds for a few months now and the HAMLET adaptation I did with Tom Mandrake is on tap for June...

Uh-oh. Maybe DC has a better grip on reality than we realized...

Seems an Italian seismologist warned authorities of the devastating earthquake that hit L'Aquino. Had they paid attention, residents could have been evacuated in plenty of time, saving untold lives. Instead, he was turned over to police as a troublemaker. Now that he has been proved right, L'Aquino authorities are declaiming him a lucky crank. L'Aquino survivors are also full of nasty slurs, but not for the seismologist. In a sick way it's kind of comforting to be reassured the U.S. government isn't the only one willing to ignore and defame science it doesn't like...

Because you don't have enough to panic about, CNN wants you to obsess about your caffeine intake. Big surprise: the more caffeine you absorb per day, the worse your headache will be if you quit cold turkey. Gosh, you'd think caffeine was a drug or something. Researchers figured that out! It took researchers! In related news, researchers have uncovered indications that water is, in fact, wet...

The government's now bandying a depressing 8.5% unemployment rate, but it turns out that's nowhere near accurate. This is the result of a little game started by the Reagan administration to make things look rosier by massaging unemployment figures: the unemployed who never collected or are no longer collecting unemployment benefits aren't counted. Run through your unemployment benefits but still unable to find a new job? You're no longer unemployed, you're just jobless. And lazy. Also on the outs: those former full-time workers now working part-time jobs but still looking for full-time work. End result: the real unemployment rate runs closer to 16%...

In another weirdly ironic twist, Spain has begun legal proceedings against members of the Ghost's former administration for authorizing torture in Guantanamo Bay. I remember when Spain's dictator Gen. Franco's security forces made... er... liberal use of torture in dealing with perceived enemies of the state. What, just because Spain learned its lesson, the USA should too? Anyway, it seems we've used the concept of "universal jurisdiction" to serve American interests many times in the past, so now it might be Spain's turn. Franco is still dead, by the way...

Ah, the face of revolt in the 21st century: peeved over crooked elections, thousands of students in Moldova invaded government buildings, including the president's offices. Police apparently had no warning, because the protesters organized – and continue to share information and news despite an official news blackout – with a secret new technology unknown to Moldovan police: Twitter... Kinda makes you ashamed all you're using it for is silly quips punctuated with emoticons, dunnit?

In other Twitter news, Dresden Dolls co-conspirator Amanda Palmer recently revealed to The Lefsetz Letter that during a recent tour of Australia she publicized her events, even impromptu ones ("No manager! No agents! No security! No venue!"), via Twitter to amazing response – but the "head of digital media" at her record company's Oz office had to be told what Twitter was, then dismissed it as irrelevant...

iTunes fans rejoice! When the company dumped its flat-pricing model (99¢ per track) for record company-requested tiered pricing, the "promise" was that while, say, the new Jonas Brothers track might cost a couple bucks, that Atomic Rooster track no one's shown any interest in at all would correspondingly drop in price. A recent investigation finds prices jacked up on big record company pushes, but no reductions for the rest of it. Do all companies really think no one will notice when press releases turn out to be just propaganda, or is there supposed to be some gentlemen's understanding that it's impolite to mention it?

Some time ago I griped about the lack of a solar-powered car, since here in the Mojave Desert that's guaranteed free travel for life. My dream is a little closer now, since someone has developed a solar car that can go almost 60 mph. That's good enough for street traffic, around here. Where can I get the loan of a review model?

And now it's like Xmas for the film industry! Insofar as filmgoing is in the toilet, as I read recently in a syndicated feature in my local paper, or ticket sales are strong. Movies are making a killing or being killed, which is it? If individual movies aren't selling up to expectations, it's less to do with the health of the industry and more to do with expectations being presumptuous and delusional...

The British show PRIMEVAL, about a team researching, and dealing with prehistoric monsters that come through, energy rifts leading to other times, debuted its third series last week. Following an excellent second series, this one seems to be in upheaval (the show's focal character will be written out sometime this series) but the biggest upheaval is at cash-strapped network ITV, which has reportedly told producers a fourth series the very successful, very expensive series (and virtually every other ITV series that requires a budget) will not be needed. Producers are reportedly scrambling for other funding and venues. Meanwhile, NBC's recent dramatic entry KINGS, set in a United States (traditionally?) ruled by a king – I gather it's also some kind of biblical parallel to the David story? – is cancelled, with remaining episodes to be blown off in the Saturday night dead zone, but cop show SOUTHLAND - no idea what makes it different from any other cop show NBC has tried and failed with in the past few years – debuts Thursday 10P, while a new ABC cop show, THE UNUSUALS, about a squad of offbeat (who isn't these days?) NYC cops who handle offbeat (which on TV aren't these days?) cases takes over the LIFE ON MARS Wednesday 10P slot this week. The former stars former O.C. lead Benjamin Mackenzie and the latter the always entertaining Adam Goldberg & Harold Perrineau (among other OZ alumni), so they're both likely worth at least a glance...

Speaking of LIFE ON MARS, though I couldn't have cared less about the series I caught the final episode to see how they paid off on their promise that it would end differently from its English counterpart. Turned out it ended more or less how I'd expected BATTLESTAR GALACTICA to end – a virtual reality gimmick that instantly explained away all the false steps, dead ends, contradictions, impossibilities and coincidences that accumulate in any TV series over time and whose resolution is mandatory for a satisfactory climax. Though in LIFE ON MARS it was more cute than satisfying, but at least it explained everything. It was like when Bob Newhart wakes up in bed next to Emily Hartley at the end of the NEWHART series. Matter of fact, a friend suggested all TV shows should end that way from now on; it's the quickest way to make sense of anything, especially series built around incomprehensible convoluted mysteries. I recommend it for LOST...

Congratulations to Trevor Sky, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "'60s rock acts." Trevor wishes to point your attention to Warren Ellis & Paul Duffield's only comics serial FREAK ANGELS. Go look, if you're not already a regular reader.

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 the column, though the odds against finding it are astronomical. 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:  breaking in, online comics, web comics

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