Permanent Damage

Wed, May 20th, 2009 at 5:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

From the mailbox:

"Something I was thinking about your opinion on. Given that the future of comics is Original Graphic Novels, do you think that the freelancer - especially the freelance writer - has a chance? Will he exist just to service the Corporate IP (Marvel, DC, DH, and I guess Boom!) while the independent creator writes, draws, and self-publishes their personal work? Or do you think that collaboration will still exist even after technology allows one person to do it all?"

The first rule of modern culture: never underestimate corporatism. Like most American media, comics exist in a confusion of misinterpretation of their past, and cherished assumptions that don't necessarily reflect reality. There's a presumption in the question, for instance, that freelancer equates to numen, a controlling creative spirit. In fact, that was a very late development in comics, and more and more seems to be little more than a passing aberration, at least in areas of the field where money actually changes hands. This is the essential paradox of the comics business – of all "creative" mass media (comics still fall under that rubric, at least tangentially) – and source of much annoyance, finger-pointing and puffery in the field: it's very hard to earn a living producing comics unless you're willing to bend yourself to corporate control. Yet bending to corporate control (regardless of the company size; there isn't a significant spiritual difference between a one-person publishing outfit and Time-Warner, as both make decisions ostensibly based on anticipated profit, in cash, in reputation, or some other "reward" that benefit the publisher) is widely considered to be desecrating the holy cause of art – or, at least, those struggling to produce comics and meeting with little commercial success can still assure themselves they haven't "sold out" – but here's the dirty little secret of comics freelancing:

Comics freelancing is about craft, not art, and always has been.

A lot of our traditions emerged out of newspaper strip culture, where many artists (and writers) commonly spent early if not entire careers forging the style of whoever created whatever comic strip they'd been hired to work on. That's how you generally broke into newspaper strips, as an assistant on an existing strip, and most daily laborers dreamed of the big payoff, when they could sell their own strips for newspaper syndications. A few pulled it off, enough to keep The Big Dream going (Al Capp worked for Ham Fisher on JOE PALOOKA, Frank Frazetta worked with Al Capp on LI'L ABNER, etc.), but most spent their lives as hired hands until moving on to something else. SUPERMAN may have started as a newspaper strip Seigel & Shuster were unable to sell to a syndicate, but once it hit comics it was a pretty short hop to them hiring on crews to produce the material. Because freelancing wasn't about Art, in the sense of creative expression, but about commercial art, producing material to publisher/editor specification. Will Eisner may have been the poster boy for "creative control" with THE SPIRIT, but his first high-profile work was the first actionable knockoff of Superman – done to publisher specification.

In fact, while interviews with Golden and Silver Age talent almost always ramble on about "creativity" (frequently in the "we were massively creative, not like these kids today who just copy everything" vein) the word may only be understood within very narrow parameters: parameters set by the publishers. Creativity in a Batman story is measured not in terms of genuine creativity but as imaginative within the claustrophobic confines of possibility allowed by the history and nature of the strip, as well as the personal preferences of the editor – and, in the case of Batman, the corporate license holder. Not that this is unreasonable of a publisher, and I use Batman as an example because the material is well known enough for most people to recognize, since almost any work done in American comics from 1939-1978 (at least) fits just as well. Freelancers in the very early days of comics had the advantage of being done for publishers who were too new to the medium to know what they wanted, and it was pretty clear from the start that obvious knockoffs of popular comic strips wouldn't gain much traction, but once publishers started figuring that out (i.e., getting sales reports, and seeing what sold for other publishers) that was that.

And that's pretty much been the standard for the business ever since. For a brief time, comics were alienated from old audiences and old distributions paths, what had sold wasn't selling so well anymore, publishers were looking for any hook, and what passed for fandom (AKA the only market vocal enough to qualify as free market research), emboldened by a growing sense among talent that they should be getting a bigger part of the pie, started up this whole Art thing. Again, it was a basic confusion of terms: drawing ("art") is a, arguably the, pivotal component of comics, but the nature of comics makes art difficult to seriously judge in terms of Art. We really judge it on the basis of levels of craft. Which isn't to say comics have never produced genuine works of art, only that we tend to define Art in comics by rather liberal criteria intended less to validate works of art and more to validate the tastes of the self-proclaimed judges. Almost everyone in comics wants to believe they're creating works of art, even when they're officially denouncing the whole concept of "Art" as well as "flavors of the month," clinging to youthful obsessions and instead labeling themselves entertainers, but the urge to proclaim comics Art (let alone genre-izing art comics) has as much, possibly more, to do with justifying and elevating the customer as the talent.

We're now seeing signs that the industry is largely moving in the direction of the Original Graphic Novel. Except at the highest rungs of the corporate comics world (Marvel) the comic book, especially those split into arcs for reconstitution into trade paperback collection, is becoming increasingly commercially unviable. There may be nothing wrong with the standard comics format, but unless it can recover an audience large enough to support it economically it hasn't much of a future. That said, there are scales of economy that make it more viable, but ironically those scales are small enough they can't be made to work on the standard corporate model.

The corporate model of media – comics, film, TV, doesn't matter – isn't built around creativity. We tend to think of the basic practical unit of any sort of mass media fiction as the story, but from the corporate perspective the basic practical unit is the franchise. Corporate media is all about the franchise. Period. Not that it was ever really anything else at that level, but there's no longer even much of a pretense that the freelancer's job is to be creative. The freelancer's job is to produce to order. There's still some chance the order will be carte blanche, but more and more the system in corporate comics is taking on more the aspect of the animation studio or the TV series, with "staff meetings," and a creative hierarchy with a corporate representative handing creative decisions down to freelancers whose charge is to realize them to corporate specifications.

But this isn't the only model out there, mainly because it's all about franchises now. The Original Graphic Novel has lured book publishers into the field, and they, by and large, don't have franchises. There's still a longstanding if wavering tradition among publishers to consider authors their franchises, but since the '70s they've still preferred that their franchise authors bring their own franchises to the game. For now, book publishers, looking for market cred, have emphasized The Artist (writers and artists inclusive) as Franchise, and more "serious" material that distinguishes them from the commercial taint of corporate comics, but it's really only a matter of time before franchises become an issue on their level too. We're already seeing it to some extent. Smaller comics publishers in the standard comics market are also largely free from immediate concerns about franchises, largely because they don't have any. (It remains that voids tend to make publishers more susceptible to the charms of individual creativity.) I've yet to meet a publisher of any size who doesn't want a franchise, whether they control it or not.

The problem of a creator-owned franchise is that sooner or later virtually every creator wants to earn a living from their work – you can chalk this up to greed if you're feeling ungenerous, but mainly making money doing what you love, to the point where you can do it exclusively and live reasonably well, is a great dream for most people – and most smaller publishers, mostly for reasons having little to do with them and more to do with the system they're stuck with, ultimately have trouble meeting those expectations. There's also an ego element; if there's a general perception that a talented creator is deserving of a larger audience, eventually they'll go looking for that larger audience. There are those who steadfastly pursue their creative vision regardless of other opportunities and produce singular definitive works, like Dave Sim, and perhaps they can be singled out as "true" creators, but they're few and far between. There will always be "independent creators" out there, but how long any of them can survive in that role depends on shifting circumstances and their reservoirs of tenacity.

But, given the current state of the market, it's a misreading to think "independent creators" and "corporate freelancers" are exclusive of each other. They might be, often are, the same person(s). On a talent level, it's pretty stupid to write off any opportunities; the object of the game is to stay alive long enough to see your own creative vision through, and though it does occasionally happen it's juvenile to believe all doors will be flung open before you as a matter of course. Even if you really are a creative genius. Maybe especially. Again, in mass media, it isn't the totally original work that qualifies as "creative genius," it's the work that puts an original spin on a tried and trusted existing concept. Like, say, thinly disguised fundamentalist Mormons as vampires. The tarted up familiar is what the corporate mind thinks it can sell, because whatever "edge" dolls it up it's familiar, which is to say comforting, ground underneath. Furthermore, the notion that the Original Graphic Novel (in general) equals creative expression and unique vision is still mainly a dream that only a relative few are eager to make reality. Whether publishers or audiences of any volume share this dream on anything more than a moment-to-moment basis is open to question. While book publishers may still embrace the novel as personal expression, they're also certainly no strangers to franchises in the same sense as other media, and already "graphic novels" adapted existing fiction as well as movies and TV shows are popping up in their repertoire; it's not much of a jump to original franchise characters and concepts carried over a series of Original Graphic Novels. (As we've learned, particularly with terms hijacked by marketing, phrases can be made to mean almost anything the seller wants them to mean, if the sell is good enough.) The "original graphic novel" may yet end up being just another extension of existing franchise practice, the way Marvel ran a string of "original graphic novels" in the late '80s that were often little more than extended issues of MARVEL TEAM-UP and at the same level of sophistication and were a major contributor toward killing the first wave graphic novel movement. Whether the "Art" original graphic novel – the singular vision, which itself may be little more than a sentimental throwback to 19th century preconceptions – is the true destiny of comics or a brief mutation incapable of sustaining itself depends on popular spending patterns.

A lot of what happens with the future of comics depends on conditions comics have no real control over. While right now it's hard to see anything other than a state of stolid entropy gripping the business, any number of things could shift. The outcome of current tribulations afflicting the big bookstore chains may determine the financial viability of the original graphic novel, at least those not involving the superheroes and horror stories the direct market embraces. There's no question that many comic companies of all sizes are increasingly tying, or trying to tie, their fortunes to Hollywood, who's recent taste for comics as source material shows no signs of abatement, but shifting perceptions of what Hollywood is looking for might affect what publishers seek. Likewise, buyer tastes periodically shift despite the best efforts of any corporate entity to keep things predictable. Any potential trigger seems currently elusive, but it's always possible a popular demand for creator-controlled material will re-emerge. Comics have always been slow to adjust to market shifts – the business tends to be reactive rather than progressive and protective of its past, a trait it shares with the general corporate mindset – but even corporate comics make moves to shore up their bottom line when absolutely necessary. New technologies like Internet comics and phone comics have also created new options, but, again, until the money is there in something more than symbolic amounts anyone with the talent to earn money in other venues will end up elsewhere.

At any rate, the overall situation for the freelancer isn't likely to change much more than cosmetically, with everyone making their decisions on the basis of what they really want. Those who wish to write or draw comics and want to be assured money doing it will gravitate to corporate comics, as will those whose creative vision corresponds with what corporate comics want. If someone's more interested in producing original concepts that strongly bear the stamp of their personality, there will always be avenues for that as well, even if the talent has to forge a new way themselves. Some will continue to adjust their visions to fall better into line with perceived publisher needs, whether they're eager to be published by DC or Fantagraphics. And publishers will continue to occasionally go in surprising directions. Whether the comic book stays the standard format or original graphic novels or something else becomes the standard is a bit irrelevant, because there will still only be a finite amount of material published and a more finite subset of that will be profitable, and what's profitable or not is really going to determine what the freelancer's options are and the breadth of opportunity.

I also don't see the level of collaboration shifting to any noticeable degree. While "corporate" comic tend to prefer collaborate comics, partly as a means to speed production and partly (and usually vainly) to dissuade talent from viewing itself as "author" of the work, collaboration has become a staple of comics because it's practical. Comics involve a lot of disparate skills, and not everyone is good at everything. That's no reason to not work in comics if you want to, despite the cult that insists the only comics that can really lay a claim to Art are the ones produced by a single entity pursuing a single vision. (The flip side that has been embraced by any number of crappy talents is that if you produce a comic all on your own, it's automatically Art. Once you settle for shallow reasoning, it's easy to jump to other shallow conclusions.) I don't see any reason technology will significantly change this. The best technology in the world can't help a person who doesn't know how to write produce a coherent script, and short of a massive comprehensive computer swipe file with customizing software I can't think of anything besides a camera and some willing models that could circumvent an ability to draw. Even proper lettering and coloring can't really be auto-mechanized. These are all things that can only be employed properly by a working intelligence.

On an even more basic level, many writer-artists don't fill both functions at the same time. Writing while you're drawing, especially where space is limited and with comics it almost always is, is a very bad idea minus a genius aptitude for it; most writer-artists I know write first, whether as a script or as breakdowns, and draw from the result. This is still division of labor, though both tasks are done by the same person. It doesn't even necessarily follow that the "shared vision" of the two aspects will amount to anything; in fact, a clash of visions can produce surprising, sometimes exciting results. In the end, either can produce crap, either can produce Art. The road you take to get there is irrelevant, as is how many hands are involved. What matters is the result, not the process. I'm inclined toward Raymond Chandler's dictum: There is no such thing as bad art. There is only art, and precious little of it.

1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 115-121):

From Del Rey Books:

THE DRESDEN FILES: STORM FRONT VOL. 1, THE GATHERING STORM by Jim Butcher, Mark Powers, Adrian Syaf & Rick Ketcham($22.95; hardcover)

While I know they're quite popular, I'm not a fan of Butcher's novels starring wizard/private eye Harry Dresden in a hardboiled Chicago steeped in magic and monsters; it's too similar to gobs of other wizard private eye concepts from the Philip Lovecraft stories to Steve Niles' Cal MacDonald. And I'm flat out repelled by the concept of a $23 book that's only the first chapter of a continued story. Within those parameters, this one – with Harry trying to solve twin occult murders while the head of the wizard's council wants him executed for breaking their laws and other enemies periodically attack him – is better than the last I read, with Powers setting things up at a pleasant pace while Syaf & Ketcham produce pretty good art. Still, these things should be run in comics form until there's a whole story to collect; the material, especially fragmented, is just too mundane to merit the cost.

From IDW Publishing:

FROM THE ASHES #1 by Bob Fingerman ($3.99; comic book)

Apparently for some people nuclear apocalypse isn't disaster on a grand scale, it's personal liberation. Fingerman presents it as a personal memoir for future generations (?) as he and his wife wander the rubble of New York City, gloating over the loss of everything they hate about modern society (like most New Yorkers, the phrase "live and let live" doesn't seem to be in their vocabulary), recalling various scenarios from end-of-the-world movies, and looking for toilet paper, while observing the quick degeneration of the human race. (Or, at least, the New York version of it.) Fingerman's work is always good, but FROM THE ASHES is strangely... sedate. It's like THE ROAD on valium, or a MAD magazine gag on silly putty, where tomorrow's breakfast is far less important than the smoker downstairs not being able to light up anymore. I like it okay, but I wish it gave me something to like more.

From Pantheon Books:

ASTERIOS POLYP by David Mazzuchelli ($29.95; hardcover)

Despite the popularity of the term, there aren't many projects I'd call a genuine graphic novel. This one is. In telling the story of an architecture professor whose house burns down, Mazzuchelli, who has become quite an excellent cartoonist, really departs on an exercise in philosophy and worldbuilding, as his simple, evocative drawings are as articulate as his writing. It's a fascinating, winding trek through 50 year old Polyp's past, viewpoints, and post-fire nervous breakdown/mid-life crisis with very funny moments like a discussion of abstraction, art and function that seems to be a subtle parody of Steve Ditko's AVENGING WORLD. It's really quite a wonderful, rich book, beautifully designed, inventively drawn and filled with great characters and interesting ideas, even if the ending's just a bit too steeped in irony. Read it.

From Image Comics:

LILLIM #1 by Shaun Lapacek, Ian Keiser & Matrix ($2.99)

Ah, more gods. Turns out Loki, analogued here with the Greek Prometheus, is the good guy, the rest of the Norse pantheon are violent, narrow-minded dullards, and Ragnarok ended with a thud. Somehow Loki ends up in the modern world, face to face with (of course) the spitting image of his lost love, and... well, nothing, really. This runs up against the problem most mythology-based comics, including, maybe especially, Marvel's THOR, does: ancient pantheons just don't correlate that well to the modern world, and nobody, not Neil Gaiman, not Jack Kirby, not Grant Morrison, has managed to make god pantheons any different from any other superhero group. Plus the manga detective version of Loki is a lot more interesting, though this version's more interesting than Marvel's transsexual villain version. Maybe it's time for comics to give Norse gods a rest.

From Fantagraphics:

TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE, VOL. 1 by Michael Kupperman ($24.99; hardcover)

I might say Kupperman is one of the greatest satirists of our time, if I could figure out what he's satirizing. The basic facts: this collects the four issues of the TALES DESIGNED TO THRIZZLE magazine Fantagraphics published over the years, featuring dozens of short pieces done on a chaotic array of subjects in so many styles much of it comes across as found art, and almost all of it's hilarious. Any attempt to summarize to summarize things like "Mentally Ill Gangster Comics" or "Crime Is Pushing The Limits" would miss the point completely. Except to say this is media culture put through the grinder. Top-notch.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

BACK ISSUE #34 ed. Michael Eury ($6.95; magazine)

Speaking of "Art comics," this issue fondly recalls the first irruption of poisenal expression into mainstream comics in the early '70s, as Roy Thomas and Gil Kane first conceived Marvel's Warlock as the company's first overt Christ surrogate (Stan Lee had previously pushed The Silver Surfer for that role but wouldn't go whole hog) and Jim Starlin later reconceived him as a tour guide into The Cosmic: the superhero as neo-Gnosticm, acid-drenched allegory. WARLOCK may also be read as a guide to the limits of individual vision in the face of franchise demands – even a loving plot summary unfairly makes the series sound like the result of brain damage – but Starlin pushed the limits pretty far, given the time. The rest of the issue covers other science fictionized superhero comics of the '70s & '80s – Jim Shooter's Legion of Super-Heroes and New Universe, Dick Giordano on CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, MARVELMAN, etc. – and the issue's as entertaining as most BACK ISSUEs, but this one turns out to be oddly instructive as well.

From Marvel Comics:

DARK REIGN: HAWKEYE #2 by Andy Diggle, Tom Raney & Scott Hanna ($3.99; comic book)

I've read nothing but complaints about how awful this series is, but in all its singleminded focus on a "hero" opportunistically reveling in the unrepentant sociopath he really is, it's really pretty exhilarating. If you haven't followed Avengers peregrinations, the group has been replaced by a bunch of rebranded supervillains, with psychotic hitman Bullseye, of DAREDEVIL fame being put in Hawkeye's old costume. It's no more stupid than any other superhero concept, and watching head sociopath Norman Osborn stoop to the outright fascism that things like The Patriot Act make possible to cover up Bullseye/Hawkeye's mess works too. It's clear Diggle and Raney are having a kick tossing aside all social convention for this, and it's great that they feel no compulsion to make Bullseye out to be anything more than dumb as dirt. I have a feeling this is exactly the sort of superhero action a lot of people secretly prefer: sheer high-spirited aggression with no redeeming value. And I'm not being sarcastic.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Recently caught Canadian TV show THE LISTENER, set to debut as a summer series on NBC in a couple of weeks. I guess the producers must know their market, because TV networks all over the world have been rushing to sign the show on, but it's a botch from the word go. The almost startlingly nondescript Craig Olejnik starts as a man born with – you guessed it, superpowers – the ability to read people's minds. Apparently he spent his youth as a bitter outsider, despite a twinkling smile and varsity good looks, until some researcher taught him to "shut out the voices," but now realizes he can help people, and uses his telepathy to butt into their lives. It takes maybe thirty seconds of imagination to generate half a dozen interesting takes on the real world ramifications of mindreading, but the best the show's creator and producers can concoct is a tired retread of 30 year old private eye show tropes.

Speaking of tired, maybe it's time to put SMALLVILLE (CW) out of its misery. Where season 7 was remarkably good, all things considered, season 8 was a train wreck of lost and aborted storylines, story illogic, and throwing half-ideas against the wall to see what crashes on contact, then using those. The season finale, which found its "shocks" in killing "the one character" you'd never expect to die (besides Clark and Lois), was the big climax to the battle royale they've been teasing all five SUPERMAN fans with all year: Clark vs. Doomsday! You know: the unstoppable, indestructible alien juggernaut, the rampaging killing machine beast, who killed Superman waaaaaaay back in the '90s, when people were still gullible enough to think the "Death Of Superman" issue would one day be worth enough to put their kids through college (so they bought ten). In the comics, the battle lasted several issues. In the show... barely a minute. (Apparently, the Doomsday SFX ate up most of their budget, so they filled in with lots of angsty chatter, with a member of the Legion Of Super-Heroes dropping in to spew ominously, and Green Arrow being revealed as Lex Luthor's murderer - a running storyline earlier in the season had Luthor subordinate Tess Mercer desperately trying to track down the whereabouts of her lost boss after the Fortress Of Solitude caved in on him during last season's finale, until one episode it suddenly turned out she'd been in contact with him all along; that's the sort of season it was – and no other hero seems to think that was an especially bad move, except Clark. Who does nothing.) Two minutes for the battle to end all battles. Do Clark and Doomsday replicate the comics and beat each other to death? No, Clark dumps the unstoppable, indestructible monster into a pile of explosives and blows him up. There's nothing left to work with there...

My favorite line of the season, which I've been quoting endlessly, in voice, since it aired, was courtesy of James Callis as a cross between Charles Manson and the Unabomber in the season finale of NUMB3RS (CBS). Imagine it in a great Callis Ozarks-by-way-of-Royal-Shakespeare-Company hillbilly drawl: "Theh dodd fer thuh messuge." Priceless. Someone give Callis his own show.

A couple interesting scientific developments lately: inconclusive evidence has turned up suggesting our Cro-Magnon ancestors not only wiped out Neanderthals, they ate them, a new 47 million year old fossil find buttresses the development of humans via evolution by appearing to be the missing link between lemurs and primates, and scientists may have found the mechanism for forming RNA in primordial soup. If the experiment can be replicated by other labs and doesn't turn out to be a cold fusion or perpetual motion deal, it means the astronomical odds of life developing from inanimate matter – a key talking point for Creationists – aren't all that astronomical after all...

Congratulations to Steve Fagan, the first – the only - to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "decades." (Each cover comes from a different decade between the 1940s and now.) Steve, who handles distribution for independent films, wishes to point your attention to his own website, Sky Island Films, which could come in very handy if you've got an indie film you want seen. 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, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but in the immortal words of Jimmy Cliff, you must try, try and try, and you'll succeed at last. 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.

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