Permanent Damage

Wed, June 24th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Heard the rumor the other day that the CW's again seriously considering "spinning another series off" SMALLVILLE, previous attempts (under the CW's earlier incarnation as the WB) being BIRDS OF PREY, MERCY REEF and THE GRAYSONS. At this point there are enough characters regularly popping up on SMALLVILLE - Green Arrow, Black Canary, Zatanna, the Legion of Super-Heroes, The Flash, Martian Manhunter, Supergirl – that could be spun off, though each presents problems (Green Arrow's probably the best, most exposed choice, and could easily feed an edgier show exploring grayer areas of morality than SMALLVILLE allows the stalwart, teen-friendly Clark Kent to tread in any depth, but Green Arrow's "iconic" status is iffy at best) but so far the CW's attempts haven't really been spin-offs, except that they and Superman both derive from the DC Universe. BIRDS OF PREY tapped the Batman milieu but failed (presumably for contractual reasons) to namecheck Batman or Robin or give audiences much clue to the show's provenance, and network desire to replicate SMALLVILLE saddled the show with baggage that worked against its dynamic. MERCY REEF was basically SMALLVILLE under water, overweighted with conspiracy plotlines, with young Arthur Curry becoming suddenly aware, ala Clark Kent, that he had superhuman powers and came from "a different world," and the astute reader... er, viewer... would know he'd one day grow up to be – Aquaman!

THE GRAYSONS, never even getting to pilot, was more problematic, a proposed SMALLVILLE-esque series about the adventures of Dick Grayson and his family before they died and he took on the identity of Robin. (This, apparently, was their best attempt at getting around the unavailability of Batman.) The flaw in this one was pretty obvious, once anyone paused long enough to think about it: Superman before he became Superman is still Superman – he still has powers, the only thing that changes is his clothes and sobriquet. Robin before he's Robin is a normal kid, or at least as normal as anyone in a traveling circus can be; they may as well do a remake of CIRCUS BOY than try to cash in on Robin, and by extension Batman, that way. Similarly, Batman isn't Batman before he becomes Batman, Green Arrow isn't Green Arrow before he becomes Green Arrow, Spider-Man isn't Spider-Man before he becomes Spider-Man, etc. THE GRAYSONS would've been a story about, well, nobody, and I'm pretty sure that realization is what ultimately strangled it in its crib.

Did I say the flaw? THE GRAYSONS, AQUAMAN & BIRDS OF PREY (with wheelchair-bound computer whiz Barbara Gordon directing punching-addicted Huntress as they take ornery teenager Black Canary under their, ah, wing) share a greater flaw, as far as TV goes: they make the assumption that the general audience is familiar enough with the subject matter to be in on the joke without being told. Or would be excited enough if told.

This is partly the result of a demographic shift that has been of extreme value to the comics business over the past decade: the number of people entering the Hollywood who grew up with comics, love comics, and want to see more authentic adaptations of their favorites. But the bloody edge of this is the extension of the insider mentality that has long plagued the whole comics market, the defensive, fannish assumption that anyone who's anyone already knows. Once vehemently derided at the major comics houses (in fact, at Marvel in the mid-'70s, repetition of salient plot points from '60s Marvel stories was somewhat in vogue, on the presumption, failing to take into account the rapidly blooming comics fandom of the era, that the audience turned over ever four years and new readers would never have even seen the '60s stories, despite the vagaries of deadlines and reprint issues somehow frequently republishing the original stories just before the knockoffs saw print) this principle is now apparently enshrined there, except at those odd moments when someone at a comics company decides their intertwined line is too impenetrable and inbred.

The response then is usually to generate a whole "new" line of comics, as "entry points," that instead of being impenetrable and inbred from decades of accrued plot points are impenetrable and inbred from weeks or months of overthinking, overstructuring and overplotting.

Bringing us to Marvel's current attempt to resuscitate its Ultimate universe with ULTIMATUM, arguably this year's most ignored "Big Event." The Ultimate Universe was ostensibly created as an alternative to the messy morass of Marvel continuity and an entry point for new readers. (The rumor at the time speculated a long term goal of slowly replacing failing Marvel titles with new Ultimate titles until the old universe was a memory and the new the company's new torch carrier. Regardless of truth – I couldn't say – it's not the first time such an idea surfaced in connection with Marvel; at the time, the grapevine had it that Marvel's New Universe of the mid-'80s was also intended to phase out the old Marvel Universe.) Certainly 9 years ago ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN was the very definition of market heat, and the line held it for some time, so what went wrong?

Basically, what always goes wrong. Not long ago I read in interview with the late Charles Biro, writer-illustrator-editor at Lev Gleason Comics in the '40s-'50s, architect of their line and creator of the incredibly successful CRIME DOES NOT PAY. In the mid-40s, Gleason Comics were burning up the newsstands and routinely outselling DC, Timely (Marvel), Fawcett etc. on the strength of four comics: DAREDEVIL (recently reincarnated as Death-Defying Devil in Dynamite's new superhero line), BOY COMICS, CRIME DOES NOT PAY and its sister publication, CRIME & PUNISHMENT. They made plenty of money and it was all the work Biro could handle, but Gleason looked at the accounts receivable and figured that if four books made that much money, eight books would bring in twice as much.

Not surprisingly, Gleason was dead wrong, though it's a conclusion most people in his position, especially in comics, tend to jump to. Biro tried in vain to talk him out of it, then dutifully produced four new titles to fit rising comics genres, but rather than doubling profits the new books brought in considerably less and badly strained company resources, especially Biro's. Putting the same amount of care into eight books as four was impossible, resulting in all the titles suffering creatively, and Biro found he had little natural feel for genres like romance or westerns and felt the results were lackluster. While Gleason was in no danger of going out of business – that wouldn't happen for almost another decade, when the whole business was caving in – from Biro's perspective their four original books had established a compact of quality with their readers that expanding to eight (and eventually more) titles had broken.

That's usually the result of expansion.

There's also a saturation factor. No one in comics likes to think of themselves as a novelty act, but any new comic is basically a novelty item, not that novelty alone determines sales. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, though retelling the original Spider-Man stories in a slightly altered context with plot changes major and minor, was a novelty that interested people, at least for awhile. Or, at least, people who frequented comics shops – any comics formula needs to always factor this in as well – though Marvel did make a special effort to ship ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN to places like WalMart. It's clear ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN was designed to appeal equally to novices and fanboys, and it did.

Toss in ULTIMATE X-MEN, ULTIMATE ADVENTURES, ULTIMATE DAREDEVIL, ULTIMATE ELEKTRA, ULTIMATE FANTASTIC FOUR, ULTIMATE HULK, ULTIMATE HUMAN, ULTIMATE IRON MAN - do I need go on? I'm already exhausted – and the novelty's just not so novel anymore, the continuity is already stumbling and knotting, and enterprises of great pith and moment turn awry and lose the name of reader interest.

Expansion is a tricky, tricky business in media of any sort. Just because viewers flocked to, say, an X-MEN trilogy doesn't mean they'll embrace a WOLVERINE solo film or that a significant number of those who did will embrace a DEADPOOL solo film. ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN fans won't necessarily embrace an ULTIMATE VISION comic. You can't assume viewers hooked on tales of Superman before he was Superman will be interested in tales of Robin before he was Robin. (Or tales of Robin period.) Expansions require real sensitivity to what the market wants, or will abide, as opposed to what you as manufacturer want to shove at them. They require great care to ensure you're not merely diluting your brand and letting established hits suffer while you fixate on the "new kids." (Lust for novelty exists in creators perhaps more than in customers.) There are any number of ways to expand "logically" – NBC has created LAW & ORDER variation after variation and CBS three different CSI flavors, but with generally declining viewership as the offshoots mount, and each with the benefit of a by then established and recognizable, appreciated title – but so many variables are involved that "logic" is rarely better than any other ill-informed guess. Once the initial burst of Marvel Comics – the introduction of Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and the quickly-canceled Hulk – was over, Stan Lee tended to introduce new characters in either existing comics (Thor in JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY), piggy-backing established series (Dr. Strange alongside The Human Torch in STRANGE TALES, and later Nick Fury alongside Dr. Strange) or introducing and repeatedly exposing new creations within popular existing series (the Silver Surfer in FANTASTIC FOUR). Series introduced from whole cloth - DAREDEVIL, X-MEN, SGT. FURY, CAPTAIN MARVEL - generally didn't achieve high sales, though most sold well enough to teeter on just this side of cancellation for some time.

But characters spun off from regular series that had given them considerable exposure rarely achieved much for Marvel either. SILVER SURFER, indicated by sales of titles he appeared in and fan response via letters to be a character whose solo title was eagerly awaited, stuttered along for eighteen issues before being scrapped, and roughly the same could be said of any number of Marvel releases. (Part of the problem comes from a supporting character having a very different dynamic from a lead character, and altering the dynamic often turns out not to readers' liking.) When I was co-constructing TSR's abortive comics line c. 1990, I set up a standard system where, once the five initial titles were established, any new concepts would first be introduced in an arc in an existing book, then followed by a solo backup story arc in the same book. If significant interest resulted, the concept/character might then be given a mini-series run, and if that did well enough, a regular series would ensue. (All books would have broken down into four-issue arcs, so they could be discontinued at the conclusion of any arc without fuss.)

But even if all that had worked flawlessly (and, assuming, were one to try it today that distribution could even be had, which today is quite a leap of faith) there comes a point at which what's being produced exceeds audience interest in it. Intertwining all your material creates another danger: dropping one of your books encourages a reader to drop all your books. Oversaturation is death.

What's the solution? The best strategy seems to be the hardest for most publishers and talent to swallow, the Biro route: figure out what number of projects you can put your full attention and enthusiasm into, and don't exceed that number. It's a strategy that flies in the face of corporations addicted to growth, of publishers scrambling for "market share" as a sign of viability (but what's sounder economics, having a 10% market share based on four books or based on 40 books?), of talent eager to demonstrate the width of their creativity. And history demonstrates spinoff product – generating new successes via concepts/characters introduced in existing successes, or replicating perceived popular elements of those successes – has no greater success rate than completely original material. Even great or already popular concepts still live or die on what's done with them, and on the extent of audience hunger for them.

So the CW's reputed fixation on "spinning off" SMALLVILLE, on catching the same lightning in a bottle twice, is understandable but nonsensical. Capitalizing on audience interest is a hair's-breadth from abusing their good will, and (in any medium) once you've done that, regardless of intentions, the show's over.

1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 150-151):

From Rob Imes:

DITKOMANIA #73 ed. Rob Imes ($1.50; fanzine)

Most comics-related material I don't read for fun; it's part of my job. DITKOMANIA has quickly become something I read for enjoyment, an old-fashioned fanzine poring over the work, past and present, of a favorite artist, Steve Ditko. This issue dissects Ditko's work on Dr. Strange, from how Strange might fit into Ditko's Randism, how the character's distinctive hand gestures developed, what elements Spider-Man & Dr. Strange share, as well as art, reviews, and correspondence. Funny Fred Hembeck cover too. These aren't fawning fanboys; no sycophancy here, just genuine appreciation. Great fun.

From Del Rey Books:

GOATS: INFINITE TYPEWRITERS by Jonathan Rosenberg ($14; trade paperback)

Rosenberg, if not exactly a pioneer of the webcomic (he started in '97, while webcomics date back to the midder-'90s), he's certainly among the subsequent wave of settlers. (Apparently he's the guy who started that whole "Republicans For Voldemort" thing.) I'm of mixed minds about this. On the one hand, it's a by now familiar sort of comedy with two characters (usually male, and definitely here) talking stream of consciousness non-sequiturs back and forth while following the twisted logic of their own misunderstandings and deliberate misinterpretations to the bitter end (not that Rosenberg can't claim some kind of primacy on that one, but the explanation doesn't change the effect, and the newspaper strip GET FUZZY is much better at that sort of thing, with much sharper comic timing); on the other, Rosenberg's a good cartoonist and has no qualms about entertainingly excoriating religion, atheism, William Shatner, historical revisionism, and similar taboos before simply launching into manic stories leading to Rosenberg's spurious revelations of the true nature of reality, and the result is often funny, though not laugh out loud funny. Not sure why it's called GOATS either, since there seems to be only one goat (plus two chickens, a goldfish, aliens, bikers, various iterations of walking dead and a pile of monkeys) but one thing I am sure of: this is what Scott McCloud has been talking about all these years.

Ain't this a bit embarrassing. I'm trying to hold to this thousand reviews in 1000 days thing, but I've got nothing else to review this week. I'll have to do something about that...

Notes from under the floorboards:

First up, sorry to hear my old pal Steve Leiber and his wife got robbed of most of their worldly possessions recently. I'm told Steve appreciates offers of help, but what would help most at this point is if everyone buys a copy of UNDERGROUND, the new series he and Jeff Parker have coming out from Image in September (so orders will be going in any day now). You can grab a free .pdf of #1 at the UNDERGROUND website if that'll sway you any. (Did I mention Lieber's one of the most underrated artists in comics today, and I've never been disappointed by Parker that I can recall?)

For those who follow these things – and thank you if you do – I seem to have popped up in a couple new books. The second volume of Viz's "Big Edition" of the generally excellent shojo manga HOT GIMMICK ($17.99), by Miki Aihara, sports a cover blurb from my favorite collaborator and me, while my prose crime story "Eulogy In Blood" has been published in Moonstone's new anthology SEX, LIES AND PRIVATE EYES ($16.95), also featuring short stories by Stuart Kaminsky, Kevin Van Hook, Max Allan Collins and around a dozen others. Now go do that voodoo that you do so well...

This week's question at Marvel seems to be "What if we threw a major character resurrection and nobody came?" Speaking of which, interesting jurisprudence questions for superhero universe mavens: if a character is murdered but comes back from the dead, is his murderer still guilty of murder? If still guilty, can his murderer then freely murder him again under shield of double jeopardy? (You theoretically can't be tried twice for the same crime, a legal principle prosecutors have been trying to make hash of for decades now.) And didn't the Trickster – was it the Trickster running around with the Pied Piper in 52? - die as a result of being relentlessly hounded for the murder of Bart Allen, who's abruptly back among the living in THE FLASH - REBIRTH?

Comic-Con International is right around the corner in practical terms, so maybe I should remind those selling their comics of my experience from last year. I was doing signings each day at the Image booth in support of the SAFEST PLACE graphic novel that had just been published through them. One of the book's owners (I was a hired gun on the project) went a fairly traditional route of printing up a bunch of pretty nice logo t-shirts to offer as a freebee to anyone who bought the graphic novel, while supplies lasted. This is a common marketing ploy for independent comics, and it was a crowd pleaser; by Sunday afternoon, we'd sold all available copies with t-shirts attached. But here's the kicker: more often than not during the signings, people would ask how much we were asking for the t-shirts, and were willing to pay just for the t-shirt. I don't really understand the mentality, but the book cost $13 and if we'd sold on par with what my old pal Bob Chapman sells excellent t-shirts for at his Graphitti Designs booth (always a constant hive of activity at Comic-Con), t-shirts would've run about $18. By show's end I'd realized people had the wrong business model: if you want to promote your new comic or graphic novel (assuming you're authorized to officially sell at the Con; check with them about that if you don't already have a booth) don't throw in a t-shirt if someone buys your graphic novel, throw in a graphic novel if they buy your t-shirt. With a greater profit margin on the t-shirts than on the books, and a higher potential selling price, the SAFEST PLACE owners would've made about five times the profit...

Having had similar bills beaten down before, advocates of "Orphan Works" legislation are taking another run at Congress. Meaning, basically, that even as corporate interests are everywhere promoting legislation to criminalize copyright infringement (it's commonly a civil court matter) of properties they lay claim to, they're trying to set the stage for pirating without recompense privately owned copyrighted material – meaning that owned by the creators themselves – on the basis that the pirates... I mean corporate users... "tried" to discover the copyright owner, couldn't, and thus operated in "good faith" that said work was in public domain. As the bill doesn't specify what measures must be taken to qualify as a good faith search and effectively strips the presumption previously in force in copyright law that ownership falls to the creator in the absence of paperwork indicating otherwise, it will force individual creators into the expensive and time-consuming official registration process to protect their output from corporate greed, not to mention the pirates also assailing corporate media. For no better reason than corporations don't like to be told no when they want to do something. For more information, check out the Orphan Works blog. The lesson, of course, is that corporations don't like pirates unless they're the pirates...

Wow, it finally happened: the Supreme Court flat out declared itself an enemy of the people last week with its stunning decision that convicts aren't entitled to DNA evidence (or any other kind) that would prove their innocence after they've been convicted. In other words – and this is the best possible interpretation of the decision – the highest court of the land has decided that economic considerations (the cost of retrials) trumps justice and personal liberty, or that the reputations of district attorneys, and by extension the whole judicial system, are. But what reputation does a legal system that plays politics with innocent people's lives deserve? This is just one more step toward a purely fascist state where questions of guilt and innocence is far less important than questions of who the government at whatever level wants jailed...

But incipient fascism is on the rise everywhere. Canada's the stalking horse for Internet surveillance with a new proposed bill to force ISPs to spy on, record and store all activity by their customers. So the police can do their jobs, of course. Their jobs apparently extend, if the bill passes, to being able to get any information about anyone without a warrant. Canadian civil liberties activists keep pointing out how government officials pushing legislation like this, when asked about specific existing problems the laws are supposedly necessary to solve, only report hypothetical maybes. Ultimately the goal of all legislation like this, here, Canada, wherever, is to "monitor" and repress political discourse, ala China and Iran. Google has reportedly decided to create a filtering system for China to pre-empt that nation imposing their own. China's claim is that the system is desperately needed to thwart pornography traffic, but it's pretty obvious (esp. following their panic over potential Tiananmen Square 20th anniversary commemorations) their real objective is to stifle dissent, the same way the Iraq government has reportedly declared war on satellite dishes to shut off Internet access and thus the passing of text messages that have been fueling the election theft outrage there. And once China has it, everyone will want it.

Except possibly Norway, which recently issued an order to ISPs that they can only hold private data for three weeks then must delete it, then declined to renew the license of the sole Norwegian law firm authorized to track down Internet pirates. No snooping around citizens' Internetting habits in Norway, it seems...

By the way, the Federal Trade Commission will reportedly start going after bloggers who rave up products without disclosing they've gotten theirs free from manufacturers or sellers. I suppose on the basis that it's fraudulent advertising. Little shaky, though, since the vast majority of bloggers have no significant constituency, getting something free doesn't necessarily mean enthusiasm for that thing is artificial or bought (I receive all books and comics I review here free from publishers, editors, talent, a few retailers and periodically from fans of projects, and long time readers will certainly be aware that while I appreciate the cooperation the only thing that gets a good review is contents worthy of one) and print reviewers – movie reviewers, for instance; while cost crackdowns have likely become the vogue at studios, not that you'd know it from Comic-Con International) back when I was reviewing films it wasn't unusual to receive free screenings, free meals and even pretty elaborate goody bags from film studio publicity departments – aren't under the same restrictions. If there's proof a blogger is intentionally deceiving readers into spending money on products that the blogger knows could cause them bodily harm while the blogger is masquerading as an objective party and hiding his own financial interest in the product, I can see where that could be a big problem – but as I recall there are already laws on the books covering those situations. This strikes me as just another government attempt at intimidating the Internet, because they just can't get used to the idea it's something they don't control. Yet.

Speaking of which, this just in: A report requested by the Dutch government recommends saving print media by taxing the Internet to pay for it, and doling the receipts out to newspapers. Besides effectively putting government in the newspaper business (the handout system being ripe for abuse right from the start), why not, oh, tax bars and give the money to pig farmers? It makes about as much sense. (Dutch Minister Roland Plasterk, whose jurisdiction this falls under, basically told them to piss off, but now that this notion is in the air, look for it to keep popping up.)

Saw THE HANGOVER the other day and it's actually pretty funny for that kind of comedy.  It has several things going for it. Structurally it works very well, since all the typical dumber than dirt idiot "action" commonly done in that sort of film is done off-screen, and they have to be fairly reasonable adults to sort it all out in the aftermath, meaning no character is a flaming idiot (though one occasionally comes close) or unconscionable immature creep.  (In fact, the character most set up to be the unconscionable immature creep in the pre-boys night out sequence turns out to be the most responsible of the bunch when push comes to shove.)  The typical plotline of the "bachelor party" film - guy engaged to domineering rich bitch meets true love during bachelor party shenanigans - is shifted to one of the supporting characters, and the rich girl the groom-to-be is marrying is very nice, so there's no jump from disgust at the wussiness or stupidity of a guy who'd let things get that far in the first place to someone who'd abruptly become crass enough to dump someone else at the altar.  While they go for some over-the-top comedy, they keep enough of a lid on it that nothing comes off as ridiculously far fetched.  In most of these things, "true love" is dragged in like a sideshow prop to excuse an orgy of mean-spirited juvenile vulgarity. THE HANGOVER instead keeps some of the vulgarity and some of the juvenility but dumps the mean-spiritedness and tinges everything with an underlying sweetness. Like I said, what's essentially a detective story structure works wonders for the material, and the creators smartly don't bother explaining everything or filling in every little detail of the blackout period, sticking instead with only the information that's really necessary to solve the film's puzzle.  I doubt it'll ever be a classic but as a screwball comedy it works pretty well. Unfortunately, people like it enough that the studio has already put THE HANGOVER 2 on the schedule, following the common misguided Hollywood logic that lightning will always strike twice in the same place. Or five times.  What are they going to do, go back to find to find the luggage?

Congratulations to Mark Bernstein, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "music." (For those who want to know, the covers went like this: JIMMY OLSON & ARCHIE & FRIENDS should be obvious; LADY JUSTICE=scales, but Tekno/Techno was acceptable; ROGER RABBIT=toons/tunes; TRUE CONFIDENCES has "symphony" on the cover; XE"NOTE"CH; and one of the talent credits on HELLHOUNDS is "Sing"ley.) Mark appropriately wishes to point your attention to the webpage of his friend, singer/songwriter Tom Smith. 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. You shouldn't even need a clue this week; if you're having trouble, ask a relative for help. 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.

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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:  permanent damage, smallville, ultimatum, steve lieber

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