An aspiring publisher called the other day to ask if I have any "ideas" for new comics series.
I've had enough of these conversations over the years – how many years have I been doing this now? 30? Probably not something to brag about... – that I used to be disgusted, but now I'm trying to be amused. And you never know; there was a time when publishers did look for actual "ideas," because they didn't know what they might sell. It crops up again, from time to time. But not often.
For awhile there it was even considered a bit jejune. Everyone spoke of "concepts": a superhero "concept," an action-adventure "concept," a western "concept," a horror "concept." Etc. Not really sure why; I think the idea – there's that damn word again – was to suggest something grander, and nobler, than a mere "idea," something with scope that encompassed worlds of ideas, and practically an infinity of potential stories. That's basically the same as saying there is no core idea, since any idea by nature imposes limiting factors on any story, but that's why most comics stories don't bother with ideas. Long before I went pro, I told a friend, who had a few mild comics obsessions but didn't read most of them, that I was trying to come up with a series idea that would allow me to do any story that came to mind, and he said:
"Isn't that all of them?"
Thet thar's the legacy of superhero comics, anyway; sure, why wouldn't a piece of kryptonite slip through a time warp and end up as the false tooth on Cleopatra's asp? Why wouldn't a random gorilla dress in a fedora and pinstripe suit? This is the sort of "wild idea" frequently lionized by "fun comics" mavens and now often shotgunned out as decoration for stories, but decoration was all such "ideas" ever really were, a springboard to wrap eight or ten or 22 pages of dream logic around. That was their appeal for a lot of people, and not something comics would ever consider marketing in any significant way (though Grant Morrison and Alan Moore teased the notion with such things as THE INVISIBLES and SWAMP THING): they functioned in pretty much the same way as hallucinogenic drugs. I suspect it's no coincidence that comics readership declined rapidly in the late '60s and further in the early '70s – especially at DC, where the "dream logic" story was far more enshrined than at Marvel, and other publishers doing slow or fast fadeouts, like Charlton and American – as the young audiences that comics traditionally fed off became increasingly acquainted with pot, hashish & LSD. (If those didn't make comics seem ridiculously antiquated, underground comics put the nail in the coffin, even if the zombie subsequently kept crawling out of the grave.)
The heyday of "ideas" in comics was really the 1950s, when everything was in chaotic flux. Nobody had a clue what to do, they did whatever they could think of, within what distributors would tolerate. It's largely viewed as an empty hellhole (superhero fans of the '60s made sure that was the official perception) but some fantastic, crazy stuff was published then. Same thing kind of happened in the '80s as the burgeoning direct market created a vacuum around Marvel's superhero empire; since (at least until Image) nobody could touch Marvel on superheroes, at least in sales, so everyone started scrambling for other niches to fill and other audiences to lure. Despite a puritanical streak in the direct market (which expressed itself, as Puritanism usually does, in turpitude as well as the puritanical; at any rate, many publishers, retailers and talent alike refused to accept the direct market presented a completely new situation) there was a small flood of oddball ideas in '80s comics, but the '90s choked most of those out. If the '90s represented anything, it was a return to "commercialism," i.e. surrender to the past regardless of how much genuine facts there were to support such a stance, and the grip of that mentality hasn't loosened much on the business since, despite some pretty drastic changes in other areas. In fact, where those changes supported such an attitude, the grip tightened. Where those changes contradicted such an attitude, the grip tightened, because the market really didn't know of any other response.
Of course, there are ideas in most comics, superheroes or otherwise. But they're rarely developed, their ramifications aren't played out on an open field. This is the big problem with genre fiction of any kind, that regardless of how interesting an idea may be it's always forced into service of the genre's special requirements, and in comics, by and large, "genre" has been refined further into even more basic and less flexible motifs, on the presumption that's what the audience "wants." In that atmosphere, ideas are reduced to little more than window dressing for a particular style. I'm not speaking of just superhero comics, or even what's generally considered "genre" comics. Even if you go to a talent like the widely acclaimed Jason, reading one of his comics is like watching a Ric Flair match; you're always going to get basically the same thing. Whether the subject matter covers Lost Generation writers as failed cartoonists robbing banks in 1920s Paris, lovers traveling through time to kill Hitler, or an immortal Musketeer stopping an invasion from Mars, his characters are basically indistinguishable, their mannerisms and psychology are exactly the same, and the underlying structure and development are the same.
I'm not suggesting Jason's untalented (he's clearly talented) or that his work deserves scorn (I like his work) or that his accolades are misguided. I'm just saying he has one idea. There's nothing wrong with exploring one idea thoroughly, if it's your idea. (There's nothing wrong with exploring one idea thoroughly if it isn't, but the feat is considerably less impressive.) However else Jason's work might be, one original idea is one more than the vast sea of material the medium produces has. Despite the constant talk of "ideas" in comics, new ideas, even if only new to the medium, have rarely been held in high regard. People are always asking where talent, especially writers, get their "ideas" (though getting "ideas," such as they are in this business, is only the tiniest fraction of the job) and the answer in most instances is: they pilfer them.
Frequently they're the first to admit it and almost as frequently they don't realize what they're admitting to. Theft, petty and otherwise, is a fact of life in all walks of the writing profession, especially in media writing, but in comics especially there's the odd sensibility of some mystical fraternity of talent that leaves anyone's ideas, from comics and elsewhere, open game for anyone else to "emulate" like it's the most acceptable thing in the world. And in most areas, not only acceptable but preferred. Even if there's no corporation involve, no transfer of copyrights. I can't tell you how many writers I know who thought, oh, SPAWN was the greatest comic ever and cooked up "their version" of it. (Don't even get me started on artists.) Call it homage, tribute, emulation, whatever you want; we love to steal. It's so much in the air in comics that a lot of people don't even question that it's perfectly valid and normal behavior. Most publishers don't, even as they become increasingly twitchy about Internetters and others stepping on their intellectual property rights.
Publishers love it. Publishers are always looking for "their version" of this or that, whatever they personally loved or whatever's selling for someone else. It's one of the reasons they love new talent, especially the ones who don't know or don't care they're just tromping over already well-trod ground, the ones intent on making it "their own." (Shows like AMERICAN IDOL always crack me up when they constantly exhort singers to make a song their "own." But it isn't theirs, is it?) They're the ones who have the fewest misgivings about doing "their version" of someone else's work, and from there four career paths generally follow: they love being torch-bearers and go on and on until eventually cycled out; they get antsier about not following their own muse and a) try to get their own creations published and sold, or b) continue being torch-bearers and become increasingly detached purveyors of "graphic stories" they couldn't care less about (if this were a flow chart, one prong coming off a) would lead back to b), and that's the fate of most established talent who pursue their own creations); they quit and find another line of work.
But one of the great things about being a writer in comics is there are so many people willing to tell you what to write. Publishers. Editors. Agents. Managers. Readers. Matter of fact, it's becoming increasingly difficult to have a editorial conversation where the editor doesn't tell you the story you're going to do; I've had pitch meetings where the publisher had already decided, without mentioning it to me, exactly what he wanted me to pitch, then wasted fifteen or twenty minutes waiting for me to pitch it while I ran through other projects I was eager to do. In virtually all cases where "ideas" are "suggested," they fit into existing genre specifications (and if you think "literary works" isn't just another genre with increasingly restrictive parameters like science fiction or romance, I'll let Michael Chabon disabuse you of that notion) and fill pre-existant commercial considerations. A lot of them think in terms of "innovation," but "innovation" has become a standard euphemism for "tweaking an idea someone else had."
Thing is, even genres don't need to be slaves to the parameters erected around them. The recent spate of film westerns like THE PROPOSITION, THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES and APPALOOSA prove that. All westerns, sure, though THE PROPOSITION's set in Australia, but the West for all that, and all have elements in common. Their stories and themes couldn't be more different. Their characters couldn't be more different. None are much like anything that came before them, though you could tie JESSE JAMES to predecessors like Samuel Fuller's I SHOT JESSE JAMES. But for all of them the western is a setting, not a prison and not a crutch. Throw in a modern day western like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN and you have a strong argument that genre need not be a restriction to anything or any idea. When the known audience for a genre – those who'll scarf up every iteration of it – becomes small enough, genre becomes nothing more than just another tool.
But here we are, still being asked to produce genre fiction to specifications that lost their hold on any audience ages ago. Funny thing is that a lot of publishers now do this in the belief that this will help sell their books to Hollywood, always these days Hollywood, as if that's the only possible market left, when virtually all my conversations with Hollywood these days involve trying to escape genre restrictions while keeping the elements that make any genre interesting. (Hollywood seems moving into a new love affair with genre, as "adult," which is to say "literary" or "women's," films take a beating at the box office.)
In comics, generally, when we say "ideas" we mean "genre," complete with restrictions. We mean "novelty." ("Say! What if Spider-Man grew three extra toes and started dating Lockjaw?") We might even mean saturation bombing via throwaway notion, peppering stories with crazed details that could springboard whole stories of their own but most likely won't. What we rarely mean is theme, though theme is where the real ideas of most stories lie, and we rarely mean new ideas because no audience ever knows if they want to hear a new idea before they've heard it. In comics we hate unknowns, always have, and there's no unknown more unknown than a new idea.
So, anyway, an aspiring publisher calls up to ask if I have any "ideas" for new comics series. Of course I do. Like most writers, I have notebooks full of ideas I've never had anywhere to place. So we chat for five, ten minutes, I outline some things I'm interested in pursuing. Then he says:
"You don't have any... superhero ideas? Something like Batman?"
I said I hadn't been thinking much in those directions lately.
He shrugged it off. "Any good zombie ideas?" Of course I don't. Nobody does. If even Warren Ellis with BLACKGAS and Garth Ennis with CROSSED couldn't come up with new ideas for the zombie genre, I don't see much point in even trying.
We chat pleasantly for a few more minutes – no, I don't have any FLASH GORDON-type space operas; no, I don't have any amnesiac spy characters tracking down their pasts like Jason Bourne – then say our pleasantries and hang up. Thing is, every time I have one of those conversations, I start wondering about the ideas I do have, and start dissecting them and working them over to see if there's anything genuinely original in there anywhere, and wondering if they're bad or good.
That's the thing about ideas: even an original one can suck. Even after coming up with ideas good and bad for years, telling the difference between them is hard. There are so many bad habits we pick up, so many shortcuts and repetitions that become unquestioned, usually not even recognized, second nature, and we're all so eager to believe all of our ideas are good, and original...
Unfortunately, in today's market there's a quick and easy shorthand for separating the wheat from the chaff:
If a publisher wants your idea, it's probably not your best.
Speaking of the oddly goofy stories of the '60s, here's a wacky "horror" story from American Comics c. 1959, with art by the great John Buscema. I know it's fudging the date a bit, but, aside from about-to-be-born Marvel, pretty much everything any company would be in the '60s was already in place by 1959. And dig those crazy jodhpurs, cat.
1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 152-158):
From Viz Communications:
SHONEN JUMP #80 ed. Grant Lowery ($4.99; magazine)
Thought I'd check in on this, since they're now running Stan Lee & Hiroyuki Takei's new strip Ultimo. It's... okay, moving Stan's tale of two apparently infinitely powerful "dolls" (Stan himself designs them in feudal Japan to determine whether good or evil is the strongest there is, and I guess it's just enough to know he can) into modern times for maximum destruction. It's got lots of standard manga elements, but the premise just isn't that interesting. Otherwise, Dragonball Z and Yu-Gi-Oh are gone but longtime favorites Naruto, Yuyu Hakusho, One Piece and Bleach remain. Of the newer features, the one most worth a look is Hiroyuki Asada's Tegami Bachi. The premise seems a bit unlikely – a boy wants to become a mail carrier on a bleak world of distant outposts and terrible monsters – but underlying it is a very strong and heartbreaking sense of real humanity, and art and storytelling are very good. SHONEN JUMP's still probably the best primer in "kid's" action manga there is in America today, and certainly the best page-for-price value. If you haven't looked at it in some time (or ever), this is a solid place to start.
From DC Comics:
DETECTIVE COMICS #854 by Greg Rucka, JH Williams III & Cully Hamner ($3.99; comic book)
This "changing of the guard" issue, replacing the longrunning Batman strip with Batwoman and The Question tweaked an unexpected nostalgia in me. One of the fondest memories of my fan days was DETECTIVE COMICS #327, introducing the "New Look" Batman series and an Elongated Man strip. (I'd hated both the goofier, Bob Kane-styled Batman and Martian Manhunter strips that preceded them.) This isn't quite the same thrill, but it's a nice change and one of the nicest looking books DC has put out in a long time, while Rucka brings stronger crime tones to the stories than the book has featured in a long time. (Not sure why he gave both heroines elderly male "assistants," but it feels more like a set-up for some punchline down the road than a gaffe.) While both series are a little thin on characterization yet – the strongest is in an unfortunate moment where Batwoman's current lover comes off as a shrill, unpleasant creep – but Batwoman hits all the right Batman beats while The Question, and Hamner's art, veer off in more 100 BULLETS directions. While not quite a knockout, it's strong, and the art alone should buy Rucka time to move more pieces into place.
From Boom! Studios:
IRREDEEMABLE #3 by Mark Waid & Peter Krause ($3.99; comic book)
I know it's unfair of me to come in halfway through a mini-series, but if you can't quickly pick up on what's going on even at that point, someone's doing something wrong. This one's easy, though: if you ever wanted to see Superman turn into a callous, murdering son of a bitch, this one's for you. That's pretty much what happens here, too; the catastrophic destruction apparently took place earlier, so all he's doing this issue is forcing "Green Arrow" and "Black Canary" (really, if there's one geeky thing about this, it's how transparent the analogs are) to have sex while he watches and wiping out the odd opportunistic supervillain. Krause's art's very good, and Waid does his usual good job writing – I especially like the truly mundane reason for "Superman's" change of heart – but there's still something disturbing about independent comics companies publishing work it helps to be DC-obsessed to really enjoy. Right now it plays like Waid was torn between lunatic and reverential, and lunatic is losing, but lunatic is what a project like this needs.
From IDW Publishing:
THE VEIL #1 by El Torres & Gabriel Hernandez ($3.99; comic book)
Wasn't this a TV show once?: a detective sees ghosts and helps find their killers. This is better than that was, though. Torres' heroine is pleasantly tough without being psycho, with a good emotional range, and Hernandez is in full bore Bill Sienkiewicz mode, making a sharp-looking book. I like her exhaustion at having to constantly deal with the dead. The story doesn't really progress past set-up and character introductions – the new curse of the mini-series first issue, I guess – but it's one of the more intriguing comics I've run across lately anyway. Worth a look.
From Image Comics:
UNDERGROUND #1 by Jeff Parker & Steve Lieber ($2.99; comic)
Hard to tell from the first issue whether this tale of a woman trying to save a protected cave from a town that wants it opened to the public to promote tourism is a thriller, "general fiction" or a budding horror story. (The cave locale does evoke memories of horror films like THE DESCENT.) Regardless, it's pretty good, with Parker (THE INTERMAN, AGENTS OF ATLAS displaying his usual deft touch with dialogue, and Leiber, who doesn't get nearly enough credit as one of the best artists in comics, has somehow turned into Dick Giordano in his prime, with a clean, open style and sharp inking built on beautiful page designs. Classic stuff. The issue's main weakness is a surprisingly plodding build in the middle that sets up the characters and main conflicts but diffuses tension. Presumably now that the set-ups all done, that'll no longer be an issue. But take a look.
From Marvel Comics:
DARK REIGN: SINISTER SPIDER-MAN #1 by Brian Reed, Chris Bachalo & Tom Townsend ($3.99; comic book)
If you ever wondered if Marvel's milking this "Dark Reign" thing with their millions of splinter mini-series, wonder no more. They are. Featuring the former Scorpion and current Venom, rechristened Spider-Man by Norman Osborn for his Dark Avengers, this is basically a rehash of DARK REIGN: HAWKEYE, with Dark Spider-Man going off the reservation, causing p.r. nightmares for Osborn's new order, murdering strippers and plotting dark revenge. Strictly by the numbers. Lovely Bachalo/Townsend art, though; shame to waste it. (Addendum: Civil War was an interesting switch-up for Marvel, the Initiative phase had its moments, World War Hulk was a fine sop to things fans had wanted for over 40 years, and the Secret Invasion was a straightforward lark that the company did pretty well, but this "Dark Reign" thing is getting nauseatingly oppressive. There's no way somebody in the MU wouldn't have separated Osborn's head from his shoulders by now, and the arc's riffs are so repetitive I'm surprised Marvel fans aren't begging for it to end. It sounded good on paper, but in practice it's their biggest blunder since the Clone Saga. Advice to Marvel: wrap it up and move on before the readers opt to move on without you. It has happened before; don't forget that's how the current management a generation removed ended up there in the first place.)
From Dark Horse:
PREDATOR #1 by John Arcudi & Javier Salteres ($3.50; comic book)
The short version? If PREDATOR is your fascination, you'll like this. Arcudi & Salteres are both talented veterans, and they've got all the beats down. The problem with properties like PREDATOR is that, left to themselves, they're basically one-trick ponies; settings change and the personal stories of Predator-fighters switch up a little, but that's all that changes. Here a small army of Predators drops into a wartorn African city – American military on the right, radical Muslims on the left – and start shooting up the place looking for kicks. It's not that Arcudi & Salteres don't bring anything new to the table, it's that they can't. (That's why both Dark Horse and Hollywood pitted Predators against Aliens; there's room for something unexpected there.) They do what they can, which is probably the best anyone's going to get out of the Predator franchise these days.
Notes from under the floorboards:
Things are shaping up for San Diego. At least one signing set already, with more in prep. Details to follow.
Sure didn't take the House Democrats long to start screwing things up. Following rush passage of a 300-some odd page last minute amendment to "cap and trade bill"– limiting companies ability to pollute, but allowing companies to broker "credits" so they can keep polluting at will but now someone else can profit from speculating on it – that Representatives barely had a chance to look at before voting, Nancy Pelosi is doing her best to shut down all discussion, especially public discussion, of a health care reform bill and get that passed ASAP as well. Given what happened to Clinton health care reform, I can understand trepidation if Republicans and the lobbyists they dance for have a chance to flood TV with anti-legislation advertising, but as I recall we were promised governmental transparency and, unfortunately for Pelosi, public discussion is part of that transparency. (Not that Obama's been doing well on that score either.) Trying to run roughshod over the House (in apparent collaboration with California's Henry Waxman (my former representative when I lived there; he used to be a pretty good guy) who tried to upend longstanding House tradition to shut up the minority leader, who was revealing various weird aspects of the epic rider at them) Pelosi's demonstrating a ton of her characteristic hubris and very little of her rare sense, especially for someone who only weeks ago was a hair's-breadth away from investigation as an unregistered agent of a foreign country...
Not that I think Republicans have a leg to stand on in opposition to health care reform in the first place – yeah, free market "competition" has done so well so far – and on that note the Denver Post ran an interesting discussion of common lies and myths about the Canadian Health Care system that right wingers repeat endlessly, and why they're lies and myths. It's worth a look.
Meanwhile, the recent anointing of the Federal Reserve Bank as the right and proper agency to oversee and regulate banks pretty much ensures that the madness that has been the American banking system over the last couple dozen years will continue unabated and unreformed, since the Fed a) isn't a government agency but a vehicle of and for the banks that only pays lip service to being answerable to the public and b) was always the "agency" that oversaw them. I'd prefer to separate banks and credit card companies, but since banks run credit cards that's difficult to do, and they've spent decades systematically turning credit cards into a saprophytic flytrap for the American public. If you doubt that or think it's hyperbole, here's a handy little chart of how it works...
Here's what I don't get about the Mark Sanford thing. Okay, so he's another "family values" Republican dedicated to "the sanctity of marriage" and vilifying (Democratic) politicians who cheat on their wives who cheats on his wife. That's fine; kay sarah sarah and all that. You could even say he's another idiot earmarked by The Party for future greatness (can you say White House?) who flushes it all down the tubes. (My senator John Ensign did the same thing a couple weeks ago. Those guys are a dime a dozen; how many "future presidents" have the Republicans burned through this year alone?) I get that he somehow things he can win voters' hearts & minds by apologetically explaining that while his mistress is his "soul mate," he'll try to fall back in love with his wife. Yeah, that's sure an argument for the sanctity of marriage. But that's fine too. Why I don't get is: if nobody knew about the affair (though his wife now says she has, for several months) and he had decided to break it off anyway, why vanish for five days under mysterious circumstances and make sure his absence became a big story everywhere in America? Even in South Carolina, they must still have pay phones. Is Sanford really that stupid, or was breakup sex really that worth it, or was something else going on that we don't know about? In Ensign's case he dressed himself up as the victim, claiming that only evil blackmailed plots forced him to reveal his personal treachery and political hypocrisy. (Um... somehow that sounded better when he said it.) Not that these guys don't have an unexpectedly wry sense of humor; Sanford now turns out to be a serial adulterer, while it turns out Ensign's mistress was married to a star in the Promise Keepers. This is why political satire is passe: too redundant.
Another feather in Michael Jackson's cap, posthumously: caving in the Internet...
Into the summer TV void comes... nothing, really. USA's LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT remains entertaining, but, like COLUMBO, it's really less a cop show than a sitcom that's mainly enjoyable if you like watching Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeff Goldblum go through their paces to unravel perfect crimes. (I do, but understand why appreciation might not be universal.) BURN NOTICE, also on USA, has limped along this season in search of a new direction, since burned spy Michael Weston apparently cut free of his persecutors last arc; it has also largely disintegrated into a sitcom featuring increasingly preposterous fantasy tradecraft. Haven't checked out HUNG on HBO yet, with former Punisher Thomas Jane. Beyond that, a monstrous void of braindead reality shows and inane competitions. Anyone got anything I'm missing? (And, please, nobody say WEEDS. That show went inane seasons ago.)
This is funny: to all those who continually warn of the dangers of video games for today's youth, turns out SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN sternly issued the same warnings 150 years ago! About chess.
Before I forget, to all muh fullow Amurikins: have a grand old Independence Day. To everyone else, have a grand old Fourth Of July. (And, Mike: Happy Birthday!)
Congratulations to Jeff Patterson, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "family." Jeff wishes to point your attention to pop culture site Bad Day Studio Global Headquarters, home of the Bad Day blog and many other features including fiction and online comics. And nothing, apparently, to do with James Blunt. 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, just so you know, this week it's really, really tiny. 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.