Permanent Damage

Wed, July 29th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Another Comic-Con come and gone. Dead tired, now that I've stopped. Lots of fun, though more than ever it has become a wave convention, where we wave at people across crowded rooms, often over ridiculously loud music, then never see them again. It's a selling con now, not a schmoozing con, and that's just the way it is.

It was also a breezier con than usual. The national news was apparently abuzz with reports that Johnny Depp! breezed through, long enough to unexpectedly appear at Tim Burton's panel, though far fewer outlets mentioned Warren Ellis' 36 hour breezethrough on behalf of Sony and Marvel. Not that many actually in the convention center were aware of either of them; more and more, con events (at least on the Hollywood end of things) are playing to the general media and the outside world far more than to the convention crowd, and throughout San Diego, many locals expressed not only thanks that the flood of comics geeks were there to provide a rare bright spot for the city's economy but also envy, since most were unaware that whim attendance this year became an utter impossibility.

While it was a winning con, there were clear losers. Probably retailers and back issue vendors were the biggest. Many retailers were breaking out the desperation discounts, usually reserved for Sunday afternoons to reduce return shipping costs, by Saturday, while back issue vendors continued to feel the blight begun years ago by eBay that collapsed prices and made buyers considerably more selective than they'd been in years. Image (not the publisher) might have something to do with it; as I was signing on Sunday, a woman came by with her daughter and expressed considerable relief that the main media booths were yet ahead of her. Not because she had anything against comics per se, but because, in their first visit to the Con, they'd come in at the Marriott end, where many of the back issue vendors are clustered. Given what she'd heard for years about how great Comic-Con is, she was shocked that it looked like, as she put it, "a flea market."

There is that unfortunate dichotomy throughout Comic-Con now. A lot of signings gave me a lot of time to observe, and the differential of slick and sloppy kept leaping out. Like the difference between the "flea market" and the superbooths, the differences in costumes worn were dramatic. Ignoring the professionals – it's easy enough to tell who they are – cosplayers ranged from those who'd put together near-professional costumes carefully molded or sewn to those stringing together shabby Magic Markered cardboard with staples and rubber bands. On the one hand, you have to sympathetically view the latter, who wanted to dress in costume and be part of the show so much they proudly wore whatever they could put together; on the other, they looked ridiculous. Likewise independent artists fell into distinct groups, those producing exquisite work and those producing very substandard work, labors of love aside. (Writers don't fit into this because, unlike artists, their work isn't immediately accessible, so immediate judgment is impossible.) The widening gulf between the amateurish, enthusiasm and honest intent notwithstanding, and the slick at San Diego has never before been so apparent, though that's hardly the fault of those Con, whose promoters continue to do their best to accommodate the fannish.

But the biggest loser at San Diego this year was the comics business, in that an already existing gulf there widened as well, and this one threatens the worst consequences to the business. While most of the comics world has been looking at the dread (and, let's face it, utterly mythical) threat of Hollywood "taking over" comics, we've been steadily whacking our own legs out from under us.

I didn't bother pitching much at San Diego this year. Like I said, it's a selling convention now. A carnival, complete with barkers always trying to lure passing rubes into their little sideshow. (Restaurants all up and down Fifth St. did the same thing, like barkers outside strip shows in San Francisco's Tenderloin.) But I spoke with quite a few freelancers who did, and they all came back with the same story:

It has never been as hard for comics companies to sell original series, as opposed to endless slews of licensed and franchise series, as it is now.

This shouldn't be much of a surprise. Though there are always a few standouts here and there, like my old pal John Leyman and Rob Guillory's surprise hit CHEW, original series have always been a hard sell. They've only gotten harder to sell since the mid-'90s. There's plenty of blame to go around for this. When new series were hot, talent and publishers alike started training audiences away from them, talent by letting their own creator-own projects hang rather than put them out on a timely basis, or by abandoning them altogether for flashier work-for-hire projects, publishers by burying new projects with next to no mention while shoving all their sales efforts behind already well-marketed franchise books or by producing slates of uninteresting, badly done books marketed via the most tenuous connections to franchise books. And more. Spread that out over a decade or two, and you've got a dichotomized audience basically agreeing on the same thing: an aging fan audience more or less only interested in what they grew up loving, and a newer audience trained to believe original series will be complete rubbish, while the few who fit neither audience and might be interested are content to wait for the eventual collection, and if that never surfaces, well, that's just one more forgotten series amid thousands.

So publishers at San Diego announce game or media tie-in comics, or pickups of fallow series or lines that originally died because no one was interested, or high format classic comic strip reprints intended mainly for library consumption, or adaptations/permutations of existing literary works, or more twists on existing franchise series. Original material is left mainly to ghettoized self-publishers.

It's easy enough to shrug and chalk this up to the forces of history, but ignoring the situation is ignoring forces always at work in any media venture and especially in comics, and newer forces currently at work. The biggest thing is that tastes change, and in mass media they tend to change abruptly. A TV show can be very hot one season, and no one's interested the next, with no discernable change in the product. A specific genre of film or book can do extremely well for a long time, then suddenly die in the theaters or on the shelves. Increasingly comics publishers move away from diversification in favor of a specific type of material and come to publish virtually nothing else. Which is fine, while that type of material sells, but should the public taste for that material fade, you're screwed.

I hate to resort to pro wrestling analogies again, but one applies here. One of the great problems for wrestling promoters, especially today, is their unwillingness to build new stars while depending on the popularity of aging, fading wrestlers who were once known to sell. It's not that talented, charismatic young wrestlers aren't there. It's that they're used mainly to make the older talent look good by failing to sell the young wrestlers' moves, pounding them down for the victory regardless of the newcomers' offense, and flashy, exciting, newer moves – the ones the older wrestlers can't do – are ultimately made to look completely ineffectual. This protects the top talent but kills the credibility of new wrestlers. Then promotions hit the point where the old talent leaves or can't sell tickets anymore, and the newer talent just isn't taken seriously. Sometimes radical surgery is performed and the new talent re-establishes marketability, but just as often the promotion either goes under or sinks to the cusp of unprofitability and barely holds onto a tiny core of fans. It's not as if promoters can't book cleverly to make newcomers look strong instead of weak, and generate a steady build of new stars. It's just that they don't, and pay for it in the end.

Getting back to comics, there's also the tendency (among publishers and talent alike) to "mold" material to make it more appealing for Hollywood exploitation. Supposedly. Here's the problem with that: as I've mentioned before, Hollywood doesn't know what Hollywood wants, until it sees it. "Molding" comics doesn't make them any more appealing to Hollywood, but it does make them more static and predictable for readers. The paradox is that material aimed at Hollywood is less likely to sell to Hollywood, which at some point will have cherry-picked all the franchise comics it's interested in. Given that comics' current cultural legitimacy, such as it is, is tied to Hollywood's tacit endorsement of comics as source material, limiting options and minimizing original ideas is the surest way our business has of killing that relationship, along with much of the inroads comics have made with the general public. Like it or not, we can't survive only on the largesse of the cognoscenti. We need a mass audience, and while it's not impossible that at some point the business can stand entirely on its own feet again, right now we can use all the help we can get.

At any rate, however one may excuse it and there are all sorts of rationales people have produced to excuse it, the lack of support for original ideas (over at The Comics Reporter, Tom Spurgeon bemoans all the great original work available at Comic-Con that went virtually unnoticed by the 120,000+ attendees, so "lack of support" applies far and wide, and, let's face it, this is a business where INVINCIBLE IRON MAN, no offense to Matt Fraction & Salvador Larocca, despite being a renumbered continuation of a series that has been ongoing for forty years, can not only be nominated as "best new series" in what amount to the industry's highest awards, but win) is a poison slowly eating away at comics, and there's no clear solution to it. Readers can't be asked to support material they don't want; publishers can't be required to keep publishing money-losing comics just so they can claim to publish original series. (Could Diamond be forced via lawsuit to carry all new comics rather than pre-emptively assess their market chances and dismiss them? Maybe.) What's clear is that the problem can't be solved overnight. We need mechanisms in place, especially marketing, promotional and distribution mechanisms, that give new material a fighting chance, as Comic-Con demonstrates just how inefficient what we currently have really is. But recognizing the problem is a good start, and before anyone angrily cites all the "new titles" being published today, find out what they sell and how long they're expected to be around.

Some mail:

"There's one aspect of breaking into the industry which you haven't openly discussed: isn't it really about who you know? 

As for publishing in general, there was post on the Beat blog that warned people below a certain socioeconomic status to not expect to get hired as an editor or even intern at a publishing company because there's a bit of elitism in the field of publishing in general. It was in response to an intern position being posted on the blog.

What do you think?"

It almost never hurts to know people, unless who you know doesn't like you, but nobody was born knowing other people. My experience has generally been that people who worry about such things are looking for excuses to fail. It's not like getting into any field anywhere is usually easy, and especially in "creative" fields where those who want to be in vastly outnumber available slots, but I've known people who ended up working in Marvel editorial by answering classifieds in THE VILLAGE VOICE despite zero existing contacts in the business (or much personal interest in it). These days it's easier than ever to "meet" people via the Internet, and I don't know that "socioeconomic" status has ever much entered into it, though certainly the more legitimate companies desire to look the more inclined they'll be to draw their staff from college graduates or similar businesses; conversely, the more pressure there will be for those doing the hiring to hire someone who can properly do the job than to hire their nephew or the girl their best friend is trying to nail. It's likely work and time will be required to get into any situation that's worth being in, and while, yes, a certain amount of luck is involved, assuming favoritism is what's keeping you out of where you want to be just means you're not really willing to put in the work to get there. (Also bear in mind that it's relatively easy to end up in a better situation while trying to get to your dream job.)

"Watching the con online this year or I'd have dropped by one of your signings. The panel on motion comics is interesting. For one client I worked for the computer used motion blur to animate the work I'd done a CD-ROM the company was developing a number of years ago. Are motion comics on the iPhone here to stay?"

Probably, though that depends on how well they're received by an audience, buying or otherwise. What I've seen of them so far doesn't do much for me. It's hard to believe they'll be more than a momentary novelty, like Flash animation. (That's what they most resemble, and, yes, I know Flash animation is still employed but when was the last time you saw anyone make a big deal out of it?) They're like watching flipbooks. But it seems people get wet for anything done on the iPhone these days, so who knows?

"Regarding Gore and company, I'm getting worried about this whole global regulation thing as well. It's driven me to think of Lennon's "Imagine" more often than not, for some reason.

Agreed on WEDNESDAY COMICS. It's a noble effort on DC's part but the last place it should be sold is your local comic book store. WC can serve as a comics "demo" of sorts for the modern masses. It should be on sale at places like coffee shops, tattoo parlors, head shops, (if they're still around anymore) supermarkets, and book stores. Small ones, too, not just your usual Barnes & Noble.

When I lived in Chicago in the mid-80's, some place in my area had weekly copies of an underground newspaper which ran stuff like Bill Griffith's Zippy and Matt Groening's Life in Hell strips. That stuff blew my mind, given how I was mostly reading GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS at the time, so you can imagine. That led to mags like ROLLING STONE, which got me hooked on what little remained of 60's counter-culture by late in the Reagan era. Yeah, I was still reading mainstream comics but I also made room for this kind of material, much to my father's highly conservative chagrin. ("ROLLING STONE will corrupt your brain. It's published by hippie radicals and I don't want you reading their trash.")

The point is, it could have a reverse effect on youths or adults who only seek out comics when they're tied into a summer blockbuster, or the public in general. The already converted are not expressing much interest at various con panels, so far."

Sorry to contribute to anything that would make you think of "Imagine." Awful song. Your father must've been an arch-conservative if he thought ROLLING STONE ever had anything to do with radicalism. If anything, it was the first bloom of hip capitalism.

"I read the article about Goldman-Sachs.  It was mind blowing.  Thanks for pointing it out.  Is this story something you could take time in a near future column to talk about?  I think it raises a lot of interesting questions."

If anyone's interested enough in the possibility that Goldman-Sachs has been blithely manipulating the computerized trading markets, or that they've based their whole business model on cycles of boom and bust they manipulate for their own benefit, there are certainly enough sources of information that will show up with a quick Google search. I'm sure there are many out there who believe that even entertaining such possibilities is half-a-breath away from becoming a "conspiracy nut," but that's what many businesses and organizations depend on these days. That conspiracies exist, and conspirators get away with them, is amply proved by the California energy "crisis" of 2002 that was supposedly the result of supply and demand – those baaaaad Californians mindlessly burning up all that power, driving prices up – but turned out to be a conspiracy of energy brokers to artificially drive prices up, triggering repercussions the whole West is still dealing with. And prices are still up, and even after discovery the perpetrators have still not been brought to accounts, though some, like Enron, were gutted by other shenanigans. But if nobody even bothers to look, nobody gets held accountable...

Notes from under the floorboards:

Comic Book Resources won an Eisner for "best comics-related periodical/journalism" at San Diego, but no one has sent me a statue yet. Congratulations to everyone involved with CBR anyway... (Congratulations to all the other award winners as well.)

By the way, thanks to everyone who raved up the media presentation for my graphic novel THE SAFEST PLACE at this year's Wrath Of Con party. Too bad I had nothing to do with the video, but I still appreciate the raves and interest. The highlight of the party was an exhibition wrestling match between TNA wrestlers Suicide & Fallen Angel Christopher Daniels on one side and tag team The Motor City Machine Guns on the other. Daniels and Machine Gun Alex Shelley are among the best wrestlers working today, and Shelley in particular has tons of charisma in person, and it's a bit odd that TNA had the sense to send them while not having the sense to push them on TV at all. (Daniels and the Machine Guns, in fact, get regularly punked out on TNA shows, just an example of why the promotion is a second-rate laughing stock despite a roster loaded with talent. The Machine Guns, according to rumor, also outsell everyone else in TNA when it comes to t-shirts and other merchandise.) A couple different non-wrestling fans in attendance expressed the same shock and awe after watching them; used to watching the lumbering musclebound lumps both TNA and WWE regularly push uber alles, they were startled to see a ring full of lithe, incredible acrobats doing all sorts of things human bodies should be incapable of. Match intensity isn't what you'd see on a PPV (well, maybe not on TNA's overbooked, ramshackle pay per views, but theoretically), as probably they didn't want to kill each other, but it was very impressive nonetheless. (Don't mean to slight Suicide and Shelley's partner Chris Sabin; all were impressive.)

Much as I hate to crap all over Obama's proposed health plan, maybe it's best if the whole thing is killed, or at least severely re-examined. Amid the many, many pages are several highly disturbing elements that suggest various agendas other than a workable health care system are being served here. Among these: 1) The bill authorizes the government to decide what does or doesn't constitute a legal marriage. If you're pro-gay marriage, you may take this to mean it allows the government to declare gay marriage anathema. If you're anti-gay marriage, you may take it to mean the government can shove gay marriage down your throat. Neither perception would be wrong. 2) It allows the government to look at and monitor at will the bank accounts of anyone participating in the plan. Which would be pretty much everyone except Congress and the President, since they have their own government health care. (How about requiring them to take part in any program they concoct?) 3) The government would automatically gain power of attorney over all living wills, meaning they'd be able to terminate or prolong care regardless of patient wishes should the patient be no longer able to speak for themselves. 4) It would establish a national I.D. card in the form of a health card. While this is understandable, you may recall the Social Security Card and # was also not supposed to be used as a national I.D. # and the government still officially says it isn't and that it should never be used for identification purposes in order to ward off identity theft. Nonetheless it's widely demanded and used as exactly that, by banks and other businesses, by credit-tracking services, by medical services and by the government itself. Among other things. In terms of service, the bill as written positions the government less as an insurer or medical provider than as a super-HMO. I'm not only all for a national health system, I think it's absolutely necessary, but I don't believe any government is better than no government at all. Something's happening with this version, and I'm not sure what it is, but maybe it's time we all contact our Congresspeople to tell them "we want something better," since it's better to take longer and get it right than to ram through rubbish and saddle us with lots of weirdness. Find a copy of the bill online and read through it, preferably before Congress votes.

Apparently scientists have invented a whole new form of matter that previously only existed in STAR TREK...

Ummm... okay... Microsoft and Yahoo have a deal! No, MS isn't buying Yahoo. (Carl Icaan must be sobbing in his flat beer, since his money is still sunk into more or less worthless Yahoo stock.) Yahoo, which originally made its name with the original superior search engine, has agreed to use Microsoft Bing as its new search engine! Say what? Oh, and they split advertising revenues. (Wasn't ad revenue Microboss Steve Ballmer's one-time planned source for Microsoft's future financial security?) The propaganda machine suggests search monster Google had better start trembling in its boots, but Google is probably too busy creating a Windows-killer operating system to pay much attention. (I like Bing well enough, but there's nothing I've found in it to make Google obsolete anytime soon. Or make anyone switch from Google, for that matter.) Oh, and Yahoo intends to be your source for image search from now on. Got that?

Oddly enough, despite all its dire moaning about music piracy, the British recording industry's profits spiked in 2008.

Congratulations to Peter Hohman, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "food." Alas, Peter never said what site he wanted to pimp, so you luck out this week; no extracurricular activities. Include the site of your choice with your entry!

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. Normally a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but this week the practice comes to a stop. 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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