Permanent Damage

Wed, August 5th, 2009 at 3:01pm PDT | Updated: August 5th, 2009 at 3:01pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist
17

Late additional fallout from San Diego, while I'm on the road:

Many publishers noted sales down in the exhibit hall this year, but I'm not sure they should have been given the economy. Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics expressed concern that the evolution of San Diego might be squeezing out independent comics, back issue dealers and, basically, any comics that don't feed into the Hollywood machine. Eric gives a number of good reasons for his concerns, stating that many alternative cartoonists are skipping the show for venues like SPX and APE, and the purchasing of four-day tickets wiping out day passes that made casual shopping more practical. (I'm not convinced they did, but he'd know more about that than I.)

I'm just not sure any of Eric's "causes," or those cited privately by other publishers and editors at other companies, much affect what's really going on.

It's absolutely true that the San Diego Con has undergone a dramatic evolution over the last decade. So has the business. So has the market. It's not Hollywood that has wiped out back issue dealers at the convention, it's eBay that wiped out the back issue market. No one needs to sell to dealers, they can be their own dealer, with an international market and the side effect of caved-in prices because the Overstreet values are based on scarcity, and scarcity is based on lack of access. eBay has given collectors exactly what they wanted – access – and murdered values in the process. Driving speculators out of the back issue market (and comics in general) except for a few genuinely rare titles, and leaving only the real fans, further collapsing prices by diminishing demand. I'm surprised anyone even tries to run a back issue business anymore. Everyone is in competition with them.

It's not like this wasn't visible for anyone to see.

Yet most publishers (including Fantagraphics, one of the better ones) and much of the talent still party like it's 1999. How has their approach to San Diego changed with the con? For the most part, it hasn't. Booth designs, for instance, are still pretty much exactly what they were in 1999, though Dark Horse and Marvel seem to have slightly redesigned their booths into impassible and often impenetrable roach motels. There's a cozy fannishness to many publisher booths; it's what was all the rage in 1995. The big change to San Diego that concerns them all is a general turning away from fannishness. But this is less the result of "Hollywood" than a simple insufficient number of fans. The problem isn't unknown. It's been known since the great diaspora of '94-'94, when longtime comics fans jumped ship in anger over the business' cowtowing to speculators and speculators jumped when the artificial comics speculation bubble burst in their faces, and wallets. Publishers and talent don't bring up the lack of fans or readers or sales much because they don't know what to do about it. Any real solutions painfully require money, time, imagination and, worst, changes in the business. It's not something many really want to face up to.

Since roughly 1980, this has been a business largely run by fans for fans. You see this in a lot of business decisions, a lot of decisions of what to publish and how to market it. When comics fandom was healthy, marketing was easy. You passed the word around. (It was always easier when the word was X-MEN, but hey.) Con tables were set up, consciously or otherwise, to evoke comradeship with fans. When comics fans made up the majority of congoers, and represented a relatively coherent group, or a few, it was a fine strategy: I am he as you are he and you are me and we are all together. It's not a fine strategy anymore. The fanbase has changed. The composition of con attendee rolls has changed. It just isn't the same market anymore, and can't be approached as such.

But it's still a huge potential market. More than one, really. And the challenge now is to reach that market.

If San Diego is now mainly the visiting place of the casual media fan (though how casual can anyone who has to set up a trip months in advance be?), the fannish approach is no longer appropriate. These are not comrades in arms, there to push the cause of comics. They're traditional customers, meaning they need to be treated as such. They need to be enticed in, with slicker approaches that suggest (please note I don't say imitate) the necessity and immediacy that most big media booths (and booths like Viz's) evoke. Casual fannishness just doesn't get that across, but that's what you need to make fans of the tens of thousands who now wander through San Diego.

Mention this to comics guys, though, and you usually hit an odd snobbishness, as if thousands of extra eyes aren't worth making a play for. Part of the problem is the refusal to let go of the by fans for fans ethic (and it doesn't have its upside, though, as I said, that upside grows and diminishes with the number of fans, and it's pretty diminished now), part a result of the schism in the comics business that's been around since the first wave of "art" comics appeared in the '80s but has been steadily growing since "real" publishers started publishing graphic novels, between "genre" comics on the one wing and "art" comics on the other. But both cling equally, and sometimes in parallel, to their fannish underpinnings. Both operate less on logic or ideal than on comforting bias; neither pursues any marketing strategy that doesn't support their particular bias. They simply consider those markets that don't bolster their bias to not be markets.

It's a bit odd to hear Fantagraphics talking about throwing in the San Diego towel. Having thrown in their lot with WW Norton, they straddle the New York publisher market and the "traditional" comics market, if on a rarified shelf of it. Reynolds is one of the better marketers in comics. There would seem no publisher better experienced at meeting the new challenges of San Diego, and redesigning their whole approach to increase interest in their product there. Yet there's a sense of resignation in what Reynolds writes, as if they've simply decided the visitors who come to San Diego to get the latest FRINGE scoops or catch a glimpse of Johnny Depp simply have no potential to be Fantagraphics customers, that people who enjoy PSYCH can never be convinced to buy LOCAS II. (Jaime Hernandez, by the way. Really good. If you haven't read it, read it.)

And this isn't uncharacteristic of comics publishers. For a long time at Marvel, there was the occasionally mentioned sentiment that if someone not working for the company was any good at creating comics, they'd already be working for Marvel. Kind of the same principle at work: the general approach seems to be that anyone who's going to be a fan is already a fan, and if they're not it's a waste of time to try converting them. This is itself an offshoot of the determined insularity that has always characterized fandoms of all sorts, from science fictions "Slans" on. We love our insularity. It means we never have to challenge our assumptions, because swallowing the assumptions is part of the club dues.

Which is why the comics business is a study in mixed messages. (Not just comics, really. All mass media is infected with this nonsense.) Half of comics is fanfic, or little more than; the fanfic mentality is so strong in comics now that while it used to be de rigueur to read as much as possible in order to familiarize yourself with types of material to avoid duplicating it while trying to create something original, the accepted point now seems to be to ferret out the material and bits you think are really cool so you can steal it. That's only part of the fanfic ethic. There isn't much difference between drooling teenagers typing up "adventures" where Mr. Spock woos, sodomizes and cuddles Captain Kirk, and Geoff Johns writing a splatterpunk version of GREEN LANTERN. (And you can't say he's wrong to, since the current audience seems to love it, but it has this undertone that feels like he's saying, "Okay, if this is all you want I'll give it to you in spades.") There's no more fannish activity in comics than "doing Kirby," and it's usually marketed as "homage," but what kind of homage is it really? I barely knew Jack Kirby, only spoke with him maybe four times and briefly each time, but I knew Jack well enough to know he didn't want his legacy to be an endless parade of people doing new adventures of Captain America or The Boy Commandos. And not because he didn't want other people playing with his toys. It's because he thought people should be creating new creations of their own. That's what he wanted for his legacy: people following his example, not miming his past. San Diego this year also witnessed comics companies issuing grand announcements of this acquisition or that: Marvel grabbing Marvelman, Dark Horse the old Gold Key heroes, Dynamite the somewhat complete Kirbyverse. (I don't recall that DC announced anything, but presumably the Archie heroes killed their acquisitiveness for awhile.)

Why would any of this matter to anyone? None of them have been published in years, none have inherent followings. Kirby's not working on any Kirbyverse characters, Marvelman was only significant for Alan Moore (and later Neil Gaiman, but even if Neil's on board he's starting from scratch). How many people even remember Gold Key published a book called THE MIGHTY SAMSON? Even comics fans don't remember most of this stuff, so the acquisitions have no importance in themselves. All that matters is what's going to be done with them, and that puts them on no better footing than a completely original book. How are any of these intended to bring in comics fans, let alone casual audiences?

But casual audiences aren't part of the equation, being either beneath publishers' notice or considered beyond their reach. Underlying these decisions and many others is a syndrome common to virtually all comics, publishers, editors and talent alike: the presumption that what you've got is great because you've got it. Publishers will do this with books, writers with artists. Was speaking with one small publisher at San Diego, who was growing frustrated with how people would look at a graphic novel on his table, done by highly-regarded professionals, then move on without buying. But he wasn't considering anything from a buyer's perspective. The genre subject matter wasn't a problem, and, given the way immediate comics appreciation works, who wrote it is irrelevant. The fact was he had no good reason to think the artist, despite a list of credentials, was especially marketable. Because if you can get someone to look at your book, comic or graphic novel, that's the only thing they see. This particular artist may be very skilled, but there are comics artists whose brilliance can only be recognized by those with a strong grounding in comics art. To the casual eye it looks like mud. When even chocolate looks like mud, people are going to respond to it as if it's mud.

Like it or not, a certain level of slickness is necessary to suck casual eyes in. They have to like what they see or they don't go any further. For a long time now, a lot of comics, publishers and creators have turned away from slickness, either out of belief that it signifies the inauthentic or simply an inability to achieve it, and followed the principle that what they produce must be good because they're producing it. It's a fan attitude, pure and simple, a corollary to what they like must be good because they like it. Again, these attitudes extend across all the field's boundaries, as exemplified by forgotten Golden Age writer-artist Fletcher Hanks, recently resurrected and lionized by Fantagraphics. It's the hip thing to tout Hanks' surrealism, apparently. But the stuff was rightfully forgotten, though I wouldn't say charmless; while the art is early Golden Age average, Hanks' "surrealism" is pretty much just ineptness, and a near total unfamiliarity with plot, character or story logic. (The work of someone like Boody Rogers, on the other hand, maybe be nearly as crazy as Hanks' but if you dissect it it's fairly easy to tell Rogers knew what he was doing.)

But to what extent is Fletcher Hanks or Magnus Robot Fighter or yet another interpretation of Darkseid going to convince people to read comics? (Speaking of which, at a dinner in San Diego, Matt Fraction was endlessly entertaining in his impressions of Darkseid as a homeless guy deciding to rebuild Apokalips as a squatter's camp in Central Park, and if FINAL CRISIS didn't put them off Darkseid completely, they might consider letting Matt pursue that direction. Since there's no way anyone will ever do Darkseid and not be fannish anyway.) To a certain segment of the market, running across them is like finding a box of old comics in a neighbor's garage when you're 12 years old and getting excited about stuff you've never seen before, but how wide a market is that? Not that there's anything wrong with playing to that market, but if that's your standard you really don't have any right to bitch about nobody else paying attention to you.

The problem of San Diego for publishers isn't that media is killing interest in comics. It's that comics are killing interest in comics. There's a huge audience at San Diego. It's just not an easily accessible audience. Publishers are certainly welcome to take their ball and go home because they no longer like the game, but they, and the business, might be better served by weeding out the fannishness in our natures and approaching the whole thing with a fresh view. Taking audience viewpoint into account in the process of creation is optional, depending on what you're creating and what the goal is, but anyone who intends to sell anymore, to anything but a captive audience that isn't really captive, taking audience viewpoint into account in the marketing is absolutely necessary. We now think of WATCHMEN and SANDMAN as breakout crossover successes, and comics publishers, thanks to bad habits developed by dealing for years almost exclusively with Diamond and the direct market, have quietly come to accept the idea that you simply lay out your wares and breakthrough status will find you. But DC backed both up with ads in ROLLING STONE and in college markets, while outside reviewers raved up both (as well as DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, LOVE & ROCKETS and a handful of other books that still remain about the only ones on hipster critic's list of approved comics material) and bestowed on them a general impression of cool. WATCHMEN is a good book, but there were a lot of good books being published back then; would it still be selling today if DC hadn't done that?

When I was growing up, my exposure to Russ Heath consisted of his work for DC's war books. (Never read SEA DEVILS.) I had no interest in those, except ENEMY ACE (I had a crush on biplanes for awhile), and so no interest in Heath. It's only in the last few years I've become aware of, and have come to appreciate, the skill and breadth body of work, including his westerns with and without Gil Kane for Dell, his art for Harvey Kurtzman's LITTLE ANNIE FANNY in PLAYBOY, and his forgotten volumes of stories for Atlas in the '50s. To wit:

I wonder what would've happened if Kubert & Heath had moved into Julie Schwartz's superhero stable with Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Murphy Anderson & Mike Sekowsky at the beginning of the Silver Age instead of hooking up with Bob Kanigher. On the other hand, Julie was reportedly known to deride Joe's style as "avant garde" so maybe it wouldn't have been the happiest of arrangements, though Kubert's HAWKMAN work suggests otherwise.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Just finished the afterword for the book publication of ODYSSEUS THE REBEL, which should be out in October but I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, catch the wrapup over at Big Head Press (and dip into series like LA MUSE and TIME PEEPER while you're at it.

Got an email yesterday from someone asking about writing manuals, since I've disparaged them in the past. My advice remains skip 'em, except THE SCREENWRITER'S BIBLE, still an amazingly straightforward nuts'n'bolts approach to storytelling in any medium, despite the special emphasis. Most writing manuals, and classes, don't teach how to write, they teach how the teacher writes, and many books and articles are flat out, sometimes even dangerously, wrong, or at least useless in practical terms. The best approach? Read. Read lots of novels and short stories, all sorts of them. Preferably with little emphasis on genre, since it's a lot easier to pick up genre habits than it is to lose them. Then read critical essays on those works. Look at how they're deconstructed. This is how to develop critical thinking about fiction. Meanwhile, write. Write as constantly as you can. Don't be afraid to pastiche what you're reading – virtually everyone starts with pastiche - just don't try to sell it and don't pastiche to imitate, pastiche to figure out what works and doesn't in your own writing and to burn out the urge to pastiche. It's how you stop thinking like a reader and start thinking like a writer. Most people don't go this route, though, since it takes a lot more time than reading magazine articles, and suggests "genius" is made, not born, something most aspiring writers find uncomfortable to acknowledge...

It's back! Firefox upgraded to a new version a few weeks ago, but the absolutely indispensible Tab Mix Plus add-on was MIA. If you used Tab Mix Plus, being without it is like heading into the desert with a leaky water bottle. Now the new version's here, and not a moment too soon. This happens every time there's a substantial upgrade of Firefox, but you'd think by now the program would just incorporate all Tab Mix Plus' incredibly useful features. Next time they could at least give the Tab Mix Plus developer a big head's up and spare us end users a few weeks of agony and woe...

I see Liz Cheney at a recent conference of right wing bloggers gave a much lauded speech declaring "America needs a commander in chief, not a global community organizer." I guess that'll be the new meme, but if the main job of the president is commander in chief, as LC seems to suggest, doesn't that also suggest that America's main business is war? (Oh, sorry, meant defense. Remind me to brush up on my euphemisms.)

Apparently, the University of Massachusetts has developed an electricity producing microbe that's quite energetic. Reportedly the only fuel source it needs is mud...

More rights management stuff: a blogger recently tested the Associated Press' software for licensing out reprint rights to its articles or parts thereof. Per the software, the blogger typed in the fragment and in exchange for $12 received a license, though only for those words exactly as written, and – this kills me – not in connection with "political content," whatever that means. Only one problem: the AP software was incapable of determining the fragment was taken from a public domain Thomas Jefferson letter and not from an AP report. When the "error" was pointed out, AP, which continues to do its best to obliterate the legal concept of "fair use," refunded the money, though getting the egg off its face might be more difficult. Funniest part was the quote expresses Jefferson's dim view of copyright...

There's another attempt to further enshrine net neutrality in national law, which is one of the most needed pieces of legislation in the works, considering all the people and service providers out there getting increasingly desperate to control what you read, see and do on the web. Time to contact your representative and tell them you want Ed Markey's "Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009" passed as soon as possible. And assure them that it doesn't protect any illegal activity on the web.

By the way, lawyers for the RIAA are now arguing that it's completely fair that music you paid money for should stop being available to you at any given time. The issue is digital rights management, and music services that require you to periodically renew (without charge) your license to play that material. But music services go belly up, rendering licenses unrenewable and suddenly that music you forked over for is off your playlist. Perfectly all right, argue RIAA attorneys. "No one expects computers or other electronic devices to work in perpetuity." No, but when we buy a program we expect it to work for as long as we have a computer to run it on, and when a computer abruptly stops working long before it should, we expect the company to make good on it. If licenses aren't renewable on demand, the least companies represented by the RIAA can do is refund the purchase price, as Amazon did to Kindle users who suddenly found the copies of 1984 they'd paid for inaccessible.

Congratulations to Rob Smentek, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "periods." Rob wishes to point your attention to the home of hot indie record label Rank Outsider Records, featuring an interesting array of roots music. Looks pretty good. 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, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column; find it and you'll be on a roll. 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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TAGS:  comic-con international, comic-con, fantagraphics

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