Permanent Damage

Wed, August 12th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Had a fleeting, interrupted chat a couple weeks ago with novelist Monte Schulz, whose new novel, THIS SIDE OF JORDAN, is a departure from his earlier mystery fiction into what's commonly called literary fiction, in this case a historical novel much more reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow than Walter Scott. In the course of conversation, Monte asserted that many writers believe there's no difference between genre and literary fiction, and I said there isn't. He corrected me, stating that in terms of language usage there's a vast difference. At about that point we were interrupted.

He's right, of course. There's a vast gulf between how language is used in most literary novels and in most genre novels.

Had we continued, I'd have rephrased: there doesn't need to be.

Genre remains a tricky business. It's basically a marketing tool that has been swallowed by generations of writers and readers and calcified along the way, despite periodic attempts to "redeem" genre fiction from what it has become. Even "mainstream" fiction is little more than just another genre, as the main purpose of the categorization, of all categorizations, is to make life a little easier for booksellers who can then safely point little old ladies to the romance novels or self-help books with a reasonable degree of certainty. (One of my few "real" jobs was in a bookstore; I've seen these things up close.) (Libraries tend not to separate novels into genres, and clients have little problem in finding them.) How publishers designate novels depends not so much on what the contents are but which audience they calculate will bring the most profit or, barring that, prestige, though there are few publishers in any field gutsy enough to try marketing a swashbuckling interplanetary romance where bare-chested macho ex-soldier with saber and raygun cutting down monsters and aliens to claim the virtue of a mostly naked tinted nubile woman with flowing beauty parlor hair as "mainstream." But it could be done, with the right packaging and preconception of author status, as with the science fiction novels of Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy or Ken Kesey.

If they wrote space opera rather than social or ecological apocalypses.

Of course, "mainstream" fiction shouldn't really be conflated with "literary" fiction, though when the latter is actively marketed by a publisher (rather than dumped on the market in the belief that whatever audience it has will find it) it's usually marketed as the former. And genre work isn't necessarily unliterary; certainly the literary quality of genre work varies with the author, and periodically movements spring up within genres to up the game, as with the J.G. Ballard-inspired, Michael Moorcock-led "new wave science fiction" movement of the late '60s that found expression in the Moorcock-edited NEW WORLDS, and, in America, anthologies like Harlan Ellison's DANGEROUS VISIONS and the Ted White editorial runs on AMAZING and FANTASTIC magazines. While they had their fans, and generated a considerable volume of good work, some of which rivaled the best experimental literary fiction of the day, the general fandom denounced their efforts as pretentious, a common result of such attempts.

The widespread ire and indifference among science fiction fans the New Wave evoked resulted from their abandonment or metamorphoses of "essential" themes of science fiction such as belief in a progressive future (though the first science fiction novel I ever read was Isaac Asimov's debut effort, PEBBLE IN THE SKY, presented a nightmarish future of forced euthanasia for the elderly that in no way suggested tomorrow would be a better place, and he was an icon of pre-NEW WORLDS science fiction) and their embrace of more literary styles, a more expansive set of character types and the less restrictive genre label "speculative fiction" in an attempt to better describe the material and sidestep public preconceptions of what "science fiction" was. The sf hardcore (who hated the somewhat derisive pop term "sci fi") also denounced new wave's trend toward moral ambiguity and protagonists who often lost their battles or found their victories were pyrrhic, and proclaimed most new wave sf depressing, with none of the uplift good science fiction provided.

A charge sf fans commonly made against literary fiction, by the way, and a charge not restricted to sf fans. The general public view since World War II ended labels "literary" fiction depressing, convoluted, "intellectual," often amoral and difficult, a view critics and publishers have done little to dispel. It's a viewpoint genre fans of all stripes have been exploited over the years with practically Marxist fervor: the notion that "those" works are little more than snotty affections by a tiny coterie that thinks it's better than anyone else, while "their" works can be read and enjoyed by the common man and woman, AKA plays to their presumed preconceptions of what fiction is supposed to be and do. While it's not uncommon for fans of mysteries, romances, westerns, horror, etc., to think of their particular loves as somehow more democratic than, say, the works of Dan DiLillo, it's funny to hear the same from old school science fiction fans who through the other sides of their mouths entertained the fiction that their literary interests make them a breed apart. But the truly populist science fiction is the anti-science fiction of STAR WARS and seeming millions of by the number "heroic fantasies" owing more to DUNGEONS & DRAGONS than to any literary tradition at all.

And literary tradition does figure into it. American genre fiction, though capitalized on by booksellers, is largely an invention of the pulp magazines. Fraction-of-a-cent per word pay and large numbers of pages to fill account for much of the awful writing found in pulps, and there was plenty of it, but the Ernest Hemingway "plainspeak" style formed the basis of the hardboiled crime style of BLACK MASK magazine, and that style, brought to a pitch by the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (though mostly not until after those works appeared between hard covers), influenced much of what the pulps came to consider "good" writing, certainly good crime writing that to a large extent influenced THE SHADOW and similar pulps and you can see it come into play in a wide variety of pulp material as the '30s wear on. That sort of "meat and bones" writing also nicely paralleled the visuals & dialogue plot-driven narrative style the new medium of film fell back on by necessity. If Hemingway was a major influence on pulp fiction, he and his Lost Generation compatriots, as well as the '30s "literary" writers they influenced like the Algonquin Club clique, were no less influential in the slick literary magazines of the day, like COLLIERS and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, that not only set the official standard of what was considered "good" writing but actively enforced it (even as they published Sax Rohmer, Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, though Vonnegut became one of the first science fiction writers to be marketed as mainstream fiction as his popularity grew) until their demises, when markets for short stories of any kind dried up almost entirely.

But the problem of genre fiction isn't that it's by nature inferior to "literary" fiction or that the writing is of necessity lesser, though it frequently is. The problems are perception and repetition.

I write crime comics, on the rare occasions I can find a publisher willing to pay for them. I like writing crime fiction. It tends to be a good, though not exclusive, vehicle for the themes and ideas I prefer to write about. This leads many to assume I like reading it. I don't, much. Aside from handful of writers (James Ellroy, Jim Thompson, Eugene Izzi, Charles Willeford, Chandler) my main interest in reading crime stories is to learn what's been done, to know what not to redo. But for most people "crime fiction" brings up an automatic hitlist of associations: cigarette smoking tough guys in trenchcoats and fedoras, hardbitten cops, slinky, backstabbing femme fatales. Or private detectives. Or amateur sleuths doggedly uncovering clues any six year old would stumble across but somehow elude trained cops entirely. In fact, the crime "genre" isn't a real genre at all, but a collection of sub-genres, each with its own set of fans to claim their sub-genre is the "real" thing and the others are mere upstarts that in their apostasy fail to satisfy.

In fact, there is no genre that isn't a collection of warring sub-genres that share elements in common with major thematic or stylistic dissimilarities. What they all have in common is readers who come to them with fixed, advance sets of expectations and base their appreciations of the work not on literary merit (though when cornered they will often cite it) but on how well those works meet their expectations. It's this collection of elements designed to meet expectations that define genres, and the public, even more than the fans, comes to define the elements as the genre. Ask the man in the street, and he'll tell you what science fiction is: it's STAR WARS, called science fiction only for its trappings – alien worlds, robots, spaceships, ray guns – but has less to do with science fiction than WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. But for most STAR WARS and sf are synonymous. (If you're lucky, the man on the street might instead say STAR TREK, which, though lazy, sloppy science fiction, at least is science fiction.) When genre iconography officially designates inclusion in the genre, and genre books are marketed on the basis of inclusion, the iconography becomes a dead end, a trap, at least for writers, though publishers and readers tend not to find it very inconvenient. At least until it stops selling.

Whatever the genre, the associated trappings, not the ideas or execution, become the genre, though most book editors insist on at least a minimal level of literary competence, though series like TWILIGHT make it clear it's not absolutely required. This is the exact opposite of literary fiction, where idea and execution are both paramount, and is amplified by a growing dependence by publishers on series fiction. Series fiction seems almost inherently bad for writers, encouraging them to repeat themselves. Donald Westlake's THE HUNTER, now adapted by Darwyn Cook for IDW, was a fresh breakthrough in crime fiction that generated a bookshelf of sequels and more than a few imitators, but by the time you get to the eighth or tenth Parker novel (that's the gangster hero's name) what was fresh becomes predictable shtick; whether the minor variations are points of interest depends on your tolerance for the basic shtick.

Shtick, the repetition of elements known to have at least once been successful, can be good, or it can be bad, but either way it's still shtick. It's the curse of series material regardless of genre, or of medium. If iconography is a problem for prose, consider what a problem it is for comics, where everything is iconography. Though its dominance has been overtaken by the horror comic, the superhero is still perceived as the dominant genre in American comics, whose iconography, both visual and textual, have reached almost religious proportions. The more "iconic" its characters are, the more locked in stone they become. (It's notable that the frequently innovative Ed Brubaker's run on CAPTAIN AMERICA has been marked by plots far more interesting than what he's been able to do with the central character, and that the book and its characters became far more interesting when Captain America was ushered out of it. Writers and artists come and go, but Captain America must always remain Captain America.) In this atmosphere, alternative genres are far too often treated over-reverentially, with both writers and artists (and editors and publishers) less intent on using different genres, with or without its familiar trappings, as vehicles for stories they want to tell and more intent on crafting stories as vehicles for the trappings they want to play with, or (in the case of editors and publishers) that they plan to promote as a marketing strategy.

Result: Lots of private eyes. Lots of Lovecraftian Great Old Ones. Lots of laconic gunslingers in serapes. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of derivative comics. You end up with people doing things they call "noir" because they've nicked all the right elements and set the story in the '30s or '40s, when noir is really an attitude, a worldview, and not a collection of gimmicks, an era or oceans of black ink. In comics, genre standards are usually only challenged via "genre-bending," mixing two genres together – horror superheroes, horror westerns, superhero westerns, historical science fiction, etc. – but that only amplifies the problem. It's a reductionist view, but it's the wrong reductionist view.

Genre is milieu. That's it. There isn't one genre that's not wide open with possibilities or places any inherent restrictions on literary quality, except where they attract adherents who aren't interested in such things and enforce a self-censorship based on tradition and fannish fixation. (Where censorship is defined as "an opinion enforced by an organization.")

As far as the literary quality of comics goes, this is a thornier problem, but there aren't real restrictions to that either, aside from how cooperative artists and editors might be, and how much work comics writers are willing to put into it, especially as the graphic novel has ironically grown to become its own "genre" as far as bookstores are concerned. The form offers tremendous untapped possibilities – unlike novels, the pictures can, should, carry the weight of basic narrative, and would if educating artists in narrative was considered a priority (though many are quite adept at picking it up by themselves, whether consciously or by osmosis), but where most comics writers have been more than happy to restrict themselves to unobtrusive dialogue, the relief from the burden of basic narrative opens up the possibility of richer, more complex narrative – but that put the burden on comics writers to rethink and relearn their craft, and also break with the crutch we call the past.

Someone asked recently about how to break the grip of the three pronged trap the comics industry spent the last forty years building around itself. The answer's both simple and complicated, but I should reiterate - again (because no matter how many times I bring up the truth, the legend continues to be spread) that comics did not abandon the newsstands, the newsstands abandoned comics! The direct market wasn't born and adopted by publishers because they were interested in making changes – publishers are almost never interested in making changes, preferring to bear those ills they know than flee to those they know not of – but because the comics business had nowhere else to go. That it worked out pretty well, until it didn't (and for a small section of the business, it's still working out fairly well), was one of those wish and a prayer things that demonstrated, against then-common industry wisdom, there was a sizable audience willing to go out of its way to buy comics.

Emphasize was.

The last decade-point-five was basically a matter of circling the wagons, and as a result we ended up with a system that no longer works especially well for the customer but is now designed to make the system a fairly smooth process for those running the system. Which is the eventual entropic fate of most systems.

To break out of the current bottleneck, we need three things: material that might appeals to a wider audience, a way to let them know that material exists, and a means to getting the material to places where they can easily find it.

Traditionally, comics companies have produced material that might appeal to a wider audience, then marketed it to their standard audience and put it solely where it must be tracked down: comics shops, whose existing audiences increasingly do not support new material. When sales figures come in, the experiment is then proclaimed a bust, and business as usual continues.

The problem with changing the existing system is that you can't just deal with any one prong of the three-pronged problem, and start work on the next prong once you have one prong solved, because you're never going to solve one prong without simultaneously dealing with the other two. You have to achieve all three objectives at once or you fail. It's that simple, and that difficult.

Money is obviously an issue in all this – even the most successful companies don't have much of a slush fund for the necessary risk – but the biggest problem of money isn't cost or risk but who controls the pursestrings. Especially these days, in whatever walk is under discussion, those who control pursestrings tend not to be a terribly visionary lot, and generally react to setbacks – and there are always setbacks to new ventures – by reverting to business as usual, even if business as usual no longer works. Because to moneymen what was once known to have worked is always preferable to what has never before been tried, unless results are startling and immediate.

But that's the challenge, and whoever's the first to pull it off will become the new Marvel that comics publishers have fantasized about becoming for the past fifty years...

Another blast from the past, this one an early Atlas tale drawn by comics wunderkind Bernie Krigstein. The story, not by Krigstein, is a dull thud of a "shocker," a light EC-inspired morality tale, but Krigstein uses the relative freedom of the Atlas books to experiment with multiple panels and design to give the story a weight and rhythm and the characters an emotional realism and range of gesture that the probably don't deserve. It's too bad that Krigstein didn't much further pursue comics or such experimentation after EC and, briefly, Atlas gave up the ghost (and when the latter returned it really wasn't an open shop anymore, with the work being produced by a tiny coterie of artists, mainly Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Don Heck, Paul Reinman and Dick Ayers, who'd eventually become the artistic core of Marvel Comics), and that almost no one has followed his lead since...

Notes from under the floorboards:

Out of the blue from Marvel comes the hardcover MARVEL PREMIERE CLASSIC VOL. 22: AVENGERS - HAWKEYE, which I guess should really be Hawkeye/Mockingbird, reprinting Mark Gruenwald's HAWKEYE mini-series, the character's original appearance in Iron Man, the solo adventure I wrote and John Byrne drew for AVENGERS (one of my favorites, and one I'm told pissed Chris Claremont off something fierce, though that wasn't my intention), as well as Mockingbird's first costumed appearance as The Huntress and her first appearance as Mockingbird, concocted by Mark and me, in MARVEL TEAM-UP. (It doubled as a "pilot" for a NICK FURY VS. SHIELD mini-series I wanted to do but never got off the ground, and eventually became moot at the hands of Bob Harras.) I always thought both characters had a lot more potential than they were allowed to show, and this volume suggests Marvel has more in mind for them than the recent REUNION mini-series. Anyway, go buy it so I can make some royalties.

Got an email yesterday informing me the website for some game company called Edge Games has a page mentioning me by name stating I'm working with them to release the long awaited final issue of the EDGE mini-series Gil Kane and I did at Malibu/Bravura in the '90s. Only two problems with that story: they've never been in touch with me (at least not personally; for all I know, they've talked with my lawyer), and the fourth issue was published a few years ago with the rest of the mini in THE LAST HEROES, from Byron Preiss Productions. But at least my legend grows, right?

Okay, I know a guy (not me, honest) who's been quietly producing an excellent series of absurdist yet oddly familiar short comics stories from the last several years. This is stuff I believe he could build a market for, if only people knew about it, because it's fun and very readable. When I saw him, I suggested that since he has a pretty vast backlog of material, he try placing stories – free - at various hipster websites (with a sense of humor) that normally don't carry much or any comics material but whose audience would be exactly the audience (which is to say, not the core comics audience) that would appreciate them. Can anyone suggest any websites that might fit that bill?

Last week I mentioned Matt Fraction's hilarious derelict Darkseid, trying from the cardboard box he now lives in to turn Central Park into the new Apokalips. Turns out Hobo Darkseid's got his own Twitter account, where you can follow his new grassroots struggle for world domination...

Been on the road again so I've missed the last week's worth of news. Seeing as how we're still here with no exploded nukes or new concentration camps in evidence, I'm assuming not too much happened, but a few tidbits:

Whoops. Hope you don't have your heart set on attending that Spider-Man Broadway musical anytime soon...

Hmm. Seems cement is a huge contributor to atmospheric carbon dioxide, so a British company has invented a cement that absorbs CO2 instead...

Also seems pressure is growing in Britain for an investigation into how much British agents facilitated or participated in detainee torture during the so-called War On Terror. How long before we start demanding an independent investigation here as well? Since the White House isn't about to authorize one... (It apparently isn't helping to convince the British public that their government refuses to release detainee interrogation records on the grounds that the USA wouldn't like it...)

Now that "cloud computing," the gimmick being promoted by many Internet companies of using web-based programs and data storage instead of something you can get to quickly and protect by yourself, like programs and data on a local hard drive in your own local machine, is being widely touted as the next wave in computing technology (despite no real mention of any value to the end user, except the eventual ability to be held hostage by your service provider or Internet storage service, or sabotaged by some company abruptly deciding it's going to a pay service structure or and just shutting down before you can retrieve your valuable data, as has happened before with websites and DRM schemes) the discussion has begun about just how keen the law is on the notion. Answer: cloud computing users stand a good chance of finding themselves in tons of trouble...

Best new cable TV device? A sensor chip allowing cable operators to determine who in any specific home is watching, including the ability to distinguish much demographic information, and presumably small enough the customer won't be aware of it. Best by whose standards?

Here's a good one. The cell phone industry recently conducted a poll to determine what customers want most from cell phone service. In a complete shocker, lower calling costs topped the list. Me, I use Tracfone. $10 per month and endless rollovers... Then again, I don't live on my cell phone...

Seems the evidence is mounting that giving away stuff (like eBooks) free doesn't really train an audience to only want free but increases the likelihood they'll buy your material. On the other hand, the porn industry is bemoaning quite the opposite. I wonder if anti-porn crusaders will appreciate the fact that the way to shut down the porn industry is to make porn available free any more than the porn industry does...

Uh-oh! Seems Earth's on the verge of being unable to sustain life. Only a half billion years or so to go... Don't you just hate deadlines?

Congratulations to R. Foster, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "rock." (Yes, sometimes it is just that simple.) R. wishes to point your attention to xkcd, "another great webcomic that deserves more recognition." 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 if you can't find it don't let it get you down. 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.

TAGS:  permanent damage, bernie krigstein, hawkeye

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