Permanent Damage

Wed, September 16th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Some month it has been for the comics business, huh? First Disney buys Marvel, and now Time-Warner restructures DC into basically a new entity, earmarked by the eventual departure of longtime vice president/president/publisher/president-publisher Paul Levitz. Shock and awe, friends, shock and awe.

Or maybe not. The general assumption among comics fans following the announcement was that Paul is being "forced out," and that's possible, but every time Paul's contract came up for renewal over the last few years I got rumors he was considering packing it in and going to back to writing, but also wanted to leave DC in good hands. Nothing in the current report suggests that wasn't also the case here. Certainly Warners looks in no great rush to dump him, as he'll be writing comics and "consulting" with the new DC Entertainment management, whatever that consists of.

A second interesting online reaction is noting DC Entertainment will now be run by a girl, apparently by commentators who either never heard of Jenette Kahn or don't remember her. (With the average age of superhero comics fans these days, senility is no doubt an increasingly common situation.) So it's not like DC hasn't had this sort of experience before, the main difference being that she already has strong connections in Hollywood rather than trying to use her DC position to leverage a Hollywood career. Perhaps her more pertinent facet is a background in marketing more than creative (though her stint running a boutique sub-studio for Warners deserves some cred in that regard) as her most mentioned credit is her shepherding of Harry Potter into the most recognizable fiction series in the world since James Bond. (JK Rowling possibly had something to do with that as well.) This suggests, though not definitively, the intended emphasis of her coming regime at DC, as does the company's name change.

If realized, this isn't the worst thing that could happen to the company. When was the last time DC held sway over the business for any length of time? The number of times DC has had the top book of the month in the last three decades can be counted without taking your shoes off, and has there been any time since the inception of the Direct Market they placed in 7-10 slots in the top 10 even when they had the top slot? Yet Marvel has done it with appalling regularity, as much a comment on the nature of the direct market as on the quality of Marvel's output. You could say Marvel has dominated the American comics market since they dropped DC-affiliated Independent News Distribution in the late '60s in favor of Cadence Distribution (which was itself geared much more for the 1970s realities of magazine distribution than the longrunning and by then hidebound IND; the two facets of the business neatly reflected each other) but Marvel was already coming from behind to take over DC's core business – superhero comics – by 1965, and it took DC until the 1970s to see them as a serious threat, by which point Marvel had already stomped all over them. That's why Jenette Kahn, fresh off transforming Wonder Woman into a feminist icon in MS. magazine, or trying to – all it took to shatter than dream was Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman on TV – was brought in as publisher in the mid-70s, to give the company a fresh start. It worked well; her early regime was notable for a sales collapse that almost put the company out of business. Not that it was Jenette's fault – the problems that savaged DC she inherited – but there's something to be said for companies being run by people who know something about the business they're in. Learning on the job pretty much crapped out Jenette's chances of significantly improving the company's position, since those advising her (discounting Neal Adams) were mainly voices of DC past; garbage in, garbage out and all that. It wasn't until the early '80s when DC lured Marv Wolfman and George Perez back to produce a "Marvel" comic for them, NEW TEEN TITANS, that DC's fortunes took even a baby step toward turning around, basically a desperation move that set many longstanding tongues at the company wagging about the unfairness of Marv & George's deal while "faithful" DC creators were being rendered second class citizens at the company. But it has never been unusual in mainstream comics for some to believe that "loyalty" should be rewarded more than good work, or even in preference to good work. Mostly those who consider themselves loyal players. (Let's face it, everyone thinks their own work is great.)

Whether new DC Entertainment president Diane Nelson has experience equivalent to Jenette's when she came aboard I couldn't say, but she at least had enough knowledge to quip about parallel worlds in her first public statements. Given recent developments in DC continuity, this could be another tell for the new agenda. Retailer Brian Hibbs noted that nowhere in the press release was the word "comics" used, and took it as a bad sign, but sorry, Brian, I think that ship quietly sailed, and was sunk at sea after dark, some time ago. Everyone was all a-twitter (pun semi-intended) over Disney buying Marvel (or planning to; lawsuits may be flying imminently to stop the deal) a couple weeks ago, but, as I explained then, the scant odds that Disney will inflict any significant change on Marvel are infinitesimal next to the odds that Warners is on the path to seriously recreating DC.

That, really, was the funniest response to the story: the notion that Warners/DC announced this now to "steal the thunder" from the Disney/Marvel announcement, a complete misreading of the glacial inertia of these things. Talk about repositioning DC in the Time-Warner structure, and especially making it subservient to media divisions, has been in the wind at least since Ted Turner was mucking about in Time-Warner-Turner. Had Turner won the internecine power struggle (not that DC was anything more than a bargaining chip in the whole affair) odds are pretty good the company would've been severed from Warner Pictures, under which corporate umbrella it had hovered since sometime in the late '80s, and put under control of Turner TV's Cartoon Network, putting the prized licensing and merchandise revenues from Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and... Aquaman? into Turner coffers. (Not sure how it is today, but at the time you needed a roadmap, a homing pigeon and a good dowsing rob to find your way through the insane rats' nest of Time-Warner companies and their relationships, which is why DC was under the Warner Pictures umbrella in the first place and not more logically connected to Time-Warner's other publishing. But those wanted nothing to do with comics, for the most part.) At one point the Turner plan came extremely close to happening, and rumor at the time was the plan involved stripping publishing back to the key (meaning licensable) characters like Superman & Batman, capitalizing on those while tying DC's fortunes much more directly to media exploitation.

It's relatively easy to guess this is Warner's current intent, without that stripping publishing back to key characters bit, probably. If Disney should never consider integrating Marvel with Disney proper because it would be insane to, it always made complete sense that Time-Warner much more tightly integrate DC into its Hollywood operation because it has always been insane not to. As with Disney/Marvel, the vast array of DC's property pool has figured prominently in DC entertainment press flak, but while Marvel's problem is most of their profitably exploitable characters are already being exploited, DC's problem is that they've rarely been able to figure out what to do with characters in any fashion. Marvel's strength as an entertainment company has been their colonization and subsequent control of their own productions; DC's traditional problem is zero quality control over media exploitations at all, despite the heroic efforts over the years of guys like Gregory Noveck to achieve it.

Among the dangling questions of the new arrangement isn't what Paul Levitz is going to do with himself, but how much juice Nelson really brings to the table, whether she can manage to enforce the level of quality control a successful comics/film-TV integration will need, and whether she can break entrenched DC editorial (though it's far less entrenched than it used to be) to the dictates of greater corporate need. Recent media exploitations of Jonah Hex and The Human Target, little more than footnotes in the DC Comics scheme of things, suggests a new mandate to ferret out not necessarily Big Time Characters - let's face it, "big time" on the biggest comics stage is still small, even micro time, on the Hollywood stage, a reason almost no one in Hollywood concerns themselves with comics sales figures anymore, unless those figures are humongous – but to massage existing, even fallow properties into characters and stories that might appeal to a Hollywood-sized audience.

The bad news for DC editorial is there's not much reason for Nelson to assume they can accomplish that, since DC editorial has tried regularly since the mid-80s to recreate/reconfigure old characters with very little luck; this is less the fault of individual editors as of the general longstanding corporate atmosphere at DC combined with an entrenched fear of losing the hardcore DC superhero fans (or the company's perception of them) the only market they now seem to have any faith in at all. The bad news for the hardcore DC superhero universe fan is that these revamps, as with many other failed DC revamps (failure being a measure of sales, not necessarily creative quality) are likely to end up fairly severe departures from existing continuity. (On the other hand, if Obama's health plan really includes death panels for the elderly, the DC superhero hardcore will all be gone soon anyway.) (It doesn't, by the way; that's just a snotty joke.) At least there would now be some function to the reintroduction of DC's multiple Earths, as easy berths for revamps and character experimentation without "tainting" the DC mainstream, and not just a sop to ancient fans or a desperate absence of any new ideas to play with. But either DC Entertainment means simply a more direct use of DC as the property feeder system to Warner Bros. that it has already been for a long time (most creative controls with DC give Warner Bros. as a matter of course expansive control over any media exploitation of the properties involved) or they'll attempt a true market integration, with as much emphasis on bringing a much wider audience to DC comics as on plundering DC Comics for wide audience fodder. If the latter, upheaval, creative if not otherwise, at DC Comics would almost seem a given, and upheaval in the marketing and distribution would seem mandatory to any sort of expansion as well. It's not like Warner Bros. isn't capable of it.

Or this could just be the company's latest rearrangement of deck chairs, and personnel, on the Titanic. As with Jenette Kahn, it depends on who Diane Nelson will be listening to, and who at DC is willing to listen to her. No doubt the pressure from most quarters in comics will be to proceed cautiously, go slow, take baby steps, but that's the way systems prefer it, because it's always easier for the system to change one person than for one person to change the system. But if they really want DC on the cultural map instead of just landing there every once in a blue moon, demolition and fireworks might be a better idea, since in terms of what the rest of the "integrated" Time-Warner structure really needs from DC Entertainment rebuilding/rethinking from the ground up seems mandated anyway.

Recently Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada shocked the world by dissing the original graphic novel as impractical and financially unsound. If I were in Joe's position, I'd have likely said the same myself, since they don't make much sense for Marvel aside from vanity items. But Marvel is about the only comics company left that still sells comics in any quantity. For most other publishers, they're a vestigial market dictate, a phantom limb that won't stop itching.

Some time ago – wow, is it more than a decade already? – I wrote up the future of comics in America: loss leaders for their subsequent trade paperback collections. Following the model of French comics in the 1970s, I predicted the gradual rise of comics in book collections and the logical consequences of that.

  1. Long form comics stories would reformat, de-emphasizing their serialized nature – the mechanical break every 22 pages or whatever, etc. – to amplify their readability in collected form as a singular experience, the core creative problem here being that the more a story reads as if it's serialized, the less integrated and seamless it reads in collection.

  2. As books become the medium of preference, as they have been, and audiences new and old become used to the new format, sales of comics will taper off, books (and complete stories) at a relatively high price being perceived as a better value than comics..

  3. Due to the greater costs of books over periodicals, fewer comics overall in any format would be published, creating market pressure and competition to create better, or at least more salable, comics material, resulting in an overall shrinkage of comics available but a general rise in quality, all other things being equal.

  4. As the book format became more profitable and the "pamphlet" format less profitable, publishers would find the original graphic novel more economical than comics-to-collections, and the latter would fade away in favor of the former. But the greater expense of producing original graphic novels would make publishers considerably more selective about what they published.

Most of this is going on now, at one stage or another. What I missed, or, rather, willfully looked away from as I chose to believe these changes would be embraced, was the obsessive intransigence of the comics market. In my defense, when I originally proposed that scenario, Marvel was in bankruptcy, basically collapsed, and the company folding was then just as likely – more, maybe – a scenario as someone swooping in to buy them up and return them to their position of market dominance. Marvel's whole publishing business – their whole creative style – is predicated on the Comic Book, and the direct market; while their collections do fine in bookstores (trust me, I get royalty checks) they aren't really a dominant force there, nor are they perceived to be. In bookstores, they're just one more product. Since most of their comics still do relatively well, keeping the company profitable, they really don't have any need for OGNs. Trade paperback revenues make nice gravy for Marvel, but they're not the meal.

For other companies, though, the theory behind publishing lots of comics is market presence, the curious precept of the self-deluded that putting lots of titles with your company logo on the stands will magically convince comics shop customers, who by now have been trained to be incredibly cynical about any new product regardless of who releases it, to buy their books and increase their market share. Works great. If you're Marvel.

For publishers that aren't Marvel, though, that system just doesn't make sense anymore. It's not like creative costs are much of an issue; most small publishers no longer pay talent upfront for their work anyway. It's not like they're likely to make less publishing two 128 pg. original graphic novels instead of 12 22 pg. comics per month, and that scale and investment would force them to put a lot more thought into what they want to publish. It's harder to be a schlockmeister when you're not pumping out quantity. For talent, despite increased work outlay before publication, there are also huge advantages to OGNs, like no more mini-series canceled unfinished. There are publishers, like AiT/PlanetLar and Top Shelf, that have made a nice little niche for themselves publishing original graphic novels; while they're not self-made millionaires on it, what's stopping them isn't the limitations or inherent unprofitability of the OGN format but the limitations of the direct market – which you may recall basically exists to sell Marvel comics! Right now the bookstore market is in the dumper, a consequence of the country's general economic woes, though comics material is still a pretty bright light in that market, but the mechanisms for selling OGNs apart from the direct market are still evolving.

What Joe really means about the economics of OGNs, whether he realizes it or not, is that OGNs aren't economically feasible for Marvel. Companies with different financial setups and economies of scale will have different perceptions of what's profitable. When – and I mean when – OGNs reach a level of regular profitability, if an OGN publisher does approach self-made millionaire status, you bet Marvel will be paying attention, though they're unlikely to ever wholeheartedly embrace a market they don't dominate. They absolutely dominate the direct market, and the American comics pamphlet market, so is there any real point in not finally leaving that to them, and sailing for the New World.

You can be forgiven for having missed last Saturday's Million Man March on Washington, sorry, I mean the National Tea Party, where a couple million Republicans, Libertarians and others gathered to protest, basically, the entire agenda Barack Obama was elected on last November. (It was just inspired by the Million Man March.) News outlets gave it little play – the New York Times managed to count "scores" of attendees, as if parodying its own reporting on antiwar protests in the early '70s and mid'-00s when millions of attendees were measured in the thousands – but it was pretty visually impressive. Newsmen mainly seem to have interviewed little old gray haired ladies, who said things like, "They call us a "mob" – do I look like a mob leader to you? I'm just here to make sure the government can't put me to death by changing the health care laws." Because now somehow the complete absence of any mention of "death panels" or anything remotely like them ever in proposed health care legislation turns out to have been in pre-emptive response to protests against it.

I've no doubt there were many in attendance who are just good Americans trying to make the government aware of their point of view, and more power to them, but the common description of the Tea Party being composed of "an alliance of several conservative groups" is scarily underdeveloped. It's scary how "conservative group" is now taken to be essentially political neutral, just good ol' boys defendin' essential American freedoms. What isn't usually mentioned is the Republican National Committee charging groups $10,000 or so each to "sponsor" the event. What's even more rarely mentioned is that among those "conservative groups" whose "sponsorship" the RNC gleefully authorized were white supremacy groups, groups that believe any trace of liberalism constitutes Marxism (or fascism, which they seem to think is the same thing as socialism because the Nazis co-opted the term "socialist" to lure in the many Germans flirting with socialism in the aftermath of WWI, but their basic premise is that any political belief that doesn't line up with theirs is the same as any other political belief that doesn't line up with theirs), violent tax rebellion groups and secessionary groups calling for a new civil war. Not that this taint everyone attending, any more than Yippies trying to psychically levitate the Pentagon tainted everyone in the 1972 March on Washington against the Vietnam War, but the willingness of the Republican Party to get into bed with what can only be described as extremist – what else can you call a group whose website commands all good Americans to arm themselves because the new civil war has already begun? – when they just spent an entire election screaming at Obama when anyone he had any slight connection to veered outside the limits of what the RNC considered acceptable thought and used it to tar Obama without the slightest evidence that Obama shared those views. Do I think the Republican Party supports white supremacy, violent tax rebellion and secession of states? I doubt it. But it's no secret that the Republican Party has for decades flirted with these types of groups, offering them a cloak of legitimacy and respectability in return for votes. (Not that the Democrats haven't had their own sordid history with such groups, but not much since Lyndon Johnson pushed the whole Great Society thing.)

It's like good cops and bad cops. No matter how good a cop you are, you can't really call yourself a good cop if you turn a blind eye to bad cops. Or, worse, cooperate with and reinforce their badness, and certainly not if you're not the one picking up the black bag payoff but you're making them pay you for driving them to the pickup. I mean, c'mon, can you imagine the furor if Obama had invited the Black Panthers (if the FBI hadn't wiped them out, I mean) and the Black Muslims to the Inauguration? So why's the RNC surrounding itself with violent right wing nut jobs? Is that supposed to legitimize the Republicans and Libertarians attending because they're sincerely worried that the government is spending too much money and too deep in debt? (Never mind that much of that debt is due to ridiculous spending on a ridiculous war that many of them supported, and to blackmail payoffs for a financial system many of them are vehemently protecting in the name of an unfettered marketplace, the same reason they're rising to the defense of health insurance companies that are robbing them blind.) Is their view that as long as you call yourself conservative, it doesn't matter what you really believe in? If the point of the National Tea Party was the preservation of American liberty, what kind of preservation is that?

(And, no, I didn't list group names or links. I'm not interested in promoting them. But you don't have to take my word for it; if you're really that interested, searching the web for them isn't that difficult, provided the RNC hasn't wiped the sponsor list off the Internet yet.)

Notes from under the floorboards:

Just a reminder that I'll be appearing at the Alternative Press Festival (APE) in San Francisco on Oct. 17-18, in support of the print release of my reworking of the Odyssey, ODYSSEUS THE REBEL. My first time at APE. Check the Big Head Press table for copies and signing times.

It struck me over the weekend that Bertolt Brecht's legacy now lives on mainly through WATCHMEN and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and most people don't recognize it, or have ever heard of Brecht...

Woo-hoo! The fall TV season starts up big this week, but Fox's predicted Big Hit for the year, GLEE (Wed 9P) already debuted, a week after the repeat of the pilot that aired in late spring to wet everyone's whistle. The pilot was fairly entertaining. The first regular episode (second overall) was horrible, just one intensely cartoonish cliché after another. I don't mind Jane Lynch, as the faculty coach of the school glee club's rival cheerleading squad, being an unabashed over the top harpy in the Hot Lips Houlihan mode, but, man, do all the "cool" kids have to be such vile, vicious creeps? The one black girl in the glee club such a jive talkin' ghetto trash stereotype? (Maybe the producers' only experience with black high school students is via watching THE WIRE?) The forlorn guidance counselor heroine such a weepy dishrag or the hero's wife such a conniving shrew? Given all the TV shows that try to make singing look like the road to fame and riches, how many in the football team would really care one of their own was in glee club, as long as he continued to play ball up to expectations? While it did have the single most vulgar joke I've heard in primetime in a long, long time (quite an achievement, given the state of primetime TV) there's pretty much nothing about GLEE that merits continued viewing except Lynch, who has had much better roles. (cf. PARTY DOWN.) I've seen several critics proclaim GLEE "fresh" and "original," and if fresh means already tired beyond belief and original means built on a wad of stereotyping and borrowed material, I guess that's true...

Mostly due to the lovely con games run by the financial markets here in America over the past decade – you may remember how to economy lost a huge chunk of its "value" (or, in more realistic terms, had its real value rather than the hype acknowledged) last October - Europe is now richer than the USA. About the first time that's been the case since, oh, 1847. Good going, Lehman Bros. One interesting note in the article: global wealth is apparently measured by "assets under management" now. Does this mean wealth isn't wealth now unless it's invested via a broker? Presumably the true richest area in the world is the Bahamas, where Madoff and a lot of other Wall Street players stashed their cash...

Want to know why people pay no attentions to newspapers anymore? Here's an example. My local paper ran a story over the weekend about a man who opened an account with Bank Of America, immediately had his (I think) $9000 frozen because he was on a banking blacklist, but following the closing of the account (by the bank) he retained the safety deposit box he got free for opening the account so he filled it with dead fish and urine for revenge. After his box was discovered, he was arrested for breaking Henderson NV city laws about noxious substances. BofA refused to discuss the case due to confidentiality laws. Cute little story. Only problem is: it wasn't the real story, and neither the paper nor the reporter even mentioned the real story. Which is: there's an interbank blacklist to keep people from opening checking accounts? Never mind the personal story. What's the point of this blacklist no one has ever mentioned before? What gets you onto the blacklist? What can you do if you find yourself blacklisted incorrectly? Considering having a checking account is necessary in most cases to secure a place to live, a car loan, utilities, etc. that's a pretty big deal. Reading the article carefully, they don't even answer questions about the article's subject. He has been out of work for months, but he's trying to put thousands of dollars into a new checking account? Where did the money come from? But why should we bother with newspapers when they don't do their jobs? Considering papers don't even recognize what the real news is anymore (or, if you're of a more paranoid spirit, don't want their readers recognizing the real news) it's no surprise they can't recognize that their true problems have nothing to do with the Internet...

Speaking of the Internet, Australia now provides a lovely object lesson of the pitfalls of Internet censorship. Pretty funny, if you don't live in Australia, anyway...

And, no, I really don't mind or care that Joe Wilson yelled "You're a liar" during Obama's State Of The Union speech – I wish congressmen had done that when the Ghost was laying out the grounds for war in Iraq, when, curiously, another Joe Wilson produced evidence that was all trumped up – and I don't care that Obama called Kanye West a jackass. Kanye West is a jackass, or at least he plays one on TV, and I'm more interested to learn that Obama has a grasp of popular culture. That's something I'm just not used to in the White House. Now if only he'd get our troops the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan and stop pulling crap like calling for extension of Patriot Act provisions, especially ones that support roving wiretaps and spying on American citizens with no known ties to terrorism. You want to criticize Obama for something, head for that...

Maybe someone can help me out here. I'm looking for unlined top wirebound notepads 80-100 pages long and ~7"x5" in size, binding on the short end, preferably unadorned covers. If you know a store or website that sells them, please drop me a line. Thanks.

Okay, nobody won the Comics Cover Challenge last week, but come on, this one's really easy. But no use crying over spilled milk, so we're running it again, and this time try to solve it with your heart, not your head, okay?

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. 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, dc comics, marvel comics, paul levitz, jenette kahn

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