Archive for August, 2005

More of the same discussion

in reply to this:

if you don’t know what to look for, you won’t be able to find it.

I agree. There’s plenty of work to be done. But slowly, slowly, the leviathans are turning. And the little fish have been doing it right for years – and slowly becoming bigger fish. This (i.e. continuously-in-print comics) is the direction the industry is heading, unstoppably. It’s a healthy direction. And as a result, “keeping these properties alive for a new generation” is becoming less and less valid a reason to make comics. It’s currently somewhat valid, but the clock is ticking, and we (you and I) can encourage it to tick a little bit faster by admitting (and propogating) the truth: that some of the great stories have already been told, and they can be had without too much money or hassle. And then demand from the publishers that they work to make that statement more true.

What do you if a friend is interested in X-Men? Say “well, Peter Milligan’s New X-Men isn’t too horrible…” Hell no. Say “most people think the peak X-Men period started in 1975 and runs for about a hundred issues. You can read them in The Essential X-Men vol. 1-5. If you like team soap-opera superhero stuff, consider the Wolfman/Perez Teen Titans run, or Peter David’s Young Justice, or New Warriors, or The Intimates or even Love & Rockets. If you like action and explosions, try Authority or Sin City…” Buy the good stuff, and recommend it tirelessly to friends. Let each month’s “new” garbage rot on the shelves, and the publishers will get the message.

And really, just-came-out single issues aren’t really much easier to find than trade paperbacks. If you’re arguing that “we have to publish things as single issues or no one will ever know they exist,” I’m gonna point to Full Metal Alchemist, Fruits Basket, and InuYasha.

(the reprinting comics in trade is just the comic companies doing the same thing you described radio doing. “playing” the same thing over and over again to get new “listeners”.

No, it’s comic companies doing what record companies do: keeping great works of art in stores, so that new fans can find and enjoy them years after their original release. Imagine if the Beatles’ record label decided that the LP wasn’t a viable market, and the only way to hear a Beatles song was to find somebody who collected the singles when they came out in the 60s! The closest we could get would be hearing the latest Oasis song on the radio! Or, more accurately, the guys from Oasis, plus Ringo, releasing singles as “The New Beatles,” playing shallow imitations of Sgt. Pepper! Luckily, Sgt. Pepper and Revolver and the rest can still be found in CD stores, and we can play them for our children and our children’s children, when Oasis will be merely a footnote in history.

no-one makes any creator work on a book at gun point… they have a story they want to tell with those characters.

A fair point. But isn’t there something wrong with a system where the absolute best thing some creators hope for is to figure out a new way to have Spider-Man save the world? I’m sure there are a million writers who would love to tell stories set in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth. Or Rowling’s HP universe. Many of them actually do write these stories. But they have no expectation of getting paid to do so! They consider those stories practice for the real writing, with their own characters and ideas. To many comic book fans, it works the other way around: Lapham’s Stray Bullets was just a warm-up for his work on Batman.

Even a creative force of nature like Frank Miller is hampered by his upbringing. When the only concept of “comics” you have known is “playing with other people’s toys,” that’s what you aspire to. And when given the opportunity to make your own toys (300, Sin City, etc.)? You f*cking blow people’s minds. He’s returned to DC since then, but still I suspect out of a combination of greed and nostalgia (among other reasons). Are there some stories that work best using established characters? Probably (like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead). But for such stories to be the dominant force in the market? Ludicrous. And I think Miller, Morrison and Ellis would agree.

Really, I just want comics publishers to stop acting like Underoos-and-movie-licensing-corporations and start acting like book publishers. Is that too much to ask? (Ellis has an old column on this)

the quote i posted before was him responding to a fan asking him if he felt there were things you shouldn’t do with a company character. as in, if he felt he owned the long time fans of that character anything.

Right. I think his “never write out of a sense of obligation to the fans” runs directly contrary to your ideas about writing derivative comics because it might be somebody’s first exposure to the character. Why not let someone’s first exposure to the character be the masterful story that’s already been told with that character? Meanwhile, make comics for yourself. You can make fanfiction too, but… don’t settle for that.

Things were cleared up somewhat in the comments thread to this post.


on the comics industry

Backstory: Rivkah went to WizardWorld Chicago, and was depressed by the work-for-hire mentality of the artists working for hire.

“Do you ever draw anything for yourself?”

The reaction I got to that querry both confused and inspired me. One guy . . . I can’t remember his name but apparently he’s incredibly popular for his catwoman covers or something . . . said outright, “No.” And he gave me this look of confusion that said, “Why the hell would I do that?” Like I was *nuts*.

…apparently those who work for Marvel, those who work for DC, those who work for the companies that have premade-characters fashioned out of plastic molds and branded with the seal of corporate approval…

Understandable scorn from somebody coming entirely from the creator-owned world. But some traditional comics fans respond:

: While I can see how someone who creates their own stuff could think this way, I think it’s actually as much of a talent to continue the stories about these characters. I can see how much it would suck to be stuck writing or drawing a crappy “just draw her from angles where you can see her ass a lot” character, but there are characters out there who have such a rich and complicated history that it is possible to take risks and do new things with them. If someone told me I could draw and write wolverine for the rest of my life I would poop myself. There is just so much history there to play with, and I think the challenge of staying within the character while still making it interesting would be worth the boundaries.

: i’d feel the same way if someone told me i could do that with spider-man or batman

Rivkah compares such work to fanfiction, which she could never really get into. I think the comparison is apt.

: look at it like this i guess. anybody can take a picture of a sunset or a person. but it’s the way you do it, using a combination of personal style and technique that makes it yours. (even if it’s for a little while)

: I think that may actually be a good analogy. I know that it’s tremendously exciting to go to some famous beach and take a photo (that you took yourself!) of that gorgeous sunset, or a picture of you in front of the Eiffel Tower.

…But how many people around the world are going to want to look at pictures of you in front of the Eiffel Tower?

For people that have never seen the tower (or a sunset) before, it’s great for them to see it through photos, but great photos have been taken of it already, probably better than you or I will ever do. Nobody wants to see a hundred different versions of this.

Same with comics. Lots of kids love superheroes, but there’s a huge archive of pre-existing superhero comics that are better than almost anything coming out today! Why continue to flog a dead horse! Celebrate the masters of the past, but the best way to honor them is to use your own creativity, not suck money out of their ideas.

: y’know, that occured to me too after i made the analogy and sent it. very good point.

but i always tend to think of something i read stan lee saying one time. (paraphrashing of course) “everyone has a first comic.” meaning that, even if you’ve seen a million pictures of the eiffel tower or a sunset, it doesn’t mean everyone else has

so, that’s why i don’t think it’s always flogging a dead horse or sucking money out of past ideas. all stories have been told before, in one form or the other, but it’s the way you tell it that makes it unique.

in the end, every storyteller should set out to tell good stories. wether it’s company owned or your personal creation. (cause i don’t think you should only write one kind over the other. i think one should do both.)

My response:

“everyone has a first comic.”

I hear what you’re saying. If comics were never reprinted, if they were truly as ephemeral as some people seem to think they are – basically, if comics were like radio (heard once and it’s gone) – I would agree with you. There’s a reason radio stations play the same songs over and over again – because people are constantly tuning in for the first time, and probably missed it the last time it was broadcast.

But comics aren’t ephemeral. Not in today’s industry. Archival editions (DC and Marvel, not to mention publishers like Checker and Fantagraphics) and continuously-in-print trade paperbacks are swiftly becoming the rule, not the exception. Creators (of mainstream comics, even!) are starting to create with an eye towards the final product, for aesthetic and economic reasons (Bone is still paying the bills for Jeff Smith, and Sandman will buy groceries for Neil Gaiman the rest of his life). The industry definitely hasn’t progressed as far on this issue as I’d like (i want cheap, high-quality paperbacks of everything ever published!), but progress is being made, and the ephemerality of the medium is no longer a valid excuse for unoriginality. Comics aren’t like radio any more, but we haven’t made it to the permanence of film/DVDs yet either… we’re more like television – almost every popular show nowadays gets quickly committed to DVD, and studios are starting more and more to release older shows in high-quality editions.

in the end, every storyteller should set out to tell good stories. wether it’s company owned or your personal creation. (cause i don’t think you should only write one kind over the other. i think one should do both.)

This is where i really disagree with you. Would you insist that every film director shoot a James Bond movie every once in a while? Bond movies can be fun, and some of them are genuine classics, but I’m not about to tell Martin Scorsese, Peter Jackson, and Wes Anderson (or Darren Aronofsky!) that they should stop making only “one kind” of movie and spend some time with laser ballpoint pens and exploding aircraft carriers.

Did John Steinbeck’s editor tell him “this Grapes of Wrath stuff is great, John, but what we really want to see from you is a Tom Sawyer / Huck Finn story”? Should James Joyce have written the continuing adventures of David Copperfield? Of course not. We don’t need Steinbeck to tell us how the Tom/Huck story goes: Twain’s stories still exist, and we can read them in any bookstore or library in the world. The comics industry is almost to the point where I can say the equivalent about the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four.

In a respectable artistic medium, creators tell the stories they want to tell – their own stories. They don’t exploit other people’s creations for profit, or out of twisted “tribute.” Fanfiction is well and good: for all I know, Stephen King secretly writes Harry Potter stories in his spare time, but he doesn’t try to sell them for God’s sake. Rowling would sue the pants off him, and rightfully so.

an analogy

I’ve decided the best way to frame my objection to current trends in superhero comics:

Remember Toy Story? Wasn’t it awesome?
Remember Small Soldiers? Wasn’t– what? you don’t? …Okay, you three that remember it: wasn’t it kind of fun, but mostly really creepy and somehow wrong, and entirely inappropriate for kids?

on Warren Ellis (and being 19)

This guy was GOD!
[Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, p. 175]

In the last month I have spent quite a bit of time discovering, on my own, what an absolute bloody genius Warren Ellis has been for the last ten years.

Thanks in part to the lawless, Wild-West frontier nature of the Internet (a blessing and a curse), it can be difficult to find coherent archives of anything, let alone scattered serialized rantings from a deranged madman for half-a-dozen companies on two dozen web sites. But when I stumble across something like Streaming (good lord, what a terrible interface UBB is for long-term content) or Come In Alone (considerably better; thank you CBR)… It brings on the sort of all-day (or -night) kid-in-candy-store binge mindfuck that comes from suddenly discovering a giant repository of ancient brilliance. (Which is, sort of, what comics are all about, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Essentially, most of the thoughts I have had about comics in the last year have already been thought by Warren, five years ago. A sample:

The graphic novel or album (or other more suitable nomenclature yet to be coined) is the optimised form of “comics.” The intermediate form is the serialisation towards collection, what used to be termed the “miniseries”. DC Comics did not become the No 1 publisher in sales terms because of all its ongoing titles. It became No 1 because of the massive and growing revenues generated by its graphic novels and albums. Comics are not “habitual entertainment” that need to remain static and require broadcasting regularly until death us do part. That’s the comic strip, and even those are sometimes allowed dignified endings. Comics, like their related media of novels and cinema, must be allowed to tell complete stories. If you can’t handle that, then you really need to be in another business. Those who support us will be rewarded by increased sales and given the gift of the Future. The people who attempt to stop us will be stamped on.

Fuck superheroes, frankly. The notion that these things dominate an entire genre is absurd. It’s like every bookstore in the planet having ninety percent of its shelves filled by nurse novels.

There’s room for any kind of good work, no matter what genre it’s in.

But that doesn’t excuse you from going out and burning out all the bad work at the fucking root with torches. It doesn’t excuse all the nameless toss that DC and Marvel and Image and all the others slop out every month. If you want to read three hundred superhero comics a month then you are sick and you need medical help.

Rip from their steaming corpses the things that led superhero comics to dominate the medium – the mad energy, the astonishing visuals, the fetishism, whatever – and apply them to the telling of other stories in other genres. That’s all THE MATRIX did, after all.

Too much of the industry’s energy is focussed on creating comics for children that children either won’t read or won’t find. The comics retail culture is almost exclusively an environment for adolescent males of all ages. Trina Robbins is fanatically devoted to producing comics for girls, which is great. We need more genuine fanatics. But Trina Robbins producing comics for girls that are then exclusively sold through the direct sales network for comics specialty stores is nothing short of retarded. Because girls won’t know it’s there. Mark Waid was frequently heard to complain that, in IMPULSE, he was writing a children’s comics series that was only being read by forty-year-old men. Because here’s the news; kids don’t go into comics stores any more. Even the nerdy kids go down to the Virgin Megastore to rent some Playstation games, if they’re not at home downloading some porn. “The kids” couldn’t give a rat’s arse about your shit. If kids get comics, then they buy, or get bought, comics off the newsstand. And comics publishers gave up on the newsstand a long, long time ago. Hell, they gave up on kid’s comics a long time ago. I mean, do you see a dedicated campaign to tell parents that there’s a POWERPUFF GIRLS comic available in specialty comics stores? One of the perks of my job is that I get complementary copies of all DC books. My four-year-old daughter practically tears my arm off to get at the new POWERPUFF GIRLS comic. If anyone cared enough, mobs could be gathering at comics stores tomorrow in search of this work. But they don’t. Evidently the POKEMON comics were shifting something like a million units a month at one point. Did you see those readers at your local comics store? Did you see those books listed on the Top 200? No.

This was in early 2000. Five and a half years ago.

Very little has changed at the big boys, but (it seems) sentiment has continued to build that something must be done, and people like Warren and Larry Young and Chris Staros at Top Shelf have leapt into the breach and made comics the right way (joining others who’ve been doing it for years), while the Isotope and others have reinvented the comic shop, inspiring others like Rocketship and Riot. Image Comics, birthplace of Witchblade and Youngblood, is now publishing Age of Bronze and Walking Dead and Bonerest. Newspaper journalists STILL can’t write a headline about comics without clichés, but fuck them.

This is going to happen.

I’m going to be a part of it.


Retailing done right

Yes, that is a comic shop, and yes, those are kids.

James Sime seems like a bit of a pretentious ass, but honestly, he’s the best thing to happen to comics retailing since… ever.

His essay at Millarworld Magazine #2 lays out his whole deal. He tends to do this a lot, but as he wrote somewhere else, the greatest lesson he learned from Stan Lee is “every issue is somebody’s first.” So props to Sime.

Sitting here behind the counter of my new ultra-moderne storefront isn’t just the realization of a dream, it’s the next step in the evolution of comics retailing as I see it. For the last four years my staff and I broke every rule in the old boys club handbook in the service of a better place for comic readers like you and me to enjoy the books we love. My mission was to drive a wrecking ball through the wall that stood between what was happening and what was possible in the world of comic retail by proving there were more options in the way comics could be marketed and sold in the direct market. And no doubt that mission has been a success. Business at the Isotope is hopping, and the next generation of retailers coming up behind me are adopting the model and tailoring it to their specific cities and personal tastes. The times, as they say, are a-changin’ and I couldn’t be happier to be part of it.

Edited to add: why I need to work in a comic shop [from Nora Lally-Graves, one of the “guest retailers” who ran the Isotope while James was at the San Diego Comic Con]:

It’s funny, working retail at a comic store, especially one with as nice a vibe to upkeep as the Isotope, I find that talking about comics all day isn’t anything like a strain for me. I’ve never been too much of a rabid fangirl (Ellis and Harmon notwithstanding), but I always loved chewing the fat about my favorite titles. And now, it’s like someone’s paying me (well, in spiritual capital) to talk about my favorite stories all day long. As if they were saying, “Tell me why you love your favorite band. And then go tell that guy over there. And then that girl. And feel that rush when they’re just as excited about it as you are. Spread your particular brand of insanity.” It’s a great way to spend the day. You meet so many different kinds of people, all into comics for different reasons, and you start to realize what you look like from behind the counter. You see yourself as one of those people, pulled into comics by a specific gravity that is particular to you. They usually fall under the heading of “I love reading them” or “I love looking at the art” or “I can’t wait to see where my favorite character is going”– but people who come into the shop seem to see you as the gatekeeper to all of these worlds, and if you appreciate them as well, if you can talk to them about those worlds… it’s fabulous.

Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.