Filing Cabinet of the Damned

Friday, January 28, 2005

To Iraq

Last night, I found out that my best friend from high school is about to be deployed to Iraq. He's in the National Guard, and his unit's been called.

He just returned from a year-long hitch in the Sinai. Now he's going out again.

He and his wife were about to buy a house and start a family.

The worst part is that he’s a sergeant in the infantry. There's a good chance he won't be "in the rear with the gear," but getting his dumb ass shot at.

He enlisted during our senior year of high school. During that same year, the first Iraq war broke out. Whoops. We celebrated hard when the war ended before his induction. Ducked a bullet, he did.

Now the second Iraq war has claimed him.

All I can think is what a mess this is. How did this man, who I’ve known since our early teens, end up in such a position?

The stock answer why he enlisted is that he wanted “to serve his country.”

But that’s not the whole truth. Anyone who tells you that’s the reason why he’s enlisting is either lying or not thinking real hard. Like most folks’ reasons for doing anything, a lot of reasons were involved.

Yes, he wanted to serve America. But he also enlisted because he was drawn to the romance of military service. He loved the stories of heroism and glory, and he wanted to be a part of it, even if part of him knew that the truth of war was much more hideous than folks let on.

He enlisted because he didn’t know what else to do with his life. He enlisted to get in on the GI Bill. He enlisted because he liked to shoot guns, and the infantry meant tons o’ guns. He enlisted for the sense of belonging and community the army provides. He enlisted because it meant bragging rights once he got out.

The possibility of a true shooting war seemed so remote when he went into Basic. Now there’s a damn good chance that the next time I see him, my old friend will be scarred by unimaginable horror or crammed into a box with Christmas tree decorations stuck to his chest, lying in a room next to a hysterically weeping woman who's trying to figure out how she can survive with her man about to be planted in the dirt.

His deployment scares the hell out of him. He’s not an eighteen year old boy with visions of glory anymore; he’s a thirty-one year old man who wants nothing more than to live in peace with his wife and raise a few children.

But he is a soldier, and he must do his duty. As stupid and pointless as it is.

God, I’m so angry. Angry at the neo-con idiots who started the war, wrapped in their visions of recreating the world through their force of will and force of arms. Angry at the Qu’ran-abusing zealots who slaughter innocents with glee, providing a pretext for this half-assed conquest. Angry at the treacherous clowns who tell lies of martial glory to young men, hoping to lure them to their deaths. Angry at my friend for believing in their tales. I’m angry at myself for not going with him, if only to keep him company in the deserts of Iraq.

Do not write to me about the nobility of his enterprise or the valiant sacrifice he is making. I am not writing about provinces or abstract principles, but people. His adherence to duty may indeed be noble. It is also tragic and unnecessary, the product of vain men who do not know what they demand of others.

I wish I could end this with a perfect quotation, a passage that encapsulates the insanity and hubris of war, the loss and despair that is the common man’s lot in such disasters, the bottomless rage that fuels it all. But I cannot find one of sufficient eloquence.

Therefore, I end with only this:

Stay safe, bro.

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Even Though the Wings Look Dumb

It’s a stupid-looking costume. Electric blue with heavy doses of red and white, buccanneer boots, a circular target-looking shield, and wings on his head?

Wings on his head? Huh? And why does nobody ever just shoot his legs? That shield isn't very big.


And yet, I find Captain America compelling. Routinely getting into scrapes with beings far more powerful, surrounded by cynicism, always outnumbered, and six decades out of time, he still wins the fight, does the right thing, and believes in a better tomorrow.

What can I say, I find a grizzled optimism in the face of long odds admirable. I dig the guy.

Lately I’ve been annoyed with a motif among comic writers discussing Cap in interviews.

(Yes, welcome to another peevish rant.)

Whenever some guy is taking up the title of late, he likes to begin with “he’s different from other costumed heroes...he’s a soldier.” Bleh.

First, though this is often sold as a new approach, every damn writer says it. C'mon, if you're gonna try a new approach, be new. "Cap's not like other costumed his heart, he's a jazz flutist." See, now that would be new.

Second, it’s not true. He was a soldier long ago, but he isn’t anymore.

Look, does he follow orders? Does he fight wars on behalf of the US gub’mint? Does he shave his head and live with a large group of men in matching outfits? Nope, nope, and nope.

Yes, it’s an interpretation of the character, but it’s a lame one. I think it subtracts from his intrinsic coolness. As the character himself has pointed out, he’s not the instrument of the US Army, the President, or the government of America in any way. He doesn’t represent them or answer to them. His only loyalty is to the ideals they’re supposed to represent.

One could argue that a soldier is also supposed to embody those ideals. You could argue that, but you’d be wrong. His core purpose is not to “represent” anything, but to do things. A soldier is supposed to do what he’s told by his superiors. If the orders coincide with the high ideals America tries to embrace, that’s great, but if they don’t, well, too bad, soldier boy. No such constraints exist on the good captain, nor can they.

He’s a soldier? Nah. He’s a superhero, first and foremost. He’s the ultimate Boy Scout, the personification of the urge to do the right thing, courage in a dopey wing-headed mask. In this he is unique, and that’s what makes him interesting.

You couldn’t have more than one character like him, though. He works best in contrast, as the ideal to which the rest of us aspire.

Comic writers don’t really follow the soldier idea very far, and what they really mean by saying “he’s a soldier” is that he has military ties and a bit more rigid of a demeanor. It's not much of a change, really. So I guess my rant here is kinda pointless.

...dammit, this post was much more interesting inside my head.

Maybe my complaint isn’t with the interpretation of Captain A, but of the use of the word “soldier.”

I’ll explain why in my next post. Which I guarantee will be more interesting and insightful than this one. Really.

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Fight the Cliches By Embracing Them

A pair of cliches have irritated me beyond reason lately. I don’t know why. Both are common in movie and tv promotions.

The first one is the dreaded “America’s loss of innocence” or “time of innocence” crap. “It was 1962, before America lost its innocence...” (The death of John Kennedy is almost always the cutoff.)

Yeah! An innocent time! A time of redlined neighborhoods, Jim Crow laws, and William S. Burroughs! A time when the US actively toppled governments in Iran, Guatemala, and South Vietnam, installing friendly dictators! Sure, they tortured and murdered and we put ‘em there, but by God, they weren’t communists!

Yes, truly a time of innocence and joy.

For Christ’s sake. Teevee writers, get your heads out of your asses. It was a time of innocence for you personally, because you were children. Don’t write that nonsense large onto the country. Read a history book, dammit!

If I ever create a movie/teevee show/whatever, I’m going to employ this cliche with glee and malice. For I, I will make it rock.

Y’see, I was born in 1973. Thus, for me, America’s “time of innocence” would be the late seventies-early eighties.

Roll with it: It was 1983, before America lost her innocence. Ronald Reagan presided over a recession, and America still struggled with the fallout of both Vietnam and Watergate. The “Star Wars” trilogy ended and the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed large. It was a time before America fell from grace...*


The other cliche I’ve been chewing on lately is the narrative crutch of every bad cop show and promo: the lame-assed use of the "meaning" of the name of LA. “Los Angeles. The city of angels. You won’t find many angels here. [insert rest of faux tough-guy narraration]”

Veins throb in my temples whenever I hear it. (The “Philadelphia = City of Brotherly Love” reference is just as bad, but used less.)

But the introduction could be adapted well to other cities, where, yes, it would rock:

“Des Moines. The city of some monks. We’re a few monks short, these days.”

“Cleveland. Land of Cleves. You won’t find many cleves here, though. I don’t know what a ‘cleve’ is.”

“Seattle. City of attles by the sea. Attles are dangerous creatures. I should know. One killed my partner. I’m out for revenge.”

*You know somebody’s gonna try this in conjunction with September 11, 2001. It was when America lost her innocence... No, douchebag, that was when three thousand people were murdered by a bunch of religious zealot scum. Shut your cakehole before I punch you in the throat, you ill-informed tool.

Come to think of it, was America ever “innocent?” How about other countries? Was Ghana ever “innocent?” How about Syria? What’s the cutoff?

I have my own theory. I think a country loses its innocence when it discovers sex. “Tee hee...Thailand just found out where babies come from!”

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Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Master of Glomp Glukkle Shlik Shlorp Ghomp Glunk Glik Shtork

Comic art has many masters, greats who redefined the medium and broadened its horizons.

Kirby, the master of dynamic action. Eisner, the master of humanist storytelling. That...other guy, master of...something really cool. You know, that guy. He did that thing one time. No, no, not that guy, the other one. Yeah, him.

I digress.

To this pantheon, I hereby add longtime Mad Magazine artist Don Martin, quite possibly the greatest master of the sound effect to ever walk the earth.

A few small examples of his work:

Zazzik! Zik! Zik! Zizzazik! -- rotary phone dialing.
Poit! – Man having wooden clothes-hanger pulled out of his mouth.
Paf! TOOONG! -- The Frog Prince transforming into a human, then having his head impaled on the bottom of a portcullis.
Phelop! -- A firing squad passing out due to the stench of the captain’s armpit.
Ffpghftp! -- A caveman inventing a musical instrument.
Shika-shika shika-shika spoof! – A caveman rubbing sticks together and creating fire.
Kadoonk – Meatloaf being shoved into the mouth of a chained prisoner by a high-leaping jailer.
Fladapp – Man being hit with fish.
Pwang – Man hit in face with frying pan.
Flabadap – Rapunzel’s hair unfurling.
Glomp Glukkle Shlik Shlorp Ghomp Glunk Glik Shtork – Lord Greystoke dining.

He has no equal. Let us raise Don Martin to the status he deserves.

Don Martin: Master of the Silly-Ass Sound Effect. Titan of Comics. A Fonebone for All Seasons.

(In the course of writing this, I found that somebody’s already created a repository of Martin’s sound effects. What a resource. Should you want to know what a man swallowing razor blades sounds like, check it here:

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The Mister Teeny Test

Avant-garde art is tough to judge. Nagging in the back of folks’ heads is the thought, “maybe it’s brilliant and I just don’t get it...hmmm...what am I missing?” Modern poetry is particularly tough in this regard.

I’ve developed a quick and dirty test to determine if a work is a complex web of fascinating imagery dedicated towards a significant point, or if it’s a bunch of crazy crap thrown together in an effort to appear “deep.”

I call it the Mister Teeny Test.

Mister Teeny is a cartoon chimp found on The Simpsons. He wears a fez and a bow tie, smokes, and sometimes wears roller skates. I dig him. As the Fourth Maxim of Comedy states, “all monkeys (including apes, etc.) are hilarious, especially when wearing human clothing.”

The test is this: could the comic/movie/whatever withstand the insertion of Mister Teeny in a random location without hurting the work? Take Blue Velvet, a David Lynch movie beloved by many. Would it be possible to splice in a single shot of a chimpanzee wearing a fez and smoking a Marlboro and not have it destroy the flavor of the movie? I think the answer is yes.

On the other hand, Lynch’s movie The Straight Story, given a smoking, roller-skating chimp, would be destroyed. All people would talk about afterwards would be “what’s with the chimp?”

The test is a personal one, but I stand by its usefulness.*

Recently I bought a miniseries published by Dark Horse a few years ago, called The Nevermen. It’s about a shadowy group of fellows in dark blue trenchcoats, hats and goggles that fight against strange menaces in a thirties/forties style city. The art looked snazzy and the idea held some promise. Plus, hey, I was able to get it cheap.

The Nevermen fails the Mister Teeny Test. Its aggressive weirdness and intriguing visual design, in the end, add up to nothing in particular. A roller-skating chimp wouldn’t have disrupted the proceedings in the least.

The story contained a crime boss who was a severed head, another who had a very realistic octopus for a head, killer robots, a mysterious scientific genius called “The Professor” (who reminded me of Oscar Wilde), the titular Nevermen, a mad scientist out to destroy the city with a poorly-explained thingy that would shatter time or something, and a pointless nod towards Blade Runner that falls under the category of “oh, come on.”

Altogether, it added up to diddly.

How annoying.

Mr. Teeny would have fit right in.

Now take another bizarro comic: Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum. I think it’s overrated crap, weirdness for the sake of weirdness. But it passes the Mister Teeny Test with flying colors. You couldn’t wedge a roller-skating chimp anywhere in there.

It still sucked, but its weirdness was at least directed towards an end, rather than for the joy of throwing strange crap on the page.**

There are few problems in this world that can’t be solved by the application of a chimp.

*The test (hereafter called the MTT) has certain obvious flaws. For example, if the story already contains a large number of monkeys, one more probably won’t mean much. (This does weaken its validity in testing Nevermen, which did have a lot of monkeys.)

Also, the test is not entirely a test for quality. It’s possible to create a comic or a movie that would fail the MTT but still be tremendously entertaining. (Certainly, passing the MTT guarantees nothing at all about quality.) However, the MTT is a good test of story integrity, an element of fiction I personally find quite valuable.

Also, the MTT isn’t a single binary test; it has three levels.

MTT Level One (MTT-1): The chimp is integrated into the scene, matching the appearence of the story around him. For example, picture an episode of Gunsmoke where Mr. Teeny would be a live chimp on skates, rolling past as Chester and Matt go on about Miss Kitty’s new hat. In a comic, the chimp would match the art style of the rest of the book.

This is the basic MTT, the divider between “focused story” and “bunch of crap thrown at a wall.”

MTT Level Two (MTT-2): The chimp still matches the art style and/or medium of the story, but he receives his own seperate shot or panel. He doesn’t just drift by, he seizes the whole story for a few seconds.

MTT Level Three (MTT-3): The story is interrupted by a cartoon panel/short clip of the actual cartoon Mr. Teeny.

A story is rated on the MTT scale by what level of Teeny it can take before he seems out of place. For example, Gunsmoke passes even the MTT-1. Much of Grant Morrison’s work fails the initial test, some fails level two, but very little fails the dreaded MTT-3. That takes an almost unbelievable randomness. The Nevermen is an MTT-2 story.

The inspiration for the test, Matthew Barney’s excruciatingly boring “film,” the Cremaster Cycle, is a full-blown MTT-3.

**Arkham Asylum lost me when Morrison broke out the single lamest idea in the hipster arsenal. It never fails to elicit a groan.

One of the doctors proclaimed that the Joker’s fragmented psyche, forced to recreate itself daily, could be viewed as “a kind of super-sanity.”

Oh, give it a goddamn rest.

“You know, maybe the crazy people are really the sane ones, man, ‘cause ya know they aren’t bound by the psycho laws of behavior that we are, man. They aren’t slaves, y’know, to the machine, man. They really see, they get it, and the squares don’t, man.” The subtext of the idea being, those who read this book “get it,” and they understand the world better than the straights, man.

Only when one is under the age of fifteen and under the influence of a forty-dog of St. Ides Malt Liquor does this idea sound profound. The rest of the time, it looks like flatulent self-congratulatory nonsense. “I’m, like, crazy, man...I see things and understand like nobody else. Nobody understands me, ‘cause I’m super-sane! My stupid mom doesn’t understand! It’s all a bunch of lies and hypocrisy anyway!”

It’s so old and feeble an “insight” it should be smothered with its own pillow.

To quote a wise man, "oy, gevalt."

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I Don't Miss Dating

“I met Dahlia Prenderby once,” said the Egg. “I thought she seemed a nice girl.”

“Freddy thought so, too. He loved her madly.”

“And lost her, of course?”


“Do you know,” said a thoughtful Bean, “I'll bet that if all the girls Freddie has loved and lost were placed end to end--not that I suppose one could do it--they would reach half-way down Piccadilly.”

“Further than that,” said the Egg. “Some of them were pretty tall. What beats me is why he ever bothers to love them. They always turn him down in the end. He might just as well never begin. Better, in fact, because in the time saved he could be reading some good book.”

--P.G. Wodehouse, “Good Bye to All Cats”

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Putting Malcolm on the Ten: "Birth of a Nation"

The future of comics, to yers truly, can be found in the margins. The Big Two publishers of Marvel and DC are, artistically, treading water. (Yes, DC maintains a boutique imprint called “Vertigo,” but I can’t bring myself to care. With the exception of Human Target, which is one of my very favorite books. I digress.) More importantly, most blogs out there cover the mainstream already. Is there anything new I can say about Identity Crisis or All-Star Batman and Robin?

In the interests of saying something different, I’ve decided to look over a couple of works outside of the mainstream of comicdom.

Crown Publishing recently put out a true graphic novel, entitled Birth of a Nation. Birth was written by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin, and illustrated by Kyle Baker. By “true graphic novel,” I mean that it is not a collection of individual comic books and stuck in a book binding, but rather a full story told graphically.

Birth is a political satire based upon the presidential election of 2000. The story begins on election day. Due to a mistake that seemed very much intentional, a thousand residents of East St. Louis, an impoverished city that is ninety-eight percent black, were tagged as felons and not allowed to vote in the election. These barred votes proved pivotal, as the candidate based on George W. Bush won the state of Illinois, and thus the election, by a few hundred votes.

After a cascading series of events rains disappointment upon disappointment upon the city, the mayor, Fred Fredericks, declares that East St. Louis, historically one of the roughest and nastiest in the country, has seceded from the United States. Mayhem ensues.

For the first twenty pages or so, the story feels more than a little like a cartoon civics lesson. The protagonist of the story, Fredericks, begins as an uncomplicated good man. Which, sadly, is a little boring. He rallies citizens to vote, he helps folks with their garbage (necessary due to problems with the garbage companies – a real and common problem in East St. Louis), and he has a rapport with various members of the city. A guy you’d love to have as a neighbor or a mayor, but not a compelling read.*

Once the Republic of Blackland is created, the story becomes a lot more interesting. McGruder and Hudlin showed a solid grasp of history and politics when they charted the future of the new nation. The parties involved act as one would expect them to act. The US reaction of freezing assets and starting embargoes made sense; the Blackland response of creating a money-laundering economy did as well.

The authors did not fall into the trap of presuming all would go well in Blackland, either. To protect the city, the mayor is forced to ally with the biggest gang figure around and employ thugs as soldiers. As a result, the military becomes a potential threat as well as a protector. The future of the city also becomes a sticking point between a multimillionaire who financed the initial secession, and the mayor, as the former is in it for personal power and wealth, while the latter wants what’s best for the fledgling country.

As the country emerges upon the world stage, the authors insert a number of jokes to lighten the mood. The Blackland flag is red, black, and green...with a picture of a white Jesus in the middle. Why? Because the only people who showed up to the civic meeting where the design was settled were old folks. As the mayor's aide pointed out, old black folks love the Jesus, and white is how they know him. The melody for the national anthem comes from the theme to “Good Times.” Their currency carries the face of black icons: MLK on the one dollar bill, the president of Blackland on the five, Malcolm X on the ten.

Only after finishing the book did I catch the gag. Malcolm on the ten. Heh.

Birth of a Nation isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s damn good. It maintains enough narrative drive to keep the story lively, the characters are just individual enough to hold readers’ interest, and the level of exaggeration keeps the story funny but not ridiculous.

Baker’s art was cartoony and charming. His placement and shaping of panels was downright inspired. He also had a strong Sergio Aragones flavor, which is a huge plus (to me, anyway). The lines were loosely drawn and well-placed.

What makes the novel work is its humanism. The creators understood that people have multiple allegiances and conflicting desires. They avoided the temptation to create figures of untrammeled good or pure evil (with the exception of a few Air Force officers), and created a story that juggled the often-conflicting desires of the characters involved.

My only major complaint? The portrayal of the Secretary of State, an analogue of Colin Powell. Birth portrays him as a forceful statesman, the sole sane grownup in the White House. History has not borne this out. He’s an intelligent man, no doubt, and at least mostly sane, but the true Powell lacks the fire and decisiveness of his Birth of a Nation counterpart. This book’s vision of him is what we wish Powell were, not what he is.

On the other hand, it captured Dick Cheney perfectly.

*As a resident of the Washington DC area, oh man would I love to have this guy as mayor. Look at the last few we’ve had: “Marion Barry the Crackhead” followed by “Tony Williams the Absentee Mayor Who Screws His City for Baseball.” Get me Fred Fredricks now! I don’t care if he’s a cartoon! The local motto: “Washington city politics – Hopeless, But Not Serious.”

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I Am Officially an Old Fart

Manga. Japanese comics.

The Next Big Thing. If one examines the market, it looks to be the Current Big Thing.

I don’t like it.

Not at all.

The story conventions bore me and the art doesn’t lure me in. I watched a decent amount of Japanese animation in my teens (so long ago we called it “Japanimation,” not “anime”), and that didn’t make much of an impression either.

Thus, I am officially Behind the Times.

This bothers me less than I thought it would.

Now run off and get me some absorbant undergarments, ya whippersnapper! Then I can bore you with tales of olden days, when kids had respect for their elders! Hhhnnnn!!

Kids today, with their hippity-hop music and all that folderol...

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Jesus Wept

Though “Filing Cabinet of the Damned” isn’t and won’t be a political blog, I have to mention current affairs for a second.

The war in Iraq has reached a point where the US military is actively entertaining the idea of training and employing death squads.

Death squads.

Death squads.

I’m not making this up. Check out for corroboration.

Apparently people choose to forget that doing so not only is hideously immoral, which most of these folks don’t care about anyway, but that establishing death squads removes the last shred of legitimacy from the operation. Then there’s the argument that it worked in El Salvador. That’s debatable, at the very least.

Yes, let’s establish a free and democratic Iraq that’s filled with guys we like and death squads we built. That’ll work.

Two quotes leap to mind.

“Usually, terrible things that are done with that excuse that progress requires them are not really progress at all, but just terrible things.”
--- Russell Baker

“To know the truth is more difficult than most men suppose, and to act with ruthless determination in the belief that truth is the monopoly of their party is to invite disaster. Long calculations that certain evil in the present is worth inflicting for the sake of some doubtful benefit in the future are always to be viewed with suspicion, for, as Shakespeare says: ‘What’s to come is still unsure.’ Even the shrewdest men are apt to be wildly astray if they prophesy so much as ten years ahead.”
--- Bertrand Russell, “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind”

On a personal level, the plan makes me throw up in my mouth a little every time I consider it. Considered on a political level, it reeks of major unanticipated blowback.

Employing death squads has the sexiness of the tough-guy solution (“This is war! You have to accept the brutal nature of war! You’re a naive pantywaist! Grr!”) and the advantage of seeming expedience. Not hard to see why a nervous Pentagon considers it.

Then again, it also demonstrates a complete lack of foresight and clutches to the idea that the insurrections in Iraq are led by a handful of individuals, and that if you kill them, the insurrection will end.

Sure. It worked so well for us in Vietnam, after all.

We’ve tried this before, folks.

Plus, those roving death squads we sponsored in El Salvador didn’t hurt our credibility in Latin America, did they? Oh right...they did. Damn.

The inability of the military leadership to understand the nature of the war makes my head spin. It’s a guerilla war of rebellion, you twits. Until you get that, you’re going to screw up.

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Dirty Little Secret: Marvel’s “Essentials” Line

My bookshelves contain over a dozen of the paperback collections of old comics known as the “Marvel Essentials” line. I love ‘em. They reprint roughly twenty-five to thirty issues of an old comic in black and white, then price the books cheaply. This is genius. Marvel has a gigantic backlog of material that most modern readers have never seen, and they don’t have to pay royalties on this jazz. It’s all gravy.

I snapped up many of the volumes with delight. Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four? The best damn superhero book ever. Lee/Ditko Spider-Man? Magnificent. I even snagged a couple of oddball ones to see if the work lived up to the reputation. Howard the Duck and Tomb of Dracula certainly did; Conan the Barbarian and The Silver Surfer certainly didn’t.

Before buying any of the volumes, I perused them in the comic shop. Something lept out at me. Most of this stuff, this trove of Marvel history...

...was awful. The Avengers, Ant-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Daredevil--it’s all crappity crap crap crap, with the odd bit of good stuff thrown in here and there.

The books proved the auteur theory of comics beyond a shadow of a doubt. Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko made work that flew. Herb Trimpe, John Romita, and John Buscema didn’t.*

Not to say those three fellows weren’t talented; they certainly were. But they don’t reach out of the page and grab you by the nose as Kirby and Ditko did. Okay, Barry Windsor-Smith approached the nose-grab levels in his later issues of Conan, but left the book far too soon.

The past provides many great comics. It also produced an astonishing amount of boring twaddle. Worshippers of the past may not accept this truth. Open Essential Avengers Vol. 1 to the second half of the volume and judge for yourself. Yeek.

(Even the mighty Kirby didn’t always have it; most of Essential Thor Vol. 1 is tedious nonsense. “I’ve lost my hammer and have only sixty seconds before I revert to my human form! I must recover it in time!” What, again? You did that last issue. And the twelve before that. Once Kirby realized the potential of exploring the god side of Thor, the book took off. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until after the issues contained in Thor Vol. 1, and it doesn’t look like Vol. 2 will see print.)

A pleasant surprise: the Essential Iron Fist, which contains the character’s first few appearances, his short-lived regular series, and his introduction into the eponymous series of his new partner, Power Man. Mostly written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Byrne before either had achieved much success in the field, the comics are a hoot.

Then again, I’m biased. As a kid, Power Man and Iron Fist was one of my very favorite books. Coupling two fading characters created to exploit seventies fads in an effort to keep them alive? Brilliant! Using the “Odd Couple” approach? Brilliant! Scripting by a young Jim Owsley (later known as Christoper Priest)? Brilliant!

*The role of Stan Lee in this is well debated elsewhere, so I won’t get into it much. Like many folks, I think of him as the McCartney to Kirby (or Ditko)’s Lennon. Neither Kirby nor Ditko reclaimed the heights of greatness in their later work that they had when working with Lee, nor did Lee ever produce great work without either of those two. They served as balances for one another, and it was that superb balance that made Marvel great. Kirby’s grandiosity and Ditko’s strong philosophical views needed the tempering of Lee’s humanity and wit, and Lee’s frivolity needed the weight and power of Kirby and Ditko.

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Thursday, January 06, 2005

Holy Crap, I Never Thought of That: Eisner’s Legacy

Damn near every comic blog is writing about Will Eisner right now. His death at age eighty-seven has inspired retrospectives about the man and his work. At the risk of being redundant, I’d like to say something as well.

When I first fell into comics as a young'un, I plunged in with the intensity and focus common to boys around the age of twelve. I borrowed comics from friends, raided libraries for books about comics, and researched the field as much as I could.

One book I found at the library was the Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics. It contained samples from many of the early greats: Sheldon Meyer, Siegel and Schuster, and, yep, Will Eisner. The Smithsonian volume gave me my first look at The Spirit, the work most associated with Eisner.

First I was confused by the glowing praise heaped upon the stories. The art resembled Mad Magazine more than a comic about a masked detective, more Jack Davis than Bob Kane. It didn't seem right at all. Plus, the stories were oddball, too. They blended action and humor in ways that feel perfectly natural for comics, despite the fact that almost nobody else seems to be able to reach that same pitch-perfect mixture.

I couldn’t put my finger on why they were good. But I knew they were.

I reread them a few times and tried to figure it out. One of Eisner’s famous conceits was the ever-changing logo for the Spirit stories. In one story, the words “The Spirit” were spelled out by letters made up of individual pieces of paper floating down a gutter towards the reader, with a sewer grate in the foreground. Another story had the logo painted on the side of a building. My young self thought that was the coolest idea in comics.

As time went by and I saw more of his work, I was bowled over by the level of innovation he put into the art. More than anything, what made his work important was that Eisner took chances. Rather than accept the format of the art as it was given to him, he pushed it to new limits. He was the great experimenter of the medium.

A few years back I bought his seminal “first graphic novel,” A Contract with God. (I use the quotes to prevent arguments—Contract is the “first” graphic novel in the way that Columbus “discovered” America. Others did it first, yes, but Contract was the first one that stuck.)

If I may be a heretic, I must admit: Contract isn’t all that well-written. The first of its stories is moving, but the others didn’t add up to much. Eisner’s more realistic works never did much for me as stories. However, his ability to tell his stories graphically was phenomenal. Breaking free from the confines of the panel, using the lettering of the text as art itself, bleeding images one into the other...amazing.

Will Eisner had the ability to create developments in comic art that seem astonishing at the time and blazingly obvious in retrospect. He recognized what was right in front of everybody but nobody could see.

That there, that’s the signature quality of genius.

He was the best there ever was.

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My one comic-loving bud came by my house a few days ago and showed me a new doohickey: the game “Heroclix.” It’s a boardgame of sorts played with little plastic superheroes. They run around fighting and being all super-fied. Wee plastic Batmans and Spider-Mans and what-all romp around a “map” you set up, and guys roll dice to see how their teams of super-guys fight it out. Okay.

The characters are almost all based on Marvel and DC heroes and villains, ranging from the big names to some obscure characters. Also, to increase sales, they have variants of characters and “experience levels.” So you can have a rookie level, experienced level, and veteran level of the same character hopping around your board.

This got me thinking. There’s a Marvel character that would be perfect for this. Visually interesting enough to make for a cool figure, varied enough in his history to give three “levels,” and badass enough to whip heiney.

Howard the Duck.

Roll with me on this. Picture it.

Rookie level Howard: Wearing his trademark sport jacket, stogie in mouth.

Veteran level Howard: dressed as befits a Master of Quack Fu, with the accompanying fighting skillz.

Experienced level Howard: two words, baby: “Iron Duck.” Trash-can armor, springs on his feet...oh, hells yes.


Howard’s villains would add to the game as well. The villain created by fusing Doctor Doom and rock critic Lester Bangs, the terror known as Doctor Bong? The Space Turnip? The Canadian super-patriot and all-around loony in powered armor dubbed "The Beaver?"

Sales would be huge.

Rock on.

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Wednesday, January 05, 2005

I Wanna Eat Your Brain: Zombie Zeitgeist

Zombies are everywhere in comics these days. 30 Days of Night, Dead @ 17, and so forth.

There’s no way for me to restrain my Inner Freud when noticing such a fad. Must...interpret! Must...find meaning...even in...face of pretention...aaagh...forgive me...

Like vampires in the eighties, zombies have struck a chord in the popular mind, or at least in the popular mind that reads comics and likes horror movies. Why? What is the central horror of the zombie tale? What resonates?

Vampires are about disease, sex, and death. Power lust, blood lust, even plain ol’ lust lust, feed into the vampire story. Easy to see the appeal.

Zombie tales, post-Romero, all are variations on one story: the protagonists are the last people alive, running in terror from the shambling undead hordes.

They’re about death, yeah, sure, but so are a lot of monsters. What’s the particular horror of the zombie? Alienation.

Zombies play on our fears of being “alone in crowds,” of being the last real people in the world. The zombie story preys on our fears of becoming either torn apart by angry masses who resent individuality, and on our fear of being subsumed by that mass and becoming one of them. Zombie stories are about the loneliness we find when buried under a pile of humanity.

It’s not hard to see how this plays into the Age of Information. Folks are increasingly isolated from true interpersonal contact, especially those who inhabit the world-o-computers. The decrease in face-to-face contact makes other people just a wee smidge less real to us. A hint more alien.

Push that a bit farther, and ooh, we’ve got us a faceless horde of creatures that look like you, but aren’t. They are countless hordes, and they’re Not Like You. They aren’t quite as human as you...

Not a big leap forward to brain-eating and barricading one’s self in a shopping mall, no?

Yet another pet theory.

I pontificate an awful lot, I know, I know.

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Everything Else Is Television


“’Make it new,’ Pound insisted. How much pale ink continues to be spilled in the service of that demand. I, for one, would like to see an unofficial ban on the following things: stories in which the author shows up as one of the characters, stories built around lists, or with the marginalia of writing moved to the center (dedications, errata, footnotes, etc.). I would like to see mere cleverness and innovation removed from the practice, along with all cheap ironies, second-guessing, meretricious tricks with time (stories written in the present tense, narrative running backwards, games with simultaneity, and so on), the substitution of swaths of facts and factoids for inspiration and invention … and so on.

“Above all, I would insist that novelists who think they're smarter than their characters, and more sophisticated than the idea of the novel itself, and who cannot resist the temptation to demonstrate as much, ought instead to find deeper characters and better stories to write. I want a book to break my heart; everything else is television.”

--Jim Lewis, “The Father of Modernism,” Culturebox section of (6/15/2004)

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Adam Sandler and Bad Comedy

Humor is sublimated aggression. Instead of venting aggression by punching someone in the neck, people can instead crack jokes. Lucky for us.

The aggression can be directed towards an individual, towards a situation, or even towards reality. Why is putting on a suit of armor and smacking a guy in the head with a rubber chicken funny? Because it’s a symbolic extension of the middle finger to reality itself and people’s expectations.

The level of aggression and the target of the aggression have a great deal to do with a comic's style. Bob Newhart’s subject is the everyday world, and his quiet phone routines are a far cry from punching someone in the neck. Sam Kinison’s subject was humanity in general, and his screaming wasn’t that far away from a neck-punch. Yet still there was imagination and style to his work.

Then there’s the Failed Comic. You know the type. The sort of fellow who will shout at you, then suddenly say “just kidding!” and pretend it was a joke.

It’s not. Humor is sublimated aggression. That’s just plain aggression, with a “humorous” tail tacked on to protect the jerk from the fallout his “joke” merits. If you throw your rage out there, that’s not funny. Only when the rage is tailored for effect is it anything remotely resembling wit.

Adam Sandler is the most public example of a Failed Comic. Take the “joke” used in a promotion for his movie Mr. Deeds. Sandler shows his butler, John Turturro, his frostbitten foot, claiming it has no feeling at all. He invites the butler to hit the foot with a fireplace poker. After Turturro takes a few swings, Sandler suddenly shouts in agony and yells at Turturro. “Why did you do that? You’re sick! Sick!” Turturro backs off in horror. Sandler then pulls back and smiles, “Just kidding.”

What’s the source of the humor here? Sandler (and the audience) is supposed to find humor in making another person feel anguish, remorse and horror. The sudden shift from playful joking to shrieking pain and rage and back again is allegedly humorous.

The joke is about power. By pulling his prank, Sandler hurts Turturro emotionally, then pulls back “in jest” to prevent retaliation. Had he the stones, he could have simply punched Turturro in the gut, but that would have likely led to a straight fight. Had he wit, he could have established his power by something more sophisticated than the infliction of guilt by shrieking and weeping. It’s lame bullying humor. Weak. Just weak.

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The Awesome Majesty of Nature

My wife and I recently returned from a visit to her family in El Paso. The city, on the far western tip of Texas, borders the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Chihuahua is a mountainous desert region, perhaps best known for the creatures that give the state its name. Huge packs of wild tiny dogs rumble across its arroyos and plains, yipping with their oversized heads, pitter-patting along dried streambeds and around cacti, feeding upon the kibble bushes (known in Spanish as los arbols del purina y alpo) that flourish in the harsh clime.

Despite an advantageous position along the border and keen eyes, we did not spy a single wild Chihuahua; nary a single goony-headed micro-canis skittered past our view. When next we visit, I will insist that we cross the border and hunt down a pack of these canines, Nature's Bobbleheads. Stampedes of wild Chihuahuas, blackening the hills with their vast numbers, are reputed to be one of nature's most awesome spectacles, on a par with the Angel Falls of Venezuela. Life is brief; we must not deprive ourselves of such wonders.

The best location to spot them is reputed to be to the south of Ciudad Juarez, where local campesinos set elaborate wooden Chihuahua traps. These traps, built from scrap wood and loaded with fluffy pink sweaters as bait, are set along the path of the dogs' annual migration. It is dangerous work; every town in the region has tales of brave men lost to seas of tiny canines, victims of the rapacious bloodlust of the dreaded lobos salvajes minúsculos de Chihuahua.

But they accept this risk, as trapping supplements their small incomes by providing the widely-desired meat of the wee pooches. The prefered method of preparation is to dip the animals in a batter made from masa, a traditional corn flour, mount them on sticks, and deep fry them. Known as perros del maiz, they are said to taste not unlike pixie sticks soaked in bacon grease with just a hint of cilantro.

Next year I hope to sit upon a desert hill in the north of Mexico, awaiting the surge of tiny golf-ball heads with perky ears goggling through dry stream beds. Perhaps this is a foolish idea. The dangers of Chihuahua hunting are well-documented.

But my fear is tempered with a respect for the majesty of these mysterious creatures, and a desire to witness first-hand the legendary beasts of the Mexican desert.

Destiny calls, and it fits in a teacup, shivering and yapping.

I will now stop beating this joke to death.

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Oh, Damn, the Critics Adore It: The Love of Yawnfests

Have you found yourself nodding off at critically-beloved movies? Unable to finish books adored by the literati? Bored senseless by comics that the World of Comic Fandom declares are works of genius?

There are a lot of works that are technically admirable but not satisfying out there. Slow-paced movies, talking-head comics, the entire oeuvre of Raymond Carver, it’s hard to avoid. Some folks have even slipped into the trap of conflating brilliance with tedium or confusion. (“It was boring and nonsensical! It must be a work of genius!”)

I have a pet theory as to this seeming blind spot of critics.

Critics spend their lives immersed in commercial art. Imagine how many loud and flashy pieces of garbage Roger Ebert sees in a month. Similarly, big comic fans tend to spend an astonishing amount of time with their noses wedged firmly in the spine of a monthly title or a trade paperback of some variety. Critics of all sorts spend a great deal of time floating around in other peoples’ fantasy worlds.

My guess is that this leads to a sense of disconnectedness. To speak of Ebert again, how many times has ol’ Rog seen a giant alien burst through a wall and eat somebody’s face? How many times can he care? I suspect any move towards “real life” is not only welcomed by many critics, but craved.

This leads to a disconnect with non-critics. Most audiences spend very little time in these fantasy worlds. Real life is something they’re surrounded by all the time.

Regular folks value escapism because they have so little escape from their lives. Critics drown in escapism daily and clutch to outcroppings of reality as a relief.

This isn’t a criticism of criticism. (Nor is it a criticism of criticism of criticism, because I don't have the foggiest idea of what that would even mean.) Rather, it’s a tool I like to apply when reading a critic’s appraisal of work.

As a comic fan forced to spend most of his days in the real world, I find most “critic’s darlings” to be more and more unbearably boring. I believe that a good comic is like good punk rock: fast, loud, and obnoxious. I already live in a world of talking heads and conflicted loyalties, of complex characters and disappointments. I don’t need to read comics to get more of it.

For me, less Vertigo, more Jack Kirby. Less drawing-room drama, more rocket-powered ninjas. Gaiman’s world of dreams fascinates me much more than Rucka’s gritty spy dramas. Treachery I get plenty of, thanks; talking pumpkin-headed janitors with tommy guns I don’t.

Thus, when a critic writes about a work’s stately pace and/or adherence to realism, I’m pretty sure I won’t like it.

There’s a large subset of art that is appreciated exclusively by those already drowning in art. Go to a modern art gallery for proof. Marcel Duchamp didn’t put a urinal in a museum because it was pretty; he was making a comment on a movement and a culture. If you aren’t familiar with both the movement and the culture in question, Marcel’s just yapping a bunch of nonsense at you and wasting your time.

Plus, he didn’t leave the urinal cake.

As someone who can’t take the time to drown himself in seas of creativity, such works simply aren’t meant for me. I’m not saying such works are horrible, miscalculated, or even bad. They are simply stories written in a language I do not speak.

Then again, this is all a theory I developed on the fly, so it could be nonsense. Ah, well.

I do so love to pontificate.

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Blinding Angels

From an article on the nose in the health section of the Washington Post a while back: (

"...early Muslims believed that flatulence caused angels to go blind. In fact, the author explains, if a person passed wind outside a mosque, the act was so connected with evil that people marked spots where it occurred with small piles of stones."

This should enter the common lexicon. "Dude! Stop blinding angels! I can't breathe over here!"

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Venturing Beyond the Land of Snark

In the spirit of fairness, I’ve been working on a comic of my own for next year’s SPX. After all, a critic who hides from criticism himself is a low, low creature. Plus I have an overly high opinion of my own talent, and I need a bracing dose of reality.

My plan is to create a book that would appeal to an average reader, someone unacquainted with comics. Among my family and friends, there is only one person who gives a rat’s ass about the medium, and I don’t see him often.

My goal: to create a comic that my wife will actually read and enjoy, not stare at it for a while and say “oh, that’s nice, honey.”

This will be tough.

Right now, I’m writing an anthology of short stories that try to exploit the strengths of the medium. My scripts thus far use big visuals in a few places, exploit comics’ unique ability to describe the passage of time, and play with the interaction between the words printed on the page and the images around them.

Hopefully they’re good stories as well, though that may be too much to ask. Gyaaah.

My two rules thus far: no parodies and no stories that would be better served by another medium. If it would be better as a prose story, chuck it. If it reads like television on a page, chuck it.

Twenty bucks and a box of donuts says the book will be soul-crushingly mediocre. But dammit, I have to try. It may be hackwork, but it’ll be my hackwork.

By revealing this plan on my weblog, I’m hoping to force my lazy ass to actually do this thing. We’ll see how that goes. A chorus of “hey, how’s the comic coming” might cause me to finish the task, if only out of embarrassment.

I tell ya, if it were possible to bottle my laziness, dilute it to one part per million, and spray it from cropdusters over the Washington metropolitan area, the entire region would collapse in a heap of sloth.

What will probably see me through is that writing this crap is a whole lot of fun. “Monkeys...I love monkeys. Monkey pirates? No, no... Monkey ninjas? Ah ha! A monkey ninja musical about Prussia? Brilliant! This writes itself!”

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Gilligan, Little Buddy!

My friends love the teevee show Lost. For those who don’t watch it, here’s the setup: an airliner crashed on a tropical island, and the survivors are trying to get rescued. The island is not what it appears to be. In the first episode, they run across a peevish polar bear. There are people already on the island who have unknown motivations. There’s a big clanking whatsit in the trees.

The show is building up a big mystery. Where are they really? What’s going on?

Seriously, does anybody think the writers know already? C’mon.

How can a viewer get involved in the story when you know they’re making it up as they go? Look at the secret-driven teevee series of the last few years: X-Files, 24, Alias, they all made it up as they went along. The “grand mystery” was eventually solved (or in the case of Alias, will eventually be solved) by cobbling together the pieces left by writers on previous episodes and grafting together some sort of resolution.


It’s like watching teenagers making up a story. “And then...uh...robot monkeys attack! Yeah, that’s cool. It’s part of the Grand Mysterious Huggermugger! Somehow.”

The central mystery of the island is at best a half-formed notion to the writers right now. They have no idea what's going on. I’d put money on it.

You read it here first.

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Small Press Expo

A few months ago I attended the Small Press Expo (SPX) in Bethesda, Maryland. It’s one of the major showings of independent comics in America.

Most of the work, sad to say, was awful. Worse, I could see how many of the artists invested enormous amounts of themselves in their work.

In the extreme cases, the raw pain and emotion in their work looked as though they’d cut off their arms with hacksaws and stuck a post-it note to the pile of limbs that read “My Comic.”

To deride the comics as badly made seems cruel. Many of these artists were expressing their innermost feelings with great fervor. But they didn’t temper their emotion with artistic control. And so the works weren’t good.

“But I’m expressing my truest self!” they cry. “Isn’t that important?”

Yes, but self-expression isn’t enough. Screaming can be cathartic for you, but why would I listen? The pain and anguish must be worked to become greater than itself in order to be considered art. Otherwise it’s just despair in ink, unredeemed by anything finer.

I felt like a rat-bastard for refusing these honestly-offered exposures of heartfelt emotions, but I stayed away from such comics.

Poor bastards.

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That Was Only One of the Many Occasions on Which I Met My Death

The comic book industry is in trouble. Again.

There is cause for optimism. The industry has nearly died several times in the past, and yet it carries on. Accounts of comic companies are filled with tales of “we almost collapsed here, until we tried X...” Comics, in the aggregate, seem to be as hard to destroy as cockroaches.

There is also cause for pessimism. The number of comic book readers appears to be shrinking wildly. When I began collecting them as an eleven year old boy, I was one of many children in the comic shops. They’re quite rare now. Without replacement readers, the industry cannot survive.

Since I’m too lazy to see if somebody else has charted the path the industry took to reach this state of affairs, I figured I’d start this blog by trying to figure out both how it got there, what the future likely holds, and, since it’s my blog, a couple of suggestions.

To any and all readers, please note that the only reason I’m writing this is to synthesize the various pieces of information I’ve found over the years and see if I can make heads or tails of this debacle. I expect that my analysis and prognostications are ill-informed and missing key pieces of information. But until I know what my mistakes are, I’ll push forward with my theories. If anyone in internet-land can fill in a gap or if I’m wrong in my history, please feel free to correct me.

As this is the internet, don’t hesitate to call me a pederastic walrus-fondler or an un-American pudding enthusiast as you do so. When in Rome, after all.

In the beginning
The industry was born out of pulp magazine publishers. Printing on cheap available paper, using distribution networks already in place, they sent out their colored pamphlets to capture a small sum of money.

(Gerard Jones recently put out a book that ties the early days of comics and pulps to rumrunners, but I haven’t read it yet. I'm sure it would help me add meat to this, but hey. This is the internet! Do I need evidence? Ha! I say ha!)

As is typical for the publishing world, the profits in comics were small, and the industry hovered near the point of collapse a number of times. It also went through boom times, which made the depths of low sales feel all the deeper. Again, this fits the standard publishing model.

Comics boomed in the early Sixties, with the Marvel Comics explosion. The Adam West/Burt Ward “Batman” series helped fuel another boom in the late Sixties. But by the end of the decade, the industry was in trouble. Again.

In the forward to the Ironwolf graphic novel, Howard Chaykin wrote that in the early Seventies, he and his young cohorts in the industry figured they were presiding over the end of the industry, and created comics to either grab as much attention as possible (Green Lantern/Green Arrow’s attempts at social and political relevance, the bizarre revamp of Wonder Woman into a non-superpowered kung fu artist in a white pants suit) or go out in a blaze of artistic glory (Manhunter, the aforementioned Ironwolf, others that escape me right now).

The evidence I can find in a quick peruse of the internet backs him up. There was the fabled DC Implosion of the early Seventies, when the company drastically cut back on the number of titles it produced, and it's not hard to find evidence of periodic expansions and retreats of titles at Marvel during that same period.

Things take a turn
The success of comics as a popular culture art form prompted some folks to open up specialty stores that sold only (or mostly) comics. For a number of reasons, these stores established a unique relationship to the publishers in the Seventies. They became the Direct Market.

The Direct Market created a solution to a major problem of magazine publishing. Distribution to newsstands and spinner racks is incredibly inefficient. Retailers would buy, say, six copies of Nuclear Squirrel and His Atomic Acorns. A month later, they’d strip off the covers of the unsold copies and send them back to the publisher for a refund or credit. Just the same as any other magazine.

This meant that massive print overruns were a necessity. A great deal of a comic company’s expense came from these overruns. A quick scan of ye olde internette suggests that about seventy percent of comics were returned unsold. That’s a lot of cost to eat.

The Direct Market ended the need to print overruns. What the comic shop purchased from the publisher was theirs and theirs alone. They could not return unsold merchandise.

Reducing the need to print overruns, the industry had a measure of stability and guaranteed distribution that allowed for unprecedented growth and profits. Also, a direct market shop would be able to sell product better, as they know and love the stuff, and they can gather up all the interested customers in an area.

Today the Direct Market makes up about ninety percent of comics sold. Ninety percent. Ye gods.

Evolution and Mutation
In the Eighties, comics experimented with new forms and new formats. Printing costs rose, as did the price of available talent. Cover prices rose to match, but circulation remained strong.

In short, there was a lot of money to be had in comics. As is so often the case, the possibility of riches led to a series of unfortunate events.

In the mid-nineties, comics ceased to be put out on the newsstands and spinner racks. The logic behind it is defensible, if insane. Newsstand runs are returnable. The publisher eats the costs for all unsold issues. The Direct Market is efficient, simpler, and the best market to try out new wares, since the customers are already inclined to purchase new product. For the publisher, it’s a massive improvement.

Eating the Seed Corn
The Direct Market has one major weakness: it does not attract new customers. The hideous inefficiencies of the newsstand market, while a major anchor on the publishers, did provide them with a flow of new readers.

As the last few years have proven, even massive publicity cannot provide new readers in any number. Wildly successful comic book movies, press coverage, crossover talent, none of it has affected the drop in sales.

The issue appears to be simple availability, not publicity. Comics sell widely when easily found, and cannot draw new readers when isolated in comics-only stores. The average age of the comic book reader is thirty-some-odd and rising.

There’s no avoiding the conclusion: the industry does not reach new readers.

Why did the industry abandon the newsstand? Did the newsstand abandon comics?

The exact details of the end of newsstand distribution is a mystery to me. If any readers out in internetland know the story or can point me in the right direction, please help a brother out.

Money, money, money
Another issue confronting the industry is rapidly increasing cover prices. Raising prices is never good for attracting new customers, especially for ephemera like comics.

As the Direct Market improved sales and reduced the risks of printing, the comic industry began new marketing tactics. This included new-fangled printing technologies, improved paper stocks, and novelty covers. What once was a sixty or seventy-five cent comic became a two-dollar plus item in little time.

Here are the cover prices of an average Marvel comic since 1982. The years selected are the years when cover prices rose.

1982 $0.60
1986 $0.75
1989 $1.00
1992 $1.25
1994 $1.50
1995 $1.95
1998 $2.50
2000 $2.99

Granted, these price increases are partially the result of inflation. Sixty cents today doesn’t buy what it did twenty-two years ago. Below are the prices again, this time with the numbers adjusted to 1982 dollars.

1982 $0.60
1986 $0.89
1989 $0.77
1992 $0.83
1994 $0.94
1995 $1.20
1998 $1.43
2000 $1.64

Even controlling for inflation, comic prices have almost tripled in twenty years. The bulk of the increase came post-1994, which is roughly when the bottom fell out of the infamous speculator market and circulation began to plummet.

As late as 1994, comics were a throwaway item. They were relatively inexpensive and widely available. Within six years, they had not only reduced their public visibility by a radical amount, they’d doubled their price without any corresponding gain for the customer.

Publishers have tried to offset these price increases by improving paper stock and printing technology. They have also claimed that the cost of publishing has risen over the years, a claim I’m trying to investigate. How much of this increased cost of publishing is tied in with the self-inflicted cost increases of new color printing technologies and better stocks of paper, well, I don’t know.

(As I said in the beginning, I’m just a layman trying to figure out what’s been going on. There are almost certainly good answers. I just don’t have ‘em.)

Still, it seems highly unlikely that the costs of printing could have risen between 1994 and 2000 that could alone justify a $1.50 price increase.

The true root cause seems obvious. The comic industry is trapped in a painful cycle. As the readership dwindles, it must hike prices on its comics to match the revenue shortfalls. However, as prices rise, readership declines. A classic death spiral.

Harvey Jerkwater’s Half-Assed Plan
The problem the industry faces is distribution. That’s it. Simple as that.

Publicity has failed. How many folks saw the Spider-Man movies? Tens of millions, at least. How many of them, filled with love for Marvel’s flagship character, ran off and bought their first Spider-Man comics? Not many. The internet doesn’t help garner new readers, either.

The industry periodically tries to make its books more “first-reader accessible” and kid-friendly. But without distribution, these kid-friendly books won’t end up in the hands of kids. It’s not as though children frequent comic shops, look for something age-appropriate, and leave in frustration, looking only for the right book. Availability is the key.

To survive in anything resembling its current form, the industry must recognize its strength as an impulse buy and regain easy availability.

This will bite into profit margins hideously, at least in the beginning. However, now is the perfect time to perform such madness. Marvel and DC are both flush with cash from licensing agreements, which will likely dry up as time passes.

My suggestion is to develop a two-tiered publishing system. The direct market can be left alone. Concurrently publish a small line of titles, say six or ten, for the newsstand only. For this second line:

1. Base these titles on pre-existing characters and make them all-ages. (Marvel’s “Ultimate” line began this way, but has become simply a second line of standard Marvel product. It certainly isn’t all-ages anymore. This was a mistake.)

2. Hire industry veterans for the line who will produce work on-time and to specifications. Stick to prolific workers. The fewer hands involved, the lower production costs will be.

3. Print the line on cheaper paper and with less sophisticated techology to hold the costs down.

4. Keep the cover prices below the direct market books. Under two dollars, if possible. The books must be cheap enough for kids to purchase without feeling ripped off.

5. Ensure a large presence on the internet is established and maintained. Currently, neither of the Big Two publishers do it, which is surprising. Both Marvel and DC’s websites and internet presence are feeble.

If only one of the Big Two creates this secondary line, they will achieve a monopoly on a significant portion of the market and wildly increase the value of their licensing due to larger publicity. The high visibility of the newsstand line would also do much to aid the sales of direct market books and trade paperbacks, since the customer base would have personal experience with the works themselves.

Okay, So It Probably Can't Happen, and Other Thoughts
Okay, it probably can’t happen, but it’s worth considering.

What’s important to consider is that while the industry of comic publishing in the United States is dying, the medium itself is thriving better than it ever has. Manga are wildly popular and sell like mad in bookstores. The internet is littered with comics of various sorts. The mainstream press covers graphic novels now without quite so much sarcasm.

To be snotty (well, snottier than usual), the decline of the printed word works in comics’ favor. In a nearly post-literate era, the comic stands a better chance of public acceptance than ever before. Magazine sales have stagnated since 1990, and reading is down. It’s not so crazy to think that books with lots of pictures in ‘em might do well in such conditions.

But that’s all potential. The comic book industry as it now stands is in a state of slow decay, and everybody knows it. It will probably survive somehow, though evolved into yet another form and likely much smaller.

Also, mainstream acceptance has occurred at least twice before: during the initial Marvel Comics boom of the mid-Sixties, and in the late Eighties, behind Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Maus. There’s always the possibility that comics will lose their cachet and return to obscurity.

One possibility for the industry is to mimic comics’ forerunner, pulp novels. Despite their market collapsing in the forties and fifties, the pulps never truly died. The heirs to “The Shadow” and “Spicy Romance” can be found in bookstores as Harlequin romances and the violent “Executioner” and “Destroyer” novel lines, all of which are produced as monthly series. Not an enviable fate, but survival of a sort.

Letting the Days Go By
My plan is probably wrongheaded, in that it’s mostly a Bold Leap Backwards, predicated on the idea that the abandonment of the newsstand market was foolish grab for short-term profits, not a necessity of the marketplace. Still, I believe the idea merits examination.

Often, unnecessary business changes are left in place due to inertia or worse, to the fear businessmen have of looking like a fogey or a toady by restoring abandoned methods. Businessmen, as a rule, don’t like to reapply old methods to new problems. Apparently it’s frowned upon.

Distribution networks already exist. Magazines reach stores every week. Perhaps comic publishers could piggy-back on their network. DC is owned by Warner. Surely they have the means.

Given that a non-businessman like me sees this as an obvious recourse, there must be hurdles that I don’t know about. Probably very large ones. Wish I knew what they were.

What’s Actually Going On
There’s a lot I’m not covering here. The industry does appear to be struggling for survival. Right now, the main plan appears to involve a shift into trade paperbacks and bookstore sales, which creates a whole series of new problems.

Another possibility to consider is that the Big Two are primarily character licencing operations now, and saving the printing arms of the company may not be worthwhile. Perhaps the death of comic books isn’t that important to them financially, and they’re content to let the direct market wheeze from dotage to the grave.

I’ve also read that Disney is pursuing a plan very much like what I’ve suggested above. If anybody can pull this off, it’d be Walter’s mighty corporation.

Also, major book publishers like Scholastic, Del Ray, and Holt are pushing into graphic novel territory. What this means, I have no idea.

Honestly, I don’t know a lot about what’s going on, folks. I’m just a fan who’s trying to make sense of things.

I’ll do a bit of research and write about these developments in a later post, maybe develop a more accurate picture of what is really going on. This post is a first sally into the field.

In Conclusion
The Big Two comic book publishers are in trouble. They don’t appear to be pulling out of the death spiral, for reasons unclear.

Yet there is great cause for optimism. The medium itself grows in acceptance and artistic depth. It’s faced extinction time and again, yet it’s still here.

I am reminded of a quote from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen: “That was only one of the many occasions on which I met my death.” Indeed.

Comics have died many times, and yet won’t stay dead.


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