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October 5, 2008


If I Were The Emperor of Comics: Two Dozen Things I'd Decree To Make Comics Better

imagePrescriptive opinion article writing in comics can be a rough game. There's so much that all of us don't know about how comics work and there are so many things that we wish for the medium and its industries. It's difficult not to be passionately unreasonable. What follows is a list of things I would do as Emperor of Comics, by which I mean someone with magic powers to move the various comics industries in certain directions based solely on the ability to say something and have it be done. Despite this significant fantasy element I hope my suggestions aren't totally ridiculous -- at least not all of them. Many of these are things I think could be done were enough folks to agree with me and enough willpower found to make those changes happen. They are also not complete -- I could in an hour or two come up with two dozen more. These are a start.

I'm going to be as succinct and straightforward as possible in how I present the following. I hope no one takes that as blunt and provocative. I don't want to foist criticism on the present. I want to suggest future possibilities. I hope this post will be taken in that spirit, and as good fun.

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1. Make Everyone Provide Accurate Numbers
Better numbers would make for a better comics industry. If the film industry can provide reasonably accurate numbers, so can the comics industry. There's far too much hiding of numbers that leads to manipulation of the press, from flat-out lies as to numbers of copies sold, to the goosing of numbers as they're reported in certain publications, to institutionalized practices like boasting about multiple printings for comics without ever explaining how many were sold. The biggest and most obvious culprit here is DC Comics. There was a huge hole in the analysis of what happened to the Minx Imprint, for example, because we simply didn't have any idea how they sold. But a number of companies I think take advantage of this system, or could benefit from not having nefarious number manipulation suspected of them.

I would like to see everyone release their numbers for every market to two accredited sources, Milton Griepp and John Jackson Miller, for further dissemination to the press and public. I would give those sources the right to pursue apparent discrepancies to their satisfaction. Having real numbers not just in the Direct Market but in the bookstore, subscription, direct order and newsstand markets as well would allow press and booksellers and fans and creators to make better, more informed decisions and would end some of the demeaning tomfoolery that fuels comics deals. As a throw-in, I would also require the comic strip syndicates and their creators to stop saying how many "newspapers" that a strip has, and to instead say "clients" and 'fess up at every opportunity that Sunday and weeklies are sold as two different units.

2. Dismantle The Remaining Exclusivity Advantages
There was a time when a lot of the advantages given to companies signing with Diamond made a certain sort of brutal, wild-kingdom sense. At this point, what's left I think does more harm than good. They force Diamond into certain behaviors that do not maximize industry-wide benefit. They may even keep alive the last vestiges of a comics culture that envisions Diamond's services as something to be bartered for rather than employed through partnerships for the greatest good.

imageSome of the individual quirks of these arrangements need to go as well. I like the current Image Comics, but some of the covers they've scored in the last five years according to agreements made a comics industry epoch ago haven't served the general industry and barely served Image. There's no reason why the launch of RASL, say, wouldn't be worth a cover as much as any of the latest, largely interchangeable superhero events. In general, the incentives reward publishers for little more than being on Diamond's side during a time I think history presents a compelling argument many if not all of them shouldn't have been; keeping those agreements alive simply continues to reward a set of decisions that wounded the American comics industry.

Therefore, for the sake of better policies throughout and in recognition that we live in a brand new era for comics, that the '90s are over forever, I would proclaim all agreements null and void. In return, I would decree that every publisher in the top 15, every publisher with more than 15 years of soliciting material and every publisher with a top 15 book, magazine or trade get 1) the option to design their own pages, 2) all the market information they need to best move their books and make more money for themselves and Diamond paying only a nominal fee for the work involved in culling that material, and 3) greater leeway to re-solicit and offer again as they deem necessary. The order of their appearance in Diamond's catalog would be according to total $ market share, followed by the standard, alphabetical listing of small press, new publishers and self-publishers. There are already significant ways the distributor has become more of a partner for comics industry participants, and the company has done a much better than envisioned job of working with many of its clients. Wiping the slate clean makes sure that the entire industry better moves in the same direction: sustainable growth within its own sphere of control.

3. Tighten Up The Ability To Get Into Diamond's Catalog
It's time for a smaller Diamond catalog, one that focuses on the best that comics has to offer and less on a baffling array of garbage and barely publishable vanity projects. An appeal process that requires the submission of a business plan should remain in place with a sliding pay scale according to number of appeals made, refundable as credit if the book is allowed in. The Bone Factor, by which one asserts a comic as excellent and eventually profitable as Bone might not have not made it into comics shops had there been a restrictive policy in place no longer applies because 1) true commitment to an appeals process backed by years of its implementation and 2) the safety net of alternative distribution not just to the Direct Market but also through the Internet directly to people and through bookstore distributors to comics buyers of all types. Success in any of those arenas could help make the case for future participation through Diamond. In return for this culling, anyone allowed in the catalog stays in for two years before their eligibility to solicit is reviewed in order to give them a clear deadline and the best shot to try a variety of sales strategies and employ them fully.

4. Make An Industry Goal Of Reliable, Accurate, Instant Information On The Availability Of Comics
I can walk into a bookstore and get a reasonably accurate answer as to whether something is in print and whether or not I can order it. About half the time I try to ascertain this kind of information in a comics shop I'm greeted by obfuscation, ignorance and bullshit. I don't know what has to be done so that people can provide accurate information upon demand, but I figure this should be more of a possibility now than at any time in comics history. As emperor I would declare that we come to industry-wide agreement that this is a desirable goal: an expectation that someone can walk into any comic shop or any bookseller and find out about the availability of any comic. Then we work on the problem itself.

5. Convene A Season of Summits On the Forthcoming Creators Healthcare And Retirement Crisis
The comics community has done an admirable job taking care of many of its own in their greatest time of need, as old age approaches and financial catastrophe backs several fine creators and industry veterans into a corner. We need to do more; there's always more to do.

My main worry, however, is that we are seeing the 10 percent of the iceberg above the water line. I'm slightly terrified that after dealing with cartoonists here and there that worked in the industry when it was more of an established, middle-class industry, cartoonists that in many cases to careers went on to other more stable arts fields for some of their professional lives, that we are now due to begin encountering a tidal wave of creators at need that became comics professionals when the industry became more of a small arts, lower-class, bohemian endeavor.

I have no idea what this will entail or if anything can be done, but I want attention paid to it. To that end, I would call on a series of one-hour, closed-door meeting of comics' best and brightest at various comics shows, say: New York Comic-Con to WonderCon to Heroes Con to Wizard World: Chicago to San Diego Con to APE. These would be sponsored meetings and attended by invited press.

My suspicion is that there is more than enough money and innovative thinking out there to provide a safety net for many of these issues if we acknowledge its existence and work in that direction. A generation of comics creators avoids the lower reaches of poverty and despair; the comics industry guarantees to the next generation of talent that comics isn't an overall loser's game and ducks the negative publicity of every single movie and cross-media event being attached to a lost generation of artists in need. Plus it's the right damn thing to do.

6. Institute One-Day Early Shipping
Brian Hibbs is right; it's time. Every Direct Market retailer should receive their books on the same day. Classic street dates don't work because they assume an ability to store and keep books that many retail establishments simply don't have. However, a nationwide policy by which people could get their books a full day early would bring about 80 percent of the benefits for few of the struggles. I call on a full year of such a practice, for possible permanent implementation.

So how do you enforce it? How do you make sure people don't sell their comics early? You don't. You can't. There are reasons to believe you may not have to. Comic shops currently compete with no overriding, enforced policy as to discounting without everyone falling into a single, lock-stepped behavior. In addition, it seems as if a few sub-markets with day-early shipping have kept themselves from exploiting that advantage through early release. And frankly, that's why you have a trial year. If the Direct Market isn't grown up enough in terms of retailer conduct and customer behavior and if the advantages aren't significant enough to shops to encourage the vast bulk of them to comply, they're not worth putting in in the long run.

7. Make An Industry Goal Out Of Being Able To Distribute A Book On A Specific Date
imageWhile it's impossible to ship to comics shops and expect them to hold books until specific dates, we need to afford the publishers greater control over getting a specific release date if certain delivery deadlines are met. While this is no guarantee that Marvel won't continue to ship 11 of 12 X-Men titles on the second weekend of a month, flooding a readership on one Wednesday and then starving them on subsequent Wednesdays, it puts the mechanism in place by which they can, as the serial market continues to refine itself, pursue controlled and rational title releases as a goal. It also allows those publishers that meet their deadlines to plan better publicity tied into specific release dates. Comics still publishes like it's desperately starved for capital and must rush everything out the door immediately. That's not as true anymore. There are long-term benefits to a more rational release pattern over a month, and the industry should agree on a push in that direction.

8. Add A Festival Award to the Ignatzes
imageThe Small Press Expo missed out on their chance to become America's real comics festival back in the early part of this decade when certain decisions were made to stress democratic exhibition and the sales aspect of comics over other approaches. This is fine. I like SPX, its success speaks for itself, and I understand why they emphasize the things they want to emphasize. However, one of the great regrets I have is that they didn't add a festival award to their Ignatzes. They could still do this. As emperor, I would make it so.

By adding an Ignatz for Cartoonist of the Year, SPX could emulate some of the most enjoyable aspects of Angouleme's Grand Prix. A Cartoonist of the Year winner could be a focus for some of the programming, a vehicle for the show's PR, and a way to organize a more memorable festival, as in "that was the Frank Miller year" or "I'm definitely attending the Pekar SPX." The grand prize winner would chair the jury for the Ignatzes, create two different programs for the show and participate in a third spotlight themselves. In return they'd enjoy the honor of receiving one of comics' few big-time honors and the fun of having a whole weekend of getting their butts kissed.

9. Institute A Small-Town Retailers Incentives Program
I feel that saturation of Direct Market retail is still an issue, an issue that's heightened as gas prices continue to go up and the general economy coarsens. Anecdotal evidence suggests that people may no longer be driving 50 minutes once a week to purchase comics the way they had eight years ago. They shouldn't have to. I would call for a small-town retailers program that encouraged the creation of comics shops or a program for existing, related retailers to add comic shops. Towns of less than 100,000 without a comics shop within 20 minutes drive of town center would qualify.

One thing about such a program is that it may suggest new possibilities for selling comics in all sorts of places. There needs to be a way to sell comics successfully that doesn't involve setting up a dedicated shop in a large city with a life-altering, massive investment in time and man hours or taking a prose book superstore and devoting five racks of space to the art form, only three of which move product with regularity. Targeting the smaller towns should lead to the creation of alternatives, while at the same time building a readership that was once a huge part of the overall comics landscape.

10. Institute A Gender/Race Rooney Rule At The Bigger Comics Companies
I know this would be controversial, and maybe not even desirable. Still, I can't help but think of the National Football League's Rooney Rule when I think of the lack of female creators and creators of color and the even bigger absence of such individuals in industry positions.

What this would mean is that for every job and for every freelance gig that opens at a participating company, a woman or a cartoonist of color would get to pitch or interview for that gig. This doesn't mean they're hired, or doesn't mean that you can't have as many folks as you want of whatever gender or racial background pitch or interview if you want. What it does is guarantees that those people that haven't done well in the comics industry are for the length of the program getting in front of more people with power in the comics industry. They have an opportunity for the duration of the program to make an impression and gain experience at making presentations to comics industry editors and publishers. In return, the industry gets a more frequent look at a group of creators and potential industry members that it has -- for whatever reason -- not done a very good job of exploiting to maximum effect. If an industry like professional football can matter-of-factly look at its history of hiring and giving assignments and realize that they're not making the best use of all the talents out there for whatever reason, the comics industry should be able to do the same on a volunteer basis.

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11. Find A Downloadables Strategy That Includes Multiple Entry Points
I know that there are structural reasons why every comic out there isn't available in some sort of electronic form, and I know that within six weeks of these impediments being removed you're going to hear about people employing their readers to download comics on new comics day the way that many fans now make a stop in a brick and mortar store. As soon as that happens, it will be like it always existed.

What I as Emperor am going to suggest is that due to the long-term relationship between comics industry publishers and its devoted specialty shops that any program to offer downloadable comics look at ways these can be offered to stores to offer on their sites. In other words, the day that print comics join their existing on-line brethren in official, sanctioned digital formats designed to capture the biggest audience possible with the full desire of their publisher and creators that they do so, I want the option to be able to aim the appropriate device at Amazon.com or the Comic Relief web site or Fantagraphics.com to get my issue of Eightball to take on the plane. That's all. I think this needs an imperial decree because I don't think the publishers or that group of retailers is moving in that direction, favoring publisher-only initiatives or waiting for partnership with one of the big programs.

12. Encourage Non-Profit Niche Publishers
Comics needs small press publishing that acts more like a group of niche publishing houses and less like so many second-rate, wannabe entertainment empires or lesser duplicates of established companies. The same way that theater in Chicago is enriched by a Steppenwolf and Remains, comics in many cities could be enriched by regional publishing concerns that give opportunity and first books to newer, localized talent. Once you remove the need to make enough money to cover rent on Sunset or to become Hollywood power-players, couldn't someone use the non-returnables system of the Direct Market and Internet orders to create a company devoted to serial genre comics, or a company that specializes in westerns, or a company that keeps premier mini-comics in print for perpetuity? There have to be more ways to publish, and ways to encourage worthy small press efforts that add variety to the comics industry instead of noise.

13. Establish A Number Of "Safety Titles" At The Mainstream Comics Publishers
"When I was your age," the middle-aged man told his kid, "We didn't have comic books called 'The Final Solution: Annihilation Agenda' with god knows who's in it or what's going on. Our comic books had names like Thor -- which we knew featured an adventure of a guy named Thor."

imageI think comics over-complicates the accessibility issue into a transformation of formula and approach when only a few over directives need to be heeded. I like all-ages and done-in-one comics, but I don't think that's the only way to have an accessible medium. Truth be told, the narrative incomprehensibility of some comics is their greatest achievement, and when done well an appealing challenge to a new reader raised on book series, movie trilogies and television shows that need commentary tracks to point out all of their cohesive qualities.

However, you have to know where to start. With a wave of my mighty scepter, I would force Marvel, DC and any other applicable company to guarantee that their most popular characters would always have a monthly or bi-monthly title that had their name on it and nothing else, and that these comics could be enjoyed without buying anything not with that name on it to supplement their enjoyment, no matter how many members of their audience could be fooled into buying those other books.

This really doesn't do much anything for the industry, but it would make me feel better when one of my high school classmates writes in and says, "My kid really likes Batman; what comic book should I buy them?" and I could simply write back, "Buy the comic book called Batman" instead of taking them for a two-paragraph walk through the Encyclopedia Nerdica.

Heck, I don't really understand Hellboy and I work in comics.

14. Blow Up The Back-Issue Market, Start Again
We need to communicate to the world at large what everyone in comics already knows. Some comics are valuable and rare. Most comics? Not rare, not valuable in that way at all. That goes for books that we pretend are valuable by sticking them in a plastic sheath and putting a number on them -- their value only extends as far as our collective ability to believe in the process. It's a the Peter Pan, clap your hands system of value. Back issues can and should play the role of collectible, just as antiquarian books do. They should also play the role for comics readers that used books offer book readers: a massive resource, multiple-entry jumping-on point, and opportunity for massive consumption of an art form in a way that frequently turns like into love -- all for not very much money. People talk about getting kids to read comics. The comics that can do this are sitting right there -- they just have a $6.50 price tag on them for no compelling reason.

15. Convene An Open Dialogue On Media Rights
Stick around comics long enough and you'll hear dire stories about what some publishers are taking from creators in terms of media and licensing rights. I think as soon as possible we need to focus attention on media rights clauses throughout the industry so that creators know what's out there, what to expect, and what might be fair at least in the context of what other people offer. Because right now it's the Wild West -- not the nice Wild West with steam-punk technology and frequent guest appearances by Ulysses S. Grant, but the scary one they film in Australia where everything is covered in dirt and poop. Nobody knows what's going on. This is bad. We need to start talking about media rights and we need to start talking yesterday.

16. An End To Self-Loathing
imageComics is a perfectly respectable art form and a fine collection of industries, all of which need work to be more ethical and fair, all of which could grow a bit, but all of which already have several positives. We have fostered several multi-millionaires, many great artists, and we're a vital part of pop culture stretching from Lucy pulling the ball away on Charlie Brown to Batman punching the Joker in the face to Naruto, Sakura and Sasuke bickering over their orders to Tintin and Snowy getting to the bottom of things. Our biggest geeks are no more socially maladroit than other passions' biggest geeks, and our cool people are cooler and at least as articulate if not more so than any other medium's.

Under my benevolent rule, we stop with the jokes and the distancing and the eye-rolling and the humongous effort to make distinctions among ourselves and focus that energy somewhere, anywhere else. We dress responsibly and act professionally in public. We stop lying about sales figures in order to make ourselves look and feel better. We attend the awards shows where we're nominated and accept awards graciously. We give to our charities, not just pay lip service to them. We don't dither and redefine the argument when it comes to making ethical choices; we confront them and decide what to support and what not to support. We stop thinking of comics solely in terms of it being a place for our specific artistic and industry contribution. We criticize and receive criticism without reactionary defensiveness and accept others' ability to do the same with respect for their doing so rather than as an opportunity to press our agenda that much further. We recognize a public and the pleasure to serve them. All the self-hating behavior stops.

17. Put The Harveys To Rest
It's time to end the Harvey Awards. I love Harvey Kurtzman, and I have loved the Harveys in past iterations. It's largely irrelevant now. The Harveys used to provide a contrast to the Eisners in that the nominations came from voters rather than a jury. That process, however, has become just as arbitrary and capricious as any system out there. You can go year to year and in every case peer through the nomination list and see some editor or company functionary on the other side browbeating their staff and friends into supporting a nomination or ten. More importantly, the winners are no longer all that different than those in any other awards, few people show up to get them, and they're almost never memorable. Heck, I can't remember this year's winners, and it's only been one week since they were announced. The Harveys had their time; I think that time is over, and new ways should be found to honor the great Mr. Kurtzman. I'll suggest one below, but there can't be too many. An awards program, though, isn't working.

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18. Fix The Eisners
Everyone is way too mean to Jackie Estrada and I can't imagine I'm avoiding an e-mail with a headline like that. However, I think most of us that take the time to write about ways we'd change the Eisner Awards do so out of either affection or recognition that they're the 500-pound gorilla in the awards room, at least for North America. They've won. There are other awards that survive by doing something differently, but only the Eisners and the Reubens can suggest they're the Oscars of Comics without inducing massive snickering, and I think the Eisners has a better claim.

That doesn't mean I don't want to change them, because I do. If they're going to be the Big Kahuna of North American awards, I want them to be the best that they can be, and the awards program the finest possible. I want it so that in all those years that Jonathan Ross doesn't come out and kill for 15 minutes a half hour before the end no one wants to leave. I realize I'll never be totally happy with them unless I got to do everyone's voting, but I think there are ways to improve every aspect other than the final vote count.

Here's what I'd do. First, I'd change the categories and keep them the same from now on. No changing them year to year on the judge's desires. For comparison's sake, here are the categories that the French-language market used to celebrate the best in their industry back when they did categorical awards:

* PRIZE FOR BEST COMIC BOOK
* PRIZE AWARDED BY THE AUDIENCE
* PRIZE FOR SCENARIO
* PRIZE FOR ARTWORK
* PRIZE FOR FIRST COMIC BOOK
* PRIZE FOR A SERIES
* PRIZE FOR INHERITANCE
* YOUTH PRIZE, 9-12 YEARS
* YOUTH PRIZE, 7-8 YEARS
* FANZINE PRIZE
* HOPE PRIZE
* BEST PROMOTIONAL COMIC
* RENE GOSCINNY AWARD

Okay, that's from Wikipedia, and I have doubts as to its total accuracy, but you get the idea. It's 13 awards, only seven of which are really official. Here's last year's Eisners:

* BEST SHORT STORY
* BEST SINGLE ISSUE (OR ONE-SHOT)
* BEST CONTINUING SERIES
* BEST LIMITED SERIES
* BEST NEW SERIES
* BEST PUBLICATION FOR KIDS
* BEST PUBLICATION FOR TEENS
* BEST HUMOR PUBLICATION
* BEST ANTHOLOGY
* BEST DIGITAL COMIC
* BEST REALITY-BASED WORK
* BEST GRAPHIC ALBUM -- NEW
* BEST GRAPHIC ALBUM -- REPRINT
* BEST ARCHIVAL COLLECTION/PROJECT -- COMIC STRIPS
* BEST ARCHIVAL COLLECTION/PROJECT -- COMIC BOOKS
* BEST US EDITION OF INTERNATIONAL MATERIAL
* BEST US EDITION OF INTERNATIONAL MATERIAL -- JAPAN
* BEST WRITER
* BEST WRITER/ARTIST
* BEST WRITER/ARTIST -- HUMOR
* BEST PENCILLER/INKER OR PENCILLER/INKER TEAM
* BEST PAINTER OR MULTIMEDIA ARTIST (INTERIOR ART)
* BEST COVER ARTIST
* BEST COLORING
* BEST LETTERING
* SPECIAL RECOGNITION
* BEST COMICS-RELATED PERIODICAL/JOURNALISM
* BEST COMICS-RELATED BOOK
* BEST PUBLICATION DESIGN
* HALL OF FAME
* * JUDGES' CHOICES
* * NOMINEES

That's 31 categories, basically, not counting things like the Bill Finger awards and the Manning award and the Clampett Humanitarian Award, which are the equivalent to the Rene Goscinny prize I cited above. Seven versus 31!

So obviously, the first thing I'd do would be to cut the awards by a third. And you know what? You can quibble, but it's actually fairly easy. Here:

* BEST COVER
* BEST SHORT STORY
* BEST SINGLE ISSUE
* BEST CONTINUING SERIES
* BEST LIMITED SERIES
* BEST NEW SERIES
* BEST PUBLICATION FOR YOUNGER READERS
* BEST ANTHOLOGY
* BEST DIGITAL COMIC
* BEST GRAPHIC ALBUM -- NEW
* BEST GRAPHIC ALBUM -- REPRINT
* BEST ARCHIVAL COLLECTION/PROJECT
* BEST US EDITION OF INTERNATIONAL MATERIAL
* BEST WRITER
* BEST WRITER/ARTIST
* BEST ARTIST OR ART TEAM
* BEST COLORING
* BEST LETTERING
* BEST PUBLICATION DESIGN
* HALL OF FAME
* * JUDGES' CHOICES
* * NOMINEES

That's 21. Although I want to add one later, and I think someday they're going to want to add a strips award, I think the Eisners are better off making its only distinctions about format and process rather than format and process and selected areas of special content. Also, as much as I love sitting up front, the non-comics awards can go. I shouldn't have more Eisners than Bill Watterson -- well, shared in more Eisners. Still. Come on.

The second thing I'd do would be to streamline the awards show by 1) making sure the presenters did nothing more elaborate than tell jokes. Indulging Jane Wiedlin and her crushingly unfunny, late-arriving skit made me embarrassed for comics on a night I should be proud of comics. 2) Reduce Jackie Estrada's on-stage role to either the beginning or the end so we can give her her big, deserved round of applause. Other than that, it's not church. We don't need a welcome and a benediction. We'll find the cocktail party outside. Those kinds of duties should go to the host, who would simply walk out and introduce themselves, because people know what a host is. 3) Have an intern or a volunteer that prepared presenters by simply getting them backstage or next to the stage and ready to walk on from there at the exact moment they're needed. I would also have information about the winner on the card for the presenter to read that would help cover the time as the person accepting got to the stage. By the way, those cards should all have phonetic spellings.

What else? I love the idea of doing something for those that have passed, but having that be the "San Diego Con Family" rather than the "Comics Community" is odd and off-putting and should be changed or moved to another venue. There's no reason on God's earth that the shops that made the Spirit of Retailing semi-finals and finals need to be read each time. In fact, that presentation and the Finger Awards need the most specific attention to pick them up because you don't want people hating the award-winners, you want them celebrating the award-winners. A taped introduction for each one to explain what they are succinctly while the presenters get into place so that they can then launch into the nominees would be ideal.

Finally, I think the show needs a bigger send off than it currently has, so as Emperor of Comics I would make the last award the Harvey Kurtzman Award, as I just killed the Harveys, and give it to that person who personifies the best that comics has to offer -- it would go to super-awesome current cartoonists or perhaps people that just passed away that played a special role in comics. Last year, it could have gone to Rory Root. If the Harvey Kurtzman name is unavailable, I'm sure there's someone else out there deserving of the honor. Maybe take it full circle and name if after Jack Kirby?

I would also ask David Cross or Seth Rogen or Bill Hader to host, although I swear if you got people out of there in 2:05, Jim Shooter could host and no one would care.

19. Develop Specific Models For Editorial Cartooning
imageI'm going to call out Ted Rall here. I'm happy that Ted's the current president of the Association of American Editorial Cartoonists. Ted Rall knows how to draw attention to issues, he's brought in a lot of new blood and he's fun to cover. However, I'm extremely disappointed that his first actions as President were speaking in generalities in an editorial and an interview, just louder and more aggressively. Everyone knows the kind of thing I'm talking about, because you've heard the same thing for years: local cartooning is the future, papers are shooting themselves in the foot by not investing in cartoonists, cartoonists are the most popular feature in the paper, cartoonists are unique to newspapers, blah, blah, blah.

It's one thing to speak in vague terms when you're making a long, dumb post about solving the comics industries' various problems from a giant, diamond throne. But Ted, you had a whole year to prepare to take the reins of this organization. No one needs to hear the same broad assertions again. We need to hear about specific examples of newspapers benefiting by adding cartoonists or featuring them differently. We want to hear detailed ideas about how to use cartoonists on-line and in the paper and why and who's done this well and to what effect. We need exact hit counts for cartoonists that go local, or the actual number of papers bought when papers added a cartoonist or cartoon feature, or at the very least information from customer satisfaction surveys. If there aren't some very focused initiatives and ideas that find purchase soon, people are going to continue to be fired -- not the general idea of people, but real people. Maybe start by giving us examples of a dozen models that work, and why and exactly how well. I'll certainly provide you a platform here if you bring the goods.

20. Tie The Future Of The Newspaper Comic Strip On-Line Into Local Advertising
Traditional newspaper comic strips have yet to figure out their exact role in a world where newspaper publishing is split between print and the Internet and the permeability of the latter reduces the traditional power of the individual strip. The eye-exclusivity of certain comics that used to drive people to certain papers over other papers simply doesn't translate to on-line publication; people can bounce from paper to syndicate site to creator's site and never find themselves drawn into the newspaper in which those comics appear, let alone feeling the desire to purchase it.

My thought on this would be to start over and redefine the role that strips would play in the on-line world. This time, though, tie the potential solution not into the vagueness of finding the most profitable purchase, but link comics directly into the problem of lost local newspaper advertising.

One problem with syndicate solutions for comics on-line is that they're untethered. Strapping them into local advertising would give a shape to comics' presence on-line, a limitation that would define what it can do and what it can't, a restriction that would force the folks in charge to sit down and figure out how they're employed in that arena in a way that they constantly put off now, inadvertently making policy as they go. Comics is a strength without a mission; saving local advertising is mission in need of some strength. We may not be ready to discuss those two elements in terms of marriage, but let's have them date for a while and see if anyone comes up with something. We are too early in the development of on-line media not to look at all the models out there, to devote ourselves to ways of publishing because they provide the path of least resistance. Would newspaper comics have a more significant place on-line if they brought back a sponsorship-shell for strips that newspapers could tie to a local advertiser? I think it's worth thinking about.

21. Allow Comics People To Punch Book People In the Face If They Act Like They Know Better
I mean figuratively, not literally. Still, if I have to hear one more book industry functionary with 11 months of promoting a single cartoonist under their belts lecture me in patronizing fashion about how comics works and what's good in or about comics, I think I may crash a full-sized model of Tintin's rocketship into the big room of the next BEA.

imageLet me make one thing clear. A lot of the changes in distribution and sales listed here have to do with the Direct Market because that's the avenue I think lends itself to such improvement. That doesn't mean I value that market more than another, or that I'm limited in my thinking as to where the emphasis of comics should be placed. I believe in all the markets. One reason I don't spend more times making imperial decrees for bookstore publishing is that at this moment in time, a great deal of what book publishing has done with comics in this decade, it's sort of been exemplary. There's been a significant place made for a lot of great artists, many existing comics publishers have been invited on board through distribution agreements rather than raided or copied or ignored, an entire expression of comics has been fostered with a whole new group of fans reading it, and a lot of wonderful books have come out, in part because of the ability of large book publishers to make these things happen.

I hope for the same relationship when the honeymoon of being a hot category ends. As emperor I would like to guarantee this by making book people pay a bit more attention to comics people through phase two of this making of a category. Many book publishers are signing a lot of books that simply don't have a significant chance to be very good, are again trying to create from whole cloth instead of building on existing talent, are in some ways favoring the exploitation of brand names that tend to make a splash and then go away when the talent working on them isn't there, and are saddling new comics endeavors with the expectations of an infrastructure and/or cash advance on which very few books of any kind could make good. The same thing happened with a lot more speed in the late '80s and early '90s, and don't fool yourself that it can't happen again.

Book publishing is a sick business in a lot of classic ways. There are some odd values on display, such as the search for authors that are physically attractive in addition to -- or perhaps as a semi-substitute for -- being talented creators. One of the two major bookseller chains could go under. Shelf space isn't a merit contest as much it is a combination of merit and muscle. Prose doesn't have a cohesive digital media strategy either, and like comics the companies in book publishing tend to judge the success or failure of endeavors according to their ability to support an expensive infrastructure rather than how the creators benefit. Eddie Campbell claims with some clear justification that there's an effort to push literary cartoonists towards kids books, and if you were to line up all the significant advances given out across the board I bet you would see a lot of brand-new cartoonists and stunt books on that list along with cartoonists like Marjane Satrapi and Dan Clowes. There are dozens of people that have never done comics before, or who have done one comic, with contracts that suit them while the prolific, highly talented Campbell doesn't have one that suits him. So in addition to my rash ruling to allow comics people to check against the excesses of the book industry's participation through physical violence, I would also use my Imperial soft power to caution comics people to be realistic and engaged when dealing with this wonderful yet still-new market. Things are hardly settled.

22. Make The Xeric About Self-Publishing Again
imageThe Xeric Award was created in a time when self-publishing was a bigger deal in the industry than it is right now. The reality of self-publishing varies from individual to individual, but the idea of self-publishing is important because it gives us a real standard by which to judge the effectiveness of publishers and the ethics behind how much money they keep versus how much goes to the creators. It's a very simple idea. Companies should be able to do something better than you could do it yourself for you to give up money to have them do so. It's a powerful idea, I think, and creators versed in all levels of the industry are going to be some of our best, most knowledgeable pros. I would therefore bar any Xeric winners from employing an outside agent to sell, design, promote or distribute their work. I would also ask that the Foundation consider reducing its awards by 1/4 and funnel that money into various mechanisms to sustain the possibility of self-publishing for say, past winners -- additional grants to devoted creators on a need basis, the ability to put together a sales presence in Diamond, money for legal set-ups, and so on.

23. Make A Real Chicago Comics Convention
I think the Wizard conventions are in trouble generally, and I think the specific conception of the Wizard show -- a place where it's still basically 1992 and mainstream comics reign supreme and we're all going to go drink beers and applaud like hell when they make a joke about Peter Parker banging the Black Cat -- is in even greater trouble. There was a brief time when the Chicago iteration of Wizard World seemed ready to assume a strong second place to San Diego for the next two decades and drive Wizard right into Manhattan and the prize of a New York convention. Looking back on that historical moment it seems like it was a bunch of factors coming to bear that couldn't be sustained either individually or as a group: a resurgent mainstream market led this time by a bunch of charismatic writers peaking in popularity just about all at once, the emergence of a certain kind of Internet-savvy fan that wanted to use the show to consummate on-line relationships at an exact time in their lives that raging up and down a hotel bar and its environs seemed like an awesome thing to do, and an economy that afforded for a lot of high-end collectibles buying. All of those things are fading now, and so is Wizard World Chicago.

Chicago is still a great comics town and despite losing a lot of business to place like Las Vegas and San Diego, a great place to have a convention. In fact, during my last visit, how to get more convention business to the city was a huge subject of discussion among my more civic-minded and city-employed friends. What I would recommend is that someone look to having a real convention in Chicago city limits (as opposed to out at the airport), using Chicago's desire for more such business as a starting point. Walking from the Palmer House to McCormick Place for a day of comics talk and buying would be just as enjoyable as hiking from the Westin Horton Plaza to the SDCC, and I think a great, inclusive show for the people between the coasts could be an overall benefit for the industry.

24. Finish Cromartie High School!
imageThis is really the only important item on this list.

We need to be able to read the last few volumes of Eiji Nonaka's Cromartie High School. I do, anyway. And for another few paragraphs, I'm the emperor. Cromartie is one of the great, unexpected gifts to comics in this decade and in danger of never finishing its English translation because of ADV's continuing, long periods of vigorous disinterest in manga publishing. I'd like ADV fellow traveler Yotsuba&! to find an assured safe haven, too, but I suspect that book has a second life somewhere from beginning to end if ADV bails out for good. I'm not sure Cromartie does. Plus we're so close.

A friend of mine and I were talking about the series the other day, and he complained that he didn't find the stretch in the later books with the Underground Ape Kingdom sequence to be as funny as the rest of it. When your complaints about a title involve the relative quality of an Underground Ape Kingdom sequence, I think it's safe to say we're talking about a national treasure. An international treasure. Free Cromartie.
 
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