Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

February 4, 2011

A Not-Brief Reaction To A Video That’s Already Been Taken Down

imageI failed to respond to the Eric Powell diversity-in-the-comics-marketplace video while it was still up. I couldn't collect my thoughts in a compelling and forthright fashion. Scott McCloud's earnest response to the video shamed me into pledging to myself that I'd write something on the matter, or at least I'd pen something connected to the renewed, community-wide interest in marketplace politics and creative self-direction that video -- and its departure -- may or may not represent. This is that something. I also figured since Powell took the video down I'd better get my piece up before the week ended.

I hope to express the following points as simply as possible. My general desire is that no matter what video goes up or comes down, which argument proves stupid and which doesn't, who's convinced and who's confused, that an article like this one is a vote that the general debate about what's best for the various comics marketplaces continues wherever it can gain a foothold.

Here are ten reactions that came to mind upon watching that video and musing on the issue of marketplace diversity.

1. I was and remain happy for the sentiment of the video, and that it was done in the first place. Creators agitating and fighting for things they believe in, creative people hoping to shape the markets through which they release work, people talking and debating and getting pissed at one another -- these things are a huge positive for any arts industry. Part of me would love to see 50 such videos, if only as a sign that there are a significant number of creators out there engaged with the future of the medium in which they work.

image2. I believe that in broad terms -- and that was certainly a video that was working in broad terms -- the video was right. Comics' primary marketplace, the Direct Market of comics and hobby shops, has through the years developed -- from a pretty significant starting point -- an odd, near-religious devotion to what is largely a singular school of expression within a single genre and, further, to a handful of characters that represent that genre's most fertile creative period. This fact shapes careers. This fact shapes the industry. There has also been some bad behavior in support of this bizarre fealty and the interests created by it. I don't see how these things are all that arguable.

3. Why the video hit with people, and why it hit so oddly, might require a book's worth of analysis. I think the vocational context is key. First, as others have pointed out, we're on the cusp of moving into a major era of on-line publishing for comics. I imagine the uncertainty of this shift makes any creator-focus agitation rattle more loudly than it would at other times. Second, lest we forget, we're in what may be (or may be past) the final months of a resurgent comics era that brought with it considerable hope: more and better comics content than ever; revitalization of the Big Two mainstream companies, particularly Marvel; healthy artcomix publishers; translated manga hitting hugely and with a mostly brand-new group of fans; a full generation of webcomics makers; success for publishers on bookstore bookshelves; the first sustained period of book publishers becoming interested in comics and the contracts that many people won from such companies as a result; a significant roar of interest in comics properties from the film industry. About a year and a half ago, I could see people all around comics start to freak out a little bit as they realized, in one way or another, that this magnificent surge might not include them in the way they might have hoped.

So we're talking about an industry with a lot of people caught between a disappointing age and an uncertain one. Many of these people are either in the generation approaching retirement age or the one right behind it in the midst of raising children and perhaps trying to buy a home. On top of all that, almost no one in that group has had the benefit that past generations of comics makers may have enjoyed working for a chunk of years in a more regimented, lower-middle-class to middle-class profession. Even scoring a syndicated newspaper strip is no longer the creative tenure and retirement guarantee it once was. As a result, I think a lot of folks in the comics community are stressed out, tired, worried as hell and loitering at the outer edges of despair. Given this context, reactions to the video were remarkably subdued.

4. The presentation of the video confused a bunch of people. I don't mean so much the extended, slightly distasteful sex gag. (If you haven't seen it, the video depicts an off-screen rogering as a metaphor for a capitulation to a bigger market player.) I get that people might react poorly to something like that, sure. In most cases, though, lingering on the video's sense of humor to the detriment of the issues presented suggests less moral outrage and more of that thing where we've all become junior-league media critics analyzing form as opposed to an audience engaging with content. It's not as if had Powell made an award-winning film about the same subject matter, a film that was as amenable to the audiences plopping into seats for Machete as it was to the audiences that saw Secretariat, that the core of his arguments would have been altered. It seems to me like conflating the issues presented with the way they were presented constituted a lost opportunity.

imageI found more interesting the other stuff that confused people, most of which I think came from the overlapping perspectives that defines comics today. For instance, about a half-dozen of my alt-comics making friends wrote to me outright baffled that the primary author of this video was the creator of The Goon, which they consider a mainstream book in every significant way. At the same time, I imagine that Powell genuinely feels there's distance between what he does and what the core of mainstream comics does, even if that's not apparent to folks at the outer edges of the art form. I also received e-mail from people that said they were confused by anyone complaining about 2000 devoted serial comics readers; one of those perplexed by this even offered to trade financial portfolios with Mr. Powell if he was that dissatisfied. In their responses on-line, Kurt Busiek and Scott McCloud suggested a generational division to the video and how people responded: that if you were old enough to remember a generation or two or three ago in the realm of comics making, you might have a very different perspective on how diverse the market is than if you only knew the post-2000 market as a professional. Writer James Vance thought the video's arguments were the same arguments people have been having for 30 years. And so on.

I have little desire to hash out who's right or who wrong here. It's more that I think it's important to keep in mind the panoply of perspectives involved whenever someone levels criticism at an entire industry and art form from their very specific place within it. The Powell video failed because it hoped for a rallying effect from its agitation. There's really not enough common ground for that to be the natural expectation. Instead the agitating just got people agitated.

5. We have a difficult time talking about things in comics. This is weird in that any reasonably large Twitter feed will tell you that people in comics talk all the damn time. So it's not lack of practice, obviously. A lot of what was specifically distressing about the reaction to the video was how many old, corny, early Internet argument constructions still hold sway, ways of arguing that that should have been dragged into the light and staked a long time ago. That people shouldn't be allowed to complain unless they solve the problem they're complaining about is a ludicrous notion given two seconds thought. That a huge subset of superhero comics fans chose to regard this video as they've processed every argument since 1974 with a critical component -- as some sort of full-bore assault on themselves and their tastes -- is just sort of pathetic at this point. That comics people tend to cede to corporations some "right" to do whatever the hell they want as long as they don't get put in jail, without criticism, because that's the obligation these companies have to their bottom line and/or stockholders remains stunning to me. It's alarming partly because it's a repugnant view, or at least I feel that way, but also because the history of comics is full of examples of companies and businesses acting humanely rather than inhumanely, making a choice of one thing over another on the basis of something other than ruthless self-interest. After 15 years working in comics and 14-and-a-half months on the comics Internet, I never need to see the word "hypocrite" again. Ditto the idea that anyone that criticizes anything does so from a cross-armed position of moral superiority and it's that assumed smugness, not the issue itself, which needs to be brought down.

We have a lot of hang-ups, the comics community, and it will be much easier to move forward if we're honest about when those come into play. We might at least try to find new ways of saying these things, so that we know something is being said instead of clichés being brandished. This wasn't our finest discussion.

7. I hope that people who saw the Powell tape take away a few things. One is its central message that the Direct Market has a diversity problem. That's a fine line of inquiry, and an argument that seems obviously true to me if you limit your perspective to the core activity (serial comics buying) in the core market (DM stores). (I don't condone limiting one's perspective, but key markets are important, too, so as far as a criticism goes I'm happy to roll with it.) As we just discussed, I hope that people use the tape's arrival, apparent shortcomings and quick departure as a collective warning sign the community may lack the ability and tools to be rigorously self-critical. I also hope that people are unafraid to build on the tape's assertion that the industry can be held accountable for the shape and direction of the industry, and the real-world impact this has on people's lives.

History tells us that the big comics companies have acted as bad industry partners since their inception. We're just now coming out of a period where a series of furtive, overlapping agreements between certain industry players and Diamond threw up structural barriers that kept smaller publishers from opportunities they might have used to make a bigger plash in comics' primary market, a web of arrangements that helped seal into amber a status quo that placed greater value on short-term profits from fees and privileged hierarchies and goosing certain titles than onto long-term profit from partnership and information-sharing and allowing for title development. Comics blew some major opportunities there. There's also a strong argument to be made -- it used to be made a lot more than it is now -- that the big publishers frequently over-publish, and that this gums up the works in a way that keeps potential newer items that might sell well off the shelves and out of mind. Both Marvel and DC are currently in legal battles with the families of their greatest creators, something that all by itself indicates they may not have worn white in their recent marriages to world-beating mega-corporations. Such criticisms stand in addition to charges of routine bad behavior such as the epidemic of late books, descriptions in solicitations not matching what's published, and title stacking within months to deleterious effect. And both of those groups of accusations stand apart from the notion that the bigger the player, the more they should do to facilitate the health of the system -- great power and great responsibility, if you will.

8. Powell's video wasn't designed to provide solutions. I'm suspicious as to whether any easy solutions can be had. Powell's video felt anachronistic to a few people who wrote CR. I think this was because it didn't attempt to be specific to this time and place. But my suspicion is that its untethered and broader-than-broad feel was also due in large part to folks not having any idea what the hell is going on right now, what's taking place on a nuts-and-bolts business level. The comics market is less of a market than ever before, and becoming a smaller market, doubly so in the sense of it, with every day that passes. We may be far past the stage of raising this number, obliterating this rule, and changing this standard, and being able to expect a concrete result.

9. With that in mind, a next step I'd like to see for industry activism is a maturity whereby there are fewer general attacks on the unsatisfying status quo and more in the way of specific initiatives designed to bring about both specific effects and, with them, a general atmosphere of innovation and self-actualization. Less talk about fixing everything; more action towards fixing one thing. Give up trying to convince people something's wrong and instead start a dozen different guerilla campaigns to accomplish certain ends without feeling as if permission must be granted to do so. The great thing about comics -- and maybe an even greater thing about comics right this moment -- is that we're largely a made-up industry. The two most significant arts movements in the last half-century within comics can trace their secret origins to college humor magazines and superhero fanzines. You can't find the equivalent in another medium. Until recently, the vast majority of the people in comics got to where they are by being good at something in comics. The threshold for initial participation is as low as it gets. People just start doing things; if it's awesome the industry will kind of reassemble itself around this new and awesome element. You don't have to make a video pointing out the dragon and declaring your intention to tilt against it. You just have to put down your visor and go.

10. Here then are 10 off-the-cuff suggestions for potential strategies and initiatives and positions of advocacy and opportunities for people to adopt and/or begin pursuing. If not instructive, or if in fact deeply idiotic in and of themselves, they will hopefully get folks thinking along the same lines and coming up with a few of their own. Here are some things I'd like to see.
* an industry-wide news boycott on all characterizations of sales that don't come with verifiable sales figures. Better sales figures are crucial for rational decision-making about what kinds of comics are worth carrying over other kinds, and it's ludicrous that we only have these fishy estimates to go on, no matter how dead-on they might be in certain cases.

* a price guide created by a party not interested in profiting from the information in its price guide. This price guide would ideally start from the notion that many if not most comics have very little value in a collectibles sense, but that there are other collectible comics works that people desire that are rare that can't fit into a mylar snuggie. This would hopefully facilitate a massive reader's resource in cheap back-issues and see greater value placed on non-mainstream comics of a certain type.

* no more Tuesday releases until 2014. Giving DM retailers the opportunity to find traction with their weekly shipments and better sell all the books is more important right now than the publishers goosing the system to boost sales on any individual comic. The speed with which this popped up as a sales strategy is terrifying. It is also the kind of strategy that benefits market share leaders at the expense of smaller publishers without the juice to do this.

* any efforts and resources directed towards enforcing or policing the street-date element of Diamond's one-day-early shipping be re-directed into an industry-wide effort for guaranteed accurate information about available comics work. I think policing street dates is wasted money. If the retailers don't see the value in keeping their street-date promises, that's a far bigger problem than anything enforcing a sales ban will be able to curtail. Instead, invest in a system by which any potential customer can walk into any store and receive accurate information about any comic book that's available for sale.

* that some talented numbers-cruncher out there provide a baseline number for profitability in comics and trades. This is admittedly difficult, but I don't think it's impossible. Having a Mendoza Line for comics sales would allow for a rough measure of what comics were actually making money and what weren't. It would help prevent overcrowding shelves, force publishers to overtly and publicly commit to low-selling books rather than leave it up to some massive guessing game, and put the spotlight on comics series with the health to make it long-term.

* that some talented publisher or creator invested in the cause of greater diversity in the Direct Market make the economic case for doing so. A strategy of, "You should carry all of these books over here, and if you don't, you're a jerkhole" may be entertaining to make, but this week shows that channeling your inner Marilyn Bethke is not always as forcefully appealing as some of us might think. Again, if such a case can't be made, we should know that, too.

* a call for a more vigorous and open discussion -- if only in a hidden chat room somewhere where all participants sign an agreement not to release any information not cleared for release, so be it -- of the baseline expectations that a creator should bring to their digital set-up moving into the digital era. If the DM is perhaps closed to certain kinds of expression after years of ossification and major industry players shaping a market to please them, then all of the other markets would seem to me that much more important, including the one nearest to its date of birth. The Wild West approach to development of resources on-line for comics' creative community has led to some creative solutions and approaches. Yet there are also far too many things like confusingly abandoned sites, conflation of personal and professional uses of social-media accounts, and summary dismissal of entire tool sets that might be of tremendous benefit. This is something a guild might do if we had one, or agents would almost certainly do if we had them in the same sense that other fields have them. Every actor I know is expected to have X, Y, and Z in terms of on-line footprints. Why not comics people? I'd love to see a few folks with genuine success at employing on-line tools make the case for what resources or out there for their fellow professionals, and I would love to see this treated seriously by the creative community.

* once that basic set of expectations and requirements is known to most creators, there should be additional work to establish a fund for creators to borrow money to get up to that speed, a Xeric fund for on-line publishing and profile costs but on a borrow rather than grant basis. I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I'd sure prefer the next multi-millionaire who looks longingly in comics direction set up this kind of business as opposed to another film-hopeful publishing company or a vanity store.

* we need to know about a model for smaller-account Direct Market retail that works. Having a few basic models for diverse, arts-comics interested stores was a huge boon for stores that have since roughly duplicated one of those models. A model that involved something other than a lifetime's worth of inventory and audience building might be an equal boon in terms of providing greater coverage and more opportunities for more people to enter that business. If there is no successful comics shop in a town of less than 50,000 with anything to teach other potential stores of the same size, or if there is no comics shop in a developed market successful enough to operate as a niche store among more general ones, we should maybe know that, too.

* finally, I call for all future discussion of diversity and the state of creator-owned material stress the quality of material, not their creator-owned status, and that whenever they can encompass all markets for comics rather than simply the direct market one. My hunch is that whether or not something is creator-owned may matter to everyone except the audience that such comics hope to reach.
Are all these good ideas? Probably not. But thinking about the future in terms of a marketplace of ideas that may or may not be brought to fruition seems to me an always-useful idea, and perhaps there's something in there for someone.

imageI love all the comics. I really do. I can't imagine a life interacting with the comics art form that didn't show me the Streets of Cleveland, the ruins at Angkor and the hotel bars of Pyongyang with the same skill and insight and visual power as it's walked me around the Blue Area of the Moon, the Batcave and the ruins beneath Ylum. So any video that seems to be suggesting the value of all kinds of comics expressions has me mostly on its side no matter how it grades out as a piece of convincing agitprop. The more people that are making more different kinds of comics with more opportunities to succeed at doing so, the better off we are as fans, a professional community and as a culture.

We should also recognize that the vast majority of folks out there will have a more limited interaction with comics than you and I do, if they have one at all. And that's okay. We need to move past the point where consumer power in comics is split between a small group of people that buy only one kind of comic and an even smaller group that buys and reads them all. That'd be like splitting our culinary future between the hands of processed food devotees and the most demented, out-there foodies. We need as many people as we can get. As the best art form going, we deserve a place in more people's arts and entertainment experience. We need more superhero fans andthose people that read everything and people that trade minis and more customers that buy one or two funnybooks a year and people that are only interested in strip collections and people that only follow the underground folks when they do something and more people that read comics at the library. That's what diversification brings, not just more of one stamp-of-approval reader. Comics should be bigger than our imagination on its behalf, and better than our collective reaction to how it's personally neglected us. If a comedic video with an extended off-camera anal sex scene can provide the initial jolt of recognition that makes us question what things are desirable and how these things might come to be, good for that video.

There's a lot of hard work ahead. The best parts of the comics world of tomorrow will belong to those that pick a fight with something that bothers them today: a video if that's your choice of weapons, hard work and money invested if that's the way you operate. Time to get to it.
posted 8:00 am PST | Permalink

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