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Gutter Talk: Hiatus Essay
posted April 13, 1998

April 13, 1998 -- As announced in last edition's "Gutter Talk," this rather shortened version of "TCJ On-Line" will be the last for a while. This little on-line feature will go on hiatus and be re-launched this summer, probably the first weekend in July. There are several reasons for this, explained at length in that essay, but the main ones are a desire to re-tool the concepts that go into the magazine -- including an overhaul of the review column -- and an inability time-wise to both complete the permanent site and periodically update this section. Everything else you've come to expect/detest/ignore about the site, including the suddenly-hopping message board, will be up until the "TCJ On-Line" re-launch; in fact, finishing the permanent site means there will be more of this site to explore than ever in coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, the attention of Greg and myself will turn even more to the print magazine. Not that it ever went away, mind you; one of the interesting things about doing "TCJ On-Line" is that we've been doing it only in our spare time -- for Greg, that meant writing an essay every two weeks about a news story that he's been working on; for me, that meant coordinating everything else, including writing this column and the vast, vast majority of YSI/WRI; for Jordan, that meant stopping work on his master's studies for the vital task of coding reviews for Grant Morrison comic books. But we'll take that spare time, even. Comics needs more attention than ever these days, and it's a nice coincidence that we'll at least be less burnt out from writing reviews at home to focus on the industry and art form during an interesting period.

Things aren't well industry-wise. I'm not sure if Heidi MacDonald's recently-posted rumor that Penthouse Comix is going to cease publication is true or not, but even without such news it's been a bad month to be a mid-major publisher. Acclaim is being reduced to either nothing or next-to-nothing, depending on the time of day and who's speaking. Awesome, a scant couple of months after appearing on the brink of solidifying a position as a creator-friendly, Hollywood accessible mainstream comics company, has cut back considerably on their publication plans. And the Image "non-line," running through Jim Valentino's studio, has been discontinued with only a few of the best-sellers moving on to full Image status (along the lines of Matt Wagner's Mage).

There are ugly signs at Marvel and DC as well. The shelving of Marvel's Hulk movie when Universal balked at a $100 million price tag doesn't really speak kindly to the mid-'90s Marvel assumption that their characters were underexploited icons with Disney-level saturation potential. Whether or not they can launch successful movie properties isn't the question so much as whether they easily or readily lend themselves to movies — I would say they don't, and more to the point, they're not concepts that kids are dying to see any more than a movie based on Wild, Wild West, The A-Team, or any Kirby-echo superhero dreamed up by an Image studio hotshot. And that's the five or six big movies possible from their "stable," As for the rest of it, well, where's that Blade movie?

For DC, the problems is comics. As much as they continue to produce all sorts of fan-admirable books and pleasurable teenage- and adult-ready offshoots, their bottom-line sales -- as indicated by the Diamond numbers and even assuming the most generous levels of other sales -- just aren't good. From what I've read, more people watch the Channel Five News in Seattle than read Superman. There are all sorts of ways to spin this, and DC usually does in a vigorous, cagey way; they may do so in response to my assertions here. In addition, a lot of what they say, particularly about bottom-line profits and licensing, is probably true. But my point isn't to indict any of these companies but to indicate a general trend of diminishing returns.

Comics suffers from a continued depression, despite any number of people doing any number of things that are "right." Acclaim is backed by a large entertainment company, hired tons of top-flight talent for their re-launch, and have cross-entertainment possibilities out the wahoo. Awesome had similar connections, initially solid financing and was able to attract many other well-respected, still up-and-coming creators along with the still-admired Alan Moore. Marvel may be the publishing success story of the last 30 years, continues to be the top by-title publisher in its field, and still somehow managed to run up a debt equaling that of a small country in economic disarray. DC has the biggest media company in the world behind it, and has recently only regularly sold one title to the comics specialty market at the six-figures level. And so on, and so on...

How does this effect you? Not as much as you'd probably think from reading things on the Internet (remember, it's an industry with a self-conception based in large part on fandom, and thus the people in the industry are just like you with a company "in") and chatting to people at conventions. But as an alternative or arts-first comic reader, you should probably care about these things at the level they've now reached. My personal history of alternative comics notes that a lot of the best comics and companies had their chance for success because the exploitive relationship between the big companies and the comics retailer created a window of opportunity where marginal (and in comics, "marginal" means a much wider array of artistic engagement than any other media) projects could be pursued without gigantic capital reserves. For whatever reasons, mythical "mainstream" markets like book and record stores are either difficult to access, undesirable to commit to, and maybe even less profitable given the best of all worlds than the present system as conceived. So while as readers I don't think it's necessary to give a shit if some editor somewhere gets canned, or if the fired person was a sweet guy to everyone at cons, the art form simply isn't going to be served by a completely collapsed market. Pose all you want about a world where you're getting Xeroxes of Black Hole and Penny Century and Berlin through the mail; those of us who actually tried to buy good comics before the proliferation of comics stores know we missed out on more than we were able to find. I want comics companies to be able to afford to bring out new material, introduce me to new artists and provide them the best possible reward for their artistic effort, through avenues I can at least safely utilize to order books in a respectable fashion.

Incidentally, I know the Darwinian argument: that a collapse in markets means bad comic shops, bad companies and bad creators are eliminated first while the "good" ones make it through. There's actually some truth to this in comics, I think. I don't know if this is true, but I imagine things have become so bad that it's easier for a stable organization like my parent company to work through Diamond than it used to be, because that few million in product means a lot more percentage-wise now than it did then. I can't say as the art form misses any of the 3900 people Marvel had drawing comics in their greediest, flood-the-market early-'90s flush point. And it's much more likely a "Ted's Muscles and Cards" closed down than did a Chicago Comics-equivalent in the last few years. But this is a side-effect rather than a sea change. And a give-and-take relationship is really what's at work here. Chicago Comics has thrived in part because they gained business when Halley's Comix and Moondog's shut down. Diamond may pay more attention to Dan Vado, but they won't be able to afford to carry as many unprofitable, low-selling titles as they maybe used to (it's happening already). And while I shake my head in wonder at a lot of the crud from the early-'90s in the Journal's library, I also wish I had more comics by Richard McGuire, J.R. Williams, Dennis Worden, and Jeremy Eaton. So while the wine may taste sweeter as the ship sinks, I don't think that a new hole should be greeted with applause.

What's happening right now in comics, I think, is that we're starting to accrue casualties by industry-wide economic attrition. There's less fat to lose than muscle and bone; less hand-over-fist sham companies to go out of business than established industry players giving up the ghost after half-decade struggles. My belief is that things will look dark for a while: more stores -- good and bad -- will close; a lot of talent will leave the field to do something less dehumanizing and demeaning with their talent; and some publishers will either re-think their philosophies or perhaps even cease publication. It may take a paradigm shift on the level of viable Internet sales access to change anything about the current momentum -- but unlike the four-color comic books from which too many have seemed to pick up life philosophies, such a shift is not inevitable or even likely. Everything that's great about the comics art form has been a wonderful triumph of artistic effort over layers and layers of marginalization. There are layers left to come. -- Tom Spurgeon

Originally Published in "Gutter Talk," TCJ On-Line #13, April 1998