Saturday, 31 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-eight)

Just occasionally there’s a gesture from the publisher that makes you wonder what happened? Did you wake up in one of those Captain Britain alternate comics dimensions where everything is the same, but something is different? Take British comics heartthrob Neil Gaiman, a pretty good novelist and writer with his past rooted mainly in journalism. Comics are a passion for him, most of the time, and he appeared on the DC scene very quietly and with little fanfare. He did a few things, mainly Vertigo prestige format stuff and then was given, like Alan Moore years before, a character with little future to do with as he saw fit (Moore did it with Swamp Thing, Gaiman did it with The Sandman). He assembled an unusual art team, not the sort of artists one would expect to see on a DC comic, regardless of how diverse the company was becoming.

Gaiman took an old concept created by Gardner Fox, revamped in 1974 by Jack Kirby and fellow 1940s comics guy Joe Simon and totally reinvented it; actually, he just took the name and did something else entirely. The Sandman was a hero who visited people in their dreams and fought crime in this way (at least that’s what I remember from the Kirby and Simon version); it definitely wasn’t anything like Gaiman’s re-invention. Gaiman discarded everything and just left the dream element. Instead of having a human protagonist, his hero was one of seven elementals who had walked the earth since the dawn of time. His comic was to focus on Morpheus, the master of dream. It began as a standard action comic and soon went existential on us in a big way. The Sandman became DC’s best-selling alternative comic and it continued to attract new readers every month – it really was the first real ‘outreach programme’ albeit unintentionally. People not reading comics would be reading The Sandman and the collected editions would be reviewed in broadsheet newspapers. This comic (albeit owned by DC – a major publisher) changed a lot of perceptions and offered people an entrance into a new medium. The Sandman was the best effort by a comics company in the last 30 years to try and win a different audience, but DC ultimately blew it because they were both nice and na├»ve.

Gaiman has expressed from the beginning that he saw The Sandman as being a finite story. He had a beginning, middle and end and he felt he couldn’t compromise on quality if DC expected him to stretch it out. A deal was struck and Gaiman would produce The Sandman as a finite series of an as yet undetermined length. The deal suited both parties at the time (I mean, what chance did Gaiman have of turning The Sandman into a hit?), but five years later when Sandman entered its penultimate year of publication DC’s execs must have been spitting teeth. Gaiman called time on the comic with #75, he had gone on a lot further than he had originally anticipated (he thought it might make 50 issues) and DC agreed that The Sandman would end. They renegotiated a deal whereby they could still use characters and themes from the series, as long as they didn’t try to resurrect The Sandman or his comic. It was the best DC could get from the deal. Subsequent Sandman spin-offs have had their moments, but essentially the opportunity of a lifetime was lost – there was nothing out there that could appeal to such a wide section of people as The Sandman. Even if the main character never appeared in the story (which was often the case) it was the overall addictiveness of the writing and the ideas and the subplots unfolding like some complicated flower that kept people coming back and intrigued new readers.

Now, all the spin-offs were largely unsuccessful – it didn’t matter who appeared in what, there was no Gaiman; there was no Morpheus, so therefore there was no point in the casual readers hanging around. A brilliant outreach programme it might have been, but there were no ideas men at DC who could come up with something, some strategy, to keep the new fans. They couldn’t and the more spin-offs that happened, the lower the quality threshold got.

Who was to blame?

Well, you could blame Gaiman. His being there was mainly responsible for the success and his departure was the thing that prompted most of the readers to follow suit. When you compare sales of Sandman in 1991 to sales of a Sandman spin-off like The Dreaming in the late 1990s, there’s ten times the difference in sales. The Sandman comic regularly sold more than 60,000 copies a month; (and trust me for a mature readers comic that was phenomenal!) but most of the others were cancelled when sales dropped below 5,000. And DC’s biggest problem was instead of leaving well enough alone and moving on, they continued to try and milk the remnants of that market, by releasing more and more tenuous spin-offs. Only Death proved successful, but she was arguably a far better character than Morpheus; but even her tales were weak compared to the original source material.

Here’s a spoof comics piece, this time written by Chris Spicer for Borderline that properly put the Sandman’s comic plight into perspective:

Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman Notebook (Some DC editors. Gaiman’s never been near it. Trust me.)

DC continues to strip-mine The Sandman’s legacy with this exclusive look at one of the notebooks used by Neil Gaiman himself while he was writing the title. Journey into the mind of one of the comics industry’s best loved sons by looking at poorly-conceived scribbles drawn to pass the time and half-baked story ideas which Gaiman wisely decided should never see the light of day. Thrill! To the incredible sight of Gaiman’s own portrait of Morpheus, drawn at three in the morning while wasted on a combination of absinthe and non-prescription flu remedies. Marvel! At the epic “Tomorrow’s Shopping List!” Listen! To the desperate sound of DC scraping the barrel!

Hardback, with free razor blades so that Gaiman’s hardcore following of self-abuser fans won’t have to go down the shops to commit suicide.

Neil Gaiman had the ability to drag a nation of new readers with him, but chose to move away from comics and into novels and TV work. You can’t blame him for wanting to enter into the real world, and you definitely couldn’t make him stay on something or do something he didn’t want to, that would end up being counter-productive. So DC came out as the good guys – the company that didn’t fuck over a creator for the sake of a buck and a book. They basked in the limelight of allowing a comic to die a natural death for about 30 seconds... Then someone was moaning about some other DC cock-up or bad product and it disappeared into history.

DC has to take the blame in many ways, because they failed to exploit the potential of The Sandman. They did nothing whatsoever to try and keep the hordes of fans that only read The Sandman. The problem is no one in comics has ever launched a ‘successful’ advert campaign outside of comics – it’s a fool’s errand. It costs far too much money for comics to be able to justify and there is no immediate way of gauging the success. But this is where the industry really suffers from the vicious circle it has created. The industry has created a market that is governed solely by the law of diminishing returns. There is no targeting of new or young readers; the adverts that run in their own products are preaching to the converted.

In 1992, Malibu Comics attempted an ad campaign outside of comics and targeted at the West Coast, where they were based. Adverts were blazoned on the sides of buses and billboards as Malibu attempted to get the average punter to read its brand new Ultraverse series. They even stretched to some TV and radio advertising. The company was eventually bought out by Marvel a couple of years later, they failed to break the monopoly and lost shit loads of cash in the process – no one was going to make Malibu’s mistakes again.

So what could DC have done? It isn’t as simple as that, for DC to have been able to do anything to sustain the success of The Sandman they would have needed to have people working on it from the moment The Sandman started to rise in sales, every month. This requires something called ‘foresight’ and frankly this has been non-existent concept in comics since they began. The people involved will vehemently deny this, but neither of the big US superhero publishers knows what to do when they have a success on their hands. It’s like they all sit around gawping at the success for months and months until someone says ‘hey we should do something with this’. In the research for this book I approached both Marvel and DC and asked them if they would be prepared to share with me what sort of money the companies put aside for future development; neither wanted to share any information with me. So, I wrote back and explained what I actually meant by future development, and I made this clear to my contacts at both companies, was how much money or what percentage of money was being put aside to look into ways of expanding the industry’s readership base, what ways are being considered to bring new readers into comics, and how much of a commitment both companies have to the future of comics? I heard nothing and you can draw whatever conclusions you want from that. I know what I’m hedging my bets on – they don’t have contingency plans for any future development. Outreach programmes are great ideas, but they tend to be Marvel and DC shipping all their overstocks to schools, youth clubs and hospitals. This isn’t a bad idea, but it doesn’t really go close to attempting to exploit the appeal of the medium to anyone other than kids.

The reason for never having any money for development is because the cost of comics has been rising faster than the actual physical costs and that is because the industry needs to make a break-even target and the only way it can be done is by trying to get more money out of a dwindling market place – yet there are still tens of thousands of people prepared to be the crutch for an industry that is only just surviving by milking more from the people they’re paid to entertain. I see no outside targeting at all for or from comics, they depend on the strength of the next movie adaptation or TV spin-off to help attract the uninitiated – the problem is there is no easy entry point for new readers. Comics stories are impenetrable, they cost far too much money (four comics cost nearly $20, for twice that money they can buy a computer game and be the superhero rather than read about one), and there’s the social stigma attached. You talk to people in comics about this and they stick their heads in buckets. Oh they acknowledge something has to be done about it, but not right now. Both Marvel and DC have done some things since the original draft of this book was written; there are more ‘easy entry’ mini-series available; limited run series; one-offs and other story gimmicks that don’t require them reducing the price. The best point of entry for the future comics fan would be cheaper product and nothing goes down in price.

Marvel, to their credit, tried something in the early 1990s, a series of 99cent comics, to try and tempt a new generation of readers at an affordable price. Because the company had tied so many writers and artists to massive contracts, they employed some of the worst talent in the industry to produce a series of rather stinky pamphlets. The experiment failed and the attempt became 'the law'. Cheap comics don't work. End of.

My friend, Fabian Nicieza, the former X-Men writer who made a fortune during the early 1990s and later moved to become editor-in-chief of Valiant Comics shortly after it was bought out by Acclaim, the computer software giant, said this five years ago; it still applies in 2011. “You can over-indulge or micro-analyse a problem to the point where it is all moot.

“Comics cost what they cost because all factors that go into their production and the cost of doing daily business (for the large companies) necessitated those costs. That includes the cost for print and paper, creative talent, shipping and distribution, promotion, sales and marketing, general corporate overhead (the cost of a comic also pays for the salaries of the people in the accounting department and the mailroom).

“And of course, you have to save a piece of the pie to line the pockets of corporate sharks looking to milk your company dry to the marrow. Costs for everything went up gradually over the last 30 years. The Snickers bar or gasoline price analogy isn't that far off. My Sunday New York Times costs exponentially more than it did in 1980.

“Do comics cost too much? Yes, they do. And no, they don't. Ultimately, a market economy determines whether something costs too much or not.”

The price of comics increase again and again. The prices of trade paperbacks will probably stay relatively constant, it appears that most companies have a slapdash approach to pricing most of these anyhow, it’s down to the marketing men looking at the sales of the comic and trying to devise a price where they might make some money on it – it all smacks of no one having any faith in their products.

Next up: the end of this part.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-Seven)

Comics Lesson 20:

The only comics characters that are owned by the people who write and draw them are the so-called ‘creator-owned’ properties. Spider-Man, Superman, Daredevil, Catwoman, etc., are all owned by the publishing company and whether you work on one issue or a thousand, you have no claim to that character or comic.

However (and I’m going to simplify this greatly) it came to notice that artists who had worked their hearts out for decades, were not even retiring with a pension and had no way of making any money from any of the work they once did, and what was more galling than anything else was that even if a creator had a hand in the actual physical creation of a company owned character he was not entitled to anything. Most artists and writers are [genuinely] self-employed, and for years page rates were so poor that working as a comic artist was probably like a second-class job. Over the years, the plights of a number of artists were highlighted, and the comics companies they worked for were exposed as bastards who wouldn’t even part with the original artwork so an artist could sell his back portfolio and possibly earn enough money to eat. There were changes made and royalties and reprint deals were agreed, making the industry a much fairer place for the artists in particular.

The most successful creator-owned comics character of recent years is Todd McFarlane’s Spawn, which has… ahem… spawned a film, toy line and animated TV series.

Both Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, who ‘created’ a number of Marvel’s iconic heroes have received recognition and even DC Comics now acknowledges that Bob Kane created Batman.

The problems most editors face (especially if they are not good, strong, editors) are when the creative team on a comic decides that they are bigger than the property they are working on. When creators are hoisted by their own petard the usual target is the editor, because the creators see the editor as ‘the enemy’. The editor is the guy who has the final say as to whether something stays or goes, whether he likes the direction you’re taking the book, or if he thinks it’s time for some drastic changes in approach, like a replacement writer or artist perhaps? The writer, a far more insecure creature than an artist, tends to be more receptive to editors, probably because some of them had been editors themselves. But it’s the writer/artists who tend to be the most controversial. But that said Alan Moore has famously had a feud with Marvel and DC for many years, over these publishers decisions to reprint material he had done for them without his consent. Some say he cut off his nose to spite his face, but he stuck by his convictions and eventually was seen to be right.

I can honestly say that I had a hand in changing Alan’s mind about his obstinacy towards Marvel Comics – any Marvel under any regime. It happened during the mid to late 1990s and I was drinking in a local pub called The County Tavern, Alan’s local at the time. He was there with an old friend of mine, his some-time collaborator (and musician, but not comics') Tim Perkins. I actually went over to talk to Tim, not realising that Alan was sitting with him (you’d understand how ironic this statement was if you were to see Moore) and after reintroductions and much slagging off of Dez Skinn (who I was still working for at the time), I asked Alan what his problem was with having his seminal Captain Britain written material reprinted? But before I let him go into the reasons why (Marvel had reprinted a Doctor Who story of Moore’s without asking him first so he had never worked for them or acknowledged them since – it’s a little more complicated than that, but essentially the reprint was the reason.) I told him that it wasn’t fair to his many thousands of fans who had never had the chance to see this series, and he was doing an injustice to Alan Davis and especially to Dave Thorpe, the writer he replaced on Captain Britain.

Let me explain, after Dez left Marvel UK he’d sown the seeds for the reappearance of a hero that was created specifically for the British market. The character, Captain Britain was reintroduced (out of costume) and then re-reintroduced in the wake of Dez’s departure, it was written by Leicester-based Dave Thorpe and drawn by Alan Davis. Thorpe only lasted half a dozen weeks, the reasons he was replaced are unclear – legend has it, Alan Moore offered his services to then Marvel UK editor Paul Neary and Neary bit his proverbial hand off. So Moore replaced Thorpe and Captain Britain went on to receive some high praise and it is regarded as one of the pinnacles of British comics. Moore’s prevention of the series ever being reprinted meant that Thorpe, above anyone else – Davis was earning big bucks by now – was losing out. He had never made it as a mega-successful comics writer and frankly he wasn’t given the time to see if he could, but he could have at least cashed in on some of the success. After all, he’d written the opening six parts and Moore used much of this to build his own story around. Without any hesitation Alan said he’d have no problem with Marvel reprinting the Captain Britain series, especially if it meant that Thorpe would not lose out. My respect for the man increased and I’m sure Dave Thorpe’s bank balance benefited as well. Alan gave any monies he was due to an organisation within comics called The Comic Book Legal Defence Fund.

The next day I wrote up the story for Movers & Shakers and the day it went to the press I called Bob Harras (by now top dog at Marvel). I only got his secretary, because he was in a meeting. I asked her if I could speak to Bob’s voicemail, but she was reluctant to put me through – she didn’t know who I was. I explained to her that 6 years earlier when Bob was working on the X books we got friendly and that the message I was leaving might be beneficial to Marvel and I was not in any way going to leave abuse or anything that Bob wouldn’t want to hear. She still refused and said she would take the message for him. Exhaling loudly I explained to her that Alan Moore had given his verbal permission for his Captain Britain series to be reprinted. The secretary, obviously had some knowledge of comics, (but not that much) asked me, “Aren’t the Captain Britain comics Marvel UK?” I said they were originally. “Then surely you need to talk to Marvel UK?” I explained to her that this wasn’t a Marvel UK matter and that Marvel US had been trying to get permission for a number of years to reprint this series. “I still think you should go through Marvel UK first, sir,” she said and by this time I was growing annoyed – this was a trans-Atlantic call after all.

I asked if there was another editor I could speak to but was told they were all in meetings. I said I’d call back later in the day, but she told me to hold the line. I was put on hold – very un-Marvel like muzak playing in my ear – and she came back on the line. “Hold on, I’m putting you through.” I think she spoke to someone who knew because the next voice I heard was Bob’s. He started by saying he was very busy, but he soon shut up when I told him I’d been talking to Alan Moore. The call took about four minutes and at the end of it Bob thanked me and said he’d be making some calls. 8 months later the first of a 7-issue reprint series was published, followed by a trade paperback. I didn’t even get a mention in the despatches…

[* Captain Britain – was a great character – one of my personal favourite comicbook heroes, not for any of the obvious reasons, just because he was created for Marvel UK when I was heavily into their comics. In 1976, Stan Lee came to England and decided the time was right to launch Marvel UK into the 20th Century with its own comics strip – Captain Britain! He came up with the name and idea (because it took a lot of thought...), but the duties of producing this character’s weekly adventures fell to a young writer called Chris Claremont (who had been born on a US air-base in the UK) and a US artist called Herb Trimpe (pronounced Trimpey) who lived in a renovated lighthouse in Cornwall – it’s all so logical if you think about it. Captain Britain epitomised everything that is both bad and brilliant about superhero comics. Two Americans produced his adventures for his first year of life; with their tenuous links to Britain they wrote and drew a very un-British styled comic strip. When they departed the entire strip was produced in-house by Marvel US and just felt like another American comicbook, but produced without the love and affection seen in US comics. It was a dreadful rehash of Captain America stories and ideas (and they were bad enough) and it died a fitting death. The good Captain appeared in a couple of US Marvel comics and disappeared.

Dez Skinn brought the character back in a supporting role as his alter ego, Brian Braddock, in the ongoing Black Knight strip in Marvel UK’s Hulk Comic, and eventually Marvel UK brought a costumed Captain Britain back in 1980. The initial story was a mixture of quirky English eccentricity and a superhero who returns to a reality obviously not the one he left. I don’t know where Thorpe would have taken the story, all I do know is that what followed is in my opinion a far better example of the geniuses of Alan Moore as a comics writer and Alan Davis as an artist than any other work these two have been associated with. The plaudits are waved at Moore for Watchmen, but for me Captain Britain ranks as one of the most adventurous, controversial and disturbing comics stories ever produced by two Brits. It might have had something to do with the duo’s fresh approach to comics.

If I wanted to introduce someone to the infinite possibilities of sequential art and storytelling and how un-childlike comics can be then this would rank much higher than the books they believe you should be reading. Other writers have borrowed from this story, others have swiped it full stop, but none have been able to convey what these two Northamptonshire men did. What was so special about it? If I told you would you care? I shall anyhow...

Moore took the concept of the hero in a strange, but similar land, and played with it from the moment he took over scripting. The eccentric, slightly wonky world, created by Dave Thorpe would be the backdrop for the first part of a story that would twist and turn through nightmare upon nightmare – never before has a hero faced so much and lost virtually everything. And poor sales conspired to help this story become a comics legend stretching over 5 different titles …

Captain Britain became a tool for a mighty ‘elder of the universe’ who we know as Merlin, of Arthurian legend. Throughout the multiverse (universes within universes – the every-decision-you-make-could-lead-to-different-paths scenario) there is a ripple, something is wrong somewhere and Merlin needs Captain Britain to look for and stop it – he is Merlin’s champion.

A mutant called Jim Jaspers, who in different universes is anything from a raving mad man to a prominent politician, has caused the ripple. Jaspers’ power is phenomenal; he is, to all intents and purposes, a God. He intends to shape the universe into the form he wants it and because Jaspers is completely insane that shape could be anything. While Captain Britain tries and fails repeatedly to stop Jaspers, on another Earth where another Jaspers had already caused considerably destruction a secret weapon is released – quite possibly the scariest most innovative villain (if you could call it a villain) ever devised for comics. On this other Earth, the fear of superheroes and villains with powers to destroy the planet had become such a worry scientists created the ultimate killing machine – The Fury. The Fury becomes an anomaly when Jaspers destroys its universe, however a small part of the Fury survives and finds its way to the Earth Captain Britain comes from, an Earth that is now under the thrall of its own Jim Jaspers. The Fury was Alan Moore’s version of the X-Men villains the Sentinels, huge robots programmed to wipe mutants off the face of the planet. The Fury is essentially an organic compact Sentinel, except it has been repeatedly modified so it cannot be destroyed. If even the smallest of molecules remains it will rebuild itself better than it was before. Moore created the ultimate bad guy – one that didn’t stop until its prime directive was achieved – wipe out anything with a super power that lived.

The first time the Fury goes up against Jim Jaspers it escapes by literally the skin off its back. The first time Captain Britain meets the Fury, the latter kicks the crap out of him. The second time Britain meets the Fury he is obliterated into atoms. Dead as a dodo.

End of story?

Not even close. Using a neat juxtaposition on how the Fury re-grows himself, Merlin takes all that is left of Captain Britain, some hair, some bone and a piece of his costume and literally grows Brian Braddock again, except this time imbuing him with more power, enough he thinks to stop both the Fury and Jaspers. Jaspers has become one with his other selves and is now quite literally God. Worlds become enslaved and anyone who has any super powers is imprisoned in concentration camps and tortured or killed in the name of Jaspers. However, the madman doesn’t take into consideration that his actions were having an effect on the rest of the worlds; the Warp he created was not only changing him and his surroundings but also the young and the unborn.

Reborn, Captain Britain returns to his family home, he rescues his sister, a telepath who would later join the X-Men, and now has a menagerie of telepaths, aliens and generally weird people living in his home. He and his familiars are aware that something is on the horizon, but are living life the best they can in the face of the impending adversity. Stumbling into Brian Braddock’s life comes Captain UK, a version of him from another plane of existence, this Captain is Linda McQuillan, from an Earth where her husband was a hero called Marvelman. McQuillan is petrified, she doesn’t know how she’s where she is, she only knows that the Fury isn’t far behind, because the Fury had rampaged through her universe and destroyed every living hero and villain, with no mercy and now sensed her. Now the Fury isn’t your Doctors Doom or Octopus in stature, he is in fact a rather stout brown humanoid figure with a rudimentary head and a lens for an eye. One of his arms adapts into a form of weapon and is nanotechnology to the nth degree. He's an ugly mother. He is not aesthetically pleasing.

The story moves into its endgame with Captain Britain checking out a disturbance in the grounds of his ancestral home and stumbling across the creature he last saw milliseconds before he was obliterated almost out of existence. It is with this specific segment of story that proved to me that comics were something more than just heroes fighting villains, this story proved to me that superheroes could be fallible, they could have weaknesses, they do get scared. Britain’s reaction on seeing the creature that killed him was to piss himself, while wearing a look of sheer horror and fear drawn so well that Alan Davis could live to be 1000 and he would never be able to convey the power and emotion on that page of story ever again. The Fury just about kills Braddock again, but he’s saved by the band of vagabonds back at his house, who drive the Fury underground believing him to be dead – of course Linda McQuillan knows differently. The story moves to the confrontation between Captain Britain and Jim Jaspers, a one-sided affair until the Fury shows up again – he is essentially following his new prime target, destroy Jim Jaspers, the most powerful creature in the universe and therefore the biggest threat to humanity. There is irony here - Jim Jaspers of the Fury’s world was responsible for the creation of the Fury – he is the Fury’s creator, his God. But none of that overrides his prime directive – therefore the Fury begins to learn to fight the same way as Jaspers and begins to match his creator punch for punch, the two of them pop in and out of different realities constantly countering each other’s attacks, until finally Jaspers runs out of ideas and the moment that happens the Fury toasts him.

It had already been over a year of mind-boggling storylines, but the final acts were yet to be played and the analogies would begin soon after the conclusion. The Fury, now rid of his prime target turns his attentions to the lesser targets and begins to rip Captain Britain to bits again, Brian (what a great name for a superhero, eh?) fights valiantly but he’s just not got it in him and as the Fury is about to end his existence for a final time, the cavalry arrive. The cavalry is a woman wronged and who has been through hell and isn’t about to go there again – Linda McQuillan is essentially Brian Braddock’s equal in every measure, they should theoretically fight each other to a standstill, but there is one difference between the two of them – McQuillan doesn’t care anymore. The final battle scenes are quite possibly some of the most violent and nasty ever seen in comics, let alone a UK comic aimed at predominantly pre-teens. McQuillan literally tears the Fury to shreds and then the shreds to shreds – so completely spent from its battle with Jaspers and then Britain, the Fury begins to suffer total breakdown as nothing it does to counteract McQuillan’s attacks seem to work – he has never encountered a creature with so little regard for her own safety, all his foe wants is the same thing it wants – death. It is several minutes after the Fury ceases to function that Captain Britain finally pulls Linda away from what remains of its body.

What makes this a fabulous story is that while the hero is intermittently heroic, he actually doesn’t come out of it looking at all victorious. There was no tickertape parade for this hero at the end of the story. During it Braddock had become an alcoholic, been killed, saw his sidekick slaughtered before his eyes, was constantly betrayed and double-crossed by everyone, including Merlin (who died for his sins), soiled his long johns and basically chickened out and was prepared to lay down and be killed. Captain Britain was the central character in this story, but he never outshone the story and the direction the story was going. It was like he was an unwilling pawn in a chess game (in the story and as the hero) and everything was happening out of his control – this doesn’t­ happen in standard superhero comics. But don’t think this is just a bleak and dark story, it has many high points – the dialogue is good, the story moves along at a cracking pace considering it was being done in weekly 7-page chunks and it even has time to have a love story and set up several dozen subplots that Chris Claremont would introduce into the one major X-book spin-off I’ve not mentioned –Excalibur (a comic strongly associated with Alan Davis as well.)

There is another great reason why this story works so well for me and could work well for people who might find the idea impenetrable – it’s a British comicbook, so therefore there isn’t a lot of baggage hanging around. The final irony of Captain Britain and his history is that Chris Claremont, who created the character in 1976, and wrote his few other US adventures in 1978, returned to the character and made him an associate of the X-Men, and remained faithful to Alan Moore’s rendition rather than looking back at his own. Now everything has changed and I’m not even sure Brian Braddock is still alive.]

These previously mentioned creative and editorial problems happen when there’s a clash of personalities. Most temper tantrums in comics are down to ‘creative differences’ a term that is all encompassing and in most cases are down to the creator being pissed off with getting fired despite his book having become a critical failure and sales that have dipped to close to cancellation. The ego cannot be deflated – most prima donnas will actually go as far to blame the audience. It’s their fault I’m so crap! Go figure.

Next: Sandman, bring me a dream, bum bum bum bum, make it the cutest that I've ever seen...

Monday, 26 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-Six)

I also worked for DC in the early 1990s, but this particular flirt with a comics company was just so tragic I never thought of it in the same light as other bits of bad luck I’d had. I got a call, out of the blue, from New York. It was a guy called Neal Pozner, who was a managing editor at DC and was in charge of a lot of the projects that the general public never saw. Neal was a great guy and we chatted for an hour before he even got around to telling me why he called. He needed a British based comics journalist to do some work for DC on an in-house publication they produced for the creative community called Shop Talk. It was a newsletter cum fact sheet for people who wanted to work for DC, actually worked for them or did some freelance work. Neal was a huge advocate of promoting new talent in comics and during one of our many conversations over that spring he asked me why I’d never bothered to try and write comics, after all isn’t that why everyone who can write gets into comics? I told him about my Marvel experiences of a few years before and he chuckled and told me about the proposals procedure that most companies operate. He didn’t suggest that my allegations against DeFalco were true, but he did warn me that the worst people to send ideas to were the editors, because they could steal ideas and feed them to the writers.

I told him that I’d grown away from superheroes and really wanted to be a novelist. He asked me what I wrote and I had to be honest, not a lot. I’d set out at 17 to be a famous writer. I’d written my first novel by the time I was 20 and hadn’t picked up a pen or sat at a typewriter for nearly 10 years. Since my return to writing I’d written mainly factual stuff and hadn’t really considered fiction because of a lack of time. But that year I’d had an idea and I was working on it when I first heard from Neal. I plucked up the guts and told it to him.

It was called Dead Girls and was the story of three girls, two sisters and their best friend, who died, but didn’t. They became the living dead, except they had their mental faculties; in fact, none of them knew they were dead until things started to go a bit wrong. They weren’t interested in eating brains, they were young teenagers trying to enjoy life; they just at first wanted to know what had happened to them and then eventually to be left alone to really die. After thinking about it, I designed as a four-part comics story around the premise. I ran through the projected four parts and said, “That’s it, I think it’s quite an allegorical tale.”

“AIDS.” It was the only word he said.

“Yeah, in a nutshell.”

“Is the script as good as the outline?”

“It’s only half finished and I’ve never scripted a comic before, but yeah I think it’s workable.”

“You should show this to Art Young.” Young was the then head honcho at DC UK, the editorial liaison office for DC in New York to deal with its huge list of British creators. He was also commissioning editor for any new projects coming out from the UK. I was going to meet and interview him as my first assignment for Shop Talk. Neal seemed quite adamant that I find the time to talk to Young about it. Which I duly did and at the end of a fairly uneventful interview in Soho, I told Art about the Dead Girls idea. He told me to send what I had over so he could have a look through it. And I headed back to Wellingborough feeling like I maybe had a chance.

A couple of days passed, I got a call from Neal asking how the interview went and when could he expect the piece. I told him by the end of the week. I finished that, got it away to New York and concentrated on fluffing up Dead Girls and getting the best job I could muster over to Art.

Neal called the following week, we chatted again and he told me he had Peter Milligan and Alan Grant lined up for me in the coming weeks and would I be able to work my CI schedule around for him. I could, but we didn’t mention Dead Girls.

The following week, I received three copies of Shop Talk and a note saying to call him when I got them. I phoned Neal that evening (UK time) and he kindly phoned me back straight away. He was happy with how it had come out and he apologised for trimming it down, but was happy for me to use the stuff I’d written that wasn’t used elsewhere. We talked about music for a while and I asked him a few questions about DC and finally he said, “I was thinking about your Dead Girls idea, did you mention it to Art?” I thought I had told him already but I might have been wrong. I told him I had and he said that it was important for me to really try and sell the AIDS allegory to Art and that if he could he would put a good word in for me when he got back from his vacation. I thanked him and wished him a good vacation. He replied, “I should be so lucky.” I never spoke to Neal Pozner again.

His vacation turned into a permanent one. I wasn’t aware but Neal had AIDS and had been working at DC over that last year on borrowed time. He never spoke to Art Young, therefore never smoothed it over for me. Neal’s partner, a well-known comics artist had worked for Young, so Art was quite distraught at the death of a friend’s partner.

I didn’t know.

Because Pozner was a backroom boy this kind of news took a while to filter out, so when I phoned Art Young about two weeks after Neal died and about three weeks after I sent my proposal in, the conversation ended up being a little awkward and at the end of it I felt like a schmuck. Suffice it to say DC never picked up Dead Girls. I had a letter from Young’s assistant saying DC was cutting back on new projects for the time being, but keep on trying. I don’t think it was ever looked at.

***

The following was written by Chris Spicer for his Borderline column World of Heros, it perfectly illustrates the futility of wanting to be in comics:

YOU want to work in comics. Don’t you? Of course you do. Everyone who reads comics does. You watch the constant whirlwind of changing creators as they dance from title to title and you think to yourself “I could do that!” Don’t you? Yes, you do. And that goes doubly for people who write for comics magazines, and even more so for the hard-bitten, cynical writers of spoof news columns.

But you can’t. Comics creators are special, and you’re not. Here’s why:

· Comics creators create comics, which makes them artists. You read comics, which makes you a geek.

· Every month you trek down to the local comic shop, desperate to know what wonderful stories your favourite creators are going to tell you next. Those same creators don’t care whether you live or die.

· You queue for hours to meet comics creators for a few meager minutes, but no comics creator has ever queued to meet you.

· Comics creators get paid to write or draw. You get paid to flip burgers or something.

· You show your portfolios and scripts to creators in the vain hope that they’ll bless you with a few words of even faint praise. They don’t come to you, because your approval means nothing to them.

· Comics creators are in high demand because they can create wonderful things. There are a million mindless proles who could do your job.

· Editors actually want to receive work from comics creators, whereas they could throw your submissions straight into the bin without even so much as a moment’s thought.

· Comics creators don’t have to slog down to their local comic shop to pick up the latest issues of the best titles, because they’re writing or drawing them. In their spare time they phone each other to laugh at you and tell dirty jokes about your mother.

· Comics creators can do their jobs without even leaving the house. You have to spend hours driving through crowds of inconsiderate mindless nothings, or cramming yourself into a dirty, crowded, fetid tube train just to get to a job that you hate.

· When a comics creator dies, they leave behind a legacy of distraught fans and respectful colleagues, whereas if you were to die tomorrow, no one would notice.

· Comics creators have scripts and sketches lying unwanted around their houses. If you were to get your hands on just one of them, you would frame it and put it on the wall, and talk about it in everyday conversation, and worship it as if Jesus himself had just handed it to you with the instruction that the chances of all your descendants getting into heaven depended purely upon it remaining in tip-top condition. A comics creator would consider such behavior to be stupid.

· This column is devoted to talking about comics creators. It may be a spoof, it may take the piss out of them, but there aren’t any magazine columns devoted to you at all. Not even ones taking the piss.

· You wish you could be a comics creator. No comics creator has ever wished they could be you.

· Comics creators’ ideas are published on a monthly, even weekly basis. No one cares what you think.

· When comics creators go to conventions, they meet friends, get drunk, and have a good time. When you go to conventions you spend hours in queues like a sweaty, pathetic sheep.

· Go into your local comic shop. Go on. Now, look at the people in there. If you were to take out a knife, and I’m talking about a really fucking big knife, with a huge serrated blade and a handle that you could use to club seals to death, and use it to hack your throat open then and there on the spot, spewing out astonishing fountains of blood as you floundered almost comically around before collapsing to the ground to bleed out your last in a sorry, unwanted heap in the corner, people in the shop would care more about the prospect of you having damaged their comics by spattering blood on them than about your slowly cooling corpse.

· Comics creators get the respect of their peers. Nobody respects you at all.

· Have you actually read work by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? You could never be that creative or intelligent. Could you? No.

· At signings, comics creators get paid to sign their name. At signings, you queue for hours to have someone deface your comics.

· Hundreds, even thousands of people write to comics creators every month. The only letters you regularly get are sent by cold, emotionless automated systems operating on behalf of grubby-handed company executives hoping you’ll be stupid enough to sign up for their credit cards.

· If Alan Moore walked into a comic shop, everyone would know who he was. If you walked into a comic shop, nobody would notice you even existed.

· You just read this article. A comics creator would never have done that.

Fandom is full of wannabes and like most industries a lot of tenacious wannabes can become a somebody. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of hawking yourself around and taking a lot of criticism from people whose only knowledge of comics art is what they like, but they persevere. For artists it’s easy, they take a portfolio and they can get instantaneous reactions from commissioning editors. The same editor can’t read through half a dozen scripts in the same time to get an idea of how good a writer you are. Lots of new artists appear all the time. New writers? Very rarely and in general it’s who they know rather than how good they are.

A lot of comics creators view their ‘fame’ as relative. They can walk in the local Tesco and never be bothered by anybody because of who they are and that suits most of them. They do a job and that job involves a lot of hard graft, much like anyone else that goes out to work. Yeah, most of them are thanking God that they had the talent or the ability to get there, but to most it is a job.

I've told you about Alan Davis briefly. Davis actually lives in the same county as me, but he’s a very private man, so I never did the stupid thing of turning up on his doorstep (even though he lived next door to a former best mate’s brother!) Alan, as I said, worked for British Steel in Corby – during all of the upheavals and what industry likes to call consolidation, he still had his job. In his spare time he spent it drawing comics strips – he didn’t know it, but the people who were seeing his work were being blown away with this contemporary yet cartoonish style. Alan started to get offered more work, and gradually his income from comics surpassed his income from British Steel. Alan gave his job up at British Steel, not because he couldn’t do it anymore, but because he was stopping someone else in Corby from having a job. Unemployment in Corby at the time was about 50%, he didn’t think it was fair, however unsteady his comics work might end up being, to deprive someone else the opportunity of earning money. He made sure one of his redundant colleagues got his old job.

Like I said, when I finally met Alan - he had been one of my comics idols for years - he was a down-to-Earth man with a real sense of privacy about him. He seemed to view comics conventions as part of the job; but you got no sense that it was a pleasure for him. I suspect Alan’s friends aren’t comics people and would never likely be.

The biggest problem with any creator is unless he’s that good he will eventually reach his sell-by date. Remember the rock dinosaurs of the 1970s, when they got back together in the 80s or 90s was their new stuff a patch on the old? No, of course it wasn’t, and the same rule applies to almost all innovators, especially as they get older. Even if the spark is still there the style might have dated. Take the guy who helped turn the X-Men into the most popular US comic of modern times – John Byrne. Born (co-incidentally like his co-creator Chris Claremont) in the UK, Byrne came through the ranks of Charlton Comics before being poached by Marvel. His style was quite extraordinary compared to the general lifeless art that was on display in most comics and whenever he worked on a comic it sprang to life. He never really became the focus of the speculator because quite simply he put out far too much material. Byrne was prolific, he could draw four books a month, nearly 100 pages of finished pencils, compared to some artists today who can struggle to finish a page in a week! Obviously as time wore on, Byrne slowed down, but he could afford to, he was one of three major stars in comics during the late 1970s. He, George Perez and Frank Miller were quickly making names for themselves as creators who steered falling comics out of the doldrums. Byrne did it with just about everything he touched, Perez did it for The Avengers and The Justice League of America and Miller started with Daredevil and really got into the swing in the 1980s with Batman. There were others, but these three were the Adams, Steranko and Wrightson of their era.

Of the three, none fell from grace quite as fast as Byrne. In fact the other two are still regarded highly in comics, most people remember Byrne as ‘The Tinkerman’. Byrne became too big too fast – yet in reality, his rise took many years, but this was the 1970s and rarely did someone come out of nowhere in comics and cause such a reaction. He wrote and drew some of the biggest comics in existence, but because he was so up his own arse at times, he eventually was replaced, because the fans grew tired of his revisionist approach.

Next up: fandom

Sunday, 25 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-Five)

Before we continue, I'd just like to wish every one a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year! Thanks for reading and all the feedback!

We went back to Bristol expecting an exciting weekend and while no one on the team really believed we would win the Best Magazine Award again, (we hadn’t done anything different from the previous year in terms of promoting ourselves, and we were no longer guaranteed support by a lot of potential voters) there was more an air of resignation than disappointment from the team when we didn’t. That accolade was returned to Dez and Comics International and if there were 2004 awards they probably won that as well. In reality we didn’t try in 2003, I think all of the remaining team knew that we’d fought a good hard fight but it was beginning to slip away from us.

By early spring of 2003 we’d ground to a halt. We released #19 as if there was no change, but when issue #20 finally came out (it was 6 weeks late) there was an air of finality about it. The team that had once consisted of some of the top names in comics journalism in this country (and now regarded the same throughout the world) was barely four active people and we were holding on because we didn’t really know what else to do. We’d had such unbelievable highs that even the horrendous lows, which just seemed to take the piss out of us in gallons, didn’t matter. We held on because we thought there would be an 11th hour reprieve and someone would come along and say, ‘this is too good to let go’ but it didn’t happen.

The demise of Borderline would have gladdened Skinn’s heart. He had seen off yet another pretender; yet the truth was for two years our magazine was considerably better than his – it was consistently better edited, better laid out and had interesting articles that didn’t patronise or belittle the reader. The fact he sold CI a few years later proves to me that I managed to kill his enthusiasm for it; he was never going to get it to the level it was when I was there and it was never, ever, going to be as good as Borderline.

Then a couple of interesting things happened. The first was I was invited to go to the Lodz Comics Festival in Poland, as a guest of the organisers and sponsored by the British Council in Poland. Organiser Adam Radon had mooted this a year earlier, but they lost the funding they needed to get me over, with the British Council’s help I could go. Borderline was hugely popular in Poland and it was the first comics magazine in the world to do a feature on Polish comics outside of Poland. This endeared us to them and they made us honorary Poles.

By this time, Borderline consisted Martin Shipp, Jay Eales and a few people helping us out part time and me. Mike Kidson who had finally quit with #18 was helping with some sub editing when he could and we had a half a dozen contributors still toiling away with columns, interviews and reviews and there was very little you could spot that said we were struggling to get issues out. We rallied the troops and decided to do a Summer Special, using up unused material and seeing if we still had the energy to get it working. The idea was if we had a successful Summer Special we’d do an Autumn Special that would tie in with the visit to Poland. We lined up a new server and host in Silver Bullet Comic Books, an Internet comics site run by an entrepreneurial New Zealander called Jason Brice.

Jason offered us a deal and we eventually delivered a Summer Special that took his server down within 12 hours of going live. There hadn’t been an issue of Borderline in four months and the fans were crazy for it. Brice didn’t realise, despite what we had told him - about just how popular a quality product is appreciated by the thousands of ‘net surfers looking for bargains. The thing was it was smaller than usual, it was a standard A4 shape and it had nothing in it that really reached out and grabbed the fan by the balls, yet over 30,000 people still downloaded it before the server crashed. It is the only issue I haven’t got an accurate figure for downloads for, but it doesn’t really matter. The Summer Special was to be the last nail in the coffin – although the corpse still had a wee bit of life left in it.

The Summer Special was my first attempt at doing a standard shaped magazine again for nearly three years. I didn’t like the finished product – others did, but that was because it finally met with their approval.

Comics Lesson 19:

The ego is a monstrous thing and in comics if you become regarded as a star it isn’t long before your ego outweighs your ability. There are many egos in comics and most people would probably think that the worst offenders are the highly paid artists and writers who have made small fortunes from the industry. But that just isn’t the case, the worst prima donnas are the ones who haven’t quite made it to the A list, the ones with more than enough reasons to be self-conscious and be riddled with doubt.

I suppose it makes perfect sense, once you made it to the comics’ A list of creators you have achieved what all young creators want and therefore there is no pressure and if you fall from your mantle in the years to come, you will survive because of your reputation. But that doesn’t work for all the time – for every Todd McFarlane there’s an Aaron Weisenfeld who might get a few years work from comics if he’s really lucky; and he’s the guy who’s going to hold onto to it for as long as he can and defend it rigorously. He could represent the person who seems to think he has a God given right to be treated like Brad Pitt at conventions and will make demands (often ignored by organisers) akin to those of rock stars on tour, but only because he threw away his first chance by believing his own hype.

Once getting a comic printed or having your artwork on display in a Marvel or DC book was the pinnacle of ‘making it’ even if it was just the one issue, you could probably lunch free on it for about six weeks, but because of the way comicbooks changed its focus from characters to creators, you only have to have enough money to print something professionally and all of a sudden you’re a star (in someone’s eyes, probably your mother’s) because you’re in ‘proper’ print.

It isn’t just B and C list writers and artists who begin to feel precious, some of the worst prima donnas are editorial staff and backroom boys – I suppose it must be all the frustration of living in the shadows of greatness? Essentially people choose their level of snootiness from what they perceive as their standing in the industry. The more perceived success, the more arrogant many become. This isn’t true of them all, but if they have delicate or precious egos then they have a good chance of becoming an arsehole.

Comics has attracted a lot of failed writers of other mediums over the years, I don’t know if they view comics as a place to make a fast buck, but they have arrived here and earned their dollars. Now we get real writers writing comics, because it’s viewed as a place to earn some bucks away from books, TV or film.

I think that maybe I should have realised a lot sooner that regardless of what I do for comics, comics doesn’t want to reciprocate. I haven’t done badly from comics, but in reality I could have probably done a lot better, but I was a pothead for so long ambition and motivation were replaced by the desire to do nothing constructive.

I’ve said that I really never had any desire to be a comicbook writer, but that isn’t true. I’ve had my moments and those moments weren’t special. In researching some background for this story I saw a few of the proposals I put together when I first had a computer, they weren’t my first proposals, but they’re the only ones I still have intact.

My first flirtation with comics happened way back in the mid-1970s when me and one of my oldest friends Colin Theobald sat down and over the space of a week wrote and drew a 7 page strip called The Human Crustacean. This told of a scientist who was bitten by a radioactive crab and was transformed into a half man half lobster, working on the side of law and order. This super-powered monstrosity first battled an alien called Inferno, who could basically do everything the Human Torch could do and in the process of the battle they released a big bad dinosaur type creature called Tyrannus (I think, I sold the strip in 1980 to a pillock who thought it was worth something). It had a cliff-hanger ending and I thought it was pretty good for a 13 year-old wannabe and a 17 year-old art student.

Neil Tennant (yes, that one), the then editor of what was essentially Marvel UK, also liked it and wrote to us personally to say that he thought it was a great strip and he was really interested to see how it finished. There was obviously no offer of printing it, nor was there any hint of anything that would make a young man dream of his name in lights, but it was enough for both of us to be proud. The problem was Colin discovered girls at art college, his brother Graham, while a good artist wasn’t in the same league with comics art and we just never got the first page of the second part off the ground, and then summer came along and… well there was long hot summers and pretty girls to chase and…

Fast forward to the late 1980s. I was reading one of my favourite comics, The Fantastic Four, the one with the Human Torch, Mr Fantastic – he can stretch, The Invisible Girl and the strong orange rock monster called the Thing. The comic was truly abysmal, both the art and the story stank and this was a comic that had helped turn me into the comic fan I was then. So I sat down at my mate’s computer over three nights and wrote my Fantastic Four proposal. It rocked. At least I thought so.

In a nutshell I intended to turn Mr Fantastic, the brains of the outfit into a bucket of rubber, I was going to have the Invisible Girl suffer from amnesia while she was invisible, I’d make the Human Torch an arsonist and just for laughs certain parts of his anatomy were no longer fire resistant and lastly I was going to make The Thing relatively normal, give him what he always wanted, the ability to be the Thing, but also be his alter ego Ben Grimm – but there was a price to pay for this new found ability.

The proposal was ignored.

I really wasn’t bothered.

Two years later a number of the ideas I’d proposed had started to appear in the magazine. Coincidence or theft? Well, the person I sent the proposal to was a guy called Tom DeFalco; he was the editor of the book and the logical person to approach. Two years later the writer/editor of the Fantastic Four was… Tom DeFalco. Coincidence? Probably, because let’s face it, there’s nothing new under the sun!

At the same time I put in my proposal for the FF, I sent in a proposal for a graphic novel called The Last Spider-Man Story, this was set in the future. Spider-Man had two kids, a son who idolised his father but had his mother’s genes, therefore no powers and a daughter who hated her father, his powers and therefore… had powers. It was a tragic tale of the Green Goblin’s (remember him? He’s in the first film) final act of vengeance. He kidnaps Peter Parker and subjects him to untold horrors and torture and in a fight Parker loses his leg. The Goblin displays Spider-Man’s tattered body (he’s not dead, yet) to the world and Mary Jane and the children watch. The son is enraged and dons his father’s spare costume and races to the scene. Amazingly he gets to the Goblin, who kills Peter’s son in front of him. Peter’s daughter has rushed out of the house, she hates her father, and she hates her life, why was she born that way? Just as the Goblin as about to kill her father, Spider-Girl appears and saves the day, killing the arch nemesis and saving her father’s life. She decides to continue the fight in honour of her brother and with respect to her father.

DeFalco launched a Spider-Girl comic using similar themes to this. Coincidence? Yeah, probably.

I decided I wasn’t going to do proposals for Marvel anymore.

Next time: more...