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My Agenda
Excerpt from ¡Journalista! for April 2, 2007
(Note: Red text indicates a dead link.)

 

"We found ourselves in the crossfire between the Fantagraphics army to the north and the Ellison guerillas to the south. And even though we were widely perceived as Ellison sympathizers due to our publishing Dream Corridor, we were able to convince Gary that since we had published Harlan's work in the past, we wanted to throttle him as badly as anybody else. Gary understood that, and that led to our first breakthrough in talks."

 

Excerpt of a double-page spread from 300, ©1998, 1999 Frank Miller, Inc.

 

For those three or four of you with any interest in the epic snitfit Heidi MacDonald and I have been waging these past few days, bad news: Heidi's posted her latest salvo, and we're now clearly in the "is not/is too" portion of the debate. Shorter Heidi: I'm still an untrustworthy bastard with an agenda for making an error and acknowledging it, and we're still no closer to figuring out what a chart containing one of the two disputed books but not the other has to do with any of it. Apparently, mistakes only become signs of an agenda if you acknowledge them as mistakes. So near as I can tell, the argument ends there.

Not that this will stop me, of course! You see, I'm still trying to parse what Heidi means by my "agenda." My current operating theory is that it seems to be a separate issue from the inanities that kicked the whole thing off, having less to do with whether Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's 300 could ever top manga on the bookstore charts than with what Heidi perceives to be the motivations behind some of the things I've written over the past few years — with the latter, in short, being what induced Heidi to go to war over the former. The money quote:

If you parse this, Dirk still seems to be saying that Spider-man "fails," which would be a surprise to many people — Spider-man trades do respectably in bookstores, and very well in comics shops and they don't sell at NARUTO levels, but neither does Love Pistols.

I'm all for a return in Occidental comics to accessible, populist work that is driven by a single creator's vision. Obviously, Miller and Varley's 300 is just such a work (which Dirk seems to acknowledge). My argument isn't with that, it's with Dirk's knee-jerk reaction to anything which seems to imply success for Occidental comics vs. the manga-naut. His initial snark at Dark Horse and his defense — "I'm only a poor old Blogger! I don't see Bookscan!" — is silly for someone who is assumed to have some authority for their comments. While I'm chided for being "well-connected," I can assure you that when you are "well-connected" you can take a peek at Bookscan numbers when you need them. [Emphasis added.]

You have to step around the defensive sniping to get to the meat, so I've italicized the interesting bits. The first bit, of course, is a misreading of the argument I've been consistently making for the last few years. My argument — that work-for-hire Western comics cannot enjoy the same synergy from related media tie-ins as does manga, because there's no definitive, related comics work available in, for example, the endless and contradictory sea of Spider-Man product that Marvel keeps in print — is completely unrelated to the argument that Heidi clumsily attempts to put into my mouth here. It probably doesn't surprise many people at this late date that Spider-Man books enjoy, at best, a brief and mild increase in interest following the release of one of Sam Raimi's films before quickly returning to the confines of its present audience. We've seen it happen twice now and counting. This effect is not only perfectly in line with my theory, but one of the observations that actively informs it.

If Heidi has evidence to the contrary, I'm all ears. I suspect that she doesn't, however. If she did, she wouldn't be forced into rewriting my argument to imply that Spider-Man books don't sell at all. The question then becomes: Why does Heidi feel compelled to follow this ridiculous train of thought? If corporate superhero comics really were as lucrative in the greater American marketplace as she seems to imply, then where's the new line of company-owned superhero comics from Random House? After all, if these books get turned into films, then the works by faceless and disposable creators upon which they were based will suddenly become the darlings of North American bookbuyers and Borders customers, right?

Oops, that's right: They won't. We've had five years now for such films to demonstrate otherwise, and not a single one has done so. At least as many Americans have seen a Spider-Man film as have seen an episode of the Naruto cartoon, and yet the "Naruto effect" has been entirely absent from discussions of Spider-Man books. Self-contained works by single creators or sets of creators, such as 300, American Splendor, V for Vendetta, Ghost World and Sin City, get noticeable and sustained boosts from the films based upon them, but Spider-Man — the top-grossing comics-related film series in Hollywood history, mind you — has offered few such coattails for comic books bearing the character's name, and what coattails there were vanished fairly quickly.

(V for Vendetta is the interesting exception here, as Watchmen likely will be when and if the film ever gets made. The V for Vendetta film spurred sales not only of the original book but another Alan Moore book, as well. In neither case do Moore or his collaborators own the work in question, and yet they're so closely identified by their creators that the very notion of a corporate-produced sequel or ongoing series seems absurd. You can't muddy the waters with a new V for Vendetta line of comics because they'd be laughed off the shelves. And what exactly would a Watchmen sequel series look like? "Rorschach's back! Can his secrets destroy the fragile peace and lead the world into nuclear annihilation? Find out in... Watchmen Ultra!" Be serious. These are singular works of art, and if DC Comics knows what's good for them, singular works of art they'll stay.)

Manga is a useful point of comparison because it demonstrates the underlying economic and social dynamics in action: comics in a multiplicity of genres and forms, echoing the visions of single creators or sets of creators from beginning to end, augmented by media adaptations that stay true to the source material, and thus send interested consumers back to the original comics and increase sales over the long run. The Love Hina anime may have driven readers to Ken Akamatsu's original series, but it was Akamatsu who carried them for eighteen volumes — $180 worth of books! — and then led them forward to Negima, which has been a consistent bestseller despite the fact that the by-all-accounts dreadful first season of the accompanying anime is only now showing up on American shores. Make no mistake: The reasons for manga's success most certainly can be duplicated by the creators and publishers of Western comics. They just can't be reproduced by a single-genre branch of the form, mired in obscure continuity and interchangeable creators.

I speak from some limited personal experience when I say that pointing such things out doesn't earn you many friends among the people who either work in or admire New York corporate comics. It's no big deal to me, of course, since I thankfully have no connections to said culture. For those who do, however, it would appear to be far easier to pretend that the growing divide in 21st-century comics isn't between creator-driven and corporate-driven comics, but between manga and "Occidental" comics. How else to explain Heidi MacDonald? I have no doubt that MacDonald could provide a critique of the arguments that I've offered. There are certainly enough uncertainties and potential pitfalls in what I've been saying over the years. To do so successfully, however, would require her to acknowledge their potential validity and negotiate the landmines they pose for someone as mired in corporate-comics culture as herself — and at that point, well, you're halfway to an agenda, now aren't you?

 

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