Funnybook Babylon

October 26, 2008

Managing the Event: Then and Now

Here in the Year of Superhero Event Comics, we’ve by this point become pretty accustomed to the yearly cycle. Every year there’s a point where all the books in a shared universe intersect and stake a common ground, then separate again for a while, then come together the next year. Events have stopped merely being important simply for the sake of providing a sales tentpole; the event comic has become the glue that holds a shared universe together. Every year, something big happens that affects everybody, and this provides a framework whereby the different stories can coalesce and characters can touch base while also providing most writers and books the ability to simply continue with their own stories if they so desire.

We’re seeing two very structurally different events right now – Final Crisis takes place in a time period entirely separate from the rest of DC’s line (with the exception of Green Lantern). Reading Batman or Superman or Checkmate, you’d have absolutely no idea that there’s a Crisis on if not for the house ads. While every book staking a common ground has been hinted as occurring after this event, for the most part, it’s entirely self-contained, not unlike Morrison’s previous Seven Soldiers. By virtue of this, its structure is small – a main series, two ancillary series that so far seem more like they’re pushing their respective writer’s ongoing DC Universe plots than really interacting with Morrison’s story, and a handful of oneshots (including the cleft-in-two Superman Beyond). And an unofficial #35.5 of Green Lantern, and a three-issue build-up to Flash: Rebirth (not to knock Rogues’ Revenge, it was awesome, and it was greatly informed by Final Crisis, but it didn’t in any way seem to really inform the main narrative itself). This tight and controlled creative approach has led to many people calling it the “arthouse” take on an event; while it certainly matches previous Crises in scale, it’s paced like a horror movie and I really can’t imagine any logical way ongoing books could have been tied into this without getting, well, completely fucked up.
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December 18, 2007

Random Bits and Pieces

They are owned by huge, creativity-deadening corporations and operated by lawyers and marketing executives who lord over the worst creative decline I have witnessed in a long time, particularly in films. In television, companies like GE view properties like NBC the way realtors view square footage. GE does not care what is on NBC. So long as the programming is relatively inoffensive, they want to earn as much per square foot as they can.
Alec Baldwin

It’s a slow, slow time in the comics blogosphere, so when I decided to take a break from writing memos and preparing for meetings, I had to write about some completely random things. Two of them are related and all are tangentially connected to the comics industry.

1. Newsarama posted the first part of a wide-ranging interview with Paul Levitz, publisher of DC Comics, about the state of the company. Some interesting quotes:

In response to Marvel’s Digital Comics Unlimited program:

I wish Marvel well with it. I hope they’ve figured out something that a bunch of fans like at a price that the fans find appropriate, and that it’s a workable model for them. If it is, we’ll certainly look hard at it over time.

I think we have a few different views of the area than Marvel, one is if we’re going to do something where we’re distributing our material online, then we would certainly want to have figured out how the talent was going to participate in revenues that we were going to make. And that’s an extraordinarily complicated nightmare. If you set out to say…we’ve published probably 40,000 comic books in the course of our history…so if in one extreme you sat there and said, “I’m going to put 40,000 comic books online for people to read, the prospect of sorting the rights out for that, writing checks to the talent is pretty nightmarish.

This brings two things to mind. The obvious one is that I think that Levitz should hold company workshops on communicating a message to the media. He’s saying things designed to resonate with every audience. If you’re a fan, he implies (in his discussion of the administrative difficulties) that when DC figures out an online initiative, it is less likely to limit the amount of material available to the degree that Marvel has. If DC wanted to release limited portions of its archives for an online service, working out talent payments would not be particularly overwhelming. I would imagine that a publisher would be able to track the number of people who are accessing particular issues/runs, and develop some kind of pricing system. If you’re a creator, he’s telling you that DC will not take any rash actions before figuring out your compensation.

His patience and deliberation could also be seen as a positive for management/shareholders (to the extent they know that DC is part of Time Warner).

There’s no question that people are willing to read some comics online if they don’t have to pay for them. The question is: does anybody have a value proposition where a reasonable number of people are willing to pay for them? Will people ultimately want it all to be ad-supported, which seems how most online entertainment is being delivered these days? And is there an ad-supported methodology that makes sense for flat comic book pages?

Owners/managers of traditional i/p companies don’t want to hear about non-monetized technical innovation. The truth is, that on some basic level, no one knows whether online ad support is or will be sufficient to fully replace present revenue from print ads. In the end, we all know that it’ll have to, but that’s in the future. Managers want to keep their job now. Shareholders want a return in the next few months. This kind of hard-nosed skepticism is great for them.

His responses are also candy to the media:

NRAMA: Has DC done any kind of study or estimate in regards to how much money it feels it has lost due to online piracy?

PL: I haven’t a clue.

This is the kind of ‘honesty’ that makes journalists wet. If you don’t believe me, look at John McCain. Phony straight talk is like manna to the media.

But the more interesting, less obvious point made in the interview is this:

If you set out to say…we’ve published probably 40,000 comic books in the course of our history…so if in one extreme you sat there and said, “I’m going to put 40,000 comic books online for people to read, the prospect of sorting the rights out for that . . . is pretty nightmarish

I read a good article a couple of weeks ago about this, but I assumed that since Time/Warner employed so many attorneys, someone would have been working on this. It’s kind of sad.

2. Dick Hyacinth was right about the Trader Joe’s Gorgonzola Walnut Tortellini. It is really good, especially for a Lazy Man’s dinner.

3. Tom Brevoort on the Marvel Creative Retreat:

For the next 48 hours, we’ll be brainstorming on the overall direction of the future of the Marvel line, from the end of 2008 and the climax of SECRET INVASION well into 2009 and beyond. There are a bunch of ideas and plans already buzzing through the halls, but inevitably everything is going to change before our metting time is done. The only real certainty is that there’ll be some moment somewhere within the two days when I’ll change color.

Like in the past, it’ll be an interesting combination and collision of any number of creative mindsets, and virtually nobody’s storylines will escape completely unscathed–but hopefully better for having come through the experience. For myself, the two big areas of interest will be in getting to know Matt Fraction, who’s been doing some outstanding work lately, and who’s really a guy to watch, and spending some time picking the brain of Allan Heinberg, who’s one of the best guys in the business when it comes to breaking stories and making sure that character motivations and reactions remain true to the characters. This is the first Marvel summit that either of these guys has attended, so it’ll be interesting to see how they interact with the rest of the group (and how the group functions without Mark Millar or J. Michael Straczynski in the room this time, both of whom had other commitments that prevented them from attending.)

This is the moment when the future gets decided, so look for updates as things progress.

Even though I like quite a bit of what Marvel publishes, and think that the quality of the writing, art, and editing has undergone an amazing improvement since the 80’s – ’90’s, these kinds of corporate retreats kind of make me nauseous. The older I get, the more my enjoyment of comics is connected to an appreciation of the craft and creativity that goes into them (1). I really don’t care about the strategy and the coordination. When I read Bendis’ Daredevil, Brubaker’s Captain America, or Pak’s Incredible Hulk, I’m interested in their work, and not its relationship to an intricate larger universe. I guess that the shared universe aspect of the genre (at least as practiced by the Big Two) doesn’t really appeal to me anymore. Or maybe it’s just that I used to work for a big corporation, and got cheery e-mails like this for company retreats that made me want to stick pencils in my eyes.

(1): I wouldn’t say that this is a maturity issue, just a personal one. There’s nothing worse than when people link maturity to appreciation of a genre. You didn’t ‘grow out’ of it, you just stopped liking it. And there is a real difference.

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