At corporate, they just sell paper

You think they care what it is?

You think they care what it is?

The Koch bros don’t give a shit, no pun intended, whether you buy Quilted Northern or Angel Soft, because they own them both.

Some years ago some venture capitalists found that, inexplicably, you can sell even more cheap paper to people if you invest a bit in writing on it and coloring it first. Comics are a particularly simple form of that kind of paper. The primary cost is buying it and distributing it in slightly altered form, with some writing and coloring, folded this way or that, with staples or whatever.

And that’s it. Buying cheap paper in bulk, low and selling it in bulk, high, with minimal modification in between. The modification is completely irrelevant; all higher-level mucking with creative content is merely crapshoots, no pun intended, at how much some particular exec pushes the already-ridiculous profit margin a little harder. It doesn’t even matter much, they know they’ll sell a metric ton of it, so such attention to “improvement” is nothing more than a little cutthroat game among the mid-levels to get this or that title boosted by an eighth of a percent in time for the next one-man-gets-it promotion.

In the late 80s and early 90s, my friend Ed was breaking into comics, in small part via me and my friendships at First and DC, but certainly on his own talent. He told me about trying to extract some pay owed him by Andrew Rev, then publisher of Comico. Rev took a copy of a latest printing at random off the stack that was sitting on the table, and ripped it in half, to show Ed what he thought of it. “I just lost ten cents,” he said, smirking.

Possibly this one.

Possibly this one.

Or possibly this one.

Or possibly this one.

You see his point? He’s making it clear to this, this pieceworker that he thinks literally nothing of the creative effort, of the idea that this was a quality product to be respected. It was investment in paper, nothing more. The message is, if you want to write comics, know your place. Ed’s eyes were wide with horror as he related this to me; his voice shook with disbelief. He’d never imagined that people who brought comics into physical existence not only despised them, but enjoyed despising them and any hint of respect or enjoyment the creative team might feel about it. We talked about it a bit but I don’t think he heard anything I said, as he repeated, “He just … ripped it in half …” (OK, that’s how I remember it, but might be dramatizing – Ed did leave with a check, which is more than many can say, as far as Rev is concerned.)

That was then, and that was how it was before then, and that’s how it is now. The people who have absolute power over whether your beloved title continues to exist, and absolute power over who will be turning those pages from blank into inky, not only don’t care about what’s in it, they can’t even fathom caring about anything that could be in it. Some people buy Angel Soft, and wipe their asses with it; some buy Quilted Northern, and surprise! they wipe their asses with it. Same goes for this-or-that comics title. This-or-that comics writer or artist. This-or-that comics character or storyline.

(A brief pause for good news: Ed is the happy comics-maker of Labratz and Mongrel; see also the successful Mongrel Kickstarter.l

“Movies,” you say, “But the movies -” Sheeeee-it! Don’t tell me the movies have anything to do with making comics good. Comics are mere promotional gimmick devices for movies now, have been for about twenty-five years. Toys and comics are the only purpose for the content that these people understand. They pay to get the comics made only to see those toy and/for film-associated images on shelves, on that odd paper which people are inexplicably buying. It’s pure eyeballs-oriented advertising, and the very idea that what’s actually printed in this or that image has other content, let alone good or bad, is foreign to them. Wait, scratch that, they know it’s potentially actionable, so they have lawyers to make sure it isn’t, or that they’re untouchable if it is, but that’s it as far as content goes.

All this applies even when the movies are good. I like good movies too. But movies, good or bad, distract you from the unalterable point about the comics.

I’ll pull some bits from Sean Howe’s book Marvel Comics: The Untold Story to illustrate. In the early 1980s, Mattel had lost the bid for action figure-ing DC comics characters, so it planned a big Marvel line and told the comics company to produce and aggressively promote a series with all the characters, even providing the name using two words which, according to their grinning marketeers, teenage boys could not help but squee at.

Jim Shooter, Marvel Interview 14, 1984, regarding Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars: “In essence, I was fulfilling the destiny of the Marvel Universe from its inception.” In regard to the sequel, he said “[Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars II existed to] teach the kids how to play with the toys.” Now you know. Marvel Universe destiny = toy sales.

Don't even make me say what this paper is good for.

Don’t even make me say what this paper is good for.

Cheap paper is bought in bulk and sold in bulk, and toy-marketers high-five because, inexplicably, somehow this ad space isn’t wholly sunk cost, because people are actually paying to look at the billboards. Free advertising.

This isn’t the 60s, there isn’t going to be a Stan Lee with a big mouth and carte blanche with no oversight or even plan in a throwaway business which happens to have guaranteed national distribution, or a Roy Thomas with no real job history (he’d been a high-school English teacher) and no corporate identity taking on the editorship of a major comics company, also with zip-zero oversight and no identifiable business plan, and saying, a bit wildly, “Let’s go!” I’m not idealizing – those weren’t days of high-minded idealism and artistic integrity, but rather the days of hustle to get to the movies and toys, merely before the latter exerted their larger pressure to start affecting the colored-paper’s content, leaving a whole lot of opportunity for funky creation from people who – as far as I can tell – simply couldn’t help doing it. Those days are not only over, they are expunged. Vanished into the memory hole. Un-history.

I’ll dissect out the comparison for you. In 1968, it’s a lovely Koch bros situation, as Kinney National merged with, or rather engulfed DC’s larger company (which owned in addition to the comics company, Family Circle and Playboy … see what I mean?). Kinney National already owned Independent News, which was Marvel’s distribution lifeline. Kinney gave not even a fuck for the difference between Marvel and DC, and even less of a not-a-fuck about this-or that Marvel title. The ink could have been scribble-scrabble or a pattern of daisies for all they cared. Similarly, when a modicum of editorial order was imposed during the 1970s, it was so variable, and certain creators on certain non-alpha titles were so cunning as to dodge it (for instance proofing one another’s books which means not doing it at all), that the titles varied between utterly terrible – like Spider-Man and the other flagships which received the most attention – to pretty good, or even brilliant and bizarre. Again, because for those books, considering their content at all was completely beyond the mindset of Cadence Industries, Marvel’s current controlling entity.

So I’m not talking about any difference in corporate values between the late 60s and the very late 70s. They were the same. The difference lies in the degree to which the owning entities took even the slightest notice of the comics’ content. Back then? Not even a blink. After the late 70s? Now that the toys were known commodities, and after the practically unique success of the Superman movie, the owning entities did exert authority over the comics’ content, solely as toy advertising in the most dismissive, just-do-it manner possible.

Warlock #4

Warlock #4

Believe it: your priorities in reading and enjoying this stuff are entirely irrelevant to anyone who has power over its existence, except for the possibility that you will buy a toy or a movie ticket. But it’s true: down in the cubicles, in part because of that corporate disconnect from the product (“text” if you want to be high-minded), the creative team’s priorities in making it might correspond to that reading enjoyment … a little. Sometimes. Usually by luck, when they’re not being monitored, and not for very long. It cannot be sustained in any single case, ever. Comics quality, especially superhero comics quality, is an ice sculpture at a very tacky Florida business convention, a castle in the sand at a crap fabricated vacation beach at some pesthole drainage lake in the midwest, a beautiful drawing by a lonely nine-year-old kid whose parents never put it on the refrigerator or into a scrapbook, crumpled on some floor somewhere.

Love good comics for that. Any other reason makes me sick, vomit-sick, murderous-sick. To hell with your “superheroes are popular at last because movies,” your “the mainstream loves superheroes now,” your “comics will be so good from now on.” That sense of validation is nothing but the cha-ching of consumerism, more paper pushing, more ass-wiping, and it’s even flat wrong – comics have always made movies great, but not even a teeny bit the other way around. Most of’em are a hundred times worse than they ever were, with their brash cheesiness masked by commercial cool, their basic storytelling fun gutted by tie-in activities and products, the characterizations shifted to correspond to star power, their strange potential for edge politics self-censored into oblivion, even their very physical newsprint trashiness replaced by high-tech gloss. Yeah, sure. That’s fucking great.

All the more reason to love the good in there, when you see it, if you can even tell the difference from geek status cred or from movie consumer confirmation … so when you do, love it for real.

No one else will.

Next: A thousand years more, O Kali

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About Ron Edwards

Game author and publisher via Adept Press / Biology author and former professor

Posted on March 19, 2015, in Commerce, Gnawing entrails, The 80s me and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Wow. A lot of things to comment on here, but it’s early and my brain hasn’t kicked in. Forgive me if I don’t get to your main point exactly.

    First: absolutely and completely correct as a first pass, near as I can tell. Anybody on the money-end of the business has never taken any particular interest in the quality of the product–which, you’d think, is really bad capitalist behavior.

    But until I was a child in the 1980’s, kids didn’t have a lot of outlets for vicarious fantasy, and there would always be kids, so if you’ve got a fixed demand who cares if it’s any good, I suppose: where else are they going to go?

    But by the mid-to-late 1980’s there was cable TV and video games and VCR’s and transmedia toy merchandising. And around that time, mainstream super hero comics saw a lot of quick cash by increasing the complexity of their product (crossovers every year) as well as making them increasingly “adult” (more T&A, more graphic violence). Somewhere between those two market forces, Marvel and DC seem to have largely given up on attracting new readers. At this point, I’m 38 years old and probably close to the median age for a Marvel reader.

    The really curious incident here is “Secret Wars.” Shooter’s a controversial figure–and I think you and I are on opposite sides of that controversy–but that series made a fucking ton of money. And suddenly comics companies realized, “Hey, we’ve got a ton of fans who love following stories from one title to the next. We can use these huge storylines to cross-promote other titles: forget the occasional cameo or guest star, you HAVE to read this other magazine to understand what happens next!” Secret Wars begat Secret Wars II begat Mutant Massacre begat ten million X-crossovers; Crisis on Infinite Earths begat an infinite number of reboots to the point where DC’s business plan seems to consist entirely of recreating itself.

    So, this “Secret Wars” title that was aimed to promote comics and toys to newbies, ended up making super hero comics an incomprehensible ghetto. In both instances the impulses were nakedly commercial, but giving up on attracting new readers isn’t a way to grow your business.

    Around 2000, both companies realized they’d really goofed up on this one, and began publishing comics meant to tie in with their popular cartoon shows, such as “Batman: The Animated Series,” and “X-Men: Evolution.” Some of this work was actually pretty decent: Scott McCloud did some good work on the Superman cartoon spin-off comic, for example. But in all cases, what you were getting was a comic book that was self-consciously designed to be dumbed-down for casual readers. There was an understanding that “real” comics readers didn’t want self-contained 22 page stories that didn’t rely on 20 years worth of backstory for dramatic impact.

    So you would figure that if the corporate guys actually understood business, they’d come up with some products that would appeal to a literate, 38 year old professional median reader. (Marvel Comics doesn’t seem to know how to do this reliably: at any given time, about 6 titles are worth reading, when there are at least 30+ magazines being published).

    Except everyone like us, is less than nothing, commercially. The money’s where it’s always been: licensing this stuff to other companies for movies, toys, clothing, etc. And to be honest, I think this may be the operation of karma: the recent spate of Marvel movies, for example, are mostly enjoyable, which is more than I can say for a majority of the comics. It’s gotten to the point where I actually prefer the simplified universe of the movies to whatever nonsense is going on now. And I suspect that’s because, when you’re writing a tentpole movie designed to carry a bazillion dollar industry, someone actually gives half-a-fuck about basic elements of storytelling, like characterization and drama.

    More later after more thought.

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  2. Reposting my comment from Google+, per Ron’s request:

    It wouldn’t be so depressing if I didn’t see your point. Loving the content is always a sad mentality (and a consumer’s mentality). I’ve been struggling to come to grips with this for years.

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  3. James, I have more sympathy for Shooter (and Gruenwald) than you might think, especially at the personal level. You’ll see. I would like to disavow, right here, the entire construct of good/bad guys that got cemented into comics fandom, where you have “sides” of Lee vs. Kirby, et cetera. A lot of my lived experience has generated judgments, and those judgments will be incredibly explicit on this blog, but see if you can join me in putting aside geekazoid side-taking. Let’s make real lived-life judgments, comparing them because they matter. Please notice I did not demonize Shooter’s motives – he was the man in that position at that time, and it’s the arrangement of parts in that position that matters to me, not the who.

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  4. Oh, and some disclosure:

    For a few months in 2008 I was an intern in DC’s Legal Department. On a few occasions, I got to review proposed plots for routine checks for defamation, plagiarism, etc. I remember writing on a Jim Starlin proposal involving Hawkman, “Nothing here is defamatory. Also, nothing here is any damn good.” I’m pretty sure my gripe didn’t make it up the chain.

    But the point is, blaming “corporate” for neutered comics is a little too simple. Sure, if a writer skirted close to the edge of libel, Legal ought to notice that, think about it, and give a fair assessment of the risk. Same for certain trademark dilution issues. E.g., my boss had to bitch to Alan Moore that no, stupid, James Bond is not in the fucking public domain, and DC isn’t going to foot the bill for that lawsuit, sorry. But our province wasn’t controversial speech per se.

    Long before the proposals reach Legal, they’ve gone through at least one or two layers of editorial review. And here’s where two things can happen: (1) the editor hopefully makes the story a bit better by punching it up; (2) the editor flags content as problematic. That second function seems to be imposed by whoever’s the Editor-in-Chief, and can vary from imprint to imprint: my recollection is that Vertigo was supposed to have “edgier” content than mainstream DC titles, for example.

    But “problematic” content can be marketing asset as much as a liability. Marvel got press when Northstar officially “came out” as gay in the early 1990’s; the current Ms. Marvel got some press as an American Pakistani girl of Muslim faith; Captain America was killed as the capstone of a (terribly done) story about post-9/11 civil liberties & detention camps. DC’s got press for sexualized content in some of its New 52 comics, and for profanity in some of Miller’s recent (terrible) Batman work, and for years the present of DC America during the Bush/Cheney administration was Lex Luthor.

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  5. Ron–

    On the various camps about various figures, I’m totally with you. It’s a good conversation for later.

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  6. Thanks Jamey! I was struck by your equating love for the content and consumer mentality. I confess I don’t really see how that can be. Or rather, for it to be, one must embrace certain fallacies like, “I buy it, so it’s good,” or “of course it’s good, it’s very expensive,” or “brand-identity is personal identity.” If I’m reading you right, you’re critiquing those too. Can you elaborate on that so I can see where you’re coming from better?

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  7. James, I don’t think “blaming ‘corporate’ for neutered comics” is a suitable summary of my point. I think my point includes the corporate disconnect as an inadvertent means by which the comics became more creative, just as much as a means by which they were homogenized (packaged, franchised, whatever), depending on the other historical circumstances. That’s a good example of how I’m disregarding the more widely-used dichotomies in comics fandom. One may also hunt hard in my post to find a call for how corporate should look at comics instead of the way they do – it’s not there. I treat the point about selling paper as a simple, factual constant.

    There is indeed rage in my post, and a hint of a sizeable bank of blame. Can you see for whom?

    I confess I find your second post to be not very relevant to mine: libel, trademark, that kind of thing, isn’t what I’m talking about. Although I do appreciate learning about your experiences.

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  8. Hi Ron!

    I almost can’t believe I am disagreeing with you on this point.

    I almost can’t believe it, because I have passed literally decades ranting against these aspects of USA mainstream superhero comics, and their fandom and their corporate nature and etc etc …

    So, why I am disagreeing with you?

    Because you said “comics”. Not the almost moribund debased inbreed cheap monstrosity that mainstream superhero comics are become: you used the word that should be used for the entire artistic form.

    Probably you didn’t mean to, but you did fall in the usual USA myopia of seeing USA particular and worst aspect as general “way things are”.

    Just as an example… Do you know something of this man?
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergio_Bonelli
    He was, until his sudden death 4 years ago, the biggest comic book publisher in Italy, and one of the biggest one in Europe. He had his flagship title selling 800.000 copies each month in a nation where only 5.000.000 persons reads anything and where The X-Men sell less than 5.000 copies. He did publish more than 20.000 comic book pages (with absolutely no ads, as a policy) every year for years (“only” around 15.000 these days…) He has made more millions from publishing comics that Marvel probably ever had (only with comics, I mean – probably Marvel would be in the red without revenues from ads, TPB, Toys, movies, etc.) and he was the sole owner. Nobody above him, no corporate structure, no share-owners: a single owner of a publishing house created by his father (a famous comic book writer) in the 1940’s and directed by his mother and then by him (and, these days, by his son)

    I was at his table, in a restaurant, around two months before his death, a dozen people in total. Do you know what he talked about almost all the evening? Comics. Oh, not (only) his own. About what he did read, what he liked, about John Buscema (he liked very much his Conan, but he didn’t like superheroes. He never published one), about some new Italian rising star, about The Phantom and Mandrake and Prince Valiant, and Alex Raymond etc.

    Years ago, in the 1970s, he was interviewed by the italian TV in the middle of the worst crisis in comic book sales in Italian history (the ban on commercial TV was lifted, almost overnight we passed from 2 channel with two movies every week to 20 free channels with 10 movies every day. Comic book sales dropped like a stone). He talked about a lot of things, and when he talked about sales he said that his books were falling 10-20% every year (a very low figure, other publishers did lose more than half their readership in less than a year), but that he was a comic book publisher and he wanted to publish comic books, period. He would have published comic book until it was feasible.
    Some years after that he did publish one once-in-a-lifetime comic book best seller (more that a million copies sold of each issue, in a monthly series) that made him probably the richest publisher in Italy, period, and got a lot of offers to sell the publishing house. Or to sell shares. He never did, and is told (by more than a witness) that his dying wish to his son was “never sell”.

    So, this man was a particular case. The biggest, richest, more powerful comic book publisher in the nation AND a comic book fan, that loved talking with his readers about comic books and was a original art collector himself. But even as a particular case… he is much more representative of comic book publishers around here than the particular and uniquely USA situation Disney/Marvel and DC/Warner have.

    Almost all the comic book publishers here are not corporate. They publish only comic book, or at most books and newspapers. There are corporate publishing houses, that publish books and newspapers, but they were mostly driven out from the comic book field in the ’70s crisis, and are returning only these last few years to the field and are still marginal.

    Used to this kind of publishing environment… when I discovered how comic book publishing worked in the USA, i was horrified! I thought (and still think) that’s it’s totally crazy! It ISN’T built to sell comic books, at all! First the flimsy badly printed pamphlet badly distributed with total returnability on trust (a system clearly built to enrich the mob at the cost of the publishing houses… that the mod owned! A way to rob shareholders and taxes probably…), then the comic shops system… it’s crazy! It’s NOT built to sell comics, that is clearly not the point!

    So, I would agree with everything you wrote… but please, don’t say “comics”. Outside of the USA most comics are published in a less insane way. They actually WANT to sell these things! What you are describing is a specific brand or corporate USA madness. Very specific and local.

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  9. You correctly distinguish between publisher and owner. I’m talking about owners. Good for Bonelli, whom I don’t hesitate to call a personal hero, but you’d really have to work to convince me that he’s representative of comics publishing worldwide, outside the U.S. Unless you’re going to claim that the owners of all that manga production are like him.

    I think you’re also mixing up production quality vs. value somewhat. U.S. readers like me were shocked at the high physical quality of European and Japanese comics; readers outside the U.S. like you were shocked at the opposite. But pumping up the physical quality isn’t very important, in and of itself, to my point. It’s been amply demonstrated that the most repulsive version of my point can be jacked onto a higher production-value platform and behave not only identically, but also milked for extraction.

    I do wonder if Stan Lee and Chip Goodman could have converted Marvel (i.e. Goodman Publications) into something like Bonelli’s business back in 1970. They did have guaranteed distribution at the newsstands, and I venture that they might even have had the highest sell-through comics ever did there, at that point (there’s no way to know). At least structurally, there was room for something new, perhaps with feeding unsold copies into mail-order or stores like Comix & Comics, or something like that.

    Of course, Lee was chasing TV and movies, and in this he was completely consistent with everyone else. Probably the single most maverick-y rebel comics creator in U.S. history (outside of the undergrounds, in which I include Dave Sim) was Steve Gerber, and that’s what he was doing too.

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  10. Bonelli was a particular case, and using him as an example probably muddled the other point I was making: he made a lot of money selling comic books because his publishing house was built to make money publishing comic books.

    I don’t know a lot about the situation of manga publishing in Japan, but I presume that they have built a system made to sell comics. I know that they have first publication in magazines, then if the comic is popular enough it gets reprinted in a permanent form in series of books. There are constant reader’s survey to know what they like and what sells. This tells me that the system is built to sell comic books. They will be obviously happy to make more money with anime adaprations or videogames about these comics, but the system works by selling them, first. Then, if the comic is successful, THEN the adaptation, the merchandising, the tie-ins, etc.

    This is similar to the French traditional magarine-album reprint tradition. in Italy there is not a similar tradition, but the comic books is usually published from the beginning in a “permanent” square-bound monograph fashion.

    The oldest comic book series still published by Bonelli is _Tex Willer_ . The character started in 1948 but the current series started in 1958 reprinting all the stories from the beginning. That series is still going on, after more than 50 Years and 600 issues. And _every single one_ of these back issues is still available and people can buy them directly from the publisher or order them in a comic shop (up to the 90s the books were reprinted almost identically, then they discovered that if you publish a reprint with a different cover people will buy that even if they already have that issue, and stopped reprinting the 1958 version. But every single issue is available, at the same low price, in some reprint edition.)

    Everywhere, if you look at a mature market for comic book, where they sell a lot, you see the same policies:
    1) everything is available. Making people pay atrocious amount of money to be able to read your story from the beginning is stupid, you should be the one to profit from continued sales years after years, not the speculators.
    2) You have to know what sells and what is not selling, you have to be able to measure success and know what you should publish next.
    3) You should be certain that your comic will arrive to the people who want to buy them. If a distributor can’t assure you that, change distributor (if you are not so small that no distributor will work to distribute your books: in Bonelli’s case ha was so powerful that distributors offered him special more favorable conditions to get exclusive distributing rights to his books)
    4) If an author sells a lot of books, you try to keep him happy and make him stay with you.

    I don’t know any comic market in the world that don’t follow these simple rules… apart from traditional USA comic book publishing! (pre-comics shops)

    1) Nothing is available. If you don’t go to the store the right day the comic book is gone and you will never be able to find it again if not second-hand for high prices. Hell, even if you go to the store the right day, you could still miss the issue! The system doesn’t care a bit about selling you that comic. The shop makes more money offering you other things, the distributor don'[t care because he is paid the return rate anyway. And the publisher? He does nothing about it.
    These days? The publisher want to sell the shop owner the comic books, not to you.
    2) You don’t have any way to know what is really read and liked. In the ’70s the Jackl Kirby books even reported lower sell-throught because they were more valuable and so the distributor did steam them more reporting them as “unsold” in more quantity. The system was built to feed the publisher false data.
    These days there is simply no data about how much a title sells to readers. Only to the shops.
    3) You have no guarantee that your comic book will be delivered to the person who want to buy it. Not then, not now.
    4) You can’t be sure about how much a author is really selling, and even if he is surely a very big seller, he can be laid off easily if someone get mad at him (Kirby at National in the ’50s, for example, but the cases are a lot more)

    Even at a glance, you see that this system is not built to sell reading material. It’s a system to sell short-lived collectibles, noveltly items, or something you want to distance yourself and wash your hand off as soon as possible.

    And i don’t know any other nation where publishing works in this insane way.

    Reading Jim Shooter’s posts, he often describe how everything else in the very, very big corporate structure was above comics. Being “Editor in Chief” of the comics was like being a nobody seldom admitted to the higher floor where the elevator boy scoffed at you and secretaries ignore you. And that is the reason “corporate just sells paper”, because comic book publishing in the USA was a tiny, totally ignorable parts of a big corporation, in a social atmosphere where they were seen as worse than pornography.

    But that is not true anywhere else in the world. That is the collision of American hysteria about Wertham’s “seduction of the innocents” (a book ignored everywhere else, it never even got an italian translation), American mega-corporate structure, and… well, the mob connections of these corporate owners (BOTH Marvel and DC, for a big part of their history) that made probably a lot of these structures works as laundering operations more than as sane structures.

    Stan Lee in the 60s could change the comic books he published because nobody cared, probably not even him. in the same years, Italian comic book publishing was changed not only by Bonelli, but by a new character, that became so (in)famous to deserve a parliament interrogation, terrified and scandalized newspapers pages, and became a movie and a lot of merchandising: _Diabolik_, a first “black protagonist” (in the “evil” sense, not in any racial sense), a thief, a murderer, that in every issues won against the law robbing and murdering people just for fun and profit.
    Even after the movie, and the merchandising, the character is still published today, with a maniacal attention to the satisfaction of the reader, by the same publishing houses that was founded by two sisters with no previous publishing experience. And no corporate structure above. The two sisters were the sole owners, and at their death (with no children) they picked a successor and did leave him the publishing house.
    But these two sisters were not the ones to profit more from the sudden flood of “black” comic books: that was Renzo Barbieri. A Journalist that saw that people liked these kind of stories and started a publishing house, from a small initial capital and a single co-owner, and in a few years flooded Italian comic shops with series after series full of sex, violence, very evil and sadist protagonists (usually women) (he was the one who published the Magnus comic book I gave to you at Lucca, where Magnus added the sex scenes to make him happy…). His publishing house did not survive the flood of pornographic VHS of the ’80s, but he was the (almost) sole owner and the one in control. And even if he did publish a lot (really a lot) of comics full of pornographic and sadist scenes, often crudely written and drawn… he was never ashamed of doing that, of what he did publish, as Stan Lee was of writing comics

    Go to the french comic marlet, the latin-american one, the north-european one (a disney colony), the Italian one, the japanese and corean one… You will not find that shame. Not even in pornographers.

    Now, I remember a single case, in Italy. There was a very good comic magazine, in the 70s, where the best italian authors (that were not already working for Bonelli) published their series. The difference between this magazine and the others I described, is that it was published by a very, very big corporation (in italian terms, in the USA it would probably be considered small). A corporation that published A LOT of magazines (cooking magazines, fashion magazines, car magazines, news magazines, etc) and even a couple of “respectable” newspapers.
    The comics magazines was subjected to a lot of stupid changes, the very successful editor in chief that has quadrupled its circulation was fired when he did protests, and in a few years the magazine was closed having lost all its readership (having been changed before that to a TV magazine with very few comics for children). Almost all the authors were quickly hired by Bonelli (and one of them created for him after a few years the million-copies-every-month incredible success series I talked about), and when they talks about that experiences, they always say the same thing: the bigger corporate structure was ashamed of selling comics. They were left alone until they sold poorly, but when they sold enough to become noticeable, the corporate structure try to “de-comics-ize” them (all the stupid changes, turning them into a TV magazine), sales be damned.

    There is another thing similar to american publishers: exactly as Marvel and DC were in the pocket of the mob, this big corporation was fully controlled by a criminal organization (with fascist roots) that had become so powerful to control both the italian secret services (I think you know what organization i am talking about, right?)

    This is, i think, a prerequisite: no matter how big a corporate structure is: if they are trying to make money by selling things (even paper), they will try to sell more things. Even more comics.

    To have a corporate structure that doesn’t care at all about the (even little) money they get get from selling comics, they have to get their money from other things, or in any case, they don’t want to sell comics badly enough. if you simply laundry dirty money, you don’t care about selling books.

    About selling books… creating a comic book series to sell toys, I can see as a legitimate publishing decision. A short-sighted one, maybe, but it’s not uncommon. Publisher all over the world did that and will do that. I don’t see that as the most damning evidence of the insanity of the system. The very way the system works in the bigger proof of its insanity.

    About Lee and Thomas changing the system in the ’60s to get a more sane one… i don’t think it would have been possible. Jim Shooter described as, after being made editor in chief, seeing the insane way returns worked (that encouraged theft: the distributor simply said how many copies they “had to destroy”, without any proof, and they were paid that amount, no question asked: in practice, a license to milk money from you) he did try to change it. But he received the visit of a “gentleman” dressed like it was from a Al Capone movie telling him that it was a very, very bad idea, and Shooter quickly changed his mind… do you see Stan Lee risking his life to same Goodman’s money, when Goodman himself didn’t give a shit and probably dined with the people who had send the guy?

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  11. I don’t particularly disagree with you, but I don’t think you’re disagreeing much with me either, or at least not as much as it seemed in your first post. The details of shame about comics and your entirely correct points about the truly ridiculous finances (I mean, from our point of view) are a United States thing, I agree. And I’m OK with specifying my points to that context. But I’m not going to idealize non-U.S. comics either, which is something that goes on here a lot.

    My comment about Lee and Goodman did not apply to those particular men but only to the structural possibilities of the time. You’re right that interests that were not about selling comics were far more powerful than interests about selling them. (Incidentally, it seems likely to me that the Goodmans were strong-armed out of owning Marvel; Chip was probably lucky to walk away owning the Stag and Male magazines … at least he could walk.)

    Also, a planned post for someday concerns mob stuff and Marvel for sure, especially regarding a certain other nation.

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  12. It took me years to realize that Rev wasn’t the only comics publisher who didn’t care about the quality of the work inside the pages. The whole “pushing toilet paper” idea hadn’t occurred to me and, as a lifelong comics fan, was abhorrent to me. My editors always pushed for the best, but I agree that the guys who wrote the checks only saw numbers.

    I always bitched that if Marvel or DC truly wanted to grow their business for the long haul, they should have a rack of comics at every movie theater in the country so that kids who watched the Avengers could pick up the comic and actually see the source material for themselves. My feeling was that even if the comics made no direct profit for the publisher at that time, the exercise would fertilize the young minds for the future. They would want to go to the comics shop next week and buy comics. And down the road, these would be the new diehard fans that would flood theaters for Avengers 24 and bring their own kids with them. But there was always a bunch of BS about logistics, blah-blah-blah. When in truth, the suits didn’t care about the comics themselves and wouldn’t even think beyond short-term profits.

    As Moreno said: “Insanity”.

    As a self-publisher these days, I am interested in learning more about the Italian model of comics distribution (without the visits of the tough guys making me an offer I couldn’t refuse).

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    • I was thinking about the movie idea. I can just see the ownership’s response: “Wait, use movies to sell the comics? That’s backwards! Crazy talk!” Even pitching it as a way to sell movies later wouldn’t work because I bet the theaters wouldn’t ever take it up the ass with neither lube nor reacharound agree to non-returnability, for example. The way it is now, all the owners have to do is pump the paper to distribution and they are done with that, profit margin achieved, stamp the books, and figure the advertisement is over with.

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  13. Thanks for reminding me to answer, Ron.

    What I’m getting at is this: who cares how good a piece of art is? I only see two real answers to that question, the artist and the audience. The artist cares because he has ego and identity wrapped up in his work. The audience cares because they will enjoy “good” (let’s pretend for the sake of simplicity that quality is a single-axial continuum) more than “poor” work.

    The problem is that those who are in charge of producing the content are neither artist nor audience; they’re businessmen, selling paper. It works the same in other industries too, of course. We sell paper, they sell movie tickets or beer or whatever. I mean, Budweiser is garbage, right? But it sells.

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    • I see two independent variables at work, Jamey. Both are full of little ones, but just as you say, we can let those trend around by themselves internally.

      1. The movement (production, distribution, recouping cost) of the paper. On its own, this is really no bad thing. Or the bad things it might include aren’t really in my sights at the moment, like forest conservation and stuff like that. Arguably, unless someone is causing the medium for any given art/entertainment to exist, then there isn’t any art or entertainment done that way.

      2. The interest, excitement, and commitment of the artist and audience, and the way they reinforce one another.

      What matters to me here – and I suspect this is really thorny for you – is how #2 gets confused by #1, such that tons more paper gets moved even when #2 is not genuinely being satisfied, merely addled. Perhaps a state similar to a gambling frenzy, or to a riot at a sports event, or arguably, the bizarre fad about shopping in a particular way after Thanksgiving Day in the U.S. All I can say about this state is that it has a lot to do with thinking “I belong” “everyone’s doing it” and a risk-based adrenalin rush, because all three are in fact very risky.

      Another factor doesn’t merely co-opt #2 for the interests of #1, but actually falsely identifies the two, such that “it sells” is in itself perceived as evidence of high satisfaction in #2. Even flatly saying “#2 is not working,” and showing it, can be met with “but it sells” – this is the whole rhetoric of The Market, a cultish system of thought which is so entrenched in the U.S. we might as well be living in Bizarro World. (With love and respect to German friends living in the west of their country, they have a really bad case of it too.)

      Untangling that factor, for many of us, and getting ourselves mentally out of its clutches, is a life-long process.

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