Things to come, by Elayne Riggs
This is the time of year when people usually start to compile "best of" lists and recaps. But as 2007 has been more "the worst of times" for me than "the best of times," I prefer to look forward. After all, as Criswell once "predicted" in a hardly-memorable Ed Wood film, "We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives!"
Crystal ball gazing also helps if you have the retention level of a hyperactive gnat, which I’m afraid is the case for me. I don’t tend to get worked up over details in comic books or TV shows or movies because most entertainment is ephemeral to me; I just don’t feel I need to keep all the minutiae in my head. It carries the added advantage of making rereading the same book a lot more fun to me, a constant surprise as I encounter things again that I didn’t remember from the last time I read them.
In the land of graphic literature, at least in this country, Diamond’s magazine Previews is the only consumer choice in terms of moving from baseless speculation about what may or may not happen in monthly story installments months down the line (that’s more the realm of comics "news" sites, which often busy themselves in breathlessly extolling events yet to happen to the detriment of examining current comics) to actually planning out and ordering one’s reading of choice for the foreseeable future (say, two months down the line). Time was, order forms were the sole purview of retailers. Of course, time was when Previews wasn’t the only game in town. Not that the disappearance of competitors like Capital City and Heroes World constitutes anything like a monopoly for Diamond! At least not according to the antitrust investigation, which didn’t consider comics as separate from other literature. In any case, with all the major companies sewn up with exclusives and treated as Premier customers (some pigs being more equal than other pigs), Previews is the only choice now for readers who wish to support their local retailers, as well as for publishers who want to reach audiences they can’t afford to grow on their own (even in this age of online ordering). Unfortunately, Diamond doesn’t accept every comic published into the hallowed pages of Previews, so now more than ever it pays to see what’s out there in the virtual world, but online content distribution is another column entirely.
Today’s comic book chain works approximately as follows for most paper product in the US: creators either self-publish or are contracted for by publishers; publishers vend their wares to retailers via distributors (i.e., Diamond); and of course retailers’ customers are you and me, the end consumers. (So it’s important to remember that, while the internet has made direct two-way communication between creators and readers more common than ever, the "middle men" steps of publisher/distributor/retailer means that creators don’t really work for readers, and likewise that fans don’t directly pay creators’ "salaries" except in instances such as commissions or page resales, which are called "the secondary market" for a reason, they rarely constitute artists’ primary source of income.) As Previews has wound up in the end-consumers’ hands instead of being strictly aimed at Diamond’s actual customers, the magazine has had to become more user-friendly, and you can see this in the first page after the Table of Contents, which contains a User’s Guide and a Legend explaining the various symbols and terms utilized in the jargon-heavy catalog. It’s all a bit daunting, particularly for new readers but, unless you want to keep guessing about what might sound interesting, or go for potluck at your local retailer, you need to at least peruse this section just in case. Turns out my personal tastes rarely coincide with what books Diamond dubs as "Certified Cool" or "Select" or "Previews Exclusive" (exclusive? isn’t everybody effectively exclusive to the only game in town?), so while I’m glad this page exists in the end it has little to no impact on my choices.
Still, Diamond needs to keep its end consumers excited, and that’s what the Splash pages are for — to highlight books the publishers want to push, using as many exclamation points as possible. I and many others who use Previews strictly to make up our monthly pull lists never read this PR section, but I find it interesting to glance at to get an idea of what publishers think is important to emphasize (i.e., where they sink their money).
Next up is the Toy Chest, the first section that reminds end-users that comic book distribution ceased to be mainly about graphic literature, about storytelling, long ago. It’s all so obviously about product now, and toys and statues and pamphlets with words and pictures are all much of a muchness, all interchangeable. It doesn’t matter to Diamond or their customers if one item sets your imagination soaring and imbues you with a love of modern mythology and a desire for more, and one item sits behind glass in an unopened box until it either appreciates in value and you make a killing on it or it winds up in a garage sale. Sure there’s a Santa Claus, Virginia; only $19.99 plus shipping to put him in your window or buy the DVD in which he appears!
Flip the page and it’s back to comics, as the Top 100 from a few months ago are listed. In the Previews for January books it happens to be last August’s Diamond sales, and every single book is Marvel or DC. Every. Single. One. The following month (Previews for February books, featuring September’s Diamond sales) fares a little better, with two books from Dark Horse (Buffy making it into the top 10) and two from Image. I note with a smile that books on which my husband worked made #77 and #80 for their respective months, but as Diamond doesn’t tell you how many copies that actually constitutes I know how misleading those rankings can be.
Next up are the Hot List pages, where Previews steps to the plate to bat for Team Comics, rah rah rah! Only in the January book about half the "Try Something New in the New Year!" suggestions are exact duplicates of what was advertised in their Splash pages. And in the February book, since it’ll be Valentine’s Day, there’s an emphasis on romance, Archie and manga. ‘Cause, you know, that’s what the chicks like to read, and in February it’s good for business to try to cater to chicks. They present these books mainly as "Gift Ideas," mind you. Diamond knows its end-user base, the one that really counts, The Guys, would never buy that stuff for themselves! After all, that’s why the Buffy comic made the top 10.
Despite recent changes (about which see more below), flipping through the Premier Comics and Comics & Graphic Novels sections of Previews can still be daunting, disappointing and ultimately exhausting, particularly for those of us who seek out graphic storytelling done by women, not just about women. Halfway through Dark Horse for January it hit me, none of the creator names were female except for colorists (the comics industry’s version of the "pink collar ghetto"). Even mainstay Jan Duursema is absent from the Star Wars stuff. One non-colorist female appears in the February DH previews, as a co-writer (Jessica Gruner on Emily the Strange). I’m fairly sure DH’s manga offerings aren’t authored or drawn by women, although I couldn’t swear to it as I’m unfamiliar with how (or whether) Japanese names break down gender-wise. DC’s a little better, I found a female writer only two pages into their offerings and it wasn’t even Gail Simone, but no female artists that I could see (although admittedly I don’t peruse the DC pages too closely since we get the comp box every month; I just look for the book on which Robin’s working so I can draw a little heart next to his name, fangirl that I am). I know they’re out there, I’m friends with a lot of them; heck, I co-created the damn list in the first place. But they’re not getting the Premier jobs, even at publishers with female names on their mastheads. None of this is to say the books themselves don’t sound good — I was particularly impressed by the wide variety of subject matter being offered by Image comics — but if it’s guy after guy after guy creating the stories, it tends to wear me down. Just how many stories does Robert Kirkman write for Image, anyway (as well as for Marvel, for that matter)? Isn’t there a Roberta Kirkman anywhere?
The Marvel section is frustrating on additional levels. For whatever reason, Marvel prints its own supplemental previews magazine instead of advertising its solicitations in Diamond’s catalog. This bulks up the catalog awkwardly when it’s inserted, and drives end-users nuts when it’s omitted. Also, for some time now Marvel has not listed inkers’ names on its solicits. I won’t go into the practical reasons for this, which really oughtn’t differ from the practical reasons at other major publishers, but the upshot is that it turns inking from the highly specialized artistic discipline that it is into an afterthought, a mere production job that may as well be performed by a computer or a trained monkey. Considering how close inker Jimmy Palmiotti is to the current Marvel regime (which boasts an artist as its EIC) this is somewhat baffling. And it certainly adds to the notion of inkers, the people whose lines actually appear on the finished product as the original pencils are erased from the board, being superfluous. In some instances they are, with the advent of such techniques as "digital inking" (i.e., having the colorist handle the shadings and thicks-and-thins) and better quality printing of tight pencils. But this has been going on for at least a decade and inking hasn’t disappeared yet, it’s still a vital part of the creation process and ought to be treated as such. (Then again, being married to an artist who currently makes his living as an inker, I’m hopelessly biased.)
Finally we get to the eyestrain section, the non-Premier comics. The stuff you can only find in Previews, because otherwise they’re unlikely to be at your local comic shop and you’d need to be a whiz at Google searching to even go looking for comics that aren’t listed there. (I mean, how would you find them if you don’t even know title, subject matter or creative team?) This is where I open my mind as much as I can and try desperately to find new material in my favorite genre, fantasy comics written or drawn by women. Back in the ’80s when I started doing similar for non-graphic literature, it was a sort of Golden Age for female-written fantasy (and even some sf). In comics, that Golden Age has yet to arrive. Or more accurately, it skipped my generation. It’s totally there now, it’s just not necessarily originating in this country.
It’s called manga, and it has great appeal to young readers of both genders. But, as Val D’Orazio sarcastically characterizes a typical fanboy mindset after attending the New York Anime Festival, "They’re not real comic book fans, they just like manga. A completely different animal. Manga is spun from taffy and delivered on moonbeams." She observes, more seriously, that anime and manga fandom is "a movement in which males and females more or less equally participate. It’s a movement that is racially inclusive. It’s a movement in which consumer participation and customization is essential. It’s a movement not about collecting but experiencing. It’s a movement complete with a whimsical aesthetic that I am only beginning to understand… If mainstream comics does not make a better effort to understand this youth culture, they might still have a bit of fair success with the older market. But they will both completely lose the youth market. And they will at the same time fail to plant the seeds for the next generation’s interest in their products… there has to be a willingness on the mainstream’s part to look beyond the fact that they don’t ‘get’ it. They have to be willing to embrace the idea that what the ‘kids’ want is not what they want. And that’s hard, because rolled into that is the realization that they are getting physically older. It’s the realization that there is a whole line of generations out there that are ready to assume their place on the queue of life."
You want a true glimpse of the future? This is what’s to come out there. Previews, to its credit, has acknowledged the advent of manga. Companies like ADV and DMP and Tokyopop take up multiple full-page spreads with their wares. But many of us who like the subject matter and applaud the female creator participation don’t necessarily care for the artistic aspect of the storytelling; I’m no more a fan of saucer eyes and characters suddenly shifting to chibi mode than I am of much of today’s animation. I’m a grumpy old lady, I want the comics equivalent of the old Warner Brothers cartoon style but with today’s sensibility. Where are the comic books that correspond to the comedic brilliance of The Office or 30 Rock? Where’s the magical realism that doesn’t seek to turn me off with in-my-face boob- and crotch-shots? Why is a medium filled with such potential still so limited?
And even as I say that, I acknowledge that Previews is still so much better than it was even a few years back. You have to go ten pages into the January comics section before you see any comics covers featuring splayed, may-as-well-be-naked women; until recently you couldn’t escape this pseudo-porn fetishism. It’s still a shame that publishers feel the need to purvey this non-storytelling at all, but that’s a function of the larger society in which sex (mostly defined as the Male Gaze upon the Female Object, although the appearance of yaoi books is beginning to change that) sells. And it surprises and delights me to see how small a role it plays in today’s Previews. It’s enough to make you say, "you know what? If folks get off on Red Sonja and Jungle Girl and the rest of it, let ’em, there’s enough other stuff out there that this no longer dominates." Quite a refreshing change for those of us who remember whole Usenet threads about how Previews seemed to go out of its way to alienate half of comics’ potential readership.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go strain my eyes to figure out what I want to buy in January and February. After all, that’s where I’ll be spending the next two months of my life.
Elayne Riggs, ComicMix‘s news editor, doesn’t just read fantasy comics written by women, and wants to recommend the January releases of of Rod Esspinosa’s Prince of Heroes #1, Mark Crilley’s Miki Falls #4, and Lerner Publishing’s Graphic Universe line.