Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Post In Which Sean Responds To Everybody By Way Of A Lengthy Rant

I'm not usually one to follow up on the postings of other bloggers and journalists, in part because I don't care about what they're talking about and, in part, because I don't think it's worth either your or my time to just say, "Me too!" But there have been a few comic topics floating around the past week or so that I feel compelled to address.

I read Superman and Batman and whatnot in the 1970s and, despite having the racially insightful Green Lantern issue introducing John Stewart, Marvel comics seemed more culturally and socially aware/relevant when I became old enough to notice such things. As companies go, that's probably pretty accurate as any of DC's powerful/conscientious stuff at that time was written almost exclusively by one man: Denny O'Neil. I think I must have had some kind of subconscious awareness of the tokenism that brought about (for example) Apache Chief, Black Vulcan and Samurai. But, while the Marvel Comics I read didn't feature minority characters, they did have an ongoing presence that spoke more to reality as I saw it from my white-bred, middle-class suburbia back in the early 1980s.

Over the years, I'd heard about new characters stepping into the roles of DC's pantheon. Not only was there an African American Green Lantern, but now there was a Hispanic Blue Beetle and The Question and a bunch of other minority representations that didn't feel like token characters (so far as I know -- again, I've heard about them and haven't actively read DC books for decades). And this fell in line with DC's standard procedure -- they'd long established that their characters were known by their powers and icons moreso than actual characterization. Witness the birth of the Silver Age with a total revamping of The Flash. Marvel has less of a history of that kind mantle adoption, but they did fairly regularly introduce new non-Caucasian characters. (None with the enduring power of your Spider-Mans and your Hulks, obviously, but still...)

Now I hear through Chris Sims that DC is turning the clock back and brushing aside some unique and interesting characters in favor of those that were around in the 1960s and '70s. And, bizarrely for the company, Archie Comics -- long the bastion of white 1950s' anachronistic America -- has introduced previously-unseen-in-their-comics minorities, inter-racial dating and even a homosexual character. Which puts both companies firmly into the social consciousness of the late 1970s, where racial and gender issues can be openly discussed but only within the context of "a very special episode" of the predominantly male Caucasian protagonists.

Have I ever mentioned how little I liked the 1970s?

There were a lot of reasons to not like the 1970s. The United States had a President who resigned over issues regarding his ethics, there was a lingering war that everyone was tired of, there was pretty deep economic recession... not to mention most of the fashions sucked. And, while executives decided that maybe Blacks and Asians didn't want to see only white characters, they made trite gestures of inclusiveness, despite nearly a decade of inter-racial casts in (for the time, unusually) socially progressive shows like Star Trek and I Spy.

That kind of thing was perhaps most evident in movies. The whole Blacksploitation and martial arts genres came about, in part, from that. Movie execs didn't want to put different races in the same movie, so you wind up with movies that tend to feature predominantly one race. (There are outliers, of course, but with the exception of perhaps Enter the Dragon, they're generally limited to comedies like Blazing Saddles or don't appear until the very tail end of the decade -- Yaphet Kotto in 1979's Alien or Billy Dee Williams in 1980's The Empire Strikes Back for examples.)

But that's almost to be expected. Hollywood had, even by the 1970s, been very much a product-oriented culture. They weren't producing great works of art; they were producing entertainment for the masses -- then perceived in distinctive and segregated blocks. Black people wouldn't bother to go see Superman: The Movie, it would've been argued, because Superman's a white guy and they wouldn't be able to relate. Minorities didn't really begin getting shown in superhero films until the 1980s with Superman III (with Richard Pryor) and The Punisher (with Lou Gossett, Jr.) and even then the hero is still a white guy with a dark sidekick. That's a mentality that's evidently on display in comicdom today, highlighting Sims' notion of regressive storytelling.

I know I gave you all a headache just bringing up those two abysmal attempts at movie-making as some examples, but that feeds directly into my next main point: movies suck.

Salon columnist Matt Seit called superhero movies morally and creatively bankrupt, but he misses the bigger notion that the movie industry on the whole is bankrupt. Tom Spurgeon followed up by saying, among other things, that there's no reason we can't hold superhero movies to a higher standard, but the reality is that most movies -- certainly anything produced by a film studio -- are shooting for a lowest common denominator. I don't think it's fair to expect every film to come out looking like it was directed by Fritz Lang, but the bar is insanely low. Oh, sure, there's a large spectacle on the screen with lots of money thrown at computer effects or 3D or whatever, but the storylines and acting in most movies anymore is mediocre at best.

Most actors these days really only create one character and repeat it for every movie (and TV show) with minor alterations. Most scripts follow the same fairly predictable plot points. You can tell easily sum up entire movies, complete with sub-plots and character arcs almost to the minute, just by watching a two- or three-minute trailer. Producers and directors aren't out to make Citizen Kane, they're out to make Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not knocking it (that much). It's meant as banal, mindless entertainment and it comes across and is sold as exactly that. Movies aren't made to make you think, they're made so you can "Oooo" and "Aaah" at the big explosions. People go in expecting that, and that's what they get. No harm, no foul. Is Fantastic Four 2 really that much worse than Zardoz? Or Herbie Rides Again? Or The Golden Voyage of Sinbad? (Staying with my "The 1970s Sucked" theme.)

Sturgeon's Law: Ninety percent of everything is crap. Yes, most superhero movies suck. But most movies suck anyway, so any subset of that is statistically going to follow that same percentage. Most Westerns suck. Most crime noir films suck. Most comedies suck. Most sci-fi movies suck. That superhero movies have garnered more attention the past several years means they're more likely to be called out, but it's not a condition unique to one genre. It's mindless pop culture entertainment. Should superhero movies be held to a higher standard than any other genre? Sure, I'd like to see better superhero movies, but I wouldn't expect it any more than I'd expect better movies overall.

[Insert clever segue here.]

Which brings me to my last point. Brigid Alverson recently followed up with some retailers on the crackdown of HTMLComics.com. What stands out to me are some comments by Jud Meyers...
I had heard talk of a site and a guy who had been doing something like this but I didn't know the exact name of the site and like everyone else, I didn't pay much attention. We are all busy doing business...

I was shocked at the number of people, the number of high level creators and publishers who don't pay attention and think it's just a shitty little site, some guy sitting in the basement somewhere. And then they look at a site like that and what do the publishers say? 'Oh my God, this guy is giving away our product for free!' And then they say 'Why don't we have a site like this? Why don't we hire this guy? We should have someone like this to do this for us.'

Granted, we're talking about only one retailer's comments here, but ARE YOU FRICKIN' KIDDING ME?!? If your business model does not include keeping abreast of competition, which at some level piracy is, then you are going to fail. Period. Business conditions change constantly and if you're not at least keeping up with what the people next to you are doing, they're going to start to outpace you.

Just a couple hours ago, we had a guest speaker come in to work to talk about blogging and social media. All of it was old-hat for me, but he made a poignant comment that I personally have not been able to sufficiently impress on my superiors. Namely, that any decent sized company these days is EXPECTED to have a blog or a Facebook page or a Twitter account or something. SOME kind of presence online. Not having that online presence is the aberration, not the norm. Most companies have nothing to do (directly) with Twitter or Facebook, and many aren't that tech-savvy at all, but those applications have had a direct impact on how they're conducting business. It's an external change in business conditions that companies (and individuals) have had to adapt to. Even if your business works just fine and dandy right here and right now, there are other forces well beyond your control -- sometimes beyond the entire industry's control -- that will impact how you need to do business.

Digital piracy is one of those things. The general policy among publishers, so far as I can tell until very recently, has been to ignore it. But they at least have acknowledged it was out there. Meyer didn't seem to have done even that until a month or two back.

Now, again, Meyer is one guy. When I spoke with retailer Joe Field last year, he was certainly cognizant of the issue, but didn't seem to have a good handle on how best to address it. Field is, of course, one of the most prominent retailers in comicdom today, I think in part, because he's a good businessman. So he might represent the other end of the spectrum. Where the bulk of comics retailers fall, I don't know.

But, regardless of your personal feelings on the issue, comics being distributed digitally IS THE REALITY. Whether publishers decide to do it or not, or how they might implement it, somebody is going to put online comics that were meant for print. It is absolutely dirt easy to do and they're dirt easy to find. In many cases, you don't even have to be familiar with torrents and you can just download them directly through any web browser! We're not talking about unusually high-tech programming here; we're talking about folks with a scanner and a WYSIWYG web editor. We're talking about technology that has been widely available to the general U.S. population for at least 15 years! At a fairly minimal cost to boot! This is NOT a new and upcoming threat -- this is something that the comic book industry has been professionally and collectively avoiding dealing with for well over a decade!

To have not seen that before this year is willful ignorance.

Last month, I made a post about how comic shops shouldn't be in the business of selling comics. I resolutely hold to that notion and this is precisely why. Even if every Gregory Hart is arrested and every scanlations site is pulled down, that will not alter the fact that digital comics will continue to be posted online in direct competition with the pulped wood copies of the same books. I'm not saying that I condone the behavior, but no matter how much fear is generated by publishers and retailers and law enforcement, and no matter how regulated and monitored the process becomes, there will be people who actively seek to thwart it. That is the reality. That is retailers' competition.

And since the retailers do not have the legal authority to press charges (any violations would be against the publisher and/or IP owner) nor are they likely to have the financial resources to pursue such cases anyway, they need to, as a business, offer a product/service that cannot be replicated.

And that is the personality and culture of the store. I won't rehash my argument from last month, but piracy is one of the reasons I spoke so directly to that notion.

Look: I'm not claiming to have all the answers. I'm one guy with a handful of opinions and an Internet connection. I absolutely think comics should provide a better reflection of the diversity inherent in mankind and, if I wrote comics, I'd like to think my work would reflect that. I absolutely think superhero movies, by and large, suck and should be made without falling back on tired clich├ęs for stories. I'd like to think a superhero movie I might produce would be better than the vast majority of them out there.(As I'm sure most producers think.) And I absolutely think comic piracy can cut into retailers' business, and I'd like to think that if I ran a comic shop, I'd take steps to address that.

But I'm not any of those things. I'm a guy with opinions. I like to think that they're well-reasoned and intelligent. I'd like to think they're reasonably well-informed. I'd like to think somebody out there feels what I have to say is of value. If they're not, somebody please call me out on it and I'll go back to doing mash-ups or something. If there's something I'm just totally missing -- some angle I've overlooked or some vital information I just don't have -- feel free to let me know. This is an interactive forum, after all, and if you don't feel the need to correct me on any of, I'm left with the inescapable conclusion that I'm a genius, and I should tackle that tricky problem of proving that black is white while at a zebra crossing.

1 comment:

Matt K said...

Well done, sir.

And how typical is: "...we had a guest speaker come in to work to talk about blogging and social media. All of it was old-hat for me, but he made a poignant comment that I personally have not been able to sufficiently impress on my superiors."

When you're someone from down the hall with an idea, you're a schmoe.

When you're someone from another city/state with the same idea, you're an expert.

(And if you're someone from another country with the same idea, you're probably a highly-paid professional expert.)