Tuesday, September 14, 2004


Whoa Nelly! It’s that time of the week again! Click on over to PopCultureShock to see me remix Superman #208. It’s not as wacky as last week’s. But it is still funny, I hope.

There’s nothing I like better than getting letters in the old e-mail. For one thing, it makes it look like I’ve got all sorts of new content up when all I did was reprint a letter.

But seriously – a well-written missive, whether agreeing or disagreeing with any of the positions I take here, lets me know that you people are at least paying attention. Which, of course, fills me up with all sorts of warm & fuzzy feelings. Of course, I think now that I have admitted to having warm & fuzzies, I will have to turn in my Fantagraphics card . . . and after I worked so hard to get it, too!

Anyway, this letter comes to us courtesy of Mr. Matthew Rossi:

"Steve Ditko's address is supposedly listed in the phone book. If the creators of the new Question series, the creative team behind the Justice League Unlimited cartoon and the producers of the recent Spider-Man movies wanted to kick an old man in the nuts, they probably could have saved a lot of trouble and just done it the old fashioned way."

I doubt that any of them had any desire to injure Ditko. Rather, they simply wanted to present the characters he had a hand in creating in as effective a manner as possible. While I agree with you in regards to Doc Ock - it added nothing to have him be sympathetic - I disagree with you on the subject of The Question. (By the way, have you seen Polite Dissent? Scott's talking about Hawk and Dove this week, it's a Ditko double dose.) To be fair, you're right that Ditko's objectivism drenches the book.

However, it was an artistic failure. The polemic overwhelmed the art: I think that's why Dennis O'Neil's version was as well received as it was. (This also may be why the Kesel *Hawk and Dove* series lasted as long as it did, or why DC ultimately made Hawk into a third rate bad guy, but I digress.) Had the series been successful as art as well as a polemic, it would have led to an outcry when DC allowed it to be revamped (no such outcry came when they massively revamped Captain Atom, either, another Ditko creation rooted in a particular philosophy, time and place which seemed outdated when DC tried to integrate them) whether or not the audience for the comics shared Ditko's philosophy. I sincerely doubt most readers are as ultra-pacifistic as the Silver Surfer has been portrayed (the most recent, baffling 'alien abduction' version aside) and yet you're quite correct that readers would protest if he suddenly became a vicious alien conquerer or what have you. That's because as presented to date, the Silver Surfer *really is a character*: he has defined character traits that have been presented in action and dialogue and have not, as in the case of the Question, just been an excuse for another sermon on the way the universe exists outside of perception or the inflexibility of Good and Evil.

In short, the question you asked as an introduction to your post (When is a character not a character?) can *actually be applied* to Steve Ditko's work. Captain Atom and the Question *aren't characters at all*: they're thinly veiled authorial mouthpieces for tropes Ditko (or Ditko and Gill, although really, Captain Atom doesn't even have the dubious distinction of being as interesting as The Question – he suffers from comparison to Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom, even though he beat Phillip Solar into print by two years) want to present to their audience. By comparison, Ditko's work on Spider-Man is much more satisfying: the moral absolute is there, no doubt, but it is presented in a story that endures and is readable to this day. Watching Spider-Man risk his life to come up with a magnetic inversion unit to capture the Vulture or to alter his webbing in order to counteract the advantage of Doc Ock's arms showed that Peter Parker was more than a costume: he was a living, breathing, thinking superhero, someone putting his life and his wits on the line to stop some right bastards. (This is why I agree with you on Doc Ock but disagree with you on the Question of the Question: Doc Ock was used effectively as a compelling foil for a fully realized superhero: the Question was never used effectively by Ditko.) It's interesting to me to consider that in the
Question's origin (annual #2, I think) he beats a man violently for giving him LSD *and making him doubt his own senses* - The Question's only moment of characterization is that of a person so inflexible in his worldview that he resorts to violence when it's threatened.

The only way to use The Question effectively is to divorce him from Ditko's philosophy: in essence, to take Ditko's polemics out, and use the visual. That's the reason O'Neil's version is as well received as it was: it was the first time The Question *was a character at all* instead of another mouthpiece uttering dialogue that Ditko himself would have said. (This is a fine line to walk, obviously, and I'd be willing to admit that Ditko's original conception of Vic Sage as a crusading reporter rooting out corruption *could* have worked artistically, I just don't believe it *did*) Also, O'Neil didn't change everything up front: he had The Question's objectivist philosophy itself bring the man down in a rather brilliant (and later unfortunately revisited by the Batman Knightfall storyline) series where Victor Sage's established violent tendencies and black and white viewpoint ended up in his own near-destruction: the later philosophical tendencies of the series seemed to many (myself included) to fit the idea of a man who called himself The Question but who had, up until that point, *resisted asking any.* The polemic became a quest. It was simply a superior work to Ditko's strident demagoguery.

Is this 'a kick in the nuts' to an old man? Maybe. But it's hard to argue that he didn't set himself up for the kick: he combined his obvious visual design genius with his ridiculous and unsupportable philosophy: The Question, Hawk and Dove, Captain Atom and Mr A aren't as beloved as Spider-Man and Doctor Strange for a reason, and that reason is that the latter two were much more fully realized as characters (even though Strange comes the closest to a black and white moral outlook of any realized character, it's more palatable here because Strange is dealing with black magic and demons from outside dimensions, and also because Ditko's unquestioned visual genius is gorgeously evident throughout his run on the character) - just as we're not expected to allow the risible dialogue of Rob Liefeld forever define the characters he created for Marvel (okay, so the return of Liefeld to X-Force doesn't help my case here) we don't have to accept Ditko's moral compass be forever infused into the characters he created for others if the result is substandard storytelling. In other words, The Question wouldn't keep being altered from Ditko's original conception if that conception was any good. The same with Captain Atom, and it can hardly be argued that Ditko enfused him with any particular objectivist viewpoint: he simply wasn't a very compelling character, no matter how appealing his visual was.

In the case of Doctor Otto Octavius, it wasn't a necessary change: the character has endured for decades, he's an established presence in the Spider-Man canon, his malevolence serves to highlight Peter Parker's essential nobility and willingness to risk himself for no reward. Perhaps this is the problem with allowing art and polemic to mix: if not done with exquisite care, it's so jarring and off-putting that it dooms the characters created in this manner to endless revision.

"But at the same time, the crucial defining elements of the character have to be retained. Ultimately, it's a fine line to draw. There have been some extraordinarily wild reinterpretations of characters over the years, but respectful creators have always managed to keep healthy connections to the characters' original incarnations. As much as Alan Moore's Swamp Thing was a different book than Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson's, it was still essentially a book about a macabre half-human swamp monster finding his way in the world."

Yes, but it wasn't about Alec Holland, a human scientist whose bio-restorative formula brought criminals to his lab and who, drenched in the formula and set on fire by an explosion, plummeted into the swamp and found himself transformed into a much-encrusted mockery of a man (to borrow a phrase from Ted Sallis' origin): Moore changed the character much more dramatically than O'Neil changed Vic Sage and yet managed to retain the original conception, even though it turned out that the Swamp Thing was a plant entity that had consumed Alec Holland's body like a planarian worm, a moss and peat colony that *thought* it was Alec Holland. In comparison, O'Neil doesn't change who the Question always was: he simply has his own violent tendencies and onerous philosophy bring him low (a humbling lesson in hubris) before building him back up again, recommitted to his idea of investigating corruption having learned from his defeat. To me, that's a prime example of the crucial defining element of the character being wholly present while the polemic is muted, and it's why the O'Neil run is artistically superior to Ditko's, even though Ditko created the character.

Still, a thought provoking post on your part: would they be as quick to revamp an unabashedly bleeding-heart liberal character, like Don Hall, into a two-fisted objectivist? Naah. They just kill him and replace him with a woman. (I have Scott's post on Polite Dissent going in my head at the same time I have yours.) I'm interested in your reaction once you get to read The Question as the new series presents him. Thank you for humoring so massive and didactic a letter on my part.

Matthew Rossi

No, my friend, thank you for taking the time to write such a cogent and thoughtful letter.

The thing is, it’s hard to argue with success. There is a part of me that wants to forgive O’Neil’s Question simply because it is so well regarded, and it was obviously a labor of love from all concerned. Ultimately, the difference between O’Neil’s Question book and, say, Joe Casey’s Cable, is that while both of them were pretty overt breaks with the characters’ peculiar pasts, the former pretty obviously had nothing to do with Ditko’s intentions. Rob Leifeld, on the other hand, loved what people like Joe Casey did with his creations. If I recall correctly, Len Wein was pretty happy with Moore’s Swamp Thing as well (although I could be mistaken, as I can’t remember where I read that).

In my mind, it comes down to a hypothetical question: if Ditko owned his creation, what kind of stories would he want to see that character involved with? Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single Mr. A story written or drawn by anyone but his creator. I think its safe to say that he would probably guard the Question as zealously, if the copyright were his. So where do we draw the line between the creators’ intentions and the pursuit of a good story? That is a question we shall all have to answer ourselves, and despite my previous comments, I’m far from decided on the matter myself.

But as for Ditko’s characters: you’re 100% right. Without a canny collaborator, his characters are pretty tissue-thin (and I say that as someone with an unabashed love for the man’s work). But then again, you can say pretty much the same thing for Ayn Rand, so you can't say the apple fell far from the tree on this issue.

Travels With Larry XXI

True Facts

I’m going to speak a while here on the subject of my good friend Larry Young.

I think I can say “good friend”. I’ve never met Larry. He probably doesn’t even know what I look like. We really have no relationship outside of the fact that he sends me free comics every now and again. I don’t even like everything he sends me, and I’m not afraid to tell him so. We share a small connection in that he lived for the better part of a decade in Worcester, MA, which is where my wife and I are currently encamped. But besides that, and outside of comics, we probably don’t have too much in common.

But there is one thing about Larry Young that no one can dispute: the man knows his comics. He has many detractors, this must be said. There are people all across this industry, and some even in this blogosphere, who regard him with a strong, leery distrust. There are some who accuse him of being obnoxious or overzealous in the support of his books, sometimes to the point of being downright offensive. While I can’t speak for anyone but myself on this matter, my opinion of Larry’s character was pretty firmly set in stone very soon after our first (virtual) encounter.

Waaaay back in the Paleolithic era, when I first began the Travels With Larry series, I wrote a pretty negative review of something or another from the AiT/Planet Lar catalog. I don’t remember the book in question, but I do remember what Larry did: he wrote me a short but succinct e-mail, thanking me for giving the book an honest appraisal. In an industry where there are so many prominent people who have seemingly never learned how to take criticism (you don’t need me to name names), the fact that someone out there actually had the wherewithal to appreciate an honest negative review really impressed me.

Besides: if Larry didn’t zealously promote his own books produced by his own company, something would be seriously wrong. The fact is, its his job to be out there in everybody’s face, asking them if they’ve read Demo, and if they haven’t well why the hell not?

Larry. Young. Is. The. Bunny.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the Larry Young we see online and at conventions isn’t really the “real” Larry Young – not the Larry Young who reads the paper at the breakfast table in the morning with Mimi and who watches the sun set at night over the clear Pacific. No, the fact is that the Larry Young who uses the Internet as his pulpit in order to spread the gospel of AiT/Planet Lar is probably as much of a fiction as those astronauts of his stuck up on the moon. I don’t doubt that there’s some of the real him in there, certainly, the same as there’s some Bruce Wayne inside of Batman. But my theory is that the over-the-top, lovingly fervid Larry we all know and love is an act.

Allow me to explain.

True Facts lays out in very unambiguous terms Larry Young’s considerate and knowledgeable approach to the world of comics. He’s someone who’s been on both sides of the counter, in addition to being behind the desk and manning the phones at every step of the rest of the process. He probably knows as much about the physical process of making and selling comics in America as maybe a handful of people alive today. To read the essays in this book is to see that he knows what he’s talking about.

He doesn’t state it explicitly, but I think if you read between the lines any observant reader can see the Secret Origin of Larry Young. Basically, he decided to create a persona, a LARRY YOUNG, in order to sell his comics. Think about it: comics, as an industry, are small, and there has never been a more successful long-term marketing strategy in this industry in the last fifty years than the cult of personality.

Don’t believe me? Think about how long it took Marvel to stop flogging Stan Lee’s gregarious huckster persona – and even when they did that, they sort-of tried to replace him with Joe Quesada as a K-Tel version. Think about the enormous success of Image in those first few years: people were buying hundreds of copies of Spawn because they believed in the power of Todd MacFarlane to ensure the books’ value (even if they couldn’t probably have rationalized the impulse as such).

There are dozens of lesser personalities dotted throughout comics history, but each of them managed to carve a career out of a singular marketable personality. Dave Sim. Jim Shooter. John Byrne. Frank Miller. Robert Crumb. Jack Kirby. Neil Gaiman. Alan Moore. Gary Groth. Grant Morrison. Warren Ellis. Julie Schwartz. Mark Alessi. Brian Pulido. Rob Liefeld. Brian Michael Bendis.

Need I go on?

Whether on purpose or not, each of these gentlemen cultivated a specific image and personality which they were able to attach to their products. When Larry Young decided to take the step from being the majordomo for San Francisco’s Comix Experience to becoming a comic book publisher, he sat himself down and figured out just how to go about doing this successfully. Which is where LARRY YOUNG comes in: he couldn’t just hire Stan Lee to hawk his books, he had to become Stan. When you meet the Buddha, you must kill the Buddha.

You. Must. Be. The. Bunny.

And sure enough, pretty much every day for the last five years, Larry Young has done a damned good job of being LARRY YOUNG. You have to respect that, even if you might find it deeply annoying or even disingenuous: it takes guts to sell comic books in this economy, but sell them he does.

The majority of the advice in True Facts falls into two seemingly mutually-exclusive categories. First, do the most obvious thing. Second, do the least obvious thing.

The logic behind the first rule is obvious. If you’re going to make a comic book and try to sell it, you have to do all the grunt work, and you have to spend all the long and hard hours selling the damn thing. This involves doing what every self-publisher since the dawn of Sim has had to do every single day to keep afloat: all the boring but essential stuff that gets your comic out of your head and into the hands of a welcome customer.

The logic behind the second rule is even more obvious. If you follow Rule Number One and do everything you need to do in order to produce the book and ensure that it looks good and that people can buy it, well, then it behooves you to take extraordinary steps to get your book off the pages of the catalog and into the retailers’ heads and into their customers’ willing hands. This isn’t like printing or writing or drawing or writing press releases: this takes all the ingenuity you can possibly muster. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. The only right way is the way that sells your comic. Sometimes it means doing the most outrageous thing you can imagine. Sometimes it means just doing what everyone else is doing, only before everyone else is doing it.

I don’t think that this is necessarily a “definitive” guide to producing your own comics, because I honestly don’t know if such a thing is possible. Its hardly a perfect book, because there are many times when LARRY YOUNG the strident industry cheerleader supplants Larry Young, the personable industry commentator. The tone is occasionally didactic, but I can live with that. Next to Sim and Ditko, Young’s prose is a walk in the park.

The last five years have seen AiT/Planet Lar grow steadily and consistently in a climate of muggy attrition. They’ve done a lot with very little. Looking back at the first few years of their output, and the rather threadbare nature of some of those releases, I have to wonder how they managed to make it as far as they have. But the answer is quite simple: LARRY YOUNG believed in his company, even if no one else did. Now that the company has been around for a while and has some modest successes under its belt, it will be interesting to see where it goes. Any company is always just one special book way from massive success, and it will be interesting to see if they can marshal their resources towards accomplishing this goal.

Before I leave the topic, I should say that there is one column in particular that really tickled my fancy. Some of the chapters are pretty dry and informative. Some of the chapters are more freewheeling. But Chapter Seventeen was the chapter that really spoke to me.

Basically, this chapter details Larry’s experience buying back issues for Comix Experience. They have an interesting but very sensible approach to the practice: they buy their back-issue comics by the pound. (Or at least, that’s how they buy their quarter box fodder – I doubt that if you walked into the store with a box full of primo-grade silver-age Amazing Spider-Man or Flash comics you would be bellying up to the scale – but I digress.)

Anyway, this was such a delightful column for so many reasons. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I wear two hats in my role as a comics commentator: I try to maintain a modicum of critical perspective, but I also enjoy the role of the occasional industry spectator as well. I enjoy discoursing on both the aesthetic and economic prerogatives behind this here funnybook business. Some of the happiest times of my life were spent in the Comic Empire of Tulsa, shooting the shit with Mike about the business of selling comics. Anyone who has been in business as long as Mike has (about twenty years, give or take) knows a few things, and one of the most important thing he has learned is that you have to keep your quarter boxes full. Regardless of how big or small your shop is, if you have quarter boxes they will invariably be the most pawed-through inventory in your shop. Hell, even I must admit to buying things like near-complete runs of Alpha Flight for the simple and unimpeachable reason that the books were only one shiny quarter each.

It’s a very Zen realization: no matter how much you love comics, no matter how much particular stories or creators or characters have affected your life, the vast majority of comics aren’t worth more than 50 cents a pound on the open market. All those umpteen-million copies of Turok Dinosaur Hunter #1 with the chromium cover? It’s somebody’s favorite comic book, certainly, but there’s also a good chance you can find it right now for the mere price of one shiny quarter somewhere near you. It breaks my heart to see books like Quasar or old Steve Ditko Marvel Tales reprints or Solar, Man of the Atom in the quarter bins, because they mean a lot to me. But this is the free market, Baby. They’ll find good homes.

This is the Larry Young I like. I do business with LARRY YOUNG, but it’s this Larry Young who I could listen to talking about comics all day long.

No comments :