Monday, January 10, 2005


Hopefully the contest entries should be judged sometime soon. The importance of finally closing this chapter of The Hurting’s history has been duly impressed upon the judge. Your patience is appreciated.

I case you missed the weekend post, the new remix is here.

Does anyone out there in the great wide world have a used laptop that they want to sell me? I regret not being able to post as often as I would like lately, but I have a very simple reason why I haven’t been able to do so: I don’t have any time when I’m at home. But my new job requires me to basically sit in a chair for eight hours at a stretch. I’ve been catching up on my reading, but you know, I need to get a laptop one of these days so I can get my work done while I’m at work (yeah, I know that sounds odd).

I know there are certain of you out there who could be qualified as “geeks”, and I know that “geeks” usually have to have the best machine available. I am not a geek in this matter. All I need is something that can do simple word processing. I am certain that there is someone out there with an old laptop that has been put out to pasture because of technology’s mad rush towards futurity – hook a brother up, why doncha?

Travels With Larry

Proof of Concept

Reading this book, I was reminded of a recent post by Mr. Franklin Harris (based in part on certain ideas posited by Mr. Warren Ellis) on the subject of comic book publishing. Certainly, if you look at Harris’ list, most of those items seem almost like no-brainers. Pretty much everyone who composes the current “New Mainstream” in comics - which I would define as anyone who wants to make their living publishing intelligent but not overly cerebral entertainment in comics format, with the idea of exploiting the vast market of everyday readers who have been abandoned by “Mainstream” comics – is already following all or most of the suggestions on this list. Certainly Larry Young, as the movement’s ostensible figurehead, has proven that it is very possible to make a living by reaching out the casual readers who – in a healthy industry – would compose the bulk of comics readership.

Proof of Concept offers convincing evidence for both the best and worst aspects of this approach. There is no doubt in my mind that Larry Young is a much smarter writer than most of his peers probably give him credit for. Planet of the Capes is one of last year’s most misunderstood books, and it’s a shame because I think Young was maybe a bit too subtle for many in his audience. Young’s style is consciously subdued. It rejects the overt, almost preening stylistic intricacies of the “British invasion” vanguard of the 80s and early 90s. Moore, Morrison, and Gaiman are all very strongly invested in multiple thematic and conceptual layers in whatever they write, but in most cases these layers are fairly well indicated by the surface markings. I’m not going to say that Young is in the company of these august persons – he doesn’t write near enough, for one, and he’s still deeply indebted to a certain number of genre clichés which perhaps exert a deleterious influence on his style – but he is certainly a lot more sly than most give him credit for. Whereas anyone who reads something by Alan Moore can probably, without too much effort, make some good guesses as to the thematic undercurrents and conceptual sleight-of-hand at work, Larry Young insists on keeping his subtext very tightly embedded in his storytelling. Like an iceberg, only about ten percent of Planet of the Capes is above the water. His work demands a lot of work from the reader, more work than many of the folks who would be tempted to pick up an action-adventure book are probably willing to invest.

Given Young’s proclivity towards understatement, Proof of Concept finds him in an interesting, if slightly awkward, position. This book, as you may have gathered from the title, is something of a “how-to” manual on the concept of writing for a high-concept. There’s no doubt that Young has an ear for high-concept: even a casual acquaintance with his backlist illustrates the fact that he is drawn to easily defined scenarios which can be easily explained in the short paragraph of a press release or a back-cover blurb. As a publisher, he makes one hell of a marketing man – the question is whether or not his knack for marketing is something that can or should be applied to the creative side of his brain.

Based on the evidence herein, I am slightly ambivalent. There are six features here, all based on a different concept. The stories are presented in the context of a fictional conversation between Young and his agent, a conversation which involves Young trying to get said agent to bite on a story idea. This is interesting for anyone who wants to understand how, at its very basic level, stories are conceived: it all starts with an idea. At some point, someone has to sell that idea to someone else – even if he’s a self-publisher, he has to find an audience who wants to buy his comic, or he’ll quickly go out of business. Its gotten to be something of a cliché that Hollywood does business by isolating a quick, one or two sentence “concept” that can be sold from everyone to studio heads to happy-meal vendors. For better or for worse, this is how the lion’s share of all entertainment and art is produced. Most successful ideas are, at their heart, very simple ideas which have been tweaked or elaborated in original ways.

So, in a very primal way, coming up with new and different high concepts can be extraordinarily simple. Certainly, Proof of Concept presents the reader with half a dozen perfectly feasible and eminently saleable ideas from which to pick and choose. I doubt Young really spent too much time on the niceties of any of these concepts, and the stories included are no more than the proverbial hooks on which to rest his broad ideas.

But of course, depending too heavily on the high concept is a problem in and of itself. For one, as Harris points out, with a few exceptions the most popular concepts have a tendency to be character-driven. Popular characters have a tendency to lodge themselves into the minds of their audience in a way that even the best concept-driven properties do not. I suspect that as good as it is, Astronauts in Trouble would be a lot more popular than it is if there was a main character throughout the whole series, some sort of identifiable icon who can be put on a t-shirt or a lunch-box or who a popular celebrity can be convinced to play on the silver screen. The Crow is almost a perfect example of this: there was a concept that was almost instantly identifiable, combined with an indelible character. I’ve known a few people who couldn’t care less for comics as a whole but who loved the Crow, and I’ve also known people who’s only comics purchase ever was Graphiti’s expensive Crow hardcover. AiT/Planet Lar hasn’t had their Crow yet, but I imagine it’s only a matter of time before something hits a nerve with the public at large – and then the sky will truly be the limit.

In any event, although each of these stories is interesting and potentially lucrative, you don’t get the idea that Young is as invested in any of these springboards as he could be. If he had immediately fallen in love with any of these ideas, you have to assume he would have found a way to put them on the schedule. Young is a busy man, as well as a smart one. I think he probably knows better than to go chasing after random high-concepts in search of a chimerical “big payoff” book. I think he knows very well that the most successful books are often the most surprisingly idiosyncratic. On the face of it, who would have thought that the two most popular self-publishing success stories of the 90s would be a Tolkein-esque homage to Carl Barks and a sexually ambiguous soap-opera melodrama with thriller overtones? Certainly, on the face of it these are both vaguely palatable ideas, but there’s no ignoring the fact that both Bone and Strangers in Paradise have sold a boatload of comics between them, in addition to making inroads among the type of readers who would not, perhaps, otherwise have much use for comics. Like The Crow, Cerebus and even the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, these are books that hit a nerve with large groups of people not because of the strength of the basic concept, but because of the way their creators developed unique ways of approaching their concepts and their audiences.

Larry Young already knows more about making and selling comics in America than just about anyone else alive. There’s a reason why AiT/Planet Lar has been able to become a modest success during one of the worst periods of market uncertainty in the industry’s history – and considering the state of the market, a modest success has to count as a massive success. But as smart as he is, he still hasn’t quite found the key to unlocking the massive success that lies just across the threshold for any publisher able to produce the next great conceptual “must-have”. Books like Proof of Concept prove that he has no intention of quitting until he hits paydirt. But I also have a feeling that said paydirt is going to be more idiosyncratic and specific than any of these. None of these ideas, at least in their bare-bones states, have the kind of intimacy that the best comics can exploit into massively broad appeal. It’s obvious that Young has “high concept” down: let’s see him take a page from Demo and try to give us some characters to feel for, and a uniquely Larry Young way of feeling for them. Then he’ll have something special.

No comments :