Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Virgin Sacrifice

I was directed to Journalista's coverage of Virgin Comics' demise, and while I can't disagree with the fanboy-bashing comments, it all seems a bit simplistic to me. All this "middle-aged pencil dicks only want spandex and zombies" stuff is painting with a pretty damned broad brush.

For starters, yes, there are too many super-hero comics. There are also too many tv shows about cops, lawyers, and doctors; but they keep making what people like to watch. Zombie comics got a foothold because there were a few good zombie movies followed by an avalanche of bad ones. People buy comics for the same simple escapist value as other media, and they're only willing to pay $3 a pop because there isn't enough quality representation of certain genres in outside media. Comics about vampires and werewolves sold well before movies and TV outpaced them. Same goes for romance. There aren't a lot of light romantic comedies that work in serial format, so Archie comics still makes money. Indian super-heroes? I don't see the market.

Two words: "Tekno Comics." Remember those guys? Entered the industry touting a bunch of big media names and new distribution channels? What we got were throwaway concepts from people like Neil Gaiman and Isaac Asimov tossed off to no-name creators. I seem to recall the digital coloring was pretty decent, and they did wrangle George Perez and Gil Kane during career lows to draw their one attempt at a super-hero comic. As for the distribution, there was a little extra push at bookstores, but nothing much to speak of.

Three more words and a conjunction: "Comics Greatest World" and "Ultraverse." Again, big names were promised, second-stringers were delivered, along with intellectual property largely generated and wholly owned by corporations. These guys came along toward the end of the boom, did alright for a short stint, then imploded. Can Marvel and DC be blamed for that? People were trying out these new super-heroes left and right, found most comics from the period wanting, and left the industry entirely. This was followed by event marketing, which swelled, then ruptured, and drove more readers out.

I could go on naming names, but I'd rather ask you a question: name one line of corporate comics that ever successfully launched? I'm not talking about a steady stream of creator controlled comics, nor companies that slowly built their lines over years. I'm talking about what Virgin Comics did, where within two years they took up nine pages in Previews without a single real "hit." At what point is it the company's fault for having a shitty business model. Journalista mentioned Crossgen, which followed the same pattern to oblivion, including a fantasy-based line, even including much smaller doses of creators like Ron Marz and Bart Sears. What kind of fool expects a different result from the exact same process?

I mentioned Tekno Comics earlier. Another failure, but Virgin followed their model as well. Hugh Jackman's "Nowhere Man1!" 1 Script by Marc Guggenheim. Guy Ritchie's "Gamekeeper2!" 2 Written by Jeff Parker Nic Cage and his kid are writing a comic book! And Ed Burns! Wait-- isn't Guy Richie that guy Madonna was going to divorce? Has Nic Cage ever written anything, before or since he stopped being a good actor? Isn't the only reason anyone ever cared about Ed Burns was an indie movie from, like ten years ago? Wow, Tekno Comics at least got to milk the teat of Gene Roddenbury's corpse! Also, Quentin Tarantino directing an episode of ER matters more to most people than Tarantino directing a given movie, because they were already watching ER. Some dude who writes for "Lost" doing a mini-series with Wolverine and Hulk matters more than Jenna Jameson "writing" "Shadow Hunter," because they were already reading Hulk/Wolverine.

You know, I sold Crossgen comics before I quit the business, and I did okay with them. I sold maybe 20% of books like X-Men, but proportionately, that wasn't bad. Crossgen was a pretty good line of books, and most everyone who bought one followed a few others. Again though, they had something like eight ongoing series out within about a year, and weren't they priced at #2.95 when the industry standard was $2.25? Didn't they pay ridiculous rates, and built a compound in Florida where they housed and fed their entire staff? Doesn't that sound a tad extravagant?

Look, I read some Crossgen titles, and I tried Virgin books on several occasions. Virgin not only was not as good, but typically just plain were not particularly good in general. I thought of Virgin as an art line, because it seemed that and a deeply defective sense of "name value" were the driving forces behind the company. I wonder though, under what conditions were these people working. I know the U.S. creators were just work-for-hire, but who were these Indian creators, and how well were they compensated for their efforts? Remember back in the 70's when Marvel, DC, and Warren were hiring out what were essentially Phillipino sweat shops to churn out art on a good many books?

That actually gets to another point: who thought India was the place to go for the next wave of comics? Manga is still the big thing in the States and much of the world, but the Asian market worked for decades to make inroads in publishing, animation, live action-- hell, culture in general. Is anyone here old enough to remember when the "ninja" was a new concept? The martial arts started catching on here in the 50's-60's, then ninja began popping up in the 70's, and by the 90's everyone on the planet knew about ninja. What kind of cultural penetration does a thugee have? How does Ramayan resonate outside India, if at all? When the "Speed Racer" movie failed, was it because America wasn't ready for live action anime, or because it was actually decades too late? Where is the Bollywood Speed Racer, or really, anything from Bollywood to make a splash stateside? In the grand scheme, was Virgin more like Crossgen, or Jademan, a line from the 80's of full-color Hong Kong reprints that I doubt would perform even in today's market?

What I'm saying is, mourn for Virgin if you must, but let's try to apply a bit of perspective, shall we? It took Mike Richardson years of slow progress and major savvy to build Dark Horse into an entertainment giant. Image was lightning in a bottle only sustained one creator and book at a time. Other companies have had books with female protagonists run for decades, and they did so with talent, determination, and patience. I doubt Virgin is the end of anybody's world, so let's not turn a mediocre company into a cause, shall we?

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