Own Your Creation? Good Luck with That.

I was bummed to learn a couple days ago that the comic series Unknown Soldier (Vertigo Comics) by Joshua Dysart is going to be discontinued after 25 issues. I have the first two trades (“trade” being essentially a collection of 5 or 6 single issues in graphic novel form) of this series, and at 25 issues I’m guessing there will untimately be four or five. It’s disappointing, because in my opinion this is one of the best comics series going right now, and, unfortunately people just aren’t buying it. It follows in the wake of another Vertigo title which is also being canceled, Air. I don’t know anything about that book, as I don’t read it, but what concerns me is some of the speculation that other Vertigo titles that don’t sell a ton might also be on the chopping block. Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool says:

Although never a great seller, Unknown Soldier survived the danger of early culling and seemed to be in process of setting up a series of trade paperbacks for the shelf, settling in for the long run. But then the same could have been said for Air, or indeed the late lamented Exterminators.

So now of course I’m suddenly also fearful for DMZ, Northlanders, Greek Street, Sweet Tooth and Scalped. Who do I need to pray to to keep the likes of these on the books?

What this tells me is that people, in general, don’t want unique and original content. One thing all of these books have in common is they are creator-owned, they aren’t rehashed stories of 50-70 year old characters like the big sellers typically are (Batman, Spider-Man, etc.). Now Unknown Soldier is based on an existing character, but I would submit that Dysart has updated the premise so drastically that he has pretty much owned the character. So it’s unfortunate to see something of such quality just not making it.

Comics certainly aren’t the only venue we see this in. How about movies, and the constant rehashing of old television shows and remakes? People grumble with irritation that Hollywood continues to churn this stuff out, but they obviously wouldn’t do it if these films didn’t make money. Movie studios aren’t in the business of giving us what is necessarily “good” art after all; they are in the business of giving us what we are willing to buy. It’s why everyone knows about the latest Transformers movie, but who saw The Messenger? People tend to go after what is most heavily marketed to them, then complain when those offerings suck. Those complaints don’t stop the endless parade of awful movies at the megaplex, though. The same mentality gets us racks upon racks of mediocre Spider-Man/Batman/Avengers titles at the comics shop. One good book for each of those characters would be fine, but four or five or more of each?

People are afraid to take risks with unknown material, when the reality is that often original material crushes the “safe” options hands-down. Not only that, but the creators themselves do their best work when unfettered by the rules governing established characters. For example, I always talk about Jason Aaron, whose creator-owned project, Scalped, is also a Vertigo title. I just read the 6th trade, Scalped – The Gnawing, and was not at all disappointed. For my money, this is the best title in comics. Think of a cross between The Wire and Deadwood, and you wouldn’t be far off the mark. Set on an Indian reservation that is basically a made-up version of Pine Ridge in South Dakota, this title kicks me in the guts every time. Every character is flawed, sometimes the good guys and the bad guys trade places, and nothing feels safe. It’s probably not for everybody because of its violence and pathos, but it is built on fantastic writing and art perfect for the story. Anyone who ever asks me about comics hears about Scalped.

Jason Aaron is a good writer working on other titles as well. He’s got a run going in Punisher MAX right now, plus some Spider-Man and Wolverine work. He did a run on Ghost Rider. None of his work on existing characters, at least that I’ve read, comes close to what he’s done with Scalped. Not even close to close. I would say that about other writers as well. I love what Ed Brubaker has done with Captain America, but his series Criminal destroys it. Rick Remender is another guy whose creator-owned projects Fear Agent and The Last Days of American Crime run roughshod over the work he’s done under Marvel’s banner (though his bizarre take on The Punisher as a kind of Frankenstein monster comes real close). Jimmy Palmiotti always has creator-owned stuff happening; having hit home runs with The Pro, Back to Brooklyn, and Random Acts of Violence, he and writing parther Justin Gray will be delivering another project called Time Bomb yet this year. And Greg Rucka (who has quite a history of awesome creator-owned stuff, like Queen and Country and Whiteout) is absolutely killing it right now with Stumptown, a gritty PI story set in Portland, Oregon.

These projects are all labors of love, and I can’t imagine there being a lot of money in them. They don’t have the weight of decades of familiarity behind them to lean on. In a Batman arc, if things aren’t going well DC can just fire the creative team and reload with different talent. In a creator-owned book being released by a larger company, it just gets dropped. Then there are the uphill battles fought by people going DIY, which is the case with Anthony Schiavino‘s Sergeant Zero. What’s he’s done with his creator-owned story is at least as good as what’s coming out of the bigger houses, and far better than most. But will people actually give it a shot, or go get the latest new #1 of some sprawling Justice League-related title?

In a perfect world, these writers and creators could make their living with their creator-owned stuff, but that just doesn’t happen. If notoriety from known characters helps them sell more creator-owned stuff, then more power to them and I wish them luck. Often it is their initial creator stuff that breaks them through, though, and earns them a steadier paycheck writing established characters for the bigger comics publishers. When it comes to novels, I think many writers have a smug disdain for those who write media tie-ins. I’ve only read one; Christa Faust‘s novelization of Snakes on a Plane. Yes, the book was way better than the movie. Certainly Faust had her hands tied with much of how the events of the book would play out, but she still injected her personality into it. While it was no Money Shot or Hoodtown, it was still fun. Max Allan Collins did the novelization of the GI Joe movie, and curiosity will probably demand I read it. He’s no stranger to shared world stuff, having co-written a couple posthumous Mickey Spillane novels as well. James Reasoner has written over 200 books, some under “shared names” where various authors will write under a single author’s name (a practice going way back to the pulp days, and other series like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys). Hell, big-selling James Patterson pretty much does that now too.

I’d love to get in on this action. I’d do a tie-in in a heartbeat. I’d love to write a Gabriel Hunt novel. I’d do it because a) it’s work, b) I’d like to think it would help gain some attention for my “own” novels, and c) it probably pays better than a typical book. I would guess Max Allan Collins sold more copies of the GI Joe book than he did his last Hard Case Crime book, but I could be wrong. Generally, though, I believe that is the case.

I wish that wasn’t the way of these industries, and I wish more people would take chances on the unknown. I wish the long list of writers who can write circles around Lee Child would get some of his readers so that they weren’t scraping by hoping to earn out enough to get another book published. Hell, most of the books I want to buy aren’t even on the shelf in the big chains. I wish there wasn’t such an emphasis on established characters that were in comic books when my dad was a kid. I wish movie studios didn’t throw all their money at the dumbed-down and rehashed and gave some love to movies that actually don’t suck. And I wish a reasonable fraction of the fans dropping fistfuls of cash on Iron Maiden football jerseys would instead spend it on a couple Slough Feg records, for crissakes!

But, you know, “if wishes were fishes” and all that. At least mine aren’t chock full of mercury.

>Random Acts of Violence

I finally had my opportunity to read Random Acts of Violence, the new graphic novel written by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, with art by Giancarlo Caracuzzo, Paul Mounts and Bill Tortolini. This is a creator owned project that I know means a lot to these guys, so if you have any interest in horror, or comics in general, I urge you to pick it up. This little book surprised me, and left me more than a little disturbed.

In a nutshell, the story is about two friends, Ezra and Todd, who create and release their own horror comic, called Slasherman. It is a huge success, and before long is selling out multiple printings. The two guys go out on the road in support of the book, and soon come face-to-face with issues that many “real world” horror and thriller creators deal with all the time. Is all this violence necessary? Are these creators mysoginists because the killer in their book focuses on women? Does this kind of violence inspire people to do the terrible things depicted in the work of fiction?

As Ezra and Todd proceed on their tour, bodies start piling up. Indeed their comic has inspired a real world Slasherman who is committing gruesome murders, and how this all resolves itself is the crux of this comic’s narrative arc. It is really very well done as not only a horror book, but also a social commentary via the book-within-a-book.

The whole issue of life imitating art used to be pretty cut and dried to me. When I was younger, many of my musical heroes — Judas Priest, Ozzy Osbourne, KISS — were being persecuted not only in the court of public opinion but also in actual courts of law on charges anywhere from being inspiration for kids to engage in obscene acts, to actual lawsuits charging them with responsibility for suicides. Then there was Columbine, and the Marilyn Manson connection. The West Memphis Three. None of the artists were ever convicted, and like my friends I thought it was ridiculous. Books, movies, music, whatever: my feeling was none of these things could make someone do something they wouldn’t find a reason to do anyway, because they were obviously messed up to begin with.

Now I’m not so sure.

A couple years ago John H. Richardson wrote an essay for Paste magazine called “My History of Violence: A rumination on art, death, truth, hubris and the unsexy call for media accountability” that hit me right in the gut. I saved it, and have intended to write about it ever since. You can check it out HERE. Given that Paste no longer exists, that link is to an archive location in Google. I printed it to PDF as well, which you can download HERE if you are interested.

Richardson wrote of many of the things that started to work their way into my thought processes around the time I became a parent. Coincidentally, that is also when he started questioning his own ideas about violence in media. He makes some good arguments, and shows examples of situations where media definitely has influenced people to do ridiculously stupid things. Yes, they had to be stupid in the first place, but it seems to me it is naive and dangerous to assume copycats don’t happen. I feel the whole issue is one of many elephants in the room that we just don’t talk about in this country, at least not in honest ways.

For me, the biggest issue was music. No matter what I said about drugs and alcohol to my son as he entered his teens, it was my word against thousands of songs extolling the fun and virtues of partying and getting high, and that is a tough battle for any parent to fight, regardless of how committed they are. And that is the argument most people make, that it is about the parents and how they raise their kids. Unfortunately, there are multiple billion dollar industries squared off against Mom and Dad, and it really ain’t a fair fight right out of the gate.

A recent movie that caught more heat than it was really worth is called Kick-Ass, based on the graphic novel by Mark Millar. Roger Ebert called it “morally reprehensible,” mainly due to its depiction of youth violence and profanity. I don’t know if I’d go that far, I just thought it was a pretty lame movie. The violence was stylized and fairly unrealistic, and the kids talked about how pretty much every kid I’ve ever heard talks (though the main focus of Ebert’s ire, the young female assassin Hit Girl, had a filthy mouth that seemed there just for shock value; we were supposed to believe she’d been raised in a very sheltered environment by a father who, despite raising her to be a killer, used about as much profanity as Mr. Rogers). I never read the graphic novel, and the movie certainly didn’t make me want to either.

I think Millar was trying to make a couple points in his story, though. One scene, where Hit Girl is mowing down a bunch of tough mob guys, she is wearing night vision glasses. The scene onscreen looks just like those ads I’ve seen for kill-everyone-in-sight video games. Frankly, I do find those things disturbing, especially games where as a player you are supposed to commit crimes and murders to advance yourself in the game. Would I censor them? Probably not, but it does beg the tired question: just because we can make those games, does it mean we should?

As a comics reader, it’s getting overwhelming at just how much violence is being depicted. For example, in order to show how “evil” a guy is in a comic book, does that villain really need to throw a baby out an nth story window, as Millar had the Red Skull do in a recent Ultimates comic book? Personally, I don’t think so. But maybe that’s just me. I think that’s too easy. It’s like comedians making relationships jokes. It’s low fruit. It isn’t challenging because it’s simple to shock someone with such gratuitous carnage. But the subtle dread . . . now that takes real craft.

Some of these musings may seem strange, seeing as how I’m often raving about books and movies and characters and comics that are inherently violent. I’ve never been much of a horror fan, at least as it relates to things like “slasher movies.” Never got into the Halloween/Friday the 13th/Nightmare on Elm Street franchises. Haven’t seen, or had any interest in seeing, the new wave of movies like Hostel or the Saw series. Not a big fan of all the zombie movies, though I did see, and really enjoy, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland. I liked 30 Days of Night. I thought Drag Me to Hell was a blast. But even in movies I love; Tarantino flicks like Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds, I’m usually hiding my eyes in the violent spots. I’m just not into it. I don’t need to see limbs hacked off or all the blood and guts.

I don’t care for a lot of that in fiction either. It’s one thing to read about a barbarian in a fictitious world carving a path to a throne with his battle axe. It’s something else to read exquisitely detailed torture scenes in flash fiction. I’d rather have the violence implied, not blown up on the big screen in all its glory. That’s when it is truly powerful to me, and disturbing, rather than just off-putting.

Finally, don’t get me started on the overabundance of torture porn directed at women. Or the simple fact that scenes of graphic violence are so much more acceptable to the culture than the naked human form, let alone scenes of sensuality and sex. I can read a Punisher comic with all manner of graphic and horrible violence and guts-shed, but show a couple people graphically fucking over multiple pages and it will probably be pulled from the shelf. It’s really pretty twisted where our priorities are, and I find that disturbing. I don’t have the answers, but it is certainly something I think more and more about, especially as I work on my own fiction and the places I want to take it. I like dark, adult-oriented stuff, but it’s a fine, fine line to walk.

Funny that the questions raised in Random Acts of Violence should have me back digging for the Richardson article again, and putting down these meandering thoughts. Thing is, media empires wouldn’t choke us on this stuff if we weren’t buying, so we are getting what I guess we deserve. Not that I see Random Acts as part of the problem — Palmiotti and Gray do a great job of raising the question while also showing us some pretty gruesome shit, and having characters in the book have serious conversations about it. Conversations more of us should be having. The book made me seriously revisit considering the choices I’m making if I really want to walk the walk, and not just stumble, and I appreciate it for that.

I’m curious to know what other people think about the topic. What are your own limits when it comes to the depiction of sex and violence in books, movies, television, etc.? Does it make people do things they maybe wouldn’t do, or is that whole argument bullshit? Who will speak for the children?!