Saturday, February 17, 2007

Separated at Birth: For X-Ray Vision Eyes Only

World's Finest #229 and For Your Eyes Only poster

L: World's Finest Comics #229, April 1974, art by Ernie Chan
R: For Your Eyes Only movie poster, designed by Bill Gold
(Click picture to zoomify)

Friday, February 16, 2007

"Caption This": more evidence of my mis-spent youth

My favorite TV show of all time? Mystery Science Theater 3000. I am obsessed with the concept of a human and two robots watching really cheesy movies and saving their sanity by riffing non-stop throughout them. And I always wanted to talk back to the movie screen, too. No, don't get outraged...I'm not one of those little stuffed bulls who would ever talk aloud during a movie. (I usually have my mouth too fulla popcorn.) But MST3K has inspired my sense of humor: I think a really well-phrased joke over a silly visual image is jus' about one of the most hilarious things to me. It comes out today in the mouse-over pop-up tags I frequently add to my blog posts: not in this post or in my reviews or "Ten of a Kind," but mouse over the images in most if not all of my other posts and you'll find me channeling Crow T. Robot with silly pop-up commentary and quips about the jpegs.

While MST3K was running on the Sci-Fi Channel during its last three seasons, hosted a webpage game entitled "Caption This!" in which live still images from the Sci-Fi Channel's feed would flash online (refreshed every ten seconds) and the online community was invited to "caption" them as if they were watching the movie alongside Joel/Mike, Crow and Tom Servo. I'd totally forgotten about "Caption This" until today when I was surfing about the wild world web, but I was an active participant in the capper groups running at that time under the oh-so-original handle of "MST4000." When bored or restless when I should have been doing work, I'd log onto, fire up my funny bone and think of witty captions for still shots from cheesy SF TV shows of the 1970s and 1980s...sort of a more creative form of a chatroom, with regulars and cliques. It was great fun but truly ephemeral entertainment: your captions would be displayed online for all to see until they were forced off the page by the next twelve cappers. I drifted away from the capping community some years ago.

Imagine my surprise (go ahead! imagine it!) when surfin' around today and actually finding an number of extensive webpages that have preserved hundreds of the comments, saved by some thoughtful soul as screengrabs. (Here's the gateway to a representative set of "Caption This" pages.) And among hundred of caps I re-discovered a handful of mine, riffing on Star Trek, The X-Files, and those cheesy afternoon Sci-Fi commercials. The others are long lost to the ethernet...I remember doing many dozens about Knight Rider, which used to air in the early afternoons when I'd need a self-inflicted humor break...but for your amusement (I hope) and edification (eh, maybe not), as well as a cheap way to fill in a blog post, here's a handful of my salavaged caps from the Internet, where nothing every truly dies and the remnants of a goof-off afternoon can be found even years later:

The "Caption This" game no longer exists on Ironically, all that remains on their website is an assurance that even though Mystery Science Theater 3000 ended, "Caption This" would continue. That makes me a wee bit was good, dumb, creative fun and I liked the mental exercise and the anonymous personalities of my fellow cappers a lot. But as the late great George Harrison once said, "All things must pass." I think he was prob'bly talking about things grander, greater, and more earthly than typing frantic wanna-be funny captions to a two-inch screenshot of James T. Kirk's butt...but ya never know. Maybe capper "IWuvTomServo" was George Harrison. The world will never know.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Now I think I know what you tried to say to me/How you suffered for your sanity

52 Week 4152 WEEK 41: This comic is fun. The all-out action of last week takes a breather for some moments of quiet reflection that're still fraught with tension and significance. Probably one of my favorite strengths of this series has been its ability to do exactly that: shift from action to characterization smoothly without losing my interest. I dunno whether it's the weekly schedule or the tight plotting (how many other creators have fifty-plus issues of their superhero comic plotted out so fully in advance?), but it's definitely what keeps me looking forward to 52 week after week. There's some lovely moments in here: a quiet and subtle guest appearance by Wonder Woman, an "oh, yes!" Green Lantern appearance in the final panel, a lovely and incisive two-page origin of Starfire (drawn by Joe Benetez, an artist I wouldn't mind seein' draw Koriand'r more often), and is that a flash of Gingold that Ralph Dibny is nippin' at? Whoa, lookit that nose go! Nice cover, too. But golly, Miss Montoya, isn't your butt getting cold?

Godland #16GØDLAND #16: This comic is fun. Week after week Kevin Church slaps me across the face and tells me that if I really am such a big little stuffed Jack Kirby fan, I oughta be readin' Gødland. Stop hitting me, Mister Church! (sob) Well, this week I took his advice to Pick Up One New Comic Title I Haven't Been Reading and checked out the special "hop on board, little stuffed bull with six shiny dimes" issue of Gødland. And ya know what? This is pretty cool! It's one of the very few "the story so far" comics I've read in recent years that actual delivers on dropping me right into the story without feeling lost and not just serving as a glorified clip show. This is big, boisterous, goofy fun that reminds me a lot of one of my favorite miniseries of all time, Alan Moore's 1963. And oh! That wonderful Kirbyesque (Kirbyish? Kirbyatic?) art that calls up memories of the King but isn't a slavish copy. I especially like Kirby tributes that build upon and go in different directions than his creation, and so far what I can see in this issue is 'xactly what I like about comics that pay homage to the King yet do their own thing. I gotta check out back issues or the two previous trade paperbacks to get fully up to speed, but this is one 60¢ introductory issue that actually has gained a new reader. That'll please Mister Church no end, I think...if he's responsible for getting only two more readers on board, he gets the free toaster.

Batman #663BATMAN #663: Hmmm, looks like I need to come up with a new grade for this issue. I'm gonna grade this issue incomplete. Y'all come back for your final grade when you turn your lovely short story and pin-up art into a proper comic book, Mister Morrison and Mister van Fleet. Naw, I don't wanna get all catty, because I want to reward ingenuity and innovation in comics (who says we must always be bound by panels and word balloons?). And it's very nice to have an issue of Batman that actually takes more than five or seven minutes to read. But this illustrated text short story didn't float my boat: even from the pen of Grant Morrison, one of my favorite comic writers of all time, it's still a fairly pedestrian Joker story, and I don't care for the digital paint style of van Fleet's art at all: it gives us slickness instead of dynamism, and that's never a good thing in a Batman story. More specifically, it's very poorly designed: it sacrifices legibility for the sake of "cool" design by using text that's hard to read, with an oddly bolded font against a colored background and dialogue in italics, and too much text on lines that run the width of the comic. Rule one of any book design: don't make the reader struggle to read it. An interesting innovation or at least an update on that old text Howard the Duck issue...but I wouldn't wanna see this very often at all. Points for trying, guys, but you can do better than this.

Justice Society #3JUSTICE SOCIETY OF AMERICA #3: This comic is sorta fun. That's a provisional "sorta" the rest of this storyline is handled will probably swing it into the red or the green for me, but it better get going fast: so far it's just stringing me along. On the plus side is a funny first page conversation between my favorite JSAer and my favorite new JSAer (Stargirl and Maxine Hunkel) that features The Best Line of the Week: "Look out, Icicle! It's a gentle breeze! There's also a wonderful two-page spread where the JSA rushes off to do what they do best: split up and have exciting adventures in pairs or three before banding back together for the big finale fight. I'm not usually a fan of internal splashes or two page spreads, but this one is energetic and suits the drama of the moment perfectly. But I'm not very happy with the introduction of Wildcat, Jr.—I've only recently come to see how freakin' cool Wildcat is (thanks, Dorian!) and while I wouldn't deny him the blessing of a son, having a son who actually turns into a cat is kind of watering down the character, dontcha think? And oh, please, make those Alex Ross covers stop. I'm really loathing the vogueing poses that have become a trademark cover for this series as well as the last JSA series. Give us action on the cover: excitement, dynamism, something to intrigue and capture our interest to pick up the issue rather than just a salute to careful shaving. You're on probation, Justice Society. Don't drop the ball.

Nextwave #12NEXTWAVE #12: This comic is fun. Please join me in my raucous Irish wake for my most fun comic of 2006 as it steps boldly into 2007 and is cancelled. But oh my oh my, if ya gotta go, what a way to go. Not one but two hilarious twists on characters from the most imaginative corners of the Marvel Universe step forward to threaten Nextwave in their final fight: the cutest spitcurled little Baby M.O.D.O.K. ever (see? Didn't I tell you it was the Year of the M.O.D.O.K.?) and a startling revelation of the darkest secret of a Jack Kirby creation you could ever imagine. Oh, actually, no, you will never have imagined this! (Kirby purists might be gnawing their teeth over the revelation, but this little stuffed King fan found it hilarious and fantastic!) There's some great teamwork by Nextwave at work here and everyone has a final moment in the spotlight, and when all the smoke clears and the final page rolls around there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Well, my house, at least. The saga wraps up with the kind of open-ended dénouement that the recent Agents of Atlas did: with the potential and promise for new adventures in the future. But even if we never see Nextwave again, gosh, it was a heck of a ride, wasn't it, and the most fun comic of the week.

And when no hope was left in sight
On that starry starry night
You kicked some ass
As heroes often do
But I could have told you
This world was never meant
For one as kickass as you.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

To Tony Stark, every day is Valentine's Day.

Iron Romances #51

"Comics Oughta Be Fun: Reclaiming Tony Stark as a Cad,
But Not a Killer, Since 2006."

Click here for the original cover, and here for another issue of Iron Romances.
Happy Valentine's Day!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Book 'em, Spidey! 2: The Peter Parker Book Tour continues

So. Peter Parker's published a portfolio of pretty pictures. That's liable to put a spring in your step and a swing in your web, isn't it?

ASM #304 panel

But as we saw last time, if only Spidey knew a little bit about the publishing and bookselling industry like, ahem, a little stuffed bull knows, he coulda saved himself a lotta heartache and tearful nights later on: soon he will know, as do Thomas Pynchon and Helen Fielding, the pain of the published author. Let's take a further look and see how the Webs book tour compares to real life publishing and give this storyline a reality check, shall we?

ASM #304 panel
All panels in this post are from Amazing Spider-Man #304 (early September 1988); written by David Michelinie, art by Todd McFarlane (pencils), Joe Rubinstein (inks), and Bob Sharen (colors)

Reality check: Spouse traveling with author on book tour?: Probably not.

Whoa, MJ, we were counting on you to interject a tone of reality and bust Peter's dreams wide open here...after all, if there's someone who oughta know enough not to trust the promises of a publicist, it's a fashion model. But gosh, ain't that sweet: bekerchiefed Mary Jane thinks it might be kinda neat to bunk up with a published author (well, aside from that fling with Peter Benchley circa ASM #134...). Is it support for her hapless but well-intentioned husband, or is it simply so she can go to Los Angeles with him? Uh, probably the first, but she's leaping at the second awful fast, isn't she?

Except...there's usually not a budget to send a first-time author (cheap though they're getting him) and his significant other on a book tour. It's a fact of life for traveling writers: get used to life on the road minus your sweetie for a while, because the publisher usually ain't ponying up for two plane tickets, two meal expenses, and two sets of mints on the hotel pillows. Granted, some major writers certainly command such perks, but although Petey's the original swinger, he hasn't got the swing in the publishing world to get that yet. That said, it's not unheard of, and without Pete on board, publisher Wiltonbooks basically has no publicity tour, so it's in their best interest to float him a few perks. (But gosh, doesn't your heart go out to Peter? You gotta sympathize with a guy who scrimps and saves to show his wife the good life, and when he finally cuts a break and has the opportunity to treat her with a trip, it's to a place she was at last month. Way to show who wears the Spider-Pants in the household, Mrs. W-P!

Still, good ol' grounded-in-reality Aunt May will have a better and clearer view on the situation, won't she?

ASM #304 panel

Webs will be available at Kmart:
Mmmmm, maybe, but it's a long shot.

Yaaaaaahhhhhh! Don't sneak up on her like that, Pete! The old dear has had seventeen heart attacks since ASM #1, three of them in the last anniversary issue! Don't leap down and slap an advance reading copy in her face!

And, oh, for Pete's sake, looks like everybody's an enabler in this story. This storyline really coulda benefited from a cute sassy bookstore clerk (or little stuffed bull) smacking Peter in the face and saying "Snap outta it!" Because all Aunt May is concerned about is seeing her nephew's book on display and sale in the local chain discount department store...

Except that's a long shot, Aunt May. It is tough, tough, tough for a publisher to place a book in a chain non-book store like Kmart, and later during the 1990s and beyond, Target. Chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and independent bookstores like New York's Shakespeare and Co. and (to get nostalgic for a moment) St. Paul's late lamented Hungry Mind, buy books from publishers' sales reps directly: reps present from the publisher's catalogue to a buyer or a team of trained subject buyers at these stories to convince them to take titles from their catalog of upcoming, soon-to-be-published books, and for the most part those stores carry a sizable or substantial percentage of the various titles. Kmart buys their books indirectly: the reps present not to Kmart or Target direct but to a local or national wholesaler (like Levy or Anderson News) who will in turn present their picks to Kmart or Target. The rep will not present his or her entire catalogue to the wholesaler buyer for Kmart, but instead focus on a very small number of titles with the biggest potential. Why? Because Kmart don't bother with small potatoes, baby. The Kmart book section and shelf space is much more limited than even a small indie bookstore, and there's a higher pressure to stock books with a strong regional appeal or proven bestsellers (which is why your Target is stocked to the gills with Stephen King, Janet Evanovich and Sophie Kinsella). In short, those books don't have the chain bookstore or indie bookstore luxury of sitting on the shelves for six months waiting to sell—it's all about turning over stock fast fast fast, generally within a month, or the book is pulled as a proven dud and returned to the publisher, pronto. See how different it is than the non-returnable comic book store world? Since when Kmart wants a book they want a lot, that could mean a lot of returns of unsold stock to the publisher. Such massive returns are a major economic hit for a publisher—they probably overprinted to have enough stock for a Kmart buy and therefore will never be able to sell off that returned stock.

As I said yesterday, the storyline tries to convince us in some issues that the book is a major success, and in others points out the thing just ain't selling. (Non-communication between various comic book editorial boards at Marvel ain't a twenty-first century innovation, kids!). Some of the evidence points towards the publisher positioning this as a very, very major book indeed, despite the amateur design and poor format. It certainly is possible the Wiltonbooks national accounts or special sales rep has sold several thousand to wholesalers and it's going to be stocked in Kmart and other major non-book outlets across the country, but it's a long shot. The book world doesn't work that way in conjunction with the Kmart kingdom.

(Not long after this story, however (in 1992), the Kmart Corporation acquired Borders Books, which led a lot of people in the book industry to believe it was now gonna be a lot easier to pitch books for sale in Kmart. But the red tape and bureaucracy never really cleared up and by the time Kmart sold off Borders three years later the much hoped-for Golden Age of Books in your local Super K never materialized.)

That's just Aunt May hoping that, and what the heck does she know about the book world, anyway? And y'know, I'm not even certain there was a Kmart in Queens in the late 1980s. (There wasn't one in Manhattan until the very late 1990s!) Anybody know?

ASM #304 panel

Private jet for Pete and MJ to LA:
Noooooo, I'm callin' shenanigans on that one.

One of the problems in determining whether Webs is a major or minor book is not knowing what kind of publisher the fictional "Wiltonbooks" is. When I first read this story in 1988 I assumed they were riffing on then-booming, now-failing mall bookstore chain Waldenbooks (a bookstore, not a publisher), but it occurs to me it's entirely possible it's a pastiche or parody of major book publisher and big-time player in the literature world Warner Books, at the time distributed by Random House but now part of the mega-com-globe-co conglomerate known as Hatchette Book Group USA. I kinda like to think they were riffing on Warner Books back then, because of its connections to Time-Warner, the parent company of Marvel's Distinguished Competition. (Which might explain why Marvel is painting them as a buncha rubes with more money than sense in publishing).

For example...the private jet. Uh uh. No way. Ain't gonna happen. Not for a first time author, not for a yet-unproven book. Not even if they're trying to butter him up: Peter's book simply cannot be that commercially viable. I work in sales rather than publicity, but I do know this: you have to be the top of the top, and have proven selling power, to hitch a ride in the company jet. Tom Clancy might command that kind of respect. Peter McFirstBook flies Eastern Airlines, stopping in Dallas for a four hour layover. And what's up with that "hectic check-in procedures at LAX"? Um, LA is Peter and Mary Jane's destination. There's no "check in" when you get off a plane. Certainly not when you're being escorted for a publicity tour. The publicist and/or driver will meet you at the airport and help you with your luggage. All Pete has to do is stumble tiredly off the plane and look for the guy holding a sign that says PARKER on it. And hey, it's the late eighties, he doesn't even have to meet his party at the baggage claim! That bit about the limo, however, is spot-on: publicists hire drivers in town cars or limos to escort and taxi authors from place to place. You do not want your author relying on public transport or even catching their own taxi: you are charged with getting him from event to event on time, and having a hired driver for the tour is the way to ensure that.

ASM #304 panel

Peter's scheduled to appear at the "ABF": Yes, actually, that's precisely accurate. And at a posh charity gala? Uh, not so much.

ASM #304 is cover-dated September 1988, which means the comic was on sale in the early summer that year. (Until a handful of years ago comics had built themselves up a hefty advance cover date based on the increasingly outdated supermarket and drug store magazine racking system). From this panel, however, we can date this story absolutely precisely and accurately: this scene takes place on June 1, 1988.

Ginny, the disturbingly blank-stared publicist, has booked Peter at the "American Book after tomorrow." That's a fictional name but it's very clearly and obviously the American Booksellers Association: the annual trade show for book publishers and booksellers (called the ABA Show back then, it's now known as BookExpo America). The ABA show changes city venues each year (this year's BEA is in New York City and I hope to see some of you there...stop by the Norton booth!) but in a startling nod to reality, 1988's ABA did indeed take place in Anaheim, California, a long-time frequent location for the show. The ABA/BEA is where publishers present brand-new and forthcoming books to assembled bookstores, media, and each other, and it's the perfect place for Peter to appear. Authors do signings and parties and meet 'n' greets, copies of finished or advance books are signed and given away, and Ginny will have Pete settled down in the Wiltonbooks booth or one of those lengthy autographing lines where everybody in the book industry lines up to get a copy because the books are free. So, it's an ultra-smart and accurate place to launch a book, even though it's a title that has more New York City interest.

I'm pretty certain that Ginny's blowing a little smoke up Pete's tailpipe (ewww, I wish I hadn't used that metaphor) by having him on the guest list at a posh museum charity gala. You an' me live and breath the antics of our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, but Peter Parker is a nobody in the celebrity world of Los Angeles. Mary Jane will be a bigger draw for paparazzi at that party, especially when we find out later Glenn Close and Geraldo Rivera are there as well. Now, here's my thinking: as improbable a place for Peter to appear, I think Ginny's smarter than she is letting on. Wiltonbooks has wanted Spider-Man to appear alongside Peter at media appearances. What better way to ensure that than for Ginny to book Peter in at a museum with easily-stolen antiquities, hire special guest villain the Silver Fox to debonairly saunter in and relieve the museum of some lovely items, thus causing Pete to press the button that activates his Spider-Signal Watch, summoning everyone's favorite webslinger to save the day and make a publicity appearance to talk up the book? That's precisely what I thought the plot of this storyline was going to be when I first read it, and it impressed the heck out of me: I really liked the idea of a conniving book publicist pulling Spidey's strings on his book tour to get press. As it turned out, that's not what happened. I have the utmost respect and admiration for David Michelinie, but yet again I think I shoulda been writing the Spider-Man on Book Tour storyline.

No, here's what probably was going on in Ginny's head instead of that:

ASM #304 panel
"My god, if his wife's skirt was any shorter it'd be around her neck. Hey, that's the way to get publicity for this turkey photo book...parade puny Parker and his knockout wife in front of the cameras. They'll all be busy clicking away at her and maybe he'll get in the shot once or twice. I wonder if I could get her to wear a tube top?"

Special bonus early Todd McFarlane flashback!:

ASM #304 panel

We tend to remember McFarlane's visual innovations (just call them "changes" if you're a McFarlane-hater. Me, I kinda liked the dynamism but some of his early stuff was very sloppy in design) on Spidey: the knotted weblines all over the place, Mary Jane's big puffy hair and proto-Image Comics good girl bod, but what stands out when I re-read these stories from Todd's first year on the character is how often he was trying (and sometimes succeeding) in channeling the spirit of Ditko back to the character. Take a look at those two panels above: that's a Ditko-style Spidey he's trying to present, with big eyes and slim build and very detailed webbing design. And that little Spider-wave not only captures the unease of Peter in the situation, it's also a homage to Ditko's quirky and distinctive hand and wrist design. Now don't think I'm saying "Todd's as good as Steve!" Heavens, no. Ditko woulda filled these panels with interesting shaded and detailed backgrounds rather than blank space or short-hand blobs for figures, and Todd's not on that level. But it's very interesting and telling that after decades of Spidey-design being heavily John Romita-influenced, Todd's groundbreaking new look had some fans fuming at its new direction...a direction that was actually reminiscent of Spider-Man's roots.

Book tours don't begin and end at the same venue: authors are often trotted across the country for weeks and weeks, eating bad food, sleeping in non-descript hotels, appearing on talk shows where the host clearly hasn't read your book and doing bookstore signing events where five or ten people show up and you sell three books. There's a lot more to this storyline than Amazing Spider-Man continued in future issues and crossed over into Spectacular Spider-Man and Web of Spider-Man. In the not-too-distant future I'll continue examining and giving a reality check to these tales of Marvel's first superhero published author, showing you that the writers of these comic books have no idea how a bookstore book signing works. I'll also reveal the secret identity of the real-life famous 1980s author who flirted outrageously with poor clueless Peter Parker. A fabulous proven author and star of the literati world coming onto a first-time author? Wow, this storyline is fictional.

Blogging about blogging about blogging is a sin (and makes me dizzy).

"Book 'Em, Spidey!" will continue tonight, if I don't get snowed into Manhattan and unable to get back to my cozy Brooklyn home this evening*. In the meantime...

Gwen 'n' DaveYou know how sometimes you get to stay up late to watch Letterman, an' you're all excited and happy and makin' popcorn and pouring a big icy glass of Grape Funny Face, and settling down in to watch Dave and his fabulous guests? Oh, who will Dave interview tonight? Will it be a fantastic Hollywood movie star, like ever-debonair Mister Michael Caine? Television superhunk Kiefer Sutherland with a clip of some hilarious bloopers from the smash hit 24? Maybe pop sensation Gwen Stefani will be on and bring along her fabulous gams! Oh, I can hardly, hardly wait!

And then the music starts and the opening credits start rolling, and you scramble to the edge of your seat, nibbling your hooves in excitement, and Late Show announcer Alan Kalter proclaims: "With Dave's special guest...Charles Grodin!"

Charles Grodin

Yeah, it's gonna be like that, 'coz if you tune over to the ever-entertaining Blog@Newsarama, you can read an interview Shane Bailey conducted with little stuffed yours truly about comics, blogging, the big guy who follows me everywhere, and words of advice for any other stuffed animals planning on leaping paws first into the blogosphere. Shane asked me some questions and then whipped my chicken-scratch scrawling replies into something that actually might be interesting and entertaining, thus proving the lesson that Marvel doesn't seem to learn: use an editor!

Anyway, I wanna thank Shane ("Thanks, Shane!") for giving me an opportunity to dance on Newsrama's interview desk a la Madonna for a while, and welcome to all you who might be discovering my blog for the very first time because of it. And remember: if you string together the first letter of every third word of my interview answers, you'll learn the startling secret ending to 52! Read it today, true bull-lievers!

* Or if Blogger locks up on me again because it chose today to force me at ethernet-metaphorical gunpoint to upgrade to Blogger 2.0 when I logged in this morning. Rassin'-frassin'... (Thank you Laura for the expert help and moral support!)

Monday, February 12, 2007

Book 'em, Spidey!: The Peter Parker Book Tour

ASM #304My blog should be filed under Comics; general interest. While it's one of the rare few that seem to focus a little more on Marvel than DC, there is, besides being a little stuffed blogger, little to specifically distinguish myself from the rest of the comics blogogloby-thing. I'm certainly not complainin' 'bout that, but it's true I don't have a specialty or a recurring focused theme like Laura posting about Golden Age Aquaman comics or Blockade Boy's unerring and fabulous fashion sense. I don't have the real-world skillz that will pay the billz to allow me to comment on or give reality check to, say, legal matters in comics (like Loren) or medicine in comics (like Scott) or even archery in comics (like MacQuarrie). I know a heckuva lot about book publishing, sales, distribution and publicity, but I can't see where that has any connection to comics...

Wait a minute.

(diving into the Bully long boxes and emerging several minutes later clutching a copy of Amazing Spider-Man #304 in my hooves...)

Ah, here we go. There's at least two storylines concerning book publishing that I can think of in comics and both of them take place in Spider-Man books. One of them is the recent Deb Whitman tell-all exposé of Peter Parker within the pages of Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man, which was actually a pretty accurate representation of how book signings work (well, aside from the super-villain crashing the event). Peter David oughta know; he's done a bucketload of those things. But I'm not entirely certain David Michelinie, who wrote this issue of ASM, has done quite as many. Let's page through the early Todd McFarlane art and examine this storyline from the POV of a little stuffed somebody who works in the book industry (yours truly) and see if it holds up to reality, shall we?

ASM #304 panel
All panels in this post are from Amazing Spider-Man #304 (early September 1988);
written by David Michelinie, art by Todd McFarlane (pencils),
Joe Rubinstein (inks), and Bob Sharen (colors)

Book design reality check: thumbs down.

As explained on the next page, Peter Parker is holding in his grubby little hand a mock-up of a soon-to-be-published book of Spider-Man photos. That suggests he's possibly holding what technically is known in the publishing world as a "bulking dummy," a blank book wrapped with a dust jacket mock-up for publicity and marketing photography purposes where a 3D book is needed instead of a 2D cover image. Bulking dummies are also used at trade shows to show off a book to be published in the upcoming season on which design is not yet finished, or are sometimes carried by publishers' sales reps to show the size and trim of the book to major chain, non-book or wholesale accounts—usually warehouse clubs or chain non-book stores (like the wholesaler book distributors who buy books for Target or Kmart). These accounts need to know the "look" of the look will fit in with their monthly "planograms." A very small number of bulking dummies are usually produced—they're not exceptionally expensive to produce (just wrap a jacket around another book the same trim size), but they are generally useless for the vast majority of advance book sales: the chain and independent bookstores that are serviced by and sold books in advance of publication by the fine sales staff or commission groups for that publisher. For those accounts publishing houses will generally print an advance reading copy (sometimes known as a galley) which is a not-for-sale advance paperback with cheap paper covers to be given to book buyers at stores and chains. For a photography and art book, however, it's even more common that the publisher will print a "blad" (an acronym for "book layout and design"): a glossy brochure of usually eight or more pages in the same trim size as the final book, showing off sample interior pages within the blad spreads. Blads are generally produced in larger numbers and are easier for reps to carry around than finished books: few publishers' sales reps carry around finished books, with the possible exception of children's books or small gift books. There simply isn't enough room in a sales rep's sample case for finished books! This illustration looks like a paperback (note the lack of definition to the cover, suggesting it's not a hardcover) which hints it may actually be an advance reading copy.

More to the point...that's an awful cover design, and any company that thinks it's good is heading down a trail of boring, uninspiring look-alike covers that do not suggest the salability or interest within the book itself...oh wait, that's absolutely right, isn't it? We're talking about Marvel. But this is a dull, drab jacket design: it looks like the book designer took one of Peter's photos and airbrushed out the background. It's an image that's got to be unrepresentative of the Spidey in Manhattan photos the book contains. You could make a case that the white on the jacket is matte finish and the Spider is spot laminated, making it glossy...but that's seldom effective in photography focusing on a single figure. I'm not denying its can indeed create an iconic cover with a figure on a white background...but it's an odd and uninteresting choice for a photography book.

Finally, the trim size appears to be about 8½ by 11. That's a very non-traditional size for a photo book, depending on the focus of the book itself. I'm assuming this is mostly Peter's journalism photography of Spidey, which would most likely be 35 millimeter film in the landscape format. Like most photo books, I'd expect Webs to be in the landscape format, wider than it is tall, to allow full-page repros of Pete's photos.

And don't even get me started on that typography. The title is hard to read. That box with the author line is extremely poor design. Yeah, this thing's got "instant remainder" all over it. The publisher's got a dud in the making here. But at least Peter's gonna get some money from the deal, right?
ASM #304 panel
ASM #304 panel

"A few weeks until publication" reality check: no way.

Uh-uh. That's absolutely wrong for a couple reasons, one from the publishing world and one from the Marvel world. With very few exceptions like monster potential bestsellers usually based on breaking news items, a book is published on a longggggg lead time. The publishing house needs time to sign up the book (just getting it approved by the editorial board can take several weeks) and work out the contracts, edit and legally clear the manuscript or photos, design the interior layout and the outer jacket. More to the point, the book needs to be sold to bookstores in advance, so it must be listed as forthcoming in a company catalogue and then sold by sales reps to chains and indies around the country beginning as early as 6-8 months before publication date, so the publishing company's sales department can judge the number of books needed and advise production on how many to print (enough to fill advance orders plus a few week's reorders if the book takes off). In other words, unless this is a crash-pubbed or secret book based on a monster news story, the fact that it's going to be published is public knowledge almost a year before the book actually comes out.

But...since we'll see in a minute why Peter was left out of the loop...isn't it possible that since he doesn't travel in book circles and is married to a fabulous leggy super-model rather than a spunky and cute bookstore clerk (which, is, I'll tell ya, Petey's loss), he simply didn't hear anything about it? That might be possible only if it wasn't a book with the words Daily Bugle plastered all over the front of it. This is a book of Pete's Bugle photos, and J. Jonah Jameson is too smart a promoter not to have had multiple pieces in his newspaper announcing, gossiping, promoting and all-out hawking the new book. At the very least Robbie woulda told Pete. Or Betty. Was she working at the Bugle then? Oh wait, Robbie's in the hospital during this period, right? Well, Ben Urich woulda told Pete. Somebody.

ASM #304 panel

Pete gets shafted reality check: Uh, yeah, probably.

This doesn't come as a surprise, does it? JJJ's prob'bly on completely legal if not moral ground here: Peter has always been manipulated by Jonah into taking the short-term profit of his journalism photography (haggling for a hundred bucks at a time to pay for Aunt May's deus ex machina medicine is not a good way to build up a pension) that he's signed away the rights to get compensated for reprints. Holy cow, is that an intentional work-for-hire satire in a 1980s Marvel comic book? Uh, prob'bly not.

ASM #304 panel

Pete's gonna get rich off the royalties reality check: Dream on, Mister P.

Where do we start with this one? "A book that size will probably have a cover price higher than that [one hundred dollars]!" Nope. Not a chance. Although it's hard to tell from a drawing of what might be an ARC or bulking dummy, Webs looks to bulk out at about 128 or 144 pages. Even if it's full-color (highly unlikely for news photography, but it's true a lot of Peter's Spidey photos we've seen in the past have been color rather than black-and-white), we're looking at no more than a $35.00 price point, probably closer to $29.95 during the late eighties. Any higher you risk hurting yours advance sales into the stores and your store sales to customers immensely, especially if the book is published during the summer (as a later panel suggests) rather than at Christmastime. But hey, that's Peter's uneducated guess, so we can forgive that. See what you'd know more about if you were married to the cute bookstore clerk rather than the swimsuit bikini model, Mister P?

More to the point is the promise of "as much as $25,000" in "partial" royalties that Pete will earn in promise for doing a book tour promotion. Whoa there, Parker, rein in those startled lines glowing over your head. Standard royalty scale is 10%. Partial royalties...well, I got no idea exactly what figure Mister Publisher Guy here is talking about, but "partial" < 10%. If that were true, the book would have to profit out more than a quarter million dollars. Here's some real rough math: a $35.00 book sells to booksellers at a discount (at the time) of probably between 40% and 50%. Let's say 45% just to even it out. That means the publisher sells each book for over nineteen bucks. You'd then have to subtract costs of production, publicity, promotion and other P-words. And unlike the comic book world, trade books are sold into bookstores as returnable, which means they are allowed to be returned for credit to the publish if unsold. All of that is going to cut into the profit the royalties are based on. That's...okay, there's too many unknowns here to calculate the exact number, but I'm guesstimating the publishing company would have to sell well over 20,000 copies of this book. We'll see later on that based on what I know about the book industry that's unlikely to happen: the book's oddly laid out and poorly designed, they have no clear strong publicity program, and (as we'll see in future issues of this storyline) it's a book with a regional focus that has much lesser appeal outside Manhattan.

On the other hand...does that invalidate this panel? Absolutely not! Let's just assume the publisher is lying. If Pete can't see his way past the manipulations of blustery JJJ, he's gonna fall hook, spider-line, and sinker for a couple vague promises from a shady publisher who for some reason brings a legal rep along to a meeting rather than a publicity or sales person.

So, let's tally that up: so far the only accurate representation of the book publishing world in ASM #304 is the cold hard fact that an author don't make much money. Still, Mary Jane and Aunt May are likely to slap some sense into him about falling into the deadly dangerous world of book publishing, right? (We'll find out tomorrow.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Ten of a Kind: Skeleton Crew

No bones about it...skeleton heroes are hot, hot, hot. In honor of the movie coming this week to a theatre near you and then very quickly to DVD...

(More Ten of a Kind here.)