The Fan-Fic Nobody Knows

No, not mine. God no.

I refer to Jonathan Burns’ PKD/GKC mash-up, viewable here if you just scroll down through the comments. Go ahead and take a look. I’ll wait.

Back?

Good, wasn’t it?

Yes, I thought so too; in fact I think it’s very good. And it’s sort of got me thinking, since I decided to review that post today, that I’m fortunate enough to play host to quite a bit of this stuff, by Jonathan and others, tucked away in odd corners of blog and “Temp” directory. Which sort of seems a bit of a shame; because I’m the only one who gets to review it all with any regularity, I think, and a lot of it is very well worth reviewing. Thinking once again of what’s been lost in the comics world, when letters pages went the way of all flesh…and the zine culture that the mighty Internet (presumably) has subsumed like Zeus subsumed the many-headed monsters of myth. Of course once upon a time, as you know, all this stuff was linked underground in ways that were relatively easy to keep track of — Alter Ego and Let’s Level With Daredevil and Aardvark-Vanaheim and The Comics Journal, to just spit out a few obvious examples, formed a rich mushroom manure where talents took root and found out what kinds of seeds they were anyway…as, if I may make a strange comparison, the old days of television sponsored mile upon mile of home-produced film carrying demented kiddie shows, twisted sports-highlight reels, screwy chat programs and Bob Ross, all local and organic and seasonal delivered right to your door.

And I find myself thinking about Steve Gerber.

Here’s a thing I said to Sean W., not too long ago:

“I want a special “art” model printer sitting right here in my house. Screw e-books (although a good e-paper pad would be a wicked medium for CRAP comics, no question — but why’s everybody so worried about what’s going to happen to Marvel and DC, anyway?), I want to be able to set the thing on “Comic”, load in the staples and the paper, and have it come out at an approximate cost to me of somewhere between one and two bucks.

I would join a “Warren Ellis Digest Club” — twenty dollars a year, and I pay for the paper if I like things like that. Quarterly issues. Six comics in an issue, four by Warren, two by people he really likes and has taken under his umbrella. Let the comics pros work out how to stagger it so I’m always getting a weekly input to my notepad. “Ooooh, August, it’s Grant Morrison!” “Holy crap, it’s almost November, the new Warren Ellis is almost out!” Fuck it, I guess that’s not really a good idea — but I was just reading a Gerber interview, and like Kirby before him, he was telling the powers that be, look, forget the way you’ve done business up ’til now, the marketplace is changing, go where the money is, build a new readership, get off your ASS!” And whether you think he was right or wrong specifically (I do believe history has at least proven Kirby right — although he never mentioned anything about exclusively displaying SHIT graphic novels in bookstores (!)), I look at this Freakangels thing and I think “goodbye, old comics business model — this looks absolutely fucking AMAZING, now wean me off of this asinine monthly wait for new comics, let me get it and then do what I want with it (I’d like to print out copies for kids, myself; I’d like to own it and really OWN it — but let it cost me some money to print it! My decision!), and then give me some way of getting a respectable charge of money into Warren’s hands for it without feeling overextended or ripped-off, and…

GOODBYE, DIAMOND! GOODBYE, MARVEL AND DC!

Okay, lemme think about this. I love my LCS, and I don’t want it to suffer. Besides, if the LCS dies, where am I going to get my big-ass deluxe Milton Caniff portfolios? Where am I going to get my back issues of Fantastic Four or Coyote or Epicurus The Sage or Destroyer Duck? (You need to read Englehart and Ditko’s “The Djinn”, Sean) Something has to be done to make room for the people who’ve sweat blood for their obsession, here…Christ, and why doesn’t every store have a person in it who’s a comics blogger? Why doesn’t *every* store have a blog? Anyway the LCS is a “coolness” store now, and a nostalgia store too, as well as a pretty damn good secondhand bookstore and pop-culture toy store. But it isn’t enough.

How to make it enough?

Maybe it oughtta be like comics’ own Kinko’s. Can’t afford the fancy-ass comics printer? We’ve got one here; go nuts, kid. Got your ID off the website? But your Dad won’t spring for the ink? *Two bucks*, please. And no ads.

Or you can just buy the one with ads in it that we printed off for our own retail business under our commercial licence.

One buck.

Hey, buy a couple. The website address is inside the front cover.

I would dig the feel of a print-out, for certain things — paper still warm from the machine! Read that one on the floor, then print out the next one with your last two bucks! Ah, disposable comics again, the thrill of it.

But I should probably spend some time thinking about [it]. Horizontal screen dimensions? Imagine printing something in a non-standard comics-page size, it’d be like being Archaia. It’d be like buying something weird at the store. Damn, you could make it a collection of small murals, like they used to give kids when I was young…”

Of course it wouldn’t work, would it? Pie in the sky. But wait, how about a scoop of ice cream for that pie? Because the hilarious thing here is, it could work, just on the off-chance, but it would involve people in the computer industry creating a hardware and software package geared to the special needs of comics, and things like comics. Swiping liberally from conversations with Harvey, and (I think) a little bit from some Steven Grant columns…why the hell don’t we have comics made to fit our monitor screens? It’s my one complaint with Freakangels, that it includes very good concessions to the reality of reading it on your computer, but the scrolling part still isn’t FUN…so I’m thinking now, what would Hitchcock have made of these prevailing technological conditions, considering Dial M For Murder’s genesis as a 3D movie? And they do say it was the best 3D movie…

What would Kirby have made of it, or Ditko? Or Wally Wood?

Monitor screens (here comes Steven Grant, if memory serves) get wider and wider all the time. It’s letterbox stuff. It’s all moving towards more useful movie-viewing. But comics are still stuck in a page-style that can’t fully take advantage of that detail…reading things online, ripped and burnt (the comics, not me…well, okay, yes me), you move the mouse and the picture moves too, but it’s clumsy and annoying; whereas Hitchcock (and, I don’t doubt, Gerber) would’ve found a way to employ this necessity as a component of the art. Pages? The hell with pages, we’re talking screens, that’s what’s happening these days…

But no one is writing code, no one is building machines, for the comics business. Laughable to think anybody would! But hold on, not so laughable as all that…what would Gerber have said to Stan, if today was yesterday? “This is your chance to turn into a freakin’ computer company, buddy! Take the money and roll it over! Hire some geeks! Make something new! I just told a friend about how often comics come out these days, about how the monthly schedule has gone down the toilet and she gaped at me like I was from another planet! It’s over. Look, just imagine I’m Jerry Siegel for a second, just imagine I’m Sammy Clay…”

Okay, Steve never talked like that. But just imagine.

And then, of course, imagine Stan saying “no”.

Ha!

Of course we’re never going to have these things, if we don’t want them. You have no idea (or, maybe you do) how stupid I felt telling my friend “yeah, that’s right, X-Men comes out about five times a year or something, at odd intervals”…she was like “X-Men like the one with Patrick Stewart? Are they still making the movies, though?” Holy crap; it’s seriously over. The ship’s sinking. And yet where’s the replacement ship?

And: where are the replacement sailors?

How great would it be to have a little well-designed use-appropriate proper-sized digital paper comic-book e-book? These e-book and digital paper people are spending millions upon millions of dollars trying to replace the world’s most simple, useful, durable technology: the book. It will simply never work. It can’t work. It’s reinventing the wheel, only as a square or even rectangular wheel: and I know my fair share of people who love e-books and use them all the time, and tell me how great they are, but they are all working in the software industry, you know? Meanwhile, here’s how it would work with the comic-book reader I imagine, the C-Book: you’re going on a family vacation. You pay a subscription fee to Marvel or DC for the right to download a huge archive of comics into your little pad. Everything they’ve got, desirably. $29.95. You couldn’t even read all of it if you tried. One month later it all disappears.

And now you have something to hold over little Jimmy or Susie’s head if they misbehave. “Be nice, and I’ll renew the subscription. You liked that Green Lantern stuff? We’ll just get all the Green Lantern stuff. I’ll call them tomorrow if you go to bed now and no complaining.” That’s how Marvel and DC exploit their fully-owned properties. Subscriptions. And not just Marvel and DC: Astounding/Analog, F+SF, Black Mask, Ellery Queen…everybody who’s pulpy, who’s feeling the pinch, who has large intellectual-property assets they can’t mobilize cost-effectively. But in the right size, cheap for what you get, and too much to ever get through in one shot without making a full-time job of it…I don’t know, you think? Sell the archive again and again. Make it useful. Make it handy. Use what you’ve got. Use it repeatedly. $29.95 for all the crappy comics in the world, once a month.

I don’t know.

Is it, even slightly, a good idea?

What would Steve say?

Back to the mushroom manure: ah, comics blogs. How I love ’em. But, it’s not quite the same thing, as the organic network of underground rivers that used to join up lettercols, conventions, fanzines, and other marginal publications to the “big time”, is it? All around us, under our feet, those streams are drying up: because they’re not streams anymore, they’re just a water table. They’re all generalized, all distributed; you can’t dip your bucket into ’em, all you can do is drill your own well and suck up stuff pretty much at random from where it lives deep inside the gravel bed. We’ve got a vast community online, much bigger than the community we had before…but how the community communicates has changed. How long before the SF magazine as we know it dies? A single generation? Two? Print’s not going anywhere, but some of its markets sure are: and what will happen to it all if it just ends up running on applications that were really built for something else? People read a lot of different things, in a lot of different ways. Sometimes they read lying down in bed, and the book drops out of their hands. Sometimes they just pick up stuff that other people have left lying around. They read in the car; they read in the bathroom. Every reading experience is subject-specific. Specific subjects go with specific sites, and specific situations. Reading is architecture, partly, possibly: reading has a design component.

And, I’ll argue, so does writing. Jonathan’s PKD/GKC mashup belongs in an SF magazine, of course, but here I am sitting on top of a half-a-hundred little bits of inventiveness that don’t, necessarily…but do they belong on a blog, either? They get written on a blog, because the blog-format pulls ’em out of people, and that’s…what’s the word…absolutely GREAT! But reading them is tricky. On LiveJournal (so I’m given to understand), fan-fic has found a real home: it’s a community of fan-fic, where the other blogging platforms really are not quite that. The inkspots are all over the walls, there, and you can get to them. So I’m told. But around here, so many brilliant thoughts get wallpapered over day-by-day as the date-headings change…so many sly thoughts sink beneath the calendar numbers without a trace, before you really even know they’re there…that I wonder sometimes if we’re doing this right. And no one’s after any of this stuff, except for us, and that doesn’t quite seem right either.

But what if it were otherwise?

The thing is, there’s fan-fic and there’s fan-fic, and the second kind is really just plain fic, if anyone could see it. Real fan-fic has a function over and above (or perhaps beneath and below) the joys of the reading experience — fan-fic is also fan communication, fan networking. Plain old fic is different: it craves audience rather than conversation. But very often it rises from the same spring, and so it’s hampered by not having a channel of its own to flow into: it gets mixed up with the other stuff. This isn’t really new, of course — people have always written for different reasons, wherever they’ve done the writing, and the struggle to find an intention-appropriate outlet should be familiar to most of us, people thrashing around community college courses, sending cartoons to music papers, photocopying, joining writing groups — doing anything they can to find their niche — so it’s not new, but the times are new, and they’re a-changin’. Steve said if he were twenty-five today, and doing comics, he’d be online all the way. Forget print. But how might he have done it exactly, I find myself wondering. How would he have Hitchcocked it up?

Recently I was in a restaurant, and happened to pick up a copy of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that some nameless someone had left there. An embarrassing experience: it was a better paper than either of our two national dailies, and of course miles above the B.C. papers. I sat there staring at it, trying to figure out why. I mean, I don’t know how the PI stacks up to other papers in the States. Middle of the pack? Bottom end? Top of the heap? Anyway wherever it gets ranked, in my part of the world we don’t have a thing to touch it. And why not?

Talent is the answer, I think. Talented writers, and talented editors. It seems not to be a priority up here. And yet it must be the very simplest thing in the whole world: you’re running a newspaper, get some good writers. This is how Hearst became a magnate, how hockey became a national sport. Hire the good people.

However, you’ve got to find them first. In Hollywood (I’m reliably informed), the nature of pitching has changed: producers would rather say no than yes, rather be shown than show. But it isn’t just Hollywood. In Canada too, and no doubt all around the Western world, the meaning of “track record” has changed somewhat — changed to include fluency in the almighty jargon of Biz as a more vital component. I’m not tilting at windmills here, I’m just saying that’s how it is: many large and open organizational structures have calcified around here, over about the last hundred years. Not that “paddle your own canoe” wasn’t always good advice, because it was…however we still live with the times we’ve got. I send off envelopes to magazines, because it suits me and I can; but those magazines may not be around forever, or even for long. Publishing is changing. The record industry is changing. Comics are changing. Newspapers are changing. TV and movies too: they’re changing. New canoes, everywhere.

The canoeists stay pretty much the same, though.

So, what’s the answer, or to be more accurate what’s the problem? What’s the next step, after blogs with funny names and pseudonyms? This is the mushroom manure right here, but how might it best be spread around the garden? Well, I guess every blogger has to bash out a poorly-conceived manifesto with a lot of gaping holes in reasoning and uninformed rhetorical questions in it, sooner or later…and I guess this is mine, but maybe I can manage to say something sensible in it anyway, somehow. In these days, canoe paddles are probably easier to come by than they’ve ever been before, so that’s good. That’s great. And the new-model canoes are pretty swift too. But when (like me) you’ve been surrounded for some twenty years by folks trying to paint, trying to write, trying to act, trying to do their thing wherever and however they can, you do occasionally find it ironic that no matter how much the canoe situation improves, finding a stretch of open water to paddle around in seems a harder and more thankless task day by day. So I guess I’m saying: it could be otherwise, maybe.

Right now we’ve got a great new situation with regard to reviews and reviewers, out in blogland. We really are blessed. Online comic strips too. We’ve got a lot of humour, a lot of music, a lot of video, a lot of art, and a lot of news. Radio and print archives, even. For all these things, it is already a new Golden Age.

So what’s the next step?

How does one liberate The Fan-Fic Nobody Knows?

Idle ramblings from a procrastinating mind, Bloggers; for myself, I’ve got a pretty decent canoe-thing going on, so don’t worry about me. But sometimes I look at some of the little treasures that I’ve been fortunate enough to collect inside my computer, and I find myself thinking: “why am I the only person who’s seeing this?”

Oh no, it did turn into one of those damn poorly-thought-out manifesto thingies, didn’t it.

And everything I’m talking about here is probably well underway already, just not quite in the manner I imagine it ought to be.

Well, fine if it is! But I, at any rate, plan to start thinking about it a little more carefully!

Yours truly,

Robert Kirkman

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5 responses to “The Fan-Fic Nobody Knows

  1. Let’s Level With Daredevil?

    As you know, I believe that we are now in a Crisis era. And one of the things you get in Crisis eras is that all of the problems that have been accumulating over the past sixty years or so all come to a head, and many of them are solved, sometimes forever. Sometimes this solution is not really a solution but just a societal whirlwind that changes conditions to the point where the problem really doesn’t apply anymore. Anyway, the point is, it’s normal to look at this or that aspect of society and say, “This just doesn’t work at all, and we have to throw it out and build something new.” The diagnosis and suggested treatment are generally both appropriate, and such a solution is probably forthcoming.

    Of course, we, and when I say we I mean everybody, actually have to do it, so if either one of us has a contribution to make we should get on with that.

    The subset of society that we think of as the comic book community may not seem important enough for this to happen, but it’s all grist for the mill.

    As for your particular idea, I don’t know how well it would work, but I know what the first objection from DC and Marvel would be: “How would we pay the creators?”

    One thing that can be done, as far as the stuff on your own site is concerned, is what I did on mine: I organized it like it wasn’t a blog. I set up pages that linked to all my comics reviews and TV reviews and all the other stuff. Well, you’ve done some of that too, actually, with your Seven Soldiers of Steve sidebar section. Doesn’t increase the readership any, but if I was going to start looking through somebody’s cellar I’d prefer to have a nice wide stable staircase and some track lighting than a trap door, a flashlight and a rope.

  2. And “Let’s Rap With Cap” and “Sock It To Shell-Head”, yes. Seems incredible, doesn’t it?

    Me, I like what David Golding did — a forest of different pages, the forest floor covered in links, and you measure a circle starting from anywhere. That’s one extreme of the diary form: distribution. Make the thing look like the inside of your head, all over the place. And I do think blogland is foredoomed to be part of any changes in culture that we’ve got coming up, but I doubt if I’d wish it to be a moneymaker…I doubt if chasing a larger readership makes a lot of sense, for most. On the other side of David, you’ve got Jim Roeg, whose presentation is much more serial: different features doing different things, one after the other. But surely Jim’s audience can’t get much bigger, either. I mean, Gender and Nighthawk? Jim’s stuff is as personal as David’s, and as well-suited to the medium and the small-fish-big-pond-ism. Scipio might be able to publish a book called The Absorbascon — for use in college Philosophy classes, no doubt! — but both Jim and David are so strongly aligned with the world of fans, with the mushroom manure, that it seems uncouth to want them to grow out of it.

    Then we’ve got folks like Marc Singer — could we call this the Douglas Wolk sector of comics blogdom? The academic/publishing sector. I think we’ll see more things arising out of that. That, I believe, is covered…

    Whoops, sorry Mattthew, I just have to dash out…! Back soon, again.

  3. Pingback: links go to a building on fire « supervillain·

  4. Just ranted a little bit in the comments section of Sean’s trackback down at the bottom here. Maybe it was just ranting? And yet I’m thinking, I know this animator guy…

  5. What’s the problem? That’s an open question, for sure.

    My feeling with blogging it’s that is a great step forward, but it has a few major drawbacks.

    It’s in journal format, which means everything you write is tomorrow’s chip wrapping. You spend hours, days, weeks composing a post, put it out there, but the moment you put another post in its place, it’s gone. Nobody, well, few people, go trawling through archives. This is worse if your writing sequentially. People will come across your writing in exactly the wrong order.

    Secondly, you have to post frequently to have a successful blog. You can be a great writer but not have this ability to get loads of stuff out day after day after day.

    Thirdly, blogging favours specialiists and frowns on generalists. There are exceptions, but most good blogs are strongly themed. Generalists – those who can’t or won’t stick to one subject – find it more difficult because their blog isn’t specific enough. Obviously, they can open up more blogs, but keep in mind the “post regularly” rule and multiply it by the number of blogs they’re trying to keep going….

    I know you can alleviate some of these problems with sidebars and links, but I wonder if what’s needed is to move to a magazine rather than a journal model. You’re not doing today’s blog post, you’re writing an article for Plok Monthly Issue 37. Maybe the blog runs alongside the magazine as a format for discussing some of the issues coming out of it.

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