Saturday, March 31, 2007

Much Fanfare...hopefully no Flame-out

Jodi Picoult's new gig might buck the trend...
Publishing has a number of dirty little secrets. As you fanboys and girls know, chief in my mind among them is that white people are actually controlling and guiding this mad rush of "thug fiction" and raunch passing for black lit these days. It's all just "Flava of Love" in bookprint, just as contemporary Hip Hop has taken that dive. All a minstrel show, and we've bought into it. Part and parcel is a lot of unnecessary diva and baller worship--hell when were authors supposed to be celebs, regardless of race? Weren't we the despised truth-tellers, the folk who used allegory to shine light on the cockroaches? Shy bohemians rather than arrogant celebrities?

Well, there is an avenue of publishing which I once thought was immune to certain marketing gimmicks and trends: comic books. Nevertheless, the big names in our fearless The Darker Mask excepting, a number of "superstar" authors have been invited to pen story arcs. Much fanfare, much money exchanged. And the dirty little secret? Flame-outs. See, the audience is much more sophisticated and demanding in the comics realm. Think I'm kidding? Talk to them, watch G4 on cable and then get back to me!
Well, my fellow people of color--statistically, anecdotally and empirically you are likely to have rather base and immature tastes and appetites with respect to your reading choices. Curse me, hate me, kick my ass. But I speak the goddamn truth. Now OF COURSE I'm not saying we're more ignorant than white folks! Please...I'm not a total asshole. But when you factor in the fact that there are more of them, and they have that all-mighty disposable income, they thus have sub-groups of folks who can subsidize even the most arcane literary genre. That's why, for example, Colson Whitehead's booksignings are close to lily white, or you can count the number of darker heads on one hand when Nalo Hopkinson's doing an event, or just ask Brandon Massey what it's like to be compared to Stephen King and not, well...Brandon Massey. Or why do random middle aged white guys wander into Otto Penzler's Bookstore in midtown manhattan to look for my sorry-ass books yet I have to email/postcard/kidnap church ladies in black book clubs to get to my events. These same ladies will lament how there's nothing "decent to read" as they host a dinner/signing for the authors of I Only Sucked Dick in Prison, Mama and Lawd, the Pastor Makes Me Wet. (available in hardcover and soon to be a major motion picture starring Kimberly Elise, Morris Chestnut and the members of "Pretty Ricky")
But we're getting better, and we soldier on!!!
OK, so comics publishers are ordinarily a cool and adaptive bunch by their nature, and not tight-assed ostriches as you may find in prose publishing. But they can be just as craven in order to make the numbers demanded by the bean counters who in turn answer to the hedge fund stockholders. The real divergence lays with the comics fanbase...oh Lord, you can't sway them with gimmicks, pseudo-coups, tie-ins, and the other horseshit borrowed from the TV and film marketing machines (even though these publishers are now usually cogs in the machines that are huge corporations like Time-Warner or VIACOM). Comics readers are as the GHOST in the machine. The uncontrolable, unmalleable soul...
My fellow Princetonian Jodi Picoult, she of family chronicles and less gritty (though no less explosive) emotions explored, has joined this trend by signing onto a story arc for DC Comics. She might actually make a major splash due NOT so much to her "brand name." She chose her entre very carefully. "Wonder Woman". In the Amazon Princess's annuals, she finds a amenable audience, and a super heroine well known to her own fanbase of sensitive white chicks, their mommies and their daughters.
The dirty little secret here is that such relationships haven't exactly put the WONDER in Wonder Woman. For example, with much fanfare and big pay checks, Brad Metzler and Eric Jerome Dickey hooked up with DC Comics and Marvel, respectively. Brad, seeking a departure from the Wal Mart featured hardcover legal thrillers that folks buy as if by rote, penned a themed story about Justice League members. My boy Eric composed the love story of the X-Men's Storm and the Avengers' Black Panther. Did their core fanbase join in the lovefest and fanfare? No. Did the extant comic readers--the discerning ghosts in the machine--eat it up like so much candy? No. Again, a flame-out because these folks reject gimmicks. Sure, the stuff's a collectable: "40 Year old Virgin" types buy and shrinkwrap even the dumbest shit for that reason alone.
Try to look at this way...much of Eric's fanbase, already being eaten-into by the Minstrel Show thug books and raunch, wallows a certain soap opera flava that a graphic novel can't by its nature convey without pissing off the diehard comics fans. Indeed, you're better off doing a graphic renditon of lurid, stereotypical gangsta/dirty south/stripper raunch than try to turn Marvel superheroes into an episode of "Soul Food." As Brad, who's punted Washington Dc for South Beach and LA, he had some crossover ONLY because of his suspense/thriller pedigree. But it was minor. He is a darling of the beach-read crowd, and the beach-read crowd will buy a comic book for their kids but not themselves. Problem is, their kids don't want Brad Metlzer. Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, yeah...but Brad? Unh-unh. Yet you can't tell the brand-name struck cowns in marketing that real world fact. To them, this audience is merely a cadre of booger-eaters and drugged up gamers who can be manipulated as easily as the average suburban white housefrau, or Shaniqua on the Metro bus reading Relentless Aaron as if he's James Baldwin...
I think Jodi will buck that paradigm. There is a magical Mayan calendar-like astronomical conjunction of (1) her skill set, (2) her body of work and & themes, (3) her fanbase's proclivities & tastes at work. Even so, I predict it won't be wild windfall, but hey some clown will spin into a crazy success and thus feed more brand name worship, more inanity, more silly deals. All this while authors like Annie Nocenti (a goddess among comics writers), Gary Phillips (who forayed into comics for DC/Vertigo and Moonstone) or Mat Johnson (Mat's penned DC Comic's "Papa Midnite" amalgam of the original Hellblazer character--played by Djimon Hounsou in the film--and new origin stories, bursts forth soon with INCOGNEGRO) navigate and delight without fanfare, but with the loyalty and acclaim of BOTH their graphic AND their prose fans. And that's the dirtiest secret of all...that those folk who carry the creative and innovative load have remain in the background while superstars and "brand names" flame-out.


Snowman said...

I'm not aware of the "minstrel show" books but from your blog and other observations at bookstores (not our old faithful here in Annapolis), I think I know what you mean.

My wife and I are indeed fans of Jodi Picoult. However, I'm not a comic book fan.

Anonymous said...

I liked the Marvel Storm and Black Panther issues written by Eric Jerome Dickey but I agree that many of his readers simply did not transfer to the graphic novel medium. I also agree, reluctantly, that much of this is a sophistication and comfort zone matter endemic to readers of color. Those of us who have more varied "tastes" will explore other genres, but he has many readers who really have no interest in anything other than these particular love-sex-thrills plots.
I agree that the Wonder Woman issues will likely be very successful.

Anonymous said...

Papa Midnite is Vertigo rather than DC Comic's parent publication, I believe.

Are you still doing work for Joe Gentile at Moonstone Comics?

Brian said...

Great post...

I heard about this a few months back on NPR's News and Notes.

They didn't talk much about the issues going on behind the scenes. They were talking about how popular it has become and in a roundabout way, they tried to glorify it.

The last thing we need is another avenue for these images to reach the masses. We have enough negative images to misrepresent us as individuals (particularly those of us who don't fit the stereotypes). They already have TV, Movies, Music, the nightly news, etc, as avenues for this stuff. Now it is spreading to books.

Like Chuck D. mentioned in the documentary Hip Hop Beyond Beats and Rhymes.... People on high are making a profit from the plight of young Black men.

Snowman said...

You should post a comment on Cormac McCarthy's The Road, picked by Oprah Winfrey. I am very happy that Oprah attempts to keep real literature front-and-center. I know a lot of comedians make fun of her but I shudder to think where the book industry would be heading if she wasn't around.

Anonymous said...

As a fairly normal black fanboy of comics and general world mythology; and a semi-retired pagan with a poor history of letting D&D campaigns get out of control, I generally agree with Chris' comments on the sad state of commerce-driven publication brinksmanship being practiced even in a narrow-focus market like comics.

I suppose this happens in the Japanese Manga market as well--but somehow I think the more odious effect of financial bottom-line decision-makers forcing adherence of Art to Pop Culture is not unique to America. Just done more directly and zealously here.

Oh well, yes, we must soldier on. Choas and ultimate madness are right around the corner for me. I can hardly wait.

afronerd said...

Mr. Chambers, love your blog by the way....when you get the chance, try to take a peek at my blog as I believe or views are similar. I also have a live podcast that we would love for you to listen to and even call in. We are trying to also bring to light the very issues that you are bringing up such as the "thug lit" phenomenon as well as the Blackness equals ghetto aesthetic. Check us out at:

(our last broadcast was a rough one...I'm sure you'll dig it)

Anonymous said...

"Lawd the Pastor Made Me Wet"? "I Only Sucked Dick in Prison, Mama"? ROFLMAO. You are sick and yet so very on the money, man!
Yet you have to wonder why titles such as these or rather the writers are not being courted by the comicbook's publishers the way they are in the main stream?