Monday, December 22, 2008

ARTICLE 2: HPCP - The Infection.

In my last article, ‘Comics; the Banished Medium’, I promised I’d have the answer to why comics declined in our society, and that it would be a compelling account of greed and corruption. Well, I lied - the whole greed story is in my NEXT article.

SIDETRACKED!!

I thought it would be good to address a tangential idea, first… The idea that perhaps comics just inherently suck, and that’s why nobody buys them anymore. Here we go - hang on to your hats!

(I’m getting that strange, tingly bad-idea feeling right now… I had it at that anime convention, where I hosted a panel, and told everyone that anime looks repetitive and uniform… And now I’m about to go - on the internet - and discuss why comics suck so much. Maybe I'm honing some subconscious desire to see myself tarred and feathered - wonder what Freud would think about that? )

Some would say that comics, as a medium in general, are obsolete. Hopelessly outdated and outmoded by flashier forms of entertainment. After all, nowadays we have big budget Hollywood extravaganzas, immersive and intense gaming experiences, books with better letters, Paris Hiltons to watch on TV, and ‘American Idle‘. It could be said that comics are dying through natural selection, Darwinian failure - that comics, as a medium, are intrinsically inferior.

I could not disagree more. Nothing is inferior to ‘Battlefield Earth’. It has been scientifically proven that Travolta cavorting as a smug Klingon-knockoff is the baseline of entertainment, or in technical terms, “ the absolute zero of ETV (entertainment value), wherein interest and believability engage in a cessation of movement at the molecular scale.”

The medium of comics is far from inferior! It possesses all the potential strengths of any work of literature, combined with the avid visual appeal of dynamic illustrations and pictorial storytelling. The possibility for great work is literally boundless in a concept as simple and flexible as visual literature. Additionally, all the financially stunning graphics and THX ear-popping sound films offer still can’t compete with the simple charm of holding a book while turning a page in captivation and suspense.
Why, for a totally unbiased random example, just look at the critically acclaimed Dreamkeepers saga, with which I may be circumstantially affiliated! And there you have it - proof that comics can be amazing. We should all applaud, appreciate, and give our business to Vivid Publishing, the bold venture behind Dreamkeepers which may, tangentially, possibly be somewhat completely owned by me.
But hell, don’t take my opinion for fact. (Historically a disastrous idea.) Let’s look at some living proof - manga. Manga hit the US like an avalanche in terms of graphic novel sales and popularity. If better films and glitzier games were really the sole reason for the decline of comics, then how could the gargantuan frenzy of popularity over manga - simple, black and white, ass-backwards manga - possibly be explained? Aside from mind control chips, which the Japanese would never, ever make?
You could claim that manga is only popular because anime is shown on TV; but if you recall, Spiderman, the Justice League, Superman, Batman, and a host of others have all had - and recently, too! - popular television series, yet those shows had little impact on dismal comic sales. (Keep in mind, these shows probably have nothing to do with the fact that DC is in reality an appendage of corporate monolith Time Warner communications.) No, the surge of manga success, admittedly, speaks for itself... And stands as irrefutable proof that the medium of comic art is not some universally inferior, outmoded lark.

So, the decline of American comics cannot be excused by the medium. That only leaves one possibility, ladies and gents… It’s the content. Now, entrenched comic industry geeks like to blame the taste of the public for declining sales, as though people have some obligation to go out and support crappy products. But if your story is something that people can easily drift away from, the problem is not with the readers… Sorry, guys, but the current cultural obscurity of comics is well earned.

So, why is the current content in comics so tepid? Why don’t today’s creators just make good comics? I mean, the Japanese can do it with manga, and we nuked the hell out of them in WWII, so shouldn‘t we be able to beat them again? (With comics - not with nukes... Unless doing so is absolutely necessary to reduce creative competition.)

Well, there’s the whole evil greed story for later, but this article would be a good time to get into another culprit in the gruesome death of comics - HPCP.

Yes, HPCP, the same vile influence eroding the quality and integrity of entertainment everywhere. Not even a condom can protect against HPCP. Not even two condoms. What is this terrifying disease, you ask?
Hollywood Piggyback Clone Phenomena.
Yes, I made the name up. No, it is not a joke. This is serious. In a nutshell, HPCP is what happens when big, soulless business infects the creative stage of entertainment. It’s easier to explain by highlighting an example. (Stick with me through this, I promise I‘ll wander back on the subject of comics)

Disney.

HPCP happened to Disney’s traditional animation program - and resulted in it’s destruction and disbandment. After a series of successful, quality films was topped by the record-smashing ‘Lion King,’ executives and money grubbers took serious notice. The Disney bean-counters suddenly realized how lucrative this whole creativity stuff really was. I mean, Simba just brought in more cheese than their investment portfolios and overseas tax shelters combined!
“Cartoon movies = Megabucks” was the equation that the suits now saw before their eyes. Not content to risk megabucks on the crazy ideas of ’creators,’ businessmen decided to come to the rescue, and manipulate the creative process in order to guarantee a return on their investment. Yeah, I know, it sounds so foolproof.
We all know what happened next. (Well, I do. Was I there? No. Hush.) Using focus groups, demographic studies, and calculators, all-knowing business types picked, edited, and altered the content of subsequent Disney movies, steamrolling over any pesky new ideas from the ‘help‘ (aka artists and creators). The well-oiled suits set up a winning equation from their studies of past hits:

(Main Character w/ love interest) + (Reworked Fairytale / Folktale) + (Goofy animal sidekicks) + (sappy musical numbers) = Megabucks.

The result, of course, was a tired procession of successively watered down plots. Carefully engineered to be inoffensive and universally appealing, the stories started to lose their spine & integrity. All the right ‘ingredients’ were there - but the lack of soul guaranteed failure. The public is actually pretty perceptive at times. Rather than watching characters with real heart and emotion living out their stories on screen, audiences were watching hollow puppets cavort awkwardly through the motions, possessed by hopeful, greedy accountants.
Not only did the clone-movies suck, but they didn‘t make any megabucks. Surprise! Poor shareholders.
Meanwhile, every other major studio out there was trying to grab a piece of the action. Fox, Warner Brothers, Universal, and Uncle Joe’s Film Shack all started churning out 2-D animated movies, trying to piggyback off the successful blueprints of past hits. Anyone who remembers that time period in the mid 90’s will recall these ‘follow-the-formula” animated features that flooded the market, killing the charm of the medium in an explosion of crap. Ka-PLOOIE!
The Disney business-boys handled the declining situation with brilliant insight - by sticking even more rigidly with their heavy handed soul-extracting formula, and avoiding fresh, creative, unproven ideas. The movies got worse, and profits kept slipping. Eventually, in dismal failure, Disney closed down it’s 2-D studio, and cut off production of traditionally animated films; terminating the legacy on which the company had been founded. Meanwhile, Chinese news reported that a furiously spinning coffin erupting from the earth’s crust near Peking was found to contain the body of Walt himself.
The corporate imbeciles responsible for polluting the creative process kept their jobs, but figured they should blame somebody, so they fired all the artists. The workplace was suddenly flooded with broadsided, jobless animators… But that’s a whole other story. Check it out sometime when you’re in a bad mood, it’ll cheer you right up.

The point of the Disney example was to show Hollywood Piggyback Clone Phenomena in glorious action, demonstrating it’s power to annihilate the creativity and value of an entire industry. Luckily they’re not delving into anime, or it could be next on the Endangered List of originality... Key sword? What’s a key sword?

So, here’s the basic HPCP process: Pencils at the ready - there WILL be a quiz!

Once something fresh, creative, and successful happens, the corporate clods smell megabucks and take note. They want to cash in, so they make stuff that mimics past successes, thinking this will give them ’guaranteed’ hits. (Remember all those pathetic novels about teen boys in magic school after Harry Potter hit it big? They were all so good!) Anything original and different is shunned, since it clearly doesn’t fit the success formula. The ‘visionaries’ in charge continue to piggyback off of the older ideas, cranking out hollow clones in pursuit of cash. And, voila! Hollywood Piggyback Clone Phenomena squashes new original ideas out of the industry! Enjoy the dregs.
Ever wonder, after seeing a particularly terrible movie, why these people actually get paid to do what they do? Well, you’ve got it backwards. They do what they do to get paid - period. When cash kicks passion out of the drivers seat, it always shows, no matter how much money they blow on effects.
(PS - Before you tag me as a total moron, let me admit that I am talking in huge, hulking generalities here. There are exceptions that break out of HPCP all the time (Thank God) - and sometimes, if enough talent and critical thinking is applied, imitations can be validly superior to their ancestry. So, just remember, we're talking about a general tendency here, not the whole picture.)

FINALLY back to our original topic! (Cue the applause) …How could this formula - promoting HPCP stuff possibly relate to the vestigial comic industry? How indeedy-doo... At this point, you probably don’t need to be Professor X to piece things together. I’m not the only person noticing this trend, either - industry professionals (and anyone who’s ever seen the inside of a comic shop) have picked up on it. Several have noted;

“..the formula is what took root as soon as it became generally believed there was money in it.”(Steven Grant 2008)
“ Such a marketplace hegemony turns away potential readers, publishers and creators… By limiting creator innovation, the ‘superhero mindset‘ of the Big Two may have squelched reader attention..”(McAllister 2001)
“The current market is not a comic-book market; it’s a superhero market .”
(Jim Valentino 1998)
“The alternative to your standard Marvel superhero comic is... another Marvel superhero comic, only different. X-Force isn't a bad title by any means, but it's absolutely symptomatic of the kind of comic we all too often see posed as the alternative worth pursuing -- a comic book about fame, but with superheroes in it. Or maybe we should look at Joe Casey's Wildcats 3.0, a comic book about corporate politics, but with superheroes in it. How about Stormwatch: Team Achilles, a comic book about covert operations and military combat in the modern world, but with superheroes in it? To the diehard faithful, these books sit in three different genres, but to anyone else, they're watered-down superhero comics.” (Dirk Deppey 2003)

So, yup, it’s going on with comics alright - but it’s unusually bad! HPCP is far more prevalent in comics than in any other industry - it’s so rampant, that the ’Big 4’ (Marvel, DC, Image, Dark Horse) are still imitating stale formulas, even though doing so doesn’t even make money anymore! A diabolical, greed-mongering situation has colluded to sink the entire creative industry into mediocrity… Although, at this point in history, I have to admit I’m using the term ’industry’ very loosely. Play along with me, won’t you?

In my next article, I’ll be talking about why comics are so uniquely and severely crippled by HPCP. There’s something very grotesque that has made a bad tendency far, FAR worse for comics than for any other form of media in history - and no, I’m not talking about Rob Leifeld.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Just look at the critically acclaimed Dreamkeepers saga, with which I may be circumstantially affiliated!"

That gave me great laugh, right there. =)

I've read more manga in my life than I have American comics, and part of the reason I think manga has become so popular is because of its sheer volume. In essence, it's (relatively) simple to make, the formatting conventions are (relatively) universal and manga is (usually) printed in black-and-white, so you can get more of it out into the market than you can regular comics. And if you want proof that a ready market of comic-readers exists, just look at how many teenagers are willing to put up with backwards-printed manga graphic novels!

I hadn't known the story of Disney's decline in traditional animation. If true, it's extremely depressing. But at least we have Pixar now. They, at least for the moment, still have the right priorities.

At least you can see, by your own example, that it's not only the American comic book industry that's become corrupted by formulaic money-makers. Hollywood sees it all the time, as does the book industry, TV industry, and virtually any other industry you can think of. Where there are artists, there will always be cash-counting businessmen to crush the creative process. Maybe we're just better off sticking to indie comics.

...like Dreamkeepers! Heh heh.

Tygepc said...

At least there is hope. In all of human history and despite the better efforts of the rich and greedy, creativity has never been fully extinguished. Repressed and prohibited yes, but never banished.

For me the most harmful rules are those that restrict creative expression. I have always wondered where we'd be if more people had the opportunity to think without a curriculum .

Anonymous said...

Right on man! But also keep in mind that the market has changed radically due to 'scantilations' (that word always sounds a bit seductive to me, but whatever.) While everyone is all caught up in the crash of various entertainment industries (music in particular), I wouldn't be surprised if comics weren't getting hit equally hard in what is already a niche market.

Is it possible that people are just getting torrents of their new favorite comics. That's like piling more suck on top of an already huge pile of suck.

Jammer said...

A professional comic book illustrator once said that the most important part of a comic book is the story. I was appalled years later when I visited my old college's comic book club to hear them talking about this like it was completely new information.

Their focus - namely super heroes.

The stories now just aren't as engaging, and they keep throwing drama around like crazy. I finally stopped reading the new Teen Titans series, which had three of my favorite characters, because they killed two of them off and made the third rather... meh. It wasn't fun to read anymore.

I really liked the various Power Pack mini-series illustrated by Gurihuru, because, even though the stories are kinda cheesy and aimed at a younger crowd, I liked the lightheartedness. It was a nice break from everything else.

I had read Sonic the Hedgehog for nigh ten years, starting from Feb 1993, and finally gave up on that because of the constant excess drama that got fed into the storyline. It got ridiculous to me. I still enjoy the early issues though.

Arras said...

As a proud member of the (as we like to think of ourselves) otaku community, I must say that the point here is exactly that creativity rules the day.

I (as an otaku) have many friends who have, shall we say, similar inclinations. Ask any of them why they prefer manga to American comics, and they will probably answer that manga has more possibilities than you can shake a really big stick at. There are so many genre of manga, different stories and ideas that it's almost ridiculous. (Some people will point out that the art is stale, but although many manga have very similar styles, if you really try you can find plenty of different, interesting styles.)

Anonymous said...

"But also keep in mind that the market has changed radically due to 'scantilations' (that word always sounds a bit seductive to me, but whatever.)"

Dude, the word's "scanlations." ;) The better scanlators only bother with manga that no publisher has the license to publish in English. Some scanlators don't even bother with manga at all and instead scanlate French and Croatian and South American comics that no publisher has the license to publish in English.

flamingfoxx said...

yes i can see why this is happening and i think i know one of the reasons. the comics are getting old the big names havent gone off on a wild whim in years and it has caused their downfall. and that sucks for me as well as the author of this comic or any other comic artist out there we have to fight tooth and nail to beat that label that society has placed upon the industry and made them veiw us as all as incompetent and most of us don't have the resorces we need to show them that yes we do have interesting stories and our art is different and well drawn half the people i talk to when they hear comic the think they suck but at one point and time loved to read marvel or dc and it was because it was interesting

Anonymous said...

"Manga vs. Comic Books"
To be honest there really isn't much going for comics anymore, comics are, as stated, really just carbon copies of the same tired old stories pick up just about any comic in mainstream and it's the same,'bad guy starts causing trouble, superhero shows up, beats up bad guy, and goes home to the cheers of a grateful public.' Yawn... In Manga however we see the complete opposite, the creator has almost absolute control and the only thing the publisher does is provide an editor to make sure that the creator doesn't try to publish porn to children. Other than some minor tweaks to the art and occasional,'hey this part of the story doesn't make sense...' the editor just does what they can to keep the creator on the deadline. I think that this allows the Manga industry to have more vibrant and pertinent stories with characters you can relate to and villains you would be more than happy to kick right in the nuts.

There is also a quick pocketbook check, some comics are bi-monthly meaning twice a month you're shelling out four to six dollars for maybe ten minutes of reading pleasure. So for monthly and bi-monthly comics expect about four to twelve dollars monthly. Manga on the other hand come out once a month or every other month meaning the ten dollars you may spend on a manga for half an hour of reading is time and money well spent(my opinion). Also I believe almost everyone who has been in a comic shop has seen the influence of Japanese art forms on American comics, this is shameful and should stop immediately. Just because the Manga industry is kicking butt we don't want to see Spiderman doing the 'OMG' face that we see in anime, it's not the style that made Spidey famous. That was Venom and the murderous sociopath Carnage. Not to say that the creators need to stick to the same old same old, but lets get real there are plenty of ways to bring the comics back to life, a story that hasn't be recycled from time immemorial for one, artwork that says,'hey we're trying something a bit different', and overall an overhaul of the editorial process. The last being something the Japanese are on the right path about.

I just want to say that Manga is successful in the American market because of the variety of stories and characters that are out there. As long as they keep trying, I'm pretty sure everyone out there will be able to think of one Manga that they own because it was just so off the wall, well written, or exuberant they couldn't put it down.

Like Q-Ko chan.

Anonymous said...

Let's get real here the main points are great but overall the problem with the Comic vs. Manga market really comes down to quality and quantity. Manga is probably one of the least restricted art forms in Japan, publishers really only provide an editor to say what can't go in the comic and keep the creator/s on the deadline aside from the occasional consistency checks and art reworks to keep within the boundaries of decency the Mangaka has nearly absolute control over their IP. Now with the American comics there is so much crap and corporate hooha getting in the way of fresh ideas it's no wonder manga have taken over the market as the 'comic of choice'. Pricing is another issue but hey I don't mind ten to fifteen for a book that'll keep me busy for half an hour instead of four to six for ten minutes. Also can't wait for August really want the hard bound versions of Dreamkeepers...

Anonymous said...

And in France the comics (all hard cover color format for the most part) are doing quite well, or decent enough. Just like manga these comic books keep the 'book' part in them. That being they tell original stories without needing super-heros to make a selling-point. Also in most book-stores they have sections devoted to these comics as well as, although smaller in size usually, for manga. I haven't been into a book-store in the US recently but I don't remember seing any comics in them.
Also we could think of the number of people drawing manga compared to those drawing comics and I'm sure it's a huge difference. (unstudied half-assed guess here :P)

ruggels said...

"He found a formula for drawing comic rabbits:
This formula for drawing comic rabbits paid.
Till in the end he could not change the tragic habits
This formula for drawing comic rabbits made."


Robert Graves

Anonymous said...

ok, I know I'm missing the forest for the trees right now, but when you mentioned taking a stand against anime comics being too repetitive, I died a little. thank you so, so much. someone needed to say that.

FABYocca said...

I remember as a kid when Disney played (almost) exclusively cartoons.
I remember when Nickelodeon exclusively played... well cartoons.
I remember when CARTOON Network play without a doubt exclusively freakin CARTOONS!
And this was my childhood entertainment.
I see my little sister watch Disney no cartoons (well none that reach Hannah Montana's popularity)
Nickelodeon... Spongebob's still there... sorta...
Cartoon Network... live action shows? its not Live Action Show Network! GTFO

I'd feel sorry for the children if they weren't so spoiled!

And also now every time I tell a friend who was having an orgasm about AMC's Walking Dead and I tell him that AMC ruined a good comic they laugh at the word "Comic" because that word means men looking at other muscular men in tights... and that just aint right!

Farelle said...

sadly it's not only a phenomena in the comic "industry" ...
I'm studying Animation and games atm and I'm really into computer games. And specially in those last years I noticed a large tendency of publishers to just publish small and unfinished games with alot of bugs, less story and less passion tbh.
Alot of creative heads have left the studios where they started with(or which they even founded) or were thrown out, because of "crazy" ideas.
and the same thing starts with the medium....when at first most games were published for Pc, they are now mostly published for Konsoles...why? because konsoles are more mainstream and you can't play most old games on new konsoles....and so on....ewh...it's purely money making. the difference to the comic industry is: that they haven't started to add "Downloadable" Content to comics....it's like publishing an unfinished comic and you have to buy the rest of it in single parts to have it fully....imagine that! thats not only bad for costumers, but also for developers who are getting less time to create good things, to be creative....and all that violence stuff get's cut out because we must protect our children...it will be smashed until it fits into the overall mainstream without hurting or offending anyone, with all the stuff people want, except a believable story, characters and world....