Friday, 23 November 2012

Dear John...

I like to read. An important part of my word intake is a daily newspaper; my newspaper of choice is The Independent. A frequent contributor to the paper is John Walsh; he writes a regular column and a number of restaurant reviews, and these are always entertaining, informative, well-written. 
So this isn’t going to be a hatchet job. It’s a response. Nothing more.

Mr. Walsh, in his column of 22nd November (though in its online form it’s listed as being published on the 21st), said this:

Extraordinary to see graphic books turn up in two categories in the Costa Prize, among the novels and biographies. I wish I admired comic-strip fiction as the French do, but it always seems to me a bastard version of the real thing. As one shortlistee, Joff Winterhart, says, “My book isn’t a novel in the conventional sense, it’s a comic with pictures and speech boards.” Quite.
Good novels are made of words, without drawings that helpfully show the expressions on characters’ faces. It’s cruel but true: illustrations in novels are for children, or those who have trouble keeping up.
Well, first of all, it’s not just the French, it’s also the Belgians and the Japanese and the Brazilians and the Americans and, to an increasing extent, it’s the British and the rest of the world. 
What I have to take issue with is the idea that a novel which “isn’t a novel in the conventional sense” is somehow lesser than a “good” novel, “made of words”. A good graphic novel stands up quite easily against a good prose novel, and can be better than a great deal of merely adequate prose novels. Also, if we define a “good” novel as Mr. Walsh does, then where do we begin to exclude works that stray from that definition? 
A quick look across my own bookshelves reveals works by Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Harvey Pekar, David Mazzuchelli and many others: graphic novels which, using Mr. Walsh’s definition, are not “good” books. But I also have “good” books such as Alisdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly which relies to a large extent on typographical tricks and  illustrations to convey certain meanings and events. I have a copy of B S Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, some of which is told in the form of entries in a book-keeping ledger. I have three copies of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (one of which is an adaptation in graphic form by Martin Rowson, who also works for The Independent) which relies on typographical tricks just as Gray does, but also features such things as the infamous ‘black page’, which allows the reader to imagine for themselves what happens in that sequence. Tom Wolfe’s new book, Back To Blood, uses all manner of :::::!!!!&%@ strange \\\((())¢#ยช≠ typography. And! Punc-tu^ation as a narrative device. The Independent’s reviewer said 
it seems remarkable that at 81 he should still be writing with such verve. Back to Blood is energising, fascinating – and utterly exhausting.
To be fair, that reviewer wasn’t Mr. Walsh, and we shouldn’t expect all writers for a particular publication to hold or express the same opinions.
All of the above, and many more besides, are novels “made of words” which, just as a graphic novel does, use story-telling devices other than words to convey their narrative and their subtext. Are these no longer “good” books? 

Moving on to Mr. Walsh’s second point: 
It’s cruel but true: illustrations in novels are for children, or those who have trouble keeping up.
I’m afraid, Mr. Walsh, I have to take this as something of a personal insult. As I’ve said, I read all manner of books. Some of those books are highbrow literary fiction, some of them are pot-boilers, some are biography, some history, some science texts. Some of them are graphic novels. Some, like the different versions of Tristram Shandy, are both, and the different media reveal different sides of the work. But it seems that because I enjoy novels that have illustrations, I’m either a child (and why should age be a barrier to literature? Surely a child can enjoy ‘grown-up’ books as much as an adult can get pleasure from Alice In Wonderland or even You’re A Bad Man, Mr. Gum) or a bit of a thicko. 
So it looks like I'm not good enough. Obviously I have “trouble keeping up” and I’m going to have to adjust my bookshelves accordingly and get rid of everything for which I’m too slow. Goodbye to Thomas Pynchon, Julian Barnes, Evelyn Waugh, Amis pere et fils, both David Mitchells, Jim Thompson, Don deLillo, Alan Coren, Albert Camus…
Oh, and I suppose The Independent’s out as well. Which is a pity, as I happen to know that  one of Mr. Walsh’s senior colleagues on the paper is a big fan of comics. Let’s hope that, at the next big editorial meeting, he doesn’t have trouble keeping up. 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Now That I Own the BBC

In a few weeks time the present hoo-hah about the BBC – a hoo-hah mostly manufactured by others in the print media who are desperately trying to head Lord Leveson off at the pass – will, with any luck, be reduced to an item on the end-of-year news round-ups that fill a few hours at the end of December.

A couple of suggestions, then, as to what should happen next:

Firstly, abolish the post of Director General. It’s simply too big a job for any one man to be able adequately to fill. Replace it with two positions;  Director General (Operations) and Director General (Production). The first takes care of the business and political end of the corporation, deals with shitstorms like the one going on right now, and decides where the money’s to be spent. He also simplifies the management structure that has beknighted the BBC since John Birt was in charge. The other handles the creative side of the BBC, allocates the budget given by DG (Ops), and makes sure the corporation’s output is what it should be - the best television and radio it’s possible to be. This post should be filled by someone from the creative industries, someone along the lines of Michael Grade. In fact, it should be held by Michael Grade, full stop,

Secondly, change the way the BBC is funded. No, calm down over there in Daily Mail Land, not abolish the licence fee (although maybe the new DG (Ops) should make ‘we will abolish the licence fee’ his first public statement, just to give Rupert Murdoch that final fatal heart attack. Then he can say “Just kidding!” and get on with his job unbothered by the ancient bastard). I advocate we abolish the system by which the licence fee goes to the Government who then decide how much of it goes to the BBC. 

Instead, we just give it to the BBC. Free the corporation from having to kowtow to some arse who’d really rather see it sold off or crippled. Let it know that the licence fee is there wholly as funding for a media giant that is free of outside influence and commercial necessity, but also let it know that the fee is reliant on those who pay it, and whose consideration must absolutely be at the forefront of everything the BBC does.

Because, quite simply, the BBC is glorious. It must stay that way. Yes, it makes mistakes, and it has done recently in a shockingly bad way, but those mistakes must be reconciled, and apologised for, and those adversely affected must be compensated. And when that’s done the BBC should be allowed to get on with the job of being glorious, of making astounding television programmes, and unmissable radio, and of having the only news organisation that is completely vital, and it must be allowed to do this without some high-pitched nincompoop trying to sell the user some type of appalling rubbish every ten minutes, without having to worry whether a new series is bland enough to pull in enough advertisers, without the need – a need which is absolutely a part of any commercial medium – to consider anything other that the satisfaction of its users.

That is all.

Monday, 5 November 2012


Bonfire Weekend is over, and once again the air is filled with the smell of cordite and disappointment and the streets are littered with the empty shells of brightly coloured fripperies that promised a dazzling array of light and wonder but ultimately delivered only a few brief seconds of something resembling excitement before sputtering into a sad parody of its own potential. 

So let’s talk about comics. 

This was the month where I finally gave up on all but a few of the New 52 DC books; I’d struggled manfully on through the first year of those that I’d originally felt had potential, but a lot of them fell by the wayside as disillusionment set in, and then the silly sods went and shot themselves in the foot with their Zero Month promotion. Ideal jumping-on points are, more and more these days, more like ideal jumping-off points, and it was time to alight. 

I’ll tell you exactly what did it: Nicky Necro. I’d doggedly stuck with Justice League Dark despite realising very early on that it wasn’t very good, hoping that it’d turn round and do something astonishing with the potential-laden characters who manned it. It had bloody Constantine in it for Christ’s sake, and even the worst of Hellblazers had something going for it. But month after month JLD gave me lousy plots and dialogue you could carve a small figurine out of. And then came the Zero issue, redolent with promise, oozingly open to giving me a story that would expose the hidden exotica of John and Zatanna’s doomed love. Instead it gave me the secret origin of John’s coat. More to the point, it gave us John’s mentor, his teacher, the man who lit the fuse that would blaze into the darkness. And it gave this man the insultingly stupid name of Nicky Necro. Why stop there? Why not call him Bertie Blackmagic, or Dennis Darkness? What did this teach me? It taught me that somebody just wasn't trying. And if you're not going to try, I'm buggered if I'll give you my cash. 

Book thrown to one side, order cancelled. 

So, what with OMAC and Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE cancelled, that’s left me with Flash. One title out of 52. And I’m only sticking with that for as long as it looks pretty. 

Don’t talk to me about Marvel, either. OK, Hawkeye’s a thing of beauty but I can see it lasting about as long as Fraction’s Defenders did. Ditto the FF relaunch. And I for one can’t be doing with the company’s policy of restarting titles every eighteen months. It confuses the punters, who are dropping the books as though they were smallpox-infected blankets. It confuses the retailer, who has no bloody clue how many to order of yet another Captain America or Iron Man #1. It plays merry hell with the shop’s database. 

All of this leads to the main point, for which I shall put on my retailer hat: new titles from the Big Two aren’t worth taking a flyer on. The shop will sell slightly more of the first Marvel Now (! optional) issues than it does at present. Then it will sell slightly fewer of the subsequent issues than it does at present. There may be one title that breaks out and becomes not only a success, but a continuing success. A success with legs. 

But the signs aren’t good. Captain Marvel, the first Now! book, sits on the shelves, alone, unloved, unsold. In two, three, five years from now, I’d bet my left leg that most of these new titles are doing the same as CM will be: sitting in the back issue bins, in numbers too large to convey rarity, at prices no higher than at launch. Outlier here: Hawkeye again. First issue sells like nobody’s business at eight quid a pop. But for every Hawkeye there’s a Son Of Hulk

In fact, these days it makes more sense for the shop to take a flyer on new series from Image. Five years ago you’d look at Previews and only order enough copies of a new Image book to fill pre-orders. But these days: Saga #1’s on its fifth printing and we sell two or three a week. Six quid a time, plus postage if you’re overseas, which the majority of orders for it are (another time, we shall discuss the geographical cycle of comics retail). Or Happy, which we took a chance on and sold out of in days. 

There was a time when you could see that Marvel or DC were launching a new title and be confident of shifting a hundred or so copies off the shelf. These days (disregarding the one-offs like the initial New 52 launch month, where everybody wanted everything), you’re lucky to move ten. Variant covers help at publisher/distributor level, but if you’re a retailer staring at twentyfive unsold Superman #13 and nobody’s going for the sketch variant, it does you no good at all. 

Talking of Superman #13: that shows pretty well how media attention means nothing now. There were newspaper and TV reports about that issue; it was the top story on the BBC’s news site. How many extra copies did we sell? One. To a journalist. Who’s a regular customer anyway. 

Let’s see if there’s any good news. Well yes, there is, but even that’s got a down side darker than a closed mineshaft. The Vertigo one-shots that come out every few months, the ones that are essentially trademark renewals; the most recent one, Ghosts, wasn’t a bad book. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was a rather good book. If you’re a big comics geek you’d want to pick it up because it features the last work by the late Joe Kubert (literally: it’s rough pencils only, but even rough pencils from a Kubert are worth more than fully-painted from most people). It’s complete and of itself, it has no real ties to convoluted continuity unless you really need the backstory of the Dead Boy Detectives. It’s got a good number of stories in it. It’s the ideal book to show to new readers, or to the bored partners of old readers who don’t quite understand their other half’s obsession with costumes, or to casual drop-ins who wonder what you sell in this strange, out-of-the-way shop with the funny S-sign in the window. 

But it costs $8. That’s about six quid. For a comic. You could get a book for that, a proper book with covers and everything. You could get lunch, a good lunch, with coffee. And we have a cafe not ten steps away. To give DC/Vertigo their due, they overshipped this, so we got a bundle of copies for nothing, but it’s rare that this happens. I’d love to have more books like Ghosts, but I’d love to have them either at an affordable price, or on SOR, or as overships. 

But I can’t see that happening in an industry where the people who can afford to do it - and who need that kind of readership - prefer to shovel out yet another relaunch of X-Men

Just a word

A quick question: when did ‘the unemployed’ become ‘the workless’?

It seems unimportant a change, but consider it for a moment: ‘unemployed’ is far more active, implying as it does that there are a number of factors behind the unemployment. If I work for somebody, they employ me, I am employed. It’s a two-way street. 

If I don’t work for somebody (and assuming I’m not working for myself), I’m unemployed because nobody employs me. There’s a chance they’re not employing me because I’m a feckless bastard, but it’s far more likely they’re not employing me because they have no job to employ me in. 

It’s a no-fault form of language. The blame for the absence of employment is laid on no specific person. 

‘Workless’ carries different weight. ‘Workless’ implies a choice, suggests that the person referred to has made a decision not to work. It places the blame firmly, squarely, on the person without work. It absolves the employer and, more importantly, it absolves the causes of unemployment, be they political, geographical or economic. 

It’s a small and subtle change to the language of work, but it signifies a larger shift towards the stigmatisation of those without work, as does the gentle pressure to see the unemployed as a different social group to those who work - different even to that growing number who work only part-time as a result of the shortage of available full-time jobs. 

So do me a favour, would you? Next time you see or hear ‘workless’ used, in a newspaper or on a news report, but especially, particularly, if it’s used by a politician, change it. Edit their words inside your head. There are too many people screwed by unemployment and there are probably going to be a hell of a lot more. 

Don’t let anybody make it their fault. 

Don’t make the victims think they committed the crime.