August 28, 2008

Sacrificial blah blah blah

Aaron is working ultra-late tonight covering the final night of the DNC, so I'm watching it at home with my computer and my cats and a very interesting selection of foodstuffs, getting moist around the eyes at everything frickin thing up to and including Rachel Maddow's white-girl booty shake to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered". Historic night, this. But there are many places you can go to read about that, so I'm going to use commercial breaks to make a note or two about Virgin Comics.*

Back in April, I walked into a panel room at the Jacob Javits Convention Center during New York Comic Con, and found it empty save two people--a photographer and Stan Lee. I was there to interview Virgin Comics CEO Sharad Devarajan about his company's Voices line, which existed to give various celebrities entree to the comics industry, with the idea to develop name-branded properties that would ultimately be adapted to film, theater, etc. I was writing a story for Billboard about the swelling crop of music-comics industry crossovers, and Virgin was theoretically a key player given their deals with Eurythmics' Dave Stewart, Duran Duran and some supposed unannounced others. Devarajan found me standing there, looking googly-eyed at Stan Lee, and said they'd just finished announcing that Stan would be developing a whole new superhero universe for Virgin, and would I like to interview him first. Needless to say I said fuck yeah, even though I knew that it had nothing to do with my assignment and would not likely see print. But I got a nice 10 minutes of Stan Lee's excited voice on my recorder, and a kind of tragicomic photo, and Devarajan's suitable enthusiasm for having made such an all-star deal.

Now, I'll admit that the first thing I thought was "huh, I'm not sure I'll be feeling a 'new generation' of Stan Lee superheroes," but the deal did give me the sense that Virgin put Stan Lee on same the level of celebrity get as Guy Ritchie or Nicholas Cage, and that was to their credit in terms of their approach to the medium. On the other hand, in grooming and manner Devarajan was sort of the anti-DiDio, so it was hard to tell the extent of his comics background--was his enthusiasm for comics themselves or for the idea of doing well with them?

Ultimately, I came away with some doubts about the viability of their multi-media model--as a comics reader I didn't feel hugely moved to collect their product, although I thought their celebrity collaboration might get some traction outside of the direct market if they effectively capitalized on the general public's heightened curiosity in comics. But one thing I did have some hope for was that they saw the comics as more than just marketing opportunities tied to a brand name. Said Devarajan about musicians crossing into comics: "There are two ways to go. There's the model of perpetuating the brand of the talent, where the actual musicians are in the comic, running around doing their thing. But the model we encourage is to just use this as another playing field to create your lyrics. Let's create something totally new—a fictional property defined by you, but like your music, will exist for generations beyond you."

So regardless of the ultimate goal for those properties, they should have an artistic integrity that rests on more than merchandising against a name. That view fit somewhat with what Rantz Hoseley had told me about Tori Amos's approach to Comic Book Tattoo--that she was treating it as her major release of the year. While it was made by professional cartoonists and comics writers, she was just as personally invested in the project as in a studio album, and marketed it accordingly. So ideally, according to Devarajan, a musician (or director or, uh, actress) would channel their existing storytelling skills into the medium of comics, even just in concept.

But of course, we know how that turned out in practice, both for Amos (great) and Virgin (not so great). And I'm not comparing the actual projects, because they're vastly different--but I thought the similarities in their publicly expressed crossover ideas were sound. It's a shame, because in theory, Virgin could have been a conduit for new, curious readers in this "comics are hot" environment. As others have said, one of the main problems likely rest in the model of creating comics specifically as stepping stones to other media. It's like dating someone to make their friend jealous--a healthy relationship does not tend to follow.

*I actually wrote about half of this after the speech, so if something doesn't make sense, blame it on awe and Chris Matthews

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