Reasons to Feel Guilty


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It’s not as easy as you’d think to get a weekly column done. I know Rich Johnston’s ‘Lying In the Gutters’ never misses a week but I’ve also noticed that some of Comic Book Resources ‘regular’ columnists haven’t posted for months. Consequently, I don’t feel too bad that I’ve missed two weeks out of fourteen. Lacking a proper theme for this week, there follows a list of seemingly unrelated bits and pieces I scribbled in my notebook this week. Collectively I guess they amount to another moan about all the distractions that get in the way of actually sitting down and writing a bloody script.

I read an interview in French magazine Comic Box this morning with Marvel Zombies/Criminal artist, Sean Phillips. Apparently he works from 9 until 6, Monday to Friday. He has evening free, weekends off and takes holidays. I’ve also seen him at conventions. The bizarre thing is that Sean manages to produce 350 pages of pencils and inks every year. What’s even more irritating is that they’re bloody good pages. What kind of example is that to set for the rest of us?

Incidentally, I actually managed to write a script this week although it did mean working over the weekend. (Did I mention that I hate you, Sean?) Spawn #170 is written and being drawn by Brian Haberlin at this very minute and issue #169 is at the printers. One more deadline met.

Spawn #169 Art by Brian Haberlin. Colours by Andy Troy

We’re planning to do a couple of Spawn stories that are outside of the regular continuity but relate to Spawn’s background. They’ll be drawn by guest artists and the plan is to have both stories written well in advance. The first to appear will be Gunslinger Spawn in issues #173 and #174. That means the next task on my schedule is to write those issues. This one is set in the American West of the late nineteenth century. Fifty per cent of the work has been research. I’m not an expert on American History. Most of my previous knowledge of the American West comes from Western movies and the TV show Deadwood.

The story starts with an actual incident involving a group of African-American soldiers – the so-called Buffalo Soldiers. The event took place in Texas in February of 1881 and I’ve been poring over maps of the USA to pin down the route my character would have taken when he went on the run. Researching the history of Colorado, I was able to discover that the winter of 1880 to 1881 was particularly severe. I now have a clear picture of my character riding into a snowbound silver-mining community in the hills east of Colorado Springs. True West magazine and a couple of histories of the Old West have supplied accounts of larger-than-life characters, who have come together in the form of Old Job, a former Baptist preacher and trapper, who has spent far too much time in the wilderness and sets out to bring down vengeance on the sinful inhabitants of Bane.

Gunslinger Spawn. Art by Greg Capullo.

This is where the research pays off. With the settings and characters in place, the story really starts to take off and for a couple of hours I’m scribbling away into a yellow pad, filling the pages as fast as I can write. This is great. This is the best part of writing, when the story comes alive and runs like a movie through your head.

Then my mobile phone rings. If it was the land line I would let the answering machine take it, but virtually no one has my mobile number. Family members and maybe two or three friends. So I pick up. My head is still in nineteenth century Colorado, it’s snowing hard and Old Job’s body is rising up from the slab in the town’s makeshift mortuary. And apparently I have given my mobile number to at least one more person. Would I like to visit a school to talk to the children about graphic novels? Only a couple of hours. It’s a very worthwhile thing to promote interest in comics to the rising generation after all. I concur.

Old Job and the town of Bane are slipping away into the snowstorm. I’m hearing my son’s voice plaintively asking me “You’re not working again this weekend are you?” I start mumbling excuses. I suggest a couple of other people who would be sure to jump at the chance to introduce youngsters to the magic of comics. I hang up, feeling guilty. I stare at the yellow page for a few minutes. I doodle Gunslinger’s distinctive hat in the margin. I draw a couple of bullet holes in it. I add a wisp of smoke, drifting up from one of the bullet holes. I could do with a cup of coffee.

I wonder if Sean Phillips answers the phone between 9 and 6.

But hey, I’ve written a script already this week. And I’ve drawn a cover for Strange Embrace # 6. Here it is, wonderfully coloured by Rob Steen. I’m worried that the faceless mannequin is a little too blank. Inspired by the Dali and Film exhibition at the Tate Modern last weekend, I add a single ant. Vikki, my partner and faithful critic, takes a look at it and says “Spider. Ants aren’t scary.”

Strange Embrace #6 line art by Dave Hine. Colours by Rob Steen.

Yesterday, editor Luis Reyes called to talk about Poison Candy . This, in case you haven’t been paying attention, is my manga from Tokyopop, co-created by artist Hans Steinbach. Hanzo has just finished adding tones to the last page and he’s ready to go with the next book. Which isn’t written yet. I’ve submitted a new outline to Luis and we need to discuss it. We’re all really pleased with the first volume and Tokyopop is ready to push it hard.

There were a few problems at the end with the new Tokyopop ratings system. The book was always intended to be a Teen book – the old T+ rating for 16s and over. There’s ‘language’, some fairly graphic violence and a mild sex scene. I’m going to let Alex (my 11 year-old) read it and he’s not allowed to read Spawn. He sees worse violence in his PlayStation games. Reading the word ‘fuck’ is not going to turn him into a delinquent and seeing two people make love will probably have him rolling his eyes, but he won’t need therapy to deal with the psychological damage.

However, there is a growing problem in the USA where the schools, libraries and book stores have woken up to the fact that kids read comics and are becoming increasingly agitated about the ill-effects they will have on developing minds. Let’s not forget that the USA’s problems with juvenile crime, drug-taking, under-age pregnancy and general bad behaviour are the direct result of exposure to rock and roll and EC comics in the nineteen-fifties. Although Dr Wertham and the Comics Code Authority managed to clamp down on nastiness in comics, rock and roll more or less escaped censorship and look what happened…

The Comics Code eventually faded away, leaving the industry without a universal ratings system. After years of general laxness, Tokyopop are grabbing the bull by the horns and introducing a brand new rating system created by “librarian and graphic novel expert” Michele Gorman. You can read all about it here .

Part of the article states: “Gorman said that she created an "objective" system that features the familiar age categories (all-ages, Youth, Teen, Older Teen, etc.) now accompanied by a listing of "content indicators" that strictly define the nature of the material the reader will encounter. Gorman has created 43 content indicators that allow Tokyopop to note not only that content is, say, violent, but also the nature of the violence—from cartoon violence to sexual violence and so on.
Gorman held workshops to train Tokyopop staff to use the system. Individual editors rate each book from the checklist of content indicators and a ratings board of Tokyopop editors and marketers determines the final rating for each title.”

Our “Older Teen” manga ticked a couple too many boxes and was re-rated at 18+. That meant many bookshops would not be ordering Poison Candy and all copies would be shrink-wrapped. I hate shrink-wrapped comics. I’m not going to buy it if I can’t look at it first and I wouldn’t expect anyone else to. Also I can imagine that many of the people who would buy it, expecting graphic sex and gratuitous upskirt shots would be wanting their money back. Talk about missing your market.

The upshot (if you’ll pardon the expression) is that Hanzo reluctantly altered half-a-dozen panels, switching a couple of full-figure shots to close-ups, erasing a nipple or two and adding a few carefully placed locks of hair. It doesn’t amount to full-blown censorship and it doesn’t alter the tone of the scene. I’m not against some kind of rating system per se. I have a kid and I know what a pain it can be judging what he should be reading or watching, without some kind of labeling as guidance. But the age-old problem rears its head: one man’s meat is another man’s indecent exposure. Look at the fuss Picasso’s penis has caused .

Incidentally, the reference to Picasso’s penis being erect appears to be inaccurate, as far as I can tell. Here is the offending part (if Broken Frontier is willing to take the risk of corrupting young minds by running it):

Cover your eyes! - Picasso’s dangly bit!

There has been some talk about the Tokyopop system becoming an industry standard. I haven’t seen the list of 43 indicators, but I hope this new code doesn’t end up pandering to the peculiar, twisted and downright perverse morality of the American South and Mid-West. A morality that insists that a flaccid penis is more dangerous than a loaded gun.

Right now censorship isn’t a huge issue. There are plenty of adult comics out there with the kind of language and graphic depictions of sex and violence that you could once only see in the Undergrounds. But if a universal system is installed there may be increasing pressure to tailor comics to fit the lower age-range, for purely commercial reasons. In the end our decision came down to that. If Poison Candy is shrink-wrapped, our sales will take a massive hit. I have this nasty feeling that I’m standing on a slippery slope and I just took a step in the wrong direction…

It looks like this column has developed a theme after all. Reasons to feel guilty.

The female breast. Nipple-free and safe for children. Art by Hans Steinbach –
approved for older teenagers by the Tokyopop Comics Code.

Where was I? Oh yeah, the phone-call from Luis. We ended up agreeing to finalise an outline for the second nipple-free volume of Poison Candy and Luis asked what my schedule was like. If you’ve been following this column regularly, you’ll know that a Secret Marvel Project has been inches away from a green light for several months now. For so long in fact, that I had more or less given up on it. So I tell Luis I have some space. We talk about the schedule for the book. I hang up. I notice I have mail and it’s from the editor of the Secret Marvel Project. Three words: “We are approved.” Sod’s Law in action.

I can’t tell you what the Secret Marvel Project is but I can tell my son. Alex is really pleased for me… for about ten seconds. Then his face falls and he says “Are you going to be working again this weekend?”

What was that theme again?

Next week, almost definitely, a chat with Paul Gravett.

And as promised, here is a picture of that Shaky Kane coffin:

Bio-degradable art by Shaky Kane


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