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Whither the Spiders from Mars?

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This week: the column I was going to write last week. I think I’m just about over my post-Fort Hood funk, thanks in part to this weird herbal elixir from local apothecary Tenzing Momo. It’s got…let’s see…ashwagandha, alfalfa, skull cap, gotu kola and passionflower. I hope none of that equals liver failure.

When last we left Idle Worship, I mentioned reading the final issue of David Lapham’s fascinating but short-lived series Young Liars. To me Young Liars embodied a very specific aesthetic, one that powered Vertigo through its infancy and produced classics like Preacher and Shade: The Changing Man. (Those of you who’ve known me for any length of time are probably wondering when I’ll get sick of dragging Shade into every discussion I have about comics. The answer is never.) This aesthetic was closely tied to New Wave: the music, the fashion, the lifestyle, the broody contemplation of things unseen.

Named after the first EP by TV on the Radio, Young Liars was true to form, exploring sex and violence through semi-transcendent musical metaphors. The protagonist, Danny, reminded me somewhat of Christian Bale’s hapless music-journo character in the excellent film Velvet Goldmine. Caught up in a world where fiction alters reality through the ever-shifting lens of pop culture, Lapham’s characters (and his readers) are never quite sure what narrative to believe, or whether the stories they tell themselves really happened. Danny’s love interest (well, “love” interest) is convinced that Bowie’s Martian spiders are going to take over the planet. There’s hedonism and despair. It was nuts, it was glam rock, it was brilliantly conceived.

Yet at a time when New Wave was making a fulsome comeback, it failed to find an audience. Glittery vampires in off-season outerwear are skulking every place you look. Broody bands in vacuum-tight jeans rule the airwaves once again. Not only that, but they’re excruciatingly mainstream. You cannot buy “Equinox” by Death Cab for Cutie off of iTunes except as part of the New Moon soundtrack. (I kid thee not; check.) This should have been an ideal environment for Young Liars, but it wasn’t. We are left to wonder: why?

The mainstreaming of New Wave (Newer Wave?) may ironically have been part of the problem. While its outer trappings have remained intact—rocker fashion these days is a journey back to 1981—the underlying philosophy has changed. New Wave was about rebellion and sexual freedom; Newer Wave is about restraint and chastity. (Witness the celibate moping of Bella and Edward, or the rise of straight edge, or the gothy makeover of Christian rock.) Hedonism is no longer quite as hip. These days the chic thing to do is get married in the woods in a dress you bought on Etsy. I’m not knocking it—in fact I’m functionally part of it; I’m 27 and about to celebrate my 6th wedding anniversary. But I can’t help noticing that as much as contemporary hipsters have taken from New Wave, they’ve left quite a bit behind.

The new crop of geek-chic readers grew up post-AIDS and came of age post-9/11, which effectively brought an end to the glory days of counterculture. It may be that this new audience was unprepared to appreciate Lapham’s homage to a time when there was money and freedom enough to bounce back from a misspent adolescence. Today, sadly, the stakes are much higher.

I would have liked to read Young Liars all the way through to its intended endpoint. Even truncated, the series is still an absorbing, disturbing read—and worth picking up in trades. But, as usual, do as I do, not as I say, unless you want to join me in Heck for consuming the pop culture of the infidel. This has been Idle Worship.

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Comments

  • Lee Newman

    Lee Newman Nov 23, 2009 at 10:13pm

    Nice column. I am unsure why this book failed. There have been a couple manuevers at vertigo in the last few years that have bewildered me. This being one of them. It had great reviews, a rabidly passionate fan base and seemed to be picking up steam, yet the announcement of its cancellation came right at or before the solicitation for it's second trade. it's like they really didn't want to give it a chance. Yet the company thrusts its weight under Unknown Soldier - which is also a great book, but seems to have the same success in sales. Unwritten and other books get massive boasts like $1.00 first issues and heavy marketing. It's almost like Vertigo didn't want the book to succeed but wanted the chance to be able to list Lapham as a creator for the company.

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Nov 24, 2009 at 4:12am

    I agree with you Willow and with Lee. YL never really got a marketing push like a Carey comic gets at Vertigo. Maybe it's because it is not fantasy-oriented which still seem to be the big sellers at Vertigo. Guess that's why Morrison is launching Joe the Barbarian :)

  • willow

    willow Nov 24, 2009 at 11:38am

    I don't think it got less marketing than any other book...I remember a big push at SDCC right before it came out. The $1 first issue is a recent phenomenon and I'm very glad it's working. It could be that people assumed a series like this from a writer like Dave would sell itself (I mean, that's what I thought), which is why it's so peculiar that it didn't. Really, any post mortem on any series is pure speculation. The market is unbelievably weird. I find myself crossing my fingers every month, because there ain't much else I can do that I haven't already done.

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Nov 25, 2009 at 5:49am

    Any post mortem should not be pure speculation I think because with some effort you can track whether or not big pushes were done by the publishing company or not. Speculation enters the equation when you start analysing the readers's tastes and it is indeed impossible to guess. I often find that expectations from the get-go by the masses acounts for a success or not since it is very difficult to turn the tide after a few issues ...

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Nov 25, 2009 at 11:13am

    I begin to wonder now if we may be seeing the beginnings of a very negative flipside to the trade phenomenon as well. I think we?re all aware that many Vertigo books are well below what would *normally* be considered cancellation points in terms of monthly sales but are boosted by healthy(ish) trade sales. Perhaps many of us have been so conditioned by the idea of waiting for the trade, or even waiting for a few trades of a title in one sitting, that complacency has set in - we?ve forgotten that if we don?t order the collections regularly on point of publication then the monthlies that spawn them are going to die an ignoble death as well.

  • Steve Kanaras

    Steve Kanaras Nov 25, 2009 at 1:13pm

    I think the monthly book is a dinosaur. I would like to see some experimentation in the market. Maybe a 200 or so page mega Vertigo book with all the titles contained, maybe interviews etc...with an advertising based model (ala Shonen Jump) or even as a loss leader, and then push the trades. Sadly, I have dropped most of my monthly books as well.

  • Lee Newman

    Lee Newman Nov 25, 2009 at 9:13pm

    Andy- waiting the trade has already been a problem. I have been asked numerous times when the Black Lighting Year One trade is coming out - it's not scheduled and probably never will happen the book sold that poorly. Trades are not a forgone conclusion yet. Question is for a company like Vertigo that knows what the deal with trades is for their company and their model, why kill a book before you have given the second trade a chance. Second seasons rarely work and even when they do, they are still hampered by the break... Army@Love never really recovered the Narrative thread and something like Young Liars baffles me, it was widely regarded well and seemed to be picking up steam. I saw threads all over the place of people begging and pleading for people to buy the book and I am sure everyone remembers my Save Young Liars sig banner. It was a great book and I am still saddened by its loss.

  • Lee Newman

    Lee Newman Nov 25, 2009 at 9:30pm

    Steve - I don't know. I hear people say try the Jump format, but part of the reason Jumps work in Japan is the weekly release and the rental system. I see neither really catching on here and people who are complaining about $3.99 books now are going to be less likely to spend $12 to 15 a week for a jump. There definitely needs to be some experimentation and we are seeing some. Popgun has been a very useful tool for Image and launched a couple of series and some original graphic novels as well. Scott Pilgrim has come out in its little Manga style Digests and Love and Rockets has moved to its format. As much as some readers want to call the single issue a dinosaur and call the end of the era, we forget that the current industry still lives and dies off the format. Most books have broken even or made money by the time they get to trade (or are close enough to be a reasonable risk, which is why I assume Black Lighting saw no trade). In fact most creators make a nice amount of royalty off of trade sales. The other problem in switching to a Graphic Novel type format is expense. When a book has already made money or broken even before it gets collected it offsets some of the cost of the book. The book's price is only dictated by the price of production, but if we moved say Green Lantern to a graphic novel quarterly or what not system all the writing costs and art costs will have to be assumed in the initial printing as well that means that all of a sudden the $30 tpb or hc becomes a 45 tpb or hc and that perceived value of the collection is lost (and it really is merely a perception, some collections are cheaper than singles some are more expensive) and it could lead to an even quicker death of a dying medium, the same problems exist in digital format as well. Also, there are still vital things being done with the single issue medium. The format of a book like Planetary or Cooke's Spirit is a beautiful thing to see occur in single issues. The puzzle that is Planetary is not as obvious to those that merely read it in trade. Books like The Walking Dead with its relentless use of the cliffhanger ending also use the format to its strengths and see an aspect lost in the collected format. I'm all for experimentation, but the companies are looking at this from a different angle than the reader. Sometimes the experiments fail too and that can be a problem. I think DC horribly mismarketed the MInx line and as a result it was not a viable vehicle for them. But it sold well in the current system and garnered critical acclaim. The problem was the way they marketed... they did not target the demo strongly enough and then did really puzzling things like print thousands of Plain Janes vol 1 to hand out at comic cons instead of I don't know taking them to book cons or distributing them through the public school system. The reduced price of the books was not sustainable under the current system and instead of reenergizing it with another capital heavy media storm, which may have worked, they let the line go. There are signs of the companies finally getting it though, I thought the Wolverine promo for FCBD was brilliant and am even more excited by the Vertigo Crime TV commercial... now if we could just get comic book ads at the end of Super Hero Squad and Brave and the Bold and comic shop locator service mentions in all the tv advertising... then we would have something and might see the medium flourish again.

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