by N. A. Halkides 3/12/15
I thought ST readers might like to take a break from our ongoing battles against the political and cultural Left for a semi-humorous interlude as I relate the tale of a superhero no one has ever heard of: Mosquito-Man! Actually, although I will try to keep politics out of this story, so pervasive and destructive are the Left’s ideas today that as we will see there is no escape from them, not even in the world of four-color comics, but the Obama-bashing (worthy cause though it is) will be kept to a minimum.
Disclaimer: I had hoped to avoid any trace of self-promotion by writing this piece before I could in any way profit by it, but my recent survey of all the Republican Presidential candidates took so long to compile that in the meantime I was able to offer Mosquito-Man #1 for internet purchase. However, the present essay is still intended to amuse and inform.
In 2009, Barack Obama took office and not long after I lost my job with a large bank in the Chicago area. In the spirit of the promise made above I will not attempt to connect these two events, but readers may draw their own conclusions. With no other jobs to be had except part-time retail, I went into the internet marketing and e-publishing businesses, with little success (again, whether this was due to bad planning, bad luck, or a bad business climate caused by government I leave to the reader to decide). When time permitted, I also wrote fiction and added to my notebooks.
A notebook is a useful thing to a writer, especially a fiction writer. It helps you keep your ideas straight and organized, and most of all it prevents a good idea from being forgotten. Ideas sometimes come to the writer seemingly unbidden, at least at the beginning – then you have to work to continue and develop them. That’s how it was with Mosquito-Man – intent on writing serious fiction, and knowing the miserable state of the comics industry, the last thing I had wanted or intended was to create a comic-book character, yet for some reason the concept of a completely ludicrous super-hero entered my conscious mind. I don’t mean to give the impression it was effortless; it would be more accurate to say that effort applied to one area bore fruit in an entirely different one.
The superhero genre has always seemed to me ripe for parody because it borders on the ridiculous: just think of people running around in their union suits trying to fight crime, or naming themselves after insects (Ant-Man, etc.), or actually being able to afford the time and equipment super-heroing requires. Not everyone can be a billionaire like Bruce Wayne (Batman, if there’s anyone who hasn’t heard). I could see that all it would take is one little push to go completely over the edge.
And so, with all the “good” insect names having already been taken by other super-heroes or villains (think about it if you’re a comics fan), engineering graduate Don Strait (you’re darn straight!) adopts the guise of Mosquito-Man, while his teen-age ward F. Artie Jensen, an unhappy youth with no sense of smell, becomes his sidekick, Stinkbug. Since Don isn’t a billionaire with a Batmobile in his Bat-Cave, he must make do with a Mosquito-Van (plenty of room on the side for his ugly mosquito-symbol) in his garage. Don is conservative, idealistic, and a bit of a square, but obviously the good guy, while Artie, already becoming embittered and drinking too much at the ripe old age of 16, does the occasional dirty work necessary to put the bad guys down.
The contrast between the two allowed for an interplay that would encompass a wide variety of satirical targets, some purely within the realm of comics and others in the broader world of contemporary America, including the soft-headedness of the urban Progressive. Still, something more was needed.
I turned to the early character of Wonder Woman as she was during the 1940’s for inspiration. Wonder Woman was supposedly an Amazon warrior, but Greek mythology quickly gave way to her creator William Moulton Marston’s desire to explicate his theory that mankind would be vastly improved if its males were forced to submit to loving female authority – the strong and perfect women, his feminine ideal. This crazy notion was probably half Progressivism/Fascism and half sexual B & D (Marston, who incidentally invented the polygraph, lived with both his wife and a former student of his under the same roof). The result was that Wonder Woman eventually became notorious for the sheer amount of time she spent tied up with ropes or bound with chains.
The bondage element in Wonder Woman comics was unintentionally humorous – a kind of camp. But what if instead of a super-heroine acting out her creator’s weird fantasies, she acted out her own rather mildly kinky ones instead? And what if she were interested in a square, conservative guy (like, say, Don Strait/Mosquito-Man) who doesn’t know how to handle her? Then you would have the best kind of humor, the kind that springs from character. Modern sexual mores (think Fifty Shades of Grey) as well as MM’s cluelessness would provide plenty of grist for this mill (and we Conservatives should be prepared to laugh at ourselves, even though we are the good guys in this miserable world, much as Al Capp laughed at the gullibility of his own lead character, Li’l Abner). What I had, in fact, was very much “Li’l Abner meets Wonder Woman” – all I needed was a name. Turning back to the Amazon warriors of Greek mythology, I christened the new character Asteria, and after creating a small rogue’s gallery of super-villains (details omitted for legal reasons and to save space here) the basic elements for a Mosquito-Man comic book were now in place.
One advantage of writing prose fiction is that you don’t need a collaborator. But if you’re writing a musical or a comic book, you’re going to need several – in this case an artist to draw the book, a colorist to do the colors, and a letterer to put in the captions and speech balloons. We can pass over my search for an artist and a colorist as I quickly located two good men who had advertised their availability, but finding a letterer proved to be very revealing when it came to the state of the American economy. For four years I had been an unsuccessful job applicant; now I was to be on the other side of the desk, so to speak, as employer rather than prospective employee.
Thus in November 2013 I put an ad on a trade bulletin board, making it clear that all I had to offer at the moment was a one-time lettering job worth about $150 – and I was deluged with applicants. Not just young guys trying to break into the business, either – many of these letterers had years of experience, some with major publishers, and here they were, vying for a small freelance job with a puny publisher none of them had ever heard of (my little corporation). It reminded me of life during the Great Depression when a hundred or more men would have to fight for a single job, and I believe that in an honest history of Obama’s America, with all the untruthful and misleading government economic data discarded, this will be considered the Second Depression.
I felt so badly for all these applicants that after quickly pulling the ad and settling on one of them, a young man who proved to be a very good letterer, I wrote to each of the others individually, telling them that I wished I had work for them and that I would keep their names on file in case I ever did have any jobs for them in the future, both of which were true. But before I could even consider offering more work to anyone, Mosquito-Man #1 would have to hit the shelves, providing the needed funds. We come now to one part of our sorry tale that cannot be blamed on the Left.
No matter how good your book is, you still have to be able to (1) get it published, and (2) get it into the stores where people can buy it (the publisher’s job). Because of the financial and other difficulties, I had no intention of self-publishing but I found that not one single comics publisher in America or Canada was interested in Mosquito-Man. In fact, the only publisher nice enough to even send an actual rejection notice was Fantagraphics (a rather Progressive house that probably wouldn’t have been too happy with the satire of environmentalism I planned for issue #3, if we had gotten that far). So now I had the problem of self-publishing, which meant finding both a printer and a distributor. Printers happy to get work are not hard to find – maybe Brad can tell us more about that some time – so we can pass over that part of the story, but comics distribution is another matter.
Free-market theory tells us that a coercive monopoly can only exist through the machinations of government, and that is basically correct. However, even in a true free-market situation (which we obviously do not have at the moment), there will be some industries at the margins, perhaps slowly dying, perhaps merely those which appeal to a permanent but tiny consumer class. One such marginal industry is comics – yes, there are still millions of dollars involved, but that’s pretty small potatoes compared to most industrial endeavors. Most of the money in “comics” is actually from merchandising and licensing, not from the actual comics themselves. And if an industry like comics is small enough, there could be effective monopolization through collusion or even simple ineptitude.
Among the comics publishers, Marvel, DC, and Image between them probably comprise more than 75% of the market. That didn’t cause me any direct problems, but it indirectly resulted in one company having a monopoly on distribution – Diamond Comic Distributors, and without them, you can’t get your books into the comic shops to sell them. (Newsstand/bookstore distribution is a separate matter). There was no good reason for Marvel and DC to agree to exclusive contracts with Diamond, but once they did so Diamond’s last two competitors closed their doors and ever since no rival distributor has been able to get off the ground because there simply isn’t enough money in distributing the little guys. This is where the size of an industry matters.
I still didn’t anticipate too many problems. Diamond distributes small publishers as well as large ones, and there’s no reason they shouldn’t – they’ve got the easiest and safest job in all of comics. Unlike publishers and retailers, they risk very little money: they solicit the books to all the retailers in North America and then upon having a firm commitment from them, they figure out how many copies to order from the publisher. Diamond puts up no money with their order but only pays the publisher 30 days after the delivery of the books (the cost of which is paid by the publisher, of course), in the mean time or shortly after collecting the funds from the retailers, who are not permitted to cancel their orders. So unless the retailer goes out of business and can’t pay the bill, Diamond can’t lose on the deal, and there’s no reason for them not to solicit comics from new publishers. (If the orders for a book don’t reach their break-even point, Diamond is under no obligation to the publisher to go through with the distribution deal, nor to the retailer to actually deliver the book).
Nonetheless, after jumping through all their hoops and putting together a very professional-looking submissions package, Diamond turned me down. I could have understood it if they had solicited Mosquito-Man #1 and found no takers, or even if the orders hovered around their break-even point (profit goes up quickly once that point is reached because they’re buying your book at a minimum 60% discount off the cover price – see what I mean about them having the easiest job in comics?). But they refused even to try – retailers could have suddenly gone ga-ga for Mosquito-Man and ordered 500,000 copies, but Diamond never gave them the chance, or my company as publisher either.
Why not? In a way, it doesn’t matter why not – without Diamond, you can’t get your books into the shops and that’s the end of it – but it’s only natural to wonder given the fact that (to repeat) they would have been taking absolutely no risk save the piddling little cost of adding the title to their catalog (how long can it take to enter one line of data into a computer?). They said something about MM not being quite good enough, but considering the dreck they handle every month, and considering that they’re distributors and don’t know anything about writing, drawing, or editing comics, I don’t buy it. In fact, they had one hell of a nerve even offering their opinion on the artistic merits of MM. Maybe after reading my description of the book they didn’t know what the word “satire” meant and it was too much trouble to look it up in the dictionary. Or maybe they’re so rich that at this point they just don’t care about taking on another small publisher.
And so Mosquito-Man for now is being sold on the web only, where few will ever find him because even though you can browse the web looking for comics, there are so many out there that it’s much harder to get noticed than it would be on the shelves of an actual brick-and-mortar store. Maybe that will change as technology advances. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine an online retailer who can deliver a nicely-bound hard copy of a comic-book using the customer’s own printer. In fact, online retailers already exist, and the required printer technology at popular prices probably isn’t far in the future. And when that day arrives, perhaps Diamond will go the way of the Dodo. But it won’t be in time for Mosquito-Man, which will never get the chance to sell enough copies to fund a second issue (I had envisioned and roughly plotted out a 12-issue limited series).
So what can we learn from this misadventure into the world of comics publishing?
- When you go into commerce, try a thriving industry like investment banking and not some crappy, disreputable, bottom-of-the-barrel business like comics publishing.
- It’s better to be a small player in a large industry than a small player in a small industry.
- This may come as a shock, but the government is lying to you! The economy is actually still in rotten shape for the average person, as evidenced by dozens of people chasing after one crummy $150 lettering job.
Nik is a freelance writer, former professor, and has written for FrontPage Magazine.
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