In his final Cassandra Complex, Antony Johnston looks back at some of the big stories from three years of Ninth Art, including Epic adventures, the decline of Crossgen, and the rise of comics piracy.
30 April 2004


I was tempted to open this column with an EJ Thribb "So. Farewell then..." pastiche, but couldn't bring myself to be quite that obscure. So allow me to couch it in a more universally understood fashion:

This is the last Cassandra Complex.

Three years; thirty-seven columns. (No, I'm not sure how that works either, especially when you consider I've skipped a couple of months over the years to do things like move house. I suspect it's do to with the column being every four weeks, rather than truly monthly. But I digress.)

It's been an interesting ride, to say the least. When I started writing this column I had a day job designing magazines for a national UK publisher; I had one graphic novel published, and even that was illustrated prose rather than a 'true' comic; and I'd recently moved to London.

As of today, I've been writing comics full-time for a year and a half; I've had seven graphic novels published, and I've another six scheduled; and I now live in the North of England, about 240 miles from my old home.

May you live in interesting times, indeed.


And what of the comics industry itself? Since May 2001 we've seen a small upheaval across the industry, with some experiments working out and sticking, and others falling by the wayside. Such as...

The Blogosphere, surely a contender for "worst dictionary entry created by geeks". Blogging has taken off in a way few people could have predicted or even believed three years ago, and progressed beyond sheer novelty value into something that is not only here to stay, but has succeeded in actually getting people to pay for it. And on the Internet, that's no mean feat.

Of most interest to us is the "Comics Blogosphere", largely consisting of the same dozen people linking to and commenting on the same news stories, but at least providing a generally varied viewpoint. Standing head and shoulders above this crowd, though, was Dirk Deppey's Journalista. Deppey took advantage of blogging software's speed and ease of use to produce what was, for a brief time, the best current affairs column on the Net, bar none. I didn't always agree with Deppey, but that's hardly the point, and when he recently shut it down to become managing editor of The Comics Journal, I was among the many who mourned its passing.

The Rise and Fall of Epic, Marvel's aborted attempt to produce lots of books by new talent via the ingenious method of paying them very little, was created, hyped, U-turned on the subject of creator ownership, vilified and killed off in short order. Epic has now been replaced by Icon, the much-trumpeted new imprint to accommodate the creator-owned work of Brian Bendis and pals, wherein Marvel appear to have decided that maybe creator-owned books aren't so bad after all, so long as they're already selling in the five-figure range by the time you take them on.

ENDLESS NIGHTS, which proved that you really can make lots of money publishing original graphic novels if your name is Neil Gaiman. Back in 2001, DC Vertigo said it would be looking at the OGN market in a serious way over the next few years, and announced a few big-name books to kick off the experiment. Barring ENDLESS NIGHTS, Vertigo now seems to have backed off from this format a little, probably due to low sales. Whether or not Vertigo will continue to publish only occasional OGNs, or give the format another big push, remains to be seen.

The Fall and Fall of Crossgen, who started out a couple of years before this column, but don't appear likely to survive it in similar fashion. The saddest thing about Crossgen's impending demise is that the company did almost everything that many industry-watchers suggested would result in success. Crossgen produced collections quickly and cheaply, it poured enormous amounts of money into promotion and marketing, it shipped everything on time, it branched out into schools and libraries with forward-thinking programmes, and so on. Alas, all of this cost money, and for many people Crossgen simply 'proved' that these initiatives don't work regardless of how much cash you sling at them, thereby souring them on the whole idea.

Indie Publishers have also had a perpetually bumpy ride, albeit with a different angle. For most indie publishers, sales of book-format comics are definitely up; conversely, single issue sales are definitely down, probably due to saturation from the larger publishers, whom many retailers and readers will always turn to first. But despite not having anywhere near Crossgen's money, smaller publishers are quietly making footholds - both in the Direct Market and outside - that the former couldn't. Being someone who writes primarily for indie publishers, this is a subject on which I'm hopelessly biased. But I can't deny I'm optimistic about this section of the industry. The road may be bumpy, but we're all hanging on to see where it takes us.

And if we're talking about footholds in areas outside the Direct Market, there's no ignoring The Manga Juggernaut, which continues to steamroller across the American hinterlands. The last three years has seen nothing but growth in the Western consumption of manga, and while many retailers are discovering that not all series are perennial best-sellers like LONE WOLF AND CUB or AKIRA, the manga publishers are producing such phenomenal amounts of material every month that they don't have to be. There are still people out there who insist manga is 'just a phase', but come on - calling any market that not only lasts, but grows for more than ten years a fad is deluded. Like rap music, disco and TV makeover shows, manga in one form or another is here to stay.

And so's Hollywood, it seems. After a few false starts, the unprecedented success of SPIDER-MAN led to another forest of green lights on studio lots across LA, with everyone wanting to stick their finger in the comic book pie. Unlike previous and similar forays, though, the comics-to-movie explosion of the last three years has largely survived thanks to someone, somewhere, realising that maybe not all movie adaptations have to be costumed-hero blockbusters. The cult success of GHOST WORLD and AMERICAN SPLENDOR, not to mention the heavyweight cash-generating power of stars like Tom Hanks and Johnny Depp, has finally validated non-cape movies in the eyes of producers. It's perhaps ironic that we had to turn to Hollywood to get comics regarded as an artform just as valid as novels...

And just like movies, comics now has its own burgeoning Internet Piracy community, where - as with movies, albums, TV shows and software - new comics are available to download almost as soon as they're released. What always strikes me as odd about comics piracy is the sheer effort involved. 'Ripping' a DVD, a CD, a Tivo recording or a computer program is practically a no-effort endeavour; it already exists in digital format, and all that's required is to collate that into a different format suitable for downloading, while you go and make the tea. But there's no way to automate the piracy of comics; every single page must be scanned, and unless there's a growing black market in prototype page-turning devices that I've somehow missed, it has to be done by hand. That's an awful lot of time and effort, especially when expended by someone who's actually spent their own money and bought the comic in the first place. I don't get it, but maybe I'm just too old-fashioned.


According to Greek myth, Cassandra was the daughter of Hecuba, who was given the ability to see the future by a lovestruck Apollo. When she spurned him, he cursed her so that no-one would believe her doom-laden predictions.

Fitting though the play on words is, this column isn't named after her, nor the psychological disorder of the same name. It's named after the band.

I first heard Cassandra Complex in 1990, when I bought the seminal CYBERPUNX album based on the cover and title alone (and from which this month's headlines are taken). It was, frankly, brilliant; a reflection of its time, and an intelligent tribute to the mid-'80s SF trend of the same name. I quickly became a fan, and hunted down earlier releases. For my money, they remain one of the best techno bands ever.

And there is a comics connection: CC mainstay Rodney Orpheus is a practising magician and SF fan, so it should be no surprise that the band has also recorded songs titled 'Valis' and '(The Theme From) The Invisibles', among others.

Orpheus hasn't released anything new for a while, but if you've paid any attention at all to these music recommendations of mine over the last year and a half, I urge you to go out and buy a CC album right now. You won't regret it.

This article is Ideological Freeware. The author grants permission for its reproduction and redistribution by private individuals on condition that the author and source of the article are clearly shown, no charge is made, and the whole article is reproduced intact, including this notice.

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