The Reason for Mars

Elon Musk is obsessed with going to Mars. Not just to visit. No, he wants to send a million people there. He wants regular flights, like a train leaving the station. Hop on, hop off. He wants to colonize.

If you don’t know who this guy is, you’ve been living in a cave. He’s the man behind Tesla’s electric cars, reuseable rocket ships that land vertically, Paypal and more, if his heart survives the stress of his high-voltage lifestyle. I just read a fascinating biography by Ashlee Vance that is incredible – he’s just getting started and he already has a well deserved biography that will need a new chapter added every 6 months.

I didn’t find anything in the biography strange. He’s a person who sees problems and likes to fix them – he can’t just sit there and watch people do things wrong. He is motivated by a central set of values we can all relate too – save the world from the evils of oil, overpopulation, and banking fees (seriously, banking fees are evil). But this Mars thing struck me as curious. As a child, Elon would build homemade model rockets and shoot them off. Not the Estes kits, I mean made-from-scratch rockets. So the trip to Mars, and the colonization of a new planet, seems to be the efforts of a man tapping into his inner child, something I urge all of us to do.

The inner child needs to be taken care of.

I’ve learned over the years that if there’s something from your childhood that resonated with you, that has stuck with you, that is deep inside and scratching to get out every day, you’ll never be free of that thing. You can’t suppress it. You can’t ignore it. You have to feed that longing rather than push it down. Meaning, do what you love, even if what you love originated when you were 10 years old. And from that depth you’ll find strength, passion, creativity, and success. And happiness, for that matter. People who stifle their inner child are miserable. How does that play out in practice? It means just follow your dream, even if that dream seems silly to other people. Love dogs? Become a vet. Love cars? Become a mechanic, or engineer, or driver. Your love of dogs or cars probably originated from a childhood experience, and that’s ok. That’s more than OK, that’s great. Go for it.

So Elon wants to build rockets. And go to Mars. But what does that mean? As a storyteller, I don’t see things as they are, but rather as they are interpreted. And it is we humans who infuse things with meaning. We turn ordinary objects into symbols, and use those symbols to push our ideology on others. We are at constant war over the meaning of things. Reading the brilliant book Story Wars (Winning the Story Wars by Johah Sachs) pushed that point home not long ago. This excellent review of the nature of modern mythmaking uses a bit from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey but adds in some archetypal characters and core values to make a compelling case for the need to control narrative.

When a crack opens up in our myth, the floodgates open. Basically, our myths are ancient, and not designed to deal with the changes our world is experiencing. We can either reinterpret the old myths to fit our new endeavors (Elon is the new Noah? Or Moses? Or Satan?) or we can create new myths that suit ourselves. And that new myth becomes what in politics is called a wedge issue. It squeezes in between two established factions and forces you to take sides. And although many people don’t take Elon’s Mars colony seriously, we have to. Because he’s going to get there, and as it becomes real, we are going to have to understand what it means to leave earth. And whoever owns that narrative is going to own the history of the human race.

Whoever owns Mars owns humanity.

Seems dramatic, but that’s what’s going to happen. And I’m not talking about physical ownership of Mars. I mean the story of Mars. When we go to Mars, there will be no money, no nations, no history. It is a blank slate. And how we build the philosophical Mars is going to determine how we build every other human colony.

One day we’ll go beyond Mars, but the story we tell the children of Mars is going to be THE narrative that drives humanity onward.

Sachs provides ample illustrations in Story Wars. Marketers can either use the negative approach (you’re ugly, drink this and you’ll be pretty) or the empowerment approach (this product will help you reach your personal goal) when selling their brand. And the colonists of Mars are going to have to tell a story to their children, the story of Earth, the story of the planet they left behind. And they can use the negative model (humans were too greedy and irresponsible to protect Earth so we had to leave) or the positive model of empowerment. The only thing is, I couldn’t think of one good (and by good I mean positive) argument for leaving Earth. We’ve destroyed this planet. Greed has consumed us, and we’ve consumed ourselves. We’ve taken all the resources, killed the animals, and tossed the planet aside like a styrofoam cup.  Is there any other narrative we can come up with to explain our exodus from the poisoned planet?

Then I met a guy from NASA named Sean Fuller. He’s the Moscow Director of Human Space Flight for the International Space Station, so he knows a thing or two about leaving Earth. More than a thing or two. He’s been keeping humans alive up in space for decades. He gave a talk at a university recently where he remarked that the best thing about space is that you can’t have politics involved. You just can’t. People will die. The temperatures are so extreme, the vacuum of space so unforgiving, you can’t squabble. You start arguing over water and electricity like we do on Earth, and people will die. Nations have to work together out of necessity, until at some point the nation just ceases to be important. The Mission takes precedent.

There are no borders on Mars.

The one thing that really resonated with me is when he said that when you look down on earth from the International Space Station, you can’t see any borders. All the borders are artificial. They’re all in our minds. All the wars and nationalism and horrors in the name of king and country are all illusions. And so that’s why I think Mars is significant. That’s why Mars matters. That’s why we need it. We need that vantage point to being again on a planet with no maps, on a world with no borders. We need to start from scratch and say “here on Mars, there will be no hunger, no poverty, no extortion, no nations. No past, only a future of cooperation and prosperity.”

We go to Mars not to tell the world that Earth is bad, but to tell the solar system that humanity is good. That we can shed our feuds and our nationality and move forward. That our step away from our home is a step of maturation, the first step of a child becoming an adult. Sure, we pooped in our diapers. That’s what kids do. But on Mars, we become the species we were meant to be. Not politics, no war, no money, no racism, no nationality. So while Elon may be embracing his inner child and making toy rockets, humanity must embrace its inner adult and get ourselves to Mars while there’s still a human race to save.


The decline and death of comics as we know it

Comic book circulation is falling, and although digital is picking up some of the slack, when print dies, so do comics as we know them. The number of comic book shops is in decline, and with the number of titles increasing, the print runs are getting smaller. That’s bad for comics who rely on advertising to generate income. And as print runs go down, prices go up and profits fall. We are facing the death of comics as we know it. How did we get here?

The comic book industry is a strange animal.

It is one of the few industries I know that does not sell the product it makes. Let’s talk DC and Marvel. The big two make their products, but aren’t part of the system that markets and sells them. Would Coke or Nike do the same? Nikon cameras have sales reps that travel from shop to shop, showing off new product. Opening a camera shop is easy – contact the nearest Canon or Nikon rep, and they will set you up quick. Most businesses have a way to sell their product and expand their reach, and do so aggressively. But not comics.

Comic book companies make a product that is immediately handed over to someone else to sell.

It is a passive system. I’m trying to think of an analogy. Perhaps car dealerships work the same way as comic shops, and yet I see car commercials on TV all the time and ads for dealerships in every newspaper. They are working hard to get your business, tell you where the shop is, and sell you something. But the people who are distributing the comics and selling them are not in the best position to increase readership or expand distribution, or do not feel there is a need to panic. They should be.

Diamond is the sole distributor of comics, until some small West Coast start-up knocks it down.

Until that day, we rely on them to distribute comics. But since they have a monopoly, they set the rules, and the rules are not geared towards success or expansion. If you have a shop of any kind, there is a barrier to entry if you want to sell comics. For example, you own a Dunkin Doughnuts or candy shop. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a rack of comics to sell? Call up Diamond and see what happens. Their business model prevents small shops from carrying comics. The door is shut in your face.

And if you’re a creator, things are equally hard.

Diamond can promise to carry your title, and shops will start ordering out of their catalog. But if not enough comic book shops order your comic, then they will cancel your order and no one receives the goods.  So the comic gets screwed and so does the customer who ordered the comics. Why? Because a comic book shop is not like a grocery store.

When you walk into a grocery store, and all the items on the shelf have been ordered by the store managers. They take a look at how many of each items they sold the last period, and order more based on that. So what’s on the shelves is all there because of past sales. Not so in a comic book shop. What you see on the shelf is overflow. It is risk in the portfolio. How? Because comic book shops pre-order comics for their regular customers, and hold those books in a bin behind the counter. A customer will walk in and grab the titles that they’ve ordered beforehand, probably because they just got a subscription. This is risk free sales for the comic book shop. These are sales that are %100 guaranteed, the customer just has to walk in. And as they customer makes their way to the checkout counter, maybe they’ll pick up a new title or two to try out, usually a number one. So the store will order a few extra comics, comics that are not pre-sold, just to have them out there on the racks. These are the risk comics. These are the ones that have to sell in one month or else they go into the bargain bin labeled ‘back issues’.

But the number of these shops is declining, and it is a race against time.

The machines that print comics take hundreds of sheets of paper just to calibrate. So when the shops drop below a certain point, and print runs get too far below a drip wire, it won’t be profitable to even print them. But Diamond is not out there trying to open new stores or find new distribution points. They aren’t building comic book vending machines or building partnerships with Chuck E Cheese or Regal Cinemas (I can’t for the life of me figure out why not). They aren’t working with Amazon to get print copy of Z-MAN comics as an add on item when you buy a Z-MAN superhero toy. And they aren’t adjusting to changes. They aren’t making mini racks of comics to put in shops, they aren’t providing ways for entrepreneurs to open a cart in a mall. They just aren’t hoofing it to open new venues.

But since there’s such a distance between the comic makers and the comic sellers, the comic companies aren’t adjusting either. There’s no communication between the creators like DC and Marvel and the sellers and distributors. If a comic book shop wants DC to make fewer Batman titles and Marvel to make fewer X-Men titles to boost sales on a single issue, who would listen? If Diamond wanted DC and Marvel to make a lineup of 10 key titles in order to make a portable comic stack that could go Game Stop, who would they talk to? Because comics have become event crossover catastrophes, forcing the reader to read ten different titles just to figure out what’s going on. It is a scam. But if that’s the way the comics are written, how can Diamond do anything but push those 10 event titles?

When a car manufacturer purchases their fuel injectors from a third party overseas, it requires a long arduous process to get the third part to make a change to the fuel injector. But that’s where we are with comics. Comics are printed in China (without the comic book company doing any marketing), shipped to a distributor (that does not work to expand the number of sales points), and then shipped to tiny mom and pop comic book shops that don’t have the money to advertise much at all. Three parts of a machine, creator, distributor, and seller, don’t communicate with one another. But what happens when the comic book shops just all close down? Will DC and Marvel still make comics? I wonder.

So where do we go from here?

We need silicon valley type of thinking here. We need Elon Musk type of thinking. We need to move everything in-house. Comics must be printed in America on low cost machines, so someone needs to build a better printer. Then they should be shipped to sales points that vary in size from a large store to a small rack in a Burger King.  So there needs to be a distributor that can handle small orders, and that is out there on the street getting shops to put in a small rack of comics. And the big companies, Marvel and DC, need to take note so that there are titles that are stand alone. And the mom and pop shops need to be part of this for when customers want the other titles in the series – they have to be easy to find.

I’m passionate about comics because comics are stories, and stories are how we understand the world. We understand our life as a sequence – there’s a beginning, a middle, and an end  – just like a comic book. And stories shape our morals, our outlook, our understanding of what is possible in life. We need stories to live. We need stories to learn how to breathe, and what breathing means. And when our best stories die, and our storytellers no longer have an outlet, marketing and Hollywood will fill the gap left behind. And we can’t have that. We need original voices telling bold stories on the pages of comics. We need a new company that is not afraid to think different.

Square One: How to focus your story

I got another question from a blog reader that may resonate with all of you out there. We all have amazing stories to tell, and often the story is huge, epic, world-shattering and life-changing. But how do we focus this and make it both marketable and powerful? You can do both. In fact, you have to. Less is more in many cases. So let’s look at the question and my answer, and hopefully this will help you reach your dream of telling stories that matter.

Q: I have 110 page script typed and finished, which is only the prelude to an even bigger comic. The bigger comic is the main attraction with over 3 seasons mapped out and 510 pages ready to go for season 1. Only submitted to one company but looking for advice and an opinion.

A: First off, we should talk about your project. Most of us have a huge story in our heads that we are eager to tell, but you have to chop it down to something bite size and marketable at first. Think of Star Wars. Lucas had a huge story in his head, but in 1977 he was a relative unknown pitching in a genre that was not popular, and he had to cut out everything that wasn’t absolutely essential. You have to do the same thing at first. What that means for you is you need to make sure your 110 page script is cut into 22 – 24 page chunks, and that the first 22 pages are a self contained story, and a good one, that makes people want to read more. Don’t worry about season 1. Make sure that issue 1 is just plain awesome. That’s where you have to hook people.

Good that you are pitching to publishers, but you must be realistic about what the market wants. Be aware that no one wants an epic. Publishers want a 3-5 issue story arc that they can sell as single issues and then re-package as a graphic novel. It has been proven that if people love the single issues, they’ll go back and buy the graphic novel because 1) it proves they are true fans and 2) the graphic novel is less likely to get damaged when re-read. So when you pitch, don’t pitch the epicness of the story. Pitch the sellability of a mini-series. The project I am publishing this year, The Rum Running Queen, is 3 issues, 96 pages. We will sell the single issues first, then release a graphic novel. The singles help create a fan base, and the graphic novel generates profit. It’s that simple.

I’ve seen a few publishers who are accepting projects – Rats and Crows Publishing has been active, and Monkey Brain Comics may have something. Firestorm Comics and Crazy Monkey Ink both recently put out requests for pitches. Scout Comics might be another way. (Avoid Dark Horse and Image – they are only taking established creators at this time.) In general however, comic book publishers don’t want scripts. There are almost no companies looking for scripts without art. You need art to pitch a project. So don’t rely on other comic book companies – they are all small presses started by people like you who just published their own book and picked up a couple other books. Get your work out there – I have a project that I wrote and desperately want to publish. It is called Ashes of Faith and it is an adventure about a Kurdish female soldier fighting for redemption. It focuses on religious tolerance, and most of the publishers out there sell super hero stuff, noir, horror, or sci-fi. I can’t find a home for Ashes of Faith. That’s ok though – your comic has to fit the company you pitch to. My suggestion –  self-publish and sell and network at comic book conventions, go on Comixology and a few other online comic sites. If you think you can meet the minimum order, you can go to Diamond, (only if you have a well know name doing the art and/or cover).

After finishing Sevara (and seeing really bad sales) here is my advice-
Make sure the story is perfect. PERFECT. Have dozens of people read the script, good people, not friends, who will give constructive feedback. (I have yet to find a good editor, I’ve paid them and they still suck.) The Chopping Block at Comixtribe is a great way to get your ass handed to you, but honestly the feedback is not constructive. So I can’t point you in the right direction but never let anyone who knows you read your story. Your friends and relatives will all praise it. Let a stranger give you an honest critique.
Go big or go small. Either make a very small cheap black and white comic and get it out there, or hire well known people to do the interiors and covers. Like people who have worked for DC or Marvel, or have a massive following on Patreon. Don’t go medium. For The Rum Running Queen, I am looking at getting a very well known artist to do the cover. It is a bit expensive, but in the long run it will make the work stand out. There are some wildly talented artists out there who will meet your price range, you just have to ask.

So like I’ve advised a few other people who wrote to me about their projects, cut the length down to something that is marketable. Focus on the quality of the first issue, not the epicness of the multi-season story arc. Make sure the basic message and story resonate with readers, and make sure you have some well know artists to bring your story to life.

For a 110 page story, re-read the whole thing and find those 22 pages that encapsulate the whole tone and message of your comic. You only get one chance, one issue, to hook your readers. So which 22 pages are the most significant? Pull those out and make a kick-ass issue.

find the hero within