Permanent Damage: Issue #43

Wed, July 10th, 2002 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Well, this year's WizardWorld Chicago came and went (I didn't go) with pretty much no sign of change in the comics industry. From DC's latest DIAL H FOR HERO revamp to announcements of more Neil Gaiman knockoffs at Vertigo to more "American manga" books at Image and elsewhere, what news seeped out of the proceedings is pretty much business as usual. Not surprising, considering con parent WIZARD magazine is pretty much dedicated to impressing on everyone who'll listen that it's still 1993 and what's important are trading cards and blue book values. WIZARD is, in fact, the perfect magazine for the comics industry, representing its most cherished belief: the fault lies in our stars, not in ourselves, there's nothing really wrong with the way the business conducts business, and all it's going to take is for the world to wise up and the band'll be playing "Happy Days Are Here Again" once more. Oh, and the whole point of comics is to create thousand-year franchises. So I guess that's two cherished beliefs.

One amusing note of discontent, as reported by Splash and virtually no one else, was CrossGen impresario Mark Alessi's Nikita Khrushchev impression as he backed up his recently announced "Code 6" and "CGE" line expansions with rhetoric that sounded very similar to Khrushchev's famous threat "We will bury you!" (The impression was flawed only by Alessi's apparent unwillingness to bang a table with his shoe.) (What he actually said, in relation to Marvel and DC, as reported by "Ace" Macdonald, was "I intend to destroy them" and "CrossGen will be #1.") While Alessi's motives in opening the doors to independent talent haven't got much to do with expanding creator rights or the industry's range, it's hard to argue he doesn't have points. To jump CrossGen to the lucrative front section of the Diamond catalog caste system (the "Big Four" in front, all untouchables wait at the back door for handouts), the company needs a certain percentage of market share, 5%+, and that's what the new divisions do. (A big rumor of WizardWorld was Top Cow's impending jump from Image to CGE – while that seems to have come to nothing, one can never be too sure about these things – and the upcoming signing of Chaos Comics to the same branch, probably to be announced at San Diego.) This recalls the TV industry in the late '80s, when the "Big 3" controlled TV and moneyed upstart Rupert Murdoch bought Fox with the intention of creating a fourth network, eventually eking out the home of AMERICAN IDOL and LOOKING FOR LOVE: BACHELORETTES IN ALASKA. Is Alessi, who seems to possess almost inexhaustible wealth, our Murdoch? I have to say that after the last two years of heavy promotion and steady line expansion, it's a bit sobering to realize CrossGen doesn't yet have 5% of a flailing, depressed market.

But that seems to have been the only sour note at WizardWorld. And why not? Comics conventions are less conventions than festivals, big parties so the industry can feel good about itself. There used to be three major conventions every year: Phil Seuling's Manhattan Con usually in mid-June, Chicago Con (which had raised itself up from regional status) on the July 4th weekend, and the San Diego Comic Con, mid-July. But then Phil Seuling died and the New York market fell to the saturation bombing methods of Creation Con, which burned out the market via overexposure. (One big convention a year is one thing, six or seven is another.) Chicago got hit hard by the comics recession and receded back to regional status before its purchase by WIZARD, but this is the first year it seems to have regained its "national convention" status. The San Diego Con benefited from the depressed San Diego economy of a few years ago, when the city realized the Con brought in tourists and was, at the time, one of the few bright spots of the local economy, and more or less "adopted" the Con, which has continued to flourish regardless of the business and now goes by the name Comic-Con International, reflecting its importance in the Asian Rim comics market. Alone among cities hosting comics conventions, San Diego generates, to some small extent, a carnival atmosphere, and pumps up local attendance by ceaselelly pimping the show on local newscasts and in local papers during convention week. (Comic-Con International has also finetuned their programming, spiffing up the traditionally slack Sundays by declaring them "family day." I'm baffled that actually worked, but it seems to have.)

Attendance numbers were reportedly impressive at WizardWorld, as they always are at San Diego, and it's easy to spin this into a "resurgence of interest" in comics. Probably more important was the willingness of attendees to spend money, which was said to be iffy. No spectacular increases from last year, and Saturday was said to be dead, in terms of spending. Tons of attendees (tons of celebrity guests signing autographs), slack sales in the dealers room. The problem with judging the health of the industry by the number of attendees at major conventions (or even smaller ones) is that the cons are parties, and everyone loves a party. A lot of people go to parties who'd never think of chipping in for the beer.

Still, a party's a party. Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.

By the way, as things are planned right now, I'll be at the San Diego Convention most of Thursday, all Friday and Saturday, through early afternoon Sunday. I'll be wandering, but my main base of operations will be the AiT/PlanetLar booth (in what Larry Young calls the sweet spot, tables 1800/1901, right across from the middle doors, leading off the In, and diagonally across from our pals at DC) where I will be signing (and where you can buy, if need be) both the trade paperback reissue of BADLANDS and the recently released BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY, as well as a limited number of promotional posters. I don't know yet if any shotglasses will be available. But look for me (and all the fine cast of AiT/PlanetLar talent and products) -- and especially look for the three women in the spacesuits -- there. And if you don't want to buy either book, or if you already have, or you want me to sign something else, come along anyway and I'll sign it. While you're there, catch glimpses of my upcoming graphic novels WHISPER: DAY X, the crime thriller VIDEOACTIVE and the western RED SUNSET. You know you want to.

Another amusing week in politics. The Supreme Court, in a mad dash to prove government doesn't hate religion (which is to say, the Christian religion, because nobody in the seats of power really care about what the Muslims or the Hindus or the Buddhists – well, maybe Al Gore cares about the Buddhists, but he's hardly in the seat of power anymore, though more on that in a moment – or the Zoroastrians or the Jains etc. think about them), proclaimed "educational vouchers" A-OK, even though it would inevitably suck money from financially desperate public school systems and place it in the hands of private (read, in most instances, parochial) schools. Two amusing upshots to this. 1) The same conservatives who applaud this are the ones who traditionally rail against government involvement in anything and 2) if patterns established elsewhere are accurate indicators, the real beneficiaries of this policy will be not Christian or Catholic parochial schools but those run by and for groups like the Buddhists and the Muslims (who've been making a big drive toward their own education system, as I understand it). So this latest sop to "traditional moral values" stands a good chance of making the country even more multicultural than before. Meanwhile, Mr. Moral Joe Lieberman announced his potential bid for the presidency in '04 at almost the same moment Morality Czar William Bennett conceded defeat at the hands of rap artists and crawled back into his cave to lick his wounds. The spectre of a Lieberman presidency shouldn't relax civil libertarians, given Lieberman threatening during his VP run to bring Old Testament fury down on those who don't get on the Old-Fashioned Morality Train. Joltin' Joe did say he wouldn't run if Al Gore decided to once again throw his hat into the ring. It's probably not the right to pray for another Gore candidacy, but it's a reason, which is one more than any of us had before.

And, as I type, the traditionally rabidly pro-business Hand Puppet is scowling at Wall Street, ignoring his own past as a profiteering CEO of a collapsed Enron-like energy concern (yeah, yeah, I know, the SEC investigated and cleared him... except... they didn't; they declined to pursue it, not surprising from a Bush-appointed SEC during a Bush administration, but not the same as exoneration) and VP Cheney's past as numbers-fantasizing CEO of impending financial Chernobyl Haliburton Corp. to issue a dramatic "do as I say, not as I do" speech to get corporate leaders to toe a finer line than their counterparts at Enron, Vivendi, WorldCom, Merck and lord knows how many others did. But this is only the latest blip in a financial mentality that goes back decades and resurged fiercely during the Reagan years, when it was noted that the American mentality shifted from an attitude of working toward your goals to a "get rich quick" ethic, embodied in lotteries for the poor and the stock market for the rich. Whatever it has been, the stock market is now one huge bait-and-switch mechanism for shifting wealthy from the middle class to the superrich, and it's not alone. See, after the stock market collapse that triggered the Great Depression (it's amusing to note "depression" was used as a "harmless" word so they wouldn't have to say a scary word like "recession") systems were put into place to keep it from happening again, and eventually it dawned on someone that made the market easier to manipulate. So all through the 80s, with interests rates driven so much higher than inflation that bank savings accounts become an almost ridiculous notion, everyone's told to invest in the stock market 'cause that's where the real dough can be made. So everyone does, until Black Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, on which the stock market crashed again, wiping out tons of small investors. Miraculously, many of the big investors weathered it quite nicely, presciently trading out much of their stock for cash beforehand. (And, not coincidentally, driving prices down, since that's what selloffs do.) The junk bond and penny stock markets – ostensible means to get smaller businesses off the ground that were manipulated into ways to transfer money from a lot of hands to very few pockets by selling worthless pieces of paper – also contributed to the mess and were used similarly.

During this same time, there's this little thing we used to call the S&L Crisis. See, once upon a time, savings and loan banks were created just so ordinary Americans can build nest eggs. But S&Ls are limited in the types of things they can invest money in, since, unlike "real" banks, they're supposed to be caretakers of their clients' money. In the Reagan era, though, it's decided, hey, take the leashes off and let these puppies go unregulated. There's money to be made there! Leading to a frenzy of suspicious characters (like Hand Puppet sibling Neil, not to mention Mr. Moral and S&L crisis poster boy Charles Keating) buying up S&Ls and milking them for all they were worth. Literally. While a few people, like Keating, went to jail, most who profiteered from the S&L – including, from reports, organized crime and the CIA – walked away with their pockets stuffed. Only the people who had money in the S&Ls got clipped – bad. Oh, yeah, and so did the rest of us, since our government went in and bailed out the failed S&Ls with our money.

You might recall the "dot-com" crash of 2000. Remember when the Internet was going to transform the American economy? Well, it did. You have dot-coms starting up, "venture capitalists" rushing in to pump tons of money into the companies (almost always drastically changing the company structures as well, pretty much guaranteeing precarious rapid growth rather than regulated slow growth) so they can rush the dot-coms to stock offerings with much fanfare. Again, ordinary citizens rush in to get in on what's being touted as the wealth-generating episode of a lifetime (kind of like those real estate infomercials that still dot the airwaves in the week hours), only to have the venture capitalists reach the desired profit, cash out, and crash the stock into worthlessness. Goodbye a multitude of promising businesses that might have succeeded admirably if grown more slowly so they would've had time to assess and correct their situations, and goodbye the investments of millions of Americans. Into where? Money never really vanishes, it just moves from one pocket to another.

Which is what the current "accounting scandals" are all about. Upper echelon business execs get perks galore, regardless of how their companies do. Stock prices are driven up or down on earnings announcements, and up means investors pump more money into the system. So accountants – Arthur Anderson, in many cases – get this cool idea: y'know, there might be all this money coming into the company in the future, so let's declare it as income now! The books look great on paper, everyone thinks the companies are doing super, everyone invests, the stock value goes up. Execs cash out through their perks (and stock holdings), leaving the rest of the company – and the investors – holding the bag. You've got Haliburton doing it, Merck, WorldCom, to the tune of billions of dollars. There's no way it's limited to just those three. Universal/Vivendi might have done the same thing, but nobody can figure U/V's finances out. Oversees analysts are declaring it's now dangerous to invest money in the United States. So the Hand Puppet, faced with a financial crisis even a "war on terrorism" can no longer steer attention from, is forced to declare It's Time To Regulate! Why? Because the Democrats in Congress are geared up to push through a financial market regulation bill that he can't veto without looking really really bad to the American public, so he's got to look like it was his idea first.

At any rate, none of this surprises me. Get insider trading out of the stock market? It exists on insider trading. Just follow the money. It's not hard to see where it goes, where it comes from, and how potentially affected well-placed parties always manage to convert stock to cash just before bottoms fall out, and sometimes drop the bottoms out themselves, regardless of who gets hurt. (Just watch who buys up stock when prices drop far enough. The ones with the money of course, who just happen to be the same ones who had the money at the beginning.) So those are the two new rules of investing in the stock market: 1) Follow the money. 2) Buy lotto tickets instead. Your money's safer there.

HBO's THE WIRE (Sundays, 10PM), it's latest original series, started out horribly. I mean horribly. A cheesy hodgepodge of influences – a little HOMICIDE here, a little LAW AND ORDER there, a dash of OZ, a hint of HILL STREET BLUES -- along with a "star," Dominic West, a friend of mine referred to as a charisma-free zone. Creator/writer/producer David Simon came out of HOMICIDE, among other places; the director, Clark Johnson, was a HOMICIDE regular; and the cast was peppered with familiar faces from both HOMICIDE and OZ. The first episode was smothered in a warmed-over haze of plotlines that seemed to dangle from familiar "edgy" shows just to establish THE WIRE's "edgy" cred. I know more than a few people who simply gave up on it at that point, and I came close to myself.

Now I'm glad I stuck with it. It's still the same story, about driven cops bucking their own department to pursue a ghetto drug kingpin, but the focus quickly shifted so that actually became the excuse for the real story, about the intransigence of bureaucracies, both in the police department and in the drug ring they ostensibly oppose. Along the way West has turned his cop Jimmy McNulty into a decent character (though I frankly couldn't care less about how he has to timeshare his kids with his venomous ex-wife, played by HOMICIDE's Callie Thorne). There's some standout work by Sonja Sohn and Andre Rojo as a bemused narcotics cop and her junkie snitch, and Wendell Pierce and OZ's Lance Reddick is continuously entertaining as a departmental ladder climber caught between his hunger for promotion and his desire to do well on a case no one in the police hierarchy wants to pursue, while Wendell Pierce is a stitch every instant he's on screen. But the real hot properties here are the crooks: Wood Harris' kingpin Avon Barksdale, OZ's J.D. Williams as a couple of kid street humps, and particularly Larry Gillard Jr. as the show's pivotal character, Barksdale's conscience-stricken nephew D'Angelo. But my new favorite is freelance maniac and snitch-in-training Omar (though it's apparently against the law for HBO to actually tell us who plays him), a great example of how to make a character interesting and complex simply by making him intelligent. In its remorseless depiction of a city gridlocked by its institutions, and in its depiction of characters on both sides of the street hungering to improve their lot against all odds, THE WIRE has actually set the new standard for American cop shows. It's not about justice, or even law. It's about politics.

Self-publishing remains a holy grail for many in the comics business, and it's a sweet dream: control your own destiny, reap the rewards of your labors. It has its drawbacks, of course, obscurity and poverty being two, so it takes considerable determination to soldier on for years. Writer/illustrator Gary Spencer Millidge has been doing that since 1995 with STRANGEHAVEN (Abiogenisis Press, Box 448 Southend-On-Sea, Essex SS1 2FN England. $2.95@; trade paperbacks $14.95@) his extended tale of magic realism where an English schoolteacher finds himself in the semi-mystical Cornish village of Strangehaven, filled with odd characters and odd events, complete with strange stray cats, weird cults, Amazonian jaguar men, alien hippies (possibly). While that's a thin rod to hang a whole series on, Millidge wraps it all in mythology and character to wonderful effect. Along the way, he slowly shifts from a straight illustrative style to a very precise pseudo-photorealism that's hard to explain but exciting to view. Aside from the recap pages, he tells the story almost entirely in dialogue, and takes his time; the journey is the story here, not the denouement. Particularly in the encyclopedic nature of the work as well as stylistically, I can see traces of Alan Moore and Bryan Talbot influence. The work is of that quality. STRANGEHAVEN is a great argument for comics-as-literature. Very stylish and beautifully done. The STRANGEHAVEN comic is up to #14 (wherein hero Alex Hunter must cope with his ex-wife's divorce settlement demands while fending off the advances of the local secret society that wants him for a member) while the first twelve issues have been collected in two trades, ARCADIA and BROTHERHOOD, all distributed in the USA through Top Shelf Productions and all well worth getting. Had Millidge chosen to go the work-for-hire route at companies such as Vertigo, he'd undoubtedly be a major star in the business by now. He deserves to be.

I saw a preview of Jareth Grealish & Evan Young's THE FORGOTTEN mini-series(Fintan Studios, 27 Fair Oaks Ct, Newtown PA 18940; $2.95@) awhile back and was tentatively impressed. There's a strong Warren Ellis influence in the writing and Adam Hughes influence in the art. It's a post-superhero story about a John Constantine-ish plainclothes ex-superhero no one can remember. Specifically, like two minutes after he has left the room, as well as in general. Now operating as a street-level righter-of-wrongs, trying to get a junkie off a murder rap, he's also being pursued by a college student tracking down whatever happened to his costumed identity. The art in the second issue is something of a letdown, feeling more rushed than in the first, but the story holds up nicely, adding interesting complications. Not bad. Catch it.

Andy Winter & Natalie Sandell's DEVILCHILD (Moonface Press, Box 5593, Southend-On-Sea, Essex SS1 2WY, England) has been collected into an attractive large-sized trade, HELL IS AROUND THE CORNER (£7.99). I just wish I had better things to say about it. The back cover sums up the concept as well as I could – "The Antichrist has risen – and he's a part-time waiter from Camden" – and the book's kind of cute, it's not terrible by any stretch, but all the heaven-and-hell stuff, with warrior angels, Earth goddesses, "anagram of Santa"s etc., reads like Vertigo lite, and it isn't helped by erratic art. It's been done before, and done better. Sorry.

Dara Naraghi sent me copies of stories set to appear in DIGITAL WEBBING #4, but I don't really want to get into the habit of reviewing Xerox copies so I'd better wait for the real thing. Those who wish to know more before hand, though, can check out Dara's website.

Sort of a maxi-mini-comic (it's full comics size), AMERICAN BOREDOM (Introducing Dean and Owen) is a little collection of slice-of-life stories about slackers doing things like waiting in line to see the SPIDER-MAN movie. ("This is the cinematic event that will define our generation!" "Isn't that what you said when we were waiting in line for X-MEN?") Apparently it started as a college newspaper strip, which may explain why it's efficiently written and pretty well drawn. Not that you can buy it anywhere, but if you ask nicely they might send you a copy.

A couple follow-up notes. Decided what to do about mini-comics: keep sending 'em. If I like them, I'll review them. If I don't like them, I'll just list them as received, and readers can pursue them as desired. And while last week's piece on an editorial code of ethics generated a lot of e-mail I've promised not to repeat here, it also generated one interesting suggestion: formal training of all editors in areas like comics production, story development and professional behavior. Which would be a vast improvement over the current system, where incoming editors mostly pick up the bad habits of the editors they're working under, and which would spell out clearly what a company expects from its editors. At minimum, there ought to be some sort of orientation. But that's only the tip of the iceberg...

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the newly Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant's Alleged Fictions.

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