Permanent Damage: Issue #127

Wed, February 18th, 2004 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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  • It seems like eras are suddenly ending all over the place in comics. Julius Schwartz died last week. It wasn't unexpected. He wasn't young, and his health had been deteriorating for a long time. It's still sad. I never worked with him, only really knew him in passing, seeing him at conventions, and while he always instantly recognized my wife (Julie had an eye for the ladies) he only came to recognize me after he learned I was working with his long-running friend and colleague Gil Kane. That's okay; it didn't matter, and there was no real need for him to remember me. He was always friendly and gregarious regardless.

    It's funny, the last time I saw him he asked about the Silver Age set Green Lantern-Atom story Gil and I were doing for LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE. I told him when I was a kid, reading the comics he edited, it always struck me as a natural team-up because Gil drew both characters and writers Gardner Fox and John Broome worked (I think Broome worked on THE ATOM; I remember Fox as the primary ATOM writer, and Broome as the primary GREEN LANTERN writer), and, as a kid, I always wanted to see it done. I asked Julie why they'd never done it, and Julie pondered it a moment, shrugged and said, "It just never occurred to me." You had to have been there, but there was just something so endearing about the way he said it – a tone of "even I can't think of everything" – that I just wanted to hug the guy.

    Meeting Julie, though, you never would've gotten the idea he was among the two or three most important comics editors of the last 50 years. His early career was interesting enough, starting in science fiction fandom before he became an agent and eventually an editor for DC Comics. Word is he was always considered a good editor, but he really came into his own after the collapse of the Golden Age, when he added the science fiction anthologies STRANGE ADVENTURES and MYSTERY IN SPACE to DC's line-up and more or less introduced what would become thought of as the DC house style (though it was never universal) – less Milton Caniff and more Alex Raymond by way of Dan & Sy Barry, with more realistic proportions, cleaner, slicker lines and brighter, more open art, via artists like Carmine Infantino, Murphy Anderson, Gil Kane, and Sy Barry himself. STRANGE ADVENTURES also introduced the character now thought of as the first "Silver Age superhero," Captain Comet, who can also be considered the first mutant superhero, a man born 1,000,000 years ahead of his time, with amazing mental and physical powers. The series didn't really catch fire – it soon fell to the one-off stories that usually populated the rest of the comic – but it was just the warm-up. (Many of the concepts in Captain Comet were recycled in one way or another in GREEN LANTERN.)

    More than anyone else, Julius Schwartz created the Silver Age. He even made Stan Lee possible.

    In 1956, Julie masterminded the return of The Flash, which set the general pattern for a slew of "returned" Golden Age heroes: same names, new costumes, new powers, new origins, secret identities and backstories. Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman and the Justice League Of America (the latter day version of the '40s Justice Society) followed. Stories generally leaned heavily on science fiction, with a special focus on puzzle stories that could be solved by a knowledge of science. (Julie's comics also often had science fact filler pages as well.) The work came off as somewhat more literate and polite than other superhero comics – including DC's other, more familiar characters like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman – but more compelling as well; his "faith" in science as the cure for all our ills, especially in those days when the American establishment was officially waking up to the possibilities of science and announcing them to the public, gave his titles an oddly optimistic, progressive tone that was rarely found in other comics. (That they may not read like that now to those without a nostalgic attachment to them is only fitting – things are supposed to evolve – but compare them to what was available contemporaneously and the difference is notable.) JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA was more than just the official notice that superheroes were back, it was the comics whose sales prompted Atlas Comics publisher Martin Goodman to prompt Stan Lee to create a competing superhero team, which ended up being The Fantastic Four, cornerstones of what would soon be Marvel Comics. Prior to that, Stan would barely have ended up a footnote in comics history; due to Julie, he's practically the history of the last 40 years in himself.

    Of course, some may not think bringing back superheroes was a good course for comics, but, at the time, the industry was just looking to stay alive. The monomania that would eventually become the legacy of the Silver Age wasn't Julie's fault, but the fault of guys like me, who grew up reading and loving the comics Julie produced. Due to his success with The Flash et al, Julie was eventually brought in to revamp Batman for a new era, and though none of Batman's basics or history changed, the "New Look" Batman was a big success too. It was during Julie's reign that the BATMAN TV show temporarily catapulted comics back into the limelight, and during his reign that the collapse occurred, necessitating a second stylistic revamp, with Julie bringing in Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams (to whom he'd previously given the fading GREEN LANTERN title for a brief, spectacular, doomed run) to generate a darker, moodier Batman (which was ultimately had its apotheosis with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS). When SUPERMAN sales floundered in the late '60s and longtime SUPERMAN editor Mort Weisinger retired, it was Julie Schwartz who was brought in to modernize that character as well, though Superman ended up too bound in traditions to give Julie much room to move, and, after a brief spurt of creativity on the books, it settled into the same familiar patterns, eventually bringing back virtually everything Julie had dumped and phasing out every innovation he and his team had generated.

    Julie's mark wasn't only left via hero revamps. He oversaw a number of original creations, including The Elongated Man, who began as a serious character in THE FLASH before becoming more whimsical in his own backup series in DETECTIVE COMICS, where he also punctured a number of traditional superhero myths by not only getting married but revealing his true identity to the world, without notable repercussions. The magician Zatanna rotated through most of Julie's titles, searching for her missing father. Spacehopping archeologist Adam Strange, armed only with jetpacks, a raygun and a seemingly encyclopedic grasp of principles of science, epitomized more than any other hero Julie's tenet of scientific knowledge as superpower. Then there were the strangely pessimistic Atomic Knights, survivors of a devastated future America (who still used principles of science to try to pull the world back up from the mess science gone mad had made of it) and the truly weird STRANGE SPORTS STORIES, which seemed to exist mainly to satisfy DC's longstanding fetish for gorillas on covers, but which was a genuine attempt to create a new comics genre. Julie also helped build comics fandom by actively encouraging letters for his letter columns via "games" like asking readers to fantasy-cast FLASH or JUSTICE LEAGUE movies and giveaways of original scripts and art pages (this was back in the days when even comics artists thought their pages had no intrinsic worth, and never expected them returned; most editors just burned the stuff), and running full addresses of letter writers. His letter pages, which regularly sported names like Jerry Bails, Roy Thomas, Mike Friedrich, Paul Gambiccini and Irene Vartanoff, were the spawning ground of comics fandom as we know it.

    Yet Julie was also a dictatorial editor. He regularly dictated storylines, or, as was often the DC habit of the day, generated a cover and "forced" the writer to generate a cover to fit it. He was strict about art and more than willing to demand redrawing. He rewrote stories as a matter of course. Freelancers hate it when editors do these things today. But those were different times – the idea that comics might be a vehicle for personal expression hadn't yet caught on – and, unlike most editors with similar habits today, Julie had the benefit of knowing what he wanted, and a reputation for putting out comics people liked. He eventually retired to become DC's de facto good will ambassador, a role he obviously enjoyed, and if the last few years of his editorial career were relatively unexceptional, it wasn't like he had anything left to prove. There aren't many of us in any field who can say that field would've ended up a vastly different place had we not been there, but Julie could. He was more than the last of the great editors, and more than simply the father of the Silver Age. In very real ways, he was the Silver Age, and his influence is still being felt today (Grant Morrison's JLA run, for instance, was basically a modern upgrading of the Schwartz-Fox-Sekowsky style in JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA). Too often, though, it has been twisted into something it was never intended to be. Julie Schwartz's comics were, basically, about imagination and progress, but the mimicry of them has become empty and stagnant. As with Jack Kirby's comics (Jack died almost ten years to the day before Julie, give or take a day or three), those most dedicated to Julie's comics have fixated on the form, not the spirit of them.

    Julie Schwartz was the Silver Age, but the Silver Age died long before he did, and it's time to close the book on it once and for all. The world's a worse place for Julie no longer being in it, but there's no reason the spirit of his work can't live on, in new forms more appropriate to the age, while the body of that work is finally laid to rest. Julie was that era, but the era's over.


  • Another age draws to a close, as CEREBUS approaches its long-touted 300th (and final) issue. Meanwhile, David Lapham's STRAY BULLETS has also shut down as Lapham goes off to write BATMAN for DC, and Jeff Smith's BONE is also eyeing the end of its run.

    And the curtain closes on self-publishing as a viable alternative.

    Of course, there's still plenty of self-publishing going on, but when was the last time there was a breakout self-publishing venture? Can self-publishing even pay for itself anymore? Back in the late '70s, self-publishing was the coming thing, when books like Wendy & Richard Pini's ELFQUEST (since absorbed by DC), PORTIA PRINZ and CEREBUS were coming out, with CEREBUS' Dave Sim virtually the John The Baptist of self-publishing, encouraging everyone to get their own material out there with quasi-religious fervor. If there was a Jesus of self-publishing, fulfilling Dave's auguries, it was the two-headed Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, whose self-published TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (they couldn't get anyone else to publish it) spawned a small empire, which to this day continues to linger on. By the late '80s, self-publishing was in full bloom, with an attendant snobbery about an implied natural superiority of those who write, draw and publish their own books (preferably incorporating writer, artist and publisher into a single entity producing a unified vision), a bias eventually subtly codified into "The Creators' Bill Of Rights." (Such snobbery pops up regularly in comics fandom and prodom alike, as if being a singular creator was inherently superior to being a member of a team, or attempting to distinguish between "readers," "collectors" and "fans," as if one term or another connotes a natural superiority or inferiority, or as if there's something automatically better about reading any manga than a SUPERMAN comic or vice versa. But there's never any real rule of thumb; these are judgments that can only be made on a case-by-case basis. Anything else is mere bias.)

    But that was then. Many comics are still self-published, and Diamond still distributes many of them, but Diamond doesn't need them, they're buried in the bowels of PREVIEWS where retailers fear to tread, and no self-publishers apparently have the resources to balls out promote their books. Things might have been different had there remained something resembling competition in comics distribution, but that's not likely to come back until there's a hell of a lot more money to be made distributing comics. (Dave Sim once had the mad idea of distributing nationally via "paper boys," a vast network of fans who'd buy the comics then walk their local streets hawking them. Lots of movement on that one.) So you've got really good self-published comics like CHIAROSCURO, SHUCK, and CRAB ALLEN floundering for lack of notice or bopping off to some other publisher in the hopes of actually making a buck. You've got guys like Judd Winick abandoning his own creation, THE ADVENTURES OF BARRY WEEN, to write GREEN ARROW and THE OUTSIDERS. The main function of self-publishing in our business now is as a loss leader to promote yourself into a paying gig with Marvel, DC or some other company. Which, you know, isn't the worst use of self-publishing, but it's a far cry from the million brilliant independent visions Dave Sim once envisioned.

    So self-publishing now vestigially lingers on, but, with the conclusions of CEREBUS and BONE and the demise of STRAY BULLETS, its day seems to be done. End of an era. If it isn't, I'd be happy for someone to prove me wrong, but I haven't found that proof yet.


  • I just got an interesting note from Micah Wright, author of Wildstorm's STORMWATCH: TEAM ACHILLES and DC's forthcoming VIGILANTE. Seems I wrote a column a year or so ago – I vaguely remember it – that prompted him to push for new style (or old style, depending on your point of view) covers for his books, and he finally got one through.

    This comes at a time where several other people have mentioned a rising discontent among the readership over covers, specifically the poster covers Marvel and others have been using that are basically random pin-up shots that have nothing to do with the contents of the book. Micah's particular crusade was for what he calls "movie trailer covers," like Joe Kubert used to run all the time on books he edited like SGT. ROCK, where Rock has to gun down some Nazis before they chuck potato mashers his way, but someone's screaming at him that the Nazis are using kids as shields and Rock just can't kill kids. (That one'd never get over if DC's post-Columbine ban on kids in jeopardy is still in effect.) Those covers were terribly good at raising a question – mainly, how's Rock going to stop the Nazis without killing the kids? – that only reading the comic could answer.

    Which, after all, is what covers are supposed to do. They're the last chance point of purchase advertising for a comic. And, as I recall, that was my point: most comics covers aren't very effective. They just don't do their job.

    It's usually argued there's something inherently unsophisticated about word balloons on covers, which is what Micah finally succeeded in pushing through. That's sort of true. There was a time when word balloons appeared frequently on covers, and often injudiciously. A lot of badly written cover balloons led to a general perception that there was something dull and unsophisticated – juvenile – about comics that used them. As with most things, it's not the technique itself that's automatically good or bad, but the way it's used.

    Personally, I've always liked poster covers, but there's only one way to do them right. Such covers don't have to represent a specific scene is a book but they must at least represent the essential aspect of the series, so that anyone looking at a cover can understand what the book's about. Pin-up covers usually don't do that (unless the book's about pin-ups, of course).

    But there's even room for the occasional pin-up cover. There's no one way to do covers, because any cover style, even well-done but used incessantly, loses its power to attract. (Even gorillas on covers stopped selling comics for DC.) It becomes familiar, and you know what they say about familiarity and contempt. The problem is that this is a business where so many people just love ideas but have so few of them that once they get their hands on one they absolutely refuse to let go of it, and where nothing exceeds like success.

    It should be noted that the STORMWATCH: TEAM ACHILLES cover has more going for it than simply word balloons. The cover design evokes magazine more than comic book. The graphics are straightforward and dramatic. What dialogue there is is brief, sharp and to the point.

    It's an eyegrabber, with a bit of tease to get you interested. It's a good cover. Like Micah says, it's like a little movie trailer.

    But even this kind of cover would quickly become ineffective if repeated month after month and surrounded by a million other covers using the same techniques. What really makes it work is that it stands out from every other comic on the stands. Which, mostly, they don't do.

    So it doesn't come down to one cover style over another. What is comes down to is making covers carry the load they're supposed to be carrying and keeping them from becoming stale, and that takes imagination and variety.


  • Dan Brereton asked me to pass along some promo, which I usually don't do, but what's a little nepotism among friends. Seems Dan and Green Ronin Books are teaming up to produce a NOCTURNALS sourcebook, NOCTURNALS: A MIDNIGHT COMPANION, for Green Ronin's "Mutants and Masterminds" roleplaying game, with lots of new art by Dan and guys like Phil Noto and Alex Ross. Look for it at the Atlanta Comic Con in April, which will also have a NOCTURNALS costume contest.

    From Montreal, for those of you who were wondering about the viability of graphic novels-only shops:

    "I'm the new and proud owner of F52 a bookstore located in Montreal, specializing in graphic novels only. For the past 5 years, we've mostly been promoting French European graphic novels – not the European "album" but rather graphic literature published in book form by what should be considered alternative editorial structures (L'Association, FRMK, Atrabile, etc) -- recently adding English books to our great selection (Fantagraphics, D&Q, Highwaterbooks). Make a note: no Tintin, no Asterix, no men in tights.

    I won't lie to you, we're not pilling up the money, but we've been open for 5 years in a very competitive and very small market and looking forward to another 5 years. The market is indeed pretty small, reflecting the US market I'd say, thus the absolute necessity to bring in new readers.

    Being located in Montreal does have the advantage of being able to cater to the needs of a population that for the most part understands both languages. Our clientele is composed of a curious bunch, people walking by the store that get hooked on something they had never seen before. Most of the people that come through the door are actually wondering in what universe they've just stepped into. And that's where our job begins.

    In order to get these people to buy a book and hopefully come back and bring a friend, we need to make sure to inform them properly and direct them to an appropriate title. As I always say, there's a book for everyone but not any book, the mindblowing book that will open up the minds of the unsuspecting crowd. Let's never forget, sequential art is a new language for the new reader, you don't want to scare them off but don't think they're dumb either.

    Oh and a shocker: at least 50% of our business is generated by a female audience.

    It's kinda crazy... but somehow it works."

    If anyone heading to Montreal – potential customers, other retailers, the merely curious – wants to check out the shop, it's called F52, at 4826 St-Denis.

    The other letter of the week asks a number of questions with wider applicability, so I thought I'd answer it here:

    "1.) With the recent advent of the fleshing out of the superhero genre, with books like SUPER HERO HAPPY HOUR, PLANETARY, ASTRO CITY, etc., how does a guy that likes to write about superheroes make a spot for himself? (My guess is start in another genre; by the way, I read about your reading faves - I agree, George Pelecanos is great.)"

    I don't know that beginning in another genre matters one way or another, but certainly broadening your skills by working with other genres can't hurt. If you're looking to sell a superhero book these days, your main markets will be Marvel and DC, and about all you can really do is be as original as you can be while generating a strong concept that fills some gap you perceive in their publishing scheme. Then hope you get lucky. I think the books you named are an indicator: while all use aspects familiar to superhero readers, all use them in unexpected, unfamiliar ways. Oh, being talented doesn't hurt either.

    "2.) What are your favorite comics? Nothing genre specific, just good old fashioned funny book preferences."

    Boy, these days I'm not sure I have any. PLANETARY's still up there, and 100 BULLETS, but the things I like tend not to come out regularly, so it's hard to fixate on them. I like a lot of the comics I read, but I don't love many of them. Of what's on sale at the moment, I've got a soft spot for FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP and MY FLESH IS COOL and I'm looking forward to seeing Vivid Comics, but that's only natural, and way too narcissistic.

    "3.) I heard a rumor that you were going to be at the Emerald Con in Washington later this month. If you were there, what are the chances that an up and comer might get a modest portfolio of writing samples looked at? (if not on either account, so be it.)"

    Don't know where that one came from. I haven't been to the Northwest since I moved out of there in 2000, and have no current plans to go there anytime soon. And I have to say there's a pretty good chance I'd read a comic, self-published or otherwise, if you left it with me, but pretty much zero chance I'd read any unpublished manuscripts. My lawyer tends to frown on that.

    For the fencesitters out there, by the way, here are links to new reviews of MY FLESH IS COOL and MORTAL SOULS. Everybody loves them so why don't you? (Hmm... that'd make a good country-western song... time to get out the guitar...)

    And a big, belated Thank You! to Richard Starkings for the great computer fonts. I love 'em!


  • This is what gets me about anthologies: it's really hard to get them right. SHOOTING STAR COMICS ANTHOLOGY #3 ($4.95) don't come far from it, but makes elementary mistakes that tend to be opaque to comics-familiar audiences. J. Morgan Neal & Todd Fox's "Aym Geronimo" tends to be the most impressive running feature in SSCA, but this episode falls flat, cramming in introductions to a horde of characters while somehow never really explaining atually going on, and writing the villain like we've already seen him a million times. Maybe we have, but SSCA doesn't come out often enough for stories to depend on audience memories. Likewise, Scott McCullar's "Thrill Seeker Comics," a pulp pastiche, becomes a confusion of details while supposing the overall picture is clear, but neither the situations nor the characters are ever made interesting enough to be a hook. Paradoxical flaws abound. Jon Hook and Sinclair Elliot's "Wilde Magick: Ritual Of The Fierce Wolf" crams so much into so little space that neither plot nor characters are given a chance to develop, giving the story a rote abbreviated feel, while Scott Rogers' "Bedbug," about a bouncing superhero drags out a situation – he's trying to convince a girl not to kill herself – with an origin story that, when it comes down to it, isn't very germane to anything. J. Morgan Neal, Gregg Noon, Keiran McKeown and Michelle Coulter's '30s adventure "Rex Solomon" also feels like we're coming in at the middle and never really explains itself – additionally, some of the action's kind of clunky – but at least has the benefit of a good punchline. The anthology ends on up notes, though, with Sean Taylor, Loraine Sammy & Luis Alonso's "Passing In The Night," a superhero comic that transforms into a romance tearjerker, with the sort of romantic twist Stan used to put in his comics, and Scott Hileman, Chris Franklin & Ethan Colchamiro's one-shot western "Looking For Lou" is pleasantly clever, with a twist that's obvious – once you get it. I don't want to make it sound like SHOOTING STAR COMICS ANTHOLOGY #3 is a disaster, because it's not. Overall the dialogue's okay, and the art (except for "Bedbug" – sorry, but Scott Rogers is just not an artist) is pretty good; there's a lot of potential there. SHOOTING STAR COMICS ANTHOLOGY remains one of the best anthologies you're likely to find from small independents, but that's really the problem: it remains one of the best anthologies you're likely to find from small independents.

    I'm starting to feel like Simon Cowell here. I vaguely remember the first "midi-comics" (not quite minicomics, not quite full-sized) issue of TALES OF THE URBAN MYSTICS (Flying Turtle Entertainment, 142 Chartier St., Marine City MI 48039), and I see with their second issue they've gone standard comics format. By Dan Trudeau and Rich Halpin, it's set on an Earth where magic came back into force with the 20th century, and now economic and occult power's concentrated in the invented city of New Kadath, where a female FBI agent with apparently little experience with these things has been sent, and has gotten caught up with a renegade mystic out to... well, it really isn't clear what he's out to. Something about the evil businessman who holds all the real power in New Kadath. There are a lot of comics out there that begin with really claustrophic premises. This is one of them and it isn't helped by some very mediocre, often overrendered art. (Characters' faces look too much like they've been slept on all night.) There's something going on about a missing girl, and the characters wander blissfully from inescapable trap to inescapable trap, and there's simultaneously too much going on, and not enough to make it interesting. There's something about the series so far that makes me want to like it, but it hasn't yet shelled out enough to get me there.


    Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me 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.

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    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.

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