Permanent Damage: Issue #259

Wed, August 30th, 2006 at 12:00am PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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  • THIS WEEK:
    BOOKISH: the new marriage of comics and libraries
    A FISTFUL OF REVIEWS: the revenge of the little guys
    BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE: Goodbye, Geneva!
    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS: Pelecanos, The Wire, fragment fiction, more

  • A couple weeks ago, I was a guest speaker at a librarian's conference, as part of a panel (with the librarian who put it together and a distributor specializing in library sales) on "graphic novels in libraries." Curious experience. Even as I mounted the podium for my 15 minute chat, I really had no idea what I was supposed (or going) to say.

    Not that I'm a complete novice at these things. I've done enough convention panels, and Bill Willingham, James Hudnall and I occasionally go around to local libraries to talk with (mainly) kids about creating comics. Still, public speaking's not my favorite thing, and this was a very different crowd. But they do represent forces comics creators and publishers should start taking into account.

    Libraries are a relatively new thing in the comics world, and, like most new things in comics, are largely held suspect. The fact is that, as much as everyone talks about the necessity of carving out new markets, most comics fans, distributors, sellers, publishers and, yes, even creators don't really want new markets - except those that might support a status quo that was decrepit years ago. Though there have been some accommodations to libraries - anyone who thinks all those $50 hardback "archive" editions everyone's putting out now are aimed at consumers are out of their minds, and, in fact, librarians do love products that play to their archivalistic tendencies - I guess this sense that many in comics view libraries as a potentially undesirable alien influence.

    Which is kind of funny because, sure, all librarians know MAUS, but they all know BATMAN too. The "mainstream" (meaning superhero) fans and publishers tend to frame all debate in terms of superheroes v. everything else, with the recurring interpretation that anyone suggesting a broader range of material is calling for a full out frontal assault on superhero comics. From what I've seen, librarians seem to love superhero comics, if not for themselves then for kids who superhero comics attract into libraries. There are librarians who love comics themselves, and there are many more who may not be personally interested in comics (except as a phenomenon) but who feel they'll best serve their communities by including graphic novels (and outside our rarified ranks everything from Tijuana bibles to Marvel Essentials collections is called "a graphic novel") in their stacks.

    A few things became apparent in the course of my talk and the subsequent exchange.

    1) Our longstanding self-image as unjustly shunned outsiders sustaining nobly in the face of persecution from an ignorant society at large that will not grasp the glory of the graphic story form is pretty much shot to hell. There's a lot of interest in comics out there, from all directions.

    2) We're really bad at letting the public in general understand what we do. These were smart people I was talking to, and many of them had trouble grasping salient points of the collaborative nature of our work. There's a widespread perception (not entirely inaccurate these days, at least where Marvel and DC are concerned) that it's the companies that generate the stories and writers and artists are brought in simply to realize a corporate vision. The rationales behind decisions by publishers are hard for them to understand, since they have neither a historical or cultural context for them. (I explained to one woman, not a librarian but a schoolteacher who wants to use comics in her curriculum but is unable to find many that will pass muster in that environment, that American publishers basically publish what they think will do best in the direct market, which is a superhero market, and they will only become truly willing to service other markets, like the educational market, when they become convinced that it's a stable and profitable one, so it becomes a Catch-22 for everyone involved: publishers won't service the school market until it exists, and it can't exist until they publish for it. And the only way to get it there, aside from some publisher taking a leap of faith, is to support existing material that fits that market strongly enough that publishers will think there's money to be made there. Another librarian was confused by single issues with continued stories in them, wondering if she can pick up, say, #2 of something and be able to understand the story, and whether publishers make the first issue of that something available as back stock if they want to get it. Of course, they don't, usually, and the object, as I explained, is to get you to buy the subsequent trade paperback "graphic novel" collecting the material to get the whole story, and many publishers (I specified Marvel, but they're hardly alone) have whole publishing plans based of the quick arrival of trade collections.

    3) Our vision of the comics medium as our own little playground is hurting us. Librarians are about the last group in the world interested in anything resembling censorship, but they also are beholden to their own communities, and they fret a lot about what crosses what line. Of major concern to many librarians are excesses we could easily get by, if we abandoned the notion that the medium and the art of comics are somehow improved by being a boys' club of unfettered pandering to our own basest instincts. Mainly characterized by triple-E cups and degrading male-dominated sexual content. Strange as it may sound, apparently girls, a large portion of the library comics audience, don't like things like that. Which might be grounds for schism right there, since, apparently, many artists seem to be attracted to comics not to tell stories but to indulge those particular fantasies. No librarian I spoke with wanted to tell anyone not to create that kind of material, but its sheer prevalence, often in apparently comics where it doesn't seem appropriate, bothers a lot of them. And it's particularly bothersome because while they may be able to read through the books and see other aspects to the material, the superiors they answer to - often older libraries who still remember when comics were anathema in libraries except in historical texts and are difficult to convince they're a good idea now - aren't likely to see beyond what's right there on the surface. This is a challenge many librarians face, and we don't make it any easier for them.

    But libraries, eager to spend more and more money on comics and graphic novels because there are more and more kids, teenagers and adults eager to read them, may be pivotal to the long term survival of the medium. As I've mentioned before, if we want new audiences, libraries may be our best shot at getting them. Comics publishers have put a lot of emphasis on Hollywood in the last few years, but the number of people who buy BATMAN or AMAZING SPIDER-MAN is miniscule compared, respectively, to the audiences for BATMAN BEGINS or SPIDER-MAN 2. Only a tiny fraction of people who watch a movie or see a TV show based on a comic book bother to go read that comic book. In theory, everyone who checks a graphic novel out of a library reads that graphic novel, and it's reading comics, not watching media based on comics, that convinces people to read comics. Libraries, if approached properly, could mean the difference between life and death for small comics publishers, who have far easier ways to interest librarians to stock their books than to interest retailers to do the same thing. Library sales on a national basis can add tens of thousands of copies to a graphic novel's sales. And these are tens of thousands of copies that an audience generally not reached by Diamond or by comics shops will get to read. (Some of them will even go buy their own copies.)

    The upshot is that libraries, and their readers, are now hungry for good comics material. For decades, fans have been talking about "comics going mainstream." You can stop dreaming of it now. They have. The problem is that the business, trapped in its own little world, isn't adjusting to meet the demand. Meanwhile, "real" book publishers (who've got their own fingers in libraries and who have depended on library sales for many of their books for years) are, tentatively but with increasing confidence as their efforts find success. Not surprisingly, their product swings toward educational material, or alt-comics, if often too far and too obsessively; no one yet has developed a "full service" comics/graphic novel line.

    But what all this means is that the American comics industry now timidly stands on another cusp, at a moment when timidity is arguably not the best course. Which isn't to say all our efforts have got to go toward the library market, but that all-or-nothing mentality has got to go too. On one side of the cusp, if we can adapt, are years of new success, much wider audiences and smarter, more literate material. On the other, if we can't... well, that's nothing we haven't seen far too often before.

  • A Fistful Of Reviews:

    From Dakuwaka:

    FORCE 51 by Shawn Lewis & Pietro ($2.99)

    Visually, this book is a cut above many small press comics, with open and fairly stable artwork, enhanced by what seems to be a strong Kevin Nowlan influence. In other words, it actually passes for attractive on many pages, something I'm not all that used to from small comics publishers. The story, set in 1951 and featuring a secret military squadron hosted at Groom Lake and including samurai, Russian vampires and various other mystery men and secret agents, also tries to pass, but it's just too familiar, too inclusive of too many gimmicks and the characters too comics-standard cookie cutter to be very interesting. Jamming a dozen different familiar elements together just isn't enough to lend them novelty. Dialogue's pretty good overall, but the introductory captions in the first half are way too cute and self-aware; they're really distracting.

    From Archaia Studio Press:

    ROBOTIKA #4 by Alex Sheikman ($3.95)

    The good news is that Sheikman's art and storytelling keep getting better and better. The bad news is that the story he's telling isn't much of a story at all. Cypher characters roam a landscape that shifts from incoherently dispatched menace to incoherently dispatched menace, lobbing familiarities (a soul eating demon, pseudo-kung fu movie "cosmic" pronouncements) like hand grenades, without hook or drama. It's easy to believe Sheikman's loving drawing the book, but pretty difficult to accept that even he cares about the story. Once again for art lovers only.

    ARTESIA BESIEGED #1 by Mark Smylie ($3.95)

    ARTESIA's the sort of heroic fantasy comic Crossgen always aspired to but never had the conviction to pull off: saturated in a pagan otherworldiness that's hard to describe. This issue's mostly waiting, as the warrior heroine Artesia and her army prepare for attack from an empire, but the dialogue and tone is note perfect for this sort of material and Smylie's art conveys both emotion and milieu with total conviction (his inability to draw noses gets a bit grating, though). As heroic fantasy goes, this remains among the best comics has to offer.

    From Heroic Publishing:

    LIBERTY GIRL #1 by Dennis Mallonee & Mark Sparacio ($3.25)

    Comics for people who just can't get enough of 1970s' superhero comics. This one brings back a '40s "America's Sweetheart" style heroine, complete with a monstrous Nazi villain, with lots of ellipses and dangling plot threads. It's standard stuff, but I suspect the purpose of comics like these is to feed the audience that likes standard stuff. It's okay.

    From Ferret Press:

    PANEL: MUSIC & PANEL: LUCK by Ferret Studios ($3.00@)

    PANEL remains of the more adventurous mini-comics (for lack of a better term), sometimes trying to create comics that double as artifacts. So MUSIC shaped like an old 7" record sleeve to match the theme, but the real draw is that the level of work has jumped considerably since the last issue I saw, and the vignettes, mainly built around how different people experience music, are nice attempts, though, curiously, it's Dara Naraghi's photoessay on a New Zealand rock festival that works best. LUCK is more standard, with more standard if somewhat better crafted stories, and though some of the art slips, most is of pretty good quality. Unfortunately, I can't find credits for the best two pieces, but they're the final stories in the collection. PANEL has stepped up its game. Check it out.

    And just like that, I'm out of time again. Look for a Labor Day mini-extravaganza wrapping up the independent comics reviews.

  • You probably aren't aware of it - as usual, the American news media (which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld now bemoans as being inordinately manipulated by "the terrorists") doesn't find it sexy enough to talk about - but the White House is in a full court press to liberate America from the Geneva Convention. On the heels of the Supreme Court judging that Administration actions during the "war on terror" violate both the Geneva Conventions and the 1996 US War Crimes Act, not to mention Amnesty International wanting to go after the instigators of the recent Israeli run into Lebanon (the Hand Puppet reputedly was prodding the Israelis with a stick for weeks before the invasion) due to the casualty-heavy shelling of mostly Christian parts of northern Lebanon known to have nothing to do with Hezbollah, the Administration has ordered the Justice Department to draw up "adjustments" to both the War Crimes Act and the Geneva Conventions. Seems even the Attorney General, apparently reading the material for the first time, can see grounds for many top Administration officials being accused of war crimes in the wake of Iraq and other little adventures.

    Keep in mind that the issue, so far, isn't whether they've committed war crimes, but whether there's sufficient grounds to justify trials for war crimes. The latter would determine the former. Understandably, that's not a precedent the Administration would like to see established, especially not when they're out there promoting the principle of an unanswerable imperial presidency on every other front. (When VP Cheney recently told a veterans group that higher courts would throw out the ruling that the Administration's warrantless wiretap program was unconstitutional, he said it with such vehemence and certainty it sounded like he knew something.)

    Here's what they want "adjusted":

    American officials, whether civilian or military, will be exempt from prosecution for violation of the Convention prohibiting torture. (Despite the recent, highly touted "McCain amendment," which the Hand Puppet immediately functionally voided, at least from his POV, as he signed it into law anyway.)

    The Geneva Conventions, and their protections, will no longer be recognized by American courts and cannot be applied to American jurisprudence.

    Here's the kicker: the changes are intended to be retroactive. No word yet on how retroactive, but presumably extending far enough into the past that no Administration figure arguably involved in a) torturing of prisoners or b) aggressive wars with high civilian casualty rates can ever be brought to trial for such things. As a legal principle, the "retconning" of international law is on par with the Administration deciding that watching SEINFELD is punishable by death and declaring it not only applies to those who watch SEINFELD from now on, but also to anyone who ever watched SEINFELD. So much for the principle of "ex post facto," but, then, that's not really a principle they can afford. As Cheney once said, "principles are great, but they're not much good when you're losing."

    This is being pushed before Congress before the November elections possibly create a shift in power. (If you can believe polls, there are a lot more shaky Republican incumbents than previously expected.) Considering it wasn't long ago Congress passed the McCain Amendment to specifically curtail the behavior these "adjustments" would tacitly vindicate, it might make for an interesting fight, if Congress has any fight left in it.

  • Notes from under the floorboards:

    Everything seems in status as August crawls to a close: media, comics, politics. One bright light: George Pelecanos' new novel, THE NIGHT GARDENER, about three disparate cops reuniting during a flare-up of a 20 year old unsolved serial killer case. I'm only a third of the way through, but so far it hits all of Pelecanos' high spots (complex but unforced plotting, characters who feel like real people, a worldview that's dark but not bleak) and few of his weak spots (the interpersonal relations in his last couple novels have tread precariously close to schmaltz, but he's avoiding that here). Good reading. So far.

    Pelecanos is also a writer-producer on HBO's THE WIRE, making a surprise return on Sunday, Sept 10 (9P) after having been cancelled after its third season a couple years ago. (For those who haven't been watching, THE WIRE followed a squad of Baltimore cops on special duty to bring down various rackets, and they spend as much time fighting politicians and their own departments as they do tracking down the bad guys.) I'm of mixed feelings, because, while it's one of my favorite shows, the final episode of Season 3 tied up all the characters' stories so well it's kind of gut-wrenching to have them yanked back into the show. But we'll see. One truly interesting angle: the show actually begins on Monday, Sept 4 on HBO's On Demand service. (I don't know what the details are elsewhere, but here it's free to HBO customers.) HBO has traditionally made its originally programming available to On Demand customers the day after it first airs, and this is the first time to my knowledge that a show will debut on On Demand. Is this the wave of the future?

    A bit I wrote last week out of the blue, without planning it:

    By now, Haridon was howling so loud and shrill I wondered if I maybe I shouldn't punch him out to quiet him down some. Bad enough when a man screams like a little girl, but when it's a cop, and a cop like Haridon used to doling it out, it's pure embarrassing. I hadn't even worked on him, not really, just broke his legs a little to keep him in one place.

    But you never know how people will behave. Had this one once, looked a meek little twig that would snap like that, but he never opened his mouth the whole time, even when his fingers came out. Sure, he snapped a breath and jerked a lot, and now and then a whimper escaped out his nose. That's reflex, you can't hold that against anyone. But not a word. It was refreshing, in a way. He impressed me.

    Didn't make him less dead, but he impressed me.

    Haridon impressed me too, briefly. I only met him the once, years ago, in passing. Not so much as a flicker in his eyes that day to show I even registered. But when he saw me coming, he knew me name and all instantly. It's not what you expect from someone like him. On the street they call him Hard-on, though not to his face. He wouldn't have laughed. Ask the girls up on Fremont, it wasn't much of a joke anyway. For them he was the price of doing business. Till tonight, not that I pretend it matters. It's like paperboys, lose one and another's right there to pick up the slack.

    Copyright me now, of course, all rights reserved. Funny thing is I had no idea what it was for when I started it, and now, a few days later, I know. A work in progress. Stay tuned.

    Congratulations to Scott Eaton, the first of many who correctly identified last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme. You know him, you hate him, comics' greatest supervillain ever: Hitler! Man, if you go by comics, the old paperhanger's practically a cottage industry in himself. (Hmmm... I just realized, by Internet standards does invoking Hitler mean the Comics Cover Challenge has completely run out of steam?) Anyway, Scott wants to big a corporate shill for his bosses, the great Minneapolis bookstore chain Shindler's, which is one of the few things I remember fondly from my days in the Midwest. But here's the thing: if you click on that link (the name Shindler's in the previous sentence) you'll be taken to Shindler's contest page. Until August 31st, the prize is a set of books by cartoonist Jim Woodring. When September comes? Find out then; there's a new contest every month.

    Scattered throughout the column are the covers for this week's Comics Cover Challenge. Seven comics, one secret theme connecting them. Be the first one to tell me what it is in an email, and you can promote any website of your choice here. (We reserve right of approval, but that hasn't been an issue so far.) Normally I plant a clue somewhere in the column, and I'd do that this week, but off the top of my head I can't think of one. Good luck.

    By the way, Chris Ryall over at IDW dropped me a reminder that the new CSI miniseries, DYING IN THE GUTTERS (featuring guest appearances by a whole slew of popular comics pros, plus the shocking demise of a CBR columnist), will be in stores today. A five issue mini-series. Go get it.

    Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

    TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

    IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

    HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

    The store now also has a selection of graphic novels and other material available. Take a look.

    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.

    IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

    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.

    The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, 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.

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