Permanent Damage

Thu, January 3rd, 2008 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

"I think what has happened to comics is a kind of diagram of what must happen to artists and creative people in a society where things have to be produced that cost a lot of money, and that need a lot of machinery to produce them, and that need a very complicated distribution system. It's almost inevitable that the artist, who is the fountain, who is the original impulse for all this product, it's inevitable that he should become an employee, because of that almost irreconcilable conflict between the people who are putting money into it and producing the object and the individuals who are creating it. And because of the dominance of the economic power, the artist has to be a vassal, just an instrument. Now frequently an artist is able to get through all the interstices and the unfilled cracks in the system, and then their work... will create a sensation. But as soon as it becomes part of the distribution system, as soon as the wheels start locking together and everything works smoothly from the production and distribution point of view, then the [replacement artists who can produce the work the way the system wants it done] become important. Because they can manufacture the products, they can manufacture what's needed. So every now and then a great system, like Hollywood, will permit an individual, a brilliant creative person, to inject a little lifeblood into it, and then, all too often, that person is crushed... whether he's aware of it or not. The only way to confront this kind of situation is for individuals to be permitted to produce their own stuff. And Hollywood, for example, allowed individuals to work, and there was a little renaissance of movies. The European studios, when they had small budget pictures, because the total control was in the hands of individuals, were able to produce good things. But as soon as this thing reaches a wide market, as soon as it becomes a marketable commodity, the creative person is no longer needed. He doesn't fulfill any important function in this great engine. This is my pessimistic view of the situation of the artist in our society, and I don't know how that problem can be solved."

- Bernie Krigstein, during a 1978 Newcon panel discussion, as transcribed by Greg Sadowski, published in SQUA TRONT #10.

Wrapping up the 2007 book trade:

Speaking of SQUA TRONT, it remains the epitome of a really good fanzine, produced by people who are intellectually curious and realistic yet still passionate about their subject; three issues are still available from Fantagraphics, with lots of informative interviews and cool art from people connected to EC Comics (Al Feldstein, Harvey Kurtzman, and John Severin leap to mind, but that's just scratching the surface) and plenty of articles about a very volatile era in comics history. (Ain't they all?) All of them are highly recommended; I receive a lot of magazine, but SQUA TRONT I keep. (And, no, THE COMICS JOURNAL is not the epitome of a good fanzine, since these days it's more the industry equivalent of THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, and occupies a different space in the continuum.)

BACK ISSUE #25 (from TwoMorrows Publishing; Michael Eury, editor) discusses lots of mainstream characters that are in one way or another cyborgs or robots – Iron Man, the Six Million Dollar Man, Steel, etc. – as well as Warlord, Super Friends, and other topics unrelated to the cover theme. As usual, it's a pleasant mix of articles and interviews (Mike Grell, Rich Buckler, Barry Windsor-Smith and a lot more) and tons of art, much previously unpublished. I wasn't bowled over by the theme but it still had tons of information I never knew before. Almost always worth a read. Also out from TwoMorrows are the books MODERN MASTERS VOL 14: FRANK CHO by Eric Nolen-Wethington and SILVER AGE SCI-FI COMPANION by Mike Barr. Interest in the Cho book will vary with interest in Cho's work, but there's a long, informative interview with Cho and some very nice art. (Oddly, the cover looks like something out of Gilbert Hernandez.) The title of Barr's book is something of a misnomer; it's technically about the science fiction comics edited by Julius Schwartz (STRANGE ADVENTURES and MYSTERY IN SPACE), or rather a subset of those published from 1956 on. I can understand why they went with the superhero-centric definition of "Silver Age," but it seems to me the changes in the DC house style that flowered with the much earlier '50s arrival of comics like PHANTOM STRANGER and STRANGE ADVENTURES were the real demarcation between Golden and Silver ages (if you keep things DC-centric, as the fans who first started talking about "the Golden Age" generally did, and ignore separate '50s developments like EC Comics)and this was the perfect place to make that argument. But pre-'56 Julie Schwartz sci-fi comics and comics from other DC editors get only passing mention. (The long-running Captain Comet and Space Ranger strips are blown off with little more than a nod, and I don't remember Jack Kirby's science fiction-inflected CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN, or any non-DC science fiction comics of the era even being mentioned, while significant space is given to the very short-lived western strip Super-Chief.) I realize I'm making a lot of the title, but it's sort of a bait-and-switch; a real study of Silver Age sci-fi comics has yet to be produced. On the other hand, if you dig Adam Strange, the Atomic Knights, Space Museum and Star Hawkins – I grew up reading them, and am still fond of them – it's the book for you. But I recently had the opportunity to reread dozens of issues of STRANGE ADVENTURES and MYSTERY IN SPACE, and for all the vaunted legend of Julie's emphasis on real science in his science fiction comics, the resolutions of a huge number of stories rest on spurious science, really suspect logic (typically, in what's cited here as a contender for title of the greatest Adam Strange story, "The Planet That Came To A Standstill," Adam wins the day by leaping to the obviously hairbrained conclusion that because Superman is weakened by Kryptonite, an irradiated substance from his exploded home planet of Krypton, a villain named Kanjar Ro, who has also gained vast superpowers pretty much nothing like Superman's, will be weakened by an unirradiated metal from his unexploded home planet of Dhor, Dhorite; miraculously, and because there are only three pages left in the issue, it works) or people abruptly getting "hunches" that pan out or just plain getting lucky in the nick of time. The book tries to build a case that these stories are somehow important developments in the history of comics – and the writing's breezy enough that reading about them is fun, and the book's certainly worth a read – but, really, they're little more than footnotes, their main importance being to allow the styles of artists like Carmine Infantino and Gil Kane to mature, and to set the modes that Schwartz would develop into his line of superhero comics, which would be the most influential comics of the era until Stan Lee kicked into gear a few years later.

I've had the 2007 TRIPWIRE ANNUAL sitting around here for ages, and if SQUA TRONT is the epitomal great fanzine, TRIPWIRE is pretty much what every slick semi-prozine aspires to; on newsstands, it would be easy to mistake this for a comics-heavy issue of EMPIRE or Q. The approach reflects those magazines as well: lots of talent interviews with the likes of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Matt Groening, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Cornell, etc., clean graphic design, and a sort of respectfully cheeky tone that tries to suggest the magazine's producers are as hip and irreverent as their audience but that the material covered is worthy of attention. For the most part it works. Worth a look.

Apart from their manga series (wait, I just realized they're no longer sending me their manga, those bastards) Del Rey Books is also beginning graphic novel adaptations of Terry Brooks' very popular heroic series set in the elf-tortured land of Shannara. Personally, while I still have a fondness for Howardesque sword and sorcery I really hate pseudo-medieval pseudo-Tolkien material – in the immortal words of David Byrne, I wouldn't live there if they paid me – but the adaptation, by Robert Place Napton and Edwin David, is pretty good, much better than equivalent current material from most other publishers. Napton knows not to overwrite the material, a common error when adapting from prose, and David's work, which reminds me of Tom Sutton's better work, likewise gives the characters and world credibility by not going overboard depicting them. It's not enough to get me to read more of Brooks' novels, but it's good enough to interest me in the next adaptation.

Under the heading of "A for effort, C for execution" falls Jemir Robert Johnson's crime collection, 5 SHOTS (Creative Elamentz Studios). Consisting of half a dozen short stories involving a male-female detective team, the writing's pretty good – Johnson doesn't get corny or unnatural with his street speak, and while the stories and the main characters could use a little more focus to make them stand out (though the woman is fleshed out some in her final solo story, which is arguably the most complete story in the book – but what sabotages the thing is the art; of all the artists, only Luis Sierra on the first story has a clean, appealing style with consistently recognizable characters, though Bill Young's sketchy, unfinished style on the second and fourth stories has its appeal too. The rest is just too amateurish, not the work of people who can't draw as those who just need a lot more practice at it. Unfortunately, a published book isn't the place to practice. Overall, though, not bad.

EVERYMAN #1 (Lowkey Comics) is a choppy effort, the first chapter of Justin Crouse's tale of an alienated garbage man's breakdown. The set-up's a little stretched – his wife's a local TV star, just to grind the indignity of his failure to be the family breadwinner in a little more. The art's not bad – at least Crouse has already developed a decent, identifiable style – but I was just getting into the suburban angst shtick – the hero fails suicide after suicide – and it suddenly goes all superhero on me. I know that's supposed to be the hook, but it leaves me cold.

Charles Burns' creepy, allegorical BLACK HOLE has been reprinted in high end paperback by Pantheon Books. I've raved this book up before as one of the best graphic novels in print; never have the mysteries of adolescence and sex in modern America been so unnerving and strange. If you haven't read it, you need to. Go get it.

Larry Young's bizarre highway fantasy, THE BLACK DIAMOND, published by his own AiT/PlanetLar Books, set in a near-future America linked by a national superhighway but torn apart by paranoia and new tribalism, roars to its conclusion in #6. With its frequently elliptical non sequitur dialogue style, screenplay captions and Jon Proctor's pop art throwback artwork – those are descriptions, not criticisms – it's less the paean to drive-in movies Young claims it is and more his paean to Brian Wood's work. But it's also adventurous and innovative, and there aren't many comics you can say that about these days. Young and Proctor have maybe left themselves a little too much story to wrap up here, and the story ends in an ellipse, inviting the reader to fill in the gap, but seeing as how the entire series is predicated on the ellipse, the unfulfilled moment, the puzzle without easy solution, it's fitting that it dies as it lived. Not that there isn't room for more BLACK DIAMOND material. It's good.

AiT-PlanetLar also publishes Matt Silady's the homeless channel, which also seems to borrow a lot from Brian Wood, especially Wood's post-cyberpunk fixation on the interface of politics and technology. A cable network starts up to expand public consciousness of political issues by basically turning the lives of the homeless into reality TV. Tellingly, the homeless are barely in the story; it's more about self-congratulatory gits effortlessly slipping into the system they start out trying to subvert. The art's pretty good, looking mainly like photos Photoshopped down to line drawings; the dialogue's better. Don't know if Silady's got much in the line of other credits, but if this doesn't count as a promising launch, nothing does.

Got to admit, I've kind of missed Mike Baron's THE BADGER, and it's good to see he's got a new home at IDW. The first issue is pretty typical "drop the baby in the deep end of the pool" Badger, rapidly bringing the reader up to speed both on the essential facts of the Badger's existence (he's a half-insane martial artist who works with an ancient druid and a therapist, and here he's hunting down a terrorist who uses dogs as suicide bombers, and anything more than that is window dressing provided as we go along) and bumping the story along at a rapid page. Lots of action of the frequently semi-random sort Baron enjoys, and it's a lot of fun. A caveat: the series needs better art. Current artist Kevin Caron draws in the style of original series artist Jeffrey Butler, and while that might warm the hearts of old school Badger fans, it pretty much locks the book in as an '80s throwback; it's jarring after the terrific, modern cover work of David Messina, which may be the best the character has ever looked. It would be nice to see the character stick around for awhile – we could use Baron's gonzo ethic now – but I fear it'll take much stronger art to do it.

Time to give the office a good New Year's cleaning. Anything I find while wiping out the sprawling piles will be covered in a couple weeks.

Politically, we seem to be in the calm before the storm, with everyone momentarily playing nice (and Mike Huckabee showing just appalling – damn near Reaganesque, in fact, and maybe that's what he's going for – political sense in proclaiming his wholehearted support for striking Hollywood writers on the one hand and crossing picket lines to be a talking head on The Jay Leno Show on the other) as we slide toward the Ohio caucuses this week and the New Hampshire primaries next week, with the top three Democratic candidates still neck-in-neck, as are the top seven or eight Republican candidates. Everything else seems to be in a lull in the meantime, business as usual, with the CIA refusing Congress access to their data on 9-11, nothing much changing in Iraq, the Pakistani government stating that Bhutto's assassination merits postponement of elections there, the Ghost's administration quietly loosening restrictions on selling American military tech to the Chinese, etc. Next week the kettle should boil over as most candidates scamper to spin their stunning losses into "moral victories," as Gorilla Monsoon would say, and it's unlikely the campaign season will be effectively over by next Wednesday, despite the press harping on the theoretical possibility as though it were fait accompli.

One thing's for sure: Ron Paul is this year's closest thing to Howard Dean, in terms of his being able to rope in a lot of very rabid workers who, in their admirable desire to shake up politics in America and tear it from the hands of corporate interests who apparently have an unseemly amount of influence in the halls of power, seem perfectly willing to look away from his less savory aspects. Barely a week goes by that I don't get an email from some Ron Paul backer asking if I've considered him. I have, and have rejected him. His broad message – rip control of the country out of the hands of the bought and paid for thieves and scoundrels in Washington who want nothing more than to steal your money from him – is populist appealing, but the devil is in the details. I'm not sure returning to a pre-Civil War political structure where the federal government has negligible power and states are free to make all their decisions on their own is of much benefit to anyone, and as far as getting rid of national taxation of any kind goes (Paul's political ads have stated he intends to replace the current tax system with nothing at all, leaving rather open the question of how the government's going to pay for anything... and the implication is that it's not because Paul doesn't think it should) there are a whole lot of roads in Wyoming and Idaho and Alaska etc that would never have been bought if people in Manhattan and Boston and Chicago and Los Angeles hadn't paid for them, and much of what now comprises America's infrastructure, as in need of modernization as it may be, resulted from taxation. Eliminating "federal interference" is basically code for ending regulation of any kind, which strikes me as pretty much handing power over to the very corporate interests Paul accurately states are corrupting Washington. (And if you think unfettered capitalism is socially beneficial and shielded from widespread abuse, you're insane.) Then there are Paul's social politics, which, despite his laudable opposition to the Iraq war, tend toward the heinous, like his stand of women's right to abortions; he may be willing to take the federal government out of the picture but he's perfectly happy to have states dictating what women can and can't do with their bodies, and makes no allowances for social disparities that would allow moneyed classes to do as they like while severely curtailing choice of any kind for poorer groups. What Paul proposes is essentially a culture of selfishness dressed up as antiestablishmentism, and, sorry, I just can't get behind it. The problem with the federal government isn't that it exists but that it's supposed to be looking out for the interests of the majority of its citizens but has largely bought into (and been bought by, but it mostly always was) a vision that what's good for General Motors is good for the country, and sucking up to the very interests it should be protecting us against. There have been times in this nation's history when the federal government has been a useful force for necessary change – during the Civil Rights Movement, for example, despite its involvement being somewhat capricious and paradoxical, but that's the nature of politics – that either never would have occurred or would have been a lot longer in coming without federal interference. The problems it now presents can't be effectively dealt with by going backwards, and that's really all Paul intends: to go forward, into the past.

Outside commentary:

"Was net-surfing and looking at useless trivia today and I was reminded of one of my childhood favorite comic books - Marvel's The Human Fly.

There is precious little about the genesis of the comic book and nothing about the final fate of the man, allegedly called Rick Rojatt, who was the Fly. Bill Mantlo would have known but I understand since his accident he'd be unable to respond to queries about the book he wrote years ago. If I recall Archie Goodwin edited the book and of course he has passed away.

I was wondering, do you know much about the story behind this comic? Failing that is there anybody you know who would ever be interested in corresponding via email and answering questions about this Marvel curiosity? (I'd say it would make a great piece for your column, but that would be a self-serving lie - I'm sure the Fly is hardly the stuff contemporary readers care about)."

I remember the Human Fly but didn't pay much attention to the book (aside from the Frank Robbins artwork, since I always liked Frank Robbins work) and it mostly predated my presence at Marvel. Seems to me a "Human Fly" character had appeared at some point in an AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL (I'm thinking Len Wein and Gil Kane, but I'd have to look it up to be sure) and when Marvel started publishing a HUMAN FLY comic the villain's name got changed to the Hornet. Seems to me the "real" Human Fly just ended talking with someone involved with Marvel – Stan, maybe – and conned them into believing how great it would be and how much publicity it would garner to publish the adventure of a "real life superhero." ("Loosely based" is a kind way of describing the stories.) I don't remember the actual guy getting a lot of promotion or publicity otherwise; he was certainly no Evel Knievel in terms of public prominence, but since I was living in New York City at the time he might have been bigger out in the sticks (as we so lovingly called the rest of the country) than I was aware of. No idea whatever became of the guy, but he was a stuntman by trade so he probably just quietly continued on in that role. I know many pros read the column, so if anyone out there has any inside poop on the subject, drop me a line, okay? Thanks.

"In December 19th column you quoted a "a small Comic Book Store owner in Boca Raton FL" who said "In my store I have a literacy program for all children first thru eighth grade. They bring in their report cards and get free comics for A's and B's..."

As a teacher (grade 3) in rural New Brunswick (Canada) and comic site

creator (Comics In The Classroom) I think this is an amazing idea. As amazing as the store program is I would suggest that it could be amended to include students who show a grade or two improvement on a report card from one term to the next - like an F to a D or C. I have taught a lot of students in my 10 year career that may show amazing improvement over the course of a year but still don't get higher than a D."

That's a good idea, especially since the whole idea of the program is to encourage literacy and reading, and it's probably the lower end kids, grade pointwise, who'd most benefit from the program.

"Before you go claiming the idea that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch were Magneto's children all for yourself, you might want to check with Neal Adams, who was the first one to have that idea back in the final X-Men story arc in the 1960's before it was canceled. He hinted at it by the coloring of Magneto's hair when he revealed his face for the first time: White, just like Pietro.

Apparently in interviews, he has claimed that it was his intent to make the Twins Magneto's kids from that point."

People do get the same ideas independently, y'know. The fact is that if that was Neal's intent, he didn't mention it to me or anyone else who had anything to do with that story, so while it's a fun fact to know and tell it doesn't really change anything I said.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Next week it's off to this year's Consumer Electronics Show for me. I suspect this'll be a year of minor enhancements to existing technology rather than anything radically new and exciting (no matter how much companies will try to tart it up in Boldly Innovative dress) but there are always contests and free pens to look forward to. Maybe I'll win a flat screen TV or an electric car. At any rate, a show report next week.

Ha! The FBI has started looking again for D.B. Cooper, the reputedly pseudonymous hijacker who ransomed a plane full of people in Pacific Northwest skies in the '70s, then skydived into thin air, either dying in the rugged terrain or getting away with the money, depending on who you talk to. (The film comedy version, starring Treat Williams as Cooper, is actually one of my guilty pleasures; it's not a good film, but I find Williams' performance endlessly entertaining. Anyway, wasn't it determined that Cooper was really TV's Batman, Adam West?) (Before anyone without a sense of humor writes in, yes, I know...) Next up on the FBI's case load: find Jimmy Hoffa! Which means in 30 years or so they'll get started on tracking down Osama bin Laden...

It's kind of amazing how the world – except for Pakistan – just sort of shut down for the holidays. Even the Pope didn't use the occasion to blurt out any more inanities. (That I heard, anyway.) But if news in from Japan and various European countries, not to mention Congress, is accurate, 2008's building up to be the year when every single country on earth tried to seize control of the Internet. Apparently nobody can manage to wrap their heads around the idea that the Internet is the first truly global entity and isn't really restrictable by national boundaries and local laws, short of simply switching off all access to it. The really funny thing about the Internet (and by that I mean it really does give me a good laugh) is that for all the paranoia out there in Middle America about "the New World Order," the Internet represents a "New World Disorder," the first, fumbling widescale success of anarchy – and that's what governments around the world just can't stand. (Besides their inability to successful tax it, I mean.)

I see where Sears and K-Mart are trying to create an "online community" that turns out to be nothing more than a spyware scheme, which Sears is continuing to deny even in the face of exposure of the software, Comscore, they're installing on "community members" machines without anyone's knowledge. It's probably in the EULA somewhere; I didn't used to read the things but now anytime any website wants to install anything on my computer, I read the legal stuff thoroughly, because even though companies and sites keep getting embarrassed for this sort of thing, others keep trying to put one over on visitors. Are they really that desperate, and lacking in ethics? If this software is as harmless as they always claim, why don't they tell people? And how many of them have to get prosecuted before the practice stops?

Wow. At least in Australia the more things change the more they stay the same. Now that Heinous Howard is out of office, and a kinder, gentler government is taking over, Australia's back to "saving the children" – via a mini-war on the Web, ostensibly porn but stretching to block apparently all access via Australia to any website anyone in the Australian government or police decides – no litmus test or judicial body necessary – in any way might influence someone to commit "a crime." What that's specifically supposed to mean, no one will say, which is the wont of legislators as these things go. They're all insane, but if it flies in Oz, it's a bet some ass in Congress will decide it's a good idea here as well...

Fasten your seatbelts, boys and girls, it's going to be a bumpy year...

Congratulations to Danny Fingeroth, the first to identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "gloves." (Yes, I've known Danny a long time, and he has been my editor at times; no, that doesn't disqualify him, as he came by his solution honestly.) Author Danny would like to make you aware of his new non-fiction book, DISGUISED AS CLARK KENT: JEWS, COMICS AND THE CREATION OF THE SUPERHERO, which has an introduction by Stan Lee and everything. Seriously, click on the link and learn more about it. (Meanwhile, at the risk of sounding opportunistic, let me mention that the latest issue of Danny's WRITE NOW! magazine, #17, has another featurette by me on writing comics, as well as well as features on HEROES, Grant Morrison, Ed Brubaker, Stephen King and lots more subjects of interest to those fascinated by comics, TV and animation writing. I'm just saying...)

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. There's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but you'll have to logic out what it is; it's not just any old thing. Good luck.

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.

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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