Permanent Damage

Wed, April 16th, 2008 at 2:33pm PDT | Updated: April 16th, 2008 at 2:34pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Before we get into anything else, anyone doing creative work should read this article immediately and act accordingly. Basically legislation is gearing up to make it easy for anyone to steal your work unless, contrary to international law, you jump through legal hoops to ensure protection. The short version: your copyright currently automatically accrues to you, and there are them out there what plan to change that so that it's not automatic, and the onus is on you. Why? Mainly so they can make money off your work without paying you for it. Check it out, then do something about it. It's all right there.

Can we take "icon" out of the comics lexicon? Please?

Got into a bit of a fight online last week over a longstanding one-time popular character which I feel time has pretty much proven can't muster much of an audience anymore. I made my arguments, those who felt otherwise made their arguments (many of which were very good arguments, based on their personal observations that contradicted my personal observations, and while I don't necessarily buy into them, but I wasn't able to dismiss them either) and we pretty much agreed to disagree and see how things eventually play out.

Only one part of the argument ticked me off, a tiny part. Of course the character in question could become a huge success again, one argument went, because the character is an icon.

It had nothing to do with the particular conversation. It's just a word that keeps coming up and keeps coming up, and it bugs the hell out of me, because what it seems to mean in our business is that a character, an "iconic" character, deserves continued publication. That all it takes is a little shoe polish and a few elocution lessons and the "icon" can get trotted out to thunderous applause.

I'm talking any icon.

But icons aren't necessarily iconic, and I'm willing to go over the top and say no comic book character is "iconic." Sure, he's known the world over, as are Batman and a handful of others, so everyone's familiar with the image, but honestly? If Superman comics went out of business tomorrow, if cartoons and movies and underroos and peanut butter suddenly stopped appearing, how many people's lives would it affect? How many would even care? It wasn't all that long ago that pretty much the entire American population already believed Superman comics were no longer being published. Sure, Superman is the classic superhero, but so what? If all it takes is being first to make a character an "icon," then, sure, he's an icon. But if it wasn't Superman, if it wasn't Batman, it would have been something else. Maybe not a superhero, maybe pirate comics. (Hi, Alan! Hi, Dave!) But something would have filled that gap.

Part of the problem comes from a sloppy confusion of icon and iconic and the two different meanings of "icon." Iconic means something absolutely essential, as when Jung (perhaps misguidedly; his theories are a bit in eclipse at the moment, as I understand it) used "iconic" to refer to recurrent imagery apparently part and parcel to the human psyche. That's what we also tend to mean when we rather conceitedly speak of "icons" and characters being "iconic." But icons are just pictures, or, in commercial parlance -- and this is a commercial business -- an identifiable image related to a specific product. There's also the religious meaning of "icon": a representation in art of a sacred person that itself becomes considered sacred due to the representation. I keep running into people who talk about comics characters like that.

Well, there ain't nothin' sacred about comics.

How many characters are really icons beyond the commercial meaning? Even if we accept that some are, so what? The only character I'd reasonably think could be considered iconic in the greater sense is Captain America -- arguably the first character intended to represent something beyond the limited scope of comics (yes, I know the patriotic Shield predates him and is essentially the same character, but Captain America immediately generated identifications the Shield didn't) -- and he hasn't been significantly successful at any time since his original '40s run, aside from gimmick moments like killing him. What would be iconic about Batman, aside from his current ubiquity? He's essentially a completely derivative character, nicked from Zorro, the Phantom and the Green Hornet as well as a couple silent films; if any characters deserve to be called iconic, it's those three, and none of them seem able to sustain a significant audience currently either, though all three are now back in comics print for the first time in a long time. (Moonstone Books and Dynamite respectively.) It doesn't hurt the odds of that that comics publishers are scrambling to scoop up existing property licenses wherever they can find them, leaving questions of salability for audience response. Batman wasn't even the first masked crime fighter at DC comics. That was the Green Hornet knockoff The Crimson Avenger, who certainly has even less claim to being an icon.

So what makes Batman an "icon"?

Marketing. That's all. And that's what passes for "icons" these days: characters publishers chose for whatever reason to continue marketing, while letting others fall by the wayside.

What harm is there in the concept of the icon, the iconic character?

It leads to the assumption, as I mentioned above, that some characters deserve publication or revival, that interest can be generated on the basis of their iconic standing. It's certainly the thinking of bankers and financiers, and I can understand their perspective. It's the cozy familiarity they're looking for. But while "icons" may be good for a momentary burst of interest, icons don't sell icons. Creative decisions sell icons, or kill them.

But that can just as easily be said of any comic book or character. In terms of comics sales, how much good does having an "icon" really do? Of course, Superman fans will buy t-shirts with the Superman emblem on it, but that's just sports fans rooting for the hometown team. People who don't read comics also buy Superman t-shirts, and, yes, that puts a few cents into Time-Warner coffers, but has anyone who ever bought a Superman t-shirt at their local Hot Topic who didn't read comics before stare at the symbol on their shirt and decided to run out for a copy of ACTION COMICS? If they have, I'd like to hear about it.

The harm is that the emphasis on "icons" -- obviously, this permeates all of pop culture these days, not just the comics industry -- keeps us perpetually looking backwards. In fact, many old characters we trot out for refurbishing require so much work that those revamping are basically creating entirely new characters -- sometimes they become "new" versions of old characters, as with the current Blue Beetle, and sometimes they don't -- but for all intents they may as well just create entirely new characters. But companies don't want those. Why I'm no longer sure, especially concerning smaller publishers scarfing up (and usually paying a fee for) licenses they don't own and which are of negligible market value. These are usually the same publishers who won't go near creator-owned comics. From a publishing perspective there's functionally no difference between creator-owned comics and licensed comics, but publishers prefer the latter because those are perceived to somehow be more marketable, even when they involve licenses that had limited lifespans or interested very few in the first place. Because they're banking their pre-existent status will suggest to an audience an "iconic" quality that will draw them in.

I can understand it from a publisher's POV. What kills me is when comics talent start talking about how this character or that is "iconic," and wanting to pursue an "iconic" character instead of getting their own creations published. I can understand writing or drawing what a company offers you -- I understand making a living just fine -- but obsessing over doing your take on someone else's work? I guess if your greatest desire is to live in someone else's shadow, why not? I guess THE SPIRIT is supposed to be iconic now, though there were at least a couple decades there when the strip was little more than a footnote -- but THE SPIRIT is so connected to Will Eisner that any new version automatically invites negative comparisons, so invested with its original '40s milieu that any updating comes off as forced and contrary to the, ah, spirit of the work, and unable to pull away from its groove without abandoning the legacy of the strip's creator, rather than honoring his memory. It's a booby trap. Most old strips are booby traps.

But the big issue is that it all looks backwards, with the warm glow of nostalgia. Publishers? Sure. That's their nature. It's why many of them are in business to start with. But the talent marking out for it is about the last thing this business needs. Backwards isn't where we should be looking.

Finally! The wrap-up of THE MASK OF FU MANCHU, Wally Wood's early '50s yellow peril "complete novel in this issue!" And how can you tell Fu Manchu isn't a Chinese communist? Because his enemies demonstrate grudging respect for him. He may be an evil madman bent on world domination, but he's a nice guy in his own way. (Hey, for the early '50s, in the heart of the Korean War, that was quite a leap.) The conclusion:

Damn that Kennington anyway. Then again, those white guys get tricked so easily, they're practically asking for it. Practically a miracle the free world is still free forty+ years later, ain't it?

Let's check in on responses to last week's column:

"I'm largely in agreement with the comments in your interesting article about the graphic novel being a superior medium to 22 page comics. It seems that there is a difference between the move from serialized pulp fiction to novels and the move from comics to graphic novels, the former typically requires only one creator the latter typically requires two or more. I imagine that the collaborative nature of writing a comic makes it less likely that whole graphic novels get written without first having secured a contract or some form of funding, compare this with the number of people willing to write their first novel whilst working other jobs. This is not to say that comic creators are less likely to work at their art while supporting themselves through other means, but there does seem to be less chance of there being two people willing to team up and create a graphic novel with no guaranteed prospect of financial return than there does someone working on their own creating a regular novel. Coupled with this is the chances of a talented writer also finding a talented artist to work on a draft graphic novel and the process of producing a whole graphic novel to tout around looks considerably less straightforward than that of producing a whole novel.

The natural response is for the publishing industry to respond by not expecting to receive drafts of graphic novels complete with story and art but rather accept submissions of either, and I guess this does happen, this is how new authors and writers are found for comics. But the point is the drive has to come from the publishers not the creators, the publishers have to be willing to accept submissions of non-22 page graphic novels, and they have to be willing to commission graphic novels. The commissioning of a graphic novel is a far greater financial risk than the commissioning of a 22 page comic which can be scrapped after a few issues if it is not doing well. Compare this to regular novels, they often require no upfront commissioning and consequently if the author is merely paid royalties their is far less financial loss to the publisher if the book is not successful. So I agree graphic novels are often far more satisfying and appropriate a medium than comics but it is not clear that the comic will go the way of the serialized pulp novel."

It's not a dead certainty by any stretch but history tends to suggest it'll eventually happen, not only because of what happened with the pulps but with what happened with the French (maybe the European, not sure) comics industry in the '70s, when the graphic novel was really taking hold over there. Publishers, who'd been serializing material in great magazine like PILOTE and PHENIX, found as the audience become increasingly accustomed to the new form they were making more money on graphic novels and less on the magazines, and eventually most of the magazines just faded away. Is even METAL HURLANT still being published? (Not in the States, obviously, and they've still got a story of mine.) I loved PILOTE and PHENIX, which, amid the short stories and cartoons, would weekly publish however much of Lone Sloane or Lt. Blueberry or Valerian or Lucky Luke or whatever the creators had done by press time, whether it was one page or ten, with no emphasis on cliffhangers, but you'd see it as it appeared. The format would never work here in a million years, but it was great.

I completely understand publishers' problems regarding the graphic novel, but I suspect, as in France, they'll eventually decide (and from what I'm getting, it may be sooner than later; the waters are being tested here and there) they're making all their money on the graphic novels and the comics aren't worth bothering with. Already many readers don't bother with mini-series or even story arcs because of the relative certainty they'll be swiftly repackaged as trades following serial publication, and already many publishers are witnesses sales of trade paperback collections out of proportion to what they'd expect from comics sales. In many cases they can no longer guesstimate what book sales will be based on what the comics did, and that used to be their ironclad rule of thumb. But now it's starting to look like on many projects there's an inverse relationship. If some publisher decides to just make the jump and is successful, you can bet others will follow in droves, because they always do.

"I had a crazy thought reading your comments about 22-page serialization. A hundred years ago when writers were serializing their novels, the installments varied a bit in length; they weren't each 2200 words (or whatever). So why can't modern comics serials be publishing in varying lengths? There's plenty of room in a 32-page pamphlet for expansion and contraction on a month-to-month basis. If this month's chapter is 25 pages, pull a few house ads. If next month's is only 19 pages, drop in a few pages from another series as a promo for it. (Cross-promotion... what a great new idea!) Keep the cover price the same each month, and explain to the fans whose lips still move when they read that they're not getting ripped off, because the "missing" story pages this month were included "free" in last month's issue. As long as it comes out to 264 pages per year, the economics would stay the same. The logistics shouldn't be substantially more difficult to work out, especially since the scripts indicating how many pages are needed for the story in a given month would be finished well in advance of publication. If a range of 19-25 pages is too wide a latitude for publishers to be comfortable with, they could try starting with 21-23. It's still not the kind of pacing freedom that a (graphic) novelist has, but it would help with the problem of padding and hacking pages just to reach the one size that supposedly fits all."

I don't disagree but part of it has to do with expectations of the core readership, which has frequently shown its displeasure with "backup features," especially when they "eat into" the lead feature. That has a lot to do with it. Someone the other day complained to me about books that have extra pages previewing some new book, even though there was a full complement of title feature pages; he figured that if they can run five pages of whatever, they can run five more pages of the title feature. From his perspective, publishers were trying to screw him by making him pay for material he didn't want. That's been a fairly prevalent attitude (though I'd say that's an extreme expression of it) for a long time now. I like your idea -- hell, as I mentioned above, I loved the French anthology magazine that frequently only published two or three pages of a feature story per issue -- I just don't see any publisher who's not already doing something like that putting it into practice anytime soon, and certainly not on a line-wide basis.

"I read your article regarding single issues and graphic novels/collected editions a moment ago, and would like to offer a comment. I think a fair amount of trouble in examining the graphic novel vs. collected

edition question stems from application of a book paradigm rather than a film one (I'll ignore serialized stories later published as novels, e.g. Oliver Twist and other Dickens stories).

Films available on DVD generally come in two forms. One is the feature-length movie, which is analogous to the graphic novel - a single, continuous work which occupies the entire unit of distribution. The other is the collected television series. Even when series are structured in advance (in some ways) for DVD viewing, certain leftover elements required of the television viewing experience remain (fade-outs in the middle of a scene, for instance). Viewers don't generally seem to mind these artifacts, and consume television shows partly as serials (one episode at a time) and partly as features (several episodes or an entire season - 24 was often watched this way - at once).

The problem encountered by comics is not that the collected edition carries over elements of the serial (sometimes - Kingdom Come, for instance - it's very

hard to tell that a work was originally structured for single-issue reading), or that readers prefer graphic novels to collected singles, but that comic books are not a full mass media. Everyone has some familiarity with comics, but proportionally fewer of us read comics even than read books. Film viewers don't necessarily prefer feature films to televisions series, as the explosion in television DVD sales of the last decade shows. (For what it's worth, the short story collection or short novel collection has also shown legs alongside the single novel.) And, as you note, those of us who read comics usually don't seem to mind reading volumes of collected serials. If the general comic audience were larger - if this were truly a mass medium -- I don't think the graphic novel/collected edition issue would arise at all.

Comics aren't hobbled by their structure. They're hobbled by their limited audience. Why the audience is limited is an issue of its own."

I think it's safe to say they're hobbled by both. But if the general comic audience were larger, I double the graphic novel/collection issue would arise because everyone would be skipping the latter for the former because they wouldn't have any doubt of the economics. But from a creative standpoint, comics are hobbled by being forced into "preconstructions." I mean, sure, the audience may like the format but that doesn't mean it has value creatively. As for any comparisons with TV, TV has an advantage over most media because most people perceive it as coming to them free. Even people who pay for cable perceive themselves as paying for the hookup that brings the programming to them, not that they're paying for the programming. (Technically they are; technically they aren't.) The Internet functions in pretty much the same way. People perceive themselves as paying for their Internet connection, not that they're paying to receive content over the Internet. But, as with cable, they're paying to get to the content. Whereas with comics, books (unless they frequent their local library), CDs, movies, rented tapes and DVDs, etc., most people see themselves as paying directly for the content. At that point they start considering its value for them. So what people watch on TV isn't necessarily germane to any discussion because there's no good way of determining how much actual value they put on it.

"Read your piece on graphic novels and the market. I readily agree of course but think it's more condusive to what accompanies the book market. If they ditched the periodical and went to novels for superheroes, for example, writers would have to change their plot structure from cliffhangers, and extended sub plots to the holistic approach of the novel. It worked in the SILVER SURFER graphic novel that Lee and Kirby did, due in large part, because they ignored the continuity that had been developed in the comics. The very subject matter itself tends to lend itself to the periodical, while BERLIN or MAUS was made to be a novel, has a different pacing to it's plot structure, based more on narrative, than plot devices. BERLIN must divide up its chapters, even though it's a novel in form. Dave Sim wrote CEREBUS in a novel format, but again it's not your typical superhero fare. Then there's the art issue. The reading public likes books like MAUS because the art is subserviant to the text. The opposite is true in comics where oversaturated computer coloring and line art tend to overwhelm the written work. Where the market is headed is books - but are superheroes along for the ride?"

I don't see why anything would specifically exclude them, though they might not appear to dominate that market like they're presented as dominating this one. (That this notion is mostly spin we'll leave for another time.) But the art-dominated superhero comics have been slowly sliding to one side for the better part of a decade now, with writers having increased control of the property. (This is in no small part due to both Marvel and DC putting new emphasis on full scripts over the plot-to-art-to-script "Marvel style" that dominated through much of the '80s and '90s, though the shift is due less to artistic concerns than to the time full scripts save swamped editors.) Like any other market, the market would eventually shake out until it had the types of superhero comics it wanted.

"[On the concept of "gentlemen politicians"] If that were the whole story presidents wouldn't be beholden to corporate masters in their second terms - I doubt George II is going to be running for any more elective offices after 2008, and boy, he sure stopped listening to those oil and energy lobbyists, didn't he? - and many members of the House of Representatives (who could go into a coma for months, not once appear in the news anywhere in the interim, and still get reelected) would have a strong independent streak.

Why do you think Europe's governments are so much more progressive and less company-beholden than America?"

I'm not sure if that's a rhetorical question or if you're challenging some statement I never made. Please inform.

Representatives have a funny habit: when their terms are up, they like to seek other, usually higher, office. More expensive campaigns. People who leave public service have a funny habit of getting highly paid jobs from the corporations who sponsored them or their political masters. (This is why working in a president's administration can pay big dividends later, even if you're not at the top of the political food chain.) Many ex-Congressmen and other government figures end up as lobbyists hawking the corporations that underwrote them to Capital Hill. Hell, look at the Clinton tax returns: as an ex-president, Bill made somewhere around a hundred million last year giving speeches and doing whatnot, about 20% of that coming from a single corporation. Think politicians who rock the boat stay on the gravy train?

"Gentlemen politicians" wasn't a serious suggestion, by the way.

"I’m sure someone said glibly
“Haiku holds me back”
But that dude was wrong as well"

But proper haiku
Is seventeen syllables
All correctly placed.

I know that's "traditional" haiku, but is there really any other kind, no matter what people try to pawn off? While most artistic forms don't have an essential format, there are some -- sonnets, iambic pentameter and cubism, for instance, and haiku -- in which the format is the art, and all monkeying with the format says is "Gee, this set of rules that determines this thing is too much for me, I need a special set of rules."

(I've probably just ticked off every poetry professor in the country.)

Comics, however, are not restricted by format, and restricting them by externally imposed format is just counter-productive. It's far from impossible to write 22 page comics, it just that from a structural perspective it's unwieldy, a pain, and there's no intrinsic necessity for it. (And while technically any poem with a five-seven-five syllable structure is a traditional haiku, good haiku are considerably more difficult, as within that minimal framework the writer needs to include nature imagery, preferably some sort of revelatory paradox, and a laundry list of other things. Not easy.)

Any lawyers out there interested in a class action suit?

Not that I need one, but ran into a situation yesterday that implied a lot of people out there are getting screwed out of a lot of money.

I got my phone bill.

Which normally isn't a problem. I have two lines, I pay Embarq (they're either formerly Sprint or they bought the locale rights from Sprint, I've never been sure which) around $80 a month for all services and 300 minutes of domestic long distance. There was a time when 300 minutes wouldn't nearly have done it for me, but most of my communiqués are done via email these days so I almost never have to suffer through another human voice.

This month I crack open my bill to find Embarq says I owe $102.

Not that $20 some odd bucks is that much money, but I know I wasn't on the phone this last month anywhere near 300 minutes. I look at the call list...

... and there are calls on there dating back to early December. Add 'em up, and, sure enough, they put me over the limit. My question then becomes: why are there phone calls dating back to early December on my bill?

So I call Embarq. A nice enough woman takes the call, I tell her the situation, and she says, "That's the just the way it's done."

The way what's done?

"Our computer sometimes misses calls," she explains. "So when they come up we put them on the bill."

"But I didn't make the calls this billing period."

"But you made the calls."

We go round and round on this for maybe ten minutes while I'm trying to tell her I shouldn't owe for those calls, and she insists I do because that's the way it's done.

About this time I'm thinking, though I don't say, "Thanks for making a difficult decision very easy for me." I've been considering switching over to internet phone via my cable company, which would run me a little more than I pay Embarq per month but includes unlimited long distance. But I keep hearing stories about how cable phone isn't yet very reliable, etc. Not that I depend on my phone anywhere near what I used to, but. Anyway, instead, she insists she doesn't get my point, and I repeat:

"Any calls I make should be billed to the period I make them in."

"But they're being billed now."

"Yes, but they shouldn't be."

"I don't know what you mean." i.e. You made the calls, we have the right to bill you for them.

"I get a certain number of minutes per month, right?"

"300."

"So what you're saying is that number is meaningless."

Dead silence. Then: "I don't understand."

"Okay, look. What you're saying is: if I make 200 minutes worth of calls this month, but your computer system decides not to bill me for them until next month's bill, and I make 200 minutes worth of calls next month too, instead of getting 600 minutes I suddenly owe you for 100 minutes."

Dead silence. Then: "Could you hold please?"

Sure. After roughly 10 minutes of muzak, she comes back on the line and says, "Mr. Grant, you have a viable point and I've credited your account for those minutes." So now my bill's back to normal and all's well that end's well, right?

Mmmmm. For me. For now. At least if I have to go through that bit again, I know what to say out of the gate.

But this wasn't a one-time gaffe. She said straight out the computer system does it. A billion dollar tech company and they don't have a computer system that records calls as they're made and automatically bills accounts on the spot? What? She pointed out where the same thing had occurred in previous bills. Well, fine, but I didn't know about it because it wasn't enough to jack up my payment due. So it seems to me that this is their system. I have no way of knowing whether it's accidental corporate stupidity or an intentionally designed way to bring in more money by essentially double-billing customers, but what's clear and obvious is that Embarq knows this is happening.

And now you do too.

Just as obviously they're happier to let it continue to happen than to install a computerized billing system that eliminates the problem. Which means it didn't just happen to me, it's happening to a lot of people. If you're an Embarq customer -- hell, I wouldn't be surprised if all phone companies do this -- on a package plan that includes long distance, check the long distance charges on your bills, even if there's only a slight overrun. If they're billing you for calls made in months prior to your current billing period, you've already paid for those calls.

Like I said, this smells like a class action lawsuit waiting to happen.

Notes from under the floorboards:

In case it didn't sink in last week: I've got two books out over the next couple months, a trade collection of my crime series, 2 GUNS from Boom! Studios, which should be out at the end of the month, and the adventure-suspense thriller THE SAFEST PLACE from Image/12 Gauge, which ships in May. Click on the titles to get the skinny on the contents, then go pester your local comics shop to order a copy of each for you.

I guess the writers strike ripping the heart of the standard TV season has sent the networks scrambling to puff up their usually ignored summer seasons. (Fox seems not to be bringing 24 back until next winter, and it's probably a good idea to have it absent through the presidential campaign season anyway, given the number of politicians and Supreme Court justices apparently under the impression it's real life and nobody should be shackling Jack Bauer's hands just when Los Angeles needs him, but seeing how it's Fox I wouldn't put rushing the next season premiere the Monday right before election day past them.) Amid the ghastly game shows and yet another BIG BROTHER run -- it's gotten so the main appeal of that show is to drop in for an episode or two just to see if this season's contestants could possibly be any more insipid than last season's, and whaddaya know? They always are! (But so many of them are actors anyway, and what little I'm stumbled across BIG BROTHER in its current run suggests the new main appeal of the "unscripted" show is seeing just how visible the scripting has become...) -- CBS is also trying a couple new dramas. Summer has for some reason turned into a fairly sympathetic time for dramas -- Fox's THE O.C. got great traction from a summer debut -- a primetime suburban soap, SWINGTIME, notable mainly for British actor Jack (PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN) Davenport, and a cop show called FLASHPOINT about, what else?, a "special tactical team." We'll see...

I see that hot on the heels of the DRAGONBALL Z live action film and Joseph Gordon-Leavitt/Leonardo DiCaprio's rumored AKIRA live action remake, Dreamworks is optioning GHOST IN THE SHELL for... a live action version! And Hollywood did so well with AEON FLUX too. But it's true: anime is the new Jane Austen.

Don't recall if I mentioned it, but last week my local paper, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, decided to drop Wiley Miller's NON SEQUITUR and replace it with some nondescript panel cartoon. If you haven't been reading it, Miller's sarcastic strip is one of the funniest, savvyist and pithiest available today, so I guess the thinking was it had to go, leaving the page mostly to the likes of BLONDIE, PICKLES and BORN LOSER. Just in case someone mistakenly thought it was, you know, the modern day or something. At any rate, did something I almost never do: wrote the features editor to complain about it. Got an answer back too: the strip printed too small to be readable. For some reason, despite NON SEQUITUR being a four panel strip for some years now, the paper insisted on printing in as a panel cartoon. Not that I ever had any trouble reading it, but it seems to me a better solution than cancellation would be to print it the size of every other comic strip in the paper! Upshot: for whatever reason, they're refusing to bring it back. I've subscribed to daily email delivery of the strip at GoComics so I can keep up, but I'm not sure that does Miller, who makes his living off papers paying him syndication money, any good. Sorry, Wiley, I tried.

Seems J.K. Rowling is suing a fan site that has created, essentially, a dictionary of Harry Potter terms. Seems she's peeved at the site's involvement with a small publisher to publish the dictionary in book form. Apparently she's claiming copyright protection for not only the characters, stories, etc. but for the very words she used writing the books. Isn't there a longstanding publishing tradition of pumping out half-assed "reference" works hooking into pop culture phenomena? Does this mean John Wagner, Alan Grant and Rebellion Books get to sue all the TV shows and movies that use the term "perp" as a term for criminal? (As far as I've ever been able to tell, JUDGE DREDD used the term first -- if it derives from life, I've never heard of it, but maybe John or Alan can clear that up -- then it was imported by the TV show CAGNEY & LACEY - I remember cocking an ear the first time I heard them use it -- and after them the deluge. Now it's almost universally used. Time to collect, boys.) Wait! The hell with that! What about all those terms I coined while writing rock criticism for TROUSER PRESS in the late '70s and early '80s? NME used to "borrow" them practically before the ink was dry, and I'd later hear them pop up on MTV and other places. WHERE'S MY CHECK?!!! Thanks, J.K.!

Saw the DVD version of Wes Anderson's THE DARJEELING LIMITED, and it was probably the best independent film I've seen in the last couple years. But those, and the few beyond, are years when independent film has resoundingly stunk. Still, Anderson's always good for quirky laughs. He's still the only director who really gets mileage out of Owen Wilson (they came up together) and Wilson, as well as Adrian Brody (generally dislike him but he's good here) and co-writer Jason Schwartzman, as estranged brothers traveling India while sorting out their family issues, are just fine. Glad I watched the DVD instead of hitting the theater on this one, though, because ultimately the film, which goes on just a bit too long despite barely cracking the 90 minutes mark, ends up being basically an extended punchline for a 15 minute short with Schwartzman and Natalie Portman that precedes the film on the disk. Not that it isn't a pretty good punchline, but without the short it's like getting a punchline without a joke attached: "Make that two cups of coffee!" (That's the punchline to a different joke, but it still doesn't mean much without a context, does it?)

One step forward, two steps back dept: I've been told by some that Microsoft's new Silverlight technology beats the crap out of the current webimation standard Flash. (I wouldn't know. I dutifully installed the Silverlight hook for my web browser but so far I've yet to run across any sites that use Silverlight that I'm aware of.) Now it turns out they're hooking it into their new "PlayReady content access" digital rights management (DRM) technology, whatever that is. For most people, DRM usually means what you receive won't play properly on something or other, and the movement away from it is on the rise. But this is par for Microsoft's course; it's not like they didn't load Vista with DRM gimmicks, apparently to sell media companies on the notion that Vista is the "friendly" operating system. Yet MS customers have found it not so friendly -- reportedly there are petitions with tens of thousands of names asking MS not to abandon XP, IT departments of whole corporations have recommended no one install MS' latest major Vista "fix" because the cure is worse than the disease, and supposedly MS isn't promoting their latest server technology because it's tied to Vista -- so I guess they'd better hope NBC/Universal and Warner Studios buy a ton of new PCs... (Apropos of nothing, those Apple commercials with Justin Long as the cool youthful image of the Mac next to a dowdy, pudgy salaryman representing Windows are generally insulting and stupid -- "The Mac" has a tendency to accuse "Windows" of faults "the Mac" shares, especially when it comes to the latest versions of their operating systems (a recent contest between programmers found the Mac's operating system hacked first) -- but I have to say the one with the yoga instructor always cracks me up.)

This is interesting. Appears I'm not alone, and traditional phone companies are bleeding customers to cable-based phone right and left, to the point where Verizon decided to do something about it. Seems these days if customers want to switch their phone numbers over, Verizon, rather that switching, calls them up and offers them money to stay. (Theoretically, once a cable company puts in a switch order, the switch should be automatic. Verizon has apparently made sue it isn't.) Federal law says that when company A gets "proprietary information" from company B -- say, the name and number of a customer intending to move to company A's service -- it's illegal for company B to use that to steal business from company A. The FCC recently decided that, basically, nah, Verizon is just offering existing customers "freedom of choice." In other words, telcos can offer "competitive terms" to customers who are trying to switch to get them to stay. But cable companies aren't allowed to offer the same customer a new competing deal before a decision is made. Evidently the FCC doesn't want to trigger any bidding wars for customers. This does beg the question of why both cable companies and phone companies don't just offer their best deals first. Not that cable companies have much to write home about -- some of them like Comcast have been developing fairly peculiar attitudes about the Internet and customers' right to service, among other things -- but it's kind of interesting that the Ghost's FCC seems to think it's around for only two reasons: to fine TV stations and networks for perceived obscenity and to buttress the declining fortunes of phone companies.

In a similar bit of strangeness, Congress appears to be gearing up to force electric cars to be noisier. (Because there are so many electric cars on the road.) Seems they're terrified pedestrians, used to the low rumble to earsplitting thundercoughs of Detroit's internal combustion engines, won't realize cars are coming. Because it's just too much to expect people to look both ways when they cross the street. And how are electric car manufacturers to make their vehicles into little noise pollution producing monsters? Unnecessary additional parts, probably. Which, of course, will also increase the costs of the cars, which aren't yet very cheap to start with. (Do you get the feeling General Motors lobbyists are crawling around in the background of this one somewhere?) But I'm sure Congress will compensate by funding the development and deployment of more electric cars, subsidizing electric car manufacturers to get prices down so that most Americans could afford an electric car and do something about ridiculously spiraling gas prices and the current energy crisis. They are, right? Aren't they?

Speaking of the Ghost, in case you missed it the administration/Office Of Homeland Intrusion now seems to be moving beyond those legally troublesome wiretaps and have pointed more spy satellites at the USA instead. If nothing else it should be a boon to Google Earth. Maybe GoogleTap isn't far behind... (Hey, this is a democracy. What's good for the government should be good for individual citizens, right? If they can listen to my phone calls -- if they could stand the boredom; my calls aren't generally very exciting - why can't I listen to Dick Cheney's meetings with oil company executives?)

By the way, you've probably noticed the entire Comic Book Resources site has been undergoing an overhaul since the start of the month, and they're still smoothing out the kinks, but everything's pretty much back to normal now. Be aware that for the foreseeable future, the column (like all other columns on their respective days) should now go up sometime Wednesday afternoon. Remember when Douglas Adams told you not to panic? Don't panic.

Congratulations to Jason Green, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "hell." Jason wishes to point your attention to pop culture site Playback:stl, which covers music, comics, etc. and looks pretty good. Check it out.

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. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. (You never know; I might just go on a mass linking spree one of these days, if I can ever find the Internet's answer to a water tower.) As in most weeks, I've hidden a special secret clue to the answer somewhere in the column, but you won't damage your chances much if you don't find it. 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.

TAGS:  icon, iconic, wally wood, the darjeeling limited

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