Permanent Damage

Wed, May 7th, 2008 at 2:08pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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What's good about comics today? Audacity.

Of course, audacity is what has always been good about comics. Even if it has always been widely ignored, I'm starting to think it's the single most important factor. To paraphrase Gilbert Shelton's Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, audacity will get you through times of no craft better than craft will get you through times of no audacity.

As many have learned over the years. I've noticed this has always been a source of extreme annoyance to comics talent who've spent years perfecting their craft but demonstrate not a hint of audacity in their performance, and are largely ignored and unlionized while those they generally consider lesser talents than themselves because those others don't demonstrate perhaps the same level of craft they do. (I've also noticed those who obsess about that kind of thing generally aren't as talented as they prefer to believe, but that's another topic.) I don't subscribe to much of the "cyclical theory" of comics, but audacity and comics go hand in hand back to the beginning of the medium.

So what's audacity? In social terms, it's behaving above your station. The concept itself evokes a social network of dominants and submissives, elite and commoners. Audacity used to be something that could get you killed, if you were on society's lower rungs but spoke or acted as an equal to someone on the upper rungs. But audacity was always a necessary component to any kind of democratizing social change, in fact a catalyst for most social changes good or bad. Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the church door was audacity. The American Revolution was audacity. Audacity still isn't much appreciated by those who consider themselves in charge, because social audacity is insubordination. Frequently the term is applied to some person or work that "flies in the face of common decency." Even -- in a democratic society more often than not -- self-presumed elites traditionally have behaved audaciously if self-servingly, but it's only characterized as such after they fall from power (if then) because elites view their own audacious behavior not as audacity but as birthright. In a democratic society, the terms shift slightly; audacity is what characterizes the flagrant movement of a person or small subset beyond what society in general has decided to accept as the norm.

Artists (in the generic sense of the word) have always been considered audacious by society, as they aren't "productive members" in the sense that a banker or shopkeeper is, i.e. a facilitator of commerce. The commercial aspect of art -- the creation of an object or product with implied value - has existed at least since the advent of organized society, and traditionally and usually willfully overlooked, with the artist held separate from whoever markets or somehow profits from his work. (Even when art was commonly supported by patrons, those patrons generally accrued at least some sort of advanced status due to their patronage, so it was not only art they were buying -- the product usually becoming the property of the patron -- but an increase in status suggested by the patronage. Not a strictly dollars-and-sense transaction, but a transaction nonetheless, and one some still feel represents the proper role of the artist.) Few artists throughout history have had the imagination or creativity to be genuinely audacious, though, and fewer have been mad enough to risk the possible social repercussions. And traditionally "artist" has always been an occupation with a fairly limited enrollment, since financial realities have, until fairly recently, always been a governor on the number of working artists. Across the vast majority of history, the vast majority of artists have been commercial artists, serving their masters and their pocketbooks, and it's only in the last couple of centuries that any one has really discussed the idea of "art for art's sake" with any seriousness.

Probably not coincidentally, it's only in the last couple of centuries that a common democracy has been seriously discussed, as opposed to the democracies of the elite practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. From the development of the Guttenberg press to the rise of true mass markets in the '20s and '30s, the term "audacious" was increasingly applied to art, as paintings, novels, plays, ballets and musical compositions regularly triggered riots and outrage, but no matter how much formerly "audacious" works miraculously transformed with time into acceptable and often dull, there are always those with their daggers sharpened for "audacious" material.

Maybe the real triumph of the mass market has been to transform that into a selling point.

Artistically, audacity is mainly a heartfelt belief that the rules do not apply to you. The earliest comics creators were audacious almost by accident, not because they flouted the rules but because there were no rules. That's always the beginning of this cycle: someone flouts the rules, by design, ignorance or apathy. It doesn't much matter why. Few comics creators are endlessly creative and most reach a comfort zone eventually, running out a proven string rather than continuing into unknown and possibly unacceptable territory. Likewise the vast majority of comics companies tend to settle very quickly on what will best serve their bottom line, and it's common practice to set rules about what content works and what doesn't, what's acceptable material and what isn't. More often than not, comics companies will swing toward what will best appease both what they consider their core audience and wider society that probably doesn't even read the comics and has little positive effect on the bottom line but which, it's generally feared, could have a negative effect. But there have also been comics publishers who have made their fortunes on audacity; e.g. Lev Gleason with CRIME DOES NOT PAY (for a considerable number of years the best selling comic in America), EC Comics, the underground comix publishers of the late '60s and early '70. Most such publishers operated in eras where there were still self-proclaimed elites attempting to govern "acceptability," and that struggle eventually took those publishers down. Comics have tended to swing through the following cycle: some sort of audacious content followed by increased public interest (this even applies to DC's killing of Superman in the '90s, which to anyone familiar with comics was nothing special -- Mort Weisinger "killed" Superman twice in the space of a couple years in memorable stories of the early '60s -- but to the world at large became the height of shocking audacity... and DC cleaned up on it), followed by a "normalization" of material at the company, where what was once the unfamiliar becomes the all-too familiar, as publishers seek to replicate their successes ad infinitum. (Creators, too, tend to seek to replicate successes ad infinitum; sometimes it even works.) Audience attrition eventually leads to sinking sales as new potential audiences no longer see the "audacious" material as anything new or special and steer away. Eventually publishers get desperate enough to try something at least apparently audacious for the era, and the cycle begins again.

That's how it used to work, not just in comics but in all mass media. This isn't the story of comics but of all mass media; where mass media differs from traditional art is that the value of traditional art was predicated on its scarcity, whereas the value of mass media is predicated on its availability. You don't make money by making those DVD sets of LOST hard to find but by making them easy to find. (As long as we're not talking secondary back issue markets for comics; there, with comic as pure artifact rather than medium, scarcity becomes a measure of value again. Except eBay and the now international availability of most back issues has all but destroyed value in the back issue market anyway, meaning in terms of a wide market comics are forced now to depend on their value as immediate content rather than their value as artifact.)

But since the '60s -- it started in the '50s, really, with a growing popular (i.e. white) taste for "race records" and rock'n'roll among the young in much of the westernize world, but official disdain (as on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW, when Elvis Presley, notorious for his supposedly lewd hip gyrations while performing, was famously shown only from the waist up while singing; the Rolling Stones were asked to change the lyrics of then sexually-offensive "Let's Spend The Night Together," which they did; and the Doors were asked to steer clear of the supposed drug reference "girl, we couldn't get much higher" in "Light My Fire," which they didn't) was still an influential force -- audacity has increasingly been not an irruption in pop culture but a commercial necessity. American culture, certainly, has a Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship with audacious pop, swerving wildly between familiarity and novelty -- record companies in particular have striven to wipe audacity out of pop music except where they feel it comfortably fits, and the response has been a steady and brutal decline in that industry's fortunes -- but the '80s, even as they witnessed the rise of a "moral majority," witnessed the dormancy if not death knell of social constraints on audacity in pop culture, as efforts to shut down supposedly negative elements like rap music and children's TV cartoons evaporated without significant effect, and efforts to rein in videogames since have met a similar fate. Moral outrage is as much a commodity as anything else now, a momentary thrill that quickly becomes old hat, just another cheap drug that requires increased strength to have the same effect after each exposure. The result of a Jerry Springer culture.

In the 21st century, pop culture & mass media and their vast audiences have embraced audacity. Sure, social watchdogs still denounce it, but for the most part that's just another facet of modern entertainment.

The thing about audacity is that it's culturally relative. An Elizabethan-era gentleman would be Taliban-level appalled at the easy familiarity with which women speak to men nowadays, but would think nothing of dumping his bodily wastes on the sidewalk. Munch, Scriabin, Debussy, Picasso all scandalized their contemporaries but today, while their work is still appreciated, we watch and view it without raising an eyebrow. It's hard to read Lady Chatterley's Lover or Tropic Of Cancer now and believe they could cause such a stir. While still well-drawn EC's horror stories, once among the targets of Congressional investigations, mostly now read like the (now quaint) little jokes their authors always thought they were at the time. Similarly, Stan Lee, with Jack Kirby & Steve Ditko, didn't really set out to be considered audacious and daring when Marvel Comics was founded, it was more a case of running out of other things to do. In fact, when Grant Morrison and others cite the "silliness" of '60s comics, especially DC Comics like the Doom Patrol and Animal Man, and mean it as a virtue, they mean they were captivated by what amounts to sheer audacity, in some cases an almost dazzling disregard for story logic and especially continuity, the great shackle of modern mainstream comics. There's no denying, looking at them now, that many were just silly as well. But they still qualify as audacious, because nobody's rules but their own mattered to them.

It's this thumbing noses at "the rules" that makes audacity important. It functions as a social safety valve. It reminds us that, really, we're free. That was a quality that used to sell comics; readers experienced an anarchic thrill vicariously through the characters. Superman could impose social justice on crooked landlords or drop dictators from great heights. As I've mentioned before, one big reason manga got such a grip on Japan was that the fictional characters had the, yes, audacity to behave in ways frowned on by strict Japanese culture -- and also embodied what were considered admirable aspects of that culture. It's a neat trick, one that American comics have ironically all but forgotten. The cycle of American comics -- indeed, American pop culture -- inevitably reels in material to make it "comfortable," which is to say conforming to what's perceived as tradition mores, in support of a status quo that the audience for such material is desperate to escape, in their fantasy lives if not in their real lives.

In fact, since the '80s, largely prompted by the arrival of MTV, faux audacity has pretty much been the cornerstone of marketing in American pop culture, across the board. Now it's virtually a necessity. But audacity, real or plastic, has its limits and contradictions. Comics have come to depend on it. Most of the current breakthrough material -- Warren Ellis ultraviolence, Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library, Eddie Campbell comics etc. - is based on audacious thinking. Not audacious in the sense that anyone's sitting around calculating and cackling over what will get the biggest rise, but audacious in the ability of its creators to make their own rules.

There's plenty of the plastic version around too. Marvel and DC are almost totally dependent on it now, locked into expectation-defying special event publishing as the main focus and promotion of virtually everything else those companies produce, with varying pitfalls; DC's swerves constantly seem to swerve back to status quo, while Marvel's character reinterpretations and rocket-to-the-edge plotting sometimes seems to threaten to throw the whole thing out of its own orbit. But destabilization is hardly the worst sin a publisher can commit; that would be boring material.

There are some rules that are difficult to get away from but virtually none that can't be broken (about the only remaining strong taboos in our society are incest and pedophilia, and, in some contexts but not others, physical violence) if they're broken well. (And even that rule can sometimes be broken.) Audacity with imagination is always better than audacity without imagination, except when it isn't. Audacious material alone can't guarantee sales or an audience, but these days no audacity is as close to a guaranteed sales graveyard as you can get. We've gone full circle now; we've turned audacity itself into a rule.

Which means, really, is that there's no longer any need to go back, to return to any nostalgic base state. There never was, really, but now even the facades have crumbled. Captain America can stay dead, zombies can roam a demolished society forever. The aberrant is the new norm, and more power to it. Screw the rules; the new rule is no rules except your own, and when we pull that off that's called vision, so let's get on with it.


A Fistful Of Reviews:

From First Second Books:

DRAWING WORDS & WRITING PICTURES by Jessica Abel & Matt Madden ($29.95)

This is probably the first great textbook in the graphic story field. It's wonderful, a straightforward nuts'n'bolts approach, based on Abel & Madden's course at the School Of Visual Arts, that will quickly teach anyone with the basic skills how to create comics, at least visually. They focus not so much on theory, though that's touched on where appropriate, as on the raw mechanics of comics, including purely technical elements like how to letter, how to place panel borders attractively, etc., but without attempting to impose any personal philosophy of content. Unlike most books of this nature, not only does the writing stay to the point, but the focus of both the writing and the numerous illustrations is always easy comprehension. The authors draw on the work of a number of predecessors like Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, but the presentation of ideas is more concise, organized and practical than with any of them, with plenty of references on any subject the reader/student wishes to pursue further. There are even sections on the rudiments of character development and story structure, and even for those with no interest in creating their own comics, the book holds quite a bit of information and some surprises. (It never occurred to me before, for instance, how much Eisner's famed SPIRIT splash pages with the series title merged in various ways into the design came directly out of George Herriman's KRAZY KAT logos, a connection the authors don't draw but which the book makes obvious.) This is the new standard text on creating comics, and I suspect by a year from Fall it'll be the dominant text in comics courses around the country. If it isn't, it should be. Available in June.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

THE BEST OF WRITE NOW! ed. Danny Fingeroth ($19.95)

I can't really review this in good faith since I'm featured in it, so I'll summarize: WRITE NOW! remains one of the better sources of information on writing comics and animation available today, and this collects a good cross-section of magazine's first dozen or so issues. Interviews with Stan Lee, Mark Waid, Brian Bendis, Will Eisner, etc. How-To sections demonstrating how comics progress, though story and art, from idea to finished product, tips on writing and coping with a writer's life. Lots of information. Would I buy it? Probably not, but I've been doing this for 30 years? Would I buy it if I were trying to break in now? Absolutely. Knowledge is power and all that.

BACK ISSUE 27, ed. Michael Eury ($6.95)

Idolizing mostly forgotten comics of the '70s and '80s, this time along the theme of "comics royalty," which doesn't mean there's not a lot of curious trivia here. (Like a Steve Skeates AQUAMAN story, uncompleted when Aquaman's book was cancelled, was finished in an issue of SUB-MARINER when that book was being cancelled? (Who knew? On the other hand, who read them?) Or that DC's ARION originated as a never-submitted Charlton pitch?) But that's what the magazine's good for: lots of weird information on topics you never previously gave two seconds thought to, occasional odd spectacles like Brian Bolland talking trash about his one of his most famous works, featurettes like comics professionals heaping praise on Jack Kirby, and art. Lots and lots of art. Good article this issue on Elvis Presley's connections to Fawcett's Captain Marvel Jr. Light but entertaining, as usual.

MODERN MASTERS VOL.16: MIKE ALLRED ($14.95)

Everything you wanted to know about Mike Allred (MADMAN, X-STATICS), via a lengthy interview and gobs of art. Everything except what makes him a great comics artist; a weakness of this series of books is that they take that designation for granted rather than explaining it. But if you're not already (no pun intended) sold on Allred's talents, this vehicle may not convince you. Most of the art here is spot illos and pin-ups rather than comics pages, as it usually is in these books, and as long as they're obviously interviewing artists for lengthy periods anyway, where are the walkthroughs, where artists go through a story page by page to discuss their thinking on design and storytelling, and why they made those particular artistic decisions. (This is far from unheard of; there's the famous exegesis of Al Feldstein & Bernie Krigstein's "Master Race" story, and at the Alex Toth website you can find various stories he drew that Toth annotated with commentary, like a commentary track on a DVD.) While biographical anecdotes and lots of one-off drawings are cool and all, that sort of thing would seem to go a lot further toward demonstrating why someone might be considered a "modern master." This book's fine as far as it goes, but it'd be nice to see more ambition and less presumption. (And where's the companion series on comics writers, anyway?)

From Cold Water Press:

FLYTRAP #3 by Sara Ryan & Ron Chan ($2)

Continuing Ryan's mini-comic mini-series. I miss her hubby Steve Lieber's sharp work -- he drew the first chapter -- but Chan does a decent job that's better drawn than a lot of "real" indie comics I see. The story here is basically one long anecdote about the past of a trailer park denizen, and that tragic story Ryan tells energetically, with brisk, sparse narration. But you have to pay attention to get what's going on. What's not so good is that I've completely lost the connective storyline to this sporadic series. Future issues could use a summary. But good work.

CLICK by Sara Ryan & Dylan Meconis ($2)

Another anecdotal mini-comic memoir from Ryan, from her high school days about how people can change with the most minor provocations. It's not a "big" story, but its conclusions are genuinely poignant and observant, and Ryan's linguistic precision is as sharp as ever. Meconis' artwork, while adequate for the story, vaguely works against it; body movements and character expressions, especially in the eyes and the two focal females, give the story a vaguely lesbian subtext that I get the feeling isn't supposed to be there. But the mini-comic is still very good, as all of Ryan's minis have been.


Looks like Hillary has unveiled her daring energy plan, starting with "suspending" the tax that pays for road improvements so Americans can drive farther this summer. (If Obama's right, about $30 dollars farther, less than a full tank of gas for many cars, but I haven't done the math so he could be miles off for all I know.) It sounds like a generally idiotic proposal, since we're yanking away the funding for an infrastructure that already needs a lot of work at same moment we're encouraging people to further wear it out by using it more, not to mention that encouraging people to drive their cars more is hardly a way to battle America's dependence on foreign oil. This notion that the highest goal of American society is to constantly return to some sort of fake "normalcy" instead of adapting to changing conditions is both weird and typical, but it's a weird election year anyway; while usually such a "giveback" would be a huge electorate pleaser, this year 70% of the public (at least of those polled, and most polls need to be taken with a quarry or so of salt) seems to agree it's a pointless gesture and little else.

So Hillary appeared on Monday's Today Show -- I woke up just in time to hear her -- to elaborate on her energy plan. Oddly, she seemed to agree that the "gas tax holiday" (and just try putting it back in three months and see if how well the electorate responds, with the election looming) was pointless and silly, but insisted that reform "has to start somewhere!" The remainder of her plan involved forcing oil companies to pay for infrastructure instead of taxpayers, drastically increasing domestic oil production, putting more money into biofuels, and forcing gas stations to supply ethanol at the pumps in addition to gasoline.

Know what? It's all nonsense, and not one bit of it hits anywhere near the real problems of America's foreign oil dependence, not one of them will lower the price of gasoline at the pumps, and not one of them will do anything but cause a host of other problems.

Everyone knows oil companies are making profits out of all proportion to their increasing expenses. Tapping into those profits is a swell idea in theory (well, not from the POV of the oil companies or their stockholders, and such a thing will most likely cause a drop in their stock prices, and that sort of thing has a tendency to drop stock prices across the board so those who view the stock market as the American economy will doubtless scream communism) but unless it's accompanied by a price freeze on the cost of petrol for the consumer -- and the instant you do that, a hue and cry of interference with free enterprise wells up, with all the attendant political pressure -- any confiscation of revenues will just be passed on to the consumer anyway, and raise the price of gas even further, so everyone will likely end up paying tax than if the tax remains in place. "Domestic" oil production basically means two things: opening the Alaskan Reserve to drilling -- something Republicans and oil companies have been trying to pull off for decades. All that would mean is that we'd burn off Alaska for a couple years then be back to buying our oil from Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and end up with a destroyed wildlife preserve in the process. Alternately, it means squeezing oil out of shale, a ridiculously expensive process with little return. Biofuels? Ethanol puts its own pollutants in the air, and costs tons of money to produce. The demand for corn for ethanol has already had severe consequences: corn has become so profitable that farmers across the world are converting their fields for corn production -- but not food production. The news has been alive with stories of food shortages around the world (including the USA) for weeks now, and the demand for ethanol is one of the things driving the shortages. (Just read an article in the local paper's business section this morning about how we can expect the price of chicken and pork to skyrocket in the next few months, since their feed -- predominantly corn -- is growing more and more expensive.) It's not just food; tequila aficionados had better get used to the price of that stuff skyrocketing if it's still available at all in a few years, as Mexican agave growers are starting to plant corn instead. "Biofuels" is basically an expensive con that's little more than a gift to corn farmers the way energy policy now is a gift to oil companies, and their cost and impact already border on devastating. A year ago, buying ethanol instead of gasoline at the pump -- and out here in Nevada, hardly the most progressive state in the Union, many gas stations already have ethanol pumps, so what's Hillary on about with the forcing gas stations to sell it bit? -- was prohibitively expensive. It isn't anymore, but only because the price of gas has outstripped the price of ethanol.

Anyone who seriously wants to deal with our energy problems will have to take on a lot of well-heeled special interests to do it: the energy combines, oil companies, Detroit. Pretty much anything serious that anyone tries to do will get vilified as socialism, because it's going to require government stepping in and enforcing a lot of changes. Americans are already changing their habits to the extent they can -- I've had several people in the last month ask if I've switched to florescent bulbs yet (answer: to some extent; I'm phasing them in as my existing bulbs die, but I don't keep that many lights on anyway), and I hear sales of hybrid cars are skyrocketing while traditional gas guzzlers are now a much more difficult sell -- but history has shown us the market only pushes so far, and at some point government has to start enforcing changes. "The market" can't create a non-petroleum infrastructure quick enough, and if it could it should have done it ten years or more ago. It's not like it was any secret this day would come, and sooner than later. Yet the government stopped mandating increased mileage levels in cars a long time ago, and the car companies didn't bother taking on the problem themselves. Detroit's built on the promise of planned obsolescence, of Americans buying a new car every 3-5 years, and the last time Detroit had to meet the problem of fuel efficiency, they simply marketed their gas burners as freedom. Not from foreign oil or rising costs but from the humdrumedness of your petty daily life. But cars that run efficiently don't keep Detroit rolling just as they don't keep the secondary repair market rolling, and cars that burn fuel with more and more efficiency don't lift gas company stocks, and the health of both these industries is among the traditional indicators of American financial strength. Detroit has experimented, successfully, with electric cars in recent memory, they're already making a tiny handful of hybrids, it's not like they don't possess the technology. So a first step would be to mandate the immediate stoppage of production of all petrol only vehicles by American car makers, and an immediate shift to electric or hybrid cars. An electric car is a fine vehicle for city travel, the hybrid perfectly adequate for long distance. Both have considerably reduced maintenance costs. Both would go a long way toward relieving the need for outside oil. (And, yes, I know creating electricity also generates pollution, but the difference is that electricity-byproduct pollution is generated at electricity point of origin, not at point of use, and thus is far more easily dealt with than pollution from sixty million gas burning cars spread across three million square miles, not to mention everything else that burns gas in that same area.)

But Washington is never going to insist on them, just like they're never going to put sufficient funding behind technology that democratizes energy, like solar and wind technology. But there's no bloody reason at all that houses throughout the country shouldn't be generating much of their own energy resources via these technologies. "Green" is the hip word of the moment, now that the Green Party is functionally non-existent, but there's no reason why America shouldn't be employing "green" technology for as much of its energy needs as possible, and only using oil as a supplement, or diverted to industrial uses where nothing else is sufficient. So what if everyone's got a wind farm in their back yard? But to be widely used, the price of all these things -- solar panels, wind trees, energy storage tanks, hybrids and electric cars -- have to be brought way down and be widely affordable, and concretely, not in the pathetic tax credit way that Congress adores. If Hillary's talking about liberating windfall profits from oil companies, putting it behind these technologies and their widespread implementation is the way to go, not biofuels. That's just replacing one crutch with another.

But the cold hard fact is energy companies, car companies and oil companies will do their damnedest to block any technology that democratizes energy (and I suspect farm combines and associations and Big Agriculture will fight tooth and nail any attempt to undo the success with pushing ethanol as fuel they've enjoyed lately) because those don't put any money in their pockets and in fact threaten to tear those pockets off, even though they've known for decades that democratized, locally-generated energy would be in the nation's best interests. But not in theirs. No matter what the obvious need, Washington's not going to go out of its way to functionally put major industries out of business, especially when those industries pump tons of money into Washington pockets. But it's not so much America's dependence on foreign oil that we need to be weaned from, it's America's dependence on Big Energy, because as long as they run the show the only thing we have to look forward to is ever-increasing ticket prices, and that's the reality no one in politics, not even Hillary Clinton, wants to face.


Notes from under the floorboards:

Grant "graphic novel" (I'm tired of quibbling) watch: the crime thriller TWO GUNS from Boom! Studios next Wednesday, knock wood; and the suspense thriller THE SAFEST PLACE from Image/12 Gauge... uh... imminently. (Like before San Diego. Details to follow, but for info on the contents, click on the titles.) Meanwhile, somewhere along the line Marvel issued a MARVEL FANFARE trade paperback, which, among a lot of X-Men stories and some terrific art by the likes of Michael Golden & Paul Smith, includes a pretty decent Hulk story I did a long time ago with a very good comics artist named Joe Barney who for some reason drew next to nothing else. And I'm told Marvel recently put out a deluxe hardcover of the PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD mini-series Mike Zeck and I did that turned the formerly shlub character into a franchise. Or they're about to, I get conflicting reports (but so far no copy of it). Now if they'll only reissue to RETURN TO BIG NOTHING graphic novel...

My apologies to Oni Press; turns out both Matt Fraction and I were wrong, and the company actually has a pretty good creator deal, so if you've got a property you're looking to publish creator-owned, by all means check into them as a market. The comments still hold for way too many other indie publishers, though - and always make sure of what the deal is before you sign off on it.

Congratulations to Marvel for their big sweep of the box office with this weekend's IRON MAN release. I see they've now announced a new slate of movies with INCREDIBLE HULK and PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (does this mean they'll be lifting Chuck Dixon's dialogue instead of mine this time?) for this year, WOLVERINE (minimum) next year, IRON MAN 2 and THOR in 2010, capping it with THE AVENGERS in 2011. Ambitious slate, but go for it, Daz!

Someone recently referred me to the Hi Sci Fi weekly Internet radio show, which is fairly entertaining. Amusing chat this week with a TokyoPop rep, plus comments on the Iron Man movie, Marvel's Skrull Invasion, etc.

I occasionally bring up global warming, which usually triggers a slew of letters about how "global warming" is one big con game for this conspiratorial reason or that. I could make some snide joke about them, but finally have to agree with them, at least in this case: the claim is now being made that red meat causes global warming! Supposedly the production of "red meat" (by which I'm assuming they mean beef, though there are several kinds of red meat) generates half again as much "greenhouse gas" as chicken or fish but nobody (at least in the article) mentions why this would be. Exhaust from the gas gun they shoot cows with? It also doesn't specify what the relative volume of the pollutants is. If "red meat" creates 150% of the pollutants fish and chicken create, what do fish and chicken create? If the amount of pollutants is huge, half again is important. If it's tiny, half again is insignificant. All sounds a bit suspect to me.

I see the Chicago Transit Authority has stripped their trains and buses of adverts for GRAND THEFT AUTO IV after a local TV station linked -- no evidence, of course, but it sounds great on a May sweeps broadcast, dunnit? -- the game... no, I mean advertisements for the game... with a supposed violent crime wave currently striking the Windy City. How much longer are we going to sucker out for low rent paranoia like this, especially considering the game has never been linked to any actual violence. (I did see one great bit of unintended comedy on a sensationalist local news broadcast last week; they were trying to drum up paranoia over some door jimmy available on the Internet that would allow thieves to very easily enter your home "without your knowing it," though I expect you'd know it when you walked in and found your TV missing. As a demonstration, their reporter picked a random house in a Las Vegas neighborhood and arranged to break in using the tool, to show how easy it was. He spent the better part of a half hour trying uselessly to do it, with excuse after excuse. I didn't stick around to see if he made it, but it was pretty damn funny.) Meanwhile the game has been getting rave reviews across the board, and I stumbled across one of the more intriguing aspects of the game; seems it, like the other versions, includes a lot of music, and when you hit a piece you like you can click a link inside the game and buy/download the track directly from Amazon. Now that's marketing! Oh, and the game company is suing the CTA.

Wait a minute! Lemme get this straight. GRAND THEFT AUTO IV is released last week and gamers snap it up like it's free money being scattered by an airplane. IRON MAN is released to theaters and makes well over $100,000,000 in the same week. But... but... what about the longstanding Hollywood argument that movie attendance is down because the audience is playing videogames now? Just a second, I know there's got to be an answer to this puzzle... um... could it be -- this is just speculation, mind you -- that audiences are still willing to pay to see movies that they want to see? And videogames, even maybe the most successful videogame ever, has nothing at all to do with it! If so, what does that mean for comics? Could it possibly mean that comics don't sell better because people aren't making comics people want to read?

Believe it or not, a substitute teacher for the Pasco County school district has been banned from teaching for palming a toothpick in front of his students. No, he wasn't stealing from the school cafeteria. He was entertaining them with a magic trick. Shortly thereafter the supervisor of substitutes for the county called him in to tell him he'd been accused of wizardry. For a silly sleight of hand magic trick. The school's principal now claims it wasn't "just the wizardry" that got him banned... Forget it, Jake, it's Florida...

This is cute: a group, Women's Voices Women's Vote, organized by a Hillary backer (Bill's former chief of staff does sit on the group's Board Of Directors, and longtime Bubba-backer Joe Goode is its executive director, while Hillary herself is a member of its "leadership team," whatever that is), has been recorded-calling predominantly black voters in North Carolina (and has done this in several other states, apparently) with a message designed to suggest to the recipients they aren't registered to vote. And it's too late to register! In other words, don't bother trying to vote. Last week I mentioned how the Supreme Court okayed Indiana's voter i.d. law, which demands voters show official picture i.d. in order to vote. I said then I didn't mind the idea, and I still don't, basically. Here's what sucks about it, though: since the government is insisting that, in addition to proper registration, the voter now has to spend money in order to vote -- picture i.d.s aren't free; whether they're driver's licenses or some other form, the state charges money for them -- which basically constitutes a poll tax. They want people to provide official picture i.d., fine. Let the state provide that i.d., gratis. Why not just put picture i.d. on voter registration cards, since you're supposed to be able to produce those on demand anyway? (Not that anyone's ever asked for mine.) If there's one national law that should be passed, it's this one: no governing body should pass any law that requires citizens to pay out money, unless the body allocates funding to cover those costs. I realize there are times when that's a very bad idea, but overall it would slow down a lot of the nonsense coming out of legislatures.

The RIAA has apparently started a massive assault on colleges, sending out tons of anti-piracy notices to students despite no apparent increase in piracy and apparently no research on the matter by anyone connected with the RIAA. Wired magazine speculates the drastic increase in notices sent will be used by the RIAA as "evidence" of drastic increases in online music piracy when lobbying for tough anti-piracy laws, since the only figures lawmakers ever seem to see are those (identified in several independent studies as totally fanciful) provided by RIAA lobbyists. In other words, more notices=more piracy. Of course. The RIAA didn't offer any reason for the increase.

Interesting story about our government trying to buy off an Iraqi man whose pre-teen son was whacked by Blackwater, with explanations from a former diplomat about how bribery is part of their system, which is so different from ours...

Congratulations to Tim Graham, the first to notice all the comics in last week's Comics Cover Challenge had double letters in their titles. Tim wishes to point your attention to the political website Victor David Hanson's Private Papers. 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, and it's a mother of a hint this week. 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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