Permanent Damage

Wed, May 14th, 2008 at 2:49pm PDT | Updated: May 15th, 2008 at 1:18pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Ad from Atlas comics c. 1954

I had half an essay written, and came to the conclusion it was clever but said nothing, so allow me to apologize then switch to a much shorter object lesson.

Got a call from a producer last week about a property that unfortunately isn't currently available. But he was nice about it, and asked after my other properties. Among them was one I did some time ago but have always been uncomfortable with. I'm not going to name it because I think there's still juice in the concept and there are ways to make it workable again someday, but the upshot is that what saw print was crap. A lot of it's on me, but it was a grinding experience regardless. I did have a vision going in, which was strongly outlined in the pitch, and the pitch sold the project very nicely. The problem was that once the project was okayed, the company proceeded to do exactly the opposite of everything I spelled out. The artist was wrong for it, to the extent it was marketed at all it was mischaracterized as their version of a much more popular title from another company, etc. Apart from bland scripting, my big culpability in the matter was this: even though I knew where they were pushing the book wouldn't work, I didn't stand up for what I knew it ought to be. Partly for financial reasons and partly because I felt I should try to get along and carve out a good niche for myself with the company that ultimately couldn't be carved, I let them remake the book however they wanted.

When it was cancelled the blame fell on me. At the time I felt that was unfair. Looking back I know it was my fault, because I had the opportunity to put it on the line, to do it right or walk, and I didn't. Because it's a lot easier to say how you'd do that in that situation that to do it when you are.

Of course, I had a game plan, and the book was part of it. There are only so many paths to success in this business. One is to blaze onto the scene with such a splash that everyone's eyes stay on you for a long time afterward. Very few manage to do that. It takes incredible talent and incredible luck, and the best most people can muster is passing luck and the delusion of incredible talent. Another is to plug away and slowly build an audience, but that's hard too. It takes a lot of self-discipline and steady cooperation, especially from publishers. At minimum, it takes a readership that not only has an interest in your work but steady access to it, because names that vanish from sight for any length of time quickly become names only a scattered few remember on their return. Absence from the scene kills momentum; at the time the only way to maintain momentum was to work on a monthly book. Hopefully a good monthly book, but that has always been either a secondary concern or an elementary presumption; how many people are willing to cop to working on bad monthly books, even to themselves?

In order to maintain a monthly title, and preferably more than one (because at least a portion of the readership tends to assume that the more books a writer works on at any given time, the better a writer they must be), one needs to do either one of two things:

A) produce material so brilliant, stunning and either attention- or sales-getting that publishers want the money and/or attention you bring in far more than they want to leave you face down in a forgotten bloody heap in some anonymous and distant alley

or

B) produce publishable work, and get along with publishers or editors well.

Or so it used to be, anyway. In theory.

Know what a geas is? It's a term from Irish mythology, basically both a curse and an obligation. Irish mythology is tinged more with irony and grim humor than any other, maybe because the Irish were the only race to have conquered their own gods in battle. Irish heroes tended to be the ones afflicted with geasa, usually two of them that boded an irreconcilable conflict, the most famous hero so afflicted being the Irish Achilles, Cuchulain (meaning "Hound of Chulain," a smith whose dog the boy Cuchulain kills) has two: he cannot refuse an offered meal and he can't eat his own namesake, i.e. dog meat. No spoiler alert necessary, since the rest should be painfully obvious. On his way to battle, the hero passes a campfire where an old crone (at least in one version) offers him a meal. Unable to refuse, Cuchulain finds himself with a bowl of dog stew in his hands. He has to eat it, but breaking the taboo robs him of much of his strength, and despite a valiant last stand he dies when he reaches the battle. Two irreconcilable taboos, neither of which he can't break without calamity, and he's forced into a position where either one or the other must be broken.

That's a little like life as a creator in comics. Most media, really, for most of us. Most of us try to slip between our geasa, and pray we're never in a spot where one or the other must give. In the above case, I could've drawn the line and possibly never worked for the publisher again. Which might not have been a great thing since I made most of my money at the time there, and while I most likely would have eventually made up the slack, an awful lot of bills would have gone unpaid in the meantime. Or I could go along, make suggestions where possible, and hope that I was wrong and the project would be a huge success anyway.

Which I did. Trust me, it's a booby trap. And the thing is, once you say yes if it blows up on you there's no one to blame but you. At least as far as you're concerned. But not going along is more likely than not to blow up on you too.

Sure, there are ways around the situation. Only work on (your own) creator-owned properties, and good luck finding a publisher. (At least one who can make it worth your while; if it's strictly a labor of love pretty much any publisher will do, as long as they don't pull a contractual fast one. Which has been known to happen.

Or only work on company-owned work. That can at least pay fairly well, and ultimately you can waive all responsibility. But often you waive all but a modicum of real creativity too, depending on the specific situation. Publishers and editors usually have their expectations set, and it becomes more of a puzzle than a creative endeavor, figuring how to fit all the necessary pieces together and come up with a worthwhile product, at least from the POV of whoever signs off on your vouchers. Work for hire has its perks; it's possible to feel creatively fulfilled doing it. It's just as likely to end up frustrated and interchangeable, and ultimately you are, because ultimately you're only, at best, sandwiching your own concerns and perspectives in amid someone else's, and that someone will almost always believe that theirs take precedence over yours. If you want into comics just for a paycheck or to have a little fun playing with other peoples' toys, it probably won't keep you awake nights, and that's fine, if that's what you want. If you're looking to pursue your own instincts and build a unique body of work, odds are it'll become a problem. The only people who have easy answers for that are on the outside looking in, because there are no easy answers, because the right thing to do shifts with the moment and what other stakes are on the table, and there are times when even the noblest sentiments are pure rank stupidity.

And times when they aren't, and times when they're pure rank stupidity but they're the only option you have because all the other options are worse.

Personally, I wouldn't hold up much of my work as great work. I like to think it's in me somewhere, slowly crawling out, but that could just as easily be self-delusion and in any case it's not my call to make anyway. You don't have to feel like you're putting out the greatest work ever done, in comics or in any other field. Odds are pretty good you're not, but that's no excuse not to do the work. What's important isn't being the best but in producing work that says things you believe are important to say that you also believe would never get said otherwise. It's hard to know in the moment whether something's actually any good or not, though hopefully you at least feel a passing flush of satisfaction before heading on to the next thing. Like I said, ultimately it's someone else's job to decide. But after a lot of time has passed, in hindsight...

Hindsight is another boobytrap; too often it's just a game people play to beat themselves up. But this one case, I wish I'd had the guts at the time to be a roadblock on it, to be willing to play chicken with it. That's the real lesson of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE: you hit that gas, you better damn well be ready to go off that cliff. I wish I'd been ready to do that, but the fact was that for whatever reason I wasn't. If you stand against your editor or publisher, in most cases your only leverage is your willingness to walk, and I've done that too and it never worked out all that well either, because editors and publishers usually just don't consider anyone irreplaceable. That project is back in my hands now, and I still like the concept enough that I'd love a do-over at some point, with enough changes and updating to make it an effectively new property, but much, much better would have been getting it right the first time.


Just because things could use a little livening up, a classic '50s story drawn by Al Williamson & Frank Frazetta:

Amazing how even in the far future, brawn and grit trump monsters and rayguns, innit?


Lately I've gotten a lot of mail chastising me for being an Obama backer when Hillary Clinton is clearly the better candidate, as if my great, seemingly misguided-Liberal love for Barack Obama has overwhelmed my better judgment. Which seems to be the tack Clinton and her backers are taking these days: all votes for Obama are sympathy votes �" either blacks supporting him out of race loyalty (yet somehow white supporting Hillary are never doing it out of race loyalty) or liberal whites overlooking the better choice out of noble but potentially disastrous loyalty to the cause of civil rights �" or expressions of misogyny.

But the fact is I'm not even especially fond of Obama. He's okay. I don't think he's a bad choice and I have no problem with him becoming president, but I'd hardly call myself a backer. It's not so much that I like Obama as I'm out of other choices. I'm certainly not voting for McCain �" even if he weren't a Republican, if character's really the issue the press claims it is, he's a guy who eagerly accepts endorsements from ministers who claim it's the USA's historic mission to annihilate the "false religion" of Islam (how is that different from Louis Farrakhan, except in choice of targets?) or claim that God trashed New Orleans with a hurricane to punish America for tolerating homosexuality (and how is that different from saying we brought 9-11 on ourselves?) and who, according to a story his own wife tells, lied about his age to her all the way to the marriage license, when the truth was forced out of him? (And, yes, I know in the story she lied to him about her age too, which makes it even creepier.) �" and there are plenty of reasons to dislike Hillary without bringing her sex or race into it.

But I have to hand it to her; she's sure got chutzpah. Her campaign $20 million in debt, and mathematics now dead against her, she keeps plugging on with a weird half-logic of innuendo and sleight-of-thought. She now claims to be the populist candidate while actively working to overturn the popular vote, since her only shot now is to work behind the scenes to convince all the "superdelegates," those Democratic insiders of sufficient number to swing a nomination behind the scenes if they vote as a block, that they should trump the Obama candidacy for her. Which would basically give the election in the fall to the Republicans by proving that the Democratic Party is the party of elites and special interests. (A charge that can be accurately leveled against both parties without too much effort.) Her campaign keeps insisting that the only states that constitute a litmus test for November are the states she's ahead in. The way the Clinton campaign and the press talked last Tuesday, until I saw the results I thought Indiana was a much more critical state than North Carolina is. (My apologies to North Carolina; like most people my main image of the place still comes from ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW reruns.) Then it turns out North Carolina has almost twice the delegates Indiana does. So what makes Indiana such a great litmus test?

This morning I woke up to some Clinton campaign manager denouncing Obama's "inability" to win in West Virginia, where Hillary is expected to do well, and how this is another critical litmus test. West Virginia?!! The logic of statements like these is pretty interesting, since the Clinton campaign is clearly trying to push the faulty equation that if Obama can't beat Hillary in a state he certainly won't beat McCain. (They also seem to miss that by claiming that the only important states are the ones where Hillary leads they're telling the Democratic voters of all those other states are unimportant.) But going against Hillary and going against McCain are two different things. Does their argument mean that Hillary fully expects that if she were the candidate all Obama's supporters would vote for her, but if Obama were the candidate, none of her supporters would vote for him? Or is the Clinton argument that Hillary is the more Republican of the two Democratic senators? Or is it a suggestion that voters in states that swing her way are bigots who would rather vote for McCain than vote for a (half-)black man in a general election? What are they really arguing with their logic jump?

And why do Clinton's people keep talking about Obama's "inability" to win Florida or Michigan, every time they also argue that the Florida and Michigan votes should be allowed into nomination consideration because "the will of all the people should be represented"? (At least until it should be overturned by a party insider clique, anyway.) On this morning's broadcast, the Clinton campaigner was asked about the Florida/Michigan votes and flat out reiterated the argument �" and it really pissed me off that the reporter let it sit instead of reminding the interviewee that the Democratic National Committee had declared those primaries anathema because they flouted DNC rules, so that Obama didn't campaign in either state and wasn't even on the ballot in one of them? The Clinton campaign's flawed underlying argument is that Hillary would still have won both those states had Obama's name been on both ballots and had a real campaign have taken place there, and that's far from certain. At this point Obama could easily agree, yes, let's include the Florida and Michigan votes - I think it would be a smart public relations move - because numerically they can't hurt him, but the worst you can say for Obama regarding those states is that he played by the rules the DNC set out.

Hillary didn't. So any argument from her side about those counts being included essentially breaks down to "We can't compete on the same terms everyone else competes on, we need special conditions." I don't want a president who thinks they need "special conditions." We've had way too many of them already, and it usually doesn't work out especially well. I don't want a president whose main claim to fame is that he or she is willing to do "whatever it takes" to achieve their ends. I know "whatever it takes" is supposed to sound macho strong, but it's macho stupid, and, furthermore, it's weakness. That's what people just don't seem to get. You want to talk about morals? "Whatever it takes": That's. Moral. Weakness. That's presidents who believe the laws don't or shouldn't apply to them, because they need "special circumstances." What you end up with then is the rule of special circumstances, not the rule of law.

But I freely admit I didn't like Hillary from the start. I don't think many people do. I suspect whatever Republicans are dismayed by the Ghost's policies and might be considering voting Democrat this time around would run like the wind from a Hillary candidacy, and I don't think Hillary or her backers quite realize how widely despised she is. I don't think she'd stand a chance against McCain, because her instinct seems to be to show how Republican she can be �" how much difference, really, is there between Hillary vowing to obliterate Iran should they ever launch a nuclear strike on Israel (and how would all the nuclear countries downwind from all that radiation, like Russia, Pakistan, India and China respond to that?) and McCain singing "Barbara Ann" karaoke as "Bomb Iran"? �" and why vote Democrat when you'll just get a Republican in the White House anyway? That's why she backed the Iraq invasion, after all: to prove to Middle America she was "tough."

The last contention I've heard from Hillary's side lately is that as American voters focus on the economy rather than the war, Obama's support slips, implying voters think Hillary is stronger on the economy. On what basis would they think that? Furthermore, such a false dichotomy will only help Republicans in the falls because the state of the economy is inseparable from the war. Considering her own culpability in the war (not that McCain's hands are clean by any stretch, given that his pattern is claiming the moral high ground then backing off it for expedience while trying to leave his flag planted there) I can see why she'd rather stay off the issue, but any perceived "flipflop" on the war is the least of her problems. The popular suspicion about Hillary is that she's a political opportunist more concerned with her "place in history" than anything else, and that's the image that will haunt her should she by some miracle make it to November. Certainly the way she has run her campaign, her habit of touting exoteric philosophy (like proclaiming the dictatorship of the electorate) while pursuing esoteric action (trying to overturn the popular vote by appealing to the Democratic power elite) and shifting to whatever ploy seems to offer the best momentary advantage makes her more conman than candidate.

And that's why I don't like Hillary, and don't think she's electable. Which has nothing to do with sex, race or Barack Obama.


Notes from under the floorboards:

Didn't mean to diss Marvel's reprint office last week (not that anyone over there mentioned it to me); they're usually excellent at mailing copies of any trades my old stories appear in, and the new hardcover of THE PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD arrived the day after I turned in the column. All I meant was that I didn't know if the book was real because I hadn't seen it. Now I have, and it looks great. Meanwhile Boom! Studios has the TWO GUNS trade paperback officially on their list of today's releases, so run out and pester your local comics shop owner for it, okay? (Support your local comics shop... as long as it supports you.) As for THE SAFEST PLACE, last I heard was mid-June, but I'll be back with info on that as it comes up.

As anyone who reads Internet comics news probably knows by now, Clifford Meth is setting up an auction to defray treatment costs for longtime superstar artist Gene Colan, who's suffering from liver failure, and is looking for auctionable contributions from comics pros. Gene seems to be another of the numerous talents who gave his life to drawing comics, especially for Marvel where his DR. STRANGE work is still awe-inspiring, and he was really the first Marvel era artist besides Steve Ditko who broke completely with the Kirbyized house style and gave the impression that there was more than one exciting thing going on at the company, and yet ended up with nothing after it was all over. Considering IRON MAN is a monster hit movie and Gene was a pivotal IRON MAN artist for a long time, not to mention DAREDEVIL, TOMB OF DRACULA and HOWARD THE DUCK, wouldn't it look really from a p.r. standpoint, if Marvel threw a few bucks behind this fundraising? (DC too, considering Gene was a primary BATMAN artist for nigh on a decade.) Or, if they don't want to be seen setting a precedent, how about if they throw some money behind it on the q.t., with non-disclosure clauses? I can see companies not wanting to give an impression of responsibility to every artist or writer who ever touched one of their pages, but this is Gene Colan... Meanwhile, for the rest of you, some items are already on auction at eBay...

So IRON MAN killed SPEED RACER at the box office this weekend - SPEED RACER appears to be the first major bomb of the year �" and I'm sure there are those out there who will cite this as an example of how the manga "fad" is dying down. (Seem to be a lot of comics fans speculating that manga is "cooling," but it's still going strong here after eight years, so I think it's a bit beyond the "fad" stage and just because not every manga published here is selling well doesn't mean those that do sell well are slacking off or that manga on average still doesn't sell much better than American comics on average.) I suspect it's more suggestive of bad logic behind such films as SPEED RACER: there are no grounds for presuming that anime fans have any interest in live action versions of the anime they love. Especially since many of them are as enamored by the anime style and voice actors as by any story elements, and very little besides story elements gets captured by live action. SPEED RACER is sort of a double whammy because while it tends to be fondly remembered by those who watched it as kids when it first aired in America, it wasn't that widely aired and I doubt the vast majority of Americans ever heard of it. You could probably say the same thing about IRON MAN - but whatever its other virtues IRON MAN had two highly marketable elements in star Robert Downey Jr. and director Jon Favreau, and if you watch the IM advertising, it focused very heavily on Downey and the character of Tony Stark. Conversely, SPEED RACER's leads, Emile Hirsch and Christina Ricci, are relative unknowns and the promotion pretty much ignored them as characters anyway, presenting the impression that SR was basically one big cartoon of a film, and not an especially good one. No conflict, no star power, just a guy driving a car. It was a film without an apparent hook. The studio didn't even much promote it as a Wachowski Brothers film. It was like they believed SPEED RACER was a magic revenue-generating phrase, but no one should have been remotely surprised when that turned out not to be the case.

Man, remember when everyone made a huge deal about sweeps? It was... what?... three years ago? I haven't heard a peep about sweeps for the last two sweeps periods. February I can understand, the writers strike was still on and everything was a mess, but right now? Weird �" and that the networks are about to announce fall schedules is only marginally more mentioned. There don't even seem to be any of the traditional 11PM local news inane panic stories. What's TV coming to?

Looks like a sum zero game for producer David Kelley on TV next season. His BOSTON LEGAL (ABC, 10P Tuesdays), an extremely crappy show that specialized in wrapping liberal causes in a flag of shrill hysteria, Sgt. Bilko-level courtroom shenanigans, ludicrous characterizations and scenarios, and acting just good enough to barely hold it all together, ends after a 13 episode run in the fall, just enough to put its number of episodes over the syndication threshold. But Kelley's Americanized version of LIFE ON MARS starts in fall following GREY'S ANATOMY - but Kelley won't be with it after the first episode, surrendering it to OCTOBER ROAD's production team. Wait, didn't they already have a show in the Thursday 10P slot that went belly up? Oh, right, OCTOBER ROAD. One curious fall ABC pickup: DIRTY SEXY MONEY (Wed 10P), which I don't think I've ever heard anyone even mention after its debut episode. I guess someone's watching it... The other three and a half networks announce their fall schedules later this week, though given recent history the odds on anyone's schedule being the same as announced by fall are pretty slim... Meanwhile, it's interesting to look back on last year's fall schedule and see what survived.

As we await the coming THE DARK KNIGHT, with Christian Bale reprising his Batman/Bruce Wayne role (and a better screen Batman there has never been, sorry George), some might be compelled to raid their local video store and hold a Christian Bale marathon. While Bale has been in his share of crappy films (NEWSIES, SHAFT, REIGN OF FIRE) he's usually at least entertaining in them, and you can't really hold crappy films against an actor anyway, because so many films turn out crappy that if a working actor doesn't end up in crappy films it mostly means he's not a working actor. But one to absolutely avoid at all costs: 2005's HARSH TIMES, pointless crap also featuring the very underestimated Freddy Rodriguez and a mostly absent Eva Longoria, about arrogantly and flamingly stupid ex-soldiers making asses of themselves on the mean streets of Los Angeles. Bale and Rodriguez are the soldiers, who drug, booze, womanize and jack Latino drug dealers while Bale tries to get a job working for the LAPD and then the Office Of Homeland Security - which is revealed as a recruiting front for CIA special ops. Bale's character is relentlessly moronic, and this time Bale has to bear the blame, since he's also exec producer on the idiotic trash. Toxic: avoid at all costs.

Apparently, Viacom owner Sumner Redstone has decided that all use of copyrighted material, like, say, a thirty-second clip of a TV show run on YouTube, is piracy. While most of the other participants in an industry conference in Seoul last week now seem to be approaching piracy as a cost of doing business and figuring ways to incorporate it into an overall marketing strategy, Redstone's pronouncement exemplifies the continuing attitude of the media giants, which are now actively trying to eliminate the concept of "fair use" as a legal structure, now that fair use is increasingly applied to new technologies. Their legal argument, of course, is that "quoting" a five second clip from SOUTH PARK in your blog is effectively the same thing as downloading the entire SOUTH PARK movie via Bit Torrent. The underlying reasoning, though, is that their business models and income have been suffering, mostly due to a combination of being incapable of adapting to new technologies and producing volumes of crap that no one's interested in buying, so they should be paid for every single use of their material, whether that use is protected by existing law or not.

Inadvertent sick humor of the week: as gas prices gallop toward the $4 per gallon mark (some are predicting by Memorial Day, while others are talking over $5 by Labor Day, so prep yourselves), turns out a lot of gas station pumps don't go over $3.99, and replacing or refitting them with bigger numbers is prohibitively expensive. You'd think the oil companies would be willing to chip in on this one...

While I'm over at CNN, here's a big breakthrough news story for you: Indiana Jones isn't real! Honest! CNN has even found experts willing to say so! Experts! Aren't you shocked?

Congratulations to William Watson, the first to identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "fathers," with a father on each cover. William wishes to point your attention to Batenor Technology Solutions, which devises business software for use with Microsoft .NET. 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, because giving it flat out would be no fun at all. 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.

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I'm reviewing comics sent to me �" I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them �" at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

TAGS:  gene colan, speed racer, politics

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