Permanent Damage

Wed, June 11th, 2008 at 11:01pm PDT | Updated: June 16th, 2008 at 9:52am

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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I have to admit I haven't been paying a lot of attention to the business end of comics the past few weeks. Mainly because I want to see something new and different and all I get is reruns. I've heard this song before, I've danced this dance, and in this case familiarity breeds contempt.

It's a largely predatory field where the predators insist not only that they're not the predators, but that they're the ones being preyed on. So maybe predator isn't the right word. Let's go with another: parasite.

I know words like parasite and predator carry a trainload of emotional baggage, but I'm not giving them any moral weight. They're function words. Both are organism that feed off other organisms. The difference is that the predator hunts, takes what it can get up to what fills its needs (in nature most predators don't kill beyond food necessity), eats and moves on. The parasite enters a symbiotic relationship with the host and commonly dies with it, while using the host to continue the parasitic species. In many cases, a parasite alters the behavior or chemistry of the host to fit its own needs, as malaria protozoa will make the host fever sweat and thereby draw more mosquitoes, which suck the inflected blood and transfer the protozoan parasites to other hosts. But when the infected person dies, the parasite dies with it, and only its offspring live on.

Neither is an exact parallel to the relationship between creators and publishers (not to mention readers) in the comics world, and neither is meant to imply that comics publishers are by nature evil, criminal or would-be robber barons, though it has been known to happen. Most comics publishers think of themselves as good people, and most are. Most publishers view their behavior as a necessity of business, which has always been the standard mode: the way things had to be done, and the way they were always done. Funny how that changed. After fifty years of comics companies laying down the law to talent about what could and couldn't be (despite several special deals here and there that clearly demonstrated their insistence that things had to be the way they were held water) circumstances shifted their thinking if not radically then at least significantly. Rewritten copyright laws, precipitously declining sales (especially for DC) and the advent of independent publishers attracting name talent by offering better deals in lieu of money they didn't have changed the business. First it was DC which, having had unanticipated success with the Marv Wolfman-George Perez revival of Teen Titans and eager to attract other big talent from Marvel to draw attention and revivify their business, offered royalties and other perks. Marvel's original response was to quietly spread rumors, which sounded just credible enough at the time to be worrisome to a number of talents, that Marvel was negotiating to buy DC and those who stayed loyal to Marvel would be first in line for gigs when the DC titles were brought over; the not especially subtle threat was that if you accepted work from DC now you wouldn't have any work in the very near future. While it was fairly effective, it wasn't effective enough, and Marvel's second response was an escalating series of giveaways culminating in what they called "incentives." Incentives were effectively royalties, but "royalty" carried a specific legal meaning and obligation whereas "incentive" had no legal meaning and translated into "a voluntary gift from the company that we can withhold at any time." Still, the rubicon was crossed if only euphemistically, and by the end of the '80s the actual word "royalty" was creeping into Marvel's contracts, and, combined with a sometimes explosive rise in sales that made Marvel's "incentives" worth a lot more than any other company's "royalties," that was pretty much that.

Which was a problem for the independent comics publishers that had sprung up in the meantime. Most of them, at least the ones who weren't self-publishers and even they tended to shift gears when publishing others' works, had several features in common: their business model was tied to the "captive audience" of the comics shop market and their success tied to a continuously expanding market; they were perpetually underfunded; they attracted talent and ideas by offering "creator-owned" deals while perpetuating contracts that put control of content and rights in their hands; and they wanted to be Marvel. They routed their money into ever-growing staffs and office space, the better to look "official," but still none of them had the resources, the product, or, usually, the imagination to take on Marvel or DC, despite that being the scale they were trying to think on.

Then they didn't have the means to pay freelancers for work already done and published. Commonly this was followed by pleas to freelancers for patience and understanding through "this difficult time," and some publishers followed that up with broadsides about greedy, unscrupulous freelancers, who usually garnered that response by warning other freelancers they were likely to go unpaid if they produced work for that publisher, or by threatening or bringing legal action to collect monies owed. But the strong suggestion was always that if freelancers insisted on being paid, it would force the publisher out of business and they'd never paid.

Then the publishers went out of business anyway, establishing the pattern that is now a fact of our creative lives as new publishers rise up in waves with big dreams and usually little understanding of or preparation for the peculiar conditions and problems of the comics market, a simple beast that's incredibly difficult to tame, or any originality in their approach.

But it did leave us with a simple rule of thumb: while not true across the board and you have to apply some intelligence to your determinations, the publishers who suspend payments for creative work and/or drastically cut back on terms, or those who pay nothing at all, are the likeliest to go out of business and leave the creative freelancer, as Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell put it in PERFORMANCE, "holding the sodding baby."

And, given today's contract standards, leaving whatever properties talent had with the publisher in rights purgatory. But there's not a lot that can be done about that last thing: a publisher isn't legally allowed to notify parties ahead of time when he declares bankruptcy or allow them to withdraw properties or place assets in any sort of special trust to exclude them from bankruptcy proceedings. So you're not going to hear from any publisher that your book is that kind of legal jeopardy. Bankruptcy courts are weird beasts frequently outside the terms of other legal entities; even if you have a contract clause reverting all your creation's property rights to you in the event of bankruptcy, a bankruptcy judge usually has the latitude to void that clause and list your property among publishing company assets if he chooses. That's not the publisher's fault, except insofar as he's responsible for the situation in the first place.

Your best, and trickiest, bet is to stay away in the first place from publishers likely to end up on the bankruptcy junkheap.

Three publishers recently stirred up these waters: TokyoPop, Platinum and Archaia Studios Press. TokyoPop, also recently under attack for ludicrous changes in their creative contracts that are basically a flag for anyone with half a brain to go away, announced layoffs and reorganizations. Archaia founder and ARTESIA creator/writer-artist Mark Smylie announced a reorganization period after his co-publisher left the company. Platinum... well, Platinum gets more and more interesting by the day.

It's hard to tell what's going on inside Archaia without knowing why Aki Liao left. ASP was basically a self-publishing operation for years, then suddenly expanded with a host of other books, including the popular MOUSE GUARD, but doesn't seem to have landed many other hits. (How does ROBOTIKA sell? I know THE KILLER has been critically acclaimed, but does it have any market juice?) So while the situation is difficult to read, there are what are statistically warning signs: a plea to freelancers to bear with, and a note that they're looking for an outside investor, ostensibly to buy Liao's piece of the company. I like Smylie, I like his work and think his company generally puts out good product but the two things �" an inability to pay talent, and the hunt for new money �" are traditional danger klaxons for small companies. It's unclear whether the company has suspended publication during this period or whether the talent is still soldiering on without pay. On the plus side, at least for public relations purposes, much of the talent published by the company has expressed support and loyalty, but "loyalty," like "trust," is one of those words that only really has meaning when never invoked. On the minus side, moral support for a publisher from talent producing for him has never really meant anything and never stopped a publisher from going under; they frequently perceive a vested interest in spreading the good word. Smylie strikes me as a smart guy, and on the surface of it there seems no reason Archaia would be staring down failure, but at minimum his problem is that the things he's saying about his company are the things publishers who know their company is failing say, to put a good face on things in the belief that "perception is reality." Which isn't to say that's what Smylie's doing, just that the bad publishers ruined that for everyone.

It wasn't that long ago that TokyoPop seemed on track to take over the world, which may have been their problem; nothing exceeds like success. They helped flood the market with many more manga trades than it could absorb, and many just weren't very good, or were highly repetitious of product they already published. At any rate, publishing seems to have hit its current limit, at least with the quality of material currently available; as noted elsewhere, Borders has pulled TokyoPop titles from their shelves due to slipping sales. It would seem something else went on behind the scenes there, as usually booksellers only pull titles that don't sell, not a publisher's entire output. That's warning sign #1. Then there was the company's snooty take on "amerimanga," their attempt to publish new creations by "local" talent. Pay and rights terms were appalling, with the only slightly veiled suggestion that the talent should count their lucky stars TokyoPop was even speaking to them, and the whole program seemed to be geared toward drawing in the desperate. TokyoPop at least had sales to suggest that even under their wretched terms pay would eventually be more than worthwhile, but their slippage has since undercut that. Their newer terms seem calculated to drive off as many as possible, which would be in line with their staff and output cutbacks.

Warning sign #2: the recent split into two companies, one for media development of their properties. They may have the economics to pull it off, but more often than not this "media development" thing has been a boondoggle publishers have bought into that has bled their resources while accomplishing little. It suggests at best little understanding of how Hollywood works, and at worst presumptive misunderstanding, but it sure has become a popular game among smaller comics companies. Unless you're planning to be Marvel or Dark Horse, you don't need to go to them; they'll come to you. At most you only need one person out there hustling your product around, not an entire staff or management company, and doing your own development is a fool's game. Producers like to do their own development, and having pre-developed properties is a better method of scaring potential media buyers off than enticing them, and even Marvel and Dark Horse originally had little solid input into properties based on their creations and had to work their way up. (Dark Horse owner/executive producer Mike Richardson has usually had more input into productions than most, as he had some fairly high level Hollywood production talent backing him up in his early production days, but even his viewpoint is rarely dominant, just due to Hollywood politics.) DC has a corporate relationship with Warner Brothers, but even DC is rarely given more than an advisory role in any production. For most comics companies, Hollywood is little more than a money pit, and setting up your own operation there separate from a publishing operation is dodgy.

Warning sign #3: firing both the editor-in-chief and chief of media development while splitting the company into a publishing branch and a media development branch is either visionary or suicidal.

Still, barring more big setbacks, it's unlikely TokyoPop is going anywhere anytime soon. But it's starting to smell like the company's day as an industry force is over.

Then there's Platinum, AKA the little engine that keeps changing its mind.

Lemme tell you a little story about Dark Horse's Comics Greatest World/Dark Horse Heroes line, which published X and various other titles back in the day. Comics Greatest World was something of a sea change for Dark Horse, a company built on publishing creator-owned titles like SIN CITY and media tie-ins like PREDATOR. (Strangely, while companies coming into the business used to want to be Marvel, these days they more often than not seem to want to be Dark Horse, and scoop up whatever media properties aren't nailed down.) CGW was a company-owned superhero universe that they had developed on staff for almost four years �" main characters, bible, underlying grand storyline - before it materialized in print, and it was a more or less original idea when they started. It had two intended functions: to be something never done before in superhero comics, and to give the company properties it owned, since creators owned their own work at Dark Horse and media companies owned the respective licensed properties. Had they developed it in two years, it might have even been a hit; it wasn't a terrible idea. But between the time they conceived it and the time it appeared, superhero universes, many concocted virtually overnight, had flooded the market and the market had absorbed about as many as it was willing to bear, which turned out not to be many. (DC and Marvel, ultimately.) CGW had interesting ideas but turned out not to be quite special enough to overcome the market forces of the day. What could have been relatively unique on inception was rendered redundant and overly familiar by time.

Which may be the problem Platinum faces now. Originally Platinum was concocted by publisher Scott Rosenberg following his film success with MEN IN BLACK and his successful sale of his previous company Malibu Comics to Marvel for a tasty amount. His was among the earliest awareness in the business that film would become an important factor in comics publishing, and Platinum was founded not so much to publish comics as to generate properties for media exploitation. Now, of course, this is a standard ploy among comics publishers of all sizes, but now it doesn't often work. Back then, c. 2001, when Platinum's gears started turning, it might have.

Platinum was originally intended as a packager, not a publishing house, with the idea of repackaging Euro material and generating original American material and getting them published by existing American publishers. Scott's partner, whose name escapes me, was a European publisher who already had a marketable back catalog. As near as I could tell, the idea was to "buy up" original ideas from American creators, shop those ideas to film companies as new projects based on forthcoming comics �" get in on the ground floor �" and share profits from the media properties based on the comics ideas (it was more of a royalty payment than profit sharing, with Platinum receiving the generous bulk of any income) in lieu of much upfront payment for the creative work, though there was some. Platinum was very interested in the deals but not especially interested in producing the comics.

The idea might have worked had they pushed it into practice sooner, and they did place a short-lived show on Showtime called JEREMIAH, based on a pre-existing Eurocomic. But they dragged things on for months, and about the time they finally started kicking into gear, movie studios started deciding that if they were going to buying comics properties they wanted to see the actual comic books they were based on. An existing comic carries its own property rights, whereas a pitch has none. It wasn't long before it became apparent that the original game plan wasn't very well. It was also apparent there would be conflicts between the comics end of the company, where talent was signing on even at low rates on the promise they could do the comic they envisioned, and the film marketing end, which wanted the comics to function more as a film development wing, adjusting the properties to make them more appealing to Hollywood. The tension was never strong enough to do serious damage to the company, but it did point up how to some extent Platinum was at odds with itself and with prevailing market conditions. At different times they revealed on the q.t. publishing deals with various companies, and decided on an oversized "European graphic novel" format with 9-10 panels per page, but time dragged on and next to nothing was ever published. In their early days, I was interested in testing out those waters to see if the game plan would work, and produced three original graphic novel properties. It took a couple years after I wrote them before artists were even assigned, and it's now 6-7 years later and not one was ever drawn.

Currently the company is in new hands, following an "infusion of funds" a couple years ago; it's my understanding that while Scott is still officially attached he's not much directly involved in the business anymore, though the recent announcement of a new publishing company, Vanguard Comics, by Platinum and an animation company prominently mentions him. (By the way, isn't there already a Vanguard Publishing on our side of the aisle?) Meanwhile Platinum has reportedly been withholding creator payments, citing the "financial challenges" of "this tough economy," while a letter to talent from Platinum praises the talent's patience while repeatedly asserting their confidentiality agreements.

Again, statistically �" it may have nothing to do with Platinum's current situation at all �" that sort of language in combination with stop payments to talent (one wonders if payments to staff have stopped as well) is a big red flag. I know Platinum is dedicated to publishing comics �" last summer they contacted me about revising one of my graphic novels to a serial comics format, but I had neither the inclination to make the desired creative changes nor time to do the necessary work in any case, since the format shift alone amounted to starting over �" and they finally put together that packaging deal, with Top Cow, but enough is questionable that were I creating new material for them I'd be nervous. At minimum, should their current financial difficulties prove insurmountable, they now have the Vanguard Comics entity to shift their operations and presumably select properties to while leaving everyone else holding the sodding baby. Which isn't to say they would or have any intention to, but the mechanism is in place if they want to.

The thing is: they're not wrong about tough economic times, but there are reasons why comics have been traditionally buffered against such things, though many of the reasons no longer exist - the cheapness of the product, for instance; you have to pay $3 for a comic but you can buy a DVD at Wal-Mart now for $5, and the comparative timewasting factor makes the DVD the better entertainment buy, all other things being equal. But all other things aren't equal. Comics also rise and fall on their content, an area we have complete control over. That's our real buffer �" the creativity and uniqueness of the content �" but increasingly comics companies work against the idea of material you must come to comics to get, and instead focus on material they perceive will be easy to sell to movies. They're trading off the best marketing tool we've got, which suggests that while these three companies are in the vanguard of new troubled companies they likely won't be the last this time around. The best freelancers can do is approach publishers warily, do their homework in advance and pay more attention to contracts than to honeyed words because (we call this the Olbrich principle) it doesn't matter what they say, only what they'll put in cold type. Many publishers still view contracts as just a formality, at least where clauses to your benefit are concerned, and in my experience brim with reasons why you should ignore them in the publisher's favor. Clauses to their benefit? Generally writ in stone. At any rate, contracts are only as good as anyone's willingness to sue to enforce them, but signed agreements trump handshakes every time.

So you can be wary and not pitch projects around, or you can be daring and take your chances. These days either path is usually wracked with pain, but the upshot, as always, is that it's up to you to protect yourself because when the rubber meets the road most publishers, however reluctantly, conclude the talent's interests are the most expendable, and while it's always nice to be pleasantly surprised, and it does happen, there's no reason you should expect otherwise.

More of the Cheyenne Kid story started next week. Still no word on whether it's an Al Williamson/Fleagles art job or some excellent imitator. Anyone? Take a look and if you know, tell me. Thanks.

This week I read:

From Twomorrows Publishing:

THE BEST OF DRAW! Vol 3, ed Mike Manley ($29.95)

A collection of interviews, tutorials and features originally presented in DRAW! magazine, by and with top artists like Paul Rivoche, Dan Brereton and the unfortunate Mike Weiringo. I've generally found more recent issues of the magazine too long on anecdote and generality and too short on practical matters, but here are terrific Bret Blevins discussing lighting and Paul Rivoche on the function and practice of design, which, considering Rivoche is one of the best designers in the field, is pretty much worth the price of admission on its own if you're seriously interested in drawing comics. But there's plenty to learn throughout, and it's a wise investment for aspiring comics artists.

From Edward Laroche:

ALMIGHTY by Edward Laroche ($10)

Storywise, this is a relatively ordinary post-apocalyptic thriller, and I vaguely sense some sort of post-Rapture Book Of Revelations subtext, though it's not specified and I could be way off on that. It just felt like it. A post-war gun for hire is sent to rescue a kidnapped girl from a gang-infested hellhole in the last days of this century, after some unexplained cataclysm �" a war and less identified bad things �" have reduced the whole country to a patchy, generic low-budget film inner city barbarism, and their escape forces them and their pursuers into a worse hellhole. However... the presentation is very good, the pacing excellent, the art and storytelling strong. Laroche draws like a latter day Spain Rodriguez, with very sharp use of black/white contrast, and he knows how to keep the story and characters interesting enough to stave off thoughts about the source material it pretty much wears on its sleeve. That's not an easy achievement. I'd like to see him tackle more original material, but in entertainment value it's way up there. Good job.

From First Second:

PRINCE OF PERSIA THE GRAPHIC NOVEL by Jordan Mechner, AB Sina, LeUyen Pham & Alex Pivilland ($)

Um, okay. This comes from a videogame? That explains the confused story, involving characters strewn across time in a mythical Middle East who are apparently the same characters, or their stories intertwine between past and present, or something like that, with the theft of a throne at one end of the continuum and fulfillment of prophecy and recovery of that throne by the true choice of the people at the other end. It has something or other to do with repressing Sufism, too, but aside from prop value there's no evidence anyone connected with the book has more than the vaguest idea of what Sufism is. Not that it's the place for a lecture, but a little information couldn't hurt, since they allude to it like it's a major plot point. (It isn't.) The art's okay, but while writer Sina is credited as an award-winning poet, there isn't much evidence of that in the fairly ordinary dialogue, and not much evidence that poets amount to good storytellers. Or maybe it's just the videogame. In any case, it's not a bad book but they're obviously trying for something mythic and, aside from an amusing twist of prophecy at the end that comes out of nowhere and abruptly slams the story into a concrete historical context, it's pretty forgettable.

From Fantagraphics:

BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON by Dash Shaw($)

Last week I ranted some about autobiographical alt comics, and the flip side of those is the often deadly slice of life drama. While BOTTOMLESS BELLY BUTTON is a slice of life drama, about a family trying to come to terms with themselves when the parents divorce after a 40 year marriage, but fortunately it's the opposite of deadly. Shaw, whose name is strangely absent from all but the indicia, deconstructs numerous things �" sand, water, cartooning techniques, architecture and emotional blind spots �" over the course of this several hundred page volume, but keeps it funny, touching and just elliptical enough to feel real without frustrating the reader; unearthed secrets are always weightily inflected but turn out to be trivial, we see connections the characters miss altogher, and they spend the book searching for revelations that just aren't there. Even when they stumble on a genuine revelation, as happens once or twice, they misdirect it and the moment's lost. It's a bittersweet laugh riot, seriously. Shaw's cartooning is what they call "deceptively simple," bordering on ugly plain but very expressive. By the end it virtually abandons form altogether and the continuity becomes a string of moments, consecutive but isolated, as the "reunion" breaks up and the characters become isolated themselves. Considering it's such a simple idea it's a fairly daring and powerful technique. Especially considering the novel starts and ends nowhere and not much is really accomplished in between, except for the reader, it's one of the best graphic novels I've read this year.

AMOR Y COHETES by Los Bros Hernandez ($16.99)

A collection of much of the earliest (most of it pre-Fantagraphics, when they were producing their own comics) Hernandez Brothers material not already in trade paperback. It's revelatory, almost shocking, in its demonstration of how accomplished and sophisticated Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez's work was right out of the gate. They've refined their work since, but it's all right here in all its lively and inventive glory, proof that they deserve every bit of their reputation. Get it.

From Image/Active Images:

ELEPHANTMEN �" WAR TOYS 03, by Richard Starkings & Moritat ($2.99)

Concluding the latest chunk of Starkings' "origin story" for his genetically altered intelligent humanoid hippo detective of the future, Hip Flask: as a merciless army of beasts altered to perfect soldiers sweeps across Europe, they encounter violent and effective resistance from a underground fighter and must deal with her. There are no huge plot twists in the story, but Starkings �" who writes this one himself instead of farming out the duty to someone like Joe Casey, and writes well enough to make you wonder why he didn't write it himself from the start �" keeps the point relatively subtle and the consequences of the story non-immediate, but there's no doubt about the story's importance to the series' overall plotline. Moritat's art remains good too. Worth a look.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Only six weeks until San Diego. I should be around the Boom! Studios table signing TWO GUNS some, so check their schedule. Not sure where else I'll be �" maybe at Image/12 Gauge at some point for a SAFEST PLACE signing - but feel free to say hi on the fly, unless I'm having a meal. (While using the facilities probably isn't a good time either, though there are people I seem to only run into in bathrooms, for some reason.)

Again, run out right now and buy the TWO GUNS trade paperback from Boom! Studios and Marvel's hardcover repackage of THE PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD, because, let's face it, you just don't have enough crime comics in your life. And look for THE SAFEST PLACE mid-June, knock wood. Of course, if your local retailer won't carry them and you'll be in San Diego, I'm sure you can scrounge up copies there.

Anyone remember T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS, the short-lived mid-'60s book orchestrated by Wally Wood for Tower Publishing mixing the Justice League concept with The Man From UNCLE that has since been the result of numerous lawsuits, ownership claims and attempted revivals? Of course you do. Ran across a copy of TwoMorrows Publishing's THUNDER AGENTS COMPANION a few weeks back that included a very interesting letter from Jim Shooter, about a time he, on Marvel's behalf when he was editor-in-chief there, tried to negotiate a purchase of THUNDER AGENTS rights �" and after due diligence pulled the offer because Tower, or what was left of it, couldn't produce any paperwork proving they'd ever done anything to secure rights from creators, not even the infamous, "back of the check" bogus contracts that were par at other companies like Marvel, which were basically blackmail deals that you signed when you signed the check to get the money you were owed for work you had already done. By the mid-'60s it was standard operating belief in the comics business that all rights automatically accrued to the publisher, though there was no such standard in law and the '76 copyright act finally enshrined that there was no such standard. I had to wonder: with all the supposed purchases of rights to the characters that have occurred since, did any paperwork like that ever turn up? If it didn't, doesn't that mean that either no one can legally do a new version of THUNDER AGENTS or anyone can? If such records don't exist, just buying the rights in good faith means nothing legally, the same way that if you steal my car and sell it to a third party in good faith, the third party still doesn't have any legal claim to my car. On the other hand, since no one has been able to do much with THUNDER AGENTS but muck it up, and while different for the time it was never a terribly strong concept to start with, it's probably a moot point...

I'm hearing rumors that Diamond's squeezing publishers to sign exclusive deals by cancelling future solicitations based on anticipated low consumer interest and listing trades as "out of print" when the publishers have warehouses full of them. Anyone know anything about this? If Diamond's not doing this, forget I brought it up. If they are, isn't that at least a bit shady, considering they're a functional monopoly in comics markets? It's one thing to trim solicitations for economic necessity but another to use their market muscle to determine which publishers get to live or die, especially if it's because they're not playing ball.

Huh. Turns out that when it comes to nuclear power John McCain wants the nuke industry to have all the government subsidies it can stand, to the tune of billions, but bring up alternative energy sources like wind, geothermal or solar power, and he's suddenly "wary" of government subsidies because they "distort the market" and cause "unintended consequences." Such as, I suppose, homeowners being free of energy merchants, as least with wind and solar power, at least in the American southwest where McCain's constituents reside. That may be the "unintended consequence" he has in mind: aside from the initial equipment purchase, no one profits. I know several people out here who have solar cells for their homes, and they all have excess power they sell to the local power company instead of buying it. But that sort of thing has already had "unintended consequences"; turns out the power company's keeping prices lower this summer for most of us �" it costs a couple hundred a month minimum to have air conditioning running in a Las Vegas home during the summer �" because they already have more than enough power to cover it. Expand that to every home, every building in the very sunny Southwest, and you're talking enough power to light up half the country at least. Which means nowhere near the demand for new nuclear power plants or "clean" coal plants and other vested interest energy concerns, and that's with still relatively low efficiency solar cells. Just think what improved technology could accomplish. Government subsidies could put that technology in the hands of many more people than can afford the start-up costs now, but that would also result in much less money in the coffers of what now appears to be McCain's real constituency. And they're hardly the only vested interests threatened by the need for new weapons against energy consumption as usual. Electric and hybrid car technology was pretty much ready for use ten years ago, and Detroit yanked it. There's no doubt easily obtainable hybrid and electric cars would be our quickest way to offset dependence on oil, but how does GE, for example, cope with the sudden anti-demand for the SUVs and other fuel monsters it's been pimping for the last decade plus? Not retooling for production of new tech cars but closing American plants and opening Mexican plants. Beyond being a huge problem for oil companies, electric and hybrid cars are a huge problem for the secondary parts and repair industries that have walked hand-in-hand with Detroit for decades, since the newer technologies are cleaner and run smoother, if not as fast, meaning many fewer repairs and hard times for the parts/repair sector. Well, hell, sorry about that, but it's not like we couldn't see this coming thirty years ago, and it's not like there wasn't plenty of time for a slow and relatively painless shift, but no...

I see Dennis Kucinich has introduced 35 articles of impeachment against The Ghost in the Senate, covering a number of charges from lying his way into a war on Iraq to misusing funds to mounting secret task forces without Congressional knowledge to abetting a felony in relation to the Valerie Plame case to creating secret laws and violating existing ones to ignoring lawful Congressional subpoenas to voter fraud to mishandling national emergencies and much more. It's quite a list. I appreciate the symbolic value but don't really imagine much coming of it, unless there's a huge groundswell of public support for it, and the way the press is I'll be surprised if most people even hear of it. Nancy Pelosi has already said she won't support it, Senate Republicans objected to the whole report into the White House case for war and related matters that it's predicated on, by the time it seriously got underway the Ghost would be almost out of office anyway, and without impeaching Cheney as well there's no point. (Even Republicans don't want a President Cheney, even for a couple of months. Not that we haven't had President Cheney for quite a few years now.) Not that Kucinich hasn't already filed articles of impeachment on Cheney and the Senate has sent them to the House, but the House Judiciary Committee has so far refused to consider it. This impeachment likely won't even get that far. Nice try, but...

Now the MPAA is pressuring the FCC to allow them to block recording of movies on DVRs, though that's currently against FCC regulations. Meanwhile, Comcast, whose Internet service piggybacks on its cable service, is starting experiments in replacing the current "unlimited monthly use" business model with metered service, so that customers pay for the amount of Internet bandwidth they use. It has been suggested that Comcast's real concern is the way the Internet will threaten its core cable business and especially its pay per view services when web transmission speeds become rapid enough to allow quick movie downloads, which will almost certainly be the preferred delivery system for films in the relatively near future, and the proposed metered service is a way to either limit customer taste for such a method or make up lost revenues. Also meanwhile, Sweden, of all places, is apparently launching a program to monitor all Internet communications that bounce through Sweden, whether they're to or from anyone in Sweden or not, and given the weird way traffic bumps around the Internet, this pretty much means the Swedes can look an any number of communiqués from anywhere in the world. Finally, this just in: the French government has decided to emulate Red China and provide French ISPs with a list of websites they must block access to. How will they make those determinations? Seems they'll go by complaints from web users, the same way American law allows parties to force ISPs to pull material on the basis of permissions violations. Of course, our policy has been recurringly misused by parties without genuine legal standing but with a grudge or agenda, as when Prince recently demanded YouTube remove a Radiohead video despite having nothing whatsoever to do with the song. Radiohead were rightly incensed. So much for the new, open great means of communication, but it really only was a matter of time before governments started panicking over their lack of control over it, and, by extension, their citizens.

Congratulations to Joshua Starnes, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "calendar dates." Joshua wishes to point your attention to the website of comics publisher Red 5 Comics. 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, so good luck. But don't think I believe you'll get it.

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

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

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

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

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:  comics publishing, cheyenne kid

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