Permanent Damage

Wed, July 2nd, 2008 at 5:14pm PDT | Updated: July 2nd, 2008 at 5:16pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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For July 4th, how about a "Declaration Of Independents?"

I was going to write a piece about the Golden Age of independent comics but there's nothing I much have to say about independent comics that I haven't already said, at least today. Except thanks:

To Dave Sim. Love him or hate him, he's the patron saint of independent comics, whose CEREBUS doggedly plugged on through thick and thin, though controversy and market upheaval, for thirty years, until he reached the goal he'd set for himself in the beginning.

To Gil Kane, whose abortive efforts with HIS NAME IS SAVAGE, BLACKMARK and Morningstar Press inspired an awful lot of people to think differently about comics.

To the underground comix, which proved you didn't have to be slick, self-restrained or programmatic to create a market.

To late '60s fanzines, especially those like Bill Spicer's FANTASY ILLUSTRATED/GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE, that began taking comics seriously as a medium separate from its specific content, and those that moved away from discussing comics generated by professional comics publishers and started generating comics of their own.

To Wally Wood, who created the first "prozine," WITZEND, which was sold via mail rather than on newsstands, and featured well-known comics artists producing work unlike what they were producing for mainstream comics.

To the French anthology magazines SPIROU, PILOTE, PHENIX and METAL HURLANT, which generated the idea of the graphic novel and demonstrated breathtaking new art styles and dramatically superior production values, and whose limited exposure on American shores in the early '70s prompted comics creators and critics here to dream of new possibilities for American comics.

To the wave of comics talent that entered the mainstream as the '60s petered out and the '70s ushered in, raised on rebellion, thinking of themselves as artists in their own right and concerned with what they wanted to draw and what they wanted to use comics to say.

To traditional comics distribution, whose collapse, following the banishing of comics from traditional outlets like newsstands and drugstores for lack of profit potential, forced the creation of alternative distribution.

To Mike Friedrich, founder of STAR*REACH, the earliest regular independent comic to sponsor creator rights and provide a venue for comics talent to have their own creations published.

To Dean and Jan Mullaney, founder of Eclipse Comics, the first new comics company to fully take advantage of the nascent alternative distribution and comics shop.

To Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman, whose self-published TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES at least temporarily blew apart Marvel's dominion over alternative distribution and launched hundreds of little publishing houses and as many cheap knock-offs, and who later parlayed their creation into the first private fortune made from independent comics.

To Howard Chaykin, whose AMERICAN FLAGG!, superior in concept, execution and excitement to virtually anything Marvel or DC was publishing at the time, blew away prejudices about independent comics being substandard creatively.

To Mike Richardson, who for a long time via Dark Horse Comics was comics' greatest champion of building lines of legitimately creator-owned creations, in a field crawling with new publishers who paid lip service to creator-ownership then blindsided talent with restrictive contracts.

To the Hernandez Brothers and Vortex Comics publisher Bill Marks, whose LOVE & ROCKETS and publication of Chester Brown's YUMMY FUR, respectively, created the subcategory of independent comics known as alternative comics.

To Image Comics, which transformed itself from a collection of Marvel-style work-for-hire shops into an expansive array of varied creator-owned comics.

To the hundreds of people over the past several decades who have tried to generate truly independent comics. Whether they succeeded or failed, whether they plugged along on their own path or eventually let themselves be swallowed up by mainstream publishers or collapsed midway in the face of restrictive distribution or unforgiving economics, they tried.

Thanks.

I was going to write about the Golden Age of independent comics, but my best wish for the business is that we haven't seen it yet. Despite the death grip that traditional comics and money seems sometimes to have on the American comics market, I believe " this is as close to religion as I get " that we can have a Golden Age of independent comics any time we want it. All we have to do is want it.

 

Isn't it strange that Warren Ellis is writing the best superhero comics being done today, whether at Marvel or Avatar, pretty much by severing any connection to any continuity. The Avatar "superheroes" in BLACK SUMMER and ANNA MERCURY (do DOKTOR SLEEPLESS and GRAVEL count as superhero comics? I guess they do, as Warren's superheroes tend to have nothing " and everything " to do with traditional standards of "heroism") have little to do with comics traditions and, like Doc Brass & company in PLANETARY, everything to do with '30s pulp traditions, in this case specifically science fiction (maybe even "scientifiction") pulps, refried in that tasty ironic sauce of British afterpunk. (Not quite punk " Warren was all of ten when that movement was already dead and buried to all intents and purposes " but virtually everything pop in Britain since is saturated in its legacy down to the nation's gooiest tripe, and Warren's stuff is miles from gooey tripe.) Even the most continuity-bound of his books, Marvel's THUNDERBOLTS, despite connections to the company's current uberplots, is effectively its own little island, focusing mostly on characters nobody knew or cared about before (the more familiar players like Bullseye and Venom spend more time off-panel than on) or in far more idealized versions than their regular Marvel characterizations, and regardless Warren has all but hermetically sealed them off, so that the story is forced to live or die on its own merit rather than buoy itself on waves from better publicized books. Even when an "outsider" like Doc Samson makes the scene, Warren treats him as a newly introduced character as far as the reader is concerned.

Curiously, Warren's weakest current book, Marvel's NEWUNIVERSAL SHOCKWAVE, is even more hermetically sealed, but it reads, while not badly, like he feels trapped by the limitations of Marvel's old New Universe that he's rebuilding from scratch, like a kid building a castle out of Legos only to find he's missing the one Lego he needs to hold it all together. It's not unheard of for Ellis arcs to move at a deceptively slow pace, though almost always characterization gets highlighted against that backdrop and there's usually the sense of events transpiring just outside the panel borders, but NU:S mostly seems to tread water. But even Warren's conscious and contradictory yin/yang play with fear and testosterone as underlying motivations in all their efficacy and stupidity is far more entertaining than the almost random Brownian motion that passes for action in most superhero comics. Take SECRET INVASION; in the titular mini-series and in MIGHTY AVENGERS and NEW AVENGERS, Brian Bendis set out a far-spanning, at least surface methodical Cylon " er, Skrull " plot to conquer the Earth because their unspecified god (I have this creeping feeling he'll turn out to be Dr. Strange's Dormammu, or Mephisto) has promised the planet to them. Good lord, they're the Hebrews invading Canaan! Mostly in the side books, Bendis has nicely sketched out the plot. In SECRET INVASION, when the Skrulls do strike their movements also seem methodical, focused on strategic targets. (Though given their revealed preparations, the preparations seem insufficient; why openly attack, after years of waiting, in the face of likely widespread opposition when another year or two of secret infiltration and they could likely neuter or eliminate all opposition, even if the Avengers finally have indicators that such an invasion is under way.) Then we get to the tie-in titles. With the exception of CAPTAIN BRITAIN and HERCULES, where strategic, if farfetched, goals are outlined, the tie-ins seem to be mostly Skrulls attacking on unnecessary fronts just so superheroes can fight them. Even in one of the better tie-ins, FANTASTIC 4 SECRET INVASION, there's a seemingly clever Skrull plot to blast the FF's HQ into the Marvel U's Negative Zone " but apparently no thought to what happens once it gets there. If we believe in continuity and Bendis' suggestion that the Skrulls have done their homework, they'd know that for the FF, even without Reed Richards aboard, escaping the Negative Zone has gotten to be about as easy as going to the bathroom. Not that the SECRET INVASION tie-ins haven't been reasonably entertaining, but that's the problem with most superhero comics: they've overall become so enamored of their Big Ideas (whether they have any or not; when you're enamored anything can pass for a Big Idea) that extrapolating those ideas to their fullest has become something of an annoying luxury.

Yet that's exactly what's needed now.

Speaking of which, FINAL CRISIS #2 was something of an improvement on #1, though it still feels more like preamble so far. (The way things are going, with one pin after another being knocked down while The Real Menace waits in the wings, had this series been COUNTDOWN TO FINAL CRISIS, everyone would have thought it was brilliant.) And to some extent Grant Morrison is now the victim of his own reputation. I said a couple months back how Morrison was launched to his current Olympian status in the business by his JLA run, which was crazed and brilliant and popular despite relatively ordinary art, and few noticed at the time that Morrison basically made his stories the apotheosis of the Gardner Fox formula that helped make JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA a big success the first time around, but, left unextrapolated, would have been laughably inappropriate for modern comics. This is something comics fans, and often editors and talent, just can't get through their heads: everything has its day. If you're going to poach from the past, you still have to filter it through the modern experience. Morrison did that, brilliantly, on his JLA run. Which is half the problem with FINAL CRISIS. Good art turns out not to especially be Morrison's friend; it somehow camouflages Morrison's strengths. The arc so far has the vague feel of a leftover JLA plot, a prequel to Morrison's big "Darkseid" arc in issues 10-15, where the evil New Gods conquered Earth and turned it into the new Apokalips, and Morrison, in a clever, effective and now unfortunately memorable, enhanced the erosion of Darkseid as a character anyone might take seriously, when he's finally put in his grave by the daunting team of Green Arrow and The Atom. Taking Darkseid seriously wasn't really helped by either DEATH OF THE NEW GODS or COUNTDOWN, where in both he again demonstrated his now traditional main character traits of Machiavellian deceit and supercilious bluster, capped by dismal defeat; if Morrison has done anything really right so far in FINAL CRISIS, it's been having Darkseid mostly keep his bloody mouth shut.

But what bumped FINAL CRISIS #2 up to interesting wasn't the Japanese superheroes or the defeat of Batman (I suppose it's too much to ask for evil to utterly destroy him, just to prove their point) or Hal Jordan being accused of treason to the Green Lantern Corps (I know inane plotlines drove him off his rocker for awhile there, but after all the times he has saved the Earth and the Universe and The Guardians Of The Universe, he suddenly has a "superior officer?" This is why its impossible to take the Guardians seriously.) but the admission that the series isn't a sequel to CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS or INFINITE CRISIS or COUNTDOWN but to Morrison's much overlooked 7 SOLDIERS OF VICTORY, specifically the MR. MIRACLE mini in it, where it was first stated that it was The Day Evil Won, and which, the way things are progressing, would seem to be the microcosm to FINAL CRISIS' macrocosm, and an indicator of how the latter will play out. "Microcosm/macrocosm" " the "as above, so below" of hermetic magic " is obviously a running structure in the series (not unexpected, given Morrison's legendary occult proclivities) and we may assume the evil gods destroyed the good as they're destroying Earth's heroes, via misdirection and subterfuge rather than direct conflict, while the battle on Earth reflexively becomes the macrocosmic War Of The Gods; as below, so above.

Then there's Morrison's new Mr. Miracle, making the rounds and quietly scraping up forgotten or ignored heroes like Kirby's Sonny Sumo, apparently lionized in Japan and remembered nowhere else, to fly under the radar and take on the all-conquering evil that the better known heroes are increasingly helpless against it. Just like Nick Fury over at Marvel. Which, when you deconstruct their elements and notice the joint "will of God" underpinnings, makes FINAL CRISIS and SECRET INVASION the same story! (Both, curiously, running seven issues.)

It's rare that Marvel and DC go head to head, storywise, on the exact same playing field. Which will make for an interesting spectacle, the rest of this year, to see who gets it if not right at least righter. Marvel's got a slight edge, if only because their sights are set lower. Bendis, really, only has to be somewhere in the neighborhood of as good as Marvel has ever been, while two swords hang above Morrison's head. He needs to pay off on all the Big Events DC has paved the road to FINAL CRISIS with, and he has to outdo himself.

 

Notes from under the floorboards:

Apparently Marvel announced at Chicago last weekend that I've done a Spider-Man WHAT IF for them. I've gotten a few emails asking why, and the answer's ridiculously simple: they (specifically Justin Gabrie) asked. It was fun.

Not sure when that will be out yet " just started seeing art on it last night; looks good " but currently available from Marvel is the PUNISHER: RETURN TO BIG NOTHING hardcover; TWO GUNS from Boom! Studios; THE SAFEST PLACE from Image/12 Gauge; and X OMNIBUS from Dark Horse Comics.

At San Diego, look for me around the Boom! Studios booth, possibly the Image booth, and at Larry Young's "So You Want To Create A Graphic Novel" panel. More to come, probably.

By the way, congratulations to Eric Stephenson, who recently ascended to publisher at Image. Or is publisher of a comics company one of the circles of Dante's hell? I guess it depends on who you talk to and when...

Saw a screening of WANTED a few days before it opened, and its terrific reception across an apparently wide demographic doesn't much surprise me, since they mostly get it right, stripping out all the "DC Universisms" from Millar's original (for those who came in late, it started life as a rejected Elseworlds pitch about a war among supervillains " the world has been invisibly divvied up between Lex Luthor, The Joker, Vandal Savage, Deathstroke, I think The Toyman and I forget who else " on the day after The Day Evil Won... wait, does this mean Millar actually beat Morrison to ground for a change?... and Millar's big jest is that the population never even notices) and Hong Konging up martial arts skills into quasi-superpowers. I was amused to see review after review citing how the film is big on action and short on "heart" " well, duh; that's like saying a rock concert puts too much emphasis on electric guitar and not enough on ukulele - though almost none mentioned there's not one damn thing in the movie (well, okay, one) that you can't see coming a million miles off (I saw the film with someone who didn't even know it had started as a comic, and she figured out practically everything that would happen miles in advance, but there's a certain joy is seeing what you know will happen play out in a satisfying way. Much of the film is very funny, the action scenes are well played and at least slightly original, and everything else is so completely over the top that what would have been pretty creepy had they played it at all seriously but instead they made the longest and possibly the best TOM AND JERRY cartoon in history. Someone I know worried that its success " it came respectably close to unseating WALL-E as #1 film of the week, far better than anticipated " will just encourage Millar. Well, there are worse things...

JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH next Monday.

Seems Seymour Hersh, the reporter who broke "The Pentagon Papers" that were close to the final nail in the Vietnam War as far as much of the American public is concerned, has unearthed the story that the Ghost and the Dick have repeated their pre-Iraq behavior re: Iran. You may recall that when American intelligence agencies provided intelligence indicating no imminent threat to America from Iraq and no real grounds for invasion, the White House summarily dismissed the reports on the theory that any information that didn't agree with what they'd already decided on must be wrong information and went with "more reliable" intel provided by the British instead. (Similarly, after the EPA conducted a Supreme Court-ordered investigation into the true effect of greenhouse gases on the environment and came up with results the administration didn't want, the White House simply never read, or opened, the report.) According to Hersh, American intelligence has decided that Iran isn't quite the nuclear threat the administration claims it is. The White House has again chosen to dismiss the report.

July 1st was the 150th birthday of the Theory Of Evolution, in case you didn't know. And it hasn't been debunked yet.

By the way, seems a new federal law requires anyone giving up their American citizenship to be taxed on all their assets. I guess you can't take it with you...

More RIAA funnies, in keeping with recent maneuvers by the MPAA: the Recording Industry Association Of America actually argued to a judge that "proof" is an unreasonable burden on their efforts to sue copyright infringers. In other words, they shouldn't be required to prove accusations against anyone. That standard certainly would work well with their favorite little extortion scam of sending letters threatening infringement lawsuits to more or less random parties then offering to keep it all out of court by negotiating a settlement.

Another funny story: bought a Vivitar digital camera a couple years back that I almost threw away in disgust because it ate through batteries, alkaline batteries, like there was no tomorrow. Batteries would last about five minutes, making the camera impractical for pretty much anything spontaneous. Instead of the trash, it ended up in a cabinet. What Vivitar, bless their souls, didn't bother to tell me, was that alkaline batteries just don't work well in digital cameras, which draw a higher drain than alkalines can handle. (Nobody also bothers to mention that alkaline batteries digital cameras say are dead still have tons of charge in them.) But it turns out rechargeable batteries do, and the camera's now out of hibernation and doing fine. Why don't camera companies make a big deal of this?

Finally, as we approach Independence Day, got in a discussion with someone last night about the concept of "serving your country." There are a lot of ways we can all "serve" America, but, frankly, the best way, and one open to all of us, is to keep it honest.

Congratulations to John Powell, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "men's names." John wishes to point your attention to Icasualties, which maintains a list of casualties of the Iraq war and occupation. Check it out. (I didn't put him up to it, honest.)

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.) This one's fairly easy, so I could break with tradition and not include a hidden clue somewhere in the column, but why go round and round on it? Tradition it is! Good luck.

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

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

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

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

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

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

TAGS:  independent comics, warren ellis, anna mercury, thunderbolts, black summer

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