Permanent Damage

Wed, July 30th, 2008 at 2:08pm PDT | Updated: July 30th, 2008 at 2:10pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

A funny thing happened in San Diego.

My producer pal, Rick Alexander, was very kindly treating me to an exceptional dinner (thanks again, Rick!) at one of the town's best restaurants " my populist tendencies have a bad habit of shuffling off when there's filet mignon involved " when suddenly Rick says, "Hey, what happened this week? That's the first time you've missed a column for as long as I can remember."

Okay, that doesn't sound especially funny, but we haven't gotten to the funny part yet. Here it is:

I hadn't missed a column.

Maybe that's not all that funny either.

In fact, the last few days before San Diego had been 20 hour per day marathon sessions finishing up tons of work, including the first thirty pages of a psycho new graphic novel so the artist " you know him, you love him, you'll have to wait " could have enough pages to voucher; a Permanent Damage column; and a long review for THE COMICS JOURNAL. (Yes, I should be appearing regularly in THE COMICS JOURNAL again, though I haven't decided whether I'll resurrect the FUN FUN FUN column there. What do all of you think?) (This is the part where Milton Berle gets all modest looking and waves off the thunderous applause with one hand while signaling for more with the other.)

I even sent the column in at around 2 PM, just so they'd have enough time to post it. I usually get it in around 11 PM.

But Jonah, lord of Comic Book Resources, was already in San Diego and someone else had been put in charge of columns. Maybe they didn't have access to Jonah's e-mail. Maybe they were overwhelmed with extended responsibilities. I don't know. I didn't ask Jonah when I ran into him much later that night on the boardwalk behind the Hyatt and the Marriott. (Marriott: nice hotel, terrible mattresses.) I just mentioned there's a blunt object waiting for whoever didn't post the column, and left it at that.

Other people spoke to me about it over the weekend. Everyone seemed to think I was on vacation last week. I wasn't. Sure looked like I was, didn't it?

But there's an upside: if there's a column done already, it means I can take a vacation this week. So I shall.

I am.

Now it's true that a good chunk of last week's column contained time-sensitive information that won't do anyone any good now. But you may as well learn what you missed.

Because my world runs on a very simple principle that I've always found remarkably workable:

If I suffer, everyone suffers.

Somehow that tends to keep my suffering in general down.

But it was a good show, lots of fun, lots of meetings, lots of great free rubbish, lots of possibilities. More later. For now, a blast from the very recent past:

 

Because San Diego's on a lot of people's minds this week, my San Diego poop first, so no one has to search for it:

Panel:

Thursday 6:30-7:30 PM So You Want to Do a Graphic Novel: Writer and publisher Larry Young assembles a team of writers and artists to unlock the secrets and unveil the mysteries of completing your own graphic novel. Panelists Adam Beechen (Final Crisis), Steven Grant (Two Guns), Kirsten Baldock (Smoke and Guns), Matt Silady (The Homeless Channel), and Manny Bello (Dugout) kibbitz, cajole, and inspire you. Room 3

Signings:

Image Comics, booth 2729, Thursday 3:30-4:30 PM

12 Gauge Comics, booth 2547, Friday 10-10:45

Image Comics, booth 2729, Friday 3-4 PM

12 Gauge Comics, booth 2547, Saturday 12 Noon

Image Comics, booth 2729, Sunday 10-11 AM

Every time I go to a convention, someone ends up telling me, "I didn't know you were going to be here! I'd have brought a bunch of stuff from home for you to sign!"

Well, in the immortal words of Christian Cage, if you don't know... now you know. The signings are specifically in support of my new Image/12 Gauge graphic novel, THE SAFEST PLACE

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: beginning Thursday afternoon, the first 50 customers to buy a copy of THE SAFEST PLACE at the 12-Gauge Comics booth, #2547 will receive a bonus collector's item t-t-shirt! Wow!

Okay, so shilling ain't my strong suit. The short version: $ THE SAFEST PLACE (≤50) = free t-shirt!. Got it?

in collaboration with Victor Riches and Tom Mandrake, but I'm easy. Bring whatever you want signed. It's all free when you buy a copy of THE SAFEST PLACE. It's all free anyway, but I was asked to make a pitch. Remember that the Image booth covers a lot of ground, so I might not be at the first table you see. Look around. We'll be looking for you.

And Ross Richie wants me to remind everyone that you can now read my graphic novel crime story TWO GUNS at Boom! Studios' new online comics site. Where many other of their publications also now have an online home. They're up to page 15 now and adding a page per day, so it's still a good time to catch up, and above are the first six pages to prime your pump. Go have a free read on us.

I think those are all the things my confederates begged me to shill this week, as San Diego looms before us like the perfect wave. Did I announce somewhere I was turning the column into Craigslist Jr?

 

After seeing THE DARK KNIGHT, like everyone else in America " jeez, the opening midnight shows around the country grossed over $18 million; that's more than a lot of films gross in their lifetimes - I'm stricken with the sudden urge to hear Heath Ledger's Joker, Pagliacci-stooped with his wistful pancake makeup smile and an ear cocked down to a slightly upraised shoulder, grimace at Batman and mutter in his flat Paul Giamatti drone, "I'll never quit you." But alas. A lot of credit has to go to the Nolan Brothers' screenplay interpretation of the character, but there are people talking about voting Ledger a posthumous Best Actor Oscar, and for once those people are dead on. Ledger's Joker is the most bravura performance I've seen in years, maybe since Guy Pearce in Nolan's earlier MEMENTO: an absolute breakthrough, and such a total recreation of such a ridiculously overexposed (not to mention usually ridiculous) character that Ledger and the Nolans made it something totally new.

This is the brief note I passed to anyone who asked me about the film after I saw it last Wednesday, a couple days before opening. I answered a hell of a lot of email on it last Thursday:

DARK KNIGHT was pretty good. Ledger as the Joker is amazing, just a fascinating interpretation (and I hate the character). Nolan's screenplay and directing are terrific. Ledger, Oldman and Aaron Eckhart emerge as real stars. Story's pretty crisp, though the movie goes on too long and becomes exhausting by the end. Strangely, the acting is universally terrific - including a remarkably restrained Michael Caine (who I love, but too often these days is more like Michael Caine's primer on chewing scenery) and Morgan Freeman - except for Christian Bale, who's just fabulous as Bruce Wayne... and, by the end of the film, almost eye-poppingly awful as Batman, barking/spitting out words in an Eastwood-ized cover voice that lisps through half the lines. Still, overall, no doubt it's going to be the runaway blockbuster hit of the summer...

Not exactly deep analysis, I know, but what do you want? I watched the film, I liked the film, and my own work " I've been pulling 14 hour days for the last week or so, working on a new graphic novel " preempts much deep thought about it. But, fortunately, my colleague Adi Tantimedh, who keeps a much normal schedule, didn't have such problems:

"Just saw it and It's pretty terrific. I didn't feel it flagged at all, and I like how the tragic ending and Batman's decision actually makes him more sympathetic than I've ever seen him in comics or movies. Someone said, "Wow, this movie makes a billionaire sympathetic and heroic!" Very Liberty Valance. I like the naturalism of the filming, so it's really an epic crime drama with Batman and Joker in it. I like how it made you care about Harvey Dent enough not to want him to become Two-Face. Even Oldman playing Gordon as fundamentally decent is great. Oldman's is the truly underrated character, and he brought real weight to the role. Gordon isn't just a foil for Batman here but a real moral voice, and his heartbreak over Batman's decision, which was genuinely heroic and tragic, at the end was what made it moving. The script makes sense and it feels honest and earned, including the climax when Batman has to beat up cops to stop them from shooting hostages, which sets him on the path to being an outlaw in their eyes. I like the casting, down to the bit parts. It feels like a real, inhabited world for the first time in a Batman movie. I'm pretty impressed that the studio allowed a blockbuster superhero movie with a tragic and downbeat ending.

What's really interesting about the movie is that everything in it happens because of Batman, the context the city is in, the appearance of the Joker, even the emergence of Harvey Dent as a potential white knight, so Batman's presence permeates the city and the whole movie even when he's not onscreen. And Gordon is the one who has to deal with it all, starting with being complicit, because for Gordon Batman himself is the least of numerous evils.

The Joker is an agent of chaos, and the irony is that Batman thinks he's an agent of Order but is really an agent of chaos - witness the way he uses chaos to take down the SWAT team and bad guys in general - and out of the world of chaos the Batman created came The Joker. And Ledger's Joker totally knows that. He's a lost soul who found a calling and a soulmate.

Nolan has pretty much raised the bar on the genre. I can't stop thinking about this movie, which is pretty rare for a mainstream Hollywood movie, and I've been checking out some of the negative reactions from snootier critics, many of whom purport to be on the liberal side.

Many of them have started accusing it of being a Bush apologia, since they think the movie endorses Batman's vigilantism and surveillance of ordinary people. In fact, the movie keeps pointing out that Batman's actions are illegal and downright unethical.

The attempts to draw a Bush parallel are missing the bigger metaphor:

Batman is America in the 21st century - well-intentioned, but ethically compromised, stuck with trying to pick the lesser evil from bad moral and ethical choices, doomed to carry on down an increasingly futile and destructive path, living on borrowed time, and hopelessly lost.

Maybe that's why audience are raving it up. It's more than just the action and set pieces and Ledger's acting. I think they sense what it says is true, even if they might not want to acknowledge it out loud. The message has been translated into a visceral emotional experience that bypasses the intellect, and the critics that don't like it are struggling to use their intellect to bring their conflicted emotional reactions under some kind of control."

I disagree with Adi on one point:

While the film overtly plays on KILLING JOKE theories of Batman and the Joker as complementary opposite numbers, it covertly suggests that Gordon and the Joker are the true moral poles of the situation, with Batman in the unusual position of the moral equator. What the Joker understands that Batman doesn't - that no superhero in comics is allowed to, and I've covered this in my own work, particularly The Punisher - is that Batman and all "vigilantes" are anarchists at heart. Batman may be doing what he does for the sake of order - that he's causing disorder isn't necessarily the case, there's no natural law, Newton aside, that mandates there must be a reaction to him from anyone, since we're all human beings and do make our own choices - but he automatically obviates the rule of law. So the Joker is the force of chaos and Batman is the force of anarchy. It's fitting at the end that the law turns against Batman, even under artificial conditions, because they really are natural enemies.

I also don't buy that Batman or the world he "creates" creates the Joker. The Joker obviously arises independently of him and is drawn to him. (I like that they didn't bother giving the Joker a real origin, since he should never be a character who makes sense, which is what makes him scary.) However, Two-Face is born from the world Batman and the Joker create together. Harvey Dent's response to his altered circumstances is completely understandable in the film, almost Jobian. He has dedicated his life to "serving God" and his mind falls apart when he realizes that either God doesn't exist or all his service meant absolutely nothing to him.

The film should at least put to rest the gloriously seized-on media myth that Ledger's death was a suicide prompted by getting lost in such a "dark" character as the Joker. If any character arc would have driven the actor to suicide, it was Aaron Eckhart's " his psychological and moral destruction was among the most horrific moments in the history of film.

But it's hard to stop raving about Ledger's choices. For the first half of the film his Joker doesn't even look threatening. The first scene, from where he's waiting on the street corner to the moment he leaves the bank, he stands stooped and speaks in that flat, depressed Giamatti voice, and gives every impression of being an old man, sort of Edward G. Robinson at 60. When he first confronts the mobsters, he's in full Pagliacci mode, again looking small; only the "pencil trick" gives any indication that he might be physically powerful. Just great choices, instead of the macho bluster of most heroes and villains in comics and movies...

I know a lot of people who watch superhero films more than once, but THE DARK KNIGHT's a film (like MEMENTO) worth watching more than once. Without a doubt, Nolan and his collaborator not only raised the genre beyond anything it has been before " a "comic book" film taken totally seriously - but maybe the summer blockbuster too, and created an extraordinarily rare beast: the thoughtful entertainment.

Since I'm short on time and topics this week, here's a little '50s treat to tide you over. George Woodbridge is a little remembered artist who did a lot of work for Atlas Comics and other companies in all sorts of genres, and he might have been remembered as one of the greats, had his output been more cohesive. But you could never be sure what Woodbridge you'd get. When he was on, as in the following story, his stuff was terrific. When he wasn't, it ranged from average to ghastly. Still, this " a retelling of the shootout at the OK Corral done with fair accuracy at a time when myths of the gunfight were extremely popular in American culture " is one of his better jobs:

 

Notes from under the floorboards:

As mentioned above, San Diego looms and it's time to go pack. More chaos next week, though.

Watched Guy Ritchie's recent film REVOLVER a couple days ago because I felt like catching a Jason Statham film, and didn't realize it was Ritchie until I was almost done. Not sure if it's good, but interesting? Yeah. What seems to start as a standard Ritchie gangster film " Ritchie is England's Tarantino, so "standard" is perhaps a bit diminutive but you know what I mean " suddenly takes a metaphysical turn and heads out to the ozone, the way Alex Cox films used to, as tough guy Statham (dodging any of his usual Fight Club antics) becomes the virtual slave to a couple mysterious loan sharks in order to square off against old enemy/mob boss Ray Liotta, and ends up taking on the enemy of us all. It didn't do well in the theaters, but it's worth watching.

Okay, best game show ever: BIG BROTHER AUSTRALIA. (Which is almost nothing like the American version, and American networks could pick up a lot of pointers on how to be stupidly entertaining from Australian TV, which plays up the entertaining and wears the stupid like a badge of honor.) In a recent competition, the five remaining houseguests were strapped immobile on boards with big hunks of cheese hanging off their faces, asked questions one by one about events in the house over the season, and wrong answers got them lowered incrementally face first into a pit filled with rats. (Obviously lab rats, presumably very clean.) Now that's entertainment. I bet you can think of people you'd like to see incrementally dropped face first with cheese on their faces into a rat pit. Correct answers got all the other contestants lowered a notch. I know, I should have been appalled. Everything in me was telling me to be appalled. It was hilarious. Why can't America produce TV as baffling and wonderful as this?

Funniest comics-related news story in recent history: Christian groups go psycho over Mattel's new Black Canary Barbie. Who even knew Mattel was putting out DC-superheroine themed Barbies? Either the Christian right is unaware the Black Canary has been around for over fifty years, in what have traditionally been considered kids' comics, or they're haven't especially cared until now because they've thought of comics as the province of little boys, not little girls, and they don't especially care what images of women little boys look at. (Yes, I'm being facetious. Odds are they never heard of the Black Canary prior to her Barbie moment.) But waitaminit! Saucy? That's not even her original outfit, the really sexy one. That's her blander latter-day one! (If you check Mattel's website, by the way, you'll see the doll is marked "For the adult collector, 14 and up" and presumably the packaging of the edition sold at Wal-Mart come September will bear a similar label. If Mattel doesn't panic and yank it by then. (So lemme get this straight: they don't consider Barbie's Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Catwoman, Jeannie and bad Olivia Newton-John from Grease costumes sexy?)

Congratulations to John Powell, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "law." wishes to point your attention to the Warren Ellis-Paul Duffield online comics serial FREAK ANGELS. 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. I was going to leave a secret clue hidden in the column this week, but I'm not shallow enough to thin you need one. Good luck. (By the way, only covers run in the column have to do with the challenge. No other art. Just so you know.)

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:  the dark knight, comic-con international, 2 guns, wyatt earp

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