Permanent Damage

Wed, August 6th, 2008 at 12:31pm PDT | Updated: August 6th, 2008 at 12:36pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Was on a panel at San Diego, one that caught all of us on the panel off-guard. A few weeks earlier, Larry Young had invited me to be on a panel he was organizing. He initially forgot to tell me what it was about, only that it was at 6:30 on Thursday evening, so nothing else really mattered. History tells us that at 6:30 on a Thursday con evening, everyone is either on the floor frantically shopping or off trying to figure out dinner plans. So I told Larry sure, what the hey? Quality time with Larry and an audience of five or six people, what could be better than that?

The topic was "So You Want To Do A Graphic Novel."

The room was packed. So much for history. In fact, the dynamic of the convention has changed considerably, and maybe for the better, though longtime graphicentric congoers would likely dispute that; every morning while interminably waiting for the Marriott elevator I looked out at lines that stretched for blocks down Harbor Drive, but every morning, on finally getting to the convention center, I found those entering the con flooded en masse upstairs, to where the panels were held, and not to the dealers' room. Bad news for dealers (though reportedly back/new issue business was up this year, another good sign) and probably good news for the casts/crews of Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica and myriad other TV shows and films now represented there, but also, if our panel may be taken as an omen, indicative of widening interest in the process of creating comics.

Though I'm apparently no longer a comic book writer (I've always resisted that kind of reductionism, but, hell, what's it matter, really?) but a "graphic novelist." Well, fine. Call us whatever you want, world. I've got better things to keep track of. (Like, now that I think of it, the layouts for my upcoming “What If..." story that I never looked at because they came in right before San Diego when I was on the work focus binge I mentioned in last week's column. Whoops. Now I know what I'm doing this evening.)

Anyway, we never did talk much about the nuts and bolts of "doing" a graphic novel. (The phrase evokes thoughts of soft pore corn, dunnit?) It's a short answer anyway: the way to do it is to do it. Period. Everyone's looking for "The Secret" but there ain't no secret. The way to do it is to do it, and every story, particularly if you're creating your own work from scratch and not working with an established, formulized franchise, generates its own needs. Those are the needs you have to serve. Rules are for schmucks and businessmen. A few people were looking for "the secret" to putting together a comic story/graphic novel " someone asked a question about structure, but, as someone on the panel mentioned (not me; I basically just grumbled about the word because you can have the greatest grasp of structure in history and still churn out totally crap stories " see: George Lucas) structure is something you learn, internalize and forget about. Like a lot of elements of storytelling. It's worth familiarizing yourself with them and putting them in your toolbox " less so that you know what rules to break because, let's face it, you don't have to know rules to break them, but if you don't know what's already been done you're far less likely to break the rules that to waste a lot of valuable time reinventing the wheel, and that's strictly a mug's game, know what I mean? " but the moment you let any one element, even structure, rule your life you're done. Look at Hollywood: it's been obsessed with structure for the last 30 years " prior to that the town spoke not of acts but of reels, though technology has obsolesced that term anyway " and look at all the crappy, well structured films it has produced in that time. The best you can say about them is that without structure they might have been crappier, but in most cases it's hard to see how.

Bottom line, they may not get Oscar noms, but Hollywood has always preferred the crappy, badly-structured film that makes gobs of money to the impeccably-structured, meticulously crafted and intelligently presented film that doesn't. And it always will.

Know why structure has any importance to Hollywood at all? It's an element. An element is just a sales tool, like an actor or director. Elements are pillows; they exist to make financiers feel more comfortable about financing a film, to help them maintain the self-delusion they will make money back on their investment. (On the Hollywood level, anyway. Independent film financing is predicated on dentists, with a lot of excess cash and low self-esteem due to the people they see every day screaming a lot, willing to put up money ostensibly for long term profit but really for the sheer spirit-reaffirming joy of a lovely little credit rolling up a screen to reassure them they really are artistic, creative people after all.) Elements are what get movies made, but what constitutes essential elements shifts so violently " it's strictly up to the financiers' perception, which is usually based on what has worked before and mutates with every new box office blockbuster - and so regularly that very few movies ever get made. If a movie came out tomorrow that was nothing but two hours of fireworks " no plot, structure, actors, director, anything like that " that did DARK KNIGHT RETURNS numbers, you can bet every studio would be looking around for more projects just like it by the following Monday.

For writers, though, unless you're writing to client dictates (hey, writers have to eat too), elements are just elements. Nothing you write will use every element in your arsenal every time, and, once you've got grammar down (and that's really just another element too, since the English language is hardly the rigid, inflexible behemoth your eighth grade English teacher wanted you to believe it is) and have developed something of an ear for speech, learning to write is basically not much more than learning to choose the elements that best allow you to tell the story you want to tell.

Genre? Element. Omniscient voice? Element. Flashbacks? Element. Complete sentences? Element. Sex? Violence? Vulgarity? All elements. Even if your story's about sex, violence, or vulgarity. It's entirely possible to tell a story about violence that has no violence in it, depending on the specific point you're trying to make. Because that's all a story really is: a commentary on some aspect of human existence, illustrated, well or badly, via the elements the writer chooses and mixes and builds his story out of.

Face it. Sometimes " maybe when you start out many times, unless you're a savant or very lucky " you're going to make bad choices. We all make bad choices. The greatest writers in the world make bad choices sometimes. You might even choose all the right elements, then choose to put them together wrong. But elements are just elements. There's no intrinsic right or wrong about them, though some might not necessarily fit current popular or critical taste, if you're concerned about that. Best not to be. It's your story, not theirs, and tastes change. Nothing you can do about that, except play to popular tastes, and then you'll always be a step behind.

Which isn't the worst place to be if your main goal is to make money, at least until tastes abruptly change and you get cast away like old fish. Then money might get a little hard to come by, unless you've saved up or have your eye on that plum position as a greeter at Wal-Mart.

Anyway... elements are neutral. It's your choices that define you as a writer, and as your choices become second nature - they always do, eventually, since all of us are drawn to different things " that's how your style develops. That's what style is: the formalization, conscious or otherwise, of your preferred elements. Neil Gaiman writes like a latter day Lord Dunsany not because he decided that would be a marketable ploy but because that's the style he was drawn to, and was comfortable with. Those are the main elements he chose to work with, though he also incorporates many other elements as the story requires, because that's what anyone has to do unless they want their work to be completely static. It's worth noting that Neil doesn't write like Lord Dunsany, but that their similarities were, at least originally, conscious choices on his part. That's fine too. That's just another part of learning.

Craft is what we call the ability, learned or instinctual, to choose and combine these elements in ways appropriate to the story being told. Art is what we call the ability to combine these elements in socially pleasing ways, because it's society that gets to decide what Art is, not us.

So stop worrying about whether you're creating Art because you don't get to define what it is. (Or, rather, you can define what Art is all you like, but the odds on successfully inflicting your definition onto the rest of the world are pretty slender.)

And society's definition of "Art" will, at any given moment, almost certainly be wrong anyway. So there's no need to concern yourself.

Strangely, self-esteem seemed to be a major concern to many in our panel's audience. Okay, "strangely" is the wrong term. There's nothing strange about it. It's been an American cultural obsession since the early '70s, and legions of hucksters, profiteers and control freaks have been more than happy to keep it that way. I just didn't remember it ever being so openly admitted to during a comics panel before. I certainly understand it. But dig this:

Worrying about self-esteem is a waste of time.

One woman asked how, facing the constant prospect of rejection, we find the... I forget the exact word she used, but it seems to be it was something kind like "courage"... to write and keep writing in the face of that prospect.

The answer is orneriness. Like I told someone on a local panel earlier this year, you don't have to believe you're the greatest writer who ever walked the planet to write. In fact, that sort of thing is ultimately self-destructive; it's much more productive and humble to not care whether you're the greatest writer who ever walked the planet. Because you're not really in competition with other writers, no matter how the dictates of commerce may make it seem that way. Don't write to be great, write because you feel there's something that needs to be said that no one else will say if you don't. You want motivation: that's it.

What I told her was:

If you don't care, you can do anything.

If you're in this business, or want to be in this business, to be liked, you're in the wrong business. Because you'll either turn out brilliant work and everyone will be jealous of you, or you'll turn out crap and everyone will think it's crap.

It's not worth worrying about. Don't care what other people think about your work and you can easily keep working.

Got what you think is a brilliant new idea for that graphic novel? Don't bother asking around to see what other people think of it. Because it's new. On what basis can anyone else judge its theoretical value? You can't even judge its real value until you see how you've executed the idea. Because, as I've mentioned many, many times, ideas mean nothing. Execution is everything. While there may be ideas that will offend or scare off editors, publishers, artists, readers, etc., nobody's going to buy your ideas on the strength of your ideas but on the strength of their execution. Or on the strength of your history of executing ideas.

And if they don't get it right away? Hell, John Kennedy O'Toole couldn't sell A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES to any publisher during his truncated lifetime (all caring got him was suicide) but later won a Pulitzer and now it's taught in colleges all over the country. I spent ten years trying to convince Marvel to let me do THE PUNISHER MINI-SERIES. That's what I mean about popular tastes. Tastes change.

So that's my best writing advice to anyone regarding their work, really: don't care.

Don't care about anything except getting the work to be as much like your vision of it that you can. Don't even care if you can't achieve that vision. Nobody can. Don't worry about failure because there will always be a next time if you want a next time, and next time, if you've got any learning skills and perspective at all, you'll be in a better position to recognize failure before you achieve it, and adjust your choices accordingly. So your last story was a miserable failure. So what?

History does not define the future. The inability to learn from history defines the future. Statistics are only useful statistically. They're indicators, not determinants, of possibilities.

Don't care.

Just do it.

 

A new series here, at least for a few weeks:

Speaking of failures, like most people working in comics I've done a lot of pitches that, for whatever reason, have gone nowhere. Sometimes the company has changed direction and is no longer open to that sort of material. Sometimes you've inadvertently replicated parts of storylines already set in motion. Sometimes the editor leaves, and the new editor has their own people they'd rather work with. Sometimes the editor just doesn't get your idea. Sometimes they hate the idea. Sometimes they just hate you.

If you work for comics companies for any length of time, you too will end up with a file full of unfulfilled pitches. Even Alan Moore has pitches he was never able to sell. (TWILIGHT OF THE SUPERHEROES, anyone?) Conventional wisdom in comics " I hear this from editors a lot " is that when a pitch for, say, a Phantom Eagle revival flops, you should recast the pieces of your idea into a creator-owned series and do that.

Easier said than done. First, there really aren't that many companies open to creator-owned series anymore, for reasons I've discussed to death in prior columns, and, second, some ideas just don't work especially well when shifted to a new context. Per example: a few months ago I pitched a new Ka-Zar series to a Marvel editor. Not that I ever expected it to fly, but sometimes you just have to take a shot regardless. I've never been a big Ka-Zar fan, but I always thought his civilian name (as a member of Britain's House of Lords), Lord Plunder, was about the best pirate name I'd ever heard. Fortunately, Marvel's “Civil War" created a climate whereby Ka-Zar might credibly be transformed into a modern day pirate, abandoning his jungle gimmick for a new direction that would give me a little playground for my own thematic obsessions. (Every writer's got them.) It was a fairly easy calculation that such pitch would convince whoever at Marvel who still had doubts that I really had completely lost my mind, but fortunately for all involved they also had built-in cause for rejection: a plot point in the transformation from jungle lord to pirate concerned something already being addressed in the “Secret Invasion" storyline, and now that I've read more of “Secret Invasion," it looks like the whole underpinning of my Ka-Zar idea will be voided by the end. End of story. Ah, well.

In the context of Marvel, with that vast field to play on, a modern day pirate strip could've been strangely effective though, given how well pirates generally sell in comics, convincing them of that likely would've been a chore. As a standalone creation, not so much. Context is everything.

Some ideas don't translate well between milieu. My ideas also tend to be somewhat of the moment, and even if I recast them in new clothes for different companies, the time for them strikes me as having past, either because some other property has popped up using the same basic idea " there's nothing more annoying than being accused of copying an idea you came up with years ago " or because the pitch is anchored to real world events that have faded into time. Time is a huge enemy in so many ways, and what was a great idea in one moment can become really unworkable in another moment.

Popular wisdom says that you never talk about your unused ideas because a) you never know when you'll get a chance to use them and b) because then other writers will be able to steal them.

Never much worried about the latter. It's not like I'll never come up with another idea. I have far more ideas than I can ever use, and I suspect most writers are the same. Per the former, by this point I know what ideas I'll be able to poach from myself and which I'll never seriously consider again. There are always new ideas, know what I mean?

So, I think to myself this morning, why not run a few of the truly abandoned ones here and get some tiny mileage out of them that way? My only caveat is that should I use some piece of any of them in the future that no one accuse me of stealing it from anyone else who may have used it in the meantime.

To wit...

Back around '92-'93, I was doing a lot of work for DC editor Jonathan Peterson, then editing NEW TITANS and DEATHSTROKE and looking for new books. Jonathan and I got along famously, and, still less than a decade after CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, DC was still looking for new interpretations for old names. I pitched Jonathan on a few, but none got through before Jonathan left the company. One, a new version of the old '40s character Americommando (what a great, stupid name), was rejected outright and eventually morphed into ENEMY at Dark Horse Comics, which later became a TV pilot that helped propel David Goyer's career. Another was a radical total overhaul of Blackhawk.

Will Eisner's original Blackhawk was a Polish (later Americanized) freedom fighter who organized an international squad of fighter pilots to battle the Nazi menace in WWII, but following the war, through the remainder of their Quality Comics run on through their DC Comics years, the concept grew more and more marginalized. Eventually the Blackhawks were transformed into quasi-superheroes, as superheroes became the preferred content of comics, and finally, after a brief neo-traditionalist spurt, the book was cancelled, with the series periodically popping back up again for more largely ignored neo-traditional adventures. This changed a little in the late '80s, when Howard Chaykin did a great BLACKHAWK miniseries that was both neo-traditionalist (set in the days prior to America's entry into WWII) and radically disturbing (among other things, Blackhawk, reverted to a Polish name, was revealed to be a socialist with communist sympathies, which of course fit series time perfectly but sent Blackhawk fans into a lather). I loved it.

As I recall, Jonathan asked me for a Blackhawk revamp distinct from Howard's. One quickly came to me, but I warned him that if Blackhawk fans hated Howard's version, they'd be spitting up blood over mine.

Key to my version was the real life story of Otto Skorzeny (pronounced "score-zany"), an Austrian SS officer popularly called "Hitler's commando." Among other things he orchestrated the Werwolf (yes, that's the correct spelling), a scheme for continuing WWII as a guerilla campaign if Nazi Germany fell. (This was in practice in Sovietized Eastern Europe for many years following the end of the war as we commonly think of it here.) Following the war, Skorzeny escaped accusations of war crimes and settled in Fascist Spain, where he's suspected of masterminding both a mercenary force to fight against the Reds on battlefields around the globe and the Odessa network that helped Nazi war criminals escape Europe for South America and other locales, including the United States. In comics terms, Skorzeny was a prototypical Nazi villain, with a Basil Rathbone mustache and a dueling scar down his cheek. He wasn't bald, though.

It was the rumor of Skorzeny's postwar mercenary operation that inspired my '90s total revamp/reversal of the Blackhawk concept. In my version, the Blackhawks were that group, a latter day foreign legion that attracted the worst violent criminals in the world, the ones who had no other options. The leader alone held the title of Blackhawk, but leadership of such a group was a precarious position; in the four decades since the group's founding, as the story unfolded, something like 58 men had held the "Blackhawk" title, and 58 of them had died violently, often at the hands of their own men. When one leader fell, the new leader would have to fight his way through the pack to claim the title, before traveling to South America to have the role formally bestowed by an aging "Skorzeny," enjoying a remote but luxurious retirement.

The story opened just after the death of the most recent Blackhawk, with an American spy, Bart Hawk, being convicted of treason. Escaping from custody, Hawk makes his way to Canada and from there to Europe (following the same route really taken by James Earl Ray after he assassinated Martin Luther King). Unknown to anyone but his controller, it's a set-up; Hawk has been purposely framed to give him a rationale for fleeing to Blackhawk Island, the Blackhawks' officially unacknowledged home base, where his mission was to fight his way to command of the Blackhawks (of course, he had been specially trained for the job) and turn them from fighters-for-rent to a secret wing of American foreign policy. It's only after Hawk is in the wind on his way to the island that his controller discovers Hawk's file has been tampered with, and before long he pieces together Hawk's terrible secret: his mother had been an investigative photographer who had disappeared three decades earlier while tracking down "Skorzeny" in South America and had reappeared six months later, destroyed in mind and all but destroyed in body, and pregnant. The child was Hawk. It turns out that Hawk is on a mission of revenge, to use control of the Blackhawks as a means of getting to the man he suspects to be his father and the destroyer of his mother, and it becomes a matter of national security to stop Bart Hawk from ascending to leadership of the Blackhawks, which he would almost certainly convert to a vehicle not of covert American foreign policy but of his personal sense of moral outrage...

Did it ever have a chance? Who knows? Word from Jonathan was that Blackhawk " the traditional Blackhawk " had been optioned by a very high level film producer (yes, I know who; no, there's no point now in mentioning the name) and DC didn't want to muddy the waters with a revamp, so that was that. From a practical and thematic standpoint that's a lot more BOURNE IDENTITY than SUPERMAN so it didn't really fit the DC universe, but it's emblematic of my interests of the time. I could have turned it into an all-new series, but somehow the Blackhawk parallels always struck me as too obvious to replicate, and not too long after that trying to sell anything aside from superheroes, horror and, to a much lesser extent, science fiction became an exercise in futility (if I was looking to actually get paid for my work, I mean) and the time had passed.

Blackhawk purists " all seven or eight of them left in the world " would have burned me in effigy, of course, but that has its own entertainment value.

Next up: The Crimson Avenger.

 

An interesting letter relating to my commentary on THE DARK KNIGHT:

"[Your comments on Heath Ledger's 'dark' character] caught my eye this week. I used to go to school with Heath, and, as another actor in a relatively small city, used to go for a lot of the same roles. (He was a much better actor than me, so suffice to say he got them.) I found the media coverage of his untimely death, much like all celebrity "news" ghoulish, if that's not putting too strong a point on it.

I don't believe that his death was a suicide. However, knowing Heath, I do think the role put him in an incredibly bad place mentally. Even in small school productions when he was young, he was amazingly driven and lost himself inside the character pretty heavily, to the point where I don't think he was a very good stage actor.

What I feel you're not taking into account though is the way in which a film is shot, usually being non-sequentially. Eckhart's downfall may have been heartbreaking, but even allowing for the possibility his role was shot relatively sequentially, Eckhart had the bonus of being able to draw on the innate goodness of his character. Having trained at drama school myself, I know that this is what you have to hang onto when portraying a character's descent... the fact that there is a conflict with this goodness helps an actor keep hold of his sanity.

Ledger's Joker is a different kettle of fish. Right from the word go, the Joker knows he's irredeemable. There's nothing within that character to hold onto that could be confused with common decency. And the touches of humour Ledger found within the role only makes it more difficult to safely lose one's self within.

So, no, I don't believe that playing or becoming the Joker drove Heath to suicide. But I'm certain that it unlocked some demons within him that were too difficult to bottle back up. This acting can be a dangerous business at times. Heath was a victim of that danger."

With personal experience of him, you'd be better positioned to guesstimate Ledger's state of mind than I am. Thanks.

 

Notes from under the floorboards:

As mentioned in recent weeks, Boom! Studios is now serializing my crime graphic novel TWO GUNS on their website, with, by my understanding, a new page each day. You might want to jump in, now that Universal has picked up the film rights. (For an extraordinarily good price for these days, and thank you Ross and Andy!) THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER ran a notice last Friday. The graphic novel is still available in print, of course, courtesy of your local retailer, Amazon or direct from Boom!

Also available: THE SAFEST PLACE from Image/12 Gauge, and I'm just too tired of all the other books I currently have in circulation. Check out places like Khepri for a list, okay?

The St. Paul PD is loading up on tasers in advance of the Republican National Convention there in early September, but a spokesman says it's just a coincidental build-up and has nothing at all to do with all the protests the convention is anticipated to attract.

Heh. Funny how every time there's a system set up, someone tries to milk it by selling those willing to pony up the dough the luxury of circumventing that system. In this case, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) decided to profiteer off heightened post-9/11 airport security by selling a "Verified Identity Pass" for $100 that theoretically enabled users to whiz through airport security at select airports, and some 200,000+ fliers have so far signed up. (Presumably some sort of security check accompanied the acceptance of each $100 before the pass was issued, but I've been unable to verify that.) All privileges are currently suspended, however, as a laptop with all the TSA's info on the program, including passholder identities, was stolen. From a locked office. By parties unknown. (At least as I write this.) Following the theft, the TSA decided that maybe in the future that kind of data should be encrypted, should the program be reactivated. Yeah, that's security expertise for you, but they're the experts so I guess we should believe them when they say they don't believe security was breached in any way. Does this mean they don't have to refund the money?

A new music industry study concludes the music industry would be better off living with piracy than embracing it, citing evidence (specifically involving Radiohead's recent business model) that music piracy seems to have no significant effect on music sales. It's probably worth nothing that one of the companies behind the study would make more money off the industry if the industry came to terms with bit torrents...

A few months ago, the RIAA got its first big win against an alleged file sharer, Jammie Thomas, winning $200,000+ in damages because she had "made available" a single song on the web. (Or, at least, her computer had.) It was a surprising victory because while it was a copyright infringement case, the RIAA not only didn't prove infringement but claimed they didn't need to. Their main argument is that actual evidence is too high a standard to be held to. Now the judge in the case seems poised to declare a mistrial, on the grounds that he gave the wrong instructions to the jury by initially accepting the RIAA's argument despite its having no basis in law. (The law specifically prohibits "infringement" and makes no mention of "making available.") But if old habits die hard, expect RIAA lawyers to keep making the "no evidence of a crime is necessary to convict for the crime" argument to other juries...

The Wall Street Journal has just made the argument that McCain would make a better president because he (self-admittedly) knows nothing about computers or modern technology. Huh? (Apparently they're worried that a computer-literate president would spend all day reading blogs rather than, oh, finding money to bail the financial community out of the various holes they've dug for themselves.)

Funny story: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California got peeved at the inability of the state legislature to finalize a budget, so he ordered all the state's employees to be put on minimum wage until there's a budget in hand. In order to save money, y'understand. Turns out there's a huge problem: the state's accounting system is so old it's programmed in COBOL, a computer language now so antiquated (in computer eons, anyway) that there's virtually nobody left who knows how to program in it " and there's no money in the budget for upgrading the system! (Jeez, you'd think Ahnuld would have enough pocket money to spring for a copy of QuickBooks.) They're reportedly looking for COBOL-savvy retirees...

Here's a good one: some group claiming to be the Knights Templar is suing the Pope over the damage he and the King of France caused the organization's reputation when claiming during the Middle Ages the Templars were devil worshippers so they could appropriate the group's significant wealth. Presumably recovery of that wealth, plus interest, is also on the agenda. (Hey, if Israel can claim the Holy Land after a couple millenia's absence, five or six hundred year old claims should hold water, right?) It's a laughable suit, since the current group is unlikely to produce credible evidence of direct descent from the originals and thus unlikely to have the foundation of a claim, but if they could pull that off, it's not inconceivable they could end up owning the Catholic Church. Or, at least, all its assets. That'd make the pedophile priest settlements look penny ante. Is it possible for an entire religion to file bankruptcy?

Interesting court case: seems the United States government now has the right to decide who can sue it. For all the hue and cry about digital rights management, and the willingness of some, maybe many, Congressmen to gut fair use rules and other consumer protections to lock down digital rights management for their corporate sponsors, the US Air Force decided not to negotiate with the legal owners of software it was using and instead hired a hacker to crack the software's expiration programming, allowing the USAF to use the software indefinitely. The company took the government to court over it, whereupon the courts declared the US government has automatic immunity from prosecution over anything it doesn't wish to be sued over, can select what it wishes to be sued over, and can control any court's jurisdiction over the case. Huh? Admittedly there are some extenuating circumstances in this case that make the company's right to sue shakier than would be normal in such cases, but that's a hell of a pronouncement, which essentially removes the US government from being subject to its own laws... except for those it chooses to abide by. Since we have a government of the people, by the people, and we're the people, doesn't that mean we also get to choose what laws we abide by and how prosecutable our transgressions are? Isn't this split system, where individuals are punishable by the state but the state is beyond legal restrictions effectively fascism?

Speaking of fascism, I know nothing triggers all kinds of hue and cry like comparing the current administration to Nazi Germany. In most regards, I'd agree that's going way overboard, but lemme tell you a little story, which longtime column readers may remember. Know how World War II started? The German army marched up to a checkpoint on the Polish border, shot the Polish guards there, dressed them in German uniforms, photographed the bodies and published the photos all over Germany to incense the German public into supporting revenge war on Poland. Well, last week it came out that Dick Cheney's office was entertaining "war scenarios" against Iran, including one where special Navy operatives would dress up in Iranian outfits and attack American ships in the Persian Gulf, to induce a vengeful rage in the American public and give the administration a pretext for invading Iran. Which is still on the admin's ideal agenda, and their window of opportunity is shrinking fast. At any rate, it's hard to tell whether the Dick's people are ignorant of history or pilfering from it, but it's not the first time they've entertained such a notion. Similar stories about Cheney's private little think tank surfaced about Iraq, while the administration was trying to concoct a justification for that invasion. Cheney's crew may not be Nazis but they're clearly not above thinking along the same lines...

And it's not exactly a unique incident either. Journalist Ron Suskind's new book makes the case that the admin ordered the CIA to forge communications between Saddam Hussein and one of his underlings indicating both the existence of WMDs in Iraq and a connection to al-Qaeda, to justify the war. The White House denies it, of course, but they deny everything.

Congratulations to Craig Berne, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "deep." Craig's a Portland based lawyer, and invites anyone in the Portland area looking for legal services to check out his firm, Harris Berne Christensen LLP. So 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. As in most weeks, there's an extra clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, if you've got the guts to find it. 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:  comic-con international, blackhawk, 2 guns

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