Permanent Damage

Wed, August 27th, 2008 at 6:42pm PDT | Updated: August 27th, 2008 at 6:46pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Jarett Kobek recently wrote a defense of Steve Ditko - a sort of appreciation-response to Blake Bell's terrific new biography/exegesis of Ditko's career, STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO, that everyone should either be buying or putting at the top of their Christmas wishlist that's noble in its aspirations - sticking up for one of the greatest talent's ever to grace our pages - and makes all kinds of weird assumptions with little bearing on reality. I don't disagree with his conclusion, that Ditko deserves a better shake from the business he changed drastically, but his outrage is just plain misplaced.

Let me say I love Ditko's work, and I doubt anyone has figured out just how influential it was. Never mind Spider-Man, whose influence is obvious not only in the movies but in the parade of knockoff tormented teenage heroes trotted out in his wake over the past 4.5 decades; I'm talking The Question and Mr. A, which are now mostly dismissed as quirky signs of onset dementia by most critics these days. But I was there for both BLUE BEETLE #1 and WITZEND #3 (both '67), and they brought to the table something that was really quite unique in comics at the time: a palpable point of view.

It was doubly weird for something like The Question, which probably seems ludicrously innocuous given what has been published since, to come out of Charlton, one of the most POV-absent companies in an era when individualistic statements in comics were practically Stalinized out of existence in deference to "the marketplace." "Political" content in comics pretty much consisted of scorning those dirty commies who hated freedom, and while a distinguishable POV sometimes showed up in satire comics, aside from MAD (which none of us really thought of as a comic back then) there weren't many of them and they were miles from anything Harvey Kurtzman ever conceived of. Kurtzman's satire was usually very thinly veiled assaults on beloved pomposity; by the '60s, almost all satire in comics was aimed at the anti-establishment.

The thing about Ditko, though: while he made use of satire, neither The Question nor Mr. A were satire.

In 1967, Ditko was about the only guy in comics using mainstream comics for personal expression. You wouldn't believe what a shock to the system that was, what doors in a lot of people's heads that opened up, whether they adhered to the specifics of Ditko's philosophy or not, but I can still look at The Question or Mr. A and feel the thrill of it. It wouldn't bear fruit until years later, and it's true that Ditko himself never prospered from it, but while Ditko's POV was in exact opposition to the cultural trends of his day he was the only person in comics of the time doing material that fit the underlying cultural spirit.

So his work, in style if not in content though it was awfully refreshing to see perspectives laid out purely in, uh, black and white terms, was a real kick in the head for an awful lot of us, and that's a huge debt we as individuals in the comics industry can never repay. Once Ditko pried that door open, a hell of a lot of us went through it.

On the other hand...

If Ditko was really "screwed over" by the comics industry - and the era during which he mostly worked almost guarantees he was, as pretty much everyone was - he has been complicit in his own screwing over.

I realize it's bad form to say that. There are things about revered comics talents we're not supposed to bring up. But if Kobek's calling for an outcry on Ditko's behalf, which certainly seems his upshot, then it's time to take factors into account.

Bear in mind that I'm not impugning Ditko's personal integrity, or character. I know of no reason to doubt those; the one time I met him, he seemed like a nice, very pleasant guy who understandably showed little interest in conversation. He's far from the obsessive recluse or frothing nutjob people trying to picture him from his work or scant history often make him out to be.

But to at least some extent if he has failed to profit off comics, it has been his own damn fault. At least some of that ties into his personal integrity. I'm not making a case for that being either good or bad, just that it's the way things are. Also bear in mind that, like everyone else, my information on Ditko's viewpoints, at least those unexpressed in his work, are secondhand at best. I'm making the assumption that what I "know" is true, in the absence of concrete verification, but I allow I may have been sold a handful of magic beans.

Anyway:

The centerpiece of Kobek's piece is the assumption, and I don't argue with it, that Ditko deserves a lot more reward from comics than he has ever gotten. But would he take it? When the first SPIDER-MAN film came out, Sam Raimi's company reportedly tried to make very gift payments to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Not payoffs, just thank yous. I don't recall any strings demanding Ditko surrender all future claim to the character in order to receive it. Nonetheless, reportedly Ditko turned it down. Given how things ended with Spider-Man for him, as told in Bell's book, I can understand that. I sympathize.

But it's hard to argue that Ditko is undercompensated for his achievements when he turns down compensation. Do I think Marvel should be paying Ditko for every use, published, licensed or otherwise, of Spider-Man and Dr. Strange (and, as Kobek points out, the red and gold "skinny" Iron Man armor that Ditko designed during his brief tenure of the character)? Sure. I think that's the least I can do. (Let's throw Speedball in there while we're at it, and that includes his Civil War-and-beyond personae.) But would he take it?

My semi-educated guess is: no.

The last time any alleged communications on the matter leaked out, Ditko's approach to the deals he made during his career, especially with then-Marvel publisher Martin Goodman, he indicated he would not try to take advantage of changes in the law to make any claims on Spider-Man or other characters, citing that he knew what he was doing when he entered into the deal and he wouldn't go back on that simply because circumstances had changed. Even though, again according to Bell, Goodman had gone back on a handshake deal giving Ditko participation in Spider-Man.

Which on one hand is extremely honorable. Especially when you consider that Goodman already broke, thus voiding, their deal, and the terms that Ditko and Kirby and so many others created comics for Marvel under were fables that had no legal status, unless you cite tradition as law. Talent only accepted those things as legal because publishers kept telling them they were legal, as they walked off with all the rights, all the original art, all the control, etc.

On the other hand, in con man circles that makes Ditko the kind of mark con men dream of running into. The best mark, for those guys, is the one you can take that won't, for whatever reason (often the con men supply one), won't kick up a fuss about it.

If a guy won't take money for work he believes has been for whatever reason tainted, there's not a lot anyone can do about it.

In some ways, this parallels Alan Moore's approach to Hollywood money; amusingly Alan is quoted in Bell's book as admiring Ditko's approach despite the difference in their philosophies. What's most amusing about this is that their philosophies aren't all that different, once you scrape away the window dressing. I was first exposed to this phenomenon during a poker game with my uncle in the early '70s, where I constantly pissed him off by drawing to inside straights. I got along fine with my uncle, but he was old school WWII right wing, while I was knee deep in anti-war protests with my hair hanging down my back. Nonetheless, during that game he hit on subjects like the government, and personal liberty, etc. where his beliefs, though he was coming at it from the opposite perspective, were virtually indistinguishable from my own. Alan and Ditko's pronounced philosophies may differ; behaviorally there's not a lot of space separating them.

I've always found Alan's approach to Hollywood money a little odd, though, again, I can understand it. Especially when producers put into the press things he never said that directly contradict his feelings on specific issues, like the quality of films made from his movies. Again, how he wants to approach Hollywood is his business and I'm not suggesting he change.

But a film based on WATCHMEN or FROM HELL or V FOR VENDETTA or LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN is not Alan's work nor will it ever be, any more than WATCHMEN was the adventures of Captain Atom and the Charlton superheroes. All those films do is use his work as their basis. They will never taint the comics (as LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and FROM HELL amply demonstrated); they will never be the comics. The comics will always exist as separate entities.

But there's still the notion that accepting money for those movies is somehow an endorsement of those movies or a "buying off." It's a fairly common notion, part of the taboo on "selling out," and it's dead wrong, especially from an artistic perspective.

Unless the money comes with a contract saying that that bans you from expressing an opinion on the film, it's not hush money or buy-off money. It's money you earned with your work, even if it's indirect money, and it's yours by right. Not taking it just keeps it in the pockets of people who deserve it less than you do. (The other option, donating it to charity, while noble and a good example and all, is still taking the money; you're just spending it differently than most people would.)

But we no longer live in a feudal society, much as most moneymen would rather have it otherwise, and much as many people just make that assumption where money is involved without thinking it through. Just taking someone's money because you deserve it, because they are using your work to build their work on, carries no implicit endorsement of what's done with your materials, or honor-binds you to silence if you don't like it; it's them paying you rent. (It especially makes no sense to turn down the money on artistic grounds if you signed a contract allowing someone else control of your property.) And, in Ditko's case, even if in your view the work is tainted beyond redemption, you deserve that money because it's still your work that the entire edifice is built on.

But, like I said, if someone won't take their recompense, that's their business and there's not a lot that can be done about it.

Kobek gets downright goofy on a couple of points, like his initial thrust that nobody in the comics business, not Jack Kirby or Siegel & Shuster, has been as "ripped off" as Steve Ditko. That's just stupid. In sheer volume alone, Superman has made astronomically more than Spider-Man has, especially if you figure in interest and adjust for inflation. Kirby's output was far more voluminous than Ditko's, even before you figure The X-Men into it. Kobek's is a good launching point for a screed, but a fair-to-middle CPA could make mincemeat of it.

But his kicker, in defense of what he seems to presume is Ditko's creative naivete, is: "No comics professional in the 1950s could have envisioned that the industry would spawn a knock-off showbiz stuffed with quasi-celebrity."

Excuse me? While it's probable no one thought it very likely, the '50s is exactly when the SUPERMAN TV show was chewing up the airwaves, so it must've occurred to somebody that other comics properties might be developed into media productions. And it was no secret to anybody that comics was a business where knock-offs were more common than torn-up betting slips at a race track. It's a business built on knock-offs. If Kobek seriously makes the claim that, unlike those comics creators who came in after 1980 when all the deals were supposedly clear (as mud, maybe; all those new copyright laws of 1976 just prompted most publishers to try to circumvent them while assuring talent they were being meticulously protected, in what must've been essentially the same speech Ditko got), Ditko didn't know what he was getting into (though it likely would have become somewhat more obvious by '65 or '66, when Spider-Man was getting full press treatment, appearing in cartoons, etc.), he's contradicting Ditko's own statements on the matter.

To top everything off, Kobek proffers his suspicion that Ditko turned to the "Randism" that is often cited for destroying his career - let's face it, his increasingly unyielding adherence to his interpretation of it didn't help, though I understand Ayn Rand ate pretty well after her books started getting pushed - because the comics industry itself was/is "a Randian environment." I don't know what that's supposed to mean. By my understanding, Ditko's experiences with '50s publishers, mainly Charlton and Atlas/Marvel, were mostly cordial and conciliatory, and it was only after his conversion that real problems with publishers began. (Frankly, it's not that hard to write a story that Ditko's willing to draw; I've done it myself, decades after the whole Spider-Man debacle.)

I've always suspected that Rand, who fled to America as a result of Stalinist persecutions, at least according to her data, was a Soviet sleeper agent sowing discord in America by effectively starting a religion that raised self-satisfaction to the highest of human aspirations (but, as T-Bone Burnett sang, you can't want nothin' if you want satisfaction) and openly mocked and scorned concepts like altruism and charity; her view, enshrined in ATLAS SHRUGGED, that men of great talent should step away from society and await its inevitable collapse under the weight of its own corruption is oddly similar to Marx's conviction that communism was the natural and inevitable end result of capitalist society. But as Marx failed to envision a future in which plumbers and electricians billed $100+ per hour, Rand missed the history class where she would have learned that morally rigid societies are in far more danger of collapse than corrupt ones, which favor the flexibility and pragmatism that makes them more adaptable. Much as I think the world of Ditko's work and like the man very much - and all the other things Kobek dredges up, like whether he goes to conventions or sells his original artwork, are completely irrelevant and only the most inane would even question his right to his choices in those matters - his own impatience and intransigence are behind the bulk of what are generally considered his problems. (For all we know, Ditko doesn't see them as problems at all, so "problems" may be the completely wrong word for them.) Especially since one aspect of mainstream comics that he certainly did understand - everyone did - is that it's a collaborative medium, and collaborators need to be at least somewhat agreed on their goals.

The real downside to Randism is that it's all stick and no carrot. Ditko never seemed to fight or bargain for what he wanted; by Bell's account, he walked away instead, per Randian tenets. And again, I'm not making judgments on the rightness or wrongness of that, I'm just saying that's how it was. How Ditko wants to run his career is Ditko's business. As I said, deserves much more from the industry? Absolutely. Would he accept it? If established behavior suggests anything, highly unlikely. But anyone who after the fact thinks publishers should or ever would have fought Ditko's battles for him or, great as he is, would've shed more than a couple tears over his absence from the scene really - this is a business, like most, where life goes on even in the face of greatness - doesn't understand how the business works.

 

So is Virgin Comics dead or not? Their website's still up at last check, but reports of cutbacks are flying, and how much room for cutbacks could they have? I always found their business model suspect. As I've mentioned before they're not the first company predicated on titles created by "stars" with the grunt work performed by work-for-hire comics talent, with the goal of generating mass media franchises from the properties; that's how the runaway smash success story of the 1990s, the much-loved Tekno Comics, became the industry powerhouse they are today. I've written several times over the past couple of years of how comics, industry and fandom, now need to get over their deep-seated inferiority/superiority complex, because contrary to deeply held tenets the general public no long perceives us as something ridiculous, demented or retarded and now accepts comics as just one more entertainment option. The one place this doesn't seem to hold is when companies originating outside the comics industry make a play to "improve" comics by bringing in people who have little or no experience with comics in any form to "create" comics, especially when they have little to do with the creative act itself. Sometimes this is simply a marketing ploy - porn queen Jenna Jameson's name attached to a horror comic is bound to get some mainstream publicity just on notoriety - and sometimes the presumption is that a popular "outside talent" will create something bold and original that the ex-fanboy hacks mired in all the trash preconceptions of comics could never come up with in a million years.

You know, like Clive Barker's Razorline.

You're welcome to call it sour grapes, but it's been my general observation that "outsiders" (I'm tired and can't think of a better or less pejorative word, but take it as a neutral descriptive term if you can) a) tend to operate on either their last exposure to comics no matter how lost in the mists of time, or on what they heard about comics once, and usually have little exposure to current trends in comics, and have next to no exposure to the comics form, but neither they nor their publishers think that necessary; or b) they're huge comics fans and are dying to replicate all they ever loved in comics, whether that's Stan Lee or Al Feldstein or Alan Moore or Grant Morrison.

In either case (and it's funny how accomplished writers in other media will often hold their potentially most profitable ideas for those media and reserve their "comic book" ideas for comics, because most of them aren't stupid, although with the spreading notion of comic as movie or TV pilot that's changing some) the result usually only reinvents the wheel. And we've got enough wheels. Modern inventions would be better. (WATCHMEN, for instance, may be a new idea to people unfamiliar with comics and a popular one with people who love comics, but it is 20+ years old now. Same with DARK KNIGHT RETURNS. Used to be that if you kept up with Hollywood you'd be well ahead of comics - remember when Marvel introduced MASTER OF KUNG FU about 20 minutes after the Bruce Lee-inspired initial kung fu craze here in American went belly up? - but with the current state of things if you keep up with Hollywood you'll be well behind comics. Even if you ultimately want to sell to movies, whatever medium the medium you want to sell to goes for ideas, that's the one you need to keep up with, not the one that's your eventual goal. Currently, if you want to do comics, you need to keep up with what's going on in comics. Because there's a lot going on, but most of it's going on in the margins.)

Virgin always seemed double-hobbled though, just on presumption. They were too emboldened by manga, forgetting that manga has been trying, without much success until fairly recently, to take root in America. What they found was the American comics market isn't an especially multicultural place. Neither are Japan's or France's or most countries'. (Back in the days of Les Humanoids' Hollywood branch, the publisher was fond of referring to "teepeecool Amerreekan sheet.") Neither Judge Dredd nor Lt. Blueberry ever became a phenomenon in the USA (though most Americans have at least heard of Judge Dredd, thanks to the movie, but, as with Howard The Duck, that's not exactly the kind of promotion you want) and it's not like no one has tried. It's a funny thing about comics that most fans tend to feel the ones they grew up on were superior to the ones they're seeing now, and the more alien the comic the less likely it is to find an audience, and that especially goes for foreign comics in virtually any market, though American comics can usually find some inroad into most countries, mainly because they've always been there, at least a little. That doesn't mean they're going to be hugely popular anywhere.

At least not without special support.

I understand why Virgin cut their comics deal with backers from the Indian sub-continent. I get the business decisions. I can see how it sounds like it would work, on paper. But Indian comics - and even the Virgin titles that had nothing to do with Indian culture or mythology were inflected with the style of Indian comics - were an unlikely match for America. I know Americans who love Bollywood films, but there aren't enough of them to make it worth opening a Bollywood studio here. Adding that on top of all the other obstacles to publishing comics that already exist in the USA - mainly distribution woes and fanbase apathy towards new comics companies - is something even Richard Branson's reputation and money can't easily overcome. (Were Virgin Comics supposed to be distributed through Virgin Superstores before those shrunk to next to nothingness? Or is it nothingness now?)

As I said, I'm sure they were emboldened by the recent success of manga, as well as Hollywood's new thirst for comics movies. Other companies have been likewise emboldened; I'm blanking on the name, but there was that '90s company publishing Hong Kong martial arts comics that pretty much went nowhere. As I mentioned, people tend to forget that manga struggled for decades to get a foothold, but what really put manga over was anime. When anime - SAILOR MOON, DRAGONBALL Z and YU-GI-OH, mainly, with NARUTO firming up the rear - got regular spots on American TV, in syndication and on basic cable channels like Cartoon Network, they created fans, the fans sought out the manga, and because stores began giving manga its own section, it became easy to for those fans to check out other manga, word spread, sales rose, and "suddenly" manga was cool, and being read by lots of people, especially teenagers, who had never even thought of opening an American comic. That's what propelled manga. Prior to that, Viz and other manga publishers had followed the traditional route - dump their product in the American comics stream and hope for the best - and made only a little inroad. Manga's content hadn't changed, but the manga experience had.

So any foreigners eyeing the American comics market, seeing manga's success, and figuring this means American comics readers are now hungry for foreign material are in for painful, especially financially painful, disappointment. (American publishers who make the same leap of faith will too.) All manga proves is that you can crack the American market, now that it's likely. And you'd better be in it for the long haul.

 

Still ignoring the conventions, both of them, and will until they're all dead and gone. There are several ways you can look at them but none amount to a rat's ass. Are conventions a celebration of the American political system? Sure, if by "the American political system" you mean the Republicans and Democrats, but that's a sad commentary right there, since both are morassed, at least on a managerial level, in protecting their particular status quos. Or they're victory celebrations in advance, which is ludicrously premature. Or they're big pep rallies, and pep rallies always left me cold. Rah rah. Aren't we hooked up enough now that we could just hold the conventions on the Internet, with everyone telecommuting in instead of wasting all that airline fuel to get there? Yeah, yeah, I know, lots of backroom deals that have to be made at conventions off-camera, etc. There's the political system for you, right there.

By the way, I'm currently giving odds that the Democrats will lose in November, and here's why: so far they've been following the exact same campaign course they've followed in the last two elections. Democrats don't want to win as much as they want everyone to like them. The Obama campaign shows signs of this now, or maybe it's the influence of the DNC, now that they're merged toward that one great political goal. But look at the Republicans: a slew of ads, often petty and stupid, that nonetheless chip away at Obama. And it's not even the ads that are doing the chipping. It's the Democratic failure to respond to the ads. They're always so goddamned determined to present themselves as "above the fray," which just gives the impression that whatever idiot accusations are being hurled have merit. Until the rubbish has taken root to the point that a response must be made, and then it just plays as damage control, and everyone's hip to that con.

Thing is, they don't even need to respond respond. They don't have to treat anything like a serious issue, or even a serious accusation. Let's face it: anyone could take McCain down hard in about ten seconds if they really wanted to. (Or maybe they don't want to until after the Republican convention, when the damage will have already been done. If you take down McCain before the convention, they can just nominate another candidate. If you do it afterward, they either have to stay the course or find some grounds to replace McCain as candidate, and both look bad. But odds are the Democrats aren't thinking along those lines at all, because, you know, they're above all that.) That "Paris Hilton" ad? Wouldn't an ad have been great with Obama himself - not some nameless voice with an "I approve this message" tag at the end - just Obama on camera laughing at the ad? And saying something like "The most famous celebrity in the world? Me? Is that the best lie the Republicans could come up with? Or do they have to resort to that sort of thing because their politics are even emptier than that ad is?" You don't have to debate 'em, Democrats. Kill 'em. Ridicule 'em. How hard is that? When the Republicans put up ads about how Obama will "raise taxes," run an ad about rampant government spending with insufficient funds by the current administration, and a Congress long controlled by Republicans, and how that has decimated the American economy, triggered financial scandal after financial scandal, and threatens to bankrupt the economy if those policies remain in force for another four years.

Remember when Michelle Obama was accused of "not being proud" of America - the shame of it! - and Cindy McCain said, "Well, I've always been proud of America." There wasn't one person who could think to say, "Well, sure, Cindy McCain's a rich drug addict who looted her own charity to supply medicine to Africa to feed her own addiction, and she got off with a slap on the wrist and everyone chuckling about what a minx she is. If Michelle Obama had done that she'd still be doing time. That's the America Cindy McCain's proud of."

But, no, that would be too impolite for the Democrats. Can't have people thinking the Democrats are impolite.

We're Americans, goddammit! We're all impolite! WISE UP!

Here's the anti-McCain ad I'd run if I were the Democrats, and I'd start running it the moment McCain makes his acceptance speech and keep it on the air all the way through November. McCain's basically running on two things: his supposed "straight talk" and his "qualifications." So those are the Democrats have to gut. Bringing up how he can't keep track of how many houses he owns won't do it.

But McCain has done a ton of video over the past couple years, interviewed on news shows and press conferences. Where time and time again he has flat out contradicted himself. Find three of those instances, like where he said one week that his area of expertise was the economy, and the next week (this was just after the mortgage scandal hit big) said he wasn't an expert on the economy. That sort of thing. He has contradicted himself on the war, on spending, on nuclear power. Find three sets of clips. Run one clip from McCain - in his own voice - saying, oh, "The economy is my area of expertise" and immediately follow with the counter-clip, "I'm no expert on the economy." Immediately follow with the other two sets of clips. Freeze on McCain's face - looking grouchy, if possible - and have the voice over: "Qualified? He's not even qualified to tell the truth." Fade out McCain's face, fade in Obama's smiling, hopeful, confident face, looking off at a bright future.

Which sets up the debates, and what a main objective should be for Obama: to piss McCain off. Republican image consultants have been desperately trying to mask one of McCain's most prominent traits: he's really a cranky old bastard given to flying off the handle when contradicted, who gets pretty irrational when he's like that. They don't want people seeing him like that. Obama must achieve two things during the debates - to establish that, yes, he does have policy positions (they're available at his website, but that requires people to do the heavy lifting themselves, which is always problematic) and he'll probably even have to break down a little and enunciate them, though hopefully in somewhat less tedious attention to detail than Al Gore achieved - and to get McCain to lose his cool in front of America. That bit's a little trickier, since he has to do it in such a way that it doesn't look like he's trying to beat up someone's invalid grandfather, and the moderated debate format isn't conducive to one-on-one brawls. It requires a "nasty-nice" approach that Democrats aren't especially adept at, like acknowledging and praising McCain's stint in a North Vietnamese POW camp as brave and inspirational, but then pointing out that surviving a POW camp isn't in itself a qualification for the highest office in the land, and that his experience with torture didn't stop him from shifting from a lifelong opposition to torture to endorsing the Administration's "measured" use of it as an interrogation technique.

Fortunately, the best approach is one he should be taking in any case: chip away at McCain hard wherever possible. Contradict his conclusions, contradict his terms. Follow the Ghost-Cheney interview approach: don't bother answering the question you're asked, reframe it into the question you want to answer and answer that. He might as well; you know McCain will be coached to do that. Close to every single answer should chip at McCain, which not coincidentally would also present an aggressive candidate who looks capable of fearlessly confronting challenges. That "commander-in-chief" thing.

But it won't happen because they're Democrats, and they want to be liked. The party wants to be liked. But if they really want to be liked, the best way to do that is to win the White House, and Congress, and make some substantive positive changes in the lives of the majority of Americans. The question now is whether Obama will get his hands dirty in a real fight, or whether he'll follow the traditional advice of the DNC and try to remain "presidential" and above the fray, ignoring that while some Americans are less than keen on a guy who hits, most Americans like a guy who when hit hits back. Hard. The Republicans figured that one out a long time ago. Moral victories are good and all, but real victories are better, and the Democrats now have barely two months to figure that out.

Which is why I'm now giving odds on a Republican victory in November, because the Democrats have had years to figure than out and they don't seem to be any closer to accepting it.

 

Notes from under the floorboards:

Oy. If your life is empty enough that you're dying to see the tattoos that comics fans get, here's the place to start.

I see some movie-addled idiot in New York hired a hit man (who turned out to be an undercover cop, as they almost always are when laymen go shopping for hitmen) to kill his wife, and kindly provided the desired murder weapon: a samurai sword...

Speaking of idiots, someone actually plotted to assassinate Barack Obama during the Convention? Seems that following the local US attorney's public statement that there was "no credible threat," the perps copped to all of it...

Oh, in case you missed it, the FBI announced plans to drastically expand domestic spying come November, though current director Bob Mueller has kindly agreed to let Congress ask him questions about it, though he won't be stopping or suspending the project pending their approval. (Might as well save time, since Congress bitches and grouses and rattles sabers before the press, then rubberstamps everything anyway.) The new rules allow agents to open investigations of any American citizen, even where there's not the slightest suggestion of any shady business going on. Still, if you haven't done anything nothing to be afraid of, right? Right?

Heh! Sheboygan's in the news! I was in Sheboygan once! Seems one Jennifer Reisinger has mounted a campaign - no idea how successful - to have Mayor Juan Perez recalled. The mayor apparently took umbrage at this and decided to have the city attorney Stephen McLean order a criminal investigation of Reisinger for posting on her web page a neutral link to the Sheboygan police department - despite McLean's pronouncement that the link was perfectly legal. Reisinger is now suing the city for interfering with her business and trampling on her civil rights as punishment for her support of Perez's removal from office, and this looks like it could set some legal precedents...

Wow. The Washington Post recently ran an editorial proposing the government raise taxes to put Internet use out of the hands of... well... the trash who blog and get their information from other than legitimate, authorized news sources (presumably including the Washington Post) and use the web to communicate with each other and drown out the messages that, oh, lobbyists and such want you to hear. In other words, take the Internet away from you and me and put it in the hands of an elite who will know how to use it wisely, for the good of all. Apparently in the eyes of the editorialist - an "environmental lawyer" named Dusty Horwitt, but a quick Google search reveals a comedian/singer/songwriter/celebrity impersonator of the same name so maybe this is all a put-on that the Post got suckered into - this will somehow "save democracy" from "too much information"...

Want to have fun with Olympics junkies? Someone excitedly told me we (the USA) won the Olympics this year by scoring way more medals than anyone else! Wowie! Here's where the fun comes in: if someone says that, look at them sideways and ask, "How many gold medals did we win?" Answer: "mumble... mumble... That's not important!" Funny how it was important before the Olympics. But how about we drop this crap about "international brotherhood" and "bringing the world together" blah blah blah and admit that the Olympics are just another form of war (like most international sports... by the way, what's this I hear about Brit football fans jumping to Germany to find teams worth rooting for?) where the object is to rub your innate superiority in the face of the rest of the world. At least for the USA. Jeez, the way everyone went on about how humiliating it was for our basketball team to lose last time, and how we really showed them this time. It's a game. Teams lose. Get over it. To continue: "So who got the most gold medals?" "mumble mumble China but we got the most medals overall mumble mumble..." Ah, the simple joys of day to day life, and the simple truths: if you lose by the standards you've set for yourself, you can still win by retroactively modifying your standards. Come to think of it, the White House has been living by that simple principle on every issue across the board for the past eight years.

If you're in the mood for a couple of bad movies, the much touted CONTROL, while decently acted, reduces one of the best bands ever to come out of Britain, Joy Division, to a tawdry '50s social realism drama. Sure, it's all true, but in this case print the legend, because there's nothing at all illuminating in this drab, lumpen flick. (The Wombats got it right, though.) And for sheer hilarity, 10,000 BC can't be beat, following historical reality about as much as, oh, LORD OF THE RINGS does - in fact, it seems cobbled together from equal parts STAR WARS, LORD OF THE RINGS and CAVEMAN. Never mind the domestication of horses about 7000 years before the fact or 9000 for saddles, never mind the pyramid city or the insane geography; I was rolling on the floor by the time the hero saves a saber-tooth from drowning and it becomes his devoted kitty. Just an insanely, insanely stupid movie.

Speaking of funny, by now it's pretty apparent that the British make the best sitcoms: FAWLTY TOWERS, GOOD NEIGHBORS, BLACKADDER, THE YOUNG ONES, THE GOODIES, RED DWARF, SPACED etc. (The less said of THE LAST OF THE SUMMER WINE, ARE YOU BEING SERVED? or ALLO ALLO the better. But nobody's perfect.) But they've now outdone themselves with SPOOKS CODE 9, which may be the ultimate send-up of the spy genre, told absolutely straight-faced with Saharan-dry humor. The pitch must've been pure Hollywood high concept: "Imagine 24 crossed with THE MOD SQUAD - as parody! Set in a near-future Britain where much of London has been destroyed by a terrorist nuke during the Olympics, but posh nightclubs and ultra-fab shopping centers still thrive, everyone dresses in the latest hip fashion, and the whole country still behaves like it's any other day, except for the armed checkpoints and grubby refugee centers. Stiff upper lip and all that, eh wot? And the team - did we mention they're all hip young college student and street tough types, specially trained in a special MI-5 program to put hip young college student and street tough types into dangerous situations without the slightest idea of what they're doing? - is led by a slightly geeky but cuddly hip young math student, and we know he's a math student because he keeps talking about percentages. Just to make sure everyone gets it, he's named Charlie, like the math geek on NUMBERS! Did we mention the squad doesn't have a clue what they're doing - like one hip young college student type that was going to be a doctor but now that his county needs him he's a spy, he's trying to find a girl in a refugee center that he knows some people don't want him to find, so his devious plan is to go in undercover - he puts together a "legend" and everything, that's spy talk, right? See, we'll also pepper the scripts with all this gibberish spy talk - and start showing around a picture straight out of a police mug shot book and asking everyone if they seen her, figuring no one will get that he's an undercover cop. Oh, and here's the through-story: the first leader of the squad leaves the math geek a videodisk telling him she knows the London bombing was the work of a traitor inside MI-5... but then she says she doesn't know who and doesn't indicate why she'd even think that, even though she's still got almost two hours of disk space left. It'll be great, you'll see! Oh, and we'll put lots of people who've been in DOCTOR WHO in it!" "What? DOCTOR WHO? Sold!" Seriously, it's funny beyond bel... Hmmm? What? It's not a parody? Really?!

I've got a birthday party to go to, so incinerate some hot dogs on the grill and have a great Labor Day. See you next week in a brand new show.

Congratulations to Jeff Barbanell, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "trees." Jeff wishes to point your attention to his blog Intergalactic Vigilante Squad, where he... huh... explores the history of science fiction and its impact on the Superman mythos. Now that sounds interesting. Check it out.

By the way, there may have been a problem with the link to last week's winner, Vinnie Bartalucci's International Norbert Conspiracy, so here it is again.

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 a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but who will be the first 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:  steve ditko, virgin comics, olympics

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