Permanent Damage

Wed, November 5th, 2008 at 5:01pm PST | Updated: November 5th, 2008 at 5:05pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

If you're in Las Vegas this weekend, on Saturday the Las Vegas-Clark County Library System hosts this year's Vegas Valley Comic Book Festival at the main library, 1401 E. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas, NV 89119, from 11-3. Guests include Steve Niles, Dwayne McDuffie, Deryl Skelton, Gary Groth, Chris Staros, Gilbert & Natalie Hernandez, Charles Holbert, Drew Edwards, David Hadju, Jarret Keane and me, plus various exhibitors. Click here for the schedule. If you've got a couple extra days to kill, Neil Gaiman appears in the same venue on Thursday while Michael Chabon shows up Saturday evening. (No idea whether either will be around Saturday.) The previous show was surprisingly fun and very well attended, so show up if you've got the chance; unlike most comics shows, it's free.


>Waiting for election results. Not that I'm haunting the TV — I generally prefer on election days to avoid broadcast TV or radio until I can read Wednesday's headlines, and this year I guess I'll be adding Internet news pages to the 'avoid' list — but just knowing it's going on is like having a little worm gnawing at your concentration, especially this year. Just when I need to concentrate too; the final pages of The Graphic Novel are within my grasp. Still, elections, daylight savings time, holidays (Nevada Day here last Friday) — anything to throw me off. Life's great like that. Anyway, if I seem to be jumping around a bit, that's why: no attention span today, just creeping anxiety.

And I'm already reminded on Election Day of Dan O'Neill's maxim that voting is a sin because there are a lot of people out there who believe that any government is better than no government at all, and your vote only encourages them. (More O'Neill: Q: How many Republicans go to Hell when they die? A: All of them. And Democrats go to Sacramento.) Dan O'Neill's a cartoonist who should be remembered and honored as one of our greats, and virtually no one ever even mentions his name anymore. The guy tried to rescue Mickey Mouse from slavery, gol darn it! (Don't mind me; I'm just practicing my Winky lingo in the event of a disas- I mean Republican victory. And just for Winky, to show there's no hard feelings:)

Speaking of one of our greats, DRAW! #16 has a good interview with Howard Chaykin. It still has problems I have with many of the DRAW! interviews, which tend to treat practical matters as theoretical or philosophical where concrete examples would be considerably more helpful, as when Howard says that his main concern in drawing comics is serving the story. Good follow-up questions would have been "In what way?" or "Could you give an example of what you mean?" but instead editor/interviewer Mike Manley, who's an accomplished artist himself as well as an art teacher, nods knowingly (figuratively, anyway) and takes the statement as a given, because he knows (or at least presumes he knows) what Howard's talking about. (Manley's comics aesthetics roughly run in those directions as well, from the looks of his work.) This is a general problem with "insider" interviews no matter where they occur, or what the subject: interviewers, to avoid seeming petty or stupid to the subjects, who are often personal heroes whose respect they're unconsciously — it's usually unconscious — trying to win, don’t question enough. (I often have the same response to INSIDE THE ACTOR'S STUDIO on Bravo.)

But while what amounts to "inside jokes" tend to be gratifying to insiders, they're uninstructive. In this case, because the average person, even the budding comics artist (who, theoretically, is DRAW!'s target demographic) will be inclined to ask, "Huh?"

Unless you've dissected the mechanics of comics, and most people don't, any art will seem to be "in service to the story." There's an opening page, an ending page, right? Characters spout dialogue. In sequence, the pages tell a story, right? Maybe not a great or compelling story, but a story, and the art tells the story, right?

I've known Howard a long time, and there's probably no one in the business I respect more. (Respect's not a word I toss around a lot, and I tend to sneer anytime anyone uses it, particularly when "demanding" respect; it's one of those funny things where the more it matters to you the less you're worthy of it. Face it, worrying about respect is for wimps.) He has the most phenomenal work ethic I've ever run across: regular office hours, steady production, incredible output — and it almost always looks and reads great, whether he's writing for another artist, drawing for another writer, or producing his own material, and he often does all three more or less simultaneously. And he's a terrific storyteller, one of the best in the business. But his main attraction to comics is stories — it's what drew him to movies and TV as well — and that separates him from the vast majority of artists who enter comics. For most, it's the visceral appeal of the art, and the power to express that visceral interest in their own art.

There's nothing wrong with that. It's usually a stage for artists to move past, though there are those who never move past it, and it's not hard to get rewarded for not moving past it, since that visceral aspect is what draws many fans as well. (Or did, anyway; the last few years have seen some rise in fan concern about story aspects of the medium, and more "superstar" writers have risen recently than "superstar" artists.) A problem is that what's meant by "storytelling" is something almost never explained coherently. To flatly say, for instance, that Howard Chaykin is "a master storyteller" and his art "serves the story" is to suggest the how of it is apparent simply by looking at Howard's work. But that's the not the case. Simply looking brings us back to the visceral response. You like it or you don't like it. Expecting artists — or writers, or editors, or readers — to understand the mechanics of it without deconstructing the material, both the writing and the art, and seeing how those elements work in concert and especially how the art "serves" the writing, without some sort of Rosetta Stone, is ludicrous.

So it's a pity that, amid the many sequential illustrations of Chaykin splashes or pages from rough design to completed work — not that those steps aren't important for artists — and especially of application of patterns to achieve an expanded impression of "internal reality" (the sense of we readers "peeping in" on another world), there were no comparisons of a script, layouts and finished page based on the script and how the elements were designed step by step to "serve the story," because if there's any concept in comics that confuses people, that's the one.

What galls many about "storytelling" is that it betrays an inconvenient truth about the comics medium: everything starts with story. You'd think that would be obvious, but there are plenty who've fought the equation tooth and nail, partly because there are many artists (not always their fault; often throughout comics history this has been enforced by editorial fiat, and nothing chafes more than having to trust "the rules," which in comics usually means "the way we've always done it" rather than "the best way to do it") who've used that as an excuse to produce dull comics art. Nobody wants dull comics art, though exactly what that means varies from project to project according to intent and need. (An ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY drawn like an issue of LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES likely wouldn't be of much interest or use to anyone.) It's a tragic fact of comics life that excitingly designed and well-drawn artwork can make dull scripts palatable (it has even been known to make them into "instant classics") while dull art, virtually without exception, will make even the most exciting script dull.

A long-running myth of comics, at least "mainstream" (i.e. superhero) comics, is that "being tied down" by a script means dull art, though obviously there are enough examples of good script and art in combination to crush that one. Other patently untrue myths: that the work of a single cartoonist is automatically superior to work from a writer-artist team, and, especially popular in the late '70s when I broke in, that all comics writers are failed comic book artists. (I always suspected that was inspired by Len Wein, who originally tried to get work drawing and found his art wasn't up to snuff so he switched to writing, but I've always considered Len's decision a measured and mature response to ensure a career in the medium he wanted to be part of, not petulance.) When Howard speaks of the art "serving the story," he's clearly doesn't mean "drawing down" to the script, and points out that it's the artist's job to bring all the (appropriate) dynamics and visual interest to the story that experience and imagination can muster, or, as Howard puts it, the artist's job is to make the writer look good.

And it's the job of the writer to give the artist something to make look good. Art is a visceral experience, and the visceral experience of comics is important. Writing is an intellectual experience, and the intellectual experience of comics is important. Writing is the rudder, art the sail; good comics require both of them, in tandem.

Again, that should be blatantly obvious to anyone, no explanations needed. It feels pompous and self-important to even write it. But apparently intellectual appreciation of the necessary interconnection of art and writing in comics is easy to grasp, but not the visceral appreciation. I still see artists who believe their work is so good that they can make any tripe a runaway hit — and sometimes they even get away with it — and writers who believe their genius will be recognized when the artists drawing their stories seem barely capable of gripping a pencil or maneuvering a mouse. While it may demand significant ego-realignment, it's probably best for all comics writers to view artists as their co-writers, and artists to view writers as their co-artists. Even the most accomplished script will dependent on the artist's interpretation, and whatever vision the artist will ultimately refine and amplify will spring from the writer's mind first. Even when writer and artist are the same person.

I can't think of any professional writer-artists who "write" at the drawing board, and develop their stories as they draw. Everyone I know writes their scripts first, usually full scripts, and works out their storylines and characters in full before drawing them because it wards off big problems down the road to publication. It's practical; it's easier and in most cases less time-consuming to change a piece of script than a page of artwork, and if the story doesn't work at the script stage, it's not going to work at the art stage, no matter how good the art is. As a general rule, art that carries the burden of "narrative" — making action and character clear to the reader while keeping things visually interesting — makes a more appealing reading, as opposed to viewing, experience, while freeing the writer from the tyranny of exposition to turn their part of the job toward more interesting things. (That not many writers actually do when the artist gives them the chance is another deficiency the business should address sometime. There's no more excuse for dull writing — I realize in the eyes of some I'm hypocritically damning myself by saying that, but c'est la vie — than for dull art.)

At any rate, there are few artists in the country as good at Howard at "serving the story" while keeping things visually interesting. (And I'm sure Howard would not define those as separate tasks.) His now vast body of work is an education in that, and it's pretty much worth it for every budding artist in comics to study it for that, even if you don't like his style. Approving of how an artist draws isn't necessary for dissecting and poaching what how s/he designs, or tells a story; there's nothing that says you have to like something to learn from it. With Howard it's more of an education than with most, because even he'll tell you that very little in his work is instinctive, and that he had to consciously learn pretty much everything he knows. (Gil Kane was the same; at one point he realized he was a crappy artist and went out of his way to relearn everything to make himself a better artist.) Virtually ever aspect of Howard's work is the result of study, thought, practice and conscious application. Those are good habits for anybody.

But having the work explicated for us once in awhile couldn't hurt either.


Notes from under the floorboards:

Don't forget that my ODYSSEUS THE REBEL webcomic drawn by Scott Bieser is currently running at Big Head Press, while Boom! Studios continues to run TWO GUNS online. Both are free, so you're out of excuses. Go! And Image still has the action-adventure graphic novel THE SAFEST PLACE available, with maybe Tom Mandrake's best art ever, so pester your retailer for it if you haven't got it already.

Hmmm... this is mildly embarrassing... I know I'm supposed to have several projects out this month, but I can't remember what they are. (I've been too fixated on the ones I'm doing now.) Last I heard, Platinum was finally releasing my SOCORRO graphic novel, about a private detective in the country illegally and acting as a private cop for other illegals in Los Angeles, with art by Tony O'Donnell. Is this the month Marvel releases my Spider-Man WHAT IF? and the Ellis-Grant-Olivetti X-MAN collection? I'll have to check before next Tuesday. I'd swear I'm forgetting something.

I see HEROES has undergone a staff shakeup in order to get the show's storylines back on track and justify its $4 mil per episode budget, which must put it among NBC's top three most expensive show to produce, if not #1. (To compare: when it was on, THE FLASH was also CBS' most expensive show, at a million or more per episode, and the cost was a big factor in the network deciding to cut bait. But wait. Wasn't CGI originally supposed to bring the cost of special effects down? Why do SFX costs keep going up and up and up?) One big recommendation for the show, if it survives to a next arc: stop regurgitating the bit of the heroes witnessing an apocalyptic future, just to give the audience a sense of the stakes and the characters something that vaguely passes for motivation. There are other reasons people do things, even in X-MEN comics.

Circuit City just shut down a bunch of stores. This is what CompUSA did a couple years ago, and it turned out to be only a holding pattern until they shut down the rest of the stores and became "an online retailer." (I assume they bought, were bought by or merged with longtime etailer Tiger Software, because their special offer emails are identical but for logos.) It's funny how you can always tell doomed retailers, long before they close their doors; in Circuit City's case their local branches had been going downhill for years, with unpleasant lighting, sloppy shelving and a generally unappealing atmosphere. I'm sorry to see any consumer electronics store in trouble, but I don't know if I've bought anything at Circuit City except during Black Friday sales for years. The future of the consumer electronics market belongs to Newegg and Sam's Club anyway.

One interesting election day report someone just sent: various voting hijinks in highly contested Virginia and Pennsylvania, with things like illegal pamphleting allowed too close to polls, some polling places in Virginia were illegally closed with possibly thousands of voters turned away and wrongly given "provisional" ballots, which are commonly only used where voter registrations are in doubt, and Virginia Tech saw its polling place moved without warning to a difficult to get to location six miles off campus. Sounds like someone doesn't want someone to vote, but we all know it couldn't be those "Country First" people because they'd want all citizens to have a voice, just like the country stands for. Wouldn't they?

Seems as the Ghost closes in on fading away from the political scene he and his cohorts are doing whatever they can to gut environmental regulations, amp up police powers, make access to birth control and abortions more difficult, give tax breaks to banks so they can use bailout funds to finance mergers at further public subsidy, and other policy changes wherever he can make them without Congress' approval. For the next 2-6 weeks, the White House is basically depending on his invisibility and on the press paying much more attention to the President-Elect. Kind of makes you long for when presidents would just pardon rich criminals on their way out of office, dunnit?

In the ongoing digital rights war, a professor has filed a suit against the law currently allowing the RIAA to claim ridiculous punitive sums from those they accuse of pirating music (I say accuse because they try as best they can to intimidate those they accuse into settling out of court) is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, a judge (who has previously supported RIAA suits) has condemned the organizations practice of using their legal muscle to effectively force their accused into bankruptcy if they want to defend their cases. Doesn't tell them not to do it, though.

Meanwhile, seems the Motion Picture Association Of America (MPAA) now has the right to authorize what DVD players can and can't be sold in America...

Here we go again: right wing think tank The Rand Corporation has concluded that the recent uptick in teenage pregnancy is due to... sexy TV shows. Like GOSSIP GIRL, which, among other things, gives teenage guys the idea that it's cool to sleep around. Teenage guys watch GOSSIP GIRL? I'd be more concerned about that. But isn't it possible that the rise in teenage pregnancy — and, apparently, really idiotic attitudes toward teenage sex — has more to do with regular attacks on sex education in schools and determined attempts to prevent teens access to birth control, not to mention, the odd accident aside, really stupid parents raising and enforcing really stupid kids? But, hell, sure, blame it on TV. Any excuse for more cultural repression, right?

Also seems people are still trying to clinically prove playing video games makes teenagers more violent and inclined to violence despite statistics demonstrating a drop in teen violence corresponding to a rise in playing videogames...

Now there's a real estate crash in Second Life? What the hell...?

You may have seen Redbox video kiosks in your local supermarket and other places, renting current issue DVDs for a buck a night. There are gobs of them around here, and they've helped shut down most Blockbusters and many Hollywood Videos, though the Hollywood a couple blocks from me still does boom business. (Blockbuster is but a distant bad memory.) The film industry launched a legal challenge last week to shut Redbox down on some weird theory of infringement, but it turns out that Redbox infringes on their rights where Blockbuster and Hollywood didn't because Universal has looked at Redbox's success and decided to open their own chain of DVD rental kiosks...

In spite of my best efforts, someone just told me Obama won. I'll believe it when all the votes are counted, but so far so good. Even if McCain truly lost, he didn't exactly get skunked but if Obama's truly in I do think it represents a new lease on life for the country. We'll see. If nothing else we've just dumped the popular worldwide image of America as a land of inveterate racists, so that's potentially a new international goodwill toward this country that hopefully an Obama administration won't squander the way the Ghost squandered our international goodwill following 9-11. Of course, it could all turn to sewage in a heartbeat, but if I wake up in the morning and Obama's still declared president, at least I'll have a little while to feel reasonably good about politics. Just tuned in to MSNBC, and have to say: whatever else can be said for him, McCain knows how to make a really classy concession speech.

Congratulations to Matthew Maxwell, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "animal categories": bird, fish, dinosaur, mammal etc. Matt wishes to point your attention to pop culture site the online serialization of his graphic novel, STRANGEWAYS: THE THIRSTY. Check it out.

Also for you to check out: a new pop culture review blog, Visualesque. That one's from me.

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; me and my bright ideas, eh? 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:  howard chaykin, draw!

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