Permanent Damage

Wed, January 14th, 2009 at 8:58pm PST | Updated: January 15th, 2009 at 9:16am

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Kind of amazing how little it takes to stir up a hornet's nest in this business. Somehow my pal Bill Willingham did it by, oh, expressing the opinion that heroes should act heroically. Talk about controversial.

Or was it because he cast aspersions about comics outside the comics world, at website Big Hollywood?

Bill's argument is basically that a) superheroes aren't heroic enough anymore, and b) we're taking too much glee in denigrating our heroes, and having them express supposedly unheroic thoughts. On the surface, that's true enough. He cites relatively recent approaches to Superman and Captain America, arguably the most incorrigibly "heroic" of Big Two superheroes, in that innate nobility is theoretically an essential element of their characters, as opposed to, say, Batman and Spider-Man, for whom, regardless of how various writers have handled them over the years, heroic nobility is at root a secondary, imposed consideration. Batman's motivation is basically revenge, Spider-Man's guilt (though I've argued that Batman's, too, is really guilt, but that's for another time). Superman's motivation is altruism, Captain America's patriotism.

The problem for both is that those stopped being selling points long ago.

I guess it's the current right wing viewpoint that somehow liberals have done this to our beloved superheroes, on the premise that most comics writers are liberals. Not in my experience. Well, actually, yeah, liberals, but liberals by my definition, not by theirs. (Mine falls more in line with that outline in Phil Ochs' "Love Me, I'm A Liberal":

"Yes, once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
And sang all the old union hymns
But now I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
So love me love me love me
I'm a liberal"

Which, oddly, isn't far removed from Bill's acknowledgement that he too fed the flames of "unheroic" heroes in his youth, but now he's grown older and wiser...) And, sure, popular sentiment played into it, but it was a double whammy. Much to the chagrin of many conservatives, the Vietnam/Watergate era played hob with many Americans' certainty of America's innate moral superiority. For awhile there, revelations appeared nearly daily of how the government, or parts thereof, had performed drug experiments on unwitting Americans, trained foreign dictators in suppressing and torturing their own citizens, abetted drug smuggling into the country from Southeast Asia, infiltrated domestic protest groups and steered them from nonviolent protest to violence, spied on Americans, orchestrated crimes from the White House, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. For some reason, a lot of people couldn't quite wrap their heads around the idea that it was our patriotic duty to accept that America was the good guys – World War II proved we were the good guys, after all, which is why WWII keeps getting dredged up – when America didn't act like the good guys. Want to know where much later portrayals of "heroes" calling themselves the good guys while behaving like the bad guys came from? That's where it came from, though it took awhile to filter into socially palatable forms. But that's the subtle point of that kind of "hero," usually: we can do bad things and still be the good guys, if we do bad things for the right reasons. (I'm not vindicating that position, I'm just saying...)

But the noble superhero had already slid toward eclipse long before Vietnam and Watergate hit popular awareness. Superheroes didn't become objects of popular ridicule due to the BATMAN TV show being ridiculous. They were popularly ridiculed long before that. The BATMAN TV show adopted its over the top camp formula because that was how they could sell a superhero to a mass market. Before the TV show, superhero parodies were already widespread, in comics and other media, because the whole superhero concept was already widely seen to be ridiculous. Expect among small children, and among comics fans. Stan Lee & Steve Ditko didn't do the superhero any real favors by creating Spider-Man, the first great comics anti-hero (Ditko apparently intended him to grow out of that phase and consciously decide to behave heroically; Stan, not one to tamper with a winner, kept him in his tortured, self-doubting phase indefinitely); while Spider-Man gave new life to the genre, he was the biggest nail in the coffin of the traditional superhero that Bill wants to resurrect.

(As an aside, the "anti-hero" is a curious creation. I have no idea what an anti-hero is. By some definitions, it's a supposed super"hero" of the sort I mentioned above, whose, whatever his victories and how they benefit society, is basically ignoble. By others, it's a protagonist who doesn't even make a pretense to heroism, or share many/any of the characteristics of the traditional hero. As best as I can tell, an anti-hero is really any protagonist fans of traditional heroes don't like.)

What Vietnam/Watergate pounded home for most people is what a complex world we live in. Not binary at all. Not black and white. Gray. Traditional superheroes don't do well with gray, or complexity. The most complexity Superman traditionally ever had to deal with was whether to save Lois Lane or Lana Lang, when both were threatened at the same time. But he was Superman. If he couldn't get around the apparent conundrum and save both, no one could. Which was one of the reasons he became more or less irrelevant; sure, we can demonstrate via a comics story that when faced with two evils, there's no need to let one of them happen because you (or, rather, Superman) can figure out how to stop both. If you're loaded to the gills with superpowers, that probably works. If you're an ordinary person, the message you'll ultimately end up with is that what works for Superman probably won't work all that well for you, much as you might like it otherwise. (By the way, what about all those Superman stories of the '40s and '50s – did they continue into the '60s? – where he used his powers like a little kid to torment and trick Lois Lane? How heroic was that?)

So by the time Watergate rolls around, few things are quite as irrelevant to American culture as the traditional superhero. (This wasn't just in comics but everywhere, as the Jason Bourne novels demonstrate.) That's what was really behind the ill-fated "relevance" trend of the early '70s, an attempt to make superheroes not irrelevant. Which was a doomed cause; what it mainly proved was that superheroes and real world complexities don't mix. Part of the problem was that those trying to do "relevant superheroes" wanted both worlds, they wanted to have superheroes face off against real world issues (see GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW) yet maintain the core values of the traditional superhero. That led to some bizarre permutations, because one core value of the traditional superhero – and the main selling point of the genre c. 1972 – was that all problems could be solved by physical intervention. Not all problems can be solved by physical intervention, and not many at all by climactic battle. This presents a problem for the superhero, since in order to be a "real hero" he has to ultimately prevail, and the sooner the better. If he doesn't, he's a loser, and losers don't sell books. (As Andy Diggle learned to his dismay, haha.) The best – and, arguably, worst – attempt of the era was Steve Englehart's classic CAPTAIN AMERICA run, where Cap's traditional faith in all things American is badly shaken by his discovery that the clandestine, anti-democratic Secret Empire is being run from the highest office in the nation. While it seems a little silly now that Captain America should let his most cherished beliefs be undermined by the actions of one man, Englehart got the post-Watergate mood among the World War II generation exactly right. The night Nixon resigned, my boss at the theater where I worked, who'd come of age during WWII, came into my office dazed and distraught, because an American president simply didn't do that, or the things Nixon had been involved with, and he was baffled that I wasn't equally in shock. "That's the difference between your generation and mine," I told him. "Your generation says 'Oh, how awful.' Mine says, 'But of course.'"

Relevancy for the superhero just punctuated how irrelevant the superhero really was. So almost everything "pulled back" to more traditional types of stories, because that binary mentality is really hard to shake: if A isn't true, B must be true, and if B isn't true, A must be true. That C-Z exist out there somewhere rarely seems to occur to publishers (or, often, talent) for some reason. The '70s were the first real bloom of the anti-hero, even as the business was nosediving; the great successes at the Big Two weren't superheroes, but CONAN THE BARBARIAN and HOWARD THE DUCK. Both at Marvel, which had a strategic advantage otherwise. DC and Marvel both retreated to 1968, but Marvel '68 was on its way up while DC '68 was on it's way down, which goes a long way toward explaining how Marvel struggled along through the dark days of the '70s while DC almost went out of business. That's the latter day heyday of the traditional superhero at DC – and nobody bought it. Nobody wanted it.

On the flip side, the Reagan era should theoretically have been a resurrection period for the traditional superhero, since Reagan promised a return to good old American values, and by the late '70s much of America was worn out enough by wrestling with their contradictions to believe heading back to a good old black and white view of the world would be relaxing. But there was one contradiction that poisoned the well: the traditional superhero was basically altruistic, and in Reaganism altruism was naïve, following on the tradition in a few radical Protestant sects that traditionally believed altruism was a form of pride, therefore effectively a sin. Not hard to work that formula: if altruism is naïve, any argument from altruism is naïve, and, surprise, surprise, the traditional superhero was widely presumed to be a naïve concept.

It is, but the presumption almost certainly played into Bill's (and everyone else's) youthful choices of how to present superheroes.

What this meant to the comics market, though, was that one version of the anti-hero, the one who remained good because his motives and goals were good even though he did bad things, came into vogue. Not the traditional superhero. (Not surprisingly, the anti-hero ethic was also the one projected by the Reagan administration, which, unlike Nixon, did so unrepentantly.)

The traditional superhero didn't lose traction because any group was out to get him (unless that group was comic book buyers, who demonstrated pretty clearly with their bucks they didn't want him) and he wasn't undermined by liberal sentiment. Captain America's acknowledgement of historical perspective in the wake of 9/11 wasn't foolhardy or treasonous, just the expression of it was a little silly. (Bill doesn't identify the story where Captain America turns a blind eye to a government conspiracy, but I get the idea from one of his comments it's the Ultimate Captain America. But that's the parody version, isn't it?) Superman's portrayal in SUPERMAN RETURNS was obviously wrongheaded, but that's partly because there's virtually no way left to play him that will interest the size of audience Warners was looking for with the movie. (Even pleasing 100,000 comics readers these days seems beyond his meager powers.) Creepy stalker? C'mon, every kid for generations has viewed Superman, with his x-ray vision, as at least a potential creepy stalker. Deadbeat dad? If he knew he was a dad, sure. Those aspects aside, Superman in the movie is played almost across the board as a traditional superhero - and it wasn't interesting. (Not surprisingly, more interesting, at least a little, is his portrayal in the CW's SMALLVILLE, where he alternates the traditional superhero qualities with an ongoing refusal to embrace his "destiny" as a superhero. Though after eight seasons of superdeeds, that has gotten a little silly too.)

All that said, I understand where Bill's coming from, and sort of agree with him. Sort of. Even as superheroes have stolen the heart of the silver screen, they're coming preciously close to wearing out in comics again, at least in their current mode. Which, again, tries to have it both ways: today's "superhero" tends to be violently amoral while paying boatloads of lip service to traditional superheroism, or at least as traditional as Spider-Man, who's pretty much our current standard of "traditional." Leading us to curious spectacles like a War Machine who eviscerates his enemies in the name of justice and mutters, in idiot self-justification, "All I know... is that today... the world needs a War Machine."

But it really doesn't.

That's become a standard for the culture of violent excess in comics: necessity. It's not that we're evil or do evil things, it's that circumstances demand it of us. Pretty much the same thing as saying: no backbone. Violent excess doesn't offend me. Kneejerk justifications offend me. That's the thing about violence; you want your heroes to be disturbed by their own violence. Any comic that employs violence as a storytelling tool – and that's pretty much all superhero comics, by definition – is a de facto meditation on the nature of violence, if only by omission. The general perception in the business is that philosophy and escapism – the refuge of superhero comics when any attempt to seriously analyze them pops up (say it with me now: "Oh, it's just a comic book!" – are antithetical, but escapism is philosophy, and all comics, all superhero comics, express philosophies whether they're vocalized or not. We may as well consciously embrace that; many comics writers already have, though publishers, editors and fans tend to cling to the myth that comics are philosophically neutral, AKA "pure entertainment."

In that regard, I applaud Bill's decision to return to the traditional superhero – 'the good guys battling the bad guys for identifiably good causes' - though I suspect what he'll produce won't be as traditional as he thinks. (Current superhero comics' continued use of trad superhero tropes is likely to be a stumbling block for Bill, too, since their current lip service is generally so at odds with events in the comics that the "trad morality" thing just looks artificial and laughable.) On other levels, it's vaguely unsettling. He more or less posits the "correct" superhero as a nationalist myth, and that could mean any number of things, from lionizing "traditional American values" to willfully turning a blind eye toward American behavior in the world. And the overall gist of the piece is B doesn't work so it's time to return to A.

But, like I said, C-Z are still out there, waiting to be explored, and from what I know of how Bill's mind works, even if he thinks he's producing A, he'll end up in some other region. At least he plans to lead by example, not manifesto.

Here's the thing about heroes. I've mentioned it before. We like to claim descent of superheroes from the great Greek myths, etc., tracing the tradition through the history of human imagination. But heroes in those days weren't what we mean by superheroes today. Well, maybe today: Greek heroes were by and large loud, frequently mean, self-serving, violent, inconsiderate (to say the least) and rather flexible, morally. "Mighty men." That was their main outstanding aspect: they were men of might, whatever that entailed. So today's superhero, which Bill has decided he despises, really has a lot more in common with the really traditional superhero, if we maintain the pretense of tracking the pedigree that far. Even King Arthur's knights, in the originals, are a far slipperier bunch, morally, than the traditional superheroes of comics. The real pedigree goes back to wild west dime novels and Victorian penny dreadfuls, handed down through the adventure pulps (where, it should be noted, The Shadow had few compunctions about ventilating his enemies and even Doc Savage was known, if not to kill his enemies, to watch them go to their deaths) and those were usually dedicated to creating a myth at the expense of reality. But their fine, upstanding yet violent heroes – it was fine to pump lead into the carcass of some owlhoot but the hero dast not press lips to fair maid's – were created that way not as example but as sales tool. The problem for superhero comics over the past few years hasn't been that they've strayed too far from basic superhero traditions, it's that those traditions have hung around the neck of the superhero like an albatross, so that across the board companies and talent keep trying to have it both ways. It doesn't really matter whether one chooses to return to the tradition or cut it loose entirely, just stop trying to have it both ways.

Regardless, good heroes, bad heroes, it all comes down to one thing: sales. The traditional superhero didn't fade because a bunch of comics talent wanted to go some other way. They faded because people stopped buying them. There may be a nostalgia audience for "old virtue" superheroes, but a general audience is long since dead, and even in the movies it's not traditional or non-traditional that determines how big the audience is. Comics may secretly be all about philosophies, but it isn't philosophies that sell them. You can't tell people what they should like – well, you can, but not at the levels of expense and expertise comics are willing to invest in it – you can only give them something that will catch their imaginations, and everything else precipitates from that.

It all depends on the stories. Banking on anything else as the predominant factor is betting on the wrong pony.

So I wish Bill luck in his new personal crusade, look forward to seeing his JSA, and hope his new vision can rouse the sales necessary to sustain it. Now, if we can just find talent willing to cut the past loose entirely, and mutate the superhero genre from its present redundant doldrums of trying to keep one foot firmly planted in two different graves into something once again fresh and exciting, and publishers willing to facilitate it... because there's room enough in the universe for more that two stars...


On a side note, Bill suggested the superhero is still the predominant genre in comics. Only if you only read the front of the Diamond catalog. In terms of comics titles published per genre category each month, horror rules the roost at the moment.


The Consumer Electronics Show was back in Las Vegas last week, so I popped in. Last Thursday, the local paper ran an op-ed piece by a Gary Shapiro, explaining how hot technology would be the salvation of our economy. Not surprisingly, Shapiro turns out to be the head of the Consumer Electronics Association, parent company of CES. Obviously, it's in his best interests to cheerlead for faith in the electronics industry, but CES 2009 was telling a different story.

If consumer electronics are our best bet for the future, we're in deep trouble.

Attendance was down 22%. I guessed it by the first day. I've been going to CES since 2001, and 9 AM on opening day has always been a stampede. This year, it was a gentle flow, and where exhibit hall floors have always been moving roadblocks, movement last Thursday was remarkably easy. There are a few benchmark exhibitors every year, like Creative and SanDisk, who put on recurring shows to tout their new products, but no one touted anything new this year. SanDisk encouraged us to use their Secure Digital cards, industry standard for years. Creative, rather than trotting out a new product line, brought in an apparent outside to tout his company's forthcoming new style CPUs, using an unfortunate "stem cell" metaphor for chips broken down into smaller chunks so only portions needed, not the whole chip, can be called on. Theoretically this means more controlled energy uses and a greener chip, and I'd guess these will eventually be used in Creative product but it wasn't specified. Creative also abandoned their usual "scavenger hunt" promos throughout a booth that, while as big as ever, was sparsely attended and didn't seem set up to demonstrate anything.

Most of the exhibits were like that. No one was showing much new. The most crowded booths were those, like Sony and Samsung, with roach motel designs that made it difficult to leave once you entered. One of the big bonuses of CES has always been the giveaways, and it's a sign of the times that there were almost none this year. Not that anyone has an obligation to provide them, but it's indicative of most companies' health that few were provided. (Even Microsoft, which usually pumps out tons of weird junk, was only giving out decks of oblong playing cards when I was there, not even pens.) The best, and strangest, giveaway was from NBC/Universal – there for the first time? – as a product promotion: an oversized "matchbook" that you threw on a "Microsoft screen" (a flat panel touchscreen) to find out if you'd "won." If you "won," inside your matchbook was a size-tiny thumbdrive, that could then be loaded with "content" from kiosks throughout their booth. Great idea, and great giveaway. The trick was that every matchbook held a drive, so everyone "won," and the content was advertising for TV shows, movies and videogames. The strange part was that the drives (mine, anyway) were fairly large – two gigs – and the "content" was very small, less than a tenth of that, but each "winner" was allowed a choice of only one "content." (They also carefully DRM-protected the content on its way down.) But it was advertising, right? So why only one piece? Why not let everyone fill their drives to the hilt? Wasn't the whole point to promote the purchasable products?

But that was the kind of show it was this year. Not exactly an aura of doom, though everyone was pretty clear there were a lot fewer feet on the floor, but the mood was definitely belt-tightening, breath-holding and praying, with lots of companies wearing "green" like a flag and nary a hot tech development in sight. Except one: the OLED TV, a very thin TV screen using a carbon diode technology that created its own backlighting and gave a very nice picture at sizes where other flat screen technology show their weaknesses. (LCD TVs don't do so hot under 22", for instance.) At barely thicker than a window pane – rumor has it Sony has a flexible/rollable version but I didn't see it – OLEDs promise to put TVs in places they could never go before. Otherwise, rather than generate any kind of excitement, CES 2009 was more a matter of circling the wagons and digging in for the duration of the siege.


Notes from under the floorboards:

If you're in the New York area over the next month or so, you might want to check out a program at the Yivo Institute For Jewish Research (15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011) where my old pal Danny Fingeroth interviews legendary cartoonist Al Jaffee (Jan 21, 7P), breakthrough cartoonist/writer/playwright/one-time Eisner assistant Jules Feiffer (Feb 3, 7P) and "godfather of alt comics" Harvey Pekar (Feb 17, 7P). Buy your tickets early.

Wait, lemme get this straight: in the Marvel Universe, President Barack Obama eagerly meets his hero, Spider-Man... who's currently wanted by police as a suspected serial killer... yet puts The Green Goblin in charge of... well, whatever structure in the MU now has jurisdiction over all super-powered people... Or wasn't Obama the president who did that? But if he's president now... can't he rescind Norman Osborn's new job? (I haven't read the issue, but I don't suppose when they shake hands, Spider-Man says, "Could you do me just one favor, and fire Norman Osborn? Trust me." And, wait, wasn't Spider-Man backing Stephen Colbert for president?!) It's bad enough that on HEROES he (or some black president) is authorizing a crusade against superpeople just because they're super... and does this mean Spider-Man and Savage Dragon exist in the same universe?... my head hurts...

While my mind's on Marvel trivia, the last thing I remember seeing of the Sentry in SECRET INVASION was him running to outer space after the Skrulls freaked him out, leaving his psychic manifestation and arch-enemy The Void to defend his wife and child. Did that plotline continue in some spinoff book I never read (or heard of) or was it just one of those things, because I notice now he's back...?

Curious little story about comics in the now online-only CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR. Not sure I'd take anything Steve Geppi says publicly about the comics market as anything more than cheerleading (see CES article above) but any port in a storm... (Thanks, Anthony!)

Interestingly, Angouleme, which every pro who goes there tells me is The Greatest Annual Comics Convention On The Face Of The Planet, is podcasting this year, so maybe I can see for myself this year, and so can you. Time for San Diego to get on the stick.

The Golden Globes ran about as expected this year, though the one bit of weirdness was Kate Winslet winning both best actress and best supporting actress. How exactly is she a supporting actress in THE READER? That aside, I realize the real point of all these awards (other than allowing the voters to feel self-important) is so movie studios have more promotion ammo, but for awards like best actor, best actress, best director, etc., wouldn't it be better and more accurate to judge them not on a single film but on their body of work in the year voted on? As in any collaborative work, to some extent all parties' perfection is limited by the limitations of their collaborators, but for anyone with enough talent to be judged "best," even on otherwise crappy films talent should out. (Angelina Jolie in CHANGELING, for instance.) Probably a good idea for comics awards, too...

Every once in awhile – well, maybe a little more often than that – I'll reflect on some aspect of modern life, and people will either scowl, sneer or giggle, and tell me I'm insane, ignorant or paranoid. (AKA "a conspiracy nut.") This last year I've been mentioning around that the jacked up oil prices, like many prices in America, weren't the result of supply and demand but of futures speculators. Which is why the prices dropped precipitously at the end of '08: the bubble quietly burst along with the stock market bubble. Because that couldn't be right – wouldn't the press have made a stink about it, after all? – I must be insane, ignorant of the way the oil market works, or paranoid. Funny how 60 MINUTES just ran a story on how oil speculation ludicrously jacked up prices... And maybe you remember how Cheney and his energy broker buddies engineered the '02 California energy crisis... That's been the secret of "wealth" since, oh, 1980 or so: if the money you're making isn't enough to support your lavish lifestyle, artificially jack it up and make other people pay for it. (Like credit card companies purposely "losing" payments from customers so they could raise rates due to "late payment." Think that's paranoid speculation? Then how come credit card companies paid millions of dollars in fines over the practice?)

Seems the Scripps Research Institute has synthesized RNA enzymes that self-replicate. And evolve. RNA isn't DNA, but it's not far removed, and what they synthesized isn't life, but, again...

For those who don't have enough potential disasters (like the Yellowstone supervolcano erupting and wiping out most of the US, if not the northern hemisphere) to fret over, NASA warns that a monster solar storm (apparently they've happened before) could bring techno-civilization to its knees.

So The Ghost goes out as he came in. From his intro to his final press conference this past Monday: "Sometimes you misunderestimated me." One can't help but wonder how he would have preferred to have been underestimated. Besides, aside from underestimating his penchants for bad decisions an malapropisms, was there really any way to underestimate him? No doubt someone will tell me that's all malapropos of nothing now...

Meanwhile, I see Democrats are already starting to trot out their pet inanities. Rep. Joe Baca (as all manga fans know, baka is Japanese for fool, and Joe's certainly trying to live up to it) has introduced a bill requiring videogames rated Teen or higher to bear the label: "WARNING: Excessive exposure to violent video games and other violent media has been linked to aggressive behavior." Of course, the feared and amorphous (not to mention undefined) "aggressive behavior" has been the pro-socialist crowd's con game since the '80s. No word yet on whether such "links" meet the Surgeon General's standards or whether, should Rep. Baca enshrine the "links" in legislation, the volunteer army will starting handing out "Teen+" videogames free in American high schools...

A note from a Minnesota reader on last week's outboard Franken-Coleman senate race commentary:

"There were 1350 absentee ballots that the election judges admit were improperly rejected. These are the ballots that the MN Supreme Court said must be counted, but only the ones that both campaigns can agree upon. Initially, Franken wanted to count all 1350, while Coleman only 46, which, surprise, was about what he was behind. Somehow the two campaigns agreed to count 900 of them, 176 more going to Franken than Coleman, giving Franken his 200+ vote lead.

The 650 absentee ballots your friend mentions are not part of that 1350 ballots. These are additional absentee ballots that Coleman wants counted, all from precincts he handily won, and were rejected by election judges on election night, rejected again during the hand recount, and rejected a third time when the canvassing board told the judges to go through all rejected absentee ballots and make sure they fall into 1 of the 4 legal reasons the ballot should not be counted.

It is these ballots that Coleman is suing to get counted, in addition to now wanting to throw out those 900 absentee ballots that were counted and he had previously agreed to count on the grounds that all 1350 should have been counted.

Yeah, I know."

Okay, my head really hurts now.

24 (Fox, Mondays 9P) started up with two two-hour nights this past Sunday, and didn't waste any time descending into a stockpile of convenient inanities. Stripped of position and CTU backup, super agent Jack Bauer has been hauled before Congress to explain to the Congressional kangaroo court how he justifies the torture of prisoners during previous seasons. (It's pretty clear already they never plan to answer the question, but with expert, including the military's, after expert now coming out of the woodwork in real life to state that torture doesn't work and other interrogation techniques yield far better and more credible information, it would be interesting to see Jack take a real stand on the issue.) Seems the US government is up to its old stupidities: the entire American infrastructure is now shielded behind an impenetrable firewall (so impenetrable that super tech super-heroine Chloe can repeatedly hack into government computers even when they know she's doing it!) that, once penetrated, is impossible to repair without making the whole of American infrastructure penetrable anyway. Of course, this season's supervillain holds this season's president hostage over it, to prevent Madame President (hey, they already had a black president) from invading his war torn African country on a peace crusade. Why it doesn't occur to Madame President to tell supervillain that if he harms a single American the first thing she'll do is order American forces to reduce every stronghold of his forces in his country, including his leader's, to smoking, rubble-strewn tombs I don't know. Among other inanities: one bad guy (not so bad after all) deletes all the data on his laptop just before an intrepid FBI agent can get to it. Doesn't every idiot in the country now know that delete means nothing? All you have to do is undelete, as long as the drives haven't been in use since the delete, and even then with a little work you can recover most of it. Even an FBI agent should know that. To successfully wipe data off a drive, short of physical destruction, you need a national security-quality eraser program, which will overwrite the data area up to 35 times with rubbish, making recovery damn near impossible. They're easy to come by – Eraser is a free download – but they take time, so she'd've had plenty of time to interrupt it and save most of the data anyway. On the other hand, seeing former CTU boss Bill Buchanan dressed like a French freedom fighter about to sneak into Nazi HQ was worth the price of admission – too bad they skipped the black beret – and I can't wait for the reveal that Mary Lynn Rajskub's techno-genius Chloe and Janeane Garofalo's techno-genius FBI agent were former college roommates or the equivalent. While all this may sound like a pan, bear in mind that 24's great selling point has always been glorious inanity, and this season's no different so far. Of course I'll be watching.

Also caught the season opener of DAMAGES (FX, Wednesdays 10P), Glenn Close's much touted law thriller vehicle, mainly because Timothy Olyphant joined the cast. Was surprised to see Rose Byrne in it, and saddened to see that it's pretty dippy, with overwrought dialogue, too many flashbacks and plotting apparently by ellipses. The pitch seems to have been "how about THE SOPRANOS, but with lawyers instead of mobsters? And get this – Tony Sopranos a woman!" but all it really seems to want is for us to think it's damned edgy. But it's almost shockingly tepid. Eh.

Congratulations to David Gutierrez, the first to guess last week's Comics Cover Challenge solution was "seven." (Seven Soldiers Of Victory; seventh month of the year, July; Seventies; ARCADE No. 7; the seventh deadly sin, Pride; seventh day of the week, Saturday; and seven figures on the AVENGERS cover.) David would like to point you toward Hero Initiative, which raises funds for old comics pros in need. A worthy cause!

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, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column. Basically. 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:  bill willingham

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