Permanent Damage

Wed, January 28th, 2009 at 8:41pm PST | Updated: January 28th, 2009 at 8:45pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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Wow. If there was ever a cautionary fable about turning yourself into a media icon, it's Stan Lee. His story gets murkier and murkier. After spending much of his life as a relatively powerful but mostly unknown comics writer & editor, Stan managed to turn himself into the first comics superstar (in terms of public perception, I mean) when Marvel Comics caught on in the '60s. Until the '80s, no one else even came close; Stan was, pretty much still is, the public face of comics, and Marvel and Stan Lee the biggest two comics brand names, being synonymous for the longest time. (Most people think they're still synonymous.)

Of course, Stan Lee wasn't always Stan Lee. He famously told the story of using a pseudonym for comics because he dreamed of eventually writing The Great American Novel under his birth name, Stanley Leiber, and didn't want it besmirched by association with comics, but a likely contributing, if not predominant, factor in the name change was early comics publishers' dislike for "Jewish" names in whatever credits they might publish. Names like Joe Simon and Will Eisner might pass for Northern European extraction, but Lieber and Kurtzberg? By the mid-40s it was apparently less of a concern, with names like Kurtzman and Krigstein becoming more prominent and most people paying attention only to their talent, but it was always an odd trend, since most comics publishers were Jewish themselves. Was it fear of financial repercussion, since much of America of the day still viewed Jews as something essentially foreign, or was it an expression of the strong assimilation current in the Jewish community in the '30s (somewhat encapsulated in the Superman story), of Jews attempting to move from the fringe of American society toward its mainstream? At any rate, Stanley Lieber became Stan Lee, and Stan Lee, despite his signature on many published stories, remained mostly anonymous, except within the business, where the erroneous rumor lasted for decades that he was Timely Comics' publisher Martin Goodman's nephew. (Stan was introduced to the business by his uncle, and his cousin was Goodman's wife, but Goodman doesn't seem to have figured in Stan's entry.)

At some point, some genius at Marvel decided Marvel's characters, not talent, were its marketable assets (in itself, not unreasonable) and Stan's exclusive association with Marvel ended. I suspect the goal was to sever Stan's "identifiability" with Marvel, since Stan hadn't had an active connection to the company in years, except by reputation and continued writing of the Spider-Man comic strip. (A hallmark of his '80s days as Marvel's Hollywood pitchman was rights complications that had to be untangled before films like SPIDER-MAN could get made, and that likely ticked off Marvel's mid-'90s corporate masters as well, since they were eager to turn Marvel heroes into media icons.) That mainly accomplished turning "Stan Lee" from a known "trademark" to a marketable one, and it wasn't long, with the Internet in its first intoxicated blush of capitalist colonization, before someone pitched Stan on a Stan Lee Media dot-com to exploit Stan's rep in pursuit of a whole new set of "media icons," with the apparent business plan that it was Stan's name that made Marvel characters famous and not vice versa.

Clearly, either proposition is an idiot proposition. For all Stan's "golden touch" hype – if you read the Bullpen Bulletin pages Stan wrote for much of Marvel's run, every new idea was the greatest idea ever, every book a runaway hit – some characters were hugely successful and others limped along, until punched up by someone later. (Thor, Daredevil, X-Men, The Hulk, Silver Surfer, Nick Fury Agent Of SHIELD, etc.; some, like SHIELD, collapsed quickly, while long running books like DAREDEVIL and X-MEN spent most of their existence hanging on by their fingernails.) Which isn't to say it was bad writing, just that for whatever reason (and there are lots of reasons why some things succeed and some things fail that have nothing to do with the creative end; most success is just being the right thing in the right place at the right time, and early Marvel was) Stan's name was not a magic hook to greatness and financial success. Nobody has a golden touch all the time. On the other hand, Spider-Man created (or co-created) by, oh, Robert Kanigher most likely wouldn't be remembered, or even widely known, today, so you can't strike Stan from the equation either. But Stan's greatest talent in the early Marvel days may not have been as writer, whatever obvious gift he showed for it, but as facilitator, providing a fertile ground for his more creative collaborators. Jack Kirby was clearly the strongest influence – Blake Bell's STRANGE AND STRANGER: THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO relates how Spider-Man was originally an adult hero copy of Joe Simon's The Fly, drawn by Kirby, until Ditko brought the similarities (including powers from a magic ring) to Stan's attention, whereupon the Spider-Man we know pre-empted it, which suggests that Spider-Man, whoever came up with the name, was Kirby's concept – but the nature of creations like FANTASTIC FOUR indicates Stan was much more involved than simply riding on Kirby's creative coattails. There are several legends of the creation of FF, the main one being Goodwin deciding Marvel should re-enter the superhero market after learning DC was having success with it, ordering Stan to come up with a new superhero team, and Stan's wife suggesting to the writer-editor that he do "real" superheroes, with real problems, etc. (The most amusing and popular bit in press stories about Marvel Comics during the '60s heyday was that teen superheroes like Spider-Man were relevant because despite superpowers Marvel heroes faced the same problems everyone faced, like acne, and paying the mortgage. I don't remember acne ever figuring into a Marvel story.) Kirby was certainly no stranger to "ordinary" characters – he'd co-created BOY COMMANDOS and romance comics, after all – but where superheroes were concerned, before and after FF, Jack always tended toward the mythic. FF had its operatic, mythic sweep, certainly, but something anchors it down to Earth, and odds are pretty good that was Stan.

But the Marvel lesson is this: Stan with great collaborators on great concepts is great. Stan with good or worse collaborators on so-so concepts is... not bad to pretty good. In comics, it's amazingly easy for so-so collaborators to make great concepts look like so-so concepts, though it's easier for so-so collaborators to make great concepts so-so than for great collaborators to make so-so concepts great unless the collaborators are really great, so it gets hard to separate the quality of concepts from the quality of their presenters, and a lot of that has more to do with appropriateness than talent. I've only worked with him peripherally, but among the pros I've spoken to who've worked with Stan more directly, the general assessment seems to be that Stan was a great collaborator.

But he's also a brand name now, and it was the brand name that Stan Lee Media was created to capitalize on.

People don't talk much about the heady dot-com days anymore, but the basic idea was: something from nothing. The whole idea of the initial dot-economy was – well, it's hard to say what it was, really, except that whatever you created on the web someone would ultimately pay a lot of money for. But comics - or animation; there was no popular distinction between them, and Flash animation was thought to be the next evolution of comics – appealed to a lot of startups. Comics had just come off a wave of incredible popularity (that the business was by then in the dumper either hadn't sunk in at venture capital firms funding the sites, or they felt themselves exempt) and promised that most valuable of assets: intellectual property.

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, at the beginning of this month I popped over to the annual Consumer Electronics Show. Funny thing; as electronics sales across the board spiked downward, a pop phrase from dot-com days resurfaced as a sort of mantra pointing companies toward a "new" "business model": content is king.

Sounds real good, doesn't it? Roll it over your tongue: content is king. It was also the mantra of the dot-coms, the very obvious idea that what will draw "eyes" (as they love to say) to your website is a plethora of "content" that viewers will come back for again and again and again. In newspapers, this is called syndicated columns, funnies or want ads, on TV and radio it's called programming, in comics it's called comics. Not exactly a mystical concept: give the public what it wants. The problem with a that apparently easy formula is that no one knows what the public wants until they demonstrate they want it, and by the time you react to the demonstration they might not want it anymore. If you're lucky someone – in enough volume to generate a profit – will keep wanting it, and that's what they call a franchise.

Which is what all the dot-com startups wanted, and called "content": franchises.

Which led to an interesting phenomenon, though one not so rare in our culture as I'd prefer to believe. Various comics dot-coms wanted me to create something for them in the '90s, so I dealt, briefly, with quite a few of them. The one thing that struck me, over and over, was how they kept talking about "content" yet none of them wanted anything with content. Or comics, for that matter. Their idea of comics was generally a throwaway idea with some very identifiable (i.e. "marketable") character that could be turned into a 30 second Flash animation. It was very schizoid, too. They all preferred something vulgar, in order to draw quick attention, or racist or disgusting or anything that would generate an "Omigosh, can you believe someone did that?!!" response, because all of them based their long-range chances of survival on how quickly they could draw huge audiences. But their business plans was generally: "create" media franchises via web technology (the Flash animation); license the franchises to TV and movies for millions of dollars; sell off the company and properties for hundreds of millions of dollars and retire filthy rich, while having positioned as a media mogul.

I dare anyone to need more than one hand to count how many "comics" from those dot-coms became Hollywood movies. Or TV shows. Any? It wasn't because the dot-com crash wiped them all out. It was because the "content," almost across the board, had no content. No point of view, nothing to impart. I'm not talking about a controversial stance, I'm talking about nothing more than vaguely recognizable as plot or character. Stories? You should live so long.

Even with Hollywood, I'm not sure why anyone ever thought this would work, aside from wanting it to work. While it's arguably true that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public, very few people ever got rich showing flagrant contempt for them either. At least in showbiz. (Politics, that's another matter.)

Anyway, into this huge morass of bad ideas was drawn Stan Lee. Stan Lee Media was always a bit odd (looking at information that came out as the thing collapsed, it's tempting to conclude its real purpose was either an elaborate stock swindle or laundering covert CIA funds, not that there's solid evidence or any reason to believe Stan would have known about the latter even if it were true) even by the standards of dot-coms, it always seemed more intent on hyping product than producing any – but it threw around money like nobody's business and provided a lot of comics talent, like my pal Shawn McManus, with livings for a couple of years, before the whole dot-com thing went south. I don't recall whether any of their proposed properties ever went online, but it's water under the bridge now, since virtually no one (certainly not me) could even name any, though I vaguely recall something got licensed to theme parks.

Stan survived the collapse of Stan Lee Media, amid findings of stock manipulation by other participants, just fine. He went on to cut media deals, do a short-lived special project comics line for DC, did material for other dot-coms, co-formed a new "intellectual properties development company," cut a deal with Disney, sued Marvel for a cut of movie profits based on his characters, etc. Pretty good hustling for an 86 year old man.

But Stan Lee Media lives on, mainly as an investors' club whose main output is lawsuits, leading me to believe it was mainly lawyers who ended up in control of its dubious assets. On Monday they (no one seems to be sure who "they" are) filed a lawsuit against Marvel and Stan Lee for over $750 million from Marvel's movie profits, claiming, not for the first time, that SLM owns Stan's share of everything Stan created for Marvel. The company seems to be under the impression they own a big piece of Stan, and this isn't their first lawsuit, or the first time they've gone after Marvel or Stan; a couple years ago they sued Marvel for five billion dollars worth of movie money (I doubt Marvel has seen anything near five billion from its movies yet) and Stan Lee and his new company POW! Entertainment for, apparently, stealing assets (presumably Stan's name and image) and staff. No idea what the upshot of those lawsuits were, though given SLM didn't mention any successful lawsuits or settlements in their press, I'd guess the cases were either dismissed or drag on without resolution.

I have no idea what was in Stan's contract with SLM. It's hard to believe Stan would willingly sign over his Marvel participation to a third party, but since SLM co-founder Peter Paul was Stan's lawyer on his non-exclusive Marvel deal and presumably had something to do with Stan's SLM contract, it wouldn't greatly surprise me if there were a clause at least implying company claim to all things Stan. (A lot of lawyers these days, especially media lawyers, seem to revel in cute phraseology they can sneak past other lawyers, even if it means making a court work out what it means later. I'm not saying that's what happened here, but, again, it wouldn't surprise me.) But if there is some basis to SLM's lawsuits based on Stan's contract, then Stan's pretty much screwed unless he wants SLM as at least fiscal partners once again.

On a broader playing field, a high profile lawsuit against comics over movie money could be a potential hazard for the comics business in general, since so much of the business now pins its hopes on fortune in Hollywood to propel them to profitability and consumer consciousness. (Whether this is smart in the first place is beside the point.) The recent Fox/Warners WATCHMEN suit has Hollywood's vast array of studio attorneys already hinky about contracts involving comics properties. (That the WATCHMEN problem originated on the film side and not the comics side is a fact they apparently choose to ignore.) For all the success comics films have been having for Hollywood lately, lawyers could shut them down, and more lawsuits where people or companies come out of the woodwork looking to gouge a piece out of the pie are just likely to make them more skittish.

At any rate, if no one has gotten the message by now, it's becoming imperative to read your contracts carefully and be sure all parties are agreed on what they mean before signing them. And if your name is marketable in its own right, be very wary of what you sign it over to. (Reportedly, Stan's now countersuing SLM to the tune of fifty mil for misappropriating him as a trademark, and interfering with this livelihood. This is how lawyers get rich.)


One of the guys Stan collaborated really well with was Russ Heath, who drew tons of Atlas western, war, suspense and science fiction stories in the '50s, well before he became best known for drawing DC war comics. Though his name pops up now and then, he and how well he draws are often forgotten by modern comics fans. Here's one of his and Stan's best, from the '50s. (Anyone else notice the CRIME SUSPENSTORIES influence?)


1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 1-7):

From Villard Books:

IN THE FLESH by Koren Shadmi ($14.95; trade paperback)

Israel-born Shadmi may be the first America-based comics creator since Charles Burns to successfully create genuinely unnerving psychosexual horror. He goes for the creepy – an anonymous dog-suited actor in a kids' show learns the dark side of sex fantasies when his own fantasies seem to come true – and the surreal – a young girl tries to come to terms with her bizarre, camera-headed grandfather – but not the supernatural, and finds the perverse in bland rhythms of ordinary life. Like Burns, the work isn't so much shocking as haunting, a cruel but sympathetic vision of modern sexual angst. Pretty good.

From Wildstorm:

THE WINTER MEN WINTER SPECIAL by Brett Lewis & John Paul Leon ($; one-shot comic)

THE WINTER MEN was one of the best unsung series of recent years, and Lewis' brilliant vision was to tie together the post-superhero ethic with the real collapse of the Soviet Union, as former Soviet supermen, their costumed identities abandoned, make their way as cops, criminals, power brokers and other roles through a civilization always teetering on the edge of chaos, where necessity and ambition blur all lines. There are elements in common with WATCHMEN, sure – mainly the core story thread, where an assassin is killing former "Winter Men," as the Russia heroes were code-named – but it's otherwise such a strong individual vision, full of sadness and humor and lots of other human things, with unforced and very natural delivery, that any comparisons to other comics are easy to forget. Not to mention John Paul Leon was always a terrific artist, but here his work is more open, precise and – let's not quibble – beautifully drawn than ever. It took a long time to get to the end of this series, but now that it's over I want more.

From Jim Kingman:

COMIC EFFECT #47 ed. Jim Kingman ($3.50; fanzine)

Still one of the best little fanzines out there, this issue is a tribute not so much to former longtime DC editor Julie Schwartz as to books Julie edited, as selected by a variety of comics talent and fans, including Paul Levitz, Roy Thomas and Tom Brevoort. Not surprisingly, most zero in on FLASH 123, the story that introduced the multiverse to DC comics, as the best story to come out of Julie's office (though Levitz, curiously, doesn't mention it, zeroing in instead on GREEN LANTERN #40, the "origin of the Guardians of the Universe" story that eventually precipitated the first CRISIS and all that has followed in its wake. Chicken and egg. Also interesting, and unexpected, is discussion of some of Julie's failures, like the 1970 Superman revamp he shepherded. This isn't an especially cerebral zine, but it gets across the raw joy of reading comics better than virtually any other with breezy grace. A ton of them would cancel each other out, but it's nice to see at least one throwback to old school fanzines.

From Titan Books:

THE CREAM OF TANK GIRL by Jamie Hewlett & Alan Martin ($29.95; hardcover)

Thinking on it, I guess a mere collection of the iconoclastic, anarchic TANK GIRL strip would be a bit too pedestrian. This is, rather, a scrapbook-cum-memoir not only of the titular bonkers quasi-post-apocalyptic strip but of the culture it rose out of, the talent who worked on it and the semi-legendary magazine, DEADLINE, that published most of TANK GIRL, as well as stories, storyboards, script samples, photographs, character designs and gobs of other Tank Girl weirdness. Chaotic as its source material, it's an interesting, almost cautionary tale... with a surprise endings. Worth reading.

From Marvel:

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #584 by Marc Guggenheim, John S Romita & Klaus Janson ($2.99; comic)

It's been awhile since I checked in on ASM (stopped while writing the WHAT IF: SPIDER-MAN BACK IN BLACK one shot to maintain a sense of disconnection from the "real" material) and it seems that a lot of increasingly interminable dangling plotlines are finally being tied up. Besides the round table creative teams, the main problem with the book since they finished the "cosmic divorce" storyline has been an overabundance of teases, unrevealed (and, worse, consistently uncaptured) supervillains, and unconcluded story threads that have ultimately made either the writers or Spider-Man look pretty inept. This issue starts an arc that threatens to reveal all: who Menace really is, who the Spider Tracer Killer (the book's worst running subplot) is, who gets elected mayor, etc. On the good side: an fun chat between villains Boomerang and The Shocker on the merits of voting. On the bad side: Spider-Man gets shot, which is pretty much the whole issue. Tony Soprano had a dream in season 2 that "told" him who the snitch in his operation was; it was lame there and the only thing that'll keep it from being lame in ASM is if Guggenheim has a swerve in mind. But here's the problem with Spider-Man getting shot: it's either a willful or unwitting misunderstanding of how the character functions. He can't be shot for the same reason he can't be ambushed: his spider-senses and reaction times prevent it. The arc itself isn't bad so far, though, even if it's all setup in this issue, but it as least teases a payoff for a change. On the very plus side, the Romita-Janson art is so fetching it just about forgives everything else. But the jury's still out.

From Dabel Brothers Publishing:

DEAN KOONTZ'S FRANKENSTEIN: PRODIGAL SON by Chuck Dixon, Dean Koontz & Brett Booth ($22.95; hardcover)

It isn't often that you run across a project so bad it encapsulates almost everything wrong with comics. This is yet another "continuation" of Frankenstein, with the amazingly svelte monster abandoning his contemplative life in a Himalayan monastery with possibly the world's most annoying monk (say anything, I dare you, and he'll repeat the exact opposite right back at you. "I am the last one on earth to whom God would listen." "Or perhaps the first." JUST SHUT THE HELL UP!) to pursue Victor Frankenstein, still alive after 200+ years and creating a new race in New Orleans in anticipation of a genocidal war against humanity, while a butchering killer seems to be building a woman from spare parts. And nothing happens. I know Koontz sold gobs of this in novel form, but it's so damn dull I could shoot myself. (I'd blame it on Chuck Dixon but Koontz does a new short story at the end, and it's exactly the same.) If Chuck doesn't have much to work with – he probably deserves credit just for adapting this much without shoving a railroad spike through his skull – Booth has no such excuse. All he has to work with is mood, mood, mood – the whole thing is page after page after page of mood - and it's got no mood. It's not ugly but it's utterly nondescript, completely interchangeable with an issue of BACKLASH. But the worst thing about it – so bad everyone involved from publisher on down deserves to be punished for it – is drop $22.95 on a hardcover and it's barely mentioned anywhere until the final story page slaps you in the face that it's a continued story. Don't do that. It's bad for business all around. Stay away.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

HAWKMAN COMPANION by Doug Zawisza ($24.95; trade paperback)

There are few characters in comics history as utterly screwed up as Hawkman, who has suffered gimmick after gimmick since inception, which would be okay if comics fans hadn't developed both a nauseatingly long memory and an obsession with correlating every little anomaly in a character's history. In the '40s, his appeal was easy to explain: as a co-feature in THE FLASH, he had the simple purity of A Man With Wings. Everyone's got a flight fantasy. By the Silver Age, though, the simplicity of concept bordered on redundancy; every hero was expected to fly by then. (It was the common civilian joke about comic books.) There was also something more prosaic about his reimagining as an alien cop rather than a reincarnated Egyptian prince, though the latter rarely figured into his '40s adventures anyway. Then in the '80s DC kept trying to revivify property after property, and whole new wrinkles kept being piled on. Zawisza's book covers all that, along with lots of terrific art, many good, brief interviews with creators involved in Hawkman's "evolution" from Shelly Moldoff and Joe Kubert to Tim Truman, John Ostander and James Robinson, and various sidebars on related DC characters and other flying heroes, and almost manages to make sense of the whole thing. If only the character were as interesting as this book is. Certainly worth it if you're into DC superheroes; provisionally worth it if you're not.


Notes from under the floorboards:

I never did note the death of Patrick McGoohan. Someone once called McGoohan the greatest bad actor in the world, and I sometimes agree with that, sometimes don't. (In any case, it was meant in context as a compliment.) McGoohan was my favorite actor for much of my youth. But I don't know if I'd say he especially showed range, with a couple notable exceptions; even when he played sniveling cowards – he occasionally did – he played Patrick McGoohan. In DANGER MAN and THE PRISONER, he was the essence of self-confident cool while not being quasi-superhuman like most other "macho" TV heroes. When I was in high school, you were either a STAR TREK fan or a PRISONER fan, but THE PRISONER was like a metaphor for high school, especially in the early '70s. He could get me to watch anything: COLUMBO, ICE STATION ZERO, THE THREE LIVES OF THOMASINA. I remember sitting in Roger Stern's apartment around 3AM in the late '70s watching his "Iago" in ALL NIGHT LONG, an early '60s OTHELLO update set in a Soho jazz club. The last thing of his I saw was some '60s Brit TV drama a friend sent a disk of, with McGoohan playing a dying cosmonaut trapped alone in orbit and trying to communicate with anyone on earth. He didn't do much in the last couple decades – I heard he was content to sit around his Malibu home – but at least he got to nail that "bad actor" rap to a wall as the villain of BRAVEHEART. I know he was somehow connected to the planned AMC PRISONER remake. They'll be hard pressed to make it any good. No PRISONER adaptation or remake – there've been a few in comics over the years – has ever been any good, because whatever the controversial origins of the show, it became so much an extension of McGoohan's personality that duplicating its essence is now impossible. (The best "adaptation" was Warren Ellis' DESOLATION JONES, but Warren basically extrapolated some themes and motifs from the show then went his own way.) Sorry to see him go, but his work is still here – the virtue of living in the media age - and I still love watching it.

In response to last week's piece on Diamond cutting loose much of the American comics industry and crippling their business plans via raising sales limits, shortsheeting backorders, and now, reportedly, forcing small publishers to pay them in advance for distributing books (without, of course, any help from Diamond in marketing those books, though Diamond has for a long time been the almost exclusive conduit for marketing as well as selling to the direct market), several people have asked, "Well, what do we do now?" The short answer? A lot of hard work. But it takes three things: publishers willing to put in the effort to either self-distribute or find/collaborate on new distribution; retailers who love the medium and want to encourage diversity enough to put in the extra time and allocate money to an alternative distribution stream; and an audience base that will make it profitable. Big ifs. It's the Catch-22 that each of those groups would prefer the other two groups were already in place before they commit. Even if everyone commits you still need an effective communications stream between all three. As Fagan laments in the musical OLIVER, "There is no in between for me, but who will change the scene for me?" But the only ones who'll do it is us, without guarantees. So...

Interesting DRM story: Monty Python have loaded much of their material onto their own YouTube channel. End result? Their DVD sales on Amazon are way up...

The DVD of the week in these parts is Ed Harris' APPALOOSA, a straightforward but clever and stunningly beautiful western (see it on an HD screen) with Harris and Viggo Mortonson as two aging gunmen/lawmen bringing peace to a New Mexico mining town and trying to bring a cop killing rancher (Jeremy Irons) to justice. It's steadily paced, well-acted, not especially violent, terrifically directed, and the dialogue is damn near perfect. You can feel whispers of LONESOME DOVE and Sergio Leone throughout, but it's completely its own beast, and fine in virtually every respect. Don't miss it.

In the "not bad" category is the latest "science detective" cop show is LIE TO ME (Fox, 9P Wed), with Tim Roth as a snarky behavioralist who solves crimes by figuring out who's lying. As the genre goes, it's not bad, though it's sort of like cramming NUMBERS and HOUSE together. Roth works great, though, and the supporting cast fits together nicely. Must see TV? Nah. Good timekiller, though, at least until LIFE (NBC) comes back in that timeslot next month. Now that's Must See TV!

I finally figured out, on seeing GONE COUNTRY (CMT, 8P Saturday) why "reality shows" are so appealing: freak shows don't travel from town to town anymore. It's sort of our answer to Britain's CELEBRITY BIG BROTHER - washed up musicians, actors and "personalities" without prior credentials in the field perform stupid tasks and vie to win a country music recording contract. This run's fish out of water include funkmaster George Clinton, perennial Monkee Mickey Dolenz, AMERICAN IDOL also-ran Justin Guarini, smalltime actor Richard Greico, '90s pop singer Taylor Dayne, salsa drummer Shiela E. and defrocked Miss America Tara Conner. Clinton's pretty funny – it's obviously a lark to him – but the rest are a bit scary, as they all gaze out with tombstone eyes and teeth constantly clenched in desperation, telling us how no one really knows who they are. It's crazy-fascinating; bring on the bearded lady.

Could be an interesting Superbowl this Sunday: at least on paper, there's some kind of advertisers' revolt going on, bristling at the reported 3 mil per 30 second spot fee, prompting Miller Beer, at least, to threaten a one second commercial. On the other hand, supposedly all those spots were bought (and paid for?) prior to October's big crash, but I hope NBC got paid in advance for all those Dodge Ram commercials. It's hard to tell whether the "protests" are real or just pre-emptive grousing – the Superbowl even in a bad ratings year remains about the most watched single program on TV, and if the point of advertising is to get eyes to see your product it's still the biggest concentration of eyeballs available, at least in this country and providing everyone doesn't FF> past the ads – but given the economic climate it doesn't bode well for next year's. If there are tons and tons of ads for Army and Marine recruitment this year, you'll know a lot of advertisers pulled out. (The military reportedly gets all unsold ad space on the show.)

The new CEO of Yahoo, Carol Bartz, among her first acts told her board she should "drop kick to" [expletive deleted] "Mars" any employee who leaks any Yahoo business to the press. The quote was immediately leaked...

I noticed Congressional Republicans all over the Sunday news shows talking about how they won't allow any Obama economic measures to go through unless they comply with the traditional Republican economics talking points – tax cuts for the rich, basically. Didn't the electorate kind of decide that was idiot crap last year? Of course, the Democrats keep talking about "finding a middle ground," even though they really don't need a lot of Republican votes to get things done. (Don't need any in the House.) Way to go, Democrats. The other Republican theme was how they won't "rubberstamp" Presidential measures. I can understand why not; their wrists must be damn tired from all that rubberstamping they did for the Ghost. (Of course, that also goes for Democrats.)

I know the economy's in the crapper, and everyone's doing whatever they can to make a buck, but suddenly I'm getting all kinds of emails from all kinds of stores and companies with suggested presents for Valentine's Day. Besides candy, flowers and maybe lingerie, does anyone give presents for Valentine's Day? What's next? Ash Wednesday meat sales? Lots of packages under the Good Friday tree?

Oooh. Karl Rove's been subpoenaed in a House investigation into the firing of federal attorneys, Ghost White House involvement in DoJ prosecution of a former Alabama governor and other odd judiciary evens of the previous administration that seem to have been at least partly orchestrated by White House insider. Meaning Rove. The last time the subject came up Rove claimed "executive privilege" and refused to cooperate. He claimed it again time time, but the courts threw it out. Too bad for Rove that only commie sympathizers invoke the 5th amendment when testifying before Congress, and that in the Republican view of things taking the Fifth amounts to confessing guilt. After all, if you've got nothing to hide you've got nothing to be afraid of. Right? Right?

California recently banned foods with high fructose corn syrup, a corn syrup variant invented by the food industry as a concentrated sweetener, because it metabolizes weirdly (more weirdly than other sugars) in the human body and promotes obesity as a result. Turns out there's even better reason to ban it: high concentrations of mercury

For some reason, last week's Comics Cover Challenge covers were sent but Jonah never received them, and the set I re-sent a day later never got to the page. So apologies all around. Running the covers now, and here's what I said about them last week:

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. I'm warning you now: this may be the toughest Comics Cover Challenge ever devised, and even with the cleverly hidden secret clue you'll likely have to start at the very beginning to solve it. Good luck.

And I mean it.

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:  stan lee

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