Permanent Damage

Wed, February 11th, 2009 at 5:19pm PST | Updated: February 12th, 2009 at 9:16am

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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One last note on FINAL CRISIS that I forgot to include last week: it's the apotheosis, and the death knell, of the "mad ideas" school of comics writing that popped up in the late '90s, mostly among Brit writers, but embraced by various American writers like Joe Casey. "Mad Ideas" were intended as something of a value-added approach to comics, amplifying an element always native to comics (especially superhero and science fiction comics) that's still difficult to find in other media, and play up what, besides the format, makes comics attractively unique. There's also the theory that it amplified density of content, though that's more a matter of individual development than course of nature.

Tracking its pedigree gets a little murky. It probably originates in a practical sense with Alan Moore's radical about turn on SWAMP THING, and his wild run that follows it, but to some extent the real prototype in modern comics is Howard Chaykin's AMERICAN FLAGG!, whose premise wasn't so much a concept as a whole environment in which all manner of bizarre things were commonplace to its characters, rarely explicated and barely commented on. To a great extent the series is defined by those environmental factors, and distinguished from other comics of the day by them. (Matt Howarth's Bugtown stories use similar methods for similar results.) But AMERICAN FLAGG! is itself something of an extrapolation of Norman Spinrad's science fiction novel BUG JACK BARRON, a prime example of '60s sf's new wave movement that in large part focused on bringing new literary techniques to what was by then a generally staid field, stylistically, and dramatically increasing density of content, as exemplified by J.G. Ballard's "condensed novels," Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels, and many other works. In fact, most of the more radical trends that have come into comics, especially superhero and adventure comics, since the early '80s were prefigured by '60s new wave science fiction. It's therefore not surprising that many of these movements evolved in mainly among British comics talent, since new wave science fiction was received with much more enthusiasm in England that it was in the USA.

The idea of density of content is basically a good idea, especially as a counterbalance to the "decompression" trend. (Warren Ellis, in THE AUTHORITY, demonstrated how to successfully accomplish both simultaneously.) Environment is a key concept that ties "mad ideas" in with density of content; the presentation of the unusual or apparently crazy, in multiple shapes and variations, as the context for dramatic action, can result in very appealing and ambitious comics. There are many good examples of "mad ideas" comics: Ellis' TRANSMETROPOLITAN, PLANETARY and GLOBAL FREQUENCY; Moore's PROMETHEA and his later MIRACLEMAN run, and the Neil Gaiman variation that follows; Morrison's DOOM PATROL and THE INVISIBLES. Not surprisingly, such series tend to steer away from traditional superheroics, often away from traditional superhero or adventure story concerns entirely, so that they almost seem to be a separate genre. (I once described the superhero branch of the "mad ideas" school as "post-superhero," though the latter is less a subset of the former than an intersecting set.)

One curious effect of the "mad ideas" movement was how shallow it tended to make "big ideas" look by comparison. You'd think the two were related. "Big ideas" were the comics fixation of the '70s and '80s, when talent became increasingly eager to give their material veneers of importance. Religion and cosmology became important flavorings for stories, heroes and villains both become cosmic and unearth Truths about the nature of existence, but there's rarely any attempt to seriously examine and extrapolate from those ideas; the "big idea" was usually enough, with traditional contexts and structures laid on top of them. In contrast, "mad ideas" have often been tiny blips in otherwise untraditional material, micro-particles that zip quickly past then decay and disappear.

As big as "mad ideas" were a few years ago, the trend seems to have wound down, for the most part. Partly, I suspect, because such a pace is hard to sustain. Where once ideas (or the prototypes of ideas) would have been shotgunned past us, now in most cases stories incorporate a small handful of them, with more traditional (for fiction, not for comics and especially not for superhero comics, where the emphasis has almost always been more on structure than idea) extrapolation. This is clearest in Ellis' recent array of Avatar Press books, most of which hinge on a single premise per issue and often per series that's then worked like a dog. Much of Moore's recent work – for example, the second LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN series, and LOST GIRLS - are more interested in playing out single ideas well and following other ideas only when they naturally attach than in following now traditional "mad ideas" methodology. (Moore was never a vocal adherent of the movement in any case.) In series like FINAL CRISIS and ALL-STAR SUPERMAN, even in much of what his BATMAN run, Morrison has remained the major "spokesman" for the movement. Not, I suspect, that he ever thought of himself as part of a movement; in Morrison's case it seems to be temperament.

As with most trends in comics, there are good ways and bad ways to approach "mad ideas," and the difference between the two is always indefinite, having as much to do with craft and talent as anything else. (The dividing line between genius and stupidity is success, and the same idea can be well-received from one talent's hands and vilified from another's; it's a matter of expression.) A lot of comics jumped on the "mad ideas" bandwagon and vanished in the wind, because like anything else "mad ideas" for their own sake are pointless, unless your objective is to get known for "mad ideas" and nothing else. Even then, they have to be good mad ideas. I don't know that, say, chocolate putting made from the exoskeletons of quarks would matter much to anyone as a "mad idea."

It's interesting to watch where Marvel and DC have each gone with respect to "mad ideas." In the last few years, DC has increasingly relied on the concept to evoke energy and complexity in their comics. You can read CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS and its various tributary series and offshoot series as an attempted merger of mad ideas comics and big ideas comics. Marvel, on the other hand, has quietly come to all but abandon "mad ideas," despite weird offshoot titles like GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY that incorporate the ethic. Sometimes this seems to be personal preference – for instance, Ed Brubaker's comics, especially his CAPTAIN AMERICA and DAREDEVIL, tend to be built on traditional literary structures that emphasize elaborate development of a single theme within fairly narrow environmental confines over a constant flow of random elements within a more capricious framework – and more often a matter of editorial design, whether conscious or unwitting. Despite each individual title in the Marvel Universe following its own obsessions, the overall thrust of the line for the past several years has focused on one overarching "big idea" per year – the Civil War, the "Pax Marvel" (incorporating subsidiary events like World War Hulk), the Skrull Invasion, and now Dark Reign – and the ideas themselves haven't been especially big, rather (with the arguable exception of Civil War) they've been largely retreads of older ideas, done bigger.

Even those writers now working for Marvel who've been associated with "mad ideas" in other venues, like Matt (CASANOVA) Fraction and Warren Ellis have largely wrapped recent work at Marvel, INVINCIBLE IRON MAN and THUNDERBOLTS respectively, have built their series around more or less straightforward, singular ideas, played full tilt, rather than a grab bag of hot little ideas scattered like firecrackers. (If nothing else, finding one good idea and playing it through is a lot less strain than finding dozens of good ideas even if you only play with them a little; finding one good idea is hard enough.) In fact, like most superhero comics, Marvels tend to be much less about ideas than motifs. That's not a complaint, just an observation, and the choice has certainly worked well for them. Given current buying trends it's fairly safe to say that, in the marketplace if not in the hearts and minds of creators.

Of the two companies, DC has the more passionate affair with "mad ideas," though DC's main problem creatively remains the same: too many masters to serve. That gets in the way more than anyone cares to admit, and besides corporate masters whose main interest in the comics is franchising, usually an obstacle to real creative change, the company is saddled with a core audience of longtime superhero fans strongly resistant to change, though most will insist they're only resistant to unnecessary change, but "unnecessary" is far too often a euphemism for "what we don't like," and one could argue from a business standpoint that shrinking markets make change absolutely necessary, but that's not often accepted by existing markets because they still exist. That they no longer exist in sufficient numbers is usually countered with the argument that if only the company would do more the way they wanted it to be numbers would swell. Good luck with that.

Anyway, at this point the one remaining major comics writer who has consistently clung to and through his work championed the cause of mad ideas is Grant Morrison, who packed FINAL CRISIS with more mad ideas per square inch than virtually all other "mad ideas" comics combined. Many of them are brilliant, in their context. But as I mentioned last week, it hits such a density it becomes a virtual black hole of mad ideas, with such a gravitational pull that story can barely escape it, and then only the edges of the story are visible. Story in FINAL CRISIS isn't story, as traditionally understood in western literature, and certainly not in comics; it's the event horizon of mad ideas.

That's the outer limit of mad ideas, which many writers in love with the concept have failed to grasp: they cannot be their own context! Context is the only thing that gives them meaning, a backdrop they can stand out against.

New Wave science fiction, in its most experimental phase, was loved by a coterie of readers and absolutely reviled by traditionalists as revisionist junk, and the latter were the largest part of the buying public. It's easy to dismiss the latter as hoi polloi but that doesn't stop them from driving out what they don't like. It's a fantasy to think "good" always triumphs, especially in a commercial market where the general definition of "good" doesn't match up with yours. It's no coincidence that the pseudo-Campbellians recolonized science fiction in the mid-'70s, leaving the New Wave authors to either adjust stylistically or find other ground to mine, or quit. I suspect at this point "mad ideas" comics are likely to be increasingly met by comics buyers in a similar fashion. Because, as has been proven time and time again, mad ideas are often wonderful but by themselves just not enough. Marvel's successes compared to DC's may only indicate that Marvel's inbred market advantage still holds, but it may also indicate mad ideas aren't much of a come-on for most of the audience, and they're looking for other things in their comics. And that would appear to increasingly be the case.

Cue the backlash.


1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 15-21):

From Titan Books:

WATCHMEN: THE ART OF THE FILM by Peter Aperlo ($40.00; hardcover)

Someone's banking on WATCHMEN being a box office monster; Titan Books has churned out a whole line of attractive movie-related books, including a coffee table book of Richard Avedon-esque b&w photos of actors from the film in character. THE ART OF THE FILM is similar but more interesting: a thick collection of press stills, production art, scenes from the film, designs, storyboards, lobby cards – anything visual at all connected to the film, really, including art from the series – documenting the work's transliteration from comics to film. Like a related earlier volume, Mark Cotta Vaz's THE SPIRIT: THE VISUAL MOVIE COMPANION, it's also an educational glimpse at the complexity of filmmaking, especially in films demanding a specific visual look. Good.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

BACK ISSUE #32, ed. Michael Eury ($6.95; magazine)

The latest BACK ISSUE's something of a misdirection: while the theme is ostensibly the tech of superhero comics – it cover spotlights Spider-Man's lamentable Spider-mobile – the bulk of the issue's taken up by interviews with Joe Staton, Marv Wolfman, Len Wein and Marvel tech expert Eliot Brown, as well as a lengthy history of ROM and a shorter one of DIAL H FOR HERO, and the continuation of Bob Rozakis' history of an alternate world DC universe. Even the Brown interview is more reminiscence (with good photos) of the Marvel bullpen c. 1979 than a discussion of comics tech. Which is fine. What's published is more interesting. As usual, lots of good illustrations. If '70s and '80s superhero comics are your fascination, here they are.

From Ballantine Books:

GARFIELD MINUS GARFIELD by Jim Davis & Dan Walsh ($12; trade paperback)

It's hard to believe now that there was once a time when GARFIELD was a funny comic strip. It's hasn't been in a long, long time, but leave it to nethead Walsh to figure out how to make it hysterical once again. Famously, it was by getting rid of Garfield, stripping the cat (and dog Odie) and all references to him out of the panels and transforming hapless cretin Jon Arbuckle from mere fodder for humiliation into an existential Job living in a world of despondent futility tinged with desperate hope. It's like reading Celine all over again, and much of it transforms from smirking cutesy to laugh out loud hilarious, and takes on whole new implications. And this is the way to respond to "Internet theft." Theoretically, Davis and Ballantine could've sued Walsh for infringement. Instead, they capitalized on it. What can I say, I laughed. (Curiously, strip creator Davis takes a crack at it at the end of the book and achieves nowhere near the same results. But the rest gets very funny.)

From AND Comics:

DAMNATION by David Wynne ($12.95; paperback)

Even mini-comics are graphic novels now! DAMNATION, set in a near-future London where "the law" consists of rival brutal private security forces and a private eye on telepathic drugs investigates a murder, and conspiracy, involving both of them, is good enough – the writing's tough and clever, the stripped down but appealing art falls in the neighborhood of Matt Howarth and JACK STAFF, and he peppers the book with interesting visual techniques as the story calls for them – that it almost redeems the cyberpunk genre. Very entertaining. Find it.

From About Comics:

YOU'LL ALL BE SORRY by Gail Simone ($11.99; trade paperback)

Before WONDER WOMAN, BIRDS OF PREY or SECRET SIX, Gail Simone was an Internet gadfly, first with her site Women In Refrigerators to put attention on the frequently brutal way female characters are treated in superhero comics, and then with a satirical column here at Comic Book Resources, YOU'LL ALL BE SORRY. This volume collects many of those columns – picture Rorschach on AMERICA'S FUNNIEST HOME VIDEOS or Dave Sim dispensing advice on picking up girls and you've got the gist of it – along with a spattering of new material, like many comics and TV talents doing capsule versions of their work (like Matt Fraction's capsule CASANOVA: "Huh?"). Some of the material's a bit dated, but precious little of it, and it's still funny as hell. Another book worth reading.

From Metropolitan Books:

WALTZING WITH BASHIR by Ari Folman & David Polonsky ($27.50; hardcover)

This may be the first time in alt-comics that a feature film and a graphic novel were developed parallel to each other by the same people. If you're unfamiliar with it, WALTZ WITH BASHIR is an Israeli documentary relating the experiences of Israeli soldiers in the '82 invasion of Lebanon. The film's twist is that the reminiscences are animated. (I haven't had a chance to see it, but reviews are all very good.) So I suppose the storyboards lent themselves to graphic novel treatment. But this is no mere transliteration, it's a full-blooded graphic novel told with sparse dialogue, very good art, a lot of humanity and without sensationalism. Very strong work, and not so much an indictment of war as a study of how it changes people, and civilizations. Excellent.

From Villard Books:

THE BIG SKINNY: HOW I CHANGED MY FATTITUDE by Carol Lay ($18; trade paperback)

At last an alt-comic with a potentially enormous audience. Maybe that didn't come out right. Cartoonist Carol Lay, with wit and style, documents her lifelong battle with weight, emotional pressures and bad eating habits and ends up with an excellent primer on the value of diet and exercise. Much of it is very funny, includes not only anecdotes but recipes and exercise regimens, and unlike most books of this nature, it's very visual and very friendly. For a comics audience, it's maybe of limited appeal (though it probably shouldn't be) but for a general audience, it has the potential to be the breakthrough "graphic novel" of the year. Very good.


Notes from under the floorboards:

If you're looking to learn a thing or two about writing comics, and live in the New York area, you could do a lot worse than sign up for Denny O'Neil's 10 week evening course in writing comic books and graphic novels, starting today (Feb. 11) at New York University's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. (For more information click here.) Denny was the first guy who clued me in on the industry's hidden nuts and bolts, and there's a wealth of experience there to draw on. Go draw on it.

A brief report from our secret East Coast correspondent on last week's New York Comic Con:

I heard that at the DC panel, when Dan Didio got to FINAL CRISIS, there was a loud boo from the audience. Then he trotted out a chart to explain to everyone how to read the series and its spinoffs, like we should need a Venn Diagram to read a superhero comic. This is men in tights punching each other, not Fermat's Last Theorem. Marvel had their own awkward moments at their panel, when the audience called them out over the notion that President Obama would let Norman Osborn, a known murderer and psycho, run HAMMER. Questions like "Are you saying then that Obama is evil?" "No, no!" "But that means he's stupid!" Very amusing.

Despite the sold-out (pre-ordered tickets) attendance and Saturday's turnaway crowds, there was a muted air about the whole con. No big buzz about anything. No big movie announcements, no big TV announcements. No comic or project generated any real buzz. Dave Gibbons presenting the first 18 minutes of WATCHMEN is, after all, a known quantity for a movie that doesn't need anymore buzz than it already has. In spite of Heidi Macdonald's rah-rah commentary, there was a depressed air because indie booths barely saw people buying their books despite a lot of look-sees. The only real buzz was for the video game demos and they had an even bigger presence than ever. The only comics that sold were collections of PVP and PENNY ARCADE, and those were tied to the gamer demographics and already had big followings.

Overall, I got the feeling that this year the Direct Market might tank. People bought print collections of online comics because they'd read them online. Indie newbie guys asked about webcomics and were encouraged them all to serialize online and forget about blowing money printing monthlies.

Bear in mind I wasn't there. If anyone's got a varying report, I'd love to see it.

If you haven't heard about it, check out the fiction site Hub for science fiction and horror short stories, and various columns. It's free, y'know...

For decades – I mean decades, without hyperbole – it's been an open secret that the job of regulatory agencies in the American government has been to collude with the businesses they're supposed to be regulating. It has always happened to some extent, but the Reagan administration pretty much made it mandatory, where they couldn't abolish regulation altogether. (The recurring Republican chant calling for deregulation and the end of regulatory agencies is predicated on the utopian notion that competition is the ultimate form of regulation, and that in a post-regulatory world with no rules everyone will cheerfully follow the rules. AKA "caveat emptor.") The SEC's non-testimony before the House as to why they ignored whistleblowers and let Bernie Madoff's investment operation (other brokers with similar cons keep being discovered in the wake of Madoff) go unchallenged until Madoff crapped away (according to him) fifty billion dollars just underlined what's been clear to everyone who has followed the market for the last 30 years or so: the SEC seems to think its real function is to be in bed with the financial markets. Not that this is any surprise, but the testimony also made it clear they're in no hurry to be part of the solution, seem in fact dedicated to letting it all blow over so the urgency for a solution fades away. I've got a solution: it's time for President Obama to fire all of them. Everyone in a middle management and up slot at the SEC. All of them. Since they're obviously more interested in covering their asses. I'd hope investigations into their finances would be part of it, since where a lot of money gets thrown around we should be certain of why they didn't bother taking more than a cursory look at Madoff's operation, and a ban on any of them getting jobs with any company the SEC has regulatory power over, would be part of the deal, but I suspect firing is the most we can hope for. If Obama seriously wants to get the change train back on track – he's teetering way too close to politics as usual these days (and, no, I don't mean he's not being "bipartisan" enough; I don't mind Republicans slapping down where Democrats try to load up important legislation with their own pet projects, but when they keep going on and on with pushing policies that have now been proven utter crap time and time again, why bother paying attention to them at all?) – an immediate rebuilding of the SEC is a great way to do it. At this point, idealistic young college graduates (if such a thing still exists) would be a vast improvement over the set of clowns they've got there now, and it's not like there aren't plenty of equally suitable people out there looking for a job.

I did like, though, how Republicans ran the Sunday morning political TV talk show circuit to spread their new meme that "public support" for Obama's stimulus package is "eroding badly by the minute." (My own senator John Ensign touted that one; not sure why but John, who started out the other day by flat out lying about some vote to unionize a casino here that never took place – in his fever dream, the vast majority of workers voted it down, but new legislation covering union voting procedures would've kept them from doing that – has become the Republican point man for spreading the meme.) Yet today the Wall St. Journal, hardly a bastion of radical leftism, reports that Obama's approval rating on the stimulus is over 67%, which Congressional Democrats garner a 48% rating and Republicans a mere 31%. Wouldn't have anything to do with them pushing tax cuts for the rich as the key solution to the economy's woes, would it? (I joked elsewhere the other day that in the Republican view, the poor should help themselves and the rich can help themselves.)

Heard a story the other day that shortly before the October mortgage/stock market crisis the Federal Reserve Bank altered its policies and began paying interest on funds lodged with them – and with any excess funds banks want to lodge with them above what's required by law. Almost immediately there's a "credit crunch," meaning banks are unwilling to loan out money, supposedly due to the collapsed market and tightness of funds, but is it really because they can now make money off the Fed instead of their traditional income sources? Anyone know anything about this?

Meanwhile, heard an interesting alternative proposal to various bailouts etc. Since we do theoretically live in a capitalist country, rather than, say, give 800 billion dollars to banks and 800 billion dollars to a medley of what get characterized as "special interests" by this group or that (ignoring that those groups are themselves "special interests"), take that trillion and a half dollars, hand it out equally to households grossing $100,000 or less in taxable income in the last tax year, and let all those businesses like the banks and automakers and credit card companies and whoever else thinks they deserve government welfare compete for it by appealing to ordinary citizens to spend their piece of the pie that way. Then houses get saved from foreclosure, new cars get bought, spending gets stimulated, savings get stimulated, and the companies able to provide products or services people actually want get to survive and those that don't don't. Combine that with a crackdown on predatory banking practices (by banks, mortgage companies, credit card companies) and similar things, and we stand a chance at an economic recovery with a fair upside for the vast majority of Americans. (And it is our money anyway, after all...)

Nice to see the Catholic Church is going back to its roots: they've reintroduced the indulgence. This is sort of the Church's version of double jeopardy. See, when you confess sins to a priest in the confessional that's supposed to absolve you of your sins, once you've fulfilled the prescribed penance. (A confessional can be anywhere the priest is, as long as he's not absolving you of the sin of sleeping with him. According to the Pope's hit list, that's on the Church's top five list of worst sins ever.) (#2 is assassinating the Pope, or trying to.) The indulgence says that's only terrestrial absolution. If you're a sinner – and who among us isn't, in the eyes of the Church? – and you want instant heavenly gratification after death, the plenary indulgence – a sort of spiritual merit badge for special service – is a "get out of Purgatory" free card, Purgatory being a sort of tough love afterlife spa where every last trace of sin is scraped off your flabby soul before you go to your real eternal reward. (At this point, you may be excused for thinking, "Who thinks of these things?") It became practice after awhile for the Church to sell indulgences – presumably the money constituted a special service to the Church, perhaps in miraculously answering the age old question of how a camel can pass through the eye of the needle – and that sort of triggered Protestantism, the selling of indulgences being one of the major things they protested. Not that they haven't been around; after a few decades out of use, they became very special, and rare, treats under John Paul II, but Benedict, in his quest to return all things Catholic to the era of Pius XII (at minimum), is now putting them back into wide circulation. Given how much the Church has forked out to settle sexual assault lawsuits over the past couple decades, how long before indulgences can be once again bought rather than earned?

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, if you give a toss. Good luck.

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:  final crisi, review

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