Permanent Damage

Thu, April 23rd, 2009 at 10:18pm PDT | Updated: April 23rd, 2009 at 10:27pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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For some time I've waited for a crime comics renaissance, but it doesn't seem likely. Not that good, even acclaimed crime comics haven't popped up now and then - TORSO, WHITEOUT, CRIMINAL, SPEAK OF THE DEVIL, among others – but none of these have managed to ignite an audience willing to or perhaps capable of supporting a genre stable.

With the departure of Brian Azzarello & Eduardo Risso's 100 BULLETS the possibility seems more distant than ever.

There are reasons why crime comics might not appeal to the existing comics audience. Crime is already a motivating factor in most genres – regardless of genre, dramatic development requires character motivation, and among the easiest is the notion of "transgression," i.e. crime against a set order of things, which needs somehow to be balanced, avenged or righted - notably superhero comics where a hero's raison d'etre is often the "fight against crime," at least on paper. (A raison d'etre that's only a raison d'etre on paper is better known as an excuse, as in Spider-Man, whose supposed motivation is guilt over inaction that resulted in his uncle's death, but really, if you go by his behavior, is really adolescent escapist fantasy; he's Spider-Man because it's a lot more fun than being Peter Parker.) As such, superhero comics already subsume crime comics as they subsume romance, adventure, science fiction and other genres, though in all cases whatever elements superhero comics incorporate are secondary to the demands of the superhero genre.

That's why, if you really want to write or read crime stories, superhero comics are ultimately inadequate. Philosophically the genres are polar opposites. Superhero comics are about winners, regardless of the stumbling blocks that pass for plot development in the genre. This isn't a culture that gives a lot of credit for the "moral victory," to crib a Gorilla Monsoon-ism; heroes who lose aren't heroes. As I mentioned a couple months back, the big conceptual flaw in things like FINAL CRISIS is the notion that we'll even buy a concept like "The Day Evil Wins," because we all know any such "victory" is momentary at best, and the whole structure of superhero comics is predicated on evil almost emerging before being heroically, and sometimes with great sacrifice, thwarted in the eleventh hour. Given that, though that structure is certainly possible, superhero universes rarely mimic pro wrestling storytelling and allow a "villain" to gain uncontestable victory over a lesser "hero" in order to build the villain up for a run at a higher-ranking hero, even in instances where the villain is a longstanding thorn in a hero's side and apparently insulated or free from reprisal via whatever slimy tricks are at their disposal (Kingpin in DAREDEVIL, Lex Luthor in SUPERMAN), sooner or later the villain must face the music of justice. Or the hero looks like a loser.

Crime stories, on the other hand, are about losers.

Stories about losers may seem counterintuitive to a lot of readers – like I said, American culture doesn't holds losers in much of anything but contempt – but for a writer they can be fascinating. It's simple math, really: winners win. That's what they do. That's what they must do. Doesn't matter what the story arc is, the story still has to end up in the same place. The hero wins.

Shift the focus to a loser, and the possibilities jump substantially.

I should mention that "crime story" isn't a monolithic genre. At least as far as the public's concerned, it incorporates several somewhat contradictory sub-genres: the policier (AKA the police procedural, which mainly focuses on the lives of policemen, their career experiences, and their crimesolving methodology; ex. Ed McBain), the detective story (in which usually a lone extralegal figure, amateur or professional, sets out to right a wrong or solve a puzzle, usually against a backdrop where authorities figures are inept, distracted, corrupt or uninterested; ex. Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie), and stories about criminals in the plying of their "trade" (ex. Jim Thompson). As well as other subdivisions. (James Ellroy writes mainly about crooked cops; espionage novels are really mostly about socially vindicated crimes perpetrated against perceived enemies of the state; there are thrillers, like David Morrell's, that involve innocent people drawn into crimes against their wills; the caper story, which is sort of the flip side of the policier and focusing on the methodology of crime; etc.) But at the heart of all of them is the crime, the transgression against person, property, and/or society. At the heart of the crime is the criminal, the transgressor who intends to get away with it. The criminal, like the gambler, is a loser by nature again due purely to mathematics: the odds are against him.

But odds are never rigid. The math is what makes the crime story interesting. Rigidity is absolute in the hero story, particularly the superhero story: winners are required to win.

Losers are never required to lose. Not that the implacability of fate isn't a staple of crime stories, and they haven't seen plenty of great use of irony. (In Jim Thompson's caper novel THE GETAWAY, the climax finds the "hero" and his wife escaping the long arm of the law while holding onto the proceeds of a heist, but the denouement finds them staring down each other and their dwindling resources in a dead end life their actions have trapped them in.) But if superhero stories have only one real possible outcome (one of the reasons superhero stories have largely adopted a soap opera format where stories never really end, so they never have to arrive at that outcome), crime stories at least doubles that possibility -

The loser can lose.
The loser can win.

– and in fact at minimum quadruples the possibilities –

The loser can neither win nor lose.
The loser can both win and lose.

Likewise, losers are usually simply more fun to write. Not only does similar storytelling math apply – the hero can't act villainously (at least not in some way that's not ultimately explicable in heroic terms, like Jack Bauer torturing a suspect for information necessary to stop a ticking nuke that will slaughter millions) but the criminal can act heroically – but no set characteristics are required, except those the writer sets himself. The absence of rules – it wasn't always so, but has evolved that way – fits the genre, and this inherent acceptance, demand even, of ambiguity invites the writer to conceive stories, characters and ethical issues in more fluid and unpredictable terms than is possible with superhero comics. (Not that superhero comics are incapable of it – there's no reason any genre should be – but the baggage that talent, publishers and readers bring to them prohibits it on any serious level, and where it has been achieved to any degree it has usually triggered a defensive backlash to reinforce the "purity" of superhero comics.) From the writer's standpoint, the crime story is simply more open to possibility.

From a reader's perspective it may not look that way, since crime stories, though frequently superheated and preposterous, usually involve the mundane world, as opposed to the supernatural elements that underpin genres like superheroes and horror, supernatural in this instance meaning "beyond nature" rather than "occult." From that outlook, the crime story, absent of vampires, androids, extraterrestrials and radioactive spiders, may seem less open to possibility. But that's a marketing issue. The other problem regarding an audience is the preponderance of "crime" stories, in the broadest application of the term, across other media like novels, film and television. Anyone wanting crime fiction has plenty of options. (Unlike anyone who wants a steady diet of superheroes or even horror, where options across media are considerably narrower.) Which means crime comics are under considerable stress to provide material not found elsewhere.

Creatively there are two problems. The first goes across all media: finding a story that hasn't been told before, or a newly interesting way to tell one. The same applies to any subject matter, of course, but while some genres – do I really have to name them? – prefer the illusion of innovation, crime stories now pretty much demand it. The second is comics-specific: many writers who decide to dabble in crime comics are drawn in not by any particular sympathy for the material but by the appeal of the clichés. The private detective in fedora and trenchcoat. The chianti-sipping serial killer. The chain-smoking femme fatale in stiletto heels and a low cut evening gown with a wave of thick hair obscuring one eye. Mean '30s-'40s streets. Etc. There's maybe no other genre where the phrase "my version" is more toxic, and it's complicated (or should we say co-enabled?) by many artists who come to crime comics wanting to draw exactly those things. Because "your version" of those things everyone else has also seen a million times before is still what everyone else has seen a million times before. Something, whether plot, style, character, or milieu, has to be different enough to put the project across as something new, something they won't get anywhere else.

And that's very hard to do.

I cop to not especially liking 100 BULLETS when it began. The premise, as promoted, was curious but slight: a mystery man delivers to an anthology of damaged people an untraceable gun and 100 untraceable bullets, to do with as they choose, whether murder, vengeance, justice, or simply nothing. Many of the early stories struck me as derivative, especially when a Steve Buscemi clone drove an ice cream truck around Long Island suburbs like no one had ever seen TREES LOUNGE. The series had two things going for it: though trying a little too hard to sound "street" in early issues, Brian Azzarello showed a sharp ear for expressive but concise dialogue, and a deft hand at unusual characterization and tight plotting, and Eduardo Risso (abetted by Grant Goleash, a tradition later continued and enhanced by Trish Mulvihill) had a perfect style for crime comics. Give it 25 issues, and 100 BULLETS had coalesced into something quite original, with a sprawling mythology of a secret parallel America controlled by ruling crime families, and a private army whose shattered leader is out to reconstruct it in a bid for revenge and power. By 50 issues in, the original gimmick of doling out guns and bullets was pretty much fallen by the wayside, naturally giving way as a function of plot to a cast of characters whittled down from among participants in the first cycle, on both sides of the line, weaving a fine web of plots, counterplots, motivations and betrayals, and sometimes bewildering developments that would not only come to make sense but gain a luster of inevitability in later issues as more facets of the story and characters opened up. If the first 75 issues were a slow set-up, the final 25 combine into a fine wrap-up, a slow decay and then disintegration into fire and violence not only of the series but of the culture it portrays, the macrocosmic reflection of the microcosmic climaxes of individual arcs within the series. 100 BULLETS doesn't pretend to be about justice, but it is, in a twisted way, about penance, and symmetry, and the triumph of chaos over illusory order. It started with a man giving a girl a bullet, and ends with the girl giving the bullet back, and at both points the private army is in disarray and the families out of the picture. It begins with a question: how far would you go if you could get away with it? Ultimately the answer is: no one gets away with anything.

100 issues of any comic is a shocking achievement these days, but, amazingly, over 10 years and 100 issues, tone and style are rock steady, and the story hangs together amazingly well, the last issue being of such a piece with the first they'd seem almost to be done at the same time. The worldview is unflagging as well, bleak and violent but drenched in hope and sex and soaked through with dark and caustic humor. It's a great crime comic, probably the flagship crime comic of its day, and it's hard to imagine it being done so well in any other medium.

And now its over.

So what next? Copying 100 BULLETS is missing the point. It worked because, whatever it may have referenced along the way, it was its own creature, and that's what future crime comics creators should take away from it. If people seriously want to create an audience for crime comics – and I mean serious crime comics, with real heart and guts and not just the over the top violence orgies that too often pass for crime comics - idiosyncrasy is the minimum requirement, and far from the most important but the rock that everything else must build on. That and a genuine sympathy for that worldview, no pretenders wanted. Books like 100 BULLETS and CRIMINAL prove the exceptional crime comics can still be done. It's not easy, but it's not supposed to be.


1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 92-93):

From Watson-Guptill Publications:

COMIC BOOK DESIGN by Gary Spence Millidge ($24.95; trade paperback)

Ignore the cover blurb that calls this "the essential guide to creating great comics and graphic novels." It's not that at all. But true to its main title, this is an excellent primer on designing comics, in considerable breadth if not depth. With lavish illustrations and the insight of a lifetime studying and creating comics, Millidge doesn't discuss what works as why – emotionally, aesthetically, and practically – design considerations in comics are paramount for artists (or anyone giving art direction, including editors and writers) and which decisions should be made, from minute levels of character and set designing through more complex areas like expressing storytelling through composition and coloring, on through cover and package design all the way to finished product, and mini-discussions of what has worked in cited instances and why. If another edition of the book is done, the one improvement I'd like to see is more elaborate discussion of why specific effects work and how they were achieved through design, but it's clear the editorial emphasis was on rapid, to the point overview, and the book works very well on that level. Though the overall emphasis is on modern comics, Millidge uses examples from early Sunday pages through PERSEPOLIS, covering all persuasions, and if any book deserves to become a standard text in comics classes continually springing up at colleges, this one does. Even the experienced will likely learn something from it.

From Pantheon Books:

CHICKEN WITH PLUMS by Marjane Satrapi ($12.95; trade paperback)

A deceptive little story with a good punchline – what appears to be one thing, the petulant loss of a favorite musical instrument that leads to a man's death, turns out to be a different, deeper kind of loss entirely – but getting there is a struggle. Satrapi's follow up to her PERSEPOLIS books, again involving life in Iran but this time during the reign of the Shah, is oddly void of context both historical and visual while excursions in the subsequent adult lives of the dead man's children amount to little more than disconnected filler. The core story has its moments, but it would've worked like better as a short story.

Much as I hate to do this, I'm forced to shut this section down early this week. This is the last section I write up most weeks, but I woke this morning with a horrifically bad headache bordering on a migraine and it has taken me about six hours to get these two reviews done. So while I'll still keep reading a book a day, the write-ups will have to double up next week. Sorry about that.


Notes from under the floorboards:

J.G. Ballard died last week, after a long fight with cancer. Quietly one of the more influential writers of the last 20th century, he virtually single-handedly inspired new wave science fiction, and introduced a whole slew of literary techniques to the genre, though he fairly quickly left science fiction proper (and the subdivision he largely inhabited, the disaster novel) behind for a more expansive and psychologically expression new form of fiction, and eventually autobiographical fiction, since many aspects of his life weren't much less strange than his writing. But the "futuristic" imagery that permeates virtually all his work was burned into his psyche during his boyhood in occupied Shanghai during WWII, where fate had largely abandoned him to his own devices, as immortalized in EMPIRE OF THE SUN, later filmed by Steven Spielberg. If you haven't read his work, read it. My own favorite Ballard books are a run of four novels: THE ATROCITY EXHIBITION (abridged in the States as LOVE AND NAPALM, EXPORT USA); CRASH (also filmed, by David Cronenberg); CONCRETE ISLAND; and HIGH-RISE. But even in the face of cancer, Ballard's output hadn't dwindled significantly. All told he left 19 novels, and a considerable number of short stories, essays and interviews. All are worth reading, and there doesn't so far seem to be any writer on the horizon to fill his shoes.

Didn't have time to do much web-surfing this week, but more looks at longform online comics next week.

Unlike many, I didn't find the recent "tea party" protests against Obama administration (I think I'll just call it the O-Ring from now on, to save time) bailout programs misguided. Not that I have any more respect for Fox News or right wing radio than I did last month, nor that my opinions on taxes have changed (don't like them any more than anyone else does, though I kind of like having drivable roads). Nor that I think the bailouts (at least to corporate parties) are anything more than a big gift to a lot of organizations that deserve to crash and burn for their sheer arrogance and stupidity. Nor that I have any special sympathy for the pronounced views of the protesters, most of whom seem to have a first grader's grasp of American history or how the government works. But I really hope their proposed "principles" – that we should only have to pay for the specific government expenditures we personally approve of – become the law of the land, because then I won't have to fork over any more money for any more damned, stupid, unnecessary wars. In fact, I wonder where these tax protestors were when the Ghost oversaw shoveling hundreds of billions of our tax dollars at Iraq and other hotspots where we didn't need to be – when "support our troops" became a euphemism for "shovel vast sums of money into the pockets of defense contractors, 'civilian contractors,' Halliburton (wait, are they still building their new world HQ in Dubai or, like every other westerner living there, have they been desperately fleeing the onrushing specter of Dubai's debtors prison since the world economy collapsed last October?), various Iraqis, various gangsters and the occasional soldier clever and fast enough to pull a skim, while 'the troops' make due in dangerous situations with cheap promises and inadequate support and materials" – and why so many who'd likely claim they were "Reagan Republicans" oppose the bailouts when Reagan's gang advocated and supported dumping as many public resources, financial and otherwise, into the hands of the private sector as possible.

I suspect that's not quite the paradox it seems at first glance. If you read position papers from the right wing think tanks that cooked up the "tea party" idea – it's been kind of amusing the past couple months, watching them desperately trying to cook up something to undermine Obama's popularity, (whether it be condemning him for saying America's not a theocracy or for daring to shake hands with Hugo Chavez, even though last I checked we're not at war with Venezuela nor is Venezuela calling for terrorism against or the overthrow of the USA) especially since the things that might undermine Obama's popularity, like his apparent continued support for illegal domestic wiretapping programs, are things the RWTTs like - it's not so much the O-Ring dumping hundreds of billions into the floundering private sector that enrages them as much as the rising tide of qualifiers accompanying that aid since the AIG fiasco, like the insistence that General Motors get its act together before they stick their hand out for another round. In some ways, the financial situation is a no-lose proposition for the Right – if the government doles out corporate welfare, it's wasting tax money; if it doesn't, it's hanging American business out to dry – or would be, if most of the public didn't remember whose watch everything caved in on. Also, if we take Texas governor Rick Perry (aka Baby Ghost) at face value, it isn't corporate bailouts that's got the Right up in arms. It's money to the states that comes with qualifiers, like Texas having to upgrade their welfare system if they want their federal welfare payout. Perry didn't have any noted problem with unqualified "free" federal money for Texas, but felt strongly enough about being told how to handle the state's welfare programs that he trotted out States' Rights and mentioned Texas seceding from the Union. It was all show, sure – the Texas legislature had already voted to accept the new federal welfare guidelines, though I don't know if there was a veto-proof majority on it – but bringing up secession (now I understand why Chuck Norris, in an interview a few months ago, talked about running for President of Texas) was still effectively a threat of what might happen should the Feds choose not to do things Perry's way. It's the latest version of what McCain and other Republican congressmen have been proposing about Federal policy since the Inauguration: their way or the highway. That's what "representation" now seems to mean from their skewed worldview; no elections necessary. So where do I sign up for the rebate on all of my tax money that's gone to wars, military excursions and foreign adventurism since 1971, presumably with compound interest?

Rum and raspberries, that's what little galaxies are made of. Yum.

No one got last week's comics cover challenge. I realized I'd given a very weak clue and replaced it, but not before more readers had already read the column. So let's try it again. See the next paragraph for more information.

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, but this week I guess I'll have to beat you over the head with it. 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:  100 bullets, comic book design, chicken with plums

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