Permanent Damage

Wed, May 13th, 2009 at 4:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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For another glimpse of the strange inner workings of comics, former comics writer Scott Edelman, who wrote in the '70s and kind of went out the door as I was coming in, has a funny column about making more money off recent reprints of his '70s work than he made from it originally. I know whereof he speaks; in these days of projects like graphic novels that we work on for long stretches without pay, mystery money (that's what royalty checks are called in these parts, mystery money, since there's no way to tell when – if – they'll show up, how much they'll be for or, sometimes, even what they're for) has been keeping me afloat. It's like all those years of crappy on the fly fill-ins were just an investment in here and now. I feel like when I get a royalty check on that godawful TEAM AMERICA story (don't ask) I'll know I've really and truly made it.

Interesting question in response to his piece, though:

"Maybe I should know this, but why are comic writers paid by the page? I can see why for artists. I always thought that writers submitted what was more or less a script. Does that include pages?"

That one's simple. Comics writers are paid by the page because in the early days of the comics industry – I'm talking about the sweatshop days (Thanks, Jerry! Thanks, Will!) when publishers bought complete stories from studios that ground them out en masse. Publishers had x number of pages per issue to fill, so they paid shops to produce x number of pages. Not stories, pages. As a consequence, shops paid by the page, and that became the basic standard of payment. While many comics artists had only newspaper strips to emulate (and, at least officially, it was general practice for strip artists to write their own material) the shops were dedicated to speed, and speed ultimately meant division of labor. While I imagine many early strips were simul-written and drawn on the fly – that's relatively easy to do if writer and penciler work in the same room, and I've always wanted to try that situation, minus the sweat shop conditions – breakdown of labor quickly resulted in one person writing the story, one person penciling, one inking, etc. In other words, the traditional "mainstream" comics production process. Writers in that process were paid like everyone else: by the page. Bear in mind that prose writers since well before the advent of comics were traditionally paid by the word – that's why Dickens blathers on so much in his stories – and it's not uncommon even today. Most of the words comics writers write are never seen by anyone, and not every panel they write even features words (in the late '70s, Marvel and DC tended to get very hot under the collar when a writer would turn in a wordless page, something they viewed then as cheating, even where the technique was completely appropriate) so the page is also the smallest practical unit by which the writer's output can be measured by an accounting department. Pay a comics writer by the word and the page will be covered with words, which rarely makes for good comics. (Sometimes, though.) Pay one by the panel and you're looking at 18 panel pages every page. Pay by the page, well, there are a set number of pages in every story.

Creatively, it made some sense: writers didn't write by the story, they wrote by the page. Comics are generally stories told in a very finite physical space. The only way to ensure a story will fit in the allotted space is to plan it out – and the full script was born! But that means a certain amount of material needs to fit onto any given page in order for the overall story to fit and properly flow, which means each page needs to be its own sub-story. Which means a comics writer can't simply work out a story. Every page must be worked out.

Someone has to do it, whether it's artist, writer or editor. It may as well be done in the planning stages, and that's exactly what a script is. That's all a script is: an elaborate plan for a story. It's true, though, that full scripts ushered in the era of the complete story, at least at the writing stage, but it still comes down to publishers or their proxies paying for a set number of pages. By then, payment by the page, and the page rate, had become the basic units of commerce on the creative end of comics, and that was that. Writers turned in complete stories in most cases, but they were still paid by the page, not by the story, because pages was how companies measured stories, and usually still do.

The main alternative was "the Marvel method," which was hardly original with Marvel but had long since fallen into disuse in favor of the full script. But early Marvel was on a budget, Stan Lee didn't have time to write full scripts (I don't know whether other writers like Larry Lieber or Robert Bernstein wrote them when they weren't just providing dialogue) and he fortunately had access to artists who knew how to tell stories, either via decades of experience (Jack Kirby, Bill Everett, Bob Powell) or some experience and terrific instincts (Ditko). The Marvel method works great when you have artists who know how to tell stories. If they have lots of experience and/or killer instincts. Some artists do; the problem is that almost all artists (not to mention writers) think they have killer instincts, regardless of experience. When they don't, you end up with page after page of full page posed poster shots the artist can sell for a lot of money on the aftermarket art market. Or dinosaurs suddenly turning up in the midst of human interest dramas, because that's what the artist felt like drawing that day. Or millions of micro-panels intended to express concepts that bring no value to the story and are too tiny to allow for the copy needed to explain what the hell they are. Economically, page rates probably saved dozens of writers who worked Marvel method by making the pay incremental rather than cumulative when a complete story was turned in, since waiting for complete stories if writers dialogued only after penciled art was complete put writers completely at the mercy of the artists they were working with. Sure, most writers preferred to dialogue over completed pencil jobs whenever possible but it wasn't always (and by the mid-'90s was only very rarely) possible. Then again, the system turned out a lot of checks for work that was only partially completed, leaving companies shelling out for a lot of material they most likely would never be able to use.

Which, among other considerations, is why the full script is now back in vogue after being almost totally eclipsed for many years as a lot of publishers decided working "Marvel style" would replicate what got people buying Marvels. (I made a lot of money in the early '90s writing full scripts for editors who had absolutely no experience with deciphering them; their inabilities to nitpick full scripts may not have made for the best comics possible but it saved me a lot of time and effort.)

But the page rate is still the basic unit of pay for the business, despite pressure to again adjust to changing times brought on by the advent of the graphic novel. This is, again, a shift from a magazine economy, where people are generally paid piecemeal according to the length of their contribution, and a book economy, where bulk advances are paid against general sales regardless of the length of the specific project and the size of the advance isn't likely to shift if the book ends up 20 more pages than planned. Or some bastard compromise: the last graphic novel I did for a major comics company, last year (I'm hoping it'll be out by next year), paid a sizable advance, but as near as I can tell it was an advance based on my existing page rate as applied to the total desired number of pages, and paid out not all at once but in increments as contractually designated numbers of script pages were turned in. I'm not complaining – the system worked fine and the checks were very nice – I'm just saying that disguised though it may be the page rate system still holds in the mainstream comics business proper.

While part of this is simply the innate recidivism generally afflicting the American comics industry – is there any behavior we don't reflexively return to or even idealize? – I'm not sure there's a better or more equitable system, though it's also a vestigial reminder of the days when all comics material was done work-for-hire and the page rate was the industry equivalent of punching a clock without the benefits that usually come with standard employment, and a reminder of how much of the business is still that way and how easily it could all slip back to that. Not having had any direct dealings with book publishers for original graphic novels, I have no idea what the advance/pay structure is in that market so I'd be curious to know how freelancers feel it compares with the traditional comics structure. With many comics publishers now there is no advance at all, and given the distribution system and retailer/consumer buying patterns, many comics writers and artists will never see any money from their work. I'm sure that for them any comparative discussion of the merits of payment by page or payment by project or some other formula must seem a frivolous and idealistic luxury. The basis for pay really doesn't matter; what matters now is getting more talents paid, and getting more pay for those talents who do get paid, and making that a measure of how healthy the business in general is.

A few letters:

"I was a little incredulous with the use of High Noon in ARCHIE PRESENTS THE MIGHTY ARCHIE ART PLAYERS #1.  But my kids (7 & 5) really enjoyed the mermaid, High Noon and 7 dwarves stories. The mermaid story in particular was a favorite of the kids. The sight gags were easy to understand and they liked the stories in general.  I thought the Anthony and Cleopatra story was a little inappropriate because of the female slavery angle and there were a few jokes that fell flat.  Okay, most of the jokes fall flat for adults who have seen or heard them before but again my kids were chuckling at a few of them in the other stories.  My kids definitely like some of the material published by Archie even though it falls out of my interests.

Thought you would be amused by this reaction."

I stand corrected. Maybe 5-7's the age Archie's aiming at these days...

"Here is an email I have been waiting a hell of a long time to send to you. A comic I did several years ago was finally optioned, by a couple major producers. I have emailed with you a number of times about various things over the years and have read just about all of your columns every week, with much interest about comics and our industry. Every time you wrote about indie comics seeking to make money off of ancillaries, specifically off of movie deals, I've wanted to chime in but have had to wait... but now there is just so much I can say about what it takes and what it means to actually get a major deal like this done for an indie creator like me. There is no way that I could, in all fairness, suggest what my collaborator and I just went through to anyone else just getting started right now. At times, it has just been gut-wrenching. And the bottom line is something you have said repeatedly: if you're getting into comics simply for the sake of hoping for a movie deal, you're crazy. 

Which may all sounds strange coming from someone who's just inked a huge deal like this, but it's true. We would have given up a hell of a long time ago if not for the twisted, sordid love of all of this stuff.

I feel your pain and relief, brother, and, believe me, I'm not speaking theoretically when I talk about Hollywood. Been there, done that, had so many projects in process and fallen through, talked with so many producers and would-be producers, etc. Options are great, but getting a good option these days is really difficult – everyone in Hollywood pleads poverty, and the funny thing is they do it right to the faces of other Hollywood players who know better – the real money doesn't kick in until production starts, and an awful lot more properties get optioned than ever get produced. I've been told the average time it takes to get a film from concept to screen in about seven years, and if you add in the several years it often takes to even secure an option, any comics freelancer or publisher looking to capitalize off Hollywood better be willing to dig in for the long haul before they see any substantial money.

"I share your view on crime comics. After 100 BULLETS there will be a long time before any crime comic can replace it, if ever, and of course another column of Vertigo has gone. Now there is only FABLES and HELLBLAZER. They can´t be happy.

But I would take it even a step further. The time for crime comics is over. This is not so much a problem about the content, more one about economics. There is so much crime stuff to watch and to buy, in publishing there are niches upon niches, there are so many flavors to taste, some stuff is now so nostalgia tinted that Hard Case Crime for instance has enough material to publish for years. For 6.99 a book.

I know that the discussion and lamentation about comic prices is getting old, but particularly in the case  of crime comics the customer has so many alternatives. He has too many alternatives.

Why should I buy comic for $4 - which can only be a chapter, never the whole story - when I get the real thing for a lot less?  Of course you can do subtle and multilayered stories in comics, as 100 BULLETS proved. But this series is in many regards a bad example, because it is a rare achievement. One of the major selling points here was the consistency of writer and artist.

In today's market publishers seem unable to get six issues out with the announced team, without delays and changing artists, but a hundred? The only selling point for me to buy a crime comic would be a writer/artist team I really like, doing something with its own voice. And sadly the industry has squandered so much goodwill lately with their seemingly inability to deliver. It is a bad irony that a book like WATCHMEN would be impossible to do today. Not in terms of craft, even if you wonder sometimes, but in terms of production. Neither DC nor Marvel could get their overhyped superhero-events out as they were announced.

So again 100 BULLETS is truly unique. And of course you never have to forget that it had a rare chance. It was allowed to grow. Another stroke against the thunder and hype stuff which more and more smells so much of desperation.

And as much other genre do also suffer on the book market - the western or the short-story magazine comes to mind - in comics it is the crime story. As a category they will go the way of the romance comic. While the romance novel is according to a lot of people still a booming sector.

This is kind if sad."

All's not lost at Vertigo, where they're preparing a line of crime graphic novels under the auspices of my old pal Jonathan Vankin. I gather Brian and Eduardo are prepping something new as well.

Not sure I agree with all your assumptions. Would WATCHMEN be impossible today? Published in the late '80s, the series opened a new path for superhero comics at a point where they were floundering (that the path is pretty short and dead ends is beside the point for this discussion). Were it not published, what would countless superhero comics published since either copy or react against? There were a lot of other influential comics at the same time, but would they have been able to capitalize without the audience WATCHMEN drew in? Would superhero comics have simply floundered for the intervening 20 years repeating the same tired material over and over while audiences shrank and shrank and became increasingly insular? (Wait a minute...) By now, the comics industry might have been begging for WATCHMEN.

But you bring up the prime challenge for crime comics: with as much crime material as currently exists in all media, what can comics bring to the table that people couldn't get from other sources? It's up to creators to figure that out.

"My take on 9/11: 

There were two things that didn't happen: the terrorism expert counsel who warned of imminent threat to Clinton and Bush wasn't allowed into high level meetings when Bush came in, nor taken seriously by Libby (what a surprise), and a key FBI agent who had warned repeatedly about Al-Queda was continually ignored due to compartmentalization and competition within the intelligence community. There is some thought the buildings were rigged to come down as they did, but the bread crumbs don't lead there as much as they do lead to the way they were constructed, which is substantiated by a number of engineering experts.


While the whole story is not known in the 9/11 Commission report and it's true, there are enough holes big enough for a 747 to fly through I'm left to think of what Mike Baron writing in Nexus said about  leaders 'Olgothorpe was stupid. And stupid individuals can do more harm than those who are merely evil.'"

While I still suspect, as I wrote the week after 9/11, that the hijackings were known to at least some government officials and allowed to happen (not so they could fly planes through buildings, but because they were expecting standard "take over plane-take hostages-make demands-settle peacefully hijackings) in order to justify measures (like the Iraq invasion, which was on at least Cheney's mind from well before the Ghost's inauguration) the Ghost's administration wished to pursue, the myth of the Towers seems to me more evidence of standard corruption in Manhattan's inspections divisions than of any arch government conspiracy, and a cut-out (which is to say, a purposeful diversion) to distract attention from the real questions about holes in the government's response and its causes. We may find out for certain yet...

1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 108-114):

From Rob Imes (13510 Cambridge #307, Southgate MI 48105):

DITKOMANIA #71-72 ed. Rob Imes ($2.50@ inc. postage; half-sized magazine)

My new favorite little fanzine, one of those old school labor of love affairs. Dedicated to the works of Steve Ditko, natch, and without a lot of emphasis on his Randian philosophies. Lots of interesting topics are covered – clarifying historical questions about what Ditko intended for AMAZING SPIDER-MAN before he left; innovating Ditko page layouts on 1970s Charlton mystery stories; and more fannish pieces like a history of Ditko's (co?)creation Nightshade, and comparing Ditko's work to Moore's in WATCHMEN - plus reviews of newer Ditko work, lots of art & a lively letter page. Like I said, old school, and chock full of treasures for Ditko fans. (Philosophies aside, if you're not a Ditko fan, you really should be.) Print runs are apparently limited, so if you want copies hesitation is probably a bad idea.

From Fantagraphics:

LOW MOON by Jason ($24.99; hardcover)

His last work, THE LAST MUSKETEER, was an exhausted picaresque mess that made me wonder if maybe his core motif – running characters envisioned as humanoid dogs and crows (mostly) through semi-absurdist adventures touching mostly (but not exclusively) on the intersection of desire and violence – hadn't run its course. LOW MOON, collecting five good examples of Jason's bitter, funny sense of humor, mostly pantomimed, proves me wrong. Despite the funny animal surface, Jason's actually one of the best crime writers of this generation, and three of these pieces are very dark crime stories, with a sort of science fiction story about estrangement from love and the title story, a very funny parody of western movie clichés that doesn't require any knowledge of the originals. If you're feeling bleak about the bleak underbelly of human existence, this probably isn't your best relief, but if you can see the humor in it, there's pretty much no better guide working today.

From W.W. Norton & Co.:

STITCHES: A MEMOIR by David Small ($23.95; hardcover)

Okay, I'm so tired of autobiographical alt-comics I could puke up my spleen, and any book whose cover copy tells me how "redemptive" its story sends my spider-senses screaming. I'm sick of self-aggrandizement masquerading as self-pity and bad art trying to pass for iconoclasm; all I want is a good story. Fortunately, Small has one, well-drawn and told matter of factly. While it has all the staples of this genre – childhood trauma and revelations (all kinds of them) about his parents and his connections to them that change his life (forever!) – Small tells the story in such an affecting way that it's hard to put down, and only when he gets cute and dolls up a shrink as the white rabbit from ALICE IN WONDERLAND does it go off the rails. Like most books described by marketing copywriters as "redemptive," it isn't, and there's nothing in it that's especially illuminating either. But it's better than that; it's consistently interesting, and how much more do we need?

From Split Lip:

SPLIT LIP: TALES OF HORROR by Sam Costello & various artists ($15; trade paperback)

Good short standalone horror stories are notoriously difficult to write, one reason so many "horror" comics are now basically extended soap operas with blood and gore. Costello certainly has the basic mechanics down, and while the range of art is pretty variable, the real weaknesses of most of the stories here is his difficulty in building and sustaining mood, and in bringing his stories to a sense of unsettling (preferably unnerving) revelation. The two exceptions are "School Supplies" and "Mujer," so there's hope. This is an enjoyable enough book – there's nothing bad in it – but to be memorable he has to kick it up to the next gear.

From Marvel/Max:

DESTROYER #2 by Robert Kirkman & Cory Walker ($3.99; comic book)

I like the art but aside from that and the gimmick of an old costumed hero who really got old, man, is this thing generic. Generic monster to fight. Generic villainess to fight. (Kind of like the bit with the hero whacking a skinny retired supervillain.) "They took my wife and child, now I'm getting back into costume!" After all these decades, hasn't anyone yet come up with better motivation than that? I'm guessing this is some sort of in-joke, but so far it's still looking for a punchline.

From Heavy Metal:

HEAVY METAL JULY 2009 ed. Kevin Eastman ($6.95; magazine)

I haven't looked at HEAVY METAL in maybe decades now, but I remember when it first appeared, as an American version of the French METAL HURLANT (literally "screaming metal," which I always thought was a much better title) magazine that launched Humanoids Associates. The original was mainly identified with sex, violence, science fiction, really lowest common denominator translations, and slick, hot European art that made virtually all the bland, mechanical mainstream comics art here look like bland, mechanical mainstream comics art. With occasional irruptions of unusual American comics, from talents like Matt Howarth and Howard Chaykin. Nice to see the tradition more or less remains intact under Eastman's ownership, but it's easy to see why the magazine's no longer a big deal: this stuff just doesn't seem all that adventurous anymore. Much of the art is still pretty good, though there's some that previously would only have seen print in HM knockoffs like the short-lived GASM, and, though Milo Minara's art is as pretty as always, Alejandro Jodorowsky's story on the historical drama BORGIA, about the Borgia papacy, is so ridiculously superheated it's as laughable as a 1980s porn script, and it dominates the issue. A look now and then, sure, but a steady diet? Not enough meat here to make it worthwhile.

From Image Comics:

OVERLOOK #1 by Joshua Williamson & Alejandro Aragon ($3.50; comic)

SIN CITY and 100 BULLETS may no longer be published, but here's a book that wants to be both of them. At least visually. At least for three issues. An oddjob boxer with a dark past makes a deal with an ex(?)-mobster to swap revenge murders ala Patricia Highsmith's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (y'know, I really hate when a story tells you what it's stealing its gimmick from, like that makes it okay), unaware he's being sent into a Town Without Pity with its own dark secret. It's not bad, but the setup – the issue is all setup – is so relaxed and drawn out it murders any semblance of tension, and a good crime story should have at least a little tension.

Notes from under the floorboards:

You might have noticed that for the last month or so the column's publication date has been a smidge erratic. Some of that's been my fault, some of it hasn't, but from here on we're making a concerted effort to get it back on Wednesdays like clockwork, and if I can I'll get it back to earlier in the day, though that's not my decision to make.

I could go back to delving through webcomics, but that bastard Ellis has made it all irrelevant with an excellent thread on his excellent Whitechapel message board that has quickly become a compendium of webcomics as described by their creators. For all the hipness of Twitter and MySpace and their ilk (and I get the feeling the sun of coolness has set on them already), Warren proves there's plenty of life and value left yet in the now old-fashioned message board. If you don't belong over there, I recommend it. (Warren's own webcomic with Paul Duffield, Freak Angels, is also in that vicinity, while mine, Odysseus The Rebel, with Scott Bieser, can be found here.)

As the season winds to a halt, the five best American TV shows of the year:

1) LIFE. The best big three network cop show in years, about a cop who spent years in prison for murder, then proves his innocence, gets his job back along with a large fortune in damages, and investigates murders while secretly investigating the untold story behind his incarceration. It's dead now, but finished with a season ender so good it would've made the perfect series ender as well. And did. Catch it on DVD.

2) FRINGE. What started as an impending X-FILES knockoff turned into a very clever, very well conceived, written and acted science fiction thriller. Of course, the last time American TV hosted one of those (BATTLESTAR GALACTICA) it disintegrated in the 11th hour into fourth-rate New Age pablum, but so far creator JJ Abrams at least seems to have a handle on the Philip K. Dickian world he's slowly creating. Renewed by Fox for next season already.

3) THE SHIELD. For much of its existence, this cop show about morally bankrupt, self-justifying cops was the most hardcore thing on TV, a grimly fascinating look at how evil men prey on and manipulate both the hopes, fears, baser desires and higher aspirations of good men, and call it necessity. It was hard to see how the show could go out without obvious endings like everyone dying in a blaze of blood and glory, but while there was blood, the emphasis wasn't on "hero" Vic Mackey dying as he lived but on discovering his personal vision of hell, and landing him in it while escaping an inescapable fate.

4) THE SOUP. E Channel's running clip show, taking savage potshots as the unimaginable stupidity that passes for TV (both here and abroad) is the most relentlessly funny, pithiest show on the air, in must see Friday night TV.

5) THE UNUSUALS. Sort of a harder-edged BARNEY MILLER for the new millennium, ABC's new ensemble cop show, wrapped sometimes amusing, sometimes very dark stories around a bunch of misfit detectives solving serial cat murders, stopping bus bombers, tracking down the walking dead, and tracking down the killer of one of their own, with intelligence and lots of nasty humor and without forcing things. Favorite line (when squad members learn they're victims of identity theft): "It's not fair. You get your identity stolen and your credit score goes up!" Since it's unlikely to be renewed, it deserves at least a nod.

So much for academia. Two scientists in Sweden did study of lie detectors and concluded that the technology is a myth and they don't work. (To the best of my knowledge, they came to no conclusions about Wonder Woman.) (Sorry; in joke. If you need it explained, ask Noah Berlatsky.) The study was published in the small INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF SPEECH, LANGUAGE & THE LAW, whose publisher then immediately caved in when Nemesysco Ltd., a lie detector manufacturer, threatened to sue for defamation because the article demonstrated that their machine didn't work - and then the publisher warned them not to resubmit anywhere else. The message is clear: no independent investigations allowed when there's money to be made, though if Nemesysco wanted to prove its machine really worked, wouldn't it be easy enough to do so?

In the world of media piracy, as recently convicted Pirate Bay owners "appealed" to their users to help them pay the restitution placed on them by sending payments of 13¢@ to the law firm representing the media interests to whom the debt is owed (collecting on all the 13¢ payments would cost record and film companies more than they'd take in), France cheerfully passed a three strikes law, promoted by French president Sarkozy but rejected not long ago by the rest of the European Union, that would make ISPs first warn anyone downloading, say, a song against such practices then cut them off from the Internet permanently if they persisted, while in England an organization of "creative industries" is pressuring the government there to force ISPs to do the same thing. (Speaking of England and piracy, The Guardian there recently published a report that claims Somali pirates – arrr! – are being directed via satellite phone by informants in London who feed them information and details on ships they should attack. Shockingly, British ships are being avoided. Hmmm...) And the shocks just keep coming: testifying before Congress last December, the RIAA declared they filing lawsuits against individuals for music piracy was outcost whatever small benefits the music industry was getting from it and they'd discontinued the policy four months earlier. Now it comes out that they've not only continued initiating such lawsuits but have been doing it consistently even while they were telling Congress it was a failed, abandoned policy. Anyone here remember when people used to be threatened with prosecution for lying to Congress?

Seymour Hersh, who broke THE PENTAGON PAPERS and blew open the government's crazy handling of the Vietnam War nearly 40 years ago, and who has remained as much a gadfly to the government since, recently made new allegations about the infamous Iraq POWOT camp, Abu Ghraib, which became the poster child for US government sponsored humiliation and torture of terrorism suspects. (See Errol Morris' documentary STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE for graphic details.) Hersh's latest claims: female prisoners were "tortured" by being forced to watch their children being painfully sodomized. Apparently, these are among the videos Don Rumsfeld testified to Congress would only make things worse if publicly released...

But just to show America still has its moral feet on the ground – we're certainly preserving the sanctity of marriage by propping up an Afghan government that recently passed a law forcing wives to have sex with their husbands at least once every four days or face penalties (though there's no explanation how those penalties are worse than sex with their husbands) – a number of Republican congressmen are pushing a bill to make 2010 The Year Of The Bible. Because all those other problems facing the country are so trivial. Wait, isn't 2010 also the year of mid-term Congressional elections? Could this possibly be a cynical ploy to sucker back the Bible Thumpers who abandoned the GOP in droves in 2008? It's a GOP win-win: either they pass the bill and claim the credit, or the bill dies and they blame Obama and his "anti-Christian" agenda (you might not have been paying attention to the various "anti-Christian" accusations they've been making the past few months) for its failure. Whether it's an issue that'll make a difference to anyone, that's another question...

By the way, in case you missed it, all water in the United States is now officially owned by the government and subject to their control, due to a rewriting (S.787 IS) of the Federal Water Pollution Control Act that alters the language specifying "navigable waters of the United States" where it appears to just "waters of the United States," and defining those as all waters down to anything collecting in prairie potholes. Think there's something they're not telling us?

Congratulations to Ivan Linares, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "natural disasters." Ivan coincidentally wishes to point your attention to environmental news site Planet Save. Check it out.

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 this column but whether anyone can find it only time will tell. 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.

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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.

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