Permanent Damage

Wed, May 27th, 2009 at 5:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Periodically, someone must put something in the water. In the last week: a) a friend mentioned being asked about how the whole wide world is now mad for comics and/or superheroes; b) someone over at the Permanent Damage message board asked what we can do to rewire people who think comics are for kids; c) in an email someone requested ways to get comics more respect.

The proper response to each is: say what?

Maybe I'm living in the wrong place, but around here people (in general) don’t seem to think or talk about comics much at all. But most subcultures tend to take their little world burbling up into the uberculture as validation, on the pretext that the uberculture has the same view of their world that they do. HEROES or WATCHMEN on the cover of ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY or TV GUIDE seen through one end of the telescope suggests, yes, comics (or, rather, superheroes, since there are plenty of films out there – some very successful and praised, like ROAD TO PERDITION or A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE - based on comics whose comics connection is barely referenced, and which the flag-wavers of comics rarely acknowledge, mainly because they don't feature superheroes and are thus culturally indistinguishable from films based on novels or old TV shows or original screenplays... though for reasons I'll discuss in a moment claiming these films over, say, WOLVERINE might be the better move, if anyone's serious about pushing a "comics agenda") have "made it." Through the other end of the telescope it just as easily looks like ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and TV GUIDE have figured out that cover-spotlighting comics connected material prompts comics fans, not the general public, to buy more copies, since both magazines – most magazines, these days – have relatively steady audiences who buy them for their regular features, like film reviews or TV listings. Cover features aren't for them, they're for the irregular buyer (this is something comics have either forgotten or given up considering) whose particular obsession might get stroked enough to open up their wallet.

It doesn't mean there's a mad rush of public interest in comics, or that we've achieved any special level of respect.

We've achieved an average level of respect. I've mentioned this before. It's an equation that doesn't compute to a lot of comics fans and professionals, who felt that comics are something special – who's to say they aren't? – and wanted everyone to recognize them as something special, while "everyone" generally, frustratingly ignored them as something not worth bothering with. (Maybe this is why the French embraced both comics and Jerry Lewis.) We're all familiar with the long-running myth that comics were the province of children and imbeciles and rightly should be – and, let's face it, while there has always been plenty of material refuting that stand, there has always been plenty of material justifying it as well, so while we can call it scurrilous and biased we can't call it completely unfounded – but if there's really anyone out there who clings to it anymore they're not very vocal anymore, and unlikely to mount a crusade should they be abruptly disabused of their delusion. Even ambitious district attorneys and ministers don't campaign against "child-damaging" comics anymore because now this tends to arouse more laughter than outrage in their constituencies, though they can sometimes crush the odd comics shop when pornography, real or imagined, can be invoked. This trend is helped somewhat by the current apocalyptic perception among many in the Christian Right, peculiarly only increasing since the passing of the millennium without cosmic incident as though their faith has quietly shifted to the promise of pagan calendars instead, that the current world is beyond change or rescue and the smart option is to pull back until it all washes away.

Maybe a few out there still wave the "comics are for kids" flag, but if there's one thing graphic novels and "comic book movies" and press articles (even as they continue to stick BIF! and POW! and HOLY (fill in the blank) in headlines usually written by cutesy specialists who haven't left the newsroom in 30 years) have done for us it's disabuse the general public of the "comics=kids" paradigm. But that's probably as close to popular respect as we're likely to get, and as close as we deserve. And I know that's frustrating for loads of fans and professionals alike, because they don't really want respect. What they want is acknowledgement.

But what comics have finally achieved in America in this first decade of the 21st century is cultural neutrality. It's safe to say that at this point, for most Americans, just part of the landscape, not much better or worse than any other entertainment product. Some may become interested in comics, most probably won't be, but the same can be said for THE BACHELOR. The medium is generally accepted, the content accepted, disliked or ignored according to personal taste. For all the term "artform" has been thrown around for the last 40 years – bear in mind the word, concocted to suggest special significance as in, "It's an artform," has never actually meant anything; it's so vague that anything from stitching to urinating on snow can be called an "artform" – the form, the medium, has never in itself suggested anything about art, unless one cares to give equal weight to, oh, Jack Kirby and Tony Tallarico. The part of it that can lay any claim to art is the content, and how that content is expressed through the form. But the form, the medium, by itself is no more intrinsically worthy of respect (aside from in the sense of "respecting" the qualities and limitations of the form while working in it, and "respect" for those has resulted more often than not in artificial restriction on innovation periodically, maybe continuously, necessary to revitalize the medium) than Play-Doh sculptures.

What's commonly meant by "respect" in comics circles is that the rest of the culture should single out as important and vital what we (or, rather, the individual hungry for respect) consider important and vital. We want them to agree with us. To like us.

But neutrality is not only about as much as we're likely to get anytime soon, it's about the best thing the business could get right now. It puts us on a level field with the rest of pop culture and means that what comes of the business and the medium now is up to us and how convincing an argument we can make for it. How much more "respect" do we need?

At least to hear the media talk about it, "respect" is the new Great White whale of much of our culture, and it's hard to turn on a TV show or the news or read a newspaper or listen to the radio without someone blathering about respect, how they deserve it, how they demand it, how they (this is especially prominent in blaxploitation programming but has leaked into any type of programming where anyone of any race but prominently young white toughs mimicking what we're supposed to think is gangsta) will not be disrespected. But come on. Seriously, what kind of wuss gives a rat's ass about respect? The dirty little secret of "respect" is that the only people who ever get real respect are the ones who don't care about respect, because respect isn't worth the paper it's printed on. It's one of those things like trust that once vocalized, or even thought about, evaporates.

It's not worth worrying about.

Think comics are now respected by Hollywood? Sure, they've come to think of comics as a steady source of new material, and there are some in Hollywood who are genuine comics fans and given their druthers would produce movies and shows "faithful" to source material (and even movies that do treat comics reasonably well), but few of these are in any positions of real power (like where they can either greenlight films or control the content) and have to answer to those who are, most of whom have no special interest in comics themselves, and even if the comics-enamored do manage to ascend to real power positions, they'll still have bankers and shareholders to keep them in line. But every time a WATCHMEN or WOLVERINE or HULK fails to meet (frequently overinflated, but that's Hollywood expectations (or an ELEKTRA or PUNISHER WAR ZONE that flat out no two ways about it tanks) there's also a clique in Hollywood that predicts the imminent demise of the "comic book movie," preferring to see that as its own genre – comics fans and publishers also like to promote this notion, which is poised like a scorpion to bite them in the ass on some near occasion – rather than simply a diverse fund of ideas, like WANTED, HELLBOY and ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL could never have come from the same well. The "comic book film," like any other genre in Hollywood, is only a failure or three's breath away from being over. (If you're among those who feel the Hollywood connection corrupts comics, you may favor this.) It's likely even most audiences view "the comic book movie" less as a genre unto itself than just another sub-species of the action film, and pick and choose among them according to the whims of the day as they do with any action film. Enough may know Superman or Spider-Man to momentarily get their attention but whether they attend will still depend on their preconception of the film's entertainment value. (That superhero films usually involve concocted scripts rather than focused adaptations of known storylines sets them on a different rung of audience anticipation from works like LORD OF THE RINGS or HARRY POTTER, where the thrill is largely seeing the visualization of a story the viewer is already intimately familiar with.)

Even within comics "respect" isn't exactly a tradition. Just as the former monoculture failed to prevent a polyculture, though it managed to forestall it for a bit, comics aren't monolithic either, but a collection of various sub-sub-cultures, each of which tends to view the others as tendentious, suspect (if not actually treasonous) pretenders to the throne. Even where "respect" is publicly touted, it rarely plays out that way. Marvel and DC, and scores of knockoffers at smaller companies, claim to respect and honor the legacies of talents like Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Julie Schwartz, Gardner Fox etc., even as they systematically unravel and demolish everything those talents left behind. (I don't pretend to be opposed to or outraged by this; I can't say I much care, but it's an interesting enough phenomenon to mention.) The late Steve Gerber noted how fans-turned-pro tended to be anxious to "pay homage" to their favorite talents by producing new material for characters those talents had created or been known for, when true respect would've seen them turning down the work and telling the company to hire the original talent instead.

But none of this is outside the mainstream of American culture. For all the show we've put on about it, respect has never been an intrinsic part of our nature, and it's not uncommon for the respectful bow to hide an unsheathed dagger. Pushing a century ago, writer Nathanial West, in DAY OF THE LOCUST, had already noted the role envy and violence played behind the scenes and sometimes center stage in fannish worship; today we live in a culture of stalkers, paparazzi and "entertainment news" that seizes on every celebrity foible like it's the blueprints to a Cuban invasion. We love to tear down our heroes.

And why not? If someone wants to respect someone, fine, but only a whiner expects, wants, demands, or cares about it, because in order for someone's respect to mean anything you have to respect them first. What good is someone else's respect if you don't?

Really, what good is it anyway? Being culturally neutral isn't the flashiest, most dominant position in the world, but it leaves us with the broadest possibilities and no need to worry about things. We don't need to culturally dominate, we just need to keep going and produce good work, because if we're going to get any real respect, if anyone still feels that's at all necessary, that's the only way we'll come by it.

1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 122-128):

From Giovanni Spinella:

ATROX #1 by Giovanni Spinella & various (£2.99; comic book)

From nearly topless woman holding a severed foot in one hand and dangling a chewed-out eye from her bloody, bared teeth, I'm guessing this is a fairly nasty horror comic. Anthology, actually; Spinella provides a quartet of stories for a cluster of not-quite-ready-for-2000 AD artists, who are nonetheless not bad. The results are creepy and the ideas fairly original, but Spinella needs to work on his story credibility a little: a man manages to murder dozens, maybe hundreds of connected people and steal their eyes, and nobody tracks him down? A woman comes back from the dead and immediately spots her mother's extracted eyes, and her father's, in a room full of eyes? I can swallow the story's preposterous premise – I've seen worse in CREEPY - but little things are harder to ignore. Similarly, a good 17th century plague story is slightly undermined by priests and gravediggers reacting to rumors of the dead rising as George Romero characters would, by whacking them in the heads. But they'd've taken it as evidence of the Second Coming. Otherwise, he's got a pretty good grasp of character, dialogue and pacing. It's a decent effort.

From Marvel Comics:

AGENTS OF ATLAS #5 by Jeff Parker, Carlo Pagulayan & Jason Paz ($2.99)

I read some earlier issue of this book without it making the slightest impact at all, and didn't realize Parker was playing with one of my favorite bits (I once imposed it on The Shroud): the hero infiltrating the underworld by officially passing as a villain. (Yes, I know, it's the Green Hornet shtick.) Seems former SHIELD agent Jimmy Woo has inherited the deceased (yeah, I bet) Yellow Claw's organization and formed an alliance with master of the world Norman Osborn (I realize the Marvel guys are having a lot of fun but it seems to me there would be more checks on Osborn's power, unless you believe of head of Homeland Security has more power than the President) and is now faking the commission of evil acts while looking for ways to secretly undermine Osborn's objectives. In this case, they hijack the New Avengers ti intercept weapons earmarked for Osborn, only to have Spider-Man realize they're fake villains in one clever bit, then to have a real battle erupt over long-forgotten unfinished business, in another clever bit. Parker's got it down, and the book's pretty, too. One thing: name your bloody characters once in awhile, Jeff! Who's the talking gorilla? And dragon sleeve guy? I didn't even know that was Namorita until that bit with the sea water. It's a bad idea to have readers suddenly say, "Oh, that's who that is!" three pages from the end when it's not supposed to be a secret.

From IDW Publishing:

DR WHO – THE TIME MACHINATION by Tony Lee & Paul Grist ($3.99)

Paul Grist on DR. WHO? Someone pinch me! Lee's story, starring the Tennant Doctor and set in late Victorian England amid luminaries like H.G. Wells, is a lively little romp involving a stranded TARDIS, a hostile Torchwood determined to hunt him down, and headache-inducing but fun time paradoxes. In short, everything a good Dr. Who needs but a comely companion. To Lee's credit he peppers the script with lots of in-jokes ("I suppose it could have been worse. They could have picked Blackpool? Have you ever been to Blackpool?") that provide good laughs for those with background but don't interfere with the story in the slightest. Grist's art is perfect, keeping a fine balance of humor and drama. Complete in one issue, too. The first really good DR WHO comics I've ever read.

From Wildstorm:

EX MACHINA by Brian Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark ($2.99)

Been awhile since I checked in on this one. Former superhero Mayor Hundred's in his final year in office and determined to make some changes while a past indiscretion of the superhero kind threatens to upend everything, and he starts to learn new information about his own nature. Still, I'm ambivalent. It's well written, nice to look at, but... slack. Given its "superhero-turned-politician" gimmick it's not that far removed tonally or in pace from, oh, DARK REIGN – THE CABAL. And while I don't mind talking head pages at all, what's the point, exactly, to four quarter page headshot panels that share 26 short words between them? It could've been covered in two small panels, and spread that across the whole book and we're looking at opening for a third more story. I see a lot of Chaykin emulation here, so why not go whole hog and jam issues like he does? It's not that I don't like EX MACHINA - there's a lot to like in it – but I want to be bowled over. Curiously, the back end of the book is a taste of Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips' SLEEPER so DC seems to be putting some commendable effort behing the trade collections.

From Dark Horse:

GIGANTIC #4 by Rick Remender, Eric Nguyen & John Cottrell ($3.50)

An Earthman controls what amounts to a Japanese-style giant alien robot. In this issue, Earth is under attack and the hero learns of his shocking true nature. It's okay but unmemorable. I've never much warmed to Remender's work; he's a lesser proponent of the Joe Casey-Matt Fraction school of skin-of-your-teeth deus-ex-machina plotting, which done well can be exciting but done less than well just plays as random, and lots of things in this issue seem to happen just to keep the action going. Nguyen's action scenes get hard to follow, and since the book's mostly action scenes that's a problem.

From Dynamite Entertainment:

HEROGASM #1 by Garth Ennis, John McCrea & Keith Burns ($2.99)

Eeeeeeuuuuuu. In a sidebar to THE BOYS, superheroes concoct a menace from beyond the stars to explain their absence as they all retreat to a private orgy in California. I like the idea, but somehow Ennis & McCrea, who've proven themselves capable of some incredibly diseased humor over the years, decided the premise and the idea of a superhero community as an overgrown frat house are the only jokes they needed. (Aside from a few fleeting snipes at superhero sex, but tepid ones compared to THE BOYS.) There's a brewing subplot but right now this looks like, despite the talent involved, it's going nowhere fast.

From TwoMorrows Publishing:

MODERN MASTERS VOL. 20: KYLE BAKER by Eric Nolen-Weathington ($14.95)

I'm still not crazy about the powderpuff "tell us your history" interviews that make up the text in this series, but Baker has more interesting things to say than many, and he's such a singular talent that the gobs of art here make the book worthwhile. Most amusing are his early standard superhero art pieces for Marvel & DC, showing he could easily have become a mid-range mainstream comics artist. Fortunately, Kyle took nods from stylists like Bill Sienkiewicz and Tony Salmons and worked through to a trul idiosyncratic personal style as well as shifting his basic mode to humorist, producing some of the best works of the last 20 years. A great introduction if you're not familiar with his work, a great summary if you are.

Notes from under the floorboards:

For anyone going to the San Diego Con this year, if you scroll down to the May 25th entry at Tom Spurgeon's Comics Reporter, he has provided 100 helpful tips to make your Comic-Con stay a pleasant one. (By Tom's standards, anyway.) If you haven't decided to go yet but are still considering it, or if it'll be your first visit, you really need to take a look.

If you've never seen them Topps Bubble Gum's MARS ATTACKS bubble gum cards were a real hoot, a gaudy, gory telling of the destruction of civilization by now classic bubble-brained Martian invaders, complete with giant hungry insects and faint suggestions of perverted fates for nubile white women told in 55 paintings. You can view them here (and designs by Wally Wood & Bob Powell here). They're worth a look, and they changed the course of bubble gum cards. (Bazooka Joe comics they ain't.)

In a funny little feud brewing, my old pal Marc Mason suggested new comics day is an industry-damaging convenience mainly for Diamond that ought to be abandoned by retailers – not sure if I accept that but it's an interesting argument – but it triggered a rather angry, and almost immediate, response...

It appears despite his impending departure David Tennent just can't let Dr. Who go. In addition to appearing in a skit on the final episode of TONIGHT'S THE NIGHT, he has added to his roster of exit DR. WHO specials with a two-episode appearance on SARAH JANE ADVENTURES in the third season airing sometime in the fall, just prior to Tennent's final specials.

Someone mentioned one of my favorite tech pundits, John Dvorak, has a column about the latest study confirming what almost everyone but the RIAA already knows, that music "piracy" increases music sales by being the proxy version of what everyone really wants, a radio station that allows them to test drive before buying and see what kinds of music they genuinely like. Meanwhile, the record companies that sued Pirate Bay tried getting Swedish courts to fine the site for every day it continues to remain operational, only to find nothing in the company's "victory" prevents or penalizes the site for remaining open. That doesn't mean it's settled, but the record companies (which reportedly have never asked Pirate Bay to remove any material) aren't pleased...

Interesting tidbit. Turns out The New York Times had the scoop on Watergate in advance of Woodward & Bernstein, courtesy of the FBI, no less. And... wait for it... didn't follow up! The news wasn't fit to print, I guess...

Talk about messes. The California Supreme Court has upheld the (state) constitutionality of the anti-gay marriage measure that marginally passed in November, so California gay marriage is once again officially illegal. Sort of. Since ex post facto is still a tenet of American law all gay marriages in California that took place before the ban must be honored. Doubtless there will be moral crusaders throughout the state that will refused to do that. Here in Nevada, womanizing do-nothing governor Jim Gibbons, whose governorship mainly exists to lay the groundwork for a presidential run, just did something for a change; he vetoed a fairly modest bill allowing for civil unions, on the basis that the same thing can be covered by private contracts among affected parties. Not that the state will have any obligation to recognize or honor those contracts, of course. No one can quite figure out his reasoning (aside from that presidential run thing) but that's not very unusual with Gibbons...

I see the Supreme Court, in it's usual 5-4 fashion, has continued the Scalian agenda of granting as much power/benefit of the doubt to police as possible has decided to throw out a previous ruling forbidding police from continuing to interrogate a suspect outside the presence of an attorney once the suspect's right to counsel has been invoked. Considering they've already allowed that information gotten through criminal means is admissible in court so long as it was obtained "in good faith," whatever that means (or, rather, whatever police are now allowed to say it means) and as things stand all police really need to do is "suspect" someone of a terrorist act (and any alleged crime involving a computer is now listed as a terrorist act, should authorities decide to go there) and their right to counsel and various other rights abruptly vanish (along with them), it's not much of a surprise...

The Russians (which Russians?) are buying into Facebook to the tune of $200 million. Wonder if that gives them access to user data? They must be buying something. Meanwhile, Craigslist has gotten an injunction to block parties – specifically, the South Carolina attorney general and any others who may decide to hop a perceived cash cow – from "initiating or pursuing any prosecution against Craigslist or its officers" for third party advertising for "adult" services.

Congratulations to L.B. Smith, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "three word titles." L.B. wishes to point your attention to his '80s comics blog Blinded Me With Comics. Check it out (especially since he'd also seem to be at least a little bit of a Thomas Dolby fan too).

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, so let's see how far it flies. 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.

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