Permanent Damage

Wed, June 10th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: June 10th, 2009 at 2:54pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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In his latest column, Vince Moore asks why there aren't more black supervillains. There aren't more black superheroes because when publishers first decided there should be black superheroes it didn't matter that they be any good, only that they be black. There aren't more black supervillains because there aren't more black superheroes. Or significant black supporting characters. Publishers like to show how culturally sensitive they are (laughing permitted at this point) and they continue to be concerned that black villains might indicate they're suggesting Blacks Are Bad. As far as perceived racial indoctrination goes, they prefer to swing the other way. And we end up with strange notions like Tombstone, a black villain who's chalk white. The difference between white characters and other characters in American comics is that non-white characters of any story magnitude are almost always defined by their race. A white supervillain, well, he's just an evil bastard, or wants money, or whatever. A black supervillain? His motivation has to at some level be racial; he suffered the indignity of racism in the ghetto as a child, or went to an otherwise all-white rich kids' school where he was never allowed to forget he was different, or whatever other rubbish backstory someone comes up with. Otherwise why make him black, right? Same with Asian, Native American, etc. If they're motivationally indistinguishable from white male supervillains, why risk offending an entire race? The difference being that white supervillains enhance the middle class white American viewpoint of a Caucasian status quo. Even female characters are often seen to require "special" motivation that almost no one would think to look for in a white male supervillain. Or superhero. (In the '70s-early '80s, rape or some variant of sexual abuse was a way too common motivation for both heroines and villainesses, and I'm glad that one pretty much subsided.)

On the other hand, black villains who are just villains with no special concern for their racial/cultural aspects tend to be just nondescript villains, like most villains. I know there's a black guy somewhere in Marvel's Wrecking Crew, and I don't recall a racial issue there though certainly there has been plenty of opportunity for someone to instill something, but he's no more memorable than anyone else on the Wrecking Crew. Not that we need more "black-themed" villains; we've got way more than enough voodoo-based villains, angry evil black revolutionaries/gangstas than we ever needed. Then there's the problem of the universe collective approach to creating enshrined at work-for-hire (which is to say, superhero) companies. Even if, say, Dwayne McDuffie came up with a brilliant take on a black Doctor Doom or Lex Luthor, it wouldn't be long before other writers, or editors, used that character as essentially just another Fu Manchu, a threat to the "status quo." (Translation, in emotional terms: the white power structure.) Someone would feel the need to emphasize the character's blackness above all other traits, because billions of books have to be pumped out regularly, and a lot of ideas sound like character development, not to mention Importance, in superhero comics that aren't.

Longtime readers of superhero comics may have noticed companies aren't especially good at protecting their characters, unless they're major licensing players. (Cash cow Spider-Man may be relatively protected, but no one bats an eye at running The Black Knight through the story gimmick Cuisinart.) Is there any lesser character, whether hero, villain or support they haven't made a complete and utter botch of at some point? Characters who don't shoulder their own comics (and more than a few with their own comic that doesn't sell very well) are relentlessly subject to whim. Enough whim turns any character into a toxic waste dump. (Again, the Black Knight – one of my longtime favorites, which is why I pressed to do a Black Knight mini-series when I showed up at Marvel; though plotted entirely in the '70s, it was only finished in the '90s for a brief run in MARVEL FANFARE - is the poster boy for this, going from being a scientist using his villain uncle's technology to possessing a magic sword from his ancestor that turned out to be an evil soul-eating magic sword to getting turned to stone and ending up in the Crusades in the body of another ancestor before magically sleeping for 1500 years and being dug up in modern day (my idea, actually), where he got turned into another statue made of evil sword metal but could be inhabited and moved by the original Arthurian Black Knight when dressed in that Black Knight's armor and I have no idea how that resolved but, again mobile, he gave up the evil sword for a light saber and went to a parallel universe to lead Ultraforce then returned to the Marvel Universe where sooner or later he ended up in England basically training a new heroine in the use of magic swords. Anyone want to take a crack at making all those things sound even remotely like coherent character development?)

Because – I want everyone to absorb this – in work-for-hire superhero comics, creator intent is utterly irrelevant.

Utterly irrelevant.

Utterly. Irrelevant.

Comics companies simply aren't concerned with creator intent, unless it's a talent they specifically want to appease, and then their cooperation rarely outlasts that talent's stay with the company. (Witness the dance between Frank Miller and Marvel over Elektra.) The main function of characters isn't to operate inside stories but to be marketable franchises, whether (preferably) in the comics themselves or in other venues, like movies or amusement parks. In most circumstances, a character's value is determined by popularity AKA marketability.

This is why, in those huge character guidebooks Marvel and DC periodically publish, they might specify, say, Brother Power The Geek's origin as a life-sized ragdoll brought to life by whatever the means was, outline his powers (?) and give a short summary of his adventures but are very unlikely to include anything like "Brother Power was Joe Simon's vehicle for exploring, praising and satirizing aspects of youth and alternative culture." It really doesn't matter what Joe planned for the character, had the book been successful. All that matters is that the trademark's now in the DC catalog. If someone wants to decide for a story that Brother Power is really a "doll elemental" and a vehicle for supernatural forces, or an inanimate object possessed by alien radio transmissions to pave the way for an invasion force, there's not much besides the editorial powers that be standing in their way. Even quite a few fans have adopted the patently ridiculous notion that they, not the creators, are the true conservators of comics characters and should be the ultimate determiners of what should be done with those characters (and they are, but only indirectly and after the fact).

I'm not interested in arguing this to be right or wrong, just emphasizing what many people, including creators, simply refuse to acknowledge: any character you create for a shared universe, as structured legally along work-for-hire rules, is no longer your character the moment it is published. The moment you're paid for the story, really, regardless of whether it's ever published. That's just the nature of the beast. It's not a knock at Marvel or DC, just an acknowledgement of the way they're set up. If Alan Moore and JH Williams had done PROMETHEA at DC, regardless of the purpose, cohesion or conclusion of their series, DC could have the character reincarnated as Wonder Woman's super-endowed evil junkie little sister right now and be completely within their rights. The worst they'd risk is having Alan Moore and possibly JH Williams mad at them (so they might conceivably acquiesce if they saw strong potential longterm profit from having them associated with the company) and faithful Promethea fans ranting about the changes on blogs. That's not much in the overall scheme of things. Bear in mind that DC has, despite occasional temptation, routinely resisted the urge to create more WATCHMEN projects without Alan and Dave Gibbons that would dilute the brand and have been satisfied with a couple decades of strong trade paperback sales instead, so creative molestation of characters left in their care isn't necessarily a given.

But the odds are pretty good. Not just at DC, at Marvel too, and not out of malice or stupidity but out of the way that end of the business is run. From the creative end, if a writer has a story requiring a character who turns everything to ice, why create a new character to effectively give Marvel (though both companies at least have participation programs now, so it's not quite as cut and dried as it once was) when you can just use The Blizzard? Your story requires Blizzard has an ex-wife and a daughter living in a guerrilla training camp in Ecuador? Wow, something about the character we never knew! Because unless Brian Bendis and Tom Brevoort already have a plan in mind to turn him into Galactus' new herald, who cares what anyone changes about the Blizzard?

As long as we get a "good" story out of it. (Subject to interpretation.)

Is the general philosophy.

So let's say someone creates "the black Dr. Doom," whose skin color and ethnic heritage is strictly incidental to his overall malevolence and ambition. Great. While you're writing THE INCREDIBLE KNOCK-KNEED KNEEJERK, with Dr. Bloom as the lead villain, you're captain of his ship. The instant you leave (unless you jump to AVENGERS-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB and take Dr. Bloom with you) that character is a ward of the state, and if the next writer to use him decides he's a crucified black revolutionary brought back from the dead, or a bank robber or a Skrull in hiding, and the editor he deals with likes the idea, there's nothing you can do about it. Except come back and "fix" the "problem," but by then chaos theory has already taken hold. Once undermined, a character's credibility with readers is difficult to restore, and revamping and all the other little superhero comics tricks are so overused they rarely help much anymore.

It would make sense for companies to either pay strict attention to creator designs for a character, or to determine what they want each of their characters to be and strictly enforce that (also known as protecting the character) but there are problems with that too. Marvel and DC would have to wade through thousands of pre-existing characters. It doesn't happen often, but occasionally someone comes in with an idea much better than what they've got, so one of two things would happen: either the better idea would be eliminated out of the chute because corporate policy dictates sticking with the worse idea – and don't think this hasn't happened with protected characters already – or policy would be ignored in favor of the new idea, and in comics once a policy-breaking precedent is set it really doesn't take very long for the precedent to become the new policy, unofficial or otherwise. Once it's established a rule can be ignored, it will be ignored.

The other downside to rules, especially codified company policy for anything, especially story content, is that to the extent rules control output they make the company more inflexible and less capable of responding quickly and effectively to the changing conditions of their environment.

Would I like to see more black (and other multiculturally-orientated) supervillains? I can't say it matters to me much one way or the other, though Vince makes a good argument for it. But I don't think the challenge is really to create a great black supervillain. Tons of black supervillains exist today, and that we remember few of them off the tops of our heads isn't a testament to their natural inabilities to be great (though it's unlikely characters like Black Talon and Black Mariah were ever going to be major players, but that could be said for any number of minor supervillains of any color) but to the general inabilities of their writers, artists and editors to convey any sense of greatness about them. That's the real challenge, in a shared universe where any character is at the mercy of whatever writer lays hands on them. Some characters like Spider-Man can ride a long time on inertia almost regardless of what's done with them, but while it takes constant attention, planning and vigilance (not to mention talent) to build a character audiences can be convinced is great, it takes virtually no effort at all to destroy one, black or otherwise. Creation isn't the problem for new black supervillains. Destruction is.

1000 reviews in 1000 days (days 136-142):

From DC Comics:

BATMAN & ROBIN #1 by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely ($2.99; comic book)

Pretty good for a set-up issue whose main raison d'etre is to establish the new status quo: Bruce Wayne is still dead, Dick Grayson has abandoned his Nightwing identity and assumed the Batman role, and Bruce's bastard son with Ra's Al-Ghul's daughter Talia is the snarky, supercilious new Robin- a teenager who thinks he knows everything - though it seems he may have that stomped out of him a bit next issue. Much to like here: Morrison & Quitely bring the easy grace to the book they brought to ALL-STAR SUPERMAN and the relatively relaxed pace makes for a pleasant breather after the breakneck pace of the last year. The new villains (drawn from WIND IN THE WILLOWS and ANIMAL FARM) teeter nicely on that thin line between truly silly and truly creepy that Morrison is especially good at straddling, so there's a nice sense of looking both forwards and backwards on the book – but if one more new villain cries "This city will belong to us soon!" we should all jointly let out a howl of bored indignation. Speaking of which, the coloring was really enjoyable, with bright and interesting colors frequently dolling up Gotham City and eliminating the dull browns and dead grays that have made the place look like a tomb for years. The "new Batman" would've been a cloying, painful idea had they decided anyone but the original Robin would fill Batman's shoes, but it comes off as a natural progression instead, and the interplay of a more relaxed Batman with a slightly resentful Robin also feels natural and unforced. Fact is, Batman's big drawback over the past, oh, 20 years has been his permanent case of hardass lockjaw, and that shtick went as far as it can go. It's only a glimpse, but so far the new Batman and Robin team are interesting enough that I already regret Bruce Wayne's inevitable return.

From Moonstone Books:

AIRBOY: 1942 – THE BEST OF ENEMIES by Chuck Dixon, Todd Fox & Lito Fernandez ($6.50; one-shot comic book)

Ah, nostalgia for those glorious days of World War II, when the vile, opportunistic Soviet murderers were the real enemy, and Nazis – whoops, sorry, that's politically incorrect, I mean German soldiers – were pretty honorable and cool. What the...? Did Chuck owe the Aryan Brotherhood for protecting him in prison or something? Among Golden Age aficionados Airboy – pretty much just a boy and his gun solo flying a batwinged plane – is considered one of the classic character, and I have to say I never got why, so maybe I'm not this book's target audience, but the character's aw shucks presentation here isn't an argument for that status; despite his pronouncement at least once that he's not stupid, he behaves more like a cowboy hero in a '30s two-reeler than a man surrounded by war. Art's okay, though the style tends to shift unexpectedly, but when exactly did classic femme fatale Valkrie sprout buck teeth?

From Dynamite Entertainment:

BATTLEFIELDS: THE TANKIES #2 by Garth Ennis & Carlos Ezquerra ($3.99; comic book)

I get the feeling Ennis grew up reading COMMANDO, Britain's longrunning war comic, as his war stories reflect much of the COMMANDO mentality, especially that plucky, down-to-earth "get the job done" bent of the typical British soldier that's the COMMANDO legacy whether reality rose to that level or not, that isn't found in CHARLIE'S WAR and certainly not in SGT.FURY. So Ennis war comics are oddly schizoid, demonstrating both a distaste for the waste and stupidity of war and an odd glee in the violence of battle and camaraderie of fighting men. In TANKIES, with its exhausted Brit heroes stumbling through a string of fights and cock-ups in Nazi-occupied Europe, he continues to explore those favorite themes while he and Ezquerra bring nice doses of gallows humor to both story and art. Garth usually puts enough of a twist in his denouement that it's difficult to judge where this story's doing, but so far so good.

From Marvel Comics:

THE INCREDIBLE HERCULES by Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, Ryan Stegman & Terry Pallot ($3.99; comic book)

Since Marvel brought back Hercules, transformed him from a blustery dullard of the THOR school into an amiable self-aware goof, and thrown him, tongue-in-cheek, into adventures, he's been – I can't believe I'm saying this – a pretty entertaining character. Pak & Van Lente are going way too overboard on the Greek myth stuff, though, and should wrap up those plotlines and find a freer direction sooner than later, but that's quibbling at this point, because this run has been worth it just for the line of the week, as Hercules muses about his father and a hoary old Marvel cliché when it comes to son gods: "For all the talk about me being his favorite son, I sure seem to get yelled at and banished a lot." Priceless. (The casino filled with dead Marvel characters and talent is a pretty good gag too, and sure helps explain a lot.)

From Dark Horse:

CONAN THE CIMMERIAN #11 by Timothy Truman & Tomas Giorello ($2.99; comic book)

A good adaptation of Robert E. Howard's Conan story "Black Colossus," with Conan generaling an army in a small land in the southeastern deserts of Hyboria. Art's very nice, with subtle little paeans to Frank Frazetta and other Conan artists here and there, and Truman keeping tightly to Howard's pacing. The only problem here is that nothing happens – a monstrous army gathers to face Conan's while Conan learns the true identity and nature of the opposing general – and while Truman & Giorello handle it probably as well as possible, it's instances like this where the prose version is far more satisfying. Still, it's only one chapter of six; plenty of action elsewhere in the story. On the other hand, it's a fairly good indicator of how most "graphic novels" – the resulting collection being in the neighborhood of 140 pages – are really "graphic short stories," Howard having covered the same story in considerably less space. I don't mean that as a knock on this book, which is fine; just musing about the state of graphic novels in general...

From Image Comics:

GØDLAND #28 by Joe Casey & Tom Scioli ($2.99; comic book)

I get the feeling that if a market for grandiose non-sequiturs existed Casey would cheerfully vanish into that swamp and never return. I think maybe he and Scioli were born two decades too late, for there was once a fan cottage industry of this sort of insane, amok Kirby knockoff, though no one took it as far as GØDLAND, which reads as though they packed a snowball around Kirby's brain and used it to start an avalanche. At any rate, I haven't a clue what's going on here; hero Adam Archer undergoes one of those Kirby-Starlin "cosmic awakenings", an octophant with brains at the end of his multiple trunks hangs under the Pentagon, alien robots (including Kirby's Machine Man) look out the White House window at a gathering apocalypse being ushered in by a destroyer god who's having trouble finding his while through fog, while a cosmic superheroine and her supervillain opposite number destroy an intergalactic restaurant as she tries to keep him from "assassinating reality." The difference between Casey/Scioli and other people who attempt this sort of insane romp is the former don't even bother trying to explain any of it, they just pull the trigger and leave it to us to keep up with the bullet. It's both maddening and strangely exhilarating, almost as if Kafka, not Jerry Siegel, had written Lee-Kirby pastiches for Mighty Comics.

From Ariel Press:

HARKER #1 by Roger Gibson & Vince Danks ($2.99; comic book)

While the title leads to expectations of some sort of DRACULA boredom, this turns out to be a pretty tight little Britcop procedural with a set of cops – you may smell a lot of Warren Ellis and Grant Morrison influence, along with whiffs of HELLBLAZER - investigating a gruesome murder that would seem cult-related. There isn't much plot in the first issue aside from narrowing down the field of investigation (more than a little WAKING THE DEAD in the tone, too) but dialogue and development are both pretty good, and the art's quite tasty. Could've done with a bit more plot, but quite nice, all things considered.

Notes from under the floorboards:

ODYSSEUS THE REBEL is wrapping up it's online run at Big Head Press pretty soon, so pop over and catch up on our reinterpretation of THE ODYSSEY, art by Scott Bieser, ASAP. Trust me, groovy guys and glitzy gals, you won't want to miss this one! The other day Scott sent me the cover for the trade paperback coming out this fall, and it looks great, so that'll be popping up in a few months too.

When I was younger, it was very easy to tell who I held in contempt because the more contempt I had for someone the more polite I'd be in dealing with them. Now I'm very polite to almost everyone. Go figure.

If the governor hasn't already signed the bill, Oregon is in the process of making it illegal to throw human semen on someone else. Presumably without consent. Reportedly in Oregon this is some sort of "gang ritual," or at least that was part of the rationale used for the bill, which has been called the Bukakke Bill.

Wow. NEWSWEEK, in a bid for enough attention to save the failing magazine, went after Oprah for letting her show be used as a vehicle for every crazy diet, health or "spiritual" fad some marketer or star manages to make hip for five minutes. Oprah's response is that her audience is smart enough to filter out the garbage, which doesn't explain why she puts the garbage on in the first place. Maybe NEWSWEEK will go after TODAY & GOOD MORNING AMERICA next. (Caught a piece this morning on how Americans should make more effort to determine the provenance of their food. The basic information those interviewed presented was pretty good, but ABC managed to strongly imply meat=evil and vegetables=good along the way, despite the interviewees naming corn and soy as the two devil products in American food.)

While studies keep coming out indicating that, contrary to the claims of the RIAA and related media groups, online music downloads, even of the illegal sort, lead to more unit sales, not fewer, a recent GUARDIAN article took a hard look at the numbers the "record company rights" advocacy groups (AKA lobbyists) hurl around, and came up with a lot of questions, like why estimates of lost revenues are generally amplified by a factor of ten then spread through media that doesn't bother to do any fact checking (which is almost all of it these days), that the RIAA & kind are loathe to answer...

Speaking of piracy, for some reason a lot of the First Comics issues of WHISPER suddenly seem to be floating around the P2Posphere. I wonder what that's about...

If you're interested in crazy proposed Internet legislation (just American for now), you'll want to bookmark this site. It'd be bloody hilarious – in Connecticut, having Internet access would open your home to unwarranted search; in North Carolina you'd be banned from downloading music, regardless of legality - if so many of these crazy legislators were dead serious.

One word to all the lovely people out there: I realize I'm the last person in the world who can say this, but I don't Twitter and don't have or want a Twitter account. Please stop sending invitations to link Twitter accounts. It will not happen. If I do in the future decide to Twitter up, I'll let everyone know. Thanks.

Congratulations to Axel Medellin, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "danger" and its synonyms, or "words of warning." Alex has a gallery of his art that he wants - needs - you to go check out, so what are you waiting for? I'm on my way over now...

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 hidden clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but if you can't spot it feel free to improvise. 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:  permanent damage, vince moore, creator intent

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