Permanent Damage

Wed, July 8th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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A few weeks ago, I once again mocked the now-and-then "Make comics fun again!" movement, invoking again a fistful of angry emails wanting to know what I have against comics being fun anyway? Ignoring the somewhat intentional misphrasing of the argument, let's remember first that "making comics fun again" is the battlecry of the movement that occasionally bubbles up to insist that comics have gotten too serious/violent/mindless/sexual/complicated/(your derogatory and misleading adjective here) and ask that talent and publishers do the responsible thing and abandon disapproved modern elements while returning to halcyon comics of the '60s, '70s, '80s or '90s; it seems to depend on when whoever's speaking started reading comics, making compliance tough even for those publishers and talents who wish to. Not that there aren't plenty of publishers and talents who have their own nostalgic fixations.

The trouble with nostalgia, and especially with impersonating bygone thrills, is that we rarely remember the experience as it was, or even the item, even if that item is sitting right in front of us, as ALL STAR WESTERN #119, until recently the first comic I remembered reading, sits in front of me now. Though it sounds like double-talk, what we remember is our experience of the experience, or the item: not the event itself but our internalized reconstruction of the event, and less well-remembered information associated with the event that nonetheless colors/distorts the memory. I remember the circumstances surrounding that issue of ASW better than I remember the specific content, even looking at it now. My family had about a month earlier moved to a new house, where I'd spend the rest of my childhood, and I was laid up with one of the childhood diseases – measles, mumps, chicken pox – we were then expected to contract for our own good, so immunity would spare us the serious consequences of adult onset. Two or three days into a week's convalescence with irritability as sole entertainment (TVs being too bulky to cart into someone's bedroom and isolation in bed then being considered essential to treatment) my dad walked in with ALL STAR WESTERN to keep me busy.

All that tied into my enjoyment of that issue, and, man, did I enjoy it. But it also made the rest of that week unbearable, as I desperately wanted to get to the store for more comics advertised in that issue.

If sales figures were valid, several hundred thousand people also read that issue. Probably a few thousand have read it since. Among them all, I'd be willing to bet not one single person shares my experience of it, and I don't share theirs. We bring as much meaning to fiction as it brings to us, and this is the core of nostalgia, that cross-pollenation of meanings. To expect anyone else to share that is... let's say myopic... and yet that's what people who want comics to be like the comics they read when comics were fresh and new to them are assuming, whether they admit it, that "kids today" (and somehow it always falls back on kids, the argument going that they don't read comics because comics aren't done "like that" anymore) will love what they loved, though so much is tied up in why they loved it that duplicating their experience is impossible. Yet that's the underlying premise of the argument.

I'm not saying a seven-year old today wouldn't like ALL STAR WESTERN #119. I imagine that would depend on the specific child. I'm just saying there's no reason to expect it. And certainly no reason to expect a comic done in the style of ASW, or any early '60s comic in the Julie Schwartz canon, since the formula was effectively as used in STRANGE ADVENTURES, GREEN LANTERN and REX THE WONDER DOG, adapted to the genre. There's no doubt that the Schwartz style "upped the game" for comics (though there were certainly parallel, and arguably more progressive, stylistic advances made elsewhere, like EC Comics) but there's also little doubt that by 1967, the Schwartz style had hit the outward limit of its possibilities. That amounts to a good long run but time marches ahead, and by 1967 there was so much going on, both in the world at large and stylistically in other comics – undergrounds, Marvels, the comics suddenly popping up in men's magazines – that the Schwartz style simply wasn't built to accommodate.

Again, this is no condemnation of the Schwartz style. Speaking from experience, I can say it's even fun to pastiche. (I did it a couple times in LEGENDS OF THE DC UNIVERSE in the '90s.) But it is of its own time, and this is the critical point: we should be making comics of the time we're in now.

Which, of course, many people are doing. Why aren't they fun? Because for some readers they don't recapture/rekindle the experience reading comics used to be. They shouldn't be expected to, even if they're stories featuring the same characters or something like them. But what makes anyone think the readers currently buying that comic don't think it's fun? They must be getting some thrill out of their purchases, or they wouldn't keep spending their money. The argument goes that we know they're not "fun" because sales are so low, and sales were great when comics were "fun." That's a fine argument if you want to throw out every other factor that has affected the salability of comics over the years and pretend the content is the only important factor. It may not even be in the top five.

It's true we could be producing more comics to draw in kids, as we could be producing more comics to draw in many other audiences, but that's a chicken-and-egg problem that has tormented publishers for years: any product specifically geared toward an audience that does not already exist (and by that I mean in numbers spending enough to make such product financially viable) will lose money for the publisher until some future date when the audience will be established.

Under the current system, odds are fairly good a publisher would go out of business before re-establishing a strong kids market. The best bet would be to go through a major book publisher with product specially stocked and promoted in Youth sections of bookstores, and even that's dodgy, given the current state of bookstores. But those would be books, not comics, and, as I've mentioned before, kids' material faces a double-bind. Whereas comics used to be something tossed at kids to mollify them and no one much paid attention to the content, these days all sorts of groups monitor everything kids come into contact with, and the vast majority of material done for "kids" is really done for those groups. Though material that ignores those groups, like HARRY POTTER and HIS DARK MATERIALS, tends to be a big hit, where pictures – a lot of pictures – are involved, people start paying more attention because with comics perception is immediate. With text there's a cognitive delay, a decoding process. Still, some publishers are producing graphic novels, for want of a better term, specially for kids, but does this make kids more amenable to the standard comic book – if this is the case, why don't newspaper strips make audiences more amenable to the standard comic book? – or are the graphic novels just what they'll remember as "fun comics" twenty or thirty years down the road? Why exactly would their concept of "fun" be the same as someone reading, oh, WARLORD in 1978?

I recently reread Michael Chabon's Eisner acceptance speech of some years back – I don't have access to a copy at the moment and am working from memory, so apologies if I inadvertently misrepresent his views – where he addresses this issue, and concludes that to figure out what kids today think is exciting and interesting and fun, we should remember what we found exciting and interesting and fun in the comics we read when we were their age. He cites reading old comics with his kid and the kid glomming onto those comics in a big way, and I've heard that anecdote before from other, somewhat surprising sources. A renowned "hater" of comics told me a few years ago he and his son were going through the first Marvel ESSENTIAL FANTASTIC FOUR, the early Lee & Kirby stuff, and the kid was eating it up. I'm tempted to think at part of each kid's experience of the material is tied into sharing the experience with their father, as at least part of my appreciation of ALL STAR WESTERN came from the awareness that my father had bought it specifically for me, though it's only recently I've put that together. But that's been one of my longstanding arguments, that the way most kids get into comics is to be exposed to them by a family member or friend.

But Chabon is right. Thinking about what might excite kids now by remembering what excited us at their age is the way to go, if we don't take it literally. Don't fixate too much on content. The Lee-Kirby FFs may still hold up well – I like them a lot better now, but I hated them then – but many comics don't. The big problem of replicating nostalgia is that it's tied to surface elements (we're rarely aware of what we really find affecting about things we like, and aren't until we put some critical examination into it, and most people aren't concerned enough with the question to go that far, they're just happy to have enjoyed it) and the easy availability of much old material makes producing similar new material redundant. I might remember specific characters and stories, or specific writers and artists, but this is what appealed to me about comics when I was a kid:

I liked how they were always in some way surprising, and were a door out of my mundane semi-suburban world. I liked superhero comics of the day especially for how they at least pretended to be taking place in a real world that I could in some way feel part of, though I never for an instant thought if I put on a cape I could fly off a rooftop like Superman or that Spider-Man would ever swing by if I got to Park Avenue. I liked how they were somewhat unsavory, something the many people who'd put themselves in charge of telling me how to behave and what to do wanted nothing to do with. (My dad alone cared not a bit whether I read them, and that was a sort of unspoken bond as well.) The reason I stuck with them is the same reason I stuck with fiction and movies: as long as they were doors to wonders and possibilities, I didn't have to settle for a dull life.

That's what I liked about comics as a kid, and that's what I like about them now. I didn't love them as works of art, though I came to admire the artistry of many of them. I loved them as acts of wildness. People like to refer to comics as "escapist," but I never thought of them as escape. I thought of them as freedom, and still do. We don't need retellings of old comics. We don't need organization and controlled material. We need to dredge the past with a lobster net and steam shovel.

We need to get wild, and wild as these times define it.

But you never know what'll influence you, or how. Writing this, I'm suddenly struck after almost 50 years, by two things I'd completely forgotten. Contrary to what I've remembered all these years, ALL STAR WESTERN #119 was not my first important exposure to comics. It wasn't even the first comic I owned. It was only the first comic Americans thought of as comics in the '60s.

I became bedridden a few weeks after we moved into our new house; that was when my dad brought me ASW. But when we moved into the new house, he and I drove a couple miles to the nearest Rexall drugstore to buy coffee for my parents and the movers. I remember this very clearly because the waitress filled the cups too full, and they leaked on the way home, over the cup rims, though the cardboard cupholder, and all over my lap. It was hot. Not scalding, fortunately, but very hot. By the time we got home, my lap was drenched, and I was in agony. My dad was shocked when he saw it, because I hadn't said a word. But what would have been the point? There was nowhere to stop, we still had to get home. The incident is almost literally burned into my memory.

What I hadn't remembered was the spinner rack, the first I'd ever seen, encased in glass and worked with a dial and change slots that accepted dimes, that the Rexall had at the end of the soda counter. I didn't get anything that day, and don't remember what I saw, but I flipped the dials while my dad waited for coffee. Is that where he got the idea I'd like comic books? Or was it just that he read them himself, including ACTION #1, when he was not much older than I was then? I'll never know.

But rewinding to the Christmas just before that, I now remember receiving a gift from English relatives I've to this day never met, on my mother's side: a thick YOGI BEAR annual, collecting numerous stories of Hanna-Barbara characters (presumably reprinted from American comics). Printed on bright quality paper and bound in slick hard covers.

In short, my first comic was what would now be marketed as a graphic novel. Was I left with that imprinted somewhere in the back of my head all along? Have I just been trying all along, in fits and starts, to get back to that? Maybe there's something to be said for this embracing the past thing after all...

Due to popular demand: 1000 Reviews In 1000 Days has been taken out back and shot through the head. While in general I don't get too many complaints about reviews, it seems many of you would rather I do them when I'm in the mood or have something I want to point up, rather than plow through a set number week in and week out. (Some would rather I ramp up the political discourse again.)

So you win, but I'll make an offer: any comic or graphic novel anyone wants to get my opinion of, drop me a line, and if I have access to it I'll give it the once over. Of course, I still accept review copies at Paper Movies, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, and will try to review whatever's sent me. But a formal weekly review spot in the column is history.

It was getting a bit repetitive, wasn't it? How many different ways are there to say "it's okay, but I won't remember it in the morning"? Not that many, as it turns out...

Mail:

"Those FTC blogger rules are even goofier than you think. Starts out with a definition problem (while "blogger" may have some common usage as amateur writing, the actual definition is anyone who uses a certain class of software for their website and the phrasing suggests the Chicago Tribunes blog-based columnists would be subject to the same heightened regulations), then goes straight into this weird phraseology about people "who you wouldn't expect to get free samples," where you aren't sure who's supposed to be the judge and the example is someone that anyone who spends anytime online would expect to get review copies. As set up, instead of cracking down on payola/unidentified advertorial, they look to be setting up a regulatory caste system on writing. I don't think it's intentional, so much as the people writing the guidelines have no idea how anything really works online.

Write-up w/ the guideline examples pulled here.

It's a real slap in the face to anyone with something approaching expert status in their hobby who writes about it in blog format."

I wouldn't be surprised if it were semi-intentional, someone's idea of "helping" print media take on the big bad Internet. But it wouldn't surprise me at all if whoever's cooking up this half-assed malarkey has not the slightest idea how online works. A lot of groups have advocated a caste system for writers for a long time, though. And somehow they never seem to place themselves anywhere but at the top of the heap. At any rate, this is just one more example of the fairly anarchic social democracy of the Internet scaring the hell out of governments...

"I sympathize on your bemoaning the lack of great TV shows this summer. This is primarily why I've been discovering both BREAKING BAD and THE WIRE via their respective DVD collections.

 

Have you seen BREAKING BAD yet? Phenomenal. If you haven't experienced it yet, get your hands on a copy of the First Season DVD. I guarantee you'll be hooked from the first episode. The 2nd Season just ended on AMC, and I was too late to catch it, so I downloaded each episode from Amazon for 2 bucks apiece. Worth every penny and more. This is probably the best crime show on TV ever, rivaled only by THE WIRE (which I'm sure you're familiar with). BREAKING BAD is (in my humble opinion) even more addictive and satisfying than THE WIRE, though the two shows are extremely different. BREAKING is your "downward spiral" type of crime story...but it's so deep and well-written and well-acted...it's a perfect storm of crime storytelling. Brian Cranston will be sure to win Emmys and Golden Globes for his spectacular performance. With this show, and MAD MEN, AMC is proving to be one of the finest networks in existence when it comes to original series.

 

There's one more show that looks like it may have potential: DARK BLUE premieres on TNT on July 15. Could be a winner, could be a dud. We'll see.

 

Also, have you watched SONS OF ANARCHY on FX? Amazing show, and amazing career-high performances from both Ron Perlman and Katie Sagal. It returns for a 2nd season in September."

Wasn't aware of DARK BLUE, thanks. That based on the Kurt Russell film? Can't agree on BREAKING BAD or SONS OF ANARCHY, though I await the return of MAD MEN; watched BAD for a season and SONS for a couple episodes and found both pretty drab. (For my money, the contenders to THE WIRE are OZ and THE SHIELD, but all are now yesterday's news.) Not saying you shouldn't enjoy them, just that they leave me cold. Sorry about that.

"You're right about ideas and timing. There have been different times when the openness of new ideas were at their apex: the '50s, early '70s ideas from the underground like HIS NAME IS SAVAGE by Gil Kane, the late '70s CEREBUS and ELFQUEST. When I showed a friend of mine who works in the film biz STRANGERS IN PARADISE and some other indie stuff, he replied, "these guys don't take no for an answer." Despite the rough road for alt and indie works, that's still where the hope of the future is. What's left is the mining of Ip from Hollywood. You're probably aware of this event day prior to the con: THE ICv2 COMICS AND MEDIA CONFERENCE."

I wasn't but thanks. Not that there's any way I could attend, but hopefully someone will drop us a short report. Though it's contemporaneous with underground comics, I wouldn't associate SAVAGE... with them – it's a throwback to '50s men's novels in spirit, so not the same zeitgeist – though mainstream comics weren't any happier with it for that. Anyway, I don't have a list but I'd guess more independent/creator owned comics have been or are being made into films at this point than Marvel and DC comics. Hollywood's aware of independents.

Notes from under the floorboards:

14 days to San Diego. I'll see what I can scrounge up for anticipated highlights next week, if the con releases a schedule by then. (Meanwhile, sites all over the Internet are releasing their San Diego schedules. They want people to know.) For some reason this year there's been a flood of people who've decided at the last minute they want to attend, and want to know where they can get tickets. Your choice is pretty much find a loving exhibitor with a spare or stay home.

I just realized today's date is 07-08-09.

DR. WHO spinoff TORCHWOOD returned this week with a five parter shown over five days, and so far it turns out to be excellent. It's helped by several things: a BBC-1 berth and the bigger budget and better production that conveys; the departure of previous showrunner Chris Chibnall, whose overall approach always seemed to be "Of course it's stupid, it's science fiction!"; and a script by series creator Russell Davies, who throws any considerations of "sophisticated adult science fiction" to one side, creatively pilfers from old sf films like INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, and plows headlong into a spy adventure format that finds our heroes under unexpected attack from allies and forced to live by wits and cunning. Which it finally turns out they have. You'd never have guessed it from the Chibnall run, where their main tools seemed to be coincidence and stupidity. Anyway, excitingly paced, and so far so good. Catch it when it airs on BBC America in a couple of weeks.

Not so good is NBC's THE PHILANTHROPIST (Wed 10P), a show I desperately wanted to like, given the involvement of creator Tom Fontana (HOMICIDE; OZ ), James Purefoy (ROME) and Michael K. Williams (THE WIRE's ineffable tweener hero Omar). It's awful. Purefoy plays ultrarich git Teddy Rist, apparently driven by grief over the death of his son to wander off to any corner of the world where uniformed men wave machine guns while suppressing local populations and act like no one's ever going to put a bullet between his eyes. It strains to deal with the complexities of running a multinational corporation in a world where his money helps wicked governments perform bestial acts, but never quite wants to face up to the problem, so Teddy consoles himself with helping one impoverished child each episode (because he can no longer help his son, geddit?) and bedding whatever sexy doctor (lots of female doctors donating their services on this show) is treating them. Meanwhile, Williams, capable of phenomenally complex acting, is mostly stuck wandering six steps behind him, when he's there at all, and scowling at Teddy's antics. He's the world's worst bodyguard, and a complete waste of Williams, who deserves his own show. Meanwhile, Teddy's supposed to be dashing, debonair, sexy and emotionally tormented, but in his behavior and the convenient conclusions he draws, he comes off as a half-wit. (An inadvertently funny bit featured Rist's partner, played by Jesse Martin, fending off a hostile takeover by narrating Rist's latest adventure to his board of directors and convincing them of Rist's wisdom, honesty and dedication with a story that would've had any investor in his right mind selling off shares in bulk.) I admire the intent, but while THE PHILANTHROPIST's heart is in the right place, it's head is up its ass.

This is pretty funny: a concerned Symantec executive is warning that free antivirus programs (including Microsoft's) will leave computers vulnerable to cyberassault. His solution? Buy Symantec antivirus products. I'd consider that a decent solution if a) the free antivirus I use, Avast didn't upgrade sometimes three times a day and at least seem to be working perfectly well (hard to tell for certain until something goes wrong), and b) my computer hadn't either slowed to a crawl or locked up every time I ever installed a Symantec anti-malware program. Maybe they've changed in the last few years, but Symantec used to sum up the problem with most "professional" programs: their programmers liked to assume their program(s) deserved to hog all the resources on a computer, the same way college professors prefer to assume they're the only ones handing out homework.

Speaking of free antivirus programs, I'm surprised so many compupundits were making such a fuss about Microsoft introducing one. They've done it before. Is there any reason to believe this one won't go the way of that one, abruptly vanishing as complaints rise and market share doesn't?

Man, between Michael Jackson and Sarah Palin's crazed political meltdown there's almost too much to discuss this week, or might be if there were anything to be added. Better to shake your head in dumbfounded silence and wait for it to all go away. (But, wow. Frontrunners for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination are dropping like flies. I'm waiting for the revelation that Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney are secretly married to each other at this rate...) Meanwhile, swine flu hysteria is quietly ramping up in government, with talk of forced vaccinations and breaking up public assemblies regularly used in conjunction with "it's completely Constitutional." A paranoid man might see other agendas at work...

Congratulations to David White, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "quarks." (A surprising number of people got that one, and I thought it would be difficult. More column readers must've studied quantum physics in college than I expected.) David wishes to point your attention to "nerd music podcast" Hipster, Please!. Go listen 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 secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, so step on 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.

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