Permanent Damage

Wed, July 15th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: July 16th, 2009 at 4:33pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

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The last few years I've thought of this as an odd phenomenon, but suppose, since it has not occurred for several years straight and shows no indications of abating, that I should start thinking of it as the new state of things: from July 4th through the third week of the month or so, it's hard to open a website, a newspaper or a magazine, or turn on the TV, without running across some reference to Comic-Con International.

Some see this as vindication, some as tragedy. It's probably neither. It's true that to some extent it represents the ascension of everything "we" were mocked for in high school, and to some extent it represents the colonization of the subculture by Hollywood and other "outsiders." Certainly the exhibits floor in the San Diego convention center has been colonized by a variety of film companies, TV networks, toy companies, game companies, videogame companies and other enterprises having much less to do with comics (I always wonder when ministries will try to set up shop there), and colonized literally; many media companies now buy the same floor space year after year, as major comics companies (and smaller ones like AiT/PlanetLar, always found in booth 2001) have for ages. And why not? It's not like the con floor hasn't always been a shill palace, and it's not any more or less friendly than it ever was, though some things, like autograph hunting, have gotten marginally more formal. Artists Alley still runs pretty much the way it always did, albeit, after a several-years lull, with more people, while the longtime favorite activity of trying to break into the business by pitching to editors has... well, it's just not conducive anymore. But that's less the fault of Comic-Con and more of how the business works these days. In the last 30 years the comics business has become much more formal itself.

And I can understand where the general mood of some longtime attendees might have soured. There was a time when it was ridiculously easy to get a hotel room within easy walking distance of the con (nowadays, with some 120,000+ daily attendees and an estimated 54,000 hotel rooms available in the county, attendees might not even be about to stay in the same country - a story a couple years back had Sony executives who decided at the eleventh hour to attend forced to bunk in Tijuana for lack of rooms, so it affects everyone – but this year the Con's hotel booking service seems to have pulled it out, making two "primetimes" for booking, one on opening day when everything goes crazy and one the week in July before credit cards are charged a deposit, when everyone who double/triple/quadruple-booked rooms dump their spares and open up some prime real estate) and parties, if not necessarily open to all, were more freewheeling affairs instead of bouncer-ridden affairs apparently designed to separate the cool kids from the hoi polloi, and you could sometimes get a word in edgewise with a "star." But look at the numbers: no party (except maybe the annual Thursday night Boom! drinkup at the Hyatt Grand Lobby Bar, where members of the Boom! staff present the illusion of "sponsoring" a congregation that congregates and buys their own there anyway) can accommodate possibly tens of thousands of guests.

Most people connected to comics have a longstanding sense of having the field to the themselves, that little piece of territory the "cool kids" couldn't touch. (This fits into the "high school" mentality frequently foisted on Americans, the feeling that, as Bowling For Soup sang, high school never ends. Many people have this mythical high school in our heads filled with cliques and pecking orders – Hollywood's in love with it, as evidenced by hundreds of crappy teen movies and TV shows like CBS' latest BIG BROTHER series, dividing contestants into jock, "brain," popular and "weird" groups in imitation of supposed high school power structures, but I'd be curious to know how commonplace it really is. I sure wasn't in the jock or popular groups in my high school, but I don't recall ever being harassed or intimidated by any of them. Of course, it was a day when the "freaks" were in the ascendancy, and if the jocks didn't secretly long to be more like us they were at least aware they needed to get their pot somewhere.) I can understand the feeling left out of your own party, but what a lot of comics people don't get is that San Diego is no longer a quirk for Hollywood. Hollywood needs San Diego. Maybe needs it now more than the comics business does.

It used to be a working vacation, a place where producers might wander around looking for possible projects. Not too long ago, it started getting a reputation as Sundance South. The Sundance Film Festival, set up years ago by Robert Redford in Sundance UT partly as a way to bolster the town's economy (he lives in the area) and partly as a venue for independent filmmakers to show their creations, was for a long time a little side trip for the film world. At some point, it became a place for producers and studios to trawl for "the next big thing," as Hollywood steered slightly away from blockbusters and toward "human interest" or "smaller" (=less expensive to produce) pictures, and then anyone who was anyone was more or less required to show up at Sundance. The scene changed considerably when Bob & Harvey Weinstein, at Disney subsidiary Miramax, made independent film profitable for Hollywood, and over the last decade Sundance has been less and less about independent creators making independent films and more about Hollywood wannabes making Hollywood's idea of independent films.

As a creative outlet, Sundance isn't what it was, though it's likely to be a winter rendezvous for a lot of Hollywooders for awhile yet, but this year, for the first time, there was virtually no buzz out of Sundance. It now seems almost irrelevant to the film industry, probably due to the recent commercial failure of most "human interest" and "independent" films. (You may have read that even Steven Spielberg and Brad Pitt - together - recently found it impossible to sell a "human interest" film. Hollywood hasn't had much faith in them since 1977 or so to start with.)

San Diego is no longer "Sundance South" because Sundance is no longer relevant. (Hopefully less Hollywood scrutiny will allow it to once again become a venue for genuinely independent film.) It may be San Diego is now America's premier "film festival," precisely because the audience isn't perceived as the JULIE & JULIA audience – the type film festivals usually target – but an audience keen on exactly the sort of film, action/adventure blockbusters, that studios perceive as their bread and butter. 120,000 fans, whether comics or media fans, are now too important a bloc to ignore. San Diego is an early litmus test of product, and the sort of buzz generator that marketing departments kill for. (Despite a good trailer, it's hard to imagine IRON MAN, hardly a household name as superheroes go, getting as much traction as it got without great buzz from San Diego greasing the wheels well in advance.) San Diego used to be a convention where comics fans and the comics industry could go and feel good about themselves. Now (in collaboration with increasing numbers of media producers and executives who rose from their ranks) San Diego gives them the opportunity to be tastemakers.

So for comics the question is less how do we stop Hollywood from "taking over" the con, and more how do we capitalize on the incredible opportunities it now presents? The difference between Hollywood and the comics industry in relation to San Diego is that Hollywood views it as a business venture, a marketing opportunity, and the comics business regards it as a meet'n'greet, a vacation you can claim as a legitimate write-off on your taxes, as in the days when the business was largely based in Manhattan, a condition that hasn't held for a long time now. If San Diego is now viewed as critical by the film and TV industries, and to a growing extent the book industry, how is it viewed by us?

For all the crabbing about comics getting short shrift at San Diego, which is probably only true by proportion if true at all, those companies that sell at Comic-Con have largely noted a rise in sales over the past few years. Yet, as marketing to the direct market has mostly consisted of sending out a press release to a handful of websites and putting a listing in PREVIEWS, comics marketing at Comic-Con has largely consisted of sticking product on a table and hoping someone passing by pays attention. If Comic-Con represents an opportunity to have possibly 120,000 people see your product, how successfully are companies and talent taking advantage of that opportunity?

Comics artist Charles Yoakam recently suggested a small comics-focused con run parallel to Comic-Con, at the same time in some venue like a hotel ballroom (assuming the deal between the Con and the city doesn't preclude it). It's an idea that worked well for Slamdance, running parallel to Sundance to screen "true" independent film, and while Comic-Con International might be cool to the idea, it might be worth a try. If a significant number of those who are predominantly comics fans are really overwhelmed by the "medianess" of the new San Diego and seek a comics-centric outlet. As far as I've been able to tell, they aren't, and don't. Big San Diego may be, overwhelming it may be, but, man, for comics and media fans it's the biggest show on earth. If comics feel less and less central to the show, who's fault is that?

Forget what the comics world wants San Diego to be. The fact is, whatever our smudged feelings, comics is and will always be the heart of the San Diego Con, because without that audience, that market, it's useless to anyone else. Especially Hollywood. Hollywood knows what it needs San Diego to be, and for them that's what it is. What does the comics business need San Diego to be now (and fun as it might be, it doesn't need it to be 20 years ago) and what are we willing to do to make it that?

Notes from under the floorboards:

You've probably read this elsewhere, but just in case: longtime comics writer John Ostrander, of GRIMJACK, SUICIDE SQUAD, THE SPECTRE and a million others fame, is undergoing extensive, expensive glaucoma surgery to avoid going blind. If you're one of those happy chappies who thinks health care in America is just the gosh darned best you'll ever find anywhere, consider this: John is no indigent, and forks over a small fortune for what's laughingly called individual health insurance in this country. Insurance companies hate individual accounts and make it ludicrously expensive, but even with all John has ponied up over the years, his insurance still doesn't cover a sizable chunk of the costs of surgery and treatment. A fund to pay the remainder of John's bill has been set up at Comix 4 Sight, and they'll be having an auction at Wizardworld Chicago (Aug. 6-9) to raise funds as well. Please check the website for details on how you can donate or bid. I'm told all funds over what's needed for John's medical bills will be transferred to Hero Initiative, to aid other charitable causes.

A short column this week, as assignments and an impending week in San Diego's Gaslamp District make time a bit tight. Sorry about that.

It's San Diego time, so of course the stories are flying again that other venues, like Anaheim, Los Angeles and Las Vegas are headhunting the Con, to transfer what probably pumps a decent amount into the San Diego economy every July to their cities. A chart comparing San Diego with its three main rivals can be found here. The comparisons are interesting. All three have more hotel rooms generally available than San Diego, but the L.A. convention center is nowhere near most Los Angeles hotels, Anaheim hotels and motels are almost universally crappy and attendees would be fighting with Disneyland visitors for rooms on top of it, and Las Vegas rooms are mostly in casinos, making my hometown not exactly the most family-friendly venue in the world. (Not to mention it's a miserable 110 degrees during the day here this week, and next week looks to be the same or slightly worse, as July always is here... a far cry from San Diego's usually comfortable ocean-fed weather.) Either the Los Angeles price is wrong or they really want conventions, and Las Vegas' is ridiculously expensive, but there's more capacity in either than in San Diego, while Anaheim allows about 25% less, so that would see to put it out of the running. San Diego also charges attendees lower taxes than the alternatives. The short summary: much of Comic-Con International's charm is San Diego, they'd be idiots to move it, and it's safe to assume these periodic reports are bargaining chips in Con negotiations with the city.

A few TV notes: last week's TORCHWOOD extravaganza prompted me to catch up with a couple recent American science fiction efforts. Fox burned off BATTLESTAR GALACTICA creator Ronald Moore's VIRTUALITY pilot with a screening a couple weeks ago. I was of the impression it had been picked up, but fate smiled on us: it was bad. Very bad. Not that I minded the story; it was, um, virtually what I'd expected the climax to BG to be, people experiencing virtual reality during an extended space flight. (The American version of LIFE ON MARS also used this ending to explain its storyline away.) But the characters were non-existent, showing traces, but only traces, of humanity only after unexpected violence starts popping up in the virtual worlds they go relax in. Moore tosses in lots of other ideas – impending global extinction, space travel as a reality show – but when anyone finally gets around to doing anything, almost an hour and a half in, it's something really stupid: crewmembers "tease" their captain by trapping him in an airlock without a helmet. It's supposed to be cute, but comes off as borderline criminally insane. Then a cliffhanger stolen from Philip K. Dick – "He had never seen Joe Chip money before." – is slapped on as a hook, but by then the whole thing is hopelessly adrift.

Marginally better was the pilot for Syfy's new series WAREHOUSE 13, which seems to have been sold on the hook of being about that big government warehouse the Ark Of The Covenant ends up in at the end of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. That's about the general level of imagination, and interest. Its another one of those quirky dramedys Syfy and its sister network USA are all hot for now, tossing in the team from BONES in place of Scully & Muldar as a couple of secret service agents get shanghaied into tracking down powerful oddball artifacts, while Saul Rubinek provides the only signs of life as an over-the-top quasi-mad scientist warehouse curator. There are all sorts of gobbledygook "scientific" explanations, because they're all about science fiction at Syfy, for how seemingly occult objects, like Lucretia Borgia's insanity inducing comb (you heard me), function, but they're clearly hoping no one's paying close attention. They needn't have worried. While it looks like Syfy's putting a little cash into production values for a change – a producer friend sold a show to Syfy a couple years back (it was never produced; they abruptly decided to change the entire concept on him and he walked off the project) and when he first told me about it, my response was, "Wow, there's a $1.67 in your pocket you didn't have yesterday" – the big climax, essentially a possessed spinster magically mind-controlling a college campus, looked like a high school production of BELL, BOOK & CANDLE. As pure dumb entertainment, WAREHOUSE 13 is a perfectly passable time-waster, or at least no less passable than most time-waster TV shows, but it's hard to imagine anyone would even remember to turn it on.

Finally, Thomas Jane, Marvel Productions' PUNISHER of choice a couple films back (the one whose DVD I'm on), has a new HBO show, with the presumably creepy premise of a down on his luck Michigan schoolteacher with enormous genitalia who decides to cash in on his "talent" as a gigolo. I was set to hate it – let's face it, it sounds awful – but the pilot turned out to be pretty good. They took the time to establish his situation and personality, his despair, determination and credibility without overplaying any of it (except I find it difficult to believe anyone with two gray cells to rub together would hook up the wiring nightmare that triggers a pivotal fire; Jane's character comes over as dead-ended very well, but there's no other moment when he appears to be a total idiot); except for an obnoxiously clichéd mother-in-law, the acting is nicely toned; and dialogue is frequently very clever. The sex angle may be the tease, but the characters turn out to be the real hook. Worth a look.

You'll want to download THE UNCLASSIFIED REPORT ON THE PRESIDENT'S SURVEILLANCE PROGRAM, believe me. It's a fairly short read, a summary of a number of intelligence community summaries of the Bush II White House's domestic surveillance (that is, wiretapping) activities, and how they went about justifying them. It's practically a microcosm of Bush II White House process; they cherry-picked legal opinions until someone gave them authorization, as Cheney ordered agency to lie to Congress about the scope of the surveillance. Don't miss it.

Congratulations to Brian Carroll, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "bugs." (Many guessed "insects," but that didn't wash as it didn't cover all the covers; while all insects are bugs, not all bugs are insects.) Brian wishes to point your attention to his own blog Brian & The Biz, where he also discusses all things comics. 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. I suppose this week I should cleverly hide a secret clue somewhere in the column, but I wouldn't want to pull rank on you. 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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