Permanent Damage

Wed, July 22nd, 2009 at 4:00pm PDT | Updated: July 22nd, 2009 at 4:17pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

I should start this out by saying I really love the concept of DC's WEDNESDAY COMICS. It looks great, one of the prettiest books DC has put out in years and they've put out some very good looking ones lately. It's a clever package, with a wide and tasty array of styles that even seem to have been thought through – doing TEEN TITANS in what's basically the style of their cartoon show, for instance, since though the show's long cancelled but still airing most of those who come new to a TEEN TITANS comic will come to it from TEEN TITANS GO! - instead of the standard mainstream comics practice of shoving whatever needs drawing at whoever's available in the minute. The "forward-looking throwback" format – a page a week ala 1930s Sunday pages – makes interesting use of the weekly comic book that DC has been experimenting with for the past few years.

Intelligently, it also mostly divorces the material from DC continuity, except in the broadest of strokes, without resorting (near as I can tell) to the "Elseworlds" scam, while not taking most character out of continuity; only The Flash strip(s) are throwbacks to other ages. I don't know that I'd call any of the material brilliant or especially innovative, but the one page per week format isn't really geared toward that. (The assessment may change as pages accumulate.) And there are some very odd choices – a Demon/Catwoman team-up? A Hawkman strip narrated by birds? - but odd is good, and WEDNESDAY COMICS pulls off the neat trick of being both very uniform – there's an unquestionable corporate identity running through all the work, and I don't mean that negatively; anyone reading WEDNESDAY COMICS will come away with a strong sense of what DC wants them to think DC is about – and very idiosyncratic.

It also encapsulates most of the challenges to mainstream comics today.

The first question that pops to mind is: who's the audience for this series supposed to be? From what I understand, WEDNESDAY COMICS is intended to be something of a sampler, for casual buyers, to introduce them to the breadth and width of what DC has to offer. If that's the case, it's a failure – a glorious failure, but a failure nonetheless - on several levels.

Not that it doesn't offer a lot - Deadman, Neil Gaiman and Michael Allred producing a comedy version of Metamorpho reminiscent of Alan Moore's Tom Strong stories, Joe Kubert drawing Sgt. Rock – or that its failures are specifically DC's. But it's hard to hear about any effort to "reach the masses" and not ask: how?

This is a problem that has dogged particularly DC since at least 1986's ANGEL LOVE, a romance comic, much closer to SEX IN THE CITY than to SECRET HEARTS, targeting a young, hip female audience. I'm told by disinterested parties in the book trade it was nearly perfect for the market it was aimed at. (I didn't much like it, but I'm not a member of the intended audience.) It lasted eight issues and died pitifully, with most of its potential audience completely unaware of its existence. The outlets where it would have done best never saw it because by that time all comics were marketed almost solely through comics shops, and comics shops weren't frequented by the ANGEL LOVE audience.

Despite the favored TV stereotype pioneered by THE SIMPSONS, many comics shops that survived the devastation of the last decade and a half have evolved beyond the boys clubs of the '80s to become something closer to traditional bookstores, but there's still something of a stigma attached to them. I know WEDNESDAY COMICS are sold in comics shops, but where else has DC stocked them? Is there a point in producing material designed to entice new audiences in when they're only sold in outlets where new audiences don't go? It's a chicken and egg thing, which comics publishers have used for years to argue against even attempting to build wider audiences (so commend DC for that, at least) but the only solution to a chicken-and-egg situation – in this case, the material has to be there to attract an audience and the audience has to already exist to make the material viable long enough to attract an audience – is to change the metaphor. Having tires or a steering wheel on a car simply isn't viable under any circumstances; you need tires and a steering wheel. More that that, you need engine, exhaust system, fuel and other elements. Any one missing and the car won't work, or won't last long.

There are basically two ways to bring an audience together with a product: either put the product inescapably in front of them or given them sufficient reason to go out of their way to find it. In either case, what comics are really horrible at is the illusion of indispensability. You can argue that comics will never be viewed as indispensable (meaning something people will be willing to spend their money on) and certainly it's an uphill battle, but there are tons of dispensable things with zero inherent value that people rush out to buy. Where are the salesmen? Where's the Billy Mays of comics?

There's no doubt that graphic novels have been expanding (at what rate, no one's yet sure) an adult market for comics material, and it's obvious from its choices that WEDNESDAY COMICS targets that more sophisticated market. But there's an insider whimsy to the WEDNESDAY COMICS format that might not translate well, even if graphic novel audiences accept Superman comics as suitably sophisticated. To the extent readers are familiar with graphic novels, would the single page per week format entice them? To the extent they know comics as presented on the standard newspaper comics page, how much general appeal does the 1937 FLASH GORDON Sunday page format have?

Doubtless many existing superhero fans will buy the series – no doubt retailers and DC are depending on it – and even the shrunken ranks of art fans may be lured back. But consider (and this may be the greatest weakness of WEDNESDAY COMICS): let's say the desired occurs and casual audiences buy the series. (The price point's another issue; will anyone not intimately familiar with comics' economic situation view ~18 pages of material for $4 anything but askance? But that's also an issue for the whole business, not simply DC.) For superhero comics, the work is generally very good, some of it excellent. But where do new WEDNESDAY COMICS fans go next? Will anyone intrigued by, say, the Flash or Green Lantern strips find anything remotely similar, besides the costumes, in THE FLASH - REBIRTH or BLACKEST NIGHT? Theoretically, WEDNESDAY COMICS should be making more than just WEDNESDAY COMICS fans. It should be making DC fans, or what's the point in exposing them to a host of DC characters? But DC's superhero comics don't publish any material like you find in WEDNESDAY COMICS! Innovative concept aside, and the deserved pride of producing it, what long term benefit does the project even bring the company?

Like I said, this isn't exactly DC's problem, though WEDNESDAY COMICS makes a good case in point. It's the problem of mainstream comics. I wish DC all the luck in the world with WEDNESDAY COMICS. It beautifully addresses a number of problems that have haunted comics in the direct sales era, but the problems it doesn't address are the ones that we most desperately need to.

My San Diego Con signing schedule so far, for those who care:

Thursday July 23
Image/12 Gauge, booth 2045 11A-12P
AiT/PlanetLar, booth 2001 4P-5P

Friday July 24
AiT/PlanetLar, booth 2001 11A-12P
Image/12 Gauge, booth 2045 12P-1P
Shocker Toys/Captain Action, booth 38493P-4P

Saturday July 25
AiT/PlanetLar, booth 2001 4P-5P
Image/12 Gauge, booth 2045 5P-6P

Sunday July 26
Image/12 Gauge, booth 2045 1P-2P

Other signings with other publishers may be set up on the spot, but those are the known signings going in, so now you have no excuse. Stop by and say hi.

If you can't be at San Diego, odds are pretty good I'll be at APE this year, courtesy of Big Head Press, to promote the book publication of ODYSSEUS THE REBEL. But I'm not promising anything, yet.

Back in the real world, all kinds of interesting and bizarre things seem to be going on. The new swine flu continues to generate urgency and panic, mostly among governments and news agencies, with several European and American state governments gearing up for mandatory vaccinations (for anyone who doesn't voluntarily get one, of course, so they can maintain the illusion that vaccinations are voluntary), and various members of the federal government have been putting forth the idea that mandatory vaccine shots are entirely Constitutional, suggesting the Feds are considering it as well. Meanwhile, the virus seems not to be cooperating very well in the production of sufficient volume of vaccine (everyone needs two shots, apparently), and levels aren't rising fast enough for interested parties' tastes. There's also much talk of bypassing FDA testing and approval procedures – emergency, you know – to speed delivery, while exempting vaccine manufacturers from lawsuit in the event vaccines. (There are several different ones being made by different companies, all of them qualifying as experimental at best.) While such exemptions are fairly standard, historically swine flu vaccines have done more harm than good, as in 1976, when public outcry forced the government to abandon vaccinations after deaths and the paralyzing Guillain-Barré syndrome were connected to the vaccinations.

That year swine flu came and went without much widespread effect.

What makes this year's version interesting isn't so much the flu itself – the deaths associated with it so far appear to only result in people with already seriously compromised immune systems, meaning that in symptom and effect it's pretty much like any other flu – but that the promotion of a vaccine has followed almost exactly on the 1976 script, with dire warnings that, after a very mild spring and summer as far as flu cases go, it will mutate and return with a vengeance in the fall. But why are they so sure it will mutate, and if it does, why so sure it'll mutate into a devastating variety? A slew of contradictory messages from the World Health Organization hasn't helped much. News that they're "tweaking" the virus, ostensibly to help antivirus manufacture, comes on the heels of news they're investigating reports the flu is man-made, in labs in, of all places, my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where samples of the horrific 1918 Spanish flu drawn a couple years ago from a frozen Inuit corpse of that era have been experimented with. (A genetic similarity of the "Mexican" flu, as it's called in Europe, to the Spanish flu is the legitimate concern in all this.) Meanwhile, WHO also quietly (or, rather, barely) announced they will no longer tally swine flu-related deaths. No reason was given, but the implication is clear: there aren't enough deaths to support the hysteria campaigns surrounding the flu.

But in England, at least, flu fever rages on, as it was revealed that Tony Blair's wife contracted the dastardly bug. The message spread far and wide by Britain's media was that even the families of the famous and powerful are not safe from the bug. (This itself was strangely parallel to a nasty plot twist in the TORCHWOOD: CHILDREN OF EARTH mini-series now running on BBC America.) What was severely downplayed in the reports was her relatively mild incapacitation – was there ever a moment when she seemed anywhere near death? – and that neither Tony nor their children (so far) contracted the flu. So how contagious is it, really?

That this should come at a moment when other European nations are facing their own populace resistance to immunizations and when Blair is openly politicking with the EU to effectively become president of Europe makes for... interesting timing.

Thrown into this mish-mash is Goldman-Sachs, the brokerage firm that recently infuriated the nation by posting massive profits and huge bonuses for their latest quarter after cheerfully soaking up billions in government aid after pleading impending financial disaster following last year's sub-prime crash and its fallout. (Goldman-Sachs' involvement in, and capitalization via, cycles of bubble, boom & bust were outlined in a recent ROLLING STONE article that's worth a read.) Hidden for most amid all that outrage is that Goldman-Sachs is suing a former employee who allegedly stole proprietary software that a judge declared can be used to manipulate the entire market.

Aside from its status as an old and venerated investment firm with strong ties to the government (not to mention the Russians), what guarantee do we have that Goldman-Sachs hasn't been using their software to manipulate the stock market? Would they have developed this software without intent to use it? Considering the profits they seem to have cobbled together while all around them in investments are holding on for dear life. We can "blame" everything on the free market, but manipulation and free market forces are often hard to distinguish in the moment, as in the 2002 California energy crisis (from which the West has never really recovered – its effects went well beyond California – and which greatly contributed to California's current economic crisis) that was originally chalked up to "market forces" but turned out to be the work of an energy cartel rigging prices.

What ties all this together is a meme that I ran across four times while flipping channels in the last week. (Sorry, they came and went too fast to have noted references.) Russia's President Medvedev, talking to member of the EU, brought up the possibility of a world government. Discussing last October's financial collapse and the ongoing international financial crisis, a financial guru on CNBC announced another, worse financial crisis will hit within six months (he didn't specify its nature) and the only way to deal with or prevent these financial crises is a single world government – he called it crucial and necessary - with the power to control all currencies and regulate all financial transactions. A health official (not sure if he was CDC or some other organization) suggested that the current swine flu may only be the first of many "superbugs" facing us in this century and that the most effective way to deal with the impending threat is a world government that can act unilaterally to combat them. Someone promoting Al Gore's global warming agenda (which has been taking some pretty severe hits lately, seemingly making many who've warmed to Gore's ideas even more determined to enact a sweeping anti-global warming program ASAP) was lauding the virtues of the "carbon credits" idea being shoved through Congress at the moment and stated the best way to ensure carbon credits were being traded fairly (though, it should be mentioned, Gore owns the trading system and would personally profit on every trade) and keep it from becoming another bubble/bust in the making is – say it with me now – a world government overseeing the whole thing.

I'm not exactly a John Bircher, but when the same thing is mentioned in this many different contexts in such a short space of time, something's in the air, or something's in the water. What gives? The wider context most of them share is the concept of imminent and critical necessity - the same premise for the Iraq War, and while I'm generally in line with global warning crew some of them are getting pretty damn scary in a Robespierre kind of way. Anyway, in the midst of all this, it suddenly came to me what Al Gore really wants with this whole carbon credits sideshow. (The basic translation of carbon credits: you can still pollute and burn energy as much as you want, as long as you buy someone off.)

He wants to be the first President Of Earth. (Take that, land that robbed him of his triumph in 2000!)

These are the questions I'd like answered: why is everyone talking one-world government in passing all of a sudden? Why is that suddenly supposed to be the answer to all crises? Should we ever make decisions based on crisis necessity, since the tools clearly exist to generate any crisis necessary, whether political, economic, environmental or medical? And if Blair, Gore & Medvedev duke it out to be first president of the world, can we make it a cage match?

(Note: No Fox News program, personality or source was consulted in the writing of this piece.)

Notes from under the floorboards:

For those who can't be there, check Comic Book Resources daily for Comic-Con news, revelations and interviews. Jonah Weiland's got his crack staff down there and he rents a boat so celebrities can get away from the hustle and bustle and have their brains picked pleasantly. Result: the unexpected! Maybe I'll even pop through once or twice...

For those who were wondering about the banks that received federal money so they could jumpstart the economy by making loans again, The Washington Post reports that for most banks loans were the last thing on their minds and the money went into investing, snatching up weaker banks or debt repayment instead.

Speaking of shielding from lawsuits, if you've gotten a passport lately you know the feds now want RFID chips in passports to make holder identification easier. (The same technology's being used in new driver's licenses here and there.) Turns out the chips leak. They leak data. They leak your data. So, basically, authorities can bust you for not using the chip, if you use the chip you're vulnerable to identity theft (because the "protective sleeves" they give you don't work, and if your identity gets stolen the government denies any culpability. Not to mention tech has already been developed that will make the chips trackable from considerable distances, like space, despite the gov't insisting that isn't so. Does anyone really feel safer due to all this?

Great little article about the recording industry testifying that new technologies should not be covered by copyright and that new technologies only enhance the profile and marketability of songwriters and performers by radically expanding availability of their music, and restricting availability via new technologies would only hurt those artists. Of course, this amazing turnaround for the recording industry happened 100 years ago, during arguments over the 1909 Copyright Act, when music publishers were the "old" technology and records the "new." (Or, as recording artist Phil Ochs once put it, "I know that you were younger once, 'cause you sure are older now.")

Seems Italy's looking to set a new standard for the Internet: any material that anyone claims is defamatory must be removed, or heavy fines will be imposed. Not sure if they mean on any site anywhere or only within Italy's boundaries, but they do mean that Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi wouldn't have to prove he's not a whoring neo-Fascist if I called him one or prove that characterization is defamatory and not factual, he'd only have to say it was. In fact, validity of the claims seems not to be an issue at all, only that seen, presumably by the defamed party, to be defamatory. Italian bloggers reportedly see this as the government attempting to regain control of the news, since most "official" news outlets in Italy are government-connected anyway. (Berlusconi owns a lot of media himself.) As far as I can tell, the proposed Italian law applies only to the Internet, not to now-traditional media.

Congratulations to longtime reader Nicolas Judza, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "captain." (America, Atom, Midnight, 3D, Marvel, Planet, Universe.) Unfortunately, Nicolas didn't suggest a site, so that falls to the runner-up, Garth Gersten, who wishes to point your attention to "an eclectic look at books" at Reading The Leaves. Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but this week it's so clever you could cut the tension with a knife. 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, wednesday comics, dc comics

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