Permanent Damage

Wed, October 21st, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: October 21st, 2009 at 11:25pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist
0

Spent the weekend at APE in San Francisco, courtesy of Big Head Press, and, miraculously, there was no corresponding alien invasion during that time. (Context: in 1991, I flew to Wisconsin for my father's funeral, and the USA invaded Kuwait. In 1996, I flew to WonderCon, and while I was there, the Oklahoma City federal building was bombed. In 2001, I drove to Los Angeles for a week of film meetings, and woke the next morning to find idiots had flown jumbo jets through the World Trade Center. I figured with the way things had gone, alien invasion would be next.) Turned out to be a fun little show. Lots of small perks, like catching up with my old pal Paul McEnery on Friday night and learning of his exciting, mad new ventures; making the acquaintance of web cartoonists Kate Beaton and Dylan Meconis; chatting with Brent Anderson, Alex Sheikman, and a ton of fans in the sort of relaxed atmosphere San Diego no longer affords. Ate at a terrific little restaurant, Triptych that deserves a hell of a lot more diners than it had and served, among other things, caramelized pears worth killing for. (Exhaustion clipped my Saturday night short, alas, but I gather Isotope Comics had quite the little dust-up that night as well.)

Comics pros and fans like to bitch about San Diego now and wax nostalgic about the way it used to be. APE is the way it used to be, and the way many small conventions are now: one moderately sized room, a handful of guests and panel discussions, lots of little tables selling odd items. To a large extent, APE is a local con; there didn't seem to be a lot of out-of-towners in attendance, except behind the tables. San Francisco (clearly hit hard in the recession, if the number of closed restaurants and locked up buildings around my motel indicate anyway) strikes me as both a good and bad place for it, good because there seems at least some local clientele for quirky independent comics, bad because the town and vicinity already has at least two comics shops, Brian Hibbs' Comix Experience and James "Ron Post" Sime's Isotope Comics that already cater to that market. Not sure how to address things any differently, though; a locale that didn't already cater in some form to that market likely wouldn't have a market big enough to support a con. The venue was a converted, nicely (and naturally!) ventilated warehouse that provided a lot of space in not necessarily the best configuration; many exhibitors were relegated to balconies running alongside the main floor, and for the most part could only watch as most attendees gathered below. (It might be in the con's interests to find the same square footage in a venue where it's all on one floor.) On the main floor, vendors seemed to do fairly well; by Sunday afternoon, the Fantagraphics booth appeared to have sold out most of its stock, and the Beaton-Meconis booth was always awash in fans. I didn't get much chance to focus on how other booths were doing, as I spent most of my time signing the paperback release of ODYSSEUS THE REBEL at the Big Head booth, where we did a nice little trade in them. I discovered a couple things: there are a lot more amateur ODYSSEY scholars out there than I imagined, and the majority of our buyers were women. No idea why. (The phenomenon did prompt me to tell my artist, Scott Bieser, "Chicks dig it, man!")

I noticed something else I hadn't expected. As the name suggests, APE celebrates "alternative" comics, however broadly defined that term is. Webcomics, mini-comics, self-published, independent press, underground and pseudo-underground. There were even a few superhero and horror comics in the mix. Viz had a small booth there. So basically, we can say "alternative" means "not one of the Diamond axis powers." But each of the publishers represented, self and otherwise, is effectively an island, disconnected to any others save by a loose, probably occasional camaraderie. On the one hand, this is admirable; on the other, it cuts the odds on any of them being financially viable. (I'd say "commercially" viable, but that's a more loaded word, and many independent voices pride themselves on their "non-commerciality," but it's all commerce, and commerce is what you make it.) Alternative comics need proprietary distribution and outlets of some sort, like underground comix had, to expand their market and their audience. Things like APE are good, but they're very limited solutions.

I also noticed that a sizable number of tables didn't sell or promote comics at all. They sold merchandise: t-shirts, buttons, mugs, bags, other clothing. Not character-related, for the most part, just design related. This wasn't a scientific survey, but, in my observation, if there was a stall selling merchandise and tables on either side of it selling comics, the merchandise table would do most of the business. So I have a hypothesis: people find it easier to invest in merchandise featuring characters they don't know than in a book featuring characters they don't know, even if the latter costs less. (As someone said, APE is the sort of con where attendees come with $10, spend $5 to get in and try to stretch the other $5 as far as possible.) This isn't surprising; books require more emotional investment than a t-shirt does, while a t-shirt has a function separate from content.

But it suggests alt publishers will find merchandise (all other things being equal, like design and price point) the difference between life and death, and may even raise comics sales by making the characters more familiar and comfortable. A few years ago, one of my friends dabbled in publishing by releasing an original graphic novel at San Diego. Knowing an unknown book was a tough sell, he made up t-shirts, just the book's logo on the shirt, was a premium: the first 50 buyers got a free t-shirt when they bought a graphic novel. A curious thing happened: people kept asking how much the shirt was, and were willing to pay up to $20 for it. The graphic novel only cost $12, but when told they could only get the shirt with the purchase of a graphic novel, they lost interest. As it turned out, the t-shirt didn't add much overhead to the package, and while he didn't make as much, my friend didn't lose money giving one away with the other.

It seemed to me he had just chosen the wrong business model. Since the t-shirts could be sold for more than the graphic novel, and more people wanted the shirt than the book, he should have flip-flopped the package and given away a free graphic novel with every purchase of a t-shirt. One of two things would have happened: people would've been delighted to get a free book to go with their shirt, or they'd have only bought the shirt and refused the book. In both cases he'd have made more money selling the t-shirt instead of the book.

This is something indie and alt publishers alike should consider, in a market increasingly hostile to the unfamiliar. Obviously, almost no one involved in indie/alt press wants only to sell things, and likely not many think of comics only as products. People do comics at that level not because they want to make a lot of money (though I'm sure no one's opposed to making a lot of money at it), but for expression and communication. Merchandise doesn't change that. A quick scan of buying habits at APE indicates that even the most genius alt material could use a hook, something to lure audiences in. It's most ego-satisfying if the material is the hook – everyone wants to believe their work is so appealing audiences will flock to it as a condition of existence, but that's almost never the case; I joked to someone at APE that what I really love about comics is that everyone in the field but me thinks they're a genius, and I don't have to think I'm a genius because I know I'm a genius – but, really, what does it matter what the hook is, as long as it creates interest, and preferably work-sustaining revenue? That's the real challenge for alt/indie comics, not expression – hell, any 10 year old can express themselves – but survival. APE helps, but it's up to alt talents to help themselves.

In my haste last week I forgot to mention new "guidelines" from the Federal Trade Commission demanding, basically, that anyone reviewing anything in an Internet blog reveal whether they receive complementary copies of whatever's being reviewed.

There's a functional reason for this: if I say, for instance, that COUPLES RETREAT is the funniest damn movie ever filmed and you're in for a rollicking evening of hilarity guaranteed to end in casual sex if you fork over the price of a couple of admissions, you're probably entitled to know whether Vince Vaughn dropped a few grand in my Swiss bank account or will have a swimming pool installed in my back yard in exchange for raving up the film. (I haven't seen COUPLES RETREAT, by the way, and haven't heard anything good about it, but Vince, if you're reading this, I'm easy and I sure could use that swimming pool!)

And there have certainly been instances of companies effectively buying infomercials for their products, or setting up promotional websites to push their products, while making it look like the work of disinterested independent parties. So the ruling may not necessarily be unwarranted.

Where it gets tricky is that it applies only to bloggers. In theory, if I give James Cameron's forthcoming AVATAR a rave review (presumably no one will care about the ethical background of a bad review) I have to reveal in the review that DreamWorks (or whatever studio it's connected to) flew me to a private screening in Los Angeles, put me up at the Four Seasons and bought me dinner at Spago. But the film reviewer for THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE needn't do any such thing, though there's no way the TRIBUNE's reviewers buy their own tickets. (And having done quite a bit of film reviewing back in the day, let me say there isn't a career more fraught with petty corruption than that one.) The assumption behind the FTC ruling seems to be that "real media" reviewers are upstanding, ethical journalists while bloggers are just standing in line for the chance to sell out. Having done both (if you consider this column a blog) I'm more inclined to think the opposite closer to the truth; most bloggers are in it for the ego and the chance to project their own views, while professional critics, unless they work for things like CONSUMER REPORTS with their own strict guidelines, are generally eager to "receive their due" so long as their own private sacred shibboleths aren't trampled in the process. I used to know one who was more than happy to rave up a Joel Schumacher film as long as it didn't involve besmirching John Ford.

Interestingly, and par for a government now pushing the notion that "health care reform" involves forcing all Americans to buy a product from private corporations, while corporations are pushing to be legally identified as citizens, the FTC ruling doesn't seem to involve penalties for any corporation that pseudonymously sets up a blog to promote its products under the guise of unbiased review, only the blogger who fails to disclose he's so being used. So as far as the government's concerned, if you publish your opinions online, you are held to a different standard – with penalties, no matter how much they repeat these are "guidelines" – than your "real media" (not RealMedia™) counterparts. (By the way, FTC, I almost never review books or products that are not provided free of charge by the manufacturers or publishers, so there's your official notice, now piss off.)

Perhaps not coincidentally, longtime First Amendment commentator Nat Hentoff of THE VILLAGE VOICE recently published a story on Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, maintaining extraordinary domestic espionage powers quietly requested, received and implemented by the Ghost's last AG, Michael Mukasey, on his way out, in collaboration with current FBI director Robert Mueller, who Obama kept in place. What's important about these is that they specifically target American citizens, ones the FBI has no reason to investigate.

You read right: The FBI now has virtually unilateral powers to invade – no, invade is too weak a word; let's try obliterate – the privacy of any American citizen they take a shine to, regardless of justification. They don't even need a whim anymore. They have become, in effect, the American Secret Police in a very real way. They don't need reasons. They don't need warrants. They don't need anything other than the will to snoop. Mukasey and Mueller kicked this off without fanfare last December, but Obama, who has also endorsed the Ghost's push for unfettered domestic spy powers for the National Security Agency, didn't even feel the need to tell anyone about the DOJ/FBI power grab until the end of September. Combine this with a steadily expanding official definition of "terrorism," increasingly focused on "domestic terrorism" with focus on such danger signs as criticism of the government, and it's pretty clear it's time to raise a stink on behalf of the Bill Of Rights. (It was time seven years ago, but it's never a bad time.)

Hentoff cites Holder telling Congress "… the FBI is changing its mission ... from a pure investigating agency to one that deals with national security." But the FBI was about "national security" from the moment J. Edgar Hoover, obsessed with crushing commies and blacks, took charge in the '20s. Pure? Hoover's interest in crime was nil, except for public relations where the Bureau could grab credit for gunning down charismatic hick independents like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd (whose death anniversary is Oct 22, coincidentally) and tarting up the press releases to put the FBI in the best possible light, as when a dotty old woman was gunned down in a hail of bullets and J. Edgar rewrote her into criminal mastermind Ma Barker. Hoover's ideal America (oddly similar to Walt Disney's) was white, Anglo-Germanic and absent blacks and other "foreign influences." For fifty years he used the FBI as best he could to make it so, using blackmail to keep politicians out of his way while launching political operations against anyone he thought encroached on his "ideal America" and trying to keep any official acknowledgement of organized crime off the table. And regularly canning any FBI operative who threatened to become more the public face of the Bureau than Hoover.

Post-Hoover, the FBI was more or less pushed into trying to live up to the crime-busting rep promoted by its TV show, with a resulting decline in its public image, especially as things like Cointelpro, Hoover's secret files, spy relevations, and extreme cock-ups leading up to 9-11 became public knowledge, though a host of serial killer movies has someone redefined the Bureau as a state-of-the-art crimefighting machine. I'm not saying there aren't many skilled and dedicated FBI agents concerned about crime – there undoubtedly are – but, despite the myth perpetuated by Hoover himself during his long reign that his longevity freed the Bureau from political influence, and reassurances from subsequent directors of the Bureau's "neutral" political stance, the organization's management has always viewed the FBI as a political, not crimefighting, tool, and since the 1920s, certainly since the end of WWII, "political" has always meant National Security.

And the underlying premise of upper case National Security is not that Americans should be safe, but that they can only be safe when their civil liberties are not protected, that there is an essential and irreconcilable divide between the rights of American citizens (AKA quaint, vestigial notions from a simpler, less threatening time) and the ability of "law enforcement" to keep American citizens safe. Since "law enforcement" gets to decide what constitutes "safety" and what's necessary to maintain it, there's always a threat hidden in the dictum, that if they don't get what they deem necessary citizens are on their own. This extortionist principle has molded the debate since Hoover's earliest days; the Patriot Act only trotted it out in public. (As I've mentioned before, most of the Patriot Act was a law enforcement laundry list of extraConstitutional powers they'd been drooling over for decades, and had little to do with counter-terrorism.) To put it simply, the National Security mentality mandates the Orwellian perception that freedom can only be protected by totalitarianism.

Totalitarianism may seem a loaded word, but that's exactly what the National Security state is talking about: the unfettered ability of government to investigate you, in basically any way it chooses, without cause. To arrest and hold you indefinitely without charge. To stop you from expressing views they don't like. To read your mail and tap your phones, to enter your home without your knowledge or permission - and to prevent anyone from tell you about the investigation. When Stalin did this, when Mao did this, we called it totalitarianism. We can't call it anything less now. These decisions are being made by men who have no legal standing to create law, and they're abetted by the lawmakers you elected. The Ghost's attempts to create a nation of citizen informants, spying on their neighbors for the government, might have fallen apart (though not entirely) but now local police chiefs are organizing to promote the same. About the only thing lacking for a totalitarian state is re-education camps, and who needs those when you have Big Press, which has abandoned any belief that it is far more important to protect their access to the Halls Of Power than to provide information – or, rather, unauthorized information – about the Halls Of Power?

To be fair, it's unlikely many of them consider themselves totalitarians or complicit in totalitarianism. And the argument can be made that in a totalitarian society comments like mine would never be tolerated, so your ability to read this demonstrates that what I'm talking about isn't happening. But there are all sorts of presumed facts in that argument: that totalitarianism must, by definition, be total; that my writings are of enough concern and threat to the Powers That Be that's it's worth their while to shut me down; that contrarian speech itself can't be turned to purposes useful to the status quo, like disinformation, informational cut-outs, and selective rephrasing; that creeping totalitarianism isn't a more effective long term control mechanism, by slowly inuring a citizenry to the quality and "necessity" of totalitarian living and making them more receptive to further controls, than overt totalitarianism; that those pursuing totalitarian agendas recognize their own totalitarianism. None of these conditions need be in effect.

Some might think I'm calling the Obama administration totalitarian. I'm not, and I very much doubt they're even capable of considering themselves such. I doubt the Ghost's administration considered themselves anything resembling totalitarians, and they inflicted some of the most Stalinist notions on the country imaginable. But how they view themselves doesn't matter, only what they do. This is where Republicans and Democrats are really a tag team, especially in a country where the idea of a government looking out for its citizens' interests has been made synonymous with "socialism" and "socialism" with "Communist dictatorship." By and large, Republican administrations promote more repressive social and legal agendas, most often in the name of "preserving freedoms." If Republicans and Democrats were the opposites they're claimed to be, Democratic administrations would reverse those agendas. They don't. As Obama is doing with the Ghost's "innovations," Democratic administrations tend to maintain changes Republicans make; sometimes, as Obama has done, they even amplify them. This isn't yin and yang, it's Tweedledum and Tweedledee; the main value to having two parties is that the fed-up citizenry desperately resorts to the other party when one party's string has run out. (Third parties aren't an option; they're either backed by the same Big Money that buys the GOP and Dems, or by political ideologues of one stripe or another who don't have any more real interest in democracy than the Big Two.)

What it really comes down to is control. (Big duh there, huh?) Holder may feel he'll never use the power to spy without restriction on American citizens suspected of nothing, but he wants to be able to. Presumably Obama feels the same way. But as we've learned from multiple FBI abuses of Patriot Act power down to the lowest levels of the Bureau (in fact, most abuses take place, unchecked, at the lowest levels) if powers are there agents will find excuses to use them even when completely unnecessary.

We should also bear in mind that in most cases these things are intended to scratch more than one itch. It may be Holder can get more mileage from the threat of using his new unlimited surveillance powers than from their use. Likewise, the FTC's blogger rules scratch multiple itches. Bloggers are identified as second-class citizens, distinguished from their counterparts in the "real" press, suggesting the "real" press has greater status and credibility. That may not mean much to anyone else, but the "real" press, currently (and not without reason) feeling itself intensely beleaguered, is always open to a little preferential treatment. They deserve it; they, after all, and not the people, are the voice of the people. But more than that this FTC move is a ploy, to promote acceptance of the idea that the FTC has the power and the right to regulate the Internet. If they pull this one off it creates precedent, and precedent is the stuff of common law. If they pull this one off, next time they go for restrictions on pornography, on the spread of birth control information, on political speech, on whatever some FTC commissioner (and right now they're largely left over from the Ghost) gets a burr up his ass about. Why doesn't someone in government step in and tell them to knock it off? Because control of the Internet is the new cold war, and everyone now wants to control the Internet, because it's harder to keep everyone on message when you can't control the message, and controlling the message is the great fight of the 21st century.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Slow week so far otherwise. As I mentioned above, ODYSSEUS THE REBEL, a reinterpretation of THE ODYSSEY with Odysseus as the first atheist, is now available in trade paperback. While we'd prefer you support your local comics shop and ask them to order your copy, if that's not going to happen please order it from Big Head Press. You can still pop over there and read it free online, of course, along with their other books.

By the way, all 1502 pages of Senate bill S. 1796 (read it here, I dare you), the so-called Baucus health care reform bill I've been talking about the past few weeks that would force Americans to buy private insurance – in violation of the Constitution, according to some, though supporters insist it's merely "regulating interstate commerce," which Congress has the power to do – and fine them if they don't, and obviously a lot of other things (the bill refers to these as "other purposes") cleared the Senate finance committee and is headed for the Senate floor where it will be debated, adjusted, merged with a similar House bill and voted on. Or collapse. Here's hoping for the latter, but reportedly the Democrats are pushing health care reform in the worst way, which is obvious to anyone aware of the bill's contents. Again, call your senator and get this monster killed, since it basically does nothing more than obviates Congressional tough choices and sells the country to the insurance industry instead.

In the pop music world, Xmas albums are usually a recording artist's last ditch attempt to sell any albums, a kitschy way of reassuring Middle America that, yes, you really do support all their "core values" and are worthy of their money. There's almost always a flagrant stench of desperation about it, like comics companies trying to stay afloat by launching new superhero universes. (Even mocking or comedy Xmas albums give off the same whiff, though the intended audiences are different.) In country, Xmas albums are de rigueur for artists not necessarily yet on the slide but whose careers have clearly plateaued, and a way of assuring their audiences that while they might have grown to musical superstardom they haven't forgotten their roots; in other words, in country Xmas albums aren't quite the acknowledgement of decline that they are in pop. Remember the days when you could say that whatever else can be said of Bob Dylan, at least he hasn't recorded an Xmas album yet?

Congratulations to Rob London, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "queen." Rob wants you to head for the Marvel Universe Appendix, "the world's greatest collection of Marvel obscurities." (Really? I always thought that was DC.) (I'm kidding, I'm kidding.) 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, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, and there's no danger in having a look for 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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