Permanent Damage

Wed, October 28th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Interesting but not surprising that THE COMICS JOURNAL is all but abandoning print, switching to a semi-annual publication schedule and moving much of its business to its website. Hard to believe the Journal's been going in some form or another for almost 35 years, but the heyday of its popularity, at least within comics, was the early '80s, when the direct market and a new wave of comics fandom was just catching fire, and the Journal took the relatively bold step of being controversial and becoming the "paper" of record for the undercurrents of the comics business in a way the only other industry periodical of substance, THE COMICS BUYERS GUIDE, never conceived of. There were earlier attempts at such a thing – Richard Kyle's GRAPHIC STORY WORLD/WONDERWORLD and Joe Brancatelli's INSIDE COMICS in the early '70s, both avatars of a fandom splinter group influenced by trends in contemporaneous investigative journalism and film criticism to approach comics as medium, culture and historical entity rather than merely purveyor of fantasies – but these had been hobbled by distribution, depending almost entirely on subscription for circulation. GSN lasted ten issues, IC four (I think; might've been two), though Brancatelli kept it going for a time as an editorial page inside Warren magazines, albeit without quite the spirit of the newsletter.

What the Journal had going for it was distribution, irreverence and ten years of attitude shift, in both the business and fandom. Many of the things that branch of fandom had been talking about in the early part of the decade – self-publishing, foreign comics, independent publishing, creator ownership, creative freedom, royalties, the treatment of talent, etc. – had become common discourse during the upheavals that rocked the business in the '70s, even if established publishers paid lip service, at best, to any of it. The '70s also produced the first generation that widespread bucked the traditional comics curve, sticking with the hobby and the medium past the four years the business long calculated it held onto any reader for, and carrying their interest into college and out the other side, partly encouraged by the influx of new talent the early '70s brought in. (This caused some embarrassment for the big companies, as "audience" changeover was used as a rationale for copying moments of '60s storylines into '70s comics, but the longer lasting audiences remembered the originals.) Even as the business itself was caving in on all fronts, fandom grew giddier with a growing sense of new possibilities.

That was the world the Journal was born into, as a comics-based demon hybrid of TIME MAGAZINE, THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS and THE NATIONAL ENQUIRER. Gary Groth may have fancied himself the industry's answer to John Simon, but he was closer to William Randolph Hearst, and the Journal's real hook was gossip and scandal. Candid interviews became grist for publisher bashing and perceived feuds as statements of pros were interpreted, misinterpreted and re-interpreted; reviews became scathing excoriations that chopped off the feet of clay of comics talents ascending toward superstar status or believing they did; readers were perfectly willing to ignore Kenneth Smith essays to get to trial transcripts of Michael Fleisher suing Harlan Ellison, or Steve Gerber suing Marvel. If the magazine's arrogance, whether a clever marketing ploy or come by honestly, wasn't much appreciated by publishers or talent, and often not even by most fans, it was the right approach, making THE COMICS JOURNAL indispensible reading for several years, and a bracing antidote to the sycophancy that by then increasingly earmarked other publications. Virtually nobody claimed to like the Journal, but virtually everyone read it.

And though not really what I'd call sympathetic to talent – the Journal was relatively quick to denounce fan favorites and almost everyone else working in commercial comics as unimaginative hacks, and to puncture the pretentions of those working in other branches of the business, though here the magazine's idealistic desire to develop a critical language for comics and cynical need to hook an audience co-mingled opportunely – it did perform a valuable service for the freelance community. It gave them a voice, regardless of how the platform was viewed. Prior attempts to improve the lot of freelancers in the business – an attempt at unionization in the early '50s, DC writers and artists joining forces for more pay and better conditions in the late '60s, the brief run of the Academy Of Comic Book Arts (ACBA) in the early '70s – crashed and burned, partly because their struggles were subterranean. Public knowledge and discussion of the inner workings of the comics industry was virtually unknown. Decades of established publisher practices were routinely written off (mostly by publishers) as necessary evils, leaving freelancers with a choice of putting up or getting out.

Understandably, publishers were outraged when the Journal began routinely questioning the necessity of these necessary evils while agreeing on the evil part. Other fan/semi-pro/newszines also took advantage of the coalescing direct market and the opportunity to reach a concentrated audience of comics fans, but those collaborated with the comics industry where possible, saw themselves as adjuncts and their fates tied to the fortunes of comics publishers. Whether it consciously decided to or only fell into the role, THE COMICS JOURNAL, almost alone, was adversarial and muckraking. It didn't care if publishers supported it, or continued to publish. Because it didn't care, its pages got filled by letters from and interviews with freelancers challenging publisher practices, stirring heated debates. Was the Journal responsible for the many changes the comics business underwent in the '80s? I wouldn't say so. But they were responsible for much of the dialogue that created the climate for those changes. That, not its critical aspirations, not its searing reviews, was perhaps its main contribution to comics: it was, for a time, a central clearing house for dialogue about the business of comics.

By the early '90s it had mostly shot its wad in that regard, almost by mutual consent. In the interim it had generated its own press, Fantagraphics, to publish alternatives that, theoretically, better fit their critical ideals, and it became common to claim the Journal's main purpose was to say, "Don't read their books, read our books." The direct market was established, and in the wake of Warners' 1989 BATMAN movie booming, to the point where the Journal's jeremiads were mostly viewed as wet blankets. The Journal itself seemed to lose interest in most repetitive day-to-day industry struggles; they had, I suspect, figured out how little the comics audience, and much of the talent, cared about developing a critical language for the medium. Increasingly, the magazine's remaining audience was of an academic bent; increasingly, the magazine moved into bookstores, where that audience was likelier to shop. Publisher Gary Groth realized fairly early on that a magazine's news coverage couldn't keep up with the pace of the Internet, so the Journal basically ceased to be a news magazine despite attempts by successive editors over the past few years to bring news reporting to the forefront again.

This isn't meant as a eulogy for THE COMICS JOURNAL. It still exists and will exist after November's #300, in a book format it has been drifting toward for the past decade. It moved its news reporting online months ago, via former TCJ editor Dirk Deppey's ¡Journalista!. The importance of the move isn't that a "venerable" critical magazine devoted to the comics medium is vanishing (since, again, it isn't) but that the changes to the Journal are not happening in a vacuum. The magazine market is in severe recession. The only magazine I still bought regularly, the supremely wacky PARANOIA, just announced the same move to a book format with this sobering announcement:

"In 2008, 525 magazines ceased publication; in 2007, about 590. In addition, the largest magazine distributor in the U.S. filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy on April 27, 2009. In truth, the magazine is not a viable format in a shrinking economy..."

This is obviously true for THE COMICS JOURNAL, just as it's true for certainly any specialty magazine, whose audiences increasingly find their needs met online, and it's true for many general interest magazines. Certainly, newspapers are in general collapse as well. The magazine market as an alternative for comics to the direct market is no longer viable. The direct market provides some economic buttress for publishers the magazine market doesn't, but there's no denying that the direct market is sick as well. Yet, there's still no concerted effort to fix it. Aside from absence of competition, it still exists in basically the same form it had in the mid-'80s, and its answer to the challenges of changing times is basically to ride it out and hope for the best. But what happens to comics if the "best" turns out not good enough?

John McCain is exercising his Orwellian side again, with the introduction of his "Internet Freedom Bill." Sounds good, don't it? Especially when McCain is striving to save all of us, and the Internet, from evil regulation by the FCC. I also believe it's good to save all of us, and the Internet, from evil regulation by the FCC. But there's regulation, and there's regulation, and what John, his campaign pockets lined with nearly a million dollars from Big Internet Providers, really wants is an end to the doctrine of net neutrality.

Net neutrality, simply put, means Internet service providers are service providers, pure and simple, and can't preemptively restrict your access to content on the Internet. What that means to you, for example, is that if you're a Comcast Internet customer (Comcast being a company that routinely tries to shortcut net neutrality), and you want to access a site detailing Carnivale in Rio, Comcast can't stop you from doing it. More importantly, they can't reroute you to their Carnivale in Rio site, or to the vacation planning website of a Mazatlan hotel owned by a Comcast subsidiary, or one someone has paid them to shove you to.

Net neutrality means the Internet is wide open for your use. You plunk down your access fee, it's yours.

So who wouldn't want that, right?

Lots o' people. There are Internet service providers, like Comcast and cell phone Internet providers like Verizon, who'd love the old AOL model, where your only access to the Internet is through them, rather than you being able to bypass their homepages completely and open your browser on, say, the Google homepage. And their search engine, leading primarily to pages of their choice (so that when you search for, say, the term "net neutrality," you get plopped on Glenn Beck's page calling net neutrality "a Marxist plot"). Or if you want to watch some streaming video, there's Comcast's vast library of programming from the E! Channel, the Golf Channel and Style Network waiting for you, but anything else? You either don't get it or, if their business model swings that way, you pay a premium to get them. Or if you want comics news, you can only go to Newsarama because the ISP has a kickback deal with them. No Skype for you, all Internet phone calls must be made using proprietary Comcast software, billed by the minute. Etc. There are dozens of different ways these things could work, but the short version is this: your ISP would limit your access in any way its directors saw fit. Worse, your service could change on you in the blink of an eye.

Broadband is the big issue, because, unlike dial-up ISPs that flourished, when dial-up was the main means of access, like rabbits in Australia, in most locales, broadband is a virtual monopoly. Here in the Las Vegas area, there are basically three options: I can get a DSL hookup through the phone company Embark (a crappy little phone company that I dumped as a landline provider a few months back after suffering with them for several years), Cox Cable, or a satellite service. I suspect in most locales where cable internet is available, it's the dominant hookup. But even if you have three choices, three choices aren't that many choices, and if they start picking and choosing what they offer for Internet service, instead of having a standard service to compare them by, all that means is instead of choosing the most suitable possibility I'm stuck choosing the least of three bad choices, none giving me what I want.

One of the big arguments against net neutrality is that "the free market" should decide what people want from their cable service, not "government edict," and what ISPs offer should be determined by "competition." But we already know what users want from their Internet access. They want unfettered access. There's no reason "the free market" needs to determine that we want what we already have. But McCain's bill isn't about "free markets" or letting people have what they want, it's about monopolies – the ability of broadband ISPs to grow into utilities, an Internet service equivalent of power companies milking customers for whatever they can get away with – and it's about letting other people, the pressure groups, control what you can access online, whether it's pornography, gambling, political opinions, "unauthorized" information and news about government or particular groups or people or current events or birth control or alternative energy projects or whatever whoever inserts themselves into a control position doesn't want you to access. The idea that "unfettered competition" between ISPs would make Internet access better. All those cable channels have done wonders forcing NBC to respond with a full roster of great programming, haven't they?

In any case, I repeat: the best case result of "unfettered competition" would be exactly what we have now, so why waste the time?

The press isn't getting it right. I've already seen McCain's "Internet Freedom Act" presented as the salvation of net neutrality, part of his crusade to protect the doctrine from dismantling by the FCC. In other words, they're getting it completely backwards. I've periodically challenged FCC attempts to establish their dominion over the Internet, but this isn't one of those cases. Because "net neutrality" doesn't establish the FCC's dominion, unless you think a ruling of "no ISP can control what its users access on the Internet" is a power grab, and the essence of the FCC's position, at least on this, is that nobody should control the Internet. It's one of the few times in recent memory we can say a government agency is doing anything to unconditionally protect the freedom of American citizens.

But the push is on to kill net neutrality, and either its opponents don't understand what it is or they're duplicitous shills. Suddenly the myth is oft-repeated that it's an Internet version of the old Fairness Doctrine that would force me, for instance, to give equal time to viewpoints opposing whatever I say in this column, and this threat is especially leveled at bloggers in the myth. But that's not what it says at all. It says I (or you) have unfettered – let's use that ourselves for a change – right to access the Fox News website if I (or you) want it, or to CNN.com, or MSNBC.com, and my (or your) ISP can't tell me I (or you) can only access CNN and MSNBC but not Fox. It can't tell me I (or you) can't access al-Jazeera, the BBC News or The Spotlight. (I have the odd feeling that old media is much behind this recent push, since Rupert Murdoch in particular is making lots of noise about having to monetize the web, and his websites, since his core newspaper business is rapidly washing away down a black hole, TV networks continue to hemorrhage viewers, and here's this Internet thing that should be a cash cow, if only they can manage to remake it in their own image.)

So when John McCain calls his bill an "Internet Freedom Act," it's not your freedom he gives a rat's ass about. It's not the freedom of the Internet.

It's the freedom of his corporate sponsors to screw you over for their own profit. Our freedom is their freedom, but they don't see it that way. All they see is that the Internet is out there, and they're not getting filthy rich enough off it.

Cleaning out the mailbox:

"Regarding your observations at APE - merchandise booths do tend to sell quite a bit more than book booths; at least, they did at Baltimore Comic Con this year. I talked to a man who sold prints, who intimated that he made over a grand per show, just selling prints of licensed characters that he drew. I also overheard a poster seller explain his business model to his friend, who was looking to work the trade show circuit - so there is a living to be made selling handmade merchandise, if one is willing to hustle.

I mentioned this to Chris Staros, who replied "it is always easier to consume the trappings of culture than it is to consume culture itself." Despite his observation, I'm seriously considering selling prints of splash pages from my graphic novels next year. If nothing else, they might provide some kind of eye-catching attractor that will keep a potential customer at my table.

You should come out to SPX in 2010. As I understand it, it's much the same as APE, with all of the tables in one half of a hotel ballroom. At this show in particular, I've spent a lot of time in the company of a lot of the best and brightest in indie comics. As far as I'm concerned, there is a vibrant movement of what are essentially underground comics out there in America. But you're right - the small press convention circuit isn't enough to keep the book creators alive in the long term."

If someone wants to pay my travel, meal and lodging costs I'm there. (Though the name SPX always leaves me waiting for a Roman salute.)

Chris is absolutely right. It is always easier to consume the trappings of culture than culture itself, but that's exactly what I'm talking about. Thing is, you can scorn that truism, or you can turn it to your benefit. If it's easier to draw people to the trappings of the culture you're prepared for them, at least some of those people will be drawn by the trappings to the culture. But if profiting from the trappings alone can help keep the culture alive, where's the harm or indignity? Especially with items like t-shirts that act co-function as viral advertising. You don't know who's going to see the t-shirt displaying your creation and remember it, consciously or otherwise, when they see the creation itself. I know none of this is a new idea, it just surprises me how many talents and publishers oppose it on aesthetic grounds when we're in a market climate where no potential advantage should be dismissed out of hand.

"Motion comics are just a medium, you say? They're not even that! They're cartoons! Well drawn, poorly animated cartoons. What's the difference between these things and the '60s Marvel Super Heroes ("When Captain America throws his mighty shield...") cartoons? Not one thing. I'm not trying to make a judgment call on whether or not they're good, but it's certainly not a new medium.

I can't believe that someone as skeptical as you (and I mean skeptic in a good way) is buying the company line that these things are anything other than the cartoons that they are."

Man, I loved that Captain America song when I was a kid: "All those who choose to oppose his shield must yield!" That whole crappy collection of Marvel stop-motion cartoons was worth it just for that theme song. Why not call motion comics cartoons? Okay, you're right, they are cartoons. But if that sinks into the popular mindset, odds are pretty good that rather than forcing motion comics up to the level of cartoons, it'll pretty quickly become accepted (within the cartoon industry, such as it still is) that animation only needs be as good as motion comics. (Obviously, the high end Pixar stuff will stay high end, but all the other companies will just accept it's not worth trying to play on their playground.) It's probably in the best interests of the animation business, and our sanity, that we discourage the association of motion comics with cartoons... (Hell, in terms of animation, things like HARVEY BIRDMAN and SOUTH PARK aren't that far removed from motion comics now...)

" In response to your request for an update from Ireland regarding the Lisbon Treaty vote, as long term reader I am happy to supply one. The first thing to understand is that neither vote had anything to do with Europe in any sense at all beyond the fact that this was a EU treaty. Both votes reflected purely domestic issues and concerns and were votes about those concerns.

At the time of the first vote our ears were still ringing from the bursting of the economic bubble here and we rightly saw that the limitless incompetence and arrogance of the Government was a significant contributing factor to the situation. The initial No vote was a response to this, the Government wanted a Yes vote and the public were in the mood to defy them. The No campaign got significantly more credit than they deserved and the political class believed the boasts of the No campaign, thus continuing their complete inability to deal directly with reality.

The second vote took place as we are all facing the continuing results of the economic meltdown and the enormous inability of the ruling class to deal with it. We are facing a TARP style set up called NAMA which is designed to bail out banks and property developers and ensure that widespread economic will be decades away rather than years due to the vastly inflated public debt. Thus time round the public realised that we are better off inside pissing out than being on the outside being pissed on. Regarding a Federal Europe or an genuine European Army, the EU is much more a string vest than chain mail."

Thanks for clearing that up. You have to remember that the American press' coverage of the situation essentially consisted of "Ireland? That's still there?") Another Irish reader adds:

"Ireland was already in the EU, while its a bit unclear what would have happened if we'd voted no, its doubtful that we'd have been kicked out of the club, more than likely we would have just lost voting rights in certain areas (probably certain banking regulations, laws etc.) but it's doubtful that we'd have been kicked out of the common market or

the Eurozone itself. We'd have more than likely lost our commissioner (which is seen as a big deal) and at some ministers' meetings 'our' minister would effectively been at various points a participant and then an observer and back again. But if we hadn't ratified Lisbon, we probably would have lost our power at the European Central Bank, which sets interest rates to do with the

Euro, which, I'm sure matters a lot in economic terms. (Not an economist, but...)

The reason the no vote won so strongly last time had to do with a failure of the government (and opposition parties which are all pro-EU) to actually give us a reason to vote 'yes.' Basically, the only parties that vote no in Ireland are the Socialists (who have no representation in Parliament, but some in local gov't) and Sinn Féin (who though well known in the U.S are a marginal party and have little support in the Republic of Ireland) along with various Euro-skeptics and religious conservatives (neither of whom are very representative of the population). However, the failure of the gov't to address issues like Ireland's neutrality and abortion laws allowed the No vote to suggest that a Yes vote the first time would have led to Ireland being forcibly drafted into the EU 'super-army' and that abortion would have become ... mandatory nearly if you believe some of the posters/claims. Frankly, a lot of the No vote last time was because people felt they (or their vote) was being taken for granted and so either voted 'no' in protest or simply didn't show up at all. There was something like a 5% increase in the vote this time which suggests that 'not showing up' was a major factor.

This time however, Ireland's concerns in terms of abortion and neutrality were addressed (of course for the No side these 'guarantees' are not worth the paper they're written on but...) and given that Ireland is heading towards what many feel is economic meltdown, it was felt that thumbing our nose to our much more economically powerful neighbors may not have been the best plan. Please bear in mind that Ireland, before the 1990s, had most of our roads, economic development and other infrastructure paid for by the Europeans and now that our government is in the process of guaranteeing bank losses to do with the housing bust that may run to 40 -60 billion Euro, this was obviously a factor for what at the end of the day is a small, weak and relatively unimportant nation. Diplomatically, Ireland punches above our weight partly because we're so small that we are almost the definition of 'honest broker' and it was seen as a big deal when our Taoiseach (Prime Minister) was able to get the original EU constitution agreed on during Ireland's time 'in charge' of the EU so the flip side of the 'unimportant nation' is that we do well because nobody distrusts us enough to block our aims(?)/desires/etc.

As for the idea of a 'Federalist Euro Superstate,' which some people suggest that such a thing is around the corner, I would suggest that such concerns are a bit overstated, if for no other reason that on anything important, the major European powers generally go for national interest first over any 'European' concerns. Look at the difference between Britain and France/Germany on pretty much any issue (security, banking), along with differences between, France/Germany (who still have differences but tend to go together on many issues) and Eastern European countries on issues such as pro-Americanism and Russia for example. To put this in concrete terms many Eastern Europeans fear that the Germans may sell out their interests to the Russians in exchange for guaranteed gas supplies. Which, when the last German PM (Gerhard Schroder) is lobbying on behalf of Russian gas firm Gazprom, may not be paranoia... A final thought is that, when the current economic troubles began, both France and Germany moved swiftly to protect such 'national' industries as car manufacturing and the like. Germany nearly nationalized Opel despite the fact that it contravenes European laws (and Germany ps 'Europe' in many cases where people speak of 'Europe' as an ideal/state). Regardless of what most 'pro' European thinkers (of which I would count myself) would like to see, the kind of 'superstate' you talk of is.. frankly, at least a generation away, if it ever happens at all.

If you want to read examples of how such 'European' ideals and ideas work in practice and why, what often seems like a 'monolithic superstate' is anything but take a look at this excellent blog from THE ECONOMIST magazine.

"

I will, thanks. I know some Eastern European countries (the Czechs?) are the final holdouts on Lisbon ratification, but I guess whether the EU quickly becomes a superstate will depend in part on whether Tony Blair or Silvio Berlusconi is elected first president of Europe. Talk about the need for a third party candidate... (Though with our luck it'd probably be Le Pen...)

"Your auto insurance analogy in the last column was spot on funny and dead on accurate.

What really burns me up is that you have all these Senators, making a buck eighty K per year, getting their platinum care gratis, and now they deem it necessary to require a family of four making 65K to take ten grand of that dough and fork it over to the insurance companies. What a revolting development!"

Maybe the best way to get progressive health care reform would be to abolish the Congressional health care package...

"That was a rather unfair and dismissive slag at Apple over the 10.6 bug.  Your mention suggests that anyone that upgrades will lose all their data.  It is a major issue but, as the article you link to mentions, it is extremely rare.  I have read a handful of Mac troubleshooting sites that have tried to duplicate the problem and couldn't.  I would be willing to bet that more users are affected by serious Windows issues every day than will ever be troubled by this bug."

See, that's just what I was about to say. Sure, it's unlikely a Snow Leopard upgrade will eat all your data; on the other hand, Apple didn't stumble across the possibility while rechecking code. It happened to people. Not being able to duplicate the problem isn't the same thing as saying the problem doesn't exist. But the vast majority of Windows users also don't experience most of the problems ascribed to the OS and don't have the slightest hint of them until Microsoft issues security patches. Yet Apple's whole Macintosh TV campaign pushes the premise that if you use a PC and MS Windows, you will have problems, you will lose data, you will get hit by a virus, etc. So... goose'n'gander time... Personally, I have no problem with how Macs work, but Apple's obsession with everything being proprietary and overpriced rips off its customers, whether they feel ripped off or not. That's what I have against Apple. The company is inherently anti-competitive and effectively saprophytic...

" Agreed on your views on the meaning of superheroes. Comics and religion share a belief in the unreal which at times borders on fanaticism because the alternative is unthinkable for many of us. People want their heroes noble and appealing, just as they also require a wise and forgiving God. When it comes to superheroes, if you take away the endless, spandex-clad fight scenes and general mayhem, you end up with realistic, morally ambiguous individuals much like the protagonists in crime stories. Alan Moore and Frank Miller managed to fuse both aspects in works like Watchmen or Daredevil while Grant Morrison has taken things to higher, almost shamanistic levels. Yet, there is still no true middle ground. But yeah, thanks to the influence of underground artists there is still hope for artistic expression. Superheroes will always serve as wish fulfillment, though. Who wouldn't mind flying into danger if it meant making things right, sparing innocents the cruelties of mankind, or simply locking away the bad guys? There is no logic to the premise itself, but the reasons behind it reflect our need to believe in its worth."

Noble and appealing heroes are a rather latter-day event in human history, really a Victorian-era deconstruction of the hero myth retooled to feed the prejudices of newly literate societies. I don't find most superheroes to be very morally ambiguous, even when you strip away the standard riffs. I think the main thing to remember about superheroes is that their behavior is contra-indicated for continued existence if you don't have superpowers. (Or haven't martial arts trained with Lady Shiva.) Superhero fans love to claim that superheroes exist to teach us to be the best we can be, but I'd love to know how many readers walked away with that message, and lived it. For the most part, superheroes and their moral/ethical dilemmas don't have anything to do with ours; their powers irrevocably alter their circumstances. Wrote a dialogue once between The Punisher and Spider-Man where Spidey scorns killing anyone, no matter how evil or implacable, and The Punisher answers, "That's good if you can bend steel with your hands, but what do the rest of us do?" That's the real moral question of our times, and one superheroes are by their nature incapable of answering.

"The key to getting insured (in my case) with pre-existing conditions is basically not knowing about them. (I enrolled at age 19 once our family plan stopped covering me.) My father never talked about his family's health history and I was still too young to understand the inner workings of privatized medical care. Of greater priority were things such as trying to get into college. My grandfather had died of a heart attack in 1980... back in Cuba, so Castro wasn't likely to supply a U.S. insurer with this information. Switching companies once you become older is a whole other pickle. I tried it last summer and was turned down due to ordinary chronic conditions such as acid indigestion and high blood pressure. My existing provider only relented to these heart exams because I found a gutsy cardiologist who stood up to the bureaucrats. The stress echocardiogram itself involves being hooked up to a treadmill similar to the one Barry Allen uses. I guess I must have been trying to reach Earth-2, because the results showed that my heart ran "like a hummingbird," so we'll see how it goes."

That works if all your old medical history can only be found in Cuba, but, insurance fraud charges aside, the big problem of not reporting pre-existing conditions to your health insurance company is that if they find out, they'll can your insurance altogether. Being ignorant of your own pre-existing conditions doesn't help much either; once it's known to them, they'll still refuse to pay for treatment on the grounds it was pre-existing.

How does a hummingbird run, anyway? Its legs are too short...

Notes from under the floorboards:

I haven't done this in awhile, but the office is now overrun with books, so I'll be putting a number of items up on eBay next week. Watch for more details then. Meanwhile, go to Big Head Press for an online look (or complete read, if you have the time) of ODYSSEUS THE REBEL, retooling the ancient classic for modern times, then hurry over to your local comics shop or the Big Head ordering page for your own copy. Thanks. And check out the other Big Head offerings while you're at it.

The ABA is trying to enlist the Justice Dept. in halting a bestseller pre-sale book price war between WalMart, Target and Amazon that they perceive to be "damaging to the book industry and harmful to consumers." While I'm not convinced lower book prices are harmful to consumers, the ABA's complaint makes a good point about how all three outlets must be losing money on the deal and is a good description of how pricing in the book market theoretically works.

I see film studios are going full steam to bring Redbox to heel. If you haven't seen them, Redbox is a standalone kiosk, found in most supermarkets and outside some McDonalds in this neck of the woods, that rents late issue and other DVDs for $1 per night. Never used it myself, but there are always customers using the kiosks when I pass them. Redbox's main claim to fame is that, with its low overhead and popularity, it's doing even more than the Internet and pay-per-view (but probably not more than NetFlix) to shut down "established" DVD rental chains like Blockbuster. (Though it's hard to imagine anything being more established than NetFlix at this point.) Warners, Universal and Fox, witnessing DVD sales plunge like anything else could be expected in this economy – as I mentioned a couple weeks back, the day of the casual DVD buy may be over, especially new ones that cost $15-$25 a pop – have decided Redbox's low low prices are to blame. Redbox wants DVDs, but the studios want Redbox to cripple its own business - postponing rentals until 45 days after DVD release, for instance – and share revenues, and tried using their influence with/control over distributors to prevent Redbox from getting their releases unless the company assents. Redbox is suing on anti-trust grounds, and courts, against studio wishes, are not throwing the suits out... (NetFlix, meanwhile, believes Americans don't want the streaming video service it's launching elsewhere. Anyone else smell the fine hand of the studios behind this? Or is it just that our broadband service is so much crappier than most other countries'?)

Whoops! Know how that pesky Mayan calendar says the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012? (Or, at least, that's as far as the ancient Mayans bothered to work their calendar out. Cosmic certainty or just cosmic laziness?) (Though I have it on some authority the end of the Mayan calendar corresponds not to the end of the world but to the day before they start using the calendar over from the beginning.) Turns out the calendar really ends in 2220. These New Agers can't get anything right.

Interesting health care debate developments. Harry Reid is reintroducing the public option with a carrot-and-stick approach, threatening to abolish the exemption from anti-trust legislation health insurance companies currently enjoy if they continue to fight alternatives. (I didn't know they can't currently be prosecuted for anti-trust violations; many industry practices make perfect sense now.) Meanwhile, insurance companies have switched to a different tack, moaning about how little money they actually make, a mere 6% profit per year. While that smells of creative bookkeeping, it's quite possible they do make that "little" (in this economic climate, many companies would kill for a 6% profit) once you figure in the costs of ridiculous executive bonuses, propaganda, bad risky investments, kickbacks, (hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions, in) campaign contributions and other "necessary expenses." But this is the standard whine all Big Money – oil companies, energy companies, banks, credit card companies, stock brokers, all of them – trots out when it's on the spot: there's no money in it! Begging the question of why they're so doggedly determined to stay in business under the circumstances, then. (Amusingly, last week's slashing by the government of bonuses for execs at problematic banks triggered that whine that if execs aren't wildly compensated, it'll cause a braindrain and the slighted execs will leave for better deals elsewhere. Excuse me? If these are the same clowns who dumped the economy into quicksand, who'd fight to keep them? Who'd want them? And where else can they go, anyway? If all companies are whining that the economy is in the dumper, what companies have the resources to offer them a better deal?)

Meanwhile, there's a movement on in Congress to make faith healing payable by Medicare. Specifically if you're a Christian Scientist (sideshows can't set up faith healing booths then start mailing in their billings), but what I was wondering was: why exactly should faith healing cost anything? It's not like there's equipment or prescription costs involved, and even its practitioners will state they're not doing anything, it's God what does the healing. So where does money come into it? To the extent it starts billing taxpayers for its services, Christian Science – which has about the same relationship with science that National Socialism had with socialism (for those out there not good with vague allusions, I mean they've have the word in their name and otherwise are totally antithetical) – becomes effectively a state-sponsored religion, and doesn't the Constitution have pretty specific things to say about that? I suspect this ploy to be an attempted (not to mention cynical) wedge to "validate" government payments to specific religious organizations...

The French branch of the Church Of Scientology was found guilty of fraud for pressuring members to take expensive "advanced training," as well as vitamins and drugs, then "electronically measuring" their "spiritual" development and declaring everything worked. Without objective outside replication of data, of course. Faith healing by any other name...

By the way, a note to the psycho right wing: czars ain't commissars and never were, certainly not in Russia.

Congratulations to Michael Rhodes, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "safe." Michael wants you to visit his colorful blog Thingies, so go 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, if you elect to find 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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