Permanent Damage

Wed, November 18th, 2009 at 2:28pm PST

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Given the now supposed massive popularity of the graphic novel – one supposed report from a ridiculously costly publishing (not comics) newsletter indicates that one in ten book buying adults (I guess that means adults who buy books in bookstores) buys graphic novels, meaning either the things have a huge reader base, or the general reader base has shrunken, or the book buying adults aren't necessarily graphic novel but do pay for them – what should the graphic novel be?

Obviously, the graphic novel shouldn't "be" anything. Ideally, there are as many ways to create a graphic novel as there are practitioners. So why do so many graphic novels read virtually identically?

Part of the problem is legacy, and confusion of terms. "It's all comics," many like to say – comic books, newspaper strips, panels, pages, graphic novels, all are lumped together simply as comics, and unquestionably they are – and in the business, itself referred to as "comics," though in the singular, distinguishing between types of comics is often derided as irrelevant intellectualism. But it's also a practical necessity: comic books and newspaper strips are both "comics," and the former may have sprung from the latter, at least where modern comics are concerned, but they're by no means identical. Anyone doing an entire comic book structurally and in design in imitation of newspaper strips would likely have a lot of explaining to do. Anyone doing a newspaper strip in imitation of the structures and designs of modern comic books would likely find the task impossible. Similarly, the graphic novel is related to the comic book, but not of a piece with it, though in practice we're mostly parallel the 1930s stage of comic books, where original comic book material being done was done specifically in imitation of newspaper strips. Early comic books approximated Sunday sections in structure, stringing together wildly disparate material, whether with an eye toward drawing the widest possible audience or simply out of fear of losing what audience it got via not enough novelty. Novelty became enough of a non-issue by the '40s for most comics to become "theme" anthologies, with variety replaced by variation on theme, but even comic books featuring titular homegrown superstars usually featured "supplementary" strips having nothing to do with the main feature or its theme.

The format – the mutated Sunday section – remained the key format of American comic books well into the '60s, eventually done in by page length shrinkage (blame it on economics) that made multiple features in one title less tenable, and by an audience whose changing tastes demanded more complexity than most "Sunday section" comic books, certainly under the aegis of the Comics Code, were capable of providing. Not that reader-pleasing anthologies were impossible, by any stretch – underground comix were almost unilaterally anthologies and did amazing business, and CREEPY and EERIE lasted into the '80s as anthologies, but all those stressed content that mostly couldn't be found elsewhere and fed markets for extreme content that practically begged for backlash – but most companies followed the dollar in the direction audiences took them.

That was really the break between comic books and newspaper strips, though most comic books had visually long since left the newspaper strip behind. By then, language and techniques specific to comic books had long since taken root, even if most practitioners didn't quite realize it, and maybe still don't. Comics creators and fans alike have always cherished the myth of comic books' "visceral appeal," as though great comics spill full blown onto the page from imaginations, keyboards and pens, as if it's just that easy.

Now we have the graphic novel. An evolution from the comic book? It is, but not in the sense most people mean when they say evolution, like mammals taking over the world after dinosaurs went extinct. Comic books evolved from newspaper strips, but newspaper strips are still with us, and some are even still ridiculously successful. But it's a matter not of natural superiority but of personal taste: comic books and strips do different things and achieve different effects.

That makes it a matter of intent. If you want to achieve what a newspaper strip can achieve, you don't need a comic book to do it, and if you're going for what a comic book can achieve, a newspaper strip probably isn't the best vehicle. Unless the effect you want is specifically a comic book that reads like a newspaper strip or otherwise imitates one, but then a comic book is still necessary.

A Bowie knife isn't superior to a jackknife. They're used to achieve different things.

Where the comic book in its current form diverges from the newspaper strip is space. In general, the broader the reach, the more manipulable the elements, and the more manipulable the elements, the wider the range of effects. (My classic example is how b&w can only really be used to thematic effect in color comics.) It's in that increased range of space in comic books that time can effectively be embraced and manipulated, in a Scott McCloud UNDERSTANDING COMICS kind of way, and there you are, commander of space and time. Within the limits of the comic book.

It's not that you can't tell a story of length and complexity in a newspaper strip format, but the three/four panel serial construction hampers what you can do with it, especially if you factor in commercial considerations. In a four panel strip in a series of strips connecting together into a single story, the first panel is almost inevitably a tiny recap of what has come before, while the final panel is almost always a teaser of what's to come, driven by the desire to not hang newcomers out to dry no matter where in the serial they begin reading. It's not an absolute rule of the serial newspaper strip, but those who break it usually learn the hard way why it's not as arbitrary a rule as most invoked for comic books are. Once talent figured out the restrictions on newspaper strips didn't apply to comic books (though this wasn't of widespread concern to talent until comic books, not newspaper strips, became an end in themselves), what they understood could be done in comics broadened considerably.

Where the graphic novel diverges from the comic book is even more space. On the surface, this may seem a trivial thing. By and large it has been treated as trivial, by publishers, talent and readers alike, most of whom have been content to see the graphic novel as little more than a longer comic book. The first great wave of "graphic novels," in the late '80s and early '90s, produced exactly that, for the most part, when 44 page stories were commonly marketed under the label, not because they had the depth and density of a novel but just because, squarebound format aside, they were longer than the standard comic book, the same way DC used to market Superman stories that filled a standard comic cover-to-cover as "A novel – complete in this issue!"; Marvel effectively killed the graphic novel then by flooding the market with what truly were no more than long comic books, essentially issues of MARVEL TEAM-UP done exactly as the average Marvel comic was done, but at twice the length and a much higher comparative price tag. This hasn't been as vehemently transparent in this decade's graphic novel movement, but the basic principle remains the same: graphic novels are mostly created without regard to what special advantages the format may provide, but as extensions, not even elaborations really, of what the creators already produced (or might have produced) in shorter forms, and without much variation in style, theme or intent. They are, for the most part, merely long comic books.

Not that much else should be expected at this stage. The graphic novel is roughly where the comic book was c. 1937, emulating its predecessor as it looks for its "killer app" and waits for talent to start sorting out a new language for the medium that opens the door to its true potential, while publishers desperately use up existing material, ala the trade paperback collection. (The main impetus for original comics in the '30s was the evaporation of available newspaper strips for collection. New material wasn't a whim but a necessity.)

But probably the first change we should make in our approach is to hold them less to the standard of comic books and more to the standard of novels. Graphic novels have largely gotten by on the strength of their graphics, a familiar comfort to those who come to graphic novels from comics and so far a novelty to those who come to comics via graphic novels. But novelty wears off, and despite the average length of today's graphic novels being much longer than the standard of the '80s – 96-128 pages, a requirement enforced by bookstore chains, not publishers – the general thinness of content will sooner or later start getting noticed. There's much more to the novel than plot and character. The time to beef up content is now, before the novelty wears off, and to discover the true future of the graphic novel, with emphasis as much on the novel as on the graphic.

Next week I'll begin discussing possible angles. If anyone wants to throw their own suggestions in, feel free.

Aspiring Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee started rattling sabers at Barack Obama recently, and is trying to get Republicans to pay more attention to him than to Sarah Palin, by warning that the DoJ's decision to put accused 9-11 terrorists Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and cohorts on trial in Manhattan will destroy Obama's re-election chances if things don't go "as expected." An editorial in the local conservative paper, THE LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL, this past Monday, denounces the whole idea that "dangerous foreign terrorists who seek to destroy the United States now get the same constitutional protections afforded American citizens" and the usual pundits are all leaping on the same bandwagon. Not that they haven't been there before, through the history of Guantanamo Base as terrorist prison camp.

Admittedly, there are some reasons for concern. Assuming, though it has always been something of a jump, that al-Qaeda or sympathetic terror groups even have the capability, the trial makes Manhattan courts a viable target for a new attack. Trials potentially give Khalid etc. a forum to express noxious views. On the other side of the coin, can 9-11 terrorists already convicted in everything but name even get a fair trial in Manhattan, only a few blocks from the remains of the World Trade Center.

But it strikes me as weird both that the Right Wing is taking this particular tack on this issue and that no one is bothering to explain the real reason why, yes, even terrorists deserve the protections of the Constitution. So allow me.

Basically, if you don't think the terrorists deserve a trial, you're not a real American.

Rage over 9-11, even at this late date, is understandable. But if your argument is that only Americans are entitled to the rights outlined in the Bill Of Rights, you don't really understand the principles the country was founded on, or you're willing to consider those principles expendable.

You may recall the early paragraph in our Declaration of Independence that goes "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." I know that technically the Declaration of Independence isn't the law of the land – in fact, it predates the land – but it's basic Founding Father stuff, and if a secular text can be considered sacred, this is our second most sacred text, after the Constitution. This is the stuff, the real stuff, we were built on, and if you want to know what they were thinking, it's right there, in plain English. Sure, you can quibble that what they really meant was all landed white men of British descent, but that's not what it says. Okay, they weren't exactly feminists, but whether you want to be literal (men=the male sex) or figurative (men=Mankind=the human race), the meaning is still transparent: all men have rights, and these rights are inalienable.

"All" means you have 'em, I have 'em, untouchables in Sri Lanka and Turks in Germany have 'em, and inalienable means they cannot be taken away.

If you're American, spiritually and not just in name, you believe this. If America as a concept stands for anything, this is what it stands for. Not that plenty of people don't find the concept of inalienable rights pretty annoying when it gets in their way, or that American governments (and plenty of others) from John Adams on haven't tried endlessly to alienate inalienable rights, but their crap doesn't change the picture. The Bill Of Rights, that part of the Constitution added when the original framers of the Constitution tried to renege on the "all men" bit and make the country mainly a place for landed white men of British descent, lays out most of what are considered to be our inalienable rights, concretizing the airier concept introduced in the Declaration Of Independence.

So why do the 9-11 terrorists deserve the same "protections" Americans receive?

Because if you say that the principles in the Declaration Of Independence, and their elaboration in the Bill Of Rights, apply only to Americans, you're saying that rights are neither inalienable nor universal, and exist only under specific conditions and circumstances.

What you're saying is that rights

Are

Not

Rights.

Rights aren't privileges. We indiscriminately use the two terms as synonyms, and occasionally we get some demagogue lecturing us on how our rights are really privileges, but that's demagoguery, and they aren't synonyms. Which is why it's odd that the Right, for the last couple decades regularly ranting against how liberal governments supposedly think they "own" American citizens, is arguing so strenuously that 9-11 terrorists aren't entitled to a trial because they're not Americans.

Behind that argument is the reasoning that Americans are special cases, and the Bill Of Rights only applies to them. If you follow that logic, you quickly get to the argument that rights are not, in fact, inalienable and are not the birthright of all men, but are bestowed by the Constitution. The Constitution, important as it is in America, is still law generated by men, by, in effect, the government, and it's a cold fact of history that what governments bestow governments feel free to take away. But the Bill Of Rights doesn't bestow rights, it only enshrines those rights as a fact of law. If you accept the precepts of America, those rights preexist the Bill Of Rights.

The argument that Khalid et. al. are not entitled to the same rights as American citizens is an argument that rights are a localized phenomenon, are not universal. (That other governments or groups choose to deny those rights to citizens of other countries has no bearing on their universality, and it was the right wing that established that principle in the Cold War, among other things, arguing not that Russian, Cuban, Chinese, North Vietnamese, Nicaraguan etc. citizens didn't have the same rights as Americans, but that they were being denied their natural rights, and also arguing that the principle was important enough that it was worth going to war over.)

If we have rights – real rights, inalienable rights, not just government handouts – then our enemies, even the enemies we hate the most, have the same rights. Whether they accept it, whether they even consider those rights desirable, that matters not at all. Because if they don't have those rights, we don't really have those rights, we have only legal fictions that can be shredded, decimated, diminished, shattered or flushed at a governmental whim. The trial has been derided as the O-Ring wanting to impress France, but that's not what it's about at all. The trial, whatever the outcome, is about us reaffirming, to the nation and to the world, that this is what America stands for. This is what we are.

Some comics for a cold November . I realized the other day that I hadn't heard anything in a long time of Gray Morrow, a wonderful longtime comics artist and illustrator with a unique but very commercial style whose comics work mainly surfaced at Atlas in the '50s, Warren and DC in the '60s, and DC, Archie and Heavy Metal in the '70s and '80s. Morrow has some similarity with Wally Wood in that both tended toward posed, realistic figurework, but there was a fluidity to Morrow's rendering – he almost always inked his own work – and, later, a taste for pop art, that mitigated the stiffness of his pencils and gave his art a photographic look and his figures a real physicality and life. It was extremely recognizable, on strips like The Vigilante, The Black Hood, World Of Krypton and The Witching Hour.

Somehow it had escaped me entirely that Gray killed himself in 2001, when nerve disease made drawing impossible, or if I knew I'd completely forgotten. Both sadden me; he deserves not to be forgotten. Here are two short pieces he did for Atlas in the mid-'50s, just to give you a taste of Morrow's work.

Notes from under the floorboards :

A lot of kind words suddenly coming in on ODYSSEUS THE REBEL, for some reason. Thanks.

Seem to have a lot of exciting movie news all of a sudden that I can't share. Now I know how Warren Ellis feels. Oh well, more when I'm allowed...

Like I said a couple weeks ago, it's getting kind of cramped around here so I'm putting an assortment of books and maybe DVDs up on eBay. Even the books and DVDs I throw away I keep in as good condition as possible – why, back in my school days I was obsessive about not even cracking a book's spine when I read it – so time to stock up on a lot of good stuff for cheap. The list tends toward the esoteric but take a look.

Speaking of rights, the RIAA/MPAA alliance, with help and a cloak of great secrecy from the United States, seems to be trying to hijack the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, an international meeting in South Korea intended to reach some sort of international treaty covering, well, product counterfeiting. Central to the USA's proposal, leaked by the EU despite piles of non-disclosure forms and a determination to keep the public from getting wind of it, is the requirement for all ISPs everywhere to become cops and throw customers off their systems permanently – whether a worldwide database of evictees would be maintained, to keep them off the web forever, isn't specified – and ISPs refusing compliance would find themselves subject to RIAA/MPAA lawsuits (currently not allowed), apparently as willing partners in crime. A House Committee has likewise approved a bill called "The Investor Protection Act" that would likewise force ISPs to monitor and block anything passing through their system that represents fraud under the Securities Investor Protection Corporation, also making them liable for any crimes if they fail. Both of these bills basically require ISPs to pry into the nature of every bit of data crossing their networks, meaning legal data encryption, not to mention any privacy, would be a thing of the past. The goals may have their point, but the "solutions" really amount to nothing more than backdoor attempts to take control of the Web.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. appears to not think Internet piracy is all that much of a problem after all (huh... for some reason I can't find that cite anymore), but a worse problem looms for record companies and music publishers anyway: copyright termination, of the sort the Kirby family wants to impose on Marvel. Reportedly, the Eagles intend to file before the New Year to regain their back catalog, and, given modern technologies, record companies could quickly find themselves obsolete if many major artists follow the Eagles' example. The RIAA's response is to continue to insist that records are all works-for-hire... (By the way, yet another study indicates illegal file-sharing improves musicians' lots, despite RIAA insistence that it's the musicians who suffer most, not that most record companies ever cared much in the first place if musicians suffered...)

Here's a good one. Know that Bernie Madoff guy? Turns out he's a real piker when it comes to Wall St. con jobs. At least he only ripped off his own clients. Turns out a consortium of oil companies and investment firms, including Goldman-Sachs (of course), Morgan Stanley and British Petroleum, in 2000 formed something called the Intercontinental Exchange, a sort of mega-Enron operating outside government regulation whose purpose was to drive up profits as phenomenally as possible. Anyone who followed oil and gasoline prices over the past decade could easily tell it was all being manipulated as hell, and now, finally, we know who and how: a scam where oil future prices were driven up with phantom contracts that transferred billions from one company to another and back again, so that prices skyrocketed even though money never changed hands. The general market, unaware of the handshake deals, then reacted predictably. This is still going on, with the scam doubling the price of oil this year. So far no one's taking any steps to stop it, so Goldman-Sachs and Shell will doubtless indefinitely keep stealing the money of anyone who needs to fill their gas tank.

A/N1N1 flu currently cutting down victims in the Ukraine. A real charmer that gets in through the eyes as well as nose and mouth, it shreds lungs pretty literally and triggers cardiac shock, but victims might not even get a sore throat to warn them. Doesn't seem to be a lot doctors can do about it. And you thought swine flu was a problem. Fortunately (well... not for the Ukrainians, but you know what I mean) it seems to be staying in the Ukraine, but given its characteristics it's hard not to wonder if maybe there's some biological warfare going on...

Congratulations to R. Foster, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "cheese." He wishes to "draw focus to" David Malki!'s Wondermark, "one of the finest webcomics to come out of the Victorian Age." I can't say he's wrong. Check it out.

Finally, for all you Apple fans out there: Apple has filed for a patent on technology that would force iPhone and Macintosh users, among others, to watch advertising before they could use the device. Each time. The tech goes beyond just running an ad; apparently iPhone users, for instance, would be required to correctly answer a question about the content of an ad before being allowed to connect a call, or for iPod users to do the same between songs. Yeah, Apple loves you, all right. The big question is: would Apple users still think the products were so cool they'd put up with this, or would Apple's revenues rapidly plunge while outraged customers stormed the palace?

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 this column, but I'm sure you'll see right through 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.

TAGS:  permanent damage, gray morrow, graphic novels

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