Permanent Damage

Wed, December 16th, 2009 at 2:58pm PST | Updated: December 18th, 2009 at 12:47pm

Comic Books
Steven Grant, Columnist

Another busman's holiday week. Not really a holiday for me; staring down two screenplays, a couple CAPTAIN ACTION scripts and a graphic novel I should have begun ages ago. But at least you're having fun, right?

A few of my favorite things from my misspent youth, in no particular order:

1) CONAN THE BARBARIAN #24

This is where it finally all came together for Barry Windsor-Smith's art, though he'd greatly refine his style afterwards. It probably helped that he inked this one himself; most of his other Conan work was inked by Sal Buscema, Dan Adkins, etc., who tended to smooth out Barry's more interesting edges, as is the fate of many comics pencils. I was hanging around a campus bookstore in Madison WI, a key den of "radical" America (at least according to conservative myth) when this came out, and was shocked to learn that not only was Marvel's CONAN THE BARBARIAN (at least when Barry drew it) was a huge favorite among the city's hardcore feminists, but that it pissed them off something royal when Red Sonja jerked Conan around. Go figure.

2) STRANGE TALES #146 – Dormammu vs. Eternity

Never let it be said Steve Ditko didn't know how to end an epic. Having written off Dr. Strange as irrelevant small fry despite Strange beating him after a protracted storyline, the evil extradimensional god Dormammu takes on what he figures is the real problem – the personification of the whole damn universe. They destroy each other. When you're 13 years old and have never seen anything like it before, that's a pretty wow moment.

3) THUNDER AGENTS #14 - Gil Kane's Raven

I hadn't noticed that Gil Kane started inking his own GREEN LANTERN covers for DC a year earlier. I had noticed Gil starting to ink his own pencils on GL interiors and on his Hulk work half a year earlier. The Raven story was a shock, though. THUNDER AGENTS always depended more on charm than originality; what was their boy-next-door lead hero, Dynamo, than a grown-up Billy Batson? Raven was a late addition to the team, nondescriptly introduced a few issues earlier in a George Tuska-drawn story that tried for a little edginess – he was a mercenary hired to play the part, as I recall – and fell flatter than road kill. A hero who can fly? Eh. A string of bizarre Manny Stallman episodes followed. Then Gil came aboard to convert him into a proper superhero. What made Raven especially interesting was that Gil penciled, inked and wrote (at least officially; whether he dialogued the script himself or hired a ghost as he did on other occasions I couldn't say) it, his first venture into scripting that I can recall. Stylistically, the writing's really a throwback to '40s comics, and Gil's approach would get more sophisticated with practice, but its aversion to the Marvelisms overwhelming most other superhero comics and combined with art that had quickly become a byword for modernism in comics of the day, it came across as crisper and fresher than almost anything else being done at the time. Though the occasional guy like Steranko might appear out of the blue to do it, the idea that someone, especially someone established in one particular discipline, could write and draw a comic book completely also wasn't widely circulated then, so that was something of a revelation in itself.

4) NICK FURY AGENT OF SHIELD #5 – Psteranko goes psychedelic

Comics publishers and production staff, not to mention printers, have never been fond of color holds, the use of color as shapes without black lines to anchor them down. Jim Steranko, in his fitful run at Marvel, was a color hold pioneer, and the main proponent of op and pop art in comics art. (Which, given Roy Lichtenstein's series of recreated panels from war and romance comics as fine art, and works by other painters that either mimicked or incorporated comics, was a by then belated but necessary bringing it all back home.) By the time Steranko produced this sequence, the tossing around of "massive energy" was a mainstay cliché of superhero comics – but nobody ever visualized sheer energy better on a comics page.

5) THE FLASH #137 – the return of the Justice Society

One of those "what the hell?" moments. One of the first comics I read was THE FLASH #123, the famous "Flash Of Two Worlds" that instituted parallel world theory in DC comics, so I was familiar with the basic idea but I'd never heard of the Justice Society. All these unknown characters popping up out of nowhere really caught my attention at the time. (Plus I couldn't figure out why a guy named Green Lantern dressed in red.) They were all introduced on the following page, but that momentary thrill of discovery is never quite lost. Vandal Savage, despite all the idiotic crap they've put the character through since 1963, also remains one of my favorite villain names. Let's face it: only someone desperate to get other people thinking he's some sort of tough guy picks a name like Dr. Doom. Vandal Savage sounds like a flaming son of a bitch.

6) CONAN THE AVENGER Lancer mass market paperback

The second Conan item on the list, and not because I was a big Conan fan. I wasn't especially, and other Robert E. Howard characters like Bran Mak Morn and Breckenridge Elkins interested me more. This, my first exposure to Conan, wasn't even written by Howard; it was the first latter day Conan pastiche, and so memorable I don't even remember the story. Truly memorable, though, is the Howard essay, "The Hyborian Age," included in part in the volume. It was my first experience (that I recall) with fiction as world-building, as Howard describes the rise and fall and rise and fall of civilizations, continents and kings over thousands of years, using Rome as his loose model and loosely making one megastory of various series characters. This was the latter section of the essay, describing the disintegration of Conan's world through the prehistoric rise of ours. One memorable bit is particularly evocative of cultural transience: "Gorm was slain by Hialmar, a chief of the Nemedian Aesir. He was a very old man, nearly a hundred years old. In the seventy-five years... since he first heard the tale of empires from the lips of Arus... he has welded an empire from straying savage clans, he had overthrown a civilization. He who had been born in a mud-walled, wattle-roofed hut, in his old age sat on golden thrones, and gnawed joints of beef presented to him on golden dishes by naked slave girls who had been the daughters of kings." For all that Howard's heroes often become kings for the sake of fantasy stories, this is Howard's innate brutal democracy in full bloom. It is from Howard, not any pure democratic ideal, that my own taste for regicide springs.

If you missed last week's column:

For the remainder of the year, we're doing a different sort of Comics Cover Challenge. It's DIY time, where you create the Challenge, by following a few simple rules (BTW, not following them disqualifies you):

1) Choose a specific theme.

2) Go to The Comics Database and find comics covers, of any genre (but no unshielded nudity or graphic sex, please), that visibly feature your theme. Do not use comics where the only connection to your theme is inside the books and not on the cover. The connection to your theme can be pictorial or verbal. (If, say, your theme is "past," a cover scene set in the Cretaceous or featuring Paste Pot Pete, or with a logo like ECHO OF FUTUREPAST are all valid. A story title inside the book like "Journey To The Past" that isn't specifically mentioned on the cover is not. Puns, like using both sun and son, are fine, as long as both are equally valid solutions.

3) Find seven covers that suit your theme. You may use covers from any era of comics, but each of your seven covers must come from a different comics publisher. In other words, you can only use one DC comic and one Marvel comic etc. in each set of seven covers. For those who are wondering, pre-DC Wildstorm comics are not considered DC comics. DC-era Wildstorm comics are. Sub-imprints for any publisher, like Vertigo for DC or Epic for Marvel, are considered consider parent publisher output, so you can't, say, use both a DC cover and a Vertigo cover in the same set of seven.

4) Call up the large size for any cover you use and capture it. (Usually right click on the cover, then "save image as.") E-mail your seven covers and a cryptic clue to your theme to Permanent Damage, along with your choice of a website to be linked to if your theme & covers are used.

5) Those whose challenges are chosen will have the website links of their choice (again, let's keep it fairly clean, okay?); so will, as usual, the first to crack those challenges.

6) One challenge per person, please. Multiple entries will all be disqualified.

That's all there is to it. (Harder than it sounds, innit?) Good luck.

This week's first challenge is courtesy of David McGill, who wants you to visit User Friendly, "a great geek webcomic that's been around for ten years." David also wants you to know there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in this column but if you can't find it, chill out. It's not that important:

Our second challenge comes via Don Allen, who wants you to visit the online home of his favorite comics shop, Comic Quest also wants you to know there's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in this column so consider that your marching orders:

Notes from under the floorboards:

My project's on the 2009 Hollywood Black List and yours isn't. HA! If it's any consolation, they misspelled my name. (TWO GUNS, by the way. Get your copy here.)

Somehow ODYSSEUS THE REBEL is in the running for "best original graphic novel" of the year in Broken Frontier's 2009 Awards. If you're in the mood to wreak havoc with the whole American comics industry, pop over there and give us a vote, thanks very much. Plenty of other good stuff to vote for over there too.

By the way, Broken Frontiers has just posted an interview with me about the above-mentioned ODYSSEUS THE REBEL.

I'm sure someone has brought this up before, but it only occurred to me this morning: now that Marvel and Disney are as one, can Howard The Duck go without pants again?

I don't feel like doing a holiday song list this year, but one of James Kakalios' pals helps fill the vacuum...

Don't know if you computer mavens are aware of this, but there's a breed of normally free or opened licensed software called "portable." Meaning you stick it on a thumbdrive and can use it on any computer with a compatible operating system without needing to install it and – a key draw for the paranoid – leave no traces of your presence once you're done, as long as you save all your work and downloads etc. to the same thumb drive. A number of programs I use normally - Firefox, the excellent CD/DVD burning software Starburn, video editor Virtual Dub etc. – are available in portable form. (A large selection, though many others now exist, can be found free at Portable Apps.) Here's my question, for the computer adepts out there: I have Portable Apps and the programs it facilitates on a thumb drive that I use with my netbook, but many of the apps I also use in their normally installed form on my desktop. Since the biggest problem with Windows, in any version, is its ridiculous insistence on its Registry, but these programs work without putting hooks into the Registry, is there any reason I can't just forget installation altogether and put the portable versions right on my desktop? Obviously, this won't work for things like Word or Photoshop, not yet, but the portable programs seem to make installation unnecessary. Or am I missing something?

If you missed Cory Doctorow's adventures in trying to get a DRM-free audiobook produced, it's worth a read, just for the peek at industrial madness if nothing else.

You might have missed that CBS is killing the soap opera AS THE WORLD TURNS next September, presumably just in time for the next fall season. Daytime soap operas are a dying breed these days (though still, for some reason, actors like to appear on them; SPIDER-MAN co-star James Franco currently seems to be playing some kind of robot on GENERAL HOSPITAL) but that's to be expected. Virtually all dramatic shows on evening TV have been turning into soap operas since "nighttime soaps" like DALLAS and DYNASTY invaded TV in the Carter years. Nighttime soaps like MELROSE PLACE don't make much headway anymore either, because whatever you can get from them you can now get anywhere else. Me, I remember my mother watching AS THE WORLD TURNS religiously when I was in grade school, and the show always struck me as drab and depressing, so by my count the tragedy isn't that the show's doomed but that got half a century to gut pixels.

Know that government summit on media piracy, where Joe Biden gets to hang out with a bunch of Hollywood types and music execs (and no disparate – dispirate? - views need apply, thank you very much)? Not only have a bunch of cabinet members joined the VP in declaring copyright infringement a national menace of al-Qaeda caliber (and no matter where you fall on the issue, the facts just don't bear that out; Hollywood's just wrapping up maybe its best year ever, and numerous studies now have demonstrated that Internet downloading increases, not decreases, the number of records sold, though I can see where whole factories in Singapore pumping out bootleg DVDs might constitute a problem), but once the discussion got going, the news media got kicked out. So what deals are they cutting that they don't want us to know about? (And remember: no less than Eric Schmidt of Google has declared that if you don't have anything to hide, privacy isn't an issue. But since he's obsessed with his own privacy, what does he have to hide? Something worse than what Biden has to hide?)

Like Schmidt, the whole computer software industry seems to run more on irony than anything else these days. After years of Microsoft complaining that Chinese companies are ripping off their code and bootlegging their products, the Chinese branch of Microsoft has been caught ripping off another company's code. Redmond says they're looking into it.

By the way, in Ohio now, cops can't look at your cell phone without a warrant even if you're carrying it when they bust you. At least for now.

The next time the rest of us pay our taxes, we might want to reflect on how federal employees apparently no longer feel the need to - to the tune of $3B+. What do they know that we don't, and how many of them work for the IRS? (Post office employees are the worst offenders.)

Congress may not be able to pass a decent health reform bill but they're still looking out for your health: just to prove they have lots of free time on their hands, a bill has been introduced to force commercials to limit their volume to the volume of the shows they're part of. Isn't that why God made mute and fast forward buttons? Does anyone even watch commercials anymore? (Except for the almost always hilarious Jack-In-The-Box commercials, I mean.)

Oh, and for my Aussie pals who use the Internet: Congratulations! Australia is the new China. As usual, the government there has decided to infantilize Australian internet access to "protect the children." So how long before they decide various political views are too noxious and dangerous to allow access to?

Werewolves seem to be alive and well in Australia...

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, robert e. howard, conan, gil kane, jim steranko

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