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Practical applications dept.:

Every so often someone starts decrying the absence of the thought balloon in comics, and talks about how it’s time to redeem the device. For those who’ve never seen one (I suppose there must be a few) a thought balloon is an old comics narrative device, often copied in pop art (most notoriously by Roy Lichtenstein, above), feature article art or commercials seeking to evoke a comics style, where a scalloped word balloon (there are thought balloon styles, this is the most common) is connected to a character via a stream of small circles rather than a pointer, and the balloon represents the character’s supposed internal monologue, not dialogue.

Once practically ubiquitous, the thought balloon has fallen on hard times the past couple decades. While there are old-timey comics fans (and professionals!) who believe thought balloons fell on hard times mainly because the too-cool-for-school “graphic literature” snobs bullied everyone into dropping them so as not to look “unsophisticated,” there were good reasons to stop using them. While no device should be characterized as “juvenile” – they are as they are used – thought balloons were mostly put to idiotic, as cheapjack exposition shortcuts.

From an old issue of STRANGE ADVENTURES:

Which, while hardly an extreme case, is a good example of a bad thought balloon. Why?

I know that when most people think, they hear their own words in their heads. There’s nothing about the process of thinking that invalidates the thought balloon, and in fact the thought balloon, well used, makes a pretty good representation of how we think. There is nothing essentially juvenile or imbecilic about the thought balloon.

But imagine you’re married. (Some of you don’t need to.) Imagine you’re silently organizing your thoughts in private, and they turn to considerations of your spouse. Say you’re a guy married to a woman named Betty, and you’re planning to go to the store to buy some Lotto tickets. You might think “I wonder if Betty needs anything else at the store while I’m there,” or “Betty isn’t going to like me spending the grocery money on Lotto tickets.” Odds are extremely good you’re not going to think “I wonder if my wife Betty needs anything else at the store…” You already know Betty is your wife, you’re not going to emphatically remind yourself of that in your private thoughts. (Carrying the notion further, it extends to spoken dialogue as well: if that woman you bought a drink for in a bar asks if you want to come over to her place, you – you cad! – might say “As long as my wife doesn’t find out,” but you’re highly unlikely to say “As long as my wife Betty doesn’t find out.”)

Yet the amateur inventor with the bad suit in the panel above, alone in his basement laboratory, thinks to himself, “Now to put on my wire-mesh suit, made of ionized metal! My wife Joan would never let me try this, if she knew what I was up to!” See the problem?

The character isn’t thinking to himself. He’s thinking to the reader. Properly, the character would already know his suit is wire-mesh, made of ionized metal. He’d know his wife’s name is Joan. To the extent he’d think about it at all, he’d just think about putting on his suit. He’d think of his wife by her name, not her function in his life. This may sound like nit-picking, but it leads to bigger issues.

In fiction, regardless of medium, we generally operate on the conceit that the action we’re observing takes place in a parallel universe, a box of its own. (A conceit being an arbitrary ground rule mutually agreed on by purveyor and audience, a sort of “understood” social compact, the thing you’ve got to accept if you want the story to work. Everything has its conceits, and there’s always someone out there who just doesn’t get that it’s a conceit. At the library convention I was at a couple weekends back, I heard Greg Rucka explaining to an audience member that people who go around complaining that if Superman really existed he wouldn’t use his superpowers altruistically just don’t get it because that’s the character and what you think he would or wouldn’t really do is irrelevant. The conceit of Superman is that he’s an altruist, so going in you have to accept that. It’s like people who complain that rock concerts are too loud; that’s like complaining that Beethoven symphonies have string arrangements. It’s their nature. Every so often I’d have some artist approach me about working on a Punisher project, because he had a great idea for the Punisher. It was always the same idea: the Punisher kills an innocent person! I can plot that one easily: it’s the end of the Punisher. I’d have to explain that’s the conceit of the character: he doesn’t kill innocent people. It’s just something you have to accept going in. Yeah, yeah, I know, all those bullets flying, how would he know, blah blah. It’s the conceit, and it’s a cornerstone of the character. Change it, and you’ve got a different character.) “The Box” means, basically, that while the audience views the characters, to the characters the audience is invisible, sitting behind a one-way mirror and having no effect on or interaction with proceedings besides observation. “The Box” is the borders of the fictional world, the dividing line between that world and ours.

Which is why, when a character in fiction begins addressing the percipient directly, it’s called “breaking the fourth wall.” The wall between viewer and player is shattered, direct interaction occurs. Like everything else this has its uses, and, like everything else, should be used to attain specific desired effects, not casually or without consideration.

What’s going on in the STRANGE ADVENTURES panel is the character is not addressing himself, but is using his thoughts to directly address the reader – whose existence he does not acknowledge. Cannot, in fact; any character in work of fiction who acknowledges the audience also automatically acknowledges his own existence only as a construct, a player in a work of fiction with no reality outside that work. While there are stories where this can work, in most stories another “social compact” is at work: an agreement that the percipient will “suspend disbelief,” a fancy way of saying give the work the benefit of the doubt, as long as the author(s) makes that world as believable as possible.

That’s why I say cheapjack exposition: the STRANGE ADVENTURES character thinks that way not for reasons of character (that sort of thought might be reasonable if it were a conversation between split personalities, one of whom had only shaky awareness of the details of the other’s life) but as an expository short-cut, delivering information the reader needs in order to make sense of the story without, for whatever reason, attempting to weave the information into the fabric of the story. The reader gets the information but the presentation is abrupt, clumsy and momentarily undermines the “reality” of the character’s situation. Unless the character is an imbecile, because while a character wouldn’t need to be an imbecile to talk to himself, only an imbecile would talk to himself like that. Exposition that fits unnaturally into speech is best left to narration, but comics have traditionally also been uncomfortable with narrators. But that’s another topic.

Historically, this most common use of the word balloon – to artlessly deliver necessary information to the reader – arose because originally comics stories were very short, so rapidly bringing the reader up to speed was essential. There was also the general presumption that the reader was likely to be unsophisticated, so unsophisticated narrative devices were enforced to avoid confusing them. (It should be added that, historically, writers and artists don’t usually enter the field at their height of their sophistication either.) Tradition is just behavior culturally enforced over time until it’s accepted as standard, and that’s basically the history of the thought balloon. As comics stories got longer, use of the thought balloon didn’t become more sophisticated; the thoughts just got longer, to the same effect. At least when stories were short the necessary set-ups were usually easy, but when serial multi-chapter stories became the norm, and it was felt necessary to bring readers up to speed with minute and tedious attention to detail at the beginning of each issue, the expository thought balloon grew to ridiculous lengths, with connected thought balloons that spelled out the situation nearly filling up entire pages. By the mid-’70s it became standard practice to open every story with a fast-moving fight scene, to immediately grab readers, which led to the laughable spectacle of characters thinking, in the moment between punches, long, monotonous recitations covering months of plot points leading up to that scene. Besides reading preposterously, such thought chains stretched sense of internal time in stories beyond the snapping point. This wasn’t any mere conceit but abuse of the audience’s willingness to play along, and as time went by fewer and fewer were willing.

Frequently it was the ones most upset that “they” didn’t take comics seriously who enforced and repeated what had become a completely ridiculous device. Where thought balloons weren’t used for outright exposition, they were used mostly as expository road markers to bridge action.

It’s not surprising that many writers, coming fresh to comics in the ’70s and ’80s, viewed the thought balloon as outmoded, unsophisticated and a hindrance to storytelling that even vaguely approached artistic merit. It was. Once certain writers started avoiding the thought balloon in favor of other techniques, most other writers and editors dropped it as well, afraid of being view as unsophisticated or retrograde. For most the new weapon of choice became the first person narrative caption popularized by Frank Miller and a few others. For most it was little more than a stand-in for the thought balloon, relocating the same crappy pseudo-narration, a caption that would read: Now to put on my wire-mesh suit, made of ionized metal!

But it was a difference. A caption isn’t a thought balloon. The two may be put to the same function, even contain the same words, but reader perception is different. The thought balloon is more immediate, connected, a part of the action. It’s the internalized voice of characters. The caption resides separately from the action (think of The Box again), in its own sub-world. The caption looks at the action from outside, disconnected from it. Even if it contains the thoughts of a character, the caption is always narration, and its “speaker” an observer of the story’s action. The thought can be incorporated into action and carried by it; narration always acts as a governor on action, moderating its pace. Having a character also narrate the story is tricky, as it can damage suspense; if nothing else, you more or less take it on trust that the narrator can’t be dead or he couldn’t be telling the story – even when the narration seems to exist simultaneously to the story – unless it’s a trick ending revealing that the story has been narrated by a ghost. Thought balloons, whatever their flaws, engender a sense of immediacy. Narrative captions generate a sense of past action, of a story being told after the fact rather than occurring before our eyes.

But the narrative caption was a fit device for the time. It allowed for far more experimentation and technique than thought balloons would have, and was more appropriate to the ironic distancing found in many of the more popular works of the era. The device alone made possible different types of stories and storytelling that would have been a very cumbersome fit for thought balloons, or for stories told entirely in visuals and dialogue. Many of the storytelling advances in comics since the mid-’80s – while we’ve seen tons of crap since, we’ve also seen tons of stories that wouldn’t have been possible even a few years earlier, and the medium is much more open to experimentation and innovative technique today than it has ever been – not to mention the stories were made possible by tapping unexplored possibilities of the caption. But what now for the thought balloon?

In an artistic medium, there’s no point in abandoning any tool, though there’s also no point in returning to “old school” thought balloons. New narrative techniques and storytelling styles have freed us from that, and while going back might hold a nostalgic appeal for some, nostalgia’s always a dead end. There’s nothing to be gained from it except sentimentality, and that’s a dead end all its own. The fact is that ours is the only medium in which thought can be expressed directly and representationally, for effect. “Thought” can be expressed in TV, film and radio as voiceover, but it’s always spoken, at least until they invent telepathy for the masses. Characters express thoughts in prose fiction through a variety of techniques, but at a remote, with the authorial voice always acting as filter and interpreter, between character and reader. We don’t “hear” characters “think,” we “hear” authors tell us what characters “think.” Sure, there’s authorial voice in comics, and the author chooses words for all his characters (carefully, I’d hope) but our experience when reading a comic is that we are interacting with the characters, not with the author. In comics, the authorial voice is directly expressed only via narrative caption, and captions in comics exist at a remove from the action. They’re two separate if interrelated levels of the fiction’s “reality.”

It’s time we began reimagining and rehabilitating the thought balloon and its possible functions, the same way the sound effect has been quietly reimagined and rehabilitated from its degraded status of recent years. (Like the thought balloon, the sound effect, made a long-running public joke by the ’60s BATMAN TV show, became shunned by comics creators anxious to not have their work dismissed out of hand by the general public. But now it’s back, viable and acceptable again, just another part of the landscape.)

So what’s the ideal use of the thought balloon? Hard to say; there are as many possible uses as imaginations at work. Theoretically, though, the proper use of the thought balloon is to reveal a character’s internal life, as opposed to the possibly quite different face they present to their world, and to other characters. This doesn’t necessarily mean the standard old use of characters thinking in complete sentences and kicking the plot along; in fact, casual thoughts are usually messy, fragmented, bumping into other ancillary or unrelated thoughts. Nobody thinks in a straight line, and it’s unreasonable to demand all our characters do it. A number of “thought balloon techniques” have already been developed and are ready for use: the thought balloon as ironic observation of the world; as counterpoint to action; as expression of the chaos or obsession in a character’s mind; as expressive pictogram. Is there a more immediate depiction of a character’s consternation than a pinched face and a thought balloon filled with nothing but a battery of imposing question marks in block letters? There have been stories where a character’s thought balloons rewrite the action going on around him in real time. Any use is possible, and only one use – the old use – is flagrantly undesirable.

At this point, the only thing anyone will hold against us is using thought balloons again to effectively render character imbecilic. I wouldn’t call thought balloons universally applicable – as with anything else, their use would depend on the specific effect you’re aiming for, with care and planning mandatory – but used inventively and appropriately, thought balloons could offer new tools and techniques, and possibly, regardless of subject matter, even playfulness of a sort that drew many of us to comics in the first place.

A letter from my old pal and almost-collaborater, Brent Wilcox (I suppose one of these days I could brush off that concept we were going to do that never got done back in the TSR-West days), who reports on the changing fortunes of fortunes on the Internet:

“Like many, I’m sure you have an allergy to MySpace, but I’ve found it to be the best thing since sliced bread. A few months ago, I sent Warren Ellis a new electronic music piece I’d done, for his new podcast. I doubted he’d use it, but he did. This completely jumpstarted me into making music again (after a brief 18-year break).

So I set up a MySpace account… Now it feels like the DIY days of the early-80s again. I never made any money off music, but now I can post new pieces instantly and probably get more listens than I got when I was putting out records. And of course I can post old music that few folks have heard. Haven’t set up a store yet.

Like the DIY days anyone can do this. I learned I can plunder MySpace accounts from all over the globe for my radio show – just playing their posted tunes directly over the air. It’s one vast music library, loaded with wonderful obscurities, and I can tap into it! So like the DIY (and KCRW) days, I have access to a ton of new music right at my fingertips… I feel more connected than I have in years.

Anyway, if you want to see what I’ve got going there, it’s Cryptomusicology.”

I’m not opposed to MySpace, I just don’t personally have much use for it. I check out new music there occasionally. Glad to hear it’s providing you with a much needed venue (Brent used to put out electronic music and experimental collage tapes; his Dr. Science remains a perverse favorite) but hurry up and get that store running so you can report back on how it’s working out for you. And if you figure out a way to sell prose fiction online via MySpace, that I’d be interested in.

“Steven, my brother, I wish you’d break up some of those long blocks of text into paragraphs. It would sure make it easier to read.”

Oh.

Sorry.

I’ll do better.

Next time.

Maybe.

Damn, is this Superweek, or what? First the Superbowl, now Super Tuesday… didn’t it occur to DC to somehow capitalize on this. I have no idea how the primaries and caucuses are going – they’re all still well open as I write this, and I’m not interesting in hearing anything about them until the votes are all counted. That’s the bottom line anyway; everything else is just filler, and most of it’s distraction: while the press has focused on the Presidential race, the Democratic Congress has continued quietly selling us out, with Senate leader Harry Reid recently announcing the Senate has reached an accord on the administration’s recent demands for even more expanded powers to insinuate government into the private lives of Americans. Even as the Ghost was giving speeches about how freedom and democracy are America’s most important exports and it’s our god-given duty to ensure the heathens – er, those poor oppressed souls – in the Middle East gain all the benefits of our form of government, and repeating his idiot mantra that “the turrrists” – who are these tourists of which he speaks? – hate us because of our freedoms, he was furthering his administration’s ceaseless quest to bring Stalinism to America by demanding Congress legalize limitless, warrantless taps, on presidential authority, of phone calls and emails of any American citizen. In other words, in their eyes, our communications are their property, not ours. (But don’t worry; the FBI already assures us that, like all the other new powers they’ve gained since the Ghost came to office, they would never ever abuse it… and all those other abuses of recently gained powers were just bureaucratic oversights and sorry about that.) That a president of the United States, sworn by oath to uphold the Constitution, is that dead set on undermining it is disturbing enough, but even more disturbing is the Democrats’ apparent desire that the next president – despite John McCain’s recent ascendancy in the Republican Party, I’m sure Congressional Democrats still fully expect the next president will be a Democrat – have the same capacity for trampling on American liberties.

But at least the Superbowl ended the way it should have. Not that I give a rat’s ass about football, but this is the first time I can remember that a team caught flagrantly cheating earlier in the season became a SuperBowl contender. For all the crackdowns on steroids, gambling, dogfighting, etc. in professional sports, this was the clearest sign that there is no genuine interest, on an oversight level, in cleaning up any game that involves millions of dollars. I’ve got no idea if any New England Patriots players were privy to their coaches, earlier in the season, videotaping opponents’ playbooks during the first halves of games – where the Patriots tended to be losing – and manufacturing counterstrategies then employed in the last halves, which the Patriots always won, but if the NFL were really serious about bringing such behavior to a dead halt they’d have suspended the team for the season and ordered the coaches banned. (Think anyone in the league would even consider trying to cheat after that?) Instead, they wrote it off as bad judgment, took a page from the CIA and destroyed all the pertinent evidence so the issue couldn’t be revisited, and let the season continue untouched. Sure, you can make the argument that punishing the players – let’s assume they were operating in good faith – for the sins of the coaches would be unfair, but it was the owners the NFL was concerned for, and the money from ticket sales, TV revenues, etc. For Fox TV, at least, it turned out to be the right move; this was the most watched Superbowl in history, with some 95 million viewers for most of the game, and over a third of the country watching in the final quarter when the Giants – and who’d ever have thought most Americans would be rooting for the Giants? – crushed New England’s dream of a perfect season. Serves ’em right, but they should never have been allowed to get that far. But what’s a little rulebreaking when there’s money to be made, right?

Notes from under the floorboards:

As usual, I kept track of the Superbowl mainly to see this year’s new crop of commercials, and they were cute. None were really outstanding though Budweiser was as dependable as usual (I’d never drink their swill by choice, but they make good Superbowl commercials, esp. the first one with bottles of Bud hidden inside big bricks of cheese) but the most interesting thing about Superbowl ads this year was: no sex. Given the smarmy t&a shows of the past few years, that was a major change. I wonder if the FCC put a word in the NFL’s ear. As for the halftime show… Tom Petty? That was the best they could come up with? Man, the guy was like a Novocain bazooka even when he was still alive.

Funny hearing John “Mr. Straight Talk” McCain conning the Republican right by invoking the Reagan legacy every chance he gets to emphasize that he’s Reagan’s true heir, when his whole political life he’s been a Goldwater Republican, which Reagan Republicans generally came to consider dangerously moderate. Which was McCain’s image among Republicans prior to the Reagan invocation. Most amusing, and more than a little cynical, is McCain’s new story of his conversion to the wisdom of Ronald Reagan while a P!O!W! in the Hanoi Hilton, when the boys McCain shared a cell with all apparently sat around and had lively (not to mention prescient, since Coolidge’s… sorry, I mean Reagan’s… political philosophies didn’t start seeping into public consciousness in any meaningful way until ’76, a year or so after our end of the Vietnam conflict ended) discussions of Ronald Reagan’s vision of America so captivating that McCain became a rabid Reaganite on the spot. Uh-huh. And Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin he built himself. Then again, McCain is from Arizona, so he may know all about selling waterfront property…

Got an irate call from a pal of mine in comics marketing annoyed at my dismissal of the value of press releases, which are the main promotional tool in most companies’ sales arsenals. Sorry, but I stand by my assessment. On the one hand, press releases, even when they masquerade as “strictly informational,” are pure unbridled shilling almost universally characterized by barely concealed desperation. They’re painful to read, as whoever writes the releases, be it someone in sales one removed from the project, the editor or a creator, always weights it with familiar language that roughly translates into “look at me, not at them!” The real job of the press release, if it’s any kind of sales tool at all (if it’s not, why are you sending it?), is to convince everyone the product is really, really cool – and thus absolutely mandatory to your continued status in society: only someone desperately uncool wouldn’t want to read this book! The problem with this is that you can’t tell anyone your product is cool. That’s low end geekthink; it backfires a hell of a lot more often than it works. They have to tell you the project is cool. Since the vast majority of press releases are mainly concerned with convincing the recipient how cool their product is, in the hope the recipient will bite and repeat it, preferably in column inches, the vast majority of press releases – and books – are beaten out of the gate. Except for those whose life it is to perpetuate press releases, most people have better things to do with their time.

Howard Chaykin introduced me to suspense writer Stephen Hunter’s work many years ago now with Hunter’s novel DIRTY WHITE BOYS, and since then every new Hunter novel has been necessary reading. But the novels have fixated on Hunter’s decades-separated father/son heroes, WWII war hero turned Arkansas cop Earl Swagger and Vietnam war sniper Bob Lee Swagger until Hunter had beaten them to death, and the lastest, THE 47TH SAMURAI (Simon & Schuster), puts a final nail in the coffin of necessity. Halfway through the book (in which Bob Lee returns a Japanese sword taken by his dad at Iwo Jima to the family of the Japanese captain he took it from, triggering a tortured plot mixing Japanese ultranationalism and the porn trade and painfully parallels with violent episodes from Japanese history like the 47 Ronin and the brief, bloody reign of the Shinsengumi in Kyoto during the Meiji Restoration) Swagger the younger, ejected from Japan and plotting revenge on killers, sits for weeks in an apartment in Oakland and gleans everything he knows of Japanese history and sword fighting from watching as many samurai films as he can find. I joked to a friend it sounded more like Hunter had learned most of what he knows about Japan and samurai doing the same thing, and lo, there in the end notes, he pretty much cops to exactly that. Hunter still writes well enough, but his plotting has gotten clumsy and stressed. Not content to merely structure his plot on historical Japanese incidents, he goes out of his way to ensure we’re completely aware of it, and parallel they do. But more interesting is how he has essentially abandoned Bob Lee Swagger as a character. Swagger’s gimmick has always been that he was a sniper. When making battle plans, he always thought as a sniper. In 47th he’s reduced to a mere superman, the perfect warrior, able to master the samurai sword enough in a week to conquer those who’ve spent years with the disciple; aside from an old injury and fleeting mention of his specialty, being a sniper enters into things not at all. At that point, why even use the name? Like most of his other novels, Hunter uses this one to refine the Swagger legend a little more, but so what? Nothing is gained by it; everything, especially the franchise, is lost. I suspect from here either Hunter moves on, or his audience does.

Meanwhile, former Marvel writer & editor/current WRITE NOW! editor & seminar instructor Danny Fingeroth has a new book out, DISGUISED AS CLARK KENT: Jews, Comics & The Creation Of The Superhero (Continuum Books), sort of a companion piece/antidote to Gerard Jones’ more cynical (and more encyclopedic) MEN OF TOMORROW: Geeks, Gangsters & The Birth Of The Comic Book. Gerry’s approach was sociopolitical; Danny’s is psychohistorical. So DISGUISED AS CLARK KENT becomes a brisk (fewer than 200 pages) and entertaining elaboration on one aspect of Gerry’s story, how the social mores of immigrant Jewish culture, just beginning an awkward assimilation into American society as the comic book was rising up, informed the development of what we’ve come to accept as the superhero ethos. The earlier stories, how Will Eisner and Bob Kane and Jack Kirby and myriad other Jewish talents, most with Anglicized name changes became the backbone of the fledgling comics industry, how a couple Jewish kids from Cleveland conceived Superman, will be familiar to many people, if you don’t know them these are excellent recitations. Then Danny goes on to newer thoughts: how many of the superheroes, with their Anglican names (like “Bruce Wayne”; was Batman’s origin a reaction to Kristallnacht?), their secret identities and their ambiguous ethnicity, paralleled the Jewish talents who created them, how later Jews from Bill Gaines to Fredric Wertham to a newly emergent Stan Lee continued to change the face and direction of comics (the most inadvertently funny moment in the book is in Stan’s introduction, where Stan says he never knew the Jewish elements in Marvel’s Thor that Danny documents were there when he, his brother Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby created the character) and how their decisions and crusades evolved from aspects of Jewish-American culture too, and how, in the modern day, the “Jewishness” of comics has on the one hand become indistinguishable from most other influences and on the other aspects of Jewish culture and lore are visible in comics to a great extent than ever before. I don’t know how much genuinely new information the book holds, but it’s a fresh take and worth the easy read. Check it out.

More signs of life in the comics industry: The regional Phoenix Comicon welcomed 5200 guests last weekend, up considerably from prior years. As San Diego grows more and more inaccessible for most people – I managed to score an “it’ll do if it must” room in a hotel I’d rather not stay at, but most hotel rooms for this year were booked up before the last Comic-Con International ended, which is theoretically impossible – if everyone plays by the rules (hotel rooms are only supposed to book eleven months in advance) – regional cons, which are on the upswing again, are becoming increasingly attractive alternatives. This Wednesday morning (probably gone already as you read this) I’m performing a ritual I’ve managed to avoid for the last decade: trying to book a better room via Comic-Con’s own overburdened and under-roomed hotel booking agency. I get the feeling that hotels, most of which virtually doubled their “normal” rates for Comic-Con this year, have been cutting back on the number of rooms they’re willing to set aside for the Con’s special discount if booked through the Con rates. What, no one remembers the many years when no one would have even be visiting San Diego and staying in your stinking hotels if the Con hadn’t been there? How about a little local love back to the freaking new cultural icon that put San Diego back on the map, huh?

Caught Keri Russell in the much-acclaimed WAITRESS, and… wait a minute. What the hell happened? I used to like independent film. I used to love it. Whether highbrow or lowbrow it was often an insane, quasi-mystical joy ride. Now it’s just… either it’s Lifetime Movie Channel lite like WAITRESS or it’s programmically pointless and empty counter-Hollywood tripe like HALF NELSON. And this is what’s been passing for “independent film” for the last bloody decade. Every time “critics” start raving up some “independent” film now and saying how brilliant and daring they are, they always turn out to be this pablum. Sure, they’ve often got decent acting and directing, but these things aren’t movies, they’re audition reels that aren’t thrilling nor arresting nor challenging. Where are the ideas? Where’s the verve? Whatever happened to real independent film?

While I didn’t think much of the BBC show LIFE ON MARS, a lot of you did, so you’ll be interested to know (especially if you have a source for current BBC programming) that the sequel series, ASHES TO ASHES, begins this Thursday. Since BBC America has been pilfering the home office much more quickly these days (TORCHWOOD now airs in America ten days after it airs in Britain) and LIFE ON MARS did well for BBCA, I’ve little doubt ASHES TO ASHES will be along sooner than later. Meanwhile, I hear the Sci-Fi Channel has picked up the other DR. WHO spinoff, THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES, after disastrously taking a bye on TORCHWOOD, which then became BBC America’s killer ap. This leaves questions, though. The adult-themed TORCHWOOD was a clear match for Sci-Fi’s general tone, but the kid-friendly SARAH JANE might have trouble finding a decent berth there. In fact, the ideal cable home for SARAH JANE would have been Cartoon Network, which inexplicably and paradoxically has been taking a shine to live action programming of late…

Congratulations to Anthony Taylor, the first to figure out last week’s Comics Cover Challenge was “smoke and mirrors.” Anthony, who may have had an unnatural advantage since he’s heavy into writing a graphic novel involving illusion, points your attention to his current book THE FUTURE WAS FAB: The Art Of Mike Trim. Go check it out, and keep your eyes open for the new one.

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. (You never know; I might just go on a mass linking spree one of these days, if I can ever find the Internet’s answer to a water tower.) As in most weeks, there’s a secret clue hidden somewhere in the column, but you’ll have to look around for it. Good luck. (By the way, the panels replicated with the thought balloon piece have no connection to the challenge. Covers only. Just so you know.)

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

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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