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Let’s pop an interesting myth of superhero comics. Or rather, of superhero comics fandom.

Had an interesting chat with a fellow comics writer a few days ago. Seems he’s working on some project for one of the bigger companies, and his editor requested that he make the storyline “grim’n’gritty.” That was a big editorial/marketing catchphrase of the ’90s, and that’s all it was, really; I never heard anyone who (originally) did what came to be called “grim’n’gritty” comics call them that, only Johnny-come-latelies out to prove how cool and “adult” they were by showing, oh, guts exposing from bellies shotgunned apart; having “heroes” willing to swear, have sex and kill bad guys while otherwise behaving as standard 1960s superheroes; and commit casual ultraviolence with a smirk and a swagger. But all that came after the original enterprise of great pith and moment had been reduced, on an editorial level, to a gimmick.

The original “movement” wasn’t really a movement (it’s hard to get a real “movement” going in a business as generally dysfunctional as comics) but an attitude, imperfectly shared by a relatively small group of incoming talent and not even discussed all that much among them, that a little snappier action, a little more psychological realism, a little more moral ambiguity and doubt, a little less plot determinism, a little less certainty not only of the outcome of “the battle between good and evil” but of the exact nature of good and evil, even a little less emphasis on “good and evil” and more on variant personalities and situations, not to mention a little less reduction of everything to the lowest common denominator would be appeal to a wider variety of readers. But it wasn’t a style, it was an attitude, and attitude is something you don’t fake; you’ve either got it or you don’t. A lot of what’s now pegged as “early grim’n’gritty” – Frank Miller’s DAREDEVIL and RONIN, Alan Moore’s SWAMP THING, Steve Gerber (whose earlier MAN-THING stories set the pace by often taking a pick-axe to simplistic notions of good and evil) & Val Mayerik’s abortive VOID INDIGO (driven out of print by retailer protest, and it seems almost tepid today) etc. – was in its time considered pretty risky stuff. Until it sold, and a lot of readers made it clear they wanted more. A lot of comics talents started putting what they considered “edgier” material in their comics, like Mike Barr’s first “man-warrior trapped in a woman’s body” character in CAMELOT 3000 (and the influx of 2000 AD reprints – Warren Ellis once told me the 2000 AD style was “ultraviolence punctuated by low humor” – didn’t hurt), but for the most part this was just lathering atop standard superhero behavior. A lot of people wanted to be Frank Miller or Alan Moore, but companies didn’t take the lesson of “let people do what they want to do and maybe you’ll find a lot more Frank Millers and Alan Moore,” they decided “Oh, but that’s Frank” and “Oh, but that’s Alan,” which is certainly true but still misses the point. It may sound like self-aggrandizement – hold that thought – but I always felt my PUNISHER MINI-SERIES was what really kicked open the “grim’n’gritty” floodgates. Marvel had always considered The Punisher to be a throwaway character, and as late as a couple weeks before release of #1 someone from marketing spat out fairly vehemently that Marvel’s audience had no interest in the adventures of a homicidal maniac. For years I’d been trying to convince the company that, set in the right milieu (and duking it out with Spider-Man wasn’t it) the character could function pretty spectacularly, and I finally got lucky – right time, right concept, right artist – but it wasn’t exactly an accident. I’m not sure how many readers consciously recognized it, but my version of The Punisher didn’t have a heroic bone in his body; by my reckoning, he was a coldly efficient, analytical psychopath in the clinical sense of the term: completely cut off from his own emotions. Other Marvel writers couldn’t grasp the concept when I told them he should get absolutely zero personal pleasure from his killings. I didn’t think my concept was especially original, since it was inherent in Gerry Conway’s first portrayal of him, but I did feel Mike Zeck and I had refined him into something no one had seen in Marvel Comics before. Apparently readers felt the same way.

But I had a reputation within the business for nondescript work. (Doing a lot of fill-ins will achieve that, and if you really want to achieve a good rep as a writer, hooking up in a long-term arrangement with a fan favorite artist never hurts, but it was something I’d never managed.) The internal response to the PUNISHER MINI-SERIES wasn’t to start saying “but he’s Steven Grant” the way they said “but he’s Frank Miller” or “but he’s Alan Moore” (not that I’m saying they should have; this is just by way of illustration) they said “hell, if he can do it anyone can,” and the lesson most editors and marketers took from the book was “the audience wants ‘dark’ heroes who kill criminals.” Whatever may have happened before, I really do think that’s the moment “grim’n’gritty” was born, when editors tried to boil what was essentially an attitude, a worldview, down to a formula, without quite realizing it wasn’t something you can just slather atop the existing formula and still have it mean anything, or that there’s a vast difference between moral ambiguity (which at least suggests there are questions still to be answered) and a moral void. The worldview isn’t “grim’n’gritty,” the formula is, and the formula is what took root as soon as it became generally believed there was money in it.

Apres moi le deluge.

Of course, every action has a reaction, and there was a vocal response to the grim’n’gritty movement. It wasn’t the right response, which would have been to just point out how inane the formulization was and get on with the larger business of creating new comics with new and different points of view. But it was a response. What I call the “making comics fun again” school. By this theory, seemingly embraced by those mainly in comics to hold onto their Comics Code Authority approved childhood, “grim’n’gritty” was undermining everything good about comics, specifically superhero comics. (Which is true, just not in the way they think.) Complaints were filed that everything was so downbeat and depressing, heroes behaved in what the clique considered “unheroic” ways (damaging/obliterating their status as, heh, “role models”) and villains all became homicidal maniacs.

Strangely, DC’s THE FLASH ended up being the poster boy for this backlash, with the special distinction made that in 1960s FLASH comics, the villains were “fun” while in the ’80s and early ’90s they became cold-blooded killers. This theory ultimately cascaded into things like IDENTITY CRISIS, where the “bumbling” Dr. Light is recreated as a rapist and (at least by initial appearances) a killer, and the superheroes demonstrate their unexpectedly pragmatic view toward morality by tampering with the memories of villains, down to the final issue of last year’s FLASH series, where the whole official Flash Rogues Gallery teams up to murder the third Flash, apparently to officially drive the final nail into the Silver Age.

But I grew up reading those Silver Age DC comics too, and Superman, Green Lantern, and whoever else had any means to pull it off routinely obliterating memories not only of their enemies who’d discovered some terrible secret (like a secret identity or the location of the Batcave and such) but of their friends, so why would that be a big deal to Silver Age fans? Recently I had reason to go through the John Broome/Gardner Fox/Carmine Infantino run of FLASH stories – don’t ask – and know what I found?

The Flash Rogues Gallery were always homicidal maniacs. By and large the Rogues don’t bother trying to kill bystanders, but if you read the books carefully it’s clear it’s only because they’re not worth the bother and as time goes on they rarely come in contact with any. The Flash? Him they’re constantly trying to kill, and not always with the goofy deathtraps that give him time to escape. (Captain Boomerang alone flings him into the murderous chill of outer space more than once.) In one scene later in the run where a number of villains gang up on the Flash and apparently obliterate him (though by then you’d think they’d know better) they start to bicker over who deserves the credit.

There’s the theoretically innocuous Dr. Light, more than happy to be a murderer. Goofy? Sure. (I especially like the Top’s plan to blow up half the world, because he’ll be safe on the other half. Huh?) Callously homicidal? Obviously.

Read enough of these things and other DC Silver Age titles with a fresh eye, and you can recognize two trends going on: a lot of (basically silly) surrender to Code-dictated restrictions (pretty much every time Captain Cold freezes banks or cities or cops or bystanders with “absolute zero,” they make a point of saying the victims will “thaw out” but science maven Julie Schwartz, not to mention the quite educated Gardner Fox and John Broome, surely understood that nothing normal could survive it) and little outbursts here and there that try to stretch the boundaries, though never to the extent that Stan Lee did at Marvel, where he only had himself and his publisher to answer to. Not that the stuff didn’t have its moment or its effects – a whole generation of British comics writers apparently grew up believing not only that DC-style silliness was what American comics were all about but what they should be all about, but gussied up in 2000 AD drag – but it was never quite as innocent as it’s generally remembered to be, and what has been done with superhero comics since are mostly things that were bubbling under the surface all along. The fight to revert them quietly goes on, with diminishing returns, and without much recognition of the little reversions that have occurred over time. Recently another friend commented on Marvel’s WORLD WAR HULK, disappointed that much of it is less “Hulk smash” than “Hulk delegate,” and noting the Hulk goes on a massive rampage but nobody dies. Neither especially bothered me, and as far as dying Hulk victims goes, it’s easy enough to imagine plenty of corpses rotting in flattened brownstones and skyscrapers if you choose, but I never expect realistic violence from Marvel in the first place. The conceit of lots of destruction but nobody dying has been a standard conceit in comics since the beginning, and certainly a Marvel conceit since the first time the Mole Man invaded or Thor and the Absorbing Man first pounded a path of destruction through midtown, and most of the time I’m willing to look the other way. I think we all are; there are always conceits we’re willing to accept in the short term, if the story is worth it. It’s all a balancing act of what you can and can’t get readers to accept. But what the “making comics fun again” crowd generally remember is a fantasy resting more on ignorance than innocence, and the day for that has passed.

Speaking of days that have passed, I see some retailers have taken issue with Boom! Studios co-releasing a new title, NORTH WIND, in print and online. I know NORTH WIND is a big deal book for Boom!, though I couldn’t tell you anything about it because while Boom! sends me all their press releases I never read anyone’s press releases – I mean, really, who among us can’t quote press releases verbatim now without even reading the things? Don’t they all, whether from friend or foe, say the exact same thing? – but I think the real question for retailers might be: what do you expect?

At least where small publishers are concerned. It’s no secret that the direct market has evolved into a pretty inhospitable place for them: what independent books comics shops order are rarely ordered in sufficient volume (for the publishers’ purposes; probably many are ordered in more than sufficient volume for the retailers’ purposes, which is a related issue that neither publishers nor retailers will solve on their own) and, seemingly conversely, there are so many independent comics available that trying to find a new one on the racks is usually like trying to find a drop of water in the ocean. Easy enough if all you want is water, pretty hard when you want a specific drop. The fact is that most independent comics don’t sell even worth a retailer’s time to order them, yet retailers still order enough that it’s understandable they feel like they’ve done their bit for independent comics, and that most comics, including those from the majors, are ridiculously underpromoted because there’s just no money in the budget for it. It doesn’t help that the marketing-ordering process is pretty mechanical now, and from what I understand mostly drudgework for everyone involved. So I can also understand retailers getting a little hinky when independent publishers and creators lay the blame for low sales on them. But the fact also remains that for most independents the comic shop is the only game in town, and it’s perfectly reasonable they should feel that comics shops are inadequate outlets. In most instances they are, regardless of intent. (After awhile, this becomes a circular argument, like GK Chesterton’s conclusion that “any idea which cannot be expressed in language is an inept idea, and any language incapable of expressing that idea is an inept language.”) If no one knows about your project, they’re not going to go looking for it. If no one’s looking for it, retailers aren’t going to sell it. If they don’t have any reason to think they’re going to sell it, they’re not going to order it.

Reports are that NORTH WIND is “sold out,” which translates into “copies are no longer available from Diamond.” While this sort of “sold out” is a vast improvement over what publishers used to pimp as “sold out” in the ’80s and ’90s. (Eclipse, which may have originated the con, used to regularly talk about how print runs selling out, without mentioning that they, like every other independent publisher, were only printing as many copies as ordered and what “sold out” meant for them was they didn’t have any copies left, not that retailers or Diamond didn’t have gobs. It wasn’t long before every smaller publisher jumped that train, until “sold out” no longer meant anything to anyone.) Diamond not having copies left in their warehouses presumably means retailers reordered in anticipation of big sales, and not that Boom! didn’t print many extras for Diamond to hold. In any case, I can understand why some retailers might not be especially pleased that Boom! is releasing the book free online at the same time they release the book to retailers for sale in comics shops. I know some are upset they weren’t made aware of Boom!’s online plans before orders were placed.

On the other hand…

This seems to me an interesting test of precepts the comics industry is living by in regards to the Internet. The fear of some retailers is that anyone who wants to read NORTH WIND will read it free online rather than go to comics shops to buy a copy. Which is a risk, especially if the book isn’t especially compelling. If it is a superior product, though… some people keep insisting that online presentation of comics will never replace print because readers want The Real Thing in their hands.

What happens if Boom! announces to retailers before the ordering cycle that the book will be simultaneously published online, with free access? From the sound of it, retailers would correspondingly cut their orders on the presumption online exposure would limit interest in paper version. Which means fewer copies in circulation. So what happens if the other theory is the right one, and a considerable number of people who read the comic online decide it’s good enough that they want permanent hardcopies of the thing? At that point, Boom! (let alone retailers) is in no position to capitalize on it, since most people, especially casual buyers, want things when they want them, and the two weeks or a month or whatever it takes to special order a comic is the same block of time during which something else catches their attention and money. Meaning everyone’s screwed. Not that I have any reason to believe Boom! intentionally didn’t notify retailers – I wouldn’t be surprised if the online scheme was cooked up at the 11th hour. (I haven’t discussed it with anyone – but while on an ethical level it’d come off as a bit shady, on a pragmatic level I wouldn’t really blame them if they didn’t.)

The situation is rotten with unprovens. So far Internet exposure is unproven to noticeably affect the sales of paper comics – but who’s measuring? Do most people really only want the content and not the artifact? Unproven. If Internet exposure doesn’t increase comics sales, are retailers correct in assuming up front it would decrease them? Unproven. It seems to me these are fairly important questions for the business as we move deeper and deeper into what’s modestly called “the information age,” but no one’s doing much to find answers to them. If the NIGHT WIND situation is one where there are parties in the right and in the wrong, it’d be nice if we had more practical data than theories to determine which is which. In any case, as long as smaller publishers (and many larger ones) have few other places to turn and generic press releases creep below zero impact, retailers had better get used to a lot more of this sort of thing, especially if the NORTH WIND ploy works out for Boom!

As we crawl toward the Nevada caucus this Saturday, I’m officially sick of election season. Especially of the political ad phone calls that have been coming in thirty or forty times an hour, telling me this candidate or that is the Agent Of Change (when they’re not push polls asking my opinion of the Ghost’s performance in office). I can kind of buy Obama as an “agent of change,” at least in theory, but I still can’t quite swallow it of Hillary, who still strikes me as essentially the same as the Ghost. Not that her objectives and policies wouldn’t be considerably different, but she seems, like the Ghost, a person who doesn’t want to work with others so much as have them work for her.

Hillary does win gaffe of the week, though, for comparing herself and Barack Obama with Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King Jr. and suggesting that it was Johnson, not King, who was ultimately responsible for the success of the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s. It’s true that Johnson did oversee the enactment of much civil rights legislation and his Supreme Court wasn’t shy about enforcing it, but without King and thousands of other dedicated workers and protesters what are the odds that legislation would ever have been felt necessary by a predominantly (and far more predominantly than today) white power structure? Maybe Hillary should have worked out that analogy a little further, and reconsidered; I’m not sure equating yourself with a president whose ambitious domestic policies were crushed by his inability to handle an escalating and unwinnable war that ultimately led him to abandon the office in disgrace rather than seek re-election is the wisest course in this particular election season. Fairly or otherwise, Johnson isn’t remembered very fondly by anyone these days, and trying to quick rehabilitate his reputation to put yourself over seems a fool’s errand. Hillary has since spoken in glowing terms of the life-changing event of witnessing King speak, and is further trying to mend the damage by going on THE TYRA BANKS SHOW to woo the young black female vote – an important block in Saturday’s South Carolina primary – and offset some of Obama’s Oprah support. I can’t wait to hear her field Tyra’s typically hard-hitting questions like “Mrs. Clinton, is it true you… um… what’s a question again? Is that the thing with one of those squiggly things at the end?”

I do wish, though, at some town meeting or during a televised debate, that someone would ask the candidates on all sides of the aisle why they’re no longer talking about the war. Despite press pronouncements that Americans are now sanguine about it since “the Surge,” primary/caucus exit polls so far have indicated Iraq is still the #1 issue for voters, with the economy a very close #2. I notice even “real experts” are now tossing around the term “recession” and various pundits are warning that saying it too loudly could shake citizen’s faith in the economy. But as pretty much any homeowner in America can tell you, it’s a little late for that.

Last I heard, Romney’s taking Michigan by a substantial lead over McCain, which must be music to Giuliani’s ears. So far Rudy’s the big loser of the early convention season; everyone everywhere seems to hate him (Ron Paul’s been getting double Rudy’s numbers in just about every contest, and the media barely acknowledges Paul exists) though I know he’s banking on New York and Florida to give his campaign life. Good luck with that. (I mean that with total insincerity, since Giuliani presidency would be another bloody disaster). Listened to tonight’s Democratic debate a little during supper, and turns out John Edwards has a real winner of a campaign platform, if only he’d play it right: making our children’s lives better than ours. I don’t think he or his people realize what they’ve got; it’s not quite as brief as “change” but a lot more direct. That’s it, I’ve decided to push for Edwards at this weekend’s caucuses, not so much because I expect him to take the nomination but just to keep anyone from going anointed into the first Super Tuesday.

Notes from under the floorboards:

The wrap up to my 2 GUNS mini-series should be out from Boom! Studios today. Look for it at a comics shop near you (Diamond willin’ and the crick don’t rise). Off taking pictures today for a news article in conjunction with the Las Vegas/Clark County Library System’s ComicsFest on the 26th, as I mentioned last week. I guess Greg Rucka and Jimmy Gownley are now confirmed as guests, among others. If there’s an Internet link to the article I’ll run it next week.

I should also be putting another round of items for auction on eBay this Friday, so check there then if you think of it, and I’ll remind you next Wednesday in any case. (Apparently I’m a “blue star” over there now, whatever that means in real terms.)

Recently bopped over to the Silver Bullet Comic Books site for the first time in awhile, and was surprised to see they’ve renamed the site Comics Bulletin and given it a quite attractive overhaul. (I didn’t want to say anything before, but the old design was pretty cramped and ugly, so the new site is a huge improvement.) While I’m busy pissing all over brand loyalty (sorry, Jonah) go check out the new blog-turned-online magazine Comics Waiting Room. There aren’t so many good comics sites on the web we can’t use more of them.

I see today’s tempest in a teapot is superhero fans’ in an uproar over PLAYBOY painting a Wonder Woman costume (with vinyl thighboots and sans tiara) on their nude Playmate of the Year, who recently got fired from CELEBRITY APPRENTICE for, of all things, doing what her project manager told her to do. Turns out PLAYBOY is a sexist magazine that emphasizes female physical beauty over all other attributes. What a shocker! (Personally, I was hitting puberty about the time bodypainted nudes first became the rage, so though I know better intellectually it still counts as sort of a turn-on for me.) Most amusing aspect of this tempest: the sense that Wonder Woman has now been tainted as a role model for girls. A what now? We’re talking about Wonder Woman, right? Bazoongas out to here, skintight costume, high heels, bare legs and emphasized crotch, slave bracelets on her wrists Wonder Woman. Right? The Wonder Woman whose creator intended her to warm girls up to the joys of freedom via bondage and submission, right? If you think Wonder Woman is a role model, bodypainted nudes are about the least of your problems…

Just because I felt like going to the movies, I caught the Coen Brothers’ NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN over the weekend – and it turns out to be one of those rare instances where the film is better than the book. The novel was a shaky effort by Cormac McCarthy, who refined his theme to far better effect in the subsequent, superior THE ROAD, and the Coens strip the story down to its core and get on with it. A story about a man who stumbles on a drug deal gone wrong and steals the money to make a better life for the wife he adores, and of the sheriff and the hit man both tracking him, it reeks of invisible, hostile places, and the filmmaking is so good and so sharp, the visuals so beautiful and pointed, that the film is captivating even through long stretches where, effectively, nothing really happens. Some in the audience I saw it with seemed to think the film had no point – a Hollywood ending it’s not – but the film makes its point, and McCarthy’s point, perfectly.

The new season of TORCHWOOD begins in England tonight, while the dinosaur-hunting, timewarping PRIMEVAL began its second season over there on the weekend. PRIMEVAL pretends to deal with serious issues – this one fixated on possible effects on the present actions in the past might have – but it’s really just a lark. It doesn’t quite make it as serious science fiction (then again, neither does TORCHWOOD) but it’s an entertaining enough way to kill an hour, if you run across it.

Congratulations to Larry Hart, the first to figure out last week’s Comics Cover Challenge was “numbers.” (The cover that threw everyone was THE FLASH, but you may notice that on that cover he’s holding up five “digits.”) Your mission this week: make Larry happy with a visit to Margaret Liss’ CEREBUS fangirl site, aptly named Cerebus Fangirl Site.

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. There’s a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but if you can’t find it try not to get excessively annoyed, okay? Good luck.

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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