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Heard from a friend yesterday about a small comics publisher who was shocked at the low sales of a book they just published. Once I was told, it didn’t really surprise me at all: while I knew the book was going to be done, I had no idea it was out.

Apparently, neither did anyone else.

Going into 2008, a lot of publishers are going to have to make a lot of tough decisions. The “Field Of Dreams” mentality – “Build it and they will come” – is still strong at work among publishers and talent alike, despite its consistent failure for comic after comic and publisher after publisher. Nobody is going to come to your book or publication just because you publish it, any more than they’re going to suddenly convert to Jainism just because the sect exists. Most people, certainly in America, never even heard of Jains… just like they’ve never heard of your book.

Which means you have to tell them.

Which is so elementary it sounds utterly condescending to even bring it up. But publishers still publish without doing it, without even having a game plan for doing it that they never follow up on.

A game plan shouldn’t be that much of a mystery, but apparently it still is for many. It presumes, of course, that publishing is intended to be a money-making enterprise and not just expensive ego gratification. At its foundation is the additional presumption that the product in question – and I know many people hate talking about the latest Bill Sienkiewicz production as though it’s a can of dog food but them’s the facts of commerce in America – is in some way “commercial.” “Commercial” is an often misunderstood and misapplied term; it’s usually taken to mean “selling out to a witless broad common denominator,” and sometimes it means that, but all it really means is that you’re pretty sure somewhere there’s enough of an audience to make publishing worth your while. Which doesn’t exactly mean you have to be in it for the money – I think most people who are in comics must love them on at least some level – but, just to beat you over the head one more time with an aphorism from my youth – as they used to say back in the late ’60s, love is like butter: it’s better with bread.

So what publishers should be asking themselves first, with every single publication they put out: who’s the audience? Maybe it’s just you, that’s cool if that’s the way you want to play it, but if other people enter the equation, the next question has to be: how do we reach them?

Which is where most publishers stumble, even the big ones. Without a working delivery system, even the biggest payload means squat, unless you’re looking to blow yourself up – which is what most publishers end up doing – and we’re under the delusion that we’ve got a delivery system in comics, but, as I’ve mentioned before, it’s really geared only to deliver a narrow spectrum of payloads. To continue the weapons analogies, you can’t stick a .44 cartridge into a .22 pistol and expect your gun to fire. It just doesn’t work.

So there are a couple different approaches: generate the material and look for a market, or look to find what the market’s buying and generate material to fit it. From a strictly financial standpoint, the latter would seem the most logical, and there are comics companies that pretty much exist to capitalize on already established properties in the hope that they bear their own pre-existent audiences and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the problem with pre-existent markets is that they not only have pre-existent audiences but a range of pre-existing material from other publishers who are already feeding that audience.

Meaning: a publisher (or talent) not only has to let that audience know his material exists, and has to get that material to the audience, they have to be able to present a credible argument that the material is not only better than what they’re getting already but significantly better, to the point they’ll be willing to abandon the familiar and switch to they know not what. At least not until they read it. And better enough that they won’t switch back after they’ve read it.

Good trick, if you can pull it off. In big boom times it’s a little easier, since other forces are acting on the market. These ain’t those times, not that they’re the worst times we’ve ever seen. But they sure aren’t times to start thinking that books can be marketed by osmosis. The Internet makes things easier, but easier’s not the same as easy, and all that arguments to the consumer still have to be made. They don’t necessary have to take a lot of money, though money helps, but they take an awful lot of work.

The basics of marketing are easy. They’re just questions:

1) Who’s the audience?

2) How do we let the audience know the product exists, and where to get it?

3) How do we convince the audience they need the product, even if we already know they do?

The answers are the hard part. Nothing sells itself, unless an eager audience already exists, and that audience will only already exist if someone has already done the tedious leg work of selling. And you’re not always going to like the answer, because it might very well be: it doesn’t deserve to sell. (Not that “deserve” ever had much to do with it.) It’s the publisher’s job (as well as the talents’) to answer those questions. Cruelly, if necessary. It’s not that difficult to tell good or bad in comics (not like those ever had that much to do with sales either) but it’s not that easy to make painful choices either.

2008’s going to be a festival of painful choices for any publisher who wants to stick around, because the competition’s getting tougher. But clever small publishers have flexibility large publishers don’t, like cutting co-publishing deals with increasingly hungry “real” book publishers, and there are literary agents all over Los Angeles hot to represent comics companies. There are possibilities out there, to be found, exploited or generated, and it’s getting so that the further from standard comics delivery system – mainly the direct market – the more potential benefit to all concerned. The direct market is really good at delivering only a couple types of payloads, but any other payloads it carries are generally just out of luck.

But every publisher, every creator, should be guided by simple principles:

If they don’t know it’s there, they won’t know to look for it.

If they think they can live without it, nine times out of ten they’ll live without it.

If they can’t find it, they can’t buy it.

But if they know it’s there, they can find it, and you can convince them they can’t live without it, that’s how comics companies are made. But you only get there by living in the real world.

Mail, we’ve got mail:

“I was wondering lately about the influx of graphic novels in the bookstores and how they help break the mold that comics aren’t just superheroes. But I can’t quite define what impression we’re giving out there. If you walk into a comic store there’s superhero comics everywhere, if you go to the graphic novel section in a bookstore what stands out? Manga?

I remember you saying the other month how we need more mainstream comics along the lines of POWERS, WALKING DEAD and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT but couldn’t publishers capitalize on the fresh image graphic novels can give the industry? Or is it the comics monthly format that holds them back? And I suppose by “back” I mean they’re stuck with the superhero model, they’re easier to produce and the graphic novel is dependent on them for content.

Not that I want to see the comic book go. I love the medium, the feel of it, being able to spread the pages out and see artwork in full, even their bitesize fill (unless it’s a wordy Claremont comic…). But the market’s shrinking out there and it looks like the graphic novel’s the way of the future.

I did notice Marvel turning towards classic literature for comics content which was unexpected and with the likes of Stephen King at their side it’s an interesting way to go. But wouldn’t it be great if we had a lot more name recognition at our side (for quality of course, not just the dollar signs)?”

“Real” book publishers have done a good job of creating a bookstore presence for alt comics, and they’re the ones with the most experience and influence in bookstores, but I suspect the comics most people go to bookstores for, so far, are manga. The standard comic format does hold back the form to some extent, in that it inflicts an artificial boundary – ~22-28 pages tops per segment – on stories, which results in a fairly rigid pacing that’s probably invisible to most people who grew up reading comics because they’re used to it. The artistic advantage of the graphic novel is that the pacing and structure becomes totally fluid, completely open to whatever the talent chooses to do within the space. Most people haven’t bothered thinking in those terms or exploring the possibilities yet, but I can’t imagine, for example, Bryan Talbot’s ALICE IN SUNDERLAND (Dark Horse Comics, if you want to know more) broken up into 22 page chunks and still retaining the same beauty and impact. Already quite a few publishers are preferring to publish graphic novels over mini-series, and I suspect we’re not far removed from a time where “direct to graphic novel” publishing is more economically feasible for most books than the serialization/collection model. As for name recognition, that’s something you earn.

“[Re: advice]Is this the same Bob Schreck that insists people only really start to get into their drawing after doing it for 10 or 12 hours? Or is it the Bob Schreck that insists on people quitting their jobs and having their wives support them if they really want to get in the industry? He’s a nice guy, and can make some valid comments…but he has given some pretty irresponsible advice to people out there.”

Bob’s never given me bad advice that I recall, and I don’t record everything he says so I don’t know what he has told others, but my general philosophy toward other people’s advice is that it’s perfectly all right to cherry pick the good advice from the bad, and ignore the latter. Regardless, his advice that I published last week is still good advice.

“What’s amazing about DC’s (or National Comics) line-up is the diversity in 1953. Super-Heroes: SUPERMAN, BATMAN, WORLD’S FINEST. Science Fiction: MYSTERY IN SPACE. Comedy: BOB HOPE, MARTIN AND LEWIS. Western: TOMAHAWK, WESTERN COMICS. Funny Animals: PETER PORKCHOP, FOX & CROW, REAL SCREEN. Teenage: BINKY, BUZZY, HERE’S HOWIE, A DATE WITH JUDY. Mysteries: GANG BUSTERS, MR. DISTRICT ATTORNEY, REX THE WONDER DOG, BIG TOWN. War: OUR ARMY AT WAR. Then in 1963 we get the explosion of super-hero comics. And these other genres disappear. What happened that made those other genre’s fall off the map in terms of comics? And why such a huge explosion of only the super-hero genre in 1963?”

In 1963? Marvel happened, as well as the beginning of a slow shrinkage of markets as prices rose. In fairness to DC, in 1953 they were publishing a lot more titles than those – visibly missing from the list are long-running title ACTION COMICS, DETECTIVE COMICS, ADVENTURE COMICS and WONDER WOMAN, among many others – and the company continued to publish a pretty diverse line through the early ’70s. But markets kept shrinking, conditions kept changing and eventually (as now) economics forced them to make a choice. You go with what sells, and superheroes were the only thing that seemed by then to have any hope of a market at all, at least for DC. It’s hard to remember now that for awhile there in the late ’70s, there was a question as to whether DC could afford to keep going at all, and there were moments when they were a word away from canceling SUPERMAN and BATMAN.

“[Re: my comment about doing a weekly comic] My current publisher prefers a bi-monthly schedule to allow retailers to order based on sales, rather then on guesswork. I kind of think that two months is a long time to wait for the second chapter of an ongoing story. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the upside/downside to a weekly publishing frequency. Mightn’t it be necessary to go with a slimline format, probably a fast artist, and a goodly chunk of pages in the bag before soliciting that first issue?”

I can see where small publishers might prefer bi-monthly publication for economic reasons, but it’s pretty well established by this point that it’s easier to build an audience with shorter frequency of publication, not longer. And do retailers really buy on the basis of sales, at least until a title is already well established? It’s always guesswork, but I do think visible publisher willingness to promote and support product does impress many retailers and maybe gives them a little more faith that the publisher has faith in the product. From a creative standpoint, a weekly comic is a nightmare though I can imagine seeing your work out and available so quickly after you finish it, not to mention the required obsessive focus, could be quite a kick, and certainly if you wanted to build momentum quickly that would be a good way to do it as long as you kept up and the material merited it. For publishers, it represents a much bigger crapshoot and cash outlay. In any case, yeah, lots of preparation and a (good) fast artist would definitely be on my weekly comic production wish list.

“Really enjoyed your column about Daredevil and Crimebuster, but there were a couple of possible errors. You stated that Jack Cole created Daredevil, but Jack Binder actually did the first story in SILVER STREAK #6. Cole did the return of the Claw story in the same issue and then swiped Daredevil to use in the strip starting with #7. Cole changed the character as he saw fit, giving him a blue/red costume to replace the original blue/yellow and ditching the whole mute crimefighter thing. So he definitely created some aspects of the character, but not the character itself unless he was working on it behind the scenes. Also you said Crimebuster might be the first non-sidekick teen hero. Not sure who the first one was, but Wonder Boy debuted in NATIONAL COMICS #1 (July 1940) so it definitely wasn’t Crimebuster. At least two others (Marvel Boy from DARING MYSTERY #6, and the Young Avenger from USA COMICS #1) also preceded him. Still one of the best teen heroes ever. His early stories going up against Iron Jaw are great. I’ll grant you the first long lasting solo teen superhero as he beat both Airboy and Kid Eternity by several months. Rusty Ryan in FEATURE COMICS had also started wearing a costume by then, but he had the Boyville Brigadiers with him so I guess he wasn’t really a solo teen. Same for the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy. I’m assuming that we’re not considering Captain Marvel Jr. as a solo hero because he’s a spin-off character? Anyway, sorry to be such a stickler, but I loves me some Golden Age trivia.”

I did remember Jack Binder had something to do with the original Daredevil, but when I want to check the only name I could find was Cole. Thanks for the corrections.

“From looking at the 1953 lineup of stars, wow, that really was a dark age for comics. While I’ve been aware that superheroes had fallen from the comic books in the 1950s, I hadn’t really thought about it in terms of how few hero books there were compared to the rest of the lineup (no WONDER WOMAN star? – maybe it was not a complete lineup from 1953?). It sure was a surprise. You mentioned the effects of inkers on pencilers – great topic! The first thing that popped into my mind was Vince Colletta’s inks over Mike Grell in some of the early issues of WARLORD. He really killed the detailed work of Grell and took the life out of the artwork. I’ve always wondered why Colletta was chosen as the inker for those books. I think it was on a bi-monthly schedule at the time – was it really a time issue? Ric Estrada over Wally Wood in the 1970s version of ALL STAR COMICS was another disappointment. Joe Giella’s inks always seemed to dull Gil Kane’s pencils, but Sid Greene did an OK job with Kane. I think they both inked various ATOM and GREEN LANTERN stories in the 1960s. Is there an inker who made Barry Smith’s or Jim Steranko’s pencils look better? I can’t recall any. On the flip side – I always thought that Dick Giordano’s inks improved Neal Adams pencils. Giordano kept the dynamics in Adams’ pencils, but made the story flow a bit more smoothly. Murphy Anderson always made Curt Swan’s pencils a little more interesting and dynamic and he (Anderson) calmed down Carmine Infantino’s pencils. Terry Austin sure made John Byrne’s pencils look better. I think Austin had the same effect on Byrne that Giordano had on Adams. They both solidified and cleaned up the pencils and enhanced the strengths of the artists. But I don’t think either Austin or Anderson made the final result more representative of the penciler’s intent, although I think the final product was “better.” Obviously, there are thousands of other examples.”

Vinnie’s inks on pretty much anyone killed the detail, and I’m hard pressed to think of any other inker whose work was so widely reviled by the pencilers he was inking, though he also had his share of fans. Gil pretty much hated most of the inking on his work, except his own, but that’s not uncommon among pencilers either. Murphy had a tendency to “fill out” whatever pencils he inked and give the work a more solid, 3D look – but it also always looked like Murphy’s work, just as Wally Wood inking anyone came out looking like Wally Wood’s work. Terry, too, for that matter. Inking’s really a very interesting craft; are there are great inkers who weren’t good pencilers in their own right? Some became inkers because that’s where the work was, some because their natural affinities swing more toward rendering than design, some because while inking rates are almost always less than penciling rates they could ink fast enough (compared to penciling time) to more than make up the difference. Any other reasons? Any pencilers who primarily ink want to weigh in?

A few columns back, I wrote up ten comics everyone should be reading. My criteria for inclusion seems to have eluded some. Those were all books that may or may not have been among my favorites, but which I generally felt had the widest breadth of reward for the greatest number of people, if that makes any sense. There were many books I read and enjoy, some more than even some that made the list, which I felt might not be broadly appealing; being in the right headspace or having a particular cultural background is pretty much de rigueur for enjoying, say, many of Warren Ellis’ comics, and people tend to resent being told they have to do legwork before digging into something, while others get seriously peeved to learn Frank Miller & Jim Lee’s ALL STAR BATMAN & ROBIN THE BOY WONDER doesn’t take Batman seriously. (Personally, I enjoy the vitriolic, over the top humor, but hey.) So all that and more got eliminated from the list on general principle. Creative pedigree by itself also was no reason for inclusion, though there are a lot of good creators out there doing good books. There are also a lot of good creators out there doing not especially good books. Personal taste is always part of an assessment equation, but the question is always whether you like it because it’s good, or if you think it’s good because you like it. To the extent you can filter out personal taste, you can answer that question, but only to that extent. Ideally you could filter out all but objective criteria to work from – but, paradoxically, your idea of what constitutes “objective criteria” is also a matter of personal taste (at least where art is concerned).

Art criticism is fractal.

What you like, what’s good, and what may be applicable for other tastes don’t necessarily align – rarely align, in fact – though most of us prefer to think they do.

That said, there are books I read regularly and like a lot that I wouldn’t generally recommend. But they’re still worth mentioning, and they will be, over the next few weeks.

Up first, a couple Vertigo books:

I thought TESTAMENT, by Douglas Rushkoff & various (usually Liam Sharp) was kind of weak when it started, and it was. The people who love it really love it, but there weren’t enough of them to keep it from its upcoming cancellation. But there’s still time to get in on the finale, and I hope Vertigo will reissue the entire series in trade. (Since bookstores would seem to be Rushkoff’s more natural playing field anyway.) The first four issues were a tactical error, introducing the main players but wrapping them in a forced storyline paralleling familiar Biblical events with a cyberpunking quasi-fascist near future. Meant to build toward the main storyline – a war among ancient gods rewriting old stories on a futuristic sociopolitical landscape extrapolated from our current situation – it was frustrating because it managed to dodge all explanation of what was really going on. This isn’t uncommon in new series, especially from writers new to comics; it’s culturally symptomatic these days to keep your cards close to your vest, and in TESTAMENT‘s case they were a little too closely held. Had the fifth issue, which spells out the series premise, been the first issue, I suspect fewer readers would have been frustrated by the series and more would have stayed with it. By issue 9 you can sense the creators feeling time closing in on them, as things take off at a rocket clip, and suddenly the main story – outcast rebels trying to stave off a technofascist future rapidly gobbling up America and the world – is overflowing with ideas, like the biblical stories not being imperfect ancient parallels to modern events but as a sort of simultaneous time still being written where present events can change the course of the original stories. The characters and their relationships to their world also get more complex and interesting, and, kicking into its final cycle, TESTAMENT has finally become one of the more intriguing books out there. Those of a strongly religious bent, though, might find themselves at odds with Rushkoff’s interpretations, especially at the notion that a One True God is a fiction, generated by three more minor deities, which is being made true by the writing of his story, though it’s reversal of Gnostic theories about a demiurge who creates the world. But Gnosticism isn’t greeted all that kindly out there either.

But Vertigo’s real unsung star these days is Simon Oliver & various’ vulgar, often disgusting and usually hilarious THE EXTERMINATORS. In style and attitude, it’s the working man’s answer and natural heir to Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon’s famed PREACHER, featuring the heroic struggle of a team of noble exterminators to defend Los Angeles against an ocean of vermin. It’s a whirlwind of eccentric, interweaving plotlines: biowarfare creates a supercockroach as a maniacal bug-worshipped erased pharaoh reincarnates while an ex-Khmer Rouge scientist experiments to build the perfect extermination device, a cop cruising toward retirement tries to unravel various murders and pestilential events, a neo-Nazi joins forces with a megacorporation to market bug poison as a new drug to minorities, and various characters try to find love. All done with sure pacing, great style, constant surprises and some of the sickest humor out there, especially if you’re in the mood for a small apocalypse or two, with art from the likes of Tony Moore and Ty Templeton, among others. Would I recommend it to everyone? Not hardly. Feeling sardonic and adventurous? Don’t miss it.

Other books on tap this week:

From Scholastic Books:

THE EXTRAORDINARY ADVENTURES OF ORDINARY BASIL by Wiley Miller ($14.99)

Honestly, I generally try to dissuade publishers from sending prose books because I usually just don’t have time to read them. But they do anyway, which was the case with this hardcover, an illustrated apparent children’s book that vanished into an outbound stack in my office after I received it. But last week during cleanup I realized it not only was written and drawn by Wiley Miller, whose excellent comic strip NON SEQUITUR is part of my morning routine, but that Miller has been serializing the sequel in his Sunday strip for a couple months now. I prefer Miller’s usual biting satire to his more whimsical material, and BASIL, about a timid, ordinary (there’s your truth in advertising) boy who, alongside a plucky, take charge girlfriend and her pet pterodactyl, tries to save the flying city of Helios and the world from the plans of a mad genius, is definitely whimsical. And quite a bit of fun, as it turns out. Miller’s prose has a nice rhythm, though I could do without his obsessive onomatopoeia; it suggests the book is intended less to be read than to be read to someone. So it falls into the rare category of being a good book to read to children without boring the pants off the parent reading it.

From Stumblebum Studios:

ROUND TWO by various (price unknown)

A satire book that at first glance looks to be just another mediocre bit of fluff but turns out to be quite funny. Art quality varies from story to story, though it generally feels appropriate and the apparent crudeness if often deceptive (as in Dave Sherill’s “Comic Book Convention Safety Guide”) but story quality is generally top notch, with a lot of variety – an overheated pulp adventure, a bitter superhero “epic,” science fiction, a couple horror stories, outright vulgarity panels ala Johnny Ryan and more. I don’t know whether to be surprised that I liked it or disgusted with myself, but I liked it.

MARS 1938 by Paul Milligan & Dave Sherrill (price unknown)

A Dash Bradley adventure, this is a little Flash Gordon, a little Indiana Jones, and a lot tongue in cheek, as a devil-may-care adventurer fights to rescue a mysterious superweapon from the union of Nazi militias and Martian monsters. It’s pretty much fluff – seems to be storyboards for an animated sequence, really – but it’s amusing and has a kicker of a cliffhanger. The prelim work and concept notes are educational too. It’s more entertaining than it deserves to be, but there’s also the sense that these guys are limiting themselves with these basically plotless parody works; it might be more interesting to see them apply their skills to some serious work they’re forced to have a little less distance from, since the book’s great weak spot is how emotionally uninvolving it is.

Jeez, do we have to fight everybody all the time? If it’s not the Office Of Homeland Security declaring masses of American Muslims potential terrorists because they attended a religious conference in Canada (remember, the Patriot Act gives “the President” the power to declare anyone a terrorist for any reason) it’s the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives voting overwhelmingly (and I mean six votes against; too bad Dennis Kucinich is so invisible as a presidential candidate because he votes in the right place) to pass The Violent Radicalization And Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act Of 2007. Anyone remember Cointelpro? That was a lovely little FBI scheme of the ’60s and ’70s – of course, for years the FBI denied that it ever existed, but you can go into pretty much any library and find thick books all about it – to “observe” “dangerous” organizations within American borders. Which pretty much meant anyone J. Edgar Hoover took a dislike to, which was pretty much everyone (except the Mob, which didn’t officially exist in Hoover’s world) who envisioned an America somewhat different from the turn of the century world Hoover grew up in. Student organizations, civil rights groups, religious groups, anti-war groups and peace organizations, political movements like the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, all were equally subject to “observation,” and in the FBI framework “observation” was often liberally interpreted to mean infiltration and set up, with agents frequently working their way to power positions then inciting group members to “violent resistance” or, if they weren’t biting, committing violence in the group name so that arrests could be made and the groups/movements broken up. Like I said, go to the library and read all about it. This activity was going on even after Cointelpro was officially acknowledged and pronounced long ended, but if similar programs haven’t been going on in the meantime, they can now, legally (Cointelpro wasn’t exactly legal at the time, though Hoover and other FBI officials took the position that if it was necessary it didn’t have to be legal), if the Senate follows suit, because there’s virtually no chance the Ghost would veto it should the bill arrive on his desk.

Pure and simple, the measure allows the government to freely spy on anyone whose politics whoever is in power at the moment doesn’t happen to like. On the basis that contrary politics potentially leads to violent resistance, in which they include potential violent resistance. Which is pretty long stretch in most cases, but pretty is the word for this bill: it creates pretty bureaucracies like “The National Commission On The Prevention Of Violent Radicalization And Ideologically Based Violence” and “The Center Of Excellence,” basically a think tank to study “violent radicalization.” Considering how broadly many police forces, and the current administration, have defined “violent resistance” – protest marches, for instance, and anti-logging sit-ins, and, in fact, anything that “interrupts” the flow of commerce – this is one scary measure. Of course, “ideologically based” doesn’t seem to recognize the dominant ideology as ideology – everyone always believes their own ideology is the baseline and ideologically neutral – and no one involved with the bill seems to realize that crap like this is exactly why people get violently radicalized. The House voted thumbs up on this nonsense in late October, the Senate has yet to consider it. Like many such bills of this nature, the terms uses are ridiculously vague, partly because many Congresspeople are terrified that any attempt to limit Draconian measures will be used during political campaigns to paint them as “soft” on crime and/or terrorism, and partly because people in power prefer the ability to broadly interpret. Hopefully the Senate will plunge a dagger through this vile little bit of un-American legislation, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Not that there haven’t been precedents, but it didn’t take Congress very long to turn the “war on terror” into open season on American citizens, did it? Of course, if you’re not guilty of anything you have nothing to fear, right? As long as no one thinks you’re guilty of anything, anyway. Or potentially guilty.

And this one we owe to the Democrats.

Notes from under the floorboards:

By all reports, 2 GUNS #4 should be out from Boom! Studios this week. Fingers crossed, so go harass your local comic shop.

I’m tossing another big batch of graphic novels, trades and sundry other items onto eBay sometime today (Wednesday, from your perspective) so come Thursday check out my list to see what wonderful things you can scarf up for (well… hopefully for a hell of a lot of money but much more likely dirt cheap…). Or check now if you feel like taking a long shot…

Interesting episode of NUMB3RS (CBS Fridays 10P) last week, starting out as the usual cringe-inflicting comics-related storyline but becoming a borderline sweet paean to the creators of the past by the end of it. Set at a comics convention that seemed to go on for weeks, it was about the theft of “the world’s most valuable comic,” an ashcan edition created by Jack Kirby-Steve Ditko amalgam, from an amusing Todd McFarlane stand-in. Amid the show’s usual FBI histrionics and bogus math tricks were agents bragging about their favorite superheroes, one character waxing fondly about the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and Robert Crumb, a strangely knowing and sympathetic view of aging creators financially struggling while publishers and collectors profit from their work, and an amusing plot twist about auctioning forged ashcans in a secret scheme to return the original to its creator. Not to mention the usual horrifyingly awful fake comic book names like Ultraworld and Nanopunk. Kind of a weird, dislocating experience all around; try to catch it in rerun if you missed it the first time.

I see some Iraqi national here in the country has been banned by the British government from taking midrange science classes. ‘Cuz, y’know, there’s no way to get the exact same information by visiting a library or taking a cursory Google tour. Seems he was a medical student in Iraq who’d already learned the material but needed to retake the courses – biology and chemistry – in his new home of Britain. Another example of what fun ensues when goverments can arbitrarily declare people potential terrorists without the need to explain the basis of their decision.

Seems the right wing is big into rewriting history these days. Last week several pundits were citing Joe McCarthy as a great American hero and an early martyr to the war on terror. (Or “communism,” as it was called in those days.) (In college, I knew Joe’s nephew, who made no bones about his family in the Fox River Valley encouraging the miserable, humorless old fart to run for Congress just to get him out of their neighborhood…) More recently, former Ghost svengali and professional smear artist Karl Rove went on the Charlie Rose Show and declared the administration didn’t want to invade Iraq – but Congress forced him into it, by voting up the resolution saying he could. A curious interpretation of events, to say the least. And if Congress had voted in a resolution that the Ghost should jump off a bridge, would he have felt compelled to do that at the earliest possible opportunity as well? Meanwhile, a case not so much of rewriting history as fact-checking it is being less enthusiastically embraced, as former White House press secretary Scott McClellan began promoting his new book, WHAT HAPPENED, which, among other things, relates how he told the press the massive whopper that no one connected to the White House had anything to do with outing CIA operative Valerie Plame. McClellan’s version is that as far as he knew he was telling the truth, as verified by no less than Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Andrew Card, Dick Cheney – and the Ghost himself – and only during Libby’s trial did he see the evidence that the leak was being spread by Karl Rove, Scooter Libby, Andrew Card and Dick Cheney, at least. McClellan himself drew the obvious connection to the fifth name. The White House then put out the official statement that the Ghost does not lie, and McClellan’s publisher hastily added that McClellan never meant to suggest otherwise. And you can believe the White House press corps, because they never tell an untruth. Just ask McClellan.

Poster for the upcoming SOLOMON KANE film here. Don’t know if I’m genuinely looking forward to the film, but Kane was always my favorite Robert E. Howard character and I like star James Purefoy, so…

It’s about time for my annual hardware meltdown so this year I thought I’d fend it off with some pre-emptive surgery, courtesy of a new hard drive made possible by ridiculously cheap Black Friday sales. Though that’s only the first of several needed upgrades. If there are any IT chaps out there who’d like to abuse their company’s buying privileges to get me some hardware dirt cheap, please get in touch. Thanks. (I don’t need much, but I do need it cheap. If you want a plug for services rendered, I’d be glad to provide one, but given specific circumstances I figure you might not…)

Congratulations to Egan McConvey, the first to identify last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as “teeth.” Contrary to standard practice, Egan is withholding his prize until the spring, when a comic he’s working on comes out, so you can get the website from him then.

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. (Not that it’s been an issue so far.) As with most other weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, but if you can’t find it, don’t worry; to paraphrase Roger McGuinn, it ain’t heavy it’s just a clue. 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.

Everyone have a happy holiday, don’t drive any more than you have to (let’s get our money to those needy retailers this Xmas season rather than to oil companies, if we can) and we’ll see you next week.

Just to top it all off, a couple of DC advert pages from the past, one showing their 1953 lineup and the letter of explanation they included then they raised prices to 12¢ in 1962, the first time they’d raised prices since they began publishing. They signify absolutely nothing in particular, except maybe that those were so much simpler days back then, weren’t they?

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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