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I notice the subject of “comics journalism” has popped up again, with the sale of Newsarama to self-imagined Internet megalith Imaginova. Despite being essentially the comics market’s answer to PEOPLE magazine (Newsarama founders Mike Doran and Matt Brady tend to get a smidge hacked off when anyone suggests Newsarama’s shy on “real” reporting, but, boys, even if it’s more of a sow’s ear than the silk purse you’d prefer it were thought of, it’s now a sow’s ear theoretically worth a sum rumored to be well into six-figures, so you’ve already made more money than most comics publishers do) Newsarama has generated the public image of being the business’ premier news site. There are better news sites – I don’t think it’s talking out of school to say Comic Book Resources is one, an opinion that in no way arises from team spirit, since I’m pretty much a stranger to the concept – but nobody has been able to market themselves better and whose to argue if they managed to market themselves into a payday? Who among us wouldn’t if we could? (If they did, of course.)

There’s an old saw about the key to a successful business being Location! Location! Location! Newsarama’s selling point – I kind of think they nicked this one from WIZARD – was Access! Access! Access! Even if it sometimes seems there’s no press release they don’t like, they set the standard for online comics news, and it was enough to win over the audience that mattered, at least to them and to the comics companies, and there’s no question that to the extent there’s an audience for comics news at all, the audience clearly made its choice, so demanding otherwise of Newsarama is an idiotic pursuit.

Not that this is much different from the state of general journalism. We tend to think of “real” journalism as investigative journalism. Watergate, in the media personae of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, gave investigative journalism – which, really, basically amounts to practical conspiracy theorism in that it predicates hidden wrongdoing by its subjects and exhorts the reporter to ferret out the truth behind official lies – a shot in the arm, sending scads of eager students off to journalism school with the vague notion they’d gain the tools and medium to change the world, but it was only a couple of years before no less than Katherine Graham, owner of the Washington Post Woodward & Bernstein worked for, was telling college journalism classes investigative journalism had had its day and newspapers were headed back to the nuts and bolts of police reports and obituaries. It would be a few more years before Rupert Murdoch would start enforcing a twisted version of “investigative journalism” (it originally masqueraded as this) that said no story was really a story unless there was a whiff or more of sex, violence, drugs or celebrity scandal to it, preferably all four, and inferring scandal where none existed was perfectly all right as long as the public paid attention. Which, when you look around, is pretty much the ethic the press in general has embraced: news as sideshow.

Not that the American press was ever far from that, or that the American public has ever wanted it otherwise. If the mainstream press ever gave more than lip service to “truth,” the ostensible object of journalism, it’s mainly because they’re obsessed with notions of respectability, and “respectability” as often as not prompted them to play footsie with the authority figures they were supposed to be riding check on. As opposed to tabloids, which mainly try to find the most sensational aspect of any story to focus on, regardless of documentary evidence. Murdoch’s main innovation was to have his feet in both worlds and manipulate the old journalistic trick of citing a corresponding report by another paper as justification for a story you want to run by running a flamboyant story in one of his tabloids, then using that to validate a reiteration of the story in one of his “legitimates.” It’s a standard now, running a story not about “breaking news” but about someone’s else’s story about the “breaking news.” The flip side is that much important news escapes unreported because news outlets are now reporting less on events than on other outlets’ reporting on the events, which means if no one reports on something in the first place it doesn’t get widely reported. Over the past ten years, the Internet has increasingly become a canker in that particular oyster, and it’s not surprising that it has become a major news source not only for much of the public, despite often being a morass of rumor and innuendo, but for “legitimate” press as well. It doesn’t hurt that by now quite a few stories ignored by the mainstream press as unsubstantiated have been substantiated and turned into real stories by Internet amateurs.

Which means that “real” reporting in the “legitimate” press is getting more and more scarce. A lot of papers, watching their resources dwindle as readership erodes, have taken refuge in “access” to the rich and powerful, which, as we’ve seen with the Iraq War, has led to a lot of papers publishing completely erroneous and frequently totally fabricated “information” that “official sources” “leaked” to them. Where they get burned – when the public finds out the reporting agency has been taken – what can they do? They live and die now on “access,” and too much questioning of “official sources” or examination of provided “information,” let alone identifying it as disinformation, leads to a cutoff of access and subsequent loss of the sense of prestige access affords.

In that regard, Newsarama, which touts its access to comics companies as a selling point and is certainly aware that rocking the boat will mainly result in a loss of access, is pretty much in step with modern American journalism in general. In fact, Newsarama has made it clear that they don’t view rocking the boat as their role.

Which is fair. At least they’re upfront about it. What passes for the comics press has rarely tried to rock the boat, really. The main exception is THE COMICS JOURNAL, and much of what else in the comics press that passed for firebrand journalism was in competition with the Journal. But the Journal doesn’t really bother with comics reporting anymore, because any current business scandal they can write about is usually thoroughly raked over by bloggers well before the Journal can get it to print. Worse, the Journal originally got its rep via combining an intellectualized reporting style with a tendency to look for the tabloid version of every story, fueled (and not necessarily wrongly) by a general distaste for most trends in the comics market. But access is also an issue for the Journal, though not in the way it is for Newsarama; there was a time when the Journal was about the only game in town if you want to bitch about a publisher or an editor or fellow professional or some noxious scheme by some branch of the business, and it did a good job of ferreting those out. That, more than their aesthetic judgments on various comics in print, was what made the Journal important. Nowadays, people in the business can bitch to any number of blogs or Internet reporters and see the results nearly instantaneously – if they’re of a mind to risk potential retaliation (loss of income) from whoever they’re grumbling about. As in Washington, the comics world has become pretty hostile ground for whistleblowers, and none of the safety nets that existed c. 1990 still exist, since companies have once again come to more or less view talent as interchangeable (this doesn’t mean that Marvel would want to lose, oh, Brian Bendis, just that they’d hardly view it as any type of disaster or public relations nightmare if it came to that) and the audiences don’t much seem to care what happens to anyone as long as that next issue of BATMAN makes it out on time. Which is too bad, because there are plenty of stories out there that should be covered in depth, publishers who should be interrogated about their business practices, etc., and for the most part those get weakly alluded to at best, and quite often written off with a glib quote from the culprit that second-graders could easily rip apart.

Much as it may seem like blaming the victim, we pretty much have a fandom, such as it currently exists, that has dictated what it considers important information, and hard questions don’t usually produce the kinds of information they want. Conditions in the business, why certain trends are being pushed, manipulations of distribution and promotion, that sort of thing is rarely brought up anymore. It’s in step with the abortive “Up With Comics” movement of a few years ago that declared if we couldn’t say nice things about comics we shouldn’t say anything. It wasn’t exactly their doing, but that’s pretty much the “official” world we’ve got in the business now, underpinned by the notion that “it’s only comics.” Newsarama knows where its bread is buttered, and the people involved are smart enough to see the writing on the wall, even if they publicly won’t admit it: there is no news in the comics business anymore, only advertising, and advertising is what they do best.

What? Me worry?

No Comics Cover Challenge this week, because someone sent me the following “Sparky Watts” story from Columbia Comics’ BIG SHOT – which may be the greatest Golden Age comics story ever! Little remembered today, superhero Sparky Watts got his start in comic strips, then graduated to comic book reprint status and then, after his creator Boody Rogers returned from WWII, to original stories. Sparky was arguably the most unlikely superhero ever, a scrawny college kid bombarded with “cosmic rays” by a scientist, and, despite remaining pretty scrawny and continuing to dress in glasses and a dress shirt rather than a costume, gained Superman-like abilities: superstrength, superspeed and near-invulnerability. (Thanx and a tip of the hat to Don Markstein’s Toonopedia for the info.) This story’s from 1949’s BIG SHOT #97:

Note the cover header: CLEAN COMICS FOR EVERYONE. Because nothing quite says “clean” like the total obliteration of civilization and alien germs that grow as they feed eating every trace of every human being, and the superhero who’d otherwise somehow save the day has been left powerless by radioactivity to wander around with only one shoe, pitifully hide for his life amid garbage and ponder his inevitable fate on lower rungs of the food chain. I expect following chapters turn it into a dream sequence, but as a standalone story, wow. A nihilistic masterpiece that no doubt fed on the atom bomb fears just then starting to seep into the open group consciousness. The cartoony drawing and Basil Wolverton-style monsters somehow enhance the story’s creepiness. For my money, the “Golden Age” was generally irredeemable garbage but once in awhile a real gem pops up.

We may as well stop talking about a war on terror right now, because obviously it exists for the administration the same way that any “war on crime” only existed for J. Edgar Hoover: as a public relations gimmick. Hoover’s thing was paranoia – his own obsession with threats to his private fantasy America from foreign philosophies (AKA communism) and rising non-white races – and control, and to be thought of under all circumstances as the good guy. (Now, of course, he’s popularly remembered as a sour crossdresser.) The administration has gotten many things from the “war on terror” – draconian laws, limitations on citizen rights, expansion of police powers, legitimization of previously illegal government practices like domestic spying and torture (which the Ghost still vehemently denies is happening despite all evidence to the contrary, apparently on the principle that it isn’t torture if it isn’t called torture), erosion of Constitutional limits on the power of the presidency, license to wage unnecessary war, diversion from pressing domestic issues; man, once you get started the list doesn’t seem to stop – but mainly what it has gotten is the ability to stoke American paranoia and prompt irrational responses whose ill-considered effects we may be living with for a long time.

But they’re obviously not fighting a “war on terror.” Recently they destroyed the work of a private intelligence gathering company called SITE. SITE’s specialty was monitoring terrorist “chatter” and providing data to intelligence agencies and private organizations. Among its accomplishments was secretly and regularly intercepting communications from al-Qaeda about impending bombings and other topics. Among the things they recently intercepted was the most recent Osama bin Laden videoshow, well in advance of its public release. They passed it on to the White House on the understanding that it was kept secret.

Instead, White House counsel Fred Fielding and national security deputy Joel Bagnal, who affirmed the White House had no prior independent access to the tape, passed around the access address (and, presumably, passwords needed for access) like a Paris Hilton sex video, intelligence agency afterand then some administration genius decided it’d be a great idea, probably to demonstrate how successfully the Ghost is waging the “war on terror,” to release excerpts to news agencies around the world. It wasn’t enough that they leaked the tape. They made sure Fox News knew it was SITE that first obtained it.

End result: al-Qaeda became aware of the leak, and the SITE infiltration was instantly destroyed. Meaning that source of information is no longer available, basically so the administration could pull a little public relations stunt. Of course, this isn’t the first time the White House has kicked resources to the curb for short term gain. Official responses to the situation have been telling: the Office of the Director of National Intelligence downplayed SITE’s overall value, indicating our government has its own “sophisticated means” of tracking al-Qaeda (so sophisticated we have no idea where bin Laden is, six years after 9/11, which is probably irrelevant anyway since his FBI wanted poster makes no reference to the events of 9/11) while officials who wish to remain undisclosed cited SITE’s great value in thwarting al-Qaeda, a value now apparently shot to hell.

Two possibilities here. Either the White House behaved with flagrant stupidity and disregard for its own intelligence resources (in which case why are we even pretending they’re capable of waging a “war on terror”?) or for whatever reason they deliberately set out to undermine SITE’s capabilities. Which sounds unlikely, but it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve done something like that either. (The conspiracy theory version, for those who enjoy such things: SITE’s owner is an Iraqi-born Israeli, which suggests MOSSAS – Israel’s version of the CIA – involvement in and possibly backing of SITE, and the wounding of SITE was the White House’s way of teaching Israel a lesson for thwarting Secretary of State’s Condi Rice’s big plan to assure herself a place in history by brokering an Israeli-Arab peace. Sounds a bit too coherent a plan for the Administration…)

Not that I expect things would be much different with the Democrats in charge. (They’re certainly unlikely to be much different if Hilary – or pretty much any Republican prospect – gets elected president in ’08, since she’s unlikely to move toward anything like a speedy end to the Iraq mess and a redefinition of the nation’s anti-terror effort.) They could stop the war in a heartbeat just by voting down more funding, but they’re not going to do that. They’re going to keep putting on dog and pony shows where they fail to pass bills against the war that need more votes than they can muster, and way more votes to overturn the inevitable veto than they can get. Because then they can march into next year’s elections telling the now some 72% of the American public that thinks we should be out of Iraq “we’re the ones trying to stop the war, they’re the ones keeping it going.” The Democrats look likely to extend all the domestic surveillance statutes put in play over the next few years, so it’s not like they’re looking out for our rights. Basically they mostly aren’t much interested in limiting presidential power or overturning the gutting the Bill of Rights has been taking because they want all that power too. If power is accruing (unconstitutionally) to the presidency, no one in Washington is much interested in unaccruing it, they’re interested in having one of their own in the presidency. That’s the only real game in town now, because what has been on the rise in this country since 9/11, since long before it but 9/11 gave it juice it could never have gotten otherwise, isn’t patriotism but authoritarianism – it has seeped down to such a level that hardly a day goes by anymore without tales of security guards tasering schoolchildren and beating up air passengers or videos of cops bludgeoning unarmed, unresisting people, where any complaints about this behavior are met with official proclamations that the officer or guard was well within procedural limits, where asking questions is labeled “resisting arrest” and met with a show of force – and what could be more fun than being in charge of an authoritarian state?

Except maybe being in charge of an authoritarian state that loves to put on a big public relations show that it isn’t. At any rate, while the Democrats and Republicans have always been a bit Tweedledee-Tweedledum, the push to narrow next year’s election choices well before the election seems mainly a push to either alienate an intelligent electorate or make the broader electorate Tweedledummer, because nothing helps an authoritarian state stay in place better than a dumb electorate that’s too frightened of threats from without to hold its elected officials’ feet to the fire.

Notes from under the floorboards:

I have a number of hardcovers relating to comics up on Ebay now, including some superhero collections, virtually all the Sandman collections, and a few newspaper strip things and will be adding more things over the next few days. Go check them out. Better yet, bid on them. A lot.

So I see some honcho at Warner Studios has declared they will no longer make any action films starring women. Which, considering how good such films from them have generally been, has to be considered something of a blessing, but it’s hard not to wince at the weird logic of it. Considering how many male actors have failed to sell action films, even big name action stars, it’s pretty ridiculous to conclude that lead actresses as a group kill action films. True, not every lead actress makes a credible action hero – Kate Hudson is never going to be a credible action hero – but most lead actors aren’t credible action heroes either. For the most part, the biggest problem with action films with actresses in the lead isn’t the actress but the films. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any good action films centering around female leads, but that’s because the films either trivialized the roles by making them second fiddles to the supposedly secondary male lead roles or simply played the women as men without jockstraps, at least until they do really stupid things for purely romantic, emotional reasons. While I can appreciate the appeal of scapegoating an entire sex, just making better action films might work out better for the company and the industry in the long run.

Fascinating tech week this last week, starting with Bill Gates coming out in favor of music piracy. It’s true. Gates gave an interview with USA TODAY in which, asked what’s just so cool about Microsoft’s newly redesigned “iPod killer,” the Zune, Gates answered: “Three or four years ago there was nothing like this. This is cool as heck. I’m finding music I haven’t seen in 20 years. Hey, the Lovin’ Spoonful? They’re in this thing. I find one of their songs. I send it to friends I had an apartment with, it was actually 30 years ago. I can send it out to them and say, ‘Remember when we listened to this?’ It’s amazing.” You can assume that Gates was just being super-enthusiastic about a product which, three or four years ago, would have been incredibly innovative but the iPod got there first, and didn’t really mean that the public should flock to the Zune’s file-sharing capabilities (he didn’t mention the mechanics of it, but I’ll take his word for it) but a couple days after that Microsoft suddenly announced it’s dropping the validation previously necessary for the latest version of their Internet Explorer browser, so that even those with pirated editions of Windows can now run it. What’s next? Dropping all digital rights management on the .wma and .wmv formats and the company’s Windows Media Player 11? Meanwhile, Apple’s getting sued over the iPhone. Having already ticked off early adopters of the iPhone by abruptly dropping the price (who I have no sympathy for, since tech price drops are a fact of life, and that’s the price you pay for obsessively being the cool kid on the block who has to have the latest technology first) Apple more recently pleased even more of their customers by turning their phones into dead weight. Seems while many people are thrilled with the iPhone, many are not thrilled with the AT&T wireless phone service they have to subscribe to in order to use one. Almost as soon as the iPhone appeared, hacks started appearing allowing customers to rewrite the programming so the joys of the iPhone could be appreciated on better phone systems. Apple, a company that has always believed they know best how customers should use their products instead of just being happy that anyone’s buying their products, recently issued a software upgrade that killed hacked phones dead. So someone’s suing them on antitrust grounds, suggesting that Apple limits customer choice. Which, of course, it does, but the question is how illegal that is? Apple insists their own little iPhone killer wasn’t intended that way, but it sure makes a good object lesson on the pitfalls of going against Apple dictates. Presumably Apple makes a lot of money off its deal with AT&T, but AT&T is also renowned as a horrific wireless system, so what’s the benefit of forcing the many who think the iPhone is just the coolest thing to accept what amounts to crippleware? (AT&T has a unique way of coping with their many customer complaints; their new service agreement indicates that any customer publicly criticizing AT&T will have their service terminated… which, now that I think about it, is like punishing a bad kid with cake and ice cream, unless AT&T plans to hold disconnected customers to the financial terms of their service agreement.) Wouldn’t Apple sell even more iPhones if AT&T weren’t part of the deal? Who really needs who here? Anyway, full-featured iPhone knockoffs, presumably adaptable to any network, should start appearing by the Christmas season, which may drive the iPhone’s price down even more and may force Apple to go open system if enough people decide it’s better to forego the “label” and just get what they want.

Speaking of tech, the first synthetic chromosome has reportedly been developed, with the first totally synthetic lifeform supposedly not too far off. Given the new revelations that the Army started experimenting with radioactive poisons as an assassination tool in 1948 (remember that Russian who was murdered in London via radioactive poison last year?) how much you want to bet that the first attempted application of synthetic life will be biological warfare? But not all bio-tech is going synthetic; turns out the most effective and ecologically safest fertilizer for plants is… urine. Our urine.

By the way, anyone notice the movement among major media corporations these days to eliminate the legal concept of fair use? It’s not just Sony – a pioneer in media replication technology for the home – whose lawyer a couple weeks back flat out stated that any copying for any reason is piracy – it’s pretty much everyone who thinks they’re just not making enough money from their media properties anymore, which is close to everyone. Not that this particular corporate meme has reached critical stage yet, but there are corporations discussing the total dismantling of fair use laws with their Congressmen, and those corporations are known for throwing around enough money to get Congressmen to pay attention to them in a way they don’t to, oh, public petitions. It’s not just here; in Britain the agency that collects fees for public performances of recorded music has gone after an auto shop whose mechanics while they’re working play music so loudly it can be heard in the building next door. Seems they think that constitutes an unauthorized public performance. Sure, laugh, but if it holds it won’t be long before every kegger in America will be expected to pass the hat to pay whatever fees the RIAA sees fit.

A little busy with a big project right now, so I’ll be back with the Comics Cover Challenge and last week’s winner and solution next week. I’m still working on the Paper Movies website revamp – suddenly decided on a whole new design – but the soonest I’ll be able to finish that is next weekend, and my money’s on the end of the month. But the old one’s still up for now, so pop on over and pick up my pdf format e-books at 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.

Good price, good reading. You won’t regret it.

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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