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So Diamond has pretty much shut down small comics publishing, with their recent announcement that the comics they distribute must bear bar coding. I remember the initial fuss over bar codes in the ’80s, when they were just coming into play and there were screams from all over fandom about the crappy looking boxes messing up cover art. It was never a comic shop thing anyway, and only comics intended for newsstand distribution needed bar codes. Eventually it was often semi-settled by having two editions of each comic, a newsstand edition with a barcode and a direct market edition filling in the box with a character head and shoulder shot or some similar thing. It still “marred” the cover but I guess mollified the audience enough that the issue died away, until either everyone forgot about it or barcodes became so ubiquitous that nobody noticed it. Most comics by smaller publishers targeted the direct market anyway – newsstands were just too expensive and wasteful a nut to bother cracking, since newsstands meant returnables – so in most cases the issue was moot.

The fact is that for most small publishers, comics are marginal profit items at best. In many cases it essentially amounts to hobby publishing. Many of them make so little money that they rarely even pay talent costs, depending on the never-never of backend royalties that will almost certainly never come in order to simply be able to fill their pages with material. Any additional expenses put the comics that much closer to financial untenability. The barcode is just such an expense, and a relatively hefty one.

Diamond’s logic in this is a little hard to figure out. According to their public statement, the idea is to make it easier for comics retailers to sell your comics, which suggests this is one of those expenses that will pay for itself in increased revenues. Implicit in the statement are two facts not in evidence: are there really a significant enough number of comics shops that even employ a barcode scanner checkout system, and is a barcode on a comic that isn’t otherwise selling much enough to encourage them to order (not to mention sell) significantly enough additional copies to make it worth a publisher’s while to spend the additional money? I can’t imagine a lot of comics shops, which are frequently fairly touch and go financially themselves, are going to want to shell out for a barcode scanner either, unless Diamond is somehow underwriting them but somehow that stretches credulity. I certainly haven’t been in any comic shops that use barcode scanners. If you’re does, please let me know.

As far as I can tell, the main barcode market that would concern Diamond are bookstores, which is a market Diamond has reputedly been trying to push into more, and bookstores aren’t likely to take lots of small independent comics anyway. Their main jones is trade paperbacks and while a few Borders have some spinner racks for a few Marvel, SIMPSONS and STAR WARS comics, it’s hardly probable that the chain would move whole hog into broad comics sales. Maybe there’s some angle here I’m missing – maybe Diamond just wants to use the barcodes to track warehouse stock, and if that’s the case they should just tell everybody – but otherwise the whole barcode thing suggests that either Diamond is starting to eye bookstores as their main market or this is an intentional move to streamline their operations by driving the smaller, mostly unprofitable publishers out. The problem there, of course, as it always is with Diamond, is that in terms of comics distribution they’re really the only game in town, and while their previous record has suggested that maybe if they’re concerned about longevity smaller publishers ought to figure out some sort of alternative distribution route, this may now plop that notion in the too little too late column.

Oddly, all this dovetails with a completely unrelated subject someone brought up the other day.

We were discussing pirated music and films, and the question came up as to who’s really the pirate here? The notion that came up wasn’t that people who download music/films/TV shows off the Internet aren’t “pirating” material, or that anything justifies those activities, but that the film and record companies have also been pirates most of their existence and they’ve moved back into that phase in a big way recently. The idea there was that companies like that – and you’d have to include comics publishers in the group – grew up around the idea of milking the actual creative minds that generated the product they sold, and yet precious little profit trickled back down to the creative people without whom there would have been nothing to sell: the robber baron mentality that America alternately worships and reviles, depending on the mood of the day. The underlying premise is basically that getting people to do the work for you is some kind of heroic endeavor. Theoretically groups like the Writers Guild Of America leveraged that kind of thing out of Hollywood, but in fact many producer scoff under their breaths at WGA standards, especially any of those that call on them to pay for work being done as it’s being done, and finding loopholes and getarounds has become sort of a sport among producers these days. It’s not like even many WGA members don’t play footsie with that, despite the threat of WGA sanctions for both parties if found out. It’s just considered a price of getting a movie made, and encourages production companies and studios to argue things like their inability to pay out a portion of ancillary rights money to writers not in advance but as the money comes in. It’s free money, there’s absolutely nothing to stop from sharing the wealth, but the principle is that they’re the ones who deserve the money, not the people who generated the product that generated the money. It’s the Golden Rule – I first heard of it in a comedy western called WATERHOLE NO. 3, back after CAT BALLOU in the years when comedy westerns were a fad until they were laid in their graves by the zenith of the genre, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID: the man with the gold makes the rules. The corollary to that is that the man with the gold wants to make sure he remains the man with the gold, and that creative material isn’t itself product but the raw material that The Man With The Gold refines into product. By that thinking, it’s money that’s the true medium of creativity, and this too has long been a staple of American economic thinking where media is concerned.

But the flip side of that is that creative product generates stages of parasites that latch onto it. Certainly that fits record companies, which traditionally have depended on bright eyed youngsters so eager to hear the songs they play on the radio or see their records in a record store that they’re willing to sign horrific contracts that pretty much guarantee that short of a miracle they’ll be living in debt for the rest of their lives; most money made off their records, even hits, was effectively merely a loan from the record company that they were expected to pay back, and the higher a life they lived on the belief that their success was paying for it the further the fall when it dried up and they discovered the record company had put all the risk on them. It was really only the acts with good management that avoided it, or the ones that were phenomenally successful, and even they tended to hit fairly serious snags. Comics publishers were rarely so creative. (At least not until creator rights became an issue in the ’80s, and then some very inventive contracts materialized that gave with one hand on page three and took back in spades on page 27, rendering the whole concept of “creator ownership” little more than a sick joke, as many talents discovered when they thought reversions were at hand later). Traditionally they just paid the talent next to nothing, regardless of sales, and told them they were talentless bums who were lucky to even be getting work. Which still gets trotted out today.

All this reminded me of The Creator Bill Of Rights, a manifesto concocted in 1988 by Steve Bissette, Dave Sim, Scott McCloud and a few others as creator-owned comics were emerging as a force in the suddenly expanding market of the late ’80s. (Diamond, in league with a handful of comics shops and publishers, at that point had tried establishing an industry-wide ratings system, in effect a new comics code seen as a means of capping creative expression and molding talent back into “acceptable” packages, and the success of the creative community in forcing discussions to a halt emboldened talent as much as the new expansion did.) While over the top, the document did effectively spell out the alternative view: publishers, distributors, etc. were parasites feeding off the corpus of creative work, and it was time the benefits of the system fell on those who made it possible. For awhile it worked that way, but not long enough.

The last six or seven years has really seen parasitism come back to full bloom in the comics industry, these days mostly on the low end where publisher after publisher seems to feel its their right to be underwritten by the time, work and economic well-being of the talent. Effective self-publishing is essentially a thing of the past. But it seems to be the nature of media parasites to assume the point of view that they’re the ones who really make it all happen, the ones without whom it would all be impossible and therefore the ones who should benefit the most and those who should call all the shots. If Diamond is in fact sweeping with a new broom that the barcodes are only a ploy to streamline their business by driving out everything but the most profitable product, it’s as much the fault of all those publishers who’ve been perfectly happy all those years to live by Diamond’s terms, because if Diamond can be viewed as a parasite on the system they are a parasite that has grown enough that it doesn’t need much of anyone anymore, except Marvel and DC, and a handful of other publishers to demonstrate diversity. In fact, this is the system everyone decided to settle for ten years ago, when Marvel spooked the industry into desperately piling onto a single ship. There are still publishers today who give talent a decent shake, but it’s hard to get upset about negative effects on the rest of them anymore than you’d get upset about seeing a bug get stepped on. The big problem is the talent who’ll suffer as a result, but for the most part they were already suffering anyway.

My comments on THE HIGHWAYMEN last week raised a few hackles:

“I actually bought THE HIGHWAYMEN following positive reviews (it had completely slipped past me when solicited) and read the first 3 issues as a batch this weekend. I think you may have been unnecessarily harsh on it, but it reads better when read as a set like that than individual issues.
An example of this is a joke set up in one issue and then paid off in the next one. As such it seems ideally suited for the trade. I tend to be aware of comics released by the major publishers (and even some of the larger independents) so I would argue that the publicity was either fairly bad or actually failed to push what the comic was about and connect to the people who may actually enjoy it. I know this probably isn’t news to you and is part of the thrust of your article, but I do think it is good work and it does deserve a wider audience. Certainly there are worse books that have succeeded and I can’t help but wonder if it would have had a better chance under the Vertigo banner.

To my mind the best break out comic recently (other than MOUSE GUARD, which got its publicity exactly right) has been THE NIGHTLY NEWS. The last issue didn’t live up to the promise of those preceding it but it was visually different from anything else on the shelves, actually seemed to have something to say and was enjoyable. The advance publicity showing actual pages was what drew me to it, but I did push it as enthusiastically as I could with my comic reading friends. Two of them actually picked it up as a result.”

I haven’t seen THE NIGHTLY NEWS yet, but it wasn’t my intent to be harsh on THE HIGHWAYMEN, only to look at it objectively, since the question wasn’t “is it good?” (I think it’s pretty good) but “why didn’t it sell?” When that question gets asked you have to look at all aspects of something, not just those elements that put it in the best light. You bring up a good point that it would read better in trade – a criticism often leveled at my work, actually – and that’s part of why audiences are veering away from mini-series now, because many of them are being written with the trade in mind, and, understandably, many readers are now opting to wait for the trade so they can have the intended reading experience.

“I agree with you that it was a good, but unremarkable series. I would be interested in your analysis of THE WALKING DEAD. At least, the early days of it. It was a book that debuted with minimal hype by a creative team that (while up and coming) was not very well known, in a fringe genre, in black and white. But, it has managed to defy the odds and continues to grow in popularity. How did it manage to defy the odds and become successful? What lessons can be learned from THE WALKING DEAD? (Or to a lesser extent FABLES or Y THE LAST MAN. Both have seen their audience grow after a relatively soft push from DC. Now that they are successful, DC has shown them, and the rest of the Vertigo line some love).”

I haven’t read THE WALKING DEAD since the second trade paperback, though I’ve got the last 15 or so issues here waiting for me. In any case, the book had the benefit of good art, good writing and characterization, and coming along on the forward cusp of the Zombie trend. There was a time when it was perceived as the only game in town for Zombie fans, which we now know are a fairly large group, and Robert Kirkman was smart enough to see and tap into that audience, and the relative lack of competition in that arena gave him time to train the audience to his style of storytelling. In other words he avoided two pitfalls, by determining an audience existed and then marketing the work to them. Whatever that audience was seeking, he was able to feed it to them, and some 42 issues in the book is still going strong, something of a record for modern indie comics. Y THE LAST MAN had the benefit of riding in on Brian Vaughan’s growing reputation, and was intriguing enough that it was able to run with it; it felt like a payoff to the hype, which made enough people enthusiastic enough about the book to generate their own hype – that’s the kind of hype you want – and it has continued to pay off, at least enough to please its audience. FABLES, I think, imaginatively tapped into a type of fantasy nobody else was doing but, due to the presence of characters everyone at least peripherally knew, was able to generate enough of a sense of the familiar to (mother?) goose audience interest. Again, it has largely paid off on expectations. And maybe it’s not coincidence that all three titles hinge on a simple, easily expressible single idea and extrapolates the hell out of it. That’s also a hook.

“Good points about THE HIGHWAYMEN. I read the first book, liked it enough to pick up the rest and will read the whole thing when I have some time. I haven’t read much of the internet discussions on the book, but it doesn’t surprise me that the book failed in the sales area. Look at how many books are out there today, all selling for at least $2.99. Superhero books really seem to dominate sales and then there is all the hype about books written by authors of various fiction books. Both Marvel and DC seem to be competing to get authors who have sold books in the print-only medium.

So, how is a book like THE HIGHWAYMEN supposed to stand out on the shelf? Being published under the Wildstorm banner doesn’t help. I think some readers would expect that the series would be delayed like many of the other of the Wildstorm books. It seems that people would think twice about investing energy in a book like that.”

I doubt any banner but Marvel really helps sales on books audiences aren’t interested in, and even Marvel struggles in that area. Again, the superhero dominance is largely a misperception from the perspective of comics shops, which were created almost specifically to sell superhero comics. Or, really, UNCANNY X-MEN. If you look at things from the perspective of the comics shop, superheroes are always going to dominate. Or zombies. But it’s a skewed perspective. Like I said last week, if superheroes were really dominant more companies would be publishing more superhero books. But that market is mostly sewn up by Marvel, with DC chipping away at their action a little. So when people say “only superheroes sell,” what they really mean is “only Marvels sell,” and not all Marvels sell.

“Your recent column – right on again. Of course, I’ve had issues with marketing in comics for years now anyhow. Years ago, when a friend of mine had a creator owned book with Marvel, he called up their marketing director Carol Kalish and said, “why isn’t my book being promoted, why isn’t it being pushed?” Her basic response was, “we don’t know how to.” It was about superheroes who have a predetermined mortality and it was so different from what was out there at the time. It all comes down to vested interest.

When you see incredible work like TELLOS by the now departed Mike Wierengo, which can’t stick around, because the company doesn’t know how to market it, it’s because it’s in line with a whole host of other books. STRANGERS IN PARADISE, SUPERNATURAL LAW, and others endure because the publisher has a vested interest in it, who just happens to be the creator on the book. I went to visit a creator last Monday, whose deal with Dark Horse didn’t turn out in a way he was happy with. They didn’t have vested interest.

Marketing ignorance is so prevalent in this business. Indie books will never get their due in hobby shops. Their future is in book stores, as collected works. The hobby shops are for superhero books. In response to the Manga takeover in bookstores, my friend working for Wildstorm said, “they’ve got marketers who know what they’re doing.” Image however has done ok with promoting their creator owned books.

Finally, as you know, no one can guarantee success. Why did THE HIGHWAYMEN die, while EX MACHINA endure? It’s a talking head book also published by Wildstorm. What can you do?”

You’re oversimplifying things a bit. While there’s no doubt that many companies will tend to push a little harder on comics they have a vested interest in, the basic truth is that companies will tend to push hardest on the books they think they can make the most money on. I’ve worked a lot with Dark Horse, and I’d say that’s their main criterion for what they specifically promote, and it should be. I assume it’s also DC and Marvel’s main criterion. The job of the publisher is to make money. So it’s a sad fact that marketing money tends to be aimed at the more guaranteed audiences. If Dark Horse thinks there’s a lot of money to be made off a book, they’ll push it whether they have a vested interest or not. Not that the situation isn’t affected by other things like factional infighting – comics companies are hardly monoliths, and various parties in companies can be seen to pursue their own agendas if you look closely – but by and large that’s the rule of thumb. But, again, where exactly do publishers have to promote things effectively, beyond a page in the Diamond catalog? It’s not like anyone reads WIZARD anymore. As for something like TELLOS, some comics just come out at the wrong time. If there isn’t a receptive audience, if it’s not the type of material they’re currently looking for, there’s not a lot a publisher can do to force it down their throats.

“Been reading the Spider-Man “Back In Black” storyline much of it involves trying to save Aunt May in the hospital. Straczynski brings it, in this arc, and gives that emotional resonance, to a loved one in critical. I have to say, Joe Quesada’s notion that you can’t have married people in comics isn’t so. We’ve been fed the same old storyline for years of having to ditch his girlfriend to go fight crime. It lasts for so long and then it runs out of gas. Strazynski has given resonance and depth to the relationship and explored it in layers. ELFQUEST brings it also as the married relationship of Cutter and Leetah delivers depth, which is really lacking in this medium. There’s sexual titillation or, even intellectual, but often, no personal depth.

INVINCIBLE is written with depth and so is EX MACHINA. The characters in those books are single, so they’re writing in depth there. But the idea one cannot write someone married is saying we’re limited in our ability to narrate different stages of people’s lives. I asked Straczynski about that, and he said he enjoyed writing the marriage. He went on to say he was a hired gun, implying he’ll have to go along with what Quesada decides. Besides, I thought ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN was about the younger, single, Peter Parker anyways.

The word under the floorboards at the comic shop is that Dr. Strange will cast a spell to make Peter “anonymous Spider-Man again and may change his marital status. Or, it’ll end in divorce. we’ll see…”

I don’t doubt Joe S. did a good job with the relationships, but by and large I have to go with Joe Q. on this one. While it’s certainly not impossible to have good married superhero stories, by and large the domesticity implicit in marriage acts against the general tone of superhero comics. That’s because it’s not marriage per se that’s the problem but domesticity. Probably the best marriage in comics for a long time was The Elongated Man’s, and that dodged domesticity altogether. ELFQUEST may feature a married couple, but they’re nomadic and their situation is constantly in flux. Peter and Mary Jane Parker’s marriage has likewise traditionally been in flux, and they also never brought a baby into it. But is either Green Arrow or the Black Canary made more interesting by marriage? Was Spider-Man made more interesting by marriage? Reed Richards and Sue Storm? (That last one’s a trick question; full frontal nudity couldn’t make them interesting.) It’s easy enough to write marriages in depth, it’s just hard to say anything that accentuates a superhero story with them. Point to Joe Quesada.

“Since you didn’t specify in the most recent edition of PD how many volumes of SWAN you read in preparation for your review, I thought I might offer my own anecdotal experience as evidence that the series may be worth a second look. I read volume one and had a very similar experience as the one you recounted. Because my wife seemed to be enjoying it and (I’ll admit) because I knew that SWAN was supposed to be sort of historically important to the development of shoujo, I kept buying them and did a re-read at volume five. I was surprised to find that what I thought was outright boring on the first read turned out (at least to me) to be the beginning of a slow but effective narrative build that climaxes in book five in ways I had not and, really, could not have anticipated. Also, Ariyoshi’s panel work really starts cooking about book three and engages in visual storytelling that I have rarely seen matched in Western comics, at least not utilizing a similar aesthetic.”

I confess I only read through SWAN Vol 3, and I appreciate the argument of artistic development, but I also confess to being something of a philistine on this topic. Historical value or not, any series that takes until the fifth trade paperback series to start paying off is, as I said last week, really depending too much on the kindness of strangers. To paraphrase the Talking Heads, patience is a virtue, but I don’t have the time. While I appreciate the pursuit of artistic integrity, however good the project I think it’s wrong of creators in any artistic vein to demand so much trust from the reader/viewer/listener.

What the hell is going on in Iraq these days, anyway? Phil Ochs wrote a line c. 1970 that went “the boys agreed it’s the war we need, now there’s no president at all” which certainly seems appropriate today, given Congress’ apparent eagerness to hand over a couple hundred billion dollars to keep Iraq going. (Congressional Democrats have put on a good dog-and-pony show, with the help of the press, of trying to pass resolutions to end the war only to be thwarted by those mean ol’ warmongering Republicans because they just don’t have the numbers to overcome them, but the fact is that if the Democrats really want the war ended all they have to do is not vote for further funding, and they certainly have the raw numbers to make that stick… if the Democrats actually want the war to end. If they vote to continue funding, we may consider that question answered. Certainly we should pay attention to which Senate Democrats running for President vote to continue funding, if nothing else.) Even as the Ghost, whose administration was the first in American memory to hunt down rationales for jettisoning the Geneva Conventions and justify torture as an intelligence gathering technique, laughably berated the United Nations for ignoring human rights abuses. (Not that other administrations haven’t turned a blind eye to torture, especially in CIA-trained Latin America in the ’50s-80s, but none of them tried to turn it into a big shiny badge of the American Way.) (Wait, I forgot, it’s not really torture if we do it, since we’re the good guys. Got it.)

But even people who have been trying not to pay attention have had a hard time lately of missing the increasingly-apparent fact that the Iraq occupation exists not because we’re trying to strike a blow for freedom and democracy but because tons of people are profiting from it. Recent events turned our first official corporate mercenary army, Blackwater USA, into something of a household word. One of several shady operations to be given no-bid contracts for the Iraqi “reconstruction,” Blackwater has made something of a career of hiring American soldiers whose terms are up before the Pentagon can dragoon them back into extended service, and the company’s private army in Iraq – they’re what the administration commonly refers to a “civilian contractors” and perform nebulous tasks like “security” – outnumbers the American army. They came to prominence recently for shooting up a Baghdad street and killing a number of Iraqi civilians, prompting the Iraqi government to declare Blackwater anathema and banned, except for the employees involved in the firefight, and they’d be put on trial. (The company says the shooting was provoked, and a legitimate response; an Iraqi government report concludes it was unprovoked.) Though mostly presented in our press as an isolated incident the Iraqis are overreacting to, this makes at least the seventh time Blackwater has engaged in a lethal firefight, while an American government report on Blackwater activities in Iraq has been kept under wraps, which seems to be the Admin’s policy with pretty much all reports coming out of Iraq.

Our administration’s response has been interesting. Almost moments before, the Ghost was proclaiming the progress of the Iraqi government in taking charge of their own affairs, as a justification for keeping American troops in the country. When Prime Minister al-Maliki tried to crack down on Blackwater, our Admin’s response was basically that Iraq didn’t have jurisdiction over the company. Which brings up a recurring question: who really rules Iraq? But Blackwater, which has taken over traditional military functions like guarding American diplomats in Iraq, is also facing investigation on another front, accused of smuggling weapons in to sell in the great gun mart that Iraq has become. Munitions dealers love wars for exactly that reason; they create scads and oodles of willing and hungry buyers. American guns and bomb ingredients have been turning up regularly in Iraq’s weapons marts, and in the hands of “insurgents.” Blackwater involvement would explain a lot. An investigation into what secured the no-bid contracts of Blackwater and other “civilian contractors” in Iraq like Cheney’s Halliburtion is also reportedly being considered.

Not that there aren’t plenty of other investigations going on, starting with how much those “no-bid” contractors are raking off the top – apparently it runs into billions – instead of using the money for much-needed support services. al-Maliki’s government ejected a minister who had compiled a report on the deep and widespread government corruption in Iraq, while Senator Henry Waxman has had to subpoena from a recalcitrant Condi Rice a US government report on the same thing. The outside investigator paid by the administration to track how reconstruction money is being spent in Iraq in now himself being investigated for using the task as a means to milk a paycheck out of the government without doing much of the work.

Then there’s all the other weirdness going on over there. American snipers have reportedly been ordered to lay out bait like weapons parts and shoot any luckless Iraqi that happens upon it. American soldiers have been harassed for their religious beliefs and pressured by superiors toward Evangelical Christianity, with fairly high-ranking officers characterizing Iraq as a war between Jesus and Satan. And that doesn’t even include oil company shenanigans. What’s going on in Iraq? A lot of people are making a lot of money at our expense, which is something to bear in mind as Congress considers more appropriations. The traditional cant is that we need the money to support the troops, but that’s not whose pockets it’ll end in.

Notes from under the floorboards:

It’s time to raise a little working capital here, so odds are pretty good I’ll be putting up some things on Ebay – books, original art, like that – by the weekend. Check at the Paper Movies website on the weekend. I’ll be redesigning that soon too, maybe this week. And if you love the column just so much that you feel like kicking in a few bucks to cover psychic depreciation, there’s a donation button over there too. But relax, no one expects it of you.

Started checking out the new fall TV shows, but it’s not looking promising. First up is NBC’s CHUCK (Mondays 8P), a Josh (THE O.C.) Schwartz confection about a nerdy shop clerk who accidentally becomes a living supercomputer bearing all our nation’s data, secret and otherwise, and pulls patterns from the information allowing CIA shiksa and gunhappy NSA psycho handlers to interfere with terrorism and theoretically other crimes of national importance. Not bad, but that may be the most damning thing I could say about it, since it falls into the “you could do a lot worse for timewasters” category but doesn’t present any convincing arguments for repeat viewing. Not so JOURNEYMAN (NBC, Mondays 10P), a QUANTUM LEAP redux starring Kevin McKidd, who dominated his every scene as the centurion Varenus in HBO’s ROME, as a befuddled journalist screwing up his marriage with involuntary jumps around time. It also doesn’t present any convincing arguments for repeat viewing, but everything about it but McKidd is so pedestrian it doesn’t present any convincing arguments for even finishing the first episode. Even McKidd, who can freeze you in your tracks with a glance, is given pretty much nothing to do or say. What a shame. The worst thing anyone can say about a TV show is “eh,” but in these days when networks, especially NBC, are desperate for “Must See TV” shows, why are they so determined to pump out “yeah, it was okay, I might watch it again if I have the time” shows? At best. Meanwhile, the BBC’s DR. WHO spinoff, THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES, has finally launched, with a minor cast change from the pilot. It’s pretty good, returning Elisabeth Jane Sladen to the role she originated in the ’70s of perky, intrepid reporter Sarah Jane Smith, and if thirty years have diminished her perkiness somewhat, she’s more intrepid than ever, somewhere along the line having been deputized by Dr. Who to guard against alien threats when he’s not around. That’s the general gist, anyway. Armed with a “sonic lipstick” and aided by three precocious teens (one of them a genius pretty literally born yesterday) and a sentient know-it-all supercomputer she refers to as Mr. Smith, and trotting through episodes that seem aimed toward an audience younger than DR. WHO‘s the same way the expletive-strewn sexually-obsessed TORCHWOOD is aimed at an older one, Sarah Jane runs a strong risk of coming off as “Dr. Who Lite” if they’re not careful, but there’s the vibe that’s exactly what they want. But so far so good, though I hope Sarah Jane & crew stop finding menaces among school staffs, since they’ve pulled that one in two out of her three modern outings so far. While the wish-fulfillment element is obvious, there are other ways to wrap stories around teenage characters, and Russell Davies and crew are too clever to be resorting to the same trick twice already.

Anyone who has ever believed that plot is the key to a good story should read James Ellroy’s THE BLACK DAHLIA and then watch Brian dePalma’s 2006 movie based on the book. I’d meant to see the film in the theaters because the book’s a favorite here but didn’t have time, and somehow it just slipped around my DVD viewing. Finally caught it on HBO last Saturday, and it replicates the nuts and bolts of the book’s plot fairly faithfully, from what I recall (it’s been awhile since I’ve read it, and I remember the book’s unrelentingly horrific mood and tone more than details) while dispensing, as movies usually need to, with Ellroy’s various more diversionary tours through the dark belly of Los Angeles. But it’s not the plot that makes the book but Ellroy’s stuttering speed freak style, the dark intensity of his vision and the moral chaos of his characters. Stripped down to the bare bones and shorn of the language, the film becomes an empty exercise attempting to create a noir by merely mimicking what audiences have been trained to think of as noir, leaving its characters not so much morally chaotic as detached; even Aaron Eckhart as the supposedly semi-psychotic cop driving the story come across less compulsively obsessed than whiny. The hero, played decently by Josh Hartnett, spends most of the film being confused, then suddenly solves the whole thing in a bit of off-the-cuff guesswork so intuitive it’s deus ex machine… and when exactly did Scarlett Johansson decide to stop acting and become an overstylized screen presence anyway? In the end it’s more homage to CHINATOWN than adaptation of the book, except that CHINATOWN was good. If you’re looking to kill a couple hours, read the book instead.

I’m told I erred last week in stating the CMX’s manga EMMA has developed a huge and rabid following, though I gather it does okay and it should. The really big hit in the seven volume KAMIKAZE KAITO JEANNE, and while, now that I’ve read all seven volumes, I’m not personally won over (the secret revelations about God are a stitch, though, and enough to get it burned in various southern towns and parts of Pennsylvania) I can understand why it punches a lot of buttons for girls – and it’s nice to see a heroine who ends up depending on her love interest less the stronger their relationship gets.

Sometime before my computer fried last Christmas (longtime readers may recall a freak static shock blew out my motherboard and power supply, a situation complicated and prolonged by the faulty power supply I bought as replacement) I was using Mozilla‘s free Thunderbird program as my email/contact list software. But I had replaced with with Microsoft’s Outlook, part of the company’s Office Suite, because something within Thunderbird was being fussy with my system and I missed the Outlook Calendar and Phone Book. Mozilla had their own calendar program, Sunbird, but it was still pretty unfinished, and since I had Outlook as part of Microsoft’s Office Suite (there’s still no open source word processor than matches up to Word, though I can’t say I often use much of the rest of it but Publisher and occasionally Excel) it was back to Outlook I went. I’m a little tired of it now, though – I remember earlier versions being a lot more functional, somehow – and was surprised to see that while Mozilla has continued developing Sunbird and it’s pretty good now, they’ve also developed a free Thunderbird add-on called Lightning that puts a calendar scheduler right into Thunderbird. It’s actually exactly how Outlook should have handled it all these years – no need to cut away from email to check your calendar (anything that requires jumping from one screen to another reduces efficiency) and emails mentioning important deadlines etc can be dragged right to the appropriate calendar space for easy schedule creation. Even so, it lacks other Outlook features like Journal, but does anyone actually use Outlook Journal for anything? So Oct. 1, just to be neat about it, I’m planning to move back over to the new version of Thunderbird, to see if it works better with my system than the old one did.

Still haven’t had a chance to answer a few weeks’ worth of email, by the way – much traveling last week, and playing catch-up with other things since – but I’ll start on it as soon as the column’s set off. Sorry about that.

By the way, my favorite new stupid pop song of the week is “Let’s Dance To Joy Division” by the Wombats. And yes, let’s.

For those who like archaic sounding futuristic fiction (and more!), STEAMPUNK MAGAZINE #3 is now available for free pdf download. You can buy a copy if you’d prefer. These are the people the Science Fiction Writers of America warned us about…

Congratulations to quasi-expatriate J.M.L.S. Parker, the first to correctly identify last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as “The Beatles.”
John, currently living in semi-sunny Spain, wants you to drop in on Chat English, his Spanish language site where he teaches English and helps Spanish speakers to use it.

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.) Most weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, but if you can’t find it I won’t take it personally. Good luck.

As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn’t?

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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