by  in CBR Exclusives Comment

What a difference fifty years make:

Though, considering what I know now about some of the comics writers of the time (one of the great things about knowing Gil Kane, the man knew where almost all of the skeletons were buried), it wouldn’t surprise me at all if these ads, and others of the hundreds of “action strip” ads that populated comics in the late ’40s and early ’50s, weren’t the product of some slumming hipster jiving the squares. Counter-cultures and their jargon tend to leak through to the uberculture in the strangest places… Maybe the names “Patsy Brown” and “Billy Flick” tell us something. (“Flick” was reputedly a word absolutely verboten in comics in the days of hand lettering and blurry printing, but apparently no one proofed paid advertisting.)

I’m on my way out the door for the rest of the week (and if you’re one of the people I didn’t get back to after last week’s technical difficulties – that’s another story – it won’t be happening until at least Friday afternoon, and I apologize but there’s nothing for it) so I may as well weigh in on the HIGHWAYMAN issue, since there are a lot of mixed messages about it and not much else going on in comics at the moment.

For those who haven’t spent much time on the Internet in the past week, neophyte comics writer Marc Bernadin (plenty of publishing experience elsewhere though) recently complained on his blog that his Wildstorm book, THE HIGHWAYMEN, met a grim fate all too familiar to those who’ve worked in the comics business the past decade or so: quick cancellation. Despite glowing reviews, the book went down in market flames, and Bernadin wants to know why.

Among his possibilities: inadequate promotion, bad work, audience prejudice, or just the lack of superheroes. He pretty much dismisses the first two, and doubts the third, and creeps toward the last.

Underneath it all is the unvoiced truth: that Bernadin, and his partners on the book Adam Freeman & Lee Garbett, were all just more victims of an industry and a market that is both more complex and much simpler than the ten year old version Bernadin seems in his column to want to still exist. Which isn’t surprising, since there are a lot of people who want to believe that version still exists.

The book, which I only just got around to reading through I’ve had copies sitting around amid the stacks, isn’t bad, but I can see where it might have had a hard time winning an audience. The premise is kind of interesting: in the near future, a rogue op triggers a security protocol from the late ’90s, and dead president Bill Clinton calls two aged retired spies back into the field. It’s not a difficult premise to buy, but it seems to take forever to get to it, and that’s just not a great idea anymore.

Bear in mind that what I’m about to say counts mainly for new series, because the more readers I talk to lately the less and less patience I find for extensive setups. Comics readers as a group have never been that patient, and at 22 pages per issue I’m not surprised, because an extensive setup now immediately suggests to potential readers that they’re not going to get a full reading experience that issue. They might be dead wrong, but with unknown product they’re no longer all that likely to stick around to find out. Extensive setups used to be all the rage, but those days are long gone, and the people popularizing them then, like Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, generally knew how to make them really interesting. Most writers don’t make them really interesting, which means many readers now automatically view them as filler. There’s a reason why Warren Ellis these days tends to start all his comics with the nominal hero on the first page. There’s a reason Marvel pretty much enforced the same policy for decades.

I just read the first issue of THE HIGHWAYMEN and have no idea what the names of the main characters are. Going back through the book, I find a small panel that lists the names as part of a file, but no real attention is drawn to it, and nobody calls them by their names anywhere. Not even them. There are ways to pull that off. How Bernadin and Freeman did it ain’t it.

By the end of the first issue, we get the idea these are two old spies, there’s something nasty going on in the Asian-American woman president’s administration behind her back, and somebody wants the two old spies dead. Enough to be willing to off a city bus full of civilians. What we don’t have an inkling of includes the nature of the evil plot, and what the nature of our heroes’ mission is. And this is the first issue of a mini-series.

Not that it ultimately matters – we’ll get to that – but if you want people to be entranced by concepts they’ve never seen before from people they’ve never seen before, you’ve got to give them something to work with. Bernadin talks in his blog of doing store tours, building an Internet presence, kissing babies, etc. All that’s well and good. It can’t hurt. It can never be a substitute for work that makes people want to buy it, or at least not for long.

It doesn’t help that the book opens with the line “A few years after tomorrow…” That sort of thing sounds clever, but it would have sounded more clever if they’d been among the first 500 or so comics writers to use a phrase like that. This may sound nitpicky, but a reader’s first experience of a story psychologically establishes the basis for their acceptance or rejection of the entire story. It’s the sort of line you’d expect someone without much experience writing comics to use. Unfortunately, the mainly decent dialogue throughout the book is dotted with familiarities like that. But the dialogue itself is never really allowed to get interesting because the structure of the plot dictates that no one give away any real information, even about themselves.

So where is the hook readers can hang their interest on?

It’s a problem, and a widespread one among new comics.

The art’s another problem. It’s pretty good. The storytelling’s pretty good. It sweeps you along, and that’s clearly its intended job because when you stop to look at it, you realize that under the Frank Quitely-influenced glaze is a lot of inexperience that’s mostly covered up by the coloring. Figures at a distance aren’t drawn anywhere near as well as figures up close. This is the sort of thing a lot of newer comics artists seem to believe they can gloss over, but they can’t because even if the audience doesn’t consciously recognize it they do recognize it, at which point you’re depending on the kindness of strangers – and the only way to pull it off at all is to generate art that’s not really meant to be looked at. Which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad art, but it does mean no one will ever mistake it for great art. In this market that’s just one more subtle marker suggesting that maybe a reader’s cash is better spent on something else.

But quality has never been all that significant a factor in the comics market. Other factors always figure in, and there has never been an issue of quality that other factors couldn’t compensate for. But it doesn’t always.

Positive reviews are generally not one of those factors. A good review will get me to a movie I’m interested in, but it’s not likely to get me to a film I’m not already interested in. (It might make me interested in seeing it on DVD or cable.) A bad review of a film I’m interested in may keep me from going, but then I take other factors into account, like who the particular critic is, what the particular criticisms are, whether other films I’ve liked from the same director or writer have likewise been trashed. Reviews are promotion, pure and simple, and in most cases that’s the extent of their tepid influence, especially in comics. But we play them like we play one-armed bandits in casinos, for that once in a blue moon big win, when somebody responds to the review and buys the book and gets the ball rolling with word of mouth, because the way most people still get interested in a book is when someone they know tells them it’s worth reading. Word of mouth is still the most effective promotion, because if a press release at Newsarama or a creator in an interview says a book is good, so what? What would you expect them to say? Recommendations from parties who have a vested interest in selling the book mean nothing.

Unfortunately, word of mouth is about the hardest commodity in the business to come by.

Was THE HIGHWAYMEN bad work? No. All things considered, especially considering it’s the product of talent with little comics experience, it’s good enough. In 1993, good enough was more than good enough. In 2007, for most readers, in an unknown project good enough just isn’t good enough.

Modern considerations may have gone against the book. As many have pointed out (I did a column on the subject a couple months back) mini-series are now often dismissed out of hand by readers who fully expect any mini-series worth mentioning to show up sooner than later in trade paperback collection. (Though I realize it borders on fraud, if I were a publisher today I’d never again allow the phrase “mini-series” to be used in conjunction with any of my books under any circumstances, regardless of the series’ intended length. From a marketing standpoint, stamping any series as a mini-series except posthumously is getting suicidal and the general level of mini-series success is such that publishers now may as well skip the minis and go straight to the trades, since that’s where all the money is now anyway.) There’s also the Hollywood thing, which more and more buyers are getting prickly about; in concept, THE HIGHWAYMEN, regardless of the creators’ intent, plays almost more like an intended pitch for a Harrison Ford/Samuel L. Jackson feature film or a latter day I SPY pastiche than a comic, and readers are starting to get hip to that distinction and resenting being asked to essentially subsidize pitches, and starting to apply that standard to anything that even remotely smells like a sideways movie pitch, whether the perception applies to a particular comic or not. This is also taking its toll on independent mini-series, since theoretically these are single concept closed stories that are structurally the comics most resembling feature films anyway.

“Ageism” might have been a factor. (Black heroes are common enough in modern comics that I doubt one of the heroes being black even really registered as a noteworthy event for most readers.) Geriatrics don’t exactly run synonymous in the public imagination with slam-bang action thrillers. Even in something like LIFE FREE OR DIE HARD, with Bruce Willis himself starting to get on in years, his focal cop character is still automatically perceived to be late ’30s/early ’40s at best, and you’ll notice the issue of the character’s age doesn’t really come into play. A bigger problem in THE HIGHWAYMEN is that there is no strong contextual reason why the main characters need to be geriatric. They’re unknown characters. (Matter of fact, I don’t recall any intrinsic story reason to set it 15 years in the future rather than modern day, except so maybe they could represent Washington politics without having to infer anything about the current situation.) It wouldn’t have taken much effort at all to justify younger, more traditional action heroes in the roles, except that the geriatrics heroes are “the spin.” Their ages have no intrinsic necessity. It’s the gimmick.

Audiences can be sensitive about that sort of thing too.

I’m not saying anyone consciously works any of this out. Odds are they don’t. But it’s like walking into a room you’ve never been in before and sensing something’s out of place there. You don’t really know how you’re reaching that conclusion and you’ve got no concept of “normalcy” relating to the room to work from, but you know you’d rather be somewhere else. It works the same way.

A problem is that the pressures of the market have encouraged a lot of publishers and editors to confuse gimmicks (a badge that exists mainly to set a project apart from other projects) with hooks (elements specifically calculated to arrest a reader’s attention and make him want to buy/read the book). It’s not surprising the talent pool has become confused about it as well. The desire is strong for material that at least on the surface seems to have something that allows it to bob above the vast ocean of identikit comics out there now, but desire and desperation are easy to confuse, and desperation tends to allow people to talk themselves into believing something that’s not true is true, and a lot of missteps get made that way.

Bernadin’s most interesting conclusion, which he ultimately salves his wounds with, is that “the market” just doesn’t want anything but superhero comics, and just won’t give a straight action-adventure series a shot. But the charts tell a different story; “the market” doesn’t want third party superheroes either. If it did, no publisher of any stature out there wouldn’t be publishing them, and lots of them. It’s basically only Marvel and DC that does, and, not surprisingly, it’s basically Marvel and DC that the direct market now exists to serve. Even for those companies, superhero comics perceived by the market as “lesser” also often struggle to survive, and Marvel/DC books that stray away from the superhero median can have a very tough time of it. The core audience there is the superhero audience, and they can get quite hostile toward anything that strays too far from an expected norm. But saying “the market only wants superheroes” is making the error of believing DC and Marvel are the market, and that’s just not true. You might as well say the book failed because it didn’t star lots of big-breasted almost naked blondes, something else popularly perceived as “what the market wants” while statistically most books of that nature don’t do very well at all. Matter of fact, most superhero comics don’t do very well. Most comics don’t do very well.

Part of the problem with landing a relatively unadorned action-adventure series like THE HIGHWAYMEN with Marvel or DC is that they no longer have much skill at marketing anything but superhero comics, and more specifically books involving their major characters. Traditionally DC’s marketing of new unaffiliated product – and this isn’t a complaint, only an observation, because I can see where it would make sense from DC’s standpoint – consists of a relatively strong push for a book during its initial release (the strength of the push frequently depends on the marketing department’s faith in it, barring other considerations) and leaving it to sink or swim on its own merits thereafter. (DC also traditionally, at least on Paul Levitz’ watch, has tended to try to keep marginal books going for as long as possible – I’ve benefited from that once or twice myself – but I understand increased market pressures are making that more and more problematic, whatever the general will up there these days.)

At any rate, the possibilities of marketing in the direct market, as I’ve also written about recently, are now precariously narrow. The reason why all the creative considerations above are marginal is that, the way retailers in the direct market order, readers never get the opportunity to make those decisions for themselves. In many cases, they never see new titles. Dealers are the ones who decide what they’re going to see, often months before promotion even makes readers aware of books. As has been pointed out, the HIGHWAYMEN order pattern if fairly typical of retailer orders: second month ~50% of first month orders, third month ~50% of second. I understand it from the perspective of retailer risk, but it’s a system designed to kill new comics, period. Any system designed to kill more than it helps, especially when it’s the sole marketing apparatus in its particular niche, is a health hazard, and that THE HIGHWAYMEN found it a health hazard is no surprise nor accident.

I want to make it clear that none of this is intended as an attack on THE HIGHWAYMEN. It’s just symptomatic of current conditions. The question isn’t why did THE HIGHWAYMEN fail but how on earth does anything succeed? The other question, which no one seems to have an answer for, is what are we going to do about it?

A postscript, on marketing: most comics companies of any size market hierarchically, regardless of what they publish. This makes sense, considering limits to marketing budgets compared to the volume of titles published. But marketing budgets aren’t spent according to need but to projected success, and overall value to the company. Most marketing departments won’t invest significantly in what someone may think will potentially succeed but in what’s succeeding now. Some marketing departments get pretty territorial about their choices, and guerrilla marketing your own book if they’re publishing it can get you in trouble at those companies because even though your marketing effort costs the company nothing, they are very aware that the books they’re hell bent on promoting are in direct competition with yours for retailer dollars, and the general perception is that every buck you convince a retailer to put into your book is a buck not going to their chosen ones, and when bucks don’t go to their chosen ones their bosses start to wonder what the hell they’re doing. It can get touchy. On top of that, comics company marketing departments tend not to be the most innovative places in the world, and they can be fairly hostile to new marketing venues, especially where direct correlations can’t be drawn between marketing effort and market success. At any rate, not infrequently the interests of marketing departments fall askew to the interests of creators who want their books marketing, especially when they aren’t “core” books. What marketing they do tends to be the rote efforts cited by Bernadin: press pieces on half a dozen comics news websites, convention appearances, an ad in previews. More than that usually isn’t practical, since comics have a fairly small profit margin and promotional budgets aren’t unlimited even for the most popular books.

What to do?

It may be time to let creators be creative. It’s time for companies to start building marketing money into the budgets of every unaffiliated or creator-owned comic they publish – and then let talent control their own promotion within that budget. Let’s face it, if THE HIGHWAYMEN fails, it’s not DC’s marketing department that’ll be on the hook for it. It’s Bernadin and company, and Wildstorm, that take the hit. When it’s someone else taking the hit, those can be written off as acceptable damage. When it’s you, it never is. So let’s give those imaginations the chance to run wild. If books tank then, there’ll be no doubt whose fault it is, and if they succeed with innovative marketing, that’s another trick the general marketing department can stuff up its sleeve. Maybe companies can’t give unaffiliated new titles the same attention they give their franchise players, but they can at least give them the chance to fail on their own terms.

A little mail:

“This might come as a mild kick to your nards, but here goes anyway-

My comic shop didn’t order 2 GUNS, so after I read that it had come out, I asked my comic guy to back order me a copy of the 1st ish. He did so. And it never came. And I’ve asked him over and over, and he assures me that he did order it, but Diamond is really shitty about reorders – those that do come through typically take weeks and weeks, and it’s not at all unusual for them to not send them at all.

This doesn’t make any sense to me – There’s no way Diamond is sending this so slowly that it takes more than a week to get anywhere, right? And how hard could it possibly be to take one copy of 2 GUNS off the shelf along with the other Boom books they’re pulling for the store?

My guy is offering Diamond money for product, and they are not giving it to him. Buh? Guh? Are they punishing dealers for not ordering enough the first time? What kind of lesson is that? Shouldn’t they be glad that someone wants to purchase their inventory?

I’m not sure if this problem is covered by the indie re-order penalty thing I’ve heard rumbles about.”

I wish I could say I was surprised. Worse, I wish I could say I took it personally. The fact is that indie reorders represent a manhour issue for Diamond, and I’m not sure there’s any solution for it other than for retailers to reorder enough indies to make it worth their while. The best course of action for anyone wanting independently published comics like 2 GUNS would seem to be to go online and order them directly from the publishers. I know saying this sort of thing pisses off retailers and distributors alike because we’re encouraging people to take the food out of their mouths, but, y’know, we’re really not, and at this point many retailers have demonstrated they’re just not all that interested in supporting indie comics (though some, like Alternate Reality here in Las Vegas, do about the best job they possibly can of it) so they don’t leave anyone a lot of choice, because them not having 2 GUNS available for anyone who wants to buy it (just for the sake of example, mind you) is taking food out of my mouth, and the situation has been going on long enough without any real effort at resolution that independent comics are beyond the point where they can afford to take the tender sensibilities of retailers and distributors into consideration. The direct market started out as a response to non-responsive distribution and retailing. Being non-responsive now is basically saying they don’t intend to learn from history, but maybe the rest of us should.

From Gerry Mooney: “I’m writing in response to your open query about using web-based POD publishers. I recently rolled out Chapter One of my graphic novel SISTER MARY DRACULA, which is being printed by ComixPress.

This is a 24 page book with color covers and b&w interior. Startup costs, about $16 for my proof copy. After that, no costs. Cover price is $3.00, printing cost is $1.34 per book and my share is the difference, $1.66. I can order additional quantities at the $1.34 price plus shipping.

Two downsides: their response time is a little poky, so I have to write repeated emails and feel like I have to constantly light a fire under them. So far they’ve come through, but they could be more proactive in this regard.

The other is that for shoppers on their site they accept payment only through PayPal or checks/money orders. When I order quantity they’ll accept credit cards, but that option is not available for regular customers. My solution is to order quantity that I can then sell with my own shopping cart, merely to give visitors to my SISTER MARY DRACULA website the option to pay with credit cards.

The pricing and economics IMO don’t allow a self publisher like myself to be a wholesaler. Their cost to me is basically a wholesale rate, so markups and margins don’t allow me to wholesale to comics shops, only to sell retail. Of course that depends on the kind of book you’re doing. A 24 page comic is pretty much limited to selling in the $3 range. If I were to wholesale to comics shops the same book would have to retail for upwards of $4, and that’s a lot in my opinion.

I hope this helps. I would definitely recommend ComixPress.”

I dunno, that pokey response time bit bothers me a little. It’s not what you want to hear about a service organization.

About the “foreign news organizations”: One of the worst and silliest examples of this was back during the whole ‘freedom fries’ period where the US was supposed to be denying any French products. Leave it to Bill O’Reilly to start quoting from European financial publications that the boycott (which, of course in his own mind, he was helping to lead) had seriously cut into the profit margins of many French companies. The truth was that the publications that he “quoted” don’t even exist. He still brings this up on his shows from time to time but I guess you can’t expect much from the person who was yelling about “The War On Christmas” while all of his promotional stuff on the FOX News web store were all labeled as ‘Happy Holidays’.

About the Iraq Status Report: The stuff that really got my attention was what came from the ambassador to Iraq. While the general kept running on and on about how the surge is working even though it has been proven that the data on display is not a compete picture (look into the question about “where a person is shot gives you a reason for the shooting” for a really freaky example of this), Crocker’s testimony seemed to refute a lot of the blue skying that the general carted out. When the top diplomat in the country talks about just how bad the diplomatic situation is in the country, it would be a good idea to listen to him.

About the surge working or not: This left me kind of confused. So, the surge is working and violence is starting to trend down… which means that we’ll bring out some of the troops… which means that the troop numbers will be below the surge numbers and we know how bad the security situation was before the surge started…. which means that the surge is working so we’ll send some troops home… Ummm… Yeah. That makes a whole lot of sense. Toss in the fact that all the big “troop reduction” plan that has been talked about during the testimony would only reduce the amount of troops in Iraq to the pre-surge numbers and that Bush and Pretraeus are trumpeting about bringing home a brigade at the end of the month as a show of progress on the ground even though that brigade was already scheduled to be pulled out due to the fact that their current tour of duty in the field is up and they have to be sent home to see just how screwed up the whole situation is.”

Petraeus’ own report guts his testimony. Look at his figures and, contrary to his statements to Congress, the improvement of Iraqi security forces’ ability to take over from American troops over the past year amounts to… zero. “Troop reduction” is basically just a buzzword now, threatening to maybe eventually start moving American troops out at an unspecified time in the indefinite future, and considering the Pentagon is protesting a proposal in Congress to extend r&r time for soldiers who have been stationed in Iraq as a form of backdoor troop reduction, well… So how come my local paper has a huge headline and front page story about O.J. Simpson being involved in a hotel room heist – I mean, who really gives a rat’s ass? – and a tiny little sub-headline pointing to a story buried somewhere inside about “protestors” (there were only some 100,000 of them) marching on Washington to demand the Ghost’s impeachment…?

“I’ve been enjoying your CBR columns for a while, especially the political commentary — we seem to be fairly sympatico, especially where “The Ghost” is concerned (I tend to think of him as “Pinky” ever since that famous “Fool me once” gaffe.)”

Oh, lord, if the Ghost is Pinky, does that mean Cheney is The Brain?

“Narf! What are we going to do tonight, Brain?”

“The same thing we do every night, Pinky – TRY TO TAKE OVER IRAQ!”

Speaking of Wildstorm, I’ve been cruising through some of their CMX manga line lately. With a couple exceptions, it’s turning out to be quite a strong line, especially considering it hasn’t been getting that much attention that I’ve run across. Let’s see if we can change that:

EMMA by Kaoru Mori ($9.99@)

I was told this series has a rabid following among teenage American girls, but I didn’t believe it, since it’s mainly an extremely down to earth study of social mores in Victorian England. It’s about the least frenetic manga I’ve ever seen, with characters always moving very deliberately and carefully, always in control of their emotions and always aware of their social circumstances. Except for a brief romp by an Indian prince who comes to London complete with a harem and an entourage of elephants, the action is about as ridiculously ordinary as you can imagine. But the central story, a thwarted love between a well-off scion of a status-hungry merchantile family and a very capable chambermaid, is not only incredibly captivating but a highly entertaining roadmap through the strata and demands of Victorian society. The art’s also very precise, controlled and lovely. Really good; I see now how it gets its rep.

PENGUIN REVOLUTION by Sakura Tsukuba ($9.99@)

Like many CMX manga, this one seems built on familiar forms – in this case, this story of young heroine abandoned by her parents who becomes manager of a budding actor and who has the ability to see stage talent (as well as shades of moral intent) in others feels a lot like FRUITS BASKET with actors – but, like many CMX manga, the result is well done enough that it easily overcomes any comparisons. It reminds me of the film STRICTLY BALLROOM, which Mike Zeck once characterized as “a kung fu film, with ballroom dancing,” in that PENGUIN REVOLUTION is basically a fight manga, using stage performances instead of fancy fighting techniques. The series is lifted both by its handling of the familiar “teens finding their place in the world” theme and of the natural growing relationship between the heroine and the young actor she manages. Sure, there are typically silly manga bits – the owner of their agency insists they both have cross-dressed secret identities and exposure will mean their expulsion from the agency – but it plays really well, with unforced confidence. Very good.

KAMIKAZE KAITO JEANNE by Arina Tanemura ($9.99@)

This “magical girl” story in the SAILOR MOON mold may have the most tortured premise I’ve seen in a long time: an athletic young girl who’s the reincarnation of Joan of Arc transforms via angelic intervention into master thief Kaito Jeanne, who “steals” paintings because, unknown to the public, they house demons out to use the beauty of the paintings to corrupt human hearts and thus undermine the power of God on earth. (When the demons are imprisoned, the paintings are replaced by new, also beautiful but harmless, paintings.) She falls in love with a schoolboy who just happens to also be Kaito Sinbad, an apparent angel of the Devil out to steal God’s power via also capturing the demons. (If the exact mechanics of this don’t quite seem to make sense, well… let’s just call it creative Christianity…) She’s also abandoned by her parents, and her best friend doubles as a detective trying to bring Kaito Jeanne to justice. While it has many of the traditional flaws of the magical girl genre – the demons are mostly paper tigers for her to capture, while the real action is the emotional play between Jeanne, Sinbad and their angelic familiars – turns out its very effectively done, with situations relatively quickly advanced and character development given uncharacteristic precedence for this sort of thing, and even what initially looks like very busy artwork turns out to be both open and intriguingly frenetic. Not bad at all, and improves the further you get into it.

THE RECIPE FOR GERTRUDE by Nari Kusakawa ($9.99@)

PINOCCHIO as FRANKENSTEIN meets FAUST: a handsome new demon created from pieces of other demons tries to track down the “recipe” a sorcerer used to put him together while fending off attacks from demons who want their pieces back. There are lots of vaguely familiar elements in this one too, but it also gets better as it goes on, and is mainly carried by a determined young heroine who unwittingly holds the secret of the recipe. It’s hindered a little by much more emphasis on plot than character, but it move briskly enough to stay entertaining.

TIME GUARDIAN by Daimuro Kishi & Tamao Ichinose ($9.99@)

At which point the manga becomes more typical. A shop that rents time (so people can live the same hour more than once, or go through it twice at the same time, that sort of thing) makes a Japanese schoolgirl with a magical watch the guardian of time, basically a goodhearted busybody charged with inflicting on other people her own sense of how their time should best be used. Fortunately for them, she’s apparently goodhearted enough to never be wrong. Entertaining in the moment, but the characters and emotional situations will be familiar to anyone who has read any degree of manga. I’ve only read one volume, and assume later volumes flesh the heroine out, because so far she’s not much more than a cartoon existing to keep the plots moving. Cute but ephemeral.

SWAN by Kyoko Ariyoshi ($9.99@)

And now for the bad CMX news: SWAN isn’t technically bad, but unless you’re a ballet fan or yearn for diversionary lectures about the history of dance in the middle of your fiction, it’s likely to play as deadly dull. Ballet dancers dance beautifully and go through weird emotional outbursts, but while there have been manga I thought were too stupid to finish, this is the first time I was almost bored out of finishing one. For specific tastes only.

But five (well, four and a half) out of six ain’t bad.

Notes from under the floorboards:

So I see Alan Greenspun finally came out and admitted that our involvement in Iraq was really all about oil. Not that we ever doubted it, especially after my very own (Republican) Senator John Ensign started loudly screeching that withdrawal from Iraq would mean $9/gallon gas prices (though he was reluctant to explain how, since in theory we’re not getting any Iraqi oil, which, as the Ghost insisted years ago, “belongs to the Iraqi people,” at least until we can coerce the Iraqis into signing it all over to American oil companies…), but maybe I should hand the title of “Master Of The Obvious” over to Greenspun now…

I see a Nebraska State Senator filed suit against God for making terrorist threats through the auspices of various followers. A fairly amusing publicity stunt basically mocking the efforts of the Radical Religious Right to use lawsuits and the courts to enforce their own agenda on “non-believers,” and, given that this country technically acknowledges the existence of God as a person and, if you believe TV preachers, seems to think he’s an American citizen, it almost has a weird sort of validity. (Nebraska state law allows anyone to bring a lawsuit against anyone for practically anything.) If nothing else, at least now we know why Satan made so many lawyers… Meanwhile, I see the Pentagon is being sued for not only trying to force a soldier in Iraq to convert to Evangelistic Christianity but punishing him when he didn’t…

Speaking of Iraq, I’m guessing that “taking control of its own security” didn’t quite go the way the Ghost intended when Iraq finally decided it had enough of Blackwater, America’s premier corporate mercenary army (one of them, anyway), which the administration likes to call “civilian contractors” and which has spent the past few years enjoying their freedom from ethical restrictions imposed on our military over there. A recent bloody Baghdad gun battle got a handful of Blackwater employees scheduled for trial and the thousands of others over there kicked out. I hope this doesn’t mean we have to invade Iran to provide more work for them. Reportedly our administration is claiming Iraqi courts have no jurisdiction over “foreign civilian contractors.” Which is an interesting new diplomatic principle: every man his own roving embassy… at least if he works for corporate mercenary armies…

Funny digital rights management story: for decades the Recording Industry Association Of America has been trying to get surcharges added to all blank recordable media, basically on the premise that the existence of such material is theft since it’s mainly going to be used to duplicate music that exists on RIAA-authorized media. Their Canadian clone/patsy organization, the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA), did manage to get a levy attached to blank CDs that in some cases substantially raised their prices, and, when MP3 players came into vogue, successfully lobbied to extend the levy to those devices. A judge threw the levy out, but it’s being suggested again, only this time the CRIA is dead set against it. Why? Because the Canadian courts declared that if iPods etc were taxed with what would basically amount to a private tax by the recording industry, downloading music would effectively become legal. (As near as I can figure it, the levy would amount to a pre-payment to the recording industry for the music.) Canadians couldn’t upload music to the Internet, but they could grab as much as their MP3 players could hold. For some reason, the recording industry would prefer a levy be viewed by the consuming public as a penalty and not as a license…

Caught up with the second season of WEEDS (Showtime, 10P Mondays) on DVD last week. Probably won’t bother with the third. From a series that started out fairly promisingly in the first season, with a widowed suburban mother (played with fumbling charm by Mary Louise Parker) resorting to dealing pot to make ends meet, it sure carved itself enough dead ends in season 2. She moved up from being a pot dealer to a would-be marijuana kingpin. A nice guy boyfriend turns out to be a DEA agent, a nice twist that ultimately they could do nothing with, except to first have him stupidly start committing outright crimes for her and then transform him into a domineering semi-monster pretty much out of the blue so we’d hopefully stop remembering he had a kid of his own long enough to feel marginally fulfilled by his abrupt passing. The elder son, suffering from teen angst first season, quickly and for no apparent reason degenerated into a violent idiot sociopath. A potentially intriguing storyline about the irreverent, socially incorrect brother-in-law having to attend rabbinical school to dodge military service ended up nothing more than a quickly disposable excuse for a throwaway kinky sex scene. Nothing came together, everything fell apart, and to cap things off the second season finale was a situation made impossible by a setup earlier in the season that the writers obviously forgot. Nothing came together, everything fell apart. What can you say about a series that even wastes Zooey Deschanel as a girlfriend from hell too stupid to live? Only one thing: adios.

Congratulations to Dara Naraghi, who correctly identified last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme as “The Seven Deadly Sins.” (To those who brought it up, the inclusion of a Captain Marvel cover was pretty much coincidental, and the character’s connection to the seven deadly sins didn’t occur to me until someone brought it up.) Often a bridesmaid in these challenges, first time “bride” Dara would like you to take a look at the website for his graphic novel LIFELIKE, coming soon from IDW Publishing. Well? What’s stopping you?

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 this week the covers is all you need. 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.

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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.