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Issue #102

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #102
  • In 1997, the most famous moment in modern wrestling history occurred. The World Wrestling Federation (now World Wrestling Entertainment) champion Bret Hart, at that point the highest paid man in the history of wrestling (not to mention arguably the best there is, the best there was and the best there ever will be) but leaving for rival World Championship Wrestling (since subsumed into WWE), was screwed out of the belt at a pay per view show by WWE owner Vince McMahon, who basically panicked and undercut a deal with Bret out of fear WCW would use Bret to somehow humiliate them. (Sort version: Bret was willing to drop the belt, just not on the night in question in his homeland of Canada; a Canadian-American feud had been the centerpiece of the main WWE storyline for some time at that point, with Bret being a hero in Canada and a villain in America.) Before the scheduled end of his match with main rival Shawn Michaels, Bret was put in a submission hold and immediately the referee called for the bell, as if Bret had surrendered. Bret, as the chants went for ages, was screwed out of the title, punched McMahon out in the dressing room, and left for WCW. (All this, including backstage stuff, actually got recorded in the excellent documentary HITMAN HART: WRESTLING WITH SHADOWS, which I recommend to everyone whether they like wrestling or not. It’s fascinating.)

    McMahon’s defense, on TV the next night, was that he “didn’t screw Bret. Bret screwed Bret.”

    Which, of course, was nonsense and everyone knew it, making McMahon look worse in the public eye than before he tried to “explain” (aka “spin”) himself. It’s something of a curse in the wrestling world that no matter what happens promoters, and usually wrestlers, try to “work” the audience, and they usually get pretty cranky when the audience doesn’t bite. McMahon was smart enough, though, to capitalize on the situation, transforming his own on-screen persona from announcer to power-mad heel owner, prompting a long and very popular feud with skyrocketing star Stone Cold Steve Austin (who had previously been feuding with Bret) that took the WWE to unprecedented success.

    For awhile.

    That particular bubble popped a couple years ago, and, while WWE is nowhere near collapse, ratings have suffered, house show attendance is way down, disastrous ancillary activities like the XFL football league and a WWE-themed Times Square restaurant took big chunks out of earnings – and the WWE still can’t let go of the chant “Bret screwed Bret.” Six years on, with Bret Hart mostly unknown to a younger generation of fans raised on Austin and The Rock (Bret himself was misused by WCW, given a career-ending concussion by a meatball wrestler called Goldberg, and later suffered a stroke, so he didn’t exactly fare well either), the WWE still can’t let go of the single most inglorious moment of their long and occasionally sordid history, are still trying to squeeze some reaction out of it. (Of course, these days they’re pretty much trying anything that’ll jumpstart interest.)

    You’d think that a man like Vince McMahon with so much experience at turning lead to gold and getting an audience to buy into any nonsense he says would be able to handle things better.

    Or a man like Mark Alessi.

    Let’s face it: go through the mountains of press releases and public statements made by Crossgen since the company’s founding and it’s clear Alessi’s fairly adept at manipulating public opinion. (When someone commented yesterday that this week’s cancellation of THE FIRST while suddenly “reminding” everyone it’s an intentional “37 issue limited series – was this ever mentioned before the cancellation was announced? – was “the first” of what’s likely to be a lot of spin from the company for weeks to come, my reaction was “when did they ever do anything else?” This isn’t a complaint. Comics are marketed, marketers spin. It’s what they do.) So why did his obvious skills fail so miserably this week?

    The short version: Crossgen hasn’t been paying some freelancers for their work. Some of these freelancers, like Robin Riggs, Will Rosado and Lewis Larosa starting complaining publicly of it. Which, of course, Crossgen didn’t like, since it immediately got tongues wagging about Crossgen’s possibly shaky finances, which is never a good thing in a market like ours. Company spokesman Bill Rosemann, who cut his public relations teeth on the “go for the jugular” p.r. style of Bill Jemas and Joe Quesada over at Marvel, issued a statement at Pulse, verifying that the company was having money problems (despite Alessi’s original claim that he had enough personal money to keep the company afloat five years without a penny’s profit if necessary) and that everyone connected to or working for the company – “even the three creators who were recently removed from assignments due to unsatisfactory work and blown delivery dates” – was going to get paid everything they were owed. Eventually.

    The implication being that these scurrilous stories, though actually true, were being mongered by disgruntled unprofessional no-talents. Despite Crossgen reportedly never sending at least one of the talents in question a contract or giving a delivery date (hard to miss a deadline when no deadline is given), and then going ahead and publishing the “unsatisfactory” work.

    The funny thing is the story probably would’ve died right there had Crossgen simply released the statement without the snippy attack. That one parenthetical note fueled an inferno that raged all over the net, to the point where Alessi himself had to step forth and make a statement.

    Which, of course, only made things worse.

    Dirk Deppey, over at ¡Journalista! (you’ll have to scroll down a bit), gives his own version of a Crossgen statement that would most likely have soothed all nerves and defused the situation, basically via eating a little humble pie: taking a hit for the team. It’s too bad Alessi didn’t choose that way. Instead, he exacerbated things with statements like

    “Certain people thought they’d be paid immediately by making it public, and that’s not going to happen,” he said, noting that they will be paid on the same schedule as the rest of the company’s freelancers and creditors. “If the three people who have raised the issue [in public] told the whole story, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

    “If they had enough courage to come forward — which was really blackmail — they should have the courage to tell the whole story. … They weren’t protecting anyone, they were blackmailing.”

    Needless to say, blackmail wasn’t exactly the right word for the occasion. (Extortion was more what Alessi meant.) Just one little bit of the interview and it set off enough of another storm that Alessi then demanded sort of equal time to clarify his statements. (Which he did, pretty nicely.)

    This whole exchange is just another example of the general attitude of publishers (the strength of the attitude is, oddly, often inversely proportionate to the size of the publisher) toward freelancers, and goes a long way toward explaining why, for many freelancers, working with Marvel and DC is the Holy Grail of comics, whether they have any interest in Batman or Spider-Man or not. Fact 1: freelancing is a business. Most freelancers don’t dabble in comics, they do them for a living. This means comics are the means by which they pay the bills. When checks aren’t sent out by publishers at the promised time, those bills don’t get paid. Believe it or not, this can eventually cause severe problems. When publishers don’t pay on time, creditors start adding charges; you never see publishers stepping forward with extra cash to pay those when their own late payments caused them. Yet publishers, when it suits them, will harp on the necessity of freelancers approaching comics as a business, i.e. getting the work in on time so as not to bring down any penalties (say, from the printer, who penalizes publishers when the presses don’t run according to schedule). But, y’know, every time I’ve gotten a contract with a penalty built in for late delivery (page rate cut by 10% for every day past deadline the work comes in or like that) all I’ve had to do to get that clause removed was agree to it on condition that a clause adding 10% to the page rate for ever day the check didn’t go out past due date was also included. End of discussion.

    Alessi talks about how he has had to sell his own property to make sure freelancers get paid. So what? He’s the one who promised they’d get paid. Is that any different from freelancers selling their own property to pay the bills when they don’t get paid? If it’s his promise, whose pocket should the pay come out of?

    Fact #2, and I’ve got plenty of personal experience on this: any money not put into a freelancer’s pocket according to schedule is more money that comes out of the freelancer’s pocket.

    The interesting this is that the money involved doesn’t seem to have been huge in any case. Riggs was, he reports, not paid at one point because Crossgen doesn’t like writing checks that small. So why didn’t Alessi simply defuse the situation by saying, “Whoops, my bad. It was an oversight, this is the first time it came to my attention, we just sent out the checks. Sorry.”

    The obvious conclusion was that he didn’t want everyone being stiffed to come running up with their hands out, or making noise if he didn’t fork over.

    I don’t know what Crossgen’s finances are like these days. The cancellation of a single book, though the timing was awkward, indicates nothing, especially since, given the numbers, cancellation is the sane option if you’re running a business. DC and Marvel cancel comics all that time – Marvel cancelled two this week – and no one suspects them of imminent collapse. Even Marvel and DC occasionally have cashflow ball-ups. (Not often, but I’ve been through a couple.) It’s way too premature to start playing Alan Doane‘s little game.

    On the other hand, there’s one phrase in Alessi’s statement that set off nasty warning bells.

    Let me reiterate: I have absolutely no knowledge of the overall state of Crossgen’s finances, aside from their admission that they haven’t been paying freelancers and staffers on schedule. But I have been through enough company collapses that I’ve grown a little paranoid about it, especially when this phrase pops up,

    “We’re in the final stages of a new investment round”

    I know, you’d think that was a good thing, and it probably is. But I can’t count the number of companies I’ve heard that from just before they closed up shop. (Note to Crossgen: don’t bother answering this. You’ll either get the investment – drop me a line when it happens and I’ll be happy to sing its praises – or you don’t. There’s nothing to argue about. I’m just referring to history.)

    But here’s the crux (no pun intended) of the general publisher attitude toward freelancers:

    “The staff has been paid. Some of the senior management have chosen to forgo wages for a period of time as we tighten our belt. I have never been paid in the history of this company. This problem has been freelancers and some other people to whom we owe money.”

    In other words, in the minds of many publishers, the job of the freelancer is to underwrite the publisher’s expenses. It’s the attitude of moneymen who believe their contribution is far more important and significant than those of the day laborers toiling in the fields. (One former comptroller at Marvel summed up the mentality awhile back when he was asked why the editorial staff was getting no Christmas bonus that year but the officers of the company were and he replied that they make so little compared to him a Christmas bonus to them just means a meal out while the same bonus to him, since the size of the bonus was based on the size of the salary, means taking his family to Aruba for two weeks – and that involved his own people, which are generally held at more value than freelancers.)

    But that’s always the problem with those damn freelancers: they want to be paid. More to the point, they need to be paid.

    “What we do and how we function internally is none of their business unless they work here.

    “There hasn’t been even a hint of turnover, and yet the phone has been ringing off the hook from other companies saying that the sky is falling”

    The first statement – that Crossgen’s internal workings are no one’s business unless they work there – is patently untrue for a company that not only employs freelancers but decides their payment is postponeable at will. Lewis Larosa cites at least one freelancer who was hired on after cashflow problems and the failure to pay freelancers was known inside the company, yet, according to Larosa, the freelancer was never told of this before accepting the assignment. If this is true, it suggests Crossgen doesn’t want their internal workings made public because it will make it harder for them to get freelancers working on their books. (Kind of a curious concept anyway, since they originally made such a noise about how everyone working on the books will be company employees, not freelancers.)

    The second statement – that there has been no turnover – could be explained by the loyalty of the employees, or by the reported non-compete clauses in Crossgen employee contracts that makes leaving the company tantamount to being jobless for several months, something not many people are eager to face in this economy. (It probably also doesn’t hurt that many of Crossgen’s staff gave up their former homes and lives to uproot and move to Tampa. Non-disclosure clauses in contracts and the common trait of most freelancers to not rock the boat if they can help it may also explain why more complaints weren’t publicly lodged, if more are there, though Deppey asks in a more recent update to his blog if those clauses somehow also prohibit employees from stepping forth to say good things about the company as well.)

    Alessi concludes his initial statement (he later made another to “clarify” his position, with another uncomfortably familiar comment

    “this particular situation is a closed matter to the public now.”

    Ignoring that this phrase has also seeped forth from the mouths of many publishers about to go out of business (again, I want to reiterate I have no knowledge that Crossgen is, nor any particular reason to believe they will be; for all I know, they’re underneath solid as a rock and will exist for generations), those who utter it (usually politicians on the spot, actually) are usually reminded it’s the public that makes those determinations, not them.

    Again, nothing of Crossgen’s longterm health can be interpreted from any of this. Being a privately held company, their financials aren’t exactly public and only they know how strong or weak they actually are, though if they’re taking on investors that information is floating around out there somewhere. I hope the company is as strong as Alessi suggests, and I hope their plans coalesce and the company grows very successful, but no amount of success excuses bad behavior in getting there. The question remains how Crossgen, which had to this point shows considerable adeptness in manipulating perception, could’ve handled this situation with such bad form. Maybe it was just egos and tempers getting out of control, but maybe we’re looking at it all wrong. The bad form doesn’t arise from Crossgen’s public statements. It was bad form all along, from the moment they decided timely and agreed upon payment to freelancers was optional.

  • A few things got cleared up this week:

    I received several more e-mails taking on Lone Star Comics, but it all turned slapstick when this arrived from the original correspondent:

    “When I first emailed you about Lone Star Comic’s revamping, I was thinking of another store and city altogether. I moved around Texas so much for 5 years each place is like a blur.

    The name of the four store chain was Heroes, which I learned recently has closed. The owners cashed out back in 2000. They were in Houston, not Ft. Worth. Sorry about that.”

    Oy. So stop sending me messages about Lone Star Comics now. Just to show I’m not out to bash them, I close out the matter with this assessment:

    “First off, Buddy [Saunders] still runs Lone Star Comics.

    The Lone Star chain carries comics, novels, toys, CCGs, RPGs, miniatures, and various other related merchandise. To their credit they keep the stores clean and organized, if a bit cramped. They do hold various game events (all their stores have at least a couple tables set up for game play) and some the stores even offer game demos at any time. You supposedly can ask any clerk and they can sit down and demo some various games for you. All the stores look basically the same (within reason with different floor plans) and carry basically the same items (which sometimes vary on availability of stock).

    Also Lone Star tries to promote a family friendly atmosphere and therefore carries only product that reflects that. (They don’t go through every comic and product, so some stuff slips through). Now they do carry mature titles of the Vertigo level and those all are shrink-wrapped (I assume by Lone Star). Anything beyond that they don’t carry.

    Lone Star does go some comic and gaming shows that I’m aware of (Honestly there aren’t any large comic cons in Dallas. Dallas is more known for its Anime cons like A-Kon.

    The employees are a bit fannish, but get the job done.”

    Last week’s letter assailing the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund brought stern defenses from both Neil Gaiman and Dirk Deppey, which brought the following from the original correspondent

    “OK, my letter certainly got some reaction – and thankfully so. I am pleased as punch to find that all my worries are baseless and that the rumors aren’t worth shit. See, that was more or less the point of the whole thing: I didn’t want to believe them but they were damning enough that I needed to ascertain for myself. Thankfully, both Dirk Deppey and Neil Gaiman stepped up and gave a point by point rebuttal – and I couldn’t be happier. That’s what I wanted to hear, and if there had been any truth to the rumors I would have taken no satisfaction about that…

    I was a bit surprised that Mr. Grant printed my letter pretty much as was – in the harsh light of day, it’s obvious that it was nothing more than spurious innuendo and cranky gossip – which I knew. I had heard the same complaints more than once, however, which was enough to pique my interest. I’m glad there turned out to be no story, and I am doubly thankful to Messrs. Deppey and Gaiman for clearing this matter up for me. Someone does believe these things, however, or I wouldn’t have heard these stories parroted repeatedly. That’s bothersome, because there are always receptive ears for these things. Sure, perhaps I’m a bit more gullible than some (it took me many years to figure out that this kid I knew in 2nd grade did not actually own an army surplus submarine that he kept at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, for instance) but if a practicing lawyer talks, people usually listen on legal matters, regardless of whether they may be wrong. Unless you have a law license yourself, it’s hard not to.

    I didn’t write the letter because I wanted to believe bad things about one of comicdom’s most important and well respected institutions, but because I wanted not to believe, and I wanted very badly to be proven wrong. After some cursory research (admittedly cursory – I’m not a journalist!) the best way to get to the bottom of matters seemed to be to simply air the nasty things and see if anyone bit. It may seem irresponsible with hindsight, but it achieved the desired purpose. My faith in the CBLDF as the defender of justice in our community has never been stronger. I’ve been a longtime supporter and I will continue to support. You should do the same if you don’t already.

    One thing I don’t think a lot of people realize is that living in places like Oklahoma and Texas (and OK is much more conservative than TX, trust me on this) gives a liberal-minded person a lot more respect for people who do live on the fringes of the First Amendment. I live in a state where it’s illegal to buy printed pornography harsher than a PLAYBOY BOOK OF LINGERIE, where cable pay-per-view is subject to blackouts due to ‘inappropriate material’ and where not having an American flag decal on your vehicle makes you somehow less of a person than someone who does. I live in fear of my comic shop being shut down by some DA with a grudge or a re-election to run. We all say “it couldn’t happen here,” but it does every day. He keeps his ZAP comics and XXXENOPHILE back issues in a storage room, on a high shelf and behind a closed door. Even with all these precautions, it’s always possible that some cop with an attitude and a Jesus decal on his patrol car could go in, buy a copy of CHERRY and trigger a prosecution.

    Of course, there’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking that occurs in the wake of upsetting legal decisions. And, of course, it’s all moot, just like it’s moot to cuss at the TV when your team misses the kick. But there is one very important “what if?” that we should all remember, and that doesn’t fall under the rubric of “Monday Morning QB’ing” – what if we had supported the Fund more? We should remember that in these cases enough is never enough, and our rallying cry should be “Never Again”.

    A lot of people are angry about this case, it’s a wound that refuses to heal. We should never hesitate to ask questions of those who presume to defend us – but they have never presented themselves as anything other than 100% accountable, and if there’s any further proof of this just look at Neil Gaiman’s recent comments. Gaiman makes a wonderful point that THE COMICS JOURNAL has never been shy to watchdog the fund – and this is as it should be. If only more people read the JOURNAL! I believe there is a perception among many that the Fund is above reproach – but that isn’t the case, and it shouldn’t be the case. If something goes wrong, no institution is above reproach, not the Presidency of the United States and not the CBLDF. Thankfully, as this instance shows, there is no need for reproach. Hopefully, with people like Chris Brownstein and Neil Gaiman at the helm, the mistakes of the past will be etched into our collective memories and never repeated.

    They say ‘those who forget history are doomed to repeat it’. Well, I’m never going to forget what happened to Jesus Castillo and you shouldn’t either. I never want what happened in Texas to happen again. Of course, it probably will, and that’s a shame – but that’s no reason to give up the fight. If you haven’t contributed to the Fund lately, do so. They deserve our support, our respect, and most importantly, our money. They’re fighting the good fight.

    I felt obligated to make as public an apology as possible. But, as I said, I am 100% glad things turned out the way they did. It makes me hope that maybe all is not lost after all in this wayward nation we call America.”

    Fine with me. Let’s call a wrap on that one for now, okay?

    A couple messages on the subject of advertising comics on TV:

    “Cable One has ended its summer ad special. Their rates have returned to the regular $35 per showing of ads under ‘wild’ rotation (no specific time slot). Specific time slot costs are more, but require a lengthy contract.

    Cox in Arizona now charges $1200 for video production of the commercial, but give package deals on airings.

    I’m digging around the cable companies and their ad rates for small businesses like comics shops. I hope to have a chart of some kind ready by the end of Sept.”

    and, from Comic World News editor Ed Cunard, who doubles as a TV exec in Pennsylvania

    “In today’s column, someone did some leg work and found out some cable ad rates. I’d like to also point out (as I did in an old column for a tiny little site I contribute to) that in smaller market television, advertising with local network affiliates is also an affordable option in certain cases. I don’t say this because I’d like to see more local ads for comic book stores on my stations (which would be nice, of course), but because many syndicated day parts have appealing demographics for comic books and comic retailers, and often have higher ratings and share than local cable. Of course, it depends on the market and individual ad rates, but it’s still an available option, as is radio, local print advertising and various other promotional opportunities. Many small businesses use local television stations to spread the word about their stores; it boggles the mind that many comic retailers don’t do the same. Another way to use the local media is to contact the assignment editor to see about obtaining coverage of store events for the local newscasts, especially in cases where the morning news has a more malleable format that often focuses on human interest and local events than hard news.”

    On the subject of the first graphic novel, we have a new possible contender:

    “Interesting discussion on graphic novels. I was struck by your including Lynn Ward’s God’s Man as a graphic novel.

    Similarly, there were a couple of woodcut novels by Frans Masereel published in the 1920s in Europe. Masereel (born in Flanders in 1889) was a painter and a wood-engraver. His novels were DIE IDEE (The Idea, 1920) and GESCHICHTE OHNE WORTE (Story Without Words, 1924). Like Ward’s stories, there are no words, and their lengths are 83 and 60 woodcuts respectively.

    I have a copy with both novels published as a flip-book. The publisher is Redstone Press, London. The ISBN number is 1 870003 05 5. Just thought you might want to know.”

    We do. We want to know everything. Thanks.

  • A few more “revisions” per our running game,, but before we go on… After last week’s segment I was flooded with people sending in their own character revisions. Please don’t. While anyone’s free to suggest characters (company-owned only, not creator-owned), only invited writers are able to participate. Sorry. I’m just not equipped to handle an open field, though if anyone wants to create their own board for a similar game, drop me a note and I’ll list the address. (Any writers who want to play should drop me a line and list a couple of their published works as well.) Anyway, on the this week’s makeovers:

    From Jerry Novick:

    DEADMAN – 12

    When Marcus Baybridge – husband, father, innocent bystander but not an innocent man – is gunned down in a gang drive-by shooting, the devil condemns him to walk the Earth as a spirit, trapped between Heaven and Hell. God, however, intervenes, giving Baybridge 12 hours to bring his killers to justice. If he succeeds, Heaven awaits. However, if he fails, he won’t even have the comfort of a life in limbo because Hell will get to gobble him up whole. Can Baybridge succeed in saving his own soul? Is his mission really to bring a handful of hoods to the law? Or does he have a higher purpose? And how will he accomplish anything if he can only physically affect the physical world in extremely limited ways?

    Like the popular TV series 24, DEADMAN – 12 has a limited time frame: 6-issues, each containing two hours of “time.” In a move that melds marketing to creativity, the end will be determined by sales. If the first three issues sell enough to warrant a continuing series, Marcus Baybridge will succeed in his mission, but choose to remain on Earth to help others avoid such cruel endings. But if sales are not spectacular, he will fail his mission and go to Hell.”

    From Marc Mason:

    NOVA

    Richard Ryder is a young man with the power of a God and the brain of a dropout. Over-powered and under-educated, Ryder continues to troll his way
    through life, working crappy jobs and living tiny paycheck to tiny paycheck; all this while trying to maintain some integrity by not selling his power to the highest bidder so he can enjoy the finer things in life. Tough call for a guy who flies around with a bucket on his head. Then opportunity comes calling in the form of an eyepatch:

    A series of serial slayings has struck the cab drivers of New York City, and they appear to be the work of a metahuman… or worse, a vampire. The regular cops have no ability to deal with it, so they call in help from (literally) above. Enter Nick Fury. Fury recognizes the need for a special operative who can not only blend in with the crowd, but who can also survive the attack of a superpowered being. So Rich Ryder is his call. He’s young, scruffy, swears like a sailor, has a thick accent, and a New Yorker to the bone. Perfect.

    If Ryder succeeds, Fury tells him, there could be more work and more money ahead of him. Looking at the contents of his refrigerator – a leek, a bottle of
    Michelob, and a slice of key lime pie – it isn’t a difficult decision.

    It’s 21 JUMP STREET meets NEW WARRIORS as Nova begins to re-find a purpose for his life. Maybe he can finally become the truly great hero he should have always been… and if that brings along a 50-inch plasma screen TV and the ability to date a Knicks dancer, then so much the better.”

    From the Emmy-nominated Jay Lender:

    WORLD OF POPPUP – THE IMPOSSIBLE MAN

    A space-borne disease strikes Poppup, robbing them of their powers and locking them in whatever forms they were using when they fell ill. After thousands of years of cartoon Mutual Assured Destruction, there are suddenly some on Poppup who have a clear advantage. Rocket-powered iguanas take over key resources! Gangs of marshmallow steam-shovels and giant scissors terrorize the countryside! Sentient fruit begin to rot! Amid the chaos an underclass takes shape: Poppuppian butterflies, butter-rabbits and magnetic paperclip executive desktop sculptures suffer under the whips of… LIVING WHIPS! WITH WHIPS! It’s Wackyland with consequences and IT… CAN… HAPPEN… HERE!

    A group of desperate Poppupians knows that someone must bring order, but who on Poppup is SANE enough to do it? Who among them has even SEEN a working society? Only the Impossible Man, veteran of a thousand visits to boring but stable old Earth! Suddenly the man with the shortest attention span in the universe has to think hard, plan ahead and fight mightily when the original World-Gone-Mad goes horribly, terribly wrong!

    ULTRA THE MULTI-ALIEN

    Ultra’s Hyper-converter is destroyed and he loses the ability to return to his human form. Forced to stay in his super-heroic form 24 hours a day, his powers weaken until, flightless, he is forced into a wheelchair by his freakish winged-claw mer-leg. He loses his civilian job, his wife, his friends. He is driven underground by the alien enemies he once punished as a superhero. Penniless, crippled and hunted Ultra wallows in the underside of the shiny intergalactic future until with no other options he throws his lot in with a gang-lord who promises to help him restore some of his power AND surgically divide his joined legs in exchange for services to be determined later… as though that weren’t bad enough it looks like those 4 alien powers of his came with personalities… and they’re not all friendly.

    BIG BABIES– featuring Big Sir and Babe

    Big Sir, the giant with the mind of an 8 year old, is kidnapped by a space-faring gambler/pirate and forced to compete in super-powered gladiator fights at the far end of the galaxy. Poor, simple Big Sir has no choice but to pound his opponents or die. While waiting below the arena for a fight Big Sir meets Babe of Atari Force, another huge softy who’s been pressed into service. They become fast friends, but are destined to fight one another. When the day of their match arrives they fight back to back against the arena guards and escape in a stolen ship that they barely know how to pilot. Big Sir finds himself in the unusual position of having to be the older brother figure. Their former tormentors are hot on their heels and what’s worse is they’ve stolen a ship that contains a secret that might change the balance of power in the galaxy. Can two of the simplest heroes in the universe make it back to friendly space?”

    Whew. Maybe more next week.

  • Someone sent me ON THE ROAD TO PERDITION: OASIS recently (Paradox Press/DC Comics; $7.95). It’s a 94 page story, well told by writer Max Allan Collins, and the hugely underrated artist Jose Luis Garcia Lopez with tasteful inks by Josef Rubenstein, and it’s good. But. Maybe it was intended this way, but, aside from a couple spurts of gunplay, it plays like a Scholastic Books edition of ROAD TO PERDITION; not sequel, not prequel, it’s just sort of a requel, not so much fleshing out the original as redundant to it, and it doesn’t tell us anything about the characters we didn’t already know. It’s a decent story, though, and good art…

    A pile of new manga releases from Viz LLC:

    I’ve been hearing for awhile how off the wall Rikdo Koshi’s EXCEL SAGA ($9.95) is, and, sure enough, it’s wacky. A would-be emperor, with only a girl named Excel for an army, lurks in an underground hideout and opts to conquer the world (for its own good) city by city, but while he’s supposedly concocting plans, Excel works a variety of odd jobs and dreams of rescuing humanity from its own foibles. Various catastrophes result, but the poor dense girl believes she’s the intended victim rather than the cause, while her lord delights in dropping her through trapdoors as punishment. Add in befuddled neighbors, a second woman “soldier” prone to catatonia, a stray dog being kept for an emergency food source, shake, and repeat, and that’s basically the first book. It’s funny, but it’s more variations on a vaudeville routine than a story. There are a lot of puns and in-jokes that probably make this more accessible to Japanese audiences than to most Americans and satirize a lot of target; fortunately there are footnotes in the back telling you what they are. Unfortunately, you’ll need them.

    Often it’s obvious, but I don’t quite get what makes some manga shojo (girls’ comics) and some shonen (boys’ comics). Like how do the crime thriller BANANA FISH or the apocalyptic X-Men style superhero thriller X/1999 figure as shojo? How come INU-YASHA is shonen and FUSHIGI YUGI is shojo when they’re essentially the same story? Adding to the confusion is Yumi Tamura’s BASARA ($9.95), post-apocalyptic high adventure involving a girl’s attempt to impersonate her dead twin brother, “the boy of destiny” and lead her people to freedom from an oppressive, murderous regime. It’s sword-and-sorcery (without the sorcery), basically, the way most manga samurai epics are really sword-and-sorcery. I mean, I liked it, but why is it shojo? Just because the star’s female?

    WEDDING PEACH ($9.95) by Nao Yazawa (the book says “created by Sukehiro Tomita” so I’m assuming an anime version came first) matches RANMA ½-style art with your basic SAILOR MOON tropes: a wedding-obsessed schoolgirl becomes the angel Wedding Peach (like Sailor Moon’ Sailor Scouts, Peach’s two friends also become silly-named warrior angels with silly-named powers like “sacred lipliner lily rainbow”) when love-hating demons pursue various plans to extinguish love on earth. Of course, Peach holds one of the sacred items the demons are hunting, she has various supernatural help (her own guardian angel, not to mention the goddess Aphrodite), and she fights constantly with the boy she’s destined to be with, when she’s not entertaining romantic thoughts about him. The summary makes this sound much worse than it is. If there’s one thing manga can do right, it’s doing essentially silly material like this without either playing it as essentially silly or being ridiculously overserious. It’s pretty well written and drawn, the characters are light and fun, and, if nothing else, anyone longing for more SAILOR MOON material will likely find WEDDING PEACH a more than adequate substitute.

    On the other hand, there’s Ryoji Minagawa and Kyoichi Nanatsuki’s PROJECT ARMS ($9.95), which starts as sort of a takeoff on the Weapon X incarnation of Wolverine (one character even has claws that pop out of his knuckles) and becomes increasingly serious as it goes along. Regular manga readers will find many familiar motifs here as well: high schools, bullies, two-fisted heroes and adamant heroines who refuse to admit (initially, anyway) they love each other, initial adversaries who must join forces against a common enemy, supersecret organizations that are able to supercede and control civil authority. Student Ryo Takatsuki, whose right arm heals quickly, is confronted by a transfer student out to kill him and finds they both have arms that can transform into amazing weapons, then both become allies when they’re both hunted by a secret organization. Despite the familiarity, the book does build nicely to a, for once, genuinely scary cliffhanger ending that threatens to destroy the entire student body of the school as their enemies close in. I wasn’t that impressed by this volume, but it worked well enough to make me want to see what happens next. It’s been a long time since I’ve said that about, oh, IRON MAN

    Noboyuki Anzai’s popular FLAME OF RECCA ($9.95) also reiterates several well-worn manga gimmicks, though with enough style and humor to make them go down fairly easily; in many ways it reminds me of Yuyu Hakusho. High schooler Recca Hanabishi claims to be a ninja, engaging in duels with a musclebound classmate and a (girl) childhood rival, and looks for a “master” until he finds one in a female classmate who can heal things with her touch. Pretty soon his own ability to start and control fires is outted, as he’s pursued by a mysterious, apparently immortal woman who claims to want him to kill her and who may or may not be his mother. It’s not bad, just familiar, though an editorial warns not to judge the series too much by the first book; it obviously builds to more than the apparent sum of its parts. It’s still a fairly entertaining read, which, unlike many Viz trade paperbacks, actually comes to something of a natural break by its final page, which scores points with me. (I’m not all that keen on 176 page stories that cap with cliffhangers, even if they pique my interest.)

    Which brings us to Yoko Kamio’s BOYS OVER FLOWERS ($9.95), one of the more striking shojo I’ve read. Regardless of emotional content, most tend to have fairly innocuous action, usually centering around misunderstandings and unspoken love. At heart, they’re screwball comedies. But there’s nothing very funny about BOYS OVER FLOWERS, a harrowing drama about a middle-class girl taking on her high school’s ruling clique after they attempt to ostracize her. Her friends abandon her because they don’t want to get ostracized as well, her desk gets stolen, she gets pelted with eggs, she’s almost raped, she gets doped and kidnapped, her reputation is smeared – and everyone acts like this is perfectly acceptable behavior if rich kids are behind it. Of course, she gets her own shots in and, because this is shojo, one of the bad guys is actually a good guy in hiding and the eventual love interest, but still… Kamio handles it all with a nice touch, not too light or heavy, and the art gets better and better as it goes along until the story climaxes with one of the most expressive pages I’ve seen in comics in ages. Unusually for manga collections, the book also has a pretty good second series in it, about a girl who wants to believe she has special powers and a special destiny that links her to a boy who knows nothing about her. It’s genuinely sweet. I liked it.

    But if there’s one thing manga teaches us, it’s that you really don’t want to be in high school in Japan.

    Elsewhere in comics:

    I praised Matt Bellisle‘s previous mini-comic, UNDERGROUND, for its crisp minimalist noir story and great, almost rotoscopic photorealistic art. Pretty much the same can be said of Matt’s new follow-up, UNDERGROUND: SOUVENIR, except: it’s better. Printed in black, white and graytones on high end paper, the 8-pager is a fading dream. It’s cool. Track it down.

    One of the better OGNs I’ve read lately is Patrick Neighly and Jorge Heufemann’s self-published SUBATOMIC Mad Yak Press; $16.95), a full color work that looks and reads like a Vertigo book, covering a year in the life of a lifetime secret government employee (you know, the kind that perennially lives on a massive airplane overhead and reads everyone’s mail) who escapes from his captivity – that’s what it is, after all, since he was never given a choice – to roam the country and try to create a new life for himself while trying to evade his former employers. It’s a sharp little spy piece with clever, restrained writing and art to match, though I’m not sure why his employers don’t just let him go and keep an eye on him, since they seem perfectly capable of doing that, and it’s got a good, unexpected ending on it. Only the coloring, in standard Vertigo drab, is a bit of a disappointment. It says everything that’s supposed to say “sophisticated” about coloring in comics today, but the lack of variation – everything seems a bit dark – undermines some of the emotional content. Worth reading.

    Those looking for scandals and dark secrets in Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon’s STAN LEE AND THE RISE AND FALL OF THE AMERICAN COMIC BOOK (Chicago Review Press, $24.95) will come away disappointed, but if you’re looking for a concise, well-researched, unsentimental and very readable examination of the history and influence of arguably the greatest personal icon the field ever produced, you probably shouldn’t miss this book. It’s hard to think of a more deserving subject for biography in comics. Raphael and Spurgeon don’t exactly sugarcoat Stan’s career, but they don’t savage it either. My one quibble is that they try hard but don’t quite crack the nut of why Stan became the most influential figure in the medium, though they try mightily. But I’m not sure that’s a question that can really be answered. All I know for sure is that every comics writer since Stan has either been influenced by him or influenced by writers influenced by him, and that’s not likely to change. But everything else about this book pretty much hits dead on, and, alongside B. KRIGSTEIN, sets a new standard for comics biographies. Good job.

    The very first thing I noticed about THE LIBERTY PROJECT ($11.95), About Comics‘ repacking of the old Kurt Busiek-James Fry Eclipse Comics superhero series, is one of the main characters – they’re superpowered criminals offered parole if they become superheroes, sort of a superhero version of ALIAS SMITH AND JONES or IT TAKES A THIEF – tearing up the Las Vegas strip, which in their version has both the Hilton and the Golden Nugget on it. (The Hilton’s on Paradise Road, the Golden Nugget in Glitter Gulch, or the Fremont Street Experience as it’s now called.) That sort of sums it up for me. I was never much interested in the series, or the characters, when it was coming out, and it’s hard to work up much interest now. (It’s not helped by part of the story burrowing into the continuity of “The Eclipse Universe,” which, without access to the other books, comes off incoherently.) It’s just standard superhero comics with a couple wrinkles, mostly interesting for seeing what Kurt was doing before he hit it big with ASTRO CITY and MARVELS.

    There are only a handful of artists in the history of comics whose work would be worth following even if you never saw anything but their page roughs. Joe Kubert, for instance. How convenient, then, that I-Books has published his YOSELL APRIL 19, 1943 ($24.95), set against the ill-fated Jewish uprising against the Nazis during WWII. After all these years, Kubert – one of the four or five most idiosyncratic and identifiable artists of his generation – still tells a story beautifully and draws like a god. It’s a beautiful book, and Kubert lends it an extra sense of intimacy and expressionism by sticking with his uninked pencils as his medium. It’s due for October release. Don’t miss it.

    I’ve raved up Max Collins, Gabriel Rodriguez and Ashley Wood’s CSI: SERIAL as it’s been coming out issue by issue over the last few months. Now IDW has collected them into a single volume ($19.99) and the story holds up. It makes for a pretty good detective story and a very good CSI story. As I’ve said before, if you’re a CSI fan you’ll want it – and you’ll probably want Jeff Mariotte, Gabriel Rodriguez and Ashley Wood’s follow up CSI: THICKER THAN BLOOD ($6.99) as well. At 44 pages, it doesn’t have quite the room to breathe that SERIAL did, but any comic that starts off with the now-ended and lamented Pirate Show at Treasure Island is fine with me. The length prevents the characters from getting quite as much room to move (and I don’t really buy that mobsters would be talking to cops about retaliatory measures they might take for an apparent gangland slaying without being damn sure those cops were on the pad first) but it’s got some nice twists and turns.

  • So far there’s only one genuine crime that can actually be traced to the Hand Puppet’s Administrationj – ultra-rightwing commentator Bob Novak himself verified that his information that the wife of a diplomat critical of the White House was a CIA agent came from inside the Administration, and revealing that is a Federal crime – but this, if not actually a crime, comes close, and I expect we’ll see lots of civil suits if not criminal prosecutions over it once the seriousness of the situation sinks in: it has come out that, for reasons of “national security,” the White House “convinced” the Environmental Protection Agency to bury the information that the air in New York City following the destruction of the World Trade Center was simply not safe to breathe. Instead, at the behest of the White House, they gave it a clean bill of health, even though much of the air in Southern Manhattan and surrounding areas was suffused with a fine dust of glass, concrete, steel, asbestos, carcinogens and other dangerous pollutants. (It’s okay to walk on concrete and use glass in windows and Coke bottles; sucking particles of either into your lungs can lead to hemorrhaging, cancer and other ailments.) In other words, it was deemed more politically expedient to “put a good face” on the situation to the rest of the world (not to mention to prevent the prolonged shutdown of the Stock Market) than to protect the health of tens of thousands of Greater New Yorkers.

    Of course, the “national security” advantages of letting American citizens die slow and painful deaths (for example, the soldiers afflicted by Agent Orange or Gulf War Syndrome) have been regularly touted in government for the past 50 years or so, so it can be said the White House was just following tradition. Not to mention saving the billions and billions of dollars really cleaning up New York would’ve cost, and applying them to the War on Iraq instead.

    As it turns out, US Attorney General John Ashcroft, currently stumping across the country for his prized Patriot Act (which is coming under constantly increasing attack from states and municipalities appalled by the way it plays fast and loose with Constitutional rights, and now Congress is dodderingly waking up too), is in Las Vegas tonight, addressing local cops on how the Patriot Act makes law enforcement so much easier. (The centerpiece of Ashcroft’s argument is how the Patriot Act finally allows all those agencies whose communication with each other prior to 9-11 would’ve prevented the attacks to communicate, which is a nice theory except that those disparate agencies were already supposed to be communicating with each other then and didn’t due to what amounted to turf wars, and even internally they didn’t follow up on various hard leads and communicating with each other wouldn’t have changed that anyway, something even the recent nutted Congressional investigation into 9-11 pointed out.) Ashcroft, ever the man of the people, is not allowing the public to hear the speech, nor is he taking any questions from the press.

  • In case you haven’t been paying attention, check out this interview with Dan Didio and Bob Wayne of DC Comics. You might learn something.

    As I’ve mentioned (probably way too many times) before, we’re on the cusp the trade paperback of DAMNED, the crime comic Mike Zeck, Denis Rodier, Kurt Goldzung and I did a few years back, from Cyberosia. Much beloved by the handful that read it when it was originally published, it has a bunch of new material as well, including a whole new ending. If your local shop doesn’t carry it, you can grab a copy (as well as most of the things I’ve currently got out) via the Steven Grant page at the online comics shop Khepri, which also carries a fabulous line of other great graphic novels.

    See you next week (for our two year anniversary, but don’t expect a party unless it’s a surprise party and you’re throwing it) in a brand new show…

    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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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.

    Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should 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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