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Issue #115

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #115
  • Had an interesting chat with some fellow professionals the other day on the subject of art swiping. Swiping’s sort of a sore spot in the business. When writers swipe, it’s generally called plagiarism. Or “homage.” I wouldn’t say comics artists swipe as a matter of course – there are a lot of them who never swipe – but it’s not so long ago (not sure about now, I haven’t surveyed anyone) that a “swipe file” was considered de rigueur for a professional comics artist’s arsenal. Art swiping has been commonplace in our business, often unrecognized or intentionally overlooked by editors. Matter of fact, drawing like this or that popular artist has often been encouraged by publishers, just like imitating any other successful element of comics has always been encouraged. Someone reminded me that no less than Gil Kane, 20 years into his career and just starting to work with Marvel in the late ’60s, was asked by Stan Lee to use Jack Kirby’s work as a model (this was a common request for Stan), and produced a Captain America story composed almost entirely of Kirby swipes. Not, however, just to swipe Jack to make Stan happy, but as a means of dissecting and internalizing what made Jack’s work work.

    Which is a valid approach. This is a business with very little opportunity for formal training, aside from The Joe Kubert School and a few odd places like that. (Matter of fact, let’s work up a list of places would-be comics artists can get formal training, shall we? If you know of any places besides the Kubert School, e-mail me the name, location and contact information. Thanks.) Even non-comics art training is relatively rare. The fact is most comics artists teach themselves by swiping.

    There’s really nothing wrong with that. Everyone’s got to learn somehow. There are a lot of facets to learn in comics art: anatomy, storytelling, dynamics. It’s a lot more complicated than, oh, most ad illustration. Life model drawing, technical art training, all that’s great, and every artist should get good at it, sure, but it’s pretty hard to learn how to draw comic books unless you learn from comic books. So… I’ve got no real problem with swiping. Within limits.

    Like I said before, most editors won’t really care if an artist swipes or not. A young artist who can’t do without swipes can still get professional work if enough natural talent shows. In theory, if there’s enough natural talent, the artist will eventually break away from the crutch of swipes and develop a unique approach. In a perfect world, this would be the natural course of events, and it’s often that way. (Going back to Gil Kane, I recently realized that Gil, who spent much of his early career working at DC in the approved Sy/Dan Barry “house style” there, though he brought his own sensibilities to the work in ways that bubbled out regardless, is the intersection between that slicker illustrative style and the dynamic “Kirby style” championed by Marvel, which resulted in a whole new way of approaching action art that has fed every generation of comics art since.) But there have also been artists whose work has consistently consisted almost entirely of swipes from one source or another. The best of these cover their tracks with a personal style that “overwrites” and disguises the swipes, merging them, at least on the surface, to a singular approach, while others have this panel looking like it was drawn by Jack Kirby and that panel like it was drawn by Jim Lee.

    Look through Frank Miller’s early DAREDEVILs, and you might notice a Steve Ditko-influenced shot here, a Gil Kane-inspired shot there, an Eisner-tinged layout. Nothing wrong with that. This is how Frank learned to draw comics, but he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near this far if there wasn’t real talent at work. There should be a natural self-educational progression from swipe to “how ____________ would do it” to the flowering of the artist’s own natural style. That’s a function of personality. Eventually you have to purge your work of other people’s personalities and focus on your own.

    There are good swipes and bad swipes. It’s laziness. A good swipe uses the source material but transforms it into something else. It’s a tool. A bad swipe is just a swipe. Laziness.

    Can art styles be swiped? No. Art styles can be imitated. Actual drawings are swiped. Bill Sienkiewicz started out as arguably the best Neal Adams “clone” ever – there were small differences but you had to look hard sometimes to tell Bill had drawn something rather than Neal – but I can’t think of anywhere Bill actually swiped Neal’s art. “Swiping” Neal’s style not only didn’t diminish Bill as an artist, it bought him entrée into the business, where he has moved away from his early influences, through Ralph Steadman and Baron Storey, to, finally, his own approach. There’s no deadline for these things. A lot of comics artists will work in more conventional and acceptable styles just to keep getting work, but will spring into more refined and idiosyncratic styles when the opportunity arises. (As I’ve mentioned in past columns, in the late ’60s, Gil Kane, Joe Kubert, Nick Cardy, Alex Toth and several others abruptly burst out with newer styles “evolved” from their earlier, more traditional work. Mike Zeck did the same thing when we did DAMNED, abandoning his traditional Buscema-esque style for a looser European style he’d been wanting to try a long time.) In a perfect world, personality will out, but this is comics, where commerce dictates more often than not. Not every artist flowers into something unique, not every “personality” style is worth paying attention to.

    The real problem with swipes comes when artists try to make careers out of them, usually more common on work-for-hire comics where individuality is often less valued than the ability to produce, and where slavishness to the past – as long as you can put a marginally modern spin on it – is often considered a badge of honor. The weird thing is that most artists who work mostly from swipes don’t dig up obscure material to swipe from – there’s certainly enough of it out there – but swipe from material familiar to many, many people, and certainly to many who work in the industry. (Similarly, most writers who swipe stories somehow manage to pick really well-known ones, maybe because they haven’t read much and are arrogant enough to think no one else has either.) Anyone who has to base their work on swipes either doesn’t have the imagination or talent to qualify for the business, or they’re too insecure to put themselves out there and would rather crib success from other people’s work than risk failure on their own.

    I wouldn’t mind seeing a day when swipes were banned from use in comics, but I doubt it’ll ever happen. Editors would have to be too conversant with the now vast history of comics (I mean, who today could spot art swiped from Matt Baker or Joe Maneely?). But swipes have their use, as an educational tool. And they provide a good rule of thumb for all those who want a professional career: when you can draw as well as those you’re swiping from, but you don’t need swipes anymore, you’re probably ready. Probably.

  • Last week’s column on comics criticism stirred up an unexpected little hornet’s net, allowing for some clarification:

    “Seems to me that the torrent of Internet-enabled “reviews” has created such noise that informed criticism, if it exists, is lost in the downpour. This is not necessarily the fault of the comic-book medium — I doubt there are enough true film critics out there these days to raise a decent Mennonite barn — but comics seems especially fragile because there’s just not much incentive for an informed, articulate critic to stay in the field.

    Let’s say the major rewards of criticism are: (a) you can make a living at it (b) you can make a name for yourself and (c) you can communicate opinions that matter to you.

    In film, it’s possible for an informed critic to make a decent living as a newspaper or TV movie reviewer, or to teach in an academic department. Although ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY and THE VILLAGE VOICE occasionally run comics reviews (and innumerable websites do also), there’s not enough of this to support more than a handful of people worldwide. Furthermore, the nature of these mainstream publications requires the critic to spend much of his or her space backfilling the story for readers who aren’t in the know — the impulse isn’t critical so much as it’s missionary; not a matter of exploring how Grant Morrison does what he does, but a matter of telling people who he is. And there are no university comics departments.

    It’s still possible to make a name for oneself as a comics reviewer, something like what rock journalism was like in the CREEM days. However, now that everyone’s a “reviewer,” the collective amount of fame available in our hobby is shared out in vanishingly thin slices, beyond the point where it can adequately reward the work and attention that go into really sustained criticism. The mass of comics readers share out the fame like a chocolate on their hotel pillows; the fame-driven critic looks elsewhere (and often simply goes pro in the manner of a Mark Waid or Gruenewald). This is fine; fan criticism (APA) is historically a training wheel that spins people into pro circles. But it also means that those who can do comics tend to stop talking about it. (As the Cahiers boys did, only on a somewhat less corporate arc.)

    Finally, critics do it to communicate truths about comics that they hold dear. Sadly, the level of discourse on and in the medium is so watery that many of the best voices find only an uncomfortable silence, and soon find other things to talk about — film or music, maybe, something where people know what you’re talking about, get what you’re saying, and just maybe will reward you with a paid gig or at least public praise. In a world where hardly anyone can talk intelligently about, say, what Alan Moore is doing on PROMETHEA (requires too much data both in and outside comics) or Grant’s NEW X-MEN (requires a certain sophisticated narrative awareness), or even 1602, how long will someone who sees unsung splendors in IRON MAN or GREEN LANTERN/GREEN ARROW keep crying out in the wilderness?

    Actually, those Brits bring up an obvious epilogue: comics criticism is all around us. We call it “comics.” NEW X-MEN is most interesting as an extended commentary on Claremont and, beyond that, the fundamental adolescent rejection/power fantasies that fueled the Lee/Kirby era (not to mention the soap opera Thomas/Adams issues). PROMETHEA would be beautifully sterile if not for the comic-book elements like the Painted Doll or her own evolution out of the pulps into TOM STRONG continuity. And 1602 is what it is, but even SANDMAN derived much of its nostalgic power from the occasional reference to Swamp Thing or the Justice League, memories of a vanished Golden Age (12 years old) that Neil and Grant and Alan recognize (along with the larger world of non-comics-readers) is dead and can probably never be recaptured, but can be mourned and you never know, there’s that slim chance. That’s criticism in the Cahiers style. That’s working it out, within the medium.

    The “reviewers,” on the other hand, don’t know that the Golden Age is dead. They simply blame the comics for more or less failing to live up. Fetish product resists criticism, ergo harsh soil for comics critics.”

    “I trust a good number of your readers are going to point to The Fourth Rail as an example of excellent criticism, and I’m one of them. Unlike some fanboys I’m a little discerning– I can’t justify 3 dollars for a five minute read if it’s not any good, so these fellows have well-managed my comic purchases for a good two years now. I would not have discovered Y: THE LAST MAN, FABLES, CATWOMAN, or either of my two titles, the late ALIAS and DAREDEVIL, if not for the hype they helped generate. That said, many times they take the piss out of hype– Loeb and Lee’s BATMAN, for example, never rated much above a 6 or a 7 out of 10 between the two of them, and they haven’t been afraid to call out writers or artists they like on bad work, like several Morrison NEW X-MEN arcs and the current state of the HULK storyline– but most importantly, they back all that up and retain their readers’ trust with well-written, down-to-earth analysis. Marvel and DC ought to pick up their convention tabs for all the money they’ve no doubt generated for those companies.

    Currently they’re strongly pushing Ed Brubaker’s SLEEPER, and from what they say in the reviews (and as satisfied as I was with their DAREDEVIL recommendation), I can’t wait for the trade so that I can caught up. I know I’m not alone, and that shows you the power folks like these have.

    Example: my comic book week starts with the Fourth Rail’s advance reviews on Saturday (usually), skimming ATR on Sunday, LitG on Monday morning, new books on Wednesday, full reviews on Wednesday night/Thursday, with multiple daily checks of Newsarama, The Pulse and CBR daily.”

    I think Fourth Rail is very good at what they do, but they fit what I defined last week as reviewers, not critics. I don’t mean that as an insult, I’m not demeaning them. It’s just a fact: that’s what they do. Their main function is to provide a purchasing guide for consumers. Which is great; that’s what reviews are supposed to do. But criticism, as I’m defining it, does not serve commerce as a primary function. Fourth Rail does.

    “I have a feeling it’s too personal and rambling to be anything like what I’d consider real criticism, but I’m certainly doing something other than typical reviewing of comics and films at my blog.”

    Is he? You make the call.

    “I think reviewers stay away from being critics because 1) it takes a lot of research and multiple viewings/readings; 2) there’s not enough room in print periodicals do it a true critique justice; and 3) most people unfortunately aren’t interested (they just want to know if they should go or not). Speaking to that last point, I would think that a critic would tend to give more information to their article than a reviewer would. A reviewer wouldn’t want to spoil the plot, a critic could assume that you’ve already seen it.

    That said, I can think of some cool examples of critiques of certain works of the comic form. There was a book published about two years ago that delved into a page by page analysis of THE INVISIBLES. There was also a SANDMAN one. Another cool book was THE CEREBUS COMPANION, but it never got off the ground and they never finished it. These might not be perfect examples due to the fact that rabid fanboys wrote them, but they are delving into the deeper mechanics of the work. A great non-comics critique was from Roger Ebert, of all people, when he did the audio commentary to one of my favorite films, DARK CITY. He delved into soooo many cool things in that film that I missed. New filmmakers who listen to the commentary will learn a lot about their craft. That’s the point of good critics, right?

    A great person who’s critiqued comics is Will Eisner. In COMICS AND SEQUENTIAL ART AND GRAPHIC STORYTELLING, he shows examples about why certain decisions were made.

    I like this idea of using critics to improve the medium. I’d love to see a regular series of articles that broke down what was good and bad about all of the major comics works. FROM HELL, WATCHMEN, MAUS, etc. Not just praise them, but also point out their flaws. Maybe CBR would do something like this? Meatier reviews or even roundtable discussions about the major works in our medium?”

    I’ve never specifically heard that he collects comics, but from various comments he has made over the years I’d guess Roger Ebert’s a fan of comics and certainly of animation. Or he’s got a good research staff. The few times I’ve heard him reference comics, he has generally gotten the details right.

    “I completely agree with your commentary about the lack of online comics criticism. I’ve been trying to, well, write some (but it’s never as important – to me, anyway – as actually making comics, which I imagine stops more than a few would-be good pieces of criticism from being made).

    ModernTales (a webcomics subscription site) just launched “Graphic Novel Review”, which (in theory)features more thoughtful reviews, at least.

    I wrote the first one, which (it seems) you need a subscription to the site to read (which wasn’t how I thought it was going to work).

    So I just copied the review (which I was really thinking of as criticism of Chris Ware pretending to be a review of QUIMBY THE MOUSE) onto my site. I’ve got more writing at http://johnbarbercomics.com/writing.htm. The “media guide” stuff is probably most relevant.”

    “I gave up on critiquing comic books. Why? People thought I didn’t like the comics I was critiquing. Which was far from the truth most of the time. This happens often in especially books and movies. Deconstructing something and being critical of it draws great issues with people who wear blinders to things they love. In the end, it wasn’t worth it, because people didn’t get it.”

    Too true, most of the time, but I think that’s something you just have to get over if you want to be a serious critic.

    “I write reviews for Hero Realm, and while I don’t consider myself a critic, I do try to be more critical than most reviewers (at least on that website). We’re all amateurs there, but I think what sets my style of reviewing apart from many of the others is the fact that they are stuck reviewing the books that they would have purchased anyway. Sometimes, they’ll try something out that will end up being a stinker, but for the most part they only buy what they’re pretty sure they’ll like anyway, so their reviews tend to be overly positive. I get the privilege of sifting through the advance review copies that Marvel and DC send to my local comic shop (plus I’m on CrossGen‘s advance review mailing list), so I can pick whatever books I want and don’t have to worry about spending my hard-earned cash on something I wouldn’t normally get. Regardless, I try to call a spade a spade, whether it’s a book I read consistently or not. I’ve been very harsh on Morrison’s recent issues of NEW X-MEN and Mack’s current DAREDEVIL storyline, for instance, and I very rarely hand out a perfect score. We all use the same ratings system at Hero Realm, (scale of 1 to 5) but most of the other reviewers are too liberal with their handing out of perfect scores, in my opinion. I won’t pretend to understand their reasoning, but no issue of CATWOMAN (that has been released so far) should ever receive the same score as WATCHMEN would. Of course, I have some issues with their rating system, and I employ a different one for the reviews I write for my comic shop’s website. I grade the story and art separately, and I use a scale of 10 to add a bit more depth to the scoring process. Also, being an unpaid position (as most comic reviewers are), I don’t really feel the justification of time and concentration that would be required to write actual in-depth criticism (not that most comics out there lend themselves well to the sort of criticism I believe you are speaking of). Now, if I were drawing a nice paycheck for such a thing…”

    What, not even my issue of CATWOMAN?

    That’s the trick about criticism, though. It’s necessary to be honest, and ruthless, but too many people confuse criticism in the sense of “literary criticism” with “criticism” in the sense of “harsh” and “critical.” There’s nothing necessarily negative about criticism. As for whether many comics lend themselves to in-depth criticism, that depends on what you want to say about them. There’s really no reason any comic book couldn’t be the subject of a focused critique.

    Other recommendations sent in by readers:

    “There’s Rob Vollmar, for one. He’s on his third “series” of essays with Ninth Art, and all of them have been outstanding pieces of thought.”

    I do like Rob’s criticism, and I’d also like to mention his new comic BLUESMAN will be out fairly soon, and retailers should be on the lookout for it.

    “At Silver Bullet, Loretta Ramirez and Olivia Woodward. Loretta, especially, gives almost literary critiques. “

    “Where’s the good on-line comics criticism? It’s on the way. I’m part of one project that is seeking to publish criticisms of comics from a literary viewpoint, Panels! (at). We’re hopefully going to have our first issue out at the end of January, though we’re a bit short on submissions and could use some more widespread advertising. I sent all of you CBR guys e-mails early on, but I never got a reply from anyone.

    There’s another that’s in it’s genesis stages, though because they’ve been hosting the Eisner Compendium, they’re probably lightyears ahead of us. They’re called Image/Text, a multi-disciplinary journal. Beyond that, there are some great organizations and websites that are adding to the field of comics research. Gene Kannenberg’s Comics Research serves as the home for annotated bibliographies, style guides, and information about subscribing to the International Journal of Comics Art, a print journal that seems to have some high-quality output. The National Association of Comics Art Educators, run by James Sturm, assists schools and universities in instituting courses and majors in comic arts. Occasionally, they have some good criticism or links to criticism, and, after all, they’re teaching the next generation of comics critics. The Comix-Scholars Discussion List is a list-serv that all students, teachers and critics of comics can subscribe to and share views and research on comics of all kinds from various viewpoints. The International Comic Arts Festival has their paper topics listed online, and if someone could get hold of some of these criticisms and research to publish them online or otherwise, the comic world would be better off. This is, of course, in addition to the critical works that appear in places like Ninth Art, The Comics Journal On-Line, Sequential Tart, Pop Image, Read Comics in Public, Broken Frontier and the pages of creators like Dylan Horrocks .”

    “Thanks for bringing this topic forward. I’ve seen it mentioned recently by Paul O’Brien, a damn good reviewer and sometime critic. I hope more than one person mentions this but Nick Simon’s Silver Age Marvel Comics Cover Index – trying saying that 5x fast – has sporadically published some lovely criticism. Pierre Comtois and Gregorio Montejo, resident analysts there, have penned some lovely examinations about Marvel Comics aesthetics and their connections with other art movements and history. My favorite selection is their dissection of John Buscema’s work in AVENGERS #54 and the influence of Greek Classicism and Burne Hogarth. Again, just wonderful stuff. While I’m unaware of their current output, the University of Mississippi Press published a series of critical books on comic throughout the 90s. I happen to own a copy of MODERN MYTHOLOGY, which attempts to reveal the parallels between comics and their relation with modern myths. Not perfect, but not bad as a primer. They also republished the book THE COMICS, a nice examination about comic strips from the 20s – 30s. Sometimes the comics field feels like Shakespeare’s famous quote about sound and fury signifying nothing; there are too many passionate opinions and not enough substance to them. About 2 and 1/2 years ago, I wrote a piece for the online fanzine Fanzing examining the importance of family and genealogy in James Robinson’s Starman. I feel it has some flaws but it was my attempt to write the kind of critical thought that I want and enjoy versus silly debates like “Hal vs. Kyle.” There were one or two other individuals who attempted some critical analysis about race in comics but controversy eventually pushed them away. My favorite critic was a guy by the name of Rupert Griffin who did articles like “The New Teen Titans in the Reagan Era” and “Once We Were Macho,” the latter being an essay on masculinity among male superheroes. You can check out Fanzing‘s archives.”

    “I don’t know how you feel about THE COMICS JOURNAL, but Tom Spurgeon is an exceptional critic and a hell of a writer. I also like Chrisopher Brayshaw, Bart Beatty, and, yes I’ll say it, Gary Groth. I do not like Greg Cwiklik, R. Fiore (the best writer in TCJ history my ass), or Harvey Pekar. Most of the other Journal writers fall somewhere in between. And almost every other rag, printed or online, is drek. Reviewers, if you even want to call them that, every one.”

    I like THE COMICS JOURNAL okay. It varies with the piece. But reviewer doesn’t necessarily equate with drek. Reviewers serve a function too. That function just isn’t criticism, that’s all.

  • More from the mailbag, on other topics:

    “DC or Marvel should publish their own Shonen, reprinting japanese stuff. Selling it on newstands or wherever comics are sold besides comic shops, kids would see it. They would also see features and ads about DC’s Adventures, Cartoon Network and DCU lines. There could be twoo books. One aimed to older people, with more mature content and ads for DCU and Vertigo. I would say something about Marvel, but their stuff seems the same to me: cheap ‘franchise generators’.”

    Not a terrible idea, if there are any good manga left that haven’t been cherrypicked by Viz, Tokyo Pop, Dark Horse and the half-dozen or so other publishers who have leapt into manga here in the States. Are there? If either company could publish something that would really catch attention and stand out, new shonen (or even shoujo) lines would make sense. Otherwise, they’d just look desperate.

    “I forget what your opinion on the LORD OF THE RINGS movies are, but I was thinking about comics and how this once “geeky” set of novels has become a critically acclaimed mainstream hit, with lots of adherence to the source.

    Three things popped out at me:

    1. The movies aren’t based on shock value like so many spandex opera comics. Even without reading the books, you’re sure of many characters’ fates, but everything remains enticing. It’s about the journey, not the chapter breaks.

    2. There are no twists. In the day and age of “character as you’ve never seem him before,” all the RING movies take you through a character arc and don’t try to confuse you. This isn’t to say twists are bad, but this is a straightforward story and that can be fun too.

    3. Finite stories. The tales of these characters are finite. There’s a character arc and plan to run with – most superhero hero comics, for better or worse, will see little character growth and more of an illusion of such. You’ve got a neat little story, wrapped up in three films and with clear resolution. I think this is one of the big draws of manga – you know the story is going somewhere.

    Just some thoughts and ruminations – why does geek fantasy seem to be more acceptable to the mainstream than superheroes? We’d rather cheer on Frodo than Superman?”

    I don’t know if “geek fantasy” is necessarily more acceptable. Certainly there’ve been some very successful superhero films done lately, and when you’re talking LORD OF THE RINGS (I’ve enjoyed the films so far, by the way, but third time pays for all and all that; we’ll see if RETURN OF THE KING makes a better wrapup than MATRIX CRASHED did) you’re talking the brand name in “geek fantasy.” I suspect a Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser film series wouldn’t do quite as well…

    And, finally, if the answer is:

    “Yup. I don’t know how to spell his name correctly (and it’s Sunday so I can’t troll the credits) – but he’s usually the first guy listed under the writer credits at the end crawl. I think it’s Steven Dorfman (or some variation thereof). I met him at the San Diego con a couple of times, back in the days when Malibu had a booth and a company. He put in a question revolving around the Ultraverse’s character, Prime, not long ago. Now that’s trivia!”

    the question must be: “Is someone on JEOPARDY‘s research staff a comics fan?”… (Thanx and a tip of the hat to Tom Mason.)

  • It suddenly occurs to me that , as the current TV season shakes out, all I was watching has gone off the air. First run DRAGONBALLs have wrapped up on Cartoon Network (though SPACE GHOST COAST TO COAST (Sundays, 11:30PM) is back, though I haven’t seen any of the new ones yet so whether I’ll be watching regularly remains unsure), leaving only YUYU HAKUSHO (Saturdays, 11:30PM) on the watch list there, while all the new anime on the International ChannelDRAGONBALL GT (Sundays, 7:30), LOST UNIVERSE (Mondays, 8PM), FUSHIGI YUGI (Tuesdays, 8PM) and EL HAZARD (Wednesdays, 8PM) – are drawing or have drawn to a close. Network TV is now simply appalling. Of the shows I taped to watch while exercising – hey, I have to have something on in the background, only ABC’s 10-8 (Sundays, 8PM) is still airing, though they’re threatening to bring KAREN SISCO back in March. 10-8‘s a pretty mediocre cop show, not very memorable but watchable, but I like Danny Nucci, Ernie Hudson and Scott Winters, so it’s good enough for my purposes. But what else is? THE SIMPSONS (Fox, Sundays 8PM) has been devoid of anything resembling laughs this season. ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (Fox, Sundays 9:30PM) has settled into a pleasant pattern of very slightly “pushing the envelope”; the funniest part of every show now seems to be the phony coming attractions (and is David Cross off the show?). 24 (Fox, Tuesdays 9PM) has been simply listless this season, with top agent Jack Bauer doing desperate things while battling drug dealers, bad habits and his daughter’s lovelife. (And does his agency CTU have the world’s worst security screening or what??) And… um… yeah… what else is there? When the best you can say about the shows you watch, like TWO AND A HALF MEN or MARRIED TO THE KELLYS is that they’re not as bad as you expected, is it any wonder network TV’s dying? At least WAKING THE DEAD has started another season on BBC America (Mondays, 8PM) and CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM‘s back on HBO in January.

    So I’ve been catching up on films I missed at the theater, via DVD. And I can’t even remember what I’ve seen lately. Except THE HUNTED, with Tommy Lee Jones, Connie Neilsen, and Benicio Del Toro, mainly because it didn’t have a third act. This is how I used to draw a line between A movies and B movies: A movies would climax the action, then bring all the plot threads to a close, whereas B movies (and you can slot most Hong Kong pics into this category) finish The Big Fight and roll credits. What about all that other stuff? Padding. Window dressing. THE HUNTED: B movie. What a drag.

    So the most fun TV has provided lately is a war going on between ESPN and cable provider Cox Communications, which happens to be my supplier. Seems their contract’s coming up for renewal, and ESPN wants a huge jump in fees, leaving Cox three choices: drop the ESPN channels, raise rates to accommodate the boost, or turn ESPN into a premium pay channel rather than basic cable. Cox has been running radio ads here, explaining their situation and asking subscribers to contact ESPN and tell them to ask for less money (though leaving out the obvious corollary that if ESPN asks for a huge hike and gets it, a lot of other cable channels will try the same at renewal time). I heard the ESPN response on the radio today: a guy with a loutish Brooklyn accent telling subscribers to demand Cox knuckles under because – and this is probably ESPN’s real world outlook – “if you don’t got ESPN, whaddaya need Cox Cable for?!!” Does ESPN really think that kind of character represents their viewers, and, even if they do, do they really want to tell their viewers that’s what they think they are?

    At any rate, I couldn’t care less about ESPN and there’s plenty else on cable, so I’d just as soon Cox flushed the channels. If you want sports, there’s always ABC or Fox Sports, and I don’t like paying for channels I don’t watch anyway. I’d like to see cable companies switch to a setup where you get a catalog of channels and get just the ones you want for, say, $1 per channel per month. Then I wouldn’t have to put up with ESPN or Fox Sports.

  • Say what you want about The Hand Puppet; sometimes you have to give him his chops. It’s Thanksgiving morning, I haven’t watched any TV or been on the Internet for news yet, and I get a call from my mother, who asks, “Did you hear about [The Hand Puppet]?” When someone asks me that, I immediately wonder if he has a) been impeached; b) been assassinated (which I’m glad wasn’t the case because I’ve got no great desire to use phrases like “President Cheney”); c) thrown up in the lap of some foreign head of state. “No,” says I. “What’s up?” My mother says, “He just got re-elected.”

    Wow. That’s quite a feat, with 11 months to go until the election. But, on the other hand, given what happened in 2000…

    But no. The Hand Puppet made a surprise Thanksgiving Day visit to the troops in Iraq. And – I say this without sarcasm – it was a great thing to do. Everything I’ve heard about the troops indicates morale over there sucks at a level unequaled since the waning days of Vietnam. Flying in under cover of darkness, landing lights doused to ward off enemy gunfire, that’s something right out of a Tom Clancy novel.

    Not that it changes anything in Iraq, where we’re still largely seen as an occupation force by the general populace, and as long as that’s the case, more violence will be directed against our soldiers there. (There was another case today, after a couple days of “good news” about our boys successfully taking down enemy forces and capturing Saddam lackeys.) Until a government gets set up there that the Iraqi people feel represents the Iraqi people, that’s likely to be the case, and until that happens, the morale of our soldiers in Iraq – told when they were going in they were liberators, only to have the populace tell them otherwise – isn’t likely to improve in the long run no matter how many Presidential visits are made. Certainly it says something about the progress of the “peace” that the President had to sneak in like a thief in the night behind enemy lines.

    So did he just win the election? Did Lyndon Johnson’s 1966 visit to the troops in Vietnam, also made as a PR stunt to show how well things were going even as more troops were being sent in, win him the 1968 election? (If you’re shaky on your history, the answer’s no. Johnson, spiritually crushed by how the Vietnam War had destroyed his grand plan for “a great society,” announced instead he wouldn’t run for re-election.) Will it matter in a year? If US troops are no longer in Iraq under constant fire (the admin’s touting how the incidents are halved over recent months without bothering to mention the kill ratio is way up), then probably not too many people are even going to care about the visit anymore. If they are still mired in Iraq, people really aren’t going to care that the visit was ever made.

    Still, the White House is insisting the trip wasn’t made for campaign purposes, despite the reporters taken along and the carefully managed TV footage of the visit, but because it was the right thing to do in the moment. Which it was. Not as right as getting American soldiers out of Iraq, but it’s the thought that counts.

    Regardless, besides being a Thanksgiving Day treat for the troops, the Hand Puppet’s Iraq visit also served to divert attention from other things, not that the press is too likely to pay much attention anyway. Like NATO and the Vice President begging other countries for more help in Afghanistan and Iraq, respectively; the commander of NATO went so far as to say the future of the whole organization depends on all member nations doing that extra bit to make sure Afghanistan doesn’t fall again into the social chaos that put the Taliban in power in the first place and could easily return them to power. But it, to all intents and purposes, already has, except in the American press, which has also chosen to turn a mostly blind eye to assaults on American troops in that country: more Americans suffering from the administration’s urges to wage war and invasion without also planning for the challenges of any resultant peacetime. It’s no wonder to get any real news about America you have to go to a paper like England’s GUARDIAN, one of the few places to note the vicious attacks on protesters in Miami recently. While the admin tried to carve out “The Free Trade Area Of The Americas” (and ultimately failing because half of South America wasn’t quite willing to turn its future over to multinational corporations), Miami cops went on a spree of beating, gassing, obstructing, intimidating and arresting (on such flimsy grounds a judge threw all the arrests out) what amounted to a peaceful, cooperative and relatively small group of protesters. Using the language of antiterrorism popularized by the Hand Puppet, Miami’s mayor and chief of police characterized them as “aliens” (a curious term in the very multicultural Miami) and “vandals” out to terrorize the city. Like reporters in Iraq, reporters were invited to fly with the troops on helicopters during missions against the enemy, thus making sure news reports were as managed as possible. So where’d the money come from for all this action? From the $57 billion supposedly earmarked by Congress for Iraq (where what actually gets there will mostly be used to pay admin-linked corporations Bechtel and Halliburton for their services).

    So this is the real price we’re paying – figuratively and literally – for our so-called War On Terrorism. Fighting terrorism now means underwriting state terrorism, and, given the FBI’s recent communications with police departments in major cities around the country, it’s not too much of a jump to see Miami as a model for the coming campaign season, if people start gathering to force a view of the world different from what the administration would rather we accept. The way things stand now, no trip to Iraq was even necessary. All the Hand Puppet has to do to win the next election is declare anyone who stands against him a terrorist and send in the troops.

  • There are apparently some people who now think I give good marks to manga because it’s manga, not because it’s good. Live and learn: Kazuchi Hagiwara’s BASTARD!! Vol. 1 (Viz Communications; $9.95) sucks. I thought so when I read the comics version, and the trade paperback reinforces it. It’s a sword-and-sorcery epic about an ancient evil warlock/warlord who reincarnates in the body of a young boy in one of those quasi-medieval societies that always populate this sort of thing, so the princess who’s in love with the possessed boy ends up attracted to the “bastard” possessing him, resulting in lots of torn bodices and that sort of thing. It’s being marketed as “heavy metal dark fantasy,” which I guess is a loose translation from some Japanese phrase meaning “badly drawn puerile smut.” Skip it. (It’s a waste of a perfectly good title, too.)

    Much better is Hitoshi Okuda’s TENCHI MUYO! SASAMI STORIES (Viz Communications; $9.95), a collection of previously published stories from the NO TIME FOR TENCHI series based on the popular TENCHI MUYO animes, about a half-alien Earth boy who becomes a chick magnet for alien princesses and demon pirates. Sasami’s the youngest of his visitors, and these stories, featuring her wilderness encounter with a wolf, a parody of the IRON CHEF TV show and a near-fatal hiccup attack, are gentle and humorous, great stuff for younger readers. Also included are a series of rare TENCHI comic strips that also fit that description, though occasionally obscure. Oddly, the book’s published left-to-right American style, instead of the Japanese right-to-left style Viz now employs for most of its other manga.

    Nobuhiro Watsuki’s RUROUNI KENSHIN (Viz; $9.95), which spawned the anime of the same name (now in repeats on Cartoon Network, Saturdays 11PM0, has the dubious honor of being the first SHONEN JUMP trade paperback release of material that has never appeared in SHONEN JUMP (at least not in the American version). The story, nicely drawn and briskly written, takes place in the post-Samurai era in Japan c. 1860, after American warships had opened the country to foreign trade by force. Not only is it a decent adventure story and romance, it’s a deft blend of fiction and historical fact. It’s more serious, less goofy and bloodier than the anime version, with some stories and a lot of characterization you won’t see there, and it’s worth the read.

    Steven Goldman and Jeremy Arambulo’s STYX TAXI (FWD Books, 528 NW 47th St #2, Miami FL 33127; $2.50) is a nice idea, about taxi drivers in New York City who are actually ferrymen of the dead to the afterlife. Unfortunately, it’s not really much more than that. The drivers – Charon, Circe and Dom – cruise around, pick up fares, give them one last chance to tie up loose ends, then drop them off at their ultimate fates. We hear stories, and stories, and more stories, but there’s no particular payoff or punchline. A nice try – the artwork’s decent enough in an underground comix kind of way – but hard to get excited about.

    Nat Gertler, with artistic help from Mark Lewis, Filip Sablik, Bradley Walton, Rusty Haller, Tone Rodriguez, Mark Dos Santos and Alex Grecian, takes a satirical swipe at media crossmarketing with LICENSABLE BEAR™ #1 (About Comics; $2.95). Licensable Bear™ runs through a series of adventures that runs him headlong into the limitations of his chosen lifestyle, as he travels to Japan, tries a video dating service, tries to market himself to a biker bar, attends an anti-commercialism rally, etc. The last story’s the real kicker, particularly germane to comics exploitation. It’s not laugh out loud funny, but it’s funny. That #1 kind of frightens me, though; any more than this would be overkill.

    It’s not a comic, but Dan Danko and Tom Mason used to work in comics (for the ill-fated Malibu) and their kid’s novel SIDEKICKS (Little, Brown & Co.; $4.99) is a gentle sendup of superhero cliches, centering around superpowered kids, with mostly useless powers and names like Latchkey Kid, Boy-In-The-Plastic-Bubble Boy and Spelling Beatrice, who live like… well… kids. Pleasantly amusing. While it’s geared toward pre-teens, if anyone out there’s harboring the delusion that superpowers would make them cooler, this is probably a book you ought to read.

    The Checker Book Publishing Group, after doing a great job packaging Alan Moore’s lost Extreme Comics work, have released three volumes every serious student of comics art should get: Milton Caniff’s STEVE CANYON 1947 and STEVE CANYON 1948 ($14.95@), collecting in very nicely produced editions the first two years of one of the most influential comic strips (not to mention comics creators) ever, and WINDSOR McCAY’S EARLY WORKS ($19.95), a collection of four strips – DREAMS OF A RAREBIT FIEND, TALES OF THE JUNGLE IMPS, LITTLE SAMMY SNEEZE and A PILGRIM’S PROGRESS – by the creator of LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND, one of the most brilliant talents either the comics medium or animation (McCay was an animation pioneer) have ever known. There are little hurdles to be made before reading this work – it’s hard to call McCay’s TALES OF THE JUNGLE IMPS anything but racist, and Caniff’s CANYON stories are steeped in the gung-ho anti-Communism and postwar foreign adventurism of the time – but the works are still impressive as hell on most counts. I don’t know if I’d call them works of genius, but they come closer than most work in the medium does. Get them.

    The first time I saw B.A.B.E. FORCE, I was about as unimpressed as humanly possible: bad soft-core non-porn with little apparent purpose aside from parading fetishized women around in skimpy costumes. Then things started going askew with the second issue, and suddenly it played like a satire, even if it was unclear what they were satirizing. Now writer Kirk Kushin and artist Miguel Genlot have “taken back” the concept to publish it themselves with B.A.B.E. FORCE BACK TO SCHOOL #1 (Forcewerks Productions; $2.50), and it’s a little slicker and better drawn, on better paper. This is only part one, so it’s little more than set-up, but the real twist of B.A.B.E. FORCE, has turned out to be a pleasant villain, Dr. Chaos, who doesn’t really want to hurt anyone or cause any destruction, he just wants to sell stuff. I understand the bosoms are the market hook, but dump the silly women and do Dr. Chaos comics. He’s the real draw.

    It takes real stones to name a comic FAILURE (Carpal Tunnel Press; $3). The anthology, autobiographical stories of people failing miserably, could’ve failed miserably itself, as most autobiographical comics do, but it reads pretty well, keeping the entries fairly short and tight, with most participants resisting the urge to explain themselves and demand sympathy. (A big problem with most autobiographical comics; if criticism demands ruthlessness, autobiography demands it in spades.) It’s good.

  • First, I want to again thank everyone who contributed to my “get over the hump” fund for their donations. I really do appreciate them, and they’re helping me get through a particularly difficult financial moment. (With the holiday season starting up, it puts prospects for making much money on hold until mid-January.) If you’d like to make a donation – I can now accept credit cards through PayPal, and I never thought I’d ever say anything like that – please check out my Paper Movies. It really makes it easier to produce this column.

    Meanwhile, the usual pitches: you should get the crime novel I did with Mike Zeck, DAMNED, now published in trade paperback by Cyberosia. Also available is my horror book MORTAL SOULS from Avatar Press, with art by Philip Xavier. Also from Avatar is the latest issue of FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, adapting Frank’s unused original screenplay for ROBOCOP 2 – it’s significantly different from the released version – with art by Juan Jose Ryp, and the first issue of my sf-horror-crime comic MY FLESH IS COOL, with great art by newcomer Sebastian Fiumara. And, as ever, if your local retailer doesn’t/won’t stock them, they can be ordered from the great online retailers Khepri and Mars Import.

    Quick note: if you’re curious about the inner workings of Tokyo Pop, here’s an interview with the man described as “the Joe Quesada” of the company, editorial director Jeremy Ross, courtesy of Jamie Coville.

    I haven’t had time to set it up yet, but PayPal now allows me to put up a store at Paper Movies, so I should have that running by the weekend. You’ll be able to buy signed editions, old comics, scripts and various other things, just in time for Christmas. (50 Steven Grant fans can’t be wrong!)

    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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