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Issue #116

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #116
  • Was at the library the other day. I used to hate libraries – grubby old books with other people’s stains all over them – but now I use them a lot. Not sure why the shift in attitude, but them stocking most of the new DVDs as they come out was a plus, and lots of CDs. There used to be a time when I felt I needed everything I liked around (as “reference”) – music, movies, books, comics – so I had bookshelves and bookshelves, stacks of vinyl disks then cassette tapes, CDs, and videotapes, and closets full of boxes full of comics, but, as years passed, it slowly sank in that most of the books on my shelf I never looked at twice. There wasn’t that much music I listened to regularly, and there was always new music to press my time. There were only a handful of films worth watching more than once. Etc. The books, CDs, DVDs I really want I still get, but otherwise…

    Libraries. Not exactly instant gratification, but close, and after awhile instant gratification becomes less and less a concern. Kind of funny how the less long term you’ve got the more long term your thinking becomes. Anyway.

    I’m going through the library’s card catalog the other day. It’s on computer now, you can do cute little things like choose the specific media you’re looking for, or keywords or subjects, as well as the usual things like title and author. Type in, say, “Elvis Costello” and choose “audio” as the medium, and it’ll list not only all the Elvis Costello CDs and tapes in the system but all the works he only contributed to, too. Makes finding things a snap.

    Anyway.

    Boom.

    I’m looking through the online card catalog, and suddenly I’m thinking about the way comics are promoted. As I’ve mentioned in earlier comics, the direct sales market has made comics an incredible pain to promote. For every book, there are two promotional seasons: right before retailers have to order, and two months later, right before readers can buy the things. Problem is, retailers are (understandably, particularly in these penny-shy days) pretty conservative about what they order; many books never even see shelves in most shops. Which makes promoting them to the audience a waste of time, because they can’t be got in any case. Vicious circle. The retailers don’t want to order them because they can’t sell them, and they can’t sell them because they don’t have them. If readers even know about the books. The big complaint of most publishers (and writers and artists) is that their books don’t get a fair shake because readers never see them and often never even hear about them. The operative theory here is that if customers actually saw comics before they had to decide to buy them – you know, like in the old days – if they could actually hold the comics in their hands and flip through them, many more comics would be sold.

    Which is possible, but it’s just not what the direct market is about anymore.

    The main tool of promotion in comics is the Diamond Comics PREVIEWS catalog, a headache-inducing monthly “phone book,” where, as Lemmy Caution put it in ALPHAVILLE “many philosophers had gone astray, where even a secret agent could get lost.” Particularly once you get past the DC and Marvel sections at the front of PREVIEWS, finding a comic unless you’re already specifically looking for it is like finding a precisely shaped snowflake in a blizzard.

    Then there’s the problem of the Internet. The comics world has generally hated and feared the Internet. Recently companies have begun to embrace it, but it was years before certainly the major companies saw the Internet as anything but a place where know-nothings could mock them and disparage what they published. (Likewise, it took a decade for the comics business to believe computers were in any way applicable to what they did.) Comics publishers have since thawed toward the Internet some, recognizing its potential for promotion and audience-building, though the only person in comics who really managed to achieve that was Warren Ellis (and, more recently, Mark Millar, but not to as sweeping an extent). The problem is that it’s possible to use the Internet to build an audience and even mobilize a movement – but only if there are willing victims eager to jump your train. Virtually all comics companies use Web sites to promote their books now, but people still have to be willing to come find you. (“Push” technology, where your information flows out to the recipient, had a great, uh, push a few years back but ultimately died out, leaving the bastard stepchild, spam.)

    So the Internet promotion process is basically this: put sample pages from a project, or a cover, or whatever, on your website, then send a press release to places like CBR, Pulse and Newsarama announcing it, and hope potential readers a) click the link back to your site to see the preview, then get so excited they run down to their local comics shop or some other venue to order or buy the book.

    While it’s possible, as many have learned building buzz via the Internet is a dodgy process.

    And storefront retailers hate the Internet. What they see in it is opportunities for their customers to buy from someone else instead of them, with online retailers offering all kinds of incentives like discounts because they don’t have the financial obligations that come with a “bricks-and-mortar” store. Which is understandable. The Internet represents a vast wealth of information, but, to anyone selling anything, it represents a vast sea of competitors as well. (It being the middle of the Xmas season, we’re now in the middle of the general retail news arc: Thanksgiving always brings stories of how things are going really well for merchants and boom buying season is on the horizon; then a couple weeks after that reports are aired of how the public isn’t buying, or stores are only selling things at steep sale price cuts, or Internet merchants are snagging all the buys while physical stores suffer. Just before Christmas, big pro-buying stories should appear, and around the second week of January there’ll be reports about how depressing Xmas sales were for stores. Same arc every year – and I’m not talking about comics shops.)

    Is it possible to use the Internet as an effective sales tool that will please publishers and store owners alike?

    Okay, it seems to me that most comics shops have computers in some capacity now, or if they don’t both the price on computers (Fry’s here sells an “Internet-Ready Computer” for $199) and Internet access (you can get unlimited Internet access for under $100/yr, though realistically this would probably call for hi-speed, not dial-up) is low enough now there’s no reason why they don’t have one. Now suppose there was a central clearing house for comics previews – say, five consecutive pages from every book being promoted – that could be accessed through a dedicated browser, the way the online card catalog at the library is the only thing that computer will access. Every comic coming out in a given ordering period would be in that database. On a computer in your comics shop. So you could go in, browse or check out something specific, and actually sample comics. And if you found something you decided you wanted, you could go directly to the guy behind the counter and order them. Or order them right there at the computer with a mouse click, and the retailer could take it from there. Similar to an online card catalog in the library.

    An example of how it would work in practice: you just stumbled across THE ULTIMATES and you’re thinking, “This Mark Millar is one cool cat. I wonder what else he has coming up.” So you drop by the local shop and go into the “catalog.” Type in “Mark Millar” and tap the “writer” category, and up pop listings for, as well as his Marvel books, THE UNFUNNIES from Avatar, and WANTED from Image and CHOSEN from Dark Horse. You click on each in turn, and get five consecutive pages of comics, which, in theory, would be enough to convince you the material was worth spending money on. (If it doesn’t, that’s not the fault of the system.) Then you either ask the retailer to put these things on a pull list or generate your own pull list via the computer.

    Of course, this doesn’t solve the “instant gratification” problem – most people who get interested in something new want it right now – but that’s a problem nothing in the direct market as it is now will solve. I could see comics shops using “free samples” as a lure to bring in customers, and, sure, there’ll be a learning curve but once they get used to it they’ll be used to it. That’s always the way of these things.

    As with most of these things, the biggest question is: who’s going to pay for it?

    Fact is, it wouldn’t be all that expensive, compared with other media, and it would have a directness of promotion that currently doesn’t exist. Your material gets directly to an audience that’s likeliest to actually purchase it, and gains exposure it otherwise wouldn’t. Would that pan out? Like everything else, it’s a crapshoot. It would be counterproductive to bill retailers for access, since most of them don’t make all that much money anyway. I could see billing publishers a dollar per page per month for “listing” on the system; in terms of promotional expense, that’s almost non-existent. (I could see publishers grousing about the “democracy” of the thing, since it would, theoretically, level the playing field to some extent.) The dedicated browser isn’t much of a cost; there are plenty of those already that would only take a bit of simple reprogramming to set up for the system; virtually anyone with a programming background could do it easily enough. The biggest uncertainty is who’d run the thing? That it would be non-profit is almost a given, so it would take either someone very dedicated to comics or someone whose business already consists of marketing comics.

    A single publisher running such a system is a bad idea; too much opportunity for abuse. As much as I hate giving them any more power over the comics market, there seems to be only one party in the business with relative neutrality (yeah, yeah, I know) that has a vested interest in selling more comics of all stripes:

    Diamond.

    Maybe Diamond might feel its too much hassle (or that maybe it might undercut in-store sales of their PREVIEWS catalog, but isn’t that a ludicrous waste of trees anyway?) but such a system could easily simplify Diamond’s life too. If all orders are put into computer, all tallies could easily be made at the retailer’s end then fed directly into the Diamond server on the other end.

    I’m sure there are problems with all this I haven’t thought of. But it remains that this could be done, and it could be done fairly quickly and easily. And something’s got to be done, and soon.

  • Bob Gregory died of pneumonia on December 5th. He was 82. Yeah, I never heard of him either, and that’s really sad, considering he was a very prolific writer and artist on some of the best selling comics in America: DONALD AND DAISY, BEAGLE BOYS, JUNIOR WOODCHUCKS. And other licensed books mostly for Dell and Gold Key. In an era when the only name on Disney comics was Disney, and other license holders followed similar policies. (Even Carl Barks was never credited that I recall, and, when you think of it, it’s a small miracle anyone ever found out who he was.) Yet, now that I know who he is, I know I read his comics; so did whole generations of comics readers. I see Pulse and ¡Journalista! have already mentioned him, but I already knew about it courtesy of his daughter, alt-comics diva Roberta Gregory. By all accounts, Bob Gregory had a pretty good life and a long career, but it’s a real shame we only learn about these men and women who anonymously created the comics we grew up on when they’re dead. If they, and we, are lucky.

    My condolences to Roberta and her family.

  • So Al Gore endorses Howard Dean for the Democratic presidential candidate for 2004 (Dean nicely referred to Gore as “the winner of the popular vote in 2000”) and who’s the man of the hour as far as the news is concerned? Joe Lieberman. Lieberman, who was Gore’s VP candidate on the 2000 Democratic ticket, wasn’t told of Gore’s decision in advance, so all the news programs want his reaction to it, especially since Joltin’ Joe refrained from announcing his own candidacy until after Albert (I always think of POGO when I say that name) decided he wasn’t going to run. (Others, like Dick Gephardt, who had thrown their support early to Gore in ’00, were reportedly likewise caught off-guard.) Of course, Lieberman played nice, saying it was early in the campaign season (it is) and this would just prompt him to “run harder.” But didn’t you want him to just say, “Oh, that’s all right. I never liked Al anyway, and you have to understand he’s a political opportunist who only wanted me as VP to lure Democratic right-wingers back from the Republican Party, since I’m about as right wing as this party gets. The Democratic Party has largely shunned Al since that whole election night mess, just like they’ve shunned Howard Dean for the most part, so Al probably thinks this will return him to political pertinence, by hitching his star to the guy the Internet likes.” Adding, with sarcasm: “Which is a natural match, since Al ‘created’ the Information Superhighway.”

    But he didn’t. Instead Lieberman talked about how Dean was dangerously “left wing” and betrayed the legacy of Bill Clinton (I guess enough time has passed since his presidency that, unlike in 2000, Democrats are now willing to invoke The Name in public) who I’m sure most right-wingers will be surprised to know Lieberman likens to be basically right wing. And how he, Joe, can be the candidate to take the country back from the Republicans ’cause, gosh, there’s really not that much difference between him and King George except the accents. (Yeah, I know I’ve said when you get into it there’s not that much difference between Dean and Bush, but at least that was controversial, with plenty of evidence to argue against it. If nothing else, Lieberman’s social agenda – centered around a persecution of pop culture for destroying American/family values – is as right wing as they come and more right wing than anything conceived by most Republicans.)

    What we can glean from this isn’t that Dean wouldn’t necessarily be a good president (if he does get elected, I imagine we’ll at least be able to say we could’ve done worse), or that Gore’s desperately scratching for ways to remain relevant (after that speech he gave a couple weeks ago, I think he could be invaluable to the Democrats as the tenacious pitbull slightly removed from “real” politics who gnaws on the President’s rep) but that Lieberman just Doesn’t Get It, just like the Democrats haven’t “gotten it” since the wrath of the public in the wake of the Vietnam War scared the hell out of them: if your campaign strategy is to convince the voters you’re just like the guy you’re running against except for a few quirks, you give them no reason to vote for you. Dean, at least, has made it his strategy to encourage voters to at least think he’s an alternative, which is why he’s making headway in a tough field. Lieberman’s main tack is to tell Democrats they can be even more conservative than Republicans – Lieberman’s strategy in his Congressional runs was to come off as the real conservative in the race – which is about the same thing as telling them they might as well be Republicans. If there’s no genuine choice, if both sides pretty much stand for the same things save for nuances – why do we even bother with elections?

    The last time I mentioned Lieberman, I got a couple e-mails suggesting my opposition to him was anti-Semitic, which suggested they just didn’t read what I had written. Whether he’s Jewish or not, what the religions of any of the candidates is, means nothing to me. Matter of fact, I’d love to see someone Jewish become president, if I agreed with them politically. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t. (I’d also like to see criticism of the Israeli government, and there’s plenty of grounds for that, steer clear of reiteration of Jewish stereotypes, which are suddenly and unnecessarily coming back hot and heavy with a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism worldwide.)

    Just not Lieberman. Whether Al Gore was right to endorse Howard Dean I don’t know – it’s way too early in the election season for these things to shake out – but he wasn’t wrong not to endorse Joe Lieberman.

  • A couple notes before we get to the mail:

    Is Grant Morrison annoying? I swing toward no, but you can register your own opinion here.

    I was considering running a “Holiday Buyer’s Guide” here, but someone sagely mentioned to me the last thing anyone should do is buy a comic book or graphic novel as an Xmas or Hanukkah present for someone who doesn’t read comics. So we’ll shift things a bit, but I need to know: what’s your choice for a) Best Graphic Novel Of The Year, and b) Best Graphic Novel Of The Year That Probably Very Few People Read. Tell me. Just so everyone will know what present to get for their friends who already do read comics. (It couldn’t hurt to find out what they’ve already got first.)

    A great many people wrote in about sources of formal education in comics art, aside from the Kubert School. To wit:

    The Savannah College Of Art And Design, Savannah GA

    The Rhode Island School Of Design, Providence RI

    The Minneapolis College Of Art And Design, Minneapolis MN

    The School Of Visual Arts, New York City

    The Pratt Institute, New York City

    Cornish College Of The Arts, Seattle WA

    The Memphis College Of Art, Memphis TN

    The Montserrat College Of Art, Beverly MA

    Thanks to the millions and millions who wrote in on this.

    The discussion of comics criticism rages on:

    ” I just read your column on CBR and thought I’d offer up Paperback Reader as a site that reviews and (sometimes) critiques comics – one issue at a time. I write “According to the Turtle” there and I try and use the typical 5-star approach to ranking each issue. I like to talk about books that I personally think are excellent, but I also speak my mind when I don’t like books too. Right now, I’m really digging NEW MUTANTS, for example, and I can’t stand UNCANNY X-MEN.

    There are two other guys that write reviews there as well. Check it out if you get a chance.”

    “A couple things I wanted to bring to the party (a bit late) on the criticism thing:

    This whole shebang was something I brought up on Micah Wright’s forum a few months back and the responses showed that for the most part, as you pointed out, most people don’t seem to know the difference between “reviews” and criticism. With only one exception every single piece people pointed me to was just an overblown review; the only thing that came close to real criticism were a few pieces on Ninth Art, but in that specific case… I don’t care what Antony Johnston says, 9A is so nakedly anti-mainstream that I have a hard time taking them seriously.

    You mentioned in this week’s update that part of the problem is that people who are attempting to do legitimate criticism of comics are often being forced to graft film-criticism techniques onto sequential art, which doesn’t fit exactly.

    My response to that is: what do you expect?

    The root cause of that is that no one is teaching comics criticism; more accurately, no one is teaching comics theory, and thus there’s no way to learn effective communication of the application of said theory, which is what criticism of any art form is: application by an outside source of theory to execution. There’s more to it than that, obviously, but that’s the basis for what true written criticism is, and since (to my knowledge) there is no organized education of theory on comics you can’t really expect there to be high-level criticism thereto.

    We’re only now starting to develop a real working comics theory, but two or three books don’t a discipline make. I mean, until there’s more pure theory out there beyond Will Eisner and Scott McCloud, and until that theory is taught on a primary school level – or at the very least the theory is adapted and assimilated by educated, intelligent people – we’re going to be short on real criticism simply because there aren’t (and won’t be) people well-trained enough to write it.

    Put it another way: would you read a piece in FILM COMMENT (or whatever you prefer) written by someone who had never studied film theory? (Assuming that for some inexplicable reason a publication of such august level would even print such a work.)

    The stopgap solution we have now, writers using theories and methods from other media and applying them to comics, is (as stopgap measures go) not too terrible. We share enough common ground with movies and prose that the shoes aren’t more than a size or two either way, so to speak. The problem there is one of quantity and not quality, though. We’ve all seen the occasional website where someone puts up their doctoral thesis they wrote on THE SANDMAN or whatever, and they’re all well and good. For the most part they’re written by people who have good knowledge of not only their subject matter but what it takes to write effective criticism, and they have most importantly been trained to think at, for lack of a better phrase, a university level. As for almost all of what passes for criticism these days…

    This is one of the downsides of the Internet, I suppose, the idea that now everybody is a writer, or a critic, or (worst of all) an expert. Champions of blogging hold forth that it will revolutionize communication because it can make anyone a writer, and the artist/writer/whatever part of me cringes when I hear things like that, because most people are far too stupid to be writers, and flooding the marketplace with dreck only serves to make it that much harder to find the good stuff. (Sounds a bit like comics, don’t it?) With “comics criticism” websites a dime a dozen, the idea that the absolute, utter, unreadable garbage that passes for criticism on places like The Fourth Rail and X-Axis or The Pulse or whatever site is legitimate gets burned further and further into the comics community’s collective consciousness, so much so that in those rare moments when something genuine comes along people either don’t recognize it or, as one of your other correspondents noted, pile on them for being “overly negative.”

    The one correspondent you printed who specifically mentioned the Fourth Rail made me want to scream – not only is what Don MacPherson and Randy Lander write not criticism, but how anyone can consider them to be more than dreck really escapes me. And this is, by all accounts, probably the most popular comics review site on the net. Even for straight consumer reviews those two are mind-numbingly dumb. Have you ever really read some of the things these guys write? It’s the kind of prose that would fail high school writing classes and bears the indelible marks of soggy, lazy thinking and yet over and over people hold it up as the paragon of comics intellectualism. It’s sickening. Even just as “reviews.”

    Real criticism is hard to find, and I don’t think there’s much more you can say about it, and even further there isn’t going to be much you can do to convince the rest of the world that what they have now isn’t criticism until people learn the difference between it and reviews. If you need a short, sound-bitey way to break it down, my feeling has always been that reviews are about reaction and criticism is about meaning. Surface level analysis versus subtextual analysis. Plot versus theme. Over-simplfied and overly-reductive? Possibly. But it is just a sound bite.

    And, for god’s sake, if nothing else criticism is more than 300 words. Maybe it’s just that after everything else – reviews are short. Criticism is long.

    Go back and look at some of the big review sites and see how many pieces fit those latter criteria. I doubt you’ll find a single one.

    There is criticism to be had, to be sure, and can even come out of the mainstream. For whatever reason I was reading (of all things) the third BATMAN: KNIGHTFALL trade at lunch yesterday (the one where Bruce comes back to Gotham and fights Azrael) and beyond the mostly hackneyed dialogue and scratchy, murky art, buried underneath all the crap the creators pile onto it is a really interesting story about a man seeking redemption through violence. I’m reading this and thinking about it to myself, and the next thought I had was that if there’s legitimate criticism to be had from one of the most pandering, mainstream, pop-confection comics of the last 15 years, who knows what else is out there?

    (As an interesting aside, from that whole collection the only writer who really transcended those kind of standard superhero tropes was, unsurprisingly, Denny O’Neil.)”

    Whew.

    A couple comments about reviews:

    “I just wanted to offer a small correction on one of your comments on the RUROUNI KENSHIN manga. You said ‘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.’

    While this is technically correct, it’s more correct to say that the story of Rurouni Kenshin starts in 11th year of the Meiji era by the Japanese calendar. That would be 1879 to us Western folk.

    As long as I’m talking about the Rurouni Kenshin manga I think it’s worth mentioning that Kenshin’s creator, Nobohiro Watsuki, is a huge fan of American comics. If you read through the entire series (which I can do since I currently live in Japan) you’ll see characters that while Japanese are clearly based on characters from US comics, most of them Marvel. Just from my own reading of the Kenshin manga I was able to see characters based on Gambit, Daredevil, Spider-Man, the Vulture, Omega Red, Venom, Apocalypse, the Hulk, the Absorbing Man, Forge and even Spawn. This influence is noted by the creator in the notes he offers along with the story.

    Let me offer you another tidbit from Japan. In large Japanese cities (like Sapporo, where I live) it is common for large book stores to have a section dedicated to books in English. These sections always seem to a have a fairly decent selection of manga translated into English. They even sell the English version of SHONEN JUMP here. It’s really an ironic feeling to flip through a manga in English while one is in Japan.

    Before I sign off let me tell you a short, funny story about the English version of SHONEN JUMP here in Japan. I was at one of the bookstores where the English SHONEN JUMP was being sold, flipping through the magazines. Two Japanese teenagers where there looking at movie magazines. Here’s a slightly rough translation of a conversation I heard them have:


    Guy 1: Hey, they have the English version of Shonen Jump here.

    Guy 2: What? Shonen Jump in English? No way!

    Guy 1: No, it’s true. Look.

    (Guy 2 has a look and is truly amazed)

    Guy 2: Man, I don’t believe this.

    Guy 1: I hear manga is getting popular in America.

    Guy 2: No way! For real?

    Guy 1: Yeah, for real.

    I was actually tempted to go over and tell Guy 2 that, yes, manga was actually getting fairly popular in the US now and even outselling many American comics. But I was rather embarrassed to have been eavesdropping so I didn’t.”

    And, about my review of Checker BooksWINDSOR McCAY EARLY WORKS, one reader had this to say:

    “I ordered this as soon as I heard about it, and it’s everything I was hoping for, but I had to wonder why they chose a swollen Imp as the cover. The racism is definitely there, but no need to showcase it. If I didn’t know anything about McCay, I certainly wouldn’t be enticed to buy something with a racist cartoon on the cover. I don’t think McCay wrote the Imp tales, though he probably designed them.

    Little Nemo gives a better view of things, though not by much. In between savage Indian attacks and Impie’s jabber, multiculturalism figures into Slumberland positively and fairly often. And even Impie’s dad, despite his appearance, speaks perfect English and is a nice host… I dunno, I can’t bring myself to make an apology for it, it’s probably just what it appears to be: a mix of agape and white patronization. Disappointing, but better than a lot of stuff going around in the early 1900s.

    Beats the Yellow Kid, at any rate.”

  • In the recent TV roundup, I made one really glaring omission. I’m not proud to say it, but far and away the most the most watchable show (which isn’t to say good, exactly) on TV is Fox’s THE O.C. (Wednesdays, 9PM). Characters are fun and tend to get unexpectedly humanized, situations are just ludicrous enough to be entertaining without becoming too ludicrous to be entertaining. Storylines tend to be encapsulated, diminishing the sense of soap opera. And someone recently rightly described Adam Brody, the actor who plays motormouth teen Seth Cohen (who has gone from dateless nebbish to being pursued by two women), as the new Tom Hanks. The actors on the show mostly seem to be having a lot of fun, and it’s infectious.

    Also, BBC America has started up the third season of one of the best cop shows to come out of Britain lately, WAKING THE DEAD (Mondays, 9PM). The premise is fairly familiar stuff now, being mined here on both COLD CASE and various CSI incarnations, with a veteran police detective heading up a squad of investigators, a profiler and a forensics expert to solve cases either previously unsolved or unexpectedly reopened. But the characters on the show show a lot more character than their American counterparts, and the stories are far more interesting. If you get BBC America, watch it.

  • For some reason, I’ve received a slew of review items this week, just when time’s at a real premium. So I think next week’ll be another review extravaganza, and I apologize to everyone for not being able to get to the stuff sooner. In the meantime, though, Viz Communications has issued a lot of new manga trades (even for them) so let’s get to those:

    Saki Hiwatari’s PLEASE SAVE MY EARTH ($9.95) is the oldest of them, dating from 1986, and the Tezuka influence just steams off of it. A girl with a special connection to plants and animals meets two fellow students who share the same dreams, then finds she and the others, and a bratty next door neighbor she babysits, are all connected to a different life on the moon. It’s imaginative enough, but somehow uninvolving. The best manga (like the best American comics) sucks you right into the characters and situations; this one’s got too much set-up, and the characters aren’t of themselves interesting enough to sustain things until the story gets to the point.

    Viz released two series by FUSHIGI YUGI‘s Yû Watase at the same time, CERES CELESTIAL LEGEND ($9.95) and her newest, ALICE 19th ($9.95). CERES (am I mistaken, or did this have a run at Dark Horse?) continues the theme of doomed (and bloody) romance Watase mined in FUSHIGI YUGI, this time as a 16 year old girl finds her family trying to kill her as she learns secrets of their origin and her place in an ancestor’s revenge. Add in ancient legend, a reluctant protector, a lover honor-bound to do her family’s bidding, a brother who needs saving and some pretty good art, and it’s worth a look. My main quibble is that the heroine’s pretty dense, and, unfortunately, it’s her doing stupid things that keeps pushing the story on. But it does move. ALICE 19th is a bit slower and somewhat more down to earth, and (Bryan Talbot take note!) there are sideways references to ALICE IN WONDERLAND throughout. A schoolgirl lives in her sister’s shadow in life and in romance, until she saves a rabbit that turns out to be some sort of mystical being. Impressed by her courage, the rabbit/girl teaches her words of power, and Alice’s inability to take this seriously, as well as her crippling lack of confidence, soon result in disaster. It starts off slowly but ends well; it’s sort of SAILOR MOON for teens. It’s good.

    Also very SAILOR MOONish is Be-PaPas’ REVOLUTIONARY GIRL UTENA ($9.95), done in comics form by Chiho Saito. It’s funny how many Japanese comics involving heroines take place in school settings though; they must take school a lot more seriously than Americans do. The independent-minded orphan Utena grows up seeking a mystery man she’s in love with, and clues take her to an elite school where the student council duels for the rights to a magical sword and the “bride” who accompanies it. She tends to be a far different heroine than usually found in these: confident, determined and usually in charge, which I gather was somewhat revolutionary in itself in 1996. Also good.

    Then we get into straight romance comics. Moyoco Anno’s FLOWERS AND BEES ($9.95) unusually approaches teen romantic angst from a boy’s perspective, with the intensely crazed Komatsu convinced he’s a loser who can’t get girls, even as he innocently lusts after any number of girls. Then he stumbles across a beauty parlor that promises to make him attractive to women, and while things don’t quite hit FOOLY COOLY-level lunacy, they approach it. The art varies from ugly to oddly alluring, and it’s hard to see where this is going (three or four possibilities present themselves, and it’s likely none of those pan out) or how it could sustain for long, but the first volume’s snappy and funny, and Komatsu’s got to be the most hapless hero to grace comics in a long time.

    Finally, my favorite of Viz’s new releases, Miki Aihara’s HOT GIMMICK ($9.95). It’s the most down to earth offering, playing on Japanese social restrictions and centering on a company housing complex – where a corporation houses the families of its workers – “ruled” by a “proper” busybody with an arrogant, brainy son, into whose hands fall the reputations of heroine Hatsumi and her loose younger sister, as an old friend and potential boyfriend re-enters Hatsumi’s life. It’s a fairly realistic portrayal of a young girl trapped in a society that places a high premium on propriety and appearances, though it’s far more of a dramedy than a drama. Hatsumi’s a terrific, surprising character, other characters and situations also quickly develop all sorts of unexpected nuances, and the book’s tightly written and stylishly drawn. What’s not to like? Read it. (No idea what the title refers to, though. Anyone?)

  • In case you haven’t been keeping track, MY FLESH IS COOL should be out from Avatar today or next Wednesday, with art by Sebastian Fiumara and covers by Jacen Burrows. I could talk it up, but I’ve already done that in an interview here (incestuous, I know, but they asked), so what else can I say but “buy it, you’ll like it.” You might also want to ask after the latest issue of FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, which should also be out right about now.

    There was also a recent unexpected flurry of announcements about the optioning for film/TV of my previous Avatar series, the horror story MORTAL SOULS. (You can still buy the trade paperback, y’know.) The option has actually been in place for awhile, but I didn’t bring it up because, in the Hollywood scheme of things, options just don’t mean that much. An option isn’t a movie or a TV show, and those are the only deals worth publicizing as far as I’m concerned. Which, I’m told, we’re on the cusp of, so hopefully I’ll really have something to tell you in January or February, when everyone in Hollywood’s back from winter break.

    And thanks to everyone who has responded to my fund drive (click on the link for information if you want to help out); you’re really helping me through some rough moments and I appreciate everyone’s gracious generosity in helping me continue this column and the various other projects I’m working on going. It’ll probably be mid-January before I’m over this hump, but it’s nice to know I have friends out there.

    I had hoped to have a store for signed books, scripts, etc., open at Paper Movies by now, but, as mentioned above, this week I found all my time consumed by one thing or another. So, if you can’t find MY FLESH IS COOL, or FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, or the MORTAL SOULS trade paperback, or the DAMNED trade (with art by Mike Zeck and Denis Rodier), or the BADLANDS trade, or the BADLANDS SCREENPLAY, or any number of other books I’ve done, at your local comics shop, track them down on the fine online stores Khepri and Mars Import.

    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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