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Issue #118

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #118
  • I’d leave the mail go this week, but there’s too much of it. First, I’d like to thank all of you who sent information about THE JOURNAL OF POPULAR CULTURE, and I’d especially like to thank Marc Mason, and the author in question, Matthew Wolf-Meyer, for sending copies of Wolf-Meyer’s article on modern superhero comics, “The World Ozymandius Made.” (Also thanks to Steve Lieber, who cited Dan Raeburn, writer/publisher of THE IMP (1454 W. Summerdale #2C, Chicago, IL 60640), as a top comics critic. I haven’t read Dan’s work, but Steve’s smart enough that I’ll take his word for it, on approval. But the plight of comics criticism continues to stir readers, one way or the other:

    “I’m not yet finished reading your column, but I just read this one letter that you printed that contained the following: ‘The sad answer: Comics are crap. While most of anything is crap, most modern comics are completely incoherent–and worse than ever. Simultaneously satisfying the demands of monthly and collected publishing options is ripping to shreds what’s left of our ability to tell a story well.’

    While I agree that most of anything is crap, I would have to say that it is very possible to write books that are to be published both as monthlies and trades, but as the first statement said, most of anything is crap. Some good examples of books (that I read anyways) that are satisfying month to month (or year to year) and in paperback form:

    SLEEPER by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips is possibly as good monthly as it is all at once. Or PLANETARY by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday. Difficult to pull off? Possibly, but I think that the excuse that the monthly/TPB conundrum is the cause for what’s wrong with comics is pretty darn lame (as is this sentence).”

    As it turns out, the original writer also wrote back, indicating a shift in approach:

    “‘Some of your statements indicate you have a nascent critical theory of your own. How about developing that?

    Okay, I’ll bite, and what’s more: I’m coming over to your side. While I still question the likelihood of a high-tone critical community emerging from such a small industry, you’re right that we need to refine and standardize the language we use to discuss comics – and that goes for the man on the street as well as the critic. The bonus is that approaching my “theory” from the critical language perspective keeps me focused on solutions rather than wallowing in the “crap”. In that light I’ll make a contribution:

    Because the job of a comic book artist is about more than just generating images, the word “art” alone does not adequately describe the product.

    Comic books are a storytelling medium. The “art” must first and foremost tell a story effectively. If that story is not well told visually, or worse, if the art prevents the story from being understood, then the comic book is a failure, regardless of how beautiful the images.

    I propose the use of the terms “visual storytelling” or “storytelling” to discuss this, the most important aspect of the comic book artist’s job. And I’m not so much talking about the nomenclature as I am about frequent use of the words. When we start discussing an artist’s ability to do more than please the eye, artists will know we value more than flash. They’ll have to step up to the plate and master comic book craft. Comics can only benefit from that.”

    “‘Long time reader, first time writer,’ as the saying goes.

    Anyway, in response to your search for “comic book criticism,” I thought I’d suggest a site for you and your readers and get a little plug in as well. Pop Matters specializes in discussion of all sorts of pop culture media, especially music, film, and books. I’ve been working on getting a comic book section off the ground for a while now. It’s been up and down, but we’ve put up a fair number of articles over the last year or so. I wouldn’t say we publish “criticism” in the academic sense of the word, nor do we publish just positive/negative “reviews” a la The Fourth Rail (which I enjoy immensely, by the way). We’re somewhere in the middle ground, probably closer to the review side but trying to move towards a more critical approach. The recent comic book reviews have links to the archived material, so have a look through and hopefully you’ll find something interesting. Peace.”

    My proposal of an integrated computerized preview/order system for comics also continues to draw interest:

    “I had hoped to write you with regards to your column of Dec 10th earlier but time constraints kept that from happening. I found your comments about your local Public Library and its catalog of great interest, especially the potential this sort of technology has for the comics industry and its fans.

    I am a long time comic reader (if I’m writing you I guess that goes without saying). I am also a Library Technician, and have been employed in this field for the last ten years or so. Here’s a bit of background in library automation.

    What you referred to as an online card catalog in industry terms is called an OPAC (online patron access catalog). The information that is indexed in a catalog essentially conforms to the standards that were used for the old card catalogs. The protocol that most libraries across the world follow is called MARC 21. MARC stands for MAchine Readable Cataloging. The “21” is version number, adopted in 1997 when American and Canadian standards were harmonized.

    On your own OPAC you will probably find an option to look at an items MARC record, if not I’m pretty sure you can through the Library of Congress’ catalog. This will show you what us Catalogers work with. Basically each book record (Bibliographic Record) contains many lines of information. These will range from numbers 000 through to 999. Each field number corresponds to a piece of the bibliographic record.”

    [While I usually don’t significantly edit mail, what follows is lengthy and technical, so we’ll skip over it and take the writer’s word for it.]

    “This is the record for a book called HOW TO READ DONALD DUCK: IMPERIALIST IDEOLOGY IN THE DISNEY COMIC. Most of the information in this form is of little use to a patron but everything that you need to search for this item on is hidden in that code. The different line numbers index very specific bits of data (author, added authors, publisher, date, edition, and on and on). The format is standardized in such a way that any decent library software will “read” a correctly written MARC record in the same way.

    A recent innovation is what we call Z39.5. This is not a new Grant Morrison series but rather a protocol that allows for (and I’m really dumbing this down) different Library catalogs to “swap” book records from each other pretty nearly freely. Most of the time we do this through FTP or through custom programs designed for this very function.

    You spoke of keeping up on authors or musicians by searching for their names in the OPAC. This is a specialized form of indexing called Authority cataloging. It’s fairly straightforward though some rigor is needed. Let’s take you, for example. If I had read a collection of your MOTO columns and wanted to read more by you I could check your name out in the OPAC. Let’s say that my library had a copy of RETURN TO BIG NOTHING but they cataloged its author as Grant, Steven D. I search for Grant, Steven. I would totally miss out. This happened to me at a public library I worked at few years ago. We had something like three different Miller, Frank variations. Some comics were is each of them but these were combined with mathematics, ornithology and sundry other stuff.

    More important than title and authority searching however is subject cataloging. The current batch of cataloging rules determines what subject headings are allowed for. I think that there are something like 22 phone book sized volumes currently cumulated of nothing other than subject headings. These are critical concepts that have to apply universally.

    When all the parts of an OPAC are running correctly it is a powerful research tool. The corporate model that you suggest for a comic OPAC might be a decent stop-gap, but its “use” would pale to that of a full service catalog. Part of the problem with a Diamond run online ordering system is that it would be forever tied into a marketing scheme. By allowing publishers to “dump” their own records into the database rather than having hard factual data about the material evaluated by a professional you’ll essentially be left with searchable publisher’s blurbs. Image a library like that, where items were searchable by hyperbolic review blurbs and what the publisher wanted you to think the book was about.

    The other drawback to this sales oriented model is that there would be no rationale for keeping material indexed once it was out of print. This could totally remove any historical utility to this product.

    This is where the schism of a pure library model of indexing starts to show through. A library catalog represents actual physical holdings, if something is listed you can be fairly certain that it exists and where. As there are no great public or private repositories of comics this becomes a problem. Outside of OPACs the modern librarian’s best friend is the electronic index or abstracting service. What these offer are huge amounts of information on current publications, usually in a specialized field of interest. Literally thousands of journals get tracked and their tables of contents (usually with abstracts of the article’s contents) are recorded and made fully searchable.

    While these indexes rarely contain the actual source material they do verify that such an item exists and where it was published. The idea is that you then check back with your own library to see if they either own or can order that item for you.

    This is best model for a comic book database. Impartial, historical, and powerful. It would be just as useful to the publisher as it would be to the public. After all in a MARC record the ISBN is incorporated, for comics a Diamond code could just as easily be used. And if you see something you’re interested in that you can’t get new then you can still approach second hand dealers. Actually, if Diamond was slick they would start an out of print service like many of the mainstream publishers and vendors already do.

    Money, of course is the issue, specifically seed money. I have ideas on how this could come about but to save you that grief I’ll use the old “private and public stakeholders” line for now. This would have to be a non-profit venture but would need a revenue stream to maintain itself. I would suggest selling the product at a subscription rate coupled with partnering with a library school who could help provide the master student manpower to keep it running.

    I think there is much potential in this concept. I cannot stress enough that in order to really add something it would need to extend past materials presently in print. I think of somebody who picked up an old CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN comic and was really impressed. They could log into the index and execute search along the lines of Author: Kirby, Jack – Subject: DC Comics 1950-present, NOT (means should exclude this term) Superhero. The wealth of material that you might be able to drum up is really tantalizing.

    The other big issue that this would need to address (and don’t worry, I’m almost finished) is that conventional indexing would miss out on several factors that comic fans find important. That would largely revolve around character appearances. If you wanted to find all appearances of Magneto outside of the X books in the 80’s some sort of new character authority would need to be invented. This would not be, all things considered, that difficult a hill to climb.

    This subject dovetails into the other one being discussed in your column. That being comics criticism. I totally agree with your feelings on the subject, it’s a real desert out there. There was that one reader you printed a letter from who suggested that the reason that there was such a vacuum was due to the lack of quality source material. Well, back to the “good vs. bad” thing, eh? If there is a missing link between reviews and com/crit its not an issue of good or bad. That has absolutely nothing to do with it. Next to comics my other big passion are Italian Horror films, and as much as I love them I would have a devil of a time to say “thumbs up” or 31/2 stars. These aren’t “good” films in that sense. As an ex-girl friend once said, “What do you like about them?” to which I replied “I don’t like them.” She could never understand that I didn’t have to “like” a movie for me to become involved, moved, or ultimately challenged by it. It’s a very different sort of enjoyment.

    The possible gap may exist in the hole that should be filled by scholarship. I don’t mean to use that term in any elitist fashion. I am referring to the lack of easy to use background material from which critical thought can develop. If you were to write a paper on, say, the cold war fears expressed in THUNDER AGENTS as compared FANTASTIC FOUR, where would you start? What key issues would you consult? Can you get biographical information on the authors and editors involved? What about their other works? What if Mark Waid was too busy to take your call? The ComicDex (should I trademark that now?) could handle these issues. That is the base criticism can grow off of.”

    That’s what I like to see: a holistic view. It’s easy to see things have now progressed well beyond my original vision, and the main reason I settled on Diamond was that they’re the only party currently in the field with the connections and business considerations to underwrite what I originally saw as an in-store preview and ordering system. It’s interesting to see how rapidly and broadly this is mutating…

    “Regarding your idea of having the PREVIEWS catalog online, it is already being done by My Comic Shop. I order my monthly books through them online and they list the PREVIEWS, which comes out to between 1500-2000 items each month, online. Almost every entry has a link that gives you the same information as what is given in the paper version of the catalog and if you want the item you simply click on it and it is added to your shopping cart.

    I don’t know if non MCS subscribers can look at the catalog, but it’s easy to register there. I’m not shilling for MCS in any way, just thought you might be interested.”

    It is interesting, but it also defeats one of the original purposes of my suggestion: to keep customers in comic shops rather than send them to online vendors, and give customers a means to sample unfamiliar comics and order them on the spot if they chose. The objective is to return exposure and impulse buying to point of purchase, in a world where retailers are ordering fewer and fewer unfamiliar comics for customers to even see, let alone choose from.

    Finally, I received one objection to my characterization of TERMINATOR 3:

    “I hate to have the first e-mail I write to you be somewhat negative, but here we go. You wrote in your review of TERMINATOR III that one of your problems with the flick was that the ending made the past two movie pointless. But it didn’t. I really wasn’t too thrilled with the film until the ending because I felt it ended exactly the way it should have. My reasons are as follows:

    1. It really turns the series on its ear. In the first two movies the point was to save the protagonists (Sarah Conner, John Conner respectively). At the end of the first film, if memory serves, Sarah went off to avert Judgment Day and supposedly accomplished this goal at the end of the second one. If the ending of the third film had John and Kate once again averting Judgment Day then I would have been really disappointed because, from a story standpoint, it would have been repetitive.

    2. I have to agree with Peter David, who asserted that the point of the films was not to avoid Judgment and the war between man and machine but to ensure that the leader of the human resistance would live. The third one turned this one around as well by having Kate Brewster be the one the Terminator was sent to protect. By doing this and having the Terminator be the one that killed John in the future were plot points that I really enjoyed.

    3. Hopefully the ending means that future movies cannot be made since the point of the franchise (saving John or Kate or Sarah) has been removed and Judgment Day occurred. The only films you could do from here on out would deal with the human’s war with the machines and if memory serves a few comic mini-series were written about this. The reason these films would not be enjoyable has a lot to do with the fact that we know the outcome. The humans win. They said so in the third film and the only way to change this is having an alternate future, which the majority of people who go to films would not accept. At least I don’t think they would.

    Now don’t get me wrong. I do agree with you about the fact that between this film and the various MATRIX movies that have been released this year not to mention the plethora of comic based movies I am a little actioned out. But it wasn’t the obnoxious action scenes that made me like the film, it was the fact that it actually had a story when trucks weren’t overturning and Arnold wasn’t trying to be funny.”

  • Much as I’d like to keep the peace on earth and goodwill toward men vibe going, too much happened in politics this week to avoid mentioning it. It started with President Bush (see? I’m being nice this week…), in an inadvertent parody of an old frontier justice joke, claiming the recently captured Saddam Hussein will have a fair trial – in Iraq, under American auspices (we clearly can’t leave these things up to the International Community, since they refused for so long to even recognize he was an evil dictator and provided him with poison gas so he could attack neighboring states and with the ingredients for biological weapons so he could develop his own WMD program, and they turned a blind eye to his persecution of the Kurds and other ethnic groups in Iraq, and… no, wait, that was us… forget I said anything…) – and practically in the same breath called from Saddam’s execution. “He’ll git a fair trial – and then we’ll hang ‘im!” In any case, isn’t it unseemly for the head of the mightiest nation on Earth and the supposed leader of the Free World to be calling for the killing of captured enemies? Regardless of what anyone feels about Saddam Hussein, it makes a mockery of the whole concept of a “fair trial.” To all intents and purposes, the order has gone out, the result has been predetermined. All that’s left is to play out the charade. At least that’s how it feels now that Bush has spoken from on high… (And what’s wrong with Saddam Hussein being tried by the World Court, anyway? What, there’s not enough evidence to convict? The rest of the world will be partial toward the deposed dictator just to spite us? What? People have raised the possibility that Saddam has skeletons in his closet that implicate the USA, and we don’t want him bringing any of that up in a forum that we can’t shut down, but, considering how much about the USA’s role in Saddam’s regime of the past 20 years, it’s hard to imagine there’s anything left to reveal.)

    Not that there wasn’t gratifying news as well. Despite negotiations apparently having gone on for some time, Moammar Gadhafi (remember when it used to be spelled Khaddafi? Or was that Qaddafi?), agreed to discontinue Libya’s nuclear program, ending that potential threat. The timing of the decision suggests pictures of a disheveled Saddam being hoisted from a tiny, filthy hole may have influenced Gadhafi’s thinking. But what’s most amusing is the quiet panic spreading throughout the world at the possibility that Gadhafi’s records will finger nations illegally supplying nuclear technology. Curiously, the first outbreak of panic wasn’t in France, Germany or Russia, but in our “staunch ally in the war on terrorism” and founders of the Taliban, Pakistan, which rapidly hastened to hang their own nuclear scientist out to dry (Pakistan’s Information Minister stated that Pakistan itself doesn’t sell nuke tech, but “some individuals may have been doing something on their own”). Anyway, good for Libya.

    Even more gratifying was the rejection by both the Second and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeal that the current “war on terrorism” give the White House the right to trample the Constitution. In ruling that reputed “dirty bomber” (and American citizen) Jose Padilla has been wrongfully detained as “an enemy combatant,” The Second Circuit Court effectively threw out several of the worst aspects of the Patriot Act, ruling that the Administration has drastically overstepped its provisions, intended to deal with those involved in 9-11. Period. Provided the White House doesn’t just decide to ignore a court order, as it did the last time the courts came up with a ruling it didn’t like (when it was ordered Padilla has a right to counsel, which the Administration felt would “interfere”) they have a month to either release Padilla or charge him with a crime. No more indefinite detentions without due process or representation. Meanwhile, those commies in the Ninth Circuit Court have decided there’s absolutely no basis in law for the government’s prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, where due process was also completely unnecessary. Well, now it is. The government argued it was Cuban land and outside the jurisdiction of American courts, but there’s that nasty little lease with Cuba that makes it American sovereign territory. No doubt all this will go to the Supreme Court (as the cause of Guantamano prisoners already is), but, for the moment, we’ve taken a step back toward a genuine rule of law and justice in America. Whether it sticks remains to be seen.

    Certainly it becomes harder and harder to take the Bush Administration’s word for anything. Remember all the reasons we had for going into Iraq, which have all been chipped away one by one. Remember how the Administration used endless innuendo to con Americans into believing a) Al-Quada and Iraq were close allies in the war on terror, and b) Saddam Hussein’s mythical “weapons of mass destruction” posed a direct and immediate threat to the physical safety of the USA, but later, when called on those, various Admin spokesmen claimed they made no such statements? So how come more news outlets haven’t carried the recent revelation by Sen. Bill Nelson that, last October, the White House held a secret briefing for most of the Senate and claimed that not only did Saddam have WMDS , he also had the delivery systems to attack the East Coast with them. This on the eve of a vote to authorize military intervention in Iraq. If you were a senator given that information, wouldn’t you have voted for invasion, too? But it was a lie, flat out, and too important a lie to let slide.

  • Readers sent in more choices for the best graphic novel of 2003, and the best graphic novel of 2003 that no one will read:

    THE BEST GRAPHIC NOVEL OF 2003

    THREE FINGERS by Rick Koslowski (Top Shelf)

    THE SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS by Neil Gaiman & divers hands (DC Comics)

    ORBITER by Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran (DC Comics)

    RIPPLES by Dave Cooper (Fantagraphics Books)

    THE FIXER by Joe Sacco (Drawn and Quarterly)

    THE BEST GRAPHIC NOVEL OF 2003 YOU’LL NEVER READ

    GYPSY LOUNGE by Jason Lex (Aweful Books

    NOBLE CAUSES: IN SICKNESS AND IN HEALTH by Jay Faerber & divers hands (Image)

    HEROBEAR AND THE KID by Mike Kunkel (Astonish Factory)

    Remember, this is just a list, not a contest, so if you’ve got any titles to add, feel free to e-mail me.

  • It’s a short column this week, because it’s Xmas. A few notes to close out the week:

    MY FLESH IS COOL#1, will in theory be out this week, if my spies in comics shops are correct. It’s an action-adventure-scifi-horror comic from Avatar Press, and if you don’t get it, you’ll regret it. Maybe not today (etc.) but (etc.). So buy it. (By Avatar’s FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, while you’re at it, with absolutely wild art by Juan Jose Ryp, not to mention a crazed story by Frank that I lovingly transliterated. An original ROBOCOP mini-series will follow on its heels.)

    I want to once again thank everyone who has donated to my fund drive. As I’ve mentioned in earlier columns, things have been a little rocky financially lately, and you’ve really been helping out. For anyone else who’s interested, please checkout the details at Paper Movies. I swear, when I’m rich I’ll throw you all a big party on my palatial estate near Santa Barbara, after I get one.

    A couple corrections:

    Last week, I said Gabriel Hernandez’s art in IDW‘s CVO: ARTIFACT was very Tommy Lee Jones-ish. Of course, I meant Tommy Lee Edwards, and I even thought while I was typing it how easy it would be to confuses the two Tommy Lees. (Not to mention ex-Pam Anderson hubby Tommy Lee.) But while my brain was saying no no no, my fingers were apparently saying yes, yes, yes. Sorry about that.

    To make matters worse, I mistakenly decided the CVO artist, Gabriel Hernandez, was the same artist as CSI‘s Gabriel Rodriguez. (No wonder the art on the books looked so different!) I apologize to both. To complicate things even more, they both work out of the same studio. D’oh!

    I haven’t heard anything new about Julius Schwartz’s condition, which is probably a good sign (knock wood), but we’re still pulling for you, Julie.

    My old pal and former collaborator, writer-artist Norm Breyfogle, is the subject of a newspaper interview you can read here.

    I feel compelled to say (I just can’t help myself) that DAMNED, the crime graphic novel Mike Zeck and I did with Denis Rodier and Kurt Goldzung, is still available from Cyberosia, even though slow shipping from the printer made it scarce for awhile. Remember: if your local comics shop can’t or won’t order it for you, you can order it, and many other of my comics, graphic novels and trade paperbacks, from the fine online stores Khepri and Mars Import.

    Finally, enjoy the holidays. You won’t see their like again until next year.

    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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