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Issue #119

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #119
  • It’s the end of the year as we know it, and I’m happy to see it go. I’ve had worse years (1977, for example, which, at the time, I referred to as “the aphelion of my existence,” which, hopefully, it will remain), but 2003 was brutal financially, depressing politically, and, with a few short bursts, an exercise in ennui professionally. My year in limbo, really. (Just so you don’t think I’m suicidal, on a personal level things are almost always good, but you don’t get to hear about that. As Sartre put it, “il y a des souvenirs qu’on ne partage pas.”) So I think about resolutions for 2004, and it’s hard to come up with anything outside the usual:

    Write six pages per day, six days a week.

    It’s a schedule I can never keep to, but at least it’s an ambition. It’s the only way to focus around all the idiotic boobytraps in a freelancer’s life – the constantly haggling with both debtors and creditors, the incessant distractions, the lapses of confidence, etc. – and focus on just getting the damn job done. Because that’s what it is. Even when working’s a near-mystical experience, you still have to approach it as a job, and approaching it as a job can get you through those desolate moments when inspiration is little more than a distant tease of a memory.

    I’d make more resolutions – everyone resolves to lose five pounds, don’t they? – but there’s no point in “resolving” to do anything that’s not in my control. In a perfect world, I’d do any idea when I thought of it. I’m finally on the verge of getting one thing off the ground now – that I thought up ten years ago! From every moment of inspiration erupts a little pocket of energy, and it’s hard to keep it burning all that long; a system that takes years to process an idea into even the first stage of a product – which is to say a script, in our case – is effectively dedicated to crushing energy, which is why it’s often more satisfying to work on a monthly corporate comic than to try to create and sell creator-owned work, particularly if you want to make your living doing comics. With very few exceptions, only in corporate comics is there the possibility of a steady income – independent comics now pretty much exist on the principle that talent should do other things to support themselves and work on their comics in their spare time, with any pay there is on the back end and the publisher paid first, and with very few exceptions (specifically Avatar and Humanoids in my current experience) it’s hard to get checks out of those independent publishers that do claim to pay an advance.

    I’m not looking for pity. These are just the facts of freelance life, so if freelancers are occasionally not filled to bursting with enthusiasm, this is why. It’s terribly easy for that energy to dissipate and fade. Even if you do manage to get an idea into “the system,” unless you have an editor willing to be your shield against his own bosses – and in the increasingly corporate environment of American comics that’s less and less common, considering you’re only one book and they’ve got their jobs to think about – you’re in the valley of the gatekeepers from hell. Trust me, it’s terribly easy to see an idea you’re enthusiastic about cancerously mutate into something you don’t even recognize but, at that point, you’re still expected to work on. For most freelancers, too, there’s a reluctance to abandon your own ‘children’ that keeps you hanging on against all hope, and there’s usually the rippling confidence that when everyone gets their say in and forgets what they’ve said, you can guide your baby back to health and maneuver to the next project where you’ll have more say and fewer gatekeepers, but even if that happens by that time you no longer quite remember what it was you wanted to do. Too much noise in the system. That’s what feedback is, really: noise in the system. Sometimes you can do wonderful things with feedback. Most of the time it’s just noise. At least on most corporate comics (provided you’re not saddled with a multi-title ‘icon’ where every little thing has to be checked through another mountain of gatekeepers) if you come up with an idea you like you can quickly play it out.

    But here’s the paradox, and why all this is bad for the business:

    Comics thrive mostly on energy. The point is to get a rise from the audience, and good art will do that, and good writing will do that, but a large part of good art and good writing is the energy that underlies them, the enthusiasm and spirit that the talent brings to the table. That’s the infectious element of comics, the underlying hook to it all. We’ve all read comics that were technically well written and drawn but still didn’t really raise our blood pressure at all, and we’ve all read comics that technically weren’t that good but still reached out a grabbed us. That were, in some way, inspired. Sometimes the rawest comics are the most inspired. It’s that inspiration, that energy, that’s the hook, that compelling something that manages to get to the page without interruption or distraction or postponement or dilution and sucks us in.

    And our system as it stands is built to kill that energy. To throw up walls against any incoming inspiration that doesn’t fit the particular predetermined desires of the system. The system is a church, where doctrine and dogma are given, not received, and personal inspiration that does not serve the desires of the system is anathema. What we need is a system where “mad ideas,” to use Grant Morrison’s phrase, where moments of inspiration and infectious energy, can quickly and easily get to the reading public. What Warren Ellis described as “pop comics,” though not so rigidly formal as Warren envisioned them. “Pop comics” of all formats and lengths.

    Because, let’s face it, it’s ridiculous to talk about what sells and what doesn’t. Of course, X-MEN sells. BATMAN has its ups and downs, but it usually sells. AMAZING SPIDER-MAN sells. Aside from that, the hard cold fact is that no one knows what sells or all comics would sell, because everyone would know how to make comics that sell. So companies would really have nothing to lose.

    They’d need one element, occasionally found today but in generally short supply: editors who can spot the difference between great “mad ideas” and just bad ideas. But comics, certainly corporate comics and to some extent indie comics as well, don’t much focus attention on ideas anymore. They’re marketed the way virtually everything in America is marketed, via brand name (whether company or character) or personality cult, so all of this is arguably a moot point anyway. The thing comics need most right now is the thing they’re most likely to not get, since it would mean upheaval and a relinquishing of a substantial part of the now usually micromanaged control claimed by the companies.

    But I was in a position to resolve to change that in 2004, that’s what I’d change. But I’m not, so it’s not a resolution, just a wish, and it’s a wish I’ve made in previous years as well, but it hasn’t come true yet.

  • Then obligatory ten best lists are springing up all over the place – courtesy of newspapers, magazines, newssites and blogs – but I have to pass. I read a lot of comics, graphic novels and trade paperbacks this year, but nowhere near enough to claim the right to a “ten best” list. Ten best of the ones I read, maybe, but that still hardly qualifies as the ten best, does it? And, of those I read, I’m hard-pressed to come up with ten I’d consider worthy of being on a ten best list. Most of what I’ve seen on other people’s ten best lists leaves me cold. I honestly don’t understand the appeal of possibly the two most touted graphic novels, Craig Thompson’s BLANKETS (Top Shelf) and Neil Gaiman’s ENDLESS NIGHTS (DC Comics). I don’t think Thompson is a bad writer-artist, but the content in BLANKETS was decompressed beyond belief – as elaborate as the graphic novel was, my gut reaction was that he could’ve gotten a far more effective prose short story out of it – while I know Neil’s a terrific writer – I never miss anything by Neil – but ENDLESS NIGHTS only had one good story in it, the “Death” episode, while most of the others just floated off elliptically without point and one, the “garden of the suns” story was so dependent on fanboy in-jokes (though I did like that Rao was the name of Krypton’s sun) that I can’t believe anyone without an intimate knowledge of DC continuity could make a lick of sense out of it. (Pity the poor fools who bought the book because it was on the New York Times Bestseller list; ICv2 gave DC an award for best marketing for the book, and I have to say it deserves that. Sure is purty, too.) If anything, ENDLESS NIGHTS was simply listless, a quality so not in keeping with Neil’s recent work that I have to think SANDMAN has pretty much worn out its welcome, and it’s time to move on.

    What I got out of most trade paperback collections was how most comics probably shouldn’t get trade paperback collections. As I’ve said before, they show off too many of the moles and scars of monthly comics (expect in instances where the comics were ultimately intended for collection). I recently caught up with AMAZING SPIDER-MAN in tpb, and, while it was overall pretty good (love that John Romita Jr. art; this guy really doesn’t get near enough credit for how good he is), there were things in it that just made me want to scream. Sticking out is a story in which a severe storm forces Peter Parker and Mary Jane Parker’s planes down in Denver so they can meet and reconcile (decently handled, without the usual Marvel intercharacter histrionics). Dr. Doom’s plane gets forced down as well – Dr. Doom flies public transportation? – whereon he’s attacked by Latverian extremists waiting to ambush him. At one point, one of the poncey squad announces they’ve put millions of dollars and years of planning into just that moment. What, they put millions of dollars and years of planning into a fluke of fate that forced Dr. Doom’s plane down in Denver?! They bet all their hopes and dreams on a coincidence? Or did they somehow cause the storm? It may be covered in later stories, but not in the collection. (And, sure, you could put the blame on Joe Straczynski for it, but Joe’s a good writer, and even good writers have little lapses like that – the Dr. Doom action is only peripherally germane to the point of the story, the reconciliation of Peter and Mary Jane, anyway – and that’s what editors are for. That’s the sort of thing editors are supposed to catch. It’s such a tiny little thing that could be so easily corrected, but it just makes you feel stupid for reading the story if it’s left in.)

    Movies and TV didn’t fare much better in 2003. Matter of fact, I’m trying hard to remember the details of any TV show I watched in 2003 and pretty much failing miserably, and while I saw quite a few movies, the only two that made any real impact on my consciousness were PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING. Saw RETURN a couple days ago, matter of fact, and think it’s better than the book. It’s certainly better structured, trimming down Frodo and Sam’s interminable stumbling across the unholy desert of Mordor and interspersing it with the violent battles in Gondor. But, contrary to what’s apparently popular consensus, I have to say PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN is the better movie. Just watched it again on DVD, and it actually improves (and moves far more quickly) with knowing what’s coming next. It’s a terrific, fun film, anchored on Johnny Depp’s performance as a very cunning clown of a pirate but also featuring terrific, absolutely believable performances by Orlando Bloom, Keira Knightly and Geoffrey Rush (who I normally can’t stand) and a brilliant screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Russio, with really strong, tempered and funny dialogue.

    Getting back to comics. I guess my choice for best graphic novel is Marjane Satrapi’s PERSEPOLIS (Pantheon Books), a cleverly straightforward autobiographical telling of a young girl’s experiences in revolutionary Iran in the ’70s-’80s, from the point of view of a young girl. Best regularly published comics are both from Wildstorm: a tie between Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips’ SLEEPER and Alan Moore, JH Williams III and Mick Gray’s PROMETHEA. Different strokes, same intensity, intelligence and skill, each title establishing a strong premise and interesting characters and expertly milking them for all their worth. Most underrated/overlooked work on the year is Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran’s ORBITER (DC Comics); never mind Warren’s usual excellent script and the best art I’ve ever seen from Colleen, it’s also the only story from an American publisher this year that I can remember that’s unabashedly positive in tone and playing to pure sense of wonder.

  • Y’know, there are days when I wake up and just don’t have the energy to do anything, and then I read something all warm and fuzzy like this.

    I don’t run ads here – that’s Jonah’s department – but just got word of something that’d be criminal not to pass along, particularly for those with New Year’s dreams of lettering their own comics or becoming a professional comics letterer: Comicraft is having a New Year’s Day sale of fonts. Cheap. In case you haven’t been paying attention, Comicraft letters all kinds of hot comics from Marvel, Wildstorm, etc., so, unlike a lot of lettering fonts available on the Internet, when they say professional quality, they mean professional quality. You’ve only got all day January 1 from midnight to midnight, so if you’re in the market for great lettering fonts, get ’em while they’re hot.

    Speaking of lettering, my old pal Tom Orzechowski, perhaps best known as the longtime letterer of Marvel’s X-books when Chris Claremont was writing most of them, has been interviewed at Pulse, and among his anecdotes is the prognosis that the freelance letterer is an endangered species. He’s probably right. Computers have made it easier for anyone to do both coloring and lettering for comics. Though coloring is still somewhat tricky and time consuming, the wide availability of professional quality fonts and the cheap availability of computers with the power and storage space to use them at print resolution (not to mention write them to disks capable of delivering them) have made it extremely easy for anyone to letter their own comics pages. Even I’ve learned how to do it. I suspect the day will come when coloring is considered part of the artist’s duties and lettering part of the writer’s duties, and certainly a lot of writers would take more care with their writing if they were more aware of the space they had to work with. The main thing protecting letterers at this point is the simply inertia that’s the earmark of corporate comics, and even that never lasts forever, particularly in these days when lots of eyes are seeking out where costs can be cut. At any rate, interesting read.

  • Wow. The current administration’s petty scandals (not sex scandals, of course; I hear they’ve even banned cigars from the White House so no one will get tempted, and, of course, in order to have a sex scandal you have to have sex, which leaves most Republicans out…) are really ramping up. First, evidence of Halliburton gouging U.S. taxpayers for services in Iraq threaten to lead to new questions not only about vice president Cheney’s connections with Halliburton (and why the company and several others connected to the administration have been handed millions of dollars worth of government contracts without having to go through the competitive bidding process, which is supposed to be mandatory to keep our costs down) but also about Enron and what Cheney’s “energy council” discussed. (The Supreme Court will now decide whether the v-p’s office can continue to hide the records of those meetings via executive privilege, a phrase that immediately evokes the worst excesses of the Nixon years.) Now everyone’s favorite attorney general, John Ashcroft, has opted to recuse himself from the investigation into the illegal revelation of a CIA agent’s identity, apparently by someone inside the White House in retaliation for the agent’s diplomat husband stepping forth to reveal he had investigated (for the administration) claims that Iraq was trying to buy weapons-grade uranium from Niger and denounced the report before it was cited in the Hand Puppet’s State Of The Union address as a reason to attack Iraq. US attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, who handled the corruption investigation of Illinois governor George Ryan, currently under indictment in the case, has been named special prosecutor, another phrase that evokes the worst excesses of the Nixon years. Not surprising, since the apparent likeliest suspect for the leak, gleefully dispensed by frothy-mouthed right wing pundit Bob Novak until people started tossing around the phrase “criminal charges” (ah, Nixon nostalgia is in the air), is Nixon-era alumnus, Ashcroft pal and current White House chief of staff Karl Rove, AKA “The Hand,” and, not coincidentally, mainly the person the Hand Puppet is speaking of when he says he doesn’t listen to or read the news because he has surrounded himself with people who will give him an unbiased interpretation of the news. Should be interesting.

    Meanwhile, the courts continue to be unexpected balls of fun, with one court throwing out the administration’s euphemistic “Clean Air Act” (basically a license for industries to pollute) and another telling the Record Industry Association of America to take a hike with their plans to prosecute music swappers. Predictably, the administration has met news that the Supreme Court’s going to hear arguments involving rights abuses at the Guantanamo Bay internment camp with insistence that American courts have no jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay.

    But the funniest thing currently in American politics is Democratic presidential candidates getting in a lather over a new Wesley Clark campaign commercial showing Clark receiving a medal from President Bill Clinton, who has said he won’t endorse anyone until the convention. The hue and cry must be particularly gratifying for Clinton, who Al Gore in his stupidity couldn’t wait to distance himself from in 2000, despite Clinton’s vast popularity (I’ve no doubt he would’ve easily won had he been able to run again), so Republicans could cast aspersions on Gore’s character via association. Given that he was associated with Clinton anyway and at least the association would have imbued him with a character, Gore’s distancing served only to piss off Clinton fans. (And it’s not like Gore won himself any friends among liberals by signing up right-winger-in-sheep’s-clothing and would-be culture czar Joe Lieberman as a running mate on the principle of “Hey, who else are they gonna vote for?”) Now, it seems, Clinton’s name is something valuable to have attached to your campaign. The only other noteworthy thing to come out of the Democratic campaign recently is more right wing TV pundits insisting that only a “moderate” Democratic candidate (this is, one as indistinguishable from Republicans as possible) can possibly win over the American people. Anyone with an articulate, dynamic vision of an American future and even a rough concept of a means to achieve it can win over the American people, but the Democrats either don’t have that or think it’s too risky to espouse such a thing, so most likely they’ll listen to the pundits and try to “moderate” whoever gets the nomination as much as possible. The Democrats are gearing up to be the cheap entertainment of 2004, and odds are we’ll all laugh so much we’ll cry.

  • What a surprise to find Alan Moore, Rob Liefeld, Gil Kane & others’ JUDGMENT DAY (Checker Books; $16.95) waiting there. I reviewed this in Xerox a few months ago, and the actual book is substantially the same: Alan’s attempt to remake the Awesome Comics universe in his own image, prior to its collapse. More than a few themes in JUDGMENT DAY resurface in Alan’s ABC books, as well as the tone particularly of the vignettes he does with Gil Kane in the aftermath of the main story. JUDGMENT DAY is more ephemeral than the ABC books and, like the SUPREME collections that preceded it, something of a dry run for them, but still a lot of fun.

    Harris O’Malley has been producing the interesting comic BETWEEN THE CRACKS for a couple years. Now the issues are collected in BETWEEN THE CRACKS: ALL MIRACLES HAVE A PRICE (Studio Underhill; $15.95) and both O’Malley’s strengths and weaknesses shine through. His most obvious flaw is his art, which is pleasantly suited to the material, but not really good; it actually grows more perfunctory as the issues progress. Probably because O’Malley’s obviously more interested in his little horror stories that build a modern mythology of betrayal and alienation. Decent sense of dialogue and build-up too, and in that regard it’s a pretty good book. O’Malley still shows real promise, and by the end of ALL MIRACLES HAVE A PRICE he even starts to pay off.

    I only vaguely remember the first issue of Brian Kirsten, Ray Dillon & James Taylor’s TOUCH OF DEATH (Brainscan Studios; $2.50) but #2 does an adequate job of bringing us up to speed on the salient points. But that’s also a problem, since virtually nothing occurs except bringing us up to speed, with some really overly chatty pages – I can’t even bring up plot elements because that’s essentially all the issue’s about, so discussing any of it (aside from the story being about a man searching for his missing wife, only to discover she has lethal powers others are interested in) would require spoilers – and not particularly appealing artwork. The book also remains a bit of a cheat, with only half new material and half reprint of the #0 issue, and it probably makes more sense to just wait for the inevitable collection. (Also, please, everyone: stop having characters in comic books say what they’re hearing sounds like something out of a comic book. It’s not clever, it’s not new, it’s just annoying.) Nice (if obscure) cover, though.

    LOADED by Jason Arthur & Jorge Heufemann (Digital Webbing; price to be determined) is an interesting thriller involving a tough guy blackmailed (along with five other contestants) into a mysterious race from New York to Los Angeles with no means of getting there. Though Arthur sometimes writes as though he’s read just a little too much Warren Ellis, it makes a nice little pop comic, intriguing enough to hold my interest even if it really doesn’t make that much sense in the clinch. Jorge Heufemann’s art is very professional for an indy production, too. A decent B-paper movie.

    Chris Gumprich & Emma Klingbeil’s RECRIMINATIONS (Arctic Star Studios; $1) is a slight vignette of a mini-comic about two friends at a bar after one “stole” the other’s girlfriend. That’s pretty much it, nothing very surprising, but there’s nothing wrong with it either, and Klingbeil’s art has a really interesting quasi-expressionistic aspect to it. Worth checking out for the art alone.

    Then there’s Edward Cho’s DULLSVILLE (Edward Cho; $15) a collection of what I take to be a mini-comic. It’s fairly funny, and Cho occasionally shows a flair for snide social commentary. But, man, reading a bunch of these strips at once makes the very simplistic art really tedious, and the novelty of the rampant vulgarity wears off as the laughs get more sporadic. Together the 115 pages of strips make an interesting tapestry, but a good editor would’ve come in handy here. I’m not saying don’t get the book, but if you do read it piecemeal. It works better that way.

    Finally, INDUSTRIACIDE (Rorschach Entertainment; $11.99) by Sean Dietrich. The art’s really attractive, reminiscent of Arthur Suydam’s work, and makes unusually good use of the black and white medium, perfectly serving a tale of psychotic alienation, and the dialogue, mostly very descriptive captions, sweep you along, even if it’s difficult to figure out what’s actually going on. Unlike most comics, INDUSTRIACIDE is a unique, compelling experience.

  • Okay, you know the drill. Buy MY FLESH IS COOL, drawn by Sebastian Fiumara. Buy DAMNED, a terrific graphic novel with art by Mike Zeck and Denis Rodier and coloring by Kurt Goldzung. If your local retailer can’t or won’t get the books, order them from the fine online stores Khepri and Mars Import. You won’t be sorry.

    I’m still running my fund drive (thanks, everyone!). If you’re interested in helping out, check out the Paper Movies site for details; I appreciate the great support I’ve been getting so far. Still haven’t had time to put up a store at Paper Movies, but hopefully I can get to that New Year’s Day. Man, it’s been a crappy year.

    But everybody have a great 2004, y’hear?

    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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