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Issue #148

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Issue #148
  • Normally, I save any career stuff (like what work I currently have available out there, or where people can send review copies) for the bottom of the column, but I’ve realized from emails consistently asking questions that are answered down there that a sizable segment of the population apparently never gets to the end of the column. Whenever I go to conventions, I also consistently run into fans who claim to read the column regularly yet are shocked to find me there and would have brought stacks and stacks of comics for me to sign if only they’d known!

    Since San Diego AKA Comic-Con International is only eight days away (you can follow the countdown on their website as well as get programming, anime, movie and autograph schedules and a ton of other information), I wanted to make sure everyone knew well in advance:

    I will be at the San Diego convention this year, from Friday afternoon until Sunday evening. I’m scheduled to be in Autograph Area AA3 1-2PM SATURDAY and 11:30AM-12:30PM SUNDAY.

    Everybody got that? No excuses now. As I’ve mentioned before, Byron Preiss and iBooks are bringing me in to promote THE LAST HEROES, a repackaging of the complete EDGE mini-series Gil Kane and I did in the ’90s, including the never before published fourth issue and lots of extras. (Byron wants to keep the series going as well, if that’s any incentive to pick up THE LAST HEROES. Which is fine with me, since Gil and I had planned out twelve issues at least, across three mini-series.) The book’ll be out sometime in August – I don’t know why, but my releases always seem to miss San Diego by just that much, but it’s rumored Byron will have some San Diego-only LAST HEROES material there for me to sign if you don’t have copies of CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS or BADLANDS stuffed in your closet.

    Matter of fact, if you don’t have a copy of BADLANDS, you can run right over to the AiT/PlanetLar table (the aptly named booth 2001) and buy one. Or BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY. For those who came in late (where’s Lee Falk now that we need him?), BADLANDS is a crime story set in 1963 and starring the man who really killed John Kennedy. Yes, it’s fiction. It’s drawn by Vince Giarrano, who, according to the con schedule, will also be at San Diego, for his first con appearance in forever. So you can get his autograph on it too.

    You might even be able to find me at the AiT/PlanetLar booth too. If I’m not there, check for me at the Mad Yak Press booth (#2104), where you can also find an assortment of Patrick Neighly’s fine self-published comics, or hanging out at Matt Haley‘s table in Artists Alley. Or maybe not.

    I always feel like a fraud signing CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS. I’d worked with writer Bill Mantlo on the MARVEL WINTER OLYMPICS SPECIAL, a very oversized comic pitting Spider-Man against the Hulk in a winter wonderland. (I can’t recall the story beyond that.) The MARVEL SUMMER OLYMPICS SPECIAL was intended for the same format six months later.

    One small problem. The summer Olympics that year were being held in Moscow. The Soviet Union had just “invaded” Russia, and, in response, President Jimmy Carter cancelled American participation in the summer Olympics, and Marvel was left up the creek with a book they couldn’t publish. A couple years later, Marvel decided mini-series were the way to go (this both delighted and annoyed me because I’d been pestering editor Roger Stern to do mini-series – I particularly wanted to do a NICK FURY mini that brought him to blows with his own spy organization, S.H.I.E.L.D. and he would discover all its dark secrets – since my arrival on his doorstep in ’78), and, with the help of Bill and artist John S. Romita (the son), who wasn’t yet the superstar he is today but already showing signs of it, chopped the 58 or so page story up into three regular comics issues, trimmed the page dimension, stripped out what little reference to the Olympics there was, redrew a few characters to fit recent developments in Marvel continuity, and issued The First Mini-series (in those days, things were always done for the first time when Marvel did them, whether anyone else had previously done them or not), CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS. I don’t recall it being a huge hit for Marvel, but it was the first “every superhero but the kitchen sink” comic, inspiring the later SECRET WARS, and is fondly remembered today by far more fans than I ever thought possible.

    Which is cool. No problem there. There are things I love about the book, mainly “working” (however tenuously) with John for the only time. Why I feel like a fraud is this:

    One winter night, the late Mark Gruenwald and I met with Bill Mantlo at his apartment. When I had moved to Manhattan in mid-’78, I quickly connected with Mark, who was also from Wisconsin, and we started writing together and hanging out together. I’d also done some co-writing with Bill, including MARVEL WINTER OLYMPICS. Mark, creator of OMNIVERSE magazine, which viewed all comics groups as parallel universes, was Marvel’s “keeper of the continuity” at the time, and the guy to go to if you had continuity questions. (Operating on a suggestion I made that “death” had been totally debased as a story point in comics because there wasn’t anyone who didn’t come back to life – remember, this was ’79 – Mark posted “The Mighty Marvel Death List” in his office. When characters will killed, the name went on the list, and writers were forbidden to use that character thereafter. The list was also meant to keep writers who didn’t read books they didn’t write from using characters someone else had killed. The list lasted, surprisingly, eighteen months or so because the resurrections started again. The only Marvel character still unresurrected may be Tony Isabella‘s “It the Living Colossus,” who I offed in an INCREDIBLE HULK in a parody of Jim Shooter’s quasi-execution of Starhawk in THE AVENGERS.)

    The Olympics were an international affair, but Bill had spotted a big flaw in Marvel’s concept for the book: aside from a smattering like T’Challa, The Black Panther, who might as well have been American for all cultural differences reared their ugly head, and some X-Men, Marvel had no international heroes. Bill had recently overseen the transformation of a number of Russian villains into “heroes in their own eyes” in INCREDIBLE HULK, so those were taken care of. That night, we mostly sat around concocting international heroes out of whole cloth. Mark provided the Irishwoman Shamrock, the Arabian Knight and a couple others. (I remember some Red Chinese superhero but nothing about him.) I can’t recall who Bill came up with. Mark’s girlfriend, after the fact, provided the Israeli heroine Sabra. My contributions were a flying French hero, Le Peregrine, and an Aboriginal Australian sorcerer, Talisman. Mark mostly designed the costumes. The big hangup we had that evening was a South American hero. We tossed that one around for hours. I remember suggesting The Ocelot, rightly thrown out because naming heroes and villains after animals, particularly big cats, had been done to death. Someone (all I remember is it wasn’t me) suggested The Gaucho, mainly thrown out because it sounded like someone who’d show up in SUPERFRIENDS. Personally, I think everyone who wants to create superheroes should lay in a supply of SUPERFRIENDS videos and watch them obsessively. See those characters there? If you create a superhero who could comfortably fit into an episode of SUPERFRIENDS, go back to the drawing board. Finally I grabbed a Spanish dictionary and we just went through words, until I stumbled across “Defensor,” which mean “strength” in some form or another. Perfect. Our final hero was the South American (we didn’t bother figuring out which country) Defensor. Who, unfortunately, when he showed up in print was dressed as a conquistador, which I thought was an embarrassing misunderstanding of history, like coming up with a hero of the Soviet Union and calling him Captain Cossack. No comprehension of external history. But he had armor, I guess that suggested strength. What are you going to do?

    Anyway, by the end of the very long evening we had seven or eight new heroes to work with. Add in Colossus, The Banshee, the Black Panther and a couple Russians and it wasn’t anywhere near as Americentric as it began.

    Mark and I then spent a few days plotting the thing. We knew it was going to be another cosmic game situation, a well Marvel regularly goes back to (most recently in JLA/AVENGERS, and sat around working out the obvious pairings – then threw them all out. We wanted to mix it up a little, do something different. We came up with a fairly complex plot, with lots of one-on-one action no one had seen before. Twist at the end, that sort of thing. We handed it over to Bill, who had us do a couple changes, then he took it to the editor and that was the last I heard of it for awhile.

    Until we saw the finished pencils. Basically, our plot, except for the barest framework, had been thrown out. All those obvious battles we turned away from? Back in. Yeah, we were pissed off. (Though we were what we were promised, so we did the work we were supposed to do; the final version wasn’t up to us.) I asked Bill about it once, and he explained that a lot of people would be buying the book specifically to see some of the battles we’d thrown out, plus we had some very popular Marvel heroes lose their fights, and he thought the book would be a lot more commercial and successful with those particular battles, and with the popular heroes winning. I didn’t agree with him, but, like I said, it was out of my hands.

    Know what?

    He was right.

    There are times when novelty can work against you, when the absolute best thing you can do is exactly what the audience would want to see. Not as a regular diet, sure – a total lack of surprise will quickly drive audiences off, and writers are supposed to stay ahead of their audiences – but what’s the point of doing a one-shot that would draw people in with the promise of particular action that it didn’t deliver? Sure, we might have actually had the better story (at this point, I wouldn’t bank on it; might have it here somewhere but I haven’t looked at it in decades if I do) but it wouldn’t have had the emotional payoff or kick level that the published version had. And people pay their money for that too. It’s a strange balancing act, and there’s not only no net but it’s hard to even see the tightrope you’re supposed to be walking.

    Anyway…

    It’s been a long time since I read it, but there’s next to nothing of me left in CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS. Two-and-a-third characters barely anyone ever referred to thereafter. Almost nothing in the plot. Not a word of dialogue.

    So when fans bring it to me to sign, I cringe a bit. Not because it’s a bad book or I don’t think they should enjoy it – that’s not my call to make, and it was exactly what Marvel and the audience needed it to be at the time, and I doubt my version would have been – but because it really had nothing to do with me. (But if you want your copies of CONTEST OF CHAMPIONS signed, don’t hesitate to bring them. I don’t mind, honest.)

    Though it’s got much more to do with me than some Marvel comics my name has mysteriously turned up on…

  • People I know have been predicting for a couple years now that the Hand Puppet, if he faces the prospect of electoral defeat in November, will declare a national emergency and indefinitely suspend elections. Me, I’ve been replying – this is true – that whatever else you may think of him, George Walker Bush (I think that’s the first time, and, as it turns out, the only time his name will ever be mentioned in this column) does not want to go down in history as the man who destroyed democracy in the United States Of America.

    Silly me. I keep forgetting these are people who don’t even acknowledge history.

    Last week, Tom Ridge, head of the Office Of Homeland Security, announced they had “credible intelligence” that Al-Qaeda operatives planned to disrupt the American elections these year as they did the Spanish elections in the spring, where the government strongly supporting America in the Iraq invasion over the objections of the vast majority of Spanish citizens was “overthrown” in favor of a government which is not nearly so supportive. This is often cited here as a massive loss for democracy, while my Spanish friends tell me from their perspective it wasn’t the terrorist bombings of the train system that drove out the former government but that government’s attempt to use the bombings to political advantage by claiming without evidence they were done by Basque separatists. From the way my Spanish friends tell it, it was that bit of deception, not that bombings themselves, that angered the public enough to figure someone else in charge would be better.

    The Office Of Homeland Security has been playing this “credible intelligence” game for awhile now. Barely a holiday weekend goes by without them announcing “credible intelligence” of some terrorist threat that’s so vague they can not only produce absolutely no information that would enable American citizens to actually be ready for it, and so vague the OHS never even raises their ridiculous multicolor “terror alert.” No act of terror ever takes place, at least as far as we’re told, and they never lower the alert rating because they never raised it in the first place, so after a few days the press just sort of forgets to ask them what it was all about. Not that they’re likely to tell; this administration’s watchword has been “secrecy,” meaning there are things the American public and particularly the press just cannot be privy to. Like pretty much everything.

    Trust your leaders, where mistakes are almost never made.

    After enough of these incidents, it has become clear that this administration is either extremely adept in heading off terror attacks, and don’t want to distress us all by letting us know just how close to catastrophe we came, like in a James Bond movie, or they’re just announcing “credible intelligence” once in awhile to convince us we’re actually getting something for all the money we’re spending on the “war on terror.” By now, we should hear the phrase “credible intelligence” and cringe; it was, after all, “credible intelligence,” all since debunked, and most of it debunked before the fact, that the White House used to con both Congress and the American public into believing that Iraq was an urgent target. (Neither the press nor the 20 or so Senators involved now seem to want to dredge up what they were all talking about months ago, that the Senators were convinced to support the war via private briefings at the White House demonstrating that Iraq had a nuclear capability and the missiles necessary for a direct strike on the continental USA, which turned out to be complete crap.) This administration uses the NATIONAL ENQUIRER litmus test for “credible intelligence”: whatever sells papers – or policies – becomes “credible,” and if it isn’t, hey, let someone prove they’re wrong. Except you can’t have any of their paperwork, phone records or other data; those are protected communications. Executive privilege, y’know.

    (It comes as a shock to most people that “executive privilege” has no actual foundation in law, but it has now calcified into tradition. And who’s going to take the President to court to challenge it?)

    Now I know people who insist this administration is doing a bang-up job in the war on terror. Let’s see. We still haven’t caught Osama Bin Laden. Terrorist incidents overseas are on the rise. With al-Qaeda still apparently fully operational and mounting new cells daily (if the Office Of Homeland Security is to be believed), they diverted into Iraq, which demonstrably had no terrorist connections (every one of the administration’s accusations have been debunked, and, as I said, the debunking information was available ahead of time, much of it coming from the CIA, which was directed under the cooperative hand of George Tenet to keep sifting through the data until their conclusions matched the White House, something Tenet eventually had to do himself over the objections of many CIA analysts) and have since squandered billions of dollars over there while quietly selling the country to American corporations and triggering more than a few insurgency movements. (Though “official wisdom” chalks them up to outside agitators.) Alienating most of our allies as a result (though “official wisdom” cites that as sour grapes for disrupting their own plans for capitalizing off Iraq). The administration wholeheartedly swallowed any lies produced by Cheney’s man in Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, who has since turned out to look very suspiciously like an Iranian double agent. (Cheney, meanwhile, keeps citing “credible intelligence” that we can’t be party to that contradicts everything every independent investigation of the situation concludes, and justifies the Administration’s actions. But you’re not allowed to know what it is.)

    On the homefront, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft has set the tone: the only way to save our precious freedoms is to give them all up. This is now a country where you can undergo indefinite incarceration without access to family or legal aid – without them even knowing where you are – for inadvertently taking a picture in the wrong place, where you can go to prison for telling a joke. (Think I’m kidding? Ask Richard Humphreys, who ended up with a three year prison sentence for telling a marginally anti-Bush pun – “God might speak to the world through a burning Bush” – in a bar in Sioux Falls, and he was just being borderline pithy, not threatening.) Government size and spending has mushroomed under this administration; though anti-Kerry ads try to tar Kerry with the “liberal” brush, expecting “liberal” to be associated with big government and big spending, it’s hard to imagine an administration that spends more recklessly than this one, or one that was so eager to erase even the level of fiscal responsibility ushered in under Clinton. Airport security, beefed up after 9/11 in response to public outrage over how slipshod it had become, is now being returned, on government recommendation, to private security companies with badly screened and trained minimum wage employees, which, if I remember, was half the problem on 9/11 in the first place.

    And the Office Of Homeland Security, the hub of anti-terrorist activity in the United States, proves on Monday they have the muscle and intelligence to deal with any terrorist threat, no matter how vague, by putting forth their plan for stopping any possible Spanish-style al-Qaeda influence on the November elections:

    Postpone them.

    Not cancel them. And we don’t want to say “suspend” them, that sounds too much like interference with liberty. “Postpone” them.

    So what does this mean? In the event that Kerry-Edwards surge ahead significantly in the polls, or that the American public seriously starts questioning the wisdom and value of our little Iraqi adventure, or the press, now that Ken Lay has finally been charged with a crime, starts looking at the rampant cronyism to the detriment of the public good that has characterized this administration, the Office Of Homeland Security will get “credible evidence” of a “possible terrorist threat” and “postpone” the election? Till when? Wasn’t this the administration that said the war on terror will take decades to win? If we have to postpone elections until any possible terrorist threat is “no longer credible,” doesn’t that necessitate waiting until we’ve won?

    Postponing the elections isn’t only a ridiculous suggestion, it’s a criminal suggestion. It smacks of an administration desperate to hold onto their power at any cost. Or it smacks of cowardice, take your pick. We’re telling Iraqis to hold elections, for god’s sake, and the amount of political violence in the USA in ten years doesn’t match the amount they’re having in Iraq every week. The United States is an immense country; it would take the might of the former Soviet Union to disrupt elections on a national scale.

    What terror attacks would do is demonstrate just how weak this administration’s answer to terrorism has been. Of course, if they really do have “credible intelligence” at the White House, they must’ve known all along when I wrote shortly after 9/11, that every time there’s a terror strike in the USA it just makes it that much harder for another one to occur. Attentions refocus, loopholes close. Is there one thing the Office Of Homeland Security has accomplished that wouldn’t have just as easily been accomplished without it? A friend of mine suggested the other day that a terror attack on the USA would work in the Hand Puppet’s favor, since “polls show” most Americans trust the Hand Puppet to deal with terrorism more effectively than John Kerry would. It would depend on the extent of the attack; a coordinated multitarget strike across the country would demonstrate the sheer ineptitude of the administration’s anti-terror measures, if it happened, and it’d be hard for the White House to spin that in their favor. Their only logical recourse, if they are, in fact, eager to hold power at all costs, would be to “postpone elections” “for the public good.”

    The time to kick up a row about this whole postpone elections scheme is right now. Unless we want to look like a nation of either chickenshits or cattle to the entire world. It shouldn’t even be up for discussion. There hasn’t been a war in our history so total that elections were stopped, and there’s no reason to start now. And there’s no reason to presume that once elections were postponed they wouldn’t be postponed indefinitely. As with executive privilege, it wouldn’t be long before it was just understood that no elections are just the way things are.

    Of course, that’s the problem with paranoia. Often it turns out not to be, and just as often it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Never mind FAHRENHEIT 9/11. The movie you must see this political season is Errol Morris’ THE FOG OF WAR (Sony Pictures Classics DVD). (Fair play disclaimer: I knew Morris a little, years ago back in Madison, before he became one of the best documentarians of our age.) For over an hour and a half, Morris interviews former Kennedy and Johnson administration secretary of defense Robert McNamara and his discussions of World War II, where he was on the staff of the operation that dropped the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as the massive firebombing that preceded it, and the Vietnam War, which he presided over, and it’s simply fascinating. Morris allows McNamara to walk away looking somewhat better than he perhaps should, considering he paints his life as what amounts to a series of betrayals of his own principles even as he strived to do his best, but the details of McNamara’s adventures in war, not to mention the lessons he cites having learned from his life, ring eerily parallel to what has gone on and is going on, militarily, for us, in Iraq, and, if McNamara is right, it draws unpleasant conclusions for the future of our adventure there. At the very least, it’s rare someone who has been in McNamara’s position ever publicly examines his own life, and it’s a marvelous document. See it.
  • Here’s a hot tip for would-be self-publishers: if a 22 page comic is the product of eight years of work, don’t mention it to anyone. Unless it’s one really killer book. In the introduction to his POSSUM AT LARGE (Old School Comics, 3610 Stockbridge Ln, Hamilton OH 45011; $3.95), author Chad Lambert makes this announcement, to demonstrate that POSSUM AT LARGE, about an intelligent marsupial who becomes the focus of a war between timespanning superscientists and a stickfigure superhero, isn’t just some run of the mill crass commercial book. No, it’s a labor of love. Trouble is, if it had been done in a few months, I’d probably have said it wasn’t bad. Dialogue’s decent, art’s clean and relatively good. The story’s basically a hodgepodge of familiar comics riffs, and never really goes anywhere interesting or makes any sense. Not great, but, for a first effort, not bad. When I read it’s been worked on for eight years, all I can think is “Why isn’t it so much better?” I mean, eight years for this?!

    Neil Kleid’s got a new graphic novel, NINETY CANDLES (Rant Comics; $5.95), that’s an interesting experiment, a tale told via crystallized time, one isolated moment in a cartoonist’s life per panel. Across about 48 pages and ninety panels, Kleid takes his hero, Kevin Hall (creator of the successful superhero Stone), from pre-birth to post-death as he gives his life to the comics industry, gets badly screwed over by it, but leaves a legacy for a new generation. It’s a touching story, pretty well done, but I kept getting hung up in the chronology. For being a story about aging that apparently spans 90 years, there’s a sense the whole thing’s taking place present day that’s disturbs the flow. Nice try, though; I like the technique, even though the product falls down some.

    I reviewed a demi-comic version of STREET ANGEL some time ago, but Slave Labor Graphics has picked up the series, with the first and second issues now available. ($2.95@) This is tongue-in-cheek gonzo action stuff in the mode of Bob Burden’s FLAMING CARROT and Mike Baron’s BADGER, with a preteen homeless skateboarding girl protecting her slum neighborhood against mad scientists, ninjas, pirates, ancient Incan gods, invading Irish spacemen, etc. Unlike most stuff of this type, writer Jim Rugg (he also does the art as far as I can tell, but Brian Maruca’s cited as well, and I’ve no idea what he does) has the sense to play the work straight, as if it’s all real to the characters, rather than wink at the reader about all the absurdity. A funny bonus are back covers done in other artists’ styles: Tim Sale on #1 and Daniel Clowes on #2. A fun book, fast-moving, irreverent and controlled, with pretty decent artwork. Check it out.

    DAYS OF THE DRAGON (Rorschach Entertainment; $3.50) is by a couple veteran comics talents, writer Ron Fortier and artist Gary Kato. I’m not sure why. It takes place on a parallel world where dinosaurs became intelligent and formed kingdoms, but, man, is it a tepid product. Kato does a good job on the art, but mainly the story recycles a bunch of bits from sword-and-sorcery (magic works on this world) and Hong Kong fantasy-historical kung fu movies dressed up in lizard skin, but, aside from that conceit, it isn’t particularly funny or entertaining. I assume this is aimed at kids since kids, in theory, love dinosaurs, but you have to give them more than this

    TOZZER 2 #1 (Ablaze Media; #2.95) ain’t it. By writer Rob Dunlop and artist Peter Lumby, TOZZER 2 is a book that seems to try awfully hard to get nowhere, and Dunlop’s idea of high comedy seems to be to draw Michael Jackson, George Lucas, Elvis, Yoda, Eminem and Samuel L. Jackson (or, rather, his character from PULP FICTION) into the book. There’s some sort of mystery involving the school the eponymous hero attends, a few amusing jokes (but nowhere near a book’s worth), a bad attack rap, and Tozzer never actually does anything. I hesitate to say it’s all pointless, since Dunlop and Lumby (who’s a pretty good caricaturist, actually, and he’s got a nice, open style) have four more issues to prove otherwise, but it sure comes off that way here.

    On the other hand, there’s the second volume of Clamp’s XXXHOLIC (Del Rey Manga; $10.95), continuing the adventures of ghost-seeing Japanese student Kimihiro Watanuki as he works for mysterious time-space witch Yoko Ichihara. I’m not fond of much Clamp stuff, but this is a genuinely charming series, particularly when they get past the crossover with another Del Rey/Clamp series, TSUBASA. The stories don’t play well in summary – the first arc involves Yoko and Watanuki trying to find a good fortune teller, and the second about a small war of ghost stories that goes potentially disastrous, but the power of this work is all in the characterizations, as Watanuki’s love Himiwari and rival Domeki come into Yoko’s sphere of influence. It’s funny, touching, teasing, with the best (and most consistent) art I’ve seen on a Clamp book, and an excellent translation by Bill Flanagan. What’s not to like? If you’ve ever wanted to understand what manga does so much better than American comics, this is the place to start.

    Finally, there’s the demi-comic ACE FEDORA PRIVATE EYE (Arctic Star Studios; $1.00), a good little confection by writer Chris Gumprich and artist Jason Rainey about an accountant who makes his days sufferable by fantasizing a life as a hardboiled ’30s gumshoe while plying his trade. The art’s not great but it’s not bad – Rainey doesn’t stray from the objective, and nicely flips back and forth between modern and ’30s milieus – and some of the metaphors are a bit tortured (“She had a confused look, like a little boy caught in a mixmaster.”), but it’s tight, concise and has a pleasantly unexpected twist that goes completely unnoticed by our “hero.” Worth a look.

  • Dear Mr. Grant:

    “I recently discovered that the review editor of one of the comic web sites I frequent is actually the PR/Marketing Director for a comic publisher. This person also writes columns, reviews, and interviews for the site (most of which I’ve enjoyed reading). The reason it even caught my attention is that he’s done reviews and started threads in the forum that praise titles coming from the publishing company he works for.

    Do you think this is a conflict of interest? If so, to what degree of harm does this create for his columns and others at the site? I can’t bring myself to go back to that site because I can’t guarantee it’s not a biased source of information and opinions, regardless of who publishes the book being discussed. I love comics and want to spread the word about the joys of reading them, so in that regard I like what he’s doing. To me, any site that promotes the medium is a good site. At the same time, however, the journalist in me cringes every time I think about it.”

    At minimum, it’s certainly the appearance of conflict of interest, though this has never been a business where that’s mattered much (unless a publishing company has decided something’s a conflict of interest, like a freelancer working for them and competitors at the same time). Even if he’s using the website to promote books published by the publisher who pays him, it’s not necessarily an actual conflict of interest. As long as a) they’re good books that b) he actually likes, there’s no real downside to it except for the appearance of impropriety. If he thinks the books are crap but is pushing them solely because he wants to keep getting a salary, or if he’s using his web position to badmouth or play down other publishers’ books to make his own look good, that’s a conflict of interest. The publisher’s not going to last with crap books anyway, he’ll kill his own reputation on the site as people decide his tastes are crap, and he’ll probably take the website with him, though I doubt anyone expects most websites to have any real taste in material anyway. Yeah, it’s not the best situation… (On the other hand, you can trust me because I never lie and I’m always right.)

    “My best friend is a comic book dealer and he did a few things that worked out well for him. First he got a few teens to hand out overstock to passing cars with store flyers and labels on them. He ended up giving away five long boxes of comics that day. He also gave out balloons to every kid who came in. he had four local artists all over the store drawing things for anyone who wanted something including Patrick the Wolf Boy’s Art Balthazar. He also marked down back issues, t-shirts, the overstock on the discount rack and continued his marking down of new books. The foot traffic was pretty good for most of the day until it started raining late but he made a nice bump from a usual Saturday. One store close to him didn’t participate for the third year and another called him the ‘Antichrist’ for having the nerve to give away comics on the street. The lateness of the day wasn’t anyone’s fault since it was clear from the start that the day would surround a movie opening. Next year, expect it on BATMAN BEGINS weekend. And, for the guy who complained about the Marvel selection, most of the folks that come in for the day are kids so what did he expect them to give away?”

    Well, his point was that if you’re tying in with a Spider-Man/Dr. Octopus battle, give away a Spider-Man/Dr. Octopus battle, which makes a certain amount of sense. (Except that Doc Ock was played so much better in the movie than he has ever been in the comics, it might have been counterproductive…)

    “As a fan I thought I would weigh in on the issue of Free Comic Book Day. Every retailer I have personally talked to who made an effort has enjoyed the day and seen bonuses in new readers, and the great thing is that a lot of them have been younger. I personally visited two stores, and I brought my neighbor’s daughter to both, one of which had a nice signing at which she got some beautiful sketches of her favorite characters, and a bunch of free books she has eagerly devoured and the second which had a nice store-wide sale, and smartly put out additional offerings including a couple issues of UTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, which got my nine-year-old neighbor to pay her whole $5 allowance down for a couple more issues!

    Lastly kudos to your first email response for the idea of adjusting for college students, and making an effort. Last, I think the reason for MARVEL AGE: SPIDER-MAN #1 was that A) it’s the younger demographic; B) It’s a #1; C) They gave away a couple million of issue 2 already, supposedly!

    I hope you’ll print some of my comments, as a fan who was uplifted by the event and the excitement in a little girl’s eyes at being given comics that were aimed at her!”

    Happy to. At least we got one new reader out of it all.

    “I own Southern California Comics in San Diego. We participated in all 3 FCBD’s to date. I have not seen a return from any of the faces that show up each year for free comics. The lion’s share of the comics displayed are picked up by regular customers or parents with kids making a one-time stop at our store. Or, hitting as many stores as possible in a Halloween-like trick-ot-treat circuit. Case in point:

    Our store has a roll-up truck door adjacent to our front, pedestrian door. We rolled up the big door and place an eight-foot table outside, just in front of that door. The table was loaded with FCBD offerings in stacks of no particular pattern. Our store is in a warehouse so traffic can virtually drive right into the business. I stood in the office and watched foot traffic approach the table or enter the store.

    About 1 hour into the work day a mini-van driven by a 30-something mother stopped in the parking lot adjacent to FCBD table(about 8 feet from it). Suddenly, the passenger side sliding door opened up and 5 elementary school-aged children launched out the side door and zeroed in on the free comics. Mom sat behind the wheel like a getaway driver at a bank job-with the engine running! The kids made an initial sweep of the table and cleared out dozens of copies of the same comics issues. They returned to the van and allowed the smallest 3 children to climb inside. The two oldest-appearing kids turned tail and aimed back for the table. I figured that was insult enough so I stepped outside to put the brakes on this greedy insanity. The two boys saw me and stopped dead in their tracks. Mom called them back into the van. Once inside, the door was slammed shut and momma hit the gas. She and I made eye contact. As she accelerated she mouthed a weak and insincere “thank you” and hauled butt out of the parking lot. Presumably, to hit the next store.

    The comics are worthless and will probably remain so. But, I suspect she naively smells eBay profits or worse. She’s merely a pawn in the minds of her children! Whatever the deal she was just the first of several parents to come to our store for the event. All first-timers, most took comics from the table and then left, briefly entering the store for a quick look-see. If even that much. We actually had a great sales day based upon tourists in town for the July 4th weekend. Most did not even know of FCBD.

    Rethink it, retool it or dump the program.”

    Interesting. Just out of curiosity, did you ever consider keeping the free comics inside the store?

    For the final word on Free Comic Book Day for now, here’s Diamond‘s Barry Lyga:

    “I wanted to answer (some) of your questions about FCBD from your June 30 column and set the record straight where there may have been some misunderstanding:

    Originally set to coincide with the release of SPIDER-MAN 2, those plans got scotched when the film’s release got moved to today instead of Friday.

    No plans were “scotched” because of the SPIDER-MAN 2 move. FCBD still happened on the movie’s opening weekend, and we still got press attention for it. In fact, we got more press attention because reporters got to see how big an opening day Spidey had, then still had time to call us, conduct interviews, and file stories before the weekend.

    Do the organizers issue press blitz instructions?

    Yes. We provide information on how to contact local and regional media, as well as fill-in-the-blanks press releases for retailers to use. We also provide timelines, advising when to contact media, when to follow-up, etc.

    Are publishers really putting their best product forward for it?

    Only the publishers (and the buying public) can really answer that, but I can tell you that no publisher I’ve spoken to has made their FCBD choice capriciously. They all put considerable thought into it. You can disagree with the choice, but it wasn’t made on a whim.

    All the books put out for Free Comics Day last year, did their sales rise as a result?

    This is almost impossible to tell and is, in fact, no good barometer of success. If a publisher offers STEROID MAN #1 for FCBD, readers may end up buying the trades, or a related series (the Epic Saga of Steroid Man) or they may not like Steroid Man at all, but find something else catches their eye when they are in the store, none of which scenario would reflect in higher numbers for Steroid Man, but still benefit the store. If I publish STEROID MAN and give it away for FCBD, then sell 10,000 copies of my new STEROID trade paperback, how many of those sales are attributable to FCBD? I don’t know. What’s really important is your next question…

    Did a significant number of people who picked up free comics come back to pay for more later, either the specific titles promoted or others? Have comics shops experienced a genuine rise of audience and profit as a result of the event?

    Yes, yes, and again yes! As we published after last year’s event, “31.08% of participants report that their sales increased significantly in the month following FCBD, even when asked to take into account sales fluctuations during the summer months. 78.38% of participants say they gained customers (either new or returning) since FCBD 2003.” Better yet, retailers don’t even have to wait for “later” – most report better than usual sales for a Saturday (72% in 2003) and better sales than for FCBD 2002 (55%).

    Has there been a steady attrition from year to year?

    Again, as we reported last year, 51.97% of participants report higher store traffic in 2003 as compared to 2002.

    We don’t have the hard data for 2004 yet (and won’t until after August 15, the deadline for the survey), but all of the anecdotal evidence (i.e., the dozens of retailer e-mails in my inbox this morning and yesterday morning) is overwhelming positive and in keeping with last year’s results, with exactly one that characterized itself as “mixed” and another that was ambivalent as well.

    Hope this helps. Obviously, we are always looking for ways to improve the event and ways to continue to build support for it inside and outside the industry. One such way is making certain that people have the actual facts about FCBD, and those facts add up to some good news.”

    Thanks.

    “I agree with you on the movies. They are just something else for everyone to go and do. They pay which gives their say over whether it was ‘good’ or ‘not good’ additional weight. It is usually 50% either way typically. Grain of salt is definitely recommended when someone is making ‘serious commentary’ on a movie.

    I have noticed that superhero movies have been on something of a roll lately. I don’t really see that slowing either. I don’t go to a movie expecting to be enlightened or blown away, that being said I enjoyed HELLBOY and THE PUNISHER. The risk is that film biz will take over comics. But this is a really great opportunity for comics as long as no one gets too heady over superhero film success.”

    The film biz has already taken over American comics, because it’s the only place American comics can figure out how to get money from, or, at least, the hope of money…

    “After reading an article on Gerry Conway I waxed nostalgic and bought the 1972-3 collection of ESSENTIAL SPIDER-MAN which included his and Stan Lee’s stuff. There was a lot of cynicism in those times as there is now but a great deal more sophistication also.

    Stan Lee had just finished the immortal drug issues (#96-99) but he didn’t end there. He went on to talk about the prison system in issue #99 and the need for reform. He incorporated campus riots and the inherent restlessness on campus as to where the country was going into his stories. Later, he explored in Flash Thompson what going to Vietnam had done to him as a vet and how he could not really come home because of what had changed him. Stan was a man of his times and was connected to what went on around him and reflected it in how we wrote.

    I once talked to him as he sat next to Scott Lobdell at the ‘con and expressed my thought that comics don’t much explore those themes anymore. Lobdell felt he had touched on the AIDS issue with his work but regardless, I’m still not seeing it. I thought Conway picked up on those themes fairly well after Stan left it. There was a sophistication inherent in his writing (pretty good for a 19-yr old back then) often missing from today’s crop. We often have to look to the Brits to find it.

    Have comic books been dumbed down? That question is tied in with a number of questions about popular culture in general, so it’s not as easy to answer as one may think.

    Popular culture (by which I mean American popular culture, specifically) has always been a commodity — unlike “high culture,” which presumably exists for its own sake, popular culture exists to be consumed. This has been true since popular culture as we know it first came into existence sometime in the 19th century. Both the content itself and, more and more, the devices on which it is displayed are designed to make companies money.

    Content in popular culture exists for one reason and one reason only — to get people to hand over their money directly for the content (movies, music, books, computer games), to get people to hand over their money directly for the devices that play the content (televisions, radios, CD players, DVD players, game consoles, computers, etc.) and to get people to view advertising for the products companies would like them to consume. Manufacturers of the content aren’t interested in the content for its own sake — i.e., they aren’t making art for art’s sake, they’re making a product to be consumed.

    People, however, have different tastes. You like one sort of movie, I like another. She likes one band’s music, he prefers another sound. This comic book interests me, but leaves the other guy cold. So, to reduce their costs of content generation, content manufacturers try to figure out which bits of content have the broadest appeal and attempt to distill the formula that gives that particular property its appeal and then transfer it to a new property.

    This, of course, isn’t news to you. The Latin pop music you listen to in your car sounds just like the ’80s pop on another station, as you pointed out. Personally, listening to a lot of popular music today, it mostly sounds to me almost exactly the same as most of the popular music produced since the late 1960s. A new trend may pop up — disco, rap, etc. — but eventually it gets absorbed into the main body of the popular music sound, which homogenizes the formula for mass consumption.

    The comic-book medium is dominated by the superhero genre, and there hasn’t been much evolution of the superhero genre in 30 years. The basic story of superhero comics is the basic story of action TV shows and the basic story of most popular action movies — it’s a dark, dangerous and corrupt world out there, and there are only a few True Heroes who defend our pure and righteous cultural values. This is the popular myth of American culture in the past 30 years. Sure, there are lots of variations on that theme — but there are only so many variations on a theme possible.

    If those variations on a theme were allowed to follow their course naturally, based on the whims of consumers and the creativity of creators, eventually you’d see something new and different. However, it isn’t in the interests of the content-generation companies to allow that to happen because they have no idea which of these new and different ideas are going to sell and which are going to fade away. So, it’s safer for them to maintain the formulas they know.

    Consumers, in the meanwhile, keep consuming the same thing over and over and over again to a great degree because the content-generation companies don’t offer them any alternatives. The companies say they give consumers what they want, but consumers have no means or basis of comparison to be able to ask for anything different.

    Popular culture changed more from the late 1950s to the late 1960s than it has since then, in part because there was a major cultural shift at that time, but also because the content generation companies were not the massive corporate juggernauts that they are today. Comparatively, the movie studies, comic book publishers and the like in the ’50s and ’60s were little better than cottage industries. Now, they are major revenue generators for the handful of multinational megacorporations that control a major chunk of the world’s economy.

    So, have comic books been dumbed down? No, in the sense that no one set out intentionally to make comics dumber, but yes, in the sense that the content in comics, like the rest of popular culture, has not been allowed to evolve and change on its own, and as such long ago began to consume itself.”

    The problem with finding new wrinkles on old ideas is that new wrinkles just make what’s old look that much older…

    “I once heard that Mob Movies have become the new Westerns. Is it possible that Superhero movies have become the new War movie? As you know, until Vietnam, war movies and series were very popular. The attitude towards war (even a justifiable war like WWII) has changed dramatically since then. Nothing is black or white, innocent people on both sides will be harmed and/or killed, and quite possibly, we could be wrong. Boys and Men, tend to respond to certain characteristics of war movies. Fighting for freedom, having courage and honor, saving the world, and the occasional damsel in distress. While these qualities can be a positive thing, enjoying a war movie now seems morally wrong.

    Hence the recent popularity of superheroes in the media. Like soldiers, superheroes put on uniforms and wage battle against their foes. Superheroes get to save the world. They have honor and courage. They save the damsel in distress. But, unlike real life, the villains are either evil or crazed. No matter the tragic a life the villains have (Magneto surviving a concentration camp, Penguin and Scarecrow being emotionally scarred by bullies, etc.) the villains have to be stopped. Unlike real life, the weapons a superhero uses only affect the bad guys.

    So, I don’t believe that the recent popularity of superhero movies is evidence of the dumbing down of America. Hasn’t this been said of American culture from the very beginning? What makes Europe’s and Japan’s culture any smarter?”

    We don’t understand what they’re saying, so they have to be smarter than us…

    “I read your column last week in relation to a possible draft in the US. You stated there that you’d “… be more concerned with a mercenary army composed of foreigners, and I don’t see that happening either.

    Well, it has happened and from this article I can see why you’d be concerned.”

    I actually meant an army of foreign mercenaries, but this counts too, I guess…

    “I am glad you do like Edwards. I’ve been a supporter of him since day one of his nomination. Because of all the reasons you mentioned, plus the fact that I’ve heard more republicans say that it would be a tough choice between Edwards and Bush. Edwards is a populist. I like populists. Personally I can take or leave Kerry. He polarized the nation, and that’s not how you win an election. Oh… and on to important stuff. The MATRIX sequels sucked. SUPERMAN 2 rocked. X2 rocked. And personally, if you want a good comic book fight/movie I’d choose THE CROW, or THE ROCKETEER.”

    Y’know, when push comes to shove, I think I prefer THE HEROIC TRIO

  • In addition to signing the LAST HEROES signings for iBooks, I’ll also be pitching in to get out the vote at We Want Your Autograph booth throughout the con, so check with them for the schedule when you get there. (Other comics pros will be guesting there as well.) I’ll try to have my hours, and maybe a list of others appearing by next week’s column, but I can’t guarantee it.

    Don’t forget there’s a CATWOMAN trade this month to coincide with the Halle Berry movie, collecting a number of Catwoman stories including the one I did with Brad Rader in CATWOMAN #11. As for stuff I didn’t write, get in on the action with Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips SLEEPER SEASON 2 from Wildstorm. It’s a book so badass good I wish I’d written it.

    While you’re at it, order:

    DAMNED: trade paperback from Cyberosia, art by Mike Zeck and Denis Rodier, coloring by Kurt Goldzung

    Crime. A parolee jumps parole to fulfill a promise to a dead cellmate, and finds himself hunted by mobsters looking for missing money he knows nothing about, in a city where he has no friends.

    MORTAL SOULS: trade paperback from Avatar Press, art by Philip Xavier

    Crime/horror. A police detective tracks and kills a female serial killer, only to gain her gift of seeing her targets for what they really are: the dead, who run the world, and who hate the living.

    MY FLESH IS COOL

    : still available in three issues from Avatar Press, art by Sebastian Fiumara.

    Crime/science fiction/horror. A hitman earns his living by throwing his mind into other people’s bodies, but civilization threatens to crumble when his secrets get into the wrong hands.

    BADLANDS: trade paperback from AiT/PlanetLar Books, art by Vince Giarrano

    Crime story, set in 1963 and starring the man who really killed John Kennedy.

    BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY: text from AiT/PlanetLar

    Screenplay version of BADLANDS, designed to ward off anyone who wants to make a movie of it.

    PUNISHER:CIRCLE OF BLOOD: trade paperback from Marvel Comics, art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

    Crime. The original mini-series that transformed The Punisher from a minor character into a movie-franchise spawning star. Imprisoned for his killings, the Punisher fights to survive and escape, but the war he declares on organized crime once he’s out takes an unexpected turn.

    HATED AND FEARED: Best Of X-MEN UNLIMITED: trade paperback from Marvel Comics collecting a number of short X-Men stories, including two by me: a “Blob” story with art by Sean Phillips, and a “Lockheed The Dragon” story drawn by Paul Smith.

    GREEN LANTERN: TRAITOR: trade paperback from DC Comics, art by Mike Zeck, Gil Kane, Scott Kolins and Klaus Janson

    Superhero action. Three generations of Green Lanterns – the alien Abin Sur in the old west, Hal Jordan joined by the Atom in the Silver Age, and the modern Green Lantern Kyle Raynor – battle an unstoppable cyborg powered by the stars and driven by a religious calling to snuff out all life in the universe.

    FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, monthly comic from Avatar Press, art by Juan Jose Ryp

    Science fiction action. The most faithful adaptation of a screenplay in history. From the version of ROBOCOP 2 that was never filmed, Frank Miller’s vision of the decaying future city of Detroit is realized for the first time, as Robocop crosses swords with a demented squadron of military police and a program-altering self-proclaimed moral watchdog, while the real police go on strike and OCP readies an even more powerful Robocop to replace him.

    I encourage the patronage of local comics shops where applicable, but don’t forget that if you can’t find what you want there, you can always shop the fine online retailers Khepri and Mars Import. Lately I’ve been getting a lot of e-mails from people wanting to know what address to send review copies to. If you continue reading down to the bottom of the column, it’s right there.

    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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