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Issue #191

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #191
  • THIS WEEK:

    THINKING BIG: the changing face of audience taste and nearing the event horizon

    SECRETS AND LIES: if Newsweek’s stories aren’t trust worthy, why should we trust their denials? And if God is everywhere, why are they trying to hard to shove him into schools?

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD: the birth of Impolitic, why Las Vegas is great, and whatever

    TV EYE: End of the season

    APOLOGIA: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa

  • Had a publisher wander through for coffee over the weekend and we got to discussing the current successes of DC and Marvel with Big Events, recently punctuated by the recent emergence of DC’s VILLAINS UNITED as a six-figure hit. The sudden interest in “the bad guys” where other recent DC Big Event projects haven’t been quite as successful (though none appear to be tanking) is interesting, indicative of a growing reader fascination with modes other than the Standard Heroic (also evidenced by the success of Mark Millar’s WANTED last year) that DC has beaten into the ground as its bread and butter for the past 60 years, which tends to be the mode favored by Fanboys-Turned-Pro who’ve enforced it within the company as both editors and creators, traditionally falling back on it in the face of anything that might actually expand the emotional range of the books. True, books like VILLAINS UNITED are basically reversal concepts, the flip side of the coin, but simply in doing that characters tap into a wider breadth of responses; they can be unpredictable, since they don’t have to fit the strictures of the hero’s role, and plot demands (not to mention surprises) can fluctuate unpredictably as well. Not that I’d want to see a slew of villaincentric books hitting the stands, but anything that expands the range can only help us. As numerous people have shown for the last 15 or so years, heroes who act like villains can be great fun, but it’s time even to go beyond that, as Grant Morrison did in the recent KLARION #1, whose hero’s moral temperament can’t be easily decoded; while hardly devoid of feelings, he’s motivated by little more than petulance and youthful rebellion.

    Meanwhile the age of the big event is on us once again. Expect it to last roughly two years, and hopefully this time publishers will figure out a way to build on it rather than accept that it will go on forever and tailspin us into another crash. The problem with big events is that they duplicate the superhero problem: in superhero books the villain must always be the stronger party in some way, and in order to meet the challenge the hero must undergo a compensatory rise in power/skill/knowledge etc. until he’s capable of overpowering the villain and winning the day. The problem with this is that either you go into an escalating spiral to greater and greater power for the hero, or you end up doing logically stupid things like following the Fantastic Four defeating Galactus with a “change of pace” where they fall prey to Paste-Pot Pete. Likewise, Big Events, unless handled very carefully, each have to be bigger than the last, until either the scale becomes unmanageable or the concepts become too desperate and inane to be interesting. After you’ve killed Superman and brought him back from the dead, what Big Event is left? He battles an invasion from Outer Space? There’s also the null sum factor: all Big Events must revert to status quo in most significant ways. You can have an earthquake level Gotham City but it will never sink into the ocean as long as it’s Batman’s trademark turf. At some point the limitations on the Big Event – and comics companies won’t eliminate the limitations as long as they want readers to feel comfortable with the worlds they’re creating – outweigh the level of interest than can be generated, and that’s when it falls apart. Big events can be effective doorway projects for new and returning readers, but the object should be not to get them into the doorway but to get them into the house, and then it’s up to the rest of the line to keep them there. Or we go through 1994 all over again.

  • Last week I speculated that a HOGAN’S HEROES-style sitcom based on the war on terror was doubtless on it’s way, and here it materialized almost as I was writing the words. In one trial of Abu Ghraib guards, the judge wouldn’t even let one of the defendants plead guilty (she claimed to have understood her behavior to be within her orders) while in another the defense offered that the systematic humiliations and tortures inflicted on Iraqi prisoners were… practical jokes! That’s so funny I forgot to track the behavior up the chain of command all the way to White House legal advisors (since turned into tough-on-porn attorney generals) who laid out legal justifications for abandoning the “outdated” Geneva treaty on the treatment of war prisoners and enshrined torture as an invaluable tool in the war on terror.

    And the laughs just keep on coming, with NEWSWEEK falling on its sword for the Hand Puppet. Print one teensy-weensy story about soldiers at Guantanamo, apparently trying to gain psychological advantage over those recalcitrant suspected Muslim terrorist prisoners by flushing a copy of the Quran down the toilet, trigger widespread violent protest internationally, cost a few American citizens their lives, and suddenly it’s wrong to spread jingoistic falsehoods? Man, what a difference a day makes.

    NEWSWEEK has retracted their story and apologized for running it on the word of one usually reliable source who seemingly just chose the wrong Pentagon water cooler to hang around this time out. Ooopsies. That’s if, of course, the story is actually false. There have been no end to reports coming out of Guantanamo, both from released prisoners (mostly dismissed by the American press out of hand as having an ax to grind) and ex-guards, of religiously and ethnically based “interrogations” and “psychological torture” of the sort popularized by Abu-Ghraib. It’s worth remembering the “terrorist holding center” at Guantanamo was based there specifically so the government could claim it was outside the reach of American law, despite it being officially American and not Cuban soil, and it wasn’t long ago that Guantanamo’s head of military police, Brigadier-General Rick Baccus, for “interfering with interrogations” by treating prisoners decently, allowing the Red Cross to advise them on their rights, and referring to them as prisoners of war (covered by the Geneva convention) instead of “enemy combatants” (questionable). And it’s not like guards haven’t defiled the Quran at Guantamano before; one 2002 incident triggered a mass hunger strike and subsequent apology.

    In any case, NEWSWEEK‘s retraction isn’t likely to be taken seriously anywhere; stepping up now to say they got it wrong will likely play to the Muslim world as trying to cover the military’s ass, while a recent Pew Research poll indicates 45% of Americans believe next to nothing (or less) of what major newspapers publish on major news stories, so the retraction likely won’t carry much weight here either, except to give the Pentagon and the White House a way to dismiss the charges, and, by extension, similar charges earlier and in the future. But if spreading falsehoods and misreports that cost American lives is now reprehensible, what of the lies and misrepresentations used (and relentlessly repeated as fact, particularly by Cheney, even after factual contradiction) to cause the deaths of 1200+ Americans and the wounding or crippling of 12000+ more (not to mention tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but who’s counting? Certainly not the American press…) after “victory” in Iraq was declared. Though, by all accounts except in the American press and daily press briefings from the White House, which these days amount to the same thing, Iraq is now one

    huge no man’s land disintegrated into outright civil war even as we parade the notion of a viable democracy now established there. Rumor has it that soon Iraqi security forces will take the place of American soldiers in putting up a brave façade of securing the country, but it’s no secret that the security forces are experiencing desertions on a massive scale, with deserters fleeing to the nearest foreign border. The blowback to the US military from all this is a drastic drop in recruits, leading to a frustrated Texas recruiter claiming to a reluctant high schooler that federal law required a recruitment meeting whether the student wanted one or not, a lie which, when publicized, forced a shutdown of military recruitment in the country for an entire day. Patriotism is one thing, but between the handful of returning soldiers the Pentagon has actually let go when their terms of service were up and the Internet, word’s apparently leaking out that Iraq is a morass you do not want to enter. And the memory of Pat Tillman, football superstar turned soldier turned war hero but later revealed to have been stupidly shot by our own people, suggests an Afghanistant posting isn’t much of an improvement. At any rate, whatever the reality of the Quran/Guantamano story, the allegations themselves have been effectively cancelled out as an issue and replaced by Newsweek’s supposed perfidy in printing them, much the same way the allegations last year about the Hand Puppet’s service record were turned into a censure of the source and CBS, which reported it, popularly rendering the allegations “conspiracy theory” despite the transparent holes in the service record never being cleared up.

    Back home, another sort of jihad goes on: the continuing assault of the Christian right on public education, particularly science. In Kansas, Texas, Pennsylvania and lord knows where else in America, school boards controlled by Fundamentalists continue to try to shove Christianity into school curriculums, one way or another. Kansas is currently pushing to get “intelligent design” taught in science classes. Intelligent design is sort of entertaining in a creepy way, since it’s the concoction of Fundamentalists so desperate to work their way around a Supreme Court-enforced ban on creationism in public schools (damn those liberal activist judges!) that they decided to freely nick from a previous nemesis, New Age mysticism. Nothing at all to do with God, claim the “scientific” promoters of intelligent design, which reasons that the universe works just so well that intelligence must its operational principle. This is the same willful misreading of “evolution” prominent in New Ageism that’s really little more than an egotistical reworking of the already supremely egotistical Manifest Destiny philosophy of the 1800s: the notion that the entire purpose of the universe culminates in us (or, in New Ageism, in the perfect beings we are destined to become if only we open our hearts and souls to the great good spirit of the universe and divine our true potential). Now it’s one thing to note that there are patterns in the world and the universe, and this goes without question though the patterns are often easily subject to disruption and change, but there’s a “intelligent design” makes a willful confusion of the terms “design” and “pattern.” Pattern suggests nothing except itself: pattern. Design, by contrast, must have a designer; by definition, it can’t be design without one. Design requires intelligence. For the universe to have been designed, intelligence must preexist the universe, and an intelligence so encompassing as to have concocted and so powerful as to have executed, every aspect of the universe as we know it. Intelligent design advocates can say they’re not referring to God all they want, but that’s the only concept that fits the bill. Cornered, most ID (hmmm… interesting reference…) advocates cede point after point to evolutionary theory. Besides which, while there’s plenty of evidence of evolution, even as scientists continue to work out the mechanisms and refine the concept, the only “proof” for ID is circular: it must exist because, hey, just look at the world; how could it exist like this if it weren’t intelligently designed? The argument has a strong emotional appeal, but it isn’t even remotely scientific.

    Intelligent design’s now being pushed into curricula around the country, like in Dover PA, with the PA state legislature contemplating a bill to standardize it. Anything to drive a stake into the demon Evolution, apparently.

    In Odessa TX, the school board has likewise come up with an almost clever “secular” rationale for an in-school Bible Study course designed to ward off those nasty civil libertarians who feel public school isn’t the place to be shoving your religious views down everyone else’s kid’s throat: how can children be expected to understand or appreciate great cultural works like Handel’s Messiah or DaVinci’s The Last Supper unless they know the Bible stories? It apparently never occurred to them that when they study those subject, the teacher could just, oh, I dunno, tell them, briefly, what they refer to (of course, that would require them to put money into art and music courses instead of Bible courses) but maybe they have a point: how can students possibly appreciate Wagner’s operas without reading the Volsunga Saga or Jackson Pollock’s paintings without studying the entire works of Freud. I presume they’ll start up courses on those as well? The Bibly Study course is so far merely elective, but doesn’t it suggest – like all inflictions of specific religions on public school curricula – that the churches are inept, incapable of providing the proper religious education themselves? Why, yes, it does, o ye of little faith…

  • Notes From Under The Floorboards:

    For those who’ve been interested, my first 242 pg. collection of political commentary, IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS, will be available in .pdf e-book format (hey, if it’s good enough for Corey Clark, it’s good enough for me) at the Paper Movies Bookstore on Thursday May 19. It includes all the commentary in Permanent Damage since the column’s inception just after 9/11, and a handful of pieces from my earlier Master Of The Obvious column, including my notorious comparison of our beloved president and the concurrent president in the DC Universe, Lex Luthor.

    I just don’t feel like doing a “Down And Dirty Guide To Creating Comics” this week, since I’ve been working like a madman and attending to all kinds of fun things like replacing punctured tires and more faucet repair, and my heart’s just not in it at the moment. Next week.

    A couple weeks ago THE LAS VEGAS WEEKLY dropped me a line. The town’s 100th anniversary was a couple days ago, with celebration’s going on all week and possibly longer, since it’s kind of hard to tell when celebration’s stop here. Since someone or other here is always talking about what would transform Las Vegas from basically the only place in America worth living anymore to a “world-class city,” the Weekly decided to ask a number of prominent Las Vegans like the president and basketball coach of the university here, the state’s governor, progressive radio

    hosts, an ESPN boxing commentator, the creator of CSI, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, chefs, food critics, architects, magazine publishers, Steve Gerber, cabaret performers, library directors, novelists, website managers, stage show creators, and, well, me, to suggest (seriously or spuriously) what one thing the city truly needs to be world class, asking for a few explanatory lines. I thought about it for sometime, then came up with this:

    “I’ve lived for lengthy stays in New York and Los Angeles, and near Chicago and Seattle, and the one thing they have in common isn’t ball teams or great record stores or theater districts, but the desperate need to masquerade as cosmopolitan cities when they’re actually incredibly parochial places that insist nothing worth mentioning, certainly in creative fields, takes place beyond their borders. So that’s the one thing Las Vegas needs to be on a par with those “real” cities: the obsessive conviction that it is the absolute center of the universe. One of the things I like about Las Vegas is that many residents think of the place as an inflated cowtown and don’t realize it’s actually — a reason I moved here — the most cosmopolitan city in America. The surreality of being able to look out your window and see Coney Island, the Eiffel Tower and a pyramid with the world’s biggest flashlight on top without turning your head much, of going to the Guggenheim to view Picassos one night and to the world’s biggest rodeo the next, gives many people here, on the downside, an insecurity complex about the place and, on the upside, a wonderful sense of humor. In that regard, I’d hate to see Las Vegas become a “real” city, because citizens of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and especially Seattle can get pretty damn humorless about their hometowns.”

    This is what they published:

    “The obsessive conviction that we are the absolute center of the universe.”

    Oh well. Any port in a storm. I wasn’t being facetious, by the way.

    Speaking of Las Vegas, I’ve mentioned before how great the library system here has been at keeping up with graphic novel and trade paperback (not to mention bringing in us local comics guys to do comics-based programs for local youth, another of which we’re doing in June, details to follow). They make it really easy to keep up, and thanks for ordering the latest volumes of IRON WOK JAN for me too, guys. (JAN‘s exactly the sort of really entertaining morally ambiguous comic I was referring to far above.) Every once in awhile I get mail from someone who wants to know what I think of modern PUNISHER work and they’re baffled when I tell them I don’t read other people’s PUNISHER work, even when it’s written by writers as talented as Garth Ennis or Mike Baron. So I’m at the library and stumble across a Bendis DAREDEVIL collection, which I enjoyed just fine, and a Garth Ennis PUNISHER collection, and I think, okay, I love Garth’s work, how bad can it be? After sitting down to read it, I can honestly say: I don’t know. Because I got through less than a page and a half before I had to put it down. Not because there was anything intrinsically wrong with it, but because…

    There was a progressive rock band in the mid-’70s called Brand X that had one fairly decent album, MOROCCAN ROLL, with one terrific song on it called “Disco Suicide.” It sounded like a very jazzy dance number – except it would periodically drop a beat, so if you tried to dance to it you’d always end up out of step and running to catch up. (Hence the song’s title.) There were people it would drive crazy because they couldn’t wrap their heads around the beat shifts, which were terrifically entertaining once you realized what the band was doing. But reading other people’s PUNISHER it like that for me. Maybe it never translated to the written page, but in my head the Punisher’s dialogue, including his observational captions, have such a specific, idiosyncratic rhythm that I can’t read the character except in that rhythm. And “not my” PUNISHER stories, even Garth’s, trying to read them is like trying to dance to “Disco Suicide.” I can’t do it. It’s no reflection on the quality of the stories or even the presentation of the character. I just can’t do it.

    Shawn McManus – I did some PUNISHER short stories and a well-received LEGENDS OF THE DARK KNIGHT arc with him a few years back – has signed on to draw my second “Weird Date” story for Dark Horse‘s Michael Chabon Presents THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF THE ESCAPIST. Shawn’s a terrific, terrifically underrated artist, and I can’t wait. (The first “Weird Date” story, with art by Norm Breyfogle, is running in the currently available issue of THE ESCAPIST, #6, which also features work by Will Eisner, Howard Chaykin, Eddie Campbell, Tom Yeates & Paul Hornschemeier. Go get it.)

    As usual, TOTALLY OBVIOUS, a pdf e-book collection of all the essays on comics, creativity, culture and the freelance life from my previous column Master Of The Obvious, is also available at Paper Movies. (You can read a sample while you’re over there, if you’re undecided.) 300 pages for only $5.95 – now that’s reading!

  • And so the main TV season dies once again, though the networks are all threatening new programming throughout the summer, with Sci-Fi Channel’s BATTLESTAR GALACTICA (new SUPERMAN writer Mark Verheiden is now on its writing staff) and Fox’s serial killer hunter show THE INSIDE sounding the most interesting, at least on paper. The highlights of the last season were the strangely Shakespearean DEADWOOD (HBO), THE SHIELD (FX), AMAZING RACE (two of them, on CBS), 24 (Fox), and the dark horse HOUSE MD (Fox), which, mostly but not entirely thanks to Hugh Laurie, turned out to be much more fun than expected (though the Chi McBride arc couldn’t have ended fast enough for my tastes). 24 was a real surprise as well, pumping through one outlandish wrinkle after another mostly through sheer energy and

    bravado, and pulling off “disaster” after “disaster” on American soil that would have been unthinkable just two years ago. SOUTH PARK (Comedy Central) continued to shotgun the most savage, savvy humor on TV, while VERONICA MARS (UPN) picks up the award for the hippest confection on the tube this year. But some shows slipped off my radar, too: despite still liking several actors on it, including Mekhi Pfifer and (possibly the best actress on TV) Maura Tierney, ER (NBC) is just too old and tired to continue with. Both THE O.C. (Fox) and, despite a terrific start, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES (ABC), sunk into mere soap opera by season’s end, and THE SIMPSONS (Fox) managed, what?, two actual laughs all season. (Does everything that happens to Homer have to be pounded home for three minutes on end?) Odds are pretty good I won’t be going back to any of them.

    Meanwhile, the annual fall schedule announcements have started. Considering they’re getting their butts kicked far and wide – the #4 network? Who’d’ve seen that coming? – NBC seems ridiculously content with business as usual, though SCRUBS is an interesting omission, and THE OFFICE, in this same timeslot where it tanked this year, is a shocking inclusion. The abrupt demise of LAW AND ORDER: TRIAL BY JURY may signal overall trouble for the tired LAW AND ORDER franchise. AMERICAN DREAMS, which I didn’t realize was still on the air, isn’t anymore, with WEST WING sent off to limp to death on Sundays while a Pentagon-based copy of WEST WING takes its former Wednesday slot. Also new: an undersea SF show called FATHOM. I’m just listing this stuff because it’s hard to discern anything (except disinterest) from the descriptions.

    Meanwhile, ABC, now the #3 network thanks to shows like DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES, LOST, ALIAS and GREY’S ANATOMY, are scrapping most of their existing schedule anyway, for a Heather Graham comedy, a new JJ Abrams drama. Expect it to be more FELICITY than ALIAS, which will be used in a sacrifice play on Thursday against SURVIVOR and THE O.C., as Geena Davis’ distaff WEST WING knockoff COMMANDER IN CHIEF will play ABC’s Judas Goat against HOUSE MD, AMAZING RACE and VERONICA MARS. (It’ll beat VERONICA MARS, anyway, but UPN’s playing in a different ballpark.) SF fans will get to see an alien show called INVASION try to cash in on LOST‘s success on Wednesday and a revamped THE NIGHT STALKER get killed by THE APPRENTICE and CSI on Thursday.

    What the hell’s on the WB anyway? I don’t remember. I never watch it. Oh, wait, the insufferable JACK AND BOBBY. No, that’s gone now. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Of vague interest next season is a Bruckheimer-produced lawyer show putting Don Johnson back in the saddle, and a “X-Files meets Route 66” horror road show called SUPERNATURAL. Superman fans had better pray the movie gets made soon, because SMALLVILLE gets to die an ugly death sometime between 8 and 10 on Thursday nights next year.

    Fox, CBS and UPN are yet to be heard from, but so far it doesn’t sound like I’ll be adding any shows to my list, though, being a sucker for road pictures, I’m curious about SUPERNATURAL. (Esp. since I failed to get a comics project that sounds just like it off the ground about five years ago.)

  • It’s been one of those weeks. Due to a number of professional and personal commitments, I ended up with virtually no time to read over the past week, so there are still many books and comics waiting here to be reviewed. (Yes, Brett, I did get the SURROGATES promo.) I didn’t even get much chance to answer my e-mail. So next week, barring anyone doing any particularly stupid or noteworthy on the political front (which, you have to admit, the odds favor), the vast majority of the column will be dedicated to comics reviews and reader mail. And the Down And Dirty Guide. Even if really screwy things happen in the wider world, I’ll still get all the reviews done. See you then.

    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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