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Issue #196

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #196

Updated 6/23/05

  • Ah, those pranksters. Made a rare visit to the area’s (and possibly the West Coast’s!) best comics shop the other day, Ralph Mathieu’s Alternate Reality (4800 S Maryland Pkwy – just north of Tropicana, a couple miles east of the Strip, and, no, Ralph doesn’t pay me for this, I just like the shop) and stumbled across Marvel‘s GLA, starring a comedy team from John Byrne’s WEST COAST AVENGERS (or was it AVENGERS WEST COAST?) days, The Great Lakes Avengers. Haven’t read it, can’t comment on it, didn’t even know it was coming out, but I had a good laugh over the logo, an obvious mocking of DC‘s flagship JLA. It’s kind of funny, kind of pathetic. A weird symbiosis that isn’t exactly competition continues between the two companies. (Vertigo is practically Marvel’s farm team these days, isn’t it? Andy “THE LOSERS” Diggle and Eduardo “100 BULLETS” Risso are just the most recent two who’ve made the leap.)

    It is true, however, that for most of the last 40 years DC has lived in Marvel’s shadow. But this summer seems to be the first time since that glory streak that began with DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN and ran roughly through “The Death Of Superman” that DC will step out of the shadows in a very public way. Marvel’s rep in the comics business was built on being “the House Of Ideas,” and until DKR DC gained the rep as that stodgy old company pumping out either that boring ’50s stuff or weak sister knockoffs of the Marvel style. There were the odd moments in there, of course: Marv Wolfman and George Perez, both very popular at Marvel, abruptly jumped to DC to resurrect TEEN TITANS, giving DC its first real hit in years and at least making it plausible to consider DC as a potential market force again, even if very little else the company produced backed it up. Len Wein and Dave Gibbons abruptly removed Hal Jordan as Green Lantern and seemed, at least for a time, to be making it stick, initiating the concept of “the replacement hero” (which has unfortunately been done to death since). A minor character, Swamp Thing, was surrendered to some unknown English writer named Moore who very radically recreated the character, and changed the direction of the business. Then, of course, there was CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, which not only sparked the supermegacrossover series but put DC back on the map as a company willing to drastically change everything and leave it changed. (Which they began undermining almost instantly, but, as Murray Slaughter once said, when a donkey flies you don’t complain when it doesn’t stay up long.)

    All that was prep, and much of it very successful, but it was DARK KNIGHT RETURNS that really put DC back in the game. Here was arguably the hottest talent in comics, and a major “Marvel star” (though his project before DKR, the much-abused manga-influenced RONIN, was also from DC) given essentially free reign to remake one of the major icons of the business and one of the two major licenses that DC’s economic fortunes rested on. In retrospect it seems a no-brainer, but the history of comics is littered with publishers who second-guessed no-brainers right out of existence, and there were plenty of people at the time who felt Frank was a one-hit wonder who didn’t deserve the honor. But the product was bold and exciting, and said something different about superhero comics (if it feels less different today, it’s because so many have repeated it since). It was quickly followed by the deconstructionism of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ WATCHMEN, still regarded as the pivotal event in the maturation of comics. Almost overnight, DC jumped from being “the old company” to being the daring risktaker in the medium, the company going for broke because it had nothing to lose, at a time when Marvel was starting to feel more formulaic and predictable as even their “radical” gimmicks were blanded by overuse. (Dark Phoenix – the notion one of the heroes could abruptly become a major villain – was a revelation the first time, but when the riff became a standard, people stopped caring… a problem Marvel is still facing today, as “Avengers Disassembled” was largely undone by apathy toward the Scarlet Witch’s “heel turn,” to use wrestling lingo, and even this summer’s HOUSE OF M is vaguely tainted by the sense it developed from a desire by Marvel to make the audience care.)

    And somewhere between WATCHMEN and “The Death Of Superman,” DC became the #1 company in the business again, for the first time in 20 years, and they traded that position back and forth with Marvel for a time.

    “The Death Of Superman” really put a stop to all that. In the six years since WATCHMEN, DC’s fortunes were turning on the public impression that they were doing comics aimed at college and adult audiences. Popular culture magazines were mentioning them. SANDMAN became a cultural phenomenon, referenced on TV shows. Yet the impulse at DC is always to gravitate toward the licenses, and the success of the first BATMAN movie c. 1989 focused the company back on that end of the business; for the first time since the ’60s, Batman became widely marketable. Superman was more problematic. The ’70s SUPERMAN movies, though relatively well-received (at least the first two) did next to nothing to jump sales. John Byrne’s mid-’80s revamp of the character generated interest at least within the comics market, but the modifications were tepid at best – a little personality quirk here, Luthor being a businessman instead of a scientist there – and things crept back toward status quo even before he left the book. The problem is that Superman is a character who can’t be changed. What you see is what you get; despite some fairly desperate attempts, there’s no “other side” to tap into. So when “The Death Of Superman” became a runaway smash, it probably seemed a message was being sent. (Amusingly, DC had no intention of publicizing the “event,” intending it to catch readers off-guard, and were very annoyed when Capital Comics and Newsday let it slip, possibly because in addition to a ravenous public wanting to cash in on the final appearance of Superman there were some very angry Warners executives who also believed DC was eliminating a lucrative franchise.)

    However the thinking went, “The Death Of Superman” triggered the company’s retreat to its “core market,” and much of the last decade has been dedicated to “staying the course,” meaning to a focus on fairly traditional (by 1993 standards, anyway) superhero material. It hasn’t been entirely to the expense of all else – most of DC’s breakout material since ’93 has been non-traditional superhero material – but it did, for a time, return the company to the image of That Old Company even when Marvel was going through economic and personnel upheavals. If nothing else, Marvel has done a generally excellent job of manipulating its public image, even when pissing people off.

    I’ve gotten a few complaints that I’ve been ragging on DC over the last few months and largely giving Marvel a slide, and, looking back, that’s more or less true, though I’ve really got nothing against DC. DC’s just where things have been happening lately, while Marvel, despite endless announcements of events and creative teams, hasn’t really given any impression of policy changes or big upheavals. It’s just business as usual over there, and not much to comment on. (Let’s face it: who’s writing X-MEN just isn’t that big a deal. The X-Men is the X-Men is the X-Men.)

    DC’s been getting really interesting lately though. Rumors of major upheavals to come grow more numerous. BATMAN BEGINS turned out to be a pretty decent movie and one worth seeing in a theater, not that I expected less from Christopher Nolan, who’s a terrific director and a clever writer. (I don’t know about you, but I tend to sub-divide films into a handful of categories, in descending order of eagerness: those I want to see in a theater; those I’ll watch on DVD; those I’ll watch on cable; those I’ll watch if I’m stuck on an airplane and that’s what’s on; those I’d rather have my eyes gouged out than see; and THE NOTEBOOK.) I was a bit startled by the appearance of the new DC logo at the start of the film; I still don’t think it looks very good, and it was just flattened in grey against the background when it should have popped, and didn’t someone say part of the reason for the “swirl” was so it would swirl as a film/TV logo? But the branding was at least partly effective: I noticed it. Word is DC’s the #1 American comics companies in sales now, at least for a moment, again for the first time in a long time, and this time on the back of the “traditionalist” GREEN LANTERN book.

    It’s been pretty clear for awhile that DC’s not likely to break out of the “traditionalist” mold anytime soon, despite experiments with and support for unusual books like HARD TIME, which suggests they’re not going to stop at least occasionally attempting non-traditional material anytime soon either. The good news about that is that they finally seem to be getting serious about it. Geoff Johns, who has been writing many “traditionalist” DCs like JSA and THE FLASH anyway, is now the semi-official “continuity consultant” for the company, a role it’s about time someone played in companies increasingly fixated on the shared universe as overriding trope, and Johns is smart and genial enough that he stands as good a chance as anyone at making such a thing work. Even better news is Grant Morrison’s ascension to “master of revamps,” for lack of a better term. His current SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY, ranging from semi-traditionalist revamps like ZATANNA, where the character is clearly identifiable as the one who has always existed in the DC Universe, to the “ground zero” total revamps of GUARDIAN, SHINING KNIGHT and especially KLARION, is a prime example of how to revamp characters in a progressive way for interest and maximum impact. (He also cleverly ties little threads between the series that are only noticeable if you read all the series but invisible if you choose to read only one, a neat and difficult trick.) Progressive is the key here: if DC wants to be a serious market force via superheroes, and (like Marvel) is looking to transform fallow characters into potential licenses, it has to be done in a way that looks toward the future, and a general audience, not toward a miniscule clique fixated on the past – but also done in a way that might appeal to the clique. Doubtless, despite his title, Morrison won’t be the only writer attempting revamps, but there are few better suited to pointing the way.

    So congratulations and praise for DC. They’ve been publishing superhero comics for, what?, pushing 70 years now? It’s great to see them finally getting really serious about it. Seriously.

  • I could write another political screed today, but why bother? In the interests of brevity, let’s just follow a timeline instead:

    1997: a private policy group forms called Project For A New American Century. It includes Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitze, Richard Armitage and Jeb Bush – all insiders or confidantes in the current administration – and promotes American military and economic dominance over the rest of the world. Among the group’s proposals is the establishment of a permanent American military base in the Middle East.

    1998: a strategy paper by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, urge then-President Clinton to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein from power, citing Saddam’s “weapons of mass destruction” and claiming Saddam poses a threat to the USA.

    1999: The Hand Puppet, then governor of Texas and “writing a book” to improve his public image in anticipation of a run for the presidency, confides to his ghostwriter that he wants to step out of his father’s shadow specifically by effecting regime change in Iraq, something the elder Bush “failed” to do.

    July 4 2001: Despite “shoot on sight” order signed by Clinton, Osama bin Laden is treated for a kidney infection at the American Hospital in Dubai, where he informs CIA operative Larry Mitchell of an impending attack on the USA.

    Sept. 11 2001: On hearing of the World Trade Center attack, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proclaims it will give them a rationale for attacking Iraq.

    Late 2001: The President and Prime Minister Tony Blair meet to discuss an invasion of Iraq. Blair insists Afghanistan must be attacked first.

    April 2002: During a meeting at Crawford TX, Blair agrees to support an American invasion of Iraq

    July 22, 2002: a memo issued by Downing Street summarizes a meeting between British and American authorities during which the invasion of Iraq is discussed. Among the statements in the memo: American intelligence are being fixed around the policy of invading Iraq; it would be necessary to “create conditions” that would legalize the war (indicating they knew it would be illegal otherwise); an ultimatum must be cast in terms that Saddam Hussein will reject.

    Late 2002: Using intelligence already dismissed by British intelligence (as 2004 memoes reveal) and known by American intelligence to be largely fabricated by CIA asset, international conman, would-be ruler of Iraq and, as it later turns out, Iranian agent Ahmed Chalabi, America begins calling for the dismantling of “weapons of mass destruction” Saddam doesn’t have. His denials are dismissed as dissembling.

    Dec. 2002: Saddam Hussein secretly offers to fully cooperate in the war on terrorism, fully support any Arab-Israeli peace plan, give the USA “first priority” to Iraq oil and minerals, aid US strategic interests in the Middle East, and “direct US involvement on the ground in disarming Iraq.” His overtures are rebuffed.

    2003: On the advice of Colin Powell, the Administration presses the United Nations for a war resolution against Iraq. The UN pauses the process to send weapons inspectors, who find nothing. The absence of WMDs is proclaimed by the United States as evidence that Saddam is hiding them.

    Early 2003: Claims that Saddam Hussein has been trying to buy fissionable material from Niger for the production of nuclear bombs, a cornerstone of American arguments for the invasion, are proven to be a hoax by the American government’s own investigator. American officials, especially VP Dick Cheney, continue to repeat the claim nonetheless.

    April 2003: Unwilling to justify war in the absence of any evidence of threat, the United Nations refuses to issue a second war resolution. The USA then declares war, and hastily assembles its own “United Nations” of “support” countries, most of which become involved over the objections of its citizenry after being offered substantial economic incentives by America.

    2004: Following extensive investigation, American military search teams are unable to come up with any evidence for the existence of WMDs in Iraq.

    Make up your own minds.

  • Notes from under the floorboards:

    Managed to “fix” my Thunderbird problem (see below for details) though it’s only temporary. I’m changing ISPs in a couple of weeks, so one of the problem accounts will vanish then, but the other is the this one, my Permanent Damage account, so no idea how that’s going to work. But the problem seems to arise from switching the e-mail defaults to Gmail accounts. I’m still open to suggestions on a permanent fix. (One reader kindly sent in a suggestion pertaining to problems when Thunderbird is used alongside AVG antivirus, but I use, and recommend, Avast.

    And now it’s not fixed after all. Switching e-mail readers may be my only option.

  • Something a little different. With a crushing deadline on another project, as well as some unexpected problems popping up (the kitchen sink backed up so I spent much of Monday draining and ripping apart the pipes, then cleaning and reassembling them; that sounds more impressive that it was, as modern PVC piping is made with screw connectors that are incredibly easy to get apart and put back together, obviating the need for a plumber, but taking time nonetheless), I’ve decided to choose a third alterative to either postponing the column or running a repeat, as I mulled last week. Instead, I’ve decided to run an un-blog, half a column to be followed by the rest of it tomorrow. It’s a double dose of Damage, just for you.

    ITEM! If you’re in Las Vegas, Bill Willingham, James Hudnall and I have been running talks on comics and graphic novels at various Las Vegas-Clark County libraries this week, and the public response has been great. Even people who’ve never read comics now seem very interested in finding out more about them. We have one last talk in the current series late this afternoon at

    Spring Valley Library

    4280 S. Jones Blvd.

    Las Vegas NV

    The program starts at 4 PM, and, if history tells us anything, will go to somewhere between 5:30 and 6, though you’re of course welcome to come and go as you please. We’ve been getting pretty good crowds this time around, so if you’re in the neighborhood, we hope to see you there.

    ITEM! Not enough praise has been heaped on Dwayne McDuffie & friends for what a good show JUSTICE LEAGUE UNLIMITED (Cartoon Network, 9P Saturdays) has been. From intriguing stories to top-notch characterization (especially given the constraints they must be working under) to scripts from actual comics writers to great little games of spot the cameo (anyone catch the reference to Hitman in Gail Simone’s episode?) to a wonderful sense of how to make continuity actually work, it’s been a terrific effort, and one of the very few shows this summer not only worth watching but worth going out of your way to watch. The WB has a bad habit of ending these series just when they’re starting to get good, so hopefully it’ll stick around a couple more years. Good going, Dwayne, and keep it up.

    ITEM! Four more years? Forty? Last week, some of the most right wing representatives in the House introduced a bill. HJ Res 24, to repeal the 22nd Amendment that placed term limits on the office of the presidency. Seems like barely ten years ago term limits was the great cause célèbre of the Right, as they sought to drive entrenched liberals out of office and “level the playing field” by removing the necessity to run against incumbents. In fact, it was the Right who pushed through the 22nd Amendment in the first place, in fear that Franklin Roosevelt, the only man ever to win the presidency in four consecutive elections, would become in essence President For Life, a functional dictator of America. Apparently that’s no longer a concern – then again, the same people so concerned over term limits in the ’90s abruptly decided perhaps they weren’t such a good idea after they got elected, so it’s not like there’s no precedent for it – and obviously the main intent behind the bill is a prolonged reign for the Hand Puppet, who would no doubt fly the “stay the course” flag for as long as the war on terrorism went on (decades, so we’re were told), and the controversial computerized election machines being shoved into use in every possible venue could theoretically ensure re-election after re-election. A most cunning plan, as Baldrick would say. Of course, it’s got a couple flaws. A Constitutional amendment isn’t all that easy to pass – there’s a long ratification process, which would probably see the Hand Puppet out of office before it would take effect – and with his popularity plunging that’s hardly a given in the first place. I suspect a lot of Americans find some small comfort in the notion that they most they’ll have to suffer from any president is eight years. On the other hand, if the amendment gets passed, it could also result in another Clinton presidency, and I don’t mean Hillary. That’d be some sort of ironic justice, I suppose. The corollary amendment in the background is the one to allow naturalized citizens, rather than simply native-borns, to become president, which would open the door to a run by Herr Gropenator, but he’s having his own P.R. problems these days.

    ITEM! Any experts on the Mozilla Thunderbird mail reader out there? I love the program, except for one problem that cropped up a couple weeks ago and has been driving me bats ever since. I can’t think of anything I did to cause this, but I added in some new mail accounts, and two old ones that I have suddenly developed a weird kink: the pop and smtp data for them always reverts, on closing the program, to an incorrect default. Every time I reopen the program, I have to correct everything by hand for those accounts to send and receive, though they do stay correct as long as the program is open. Is there some switch I should hit somewhere? I do have a few extensions loaded but nothing that appears to have any effect on that, though I do have the advanced preferences extension loaded. What should I be doing to correct the problem? Any ideas?

    ITEM! My favorite comic of the week is Chris Wisnia’s TABLOIA (Salt Peter Press; $3.95-$5.95 per issue), a witty, sensationalistic paranoia-drenched quasi-underground that mangles all sorts of American cultural tropes. The art’s what we call deceptively crude – it really fits the material beautifully – but it’s the stories that really shine. So far a creepy murder mystery serial has taken up most of the space, but the backup stories are hilarious kickers: I love DICK HAMMER, CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR and the scattershot, elliptical Lee-Kirby monster comic “Doris Danger” serial (inked by longtime Kirby inker Dick Ayers!), but my favorite’s “Dr. DeBunko” about a calm, skeptical middle-aged psychologist who reasons out the real facts behind people’s psychosexual panics only to have everything he says misinterpreted by the irrational nutcases he’s trying to help. His solutions are a stitch, and Wisnia, on top of everything else, has great comic timing. A terrific comic you should be reading, because that’s what it’s meant for.

    ITEM! As always, any budding comics talent looking for a wealth of inside info on the business can find more in my e-book TOTALLY OBVIOUS, collecting all my Master Of The Obvious columns, available at my website Paper Movies. Political mavens may be interested in the e-book IMPOLITIC: A Journal Of The Plague Years, collecting my political essays from Sept. 2001-April 2005, also available at Paper Movies.

    Also at Paper Movies now: the first issue of my mid-90s Dark Horse mini-series ENEMY, with art by Christopher Schenck and Shepard Hendrix, and the second issue of my late-’80s First mini-series TWILIGHT MAN, with art by Tristan Shane and Eric Vincent. The first is a conspiracy thriller with superhero overtones, the second modernized sword-and-sorcery, though the prefatory information is on a disconnected page. Unfortunately, my main computer died as I was uploading the TWILIGHT MAN pages, so there are a couple navigation errors that won’t be changed until I can put a new rig together (everything’s now on a hard drive inaccessible until it lands in a new computer), but at least there’s something up.

    And don’t forget the final issue of my CSI miniseries SECRET IDENTITY (IDW; $3.99) is now out, and I’m told the trade paperback is scheduled for October, just in time for my birthday.

    ITEM! This one you’re really not going to believe: Avatar has finally released FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP #8! Only one issue to go! I told you it would all come out one of these days, and those who keep writing to ask where it is: my part of it was finished ages ago, and I’m not responsible for the schedule. Ask Avatar when the final issue’s due, not me. Thanks.

    ITEM! I’m out of time, so more tomorrow, in a more traditional Permanent Damage format. Big treats, I promise, and thanks for putting up with me. SPECIAL NOTE: the covers reprinted in this column have no connection to anything under discussion. They just amuse me, and are presented for your indiscriminate enjoyment.

    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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