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Issue #200

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Issue #200
  • THIS WEEK:

    HAPPY QUASI-BIRTHDAY TO ME: Four years of PERMANENT DAMAGE and summing up San Diego

    TALISMAN: a novel experiment

    NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD

  • Huh. #200. Almost four years worth of columns. That’s worth a short vacation, don’t you think?

    Maybe not.

    At any rate, San Diego is hardly a vacation. I have the same conversation endlessly when I’m there; people ask me if I’m having fun, and I reply that I don’t go there for fun. Which is true, but this year a strange thing happened.

    I had fun.

    Dozens of colleagues apparently didn’t. There seems to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth that movies and manga have taken over the Con – and certainly booths from Sony Pictures and Lion’s Gate Films, and the LucasFilms Pavilion do nothing to dispel that impression – but, jeez, you guys would bitch if they were hanging you with a new rope. Isn’t this what comics have been supposedly struggling toward since the dark days of the ’50s when everyone and their grandmother was screaming about how comics were the very font of filth and corruption and had to be shut down. You wanted to be acknowledged as a true “artform” (I can’t tell you how much I hate that meaningless bogus word) and now you’ve got it. I could say this is one of those “be careful what you wish for” situations, but it isn’t. I love it. I mean, come on. FANTASTIC FOUR is the hottest film of the summer! FANTASTIC @%#*ing FOUR! Sure, it’s a piece of crap, but everyone loves it so no foul, and if it brings even an iota more attention to Jack Kirby, it’s worth it. (And it’d be nice if Marvel cut the Kirby family in on it, but perhaps this too shall come to pass in time since the media’s actually starting to pay attention.) I caught three minutes of EXTRA!, one of those crap star@%#*er shows that are all over the tube now, interviewing Charlize Theron – at the San Diego Comic Con! And they’re talking about it like it’s the most natural thing in the world to be there. You’ve got Big Hollywood Stars like Nicolas Cage and Tom Jane who’ve come out of the closet and admitted they’re also Big Comics Fans. You’ve got producers scouring the place for comics to turn into movies like they used to crawl all over novels, because the balance is shifting and for every CATWOMAN or LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN that flops these days, you’ve got a CONSTANTINE or FANTASTIC FOUR or HELLBOY that clicks with an audience, so that they don’t even talk about “comic book films” in Hollywood anymore, they’re just films, but comics are still hot source material and that doesn’t look to be going away anytime soon – and then there are the “critical indie hits” like AMERICAN SPLENDOR and GHOST WORLD that click. You can take the shallow view and either praise or rail against the “Hollywoodation” of comics, but that’s missing the point:

    In the ’30s, a science fiction writer named A.E. Van Vogt wrote a book called SLAN, which postulated what amounted to an oppressed secret culture that was producing the superior race that was destined to replace ordinary humanity. Homo Superior, if you will. Science fiction fans, widely told they were idiots for reading such fantastic tripe (and, let’s face it, much of it was), seized on the notion as a badge of identity – “fans are Slans” was their battle cry – and the notion of an oppressed but superior culture became their standard approach to the world at large. The ’60s, via writers like J.G. Ballard and Harlan Ellison, saw science fiction become, finally, an acceptable literary genre (though certainly there were plenty of excellent writers in sf’s history, like Alfred Bester and Cordwainer Smith) and, with the victory of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, STAR WARS and E.T. in the ’70s and ’80s, culturally acceptable on a wide scale. The same thing happened to horror fiction in the ’80s, mostly due to Stephen King and an unanticipated flood of hit horror movies that haven’t really abated to this day. Horror movies and fiction just became part of the overt cultural landscape, to the point where George Romero’s pivotal low budget independent films like NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which some critics now call the most important film of the ’60s, has been remade in big budget to cash in on its cachet.

    And now pretty much the same thing has happened to comics. Comics fans and professionals have also long had a Slan mentality, a sort of extroverted inferiority complex, when it came to general culture, and even today I periodically hear it voiced, but it’s time to drop it once and for all. We’re in. We made it. It didn’t come with a voice of thunder or parades down Fifth Avenue (unless you count floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade) but we’ve been accepted. It’s perfectly cool for fashion models to read comics on the subway, for bookstores to stock whole shelves with graphic novels, for anyone working in the business to tell their banker what they do for a living. We’ve been assimilated. We’re part of the landscape now. The San Diego Con is part of the wider cultural landscape now. And that’s great, because underneath it all, it’s one big message telling the wider culture out there that comics are okay, comics are fun, comics have value. Maybe we ain’t the belle of our own ball anymore, though there were certainly enough people at the DC booth, and the Image booth and the Dark Horse booth and the Marvel/Activision booth and the Fantagraphics booth every time I got anywhere near them, but even if that’s true, what we’ve got instead is something we can capitalize on for the future.

    So get over it. And have some fun.

    So I stop by Mike Mignola’s table, where a couple people are looking at his artwork, and say, “Hey, Mike, lemme get this straight. People are standing in line for a lottery to get a ticket so they can stand in line to get your autograph…” He continued my thought, “… when they could just come over here and get my autograph anytime. I don’t get it either.” Comics fans. Heh.

    One thing about Comic-Con International that should be changed.

    I don’t know how much control the convention has over this. A decade of so back I did an all night seminar at San Diego where a group of “students” (the most famous “graduate” was Dozelle Young) learned how to write comics the hard way, by cobbling together a five pager that was eventually drawn and saw print in DARK HORSE PRESENTS. I briefly brought up some sort of pay and was told the policy of the convention was that when people paid for their tickets that was their total required outlay for any Con programs, a stance I agreed with.

    They’re technically not con programs, but actors in particular who are selling autographed pictures on the floor are getting a little out of hand. Of course, this started during the ’90s, when sports figures and even comics talent started selling their autographs instead of simply giving them to the fans, which made some sense as speculators were trying to turn around autographed items for big cash on a grand scale and if they were going to make a lot of money it was only fair the signers got a cut of the loot as well. (Though there were always ways around it; I once watched Barry Windsor-Smith send a woman half into shock – she had claimed she wanted autographed comics for her personal collection – by personalizing his autograph on everything she wanted signed.) That speculator market has largely burst, but the practice is still very much in vogue. And I can understand participants in the autograph area charging for their signatures, though I don’t much approve of it; many of the performers who do this have few other revenue sources these days. But when, say, you go to the LucasFilm’s pavilion, and stand in line for an autograph from some old STAR WARS performer, only to find when you get to the table that photos are $5 and autographs are $30, man, there’s just something way too cheesy about that. First off, it’s LucasFilms, and a big, expensive booth. LucasFilms can’t just flat pay them for their time? They’ve theoretically brought the performers in to please the fans. At the very least they could post prices somewhere that could be seen before you waste a lot of time in line, instead of flat on the table when you get up to it. Of course, then there wouldn’t be as much intimidation into springing for the price, though there were plenty of people walking away in disgust. Which is exactly the reaction you don’t want from fans.

    No, it wasn’t me who stood in line, and it’s not just limited to LucasFilms (though actors with current films to push seem to have no problem at all signing autographs for free), and, like I said, I don’t know if there’s anything the convention can actually do about this, but I’d like to see the practice banned. The last thing we need is anything that leaves a sour taste in anyone’s mouth. (Hell, the lines most people had to suffer through to get in – including professionals this year – are enough to do that, but the con has very little control over that as well, by order of the fire marshal.)

  • In 1983, I pitched Epic on a series called TALISMAN. Archie Goodwin, who was always very encouraging, liked it. It was a black comedy, a twisted modern day mystical epic that undercut itself at every opportunity, premised on the idea that every organization, from the 4H Club through International Telephone And Telegraph, was an occult secret society, only all of them thought they were the only one because no one could talk about them without severe repercussions. None of them could quite figure out why their spells went awry, and while it was one thing when their secrets were the repository of a tiny cults of warrior-priests in times past, but now that anyone can buy Aleister Crowley books in bus station paperback racks, things were getting a bit out of hand. I plotted a six issue arc, wrote the first story, and started tracking down an artist. Good artists were as difficult to find then as they are now. I approached my friend Paul Smith, who decided he’d rather take the offer he got to do DR. STRANGE. I approached Steve Dillon, then just coming off “Marvelman” in WARRIOR, and he agreed before vanishing off the face of the earth. That was how it went. Eventually I gave up trying to find anyone – it’s funny, but you can always find plenty of artists you don’t want on a project, but then you have to decide what’s more important, getting out a version of your story that you’re not happy with just to get it out, or risking never getting it out by waiting for the right artist, and in this case I chose the latter, mainly because I didn’t want to let the Epic team down since their books generally had great production and looked really good and I wouldn’t have wanted to waste that – and the project languished. Recently someone suggested I dig it up and recreate it as a novel, so I thought I might give that a crack. The opening:

    On waking, Megan Palmer instantly recognized two facts: she was naked, and the chill, pitch-black tomb was too small to hold her comfortably. An attempted shout creaked out of her, the effort aching in her chest as though her lungs had not been used in some time, and reflexively, in panic but barely able to move her hands, she clawed at the walls and ceiling.

    The coolness of metal on skin calmed her. Wherever she was, it was no tomb as she had first thought. Feeling more carefully, but still unable to see more than dull grey fog slowly lightening from charcoal to dark ash, Megan found ridges on the side walls. As she pressed them, something moved slightly, and a tiny slit of dim light appeared at her feet. She pushed harder, and the crack widened a sliver and no more, but it provided her with a sense of direction and promise of escape. She squirmed in the tiny space, her skin squashed against the imprisoning metal, until muscles soft from long disuse woke and obeyed. At last, she wriggled her hands to the wall – or was it a ceiling? – beyond her head. Her palms pressed against more metal as her elbows bent painfully against her chest.

    Braced against the metal, Megan extended her arms explosively. The drawer that held her jumped roughly over a bump, then glided softly out into the closed morgue.

    Though she has never before been in such a room, it took no imagination for Megan to recognize it. What light there was came from a hallway through glass panels in twin swinging door. She sat up and swung reluctant legs out of the drawer, and saw her drawer was two levels up, just one in a wall full of drawers. At the end of a short drop, her feet hit the cool linoleum of the floor numbly. She tumbled forward as her legs buckled, painful jolts ripping through her hips as her knees slammed against the floor, but she stopped her fall with her hands. There, on hands and knees like a baby, she looked at the four stainless steel tables set in a row at equal intervals across the length of the room, where coroners sliced bodies open for their secrets.

    She crawled to a table and pulled herself up, leaning against it for support and first wiggling her toes, then flexing her ankles and raising her knees less than an inch, then a little more and more until feeling finally returned to her legs. She took a tentative step away, falling back in panic for support as her knees wobbled, then venturing out again, a new Columbus setting across an uncertain sea, lurching clumsily but resolutely toward the door.

    Thinking Dear God, what am I doing here?

    The night watchman eyed her without interest. His groin stirred and his pulse quickened as Megan’s full beauty swayed in his direction, but twenty years’ experience left a disconnect in his head. His job and marriage both depended on his ability to ignore women like Megan, the ones who crawled out of the morgue at all hours, and he had grown quite practiced at it. He fished a hero sandwich from a lunch bucket and took a bite, savoring the slight crunch of bread crust, the salty slickness of roast beef and American cheese, the bite of mustard as he turned his attention to the small television on his desk. Some sitcom, in late night rerun. A goofy husband had insulted his wife, hurting her feelings, then instead of apologizing defended his behavior and made jokes about it. The watchman laughed, but he felt superior to the man in the show. He knew better than to insult his wife, and better than to defend himself if he did. Sometimes swallowing your pride was the only way out.

    The smell of meat hit her nostrils a moment before she saw the man, setting days of hunger ablaze in her stomach. That fire burned away all consciousness of her name and her nudity, so important to her only moments earlier, of everything but the blob of flesh seated before her and the promise of food that he held. The hunger pushed her with new urgency, and she tried to call out, but only a wheezy rasp crackled from her desiccated throat. It rose on a surge of air to a desolate inhuman moan, the anguished cry of some broken beast. She did not, at first, connect the noise to her own voice. But it was enough to draw, finally, the man’s attention.

    Blandly, he asked, “Coca-cola?”

    Gratefully, Megan downed the syrupy black liquid. Carbonation burned life back into her throat and sizzled at her guts, while wet and sweetness revived her tongue. The watchman handed her a third of his sandwich. She snatched it from him and tore at it like an animal, gnawing off huge chunks and washing them down with the Coke. He watched her with fascination, and it occurred to her in mid-bite that she was naked.

    “Don’t try to talk too much,” he warned. “Give it time. Short sentences.”

    “Where am I?” she said.

    “City morgue,” he said, and, seeing confusion in her eyes, added, “Boston.”

    “Morgue?”

    “Uh-huh.”

    “Not dead.”

    “I assume you were,” he said blandly, “or you wouldn’t be here.”

    He didn’t make sense. Her head hurt. She leafed through fractured memories: Stockbridge, a car, lightning. Her name. Nothing fit. Pieces wafted out of reach, shattered into dust when she turned her mind’s eye on them.

    “I was dead?”

    He nodded.

    “And now I’m alive.”

    The watchman shrugged and nodded again, losing interest.

    “Isn’t that strange?”

    “Actually,” he said, with casual authority, “it happens quite a bit. But people don’t like to talk about it much. Is there someone you want to call? Family?”

    Megan shook her head. “I don’t think I have any. Alive, at any rate.” She wondered now how she’d ever know for sure, or if, if any were alive, they’d be thrilled or appalled by her resurrection.

    She sat for a long time in silence, nibbling at the corpse of the sandwich, gaping at him with nothing to say until he began to squirm nervously. “There’s a lost and found up on the third floor. You can get some clothes from there.”

    She walked onto the Boston street still slick with summer rain, and into an empty world dead of noise and people, as though she had sidestepped the real world. She still wondered how she got there. The green sateen shirt she wore fit well, but her oversized jeans were held on by a man’s thick belt a size too small and old sneakers were fitted to her feet by t-shirt scraps stuffed in the toes. She felt like a tramp, the kind comedians used to love to play on TV before it became unfashionable but could still be seen in reruns on dozens of cable channels. A loan of twenty dollars from the watchman sat in her pocket along with the address of a mail drop where she could send the payback, though with his face he had made it clear he didn’t expect one.

    A taxi sloshed by a block away and then vanished, a sign to show she was still in the real world. A world where people didn’t just die then come back to life. She believed – she hoped – whatever happened to her had happened in Stockbridge, the last place she remembered.

    Megan Palmer looked to the south. Somewhere out there was the highway west. She made up her mind to start walking, and at the highway to hitchhike to Stockbridge and answers.

  • NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD:

    Okay, so it’s a little vacation after all. Back to normal next week.

    Sadly, Jim Aparo died this morning, as I write this. CBR ran a nice obituary for him. Aparo was one of the great unsung comics artists of the past 30 years, one of the Giordano acolytes (along with Denny O’Neil, Pat Boyette and Steve Ditko) who made the transition with Dick to DC Comics when Dick became an editor there. Prior to that, Aparo had an interesting, energetic style, but at DC it matured into something slick and precise without losing any of its energy. His work was great, and he was best known for many years on Batman books starting with millions of Bob Haney-scripted teamups in BRAVE AND THE BOLD, but his greatest work may be his run on Len Wein’s vastly underrated PHANTOM STRANGER series of the early ’70s. (DC should collect the series in trade immediately; it was way ahead of its time and for my money better even than Len’s star project of the day, the original SWAMP THING series.) Aparo was one of the artists I most dreamed of working with when I was a teenager who dreamed of writing comics. I don’t know if he was ever a fan favorite, but he was a terrific draftsman and master storyteller and not only could he sell comics to readers, the comics he did was beautiful. The only reason his death isn’t more of a loss for the business is that he had already retired, but he’s still a great loss, another little bit of history gone. Isn’t it time for a Jim Aparo revival now?

    Before I forget, thanks to everyone who made San Diego such a good time this year: Shane and Victor Riches, Rick Alexander, Danny Fingeroth, Bob Schreck, Ross Richie, Diana Schutz, Mike Richardson, Eduardo Barretto, Cully Hamner, Matt Haley, Larry Young and Mimi Rosenheim, Keven Gardner, Chris Ryall, Tim Bradstreet, Dirk Deppey, Eric Reynolds, John Layman, Michael Chabon, Rich! Starkings, I know I’m missing people and I apologize for that, and the gobs of readers who managed to find me in that condensed little city of tens of thousands to tell me how much they like either this column or my books.

    Last week’s cover challenge turned out easier than I expected, though not without complications. The answer is: all the comics pictured were intended to be regular titles but lasted only two issues. Some have written to say that Avon’s U.S. TANK COMMANDOS went four issues, but I’ve never seen evidence of more than two. Others have noted that ALIEN WORLDS lasted several issues at Pacific Comics, but the issue I ran was from the Eclipse Comics run, which lasted two issues. Or three, if you count the one shot released four years after the other two, but I don’t.

    Last week’s cover challenge winner is Soon Van, who wants to plug The Wax Conspiracy. (He didn’t mention it, but Soon Van himself can be found at Random Echo.

    This week’s cover challenge should be fairly easy. I was going to come up with something much harder, but under the circumstances decided against it. And that’s the only clue you’re going to get. As usual, the first to email me with the correct answer gets to plug a website of their choice.

    Welcome to Robert Kirkman, writer of Image’s INVINCIBLE and THE WALKING DEAD (drawn by my old pal Charlie Adlard, who I managed to briefly connect with at San Diego) as well as various comics for Marvel, who joins Comic Book Resources – and the ranks of Warren Ellis, Gail Simone, Joe Casey, Scott McCloud, Scott Shaw!, and… um… I know there were more… does Matt Fraction count? – as a columnist in the near future. Hopefully he’ll last longer than Mark did, but it’s a grueling way of life. And welcome to Erik Larsen too, who I’m told will also be contributing a column, though there’s been no official word on it yet. Check the site’s main page for more details.

    Just remember, you guys: 200.

    Some good news and some bad news. The good news: my desktop computer, which went south in mid-June, resurrected itself when I got home from San Diego. Turns out the problem’s not the motherboard at all, but the external drive I attached as an easy way to transfer files between distant computers where email might not be the best solution. (I just don’t have the capacity to up-and-download a couple gigs of data.) On a whim, I switched on the computer before hooking my notebook back up to my local network – and the desktop came on! So I turn it off, hook up all components, switch it back on… Nothing. Pondered it a little, figured out what was different, unhooked the external drive – and bam! There the desktop was again, functioning beautifully. I still need to replace it sooner than later, since the motherboard and chips date back to ’97 or so, but it’ll hang in there for my purposes for the moment, knock wood.

    The bad news: I can now update my Paper Movies website. This means that you only have until the end of July to take advantage of the extended sale at the Paper Movies store of my two pdf format e-books

    IMPOLITIC: A Journal Of The Plague Years Pt. 1 – commentary on American politics and paranoia in the terror years, collected from almost four years worth of PERMANENT DAMAGE

    and

    TOTALLY OBVIOUS – a collection of all the essays on comics, creativity, culture and the freelance life that ran in MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS from 1998-2000, with tons of tips and insights on the inner workings of the comics medium and the comics industry

    in a special bargain priced package, available optimized for either print or screen. Go to the Paper Movies store for details, and remember: only 11 days left.

    Lots of interesting project news coming out of San Diego, but it will have to wait until I firm up the details. In the meantime, the final issue of my CSI mini-series, SECRET IDENTITY, finally really did come out from IDW last week, but since you probably don’t care what I have to say about it, go see what Chris Allen has to say about it instead. You can trust him because he never lies and he’s always right.

    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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