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Issue #217

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #217

THIS WEEK:

FIGHT CLUBS: what’s up with the WWE today, and what dire lessons it has for the comics industry

ORWELL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE: failure is success, lies are rebranding

CHERCHEZ LA FEMME: women and the literary graphic novel

:

NOTES FROM UNDER THE FLOORBOARD: covers

  • I’ve occasionally cited World Wrestling Entertainment as a potential model for struggling comics publishers, particularly when owner Vince McMahon was coming back from the twin disaster of his company and his top stars being nearly destroyed (not to mention Vince himself flirting with a lengthy prison stretch) by a steroid prosecution and the mountains of bad publicity it generated, not to mention rapidly shifting audience tastes and the sudden rise of a more exciting (which is to say unpredictable) promotion with national exposure. All of which combined to crush Vince’s bottom line and send him spiraling toward second class citizenry in a field he had pretty much created. (No, not pro wrestling, which had been around forever, but pro wrestling as national cartoon.)

    Having built his fortunes in the ’80s on generating a product drenched in pop celebrities from Cyndi Lauper and Alice Cooper to Pete Rose and Laurence Taylor that was mainly geared toward children, with most of his wrestlers playing gimmicky over the top “characters” (i.e. Latino wrestler Tito Santana abruptly became the fearless Matador, complete with suit of lights, while his former tag partner Rick Martel, turning heel, became the obnoxious Model) – comic books brought to a weird sort of life and engaged in constant struggles of good and evil, by the mid ’90s Vince saw his audience collapse to basically the diehard wrestling fans, and they cared nothing for goofy characters or steroid freaks incapable of much in the ring besides lumbering. Vince’s “genius” has been much overemphasized, particularly in WWE press releases, but throughout much of the ’90s his choices came mostly out of desperation and lack of other options. Bret Hart, arguably the best wrestler alive in the ’90s, would never have become Vince’s world champion in the ’80s nor have held the spot for any length of time had he won the belt – he was much smaller than the wrestlers Vince preferred, and his interview style far terser, more businesslike, more old school than, say, the endlessly jolly, endlessly self-aggrandizing Hulk Hogan or the entertainingly incomprehensible Randy “Macho Man” Savage or The Ultimate Warrior – but he became the WWF’s anchor for half the ’90s because a) the remaining fans loved him and b) there really wasn’t anyone else. Except Shawn Michaels, who was even smaller. (Vince’s obvious choice, the monstrous Undertaker, was too much a reminder of the cartoon days – he eventually gave up his old west mortician’s suit for biker gear – and was nowhere near the wrestlers Hart and Michaels were.)

    Bret was a good decision, but the dark days were filled with bad ones. McMahon became almost entirely reactive, especially after Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling went live directly opposite the WWF’s top show, MONDAY NIGHT RAW, and trounced it weekly for almost two years afterward, building on a foundation of talent, like Hogan and Savage, mostly nicked from the WWF. Vince, who ultimately made all the decisions for his company, kept trying to move back into his cartoon steroid monsters comfort zone, but the audience wouldn’t have it. Bret held onto the core group, but what really turned things around wasn’t anything Vince did. Vince brought in a wrestler, recently fired from WCW, named Steve Austin, who debuted with a bland gimmick called The Ring Master, supposedly the ultimate wrestling technician. Nobody bought it. Stung, Austin came up with his own character, the brutal, beer-swilling, authority-bashing Stone Cold Steve Austin. Vince thought it would never fly but didn’t have anything better for Austin, so he let him run with it. Audiences loved Stone Cold. Then the Rock got in on it, and a small parade of other wrestlers, the action/violence level escalated and escalated, and on Austin’s shoulders the WWE hit success undreamed of in the Hogan days, with Austin becoming far more popular, and with a much older, more financially endowed crowd, than Hogan had ever been. It wasn’t long before WCW was crushed (more due to internal politics and ineptness than WWE dominance, to be fair) and bought by the WWE, and Vince, shockingly, became uncontested champion of pro wrestling in America.

    In the dark days of 1994, that would have seems utterly unimaginable.

    As I said, I’ve used this riches-to-rags-to-riches story, in greater detail, as an inspirational parable for the comics business, which has gone down similar roads at similar times, but without the dramatic resurrection. (American comics have their own WCW now, in the form of manga, but no Stone Cold Steve Austin in sight.) So it’s only fair that I now bring up that the WWE completely sucks again, and its finances reflect it. You can say it’s part of the wrestling “cycle” (a traditional argument in wrestling circles, and common in comics circles as well) but it follows on a slew of bad, egocentric decisions and the WWE’s inability to generate any real stars in the wake of Austin sidelined with injuries and personal problems and the Rock leaving for the richer shores of Hollywood. Recent developments have seen Monday Night Raw dumped by Spike TV to return to its old USA Channel home at a worse deal for Vince, and WWE Smackdown, airing on UPN (and bafflingly portrayed as the inferior program in the WWE’s own storylines) banished from a successful Thursday night slot to struggle in the Friday night wastelands. To fill the Austin/Rock void, Vince has endlessly promoted his now-son-in-law, Hunter Hearst Helmsley (ne Jean-Paul Levesque), an adequate, not particularly charismatic performer they’ve tried to anoint god of wrestling. Most recent shows display the McMahon ego and the stench of desperation, as Vince falls back into old habits: a pageant of female “wrestler” stripping each other to bras and panties in clumsy t&a acts, gimmick wrestlers (like a recent cowboy/redneck tag team), brutally jobbing out new wrestlers to tired old talent if the newbies don’t become huge successes in a month (ensuring they’ll never be considered viable). Not that the audience hasn’t been ready to take to new wrestlers: a rapidly growing Latino audience has rallied behind performers like Rey Mysterio Jr. while veteran “Latino Heat” Eddie Guerrero has a huge following among all ethnic groups. But WWE isn’t using them. One very popular wrestler, Christian, recently announced his departure from the promotion after years of being jobbed out to other wrestlers despite being a terrific performer and a great talker and getting huge audience reactions. (Like many comics marketing departments, the WWE today seems to punish unintended successes when what they’re trying to push isn’t getting over.)

    Recently Vince decided the reason for Raw’s ratings decline was its key announcer, Jim Ross, a respected veteran who was abruptly declared too old and ugly for the WWE’s intended hip young demographic, and Ross was abruptly dumped – without an adequate replacement – and at the same time that Vince has been bringing back every gone to seed old act he can get his hands on, from Rowdy Roddy Piper (whose arms are now toothpicks and whose gut is now immense) to Jimmy Snuka to Goldust. The Ross dismissal was exacerbated by an extended skit playing on Ross’ concurrent colon operation, a video of the “operation” where McMahon himself pulls ridiculous item after item out of “Ross”‘ bottom. It amused absolutely no one but McMahon – for almost half an hour of TV time.

    It climaxed, so to speak, last week during a pay per view that fully demonstrated the WWE’s creative collapse. The week before, Ross’ return was made a stipulation in a match between the returning Stone Cold (on his friend Ross’ side) and the non-wrestler announcer who was supposed to replace Ross. It fell apart during the interceding weekend, when Austin learned he was supposed to lose to the announcer because Ross’ return was never a possibility. Austin refused to go along with it, and dropped out of the pay per view. The pay per view gimmick was that viewers could vote on match types, stipulations and even players, with the WWE strongly encouraging certain outcomes, but even there things fell apart. In the opening match, the desired performers were outvoted by fan favorites Rey Mysterio Jr and Matt Hardy, whose recent saga is a small volume in itself. Hardy, an excellent performer constantly trashed by booking (he’s another player of relatively small size), put on a terrific show to wild approval in the best match on the card, but it’s unlikely McMahon will choose to spotlight him, for dozens of arbitrary reasons. Most matches on the show were sub-par.

    The same week saw major shows by the WWE’s two main rivals, the small, Memphis-based TNA (Total Non-Stop Action) and the climax of Ultimate Fighting Championship’s ULTIMATE FIGHTER Season 2 finale. Neither promotion – UFC isn’t a wrestling promotion, featuring instead real fights – is likely to dominate the WWE anytime soon, but they spotlighted the WWE’s severe current deficiencies. TNA, which has made its reputation by nurturing smaller wrestlers in quicker moving, more exciting matches with their X division, has arguably the best wrestler in America today, “the Phenomenal” A.J. Styles; two thirds of their show was literally non-stop action, an amazing display that left the WWE’s pay per view in the dust. Gaining ground on the WWE’s last cable home, Spike TV, TNA has recently produced impressive show after impressive show but is hampered by incessant focus on its current world champion Jeff Jarrett, son of the promotion’s former owner. A decent but unspectacular wrestler, Jarrett’s gimmick is a bad temper and a wooden guitar that he breaks over opponents’ heads, a shtick that was tired twenty years ago. Neither interesting nor credible, he seems to have the company’s management convinced people will pay money to watch him. They won’t. Like WCW, TNA now seems to be pinning its fortunes on bringing in ex-WWE talent, and the departed Christian (real name Jay Rezo) is almost certainly headed there. If Rezo can bring along his audience and supplant Jarrett as focus, TNA might have something but, as things stand now, a Jarrett-led TNA (they don’t seem to be inclined to take the title off Jarrett and put it back on the promotion’s real star, the smaller but far superior Styles) is destined to be stuck in the small time. They won’t rise to WWE levels, though they may live to see the WWE come down to theirs.

    Like TNA‘s show, the ULTIMATE FIGHTER finale was also nonstop action, easily the most exhausting three hours of TV in recent memory. UFC was founded over a decade ago (though it wasn’t the first of its kind) to pit different fighting styles against each other to determine which was actually the best. The early years of UFC, before the rules were firmly established, were in the some ways the most interesting, since they demolished the myth of the “magic fighting arts”; it’s a truism that if a wrestler (amateur style, not the choreographed pro wrestling style) fights a boxer, if he can stand against the boxer for three minutes the wrestler will win, and it turns out that’s usually just as true when a wrestler battles a kung fu fighter. (Yeah, yeah, I know… kung fu fighters who fight in arenas aren’t masters because masters don’t fight, and even the best wrestler could never beat a martial arts master… I’ve heard it, but until someone proves that’s not just part of the “magic fighting arts” mystique let’s stick with the verifiable…) While different styles are still represented in UFC, such as Thai kickboxing, UFC has over the years developed into its own combo style, and most participants learn to perform and defend both standing and on the ground – a natural adaptation to the environment.

    The first season of ULTIMATE FIGHTER, the UFC’s reality show where fighters on the rise train and compete to square off for a “six figure” UFC contract, was fascinating and generated several new stars for the promotion. The recent second season was less interesting; focus went mostly to UFC president Dana White, a non-fighter who regularly blathered on about toughness, bringing it, and other fight-related topics with a supreme authority and unshakeable conviction that put him across as sort of a skinny, balding mixed martial arts version of THE SIMPSONS‘ comic book guy, and the coaches, current UFC champions Matt Hughes and Rich Franklin. Hughes was particularly cast as the villain of the show, an implacably humorless slavedriver constantly putting his team through the paces, ruthlessly setting “weak links” up for failure, and petulantly taking it out on the rest of his team any time one of his guys lost. (In each episode, a fighter from Hughes’ team went against a fighter from Franklin’s, with the loser eliminated from the contest; White awarded each winner $5000 if they won by knockout or submission rather than judges’ decision.) It wasn’t until the last couple weeks of the show that many of the fighters even became distinguishable, mainly through attrition. Curiously, only one of the anticipated winners made the finals, welterweight Joe Stevenson (one of the local Las Vegas boys). His opponent was Luke Commo, a self-proclaimed fighting nerd who trained via yoga and macrobiotic diet, loved STAR WARS and action figures, danced to the ring in a ninja outfit, and proved to be an overwhelming fighter who took out two golden boys on his way to the top. Among the heavyweights, the story of the season was Rashad Evans, who started out the season by winning what White called “the worst fight ever” and ticking off Hughes, who believed Evans had no “respect,” then plowing through two tough opponents in later fights, upping his game each time. His opponent was neophyte Brad Imes, a 6’7″ former football player who towered above everyone else and overwhelmed his two opponents via sheer weight advantage.

    So the finale came as something of a shock. First season’s runner-up Kenny Florian took on a Thai kickboxing champion and submitted him in the second round with a choke after disabling the kickboxer’s arm at the bell in the first. Joe Stevenson won the welterweight contract, but by decision; though having no trouble wrestling Cummo to the ground, he couldn’t manage to get an end move on the slippery Cummo, who turned himself into a new star by continuously reversing Stevenson and even rocking him a couple times. It was a moment wrestling promotions kill for: a performer turning himself into a draw by losing. The heavyweight bout between Imes and Evans, though sloppy as hell, turned into the perfect wrestling storyline, with the much smaller Evans holding his own against Imes’ greater weight, reach and striking power and even controlling much of the match. Certainly Dana White was thrilled, as, with both fighters exhausted but plowing forward through the match’s end, it all came down to what White loved calling “heart.” And certainly, when the previously chastised and reviled Evans took the decision and won the contract, it was the perfect wrapup to the perfect unscripted wrestling angle, the triumph/vindication of the guy everyone said shouldn’t even be there.

    The show’s wrap-up pitted first season winner Diego Sanchez against jui-jitsu striker Nick Diaz. Everyone had Diaz, who has beaten down some pretty serious competition, to win, but wrestler Sanchez took him to the mat time and time again with appalling ease, where it became something rarely seen in UFC: an almost pure wrestling match with an array of blisteringly face moves and countermoves. It was a great ending to a great night of TV, and though Diaz was skilled enough to avoid being submitted, by the match’s end you could spot the winner in the fighters’ faces; Sanchez was virtually unscathed, while Diaz looked like he had been in a fight.

    So what’s this got to do with comics?

    The importance of UFC and TNA at this point in time isn’t in how large their audience is but in, during a week when all were on big display, how easily both beat Vince McMahon at his own game. Odds are that’s going to continue and, while both have facets that will likely limit their growth potential (Jarrett for TNA, the perceived “violence” of UFC), anytime someone comes in and outdoes WWE (which has been happening a lot lately) it erodes WWE’s audience. Still, Vince makes no move to adjust the way he does business. If anything, he backtracks, trying to rely on worn-out ideas that once worked a long time ago, as if all audiences are the same and what was good for one must be good for the next. He pays no attention to what his audience responds to, insisting instead that they’re going to take what he wants them to want, and like it. New acts get sacrificed to fading older acts right and left, destroying audience interest in them. Nattering like old men, he and his inner circle frequently dismiss and insult “internet fans,” completely ignoring that most people now have internet access and many use it to follow their interests, including pro wrestling. Instead of giving his performers creative latitude with their characters, as he did with Austin and the Rock, McMahon now keeps tight control via a writing staff that micromanages and prepackages everything, bleeding off much spontaneity and energy in the process. His promotion has become less about selling a product and attracting an audience, and more about gratifying his own ego by imposing his own biases on whoever’s left while trying to puff his chest enough to convince everyone that everything’s still great, the best it has ever been. Which further erodes the audience. Which is too bad, because he still has many gifted performers working for him, like Chris Benoit and Eddie Guerrero, going to waste while he wallows in suicidal self-indulgence and office politics gut whatever exists of morale behind the scenes.

    Any of this sound familiar?

    In his success, Vince McMahon was a man worthy of emulation, and I recommended picking up and applying a few of his tricks. Because what happened with pro wrestling since the collapse of WCW (a collapse that curiously almost exactly parallels the WWE’s current situation but was apparently not learned from) could easily happen to our business (and to some extent already has, since we never really came out of our ’90s collapse), in Vince’s decline, it’s worth noting his errors and striving to avoid them, or, better, anticipating what led to them and making pre-emptive strikes.

    Not that I expect it.

  • Another fabulous week or so for the Hand Puppet: Supreme Court nominees, bird flu, economic slowdowns and a lovely South American vacation. Though it’s probably not a good idea to get him upset: his wife Laura tells the story of how monster mom Barbara once told her above all else to never criticize one of his speeches, and the one time Laura did he got cranky and plowed their car into a wall. She didn’t specify if it was intentional, but that was the implication. And seeing how his hand’s still ostensibly on the steering wheel of the country and he’s surrounded by nothing but brick walls these days…

    Not that, by reports, he actually expected to achieve anything at the recent summit on creating a free trade zone in the western hemisphere, but he got one thing out of it: the targeting of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez as new enemy of democracy and foreign policy public enemy #1. As we now know, “democracy” is a White House euphemism for “unquestioningly supporting American goals and ambitions,” and Chavez has certainly stood in the way of those (not to mention in the way of an increased flow of cheap oil from Venezuelan wells) for some time now (you may remember either the right Reverend Pat Robertson’s call not too long ago for Chavez’s assassination – presumably God told Pat it would be a good idea – or the recent failed attempted coup on Chavez that evidence indicates had support at high levels of the American government), but Chavez was far from the only Latin American representative turning down the accord. Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, among South America’s most powerful countries, also joined in, citing economic and social disparities that would only calcify if suddenly American business was given unfettered access to their markets. A protest rally of 35,000 and a brief riot (I’m putting my money on agent provocateurs) punctuated the summit, which found the Hand Puppet leaving grumpily before its conclusion.

    But what was the accord for, if not a present for American business, much like pretty much every policy decision by the White House since the Hand Puppet took office? (Republicans among the readership may now feel free to rail against the unfairness of the double entendre accusation in the last sentence, though I only realized it after I wrote it.) Take bird flu, for example, which has now elevated from a potentially deadly annoyance to, as one pundit put it, a species threatening pandemic in the making. Recently the Hand Puppet unveiled a multi-tiered program to deal with the threat, apparently unaware that far deadlier diseases kill thousands around the globe daily to almost zero fanfare. I’m reminded of swine flu, the impending killer of millions in the ’70s, during which reign public officials screeched in panic about immunizations but which never materialized to any degree. Which isn’t to say avian flu won’t, and it’s of course better to be prepared, but the Hand Puppet’s “preparations” are about as geared toward saving the public as The Patriot Act was toward preserving American liberty. An impressive amount of money has been allotted for preparations, no doubt further infuriating right wingers tired of the current administration doling out public funds like party favors – even they’ve grasped the concept that when you’ve emptied the coffers into tax refunds you can’t spend like there’s no tomorrow without making it a self-fulfilling prophecy – and of public welfare programs, which parts of the anti-bird flu policy obviously art, but even cursory calculations show that the money allotted is just a drop in the bucket to what’s needed if bird flu really gets as threatening as predicted.

    So what’s the point? Less noted by the press were two other facets of the policy – the suggested use of the American military as a means to round up American citizens in the event they’re deemed a “health threat” to others (this breaks existing laws, not that both Democrats and Republicans haven’t been trying to undermine them for decades anyway, but, if the Patriot Act is any indicator, it’s presumably the President who can unilaterally decide who’s a “health threat,” the way he can now decide who’s a terrorist), and the immunization of drug companies from lawsuits, something drug companies have been long been clamoring for.

    Think about that one a moment. The Hand Puppet wants drug companies to put a massive push on development of a bird flu vaccine. Because of the gravity of the threat, time is of the essence; the suggestion is that whatever the drug companies put forth the FDA will quickly approve. Normally drugs and vaccines take a long time to get approved in this country. They have to go through fairly rigorous tests. Some see this as an impediment to the rights of business, and certainly one of the first things Reagan did upon taking office was appoint a new head for the FDA who was deep in cahoots with drug companies and who made it his personal mission to find rules to relax so they could get to the all-important business of making money sooner. (It’s also something of a myth that drug companies spend a lot of money on research and development; more than a few drugs have been developed by the American government on the taxpayer dime and turned over to drug companies royalty free to be marketed to the public at high profit.) The only reason to declare drug companies off limits to lawsuits is if you think there are going to be lawsuits. Why would there be lawsuits? If the vaccines, created quickly and rushed through the process, harmed or killed people. And that’s the real upshot of the Hand Puppet’s bird flu “policy”: you can have your choice of getting sick or dying by the bird flu, if it materializes, or by the vaccine that will prevent it, and nobody gets responsibility for it but you, while drug companies laugh all the way to the bank. (I’m still not clear whether the proposed immunity from prosecution is specific or a blanket deal, but I suspect they’ll push the latter if they think they can get away with it.)

    Then again, I’m probably thinking through the ramifications more than he has. Harriet Myers is proof enough of that; while there have been Supreme Court justices down the centuries with zero courtroom experience, and some of them have been pretty good judges, there haven’t been many nominees whose main qualification was dogged loyalty to a specific president. It was no great surprise when she removed herself from consideration, though it was a surprise that Democrats were ready to accept her and it was Republicans who drove her out. But I dunno; if I were a devious man, I’d think the whole thing was a charade to present subsequent nominee Samuel Alito as a reasonable alternative. Alito’s basically Antonin Scalia revisited, a right wing Catholic and “storied jurist.” But what are the stories? He ruled AIDS victims could be fired whether the firing was justified or not. That businesses can’t be sued by employees for racist practices. That the EPA can’t force businesses to clean up the messes they make. That attacks on gays in schools were a First Amendment right. That police aren’t limited to the specifics of search warrants but can pretty much use them to cover anything they want. That stockholders have no right to sue corporations for misrepresenting themselves. In fact, he has never overseen a case involving big business where he ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. His rulings on abortion – he’s against it – have been overturned by the Supreme Court itself. He favors the right of the presidency to wrap itself in secrecy, believes oversight of the White House by Congress is a breach of the division of powers, and supports the anti-democratic provisions of the Patriot Act that basically eliminate the concept of habeus corpus in this country. This could come in handy if the investigation into the Valerie Plame/CIA leak, which has so far netted Cheney second Scooter Libby and still threatens to net Hand Puppet impresario Karl Rove (it’s still unclear whether Rove ratted out Libby to get himself off the hook or if Libby’s being tempted to rat out Rove) and goaded Democratic Senate Minority leader Harry Reid (in these parts we call him “Pinky”) to invoke arcane parliamentary procedure to force Republicans into an investigation into whether the Administration lied us into the Iraq mess, mushrooms. One hopes a rationale can be developed to keep him off the highest bench in the land, but, as Alito was the nominee the right wingers wanted all along, it’s unlikely, so reread the last paragraph because it’s a probable picture of life in America for the rest of Alito’s judicial career.

    But at least a few good things have come from all this. If nothing else, bird flu has given the Hand Puppet new belief in the theory of evolution (he baldly stated it evolved into a form threatening to humans) and the impending prosecution of Libby prompted the President’s hitherto unsuspected conviction that everyone deserves a fair, speedy trial and the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. I hope someone lets Jose Padilla know, as soon as they can find him.

    (By the way, the Senate recently celebrated their decision to investigation Iraq allegations by opening the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve to oil drilling. You may now choose whether to applaud or decry this.)

  • Last week, someone wrote in asking for suggestions of “literary” comics/graphic novels by women aside from PERSEPOLIS. The responses were illuminating. No less than PUBLISHERS WEEKLY correspondent Heidi Macdonald strongly recommended Posy Simmons’ GEMMA BOVARY, which she describes as “a brilliant yuppie/late 90s take on MADAME BOVARY that turns the novel around and recasts it for these modern times. It’s one of the most literary graphic novels I’ve ever read, let alone by a woman.” (The curious can view Simmons’ work online at TAMARA DREW.) Heidi also cited Jessica Abel, Megan Kelso and Lynda Barry. While Simmons was suggested by many, other responses exposed a festering sore in the psyche of the comics reader.

    These were suggested: Colleen Doran’s A DISTANT SOIL. Donna Barr’s DESERT PEACH. Jill Thompson’s SCARY GODMOTHER. Carla Speed McNeill’s FINDER. Linda Medley’s CASTLE WAITING. Pia Guerra’s Y THE LAST MAN (I suspect, as did the writer, that Brian Vaughan’s involvement on script invalidates that one anyway.)

    While those certainly fall outside the scope of superhero comics, they are still genre adventure comics. That’s not what the original writer asked for. But it wasn’t unexpected; many of us have fallen into the trap of dividing comics into a two categories, superheroes and everything else. I’m not saying those aren’t good comics, or that they aren’t literate. But simply by dint of genre most wouldn’t pass a college level litmus test for “literary,” in the sense that PERSEPOLIS or GEMMA BOVARY would. Others would probably be undermined by their strongly erotic content; that sort of thing, particularly when it’s drawn, tends to throw colleges into disarray. Still, we pass along all these suggestions. The person who asked for them can choose at will.

    Other female cartoonists suggested were: Dame Darcy; Julie Doucet; Ariel Schrag; Gabrielle Bell; Debbie Dreschler; Ellen Forney; Ariel Bordeaux; Mary Fleener; Dori Seda; Trina Robbins; Catherine Doherty; Madison Clell; Renee French; Roberta Gregory; Jane Irwin; Carol Swain; Phoebe Gloeckner.

    Anyone we’re missing?

  • A quick letter, as the clock winds down:

    “Thanks for the Mike Zeck link. Zeck is a favorite of mine, and black and white work by him is always welcome. (Ad agency Griffin Bacal may have executed the brilliant GI JOE television campaign in the 1980s which brought many new readers to comics, but having a Mike Zeck cover image end many of those commercials didn’t hurt either.) It’s a shame he doesn’t do comics more often, but the time to money ratio for licensed art and commissions is probably better.

    This Halloween, I had one dad and mom ask for goodies along with their three kids on Halloween, a single occasion out of the 10 or so times the doorbell rang, more them half of those involving parents accompanying kids.

    On the topic of Halloween, this is the second year I’ve given out comics with candy. I bundled grab bags of 6 or 7 comics in a Silver Age-sized bag and gave
    trick-or-treaters the option of a bag of comics or two pieces of candy. (Rot your teeth or rot your brain.) The comics were made up of Marvel and DC singles I’ve burned through this year that I don’t need to keep or sell back to the store (mostly ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN), recent 25-cent comics (THE GOON, last year’s HELLBOY special, Devil’s Due’s GI JOE relaunch, even the end of my 9-cent issue FANTASTIC FOUR stockpile), and the best pickings from bargain bins (mostly 80s GI JOE SPECIAL MISSIONS). It took a good afternoon to assemble the grab bags. Some skewed older, like a recent ULTIMATE SPIDEY arc with Carnage or some Grant Morrison NEW X-MEN, some skewed general (GI JOE), some Dkewed young (Gemstone/Disney, SIMPSONS, assorted Free Comic Book Day stuff), and some skewed toward girls (Marvel’s MARY JANE). I’m hesitant to recommend all your readers do this because a single book that goes to the
    wrong kid (or parent) could cause some major damage (ie the Gordon Lee/CBLDF case) – I kept close track of which bags had what – but I do think Halloween is a great opportunity to get comics into the hands of kids who are a) acting out fantasy roles and b) accepting anything you will give them.

    Little noticed two months ago on the first page of Diamond’s PREVIEWS (not in the Marvel and Gemstone sections where you’d expect them) was a listing for a DONALD DUCK HALLOWEEN ashcan bundle and a SPIDER-MAN ADVENTURES ashcan bundle as well, priced at something like 25 for $5. The Gemstone one (good) is a short Halloween tale by Carl Barks, the Marvel one (bad) is two tiny excerpts from Marvel’s ugly “kid” line featuring Spidey and the FF, while a third story is from the fun recent Franklin Richards one-shot. I gave these out as well.

    These ashcans are all-ages friendly. I recommend more fans buy them and more publishers offer them next year. And stores! (But the stores would have to
    sell them in bundles, otherwise jerks will just bag and board individual ones.) The Gemstone one even ends with the info for the Comic Book Shop Locator service.”

    Thanks for the tip. The Halloween ashcans are a great idea. I surprised they’re not better publicized and more companies don’t do them, since Halloween is a great chance to get focused access to a difficult to isolate market that most comics companies find desirable. As you say, it would require companies to make intelligent marketing decisions, but the right product (and not just semi-random quality-neutral reprints) could have a big impact, especially if the ashcans featured targeted advertising for other comics and a description of what “real” comics look like, as well as listing locations to buy them. Comics shops should start pushing these as well, while putting their own store labels into the books. (Presumably, the ashcans would be distributed local to the shops that sell them.) I know several people who give out comics at Halloween, and they all say kids go nuts for them, some even passing up candy for comics. I’ve never done it myself, because usually the only surplus I have to give away are those that would, as you say, do more harm than good. But it’s still a great idea.

  • Congratulations to the winner of last week’s Comics Cover Challenge, Eric Newsom, who correctly deduced the connection between the covers was – those many of you who sent in very inventive solutions, get ready to kick yourselves – the comics they fronted all featured characters killed off in DC’s original superultramegacrossover series, and the one that really started it all, Marv Wolfman & George Perez’s CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS: Supergirl, The Crime Syndicate, The Monitor, Immortal Man, Prince Ra-Man, The Losers and Aquagirl. Amazing how many have resurfaced since, isn’t it? (Almost makes the current INFINITE CRISIS unnecessary, dunnit?) Anyway, Eric wants to promote his nascent website dedicated to The Question. He warns, by the way, that not much is there yet, but he’s open to essays, reviews, images, random facts, etc. from contributors. At some point you can expect an interview with me about my own abortive connection to The Question; he intends to be thorough. Anyone who wants to get in touch with him (speaking of which: Mike Barr, he wants to interview you too, if you’re reading) can reach him via e-mail.

    Speaking of Mike Barr, Moonstone has released KOLCHAK: THE NIGHTSTALKER CHRONICLES ($18.95), a 300+ page anthology of original prose stories about everyone’s favorite monster hunting reporter. (The old version, not the current, younger TV version.) Included are stories by writers like CJ Henderson, Mike Barr, Stuart Kaminsky, Chuck Dixon, Peter David, Robert Weinberg, Max Collins and a score of others, including me. It’s a nice little package for fans of the original NIGHT STALKER. (It just occurs to me it’d make a great little Xmas present for them, too.) Naturally, I can’t review it – conflict of interest and all that – but check it out.

    Besides a plethora of wrestling and fighting events on TV last week (one almost every night), the cartoon version of Aaron McGruder’s THE BOONDOCKS debuted on Cartoon Network at 11PM last Sunday. I love McGruder’s strip but so far the cartoon is awful: sluggish, watered down, unfocused and not terribly funny or even entertaining, with most punchlines ridiculously telegraphed. Anyone who couldn’t figure out what would happen when would-be rabble rouser Huey finds himself in the real world equivalent of a recurring dream lovingly recounted as the show starts had to have been comatose. I’ll give the show a couple more shots, but so far it’s easy to see why whatever network originally commissioned it ultimately passed.

    CBS was good for some inadvertent comedy on Sunday as well, when the original movie CATEGROY 7: THE END OF THE WORLD instantly became the SHOWGIRLS of disaster films, and not just because both star Gina Gershon. Following some film I apparently missed about killer tornados destroying the country “from Las Vegas to Chicago,” this one features worldwide supermonster killer storms that delight in demolishing scenic wonders like Mt. Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower and the Pyramids, or at least cheesy Styrofoam replicas of them. Evil obviously Republican politicians enslaved by the energy lobby blithely ignore possible ecological reasons for “weather this planet was never meant to have” and “deal” with it by placing a Senator’s divorcee daughter (Gershon) in charge of FEMA mainly so they’ll have someone to scapegoat when the agency fails to achieve anything. She abandons political hackdom to enlist the one man who can figure out what’s going on – her former college boyfriend. (There’s a hilarious bit where they’re ambushed by reporters eager to create the story he’s a discredited hack hired on to be her post-divorce snuggle bunny.) Meanwhile, a TV minister’s wife (the minister, played by James Brolin, gives God’s blessing to the Kyoto protocols) plays Lady Macbeth and plots to build her husband’s ministry by planting Biblical plagues to prey on the public’s storm-driven fears of an apocalypse that’s apparently too real. Meanwhile, weather genius Shannon Doherty (really, you can’t make up stuff like this) is cruising around the countryside with storm sniffer Randy Quaid trying to catch up with supertornados while ace pilot Tom Skerritt dives a superplane into the eye of every storm he can find. It’s all in the name of science. Really, it’s too funny, since no one (presumably because they’ve read the script) even deigns to react to the devastation. If there are economic repercussions to the grain belt being wiped out, nobody bothers to mention them; the big deal is that Homeland Security fears that somehow the destruction of the dead center of the country will give terrorists greater access to America. Uh-huh. At last, a genuine new camp classic.

    No cover challenge this week. I ran across this rare Al Williamson story and wanted to run it instead, for those who’ve never seen Williamson’s pencils. Enjoy. I’ll probably alternate for awhile.

    Don’t forget my two books are available in pdf e-book form at The Paper Movies Store: TOTALLY OBVIOUS, collecting my Master Of The Obvious essays on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life; and IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS, a running commentary on American life and politics in the first half of the Terror Decade. 250+ pages each, $5.95@ or both for $10.95. What are you waiting for?

    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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