Signed a contract for a new graphic novel project last week, a reinterpretation of THE ODYSSEY. New to you, anyway; I’ve been trying to get it off the ground since I thought of it two or three years ago. There’s no question that THE ODYSSEY is one of the first great works, maybe the first great work of western civilization, curiously starring a man who’d been positioned as the villain of the war epic that preceded it, THE ILIAD. In that work, Odysseus, a general in the Greek army that attacks and ultimately destroyed the Asia Minor city of Troy, is the epitome of everything Greek culture considers vile. He connives his way out of situations he dislikes, and though a fearsome warrior in his own right prefers to use cunning and guile rather than force of arms. He’s really the man who starts the Trojan War, years before it begins; when Helen (later Helen Of Troy) is to be married and her multitude of fearsome suitors are all ready to murder whoever wins her hands, it’s Odysseus (he doesn’t even want to be there, but mores of the time dictate he has to be, though his heart already belongs to his future wife Penelope and marriage to Helen means nothing to him) who concoct the way out: all the suitors vow – vows in Greece were very sacred things – to join together against anyone who’d dare try to take Helen away from her groom.
Of course, a few years later when Paris steals Helen from her husband Meneleus, this vow is what forces all of Greece into the war against Troy, and here Odysseus again displays his foul characteristics, as (in contrast to young Achilles, greatest of Greek heroes, who ignores prophecies of doom and parental machinations to rush eagerly to war and glory) he tries to feign madness to get out of his duty. This is eventually rewarded on the battlefield when the armor of Achilles, killed by Hector (the Trojan who’s inexplicably the real hero of THE ILIAD if anyone is), is awarded to Odysseus as sort of a political payoff, and the book makes it pretty clear that both the act and recipient are vile. Finally, Odysseus is the man who breaks the stalemate and ends the war, not by leading the Greeks in final battle but by reducing them to skulking thugs who sneak into Troy under cover of the legendary Trojan Horse after it appears the Greeks have given up the war and gone home, and burst from the belly of the huge wooden horse to swoop down on and butcher enemies too drunk and sleepy from celebration to defend themselves. As a military strategy, it’s brilliant. (On the surface, anyway; it may also be the first time in western fiction a brilliant plan pivots on the stupidity of the enemy. Then again, in practical terms, the Greeks of myth did a lot of stupid things.) As an example of courage and nobility in battle, some reputedly prized by the ancient Greeks, it’s, well, not.
The best thing you can say about Odysseus in THE ILIAD is that he finishes what he starts, however reluctantly. But he’s only interested in the war he can’t avoid because he can’t return home until, one way or another, it’s over, and for the chief he’s sworn to obey, Agamemnon, it won’t be over until it’s won, and the rich spoils of Troy belong to Greece. Achilles and Odysseus are opposites throughout; if Achilles abandons a safe and long domestic life for a quick death and eternal glory on the battlefield, Odysseus wants nothing but a long and safe domestic life, and is willing to do pretty much anything to achieve it. He’s practically the epitome of the ignoble in Greek life. He runs neck and neck with Job for first antihero in Western literature.
Is it any wonder I love the guy? And isn’t it strange that he becomes the mostly laudable, if not exactly noble, hero of THE ODYSSEY, the very soul of determination and fidelity, even while he’s sleeping with most of the available demigoddesses in the greater Mediterranean area.
Among the great things about the real classics is their capacity for reinterpretation. Just ask Eugene O’Neill, or Leonard Bernstein, should you ever run into them in your private little corner of hell. Really great works are inspirational in unexpected ways; if you spot an unexplored subtext you can bring it forward, retool with it, make the story your own. Which I intend for my retitled ODYSSEY: no updating or transposing to other milieus, no vast swerves from the existing work, just a slight pivot of theme and emphasis to convert it into a functionally new work. (If you’re expecting ULYSSES, James Joyce already wrote that.) Awhile back I had a short discussion with Eric Shanower, whose magnum opus AGE OF BRONZE is the final word on the Trojan War in comics, just to make sure my Odyssey idea wasn’t stepping on toes, and on giving his blessing told me something I’d never realized before, that THE ODYSSEY was the final story in all of Greek myth, which, he also noted, dovetailed perfectly with my idea. It’s times like that when you think maybe you’ve tapped into something that has always been known yet somehow left unsaid, and you’re the one who gets to say it.
That’s the thrill of all this, the really great moment of creating something, that instant between the convulsive evolution of the concept alongside the long uncertainty of finding an outlet for it and the sinking horror of doing the work. Getting projects done is always something of a horror show; it’s like viewing World War I from a trench as the shrapnel whizzes by. Whatever grand design initiates whatever design, once work really begins it’s hard to dodge tunnel vision, the tendency to focus on small moments of the story at the cost of the big picture, and to start making adjustments and compromises just to try to tame the beastly, amok thing, whatever project it is. I know for a lot of talent, regardless of the field, projects seem to move at only two speeds despite all plans and intentions: glacial and runaway train. At either speed, focus is difficult to maintain, and it’s easy to fall into the rut of dealing with each little problem as it comes along, of changing the material to fix the problem rather than adjusting the problem to fit the material. Because the former is a lot easier than the latter, until the weight of the changes pile up and take the whole project down.
Which is par for the business these days, for a lot of businesses. It’s tough these days, the comics business, and very changed over the last decade. Projects take longer and longer to get off the ground, especially if you’re talking creator-owned and you want to stand a reasonable chance of making some money off your work. That’s if you can find a publisher in the first place, one that doesn’t look at your project and see his own image reflected in it, then decide he wants it remolded into that image. Which is easy to justify to yourself if you’re looking to get the idea into any kind of published form, and the entire back catalog of THE COMICS JOURNAL is filled with stories of when that happened. (Like movies, this is a business where everyone wants to feel like they’re the creative ones, and, like movies, people with money and little natural creativity tend to very easily accept that money is creativity, or the deciding factor in it.) The plodding pace at which everything moves makes it difficult to get any new projects off the ground. You can’t sell series based on having artists attached – unless they’re artists no one else wants, in which case you’re unlikely to sell it with them assigned anyway – because the process takes so long they’ve always committed to something else just to put food on the table by the time approvals come around. Or the publisher/editor you’re pitching to offers your artist a “high profile” (i.e. company-owned) project instead, sometimes as a come-on to ultimately make your project more appealing to their audience (hot artist!) and sometimes in spite of your project. I’ve seen it done both ways. Any story or concept that requires a tight and concrete time frame is pretty much doomed nowadays, because virtually no one’s got a system in place to get anything out fast, even if there’s obvious money to be made on it. Pissed off on hearing that Marvel had announced an eventually impending ULTIMATES comic, given that Gil Kane and I had a running supergroup called The Ultimates in EDGE back at Malibu several years before Marvel’s version materialized, I approached a publisher with an ULTIMATES one-shot, just to stick it in Marvel’s craw. (Yes, pure petulance on my part, but I had every legal right.) The publisher, as it turned out, called back to say it was a terrific idea and we should do it. Unfortunately, he called six months after Marvel’s ULTIMATES began publication.
Given what this column has turned into, some might be surprised to hear that my original concept when I dropped MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS and started PERMANENT DAMAGE was a working diary of projects as they were being done. As it turned out, there were reasons why that was a very bad idea. Any kind of creative work these days is a volatile process. When I was switching to PERMANENT DAMAGE I was also getting several film projects, action films, underway, and took the hiatus between columns for meetings in Los Angeles. Before I could take a single meeting, every project died, because the week I chose to go to L.A. was the week of September 11, 2001, and as soon as those planes hit the World Trade Center, Hollywood decided the action film was dead, or at least in deep hibernation. It was dead for less time than Captain America will most likely be, but that’s the thing about Hollywood: once a project loses momentum, it’s hard to get it back because there are always two hundred other projects waiting to steamroll right over it.
It has gotten like that in comics now. Publishers, provided they’re among the few stable enough to stick around any length of time, shift direction at the drop of a hat, or accept projects then put them back on the schedule, way back, until “the right time” that never comes. Or their lawyers start adding all kinds of obnoxious contractual clauses that change the whole nature of the proposed publisher-talent relationship (lawyers usually want to turn it into a basic master-slave relationship, to “protect” their client) and, if you’re not driven off or too poor to do anything but sign it if you want to see print, demand extensive and expensive renegotiation as weeks, months or even years tick away. Some other publisher might suddenly announce something “similar” – it almost never is, on closer look, but first impressions are everything – that makes your publisher decide your project is redundant. Or artists drop out, editors leave, they’ll decide to make it an ill-fitting part of a “line” that it was never intended to be connected to and the (usually quick) end of the line will spell the end of the project. Or the publisher will do something to thoroughly piss off retailers, who’ll stop ordering books from them altogether. Or artists will take off for perceived greener pastures. Or any number of other pitfalls. The comics business these days is a mine field.
Beyond that, many publishers, and, if you’re working in media, producers and studios, are obsessed with controlling the outward flow of information, and not always unreasonably. If I want to talk about something creator-owned like my Odyssey project, that’s one thing, though, as I said, there are so many ways projects can fall through that sometimes it seems the odds on them being completed are inversely proportionate to how much you talk about them, and the history of modern comics is littered with announcements of projects that never got done. But information about company-owned projects, including movies and TV shows as well as many comics, now falls under the heading of corporate secrets, and companies get touchy if not flat out hostile about discussing the process or content of work in progress.
For creator-owned work, a work-in-progress diary might seem like a workable idea, and good advertising to build interest in a product before publication. But do you reveal your various setbacks, disputes and altercations, or gloss over them to constantly put a pleasant spin on things? Or leave a gap and stop issuing updates while you hope the situation can be resolved? Fact is, particularly during the creation/production process, tensions rise and tempers are prone to flare. Where’s your loyalty, to your project or to the viewers following your progress via your “diary?” The fact is that almost everyone, despite any interest they may have in your subject matter, are now usually looking for an excuse to not spend their money, and indications of trouble, or the threat that a project might end uncompleted after they’ve made an emotional investment, is that excuse. Retailers are sensitive to the notion that your project might not be their wisest investment, not because they don’t want to sell comics but because for the last ten or fifteen years they’ve been burned time and time again. There are few enough things you can do to give your project any hope in the marketplace as it is, but you do what you can, and sometimes silence is the best weapon you’ve got. If you really want to tell your war stories, save them for when the war is over, not while you’re scrambling in the foxhole – unless it’s really important that people know what’s going on or everything’s flowing with such confidence and irresistibility that you somehow dodge the downsides of the process. Beyond its supposed educational value, any such information functions as propaganda, and propaganda that you don’t control is pretty stupid on your part.
So while I’m excited to be finally doing my Odyssey project – no, it’s not going to be called that, and I know a lot of people identify me with crime comics now (not that I mind) so the subject matter may sound out of character, but mythology was my minor in college and I still think comics can make a lot more interesting use of it than they do – don’t expect to hear much more about it until it pushes a lot closer to completion. I’m expecting the roads to be smooth and the sky clear, but potholes and squalls have come out of nowhere before.
Notes from under the floorboards:
So here I was preparing pieces on Free Comic Book Day and what are publishers really accomplishing with it now anyway (check out Johanna Draper-Carlson’s thoughts on FCBD instead) and on the current state of The Surge and related topics, and reviews that I’ve been trying to get to for weeks – and something blows out in my car so I end up wasting most of the day taking care of that instead. Three days ago, my aged, physically collapsing notebook computer gives up the ghost and now prefers a grinding electronic stutter when turned on to the dubious thrill of booting up. Not that I was using it much anyway anymore, but recently I’d decided to wipe out the Windows 98 operating system and install a Linux build instead, going for the current version of Ubuntu. Which worked but was slow; the laptop just didn’t have the power for modern applications. Time to start looking for a good new one. Any recommendations, at the intersection of powerful and cheap and not a Mac?
Here’s a good one: The Recording Industry Association Of America (RIAA) has decided that even if you create your own music you can’t play it on your own website without paying them. They talked the US Copyright Office into designating their subsidiary Soundexchange the collector of Internet radio royalty payments for all music played on the Internet, not just music controlled by the RIAA. Why? Pretty much just so they can enforce their will on Internet radio. What this means is that if you compose your own symphony and want to podcast it, you have to pay Soundexchange the royalties that you owe yourself. Then Soundexchange will pay the royalties back to you, if you pay Soundexchange for the service. If you don’t want to join Soundexchange – and if your music doesn’t fall under RIAA jurisdiction, why would you? – they don’t have any obligation to give you the money you’re owed. Because, apparently, nonmembers simply aren’t owed any, even though they’re required to pay. It’s basically racketeering, and like most such schemes various companies and organizations are now trying to impose on the Internet, I can’t wait to see how they plan to enforce it, since the Internet is an international operation and it’s only a US government agency that has authorized this thuggish stupidity. Not that it’ll stop the RIAA from trying to operate like a pack of mobsters, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens when someone decides to take them to court over this. It’s hard to imagine courts will uphold the scheme for long though I expect some judge somewhere will think it’s a wonderful idea, so arguing it in court doesn’t seem in the RIAA’s best interest, but if they back down on any threats of legal action they’ll be backing down on all of them. Most likely they’ll face any legal challenges with the standard corporate practice of driving up legal costs for the opposition and trying to keep the case from ever coming to trial.
A few letters:
“Your comment on the dangers of capes in THE INCREDIBLES reminded me of a thought I had while watching it the first time. Namely, that the movie worked some subtle WATCHMEN references in – things like legislation outlawing superheroes (the Keene Act) and… the dangers of capes (the death of Dollar Bill, whose cape got stuck in the door of a bank he was trying to protect from armed robbers). One could argue that WATCHMEN itself is a superhero parody of sorts; it didn’t pull any punches in its exploration of ‘superheroes in the real world.’ One of your recent columns about religion in comics comes to mind here; you stated that a lot of the “Vertigo Gang” is kicking out comics that decry religion, yet ultimately play by the rules and use the icons of the very religion they’re screaming about. I agree, and I think the same mindset is behind a lot of the superhero parodies out there – they’re still superhero comics, films, cartoons, what have you – only everyone’s pointing at the goofballs in spandex and laughing, instead of cheering.”
WATCHMEN certainly has a parodic element – most superhero comics do these days – but I’m not against parody across the board. I against the repetitive dimwitted parody that tries to pass for humor virtually every time someone decided to parody superheroes. The only message they ever have is “superheroes are silly,” and I’m bored with saying, “Tell us something we don’t already know.” Shooting fish in a barrel in no way resembles wit.
“I read your insightful 18 April 07 op-ed piece in regards to Imus’ career implosion (albeit possibly only a temporary setback) based on his offensive language. While I appreciated most of what you talked about, I thought a few characterizations you made seemed confusing. Your choice to characterize Imus’ show as “conservative” was somewhat confusing. Inadvertently, that term clouds the broader issue of who were the groups involved in his implosion.
If one compares how Imus originally started in the radio shock-jock industry, as well as comparing him to how Howard Stern (the shock-jock whom all others are principally measured by) still is, Imus handles himself in a more “conservative” manner. This would be accurate & true. But politically and philosophically, Imus is a liberal. Imus admitted to voting for Kerry in the 04 election, as well as the thoughts he has voiced on a host of other issues. He was even vocal in calling for Kerry in 06, to please keep quiet during Kerry’s own joke mishap, which had the potential (according to Imus) to harm the Democrats’ broader election results. Imus was therefore active in helping the Dems come back to power in Congress.
Also, to characterize the group(s) who successfully got Imus canned from radio and tv, as “Big Mother Underground” and to put in quotes the term “liberals” seems inaccurate. They are some of the major influential, Above-Ground, voices in the current democrat/liberal political structure. And they have been for at least the last 20 yrs. The confrontation that precipitated Imus’ firing was between two groups of liberals and/or their methods of operation, which happened to be on opposite sides of the issue. On the one side, there was Imus’ liberal shock-jock technique and on the other side, there was the moral outrage by liberal political action groups. It was not the typical right vs left diatribe one typically finds, where politically extreme, yet dependent, groups, fight it out, in order to validate each other’s existence (through pointing out the adverse actions of the other). All and all many good points were made, but to me, your choice of words in your description of Imus’ implosion, as well as those who were against him and his methods, seemed to me to further complicate what really happened.”
I don’t really care who anyone votes for; from my perspective conservative is as conservative does. In this case, though, you’re right. I was being unfair to conservatives, many of whom are basically decent, considerate people. I mean the asshole conservatives, the ones who give conservatives a bad name the same way asshole liberals give liberals a bad name. Sorry about that.
“I wanted to comment on your views about the Virginia Tech brouhaha, because I’ve found myself thinking the exact same things over the past week or so. I just wanted to add that in addition to turning our culture into a big group of wussies, giving events like this so much attention actually encourages other psychos like this most recent shooter to commit more mass killings. There was a reason this Cho guy sent a tape into CNN, after all; he knew it’d get him all the attention he was looking for, even if it was posthumous. Mass killings have been around for awhile, I realize, but it seems like there’s been at least one a year for the past few years. I’m not that old, but I remember that the American people still had some balls in the ’80s; big coincidence that these mass killings rarely happened back then? I mean, would these mass-murderer cowards really feel comfortable trying to prey on a populace that actually had moxy?
I take care of problem kids in a group home, and you see similar behavior: acting out irrationally for attention, and whether it’s positive or negative doesn’t matter to the kids. The staff who don’t understand this always take it personally, trying to reason with the kid or be friendly, or something. No one wants to work with these guys because they just encourage the behavior; the kids always act up on their shifts. Seasoned staff treat the kids with more respect, which means the kids take responsibility for themselves and for their own actions (as much as is reasonable for kids). I realize that this is more of a one-on-one type of relationship and doesn’t translate exactly to a national scale, but my brain couldn’t help but see the parallels.”
Like they say, all politics is local…
“The inevitable backlash of an industry that’s blossoming into new directions is most assuredly going to be ugly in some respects. I had worked in the film industry for over 5 years, first on TV shows like SMALLVILLE in Vancouver, then moved back home to Ottawa, ON to work on more indy productions… and the indy market in film a decade ago looks exactly like the indy comic industry now. It’s not progressive. Sorry, but it’s not. Weepy, touchy feely country? I’m Canadian and from this side of the border it seems that your government has invaded your privacy to the point that it’s become front page news.”
The government wants the power to invade our privacy to the point it becomes front page news, but there are just too many people here. They couldn’t invade everyone’s privacy if their lives depended on it, they just don’t have the manpower and their technology sucks. So I’m not all that worried at it, for the moment, though it’s always worth keeping an eye on.
“Your discussion on the innate silliness of superheroes struck an interesting cord with me. Again I agree with your sentiments on that. But then something like Warren Ellis’s NEXTWAVE comes along. I don’t consider NEXTWAVE a superhero parody, but rather the most hyper-real sort of superheroics imaginable. Your thoughts on just what NEXTWAVE is would be very interesting, I think.”
Ummm… yeah… I think I’d have to read it first… But I don’t think Warren considers NEXTWAVE as much a parody as an assault…
“I think the nation bottomed out with the “building self-esteem” thing for kids. “Praise them to death for anything they do, that’s how you build self-esteem”, they said. I disagree. ‘Give them a nearly impossible task, nurse them through it, so they can really accomplish something hard, and that builds self-esteem.'”
Thing is, kids know when they’re being conned, and all they learn from that behavior is that adults try to con you, like hitting kids just tells them that if you’re big enough and hit hard enough it gives you the right to tell other people what to do. But playing it straight with kids seems awfully tough for a lot of otherwise well-meaning people, I suspect because underneath they don’t want to risk being disliked, without accepting that issues of like and dislike are completely separate from issues of respect, or right and wrong.
This just in: the latest issue (#16) Danny Fingeroth’s WRITE NOW! magazine, available in comic ships or off the TwoMorrows Publishing website now, features not only interviews with, writing advice from and sample scripts by the likes of Joe Straczynski, J.M. deMatteis, Grant Morrison, Jim Ottaviani, John Ostrander and my old HARDY BOYS CASEFILES cohort Bill McCay, it also features part one of a three part collation of the Down and Dirty Guide to Creating Comics that used to run here. You haven’t seen so much sage wisdom in one place this side of a Denny O’Neil trip to Tibet. Don’t miss it.
Southwest Airlines turned up great fares to San Diego, so it looks like I’m flying to Comic-Con International this year. Not that I mind the desert drive, but traveling two hours instead of ten sounds good too. Look for me at the Boom! Studios booth, for starters.
Congratulations to Stephen Gucker for being the first to correctly identify last week’s cover theme: Two Guns. (I did say I needed an exact answer last week.) Each cover has two guns pictured on it. But I don’t know what Stephen wants to push so if he lets me know I can pass it along to you next week.
For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme – it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything – and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next’s week’s column. If you need any clues beyond what’s here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. Some deal, huh?
As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn’t?
Oh, happy Cinco de Mayo.
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.
IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.
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.
The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, 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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