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Issue #70

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #70

You know those goofy e-mails you get that purport to be mis-sent messages from and to people you never heard of? The ones that say things like, “John, did you see the memo on that great stock offering coming up?” or “Marsha, you have got to get this stuff! It’ll turn Dan into an unbelievable lover!” I get dozens of these things per week, only outnumbered by the “Mr. Stephen Grant, I want to write comic books, please read my script/ tell me the names and address of editors who will buy my script/ take my script to Marvel” e-mails. (Don’t send those, but, if you absolutely can’t help yourself, at least spell my name right.)

Those “covert ads” are so inane, so laughable, that it’s beyond my ability to conceive of anyone with enough IQ to work an e-mail program reading one and wonderingly thinking, “Gosh, I’ve stumbled into an amazing financial opportunity!” or “Hmmm… I’d like to be an unbelievable lover… and, wow, it’ll only cost me $79.95! Where’s my debit card?”

So you have to wonder what the hell’s going on with Marvel these days.

Not that they didn’t probably achieve their objective. Anyone who’s been locked in a closet can pop over to Newsarama, The Pulse, Lying In The Gutters, CBR’s own Comic Wire, and numerous other hype/gossip columns to check out the story of Marvel‘s now notorious promo letter that purported to have “inadvertently” copied a number of internal e-mails revealing the existence of upcoming new projects – with just enough information to trigger Pavlovian salivation for Marvel‘s then-upcoming press conference (where, if one extrapolates the logic of this nonsense, “journalists” would assault Joe Q. and Bill J. with questions about the new works while the company’s power pair issue details on new DAREDEVIL storylines and who next month’s regular artist on NEW X-MEN will be, until they give in to the will of the masses and “reluctantly” unveil the upcoming masterworks).

Okay, the whole thing was stupid. Two interesting consequences, though. 1) Most of the world immediately gleaned it was a con job by new Marvel press flak Mike Doran, then reported it and the new projects anyway (which Doran, with years of experience as an “online journalist” must have known would happen and was almost certainly counting on). 2) It’s now being treated as some sort of scandal, with rumors of double secret probations inside Marvel. Why? The press release achieved its purpose. It was a success. It got people talking about the new projects mentioned, and speculating on them, even if the memo got at least as talked up. Sure, it was a cheesy stunt. The comics press has been suckering out for cheesy stunts for years. An ethics violation? Only if the e-mails “quoted” were genuine e-mails from people (or purported to be from them) who had no idea what was going on.

But, for future reference, the proper way to handle those stupid “misdirected” e-mails is to simple delete them, and act as if they never existed. (Mailwasher is an ace tool for that.) If every “comics news service” did that two or three times, they wouldn’t have to get all hot and bothered by such things, because everyone would stop doing them. But then our intrepid reporters would risk surrendering a “scoop” to someone else.

On a related note: complicity was also made an issue last week when “news” came out about the continuing pseudo-feud between Joe Quesada and Peter David, which half the world seems to be breathlessly waiting for me to comment on. So here goes:

Who cares?

I’m only willing to take seriously the notion of bad blood between Joe and Peter, despite what either of them say online (and I doubt it’s that bad anyway), because, at this point (unlike during the heyday of the “Marvel Challenge” promotion) Marvel would seem to have nothing to gain from it. It all started when Joe sent out an e-mail Christmas carol making fun of apparently everyone who worked for Marvel in 2002 – except Peter. What a snub! (He didn’t mention me either that I recall, but it never occurred to me to get miffed about it.) Whether Peter felt snubbed I couldn’t say, but apparently other people decided to feel snubbed on his behalf. Later, at Newsarama, Joe copped to purposely omitting Peter, explaining (and this is apparently what everyone wants my comments on):

“… See, I was always taught that if I didn’t like a situation and if I couldn’t change it, then I should just stop complaining or get the h#&% out of that situation. I also know full well and good, when I was working 9-5 non comic day jobs, if I criticized my employer, I could fully expect my ass to be unemployed the next day. Not only that, I had no reason to bitch about it because it’s my own d@$% fault. Peter has always used his column as an excuse… to criticize his employer… claiming that he needs to keep his objectivity in order to write the column. To me it’s just an excuse to act like an outsider and get the outsiders on your side while being the ultimate insider. It’s complete bull and it’s not fair to his readership and it’s not fair to his employer, you can’t have it both ways. In or out, pick one!… Let me ask you guys, how many of us can critique our employers/bosses in a public forum/magazine and still expect to keep our jobs?… If he wants to criticize Marvel policy or Marvel higher ups, he has every right, but as I learned long ago if he doesn’t like a situation and if he can’t change it, then he should just stop complaining or get the h#&% out of that situation. If he finds himself lacking the strength or conviction to do that, I’ll do it for him… Even John Byrne had class enough to leave a situation he wasn’t happy with… I received an e-mail asking if what I really wanted was for people that work for me to just keep their mouths shut… It’s not that I want Peter to keep his mouth shut, it’s that if you’re working for me and you’re on my team, then I consider you on my team. If you don’t like the policies of the team then you’re not. Complain all you want, but do it in private, call me on the phone and tell me about it, don’t go on public forums. I get tons of advice and complaints from freelancers on issues of deadlines, rates, policies, what have you…”

Okay, here’s where Joe is wrong:

Freelancers are not employees. And “insider” perspectives on the comics business are useful in stripping away the myths and misconceptions “outsiders,” even many hardcore fans, have about it.

Aside from that, he’s not far wrong.

Personally, I don’t know what Peter’s been saying. I haven’t read his columns in a long time. Joe could be blowing things way out of proportion for all I know. I do know there’s a strong temptation, when writing a public column, whether for print or the Internet, to push personal agendas and recast oneself in the noblest light while demonizing those who stand in one’s way. I don’t see freelancers often using regular columns to do it; these days, it’s much more prevalent on the aforementioned hype/gossip sites, which, like almost any “news” outlet in Rupert Murdoch’s America, seem to glory in controversy, theoretically because conflict is drama and drama raises the hit count.

[Cage #5]

It’s one thing to criticize a publisher for something flagrantly stupid or vile. The “Sambo” cover of CAGE, that’s probably worth criticizing Marvel for, because it creates an aura of guilt by association, and sometimes it’s worth creating a public fuss over something because it might convince the publisher not to do it again. Criticizing them for raising cover prices? That’s their business, very literally. Same with, say, criticizing Paul Levitz for pulping comics. It’s his company. Not publishing what he believes is inappropriate to publish is within his purview. Whether you believe it’s inappropriate isn’t the point, just as it’s irrelevant whether Peter David (or me, or anyone else not in a position to make Marvel’s financial decisions) believes $2.99 for an issue of CAPTAIN MARVEL is justifiable.

So here’s what I believe, regarding this brouhaha (and I’m not accusing anyone of anything, just covering bases):

I believe freelancers have the right to criticize the publishers they work for.

I believe publishers have the right to work with whoever they choose, for whatever reasons the choose.

I believe you can’t promote your own financial interests under a guise of “objectivity.” It’s possible for freelancers to objectively discuss the behavior of the companies they work with, but they’re conning themselves and others (consciously or otherwise) if they’re actively using the discussion to encourage the readership to promote their financial interests over the financial interests of the companies involved. (Such as, say, trying to mount a letter-writing campaign to keep a verge-of-cancellation book being published.)

I believe, as I said not long ago in this column, that publishers like to talk about “teams” (and I’m not speaking about Marvel in particular; many publishers use the term) but it tends to be a one-way street, and the main purpose of being on the team – from the company’s point of view – is so you can take a hit for the team when it’s in the company’s interest for you. Which isn’t what freelancing is all about.

I believe that Joe is right in that, if you’re in a situation you don’t like and can’t change, the choice comes down to stop bitching or get out. It’s the logical thing to do.

But I think the most interesting aspect of this whole thing is a shift from the apparent Marvel policy of the last couple of years that “any publicity is good publicity” to a more circumspect and controlled viewpoint. We shall see.

The Consumer Electronics Show 2003 played at the Las Vegas Convention Center last week. (The Adult CES, once part of CES but eventually spat out by the main group for obvious reasons, played parallel down the street; I didn’t go.) My reaction was the same as last year: man, what a lot of junk there is for sale these days. Security tech was greatly downplayed over last year. There were several overall product thrusts: connectivity, bigger televisions, smaller everything else, and karaoke machines. I don’t get the latter, but they were everywhere, as were monster plasma TVs, most improved enough over last year’s that the most off-brand seemed as good as the best Pioneer on display last year. Too bad, though prices have been dropping, that they’re still way too expensive for many people to afford. (I like TV, but anyone willing to drop $7000 on a television set – I don’t care how advanced it is – is a suitable case for treatment.) Microsoft was only one of several companies continuing to push the concept of the totally integrated home, where your computer and your home media center are the same thing, also controlling your dishwasher, coffeemaker, alarm clock etc., while your notebook computer or PDA, via modem or wireless hookup, allows you to remote control the whole thing. (I see computers with remote controls are a coming thing as well.)

Which is the ’30s futurist idea of what the 21st century would be like, isn’t it? (So where’s my flying car?) But it’s one of those dreams that perhaps recedes more the closer you get to it; aside from status appeal, no one was generating a strong argument for why you’d want such a thing. (It’d be more convincing if they could first invent a computer that won’t crash; the problem with “connectivity” is that you’re placing the whole chain at the mercy of its weakest link, and if you depend on that chain to do everything from recording the nightly news to keeping the house heated…) While there were plenty of products at the show, there wasn’t a strong sense of innovation. I suspect most innovation for awhile will be beneath the hood, at least until the economic mood changes (hopefully in early 2005). Perhaps to signify the overall tone, the “best of show” award went to Creative‘s Prodikeys, a more or less standard computer keyboard with a built-in synthesizer keyboard that, with software, turns your computer into a pretty good synthesizer. I have to admit: while watching the demonstration, I thought that’d be really cool to have and I hoped to win one in their post-demo drawing (I didn’t) but two hours later I had to wonder exactly who the intended audience is supposed to be. But it does come with “teach yourself piano” software and lists at a mere $99.99 (meaning a probable street price around $75) so maybe the answer’s “everyone.” Everyone besides Mac and Linux owners, anyway.

So I guess, consumer tech speaking, it was more a year for product consolidation. Probably the best item I was, also from Creative and not that new, was the Nomad MuVo, a tiny, featherweight MP3/WMA player based on a 128 meg flash drive, which can be used independently to transfer/store computer files. The price of flash drives is plunging, so if Creative can bump the capacity up to 512 megs or a gig, they’ll really. The MuVo is a great example of multifunctionality, which developers should consider a new target buzzword. I’d think it’d be easier to sell consumers on new products if they could be used to scratch more than one itch at a time.

Speaking about bitching about things you can’t do anything about, I’m surprised the policymakers for the Hand Puppet administration haven’t torn their hair out in chunks by now. For weeks we’ve been hearing about “the January 27th deadline” for Iraq, except now it turns out no such deadline exists! It’s just when the first report from the UN Weapons Inspectors is due, and they’re already saying it’ll take several more months to several more years to complete their inspections. (Perhaps not coincidentally, several months to several years was Don Rumsfeld’s rough estimate to how long American troops would have to stay in Iraq once the hostilities – whoops; I mean liberation – commence.) Meanwhile, the continuing specter of North Korea grinds all logic out of an invasion of Iraq for anyone with an attention span, which, unfortunately, includes a great number of desired allies for our little overseas adventure. The administration’s original argument, of course, is that Iraq has “weapons of mass destruction” (and you can believe that “we” say it’s true, just like “we” say it’s true that drugs finance terrorism, so it must be true) (William Saletan had a hilarious piece on administration claims on Slate last week, by the way) and we must invade to prevent their use, even though, if they’ve actually got them, an invasion will almost certainly trigger their use. (If Saddam has them and hasn’t used them, logic dictates he’s reserving them for last resort, since it’s hard to imagine a resort much laster than having your country invaded.)

But wait a minute. Suddenly there’s North Korea, a country that flat out says it has “weapons of mass destruction,” and we ain’t talking sissy bio-chem weapons neither. These guys are actually saber-rattling, unlike Saddam, who has seemed pretty well resigned to taking out his aggressions within his own borders. Even the Hand Puppet administration has consistently undercut its own efforts to tie Saddam to groups like Al-Qaeda. But North Korea, they’re eyeing Japan, South Korea, Taiwan. But the administration says, alternately: a) North Korea isn’t attack-worthy (not that I want us to attack North Korea, I’m just following the logic); b) we’ll go up against anyone anytime anywhere, and you can bring ’em on two, three, four at a time, hell, bring on the whole damn world! (that’s Rumsfeld doing his Rowdy Roddy Piper impression); and c) North Korea is what you get when you don’t stop countries like Iraq (listen carefully to this next part) before they get weapons of mass destruction.

So is the plan to go into Iraq to take away their weapons of mass destruction, or to prevent them from developing them? This is where the administration’s message keeps changing, and this is what has set much of the rest of the world (though not much of America, apparently) wondering what the planned invasion is really all about anyway. Like much of entertainment these days, much of the Hand Puppet’s public relations is dependent on the iffy principle that people have no attention span. Complicating matters is a growing sense that the USA is willing to beat up a basically helpless opponent (Iraq) but not one that’s capable of fighting back (North Korea). (I don’t doubt our ability to beat North Korea, but I don’t think we want to test out missile defense systems on rockets arching toward Tokyo, and engaging North Korea in armed conflict is pretty much tantamount to engaging a billion Chinese, which is a whole other scale of problem.) The word “oil” keeps coming up overseas, while it’s rarely mentioned in relation to Iraq here, and now there’s the revelation that an Iraq invasion was set in motion in September 2001 as a rider to the plan for a war on terrorism, and that has also strengthened a growing suspicion we’re all being played. All in all, the junior president’s coalition is a lot shakier than it ought to be – and he still hasn’t explained how invading another nation when the rest of the world tells us not to doesn’t qualify as baldfaced, arrogant aggression, which is something he’d better be willing to explain if we proceed unilaterally.

It’s no wonder that after a couple weeks’ insistence that any kind of dialogue with North Korea constitutes appeasement the administration is quietly engaging, courtesy of Clintonite Bill Richardson, in a dialogue Pyongyang would actually prefer. How annoying it must be to have real problems for distractions when you’re trying to get to the serious business of invading Iraq. But at least the Hand Puppet still has Jerry Falwell on his side

TV finally got interesting again last week, with the returns of OZ (HBO, Sunday 9PM), THE SHIELD (FX, Tuesday 10PM), and a return to form for 24 (Fox, Tuesday 9PM).

OZ, as is traditional, started out with a fairly quiet episode that reintroduced characters and started plot threads rolling, and with its second episode clearly jumped back to the strong points of the series from the depths it fell to last season: a demonic possession plotline was abruptly nipped in the bud, and the O’Reily brothers moved center stage as gas chamber bound brain-damaged Cyril having creepy conversations with his hand puppet while ace manipulator Ryan (who, in the first two seasons, was somehow instrumental in virtually every bad thing that happened in the prison, while remaining unscathed) characteristically zeroed in the quickest way to deal with the most serious problem in his life without getting his hands dirty. Ryan O’Reily’s still the best character on TV, and I’d pay money once OZ ends (this is the last season) for a series about O’Reily out on the streets. Meanwhile, disaster looms in every corner, from murder in the hallways to toxic fumes in solitary; the expression “bad moon rising” was coined for this show, and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

THE SHIELD is one of those shows that’s not as good as it ought to be but it’s still better than you’d expect. At least this season, with Michael Chiklis really grown into the role of corrupt cop Vic, who’s now bereft of his family (they dumped him) and being harassed by a public watchdog who’s really entrusted with scotching the political aspirations of Vic’s honest strange bedfellow boss. I didn’t care much for the show last season, until the final couple of episodes seemingly inescapably boxed Vic into a frame, and in this season’s first episode it was just great fun watching Vic undertaking actions as appalling as they are fascinating. Even on a show like THE WIRE, the cast is split into good guys and bad guys, but not here; this is a pragmatic world where absolutes are the first casualty. If you’re a fan of moral ambivalence, THE SHIELD is now the show to watch, at least until they screw it up.

Finally, 24‘s been having a great season, much improved over the first, involving Jack Bauer, the CTU organization and President Palmer trying to stop a terrorist plot to nuke Los Angeles. At least until the last couple episodes before Xmas, when the show started feeling like it was treading water. Not so the latest episode, which complicated things by giving credibility to an impending coup attempt on Palmer that might underlie the whole thing – while Jack is now at the mercy of his direst enemy. With its host of characters, shifting allegiances, unexpected twists and scope of action, 24 is the best pulp fiction on TV – and this time most of it’s even logical.

This is what happens when you’ve got “a good idea” for a comic. Like many comics these days TALES OF THE URBAN MYSTICS (Flying Turtle Entertainment, 142 Chartier St, Marine City MI 48039; $2.95), is interestingly written but badly drawn. I know the feeling: you want the work out there, so you’re willing to tell yourself it’s better than it is. Believe me, I’ve been there. Also believe me when I say it’s not worth it. Comics are still comics; no matter how good the idea, or even the writing, bad art’s going to kill interest in it, and about the best you’ll be able to hope for is reviews like this. Not that the writing’s particularly good either, though the premise isn’t bad: law enforcement and private detectives trying to figure out how to handle a city of witches. The dialogue’s a bit austere (voices tend to all sound the same), the set-ups are abrupt and sketchy, and characters are hostile to each other without explanation. You won’t feel cheated if you read it – neither writer Dan Trudeau nor penciller Rich Halpin are talentless – but I wish they’d honed the thing, esp. the art, for another year or so before they released it.

Back in the underground comics, Art Spiegelman did a Shadow-like character (actually more based on the MAD COMICS parody of The Shadow than The Shadow) called The Viper, who would do absolutely vile things but somehow they were so over the top it came out hilarious. In BERZERK #1, a mini-comic by Dan Epstein and Shawn Snow (no price or contact info), the main character does vile thing after vile thing and somehow not one bit of it comes off as amusing or even interesting. Of Ingmar Bergman’s CRIES AND WHISPERS (aka GROANS AND WHIMPERS) my late friend Mark Bergman once wrote, “If I want pain and suffering, I’ll throw myself down the stairs.” The same applies here.

I’m not quite sure what’s going on in #19 of Tony Digeolamo’s THE TRAVELLERS (Kenzer & Co.; $2.99), but they jumped from last issue’s sword-and-sorcery epic to a fairly amusing ’60s spy parody with s&s inflections. Not that it’s likely to make much sense in any case (Oh! Wait! It’s a vision of their descendants… right…) but it was fairly funny, helped by Chris Moreno’s pleasant pencils, reminiscent of Mike Vosburg’s work. (But next time make sure the balloons point to the right people, guys.)

For those who want to do their own rooting, there seems to be a sudden surge of comics being reprinted online. (I’d run a list, but that would just prompt companies to force sites to close down.) I don’t mind this with old, hard to find material that’s not likely to ever be collected in trade paperback; creators and publishers don’t make money off the secondhand market so easily available old comics amount to advertising. (Back issue dealers probably disagree with my sentiment, but publishers and creators don’t have any responsibilities to the secondhand market.)

But there’s also a growing market in bootlegging scans of current comics. There’s an argument for music bootlegging that most MP3 collectors go out and buy the albums the songs came from, and there seems to be some evidence to back that up. But do comics bootleggers buy copies of the comics they bootleg? Are they sampling them to decide what physical comics they want in their permanent collection? This is the quandary of the practice: if the participants are looking at comics they’d never have bought in the first place, and deciding they have to go buy permanent copies, it’s a good thing. If they’re taking them in place of comics they would’ve gone out and bought, it’s not.

But the most amusing part of this was a site where some people were coming down very hard on those who downloaded scans but didn’t upload any, on the premise that those who created the scans went to all the hard work of making them and they deserve something back for their labors. Irony is totally lost on some people…

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.

If you want to know something about me, you can probably find the answer at Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. Be warned that this site is functionally dead – I’ve switched to a different server and am prepping a new page – but it’s still up and the backstory details are still germane even if the news page is a bit dated.

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