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Issue #73

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #73

An interesting question popped up on a comics forum recently (sorry, it’s closed to the general public), courtesy of retailer Amanda Fisher of Missoula, MT’s The Splash Page comics shop: what is an “all-ages” comic?

The answer isn’t quite as easy as you might expect. In theory, an “all-ages” comic is one that can be read and enjoyed by any age group, without concerns for language, extreme action, sexual content, etc. Some companies are now thinking in terms of “all-ages” comics with an eye toward luring the kid market as well as the adult market back, producing lines like Marvel‘s Tsunami comics and most of what Archie has put out for years. You know, the clean comics.

The answer is this: presuming we’re not just trying to describe comics parents can buy for their young children without concern that the tykes’ll be learning inside secrets of black magic or how French kissing really works, no one creates “all-ages” comics. The conceit behind “all-ages” comics is that you can write a story that is equally appealing to a six-year old and to his 35-year old Mom or Dad, and 17-year old brother and 13-year old sister, that they’ll all go into the story and get different layers and textures that will appeal to them, while the others will be able to ignore or not even recognize those layers and pull out their own layers of interest. Me, I love reading interviews with comics talents who talk about “layers” in their kid-oriented comics like they’re the secret offspring of Umberto Eco. Or animators who talk about this element’s in their for the kids while that element’s in their for the parents who are stuck in the audience, like any adult ever did anything but sleep or fidget through a POKEMON movie. It’s all nonsense.

Which isn’t to say “all-ages” books don’t exist. They do, but not because they’re created to be that. They require the complicity of the audience, which most comics don’t get. Oh, sure, I can read Archie comics on a lark, and there’s the occasional moment of cleverness in them that I can sporadically appreciate, but I don’t kid myself that they’re written for me, or for anyone in my age group. (If they are, something is very seriously wrong at Archie Comics…) They’re written mainly for pre-teens, whether talent or editorial at Archie care to face that, which means adults are likely to find them a bit on the lame side, and pre-pre-teens are likely to find them uninteresting, and even older teens will probably think they’re a little “young.” Can they be bought without concern by anyone of any age? Sure. Can they actually be enjoyed by anyone of any age? Far more questionable. But do Archie Comics even appeal to the age group for which they’re intended? The company is unfortunately saddled with a “classic” style that dates back to 1942. Certainly one could argue it has withstood the test of time, but another argument would be the style, if not the content, is more appealing to the parents who grew up with it in their own childhoods than to the children receiving the books now. (I’d love to see someone do a study of “all ages” comics to find out who actually buys the things: children or their parents?)

I’m not purposely picking on Archie Comics, they just stand as the best regular example of “all ages” comics currently on the stands. They pride themselves on being “all ages” (a.k.a. clean) to the point that the company went after Melissa Joan Hart for wearing a bikini in an innocuous magazine spread (made even more innocuous by the absence of anything resembling sex appeal) while appearing on SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH. On the other hand, you have “all ages” comics from Marvel and DC that are clearly intended only for people (more specifically, men) of my age clinging to their own childhoods. And most of these hinge on action which, while rarely extreme, is continuous and consuming, and, like modern sitcoms and PG-13 movies, on at least the hint of smut and “edginess,” teasing it as a real possibility then snapping it back out of reach to ensure everything remains “safe.”

At any rate, despite the “all ages” label slapped on them, they’re not written for kids, which is why kids generally aren’t interested in them.

There’s an inherent problem in the concept of “all ages” comics (“all ages” anything) that makes intentionally creating them extra difficult: it’s our nature to want what other people tell us we can’t have. Think back to your own childhood: remember when your parents told you something was off-limits, what you wanted most in the world was to find out why? One of the things that made MAD magazine so enticing in the ’50s and ’60s was how much the audience was told how bad it was for them – and it was good enough for them to think it was good when they read it. (That’s the other part of the trick. You can get by on the forbidden fruit gimmick briefly but the material still has to be good to bring them back.) This is part of forming a personal identity separate from the one inflicted on you by your parents, which is usually the thing parents are most resistant to.

Comics aimed at “kids” are actually aimed at their parents. Not at getting the parents to read and enjoy them but at getting them to accept that they’re acceptable reading for children. So most “kids” comics aren’t really kids comics at all. On the flip side, books like THE SIMPSONS, which are usually considered kids comics because of the cartooniness of the art as well as its connection to a popular cartoon show which is in itself not aimed at kids, actively target their jokes toward a more adult audience, making it not actually a kids book at all. THE SIMPSONS is only a kid comic to the extent the nature of the material is misunderstood. (In fact, the popularity of the comics with kids is probably a combination of TV exposure and the subversively sophisticated nature of the content.) So where does “all ages” come in?

It doesn’t, really. Aiming books at “all ages” is an exercise in futility; by trying to make a comic all things to all people it becomes extremely easy to make it nothing for anyone. Once in a blue moon a product appears – like HARRY POTTER books, arguably – that have cross-generational appeal, but even HARRY POTTER rests on vaguely subversive notions (Harry, you may have noticed, consistently disobeys his elders and willfully gets into all sorts of trouble and is more often than not rewarded for it) though it disguises them with plucky old school notions (figuratively and literally) that it waves like a cheerleaders’ pom-poms. But only the most manic adults would deny the HARRY POTTER books are kids’ books, aimed at them and playing on their peculiar attitudes toward the world. Aiming at one age group is tough enough, and there isn’t enough room in most comics for enough layering to ensure they appeal to “all ages,” regardless of whatever’s pasted on them for marketing purposes.

Waking up Saturday morning to hear the Space Shuttle Columbia had vanished on re-entry was a sobering moment, and a sad one, but it’s not something that should’ve been treated as entirely unexpected – on several levels, as it’s turning out. But what I mean is that, while NASA has spent decades trying to convince the American public space travel is very safe and even, now, routine, space travel has always been dangerous. We should accept that it is. Really, it’s less a shock that Columbia died on re-entry than that, in four decades of space travel, there have only been three or four major disastrous events. That’s practically a miracle, and a real compliment to NASA. I’m sure the astronauts who died were always cognizant of the inherent risk of their situation, as most people in dangerous situations are aware of the danger but press on, and, in the wake of the Columbia disaster, it’s a shame to hear cries that the space program should be halted until it can be made “safe.” It’ll never be safe, not really. Why should we even pretend that it is? That attitude buries the real bravery of astronauts.

Still, disturbing stories are flooding out now about various whistleblowers who alerted NASA to this or that impending problem with the shuttles and were sanctioned for it. The press leaped on these “revelations” (once it became clear the shuttle, disappointingly for them, wasn’t downed by terrorists; they apparently don’t want to entertain the nutcases now claiming this is another example of alien sabotage of our space program) because they give Columbia a longer headline shelf life than “well, it’ll be months before they gather and study enough pieces of the shuttle to conclude what happened,” but I imagine any real criticism of NASA, or investigation into its bureaucratic decision making processes and the impact of that on the reliability of equipment and the safety of astronauts, will fall by the wayside as soon as the “independent investigation” really kicks off. A shame. The occasional failure of equipment, or human error, in shuttle flights is sad but inevitable; bureaucratic incompetence is not. Let’s see what the “independent investigation” concludes it was.

At AOL-Time-Warner, under whose umbrella DC Comics resides, the craziness continues. On the heels of former AOL head Steve Case a few weeks ago, former Turner Communications owner and current ATW VP Ted Turner also abruptly quit. Turner a few years back merged Turner Communications with Time-Warner on the premise that he’d be the next guy in charge of the ubercompany. He unfortunately took that proposition a little too seriously, muckraking through the rest of Time-Warner-Turner (as it was briefly called; you could watch Ted’s star fall as his company name vanished) and threatening vast restructuring mostly aimed at nutting former adversaries Warners Studios (which he locked horns with while briefly owning MGM studios); comics fans may recall widespread rumors that Time-Warner would strip the inept (by Turner’s standards) Warner Studios (parent company of DC Comics) of the lucrative Superman, Batman, Robin and Wonder Woman licenses and turn them over for proper exploitation to The Cartoon Network, in the Turner family of companies. (In corporate ledgers the money brought in by licensing out the properties would then fall into the Turner coffers, not the Warner Studios/DC Comics coffers.) The short version is he underestimated the power of the people he was pissing off, and there went the probability of his ascension, though he resurfaced recently as a possibility to head the company when Case’s position became shaky. Ted is reportedly upset about all the money the plunge in the supercorporation’s stock price has cost him, so it’s out the door, probably before anyone can patsy him out over the massive debt.

What massive debt? Last Wednesday they announced a loss $45 billion in the last quarter (with no end in sight, due in large part to the horrific money pit called America Online), bringing the year’s losses up to an incredible one hundred billion dollars (give or take). That AOL-Time-Warner is holding on is less a reflection of how sturdy their underlying financial structure is and more an indicator of how many banks would go down with them if they crashed, which would take down a lot more companies, and on and on in a snowball effect so disastrous it makes it ludicrous to even care about what happens to DC Comics in those circumstances. The U.S. government doesn’t even have a hundred billion dollars left, does it? It’s not bad news for everyone, though. No wonder the Hand Puppet hopped through the latest State Of The Union Address without ever mentioning the country’s $250 billion deficit (down from the $250 billion surplus he began his presidency with, without taking more tax cuts and war against Iraq into account); almost half of that was AOL-Time-Warner’s.

With AOL-Time-Warner and Disney both on financial ground that’s getting shakier by the minute, we potentially stand on the cusp of a moment when icons once treated as though they would last forever (Mickey Mouse, Superman, Bugs Bunny) might vanish under the sea like Atlantis, figuratively speaking. It might not happen – these stumbling giants could dig themselves out of their holes – but, as The Columbia proved, “normalcy” is a myth. We live in times not where there are set ways things should be expected to be but where anything can happen, and we have always lived in those times.

Hey, still think we’re fighting a war on terrorism? So how come the FBI’s “Western Hemisphere’s most dangerous terrorist,” Orlando Bosch, was in attendance at the Hand Puppet’s inauguration? (Bosch was originally to be seated on the platform, until a Presidential aide became aware of the FBI report and moved him to the audience.) Maybe it’s because, despite his copping to blowing up airplanes and sinking ships, Bosch is “our” terrorist, or shall we say, in Reaganspeak, an anti-Castro “freedom fighter” and Florida, the pivotal state in his election and in current governor Jeb Bush’s re-election dreams, is filled with anti-Castro Cubans. Can’t go around linking them to terrorism, even by association, if you want their votes. Or maybe the Hand Puppet just has a weak spot for Latino terrorists, like the men who carbombed Orlando Letelier in Washington DC in 1976; the HP gladly rescinded their deportation orders to allow them to remain in the USA.

Remember: it’s only terrorism if it’s aimed at us.

(By the way, people who don’t like the President will have fun with this little website. People who like the President will likely be appalled.

Had three TV shows strongly recommended to me lately: THE JIMMY KIMMEL SHOW (ABC, Monday-Friday 12:05AM), THE OFFICE (BBC America, Sunday 10:40PM) and KINGPIN (NBC, Sunday/Tuesday10PM).

I liked Jimmy Kimmel as the wry sidekick on WIN BEN STEIN’S MONEY. His self-mocking “aw shucks” tongue-in-cheek persona even played well when he was co-hosting the squirmy MAN SHOW, which didn’t take long to become what it was parodying. On THE JIMMY KIMMEL SHOW, though, he’s awful. Tied to his desk, he stutters and wriggles like he’s on a blind date. As a rebel without a cue card, Kimmel can be as funny as anyone, but anchored down and roughly wedged into a 50 year old format, it’s like he’s doing the show with a bag over his head. A plastic bag, tied tight at the neck. Kimmel’s comedy comes out of his inherent disrespect for everything around him, but that’s also what kills his potential as an interviewer. Why trot him through the “celebrity chat” game when his instinct is to go for the jugular? Enough with Kimmel the nice guy with goofy things going on around him. Unless ABC is willing to set him loose as a modern Joe Pyne with gosh-wow smile, the show is a waste of his time and ours.

I’m told THE OFFICE was considered a piercing jab at English business, and like most BBC comedies it has its moments. Just not enough of them. The curious conceit of the show seems to be that it mimics being a “reality” show, as if this is supposed to be a real office littered with TV cameras to catch the workers in their foibles, and on that level it’s played out pretty well, though they make no effort to actually show anyone working or describe what they’re working at. The characters are fairly stock: the hypocrite weasel boss, the self-serious martinette underling, the buxom but snide receptionist, etc. Like its characters, the show takes delight in trying to have its cake and eat it too; the last episode I saw was one long sex joke anti-feminist sex joke, punctuated by the boss’ insistence about how distasteful such things are. By the time the boss lies to and patronizes the company’s female owner, who is also sexually harassed by warehouse workers caught watching smutty videotapes instead of working, you wonder why any of them still have jobs, and there’s only one logical answer: so they can be in the next episode. It’s entertaining enough for about 15 minutes, but BBC comedies unfortunately run 40, and by the time they start recycling old FAWLTY TOWERS bits it feels like time to switch it off anyway.

There’s an extraordinarily good book by James Mills called THE UNDERGROUND EMPIRE, an investigation into the realities of international drug smuggling and America’s nominal “war on drugs” that’s well worth reading, so when I saw the name David Mills (who wrote and produced HBO’s THE CORNER, as well as working on HOMICIDE) as writer of KINGPIN, for a moment I confused the two. For those who haven’t been watching the advertising, KINGPIN is NBC’s entry into the SOPRANOS gritty crime family sweepstakes, and it’s not bad. But it’s not great either. I starting expecting trouble when I saw Aaron Spelling and E. Duke Vincent (MELROSE PLACE, DYNASTY) were exec producers, and the first episode lived up to expectation. Miguel Cadena (Yancey Arias) is a capo in a Mexican drug smuggling operation run by an opium addict on the run through the druglord’s brainless hot dog bastard son, a couthless thorn in Miguel’s side who openly throws money at politicians and plays with his pet full grown tiger. (The son wears a mask of his own face on the back of his head around the tiger because he knows the tiger loves him but it would jump at the chance to devour him if it thought the punk was looking the other way; obviously, the tame tiger he should be watching out for is Miguel.) Sheryl Lee co-stars as Miguel’s coke-sniffing shiksa Lady Macbeth as he decides to save everything they’ve worked for by taking over the operation himself. It’s watchable enough, by why is TV always so compelled to make their bad heroes lovable? “We’re not murderers,” Miguel insists to the hot dog, “we’re businessmen.” See? He pushes massive quantities of illegal drugs including cocaine, heroin and marijuana (Hey, know what I just found out the other day? Before the government outlawed it in the ’30s, marijuana was just called hemp. The government renamed it “marijuana” to specifically associate it with Mexicans, so “good Americans” would be repelled by it.) but he doesn’t want to hurt anybody. When the bloodbath comes down, turning Miguel’s wife on, he rebuffs her, scolding that what happened is no cause for celebration. The show is maybe best summed up by the scene where Miguel’s brother kills a stoned-out old man on a boat in the middle of nowhere – and puts a pillow over the barrel of his gun to muffle the report. KINGPIN‘s okay, but only okay. Too bad James Mills didn’t write it…

I owe Gia-Boa Tran a huge apology. Sometime toward the end of last year, he (I’m presuming he’s a he, but I wouldn’t be surprised to be wrong) sent me an advance copy of CONTENT (no contact address given; $3), his Xerix Foundation underwritten self-published comic, which was solicited in the January PREVIEWS, and somehow it got buried in my office, only being dredged up this last weekend. That’s the bad news. The good news is it’s great, a really stylishly written and drawn (his art style is very clean and expressive) piece about a young man who becomes obsessed with his own dreams when he takes part in an experiment, and finds he can communicate with a younger version of himself to change the course of his life. It’s a touching, sad, strong piece, basically about human frailty. Tran clearly merited the Xerix grant. Look for it.

If you’re interested in how comics are put together, Nat Gertler is releasing PANEL TWO: More Comic Book Scripts By Top Writers (About Comics, 217 Red Oak Ln, Thousand Oaks CA 91320; $20.95) a companion piece to the excellent PANEL ONE. This volume contains scripts, in varying formats, from Mike Baron, Sarah Ryan, Gail Simone, Peter David, Mark Evanier, Otto Binder, Scott McLeod, Bill Mumy and Miguel Ferrer, and Judd Winick, with commentary by a host of artists. Particularly interesting are Mike Baron’s thumbnail scripts, and the Binder FATMAN work, where the comics art is reproduced side-by-side with the script pages, a technique Gertler should employ more often. (By contrast, the artist commentary tends to be perfunctory, and seems to be there mostly to take up space and add salable names to the cover.) The book’s particularly interesting as an illustration of the wide range of expression available from the script form itself. I keep getting e-mail from would-be comics writers wanting details on script format who don’t believe me when I tell them there is no set format, and the best one is the one that you, your artist and your editor agree on. PANEL TWO presents a smorgasbord of approaches to choose from.

Three things: first, the trade paperback of MORTAL SOULS, my Avatar series about a cop who learns the dead rule the world and they hate us after he gains the ability to tell the living from the dead, is now available. If your dealer doesn’t have it, tell him to get it. Also, I want to remind everyone that coming out in February is X-MEN UNLIMITED with the “Lockheed The Dragon” story I did with the great Paul Smith (who co-created Lockheed).

I’d also like to recommend JLA: AGE OF WONDER, by my friend Adi Tantimedh, a DC Elseworlds novel, set in the late 1800s – early 1900s and recasting familiar characters as “science adventurers.” “As if HG Wells and Jules Verne co-wrote a Superman story in 1924” is how Adi phrased in an interview that describes the series. It’s available for order now, so order it.

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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