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Issue #98

by  in CBR Exclusives Comment
Issue #98
  • The comics business has always run on rumor and speculation – either are a hell of a lot sexier than most of the product – but things are verging on getting out of hand. It’s not the fault of the Internet. Sure, the Internet makes the spreading of rumors easy, but there were rumors long before the Internet and they spread just as easily, mostly from comics dealer to comics dealer and from there to customers who’d then swap their own rumors, and if everyone’s being honest they’ll admit Internet rumormongering is a vast improvement over that system because one “published” the rumors stay considerably more concrete and less likely to alter in repetition; if someone says, “Hey, Rich Johnston said this or that,” you don’t have to take that person’s word for it, you can go read what Rich says. To that extent, the Internet has actually limited the amount and variety of rumormongering going on.

    The problem of rumors is always that they’re used to feed stupidity that really ought to be thought through instead. I had one person tell me recently that DC Comics had “robbed” Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons of all rights to WATCHMEN by using Rorschach in an issue of THE QUESTION – and he knew this because his retailer had told him so. While it’s not like DC hasn’t done unethical things vis-à-vis talent now and then (to be fair, mostly in what now amounts to the distant past; you might not like some of Paul Levitz’s decisions but it’s a stretch to call them unethical), you can bet that if they had done something like that, particularly in an era when they were trying to gain market momentum by painting themselves as “the creators’ friend,” you can be pretty damn sure we’d all have heard about it chapter and verse, because neither Alan nor Dave would be likely to stay silent about it. (Just so everyone knows, as in most situations of this nature, all rights to WATCHMEN revert to Alan and Dave if DC lets it go out of print for a specified period. So far, like DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, it has been in constant print for over a decade and still sells.)

    The next death of Marvel is the big rumor coming out of The San Diego Comic-Con, with a triple-barreled blast. First, there were stories (many true) about DC “stealing” Marvel’s “big guns,” like Grant Morrison, Bryan Hitch, Brian Bendis and Joe Straczynski, with big money exclusive deals. Tales of Marvel’s sinking fortunes in the movie industry and the stock market in the wake of THE HULK abounded. Finally, it seems that (depending on which story you hear) either Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada or Marvel publisher Bill Jemas is about to be shown the door, to be replaced by Axel Alonso or A Player To Be Named Later, respectively. According to the reports, this all positions DC for market dominance, delivering Marvel a well-deserved comeuppance, if the company survives at all.

    Let’s think this through.

    Even if all this is absolutely true (which it isn’t)…

    So what? How does any of this help anything?

    Like it or not, the direct market’s built on Marvel’s back. I’ve had a lot of discussions about that in the past couple weeks too: how many retailers still wed themselves to Marvel and not only don’t carry much non-Marvel product but actively ridicule it when someone tries to buy it; how an old generation of comics retailers are sacrificing a new generation of readers to bookstores and manga instead of getting them into their own stores; how the number of comics shops in America has sunk to possibly 2000 or fewer from a high of over 7500, and probably half of those would collapse if suddenly Marvel were gone. Lucky for them the odds of Marvel going anywhere are small.

    (I’ve got a new theory that much of the hostility of traditional comics retailers and American readers toward manga has nothing at all to do with the content, but with its wide appeal to girls, a high influx of which into comics shops would threaten the “Boys Club” atmosphere many of them seem to prefer to maintain. Sounds like an all-out manga assault on Tubby’s Clubhouse is something Friends Of Lulu ought to consider.)

    Bill and Joe have gotten a lot of visibility over the past couple years for putting themselves out in front, combining a World Wrestling Entertainment promo approach with highly publicized acquisitions of “big names” to stir up interest and fairly high profile titles like the Ultimates books. In some ways, the company has been highly successful – giving themselves a new aura of “the place to be” and driving up company stock prices from the miserable low-single-digit spot they were in. The problem with going WWE on the ass of the industry is that they picked up many of the late WWE habits that come out of forgetting the point of doing promos is to sell tickets, not just to put yourself over, something the WWE itself seems to have forgotten. Marvel seemingly spins off a new venture every month: Marvel Knights, the Max line, the Ultimates line, and now Epic, which mutated from its original “creator-owned comics” status (pretty much unthinkable now in a company increasingly dependent, psychologically if not financially, on generating properties that can be sold to Hollywood… which is hard to do if you’re not the owner) to either an amazing break-in opportunity or a cynical scheme to lowball the creative cost of producing comics, depending on your point of view. So, yeah, there’s plenty to chortle at if Marvel’s status in the business is perceived to drop.

    And if Marvel “stole” DC’s talent a couple years ago for big effect and DC’s now “striking back,” that’s fair, innit? Sure, if you want to view the comics business as Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Can DC get as much juice off talent swiping as Marvel did? Not likely. For one thing, Marvel, in addition to nicking the likes of Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis from DC, also brought in high-profile media talent like Kevin Smith and Joe Straczynski who articles would be written about outside the comics market. There was a sense of outreach in what Marvel did. Also, Marvel’s characters are still widely perceived, both in and out of the business, as the “hip” superheroes, and DC’s as old fuddy-duddy heroes, however true any of that may actually be. What sounds more interesting: Grant Morrison will be writing X-MEN or Grant Morrison will be writing METAL MEN? And there’s the problem I had when learning Garth Ennis was going to write Spider-Man: why do you take a guy who does what Garth does and put him on a character like Spider-Man? Who on earth thinks either will be well served like that, or that even Marvel would even publish a Spider-Man story that had Garth showing his strengths? It’s the same on the flip side: DC has announced Brian Azzarello writing SUPERMAN, which on the surface sounds great. Jim Lee drawing it sounds cool, too. But. DC has a corporate necessity to project a specific perception of the Superman character. I’m not saying Brian won’t write a good Superman story; Brian’s a terrific writer, and I’m sure it will be good. But does anyone really think that Brian unleashed on a Superman story would produce an issue of SUPERMAN that DC would ever consider publishing? I mean, you have read 100 BULLETS, haven’t you? If Brian’s not going to be allowed to completely show off what he can do in SUPERMAN, what’s the point of him writing it? Sure, his name suggests “cutting edge” in terms of action-adventure comics, but what’s the good of having a “cutting edge” name on a comic if it’s not going to be a “cutting edge” comic? Which SUPERMAN, almost by definition, will never really be allowed to be?

    Does anyone really expect DC to unleash any of the “big name” talent they sign on, esp. if they put them on the DC Universe books? (I’m assuming DC, like Marvel, is hiring them on to “revivify” the core line, not create a horde of new comics for Vertigo and Wildstorm, though that may not be true; guys like Warren Ellis and Andy Diggle have gotten DC exclusives without any connection to any members of the Justice League.) DC, despite their corporate umbrella, doesn’t even have Marvel’s capacity for capitalizing on their properties in Hollywood. (Marvel, being unaffilitated, can work with any number of producers and studios; DC’s tied to Warners, which can’t even get a SUPERMAN movie off the ground; the much touted/reviled JJ Abrams script was budgeted at a whopping, prohibited $250 million, and other properties can’t be taken elsewhere but have to crawl through a hazardous approvals system that can’t be bypassed.)

    The talent swipe is good for the talent, of course, or at least their bank accounts. But good for the business? Maybe, but we shouldn’t accept that as a given. Despite not getting as much press inside the business (they certainly get enough from, say, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) as Marvel, DC hasn’t been a significantly weaker company than Marvel for a long, long time. And, historically, the loss of talent has never impeded Marvel’s sales significantly; Marvel readers tend to read Marvel for the characters, not for who’s writing or drawing them. So the impact of the loss of Grant Morrison on Marvel, for instance, will likely to be negligible. Even supposing a worst-case scenario for Marvel, total collapse, what does that leave us with? Half as many remaining comics shops, effectively killing the direct market, and industry power coalesced in the hands of one company, DC, which could then call all the shots. We don’t need one strong company, or two. We need a lot of strong companies, and right now what we’ve really got are two fairly weak companies, and a lot of much weaker ones.

  • I keep forgetting to mention CBS‘s THE AMAZING RACE (8pm Thursdays), now down to four teams from the original eleven and, as usually the case with the show, getting more exciting by the week. Other than that, my summer TV watching has been spotty. There’s THE WIRE (HBO, 9PM Sundays), which had meandered about its story for several episodes but suddenly shows signs of life with the return of focal cop Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West) to the main storyline and the unexpected arrival of the great mystery writer George Pelecanos on story and script; no idea if last Sunday’s episode was a one-off or Pelecanos will be a regular, but it’s really got my interest now. Also very watchable this summer is BBC America‘s RED CAP (9PM Mondays), about a team of British military crimesolvers posted on a base in Germany; while it doesn’t make nearly as much use of the German backdrop as I’d like, the characters are interesting and solutions to mysteries are generally logical but hard to predict, and I expect if we stay in Iraq any length of time an American knockoff will find its way to our screens. On the desperation side, there’s BIG BROTHER (8PM Tuesdays&Fridays, 9PM Wednesdays), the not so-fascinating timewaster where strangers are locked up together in a house for weeks on end to win $500,000, voting to boot each other out while demonstrating what two-faced self-unaware dopes they really are. (None of them seem to ever remember they’re on television.) Unlike, say, AMERICAN JUNIORS, it does have one saving grace: in their myopic self-aggrandizing haze, the players come across as microcosmic of sectors of American society, playing “the game” in deadly earnest until they’re the ones on the chopping block… Debuting next Tuesday on Fox (9PM) is the new primetime soap, THE OC, about a punk who ends up wallowing in the decadent beach lifestyle of California’s Orange County. It sounds horrible on paper – except for the presence of producer Doug (GO; THE BOURNE IDENTITY) Liman, who lends some hope…

    But mostly I’ve been catching up on movies I never saw, courtesy of DVD. Kathryn Bigelow’s K19 THE WIDOWMAKER, about the ill-fated maiden voyage of Russia’s first nuclear sub (how come no one ever made a film about the Thresher, anyway?) is competently staged, acted and directed, but it can’t escape the basic riffs of the “sub in danger” genre and had to depend on the “true story” label to make any real impression at all. But currently up is Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s ADAPTATION, a bizarre little number that’s so far living up to all its press…

  • I’m old enough to remember Watergate, to recall sitting on my stoop on Madison’s State Street, drinking Coors (illegal to have in the state at the time, since importation of “foreign” beers was strictly verboten then, along with importation of butter-colored margarine; Wisconsin was a hoot to grow up in) and watching revelers starting bonfires and dancing right there in the street the night Nixon resigned. (The city cops just pleasantly watched as nothing really got out of hand; in the days of the anti-war protests, there were three types of cops – city cops, who lived next door to or had kids who were vehemently against the war, and they weren’t all that keen to bust heads; the National Guard, which were basically scared kids who weren’t really sure they wanted to club and gas other kids; and the ones you really had to look out for, the Dane County cops, who were mostly interested in taking war tales back to their drinking buddies in the sticks – and the hands-off policy of the locals wasn’t really out of the ordinary.) It’s hard to explain now what a slow burn Watergate was, and how it only after awhile intersected with other concerns, until America, which had generally supported the “effort” in Vietnam, took to viewing it as one big booby trap that we’d been manipulated into, and Richard Nixon became (not unreasonably) the target of all that anger. It accumulated, over time, as disbelief that we’d been consistently lied to and stage-managed evolved into a need to have someone answer for it all. Harry Truman said the office of the President is where the buck stops, and it stopped on Richard Nixon with a vengeance. The people who partied on State Street – one of thousands of simultaneous spontaneous parties that erupted across America – weren’t just students, or protestors, but men and women of all ages who genuinely felt something evil had been overthrown. Nothing had really been overthrown, of course, though there was backpedaling and softselling by various power elites for a couple years after that, and, for those people, that was enough. It wasn’t enough for anywhere near long enough, but you take what you can get.

    The budding Iraqgate continues to bubble up. Last week, the reported deaths of Saddam’s sons was considered a huge victory for American forces, and, if nothing else, a huge publicity coup for the administration’s war. This week, more than one voice (the thought’s hardly original with me) is asking whether their deaths might not be a public relations disaster for the White House instead, as continuous attacks on American troops in Iraq erodes the admin’s argument that resistance in Iraq has no grassroots support (though, as services fail to be restarted and the country’s new leaders are being installed, not elected, ever greater numbers of the population there seem to want us out) but are/were orchestrated only by Saddam loyalists. That’s a p.r. problem; what may really turn into a nightmare is the new information that the White House, in contravention of tradition in armed conflicts, is lowballing military fatalities in Iraq, by listing in its figures only those who’ve died in direct conflict with “the enemy” and not mentioning those who’ve died by accident, friendly fire, suicide, disease, etc. The government’s gotten away with cooking unemployment numbers so long they probably figured what the hell, but over the last month or so the public has started tipping to the administration’s penchant for lying, and “revelation” after “revelation” is what eventually accumulates into Watergates. At this point, they’re trapped in their own legend, which just keeps the lies coming; Dick Cheney, giving a speech last week to bolster support for our Iraq incursion at the same time Congress’ generally damning, gap-ridden assessment of the 9-11 situation came out, simply rattled off quotes from the same old intelligence about WMDs that has been repeatedly discredited recently – and it only emphasizes that they’ve long been citing intelligence they knew was discredited. Just as the Hand Puppet still seems to believe that all he has to do is repeat something often enough and it will become true. And the fact is that, for most Americans, while the specter of terrorism will remain in our minds for a long time, the reality of terrorism in the USA is no longer a strong enough threat to convince people to simply shut up, shut off and get into step. The other branches of government are suddenly becoming a previously unprecedented roadblock for Administration desires – a New York court recently thwarted Attorney General John Ashcroft by dropping charges against an attorney he tried to have tried as a terrorist mainly because she was willing to defend a terrorist in court, though she’s still be charged with related crimes, like speaking with her client, and both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have started asking questions about less savory aspects of the White House’s ongoing campaign against American civil rights.

    And the Hand Puppet’s popularity polls nosedive.

    That isn’t odd for a late mid-term presidency, but for the first time people who only a couple months ago accepted the inevitability of a Rerun rerun are now considering the growing possibility that the Hand Puppet might not get a second term. Of course, he could always pull his own October Surprise to drive his popularity up (one theory goes that we’ve actually captured Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, who are being held in secret – kind of like Dennis Hopper on 24, I guess – until they can be “officially” captured a few days before the next Presidential election) but it’s a general tendency of people to revert to habit in times of stress, and lying is the habit this White House has generally resorted to. If someone keeps loudly pointing up the lies (I know, I know, it’s a full time job), the odds increase proportionately…

  • [Bob Hope]

    So Bob Hope died, at 100. Me, I never much cared for Bob Hope – he was part of that generation of TV show comics like Red Skelton, Jackie Gleason and Jimmy Durante that my parents used to inflict on me back in the days when there were only four channels on TV, and you were lucky if there was one TV in the house. (The good early stuff, like SGT. BILKO/YOU’LL NEVER GET RICH/THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW or YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, was before my time. By the time I started watching, TV programming had mostly coagulated into “safe” inanity, and the only place you could find genuine humor was in Jay Ward cartoons. So my parents would roar at THE BOB HOPE SHOW and I’d just sort of giggle, like someone who isn’t in on the joke but doesn’t want to make that known. Bob Hope… later I watched some of his movies, like the ROAD pictures he made with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour (Steve Leiber recently said that when he got the assignment to draw the whateverquel to ROAD TO PERDITION j – congratulations, Steve – his father almost immediately convinced himself the project had something to do with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby) and some of his later films, like his teamings with Phyllis Diller (I remember getting dragged to the theater on vacation once to see one, but have mercifully forgotten anything else about it including the title), heard a couple of his radio shows, etc., and… Bob Hope? I just never got it. As a kid, I read practically every comic book I could get my hands on. Except BOB HOPE comics. They never struck me as funny either.

    I’m not saying that if you think Bob Hope was funny there’s something wrong with you. I’m just saying I never got him. MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS I got. ROWAN AND MARTIN’S LAUGH-IN I got. Even Dean Martin I got. But Bob Hope? What?

    Still, he was one of ours. When was the last time “comics” and “comics” were synonymous? Like Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope enjoyed a comics run that lasted almost two decades, but that was back when comics companies were able to sell the same material in endless repetition (almost all Bob’s covers involved Bob and buxom women, until the final few issues where they involved Bob and knockoffs of Universal monsters, and finally, when his superpowered “nephew” Super-Hip made the scene, Bob was pretty much crowded off the covers and out of his own book entirely, until cancellation closed the book entirely). It says something about the declining position of comics for many years that once common “celebrity” comics pretty much dried up. But are there stars today both popular enough to lure audiences to a comics version of themselves who would be inexpensive enough to make such a license worth pursuing?

    So here’s to you, Bob. You were one of ours, however tangentially, and you made it to 100. We should all be so lucky.

  • The manga just keep flooding in, don’t they? Tokyo Pop‘s KODACHA #2 & 3 ($9.99@), by Miho Obana, continue the light soap opera story of sixth grade actress Sana and her budding sweetheart Hayama, and, considering it’s a story about kids, it’s oddly sophisticated, dealing with divorce, child abuse, homelessness, child abandonment and a horde of other “adult” concerns in a surprisingly unforced manner. It’s really a spectacular story. Wataru Yoshizumi’s MARMALADE BOY, another generally excellent manga from Tokyo Pop, is up to its seventh volume ($9.99) and closing in on the finale, but it hit the obvious reveal I’ve been expecting since volume 3 soon enough that now I’m sure it’s a swerve. It’s another good read. On the other hand, Tokyo Pop has also released Sanami Matoh’s FAKE volume 2 and Clamp’s CLAMP SCHOOL DETECTIVES volume 2 ($9.99@). The latter’s a sugary confection about superior grade school boys at the world’s most prestigious school devoting themselves to aiding damsels in distress, and I know I’m supposed to think it’s cute, but the idea of a fifth-grader being in love with a kindergartener just strikes me as creepy. I know people who just adore the series, but it leaves me cold. But FAKE is only in its second volume and it has gotten tedious as hell. Following the exploits of two NYC detectives flirting with each other (they’re both men) it pretty quickly descends into a series of typical cop show crime stories, but this volume introduces not only hardcore swearing to the series but a supposedly comical series of attempted rapes. Aside from some decent, though not exceptional art, it’s a flat out bad book.

    I was pleasantly surprised by Viz‘s ONE PIECE, by Eiichiro Oda, a pirate strip about a kid with stretching powers who’s determined to become King Of The Pirates, when it debuted in SHONEN JUMP. It plays even better in the first collection, ONE PIECE: ROMANCE DAWN, Vol. 1 ($7.95). Loads of fun, with lots of great characters. Maybe we really are in a renaissance of the pirate story. Viz has also released Yukito Kishiro’s ALITA LAST ORDER ANGEL REBORN ($9.95), apparently a sequel to Kishiro’s BATTLE ANGEL ALITA, which I haven’t read. The story’s a fairly familiar over-the-top post-holocaust sci-fi adventure, with the familiar apparently incongruous elements. The real treat here is the artwork, as American in style as I’ve ever seen in a manga; I’d almost swear Art Adams ghosted some of it. It’s good enough that I’m willing to give the story a pass until I see another volume of it.

    The latest releases from Future Comics are unfortunate. None of them are badly done, but… I keep running against things in comics that just drive me up the wall. I recently finally read the GOGIRL! collection by Trina Robbins and Anne Simmons, and while I generally liked it well enough there was one bit in it, where Gogirl! and her ex-superhero mom are off at a dude ranch – far from the public and that doesn’t matter anyway because they don’t keep their civilian identities secret and they don’t wear masks – and Gogirl! ends up in possibly mortal danger, at which point her mother rushes to save her. But… (in order to get in a telegraphed joke about how much pie she’s been eating) Mom stops to change into her superhero costume first! Who the hell is she, Martha Stewart? She can only save her daughter’s life if she’s dressed in the proper attire?! Things like that are what send me frothing about superhero comics. Now the main problem with Future’s comics is that they’re exactly the kind of comics you could “get away with” twenty years ago, but you can’t get away with them now. FREEMIND #7 ($2.99) and DEATHMASK #3 has a sense of treading water, with Freemind invading an uninhabited factory and Deathmask fighting monsters that absorb his powers, and while they’re well dialogued and well drawn, the stories generate no sense of urgency, no real sense of build, and no character demonstrates enough personality to generate any real interest. (An artist once asked me about developing character, and I said there were at least three questions you had to answer: a) what does your character want?; b) what’s he willing to do to get it?; c) what’s he afraid of? Not a single answer to any of those questions is evident in any of the characters in FREEMIND or DEATHMASK. As the song knows, you got to know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em, guys…) But the real kicker is Future’s generally best book, METALLIX, which pisses away a good issue last issue on a bar fight here. How come every time a supertype decides to go to a bar, he picks one full of grubby teamsters who start throwing punches when hot babes tell them “no”? It’s one of the hoariest clichés in comics, esp. bearing in mind that I’ve been in and out of bars all over the country for about 30 years now, and out of hundreds of bars I’ve been in the proximity of a bar fight exactly once, and never anything approximating a fight where the whole bar gets smashed up. Everyone stop doing that scene! I know the point of this issue is that the team’s mourning the loss of one of their own, but there are way better, not to mention way more original, ways to do it.

    Sorry to be cranky about it, but there are many guys in this business who get the chance to make their own opportunities, and I hate to see people pissing them away. I’ve still got a horde of books collected at and since San Diego, but those are going to have to wait until next week.

  • Lots going on suddenly: sloths finally rearing up in Hollywood, stories for VAMPIRELLA and METAL HURLANT, discussions with other publishers, changes on the long-delayed WHISPER: DAY X graphic novel, etc. I want to remind everyone that Avatar Press is releasing the first issue of FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, with gorgeous art by Juan Jose Ryp and a great cover by Frank himself, next week. Also coming out in August is the Cyberosia edition of DAMNED, my crime graphic novel with Mike Zeck, Denis Rodier and Kurt Goldzung, with a new cover, new story pages and a lot of additional material. I guess it’s about time I hunkered down on a full-scale publicity campaign for this.

    If your local dealer doesn’t carry these titles, check out the fabulous online graphic novel shop Kephri – and look for their “Steven Grant” page. (They’ve got lots of creator-specific pages, so you can easily find what you’re looking for.) Plenty more to talk about, but time’s up, so check in next week.

    If anyone wants to do a Chicago WizardWorld report, let me know. Bear in mind I don’t give a rat’s ass what you ate or drank during the con, and neither does anyone else…

    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.

    My old personal webpage – the one with all the information – has finally vanished, and it’s about time, since I left that server almost a year ago. The new one isn’t up yet, but keep watching this space for details.

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