Once in awhile, I wonder why I like some comics art and not other. Occasionally I think I just prefer "realistic" art (as opposed to "cartoon") but then plenty of the art I like falls into the wrong category. Clean, unfussy art? Maybe. Sometimes. Gaudy, overwrought art? Maybe. Sometimes. The more I look at what I like, the harder it is to discern a pattern, or similarity. Complicating things is the interweaving of story and storytelling in comics art; both affect appreciation of the drawing. (Likewise, a really affecting art job and precise storytelling can make a script seem much better than it is.)

Two pages of comics art affected me very early on:

Of the thousands of comics pages I've read, these two still stick with me more than most others. Both - my first introductions to the characters' solo titles - were, strangely, explosions of vision: Carmine Infantino's beautiful grotesqueries, the way his work, especially in the objets d'art surrounding the villains, but also in the villains themselves, the Thinker's helmet, the Shade's sinuous pose, were completely alien to my Midwestern experience, yet palpable; their sheer unfamiliarity made them seem more real, as if they must exist in order to be visualized. Likewise, Gil Kane and John Broome's conclave of aliens, none of them great leaps of imagination but somehow made more real by both their strangeness and the ease with which they intermingle, aided by the solidity Murphy Anderson's inks brought to Gil's pencils; it wasn't much of a leap, either, to imagine them as photographs rather than drawings, something that can't be said for Gil's other main inker of the day, Joe Giella.

Howard Chaykin once told me that, where he came from, you were either a Carmine Infantino guy or a Gil Kane guy. (He was a Gil guy, I believe.) I didn't see it; I liked them both, though Gil was always my favorite too. Where I came from, you were a DC guy or a Marvel guy, but even that was inaccurate. I tended toward DC, but many DC artists, especially the Superman artists like Curt Swan and Kurt Schaffenberger, and guys like Bob Brown, left me cold, just as Jack Kirby's work at Marvel left me cold, as did Don Heck's, Dick Ayers' and most other Marvel artists. (I learned to appreciate them as I got older, but, aside from Kirby, their work never gave me an emotional thrill.) From my perspective as a preteen comics fan, though I'd never have perceived it that way then, it was more you were a Jack Kirby guy or a Gil Kane guy, though that was an idiotic distinction, since Gil was himself a Jack guy - he adored Kirby's work - and my closest friend dug them both equally as well.

But if it was a DC/Marvel distinction, how to explain Steve Ditko?

Kirby's FF #10 taught me to revile Marvel comics; Ditko's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #9 taught me to adore them. Ditko's art was about as distant as the early '60s had to the pretty slickness of Infantino or Kane. What he had, though, was the most coherent and consist vision of strangeness - of experience outside my own - that I'd seen since those early Carmine and Gil works.

What Ditko did better than anyone in those early days was visualize a completely real other world that ran by its own rules. It was unnecessary to conceive of a Spider-Man existing in our world, because he fit so perfectly in his own, and Ditko's Dr. Strange only amplified that effect. Throughout the '60s, comics artists - the more interesting ones, anyway - expanded their styles and techniques, but Ditko was unique in that, even while developing beyond the claustrophobia of my first exposure to his work, AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #9, with his designs and figurework becoming increasingly open and dynamic, as in my second exposure to him in AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #1 a year later, Ditko's vision of Spider-Man's world remained exactly of a piece with his earlier vision of it. He gave up nothing, and his work lost none of that sense of discovery, of the unexpected.

Visually, the '60s were a decade of increasingly slicker, more imposing art, with Marvel making most of the strides. Across the business there were bad artists (I avoided the work of Frank Bolle, Paul Reinman, Jack Sparling and, above all, Tony Tallarico/Williamsune like the plague), artists whose work was okay but relatively interchangeable, good artists like Wally Wood and John Severin who came into the decade with their styles already set in stone, and those who really came into their own, like John Buscema and Gene Colan.

Meanwhile, at DC, a number of artists like Kane, Infantino, Nick Cardy and Joe Kubert were going through a period of refinement, shifting from a standard house style to styles bolder, more impressionistic and more personal, often taking over inking their work.

Maybe the biggest transformation was in the work of Alex Toth. Rare among comics artists, Toth increasingly viewed comics art as impressions formed by the intersection of light and shadow, suggesting concrete shapes more than depicting them, and while others moved toward more elaborate, more expressive art, Toth shifted toward simpler, more expressive art.

This was only a fraction of the artists whose work appealed to me separate from story considerations; among the others were Al Williamson, Gray Morrow, Neal Adams, Severin and Wood, the paperback covers of Frank Frazetta, James Bama and Leo & Diane Dillon, and, burbling up from fandom, George Metzger and Bernie Wrightson. So while the '60s started with a reigned in mood in the comics business, they ended with something of an explosion, with the personal styles of established artists suddenly flowering, new artists like Jim Steranko, who more than any other mainstream comics artist put comics, finally, in touch with the contemporary, and Barry (later Windsor-)Smith, whose earliest work was appallingly bad yet somehow very appealing, were about to kick open the door to a flood of new talent, and underground comics demonstrated there were whole new modes to work in.

When you start adding in the underground cartoonists, any notion of a coherent theory of comics art, or at least my tastes in it, seems to go right down the drain. But looking over this week's material again, looking ahead to next week and comics of the '70s and '80s, I start to see a common thread running through it all, and start to wonder if, rather that it all being a mere warp of nostalgia, there isn't something there that in times since the comics business degraded or downplayed or ignored or just run away from, and on thinking about it I also now wonder if, when it comes to comics art, I'm not just a sybarite after all.

The work was all, in its way... sensual... but more on that next week.

This is what happens when Democrats and Republicans reach "consensus": a new health care reform proposal. No, scratch that, not new, it's been around awhile but now some Congressmen are starting to push it hard as a "compromise" in the health care reform mess.

Speaking of health care, had a tooth yanked yesterday morning. Weirdest thing. A molar, filled some 25-30 years ago, never gave me any trouble, suddenly split right up the middle a couple weeks ago while I was eating. Thought I'd jammed something between my teeth, we all do that sometimes, but no. I could shift a piece with my tongue, though I gave up on that trick pretty quickly. No pain, though. How do you split a tooth in half to the root and still have no pain? Except under direct pressure, and I felt it but it wasn't exactly pain. Then again, when they were numbing me out I was told the shot to the roof of my mouth, right through the hard part, would hurt and I didn't even feel it enough to flinch so maybe I'm just not sensitive back there. At any rate, could've kept the tooth going a couple more years if I'd wanted to spend a couple grand out of my own pocket (after insurance!) but what's the point. But even the extraction would've been prohibitively expensive without dental insurance.

A lot more Americans have no dental insurance than have no medical insurance, and a lot of Americans have no medical insurance. (If you want to see how your state stands on uninsured citizens, click here.) In the recent furor over health care reform, the uninsured have frequently been made objects of vilification - and while I can't accept the Jimmy Carter party line that all attacks on Obama and his intended policies are racist in nature, certainly American racists have used policy controversies to ingratiate themselves in anti-Obama camps and shield themselves behind outcries against wide-net "racist" labeling, but it's pretty appalling how "viral videos" and "comedy" routines pushing the notion that health insurance is unaffordable not because insurer rates are ridiculously high and their pre-insane investment profits are obscene but because "they" would rather spend their money on 55" flat screen TVs, bling and Cadillacs than health insurance routinely feature African-Americans and are delivered in stereotypical "ghetto" accents... so how, exactly, is that not racist? - but the fact remains that many don't have health insurance simply because they can't afford it. Or the insurance they can afford, provided through employers, is, politely put, inadequate. Not that employers are necessarily to blame; they have budgets too. Years ago I had relatively inexpensive health insurance for freelancers through a buying co-op - one of the reform proposals now before Congress - until the underwriting insurance company simply started doubling costs every payment period, until what had started at ~$300 per month ended well over $1800. Over $22000 per year for health insurance, budget health insurance for those like me who didn't qualify for a group insurance plan. And my health has always been pretty good, knock wood. I hadn't been making them spend any money, aside from billing me. It was like the company wanted to drive out those pesky individual accounts. Which, as I found out a few years later, they did. The company's management had crunched numbers and decided group accounts for major corporations were more profitable and looked better on the books, and that was that.

Luckily I currently ride piggyback on someone else's insurance, because as a freelancer I simply wouldn't be able to afford my own.

So what's the plan gaining currency in Congress at the moment? It's simple and costs no public money: all Americans will be required to have health insurance. Pure and simple. If you don't, you can be subject to fines or worse. It's a great idea: charge people who can't afford medical insurance money because they can't afford it. Way to reorganize their priorities for them! Meanwhile, no practice changes for insurance companies in the proposal. None. No rate reductions - "the market" and "competition" will take care of those, doncha know? - and no requirement that health insurers must accept applicants. No elimination of refusal to cover "pre-existing conditions" or canceling policies for not having revealed a pre-existing condition you never knew you had.

Think about that. This is the plan: you must have health insurance. Must, or else. But no insurer is required to give you health insurance. So you could be fined for not having health insurance that no one will give you. Even if you do, they're still under absolutely no obligation to pay any portion of your medical bills, and if you aren't aware that many insurers will refuse to cover procedures for pretty much whatever reason they choose you haven't been paying attention. I haven't been able to find out whether the proposal also means hospitals will have the right to flat out refuse the uninsured, not sure it's even mentioned, but that's the corollary implication.

Needless to say, the source of this proposal is the health insurance industry. That's their idea of health care reform: everyone should be under penalty of law to pay the health insurance industry, with no quid pro quo. The focal shift of "problem identification" from the insurance industry to the poorest Americans, those without and frequently unable to get health insurance, and, not coincidentally, the unhealthiest members of our society - widely malnourished to start with, since budgetary considerations often push them to buy the cheapest foods, and the cheapest foods are notoriously the worst available, loaded with fat and sugar and precious little in the realm of nutrients; a very well-known comics writer told me not long ago that in the years he and his wife lived in poverty they both gained a lot of weight because the only food they could afford was all empty calories - in an attempt to shift eyes away from where reforms are needed the most is flat out disgusting.

Common sense would suggest that even Congress will see this "plan" for the self-serving money grab it is. (Can you imagine if drug companies put forth a "health care reform" plan that solely required all Americans to use name brand prescription drugs? Maybe I shouldn't put ideas in their collective head.) But it wasn't long ago that Congress, ironically "to teach Americans good fiscal practice" in what I'm sure they rationalized as a fit of tough love, pretty much handed over the keys to the kingdom to the credit card industry, not only doing nothing to regulate their abuses - if only they had done nothing - but giving them far broader powers to abuse their customers while making it much more difficult for Americans to get out from under their credit card debts. All the weight and contractual obligation on the shoulders of the American public - AKA "consumers" - and the credit card industry basically set free. Obama has proposed some restrictions be reimposed, like a 30 day notification period before your rate can be randomly jacked up (and, no, they don't need any reason; that's part of the law) to loan shark levels and beyond, but those are pretty limp reforms. But the credit card industry pays a ton in bri - I mean "contributions" - to Congress, and to presidential candidates, and so does the health insurance industry.

If this "plan" passes, it'll be a public money kickback in the guise of reform and that's all. Real health care reform will have to cover all aspects of the problem - the medical system, the insurance system, drug companies, the food industry - and trigger real changes in our whole approach to health. But this will require regulation, and lately the anti-regulation crowd have been screaming at the top of their lungs about how regulation is the source of all our problems. (These are the same ones who cried that the October collapse was due to stock market regulation rather than shifty dealings in the money industries, and that totally unfettered competition would have stopped Bernie Madoff in his tracks.) The free market economy is the answer to all. Even if that were true, the insurance industry is hardly a "free market." They all swap information, they all operate from the same data services, their basic modus operandi is not to drop their price to $100 per month when they learn their competitor is charging $125 but to raise their price from $100 to $300 when they learn that's what their competitor is charging. Like the credit card industry, while it sometimes puts on a competitive mask, the underlying business is based on collusion, not competition, and no health insurance company appears interested in changing that.

The new TV season is off to a fading start, with things looking bleaker than usual for network TV. The big hour this year is 9-10P Thursday: the CW's SUPERNATURAL, which may now be the best show on network TV, now evolved into, basically, PREACHER, with some really sharp and funny writing and acting; last year's Fox breakout FRINGE; NBC's THE OFFICE and COMMUNITY, where Joel McHale plays the anti-Michael Scott, a smug but charming creep too smart for his own good, slowly learning to interact with people as something other than marks, unfortunately hamstrung by the show's otherwise standard sitcominess; and, off my view-o-meter but on pretty much everyone else's, CBS's CSI and ABC's GREY'S ANATOMY.

Other than that hour, wow, network TV is like a bomb crater, with occasional signs of life. CBS' AMAZING RACE (8P) is Sunday's sole remaining delight. On Mondays, Fox's HOUSE (8P) has finally hit 12-step dullness as Hugh Laurie's antisocial genius diagnostician repents and cleans up his act; it's like the TV version of GARFIELD WITHOUT GARFIELD, only less pithy, leaving it to Tim Roth's antisocial walking lie detector on LIE TO ME (Fox 9P) to save the night. Over the summer someone seems to have given HEROES (NBC 8P) a possibly fatal dose of barbiturates; it's slogging along so ponderously it's almost unwatchably dull. Aside from the occasionally clever BIG BANG THEORY (CBS 9:30P) everything else is just sort of there, and nothing's more just sort of there than THE JAY LENO SHOW (10p), to which NBC has hitched their weeknight fortunes. Expect that hour to have been turned back over to affiliates, ala Fox and The CW, by this time next year.

Tuesdays? Mock-patriotic swaggering macho crap on CBS, dueling dancing competitions (doesn't it ever occur to anyone to mention how essentially stupid most dance is?), and a way too earnest Christian Slater WITHOUT A TRACE knockoff, the forgotten (ABC 10p) (yes, that's how the title is printed), about a private team headed by a defrocked cop (Slater) tracking down the identities and circumstances of death of John and Jane Does. It's so grim, humorless and depressing it makes Boom!'s similarly themed POTTER'S FIELD look like MAD magazine. I like Slater's work, but when's he going to land a good show? Wednesdays? The only thing even remotely of interest are new ABC sitcoms starring Kelsey Grammar (HANK; 8P) and Courtney Cox (COUGAR TOWN; 9:30p), but the shows seem to exist so their stars can still pretend to be sexually attractive. (Cox is particularly sad in this, as while she has certainly kept up physically, like many other women given to facelifts, botox and collagen lips her face has taken on a creepy silly putty appearance.) Two other new ABC sitcoms tread ABC Family Network territory, while NBC, CBS, Fox and The CW (whose THE BEAUTIFUL LIFE now carries the title of "first canceled series of the season") are an utter washout.

THE MENTALIST (CBS, 10:01P) will likely survive the time shift; Simon Baker's character bits as a con man hunting down a serial killer and other criminals is as endearing as ever, but we've yet to see if the show will succumb to the traditional second-year series urge to make its characters "likable." (That's been killing CBS dramas for decades now.) In the meantime, it seals Thursday's bid for "must see TV" status, mainly by default.

Because what's left is Friday and Saturday. SMALLVILLE (The CW, 8P Fri) threatens to come back from the disaster that was last season, and this season's first episode introduced several new storylines in fairly unexpected fashion, so there's at least some promise, though the show has always been better at introducing storylines than paying off on them, so qualified interest is the name of the game. On the other end of the spectrum is NUMB3RS, a former guilty pleasure diversion that in this season's opener was just tedious; I didn't last ten minutes. Everyone else spends Friday night (and everyone spends Saturday) in dump mode. (Wait, there's ABC rerunning its new sci-fi pseudo-LOST, FLASHFORWARD, where the whole world blacks out and sees the future for a few minutes, then wakes up to make sense of it, with half the population of L.A. wiped out in car crashes in the interim. I completely forgot ABC airs it Thursday at 8, and suspect almost everyone else has too.)

Remember when NBC had the slogan "Must See TV"? It's like all the networks got together in 2009 to adopt a new group slogan: "We've Given Up Trying." Apparently unwilling or unwise enough to stanch audience seepage, it's like all they're interested in doing anymore is bitching about how cable and the Internet are poaching their viewers. Must See TV? More like Play Dead TV. Except Thursdays.

Notes from under the floorboards:

One again, I'll be at the Alternative Press Expo (APE) October 17-18 in San Francisco, so look for me there, signing the book release of ODYSSEUS THE REBEL at the Big Head Press table, booth 513 - and catch a preview of the book at their website today!

Good news! James Ellroy's new novel BLOOD'S A ROVER is finally out after his long absence from fiction. Ellroy's our wildest (and arguably most interesting) living crime writer, and the book's the wrapup of his "American trilogy," so the big question is whether it measures up to AMERICAN TABLOID (good) or THE COLD SIX THOUSAND (not so good). I'll go out on a limb and predict the former...

If you live in Australia, The Pirate Party has opened a branch there after successfully establishing itself in Sweden and Germany. If you're looking for a political alternative, it's something to consider...

Speaking of health care, a Tennessee man has ended up in jail due to health problems. Stuck in a health insurance holding pattern while taking a new job in 2004, he ended up $1200+ in the hole for an unexpected two day hospital stay. He'd already mortgaged off his house to pay a $25,000 bill for diabetes treatment, so he simply didn't have the money to pay. The hospital's solution? Something called a "body attachment." Translation: debtor's prison for people who can't pay their health care bills. It gets worse. Read the article.

By the way, the other new meme in the health care debate - heard it this morning during Congressional debates while C-Span was buzzing through my tooth-extraction invoked dozing - is that preventative health care (i.e., promoting healthy behavior to stop sickness before it becomes an issue) will cost prohibitive amounts of money, to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. Suuuuuuuuuure it will. It's not hard to see the moneyed hands of drug companies and the medical establishment behind this one, since preventative health care would cut way back on the need for treatment, and treatment is where drug companies and hospitals make all their profits...

Heh. Turns out the Ghost had the option of giving HARRY POTTER author J.K. Rowling the presidential medal of freedom - and didn't because Harry Potter promotes witchcraft. Wait a second; didn't Reagan give some sort of award to the guy who came up with voodoo economics? Anyway, what? They couldn't eliminate her for literary reasons? Well, at least Alan Greenspun's got one, and all he had to do was set up the conditions for economic collapse to get it...

I still like most Microsoft products, but ain't this notion of throwing your own Windows 7 launch party about the dumbest promotional idea ever. (And this from the company that concocted Bob and the Songsmith promotional campaign.) I suspect, on watching the promo video, that they're really suggesting throwing big pot parties, because whoever concocted this thing must've been really stoned...

This just in: the Constitution has been banned in Pittsburgh...

Congratulations to Matt Ampersand, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "half." Matt wants you to look at The Weekly Crisis, and his blog there, right now. Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme - it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU'D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. As in most weeks, a secret clue is cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but not to worry; it'll all come out in the wash. Good luck.

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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