First off, a quick apology and correction for IDW. I gather IDW owner Ted Adams has wasted much of his week correcting various online reports about the Platinum/Vanguard affair (covered here last week) so: while IDT did invest in IDW a couple years ago, that IDT is not the IDT backing the new Vanguard Comics venture. Which, thinking on it, is about what I'd expect from a company that either doesn't know or care that a comics-related publishing house called Vanguard already exists. But please remember the upshot: IDW has absolutely no connection in any way, shape, form or pedigree with Platinum/Vanguard, and I'm sorry to have been part of the problem.

I think it was 1969 when my best friend told me of a head shop that had opened on Gilman Street just west of State in Madison. (Several years later it was replaced by a sandwich shop that kept me alive for a very impoverished year, as a local music paper I wrote traded them advertising for an employee expense account, so I got pretty decently fed gratis.) Head shops, of course, were only smoke shops that sold black lights in addition to hookahs and cigarette papers, but this one also sold underground newspapers from far and wide, including the EAST VILLAGE OTHER and the LOS ANGELES FREE PRESS.

We didn't much care about any of that, though I shortly thereafter bought the FREE PRESS avidly for Harlan Ellison's great, later collected TV criticism column The Glass Teat, which was probably the biggest single influence on my concept of what a regular column should be. (Thanks, Harlan.) What my friend couldn't wait to tell me about was GOTHIC BLIMP WORKS, "the first underground Sunday comics supplement," which became our abrupt introduction to underground comix.

Talk about being thrown into the deep end of the pool. Though we'd grown up with, and to some extent bonded over, Marvel and DC comics, we knew other kinds of comics existed. We'd seen MAD, of course, at least the fairly tepid parody mag it had become by the late '60s, and there'd always been "other" comics around, Archies and ADVENTURES INTO THE UNKNOWN and Charltons and THUNDER AGENTS and the like, but generally the weirdest thing found on public sale was SUPER GREEN BERET. The people my mother babysat for had a box of '50s comics in their garage, so I'd seen ALL STAR COMICS, the original Captain Marvel and various second-rate horror comics like WEB OF EVIL, and the men's magazines my dad hid in his basement workspace had plenty of girly strips like "The Adventures Of Phoebe Zeitgeist," "Pussycat" and "Little Annie Fanny." But aside from the sexual content, those were all of a piece with everything else I knew of comics, very much extensions of the same traditions, even where, as with Kurtzman's work, he was simultaneously undermining those traditions. Kurtzman and others had no problem poking the world in the ribs, but burn it down? Uh-uh.

This was always a problem for '60s superhero comics. On the one hand they were built on fabulous foreign worlds intended to send the reader's fancy and imagination flying, whether it was Rann, Oa or Asgard, and on the other they were duty bound to insist that, unless you happened to be a millionaire playboy, a good job and a steady sweetheart were the pinnacle of human experience. Superhero comics have since been forced out of that pattern by the necessity of just keeping people interested enough to read, but even while hugely popular titles like X-MEN in all its variations have spent the intervening years pretty much eliminating the concept of human existence from its page the core socially acceptable concepts â€" find that one true love, wrap yourself in a like-minded support group, always remember the policeman is your friend and say your prayers at night â€" doggedly stuck around, if not quite so obviously.

But suddenly there were underground comix, and if there was a general message in them, it was this: challenge everything. Which by the late '60s wasn't a difficult concept to grasp, given political figures and presidential candidates were dropping like flies, it was growing ever more obvious that Vietnam was a total bog (don't forget Nixon was elected in '68 largely on his promise of a secret plan to end the war â€" of course there wasn't one â€" while his opponent Hubert Humphrey was shackled by his inability to challenge war policy without implicitly criticizing Lyndon Johnson, though that was the one thing that might have gotten him elected, so by '68 the American public was already looking for a way out) and the Civil Rights movement in all its forms had strongly punctuated the social inequity the country's power structure fed on. The late '60s are popularly remembered by people who weren't there as a semi-comical time of smelly (alternately naked or ludicrously garbed) barefoot quasi-bums blissfully strung out on dope, indiscriminate sex and a refusal to grow up masquerading as halfwit discontent. Sure, it was a new culture about as imperfect as cultures can get, but it was a genuinely new experience for America at a time when a lot of people were hungry from something genuinely new, and its core message had a hell of an appeal: the way you've always been told you have to live, you don't have to live that way! The idea was only scary to those whose existences depended on people living that way, and those who refused to accept there was any other way to live. But for all the portrayal of the new counter-culture as an implicitly irresponsible place that created irresponsible people, it carried its own implicit sense of responsibility: not only that it's your right to choose what you do with your body, your mind and your life, but that nothing - not the church, not the state, not the social system, not parents nor educators nor reporters, not traditions nor mores, not even (maybe especially not) the counter-culture, absolutely nothing - is inherently worthy of respect, which is something that has to be re-won every day or it's worth nothing at all.

Sure, when push came to shove, a lot of people just couldn't live that through. It's a tough way to live, it takes constant work, something both counter-culture opponents and those in it just for a cheap high or easy sex (and even at the height of the '60s, "free love" was never quite as easy to come by as the media made it out to be) refused to recognize. Some personalities take to it better than others and, let's face it, it's usually just a whole lot easier to do as you're told. (Most people think that's a life without consequences when it's really just a life without consequence.)

But there were the underground comix, imperfectly chronicling it all, both playing with traditional comics structure and smashing it all to hell: funny, bold, disrespectful, idiosyncratic, traditional draftsmanship optional. If there's one "sin" the undergrounds committed, it was introducing the populist view that draftsmanship was a distant secondary consideration to idea, which a lot of would-be comics talent seize on to this day. In fact, much of the draftsmanship in underground comix was deceptive, using stylistic primitivism or cartoony styles that masked the sophistication of the rendering. When the height of outre was Jim Steranko's Peter Max-inflected special effects or Neal Adams writing Jim Steranko's name in flames, Robert Williams and Rick Griffin were a complete shock.

Certainly underground comix changed the course of American comics in general. Besides convincing Jim Starlin that acid trips were suitable subject matter for comics, they provoked more expressionistic and identifiable styles in "straight" comics as house styles fell apart, at least for awhile. Largely in response to the (no pun intended) mushrooming popularity of underground comix, many comics became more topical, or at least less separated from the reality of their own world, to the point where Steve Englehart was eventually mirroring Watergate events in CAPTAIN AMERICA; even when the strict "relevant comics" movement died down c. the mid-'70s â€" it had never been a very comfortable fit for superhero comics, dropping characters whose whole raison d'etre was triumphing over impossible odds into a complex milieu where "victory" was less a concrete outcome than a fleeting, fragmentary matter of perception â€" the legacy lives on in such things as Marvel's CIVIL WAR, and it was the need to compete successfully against underground comix that triggered the destruction, to all intents, of the Comics Code Authority, which once dominated the industry and still exists but whose effect on comics is now pretty much non-existent. Underground comix changed the whole way we think about comics, they sent a message that the medium wasn't the province of the blessed few and anyone who could produce a comic could do comics, they bulldozed open the notion of creator-ownership and creator-rights, as intermediate territory between undergrounds and straight comics was carved out by publications like Mike Friedrich's STAR*REACH and fanzines increasingly covered both areas, and they increased fan acceptance of comics from other countries, whose audiences ate up American undergrounds like there was no tomorrow and borrowed the idea for comics of their own. Would there even be an Alan Moore (lately rumored to be pushed for knighthood by Brit comics fans) without "The Stars My Degradation" and "Maxwell The Magic Cat," neither of which would likely have existed had undergrounds not come first? The markets were different, but the independent comics boom of the '80s was effectively the underground legacy writ large.

It's worth remembering that "straight" comics never really "won" against undergrounds, which were still cresting when they died out. Head to head (also no pun intended) traditional comics lost sales ground against them, and after a Supreme Court ruling made "obscenity" a matter not of federal criteria but of the different local biases of all the American municipalities and threatened underground comix out of business with the cost of thousands of individual potential lawsuits, traditional comics sales continued to descend. (Interestingly, the main focus of the case that generated the Court's ruling was the pornography industry, which thrived in its wake.) Undergrounds didn't leach off trad comics audience, except with readers who were giving up on trad comics anyway; they generated their own monstrous audience that only shared an overlap audience (like me) with trads. It's no surprise that the new wave of creators who came into trad comics in the early '70s brought with them as much of the underground spirit as trads would tolerate, and that too is a legacy the business carries to this day.

Robert Crumb was always the poster boy for underground comix. If nothing else, Ralph Bakshi made sure Crumb's FRITZ THE CAT was widely known to the public of the day, even if Crumb denounced the movies based on the character, while his Mr. Natural character and the phrase "Keep On Truckin'" were widely ripped off for t-shirt, bumper stickers and other paraphernalia, and he was the prime attention getter in the ZAP COMICS collective, which was the incredibly popular introduction to the undergrounds for most people. Crumb's now highly regarded in many circles while most of his work has been returned to print and his influence on popular culture is widely acknowledged. Gilbert Shelton is the other best known comics artists, even if he has remained in eclipse and relative seclusion the past few years; his FABULOUS FURRY FREAK BROTHERS may be the best known, widest read icons of underground comix, and it's about time an omnibus of his work hit press somewhere.

Other underground cartoonists whose work merits omnibus collection:

Foolbert Sturgeon (AKA Frank Stack): the king of savage wit and crude cartooning, he's best known for the recently collected THE NEW ADVENTURES OF JESUS, and, as a cartoonist with Gilbert Shelton in college in Texas pre-undergrounds, is a potential candidate for "father of underground comics." Arguably the funniest of all underground cartoonists, and exemplary of the sophisticated primitivism of the medium.

Dan O'Neill: newspaper cartoonist, Air Pirate, and author of one of the best introductions to drawing ever done, THE BIG YELLOW DRAWING BOOK. A piercing, cantankerous political and cultural critic, his 1969 "Odd Bodkins" book HEAR THE SOUND OF MY FEET WALKING DROWN THE SOUND OF MY FEET TALKING, is a great, iconoclastic early graphic novel, before pretty much anyone here ever heard of the term. But the volume of his almost universally excellent work goes way beyond that, into numerous newspaper strips and several other books.

S. Clay Wilson: when are comics fine art? When Wilson, who moved from undergrounds into the fine art market while producing essentially the exact same material, does them, apparently. His Checkered Demon and Cap'n Pissgums and his Pervert Pirates are among the foulest, funniest, best delineated comix characters ever, with a truly unique style.

Spain Rodriguez: former biker turned comix artist and early self-publisher, Spain is the early underground artist most influenced by trad comics, especially Wally Wood's work, and his work, especially his TRASHMAN comics, is among the earliest in the underground to lift the trad comics action-adventure structure, with huge dollops of humor (Trashman's "super power" is the ability to get warnings of impending danger from inanimate objects) and his style dynamic oddly parallels Jim Steranko's while his subject matter covers an unusually broad spectrum from autobiography to novel adaptation.

Skip Williamson: the most "pop" art of underground cartoonists, Williamson sits at the cusp between underground and ground level, with many strips centering around a zoot-suited, slick-haired anachronistic hipster named Snappy Sammy Smoot whose naïve, wide-eyed responses to everything generated the height of gentle social satire.

Art Spiegelman: Considering how renowned his MAUS is (it originated in a '72 underground called FUNNY ANIMALS, by the way) it might seem odd to refer to Spiegelman's work as "eclipsed," but while he may considered MAUS his magnum opus, underground comics (not to mention Wally Wood's quasi-fanzine WITZEND, which, among other things, debuted Steve Ditko's MR. A) are littered with his older material, much of it as dark as anything ever concocted, especially his debauched Shadow-like character, the often nauseating Viper, and his manic, Freudian exorcism of life with his mother, "Prisoner Of The Hell Planet," which ends with Spiegleman sentenced to life in prison screaming "You killed me, Mommy, and you left me here to take the blame!" The word idiosyncratic was made for him, and since his early work is sometimes astounding and he seems to have all but given up on comics following the abortive IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWERS, a new collection would be useful and timely.

George Metzger: the first major slideover from '60s comics fandom, where he generated the bizarre "Master Tyme and Mobius Tripp," Metzger quickly both one of the most "trad" of underground cartoonists â€" his series are most often action-adventure with trad structures and throughlines, and his post-apocalyptic MOONDOG series generated a pocket universe of connected series and strips â€" and one of the most inventive, as well as an early pioneer of incorporating words into the visual aspects of the comics page. Among his large, disparate output was another early graphic novel, originally serialized in underground newspapers, BEYOND TIME AND AGAIN. Some truly amazing stuff.

Richard Corben: Corben's another one who shouldn't seem to be on this list, since he's still working and recent work has been published by both Marvel and DC, making him one of the most successful crossover talents to ever emerge from undergrounds. Which is why reviving his now mostly forgotten early work has tremendous artistic and historical importance. Coming in almost at the tail end of underground comics, Corben was one of the prime advocates of genre in underground comics, expanding their range into more traditional areas like horror and science fiction. He also worked on an early graphic novel, adapting Robert E. Howard's "Valley Of The Worm" with Jan Strnad, and was, with his intensely lushly-muscled figures, arguably the progenitor of the post-Frazetta body fetishism that eventually found full bloom in the "Image style" of the early '90s, and tons of his most influential work remains unavailable.

Rand Holmes: About the last hurrah of underground comix, Canadian artist Holmes evolved his style from Wally Wood's art and, via his "Harold Hedd" character as "straight" culture became increasingly tolerant of the counter-culture, was among the best bets for an eventual artistic rapprochement of the two. Why he vanished from the scene aside from a couple stories in the '80s for Pacific Comics I haven't a clue, but his comics, some of the funniest, best drawn work to ever come out of the underground, merits far better than its current obscurity.

Trina Robbins: while still well known to many comics fans today via her occasional work like BARBIE for Marvel in the '90s or her own co-creation GO-GIRL, Trina was one of the first â€" maybe the first â€" female underground cartoonist, and certainly one of the first to vehemently rebel against the macho undercurrents of the '60s counterculture and especially the inequities of the "free love" movement, ranging from early sex fantasies like GOTHIC BLIMP WORKS' "Panthea" and later both portrayals of strong women and harrowing depictions of women abused by counter-culture myths and slid into drug addiction and prostitution, an increasingly big problem in end-of-the-era San Francisco where the selfish intent of Johnny-come-lately camp followers had driven out the original benign designs of counter-culture founders. Trina's work remains among the best and sharpest observations of all sides of that era.

So any publishers out there willing to put this frequently amazing work back into print? Much of it dates much better than you'd think, but then again, what's old is new again...

Here's the wrapup of that Cheyenne Kid story, with the secret untold truth about the Battle Of Little Big Horn. I still haven't received any expert testimony but after staring at the pages for a month I decided it has to be Al Williamson, for the most part, probably with help from others. (There was strong Frazetta influence earlier, and a couple panels here look at least penciled by Reed Crandall, which means players like Roy Krenkel, Angelo Torres or Sid Check could also have their hand in. It's still possible it's a very talented Williamson imitator, but had there been such a person working in the '50s he/she would likely be pretty well known by now, unless this was their only comics job. But not likely. If anyone out there has any contact with Al, they might want to ask him and let us know. In the meantime, here's this week's western fix:

Fun to be able to chat about someone else's politics for a chance, and maybe everyone in the world ought to get down on one knee and give heartfelt thanks to Ireland for screwing up the EU's plan â€" largely pushed by Germany and France â€" to pretty much fully integrate Europe politically. The last time this deal was pushed it embarrassingly failed referendums in countries like France, so this time it has been mostly pushed through national parliaments or whatever passes for them locally, and Ireland was the only Eurostate so far to hold a public vote on it. The Irish public voted it down, stopping the ratification process, since all EU members must ratify it. What did the plan entail? As near as anyone can figure out, it creates a "Federal Europe," with a president, chancellor and other officer, which can tax and override the laws of member states. That's probably irritating to member states, but what Ireland put a halt to that might have had the most impact on the rest of us was the combination of all European armies into a single, very large, centrally controlled army with no restrictions on "foreign incursions." I realize the US military is no stranger to foreign adventurism, and I sure wouldn't mind seeing our capacity for that trimmed back considerably, but the last thing the world needs is another massive army eyeing foreign borders, especially one from the birthplace of colonialism. Would a Euroarmy necessarily be a threat to world peace? No, but it's a funny thing about standing armies: there's always someone, far too often in high places of power, who thinks if an army exists it might as well be put to use, and suddenly whole nations are sucked into wars they don't need. (Case in point.) It's suspicious that the people pushing this "agreement" (I guess "constitution" was too scary a word) were mostly avoiding letting the European public vote on it. But then there was Ireland, which is a little like Rhode Island bringing the USA to a halt by refusing to sign the Constitution. And know what? Rhode Island originally did refuse, until the other colonies pretty much extorted them into it. I suspect there will be a lot of pressure brought to bear on Ireland to switch gears as well, but in the meantime, give thanks to the Irish.

Oh, look at that: according to the Guardian, Germany and France are considering moves to "isolate" Ireland until they give in and ratify the Lisbon pact. That alone ought to give most of Europe grounds to rise up. But at least it shows these guys do learn from history, at least the history of Rhode Island. (The other former colonies threatened heavy tariffs on Rhode Island's products if they held out, so they signed, and the USA was born.) But this was just explained to me: apparently in order to pass a law in this proposed new federation, not only must a majority of member nations (14, I think) back the measure, a majority of collective voters must vote for it. Giving Germany and France, if they act in unison, pretty much totally control over Europe, since they have the, um, vassal states to go along with any proposal in sufficient number, and enough of the total population to theoretically pass any measure they liked, binding on all the other nations of the EU. (Thought I hate to tar the many great, perfectly decent people living in France and Germany, Fourth Reich, anyone?) But even if other nations joined together in ample number to push some measure, they'd still have a tough time mustering a majority in the popular vote if German and French citizens didn't cooperate. No wonder Ireland thumbed it down.

Meanwhile Canada is considering a bill that would flat out ban copying copyrighted material completely. No tapes, no CDs, no thumb drives, nothing. Carrying an iPod with MP3s of that CD you bought but don't want to carry with you to Harrison Hot Spring? Out. The RIAA's been trying to get this sort of thing pushed through here from the moment blank tape was introduced into the consumer market, so Canada looks like their new testing ground, but considering how widespread copying is â€" even record company executives make their own "mix tapes" to play in the car on the way home â€" that I'm unsure what sense it makes to criminalize behavior your citizenry is already completely accustomed to. We tried that here once; it was called "prohibition" and it didn't work very well. But prohibitions never do, and I expect any real attempts to enforce the law should the bill make it into law will clog the Canadian court system so badly they'll quickly give up on trying to enforce it, so it'll end up one of those laws they push into service when trying to screw over some individual over some other thing. Is this the same bill as the one that would make customs officials check and confiscate at the border laptops etc. carrying any "illegal" copyrighted material, even where legal by American law? Not that American border officials don't have the power to do that already...

And Sweden's citizenry is reportedly up in arms over their government's ruling party's plan to tap all Internet communications in and passing through Sweden while giving the government total discretion over what to look for, which was just very recently mentioned in the Swedish press (not sure, but I may have mentioned it before they did). Widespread disapproval of the measure seems to have erupted, but despite public desire for the whole notion to go away, it seems the ruling party is threatening any parliament members who vote against the measure with losing their seats. The vote will likely have taken place before you read this, and riots, work stoppages, etc. are now threatened if it passes.

So here's the question: if all these measures are such good things, why do their supporters have to pressure, threaten and intimidate to assure their passage?

Notes from under the floorboards:

THE SAFEST PLACE, the thriller graphic novel I did with Victor Riches and Tom Mandrake, is theoretically on sale today (Wednesday June 17) so this is your big chance to pester your retailer for it. If they don't carry it, check back next week for info on how else to get it. (Amazon had inexplicably pulled their listing, but it might be back now.) Meanwhile, click here and here for everything you ever wanted to know about the book.

Since you already probably don't think I believe in false modesty or any other kind, for a little amusement check out this love fest for my old CHALLENGERS OF THE UNKNOWN series. However, it's not my contribution to the series that I wish was much more widely appreciated; it's too bad more people aren't hip to John Paul Leon's stunning artwork, and many issues of COTU were built on it. Great work from John Paul. (Hey, where's the remainder of the equally good WINTER MEN, anyway? Did it ever conclude? Brett?)

Of course, you can also still get the TWO GUNS collection from Boom! Studios and the new PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD hardcover from Marvel.

For those going to San Diego, my first official appearance there is apparently set, on a Larry Young hosted panel, "So You Want To Do A Graphic Novel," tentatively scheduled for 6:30 PM Thursday July 24. No room number or other details yet, but by that time of day I should actually be coherent enough to answer questions.

For those concerned with this sort of thing, version 3.0 of Firefox is available for download. They're claiming it's a huge advance in browser tech - well, what else would they claim? â€" and so far it seems fine but the most notable thing about the new installation is that half of the best extensions no longer work. (C'mon, is it really that hard to give extension developers the hooks they need to fit the new edition?) Mozilla was trying to get a Guinness World Record for copies downloaded in one day. No idea if they made it...

By the way, seems the FCC has determined that no web connection speed shy of 768kbps counts as broadband anymore. If your connection is slower, you're officially living in the past now, at least by FCC standards. (On the other hand, they made that judgment months ago and spent the interim coming up with reasons to ignore it, so...)

I know a lot of people poo-poo the notion of cross-cultural awareness as nothing more than "politically correct" malarkey, but here's an example of why it isn't. Recently read a lunatic fringe screed making much hay over the fact that "god" spelled backwards is "dog." I know I've heard about this way back into my childhood, but the first time I ever saw it in print was in some issue of MAN-THING where it was lightheartedly intended to be one of those relevatory moments to challenge your perception of reality. The problem with this sort of thing â€" and there are a lot of similar things that have traditionally shown up in comics â€" is that it only works on the assumption that English is a universal language and what words mean in modern English is what they've always meant throughout time. (Similar to when creationists use "theory" in its general meaning to debunk scientific theories like evolution, when "theory" means something quite different in scientific language.) The dog-god palindrome is a pothead revelation, but without "chien" being a palindrome for "dieu" in French or "canus" and "deus" in Latin and any number of other examples in virtually every other language, it has no solid application to anything at all. It's a cute linguistic fluke is all. While this is probably ludicrously obvious to anyone with half a brain, there are many people every day who assume something unique to their cultural perspective is a universal quality, and make proposals or decisions based on the assumption. Which is why cross-cultural awareness has value; while such assumptions may play like genius to your localized little clique, it only makes you look like a total flaming idiot to the rest of the world.

(Speaking of the rest of the world, a recent poll indicates that the Ghost is widely considered the third least trustworthy national leader on the planet, only ahead of Kazakhstan's Nazarbayev & Iran's Ahmadinejad. Could be worse, I guess, at least by a little...)

Associated Press, also making a pitch for bloggers to subscribe to their services, is the latest business to try creating their own set of rules for how "fair use" works, with a limit of four words without pay â€" and they can prohibit even that if you say anything bad about Associated Press. Too bad that legally they're not the ones who get to do that, but AP has a long history of pretty much ignoring any copyright law it doesn't like. So it's interesting that they should be insisting everyone else ignore copyright law too. Further, they seem to have "negotiated" with bloggers by talking with a group, the Media Bloggers Association, that most bloggers have never heard of. It's a fairly typical tactic: pick a group that's already more or less aligned with you â€" the group seems to draw its membership mostly from "traditional" journalists, who have as much at stake as AP in controlling the more populist bloggers who continue to spring up all over the Internet â€" and tell everyone else they're their representatives so whatever they agree to everyone else is bound by. Which occasionally worked back in the old union-busting days until the unions got strong enough (and got enough legislative influence) to put those kind of management-controlled representation schemes out of business, but the Internet blogger rabbit is already out of that hat. Then again, what do you expect from an operation that threatens to sue people for linking to their site?

And here's a good one: despite numerous companies getting rich selling anti-spyware programs, Congress â€" via something called the Counter Spy Act â€" somehow intended to mandate antispyware on computers. But it allows companies to secretly spy on user computers to determine whether they're using legit software. Since theoretically a company only knows if their software's in use if a user registers is, and registered software is pretty much always legit, this is effectively an invitation for any company to snoop through anyone's computer. Some are concerned this is a reboot of a crappy old proposal allowing software companies to remotely shut down computers running unauthorized software, which is concerning enough given how well Microsoft's validation system has worked (on a few occasions it has refused to validate perfectly legal software, including the Windows OS, rendering the affected computers useless) but I'm more concerned with all the software companies that have eagerly jumped into goose step when some government agency wanted them to put secret backdoors into their software so the feds can very easily stick their noses into anyone's rig. It doesn't take a huge leap of imagination, especially with the various electroschemes the current administration has come up with, to see software companies snooping around on the government's behalf and claiming it was to protect their wares...

Seems the "Zero Tolerance" movement (AKA the "I rather not think" movement) may be fraying a bit after some 20+ years as the supposed pinnacle of tough love. In Greenville, South Carolina, of all places, parents are finally starting to insist the school board drop the inane "zero tolerance" rules, which basically say that every case is identical and all circumstances equal regardless of the cost to the students they're supposedly in existence to serve and educate, and replace it with... get this... common sense. And the school board actually seems to be going for it! Ambivalence and judgment has been considered wussy in America since the Reagan era, when the prevailing wisdom was that everyone needed to shape up or pay the penalty (unless you were in high finance or covert government, of course, in which case escaping penalties regardless of behavior was usually a perk) but if they're even tiring of it in the Bible Belt, what future does zero tolerance have?

Congratulations to Lyle McEachin, the first to identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "superstition." Lyle wishes to point your attention to a helpful site that will tell you how long airport security checkpoint waits are. 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 â€" 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. (You never know; I might just go on a mass linking spree one of these days, if I can ever find the Internet's answer to a water tower.) As in most weeks, I've hidden a special secret clue to the answer somewhere in the column, and this one's about as hard as it gets. Good luck.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my "Master Of The Obvious" columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

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 â€" I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them â€" 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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