Let's try an experiment. The next six paragraphs will contain twenty-two syllables.

Each. What's the point? Bear with me. Several times I've tried to get a message across, with scant luck.

I've written at some length about serialized comics and their impact on trade collections.

Of blind adherence to artificial strictures imposed by economics on comics.

Twenty-two pages per chapter, yes? A forced length, no more, no less? Except sometimes a page.

What's the problem with that, you ask? No problem, if you like mechanically structured art.

Well, do you? (This is paragraph 7, by the way. Experiment's over. man. Maybe.)

So let's read the "trade paperback" version of that:

Let's try an experiment. The next six paragraphs will contain twenty-two syllables. Each. What's the point? Bear with me. Several times I've tried to get a message across, with scant luck. I've written at some length about serialized comics and their impact on trade collections. Of blind adherence to artificial strictures imposed by economics on comics. Twenty-two pages per chapter, yes? A forced length, no more, no less? Except sometimes a page. What's the problem with that, you ask? No problem, if you like mechanically structured art.

Huh. A bit clunky. No doubt if I'd spent a few hours planning the whole thing out in advance and a few more meticulously crafting each "paragraph" until each piece fit together as a seamless whole, maybe it would have been a lot better -

Damn it!

I clean forgot to start each new paragraph with the last word of the preceding paragraph, so that readers moving from paragraph to paragraph won't get lost and will get a rough idea of what was written in each preceding paragraph. And I ought to make sure each paragraph reiterates the "story" and theme of the complete "arc" since I can't automatically assume that someone reading, say, the second paragraph will read the collected paragraph, or have read the first paragraph. I didn't reintroduce key words each paragraph and sketch out their identifying characteristics. I didn't climax each paragraph with some hook to urge the reader to go to the next paragraph to find out what's said next. Let's try that again.

Or maybe not. You get my drift.

Imagine the revised version, and that's what a lot of comics read like to a lot of people. Not hardcore comics fans, of course. Most people who've read comics, especially superhero comics, for a long time don't see it, but the rigid and finite structure of the 22 page comic molds the shape of the story told within that form. Even within my above "paragraphs," without the required explanatory intrusions found in most chapters of serialized comics, is distended, with sentence structures diced and superfluous words used as padding to ensure an artificially mandated structure is maintained. Sure, it's not horrible, but have been doing this a few decades now. But it's constricted, unnatural. Extraneous words in some "paragraphs," necessary words or thoughts unnecessarily split or truncated in others.

Because the most important aspect of each "paragraph" isn't that it should connect with the others for style and flow, though that's certainly desirable, but that it should fit the allotted format.

This is effectively how serialized comics are done, even while most are now done with an eye toward graphic novel collection. Our problem as an industry and a creative culture in this regard is that most of us are hardcore comics fans, we're so intimately familiar with our own artificial constructs that automatically accept that there is no problem. But the structures we impose didn't develop for art or communication, they're strictly financial considerations, the result of some now long ago bookkeeper working out the most cost-effective balance of price and content, that floating decimal point where the publisher could make the most profit for the least outlay the market would tolerate. 22 pages it was. But that's the only reason it's 22 pages. The only one. It's the only reason the pamphlet exists in its current form. Economics, not art, is the only reason there's usually only one story per 22 page comic. But almost nobody creating comics is particularly happy with any of these boundaries. Which is why so many talents think in terms of expansive stories that cover 6, 12, 100 issues.

Because what most of us really want is the graphic novel.

Which is the crux of it. Sure, you may love reading comics serialized 22 pages per issue (which is one of the main comments I get anytime I bring this up: "But I like it that way!") but â€" it's hard to explain this to people who don't write comics, you have to experience it yourself â€" 22 pages sure isn't a length many of us would have chosen left to our own discretion. Hopefully it wasn't awfully apparent to most readers but more than a few comics stories â€" both the standalone in one issue and the serialized over several issues kinds â€" was been uncomfortably twisted into 22 pages when the creative team would have preferred otherwise, when even just a page more or often a page less would have left it more balanced and complete. Or 8 pages or 6 or whatever the publisher decided was the "proper" length for a story.

But there's really no reason to do that anymore.

I know some people like to talk about these restrictions as "discipline," which they are in b&d terms. Does it take discipline to write a comics story that will fit in 22 pages? Sure, and to a point it's a good exercise. It takes more discipline to write a good comics story in six or eight pages, but I don't hear many clamoring for that. It takes even more discipline to understand your story enough to figure out the most effective length for telling it.

This is what hardcore comics fans don't want to accept: the graphic novel changes everything. It really does.

Thing is, the graphic novel also isn't just "our" playground. Book publishers are defining it now as much as comics publishers are, and I get the feeling that's making hardcore fans a little nervous. The general audience, which is the growth market for graphic novels, makes little distinction between a trade paperback collection and an original graphic novel, as has been noted before. To them, a "graphic novel" is anything that's drawn like comics but long enough to be squarebound. (As economics-generated restrictions go, bookstores have pretty much settled on a 100+ page minimum length for anything that remotely qualifies as a graphic novel, and they're enforcing it by simply not ordering anything less, which puts a dent in comics industry delusions that stories as short as 40 pages can be passed off as graphic novels.)

The pamphlet is the main thing that threatens to leave comics publishers in the dust, unless they finally acknowledge and deal with the problems.

Serializations simply don't translate into graphic novels because they have to serve two masters. Yes, the pulp magazine serialized stories that were eventually republished as novels, but pulp authors, though they had their own straitjackets, faced a form nowhere near as inflexible as the pamphlet comic, serials were often somewhat revised for novel publication to smudge the redundancies inherent in the serial form, and, push comes to shove, the paperback novel killed the pulps. It's as simple as that.

Comics arcs usually get published intact in trade paperbacks, with the redundancies, gimmicks and mechanisms that are only necessary in serialized form likewise intact. We read it without batting an eye because we're used to the conventions. To the general reader, it reads as either inept or condescending. Why are we telling him the same thing at the beginning of the second "chapter" that we told him at the first's start? Why do we repeat information that we provided two or three pages earlier? An issue break is not a chapter break, and they don't serve anything remotely resembling the same function, no more than a paragraph break and a page break serve the same function in Microsoft Word.

I'm not arguing for death to the pamphlet. If it comes it comes but as long as there's a viable use for it there's no reason to push it. I'm arguing for a much more consciously realized use of whatever form we opt to us. And by "us" I mean the creators of comics. The graphic novel gives us something we've rarely had before: not only length, but the ability to sub-divide it exactly as we choose. But the choice has got to be up to us, as creators. It's difficult to emphasize enough what an immense opportunity we've got, and it's disturbing to see it being pissed away trying to force it into being nothing much than an extension of what already exists, a mere re-packaging opportunity. As fans of the FLIGHT series will agree, the "graphic novel" is making the anthology viable again, but this time anthologies that can handle material ranging from half a page to dozens of pages with equal opportunity in the same package.

Meanwhile, we, without whom comics would not have existed until this day; we who've talked about the graphic novel and envisioned it for decades; we who stare now into the face of our own birthright - as the graphic novel grows in popularity we will come off looking like clowns and bumblers by not having the common sense to throw off the restrictions of old conventions. We hold on to our arcana and behave like paranoiacs insisting everyone else has to speak our language or they're not real citizens. Want the pamphlet and the serialization-to-graphic novel model to work? Fine. Make it work, consciously and with defined artistic intent.

Because it won't work all by itself.

(Addendum: if anyone wishes to critique my critique and explain why there's nothing at all wrong with the way comics are currently being serialized and repackaged, please do so in 22 syllable paragraphs. Thanks.)

Part 3 of Wally Wood's early '50s excursion into espionage and yellow peril:

Some mail:

"As far as the Siegel decision is concerned, I don't think it's a question of whether the character itself will continue, but a question of whether Time Warner will want to continue to own it.

If they have to split future proceeds with the Siegels, that will lower their profit margin and possibly make it less advantageous for the company to operate DC Comics in general. As a business reporter, I last year covered GE's sale of its plastics business. The business made a $500 million profit for GE in 2006, but was still below GE's standards and was sold. Time Warner sold off its music biz a few years ago, and I'd have to imagine DC could meet the same fate.

If that happens - and someone will buy it - it will be a bad deal for fans. DC has had its share of misfires over the years, but overall I'd have to say that in the 30 or so years it's been part of Time Warner, DC has put out more quality product than Marvel has. In that sense, you'd have to say that Time Warner has been a pretty good steward of the brand."

Ummm... as compared to what? Since no one else (certainly not the Siegels) has been steward of the Superman brand, we don't have a lot to compare Time-Warner with, and whether DC or Marvel has put out more "quality" material depends on your definition of quality, not to mention personal taste. My best guess would be that by most objective definitions (unless one were to rig the definition in favor of one company or another) Marvel and DC's aggregate output would have about the same ratio of "quality." Both put out good books, both put out junk. But what's good and what's junk depends on who you talk to. If you go by total profit made from licensing, media deals, etc., as a standard of success, you'd also have to know what Superman deals DC turned down, and whether those judgments were good or bad. That said, I imagine T-W and the Siegel & Shuster estates will come to some sort of understanding about DC's continued rights to publish Superman, even if they have to start paying tons of money to the estates, because beyond the issue of copyright there are various trademark issues that the courts have made no statement on. Even a percentage of a boatload of money is better than 100% of nothing. But when did Time-Warner sell off their music wing? I know they sold off their book business...

"I love what you had to say about the state of comics today. I completely feel the same way. It's weird, though--even in the totally independent circles you rarely find people with fresh ideas. It would be easy to blame the Big 2 for the stale state of the industry right now, but, as you said, it seems as though just about everybody interested in comics is hell bent on keeping comics squarely where they are: marginalized. Obviously, it stems from the fact that the people who create comics, for the most part, fell in love with the month-to-month, dartboard plotted, never-ending stories. It will be interesting to see what happens when the youngsters that fall in love with graphic novels (or the great out of the box stuff) create when it is their turn to shine. It is fun to see the great stuff rise to the top, though!"

I thought it was scum that always rises to the top.

Just kidding...

"The fact that Spitzer was being investigated and led the investigators to the prostitution ring was explained on NPR's All Things Considered recently. I believe it was on the Wednesday show. It apparently began as an investigation into wire or banking transfers by him. It was all quite interesting and frightening as the report went into the details of how all of our bank transactions of any size are scrutinized! I enjoy your information regarding the apparent reduction in our civil liberties and our anonymity. I hope the pendulum starts swinging back the other way soon."

Don't bet on it; overall the Democrats haven't been especially great advocates of personal liberty and are just as eager to serve their corporate masters as Republicans are, they just have different corporate masters. Sometimes. Most corporations these days, unless they're driven by someone of some particular ideological bent, donate to the campaigns of both persuasions, which is a relatively safe bet since, whatever their stated public service objective, once elected the primary goal of most politicians is to be re-elected. The curse of professional politicians. One of the things we could probably use is an upsurge in "gentlemen politicians" (no sexist intent; women included, but it's a takeoff on "gentlemen farmers") who enter politics with the short term in mind, to work toward specific beneficial objectives. (If anyone wants to know whether their objectives are beneficial, just check with me.) As long as the most important goal of politicians is campaign fundraising, whoever writes the checks will ultimately have the most access and influence. (Did I just read Bill Clinton's tax returns say he's basically in the employ, to the tune of some $15+ million, of a front company for the ruler of Dubai? Isn't Dick Cheney's Halliburton relocated to Dubai? What's going on here?)

Anyway, yeah, during the "war on drugs" banks were given great latitude â€" and no real guidelines â€" to snoop in our finances and report suspicions to the Feds. The financial Secret Police, in essence. It has its beneficial aspects, especially in these days of phishing and identity theft; my banks call when there's an unusual amount of activity on my account, to make sure I know about it, and I can't say I mind that even if it is vaguely intrusive. But what makes Spitzer's bank, or anyone else's, decide they should contact government investigators instead of querying the client? Who makes that decision? As far as I know, banks are under no obligation to rat out their customers and the few times I've deposited very large (like "fits the financial profile of a drug dealer laundering drug money" large) checks into my account and asked what form I needed to fill out, my bank made it very clear there is no form and no ground rules for what they do and don't have to report. Does Spitzer's (presumably now former) bank report every wealthy depositor who withdraws $4000 in cash frequently, or did they have some special reason or impulse for targeting the governor of a state? I've seen the chain of investigation on this, but it still smells to me like someone asked the bank to keep an eye on Spitzer's account and report any "irregularities." My interest has nothing at all to do with defending or vindicating Spitzer â€" can't say I care about his fate one way or another â€" but something about the scenario still smells hinky...

I think I finally figured out why the Ghost had his little war: pure eye-for-an-eye point-by-point retaliation. Think about it: the 9-11 hijackers attacked what were basically symbolic targets that nonetheless held special meaning for their sympathizers in order to send a message to the greater enemy, and partly to avenge an earlier failed attempt to remove them. Their premises were ridiculously faulty. They had no qualms about killing innocent civilians, in fact they didn't acknowledge that any civilian in our society could be innocent and were all assumed to be complicit with "the enemy" if not actively "the enemy." They obviously had no exit strategy nor did they think one necessary, and they obviously expected a completely different reaction than the one they got.

So it was with Iraq. It wasn't a target with any real strategic value for our stated objective, the "war on terror." (We were already in the optimal locale for that, Afghanistan, not that in practical terms Afghanistan isn't an optimal locale for much of anything, which sort of mooted its value from a public relations perspective.) But Iraq gave us the opportunity to "avenge" what right wing pundits rewrote during intervening years into a "defeat" during the 1991 Gulf War (say what you will about George Senior, he knew how to run a short war), our "failure" to remove "new Hitler" Saddam Hussein from power. (Never mind that, outside Iraq's borders, Saddam was pretty much powerless, and even within Iraq's borders his power was severely curtailed following the war. He did talk a good game, though.) It also sent a message to the rest of "the enemy" â€" no, not al-Qaeda; Muslim states â€" that the USA is here to stay. There are still a lot of people in America today who believe that all Muslims are inherently evil and champing at the bit to grind all that is good and holy underfoot. (John McCain is in fact depending on some of the prominent among the Islam-haters to get out the vote for him in November.) And if "innocents" in Iraq die by the tens of thousands (hundreds of thousands by some independent estimates), well, if they weren't guilty of something they wouldn't be living in Iraq, would they? And, as we're all aware by now, our brilliant military minds were baffled that the Iraqi people didn't just universally welcome us with open arms as liberators â€" remember when Admin flacks used to openly spout that as inevitable? â€" and the Ghost's administration plotted no exit strategy nor did they apparently think they'd need one. Though it didn't get a lot of public play, permanent bases in the Middle East were always on the Pentagon's agenda.

In fact, rather than galvanize support for al-Qaeda and the cause of Radical Islam, 9-11 made the world a much more difficult place for them to operate in. Likewise, Iraq has made the world a much more difficult place for us.

The war hasn't been much in the public vernacular this election season, until recently when John McCain, secure in his party's nomination, started touring in support of it. It's true that the Democrats have been unfairly misquoting McCain's stance on the war, in the cause of easy soundbites; he in fact never did say he wanted to keep our armed forces in Iraq for a hundred years. I suspect McCain would like to see us out of Iraq by the end of the week as much as anyone would. What he really said, when asked if he thought we'd have to be in Iraq for the next ten years, was that he didn't care if we were there for 100 years. Or a thousand. With two conditions: as long as American soldiers were not being harmed, and as long as it took for us to say "Mission accomplished!"

Which begs the question: if the war is such a good war, why did they have to lie so much to get us into it? Or are we simply stuck there now, because there's no way we can get out without looking like we've lost? (The Guardian UK claims to be in possession of a confidential deal brokered by the US and Iraqi governments to allow for an "open-ended" presence there, though they also claim the Iraqi parliament isn't likely to ratify it.)

These days we don't really get much information about the war, except to be constantly told that "The Surge is working." Which I guess is true if you forget all the stated goals of The Surge like the strengthening of the Iraqi government and the "Iraqi Security Forces"-ization of the war. (You remember Vietnamization, right? No? Go look it up.) Since marking out all those goals, the Administration, and their pundit backers, have delighted in counting only diminishing American casualties as the only real marker of the Surge's value, and American casualties have diminished some, if the only casualty you count is death. Fighting slowed down for a little while but is back up again, the public relations value of the Surge was marred a little by announcement of our #4000 soldier casualty, but where was the attention to the other 3999? It's pretty clear if you look at reports from those outside the US government's circle of friends that "insurgents" and imported agitators aren't exactly the problem in Iraq; we're pretty much staring down a full-blown civil war, and the problem is factionalism. (And not even Shi'ites vs. Sunis vs. Kurds. We're talking Shi'ites vs. Shi'ites now.) But it's not like we're hearing any of that from the mainstream press. They don't have regular reporters in Iraq anymore, for the most part; too dangerous to live in Baghdad. Not that the networks, major papers and news services couldn't embed reporters with the troops â€" the government pays for that so it wouldn't even cost them anything, and they'd be better positioned than in some hotel bar in Baghdad to see what's really going on, what "our boys" really face and experience now on a day to day basis â€" but they don't. So the only real reports coming out of Iraq come from independent war correspondents (remember when that was considered a glamorous job?) who are basically dismissed as lone nuts harboring grudges, and nothing is learned.

General Petraeus, our current head of the armed forces in Iraq, testified in the Senate this week regarding the Surge, following up on his/the Ghost's six month old promises of significant progress. Gone were the flashy visual aids, gone the implacable data and optimistic projections. Basically all he could say was that a real assessment of the Surge's success, or how much more war effort is needed, could take years, and the best results Surge backers can currently home for is a reduction of American troops â€" but only to the level already there when the Surge was initiated. But we're making significant progress. We just have next to nothing to show for it. (i.e. "Take our word for it.") Petraeus ragged on Iraqi civil authorities, so that part of the Surge is obviously stumbling. Everything now smacks of downhearted spin or ignorance. Surge faithful McCain gave a stump speech the other day about how the breakaway Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr had begged the Iraqi government for a truce, using that as evidence that "we" were accomplishing the unification of the country, but he had it exactly backwards; it was the Iraqi government who begged al-Sadr for a cease-fire â€" and enlisted Iran to broker it, with US forces and diplomats completely out of the loop. Today in Congress McCain more or less repeated the notion while questioning Petraeus, ignorant of Sadr's threat today to end the truce.

Which all translates into: it's still a mess, and not likely to get better anytime soon. Democrats pranced around this a little â€" Hillary barked about "failed policies" but asked no significant questions â€" but the fact is that most Congressional Democrats wanted this war too, which may be why they haven't made much issue of it in the campaign. (Obama, of course, has reminded people he always voted against the war, while Hillary has tried to present her pro-war vote as the first step in her anti-war awakening, but the math doesn't really add up.) Not that voters are holding their feet to the fire on it; while most of the public now opposes the war, it's not take-to-the-streets-and-demand-a-change opposition, it's mostly I-hate-it-but-what-can-I-do? Opposition; Petraeus' listlessness over the war extends to the American public as well. Lately I've noticed a, um, surge of people suggesting we should be using that pushing-a-trillion dollars we've blown on the war so far (and the several trillion we're likely to blow at current projections) and use it as home for education and health care. But we don't work that way anyway.

And the cold hard fact is that in our clumsy, lie-strewn way, we went where we shouldn't have for reasons that still don't add up, and that what we're in the middle of now isn't an after-invasion mop-up winning hearts and minds, it's a civil war coming to a boil and whether we like it or not it's looking more and more like our only option will be to stand uselessly by while they fight it out. Some mission. But if nothing else we've got every other Muslim state in the region watching.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Just another reminder: I've got two books out over the next couple months, a trade collection of my crime series, 2 GUNS from Boom! Studios, which should be out at the end of the month, and the adventure-suspense thriller THE SAFEST PLACE from Image/12 Gauge, which ships in May. Click on the titles to get the skinny on the contents, then go pester your local comics shop to order a copy of each for you.

If Ed Brubaker's work sets you all a-tingle â€" and at least some of it should â€" he's currently engaging in a five day open question and answer session (if it's Wednesday, there are still a couple days left) over at Warren Ellis' new website, Whitechapel.

A friend is putting together a list of comic shops, presumably anywhere, that prominently feature (and sell a lot of, or are otherwise amenable to) "non-genre" graphic novels. Not exclusive of, mind you â€" no shops likely to do without selling Marvels and such â€" but amenable to. He's got some big ones like Golden Apple, Comix Experience and Alternate Reality, but any others you can think of, drop me a line and I'll pass them on. Thanks.

Hmm... does the government get to tear Charlton Heston's guns from his cold, dead fingers now?

Speaking of notorious Charlies who peaked in the '60s, if you're possessed of particularly morbid tendencies or an especially tin ear, famed musical genius/mass murder Svengali Charles Manson has made one of his records available for download, sampling, remixes and other fair uses free of charge. While he doesn't present any insights into the murders that put him away for life, the record included some lovely examples of the insanity that used to pass for life philosophy at the Spahn Ranch, and it's easy to see how his voice and guitar playing could drive people to kill...

But Manson's real legacy may be the endless bloody horror stories that have filled cinema screens since the early '70s and comics since the early '90s. Like 30 DAYS OF NIGHT, Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith's little vampire tale that watches a small town in Alaska being helplessly slaughtered over the space of a month by vampires regaling in a month of sunless darkness. Finally saw the movie the other day. Though it stuck fairly close to events in the successful comic, the film didn't work, and proves that, as with 300, sometimes a movie can be too faithful to its source material. It made one thing pretty apparent: the true strength of the comic wasn't Niles' script, though that's a capable enough vampire story, but Templesmith's nightmarish art, especially his truly horrific, constantly blood-spattered vampires. It's by trying vainly to copy Templesmith's visual innovations that the movie gets laughable; the monsters don't look scary so much as like hoboes who just finished bobbing for hamburgers in big vats of ketchup. All I could think while watching it was how superior can these vampires be if they've never even heard of napkins?

Also mostly set in Alaska is Sean Penn's INTO THE WILD, based on Jon Krakauer's book of the same name. I didn't mind it but I can see why it didn't sit well with American audiences; long, slow, chronologically disjointed and picaresque â€" the hero is a young American who dispossesses himself of family and wealth and roams the country in the '90s before finding short-lived serenity in the Alaskan wilderness â€" it's like watching an early era Wim Wenders road movie with an English dub. Not helping matters are various scenes seemingly added just to have young actresses in the film, and, aside from Catherine Keener as an aging hippie drawn to young "hero" Chris McCandless AKA "Alexander Supertramp" to replace the son who abandoned her, almost all the other characters are such ciphers we not only gain no insight on them, we don't even get basic information. (Vince Vaughn's garrulous Dakota grainery foreman, for instance, is abruptly arrested by the FBI and vanishes from the film, charges unknown.) Worse, Penn constantly has McCandless experiencing the vast beauty of the American West â€" but he doesn't show it to us. Krakauer's book portrayed McCandless as a classic doomed American visionary, and the way he says it you buy it, but in Penn's hands he's little more than a self-absorbed, somewhat dopey classic American nut.

DR. WHO's fourth season, currently airing on BBC-1 in England and debuting on Sci-Fi Channel in a couple more Fridays (I think THE SARAH JANE ADVENTURES debuts on Sci-Fi either this Friday or next, and while it's quite good be warned it's geared toward a younger crowd), started out with a very humorous episode, the cutest alien invasion in recent memory and an unexpected dark mystery likely to be this season's thru-story (Daleks, Sontarans and Oobs, oh my!) but I'm already wondering if my TV can survive 13 episodes of Catherine Tate without getting its picture tube kicked in...

Seems there's something of an official movement in Europe now "advising" search engines (that's you, Microsoft, Yahoo & Google!) to dump all data on users every six months. Seems, with memories of pogroms, concentration camps, gulags & secret police appearing in the dead of the night to vanish people without explanation, that Europeans feel some desire to protect individual privacy. Privacy? Isn't that just a military rank you hold before you're promoted to Corporalcy? (That's the problem with Americans always having a war on something...)

Huh. Seems scientists â€" those pesky scientists â€" have discovered a new continent! Only this one's floating under the surface of the Pacific Ocean and is composed of garbage dumped by Asia and North America and compacted by ocean currents to, by rough estimates, the size of Africa. But that's likely an exaggeration; it's probably more the size of, oh, Europe, which isn't a real continent anyway. (The Europeans just decided it was so they could feel special, but it's more of a big Asian peninsula.) I see all kinds of fun coming out of this. If it's eventually declared a landmass, will the U.S. and China fight for the right to claim it on the basis of garbage origination, and if it's declared an illegal dumpsite, will they fight to force the other to be the one to clean it up?

Curiously, Wal-Mart, hardly a bastion of progressive thinking, has abandoned all DRM-"protected" music in its digital music store, and was perfectly willing to be abandoned in turn by most major labels to do it. Seems Wal-Mart's customers didn't want DRM, which theoretically prevents copying the material (it doesn't; anyone with half a brain and Google can get around most DRM if they're driven to) but also makes basic playback erratic and problematic. Meanwhile, Europe (it's always Europe!) has begun penalizing lawyers who send out "pre-settlement" letters. These are especially popular with groups like the RIAA, which kindly demand the recipient fork over cash to avoid a costly lawsuit over practices such as, oh, pirating music or receiving without authorization satellite TV signals that the mailer supposes may have happened, no evidence necessary. Seems European courts have started looking on this as extortion and suspending lawyers who engage in it. In America, Congress is looking into ways to give the RIAA and similar groups more power to do this sort of thing...

Congratulations to Michael Ryan, the first to spot last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme was "shield." (What's the Thing's connection? In the films he's played by Michael Chiklis, who on TV stars in...) Michael wishes to point your attention to Young Cuts, promoting a film festival devoted to directors 25 and under. 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, if you've got a burning desire to find it. Good luck.

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

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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