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So this is what it's all about now.

Last week I talked about possible new uses for captions. A few weeks before that, it was resuscitating the thought balloon. I know there were more than a few people who wondered what the hell I was on about. It's not that I'm feeling speculative, or scrounging for topics to discuss.

We're on the cusp of the new world.

It wasn't that long ago that everyone – and I mean pretty much everyone – was eager to tell us that heading that way meant sailing off the edge of the earth. Even now, it's not uncommon to hear some, even among top talents in the industry, talking about how comics are just comics, will always just be comics, should always just be comics, and anyone in comics thinking otherwise is a pompous self-loather trying to rise above their station.

And they're wrong.

It's been a long time since the comic book as we think of it – 32 pages, ~6"x10", 22 pages of story, 12 pages of ads and filler – has been especially profitable. Maybe for Marvel it still is. At a few other companies, it's a marginally profitable loss leader, unless the companies have their staff costs pared so far down that publishing comics can cover their costs. The "standard" comic still hangs on, but every day it's increasingly vestigial to the industry's profits. But, for those in the business or in the core traditional fandom, it's the equivalent of comfort food. Longtime readers, and talent, like it because that's what they've always known (despite there having been many comics formats in the eight or so decades of the medium's existence). For many who have broken into the business, the 22/32 page format is how they've always thought of comics, and what they've always aspired to. Hardcore fans like that predictable fix, that monthly (or, more commonly these days, weekly) fix of some particular character. But there are fewer and fewer characters supported that way now. Publishers, comics shop owners and most likely distributors (or, rather, distributor) tend to like it for other reasons: a predictable cash flow rollover, or the theoretical creation of a "captive" clientele who'll return to a particular shop on a regular basis. (Though the main complaint I hear from dealers is their customers' willingness to shop elsewhere, so "shop loyalty" seems an iffy concept at best in most cases.)

But the world has chosen to work in different ways. So we're of two options here. The American comics industry has lived for a long time on its own relatively isolated little island, where things have developed under fairly unique circumstances. But the medium's no longer an island; only the business is. And now only if we choose to be. Because comics are mainstream now, as mainstream as anything. They're acceptable. They're accepted.

Repeat that until it sinks in. They're accepted. Comics are accepted. We're accepted. We're not lionized, for the most part, but why should we be? But we're not freaks anymore, or outsiders. The island is no longer a necessity. Great as it's been living on coconuts all these years, there's steak out there to be had. There's a whole world a hell of a lot bigger and more diverse and more interesting than our island.

And I suspect that's what a lot of people in American comics are secretly worried about.

It seems like decades ago – it was actually little more than a decade and change – that I predicted the coming world of American comics. "Standard" comics publishing, I reasoned, was destined to go two ways: special event publishing, or series/arcs done as loss leaders, effectively advertising that broke even on costs, for forthcoming trade paperback collections of the material. Growing public interest in graphic novels/trade paperback collections, combined with their convenience and the rising costs of the standard comics package, pressures publishers to shift from a magazine-based economy to a book-based one. It took longer than I anticipated (I should have accounted for the retrograde tendencies of the business but, despite my reputation for cynicism, I tend to err toward the utopian) and there have been unexpected little quirks, but overall it's all happening. The standard comics package is more and more a financially unsupportable format except on a tiny number of titles (tiny compared to the number of comics still published throughout the industry) and it's only a matter of time now until a broad number of publishers find it more financially reasonable to jettison the loss leaders and subsequent collections and go straight to original graphic novel. I know of publishers quietly testing the water on that already, partly driven by traditional book publishers, who usually have stayed away from the medium, moving into the field with OGNs and demonstrating there's an economy to sustain them.

This is our world now. Not the island. So here's our choice: do we conquer the world, or marginalize ourselves?

"Graphic novels" – the world at large doesn't distinguish between original graphic novels, anthologies and trade collections, if it's in book form and it's comics it's all graphic novels to them (but that doesn't mean the distinctions aren't important to us) – are riding high now. Eventually, though, as manga publishing discovered in the last couple years, a saturation point will be reached and there will be a shaking out period. The last time this happened, in the early '90s after the first abortive "graphic novel" wave where we liked to pretend that 40 page comics published in special formats constituted "graphic novels," the graphic novel pretty much shut down completely as a viable format. That's not going to happen this time. The graphic novel is no longer a novelty item but an accepted format, more widely acceptable for various reasons than the standard comics format, and what "shakeout" will mean this time is simply paring the number of graphic novels published back to roughly a sustainable level. Ultimately there will be a lot of graphic novels out there, but overall the amount of comics pages published in the space of a month will be considerably lower than what is published today. It's truly utopian to posit that "only the best" will survive, because culture, and certainly American culture, doesn't work like that, but it's not unreasonable to assume that the ones that will stand the best chance of surviving are project produced at a certain level of craft and quality. What that level will be I couldn't begin to guess; this is one of the things that will shake out.

What's pretty certain is that if we want to survive such a shakeout, we have to up our game, and the time to start thinking about that is now.

Circumstances over the decades have encouraged mainstream American comics – and pretty much all comics published in America now at minimum are responses to mainstream American comics, else why find alternative comics paying so much attention to what's rather egotistically called the mainstream rather than simply ignoring them? (An onerous side effect, I suspect, of being forced to compete in the same market – the comics shop – as superhero comics.) – to develop bad habits. Moving in our cloistered little circles, our material and style is generally insular. Way too many people have the notion that all you need to do a comic is a goofy idea, and it's not uncommon to hear people argue that comics should be about goofy ideas, and that there's something sick and stupid about taking your material seriously, that trying to do so suggests you're some kind of imbecile, or egoist.

Unfortunately, that's just not good enough anymore.

Just "making comics" isn't good enough anymore. Used to be – and a lot of creators and would-be creators still operate like this – that to "make comics" all you'd need is some rough idea and somebody to draw pictures about it, and because it was in comics format and the market was predisposed to be sympathetic, it was easy to pass that off as a story. The comics industry was considered to be working under special circumstances, and special dispensation was handed out like Halloween candy.

If you haven't noticed, even on our little island sympathy is a scarce commodity these days. There are still plenty of books flooded out there that are incoherently written, or have art that doesn't mesh with the subject matter, or are seemingly plotted via dart board, or lack noticeable structure or hooks, or are predicated on ideas that are utterly unoriginal or uninteresting. There are also a lot of comics that don't sell to save their souls, though the two things never quite hit a one-to-one correlation. It's pretty obvious that at a lot of companies the title "editor" is sort of an honorific handed out and a lot of people claiming the title have no editorial training and an infirm grasp of what exactly an editor is supposed to do.

There was a time when all of that was good enough, when the industry and the market may not have considered any of that good, exactly, but it was considered good enough.

Now it's just not good enough. It's time to reimagine what constitutes a "good" comics story, and how this applies to the growing graphic novel market.

Dictating specifics is just ego; this is, let's never forget, a creative medium, which means that at some level each project needs assessing on its own terms, not an outside yardstick of any kind. The fact is what works works and if you can make "it" work, more power to you. That's where creative vision comes in, and with creative vision there's no need to set boundaries in advance. We can go where the project takes us.

But.

We can't afford "just comics" anymore. Anyone who brushes off criticism by claiming their work is "just comics" and taking it seriously is a fool's game is throwing away their careers. Because it's time to get serious.

The downside of acceptance is that we're just one of numerous possibilities now, and all those other possibilities are vying for our share of attention. When I was a kid, comics – didn't matter what your parents thought of them – were cheap babysitters. You got them for amusement when you were laid up in bed with the measles, or to keep you quiet in the back seat during road trips, and it didn't matter whether they were good or bad, they were a way to burn up time and escape boredom, at least for a moment. But that's what the DS Lite is for today. People don't need comics for that anymore.

People don't read comics to kill time anymore. People read comics to read comics. (Including graphic novels.) "Just comics" just aren't good enough anymore, it's not enough to just say, "Oh, this is a superhero comic" or "Oh, this is a horror comic."

It's not enough anymore to simply write or draw a comic book. It just isn't. Not if we're looking beyond our island to the world. There's a lot of competition out there. We're accepted, but we can still be trivialized, and that mainly happens if we trivialize ourselves. It's still funny to me how many creators in comics will both aggrandize and trivialize their work in the same breath; it's always hilarious watching the clash between hungry ego and what seems to be a de rigueur too-cool-for-school "creative persona." Screw that. There's no point in aggrandizing your work – hell, we all love our own work, but that judgment call is someone else's to make – but if you feel compelled to trivialize your work, get out of Dodge. School's out, and if you don't have the guts to stand behind your work, good or bad, we don't need you.

But what's important now, what will mean the difference in the long run, is that we have to start thinking of creating comics in terms of the experience. Our job now is to deliver an experience to the reader, and it's not enough to be stylistically different from comics done in 1955, or '65, or '75 or whatever, or to tout ultramodern or postmodern credentials, what needs doing now is the creation, especially with graphic novels, or with arcs for trade paperbacks, of a unique experience, meaning an experience the reader can't get from a prose novel, or movies, or television, or videogames or whatever else. (A slogan for the future: "If it's not comics, it's not comics!")

Sure, creating "a unique experience" is easier said than done, and there's no guidebook for it and never was. But we know them when we see them. Look back at the first graphic novel wave. We may take DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN in stride now, and it's easy to nitpick their flaws in retrospect, but the reason they caught on is that they took readers – and an awful lot of them came from off-island - to somewhere nothing else had ever taken them to, and they worked because what they did they could only have done in comics. They made use of techniques that only worked in comics. Same with SANDMAN. These things didn't become hugely popular by accident, but the lessons the industry learned from them were all the wrong lessons, which is why people are still producing tepid imitations of all three today. Same with MAUS, which is still discussed in literary circles today. (I read somewhere the other day that Forest Whitaker, of all people, is giving a talk on it.) And MAUS could only work in comics too.

Which is why it's worth reinvestigating even storytelling techniques that have become victims of industry fashion. All it takes to bring a technique back into fashion is spectacular application. You can tell the same story in pretty much any medium, but the medium shapes the story, and the unique qualities of any medium polish different facets of the work. It's those different facets that determine style, and the way the work is molded to the unique aspects of a medium, the indelible and idiosyncratic mutations in the work the medium triggers, is style. Style now means using the comics medium in such a way that the story you're telling, the point you're making, cannot be done as well in any other medium. That may not necessarily draw audiences to comics and graphic novels, but it's the only thing that will provide enough incentive to keep them coming back. Bear in mind that I'm not touting style over content; in the new comics, the coming graphic novel world, style is the expression of content.

And the new world will be rough on material without at least semi-original content, or a distinctive point of view. My best guess is still that we're going to see a lot less material overall, with a lot higher average quality. Things are going to be rough on talent pleased with themselves when they turn out "just comics," a lot rougher than today, and the ones who will do best are the ones in some ways providing an experience readers can't find elsewhere, not in other medium and not in the works of other comics talent. Due to the growth of graphic novels, most publishers won't have even the scant leeway they have now to tolerate material that's just there. If you intend to survive, the time to start is now.

Letters and bric-a-brac:

"Like you, I suspect, I'm of two minds about [captions].

I think when a caption is adding something to the panel that isn't already there, either enriching the scene or referring to something off-panel it can do exactly what Kane imagined.

For example, this is boring:

Panel 1: Int. the rear of the bar - Close on BATMAN as he kicks in the door

SFX: KER-SMASH!

CAP. The DARK KNIGHT puts his boot through the door!

This is less boring:

Panel 1: Int. the rear of the bar - Close on BATMAN as he kicks in the door

AFX: KER-SMASH!

CAP: No Joker, no Scarecrow. Just a moron with a gun and a grudge back there. He thinks of his parents in the street.

or this:

Panel 1: Int. the rear of the bar - Close on BATMAN as he kicks in the door

SFX: KER-SMASH!

CAP: People dive under tables. A stock broker out with his mistress soils himself."

The second and third are only really potentially interesting in context; by themselves they don't really add much, but as part of a train of thought throughout several panels or pages they work to create a point of view, or even a world view, if you play the other captions right. The problem with the second version is whose point of view is it? The opening two lines would seem to indicate Batman's perspective. Then the third line blows it apart by switching to a seemingly omniscient narrator, plus you have to know the history of Batman to get any resonance out of the final line, since for all anyone knows it's the moron with the gun who's thinking of his parents.

Here's a page from a fortunately little-seen Punisher short I did in the '90s. reading it today, I like the plot – absent any apparent Punisher presence, gangsters use manipulation and murder to jockey for power, one falling after another like dominoes – but I absolutely hate the dialogue, which is rushes, and clipped to the point of sounding stilted and unnatural. Bad job on this. But I love this final page, and the way the captions play out:

"Just read your caption column. I agree with your assessment on how captions were and are used. I also found it interesting because in a new comic I am creating I have consciously made captions (and sound effects) a part of the story and it concerned me for a while about how it would affect the story and the viability of the book. The story is a tale of alien refugees forced to make their way in a xenophobic world. In it there are a few groups of characters who already have established relationships and there is a background story that plays directly into the ongoing development of the main characters. It's very Interesting, at least that's what my friends tell me, but even I admit that can make the book impenetrable.

However I want the book to start in the middle of action - I have no interest in telling an origin story at this point. So while trying to naturally reference things in dialog that explain what's going on, I also incorporate captions that help tell the reader who is what. For a while, I was worried that this was somehow taking a short-cut, or evidence of my inability to write the details into the story itself. I eventually decided that for the story I want to tell in the way I want to tell it that there really is no other way to convey the information I need to get across without using dialog like "Karen, as my sister, you know darn well why I hate our booze-swilling mother". Or worse, that internal dialog you cited where the character goes through a checklist of details ; "How ironic that I, Joe Schmoe, the last survivor of the isolationist JooJoo tribe could live these past three years in a country that no longer accepts foreigners."

I guess I could say there are two ways I use captions in this book though I haven't really given it much thought until now:

1) Exposition - I use them to tell the where and when. "One week later", "Mr. Doom's undersea fortress", etc. If I can include it in the panel itself I try - like when my characters journey to Phoenix, I use an off-ramp sign on the highway - but that's not always doable (see the previous Mr. Doom reference)

2) Name tag - I differentiate this because as a new series with new characters, I know how hard it can be to tell who is who. If you've been reading the recent Legion story in ACTION COMICS then you've seen these types of captions. They contain the name of the character and a very brief description. I use the tags when a character contributes to a scene in some meaningful way not for every person that appears.

The other distinction I purposefully make in the captions is tone. It's an adventure book first but it also addresses serious issues like race, class, sex, politics etc. But I don't want the book to be too intense or dark-browed or else it runs the risk of taking itself too seriously. To me it's just like overacting - bleh. I want a little smile on the readers face now and then.

I also don't want the reader in the story. Some books go for complete submission - I don't knock it. PLANETARY does this beautifully. - but I don't want that for this book. It is a comic book and I want the reader to experience the story through the characters not experience it firsthand. It allows for a type of thought reflection while reading which is what I want. However I also balance this with a bit of flippancy and humor in the captions (successfully I hope) so that the story doesn't come across as "HERE'S AN IMPORTANT MESSAGE FOR OUR READERS - PLEASE PAY ATTENTION".

Examples:

"Mr. Doom's back-up undersea fortress"; "Yet another week later"; "Jack Ramrod: big, bad, and brash"; "Jim Bell: anti-Jack Ramrod"; "Gallop Queen - Equine-powered no-nonsense horse-sensed heroine"

And in one scene where a shy character is about to be congratulated for his heroism, I actually overdo the Name tag on purpose and identify all 12 people in the panel including some background props while the main character in the scene thinks in a caption, "Oh God this is too much. I have got to get out of here."

What are your thoughts on introduction pages that spell out what has come before in the story ala what Marvel is doing? I personally like the idea and I use it but I do not like the way that Marvel does it now. Their blah blah paragraphs are too dense and confusing for me. Instead on the first page I have a few panels that go side by side with what the "Previously" page describes, sometimes lifting panels from previous books or with a new panel. Marvel used to it this way in the late-90's and I prefer it to how they use it today."

I think with serials you owe it to your audience to bring them up to speed, but quicker is better. My biggest problem with "catch-ups" is that comics companies tend to be too enamored of their own storylines and instead of giving a quick no-nonsense summary go into minute and tedious attention to detail and was it a Tuesday or a Wednesday or... And I've never been fond of "name tag" captions, which, while quick, I've always felt were lazy and intrusive, exactly the sort of thing to poke the reader out of the experience, if I can continue on that thread. In general, when in doubt dialogue can be handled two ways: naturalistic, or hyperstylized. Just don't mix the two, unless you're really clever. (Most of us aren't.) Captions kind of work that way too. Of course, the best way to bring audiences up to speed on the current status of a serial is subtly, in context, but most 22 page comics stories don't have the luxury of the space it sometimes takes. But short that and we're out of the experience again, and that's the booby trap.

"A lot of people think that having their fingerprints on file is something only the guilty would worry about. But it's not hard to imagine situations in which the perfectly innocent connection of their prints to a crime could get them called in for a "chat" with the authorities (e.g. using the same mailbox as a letter-bomber, handling an ax in the store that's later purchased by a murderer, opening a door that's later broken into in a robbery). And take it from someone who's been a completely innocent suspect (based on circumstantial evidence) in a police investigation: It's more stressful than you think. After all, innocent people can go to trial, too. Missing work because I was being interrogated by the cops was the start of a quick downhill slide in my boss' opinion of me as an employee, especially as he weighed the liability of ignoring that "warning sign" and keeping a possible criminal on staff. Trust me: you don't have to be guilty to lose your "innocence". Getting your prints into the criminal justice system is one good way to get that started."

Ain't that the truth. Especially now that DNA testing has proven an awful lot of people in prison really are innocent...

"I was at a convention for kids and the local police had a booth in conjunction with one of these companies that fingerprint your kids. I was with my son every step of the way and at no time did any person keep or copy his information. It was all in a booklet that we keep at home in case (God forbid) we ever need to give the authorities his information. So while I'm a fellow conspiracy theorist, I don't think this case applies. They aren't keeping these fingerprints "on record" as a sneaky way to gather info.

I actually DO feel better with this info in my hands. Whether it's a valid feeling or not, I'm unsure. But the process was free and it may one day save some child's life."

The woman who prattled on about the process at the booth I passed indicated copies did go into police files for quick access, and others I've heard from indicated that was the case where they were, so maybe it varies with area. Anyone know for sure?

Apropos of nothing: back in the day, one thing that really excited us kids was the clubs comics companies put together. I remember joining the Supermen Of America for a buck when I was very young – I think there was a button and an official certificate – but the truly big deal, c. '65, was

I think I still have the "visit to Marvel Comics" flexidisc in a box somewhere. Now that was how to win loyal readers. (It probably would have worked even better if they'd kept it going longer than a few months.)

And back in the day we even used to read the ads. And this was our absolute all-time favorite:

Of course, everyone I knew back then was very tempted to send in for the course, because we all wanted to know how a 98 lb. girl could paralyze a 200 lb. attacker. One of my friends figured it out one day: everyone knows cheap thugs all read comic books, right? So they've all see the Yubiwaza ad. So when a 200 lb. attacker rushes the girl and she takes a defensive stance with only one finger ready, of course he'll freeze in his tracks – because he knows she knows Yubiwaza! Never underestimate the power of comic books.

Another old comic for your amusement. This one's an early Steve Ditko-drawn crime story, courtesy of Charlton Comics:

Painting horses. Heh.

It's getting hard to tell if Hillary Clinton is emboldened by her primary victories last Tuesday or in panic. (Despite Hillary winning the popular vote in Texas, due to the truly weird Texas electoral system Obama ended up with more delegates – last I heard, anyway – and Clinton's people were threatening to sue to void the results.) She got a slight windfall just before Tuesday when Canadian newspapers apparently misrepresented a conversation between an Obama economic advisor (though he wasn't acting in that capacity at the time) and a Canadian politician at a Canadian conference, claiming the man confided that Obama's anti-NAFTA rhetoric was just rhetoric for the masses and he wasn't anti-NAFTA in private. Both men have stated those statements were never made – cover-up or journalistic malfeasance? You be the judge! (But don't watch the end of THE WIRE before you've made up your mind) – but by then Obama had already told a reporter who asked that such a meeting never took place. And later had to amend that to he didn't know such a meeting had taken place (possibly because it had nothing to do with his campaign). But the Clinton camp spun it into a rationale that Obama's not fit to be president.

(By that logic, you could just as easily decide Hillary must be guilty of some sort of sex addiction, because she was the Democratic senator representing the state of Democratic governor Eliot Spitzer. And no, that doesn't make any sense. That's my point. More on Spitzer in a moment.)

Then they leaped to swift boat Obama and undermine his claims of integrity with the trial of his former friend and contributor Tony Rezko. Now there's no indication that Obama was involved with or knew of Rezko's extralegal activities, and no one connected with the prosecution has so much as suggested it, but Clinton's people were happy to. Not that this is out of sorts for a political campaign, but if they're going to start throwing around those accusations they'd better get reading to hear the words "Vincent," "Foster" and "Whitewater." Which Obama's people didn't throw back at them, even through surrogates, and whether that's stupidity or being above the fray is your call. Not that Hillary didn't have an answer prepared: when Obama wondered to the press why, unlike other presidential candidates, Hillary hasn't yet released her tax information, her campaign complained loudly that Barack Obama was sinking to the level of Kenneth Starr.

Clearly someone was expecting Whitewater to come up. And politically it's a dead issue, though John McCain's campaign is almost certain to raise it (and Vince Foster; at the time of Foster's death, pronounced a suicide, right wing speculation was rampant that Hillary in particular had ordered his murder to keep Clinton business affairs from coming to light, or that she and Foster were having an affair she needed covered up, or several other variations on a theme) during the general campaign should Clinton gain the nomination. But the taxes issue is important in this case, since it would shed light on Bill Clinton's current sources of income; who'd be very happy to see him with special access to the highest office in the land?

Then another Obama advisor calls Hillary a "monster" (let's face it, at least in her willingness to let her people say anything about Obama if it'll shift votes her way, she has been quite the political monster lately, though it's true political stupidity to say so, and Obama was right to can her for saying it) and says that Obama's Iraq timetable might be subject to revision once he becomes president. Turned out she was also (badly) misrepresenting Obama's stance, but the Clinton campaign was more than happy to take her version as gospel and once again try to paint Obama as a lying "business as usual" politician. Obama's response? A news clipping from the Kerry campaign four years ago where his aide Jamie Rubin – now the Hillary aide who screamed loudest about the incident – badly misrepresented Kerry's stand on the Iraq war. (He made it seem as though had Kerry been president rather than the Ghost he also would have invaded Iraq, when Kerry had said no such thing.)

But the weirdest current moment came the other day, courtesy of Bill, who started openly talking about how great a Clinton-Obama ticket would be, though he didn't specifically put it in that order. Which was odd, though coming from him Hillary in the top slot was at least implied. Not too much later, Hillary repeated the suggestion. At this stage it's puzzling; are the Clintons implying Obama should lighten his efforts and let her win, knowing he can have the #2 slot and, theoretically, get that precious White House experience and be heir to the throne once Hillary has had her two terms in office (which, of course, is an enormous crap shoot if that's what she meant, since there's no guarantee she'd get two terms in office, and vice presidents tend to be tainted by the records of the presidents they serve) or are they subtly begging Obama to consider Hillary for VP? Or was it a ploy to show how conciliatory Clinton is at heart, forcing Obama into the role of hard-hearted doctrinarian? Who knows...

At any rate, the Clinton campaign, eyeing the right delegate fields of Pennsylvania (and trying to claim the glass is half full by coming out of the recent Wyoming caucuses with at least some delegates instead of being skunked, and fearful that Mississippi's black population will swing that state overwhelmingly to Obama in Tuesday's primary) is trying not only to firm up the Big Difference as Experience vs Integrity & Vision but to undermine Obama's claims to integrity. She's at least right that he's inexperienced at campaigning - the proper answer to his snafu about the Canadian meeting was "I apologize for not knowing a meeting that had nothing to do with me was taking place; when is Senator Clinton finally going to apologize for authorizing a war with no merit?" but he still goes on the defensive a bit too easily – but as the last couple debates have shown he's a quick study, which may be why the Clinton camp hasn't demanded more debates lately. But he is a Senator, it's not like he's a Washington outsider and a total naïf in the ways of government. And the fact is that, despite any claims of experience by anyone, there is no experience that prepares someone for being president. Aside from being president. The job that comes closest is governor – and look how well governors-turned-president have done lately – and that's a job Hillary Clinton hasn't had, and John McCain hasn't had, and Barack Obama hasn't had. To that extent they're all a crapshoot, and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional.

Speaking of McCain, I see he's now moaning that his comment that he doesn't care if America is in Iraq for 100 years was distorted by the press. As far as I can tell, the only distortions when the quote pops up is that McCain's amendments – he also doesn't care if we're there 1000 years, or a million – are left off. What he claims he meant is whether we're there after "the war" is over. But the war has been over since 2003. The Ghost himself declared it ended, and our side victorious, and as commander-in-chief when he says it, that's the fact, jack. So what distortion is McCain talking about? Not emphasizing that the only important factor in his equation is American casualties? I notice those casualties haven't tapered off much with the "surge" McCain supported – but news coverage of them sure has. As for Spitzer, the former potential power player sure cashed in that death wish he so obviously harbored. (Turns out the guy not only frequented prostitutes but specialized in unsafe sex with them, according to report.) Nonetheless, there's something weird about the whole thing, beyond Spitzer's self-destructive tendencies. It was originally presented that he was netted in a "prostitution sting," but the time line's all wrong. It was IRS agents tracking what they believed were questionable cash withdrawals from Spitzer's account that blew the case open... but that means the prostitution ring didn't lead them to him, he led them to the prostitution ring. Which means Spitzer was being investigated first, and it seems to have been in conjunction with the FBI. So if they weren't aware of the prostitution ring until they examined the governor's accounts, why were the IRS & FBI investigating him in the first place? Are any reporters even asking this question?

Notes from under the floorboards:

Dave Stevens died?! Holy crap! I barely knew him, but everyone I knew who did thought he was a great guy, and he sure did draw good. There's nobody's death I'm ever happy to hear about, but talent like Dave's we never have in good supply at the best of times. Damn.

Okay, next week the poop on the two graphic novels I've got coming out imminently. If you can't wait until next week to find out, assault your comics retailer (figuratively!) and ask him to find out which ones. Two clues: Image and Boom!

While you wait for the movie (and those live action costumes are hideous, aside from the Comedian's) is this something WATCHMEN fans should rush to buy? Mmmm... could be... (Seriously, I kind of like these guys, but since they put their whole album online you can make up your own mind. They certainly beat the hell out of anyone I heard on the Brit Awards this year. Mika? The Kaiser Chiefs? Leona Lewis? Really?) (And yeah, yeah, I know, why am I watching the Brit Awards anyway, and what did I expect? Because it was on while I was eating, and nothing really. But one always hopes.)

Speaking of music, while record companies always put forth the plight of poor, penniless artists when they wave their sabers against the scourge of piracy, even the New York Post (not exactly the most rights-savvy publication on the face of the earth) has noticed there are an awful lot of recording artistsmighty pissed off wondering when the hell record companies will pay them their share of money "recovered" via lawsuits and negotiated settlements, not only with "pirates" but with sites like YouTube, which has actual money deals with big record labels. Fact is, the recording industry in general is traditionally mighty sloppy with its bookkeeping when it comes to artist cuts, and it seems no musicians have received any royalties from any YouTube deals. Or Kazaa or Napster. Of course, there are all those mysterious RIAA "expenses" to be covered. All this may come to light later in the year; a contra-RIAA lawsuit from someone they falsely accused will likely go to discovery by the summer, meaning the plaintiff stands a good chance of reading all about the RIAA's accounting methods, not to mention how they cherry pick their proposed victims and the nature of their "investigative techniques." I smell class action suit(s)...

Life imitates hyperbole dept: last week I moaned about HBO's sneak attack unscheduling of THE WIRE's final episode – really good episode, by the way – and suggested, given their increasingly dull and timid original programming and the general uselessness of the movies they now run, that maybe the network had run out its string. Turned out it had around here. Thinking about it over the weekend, I realized I hadn't watched a movie on HBO in at least three years, I have no use for boxing or sports programming, and they haven't generated a good new series since DEADWOOD... or, at least, a show worth $15 per month. (I like ENTOURAGE and I know there are big FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS fans out there, and I did warm up to it a little by the end of its first season – the final episode was great – but neither are worth paying for.) So Sunday night I saw out Jimmy McNulty and crew, felt tremendously satisfied that THE WIRE died as it lived (and smug that I called the new Omar a couple weeks back). Monday morning I called the cable company and cancelled my HBO subscription. It finally outlived its usefulness.

I see a California appellate court has ruled that in order to home school your children in the state you need a teaching certificate. Interesting. So is this an unconscionable infringement on parental rights or bravely safeguarding the right of children to genuine intellectual development? (Wait, is that a right in this country? I forget.) Speaking of children's intellectual development, I see that in Florida creationists have switched to the argument that teaching creationi... sorry, I mean "intelligent design"... is schools is "academic freedom." Meaning they want the state legislature to protect the rights of creationist teachers to preach creationism in Florida schools. I presume they're not quite so eager to protect the rights of science teachers to teach evolution even when parents and ministers complain...

Congratulations to Dennis Ray, the first reader to correctly reach the oh-so-easy-once-you-know-it yet apparently oh-so-hard-to-spot conclusion that all of last week's covers are visibly signed by the artists who drew them. Loads of very inventive, if erroneous, "solutions," but Dennis was the only one who figured it out, so pay special attention when he tells you to go look at Trudy Cooper & Danny Murphy's online comics serial PLATINUM GRIT. Go on, be entertained for a change.

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. (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.) I've been peppering the column with ever-so-cleverly hidden clues for so long you probably feel entitled to them now, so, yes, there's one in today's column. Plus a bonus not-so-hidden clue: it ain't me. 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.

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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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