2008's already shaping up to be a time of strange upheaval in the comics business. Fans go ballistic over an innocuous PLAYBOY cover that gives Wonder Woman iconography a sexual context as if fan and many pro artists haven't been doing that for decades anyway, then a retailers group issues a manifesto to publishers, and now Canada's Quebecor World, home to the printing processes of many fine comic books, has filed for what amounts to bankruptcy, despite that word never being used anywhere I read. (Their creditors can't hijack their assets, basically, while a judge oversees their refinancing and possible selloff of assets.) I don't know whether publishers – both Marvel and DC still get the bulk of their material published there, right? – have contingency plans, but presses tooled for the unusual specifications of comic books aren't easy to come by. Should things worsen and Quebecor Press heads south (and I don't mean to Pennsylvania) it could have far greater short-term (at least!) effects on the comics market than anything else this year.

It may seem a bit harsh to call the Comics Pro white paper on publishers pre-selling comics at conventions a manifesto, but it sure isn't a negotiating tool. The underlying message, the gospel according to retailers, is: don't do it. Their position is, on the surface, understandable: since they have to order comics well in advance of publication, when publishers don't notify them of comics being placed on sale at conventions prior to official release the retailers lose money on those comics, since their customers may have already purchased them by the time the comics arrive in stores. Fine. Seems to me there are a couple possible, relatively easy solutions to this.

1) Publishers make all comics sold unannounced at conventions first returnable – but returns must go directly to publishers and not through Diamond. The publisher only has to refund what the retailer owes Diamond, while comics at cons are usually sold for cover price and upwards, so I don't see where anyone loses. And I freely admit this is a trap solution, since most retailers don't bother to return comics even when they can. While doubtless some retailers would put such an offer to the test, it's unlikely the majority would and publishers would get reasonable retailer goodwill at minimal expense. Diamond doesn't like to handle returns anyway.

2) Publishers should package all "for introduction at conventions" copies under different covers, or in some other way make them distinguishable editions, i.e. effectively not the same comic going out to stores, and a collectors' item. It's not like that's a novel idea. But I suppose this wouldn't make any difference, since the type of reader retailers cultivate wouldn't want two copies of the same thing with minor distinctions anyway, right? Right? Or retailers would want to know why they couldn't sell both versions, which inevitably publishers would allow, which would put us back to the same place.

3) Retailers could establish bonds of trust with valued customers, ensuring to the best of their ability that if faced with the possibility of buying the same comic elsewhere earlier, they'd wait to buy at the store instead. Because comics fans are just that trustworthy.

But it's hard not to see this whole thing as another mountain in a molehill, since most comics shops make the bulk of their sales on Marvel and DC comics and Marvel and DC don't sell comics, new or old, at conventions. Smaller publishers sell comics at conventions, and for the most part small publishers don't receive substantial support from comics shops. I'm not suggesting comics shops owe them support but if you're a small publisher and the biggest account in the country is ordering one or two copies of every comic you publish for every forty or fifty Marvel published, it's understandable that the small publisher is going to be a little less concerned over whether retailers get pissed off at him two or three times a year than over long term survival and various, often off-the-reservation strategies necessary to ensure it. You can't really blame small publishers for viewing distribution to comics shops as necessary from a promotional perspective but not necessarily pivotal to their existence. The lack of major support from comics shops (again, the shops have perfectly good economic reasons for conservative ordering, but that doesn't mean it doesn't sting) combined with the traditional limitation of their (at least initial) market to those shops is a huge source of frustration to many smaller publishers, including publishers as large as Dark Horse and Image. Alternative means of getting the product out there have become increasingly important to smaller publishers, at the risk of alienating comics retailers. It's not that anyone finds the risk desirable, it's that the alternative is essentially a subsistence existence. At best. I know publishers who make the lion's share of their income, what they survive on, by selling their comics direct at conventions. It's no different a concept than many retailers hinging their annual profits on the Christmas season. At minimum many smaller companies find selling at conventions necessary to underwrite the costs of attending the convention (some conventions have gotten very expensive to attend, with many publishers now willing to put their promotional dollars elsewhere – if there were an elsewhere to put their promotional dollars) and new material is easier to sell at conventions now than old.

The retailers' math seems a bit shaky. There just aren't that many conventions, there are only so many that most publishers besides the majors attend, and what percentage of the comics-buying public in America, even the hardcore fans, attend them regularly? (I don't mean, oh, go to San Diego every year but go to enough conventions that their buying habits there regularly impact the economics of their local comics shop.) What percentage of their total stock, even within a given month of releases, is represented by comics pre-sold at conventions?

But the real issue underneath all this is one no one wants to approach because there's no good answer for it: there isn't enough money in the comics market. Brian Hibbs phrased the argument, possibly inadvertently, in pretty much those terms when he said that it doesn't matter whether someone's stealing $1 or $100 from his pocket. The retailers' underlying principal argument is that there is a very limited pool of money in the comics market, and any money that goes to someone else is money that doesn't go to them. Small publishers essentially argue the same thing, with a slightly different spin; the money they get at cons is money they need, and there are few other ways to get it and end up with the lion's share of the profits. If it were a flush market, we wouldn't be having this discussion. There'd be money enough to go around that even Hibbs wouldn't miss the odd dollar here or there. As it is, the odd dollar can make all the difference in survival, and both retailers and small publishers face huge issues that make survival tenuous.

Survival's tenuous for a lot of people in comics these days. Certainly most freelancers have been feeling the pinch for years, and I suspect most freelancers would back the notion of publishers selling comics wherever and whenever they can, so that freelancers can get their legit cut. But among small publishers the payment of page rates let alone royalties, incentives, and participation percentages is increasingly rare. To the freelancer it doesn't make a difference whose pocket that dollar isn't going into, because in most cases it isn't going into theirs. That's a problem only publishers and retailers (and maybe Diamond) can solve, and they'd have to work together to do it instead of what amounts to petty territorial squabbling.

But it's hard not to feel the "pre-sale convention comics issue" is a flare-up expression of greater frustration, as comics shops, a 1980s institution, find themselves under fire from many directions: a way to at least get some control over a continually deteriorating situation. Comics shops have been a necessary element of the comics market for almost thirty years, but various developments threaten the end of their useful lives. They're mostly (there are always exceptions, especially those shops that have more and more included manga) predicated on magazine sales and, like most publishers, continue to function on a magazine-based economy, even as the business has continuously shifted over the last decade to a book-based economy. Even with the cost of returns, comics publishers are finding trade paperbacks the most profitable element of their portfolio by a wide margin and bookstore sales increasingly critical to their bottom line, and I believe this year we will finally start seeing a visible shift by major comics publishers away from the mini-series (which, in the era of the trade paperback collection, has become increasingly unviable) and toward original graphic novels. (Now that "real" book publishers have broken that ice and established a firm bookstore beachhead for the things.) More outlets, more visibility and more availability are vital to the field now, because what we need now is more money, not just in Marvel's coffers, or Warners, but across the board, and there are only two ways to achieve that: either we get a lot more comics shops going again and they sell a lot more comics, or we find other places to sell comics. No one wants to see comics shops hurt. But no one wants to die for them either.

Since I'm running late this week, it's time to run another Charles Biro-Joe Kubert "Crimebuster" story from the waning days of BOY COMICS in the 1950s. We tend to think of the 1950s as a sort of code-oppressed dead zone for comics, a dark age of a business rapidly facing extinction as publisher after publisher dies away lit only by the return of the superhero, but dozens of publishers lasted long into the '50s (including Lev Gleason, publisher of BOY and various others) and the comics published then contain dozens of gems illustrated by major emerging cartoonists. Anyone out there want to underwrite a book about it? Anyway, here's "The Haunting Past":

Catching up on the mail:

"I used to read columns wishing that comics were "like they used to be", and having grown up during the silver age, I completely agreed with them. It took me far too long to realize that the comics were never going to be the way they used to be, because I wasn't the same person.

In the same way I can never listen to the Beatles again for the first time, I can never be the kid who buried his face in the Fantastic Four, lost to the world for the time it took to read the comic. It's impossible for me to know if kids today find any comics as all consuming as I did then. There's a lot more media out there available. But, I hope that there's something that touches them the way the old comics touched me, whether it's a new comic I can't stand, or a video game I'll never play.

Since I don't follow very many of the comics I used to read, changes to Spider-Man comics won't mean much to me. It does strike me that this is an admission of lack of imagination of the writers, the editors, or both. When the Green Lantern series stopped selling, the radical change to the O'Neil/Adams take on the character didn't please everyone, but at least it was a fresh way of looking at the strip, rather than ignoring what had gone before.

Also, regarding internet postings of comics. When I managed a comic book store years ago, we got the worst promotional materials. Every company sent out press releases, and posters. I asked time after time for damaged, unsellable copies of the comics to give to customers, to let them try titles out. A preview of a comic, perhaps truncated in some way, on line (not possible at that time), would have been very welcome. Even putting the entire first story on line isn't really a problem. Simply put added material into the real comic. If the on line comic is interesting enough to a tiny percentage of the people who will read anything available for free on the internet, the shop owners will be much better off, than ordering copies in the dark. They're being short-sighted. The public buys DVDs with added footage of movies that they enjoyed on the big screen."

You have to remember that, at least since comics fandom (which began predicated on the notion that The Golden Age was something to idealize when, really, for the most part, it was a tiny sprinkling of diamonds in mounds and mounds and mounds of turds) became a focal part of it, this is a business based largely on nostalgia; ever since I entered the business - which I just realized will be thirty years ago this April, holy mother of... – I've run into person after person who presented the way things "used to be" as the way things should be, and that's always a force to contend with in American comics. Not that that's much different from any other aspect of culture, especially popular culture, especially given the merchantile aspect of popular culture. Most people just don't seem to be aware that their tastes are bound to change with time, in fact can be expected to. Business in general depends on steady-state, not mutable, tastes in the buying public. Broader culture too. (Else why so many people determined to culturally lock into the past?) So short-sightedness isn't unusual anywhere recent innovations impact existing structures. It's more the name of the game.

"I was very amused about the WW-blogotalk. This is so American it hurts, and an foreigner like me doesn´t get it.

If you read the outrage at portraying WW as a sexy girl you would think that the vile pornographers - PLAYBOY is porn, as many people wrote, which was news to me and is an interesting and telling definition itself - took a beloved and - dare I say it - holy and healthy role-model of every little girl in the USA to drag it into the gutter. As if the comic sells hundreds of thousands every month and is given for free at every girl school in the country instead of struggling in the middle of the sales chart.

As far as impressions go I think there aren't many comic characters (icons) which in their public perception are so divorced from the reality of sales or critical reception.

And I don't understand this. Is this just a case of rosy colored nostalgia, because this rather simple tv-series with Lynda Carter is constantly re-run on TV and the people in question grew up with it? It surely can't be the comic. I never followed it much in its various incarnations because I always thought the character rather uninteresting, but from what I read it was either very dull (I remember some Thomas/Colan issues) or virtually unreadable (some Byrne issues). But maybe their were some creator runs which were really good and had an impact beyond the obvious, what do I know.

Like I said, I don't get this. But this chasm of perception must be a problem for DC or Marvel. The inability of really translating the success of the comic characters in other media - movies like Spider-man, X-Men or Superman - into comic sales must be baffling and hurtful. And the same goes for Wonder Woman, if a laughable Playboy cover can so raise the ire of the readers. And in this case it isn't the "fans" alone, I was truly baffled when I read WW's ex-writer Greg Rucka's bitter comments, because of all people he should know better."

I like Greg fine – will be seeing him this weekend, in fact – but the notion that the PLAYBOY "Wonder Woman" cover is an attempt to undermine the Hillary Clinton campaign is about as loony an idea as I've heard lately, and people think I'm a "conspiracy nut." But the fact is, as I mentioned some weeks ago, Wonder Woman isn't an ideal for girls anymore, and probably hasn't been for a long time; to teenage girls and younger, she's an old hat fuddy-duddy. As for the WONDER WOMAN TV show, I'm reminded of when the recent DUKES OF HAZZARD film came out, and outraged critics spoke of how Jessica Simpson's slutty performance besmirched the character, Daisy Duke, that Catherine Bach had portrayed with such class. And I'm thinking: did we see the same TV show? I remember, in one of my early ventures to Marvel, a bunch of guys up there sitting around waxing lustily about the size of Lynda Carter's breasts and how hot she looked in the WW costume, so associating the costume with sex isn't exactly new. Carter herself, though she became a much better actress later on, was just awful in the show, and she was far from the worst aspect of it. It was an awful show. But now some people wax nostalgic about it. Go figure. Their nostalgia shouldn't be anyone else's limitation. The idea that anyone's going to see that cover and start associating Wonder Woman with PLAYBOY in pretty ludicrous too. All in all, it's a hissy fit clawing for an issue. By the way, PLAYBOY isn't porn. It's smut. World of difference. (Seriously.)

"The thing that bothered me most about the "grim 'n gritty" era was how much of that crap was being sold as "a realistic look at superheroes!" The whole industry seemed to market the violence and sex as "adult" (it wasn't; most of it was childish) and therefore, was more a lifelike portrayal. Meanwhile, the most realistic book of the era, at least in terms of personal relationships and interactions, was the Giffen/DeMatteis-era JLI, books that unfortunately got labeled as a comedy book. Funny, yes, but they always read to me as a perfect portrayal of how real adults act when they do that ridiculous dress-up-in-spandex-and-fight-crime thing. That meant a lot of humor, a lot of bickering, and a lot of people interacting with other people."

Yeah, it's kind of hard to claim "realism" when your definition of realism is "body count." But there were some serious considerations behind it, at least at first, and a desire to portray more realistic "violence," insofar as it wasn't candy violence where character's simply punched each other endlessly and there were no effects or collatoral damage. Let's face it: action without consequence is simply dishonest wish fulfillment. There was a desire for more psychological realism (a trend Stan Lee started, when he moved from pulp motivation to soap opera motivation, which is still a step up), for a wider range of response. What it ultimately turned into was the same old same old on steroids. Oh, well. But let me get this straight: JLA/JLI weren't comedy books?

"I thought initially that everything would be the same In Spider-Man's world except the marriage and now come to find out they're going back to the 1971 cast,, which is what I often hate about comics. ELFQUEST showed the passage of time and the cast getting older and growing from their experiences. The more you ignore consequences, the less you can suspend disbelief. Gerry Conway as well as Stan Lee had Spider-Man rooted to the times in which he lived and was bound to the real world. Everything from Vietnam to protests to how inmates are treated in prison. That is why it resonated.

It's ironic the Clone saga was so poor because the reason Conway wrote the original arc is the last page of it where Peter realizes you can't go home again.

It worked for Richard hatch to ignore BATTLESTAR GALACTICA 1980 when he proposed BATTLESTAR GALACTICA: SECOND COMING but it doesnt always work. The old kid show LAND OF THE LOST shows the family stuck in a causality loop where the same thing keeps happening over and over again-a lot like this idea. And it carries over with the Clintons not understanding why they're often seen as old news. Causality loops may work for franchises but they don't actually lead to good writing."

The problem with showing the passage of time in long term action franchises is that your heroes get old, and at some point you either have to retire them or strain credulity beyond repair. Look at all the strategies DC has used over the years to extend character lives: parallel worlds, replacement heroes, recombinant crises etc. But when your core audience is a fandom that remembers every detail and expects their fond memories to be catered to, strategy is pretty much irrelevant because whatever you do you're eventually screwed. I don't know what the premise was in the '40s-'60s but by the late '70s the generally accepted premise at the major comics companies was that the entire audience rolled over ever four years, so short of reprints and older brothers that was the extent of what you had to remember at any given moment. When companies had to start remembers – and correlating with – fifty or sixty years of stories, most of which were written randomly and without much concern for such things, that's where your heartaches begin. It's a trap with endless possibilities that all lead to dead ends. But causality loops don't necessary lead to bad writing. Only good writing leads to good writing. How's that for a causality loop?

"You wrote: "Ron Paul's been getting double Rudy's numbers in just about every contest, and the media barely acknowledges Paul exists..." As I write this, there have been exactly three contests: Iowa, New Hampshire, and Michigan. (And Wyoming, but the only thing that got reported there were delegates to the national convention awarded, and neither Paul nor Giuliani won any there.) In New Hampshire, Giuliani actually edged out Paul by one percentage point. So by "just about every contest" you mean exactly two: Iowa and Michigan. Sounds misleading at best."

As I wrote that column, reports coming out of New Hampshire stated that Giuliani had 3% of the vote and Paul 6%. If that changed in the meantime, I wasn't aware of it. So I did mean three contests. Don't know what Rudy did here, but here in Nevada Paul came in second in the Republican caucuses after Mitt Romney, which isn't exactly surprising in a state where the Republican base is predominently Mormon and heavily libertarian-Republican. But Giuliani's showing in South Carolina was miserable as well. Not exactly his year...

"I think I own the Logitech remote you discussed in your latest column, and its been so good to me I felt the need to sing its praises. The one I own is called the Harmony 520, and its been perfect. To a single TV I have a cable box, a DVD player with surround sound, a HD-DVD player, a Xbox 360, and a Playstation 3. It was basically foolproof to program, though you do need a computer to install a small program that comes with the remote. On the computer is where you make all the changes, adding devices to be controlled by the remote, then taking those devices and associating them with an activity. For example, when I select Watch TV, the television comes on and switches to input 2, the cable box comes on, and the surround sound as well. Switching to Play Xbox turns off the cable, flips the input to 4, and keeps the surround on all while turning on my Xbox. The only problem I found is that it doesn't work with the Playstation 3, as the PS3 uses a bluetooth signal, and the remote does not. Other then that, it's been fantastic, and turned the four or five remotes I use to have strung around into one."

That's the one. I wish it weren't so expensive – it pushed $500, right? – because I could really use one of those. But you're not the only one to praise it. I received about a dozen letters from owners who think it's about the best money they ever spent on anything, despite the price. Where are cheap Korean knockoffs when you really need them?

Know how World War II started? The Germans marched up to the Polish border, shot a couple border guards, stripped them and redressed them in German uniforms, took pictures, and published the photos in papers throughout Germany with the claim that these were loyal German soldiers brutally murdered by the Poles, which incited the German populace into demanding war. Hitler complied with "the will of the people" and German troops marched into Poland, which triggered Polish defense pacts with England and other countries, and World War II began.

What we now call the Vietnam War – it was never officially declared – "began" (at least as far as the American public was concerned; the Vietnamese have a different viewpoint) when North Vietnamese navy ships attacked American vessels stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin. President Lyndon Johnson quickly pushed a resolution through Congress allowing a buildup of American forces in Vietnam (technically "to take all necessary steps," but it left the meaning to "necessary" to Johnson's discretion) to protect troops already there. Only one problem, as we learned much, much later: the first "attack" actually an American destroyer opening fire first on North Vietnamese torpedo boats, while the subsequent attack a couple days later on two American ships never happened at all. The "Vietnam War" lasted eleven years.

You may recall that earlier this month Iranian "vessels" confronted American ships in the Strait of Hormuz, with our ships close to firing on the attackers. For a moment it seemed as if the Ghost and the Dick might get the war with Iran they've been lusting after for months while both Congress and the American public have been lukewarm on the notion, to say the least. The Iranians were heard to threaten the destruction of the American ships; various pundits and government officials started speaking about proof of Iran's hostile intent.

Only one problem with the story. It was a Pentagon con job.

Seriously. This isn't conspiracy theory. It has been admitted. What happened was this: Five tiny Iranian speedboats and three American warships passed near each other in the night. No real confrontation. The incident was reported but considered insignificant. It was, to all intents and purposes, completely indistinguishable from passing encounters in the region that have gone publicly unreported for years.

Until the Pentagon got hold of it. There was no soundtrack except garbled gibberish, and no indication of threat. The Pentagon decided to splice in an unrelated but understandable voice threatening destruction of American vessels. Their published report made no mention of hostilities, but reporters looking for additional information began getting the notorious "unnamed person" insider "information" scoops and reported how the vessels had made threatening maneuvers and sent messages detailing their destructive intent. Crewmen on the scene subsequently denied virtually every aspect of the "enhanced" story, and various Pentagon officials, like public affairs officer Lt. Col. Mark Ballesteros, have since admitted the con and stated it was a decision made by military officials in Washington and in the field in collaboration with "leadership here." Which means the Secretary of Defense. Not coincidentally, the Ghost was on the verge of a trip to the Middle East to build an Arab coalition against Iranian aggression. Draw your own conclusions, and take the next round of saber rattling with a grain of salt.

Meanwhile, as Fred Thompson rides off into the campaign sunset and Rudy Giuliani continues to wallow at the absolute nadir of voter appreciation on the Republican side, the Democratic Party now seems poised to implode, once again teaching us never to underestimate Democrats' ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The current blow-up between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, after last week's feelgood debate, stems partly from last weekend's party caucus here in Nevada, where the Clinton forces made it pretty apparent that while they all talk a good game about how it's going to be a "new day" in American politics (at least in my precinct, the good word going around through all the groups was that regardless of differences we'll all band together after the nomination to defeat "the forces of darkness" – and this was coming not only from Democrats but from several Republicans who had jumped ship over dismay with current administration policies and potential Republican contenders) for them it's still the same old politics. While my precinct demonstrated nothing untoward that I could see, precincts from all around the state are posting reports of how the Clinton workers closed doors on caucus meeting places half an hour early (the state party rules said noon; Clinton campaign manuals told workers to get there before 11:30 and close the doors then), demanded to know what candidate caucus-goers supported before allowing them to sign in and telling Obama backers they were in the wrong meeting place, helping attending invalids and elderly to cast their vote by checking off Clinton on the ballot (we use a ballot system of sorts) regardless of what the attendee wanted, swelled their own numbers with miscounts or allowing Clinton supporters from outside a precinct into the meeting to be counted, told Obama backers they had numbers insufficient for "viability" (the state's measure of whether a candidate has enough backers in any given precinct to be awarded a delegate to the state convention), and a host of other accusations. In other words, the same tactics some claim were used by Republicans against Democratic candidates in pivotal elections. Like accused Republicans, the Clinton camp is crying sour grapes, but Obama supporters are enraged enough to ask the state elections board to investigate. Also unusual was a tour by Bill Clinton of worker areas in casinos barely minutes before caucuses. (A recent lawsuit attempted to stop caucusing in casinos that would make it easier for many union workers, especially those of the Culinary Union that recently threw its backing behind Obama, to make their voice heard. Curiously, when all was said and done, Hillary ended up with the popular vote but due to the mathematical mechanics of the Democratic Party, Obama ended up with most delegates. At least by some reports.) The Clintons have also been playing much faster and looser with negative insinuations about Obama, not that Obama hasn't been getting into that game as well.

These could be critical errors for the Democrats; it's one thing to question your opponent's ability to lead (though having Bill Clinton raise those questions about Obama proves irony is dead, since Republicans raised those same objections about Clinton during his first presidential run, and Bill Clinton's ability to lead turned out about as good as any president's in recent memory) and quite another to pursue a scorched earth policy of innuendo and half-truths. Besides the obvious, often-mentioned problem of feeding political opponents ammo against your candidate in the general election (I never thought that one deserved the time of day) this is no election like we've ever had before. Is there another time in American history when a woman and a black man could have even run at this level for the Presidency – and not one but both would have been considered not a but the viable candidate, the one to beat. I saw both Obama and Clinton backers in action this past weekend, and one thing's clear: all of them take the campaign and especially their chosen candidate personally. It's not "just politics." The attacks also are not "just politics" but becoming increasingly personal, and dismaying. Last week I saw news footage of Hillary next to a black minister who was giving a speech on her behalf in South Carolina, telling people they should not vote on the basis of race. Which has become Clinton campaign code for "don't vote for Barack Obama," apparently on the premise that the only reason to vote for him is skin color, so a vote for Obama is a vote for racism. Which is itself weirdly twisted racism, of a sort. Besides, I don't see Hillary supporters suggesting women shouldn't vote for a candidate on the basis of gender. But this is a scary thing about Hillary Clinton: her policies may be different, but in personality I don't see her as significantly different from the Ghost. The Ghost has always taken his politics personally; for him, opposing one of his policies is the same as a personal insult. That characteristic has been in Hillary's makeup a long time, and not to her benefit: her botched health care reform campaign in the early '90s blew out not only because Republican workers promoted a fierce, crippling campaign against it but because she made it easy for them by framing the argument as being about her ego. It was her mission, the one that was going to set her apart from all other first ladies, she was the attack dog on it, and she projected the image that reform should go forth not because it was good for every American but because it was her project, and there was the clear and effective opposition suggestion at the time that the proposed reforms weren't so much reforms as her ego out of control, which made it a lot easier for a lot of people to justify shutting her down.

The problem this time around is that not only is Hillary obviously taking it very personally (whether Bill's new and fairly bitter involvement in the campaign is to reinforce his legacy or because she told him to get out there and do what needs doing or else, no one's saying, but I don't see his new cranky old man routine and overt attack dog politics doing much for his legacy in any case) but so are her followers and so are Obama's, and to the extent the mud slings now the supporters of whoever ends up on the losing end – unless it's a Clinton/Obama ticket when all's said and done, and I don't see that happening any more than I see Hillary willing to settle for vice president – will be that disinclined to do anything but sit out the election. Republican voters may be disgruntled this time around but they're far from disorganized, and even the Republicans considering jumping to the Democratic side this election are probably looking for an excuse not to. The question now isn't whether Hillary or Obama, already treating each other as if they're the only ponies in the race, have the will to win the nomination – clearly, they do – it's whether either or both are willing to gamble the solidarity of the party and their chances of winning the White House in November to do it. This may be a historic year for women and blacks in politics, but it'll only be truly historic if one of them goes all the way.

Notes from under the floorboards:

As the 2 GUNS mini-series from Boom! Studios comes to a close, Newsarama has a feature interview with me on the series and the future of crime comics in general.

Just heard Heath Ledger died. Initial reports suggest drug-related, but initial reports are rarely trustworthy. Too bad, I liked him, and he looked terrific as the Joker in the forthcoming Batman movie. I wonder how this will affect the promotion for that.

Sorry about all the politics this week. I know it rankles some people, but they were both subjects that wouldn't wait.

A little-admitted secret to life: free time fills up with things that must be done right away, until it's no longer free. As a result, I never did get around to sorting out or posting new eBay items last week, and it won't happen this week either. Sorry to have made you look. More on this later.

Curious new show popped up on AMC this past Sunday: BREAKING BAD (10P), with Bryan Cranston as a middle-aged Albuquerque chemistry teacher with loutish students, terminal cancer, two low-paying jobs, crushing debt and a struggling family he'll leave penniless when he dies – quite a comedy so far, eh? – who decides to build a quick nest egg by teaming with a flunked out former student to open a meth lab. In a Winnebago. I'm not really sure about it yet. It doesn't have the immediate appeal of AMC's fall sleeper hit, MAD MEN, and the first episode pushed the quirkiness maybe a smidge too far, but it's interesting enough for a second look, especially when Cranston panics during a drug buy gone bad and chemically exterminates two murderous rival drug dealers. We should know soon enough whether it swings more toward MAD MEN or WEEDS.

In the meantime, TORCHWOOD returned with an episode good enough to obliterate the sour memory of many of last series' episodes. New (on and off) to the cast is BUFFY's James Marsters, finally allowed to show something like his real age, as a swashbuckling rogue of a time traveler (and former Jack partner in more ways than one) manipulating the team for his own gain. A simple story, nicely done. This series seems primed to expose secrets of Captain Jack's past, and if you've got BBC America you can watch the slightly adulterated version starting this Saturday.

And it's AMERICAN IDOL time again, with ghastly auditions clogging the airwaves. I know they're worried that the Golden Goose is dying, but this level of desperation is difficult to understand: while it used to be obvious the producers were putting godawful singers through to the judge's auditions so America could get a good laugh watching Simon boo people off the stage, it's ridiculously apparent this year that they're stocking in shills in voluminous numbers to put on a huge act of being bad, whether they're hiring actors specifically for the job (not sure they would, but some of my questionable Hollywood sources have said they do) or whether they're offering washouts from the contestant pool the chance for some TV time and/or some quick cash for a blooper reel moment. Thinking you're good when you're mediocre at best is one thing, but even in America there can't possibly be that many people that transparently godawful who are convinced they're songbird superstars in the making.

Oliver Stone's planning to make a film about the Ghost. No word if the Dick gets a supporting role, but if so I vote that Fred Thompson plays him.

By the way, the Motion Picture Association Of America is now admitting that the numbers they claim for losses due to piracy are, well, nonsense. Which independent reviewers have long said, with mathematical proofs demonstrating how the MPAA's calculations methods were gears to dramatically inflate values. The MPAA chalks it up to human error. (The same kind of human error as during drug busts, when a couple hundred bucks worth of pot or methamphetamines suddenly develop a "street value" in the tens of thousands, no doubt.) Problem is, the fraudulent numbers are now urban legend - whoops, I mean part of the public record, so inevitably reporters of piracy stories will trot out the old fraud numbers, if only because bigger is sexier. Meanwhile, now that they've admitted their perceived losses are 15% due to college Internet use at the outside (rather than the almost 50% they originally claimed) will the stupidity in the pending education bill that strips colleges "allowing" any Internet piracy of all federal funds still remain in the bill?

Congratulations to Adam Hall, the first to figure out last week's Comics Cover Challenge was "crosses." Unfortunately I got jammed up on things and didn't notify him until just now, so no link for you. I'll have it up next week.

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. There's a secret clue cleverly hidden somewhere in the column, but it will be clear to some. 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 – 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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