Ah, it's that time of year once again, when editors take their leave and pretty much nothing in the comics business gets done until roughly Jan. 15th. They get back before that, but you have to figure two weeks (if you're lucky) for them to catch up with their month-long backlog. But I hope they make the most of their breaks because, as every year, next year we head once again into the complete unknown.

Maybe my biggest wish for the business for next year is that we finally get it through our heads that our situation has changed. A few years ago in San Diego, on a crime comics panel with ex-EC writer/editor Al Feldstein, who witnessed the pamphlet end of the company get flushed down the tubes by the Comics Code, and Al asked the rest of us how we managed to get so much past the Code. He didn't know that most comics had severed from the Code since the 1980s, and where it used to be sort of an appendix to the comics business, it's now almost purely vestigial. I got to be the one to tell Al Feldstein he won. He didn't quite seem to believe it, and I'm not sure the information was even good for even a moment of genuine satisfaction; more than thrilled, he seemed almost disgusted that the long war for the content of comic books had ever been necessary.

Y'know what? Magazines and newspapers now regularly run articles about comics, they run them in the features section, or the business section, sometimes comics articles even make the news section, magazines from ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY to GENTLEMAN'S QUARTERLY review or recommend graphic novels as a matter of course, and the words BAM! and POW! almost never even appear in headlines anymore.

In other words, we won. Whether it was because of WATCHMEN, NARUTO, MAUS, BLANKETS, SIN CITY, ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, all of the above or none of the above we are now generally taken seriously. Or, rather, as seriously as any entertainment medium is taken. Which ain't exactly "serious" in most cases but it's still a step up. At least we're on a level playing field every way but financially, and if you believe book publishers we're probably a rung above prose novels in the eyes of the buying public and miles above poetry. Comics are still a niche market, but we're a market that can finally see over the edge of the niche. Things could still be a lot better, sure, but after decades - decades! - of wallowing in the shadows and playing to our own neuroses and little else, possibilities are mushrooming.

The future is ours to lose.

"Serious" is a word people love to misinterpret as "pompous," and the idea of "serious comics" is usually taken either as an excuse to be pompous, the more long-windedly pompous the apparently better, or like someone's trying to throw mud in our private little sandbox. Since at least the mid-'70s, the comics industry has been mostly a playground built on self-indulgence, on the glorification of ego on the one hand and of nostalgia on the other. And why not? What else did we have to work with? But both ego and nostalgia are built mainly to play to kindred souls, and both come with inbuilt defenses (over-defenses, really) against outside criticism; nostalgia suggests the critic is too stuffy to tolerate simple, time-tested "fun," while ego declares the critic is too hidebound/ misinformed/ unintelligent/ biased/ myopic/ plebian/ bourgois/ cantankerous/ stuffy/ unappreciative/ misguided/ petty/ self-serving to acknowledge the genius of the work. You'd think nostalgia and ego break down along business plan lines, with corporate comics – the ones with the most back history and having the most to gain economically by exploiting it – enforcing the former and self-created independent or "alternative" comics enabling the latter. It's not so simple. While it's fairly easy at this point to envision the medium evolving into a version of H.G. Wells' Eloi and Morlocks from THE TIME MACHINE (which are the ugly, cannibalistic Morlocks and which the fair, ephemeral Eloi probably depends on your P.O.V....) the current reality of the medium is a knotty blur. There's certainly enough ego to go around both "branches" of the business, and more than enough nostalgia. But the problem it's time to consciously grapple with is our continued tendency to treat the medium as a private club only those with the proper credentials can enter, and both "mainstream" and "alternative" comics are prone to that, and it's entirely tied up with ego and nostalgia too.

When I was a kid, reading mostly Marvel and DC comics and concocting adventure stories in my head, generally I thought in terms of twelve part stories. At the time that was a pretty radical notion, but we were all hopped up on Stan Lee's expanding success with Marvel Comics, in the period when he abandoned the complete-in-one-issue story (despite unresolved personal plot threads for main characters – will Peter Parker ever get respect? Will Reed and Sue ever speak of their mutual love? – it was fairly late in Marvel's development that continued stories became the way of things) for what eventually amounted to the apparently never-ending serial. It's hard now to imagine what a sea change that was, back in the days when comics with one story broken into three eight page chapters rather than three standalone stories were pimped as "novel length." Like many Marvel innovations of the day, it was less the result of a creative imagination given free rein than a practical response to the pressures of a commercial situation; Stan Lee and his collaborators just had to cope with getting out a constantly expanding line of comics and did whatever made it work in the moment, which makes it no less of an achievement. (Art snobs and creationists aside, genius by accident is in no way inferior to genius by design. Results, not intentions, are all that ever really matter.) From a technical standpoint, DC Comics of the day, heavily overseen by editors and carefully molded to house standards, were probably better done, with much more standard fare for the time, not to mention quick shortcuts repeated incessantly that passed for characterization. ("I'll be back to Rann, Alanna – next time the zeta-beam strikes my planet." "The sky... is the killer of us all!") They were mostly solid. Marvel Comics, though, had the whiff of spontaneity, and that's why DC ultimately couldn't compete on the old terms.

The fact is that any time you approach comics from the position of "this is what they're supposed to be," you're running behind, you're already hidebound though it might take awhile to catch up to you. They aren't supposed to be anything, they just are what people choose to make them.

What they mostly choose to make them, though, is complicated. You can pretty much draw a straight line from Stan Lee's episodes of Iron Man in TALES OF SUSPENSE that bounced from cliffhanger to cliffhanger without pausing for a breath to Jim Starlin's "cosmic" epics to Dave Sim's determination to have a 300 issue run on CERBERUS (what turned out, in the long run, to be a mostly formalized stunt that ended up without much of a point besides running 300 issues, which isn't to say that none of those issues had their own pleasures) to the obsession of generations now of would-be comics writers/artists trying to break in with 100-issue arcs that will reveal all the hidden secrets of time and space, to the eternity of alt comics like BLANKETS that use hundreds of pages essentially trying to convince it's audience that its ephemeral point couldn't have been made in five. And not one of them doesn't have its basis more in Stan Lee's editorial page insider mock-chumminess with his mostly faceless and nameless readers than in anything resembling genuine literary desire or ambition: the "let's be a club" mentality that divides the world into members of the club and non-members.

Back in the early '60s, original modern comics fandom, guys like Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails, who grew up with Captain Marvel (the Shazam variety) and the Justice Society Of America declared the 1940s "the golden age." They were wrong. This is the Golden Age.

Unfortunately it's the Golden Age of Fanfic. American comics today are mostly fanfic. What is LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN and LOST GIRLS if not fanfic? Plundering old works – yes, I know all the terms like deconstruction and homage – was once considered a cynical marketing ploy; now it's virtually required. The underlying theory is that it generates resonance, the same way length is theorized to generate resonance, or the interweaving of storylines from multiple titles and overlapping characters is supposed to generate resonance. In alt comics the use of pop imagery and autobiography is supposed to generate resonance. "Resonance" is the holy grail of fanfic, the idea that you and your reader can share the same experience because you're both intimately aware of the characters being written about. All these things are supposed to generate a satisfying complexity that will please your reader/customer and bring him back for more by implying a collaborative experience – the myth of which was a much-cherished lynchpin in Stan Lee's pitch.

Readers do want complexity. Even casual readers want it. But in comics we time and time again mistake complication and convolution for complexity. Readers want complication too, but there's a limit to how much most readers will put up with. Complexity, though, isn't merely the piling on of details, back stories and histories; complexity doesn't even need to be complex. Complexity, as far as the reader is concerned, is the ability of a story, any story, of any length, to generate a response on multiple levels of appreciation.

We're pretty good at hitting one or two levels at a time. It's just not enough, it doesn't say enough, it doesn't give people enough reason to read a comic or graphic novel instead of watching another LAW AND ORDER rerun or taking random shots at Google links. But since the '50s even the more "adult" comics have been gimped by an underlying perception of what a comic book is supposed to be, and torn by opposing forces: we have desperately attempted to force increasing complication into plot while maintaining ethical and philosophical approaches generated in the infancy of the medium. Sure, people have broken away from it, for a time, but cumulatively we always try to resurrect it, to return to easy, comforting simplistic modes, and the day for those is long since dead. We're on the cusp of being included in a wide variety of lives again, but we still want to believe we're some kind of fortress holding out against the barbarians. Time to cut it out. "Adult" is a tainted word now, a synonym for pornography, so perhaps saying comics should be more adult isn't the way to go. But it's still time to grow up.

Christmas cards:

From Jeremy Matthews:

This is weird. Five minutes ago I'd never heard of Greg Ruth. Then an editor mentions his name, and when I check my mailbox, there's a Christmas card by him – sent before I'd spoken to the editor...

The offer's still open, by the way: artists who want to share their holiday cards will the world are welcome to send them in and we'll run them here, through New Year's Day. Just my little way of saying Happy Saturnalia.

Some mail on recent topics:

"I just wanted to drop a line regarding your references to Mike Diana. Mr. Diana was forced to quit drawing his comic due to multiple obscenity convictions related to his work. (He's the only person to ever have been convicted of these charges from what I understand.) He was also briefly a suspect in a murder investigation in Florida. (Authorities based their suspicions solely on the content of his comic) He was never convicted of a sex crime."

I have to apologize to Mike for the mischaracterization. As I understand it, a California comics fan at the time of the Gainesville murders (which Mike had no connection to) contacted Florida police to suggest Mike as a suspect based on murders visualized in his comic BOILED ANGEL, which the fan suspected bore strong similarities to the crimes. The cops solved that case, but offended prosecutors decided to try him on obscenity charges and won. My general point still stands, though: his conviction and sentence, which to the best of my knowledge were never overturned, did set precedents for the ability of governments, state and otherwise, to clamp down on the imagination, and the child pornography bill before Congress will only exacerbate that.

"FYI, the male analog of lolicon is called shotacon, and features sexually adventurous boys with either women or men.

A factual correction: Mike Diana wasn't convicted of any sexual misconduct, but of producing an "obscene" minicomic. It was badly drawn and full of disturbing imagery including children, but not what most people would identify as "porn". The fact that he worked at an elementary school (as a janitor) and may have left a copy of the book at work probably contributed to the judicial hysteria of banning him from drawing this sort of material, or having contact with minors.

As for the latest anti-online-porn bill, the fact that it doesn't try to define "child pornography" is probably for the best, because I'm sure Congress would make that definition dangerously broad (as they have in the past). So instead, the definition falls back to what the courts have said to date. The Supremes ruled a few years ago (Rehnquist, Scalia, and O'Connor dissenting) that you had to have an actual child involved for something to be "child pornography", and upheld the notion that the purpose of laws against kiddie porn was to protect children from abuse and exploitation in the making of it. That should provide some "safe haven" for ISPs, at least as it relates to illustrated material. Unfortunately the ISPs can't be expected to know the judicial history of the definition, and some of them would undoubtedly overreact and mess up someone's life in the process. When in doubt, best to call Big Brother, right?

You're absolutely right about the public's broad definition of "sex offender". A few weeks ago a man in California discovered that a "registered sex offender" had moved into his neighborhood, and stabbed him to death to proactively protect his son. The 67-year-old man had been convicted of raping a 37-year-old woman at knife-point 20 years ago... not exactly the profile of a likely boy-seducer. The killer was unrepentant. Given that kind of broad-brush tarring, I certainly wouldn't expect people to make a distinction between someone who downloaded sexy photos of high school girls from the internet, and one who has done horrible things to kindergarteners."

I think that's what I was remembering, a general hysteria over Mike Diana's proximity to children and his supposed "threat" to them, which is usually reserved only for child molesters. The notion that someone capable of a specific form of deviant behavior is both capable and eager for any and all forms is not only prevalent in our society, it's on the verge of being enshrined in our penal system, meaning, among other things, the further burdening of that system with unnecessary prosecutions to further pressure the system's dwindling resources.

"I am a small Comic Book Store owner in Boca Raton FL. The section of your article on what Marvel and DC are doing to crack down on Internet theft of comics was of particular interest to me. I remember a few weeks ago when my store manager showed me Marvel's new Internet subscription service for back issues. We had a similar conversation about the comic industry and the way of actual book form comics. I contend that the book form will never just simply go away as you suggest in your article. But not for the reasons you already stated. The collector can not collect a .pdf file of a comic book and it be worth something. Should Marvel or DC stop printing books and go strictly to the Internet? They would lose business. You know that Dark Horse or even Image would stay the course and keep printing paper books picking up the customers that refuse to read comics on line. You state it's a generational thing and that we are one or two generations away from this happening. Well, I believe we as retailers can stop that from happening. In my store I have a literacy program for all children first thru eighth grade. They bring in their report cards and get free comics for A's and B's. I started this for two reasons. One I wanted to encourage our children to read instead of spending all their time playing video games. Comics are a great introduction into reading. Second I wanted to build that next generation of readers for my store. I am sure you remember your first time in your local comic store and because of that store is more than likely part of the reason you started reading and buying comics. The local Comic Store isn't just a place a business like Wal-Mart where you hurry in and hurry out with your goods never really talking to anyone around you. The local comic store is a place where you can go be around people that will listen to you talk about which costume looked better on wolverine over the years or how you wish Grant Morrison would team up with Mitch Britweiser on a book. There is a social aspect of comic books that bring people together. If you eliminate the actual book and throw it all up on the Internet then the local store would go away as well and that's kinda like buying all your beer at the store and never going to a bar. Just because its available in one medium doesn't mean it still won't sell in another."

I don't quite remember arguing for the abandonment of print or even that it will completely go away. I doubt it ever will, and believe me, I wish nothing but huge success for your literacy and social group programs, and I say that without the slightest sarcasm. All I was saying is that there is a rapidly growing subculture in this country that perfectly comfortable will reading comics as online jpgs, and possibly even prefer them that way, and by ignoring or making things difficult on them (and I'm not suggesting that comics companies should allow piracy or give the comics away online free, but I've heard from people who like their comics digital who prefer their Marvels from pirate feeds not because they can get them free – they're perfectly willing to pay for them in that format – but because the bootlegs are higher quality than what Marvel offers via their pay service) that the companies are turning their backs on the potential growth market. I didn't mean to imply that companies should turn to digital wares exclusively, and I think it's naïve to believe that people who get their comics online are unwilling to buy physical versions of them. If mp3s are an indicator, there may be a substantial number of people who, in a perfect world, would prefer both.

"I work for Real Networks, specifically on our company's music player, Rhapsody.

One special feature of Rhapsody is the ability to share playlists with your friends (or enemies, or whomever). Even without being a Rhapsody subscriber, anyone online can access the playlist through our web client and play the tracks, up to 25 full song plays free each month. None of that "limited to a 30-second clip" stuff. (I should note this is a completely legal & encouraged sharing of the streamed music!)

Your holiday music mix had a bunch of esoteric stuff in it that isn't available through Rhapsody (darn it!), but half of it was available, so I put together a playlist for you, letting anybody who wants to sample some of your holiday mix. Click here.

A couple notes. People who haven't used the Rhapsody web client before will probably have to let it install a plug-in. Popup blockers may stop the playlist window from showing, so keep an eye out for the notification bar. While the Rhapsody desktop program is Windows only, both Windows and Mac users will be able to use the web client. Some people will think that I'm trying to push Rhapsody on them, and I suppose I am in a way: I'm promoting a useful (and legal) music sharing feature that people probably don't know exists. But mostly, I just want to help people hear your music suggestions. After all, I built the playlist so that I could hear them myself; might as well offer the list to others."

Hey, if you believe in the product, there's no reason you shouldn't want to push it. And thanks for the nice little Xmas present for Permanent Damage readers. I appreciate it.

I've got to hand it to the entertainment industry, it really outdid itself this time. Though, when you think about it, it's just what you'd expect from operations with deep pockets (despite constantly crying poverty, they manage to cough up money for lobbying and ad campaigns any time they want) that non-stop bungle their public relations (like pronouncing that police around the country should stop worrying about public safety and street crime and start focusing on the real crime in the USA: media piracy) and have found courts unwilling to grant them broad police powers of their own: lobby congressmen to do your dirty work for you. Not that lobbying is anything new for the entertainment industry – you may recall not long ago the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) lobbied for changes in copyright laws that made recording artists essentially work-for-hire employees on their own recordings, and pushed through monopoly status for an Internet music license fee collection agency with a law requiring anyone (or, presumably, anyone American, though with the RIAA and Congress you never know) posting music on a website, even if it's their own music on their own website and they're operating without a recording contract or corporate connections of any kind, to pay a usage fee to the collection agency and then pay the collection agency a fee (AKA a "membership") in order to get their money back.

But this one's really good: the RIAA and Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have been at war with American universities for quite some time. While some have knuckled under to give the RIAA/MPAA exactly what they want, most universities have looked askance at industry demands that they be allowed unimpeded access to all student records, on the presumption that all college students are guilty until proven innocent. The MPAA's estimate, unsupported by their own statistics and widely disputed by independent studies, is that about 18% of all pirates are college students and 44% of all industry losses result from that group. These "facts" are seemingly concocted at random for effect. The RIAA and MPAA's argument is that they can't make accurate assessments because universities won't let them access the records they need to prove their allegations. Universities (and courts) have generally requested some sort of genuine evidence before they allow what amounts to fishing expeditions to invent culprits to support the allegations. (Not that whole wars haven't been fought on that basis, like the one we're currently mired in.) Some have suggested finding a "middle ground," but the only "middle ground" that might exist depends on trampling privacy rules and establishing rather dismal precedents.

Now the entertainment industry has found a new "middle ground," courtesy of the House of Representatives and bill HR 4137, which was approved last month by the House Education & Labor Committee. Called "the College Opportunity & Affordability Act," it claims to be an attempt to allow more Americans the opportunity to get a college education, and damn if we don't need it. But there's at least one booby trap buried deep within it: a section on page 411 that allows all federal funding – that means any federal money, including research funding (regardless of importance of the research), student loans, anything – be cut off to any college or university where a student illegally downloads material from the Internet.

Think about that: the way the bill is written, if any single student at a college illegally downloads, all students at that college will lose their educations. And not just if they use college internet hookups to facilitate their downloads; if they use any system anywhere. It only matters that they attend that college. This is probably because many colleges/universities already insulate themselves against liability by requiring incoming studies to sign a promise they won't use university systems for piracy under penalty. The bill circumvents such precautions by effectively requiring universities to become wardens of their students' total Internet experience, despite the data used by the MPAA to come to its sweeping piracy conclusion demonstrating that, even by their numbers, only about 5% of all media pirates use college networks. But, because colleges are subject to federal funding and thus more potentially vulnerable than commercial service providers, that's where the MPAA/RIAA are making their assault.

That's just the beginning of the insanity. The bill effectively allows the entertainment industry to be the arbiters of what constitutes a violation, giving them the ability to bypass the courts and go straight to the Department of Education for satisfaction. In what seems to be a gift to iMusic, or maybe NBC-Universal's proposed iMusic-killer service, all students at all universities would be required to sign up with a legal downloading service, whether they had any interest in downloaded music or not. Nice way to cut down those education costs. Like most proposals of this sort, it doesn't bother saying who'll pay for all this, or the monitoring software necessary (even if something along those lines that was even vaguely useful and intelligent enough to tell pirated from legit content existed, which it doesn't, despite florid manufacture claims for dozens of products), but the one thing you can be sure of is that it won't be the entertainment industry. But if the entertainment industry is so hot for this legislation (it was shoved into the bill at the 11th hour by two Democrats, by the way: Texas' Ruben Hinojosa and California's George Miller, so remember those names when re-election comes up, okay?) it's only fair that additional taxes on TV/Film/Recorded Music profits should be added to pay for it. But I suppose from their point of view that would be defeating the purpose.

Notes from under the floorboards:

My most recent, and for the moment last, eBay auctions of various trade paperbacks and graphic novels are rounding out today, anytime between now and midnight depending on the item, so there might still be time to have a look by clicking here.

Christmas is next Tuesday, when I normally write the column, so I'm not certain what's going to happen next week. Something good, I'm sure, even if it's just scans of comics past. (I do have such exquisite tastes in such things, don't I?) Whatever will be, drop by late next week to see it.

Know what I'd really love to see from Marvel? Collections of '50s stories by all the really great artists they had working for them then, one artist per books. I know most people think of Marvel (or Atlas, as they're cumulatively called in retrospect, publisher Martin Goodman having had oodles of different names for his publishing operation, for whatever reasons; I think "Atlas" was the name of his distribution wing) in the '50s as Jack Kirby monster comics and quirky Steve Ditko fantasy shorts, but Atlas published so much material in so many genres that there are piles of horror/western/scifi/humor/romance pages by legends like John Severin, Al Williamson, John Romita, Russ Heath, Gray Morrow, Doug Wildey, and Bernie Krigstein, not to mention one- or few-offs by artists like Carmine Infantino, Joe Kubert, & Alex Toth for anthologizing, and much of it still looks absolutely spectacular. (Toss in guys like Kirby and Ditko and you're not talking a volume or two, you're talking libraries.) True, most of the stories are pretty formulaic – what do you expect for four and five page stories? – but it's hard to believe they're so much less salable today than, say, Spider-Woman or Dazzler collections. C'mon, Joe, wouldn't you love a big, thick volume of little-seen Al Williamson or John Severin art in your stocking this Christmas? Or next? (Failing that, can I get permission to run some of them here next year, as long as they don't involve any trademarked characters? They really are too good to be left in the dust.)

Want your own nuclear reactor? Toshiba makes it possible. And no messy cooling rods...

As Mike Huckabee reportedly creeps nearer to Republican primary success in Iowa, more background info about him is erupting, besides his propensity to cite his successes as God's will. Turns out Mike's all about family; according to those leftist hatemongers at NEWSWEEK, Huckabee used his gubenatorial influence in 1998 to ward off the prosecution of his son for torturing and hanging a dog while in the Boy Scouts. The official Huckabee version is that the dog was suffering from disease, so the kid didn't torture it so much as slowly and painfully humanely put it out of its misery by dangling it by the neck from a tree with a rope. (Too bad Michael Vick's lawyers didn't try the mercy killing plea.) More recently the kid, now in his late '20s, got busted for trying to take a loaded gun onto a plane in his carry-on luggage. (He "forgot" it was there; Muslims might want to use that to stay out of Gitmo next time they accidentally carry firearms onto a plane, and see how far it gets them. If there's a Muslim alive who'd try to carry a loaded gun onto a plane these days.) Huckabee has also taken a page from Rudy "I was the hero of 9-11" Giuliani's book, and has started endlessly refraining that he's the best equipped candidate to approach "theological" issues (like... what? Abortion? Gay marriage? What "theological issues"?) because he's the only candidate with a degree in theology. Except he doesn't have a degree in theology. Ah, well, it's only Christian to forgive, I guess...

Speaking of the entertainment industry, word came out today that late night talk show hosts Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien are returning to their late night talk shows at the turn of the year. Both were out in support of the Writers strike, and both were paying their non-writing staffs out of their own pockets (as is David Letterman over at CBS) even though their shows are in repeats, but reportedly are no longer willing to carry that burden as the strike drags on so new episodes must start up again. The money's understandable – if I remember right, O'Brien and Letterman picked up the tab from the beginning of the strike, and Leno joined that party a little later – but it seems a bit suspicious that Leno and O'Brien are both NBC contract players, NBC is part of Universal, and Universal is one of the key players in the producers alliance attempting to stand their questionable ground against the Writers Guild. (Unlike those two, Letterman, on CBS, owns his show and is reportedly looking to break ranks with producers and sign his own deal with the union, something I've heard more and more small and independent producers discussing.) Leno's in a touchy position to start with; he announced awhile back that he planned to retire in 2010, and when he later renounced his decision, NBC told him in no uncertain terms – or, at least, in terms as certain as any in a business that believes any decision can be reverse if there's enough incentive – that his announced retirement date is his retirement date, and Conan gets his slot then. I've been told by producer friends that the studios in part welcomed the strike, as, once the allotted time has passed and it has now, it gave them the ability to enforce play or pass clauses in contracts that would allow them to kill projects they accepted but for whatever reason have since decided they no longer want. It's not much of a leap to imagine NBC ordering Leno to return to work or be held in breech and replaced for the remainder of his stint. With O'Brien, even more pressure is conceivable: he stands to lose not only his current show but his eventual Tonight Show host slot. The late night talk shows aren't much of a loss to the Writers Guild – it's primetime shows, which mainly depend on scripts and are helpless to return without them, that are the big leverage – but I imagine in the sort of trench warfare currently going on between producers and writers, even a few inches either way comes off as a major propaganda victory. (By the way, the best source of unofficial news about the strike remains at Mark Evanier's website, tucked among his other tidbits. This morning he pointed out an article at Publisher's Weekly about how the strike is affecting comics writers that I'd have missed otherwise.)

Meanwhile, saw the new film JUNO tonight, playing soon at a theater near you, and if you're in the mood for a sassy, light comedy about teenage pregnancy, between good dialogue and some pretty good acting (especially by the lead, Ellen Page) you're not likely to find a funnier teen pregnancy comedy, at least not one that approaches the subject with even a modicum of sensitivity and taste. It's nice for a change to see something on the topic that doesn't hinge on "amok hormones" as an excuse for manufactured crisis, doesn't have the teenagers or adults constantly acting like idiots, and doesn't fall back on any forced crap like an "oh no, will she lose the baby?!" moment, and still has enough plot to carry 90 minutes of film. (Also liked how Juno is always walking against the crowd, her signature move.) I found the latter day folk-rock sound track generally a bit precious, but otherwise the film's not bad at all, and it probably makes a good date film for at least two different age groups for all kinds of reasons. As independent film comedies go, it has LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE beat all to hell, anyway, and look how much loving attention was lavished on that one. (JUNO also turns out to have been produced in part by my old pal Mason Novick, who's not so much a drinking buddy as someone who recognizes my name when I call or email and answers anyway. Lucky for him, the movie's pretty good.)

Congratulations to Ray Cornwall, the first to correctly identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "the law." (The popular response was "men in hats"; in retrospect I guess it fits, but do you really think the answer would be "men in hats" without a reference to "The Safety Dance" anywhere? Though I do remember the days when "The Safety Dance" was Walt Simonson's favorite MTV video. And Ray was first in any case.) Ray points you to his own website, Why I Love Comics. And it's true! He does! Check it out.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist... anything, really - binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. Normally I cleverly hide a secret clue to the theme somewhere in the column, but this week I think you'll just have to wing it. Good luck. (Art in the column that is clearly not a cover has nothing to do with the Comics Cover Challenge, by the way. Accept only genuine covers.)

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

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

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

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

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it's not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They're no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don't really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don't ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I'm reviewing comics sent to me – 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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