Someone asked what I thought of Marvel & DC's current efforts to thwart digital piracy of their comics via the Web. I haven't bothered much with the details, only that Marvel sent a few cease-and-desist letters around, and DC basically duplicated the effort.
It's less surprising that they did it than that they didn't do it a long time ago. It's certainly their right, and it makes sense that they'd want to control digital distribution of their product; who doesn't? Perhaps a better question is: what effect is it likely to have on illicit Internet distribution?
Probably not much.
Obviously the choice has been made to follow the course taken by the MPAA and RIAA in their respective industries, but those are industry-wide organizations with fairly deep pockets that no individual comics company can match, even if they have a supercorporation behind them. Are there any credible studies on how much money Marvel and DC are actually losing to Internet bootlegging? Certainly the bootleggers have no moral leg to stand on, but going after them is likely to cost a lot more money than its worth. It's possible to take down host servers for bit torrents, but torrents have a bad habit of simply jumping to other servers, and the sites most rights holders go after aren't the servers anyway but websites like the now defunct Demonoid that are really little more than catalogs of what's available via web torrents. Take one of those down – more difficult than it sounds, since they're located all over the world, not just in the USA, and different countries have different rules governing this sort of thing, rendering some sites less vulnerable than others – and a dozen more immediately spring up. Torrents tend to have a fairly limited lifespan anyway, existing only as long as there are individuals willing to connect their computers to the web to be media of transmission, so clamping down on individual torrents is often something like trying to grab fog.
From a public relations perspective, the people downloading off torrents are likely to be, if not your biggest fans, your biggest potential fans – and many of them (according to reports) also buy comics every week. Of course, many of them aren't, and the fact that they're willing to shell out every week doesn't mitigate that they're effectively stealing the books off the web. But the challenge isn't really so much to keep them from getting their comics off the web as converting them into customers who'll pay you to get their comics off the web. Certainly Marvel's trying to do that, though web bootleggers complain that the comics now available on Marvel's site are too low resolution; I haven't seen them so I don't know if they're right or just fussbudgets. And certainly Marvel's cease-and-desist letters, though they have the power of law, can really be seen only as a symbolic gesture designed more to send a message to the web and hopefully trigger a ripple effect, but actively trying to halt all such web trading in their wares would cost ridiculous amounts of time, money and manpower. At lawyers' prices. Except for the illegality of such a thing, they'd almost be better off hiring themselves hackers to track down and interrupt the streams. (I think under American law that sort of thing is officially called cyberterrorism.)
At any rate, the "crackdown," showy as it was, was a 20th century pseudo-solution to a 21st century problem that'll be an increasing irritant to the comics business. While virtually everyone grew up reading comics on paper, there's a new generation out there that's perfectly comfortable with reading comics onscreen, no matter how much older readers may go on about the tactile and olfactory pleasures of physical comics, and we're probably less than a generation who'll feel the same way about paper comics that people who grew up with cell phones feel about landlines. We're in an age when new technologies can render long established businesses moot, practically in the blink of an eye. (In related news, AT&T recently announced they were abandoning the pay telephone business. Not an inconsiderable leap of a business model, but there's just no money left to them.) History has shown us how often "outlaws" become pillars of society as they get older; today's web pirates are tomorrow's core audience. There are basically only two ways to deal with this situation: seduce/force people into playing by your rules, or figure out a way to play by theirs.
I don't see the Marvel/DC "crackdown" as being any particular hindrance to web pirates – if MPAA/RIAA experience is anything to go by, the more they crack down the more the incidence of piracy will rise - and I doubt web piracy will amount to any long term problem for DC or Marvel. Right now I suspect it amounts to a word of mouth equivalent that both companies (and most others) desperately need.
What's probably of more importance to the comics industry, certainly to the manga industry, is an impending bill passed last week by the House Of Representatives requiring all ISPs to police their systems for incidents of "child pornography," with large fines if they fail. (If I understand it correctly it still needs to pass the Senate.) While I doubt anyone's going to defend kiddy porn, one of the more heinous practices the human race has yet invented, the big problem is that, as with most anti-pornography bills passed by Congress, there's no definition of "child pornography" in it. Meaning ISPs, which by traditional law have been generally held not responsible for material individuals place on them, would be in the position of being especially restrictive cops on anything that even had the faintest whiff of possible interpretation of kiddy porn.
Is a photo of a naked 2 year old running through a sprinkler kiddy porn, or does there need to be some specifically intended sexual content for the term to apply? What about five and six-year-old beauty/dance pageant contestants dressed up like 30 year old hookers? Is a drawing of a naked child the same thing, under that bill, as a photo of one? How equivalent to a similarly themed photo is a sexual drawing of a child?
If the Mike Diana case is any indicator, the courts and legislature don't distinguish between the two at all. (Diana, in the late '80s, was a comics artist, and not an especially good one, who was forbidden by a judge to even draw any of his creepy fantasies after he received a sex crimes conviction – I forget, was it pedophilia? – and higher courts upheld the restriction. A Florida case, natch.)
I can point to old Dennis The Menace strips showing him charging willfully down the street, through department stores, across neighbors' lawns au natural with his chubby little buttocks flapping (and, presumably, everything else) flapping in the breeze. Pornography? I'd say no, and an ISP owner would likely make the same guess, but without a specific definition in the law his guess would be functionally irrelevant. Worse, the law doesn't require the ISP owner to remove the image (in fact, they have to preserve them) but to instead report the poster, referred to in the bill as the "potential sex offender," to the National Center For Missing And Exploited Children. This suggests that what they're mainly looking for is real pictures of real children, but the bill doesn't specify that. It specifies "any" images, which means it's also trolling for potential sex offenders as well.
"Sex offender" has taken on monstrous connotations in America, and covers a hell of a lot of ground without making much distinction, apparently on the believe that any aberrant behavior means a person is open to, apparently eager for, all aberrant behavior. Which is kind of a leap. Going onto a sex offender list effectively destroys your life, for the rest of your life, yet in most jurisdictions you can get labeled a sex offender for taking a leak against a tree while drunk. Sure, it's bad behavior, but a sex offense ought to at least have a sexual connotation. Yet the term is broadly applied. Within the range, it's still something of a leap to say that someone who, say, peeps into windows to watch couples mating will jump at the chance for sex with barnyard animals. Perversions tend to take very specific expression. Even within a narrow range, say kiddy porn, it's still something of a leap to assume a pedophile whose behavior has always been restricted to looking at photos will start molesting children? (Admittedly, it's a chance I'd prefer not to take, but it's still hard to leap to any broad conclusions about the nature of perversion; like many things, you have to approach it on a case-by-case basis.)
However, manga presents a special problem. An awful lot of it, of varying types, is no stranger to at least partial nudity and sexual situations involving prepubescent girls, and there's a long tradition of it in Japan. (NEGIMA, anyone?) Porn manga – most of it hasn't gotten a lot of exposure here – frequently involves sexual activity, much of it brutal, by sexually developed teenagers, which is still officially frowned on here even though pretty much everyone knows and admits that quite a few teenagers have sex. Much worse are porn manga subdivisions like loli (sex involving cherubically undeveloped little girls) and – I'm not sure what it's called... shikou? – (boy love); undeniably creepy, sick stuff, even if you can write off the rape fetish that infuses most porn manga of any kind as mere motif or artistic expression. (I suspect most women, at least, wouldn't.) Like most other subdivisions, both genres support a bewildering volume of titles, and these make it to the web with extraordinary regularity. (Marvel's not the only comics publisher that has these problems.)
Kiddy porn? Irrefutably. What else could you call it? But since it involves no actual children, would it be reportable?
I'm pretty sure Congress would say yes, as they'd likely say yes to anything an ISP owner even suspected might fall into the category. Not that kiddy porn isn't a serious issue, but legislators have long tried to use it as a wedge against all pornography; it plays well with many voters. The question is: should drawn kiddy porn be given the same status as photographed kiddy porn?
We're in a strange situation, culturally, especially when it comes to porn. The traditional expectation of porn, commonly promoted by churches, civic leaders and various big mother types, is that it drives people to sexual frenzy, and especially men to rape. While there's no doubt it objectifies women, recent studies have drawn correlations between the widening availability of porn in our society and the decline of incidents of rape. Sure, other factors are probably involved – the studies can only judge by reported incidents, and there may be factors that have caused reporting to decline, while a decline in rapes might also correlate to increasing publicity of rape trials and an array of other possibilities – but if it's true that an easy availability of sexual imagery leads to less physical expression of perversion (or less non-consensual, anyway) then a crackdown on porn, as much as it would please many people, may be counter-productive. If rapists can actually be headed off at the pass by exposure to porn (and I'd say a considerable amount of additional study is necessary before we can come to a sure conclusion, and even then we must again allow for variations among individual cases) can the same thing be said for pedophiles? Obviously, photographic mollification for pedophiles is completely out of the question, but what about porn comics?
This isn't a proposal, it's just speculation. I'm not a psychiatrist. I don't know what clinical studies tell us about the peculiar psychology of pedophiles, and for all I know kiddy porn imagery of any kind drives them toward the desire to physically play out their fantasies. But I do know another standard misconception in our society is that having fantasies – and everyone has fantasies of some sort, whether they admit it or not, though hopefully most of those fantasies don't involve sex with children – means people want to play out those fantasies in real life. I suspect most people don't, and wouldn't if they could, the same way most people who dream of flying don't jump off cliffs. Fantasy is pretty much the ultimate in safe sex. But colonizing fantasy has always been one of the great fantasies of western civilization, especially among those in power, because we have always basically mistrusted fantasy, and imagery/iconography. Legislating behavior is one thing, legislating fantasy is another, and if nothing else Freud demonstrated pretty clearly that sexual repression has consequences. Often unpleasant and violent consequences. Maybe visualizing aberrant fantasies helps stave off aberrant behavior, and maybe it doesn't, but study, not half-assed legislation (which will almost certainly get thrown out by the courts, like almost all porn legislation that tries to extend its grasp via vagueness) and citing "common wisdom," seems appropriate. Of course, this is one of those hot button issues where even suggesting alternatives will have the frothers (of both ilks) thinking you're some kind of sympathizer, so open discussion of the problem seems to be at a minimum. I'm all for rooting out pedophiles but casting an inordinately broad net creates the most harm for the least results (and in this specific instance forces an entire class of people to be unpaid cops, or suffer the consequences) when what we need is a practical solution.
Now's when presidential campaigns start getting really fun: as the actual contests near, desperation and tempers flare, and sometimes reporters even get cocky enough to ask unpleasant questions. (Except to Fred Thompson, who has been actively avoiding any journalists or commentators who offer even the remotest possibility of looking for Thompson's stands on issues or wondering why Americans would think a man who spent much of his career as a lobbyist for Big Tobacco trying to undercut health laws and restrictions on advertising cigarettes to children would make a decent president.) Hillary Clinton's operatives – like any good campaigner, she has people to do the dirty work so she can stand above the fray with her hands still clean, but even she's been slipping into pitbull mode – seem to be getting pretty concerned about Barack Obama's increasingly strong show in Iowa and South Carolina polls, and have increasingly resorted to innuendo in hopes of stopping him. (As well as trotting out Barbra Streisand's endorsement for Hillary to counterbalance – ha! – Oprah's enthusiastic Obama-backing. Good luck with that. Barbra Streisand? Who are they going to turn to next, Lorna Luft?) Hillary's in sort of a bind here, of course; she can harp on Obama's lack of foreign policy experience all she wants, but Bill Clinton wasn't exactly a foreign policy maven, and bringing up foreign policy only reminds the electorate of her own "do as I say, not as I do" approach to the Iraq War, which she excoriates on the campaign trail but supported every chance she got in the Senate. Not exactly a record to run on.
Key in the new Clinton campaign is the portrait of Obama as an empty suit, a black man trying to get elected on the sole basis of being a black man. (Or semi-black man, depending on which disparager you talk to.) To quote Hillary, "How did running for president become a qualification for president?" (But couldn't you say the same of any candidate, including Hillary?) They've been engaging in what psychologists call projection, claiming Obama's campaigning via questionable donations and slush funds, never mentioning that the Clinton campaign's doing the same thing. (The latter sounds worse than it is in any case; the "slush fund" is just Obama's PAC, and Clinton has her own that she uses the same way. And Clinton's campaign has faced more accusations of questionable money than Obama's.) Then there was the campaign letter flat out stating that Karl Rove is more eager to run a Republican against Obama than against any other candidate, but so far no one seems to have accused them of playing the race card. It's a card that's likely to get played more and more before the first "black" contest of the season, in South Carolina, and it's pretty entertaining watching people try to question Obama's skin color electability without sounding like Klan members. Heard on the radio yesterday morning a reputed black woman from South Carolina – I'm guessing a Hillary backer but they didn't specify, might be an Edwards backer for all I know – stating that she wasn't going to make a decision based on skin color and hoped other American blacks wouldn't either – gee, me too – and then went on to say she didn't believe America was ready for a black president. Which sounds suspiciously like what the Clinton campaign is trying to suggest sideways.
Is America "ready" for a black president? Phrased like that, it probably never will be. But it's hard to see where "black" by itself counts as a qualification or disqualification for anything. The only real question is whether the individual will be a good leader, and that's a crapshoot with any candidate. Let's face it: if America ends up with a black president and can't cope, it's really not much of a country. (At this point I kind of want to see Obama become president just so I can see all the clowns who've commanded me every time I've criticized the Ghost to honor the office regardless of the man live by their words. Though I suddenly realize Hillary would work just as well.) As to whether America's ready to elect a black president, that's something we'll really never know until we get the chance to find out. Meanwhile I'm still waiting for someone to explain how Hillary Clinton has significantly more foreign policy experience or qualifications as president than Obama or anyone else, aside from having slept in the White House on a regular basis.
The Republican side's getting messy too, with Giuliani gunning for Romney and vice versa – it's also entertaining to see reporters suddenly asking Giuliani about his use of public money to support his affair while mayor of New York, and his financial ties to gamblers, organized crime and Arab nationals with connections to terrorists – and everyone gunning for Huckabee. Religion might be the big spoiler over on that side: Romney's being squeezed pressured to sideways renounce his Mormonism (at least as an influence on his political beliefs) while Huckabee's people have gone into overdrive to limit discovery of his sermons while a minister and Huckabee waffles between declaring things like his belief in creationism and the strict literal interpretation of the Bible and how God has personally decreed the success of his candidacy, and backing off from those statements when confronted by audiences who might be less than appreciative of that sort of thing. Huckabee's well-suited to the evangelicals who have a lot of pull with the Republican Party but he's already starting to find it difficult to maintain that and still appeal to more moderate sectors of the American public, while Romney's Mormonism is a stumbling block to many of the same evangelicals Huckabee already appeals to, yet (for Republicans) they're both more or less social moderates, which puts their opponents in the strange position of trying to look more hardcore Republican socially while simultaneously trying to use their religion against them while not looking like they're attacking religion. If Obama presents something of a problem for other Democratic presidential candidates, for Republicans religion is the new black.
Notes from under the floorboards:
Thanks to everyone who bid (and congratulations to everyone who won) in my eBay auctions last week. I've got another round of strange and wonderful graphic novels and trade paperbacks up on auction this week, so click here and go take a look.
ARTISTS: if you want to run holiday cards here – all credited, of course – send me 72dpi jpgs (try to keep the files as small as legibly possible) and I'll be happy to run them here over the next couple of weeks. Feel free to collaborate with writers on them. Keep 'em fairly clean, and let's dress things around here up for the season a little, okay?
For those who'll be in the Los Angeles area today, Boom! Studios is holding an open house Xmas Party at Meltdown Comics, and this time they even pick up a little of the tab:
I won't be there unless someone wants to fly me in for the evening and pick up expenses (nothing elaborate: my cab fare/tips to and from airports, a nice steak dinner somewhere...) but feel free to go and enjoy, and tell 'em Grant sent you. See if that gets you special treatment or the boot. (My relationships with publishers tend to be a little mercurial.) You will note the presence of beer there, and while Boom! didn't specify I'm assuming that means the underage should probably think twice about trying to get in. And, no, the invite has nothing to do with the Comics Cover Challenge.
Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is probably still something of a conundrum to most people. I notice that while a lot of sportswriters have come around a lot still like to toss around phrases like "barbaric" and "human cockfight" and bemoan the turning away from "the sweet science" of boxing. Never mind that the main object of boxing, at least professional boxing, is to beat your opponent silly and that the accoutrements, like the thick boxing gloves, are designed to allow a boxer to whack his opponent in the head with as much force as possible without fear of breaking his hands. (Skulls and a lot of other bones are very hard, and one of the big reasons promoters moved away from bare-knuckle boxing was it was hard to keep matches going for longer than five minutes because it was too easy for boxers to break fingers and knuckles, and promoters had figured out that the longer the match the more people are willing to pay to watch it.) But Mixed Martial Arts (UFC is only the most prominent promotion, the same way Major League Baseball isn't all of baseball) is far more of a chess game than boxing ever was, not to mention a hell of a lot less inclined towards fixed matches etc., at least so far. MMA originated as a way for adherents of kung fu and kickboxing and wrestling and especially Brazilian ju jitsu to figure out which "martial art" was superior to all the others. (Not that this is especially new, since for many years there were occasional "boxer vs. wrestler" matches – the most famous being Muhammed Ali vs. Antonio Inoki - which pretty much all reached an identical conclusion: if the boxer doesn't punch out the wrestler in the first minute or so, the wrestler will put the boxer on the ground and dominate him because boxers aren't trained to fight from the ground and it's very hard to put any real weight or force behind your punches from a supine position without special training.) What happened was once fighters from these disciplines started fighting each other, they had to start developing defenses against each other's techniques, which meant they had to learn each other's techniques. Now even the average MMA fighter may have some specialty, like submissions on the ground, but virtually all of them strongly cross-train in attacks and defenses from many martial arts. It's not uncommon to see blood during an MMA fight – stoppage if the bleeding becomes a critical factor, like from a forehead cut running into a competitor's eye and blocking his vision, is a perfectly legitimate way to win a match, though it doesn't happen often – but I don't know that I'd call it a blood sport, nor do many participants go out with the specific intent of inflicting damage on their opponents whatever they say in pre-match interviews. The object is simply to render your opponent unable to continue the fight, and that can, and frequently does, happen in ways that hurt little more than their pride, and the referees, at least in UFC, are pretty quick to jump in before serious injury can occur. (I think more MMA fighters seriously injure themselves in training than in the ring.) The best fights are usually in the lower weight classes – something comics and general American culture haven't gotten through their heads is that fighters with a lot of big, dense muscle tend to be pretty slow, and MMA doesn't contradict that; size is impressive to look at but of limited value in a real fight – and the best fighters tend not to be the ones who can steamroll over opponents but those who keep their cool and adjust their strategies on the fly.
Anyway, one of the best MMA cards I've seen took place last Saturday night on Spike TV during the finale of this season's ULTIMATE FIGHTER, a SURVIVOR-like reality show that plants 16 or so up-and-coming fighters together in a house somewhere in the Las Vegas area (inevitably toward the end of each run there's an episode where the fighters, bored due to lack of TV or any other contact with the outside world, take out their boredom by vandalizing the house; it's so frequent it's like the producers instruct them to), breaking into teams coached by celebrity fighters, and run a tournament to see which two will face each other in a live finale for a coveted UFC six-figure contract. The series has been pretty effective at putting a human face on MMA, and Spike has certainly been happy with it. But if you're at all curious about MMA, last Saturday's card was phenomenal, with three great fights. The best was what on paper looked like the worst – a too-emotional wiry ex-Marine named Jon "War Machine" Koppenhaver vs a rock solid powerhouse named Jared Rollins. ULTIMATE FIGHTER competitors who lost in early rounds, there was no reason to expect anything special from them, especially from Koppenhaver, whose own teammates laughed about the inappropriateness of his nickname. I bet they're not laughing now. In most ways, it was about the ugliest fight I've ever seen in UFC, but, man! Was it emotional! Almost as surprising was the headline bout between established pros Clay Guida and Roger Huerta, and many fans are touting both for match of the year. For the first time in my experience, there wasn't one bad match on the card, something UFC hasn't been able to say for a few pay-per-views now, and this one they gave away free. Spike is rerunning the card at 9PM (Pacific time, anyway; check your local listings) on Friday Dec 14 and Saturday at 4 PM. I'd catch one of the showings if I were you; it's about the best introduction to MMA or UFC you're likely to have handed to you.
Also worth watching is Ron Mann's 2006 documentary TALES OF THE RAT FINK, examining the life and times of pivotal counterculture figure Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, running this month on The Sundance Channel. Roth came out of California Car Culture and Surf Culture and started as one of the first big wheels of custom cars, inventing along the way things like the logo t-shirt (think how much that alone has affected your life) and the fiberglass car body, but he was a huge influence on the '60s also by dint of being the first authentic counterculture figure that corporate America cleaved to their bosoms(if you discount Maynard G. Krebs) when Revell Toys started licensing model kits based on the wild, futuristic cars he designed. They were hugely successful. A cartoonist, his work suddenly became ubiquitous, via t-shirts, model kits, magazines; he was a key publicist for a new ethic of fun irreverence, a sort of carrier, one of those guys really responsible for "opening up" the '60s. The film is a little precious – part of it is narrated by cars with celebrity voices, something I would have expected from a Disney film – but there's a ton of information about Roth and the culture of the time, not to mention a ton of great looking cars, and you can't help feeling we'd all be living in a much better world today if Detroit had wised up and followed Roth's inventive lead in auto design. Maybe there's still time. The film's running again on the 28th and the 31st; again, check your local listings.
Congratulations to Eric Schaefges, the first to correctly identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "Mars." (A lot of people picked up the Mars theme, only to blow right past it to the more general "red," and I bet they're all kicking themselves now.) Eric points you to The Order Of The Stick, an online comic that's worth a look.
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. (Not that it's been an issue so far.) Some weeks are easier than others, but this ain't one of those weeks even with the secret clue I've clearly hidden somewhere in this column (I decided to make it a little tougher this time since Bill Willingham was even boasting of being able to figure it out, and Bill has trouble doing the crossword puzzles in TV GUIDE) so if you don't get it there's no reason to get bellicose about it; there's always next week. Good luck.
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.
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.
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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.