Forced into an early column this week -- not that I mind, it's not like I don't have plenty of things to do with my time -- because CBR honcho Jonah Weiland departs for Vancouver today to get the inside scoop on a special secret mission. Not sure how long he'll be on watch up there, but keep an eye on the CBR main page for the hot poop the instant he's allowed to reveal it. This has been a public service announcement. By the way, if you've got any suggestions for unusual holiday gifts for rabid comics fans -- or those someone would like to convert to a rabid comics fan -- e-mail them over for next week's column. Since I haven't got anything pressing comics-wise to discuss this week and we're chock full of special features anyway, let's just bounce to letters about recent topics, starting with this one from a renowned working inker:

"Glad someone else finds inking very interesting. I am completely taken with the nuances of this work. I'll underline the distinction that it IS a craft. Obviously craft involves art and vice-versa, but as I ramble on about the wonders of inking there shouldn't be confusion about the fact that the fundamental creative act in sequential art occurs in the writing and penciling of a story.

All the reasons you listed made inking a good option for me professionally (emphasis on rendering, more jobs available and better pay-per-hour than penciling). Beyond that, I genuinely love the work.

At its best inking can be compared to singing or arranging someone else's song. Even when the pencils leave little room for interpretation inking can be fun, like playing an instrument in a band. I admire the pure cartoonists who produce graphic novels on their own as if they were novels or paintings; but I've always liked the collaborative aspect of american mainstream comics.

As an inker, whether I'm working with a new penciller, or building on years of shared experience with an artist, there's a joy in interpreting someone else's drawing with the common goal to tell a story. Getting to work with anyone talented and focused enough to pencil a comic book has been invariably rewarding. I get to immerse myself in their art, and then apply myself to bringing it as close as possible to the point where it should be headed.

There is constant learning from what I see in the pencils, and also from striving for the inherent goals of inking.

The final stage of comic book line art feels like the crux where drawing becomes specific communication. My favorite inks perfectly resolve the tension between 'rendering' and saying something.

No matter what art style, comics ideally embody something of hieroglyphics, religious icons, tarot cards. Between the staring point of penciled art and the end point of the story to be told, there's the opportunity to focus closely on the specific task: to combine simplicity and complexity; attempting to tame my tendency to over-render; sharpening my understanding of what to say. It's a great challenge in a limited environment.

Finally, I've loved tracing and slavishly copying comic art since childhood -- even as I grew into making up my own pictures that love never left me -- you could say that inking comics is my vocation."

What I find most fascinating about inking is that the inker, ultimately, is the final arbiter on what the reader sees of the art. The inker makes the final decisions on lighting, shading, shapes, spatial relationships -- pretty much everything the average reader considers the "art," not so much completing a penciler's work as interpreting it. Besides being a specific discipline with specific necessary objectives of its own. What most casual readers view as the work of the penciler, in many cases, is really the result of the inking, and judgments about the quality of the penciling are frequently based on reactions to the inking. It's an area that's never really explored in the literature of the medium.

"Al Williamson is absolutely one of my favorite comic artists ever, and it'd be hard to say whether he was a "penciler" or an "inker." I'd have to say Mr. Williamson absolutely bridged the two. I may be hallucinating, but it seems like he did a run with Walt Simonson on some title or another that was fantastic.

But then, Williamson by himself was one of the best illustrators to wander through the medium.

(I've gone over big chunks of this e-mail a few times now. But I'm standing by the absolutely wonderful art from Mr. Williamson. The preceding paragraphs are all that continue to survive. And I'm not making some "clever" reference to Simonson/Williamson work. I have no idea what they'd have done together. Possibly Star Wars drivel that looked like magic itself.)

Now, something I'd like to address would be alternative avenues of comics publication. The floppy is dead. I haven't picked up a single-issue comic in... five years? Haven't lived anywhere blessed with a direct comics outlet. Diamond is free of my life, and that's just fine with me. I browse the graphics novel section of my local Barnes and Noble, peruse CBR and your favorite shill site, Newsarama, and other than that, current comics are totally lost on me.

That said, I still think comics are a viable form, but not in 22 page installments that cost $3 a throw. I don't have the money to waste on that. It'd take a whole lot to get me to throw down that kind of cash for a pamphlet. A new issue of PREACHER with Ennis and Dillon. Maybe a new SANDMAN floppy by Gaiman. Wagner doing GRENDEL, or better still, MAGE I get how they're so expensive, but I don't get how they retain their market. Not with the direct market dwindling so much.

So aside from loss leaders from the sales of their properties to movies, what the hell is the point of monthly comics at all? Why not just do graphic novels three times a year featuring Superman, rather than 24 or 36 or 60 or however many mini-magazines a year? Or why not do a monthly full-size magazine featuring stories from throughout the DCU for $5 a month? Of course, there'd be the competition from Marvel -- a magazine with a foil cover for $6/month (so they could sell 16% fewer copies a month but still come out ahead on gross...)

Bah, I want to believe in comics again, but it just isn't going to happen without a miracle. "

The main point of monthly publication for most characters is just continued exposure, and, these days, keeping those in the habit of buying a specific book in the habit. And sometimes, far from always but sometimes, monthly comics can get ridiculously successful. It's the same reason people play slot machines; once in awhile one pay off. As for Al Williamson, you don't have to defend him to me. I've got a file of Al's stuff.

"You've probably heard from several readers already regarding your weapons analogy, but you can't put a .44 into a .22 at all, much less try to fire it. I know these things because I'm a gun-owning right winger (one click to the left of fascist)- you can trust me on this.

Finally, in regard to comics we should be reading, check out Phil and Kaja Foglio's GIRL GENIUS COMICS, at www.girlgenius.com. I've mentioned this to you before but do so again because it's a load of fun. As a disclaimer, I don't know them personally and am in no way involved with them from a business standpoint -- I just love the comic."

I grew up around guns, and that was my point: there's no way you can shoot a .44 bullet from a .22. I just got too roundabout about it.

"I went last week to the comics shop-took a look at a lot of self-published titles -- Jason Lutz' BERLIN still stands out as one of the best, SUPERMARKET by Brian Wood has some great art -- ultimetely, they're going to do better in book stores. Batton Lash remarked at the conference that while he thought he was going to win comics shops over with SUPERNATURAL LAW his experience is that demogrphics for comics shops still buy the superhero stuff; he's going online and pursuing other avenues. I think the future for self-publishing is in book stores, provided the books can squeeze a place in between all the manga titles.

The other point is that a lot of them are about the real people, but seem to have such an emotional disconnect. Nihlism seems to be an inherent part of a lot of storytelling in self publishing, which leaves an emotional vaccuum, a lot of abnormal behavior trying to pass itself off as normal. I watched BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA which deals with loss and rebuilding and wish we would get a clue and put out work that really reaches people. MAUS lives on, because it dealt with survival and common human experience. I think ONE BAD RAT also does that as well. We need more work like that if the self publishing world is going to make money and be a forward-moving medium."

Is SUPERMARKET self-published? For some reason I thought it was from IDW or somewhere like that. As for what we need if self-publishing will make money, that's a tricky call, and not ours to make. Everyone makes the mistake of trying to figure out in advance what will sell, but only the end user can tell you that, so if you operate from that framework your data will always consist of what has sold, and that puts publishers, even self-publishers, on reactionary, not progressive, paths. At some point you have to throw all that aside, go by your gut, and cast your bread upon the waters.

There's no place like home for the holidays, they say, (though Lene Lovich sang "home is hard to swallow... Let's go to your place," so who really knows?) it's just not the holidays anymore with an officially approved annual Permanent Damage holiday songs mix. There are a few old standards here -- how could it really be Xmas without "A Fairytale Of New York," after all? -- but it turns out there are just so many great new and rediscovered seasonal songs out there that sentimental tripe like "White Christmas" (called by its composer "the greatest song ever written") don't stand a chance. Not that there weren't a lot of worthy contenders like MXPX's "Christmas Night Of Zombies" or Idlechatter's "Alternate Cover" but there's only so much space to work with, know what I mean? So pop a CD in the burner tray, lay down the following tracks in the recommended order, and go share the Permanent Damage spirit with anyone in earshot of a decent pair of speakers. Especially if they switch on any TV Christmas specials.

1) Fountains Of Wayne -- The Man In The Santa Suit: "He's a big red cherry but it's hard to be merry when the kids all laugh and they say, 'Hey, it's Jerry Garcia'..."

2) The Decembrists -- Please, Daddy (Don't Get Drunk This Christmas): "You came in at quarter past eleven, and fell down underneath the Christmas tree..."

3) The Rip Chords -- Santa's Got A Cobra: "Santa's burning up the skies everywhere..."

4) Little Charlie And The Nightcats -- It's Christmas Time Again: "They got you singing about jingle bells but it's really about sell sell sell, come on and deck those halls, get down to the shopping malls..."

5) Angry Johnny & The Killbillies -- Six Bullets For Christmas: "Told me that you loved me then you went out cattin' 'round, said you'd never leave me then you headed straight downtown, waited up all evening, almost Christmas day, I guarantee when you see what I got you, darlin', you're gonna be blown away..."

6) Becky Lee Beck -- I Want A Beatle For Christmas: "Paul is so cute, and George is handsome, and I think John is just a dream, but, Santa, if you bring-o my boy Ringo, I'll be so happy I could scream..."

7) Loudon Wainwright -- Suddenly It's Christmas: "Christmas comes but once a year, and goes on for two months..."

8) Something Corporate -- Forget December: "New Year's Eve came but nothing changed..."

9) Rosie Flores -- Secret Santa: "So we deck the halls and trim the tree, and play up to his mystery..."

10) Blink 182 -- I Won't Be Home For Christmas: "It's Christmastime again, time to be nice to the people that we can't stand all year; I'm growing tired of all this Christmas cheer..."

11) Edd "Kookie" Byrnes -- Yulesville: "He laid the jazz on me and peeled from the gig, wailing 'Have a cool yule, man. Later, like, dig?'..."

12) The Cast Of Twin Peaks -- Twelve Days Of Christmas: "Diane, on the eighth day of Christmas I had a strange dream: eight dancing midgets..."

13) The Fall -- (We Wish You) A Protein Christmas: "Ho ho ho ho ho ho ho..."

14) Dwight Yoakam -- Come On Christmas: "Come on, Christmas, embrace me with some joy till the last few lonely moments of this year have been destroyed..."

15) Billy Fury -- My Christmas Prayer: "I don't need mistletoe, where did my baby go?..."

16) Harvey Danger -- Sometimes You Have To Work On Christmas: "The restaurants are closed, so are the records shops, the banks and bars and Bartell Drugs and so's the half-price bookstore, but the movies are always open..."

17) Fall Out Boy -- Yule Shoot Your Eye Out: "You're the last thing I want to see underneath the tree..."

18) Melissa Etheridge -- Christmas In America: "What happened to the peace on Earth, all that goodwill toward men?..."

19) Future Shock -- Santa Left Us Microchips For Christmas: "Silicon toys for the girls and boys, strategy games with the robot brains..."

20) Honky Tonk Confidential -- Christmas Prison: "What your parents said is true, everything you say and do Warden Santa's watching you down at Christmas prison..."

21) Patsy Raye -- Beatnik's Wish: "Let's go, daddy-o, 'tis the night before Christmas and here in my pad, I'm cooling it, dad..."

22) Kirsty MacColl & The Pogues -- A Fairytale Of New York (live version): "Happy Christmas yer ass, I pray God it's our last..."

23) Li'l Ed & The Blues Imperials -- Christmas Time: "Things you do to me make my Christmas swell from the top of my tree down to my jingle bells..."

24) The Monkees -- Christmas Is My Time Of Year: "It's the time for gathering together with friends to rejoice with laughter and with songs..."

Irreverent? Like you expected something else? What I can't get across here is how smoky, sensuous, raucus and fun most of the music on this compilation is -- it's muscle music, baby -- and those moments where it slows are moments you'll need to catch your breath. Consider it your seasonal survival kit, and to all a good night.

Just to continue the theme, it was like Christmas early today. I woke to the dulcet tones of THE TODAY SHOW, just in time to watch The Ghost stammer and stumble through his explanation of why the National Intelligence Estimate's declaration that Iran has no functioning nuclear weapons program, hasn't had one in at least four years, and isn't likely to have one for the foreseeable future (something U.N. inspectors and factions within the CIA have been saying for some time now, just like they pointed out, pre-war, that Iraq had no WMDs and no long range delivery capabiltieis) means it's imperative we go to war with Iran now! to ensure they never prove a threat to American security. Okay, he didn't really say we should be going to war but you could practically see the peanut bouncing frantically behind his eyes as he tried to find his way there. Quite funny, really, and simultaneously kind of scary as he chewed at the edges of the argument that the only way to know if the report is right or wrong is to go to Iran and find out for ourselves. Still, it's been a bad few weeks for the Administration's credibility, or what was left of it. A couple weeks ago former White House press secretary Scott McClellan, who publicly announced the whopper that nobody at the White House including Scooter Libby had leaked the name of CIA covert op Valerie Plame to the press, revealed (though he has since recanted, sort of) the names of the high-ranking officials who fed him the lie, including Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and the Ghost himself. A couple days ago, Internet wages tracked down a public declaration from 2003 from no less than former defense advisor and major architect of the Ghost's Iraq policy Richard Perle that the American invasion of Iraq broke international law, which required us to leave the country and Saddam Hussein alone. (He also more or less stated he didn't care what the law was, while a subsequent statement from the White House said Perle's interpretation "is not the official one put forward by the White House." Which was an interesting way of putting it.) To top it all off, America finds itself more and more cut off from world consensus as, a couple weeks ago, Australia (now under new management) announced it would pull its troops from Iraq and ratify the Kyoto environmental protocols, leaving the USA pretty much on its own in both areas, while our government lawyers argued to a court in Britain, our other major ally on the world stage, that the USA has the right to kidnap anyone they want to anywhere in the world... including British soil.

So... kidnapping, torture, lying and the willful violation of international law as Administration policy. Nice. (And, yes, I know, torture isn't torture unless we say is torture, and we don't authorize any torture we say is torture. I reiterate that everyone deciding what kind of painful abuse constitutes torture or not should be required to undergo it themselves for awhile -- maybe a couple hours -- before rendering (no pun intended) an opinion or decision. It's easy to decide something's not torture when it's only happening to someone else.)

Of course, what would you expect from an administration spearheaded from Texas? (And I apologize in advance to any Texans who don't really care for their state's current path.) The state made the news this week for promoting the teaching of creationism as science (it's science in the way that HOGAN KNOWS BEST is art) in public schools -- to the extent of forcing from office the state's director of science curriculum for notifying state employees of a speech by a noted critic of both creationism and its Trojan horse, the intelligent design movement. In other words, in Texas even indicating the existence opposition to creationism is verboten in state school policy, and a suspension/firing offense. We could assume this is strictly Texas' problem, but remember that the main textbook producers in America come out of Texas -- especially one Neil Bush, the Ghost's little brother whose former main claim to fame was unrepentantly looting savings and loans during the S&L scandals/collapses of the '80s that shifted millions of dollars from small savers to wealthy bastards who for the most part walked away with the loot unscathed. (Neil was one of those.) Seems Neil's the main beneficiary so far of the "No Child Left Behind" Act, going state to state and using his White House connections to squeeze book sales out of state education boards trying to stay off the business side of the act. (Including here in Nevada, though they're vehemently denying Neil's connections had anything to do with it, though it certainly wasn't the quality or accuracy of the books he's peddling.) Neil has openly stated his support for inclusion of "intelligent design" in school science curricula; if he decides his textbooks should include it, how many school boards already buying his wares are going to risk additional scrutiny from the Ghost's Education Dept. by turning him away?

Notes from under the floorboard:

Despite best intentions and a slew of stuff like rare graphic novels from the likes of Howard Chaykin and James Robinson, circumstances beyond my control blew apart my plans to run new eBay auctions starting last Wednesday. The good news: they went up on Friday, so the auctions are still going on for a couple more days. If you're interested in taking a look, click here. Thanks.

Hmmm. Seems 2 GUNS #4 did ship last week -- but a weird snafu caused Diamond to hold onto many, if not all, copies. (Far as I can tell, Diamond was as much a victim in this scenario as anyone, so that's not a complaint, just a fact.) Which means it should -- and I can't tell you how tired I am of saying this (why is it publishers either don't get release dates right -- though in this instance Boom! is blameless as well -- or don't bother mentioning that a book has come out at all?) -- be available everywhere today. Where fine comics are sold, as they say, or you can glom it directly from Boom!. And go read a review while you're at it. To the best of my knowledge, #5 is still coming out at the end of December, but at this point expect it early January, just to be on the safe side...

Another Charles Biro-Joe Kubert "Crimebuster" AKA "C.B." AKA "Chuck Chandler" story from BOY COMICS c. 1955 to in some small part make up for the lack of a focal topic this week. As usual the pages have nothing to do with the Comics Cover Challenge, so just enjoy them, okay? (Thanks to all the fine people who let this slip into public domain. Where would we be without you?)

And we finally learn what's behind the Facebook explosion: it's spyware! Obviously hidden somewhere deep within the service's EULA is permission for them to dog your every online step even when you're not using the Facebook site, apparently to make it easier for advertisers to target you and Facebook to make more money from advertising. Seems to me there are laws against that sort of thing, EULAs notwithstanding -- and Facebook's management must be aware of them, since they previously lied their asses off about the whole thing. Good company for Microsoft -- whose current honcho, Steve Ballmer, has apparently decided is all about selling advertising from here on out; should make for some interesting times -- to buy into. Speaking of Microsoft, reports that Vista sales are growing increasingly sluggish -- and it seems more people are shifting back to Windows XP -- eerily coincide with the company's new rights management policies. Used to be their "Windows Genuine Advantage" scheme would scan computers to determine whether Windows copies thereon were legit or bootlegs, and disable the latter. The big problem with that was the system's occasional tendency to shut down legit copies too, pissing off more than a few customers. Nonetheless, MS touted the huge success of the system, and are still touting it -- but now they're changing it anyway. The new WGA (no relation to the Writers Guild) only disables various features -- and puts an ad on the tainted machine that the owner is eligible for a legit copy of Windows at half the going rate. Don't know whether the offer only includes Vista, but it might be the spearhead of a new Vista sales initiative. If so, it's kind of clever, making Windows effectively shareware; users can download bootleg copies off the Web, test it out to see how they like it, then "legitimize" it at a special rate. Or is it Microsoft adjusting to a slackoff in retail sales, at least of operating system not pre-installed into new machines?

Great MPAA story. The Motion Picture Association Of America, those stalwart defenders of intellectual property rights whose mission is to make the Internet safe for the movie industry, recently sent around software "toolkits" to universities to help administrators determine which students were using university Internet resources to illegally download. One problem surfaced pretty quickly: the "toolkits" gave the MPAA access to tons of student information not connected to bootlegging. Of course, the MPAA (like their record industry counterpart the RIAA) have taken the stance that there's no private information they shouldn't have access to when the sanctity of American Entertainment is at stake, so that turned out to not be a problem at all, at least from their perspective. A bigger problem surfaced more recently, though, when it was discovered that open-source programs comprised a big chunk of the "toolkits," and that the MPAA was breaking several EULAs covering the programs in using them. When informed they were abusing the intellectual property rights of the developers who wrote the programs, the MPAA responded appropriately: they ignored the complaints. (This isn't the first time either the RIAA or MPAA have decided that piracy in the name of their own anti-piracy efforts is no vice.) A developer then filed a complaint with an ISP hosting the MPAA's "toolkit" and forced its removal that way. At least we can be reassured that when the MPAA talks about "intellectual property rights," it's just buzzwords and not principle... not that anyone should ever have expected principle from the MPAA in the first place... (Again, if you haven't seen Kirby Dick's documentary expose of the questionable -- and unquestionable -- ethics of Hollywood's most secret organization, THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED, which also shows them playing fast and loose with their own definition of "intellectual property rights," go rent a copy.)

Meanwhile, some high-powered music reps are trying to con the government into a new scheme: force anyone who resells a concert ticket to pay the concerned musicians their chunk of the purchase price again. How the hell would that even work, or be remotely enforceable? Tracking technology in all chips? Requiring all ticket buyers to present i.d. during purchase and on entry to the venue? Whatever the tech, it would add to the already exorbitant cost of many tickets. But would such a measure, if made into law, end up being limited to just concert tickets or could, say, Pioneer or Rob Liefeld or Hummel or anyone else demand a piece of anything originally produced under their auspices that's sold on eBay or anywhere else? Seems to me this sort of thing would institutionalize the principle originally put forth by various software companies that "purchase" only represent purchase of usage rights, and ownership/distribution control of the software remained with the company. Given what the writers are striking for in Hollywood now, I can't imagine Hollywood would take strongly to a new legal principle establishing that ownership of a product/property, and a portion of all proceeds from such regardless of hands removed from the source, remains forever and ever with the generator/originator. How many different directions can we be heading on this idea at once? What a fun new year it's going to be...

Holy crap! Just got word that artist John Garcia, who drew various things like war stories for DC and other companies in the '70s and '80s, who'd been working in advertising and was three quarters of the way through a western graphic novel we were working on for AiT/PlanetLar Books, just died. I have to admit my first thought was "why do these things happen to me?" but, more to the point, why do these things happen to nice guys like him? So long, John, and my condolences to his family.

Started reading Douglas Wolk's READING COMICS AND WHAT THEY MEAN (DaCapo Press, 2007) and while I'll have a lengthy review of it somewhere down the line, so far so good -- Wolk seems to be focusing mainly on the reader who doesn't know what the hell he's talking about but many of his concepts, at least in the early chapters, will be more than familiar to anyone who has read this column for any length of time -- but, ah, Doug... I appreciate the nod and all but if there's ever a second edition you think you could, you know, spell my name right...

Congratulations to Gabe Eltaeb (whose last name is "Beatle" spelled backwards...), the first to identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "light." Gabe points you to comics publisher First Salvo, which has a new series arriving soon colored by Gabe and drawn by my old pal Norm Breyfogle. Drop in, and say hi to Norm for me while you're at it.

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.

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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