A short one today, since I'm trying to finish up the ODYSSEUS THE REBEL graphic novel script for Bighead Press this week and get some pitches out.

So, briefly, ten modern comics you should be reading (besides 2 GUNS, I mean, but more on that toward the bottom of the column) in no particular order:

1) CRIMINAL by Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Marvel/Icon). Brubaker's sort of the writer of the hour these days, though for some reason his profile seems low-key for that status, and CRIMINAL, essentially character studies of deviant personalities disguised as crime movies (each arc exists independently of the others) presented as comic book, is his strongest work; Ed writes a decent UNCANNY X-MEN but it's easy to spot where his interests really lie) tends to be ignored by readers currently gobbling up his superhero comics in droves. It shouldn't be, not only for Ed playing really well to all of his own strengths but for Sean Phillips' terrific art. Phillips is maybe our most underrated mainstream artist, an excellent designer and storyteller with an expressive, if perhaps not classic fan favorite, art style. Anyway, it's worth everyone's attention.

2) ALL-STAR SUPERMAN by Grant Morrison & Frank Quitely (DC Comics). Superman is my idea of about the dullest comics character ever, and many, many friends and colleagues over the years have tried valiantly to correct that without much success. (It's not that hard to get an interesting story out of the character, but making the character interesting's a different matter.) Morrison's take has the virtue of existing in its own little patch of continuity, and the advantage of an imagination infused with all sorts of bizarre influences, and along with Quitely's lush, vaguely disturbing artwork (is it just me or do all of Quitely's character, regardless of sex or body type, always seem on the verge of lactating?) redeems the surreal quirks of the pivotal Mort Weisinger era of the '50s and '60s rather than imitating it. Missing are Morrison's less savory thumb in your eye extravagances (at least so far) while underlying the well-structured episodic story that hits all the right whimsical beats is a fairly serious tale of Superman helplessly but nobly staring down his inevitable doom. It's not only the best Superman in decades, it's the best DC comic in years.

3) ARF! by Craig Yoe & various (Fantagraphics). When is an anthology not an anthology? Yoe's quirky collections bring together multitudes of art styles - clips, whole stories, paintings from well known and obscure comics/non-comics artists of all styles and eras, usually with some underlying theme, but Yoe isn't really interested in traditional anthology. ARF! is instead artifact, anthology as collage, and Yoe doesn't try to edit so much as create an experience. Experience it.

4) CHAIROSCURO by Troy Little (IDW Publishing). This title was self-published a couple years ago and fell between the cracks. Too alt in style, character and attitude to be a mainstream book, and too mainstream in structure and plotting (like: it's got a plot), this excellently done tale of a slacker artist trying to make sense of his life, friends and artistic desires as weird events kick in around him and strange connections between apparently disconnected aspects of his past start to appear deserved a far larger audience than it got. The new collection from IDW is its best shot at that, and your best shot to see what you were missing.

5) WORLD WAR HULK by Greg Pak & John S. Romita (Marvel. For all the idiot crossovers that have plagued superhero comics in the last 25 years, few have paid off on their own promises let alone paying off on any others, and most have ended up tepid little islands of nothingness. Give Marvel credit for going for broke with WORLD WAR HULK. Admit it: anyone who read Marvel Comics since Stan Lee and Jack Kirby first spat it out always wanted that one big fight where the Hulk just finally kicks loose and takes on everybody - Marvel's been teasing that one for decades - and that's just what WORLD WAR HULK is. World class superhero art? From Romita, sure. What else would you expect? Great writing? Let's just say far better than average for the Hulk, as Pak had the self-control to make the five issue series essentially one long, big, well-crafted fight scene with no pussyfooting as the Hulk takes on Iron Man, Doctor Strange, the Fantastic Four and close to everyone else currently sucking breath in on Marvel Earth, and you get the feeling that what Pak and Romita are mainly going for is the apotheosis of the superhero crossover comic. Maybe paying off on a premise is too slight a standard to just a superhero comic by, but how many other superhero comics do even that?

6) SPEAK OF THE DEVIL by Gilbert Hernandez (Dark Horse). Another of Hernandez's sly, subtle morality tales of sexual confusion and obsession. A closet lesbian gymnast co-ed takes to wearing a devil mask at night and peeping through windows in her suburban neighborhood, but mostly she's watching the woman she's in love with. Hernandez shies away from traditional action and expected beats, and shows all the amateurs out there how slice of life is done.

7) AGE OF BRONZE by Eric Shanower (Image. Not exactly new, I know, but Shanower still produces one of the most worthwhile books on the market, a meticulously researched recreation of The Iliad with terrific art and writing that pretty much blows away any dry academic discussion or vapid Hollywood treatment of the subject, showing how interesting and complicated the dozens of characters are and (I doubt this is Eric's intent, but everything is filtered through our times) how newly relevant the story is again.

8) ALICE IN SUNDERLAND by Bryan Talbot (Dark Horse). The best, more original graphic novel of the year. Remember what breakthroughs FROM HELL and ACME NOVELTY LIBRARY were, how they not only used comics brilliantly but pushed the form to where it had never been before? Not that there aren't plenty of graphic novels being done today, but this is the one that redefines not only what the graphic novel but what the entire comics medium is capable of, as Talbot merges fiction, autobiography, biography and literary criticism to re-evaluated our entire culture through the medium of Lewis Carroll's ALICE IN WONDERLAND and all its bizarre and recurrent reflections throughout western literature and civilization. We've got plenty of comics, what we need now is more brilliant, and ALICE IS SUNDERLAND is not only brilliant but, I think, universally enjoyable.

9) BLACK DIAMOND by Larry Young & Jon Proctor (AiT/PlanetLar Books). Larry's sometimes too much of a pop culture junkie and a little too enamored of the high concept - a future where everyone is Abraham Lincoln, for instance, which puts me in mind of an old Alan King bit about a Samsonite luggage commercial where King screams, "Apes on suitcases! What does it mean?!!" - but this series about people living on a future superhighway linking every state in the Continental U.S. is his best work since his original, name-making piece ASTRONAUTS IN TROUBLE. Sure, the concept is basically DEATH RACE 2000, but where Larry really makes it work is by letting the characters drive the story (as he did in AiT) instead of letting the story steer the characters (which he has done in pretty much everything else since). Artist Jon Proctor was a little shaky in the first issue but has been dead on confident ever since, and the series is a great reminder of how on Larry's work can be when he's on.

10) THE KILLER by Matz & Luc Jacamon (Archaia Studios Press). A European character study of a professional killer's lifestyle, handled with quiet grace undercut but growing desperation and abrupt violence while amply demonstrating the inherent loneliness and uncertainty of the profession. Matz & Jacamon interestingly make their titular killer physically non-descript, virtually a ghost, but they don't seem terribly concerned that we like him and not at all that we in any way admire him, but they damn sure want us to understand him, without beating us silly over it, and it works.

There are a lot of comics and graphic novels that could have made the list, but, scanning what's out there right now, too many of these are either slogging through a miasma of pop culture references (whether they're expecting "resonance" or just have no other ideas I couldn't say but enough is enough), milking overused old ideas or pulling too tightly on the reins and keeping their stories from gaining any real traction or significance. There are a lot of reasons why people do this - timidity, the desire to be "commercial," whatever - but I think what we need now are not nostalgia acts nor "a million mad ideas on every page" nor encyclopedias of in-jokes but stories with one really good central idea extrapolated and developed by talent with total commitment to them, and past that point it's a matter of imagination, talent and luck. Cast your bread on the water. Then maybe the list will grow a little longer.

If you have other opinions - I'm sure you do - send your list of 5 comics everyone should be reading today" - and tell us why those five.

Joe Biden, who's apparently in the Democratic presidential race (his profile is marginally less prominent than Bill Richardson's), made the only two really interesting comments at last week's debate. First, of course, was his now widely repeated and obviously pre-scripted Rudy Guiliani joke (maybe all those late night talk show gag writers now walking the picket lines in Hollywood will be paying the mortgage writing quips for politicians for the next few months; have you noticed how this election's debates have been turning into open night mike at the comedy club?) but second, and more important, was his response to a simplistic question about his willingness to go to war with Iran "to protect America." Republicans answer that question like they all want Dick Cheney to be their vice president, while Democrats mainly just equivocate and try not to answer it. (It was pretty amusing, watching the candidates pillory Hillary for running a campaign that put forth zero opinions or platforms except that the next President can't be a Republican - deserved criticism to be sure, and it's disingenuous of Hillary to then claim they were just beating up on her 'cause she's the only girl on the playground - and then squirming to avoid discussing the "problem" of Iran at a time they're all insisting we have to get out of Iraq... um... sooner or later...) Biden refused the simplistics but answered the question with a realpolitik viewpoint that just doesn't fit an easy soundbite - that's all the press really wants from debates, easy soundbites (or horrendous screw-ups) - and states that while, if president, he would certainly do everything in his power to keep America safe, what's more dangerous to American interests: an Iran with a couple pounds of uranium and questionable delivery capability, or a destabilized Pakistan, which has a few hundred already armed missiles (and where pretty much everyone but the government hates America)? An invasion of Iran such as the Ghost and the Dick keep pushing does run a huge risk, much bigger (these things get cumulative, after all) than Iraq, of thoroughly pissing off the entire Muslim world, and Pakistan is mostly Muslim.

It's also, as the Ghost keeps touting, a valued ally. A valued ally that basically invented the Taliban and unleashed them on Afghanistan. Meaning mainly that its intelligence service is a longstanding CIA client and the current government knows where its bread is buttered. As Taliban auteurs, Pakistan bears at least some small responsibility for the necessity of the current "war on terror," but mainly the leaders there have been lining their pockets through American "anti-terrorism" largesse. Not that this stops them from rattling nuclear sabers at India every so often - given the weird alliance structure in the part of the world, a thermonuclear flare-up there could easily tip us into WWIII - or periodically suspending democracy and declaring martial law.

Which its current leader Musharraf did the other day, to the apparent delight of nobody but the military there. Interestingly, his reason was that he had to protect the country from "Islamic terrorists" in the judiciary - which loosely translates into Pakistan's Supreme Court being unwilling to accept his arguments that he needs quasi-dictatorial powers and an extended reign, which was set to end soon. Outlying areas of the country have already broken into open civil war, while cities are essentially prison camps - especially for lawyers and Musharraf's political opponents. No less than our Secretary Of State Condaleeza Rice has condemned the state of martial law and called for Musharraf to lift it (last I heard, he said it will be necessary for at least a year) but it's very possible that Condaleeza, despite her longstanding close personal relationship (and, no, I don't mean anything sexually suggestive by that), may be learning what Colin Powell learned before her, that the Secretary of State doesn't have much pull in the way of policy in this administration; given the relationship between Pakistan's anti-terror government and intelligence service and ours, it's hard to imagine we didn't give some sort of approval, if only in the way we gave Saddam Hussein permission to invade Kuwait, by saying that Pakistan's internal affairs are none of our business. But if a pre-nuclear Iran's are, then fully nuclear Pakistan's certainly are. If nothing else, other parallels - an unpopular leader looking at martial law as a means to stave off his imminent departure from office while bent on a vast expansion of his position's power - are uncomfortable at best, and it's hard not to wonder if Pakistan is possibly a political petri dish. But any playing with Pakistan, as Biden noted, really is playing with fire.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Not much in the line of notes today. Boom! Studios now swears that 2 GUNS #3 is out today, so harangue your retailer or order directly from Boom! I have no idea what the hold up was (hold up... hah... consider the subject matter, there's a double entendre for you...); all I know is it was nothing to do with me.

I still have a few items up for bid on eBay, so check them out. I never did put any of my original art pieces up - when push comes to shove I just don't want to get rid of them - but if you're an art collector, and I'll tell you what's available.

So the writers' strike is on. Say goodbye to February sweeps, if it lasts any amount of time. Maybe that means America will get its reading done. I know I will.

By the way, if someone has a project I can make about five grand on in a very short period of time, let me know. I've got a couple major expenses coming up, but I'd rather work for it than beg or borrow. (Not that I'm expecting anything, but it never hurts to ask.) (I'd just go to publishers but find me a comics publisher these days who makes a decision on anything in anything sort of four months...)

Congratulations to Bret McLaughlin, the first of many to correctly identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge as "days of the week." (And thanks again to Chris Sequeira for providing last week's covers.) Bret would like to point you to , an attempt to connect worthy causes with worthy small donors. 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. (Not that it's been an issue so far.) As with most other weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, but I'm going to go out on a limb here and say you probably won't need it. Good luck.

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.

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I'm reviewing comics sent to me - I may not like them but certainly I'll mention them - at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send 'em if you want 'em mentioned, since I can't review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can't do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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