Another Hollywood writer's strike on the horizon, or at least another strike vote, on Nov. 1, should the Writers Guild Of America and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers not come to an accord in the meantime.

Writers strikes are pretty much a pain for everyone. Productions shut down, putting a lot of film and TV people besides writers out of work. Film studios can usually ride awhile on existing productions, or pull completed but never released (which usually signifies bad, but any port in a storm) films off the shelves, so theaters don't have to go too long without new releases, and popular existing releases can always be held over. It's TV that always gets the worst end of the strike, since TV productions usually operate on very tight schedules, with shows sometimes shot mere days before airing and rewrites often being done right through the last moments of filming. Networks make their money selling via rates usually based on specific shows in specific timeslots; if the scheduled shows don't air in those slots, networks find themselves in the unenviable position of having to start giving money back to advertisers, or giving up future ad slots as a make-good. During the previous few strikes, networks increasingly resorted to "reality shows" and game shows to fill the void, but it has since come to light that few of those shows are genuinely "unscripted." (Shows like DEAL OR NO DEAL may not be written out word for word, but watch a couple episodes and it's easy to see that contestants are at least coached on things to say, with host Howie Mandel obviously given a range in which to riff. An episode last week had one contestant vehemently calling "The Banker," the man behind the curtain who periodically spits forth a bid to tempt players to end the game, a "snake," with a bit of fancy and slightly cumbersome embellishment, and ten minutes later a briefcase was produced which, when opened, was found to hold several large, slithering snakes. No way that wasn't planned out in advance, and if it's planned out in advance it's written.)

Some shows try to "hire out" to non-union writers during strikes, but non-union usually means "no experience in TV writing" and the results are usually unusable. (Not that TV scripts are all that difficult to master, though there is a learning curve, but the grueling physical mechanics of writing TV the way it's usually done, with collaborative writing staffs and long, high-pressure hours, takes some getting used to.) No writer who wants a long term Hollywood career and has half a brain's going to jump onto such a deal anyway, since that's a great way to never be allowed in the Writers Guild, which understandably takes a dim view of strikebreaking, which means anyone jumping onboard a TV production during a writers strike is likely to be not only a fairly bad writer but a really dumb one.

Greenlit but unproduced movies and TV shows have a bad habit of seeing their green lights abruptly go out during writers strikes and never get revived, and every strike sees at least a few careers, screenwriting and otherwise, come to a halt, with the same eventual level of revival. Strikes are a pretty painful affair all around, and for most screenwriters about the only thing worse than a strike, if the proposed contracts are awful, is not striking.

This time around the strike issues are less tangible than in other years (meaning while they're looking for a general raise in upfront rates, as always, and asking for more money from outlets such as the CW and MyNetwork, it's an issue their position paper focuses on only negligibly, without specifics) though no less important in the long run. What they're really going after this year is back end money provided by exploitation of material on what the WGA calls "new media": the Internet, cell phones, etc., i.e. revenue streams not even dreamed of ten years ago. I'm not sure if specific binding fees for specific tasks are being put on the table, but backend payment rates are. Meaning the writers, understandably, want a cut of new profits earned with their work. The membership is also more frequently these days being pressured by producers to write new material for DVDs, webisodes and other venues, and, with some productions requiring as much relative work as TV would take but producers offering much less money, the WGA is looking to get those venues under its jurisdiction.

Producers have so far basically argued that they can't afford it, a spectacularly stupid argument when it comes to not paying out advance rates but sharing the wealth as it comes in. It's not like producers would lose money, just not as much of it would end up in their pockets. (Then again, this is the business that followed the most profitable summer box office season ever by moaning about how they weren't making any money.) It's hard to take the producers seriously on the face of it, but there are subtle undercurrents that suggest this year, for them, is mainly about union-busting, after a fashion. It's true that Hollywood, with its several other "arts" guilds (mainly the Screen Actors Guild and the Directors Guild of America), tends to be toppling dominoes when it comes to contract agreements, and settling with WGA would almost certainly lead to SAG and DGA asking for a bigger piece of the pie the next time their deals come up.

But it's not like they don't deserve it, since TV and movies couldn't be made without actors or directors either, and it's not like it's not an expanding pie. A WGA-producers agreement could still materialize in time to head off a strike - certainly it would be the happiest outcome - but, with producers putting their own offer on the table that not only doesn't head in those directions but looks for rollbacks in other, that doesn't seem likely. We're in another game of Hollywood brinksmanship, each side basically trying to stare the other down.

What's interesting about this go-round is that the WGA, in a letter sent out last week, seems to be opening a second front - against its own membership.

It's just the latest of a number of goofy letters from writers organizations, which seem to be having a hard time coming to grips with new media altogether. The current letter amounts to a threat against member and non-member writers alike and basically trying to make it impossible for them to make any sort of living writing while the strike is going on by making sweeping proclamations about work done for areas (not to mention writers) not under WGA jurisdiction. No writing animation. No writing "new media." They don't really spell out what "new media" means. Webisodes? Videogames? Comics?

Within a defined range, their position makes sense. Animated features from major studios have become standard for Hollywood in the past couple decades, so it's understandable they'd want to retard Hollywood's ability to churn out animated movies to take the place of live action. Webisodes and similar new content/promotional material, like those done for THE OFFICE, derived from or feeding existing Hollywood productions, could easily fill the role of substitute material for audiences, and what's stop producers from generating new "webisodes" of TV shows during a strike, then transferring them to broadcast after the fact? These are reasonable areas to cover. It's reasonable the WGA would warn their members against working for any venue that would bring revenues to AMPTP members. That's called leverage.

The language of the WGA letter is less than clear, though. It implies a scope as broad as they can make it, ostensibly cutting its membership off not only from work, regardless of medium, involving TV or film productions but from any "new media" work. As written (and it may just be badly written, which is kind of disturbing from the world's most powerful writer's organization) it direly postulates shadowy reprisals against members who might stray into these areas.

Worse, it openly threatens to prevent non-TV/film writers over whom they have no jurisdiction from ever working in Hollywood (by banning them from WGA membership) if those writers choose to work during the strike in areas over which the WGA has no jurisdiction.

I can understand the WGA going for leverage, but that borders on insane. Again, I can see it where it involves Hollywood producers or productions, but the letter isn't so specific. So what's the quid pro quo on this? Do non-WGA-covered writers who decline to work in those areas during a strike get WGA membership when the strike is over? If the WGA wants writers who aren't covered or protected by them to listen to them, stop throwing the threats around and open membership requirements so those writers can join. Do they really think they can bring the Internet to a stop? Or are they taking the stance that anything on the web is potential fodder for some movie or TV show? If that's the case, why stop at the Web, or video games? Why not ban writers and non-writers alike from writing novels, short stories, comics? Those are still much likelier to generate media properties (at least so far) than the Web is.

Obviously it's because at least someone in the WGA directorate sees "new media" as natural ground for expansion of their influence, whereas it's too late for them to move in on "old media." (It really isn't, if they really wanted to, but it'd likely be more trouble than it's worth.) There are still plenty of legends about all the gold out in them thar websites, and there probably is, at least in a few of them, but there's a lot more fool's gold, and it seems to be those least familiar with the Internet who usually imagine the greatest riches. Certainly areas that directly impinge on creative Hollywood deserve the WGA's attention, and it's certainly possible that big new revenue streams impacting on the WGS and its membership could come out of the Internet in the future and that's something for the WGA to keep an eye on, but either whoever wrote the letter knows something about the Internet and Hollywood the rest of us don't, or they don't know what the rest of us do.

At minimum, the letter needs a good deal of clarification, and sooner than later. And they might want to keep in mind this time that threatening your membership and potential membership builds resentment, not solidarity.

In a similar vein, someone asked me if I thought a lot of screenwriters, their Hollywood careers on hold during a strike, would rush to get jobs writing comics and graphic novels.

I'm sure some of them will try. Screenwriters are as aware as anyone else that comics are now considered good fodder for films, and I'm sure some screenwriters will try to join the ranks of those transferring unsold screenplays to the comics page in an effort to get them sold after all.

Two factors are working against them now, though. 1) There aren't that many writing opportunities at the moment at companies that actually pay money. Those companies aren't generally eager for concepts they don't own. The companies willing to take on concepts they don't own often want to own them, for no money or next to it. At minimum, most companies, big or small, want to control the project, and its ancillary rights, which defeats most screenwriters' dreams of selling it themselves... which they'd almost always be better placed to do anyway. If they just want to moonlight by tossing off a few Spider-Man or Batman stories, well, the companies have Spider-Man and Batman writers lined up and waiting already, and most company-owned properties are also tied up in a tangled skein of company politics, regardless of the company. It used to be about as simple as tapping on an editor's door and saying, "How about a story where The Flash travels to pre-explosion Krypton?" It's not anymore. 2) There aren't that many screenwriters left with credits that resonate with audiences. It's a sad fact that Hollywood doesn't give screenwriters much publicity, so not many have names they can play on, at least in the comics market. Kevin Smith did, Joe Straczynski did, but even guys like Allan Heinberg or Greg Pak had to be trotted around a little to make the comics market aware of who they were. A name who could immediately draw a crowd, that might be something they'd work with on short notice. Mr. Screenwriter Guy, while most companies probably wouldn't be opposed to working with him, wouldn't be in the pecking order much above anyone with experience in any writing field coming in off the street and trying to get work.

Furthermore, most people in Hollywood, screenwriters or otherwise, tend to overestimate how much money there is in comics. Give them the chance to spend the strike writing that spec screenplay (which most striking writers do; they can't sell, or take meetings, during a strike, but that doesn't mean they don't want to be prepared to move the instant the strike ends, since that's a time when studios and producers are usually most desperate for material) for nothing, or a couple of comics for nothing or next to nothing, many would probably decide comics aren't worth the effort. There's also the time factor; in the time it takes for approvals to pass through all the gatekeepers in the process most places these days, the strike might already be over.

Still, I'm sure if they try they'll find it a fascinating experience. Best of luck to any that dare.

After seeing the opening chapter of "Sparky Watts - The Last Man On Earth" story here last week, someone shot me over the next chapter. So, to continue the greatest story of the Golden Age:

I think he's going to kill the last woman on earth, don't you? (Take that, Brian Vaughan!) I'm still betting it ends up a dream, but who knows? Maybe cartoonist Boody Rogers was working out issues... (By the way, these pages are not part of the Comics Cover Challenge, so don't try figuring them in, okay?)

Only a short political note this week: a couple of weeks ago, I wrote that the paper "War On Terror" was basically nothing more than a convenient catch-all for a number of repressive measure various people in and around the government had been looking for a long time to put into play anyway, and most of them had nothing to do with fighting terror and everything to do with imposing control. A couple of readers felt I was just being cynical.

The subject of exactly when the current administration decided to start illegally wiretapping domestic phone calls came up in a big way last week when court documents in the trial of the former CEO of now-defunct Qwest Communications, the now-convicted-for-insider-trading Joseph Nacchio, were made public. Including Nacchio's statement that the National Security Agency had come a-knockin' for Americans' phone records on Feb 21, 2001, over half a year before 9-11 happened. Pretty much every phone company but Qwest lined up to hand over the records, regardless of such a surrender pretty much being illegal without a court order, but the NSA doesn't put much stock in court orders. That it was illegal is pretty obvious the way the Ghost's people are trying to push through laws exempting the telecoms from lawsuits by irate customers who might be a little pissed off that their information's being handed out without their express permission, and by reports that the NSA intervened to squash a Los Angeles Times story on the building of an NSA telecom spying facility in L.A. in violation of the NSA charter which prohibited them from spying on Americans. Congress is trying to get telecoms to testify; the telecoms say they can't without the administration's permission, and the administration is predictably telling Congress it's none of their business and nobody's going to talk. (Remember that the next time you scoff at the existence of conspiracies. It may not be one of those all-inclusive uber-conspiracies everyone likes to bandy about, but it fits the definition. Just because you're aware of its existence doesn't mean it's not a conspiracy.)

9-11 was touted by the Ghost as the reason why such monitoring was necessary. The NSA's argument is basically that it's not spying unless someone's listening to the conversation, and no one listens to any conversation unless a computer scanning the information picks up keywords... because, apparently, computers can't constitute spy devices. But while it's pretty damning that the administration already held Americans' Constitutional rights in utter contempt even as it was being inaugurated, what's more damning is:

If monitoring of domestic phone calls in contravention of standard government practice and law was necessitated as a response to 9-11, doesn't it going into play well before 9-11, which happened anyway, suggest it's essentially useless as a weapon against terror? Or is it a sign the administration did know about 9-11 in advance and chose for whatever reason not to act against it? Or does it just mean the 9-11 terrorists were smart or lucky enough to make all their phone calls through Qwest's network instead of the carriers who fell all over themselves sucking up to the then-new regime?

Notes from under the floorboards:

Thanks to everyone who bid in my eBay auction last week. More items going up today and tomorrow, so check the list and see if anything interests you: books, comics & anime related toys and tidbits, maybe even some of my original art, finally. Take a look.

My apologies to Comicmix for stating they were running a Grimjack reprint by John Ostrander and Tim Truman at their site when it's really a brand new story. My confusion arose from the description, involving a Maltese Falcon analog called The Manx Cat, as it seemed to me that was the McGuffin in the very first Grimjack story, by John & Tim, in the back of STARSLAYER way back when. Or was it WARP? Anyway, sorry about that. Everyone go read the new GRIMJACK story.

Funniest story of the week: A monsiegnor with the Vatican was caught on film propositioning a young man (reports don't say how young, but from the sound of it it's not a pedophile case, which must be of at least some comfort to the Vatican). That's not the funny part. What's hilarious is the priest's defense; he claims to have been frequenting gay chat rooms and mingling with gay men "to better understand this mysterious and faraway world which, by the fault of a few people -- among them some priests -- is doing so much harm to the Church," and that the videotape was a frame. Which doesn't explain why, on the tape, he told his intended that gay sex isn't a sin, when the Vatican clearly says it is. (I'm not agreeing with them, I'm just saying.) So either this guy is a lying closet case, a con man trying to set up gays for some reason (though how that would work or what the point would be I'm not sure) or an idiot, none of which speak well of the Vatican. Then again, about the only reason the Vatican still has any credibility at all is that there are enough people out there who want to believe badly enough that they're willing to look the other way on all this stuff - and there's that "the members of the Church are of course fallible but the Church isn't" concept - but I can't believe every little incident even of this kind (which has nothing on most Church scandals, not to mention its increasingly frequent increasingly idiotic pronouncements) doesn't erode the number of willing believers a little more each time.

If you use Verizon Wireless, seems they just changed their terms of service so that they have the right to sell your information and phone records unless you specifically opt out by calling 1-800-333-9956 and telling them you don't want your information passed around. Interesting thing: the FCC recently issued instructions prohibiting telcoms from selling customer information without the customer's specific consent. But Verizon seems to prefer the record club model where not specifically saying no is considered specifically saying yes. At any rate, if you've got Verizon, save yourself a lot of grief and call the number and tell them you don't want to share "CPNI" (a nifty little acronym they concocted to confuse things, meaning "Customer Personal Network Information," in case you looked at the letter and thought, "Huh? I don't have CPNI!") unless you want advertisers wasting a lot of your time and money with text messages and phone calls.

Apparently the first baby boomer filed for social security on Monday. Supposedly, 10,000 per day will start filing.

Most interesting bit of tech news this week is a RICO suit being brought against Microsoft and Best Buy. Personally, I've never had a bad experience with Best Buy and like their prices (their "no rebates, discounts" policy appeals as well, because there's nothing like filling out forms and cutting out barcodes, waiting for months, then having companies claim they have no record of your rebate submission to put a nice shine on your day) and overall I like Microsoft product just fine, but I never used the MSN Internet service and it's there the trouble begins. Best Buy had a deal with MS to hand out free MSN trials with new computers, but, without telling customers, Best Buy checkers were setting up the MSN accounts with the credit cards used to pay for the computers. Unaware that their MSN accounts wouldn't just lapse after the trial period and that they had to specifically opt out - "opt out" is such a scam Congress just ought to outlaw it and make "opt in" the only option companies can offer, since most of the time "opt out" schemes depend consumer ignorance, gullibility or inaction, and often hide "opt out" information in fine print - buyers suddenly found themselves billed monthly for the fairly extravagantly priced MSN service. The suit claims racketeering between Best Buy and Microsoft when Best Buy illegally sent customer financial information to a third party (MS) without customer knowledge or specific consent. The lawsuit's been going on a few years now. What brings it back to light now is that Best Buy/MS have been going through court after court to get the thing thrown out without trial, until they finally reached the Supremes. Who refused to consider it, meaning off to trial it goes. Could get pretty messy if they lose, though a loss would surely trigger another few years of appeals, at least.

California, meanwhile, became the latest state (only North Dakota and Wisconsin preceded them, unfortunately) to ban mandatory radiofrequency identification (RFID) chips in employees by employers. The chip manufacturers, as well as various government and law enforcement personnel, have since 9/11 been touting RFID as the ultimate security tool, enabling those sufficiently equipped to not only remotely and positively identify a person toting RFID but to track their movements. It's easy to see where proposals to tag people via RFID chips implanted in credit cards, mandatory ID cards, and subcutaneously (as with many things of this sort, the subcutaneous proposal originated as a way to "safeguard" children - well, to safeguard pets, really, but it didn't take long to the jump from being able to find Fido if he gets out of the yard to being able to rescue Suzie and Jimmy from sex predators and serial killers - without anyone much caring that this means only one generation until we end up with a nation of American adults quite comfortable with having their every move monitored by the government. I can see where subcutaneous RFID would have as much appeal for employers as for cops, since many employers tend to view employees as criminals, or at least time cheats, waiting to happen, and considering how many employers treat their employees it's likely not all that far from the truth. RFID chips - and, presumably, the machinery used to monitor them - are often reputed to be unhackable (just like the iPhone and electronic voting machines!) but these gits refuse to get it through their heads that nothing is unhackable, and an RFID future most likely wouldn't be one of stronger control and better security but of more easily stolen identities, real criminals being able to track the movements of intended victims, etc. - but it sure would put money in the pockets of RFID chip manufacturers.

In the amusing irony dept. The Pirate Bay, the Swedish bit-torrent engine that's arguably the most notorious site of its kind in the world, has taken over the website of the recording industry operation, International Federation of the Phonographic Industry

that unsuccessfully tried to put it out of business a couple years ago. It's that kind of week, I guess.

Ex-Wildstorm editor Scott Dunbier now has a blog, starting with a story about the mess the WildCATs vs. Aliens book turned into, courtesy of Gil Kane. As Scott relates, Wildstorm was pumping out the promotion for the book in record time, and got Gil to draw a promo piece/alt cover of the Zealot character facing off against an Alien. I was palling around with Gil at the time, and my reaction to the assignment was mixed: on the one hand, I was always glad to see Gil getting high profile exposure; on the other, all these piddly little assignments were distracting from projects we were supposed to be doing. (Most ultimately never got done, one of the few things I now regret.) I don't know how he was when he was younger, but by then Gil had been fighting cancer for several years (it ultimately got him) and he didn't just jump from one thing to the next like good robotic artists are supposed to. Any break from a project brought Gil back to it with a fresh perspective, which meant he started looking at different angles and possibilities, which usually amounted to starting over. So things like the WildCATs VS ALIENS cover were never good for me. (The argument, often used by editors regardless of artists, is that having an artist do a high profile project first raises the profile of our project and makes things better for everyone all around, which sounds good on paper but rarely works out that way. The highest profile projects at companies tend to be the ones with the most editorial interference, and more often than not they simply exhaust artists, most of whom don't like having their every move critiqued any more than anyone else does, especially when what they're drawing isn't what they want to draw but something they're doing for heightened profile. Thus enterprises of great pith and moment turn awry, and lose the name of action, as someone or other once wrote.) The upshot in this case was that Gil was unaware ALIENS had become a franchise, and provided a cover with Zealot against a generic alien (I heard it was one of the big-brained "Mars Attacks" style Wally Wood aliens, but I've never seen the unadulterated piece so I couldn't say for sure.) Scott's version is that Gil said he didn't need reference. Gil's version was that they never said it had anything to do with a movie just told him to "draw an Alien" without providing reference. Take your pick. It's still a pretty funny story.

Speaking of old pals, best wishes to Marie Severin, who in my early days of scraping and clawing at Marvel was always the friendliest, jolliest person up there, and a great help to me on a couple occasions. (Notably a "Howard The Duck" Xmas story with Paul Smith in BIZARRE ADVENTURES that I colored myself - my only coloring job - because all the colorists were overbooked and I felt like trying it; I could color it well enough, but Marie was kind enough to notate it for separations, which was completely out of my league but still necessary in those pre-computer days.) Get well soon, Marie!

Here's a good one. Hollywood has figured out why this weekend's box office was crap. No, it wasn't because nobody wanted to see the movies they're putting out, it's because everyone was home playing HALO 3.

Ironically, I did go to the movies this weekend, to see THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD, which was visually lush and spare at the same time, well-acted (especially by Casey Affleck, who's the real star and carries the weight of the film on his shoulders; he should get a best actor nod at the Oscars for it, but at minimum he deserves best supporting actor) and unexpectedly complex - I do recommend it - but as much as I love Sergio Leone's work, I'm starting to hate him now, because nobody can make a damn western anymore without attempting Leone's brand of "operatic." It's the film's only real failing - you don't really need 12 minutes of close-ups first every time someone draws a gun, and the film's most shocking moments come when people simply draw and shoot without "significant" preamble - and only a failing to the extent that the pattern is becoming way too familiar. (The last really good western, THE PROPOSITION, was similarly flawed. Bear in mind I haven't seen 3:10 TO YUMA yet so I'm not snubbing it, I just can't speak to it.) Still worth seeing, and Brad Pitt, Sam Shepard, a host of other actors and especially Sam Rockwell, are really good in it.

Congratulations to Jacqui Sequeira, the first to correctly identify the Comics Cover Challenge theme two weeks ago as "American cities." (Milwaukee, Durango, Boston (as in Boston Brand AKA Deadman), Lincoln or Washington (on Mt. Rushmore), Austin (as in Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man), Phoenix & Columbia.) She didn't quite get it right, but came closer than anyone else. Jacqui would like to invite you to the homepage for The Sydney Passengers, Australian's premier band of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts. Go take 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.) As with most other weeks I also hide a clue to the solution somewhere in the column, but only the sharpest minds will find it. 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.

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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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