Very low energy today. Daylight savings time jumping ahead three weeks seems to have screwed up everyone I know, plus last night the legendary Stardust hotel, one of the last vestiges of "classic" Las Vegas (meaning the town as it was when Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. virtually lived here), was imploded - all dust now, no star - to make way for a new megaresort. Middle of the night, per usual, so that demolition crews could ply their trade and briefly fill the air with toxic waste without traffic or tourism being significantly affected. Last night, for some reason, some ******* decided it was the perfect time to celebrate the Stardust's memory with ******* fireworks so loud they sounded like they were in my backyard, and I live a good ten miles away. So I'm a little on the grumpy side today. With luck, I'll be able to stay focused long enough to string one or two coherent sentences together, but don't expect it to last.
Pretty much everything on the south end of the Strip from the "classic" days except the Tropicana (not that much besides the Tropicana existed at the south end in the "classic" days) has already vanished into what passes for history here, and they've been slowly working their way up to the north end. Bugsy Siegel's Flamingo, the casino that legendarily started it all (it didn't, but that's the legend), still stands but it's been rebuilt a couple times. The old MGM burned down in one of the most famous and life-costly hotel fires in American history, and the new MGM stands a mile or two south now, still the world's biggest hotel. The Aladdin is being renovated into the Planet Hollywood. The Sands and The Desert Inn are gone, replaced by megacasinos the Venetian and the Wynn. The Frontier was long ago replaced by the marginally better New Frontier, and that's going in not too long too, for a Donald Trump casino-condominium project. The Riviera's still down the street, claustrophobic and crumbling, and so is The Sahara, but the Sahara just got sold and the new owner promises massive changes. Across from the Sahara, the rotting Circus Circus and halfway back up the street, Caesar's Palace, the first of the super theme resorts, one an embarrassment and one an icon.
Whatever people used to think the Strip was, it isn't anymore. Yet it's also more like it was than it ever was before. Much bigger, with many more and much bigger hotels - The Mirage, TI (already recreated from Treasure Island), Harrah's, The Paris, The Monte Carlo, The Bellagio, New York New York, The Excalibur, The Luxor, The Four Seasons, Mandalay Bay, and, at the north end of the Strip, the tallest building west of the Mississippi, The Stratosphere - bringing in more tourists and more money, from all over the country and the world, than ever before. That's not even counting the off-Strip hotel-casinos like The Palms, The Rio, The Hard Rock, Hooter's, and numerous smaller ones.
Funny what you think of lying awake in the middle of the night amid rockets' red glare and bombs bursting in air. Here's a town, steeped in more public history than almost any other in the country, perfectly willing to literally blow it all up if it gets even more people interested in it here and now. If there's even a chance of it.
And I couldn't help wondering: what if Las Vegas ran like the comics industry?
Two big events, right? Marvel's CIVIL WAR wrapped up recently, DC's 52 is cruising to its big finale now. The Big Two (if you discount manga, anyway, which probably isn't a smart move) have similarities to Las Vegas: all have their core product they're going to push no matter what, and that will likely never change. For Marvel & DC it's their franchise superheroes, for Las Vegas gambling. Las Vegas may blow up casinos, but it's never going to blow up gambling. But the town has consistently provided whatever has been necessary to expand its appeal and customer base, even if the customers ostensibly have no interest in gambling: dolphin habitats, gourmet restaurants, thrill rides, convention facilities, Broadway shows, Prince. (Seriously, but only through April.) For a long time, Las Vegas promoted gambling, only gambling. But somewhere along the line someone figured out that gambling, though almost everybody does it, is still widely considered unsavory, and that even if people don't gamble, a lot of additional visitors means a lot of additional revenue, just from buying meals, taking cabs, going to shows, etc. Not so much diversification of the product as reconception of what the product is. Which is something neither of the Big 2 comics publishers have gone in for much.
Say what you will about CIVIL WAR, it blows things up, or at least seems to. At the tail end of the mini-series, Spider-Man's life is wrecked, many characters are being hunted, villains have been repositioned as government agents without any shift of moral code and are being marketed to the press as heroes, Captain America's apparently (if you believe Ms. Marvel, for real if you believe Ed Brubaker) dead, and it looks as if Iron Man is the biggest villain in the Marvel Universe. Among other things. It may (most likely will, in fact) all get reversed in a year or two, but for the moment it looks like the origin of the universe of the old Marvel 2099 line.
Contrarily, 52, grinding to a close if not a halt, so far reveals only the usual DC mega-event trick of repainting the façade instead of any real renovation. So far it has largely been used to sweep a handful of characters driven into the dust long ago, like Booster Gold, The Elongated Man and Neron, under the rug, and what changes, virtually all with minor characters, it has dangled, like Black Adam's new Marvel family, have already begun to be undone, as in last week's issue. Sure, there looks to be a new Question on the horizon, but here comes the new boss, same as the old boss. Part of the problem was the concurrent One Year Later event, introducing how the DC universe would look following INFINITE CRISIS and 52; while yet another new Flash is introduced, the original Green Lantern switches teams, and Hawkgirl takes over for Hawkman, these things only seem significant if you presuppose that they're significant. Hawkman? When was the last time a significant number of people cared about Hawkman? (My guess is somewhere well before the character's 18th or so revamp.) We even know WWIII is due to break out sometime in the final eight issues of 52 - but then it ends in pretty much the blink of an eye due to the heroics of the Justice Society Of America. I know something's got to prove the mostly geriatric JSA are heroic figures a new generation should still pay attention to, but it's all very... anti-climactic.
Then again, DC ain't never been no good at blowin' things up.
Then again, neither has the comics business, even when it's good for them.
A lot of comics fans absolutely hate the idea of imploding the building and putting up a new and hopefully better one in its place. For some company franchise characters, I can see the problem: whatever DC chose to do, at the end of it Batman would still be recognizably both Batman and Bruce Wayne, Superman's costume wouldn't change for long and he'd still be Clark Kent. Due to SMALLVILLE their third most identifiable character these days is probably Green Arrow. Beyond that? How many times have they changed The Flash now? Green Lantern? Would more than eight people even notice if the company stopped publishing a FLASH comic altogether? Who'd really care if they did what Marv Wolfman originally wanted to do with CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTH and start again from scratch? Superman would still be a superstrong refugee from Krypton, Batman's parents would still have been murdered before his eyes.
The traditional argument is that such a thing would dishonor the memory of all the talents who did all the stories that would no longer "exist." Or it would dishonor the characters. But some stories would live on forever in reprint; any that any company chose to would doubtless reprint anything they wanted in any format they wanted, and those stories that are never reprinted are as good as dead as far as the general public's concerned anyway. Is it really possible to "dishonor," say, The Martian Manhunter? Or Grifter? As for all the talents who worked on the books... earlier this week I was talking to an old friend who used to read comics a long, long time ago, and the subject of John Buscema came up. (Buscema, for those who don't know, was one of the great Marvel artists, the artist the company basically rallied around when Jack Kirby left.) He said, "Buscema, he's pretty much forgotten now, right?"
I answered, quite without thinking about it, "Hell, they're pretty much all forgotten now."
Which is by and large true. We don't "honor" our dead or fallen in this business. At best, we say a few pleasantries for the eulogy and then we milk whatever's left. With precious few exceptions, gone is gone here. Does anyone really think Marvel's continued production of Spider-Man stories "honors" Steve Ditko? Or that Jack Kirby's proudly sitting up in some heaven smiling over the current state of Thor, The Fantastic Four or Captain America? I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with any of those books, but let's stop kidding ourselves that they're in any way a tribute to Jack or that, were he alive today, they'd mean anything more to him than ones that got away. In most cases, talents don't gain anything from continued use of characters they created; if they're dead, their heirs almost certainly don't. There are thousands who worked on comics whose names were never widely known, there are hundreds whose names may once have been openly known but who are all but unknown today, with only a tiny handful even caring who they were. Even when their names erupt again, usually at their death as with Arnold Drake this week, it's all fleeting prettiness, oh, he created The Doom Patrol. But I don't see many people talking about his stand with other longtime DC writers for better pay and better conditions in the late '60s that got them booted from the company they'd spent their adult lives working for peanuts for. Who really gets "honored" by leaving little bits like that out?
It's not like, in most cases, companies attempt to market talents who used to work for them, or educate the audience as to those talents' particular significance and contributions. It's not like fans bother to do that much. I'm not saying they should. I'm saying that in most instances we, all of us, the publishers and editors and talent and readers, treat this business as a here and now business.
So once in awhile it's a good idea to demolish a couple buildings, maybe even a few city blocks. It gives a chance to put something new there, something better adapted to the time and to generating a sense of excitement and value for the customer. I don't know why comics companies have such a hard time grasping this. When they blow up a casino here, inevitably news anchors who grew up here bemoan the way the city keeps changing, and readers write the newspapers to sniff about the loss of "our culture." But the culture is still here, it's just a little bit different, and fragments of what was remain, in photo exhibitions, in neon graveyards, in coffee table books, and the people who complain the loudest nonetheless get used to the having some new casino standing where the old one they used to go to used to be.
And each fireworks explosion tells the same story: you can't live on the past and stay adaptable and vital. It's okay to remember things fondly, but eventually you - we - have to move on. Or, at the least, appear to.
Wow, another fascinating week of paradox politics. Newt Gingrich, who once rallied the troops to impeach Bill Clinton for having an extramarital affair, announced even as he was feeling out a 2008 White House run that during that same impeachment period he was himself having an extramarital affair. (Which I'm pretty sure everyone who was paying attention at the time already knew, but it's been awhile.) Faced with accusations of hypocrisy for doing what he simultaneously excoriated Clinton for doing (though no mention was made of whether cigars were involved) Gingrich stated the affair wasn't the crux of the Clinton matter, but Clinton's lying to a federal court about it. Clinton had to be tried because he lied.
Which is doubtless just what the defenders of Scooter Libby did not want to hear last week, as the jury in Libby's trial on counts of perjuring himself before a grand jury and obstructing an FBI investigation brought in guilty verdicts on the several charges. The right wing hype machine has been in full groove this last week - when it hasn't been outraged at Marvel's callous execution of Captain America right at the moment when our boys in Iraq will be severely demoralized by it (it was on Fox News, honest!) - talking about "railroading" and how Libby should never have been tried for perjury because the investigation he perjured himself during turned up no prosecutions of anyone who illegally released the name of CIA field operative Valerie Plame to the press. Oddly, the press itself could easily push for more investigations into the incident, based on evidence entered into the public record during Libby's trial and often by Libby's own defense attorneys, who tried to make a case for Libby as scapegoat hung out to dry by White House insider Karl Rove, ex-Iran/Contra trickster and Ghost-era State dept. undersecretary Richard Armitage (who cut a deal with prosecutors to avoid prosecution, thus generating a "control" by which the prosecutor and grand jury could judge statements from other witnesses, including Libby) and Libby's boss Dick Cheney, resulting in pretty damn clear indications that the Ghost himself was either lying his ass off or was totally ignorant when he proclaimed that no one connected with the White House had anything to do with the leak, and if he found out anyone did they would be fired. (We now know the State Dept. was aware of it a long, long time ago.) Another argument is that since Armitage leaked Plame's identity, Libby should not be held responsible for it, even though trial testimony also drew a clear picture of Dick Cheney's office orchestrating a "Get Joseph Wilson" campaign (Wilson outted the administration as using disproved intelligence as justification for the Iraq war, and Plame is his wife) by blabbing Plame's identity to any journalist they could get to listen before any announcement via Armitage's leak was made public. At any rate, Gingrich made the case that lying during a federal investigation is a serious enough offense to put a president on trial, regardless of whether that investigation produced any other actionable crimes or not, so it's hard to suggest that lesser government officials should be allowed to lie to federal investigators with impugnity.
Of course, if worst comes to worst you can always fire the prosecutors, if you're president. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who apparently hasn't figured out that he's no longer the Ghost's personal attorney but the main figure south of the Ghost responsible for upholding US law, a short while back fired a slew of U.S. Attorneys for various regions, then his flunkies swore to Congress the decision was purely administrative and was in no way influenced by the White House and had no political motivation. Except one U.S. attorney, from New Mexico, was called by New Mexican Senator Pete Domenici about whether charges in an investigation against a state Democrat would be brought before last election day; when told no, Domenici hung up and started calling administration officials to complain about the prosecutor, and when the head of the state's Republican party called Rove, Rove promised him the prosecutor would be gone. (A fired Seattle US attorney was also criticized by Republicans for not bringing indictments against a Democrat quickly enough, and a news story today has the White House admitting that the Ghost told Gonzales personally he wanted various attorneys including the New Mexican attorney gone for exactly the reason Domenici complained about.) The defrocked U.S. attorney for Las Vegas was flat out told on his way out that the administration was clearing positions so the Ghost to make new appointees to help them with their political careers. A San Diego prosecutor with a highly successful corruption trial against Republican bigwig Randy Cunningham on her belt and about to prosecute the CIA's #3 man on charges involved defense contract abuses was abruptly replaced by a Republican ideologue without substantive experience in criminal law. An Arkansas US Attorney, a loyal Republican, made no objection to his own firing (one of Karl Rove's aides was given his job) or any others - but started getting emails from a DoJ official threatening retaliation when he made a statement for a news story about the incident. Further e-mail correspondence between current Ghost attorney (and Supreme Court reject) Harriet Miers discussing the firing plan with Gonzales' (now resigned) chief aide, and later authorizing the action; nobody Gonzales was told the White House had their fingers in the whole thing. (The Nevada and New Mexico prosecutors weren't on the original list; the Arkansas prosecutor was.)
So it's amusing to see Gonzales, himself one of the architects of war on terror policies, scolding the FBI over the recent revelation that the country's stories law enforcement agency was violating the law right and left by freely abusing powers given them by the Patriot Act and later additions to gather information. Amusingly, in a sick way, what they're getting flak over was intended to make their jobs much easier, by relaxing their need to get court authorization to get records in a hurry; they could simply issue what's known as a "National Security Letter," which basically said they could gather the information now and get a subpoena for it later. Turns out what the FBI's been doing since getting this power is handing out NSLs like candy on Halloween - hundreds of thousands of the letters - then going after the authorization on virtually none of them. They used them in many instances where there was no investigation! They went after records that weren't covered by the act authorizing the use of NSLs. In many cases they didn't even bother with the letters, and handed them out after the fact only to cover their asses. Long time readers may recall when the Patriot Act was being discussed, I pointed up the tendency of law enforcement agencies, particularly federal ones, to fish for new powers with promises of restraint and oversight, and then run amok with them if allowed to; trust me, being proven right doesn't feel very good at all. Caught with its hand in the cookie jar, the FBI claimed the abuses were "unintentional." The FBI "unintentionally" seized hundreds of thousands of personal records of American citizens. Gonzales chastised them for sloppy oversight, apparently having forgotten the FBI is part of his operation and oversight is ultimately his responsibility. But Gonzales also promised Arlen Spector, after getting Spector to quietly include in the Patriot Act a clause allowing the Attorney General to fire and assign US prosecutors without Congressional authorization, that he would never use that power for political reasons. So all this is just par for the course.
Notes from under the floorboards:
300 burst records and triggered various controversies this weekend, as Greeks, gays and Iranians all took offense to one thing or another and the debate raged over whether Xerxes of Persia was intended to represent the Ghost, or whether it's the heroic King Leonides who's the Ghost's filmic stand-in. The other debate I ran across was whether Frank, who, if his public statements are to be believed, became an unreconstructed patriot in the wake of 9/11 (I haven't discussed it with him, I wouldn't know) intended 300 as a "revenge" against "the Middle Eastern invaders." (Jeez, the things some people come up with.) I haven't seen the film myself - frankly (no pun intended) from what I've seen of the visual style I think two solid hours of it would give me a splitting headache, but that's not an argument against you seeing it - but I remember having a conversation with Frank about Thermopylae a good 20 years ago, and he was pretty hot on the story then. Figure in that the main theme of the story is the same as his tagline for the much abused (and, apparently, next to be filmed) RONIN, "If you intend to die you can do anything," and it gets pretty hard to make an argument that 300 was anything but Frank pursuing the same themes that have often been present in his work. Anyway, good going Frank & co.; it certainly is turning into a banner year for comics-sourced movies.
Here's a hot one: Viacom, owner of piles of cable TV networks including MTV and Comedy Central, has filed suit against YouTube and its owner Google for allowing the posting bits and pieces of Viacom-owned shows on the site. Given the shaky state of most TV shows now, you can easily make the argument (since, I assume, we're not talking about complete shows; I don't visit YouTube, so if that's an inaccurate assumption, let me know) that YouTube is in fact helping out Viacom by giving publicity to its offerings. What really makes the whole issue sick/funny is that Viacom currently has its own site on YouTube pushing its programming with clips and episodes. So either they're weirdly looking to make their lawsuit a self-fulfilling prophecy or they have acknowledged the value of having their material on the site.
Yikes! Has 24 (Fox, 9P Mondays) gotten even weirder this season, or what? Given that the show is semi-renowned for its right-wing showrunners, what does it mean when, in fairly rapid succession - a U.S. president enlists the aid of a Middle Eastern terrorist to stop other Middle Eastern terrorists? - that president, whose former president brother was assassinated in the previous season, is incapacitated and nearly assassinated by a bomb inside the White House - the assassination attempt is the work of a right wing cadre staging what amounts to a political coup so heinous that even the Karl Rove stand-in opposes it - the previous president, under house arrest after orchestrating various dastardly deeds including the assassination of the current president's brother, is stabbed to death by his borderline schizophrenic ex-wife - and the brusque vice president, now acting president, manufactures from the domestic terror attacks "evidence" against a Middle Eastern nation in order to justify a war there that he thinks will put all other terrorists and nations harboring them on notice - ? And all in under six hours?! Folks in the show's White House keep talking about how the events of the day will wreak havoc on the American psyche, but, holy crap! This isn't modern day Washington DC, this is first century Rome!
In response to last week's column, a testimonial to Dan Vado and SLG:
"I'd like to take the chance to comment on the Vado "controversy" that seems to have everyone buzzing. I met Mr. Vado at the San Diego Comic-Con in 2001. I was, like many hopefuls, carrying around a portfolio to show to as many editors as I could box in a corner. On the second day of the convention, I came across the SLG booth. Knowing pretty much only the "hits" (MILK & CHEESE, JOHNNY, LENORE), I was surprised to see the expanse of unique titles that they had. And the crowd around them. But there was one person not being swarmed by fans. So I approached him and asked for submissions guidelines. As they were handed to me, he responded, "Well, I'm Dan, the owner-publisher, and I can take a look at what you've got right now if you'd like." Caught a bit off-guard, I handed over my work. Dan read it right there (and, yes, it is nerve-wracking to have the owner of a company read your stuff in front of you). He said he really liked it. He passed it over for others to read it. As he handed it back to me, Dan advised that I send him copies of the first issue after the con so that we could go over it further.
Which he did.
For me, a comics nobody.
Dan and his other company higher-ups (Bob Simpkins and Jennifer deGuzman) had no shortage of advice for me and how to proceed with my book, all of which turned out to be dead on correct. They even offered to receive my original pages and scan them in for me.
All of this for me, a comics nobody.
The contract that I received was "standard," I was told. To be honest, it was unbelievably fair. I assumed zero cost to print, distribute, advertise, etc. Yes, the comic had to sell 3,000 copies for me to receive any payment, but I know that the SLG busted their asses to make that happen. They set up interviews, seated me at their tables at cons, made sure that copies found their way to reviewers....a ton of legwork. And what's truly remarkable is that every creator that I know from SLG has said the same thing. From Dan down on to T-Bone, they truly put everything that they have into their (and my) work.
The work of mine that was published from SLG was called MY MONKEY'S NAME IS JENNIFER. It ran for 6 issues, and was then collected as a trade. Two t-shirts were also designed and produced. Again, all of this was done on Dan's dime. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for Dan and SLG. For all of this, I would like to thank him for giving a nobody a chance. Thank you.
- Ken Knudtsen"
Congratulations to Shawn Patty, the first to correctly identify last week's Comics Cover Challenge theme as "night." Shawn wants you to take a look at a blog called The Periscope with a golden age comics theme, so don't let him down. For those who came in late: you may notice several comics covers posted in the column. This is what I call the Comics Cover Challenge. The covers are connected by a single secret theme - it could be a concept, a creator, a character, a historical element, pretty much anything - and the first reader who emails me the correct solution may choose a website of their choice (keep it clean!) for promotion in next's week's column. If you need any clues beyond what's here, you can search for them at the online source of our covers, The Grand Comic Book Database, and I usually include a hidden clue somewhere in the column. There's one hidden in today's, but I'll probably be an old man before you find it. Good luck.
As usual, you can find ebooks and other books by me and recommended by me available at The Paper Movies Store. Go buy something; I need the money. Then again, who doesn't?
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.