Issue #114

In a complete non-sequitor, for some reason the subject of the state of comics criticism has come up in a lot of places lately, and I'm not sure why it's on so many minds. Serious criticism of comic books has been rare in our history. There was a spurt in the late '60s and early '70s, partly generated in response to the effect CAHIERS DU CINEMA had on film (briefly; STAR WARS pretty much spelled the end of that), but that mostly petered out by the mid-70s when many good books and talents faded from the business as the market dried up, and it became clear no amount of critique was going to affect the course of the business. (Though, sideways, it eventually did.) What has passed from "critique" in the past couple decades has mostly not been independent people exchanging ideas and theories in the search of a common language and a cohesive vision, but a) reviewers oohing and aahing over the latest releases; b) academicians staking claims to fresh territory when film and literature criticism has fielded too much competition, but trying to overlay the critical theories of those fields onto comics; c) chip-on-shoulder assaults mainly belittling a wide audience for liking material other than that approved of by the critic; d) paeans to old "gods" and new discoveries; and e) Scott McCloud.

There's almost no level of critique in comics that has resulted in any kind of shared aesthetic or even a push to one, no "Unified Field Theory" of comics art. Even if there were one, it would likely only be one of several, or many. And y'know what? That'd be okay. But, at the very least, it's time for that feeble, still nascent thing we like to call comics criticism to &$*%ing grow up and get on with it.

I started my professional career as a reviewer. Not of comics (though I did a few comics reviews that ultimately contributed to my jump to comics writer) but of movies, music and theater. Those were the days of punk, and I was feeling my oats, making a small splash in a town (Madison, WI) where feelgood "pleasant" reviews were the going rage. As reviews editor at a music paper, I annoyed other reviewers by banning the word "I" from reviews – one woman complained "If I don't say 'I think' the readers won't know it's just my opinion," to which I commented, "Believe me, they will, and if they don't..." [Insert shrug.] – and as a film reviewer for another paper I caused a small storm with a bad review of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW, generating a flood of angry letters. They chose one and wanted me to answer I'd try to mollify the readers. The writer was particularly irate that the paper's "critic" implied viewing the film multiple times said something nasty about your sexual tendencies, which was probably the result of bad writing on my part because I certainly didn't think that. So I wrote a nice little recantation:

First, thank you very much for the compliment, but I'm only a mere reviewer, not a critic. Second, I apologize for the inadvertent suggestion that anyone seeing THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW more than twice must be perverted, which I didn't intend. Please substitute "stupid" for the offending adjective.

Winning hearts and minds as always. My editors weren't going to publish it, fearing possible attempts on my life, but I talked them into it. (The only thing of mine they ever refused to publish were the instructions on the quickest and safest way to reach the theater's bathrooms that I included in my review of GREASE.)

No death threats ever materialized. I did get one fellow reviewer in a jam, though. She was a theater reviewer, then interviewing one of the many playwrights who came through town to appear at the university. The playwright referred to her as a critic at one point, and she said, "Oh, I'm not a critic, just a reviewer."

The playwright embarrassingly asked, "What's the difference?" (Trial lawyers have a principle most people should follow when trying to be witty: don't set up any questions you don't know the answer to.)

There is an answer to that question, though. The first priority of a review is entertainment. The first priority of criticism is illumination. Which isn't to say criticism can't be entertaining – entertainment is in the eye of the beholder – or reviews can't be illuminating. I'm not suggesting the two disciplines never overlap; they overlap all the time. I'm not suggesting that "reviewers" are second class citizens, or "critics" exist on some elevated intellectual plane. It's just a simple fact: reviews and criticism aren't the same beast, even though we often like to pretend they are.

The purpose of reviews is to tell the consumer how to spend their money. That's pretty much it. Two problems with reviews: almost no one actually pays attention to them (witness the success this weekend of THE CAT IN THE HAT despite the millions of reviews vilifying it), and they really don't need to be longer than three words. ("Buy it"; "Don't buy it.") The way the reviewer gets and keeps an audience is by dressing this three-word-max up with as clever (or pithy, if it's clever-pithy) a song and dance as possible, so that, ideally, even if you never agree with the reviewer's conclusions, you still return each review for the sheer enjoyment of watching the reviewer dance the steps. Reviewers are expected to at least marginally know what they're talking about, sure, but mainly they're expected to be entertainers.

Critics, on the other hand, are supposed to examine, deconstruct, draw connections and disconnections, and generally place a text (we'll use the word in this instance to refer to any artistic "product") in a greater context, whether historical, aesthetic or whatever, to draw out the meaning of importance of a text, a body of work or school of thought. It's commonly supposed that "criticism" (the negative connotations of which are the first thing anyone thinks of when they hear the word) is supposed to be a pronouncement of truth, but it isn't. Good criticism is always an exploration, an invitation to others to join in on the process. (I guess a short, snide version would be that reviews tell people what to think, and criticism tells them how to think.) Criticism by nature is wordy (though not necessarily verbose) and often picayune.

But we need it. In the long run, particularly in a field like comics where many techniques are in vogue (and many out of style), it's important to know not only what works but how it works. It's okay in the short run to say someone's writing or art is good, but the short run is almost always based on an immediate reaction, a visceral response to material. That's fine. That's a review. But it's also important to know why writing or art is good, the aspects that draw someone to that conclusion. Particularly when so much of what's thought of as "good" in the moment is revealed as "bad" in hindsight. (A lot of this is tied to the age of the viewer; there's a certain point in a young man's life when H.P. Lovecraft plays like 'good' writing, but go back to it when you're 35 and see if you can reach that opinion.)

So... We're a medium overwhelmed with reviewers, and precious few critics. Where are all the critics? I reiterate that I am but a mere reviewer, probably for the same reasons most others don't make the jump: criticism is an arduous and pretty much thankless task that, for the most part, doesn't pay very well (or at all, usually). Which means it's necessary for critics (certainly in the comics field) to be in it for love. To paraphrase Dan O'Neill, love takes time, and time is short.

So who are the good online comics critics? Not reviewers, critics. The ones with the really good insights and ideas. Let me know.

  • Weird week in Las Vegas. I turn on the local news the other night, and it's Michael Jackson All The Time. Not only did the King Of Pop get busted (though, the more things come out about his accusers and the more that idiot prosecutor parades across TV screens like he's finally getting his shot at "the stardom he so richly deserves," it's hard to view the charges as anything but flimsy) but he makes his post-arraignment getaway to a mile from my house. Thanks for the traffic jam, Michael. I'm just glad I wasn't planning to go to dinner at Green Valley Ranch Station that night.

    It's fun to hear Tom Brokaw mention "Henderson Nevada," though, so thanks, Michael.

    And today The Hand Puppet's in town, trying to raise money for his presidential re-election. Interesting choice. A lot of Republicans in Nevada still support the Hand Puppet, but even they're as pissed off at him as the rest of us. Why? Because he lied. He lied big to the entire state of Nevada. There's a place about 100 miles north of here called Yucca Mountain that's a big concern for the area. A couple decades or so back, a bunch of politicians decided Yucca Mountain was the best place to store all the nuclear waste power plants all over the country generate because, well, Nevada's just empty anyway and there really is nowhere else. Regardless of the science involved – and studies increasingly indicate it's a really bad idea, not to mention the various problems of driving the stuff to Nevada through forty states. Big hot button issue here. So the last time the Hand Puppet cruises through campaigning, 2000, he says, "Vote for me, I ain't a-gonna let no nuke waste get dumped in Nevada unless the science says it's 100% safe, and I'll go by the science and only the science." (Not an exact quote, but close enough.) Two years later, he signs off on the scheme without so much as glancing at any scientific report, because all his "advisors," all paid for by the nuclear power industry, tell him not to bother. I mean, how much of a lie do you need? Of course, the Hand Puppet has gone on record as saying he doesn't listen to any news because he's surrounded by good people who give him the unbiased truth about everything. Like Karl Rove, I suppose. Meanwhile, because it's now apparently a matter of sheer decency to okay any candidates a President puts forth for any office (and when did that idiotic notion become canon, anyway?) we now have a governor from Utah who spent his term there doing everything he could to upend environmental concerns running the Environmental Protection Agency. Nice to see the spirit of Reaganism still lives.

    Of course, the Hand Puppet's dependence on his coterie of interpreters for information may be why his administration continues to insist things are getting better in Iraq even while generals like Ricardo Sanchez (of whom Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said, "He might not be telling me the truth," a staggering statement that demonstrates the disconnect between the administration and the various branches of government and the military and doesn't come anywhere near to explaining why Sanchez hasn't been replaced if his boss feels he can't be trusted) are going out of their way to specifically call the situation a war even though the official proclamation is that the war in Iraq ended in May, and why the CIA's latest negative report on Iraq had to be leaked to keep from being buried, but it's obvious there's some awareness in the White House of how things are really going, and the changing American mood toward the invasion and occupation, evidenced by the recent command from on-high to "Iraqize" the war by Spring, giving it just enough time to fade as a campaign issue before the election. They certainly don't want five or six soldiers coming home each day in body bags by the time next November rolls around.

    Not that there won't be plenty of other campaign topics, like the just-passed Medicare reform plan that even Republicans are saying will bankrupt the Medicare system. But they passed it anyway.

    Back to Las Vegas, where other issues are reaching national proportions. There's a case here put together by the FBI where some very dumb local politicians (Las Vegas is crawling with them) played footsy with a strip club owner for several years and accepted varying "gifts" from him while their votes miraculously swung his way. (Politicians in San Diego swung the same way with the same guy.) It was nice of the FBI to round them up, and too bad for the others when the strip club owner turned state's witness on them.

    The big issue coming out of all this is that the FBI employed measures granted by the Patriot Act in order to pull off this coup. They say they've done nothing wrong. The ACLU, which remembers when Attorney General John Ashcroft swore up and down the Patriot Act provisions would be used only in the fight against terrorism (though anyone with half a brain and a history book should be able to figure out that any tool law enforcement is given for a specific application they'll go out of their way to apply as widely as possible), is taking issue with that, and it could conceivably jeopardize the FBI's case. (In other FBI news, turns out the way they've been analyzing ballistics for decades is way flawed and this could end up voiding thousands of convictions. More fun with America's finest.) Not surprisingly, Ashcroft has also been "caught" actively trying to reconstruct the old Red Squads that haunted major American cities for decades, harassing, infiltrating and often acting as agents provocateurs in non-establishment groups. I mentioned a couple weeks ago that a website keeping tabs on government activities had been harassed by the FBI; odds are pretty good Manhattan's refurbished Red Squad's keeping track of him now. The smoking gun in all this is a recently disclosed memorandum from the FBI to local police agencies about spying on and infiltrating various groups, specifically anti-war groups and anti-WTO groups. To the best of my knowledge, Ashcroft hasn't made any statements about it, and the press' response has been to downplay both it and its predecessor Cointelpro (do a websearch), pretty much ignoring the vast damage the latter did. (Among other things, the FBI used it to attempt to subvert Martin Luther King – J. Edgar Hoover was obsessed with him – and to destroy the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement, and that's just the tip of the iceberg. The program was supposedly shut down after Watergate (many of the Watergate plumbers had their own connections to Cointelpro) but the Reagan administration employed identical tactics against, among others, groups opposing any American military presence in Nicaragua. The Red Squads – police department units gathering intelligence and undertaking extralegal action against "America's enemies" – never really went away, though they lost much influence over the years.

    But they're back now, hand in hand with the FBI's appropriation of expanded powers. Ain't it great to live in a democracy? So I wonder who's taking pictures of the anti-Yucca Mountain protesters out in front of the casino the Hand Puppet was fundraising in today?

  • Here's an interesting question from a reader:

    "I still must ask: Where can I find some of the comics you've mentioned in your latest Permanent Damage? I'd certainly like to give them a try as I love supporting independent work (Including yours)."

    Huh. For some reason, I never thought of asking that. Usually buried within each review is the contact information for that publication, but, while I know places like Khepri and Mars Import stock graphic novels and some comics, is there any one-stop online clearing house for graphic novels, manga, independent comics and mini-comics? Anyone?

    A few people sent comments about my "comics as the new drug" commentary:

    " My joke at the newsstand after I started buying comics again was: 'I got hooked on these damn things again. I need to find a cheaper addiction, like - oh, I don't know, Oxycontin or heroin or something.'"

    "I hate to say this, but manga is the new comic book high for kids. If the American comic industry wants to survive, Marvel and DC must start acting like real pushers, I mean publishers, and offering what's wanted. Manga's taking over, sales-wise. So go with it. Switch to manga. Abandon people like me and try to recapture the kid market. Or at the very least Marvel and DC should create their own manga imprints that look and feel like the Japanese stuff. And I don't mean repackaging Spidey as a manga book. Kids are adept at spotting phoneys. The only distinguishing feature of a Marvel/DC manga book from, say SHONEN JUMP, should be in the indicia. If Marvel can't find American talent to make them, then compete to buy Japanese reprint material. Do whatever it takes to grab that manga money and shelf space. And there is clearly a lot of money out there for manga. Nothing makes Marvel and DC look more pathetic than their responses to the encroachment of manga into the American market. Following the drug analogy, Marvel and DC come across as second rate bootleggers peddling light beer at an ecstasy party."

    An interesting idea, but you can't just "do" manga, anymore than Mighty Comics were Marvel Comics just because they had superheroes and jive talk. Unfortunately for American comics companies, manga is manga is manga, and converting to imitation manga just makes them look like second-rate manga imitators. Which really isn't an answer. Producing material that generates the energy, excitement and unpredictability of manga, now that wouldn't be a bad idea.

    "Comics=drugs is a great correlation. I hope before I die to have a hand in actualizing its positive potential, or to see it happening around me if I drop the ball.

    Random tangent: "With great power comes great responsibility". I just realized there's something slightly scary to me about comics having real power. I'm a parent, and I wasn't frightened of that, so it's not a blanket fear of responsibility. but there's some fear there - and I'm guessing it's not just me that's feeling it. Qhich ties into your call to go for broke. If we can do that, the medium gets the power and the responsibility - I wonder why I'm not ready.

    For some reason this bit from your mailbag really got to me. To the writer who complained about 'the philosophy of the page rate':

    Are You Crazy?

    Maybe you're offended that some guy you know is acting like he's too good to work for you; but you are saying that "one of the biggest problems" with this industry is that people want to be paid to do work-for-hire. There's nothing wrong with anyone working for free out of passion or to gain experience (which is what "Colorist Albert" seems to have done before). But if people reaching a point where they want to practice their craft as a paid professional is a major problem, then this industry may as well go ahead and die, because the only solution to that problem is slave labor (no pun, Dan Vado).

    There's a difference between your estimation of a colorist's value, based on your knowledge of sales and industry patterns, and the colorist's estimation of his own value. That will be based partly on what he thinks he may get from other publishers in the industry; but whether he's mentioned it or not, it will also be based on the overall value of his own time - a concept you acknowledge and dismiss in one paragraph. He may end up unable to secure high-paying coloring work in comics. Then he'll be faced with the choice of working for less that he could possibly live on, or simply of looking for something else to do. Elsewhere you refer to the "sky-high" page rates offered by the largest publishers. I assure you that those rates are only high in relation to the internal mathematics of the comic-book industry in its current state. For the most part, people working for the larger publishers are making a modest living. So when you say that someone has an inflated sense of the value of their work; you need to be more clear about the fact that this value is over-inflated ONLY within the parameters that you are operating in, and not at all in an absolute sense. I am certain that many artists delude themselves that there's a living to be made working in comics for anyone who has the will and the talent. This of course is not the case. It's absurd, though, for you to state that this delusion is "one of the biggest problems in comics". It's really only a problem for the individuals who will be disappointed in their aspirations. And I guess it's a problem for smaller publishers who want to get the best talent for their projects. But who's deluding himself there? You know your numbers. Good for you that you'll be operating on a percentage-ownership basis with your freelancers. That's entirely fair, and it means you'll be getting work from people who love their work, and are willing to do it for no money up front with a likelihood of very little money down the line. There's that chance that you'll all strike it rich through some publishing miracle or licensing deal; but if that's what you're working for, I place your odds slightly below Colorist Albert's odds of landing a regular gig with the big guns. There are many talented people willing to work under terms like these in comics, so you can easily end up with a good looking original work under your banner; which should be enough for everyone who gets involved understanding the terms and the prospects clearly. If you think freelancers are damaging the industry by their financial aspirations, though, look outside your hole and face the reality that there is more in life to consider than your own modicum of knowledge. The industry's health should not depend on forsaking the concept of dependable payment. Otherwise let it give up pretensions of being a business and let it transform into a pure art form practiced only by artists with no commercial aspirations. At that point, the only publishers in business will be vanity publishers - which sounds like it might suit you fine."


    How's that?

    Except, with grand-standing, comes great responsibility, i.e., the comics have to be pretty f-ing good!"

    [Yeah, I think I specified that. – SDG]

    Just read a terrific piece at the VILLAGE VOICE, excerpt below:

    "Comic books began as the scheme of an unemployed Bronx salesman wanting to keep huge, capital-intensive newspaper presses from sitting idle during the darkest days of the Great Depression. Ever since Superman burst upon the world in 1938, espousing faith in democracy, the triumph of justice over evil, and the nobility of sacrifice for the common good, the comics have proved a keen expression of America's garish, idealistic-and contradictory-soul. If the Man of Steel was a role model for millions of young fans, offering them refuge from an ever more threatening world, some grown-ups considered the cheap magazines a menace. In 1954 their most vociferous critic, a New York City psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham, wrote that comic books were 'not poetic, not literary, have no relation to any art, and have as little to do with the American people as alcohol, heroin, or marihuana, although many people take them, too.'"

    (Is this a great country or what?)"

    Fred was obviously ahead of his time...

    Ran across a great comics Web site, the Grand Comics Database, sort of the comics answer to the Internet Movie Database. The Grand Comics Database is a treasure trove of information about old comics, along with tens of thousands of covers, most in really nice scans. (You have to be a little careful, though; they're not 100% accurate.) A really nice site for hardcore comics fans, or just those wanting to do a little research.

    A couple of new interviews with me are available online now, one at The Comic Book Bin and one at The Alien Online.

    You might also want to check out recent online interviews with Tim Truman and .

    I like Eric Shanower's AGE OF BRONZE, his down to earth retelling of THE ILIAD so much that I never pass an opportunity to mention it, and thanks to JEOPARDY provided one when one answer was "Eric Shanower's graphic novel A THOUSAND SHIPS tells the story of this war." Congratulations, Eric. (Did I mention he won an Eisner last year for Best Writer/Artist, and AGE OF BRONZE is a terrific series that everyone should buy?) Not only is A THOUSAND SHIPS on the shelves of every library I've been in lately, but now you've reached the game show level of public consciousness. But Eric wasn't the only comics reference on JEOPARDY lately. In a category called "Same First, Middle And Last Names," one answer was "Artist Chaykin, President William Taft, actor Leslie." (Question: What is Howard?) (And it's the first time I've seen the words "Leslie" and "Chaykin" in the same sentence in over a decade.) Is someone on JEOPARDY's research staff a comics fan?

    By the way, I gave out a bad link last week for Rory Root's store Comic Relief, who, like me, has started a little fundraising campaign of his own. (If you click on the store name in this paragraph, you'll get the right hookup this time.) Like me, Rory, who runs a great store and has for a long, long time, has hit a cash flow crunch – seems to be going around – but that would stop if everyone clicks over to his site and buys a graphic novel for him. C'mon, there must be something you're dying to read that your own retailer doesn't stock. How about A THOUSAND SHIPS?

    Reviews got cut out due to time considerations today, but there'll be a pile of them next week. I did want to mention, though, that I finally got a chance to read ORBITER, by Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran (DC Comics). I've been reading online comments about it, some expressing disappointment, but it's one of Warren's stronger, most confident works (and it may be the most confident art I've ever seen from Colleen). It's really refreshing to read a "graphic story" that doesn't revolve around the conflict of "good and evil" or postulate "sides" so that at the end there's a victor and a loser, that doesn't wallow in human foulness or weakness, that isn't rife with the cynicism that has come to pass for characterization in many comics, and I suspect this fairly dramatic shift is what has many people confused, since it came from Warren. It's a great example of how to have a positive approach in a comics story without being sappy about it.

    I'm told November 28th is Buy Nothing Day. Just in case you're interested.

  • First I want to thank those who met my appeal for funds last week with a donation. Someone suggested I set up a PayPal account for such things, which I've done (it can be accessed via my Paper Movies web page) and after rooting around PayPal I've decided to set up a little storefront as well, which I'll be designing this week. Those who've wanted to buy autographed editions, original scripts, etc. will have a place to find them now. The website is still pretty empty, but I'll be adding a lot of things very quickly now, so keep watching. As I mentioned last week, into every freelancer's life comes moments when cash flow comes to a dead halt for one reason or another – in mine it basically comes down to all kinds of delays on various projects, mostly for reasons having nothing to do with me, while other sorts of projects like this column are very time-consuming for very little money – so the fundraising will be ongoing for a little while. More details at Paper Movies, and thanks again.

    As ever, you should get the crime novel I did with Mike Zeck, DAMNED, now published in trade paperback by Cyberosia. Also available is my horror book MORTAL SOULS from Avatar Press, with art by Philip Xavier. Also from Avatar is the latest issue of FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP, adapting Frank's unused original screenplay for ROBOCOP 2 – it's significantly different from the released version – with art by Juan Jose Ryp, and the first issue of my sf-horror-crime comic MY FLESH IS COOL, with great art by newcomer Sebastian Fiumara. And, as ever, if your local retailer doesn't/won't stock them, they can be ordered from the great online retailers Khepri and Mars Import.

    Enjoy the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving tomorrow. I've been considering writing "The Atheist's Night Before Christmas," just to make the secular case for peace and good will as the Winter Solstice nears. We'll see...

    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. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. 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.

    Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should 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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