Issue #142

Now there are memes being spread virtually exclusively via blog. Blogmeme.

One of the latest blogmemes to appear in the online comics blog community is writer Jim Henley's notion of superhero comics as "a literature of ethics." Beginning with a discussion of how superheroics differ from the heroics of, say, firemen:

"If we narrow the question still further, to volunteer firemen, we eliminate one obvious answer: It's a living. Then the darkness yawns before us. Because the core question, "what could possibly make them think that it was worthwhile to risk their own lives to save others," can be spun and flipped in a number of important ways. From Why do firemen do what they do? to Why don't the rest of us do what they do? to Why shouldn't the rest of us do what they do? and even How dare we not do what they do? Superheroes become a way of addressing these questions. If science fiction is the literature of ideas, the superhero story is the literature of ethics. As "literature" need not mean "sober-sided drudgery," I would even say the formulation holds for kids' superhero tales."

An awful lot of ifs in there.

Apparently, a number of other bloggers have seized on Henley's argument, some as though it's no mere argument but a statement of The New Reality, ignoring perhaps his key line: "Or say, rather, it should be." I think Henley's argument is a fairly interesting one, but it has some considerably flaws.

1) All literature is a "literature of ethics," one way or another. All literature, from the crappiest pop writing to the loftiest classics, makes some ethical statement, even if it's only that ethics don't apply.

2) To the extent superhero comics, throughout most of their existence, have addressed the issue of ethics, they have not been a "literature" of ethics, to the extent that "ethics" have actually been overtly questioned, they've mostly been primers on good citizenship (very amusing considering most superheroes are vigilantes who strut around taking the law in their own hands, and enforcing their will through superior strength, cunning or luck). Traditionally the superhero knows what's right from the onset, has a noble code of behavior, believes human life is sacred and the poor and downtrodden should be defended, etc. In the last 20 years, superhero comics have become more and more the province of the anti-hero (mostly as the traditional ethics of superheroing have clashed with social reality) but even there ethics are rarely at issue. The standard ethics of the superhero are either mirrored in the negative (Lobo) or the anti-hero upholds the basic ethics of the superhero while standing against the presumed corruption of the social order (Spider Jerusalem). There's no real discussion there at all. In order to have a "literature of ethics," discussion of ethical options is necessary, and those options must be explored, not with a predestination but without flinching at whatever conclusions are ultimately drawn.

3) To a large extent, the "ethics" of superheroes have been either corporate considerations (ex: the softening of Batman in the '40s as his popularity increased: he threw away his guns, stopped killing enemies, was officially deputized by the cops instead of operating as a vigilante, and gained a cuddly sidekick as his own appearance became cuddlier and less threatening) or enforced by fans-turned-professionals who accepted standard superhero ethics as the nature of things. To the extent that most books have focused on any real ethical dilemmas to be worked out – Wildstorm's SLEEPER, anyone? – sales have generally been dismal. Either the superhero audience isn't interested in anything but spoon-fed ethics, or they've been so trained that anything challenging is "bad" that they don't know how to cope with it.

4) That science fiction is a "literature of ideas" is a self-aggrandizing myth mainly promoted in the '30s and perpetuated since by science fiction fans and professionals, and had its roots in a general acknowledgement that science fiction was crap. Calling science fiction a "literature of ideas" was an attempt to translate a negative into not only a positive but an identity. Science fiction of the '30s is often notable for a noticeable absence of anything but the most rudimentary characters, plots, theme, writing style, and, just as often, a virtually total absence of ideas. But, since all science fiction stories had to hinge on something fantastic (much as superhero stories must), and the name suggested that fantastic something should have to do with science in some way, "ideas" were seized on as what made the genre great when it clearly wasn't. That it spoke in some way to its fans and connected with their need to rise above their depression-era surroundings and stroked their egos – anyone remember "fans are Slans"? – is without question – and in the Depression era it was one of the few popular genres to even dare suggest there was a future – but none of that makes something good. Many science fiction fans now feel vindicated that sf is so thoroughly a part of the milieu these days, no longer an "outlaw genre" but widely embraced by popular culture. But does anyone really kid themselves that STAR WARS, probably the most spectacular instance of market crossover in the history of sf, has anything to do with ideas? Or that the MATRIX TRILOGY ultimately had anything to do with ideas beside tossing them around like special effects and dumping them by the wayside when their shock value had ended? The vast majority of science fiction stories and novels even today vanish into relative obscurity. Aside from the period craze for sf, just as there are period crazes for westerns and thrillers, not much has really been gained by being presented for half a century as "a literature of ideas" and what "science fiction" has gained wide popularity has been more in spite of ideas than because of them.

Just as sf as "the literature of ideas" was self-aggrandizing, so is superhero comics as "the literature of ethics." And, like sf's seizing on "ideas" as its badge, labeling them "literature of ethics" is a sideways admission that, aside from the fairly rigid, pat ethics of superhero comics, there's really nothing else there.

Hell, even I think more of superhero comics than that. Much more.


Whatever the genesis of the "sf is the literature of ideas" myth, in the '40s and '50s the writers, editors and publishers who came into the field from '30s fandom, as well as market forces that moved science fiction from pulp magazines to cheap paperbacks and then to hardcovers, forced a measurable improvement of the quality of science fiction writing, transforming the genre into something that did actually resemble a "literature of ideas" through the enforcement of higher standards (even if "literature of ideas" very wrongly suggested that no ideas were found in other literature). Would that have occurred had the notion not been planted in the '30s?

So it's possible that being labeled "a literature of ethics" could cause a general improvement of the superhero genre down the line (not that such an improvement didn't already begin years ago, but, as I've mentioned before, most improvements to the genre take it further and further away from superheroes). Maybe a bigger question is: do superhero comics really want to be known as "a literature of ethics"? What, exactly, would that gain them?

Marc Bryant and Shepherd Hendrix's little thriller SHANGRI-LA (Image Comics; $7.95) is a graphic novel that really creeps up on you. A pop confection pitting a declining rock star and his reformed would-be assassin against the Great Forces that can make more money with him dead, it rockets along like a runaway train and tosses in all kinds of sly pokes, though Bryant remains annoyingly elliptical about what would seem to be major plot points (for instance, what's the deal originally offered to rocker Correy Stinson?). But it's outlandish, funny, beautifully drawn in Steve Dillonesque fashion by Hendrix... in fact, with the violence, laughs and style, the whole thing has a strong PREACHER vibe going for it. Fun stuff.

Less fun is THE WRAITH (Trinity Comics; no price given), an earnest Aussie superhero comic combining elements of Batman, The Phantom, The Shadow, etc. in a Bruce Wayne-type hero using his abilities to fight crime large and small while taking steps to ensure his super-identity's continuation while his arch-enemy prepares a final trap. Frank Dirscherl's writing is okay, but the art by Jim Tayor and Jeff Austin is highly erratic, sometimes very nice and sometimes fan-crappy, while the characters are cookie-cutter and the strip doesn't really bring anything new to the table.

Chris Gumprich has produced a curious comic called EVENING SHIFT (Arctic Star Studios, with not awful but not particularly good art by Dwight Williams. A software coder hangs out at an after-hours bar and listens to a woman talk about killing herself. That's pretty much it. Still, it's an interesting experiment, though Gumprich needs to write much more compelling dialogue if he wants to do character-driven stories about basically passive characters. The shrug-inducing cliché of an ending also comes out of left field, which I guess is supposed to be ironic. Still, it's interesting to watch an obviously ambitious talent like Gumprich putting himself out there, even if a little too early. Give him a couple of years.

My reaction when I opened the package and saw a pile of ARTESIA graphic novels and comics was "Oh god." Another "strong" woman whipping a sword around on a barbaric world. And I thought, "Didn't people get enough of this knockoff fantasy crap from Crossgen?"

Except, as it turns out, it's not crap. Sure, the dialogue's sometimes a little too X-MEN cutesy, and the quality of creator Mark Smylie's art rises and falls in direct relation to how many figures he has to draw in a panel and the camera distance (though the coloring adequately covers a multitude of sins), but ARTESIA (Archaic Studios Press), collected so far as ARTESIA ($24.95), ARTESIA AFIELD ($24.95) and ARTESIA AFIRE ($24.95), is a fairly engrossing sword-and-sorcery epic of a barbaric woman in a world steeped in myth and magic, moving up the pecking order of her society in the midst of war and death. You can spot influences as broad as Boadiccia and Barry Windsor-Smith here, and as the series goes on Smylie becomes more and more obsessed with Artesia's sexual activities, but it's a strong evocation of barbarian and civilized cultures in a medieval setting, and Smylie has clearly read enough of the art of war to give both Artesia's combat and diplomacy the ring of truth. If you're pissed off that Crossgen's considerably less convincing fantasy series dried up and blew away, this strongly plotted, well-executed series is the place to feed that jones.

More sword-and-sorcery comes from James Hudnall's Dark Planet Publications, starting with GHOST WOLF ($6.50), from Spain's Juan Torres, Siku and Loren Lorente. It's not really anything sword-and-sorcery fans – hell, superhero fans – haven't seen before (the lone survivor of a barbarian tribe merges with a spirit totem to exact revenge), but it's not bad for what it is. Torres' straightforward story is a bit underwritten, with a startling end revelation that's all hint and nothing solid, but the art's the star of the book, and both Siku and Lorente, half a book each, both produce pretty strong work in a Mike Mignola mode, helped along by striking coloring. Torres also writes ROGUES! #2 ($2.99), a more comedic s&s exercise apparently patterned after Fritz Lieber's Fafhrd & The Gray Mouser. It's an improvement over the first issue, with more confident art by Juan Jose Ryp. The book is still not very original, but at least it's approaching fun. They really have to proofread these books, though.

Also from Dark Planet Productions is James Hudnall's crime thriller TWO TO THE CHEST #2 ($2.99), which finds wounded cop Troy Geist up to his neck in trouble and mystery, answering for the shooting of two FBI agents and trying to keep a computer disk somehow connected to the the Baghdad museum out of the hands of at least two mysterious factions, one of them being Mossad. The nature of the threat still undefined though it's taking on occult tones, but the action comes fast and furious and the Jose Aviles/Alejandro Lampre art is much better than last issue's, though some shots, like one of Geist running up stairs late in the book, are rushed and undermine the story a bit. A decent issue, but whether the story's actually good unfortunately depends on further developments.

I have no idea what the Beranek brothers and Chris Burke's SILENT FOREST (Silent Devil; $11.95) is supposed to be, besides funny animals who, before the story started, drove humans and their golf course away from their forest. The art's unappealing, the story is gibberish, the back cover notes suggest it's "kid-friendly" but I can't believe kids would be even vaguely interested in this (not to mention part of the story hinges on the animals have plenty of alcohol to drink), and it has "simplistic humor." Simplistic I'll agree with, but nothing in it is remotely funny. Who on earth thought this was a good idea?

Another book whose success largely depends on what happens in later issues is Jeremy Waltman's AN OPEN PLACE (All This I Am; $2.99), a sketchy suspense tale involving dream or memory. It's hard to tell so far. The art's a bit rudimentary, but in an interesting way. This is the sort of miniseries, and there are plenty of them out there these days, that would be better served waiting and being published whole as graphic novels; all it dangles is unanswered questions and a vague sense of dread, and tries to pass that off as a hook. So while I'm curious to know what's going on, I'm not driven to find out. It's been my experience that audiences are a generally tolerant bunch, but no book should depend on the goodwill of the audience. It's not their job to back you, it's your job to hook them. (Another suggestion, to Jeremy and half the rest of the indie comics I see lately: Proofread! Proofread! Proofread! The book's crawling with spelling errors, which is never a good sign.)

An example of a book that reads much better in bulk than as single issues is Steve Gerber and Brian Hurtt's HARD TIME (DC Comics; $2.50), about a kid whose Columbine-esque prank ends up getting people killed, and his time treated as an adult in the penal system as he slowly realizes he has psychic powers brought out under pressure. Gerber and Hurtt paint prison as a hellish place, but that's nothing anyone who watched HBO's OZ doesn't already know, and, in any case, recent studies would indicate that, if anything, they toned it down some. The real problem with sustained prison stories – and I've written prison stories – is while it's a fascinating setting, it's also sordid as hell. But by #5, I really started liking the cast of characters, and even the endless blue light of the prison (broken only by the radiant red "ghost" form of the protagonist's power) clicked. Gerber's writing's still strong after all these years. The only real problem with the series – and it's possible they have a way around it worked out already – is where can you go when your main character's stuck in prison for 50 years? At any rate, superpowers factor into it, but in the same way they factor into a Stephen King novel. HARD TIME is a horror comic, not a superhero book, and, read that way, it's fine, and worth checking out. But try to read four or five issues at a time.

Finally, there's JUNG ROBOT GRAPHIC MUSIC, a CD featuring ten "songs inspired by comics." Except for the titles, it's sometimes difficult to find a connection with comics, and calling them songs is perhaps a bit of a stretch; this is latter day industrial music that only occasionally really becomes anything, but at its best compares nicely to The Residents or Throbbing Gristle, and bears a lot in common with them. Jung Robot could mainly use a good producer, not to mold their sound or make it more commercial, but to tell them what material to throw out.

"Batman, Jughead Fight a Common Foe



June 1, 2004; Page B7

NEW YORK -- Zap! Pow! Batman and Jughead are joining forces to help comic books vanquish their kiddie-magazine competition.

Aside from the Caped Crusader, Time Warner's DC Comics houses superheroes ranging from Superman to J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter. Independent Archie Comics Publications of Mamaroneck, N.Y., is one of the sector's smaller players. While its titles' popularity has declined from their heyday decades ago, the company still publishes comics with enduring characters such as Archie, Veronica, Betty and Josie and the Pussycats. Comic-book titans typically keep to themselves, but these two publishers are teaming up to call on Madison Avenue.

DC is taking over Archie's advertising sales, and presenting marketers with a "kids' network" of what should be more than 20 comic-book titles in 2005 aimed at children. The companies will guarantee advertisers a total monthly circulation of 1.3 million. Ads will run in the same position in all network comic books each month. Such four-color derring-do is aimed at foiling competitors such as Viacom's Nickelodeon Magazine, Walt Disney's Disney Adventures and National Geographic Society's National Geographic Kids.

"At the end of the day, we play in a magazine world," says Paul Levitz, DC Comics' president and publisher. He said the move wasn't intended as a means of thwarting one of DC's best-known competitors: Marvel Enterprises, home to Spider-Man and the X-Men. Media buyers, however, say they also consider Marvel comics, not to mention DC's Time Warner sister Sports Illustrated for Kids, when seeking a young audience in print.

Once home to kitschy ads for trick chewing gum, X-Ray Specs, Sea-Monkeys and Charles Atlas muscle-building programs, comics have evolved. No longer do entreaties to sell GRIT magazine line their pages. Instead, the books attract makers of candy and (trick-free) gum, videogames, movies, packaged goods and toys. According to David McKillips, DC's vice president of advertising and custom publishing, ads stand out in comic books because there are fewer of them than in most magazines.

"With comics, it is clearly limited territory," says Chris Price, a media supervisor for Interpublic Group's Universal McCann, who works with Microsoft's Xbox. "They don't want the storyline to be broken up by lots of ads." Comics can be great for reaching males in their teens, he says, but kids' comics also must contend with loads of TV options for advertisers.

The two publishers will enter into a revenue-sharing plan. Both Mr. Levitz and Michael Silberkleit, Archie's chairman and publisher -- and a son of one of the company's founders -- declined to elaborate on the terms of the pact. The projected rate for a full-page ad in the new "DC Comics 2005 Kids Group" will be $36,478. By contrast, a four-color full-page ad in the adult-skewing Maxim, published by Dennis Publishing, costs $179,000; the magazine guarantees advertisers a 2.5 million circulation.

Because of the wide range of titles involved -- everything from "Batman Adventures" to "Archie's Weird Mysteries" -- buyers expect to reach a varied assemblage of young readers, says Tommy Nolen, vice president and media director at G Whiz, a youth-and-entertainment marketing division of Grey Global Group. "In these days of fragmentation, that gets harder and harder to do," he adds. G Whiz's clients include Topps' Ring Pops and Konami videogames.

Many comics are gritty and feature intense fights between heroes and would-be world conquerors. DC's kids' comics tone down those elements. Several are tied in to cartoons that air on sister cable operation Cartoon Network and are suitable for younger eyes.

While two comics worlds have collided, don't look for a DC-Archie merger. "That hasn't even surfaced, nor would I be interested in that," says Mr. Silberkleit. Mr. Levitz says the conversation hasn't come up.

Will the publishers succeed on the ad front? In the comics, the answer is obvious: To be continued.

Write to Brian Steinberg at brian.steinberg@wsj.com"

The ascension of Allawi casts recent events in a curious light, given that Allawi is the CIA's man in Iraq, and the now "discredited" Ahmed Chalabi, whose property was raided recently on CIA recommendation, was the Pentagon/White House's man there. Chalabi's story has grown even more entertaining in recent days. In a rare display of interdepartmental collaboration, the CIA called in the FBI to investigate Chalabi's ties to Iran, for whom he may have been spying all this time. If this is true, it suggests a new motive for the US invasion of Iraq. Chalabi has now been revealed to have been considerably responsible for "intelligence" that "verified" the existence and growth of Saddam's mythical weapons of mass destruction, his non-existent "connections" to international terrorist groups and other canards used to rationalize the invasion. (Chalabi, through his paper, is continuing to hurl accusations and propaganda, which other papers worldwide are picking up on because it comes "from the press," so I figure pretty soon the WEEKLY WORLD NEWS will also be a credible sources soon.) The scenario now being choked back in Washington is that the Iranians, through their agent Chalabi, played on the Hand Puppet's long-announced obsession with Saddam Hussein by feeding him what he and his trusted advisors most wanted to hear, and getting the United States to eliminate Iran's most hated enemy for them while leaving their hands clean. Such manipulation may not be unthinkable, but raising the specter of it in an election year apparently is.

  • At long last! Finally, the "what's available" list has come back to PERMANENT DAMAGE! But before we get to that, Len Kaminski, who used to write things like IRON MAN, BLOODSHOT, GHOST RIDER 2099 and SCARE TACTICS surfaced recently and is planning to run an eBbay auction of various signed items. Hopefully, we'll have all the details for you next week.

    Finishing writing a couple surprise projects this week, as well as my second story for Avatar's VIVID COMIX. The first volume was supposed to have been out some time ago, but got postponed as Vivid, the adult film company backing the project, has been trying to restructure their magazine distribution. As for FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP, I don't know what's keeping that. But that's the best answer I have for those who've asked.

    Finished the new ROBOCOP mini for Avatar a couple weeks ago, plus a Robo-short story, though I'm not sure what the venue is. Some dark and vivid projects on the horizon over there for the end of this week. In the meantime:

    Speaking of Avatar, I'm told they're resoliciting the entire run of MY FLESH IS COOL this month. If you missed it the first time out, take this chance to bug your retailer for it. Among a slew of hot reviews, my favorites were from COMICS INTERNATIONAL, which had this to say:


    by Grant and Fiumara

    An experimental drug enables Evan Knox to work as a highly paid assassin and troublemaker who can take over other people's bodies. He can get to anyone, anywhere, without detection. He does whatever he wants, and uses other people in a ruthlessly instrumental way. The catch is this: what if everyone could get their hands on the drug? Both script and art are adult and gritty. This comic is cool. 8 [of 10]


    Evan Knox comes round to discover his worst fears have been realised. The drug 'go' is being sold on the street, and society is crumbling across America. Steven Grant's story takes a bold leap here: from a 'cool' thriller with the wish-fulfillment fantasy of taking over other people's bodies, we've moved on to the nightmare scenario where the hero's powers are no longer unique. What was gritty is now apocalyptic. 8


    This excellent miniseries concludes in the same vein of nudity and violence established in parts one and two, with the outcome decided by a competition to see who's the most ruthless son of a bitch. Even given the desperate and grotesque situation readers have seen unfold, the final episode still holds some shocks and surprises. 8

    Do I really have to tell you to order it? (Sorry about the hardcore hype, but if I don't do it, who's going to?)

    As I mentioned last week, IBooks will be publishing the complete EDGE sometime this summer, while DC's including my CATWOMAN story in an upcoming trade collection due out around the time of the Halle Berry CATWOMAN movie. Keep your eyes open when you read PREVIEWS.

    While you're at it, order:

    DAMNED: trade paperback from Cyberosia, art by Mike Zeck and Denis Rodier, coloring by Kurt Goldzung

    Crime. A parolee jumps parole to fulfill a promise to a dead cellmate, and finds himself hunted by mobsters looking for missing money he knows nothing about, in a city where he has no friends.

    MORTAL SOULS: trade paperback from Avatar Press, art by Philip Xavier

    Crime/horror. A police detective tracks and kills a female serial killer, only to gain her gift of seeing her targets for what they really are: the dead, who run the world, and who hate the living.

    BADLANDS: trade paperback from AiT/PlanetLar Books, art by Vince Giarrano

    Crime story, set in 1963 and starring the man who really killed John Kennedy.


    Screenplay version of BADLANDS, designed to ward off anyone who wants to make a movie of it.

    PUNISHER:CIRCLE OF BLOOD: trade paperback from Marvel Comics, art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

    Crime. The original mini-series that transformed The Punisher from a minor character into a movie-franchise spawning star. Imprisoned for his killings, the Punisher fights to survive and escape, but the war he declares on organized crime once he's out takes an unexpected turn.

    HATED AND FEARED: Best Of X-MEN UNLIMITED: trade paperback from Marvel Comics collecting a number of short X-Men stories, including two by me: a "Blob" story with art by Sean Phillips, and a "Lockheed The Dragon" story drawn by Paul Smith.

    GREEN LANTERN: TRAITOR: trade paperback from DC Comics, art by Mike Zeck, Gil Kane, Scott Kolins and Klaus Janson

    Superhero action. Three generations of Green Lanterns – the alien Abin Sur in the old west, Hal Jordan joined by the Atom in the Silver Age, and the modern Green Lantern Kyle Raynor – battle an unstoppable cyborg powered by the stars and driven by a religious calling to snuff out all life in the universe.

    FRANK MILLER'S ROBOCOP, monthly comic from Avatar Press, art by Juan Jose Ryp

    Science fiction action. The most faithful adaptation of a screenplay in history. From the version of ROBOCOP 2 that was never filmed, Frank Miller's vision of the decaying future city of Detroit is realized for the first time, as Robocop crosses swords with a demented squadron of military police and a program-altering self-proclaimed moral watchdog, while the real police go on strike and OCP readies an even more powerful Robocop to replace him.

    I encourage the patronage of local comics shops where applicable, but don't forget that if you can't find what you want there, you can always shop the fine online retailers Khepri and Mars Import. Lately I've been getting a lot of e-mails from people wanting to know what address to send review copies to. If you continue reading down to the bottom of the column, it's right there.

    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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